A Sail on the Nile by Sara Keables Hunt
Did you ever go sailing on the Nile? Come, then, and imagine yourselves,
on a clear warm January day, afloat on the river of which you have so
often heard. What a sensation we should create if we could go sailing up
the Hudson some sunny morning, our broad lateen-sail swelling in the
breeze, and the Egyptian flag flying behind!
Let us take a walk over the boat which for two months will be to us a
floating home, and to which we shall become really attached before we
leave its deck, and the shores of the Nile. It is a queerly shaped
vessel, entirely different from any other which has ever carried you
over the waters. The length is about seventy-two feet, and the width
between fourteen and fifteen feet at the broadest part; it has a sharp
prow, and stands deep in the water forward; it is flat-bottomed, like
all Nile boats, on account of the shallow water in the spring.
Here, a little way from the bow, is the kitchen—a small square place,
where the cook holds undisputed sway, and gratifies your palate with
novel and delicious dishes. This little spot is a very important part of
the boat, I assure you, for sailing on the Nile gives you a keen relish
for good dinners.
Somewhat back of here is the mast, rising thirty feet or more, and the
long yard, suspended by ropes, large at the lower part, but tapering
toward the extreme point, where floats the pennant which you have
secured for the occasion.
This long yard bears the large triangular lateen-sail, its huge
dimensions necessary to catch the wind when the river is low and the
banks high. The sides of the boat are protected by a low railing not
more than six inches in height, over which the sailors can easily step,
as they will have occasion to do many times during the voyage. The
main-deck is usually occupied by the crew, and from here are stairs
leading to the quarter-deck, over the cabin and saloon, where we will
take seats under the awning by-and-by, and watch the scenery on the
banks of the river.
Let us go down these few steps leading to the saloon. We find ourselves
in a room occupying the breadth of the boat; there are windows on each
side, with long divans, below them, a round table in the centre, chairs,
cupboards, and book-cases completing the furniture. Now let us open
these glass doors, walk along this narrow passage, and take a look at
the sleeping-cabins. They measure six feet by four, half of which is
filled by the bed, which gives you girls little room in which to arrange
your toilet; but you will not care to devote many hours to that while
Such is our floating home, and though limited in space, you can be most
comfortable if you have a contented disposition, and a heart and mind to
appreciate the wonders around and above you.
And now let us ascend to the quarter-deck. It looks very cheerful, with
its centre table loaded with books and papers, its bright-colored divan
and easy-chairs; so we will be seated while I introduce you to the crew.
There is the reis, or captain—Hassaneen by name—a grave, quiet little
old man, standing there at the bow of the boat, with a long pole in
hand, sounding the water now and then, and reporting the depth. You will
always find him there, reserved, thoughtful, his whole attention
apparently fixed on his employment.
Do you see that old gray-bearded man with his hand on the rudder? That
is Abdullah, always there, even when we are at anchor. Then a heap of
blue and a gray burnoose in the same place tell us Abdullah is asleep.
We need never fear while that old man is at the helm, for he will guide
us safely by sand-banks and bowlders to the destined port.
Of the remainder of the crew I can not give so good a report. They are a
curious assemblage of one-eyed, forefingerless, toothless men,
bare-legged, in robes of dark blue, and gay turbans, it being a common
custom to render themselves thus maimed in order to escape military
conscription. There is Mohammed, a good-natured fellow, ready to do just
as his companions do, whether it be good or bad. There is Said, a
cunning, deceitful-looking man, but a good sailor. Just to the right is
Hassan, black as coal, with glittering eyes, a tall form, and tremendous
muscle; he is a faithful fellow, willing to obey to the letter, but
without any judgment. There are Sulieman and Ali, the laziest ones on
board, strong as any, but the first to cry out, "Halt," and the
sleepiest couple on the Nile. There is Yusuf, always at his prayers, and
more willing to pray than work. There is Achmet, watching his chance to
run away. Then comes Mustapha, whose duty it is to clean the decks,
scour the knives, and wait on the travellers generally. And last but not
least is little Benessie, called "el wallad" (the boy), who does more
work and takes more steps than all the rest of the crew together. Ah,
these boys!—they're worth a dozen men sometimes. He makes the fires,
waits on the crew, and is at everybody's beck and call, from the howadji
to the sailor. He is a dark-eyed, shy little fellow, not particularly
neat in his appearance, and always sucking sugar-cane, which probably is
one of the attractions to the flies that gather continually on his face
So there they are—a lazy set of fellows, take them all together; lazy
in general when there is no present labor on hand. I think they work
well, though, when a necessity arises. It is not an Arab's nature to
look ahead; he sees only the present.
And now our sail is shaken out—we are off, the American flag floating
aloft at the point of our tapering yard, and we seated in our
easy-chairs or reclining on the divan of our decks, watching the scenery
as we glide along. There before us are endless groups of masts and
sails. The western shore is like a rich painting, with its palms and
Pyramids, while opposite, half hidden in shining dark acacias, are
palaces of the pashas, with their silent-looking harems and latticed
windows. Cangias (small row-boats) are fastened to the banks, and the
moan and creak of the sakias (water-wheels) tell us we are indeed upon
the enchanted Nile.
Behind us rise the shining minarets of the city, and the Pyramids follow
us as we go, photographing their outlines on our memory forever; the
soft green plain slopes gently to the river; and as if stirred to life
by the witchery of the surroundings, our bird-like boat flings her great
wings to the breeze, and skims the waters, bounding along, as if with
conscious joy, between the green plains of the Nile Valley.
The river is alive with boats, all bound southward, fine diahbeehs
sweeping along, and looking proudly down on the lesser craft, and huge
lumbering country boats laden with grain.
The landscape is not monotonous, though there is a sameness in its
character, for the lines in that crystal air are always changing, and
day after day the panorama unrolls, with its fields of waving tobacco
and blossoming cotton, where workers are lazily busy.
We are passing the ruins of ancient cities as we sail onward, or are
dragged along by the crew harnessed together by ropes, which task they
call tracking. They never perform this labor reluctantly, or with any
ill temper, but always accompanying their work with a monotonous
sing-song in a slightly nasal twang, till the air is filled with these
perpetual sounds of "Allah, haylee sah. Eiya Mohammed."
We see in this a relic of by-gone days, for the ancient Egyptians are
painted on the tombs accompanying their work with song and clapping of
As we are borne on through and into the creamy light of this glowing
atmosphere, where the sunshine seems to pour into and blend with
everything, we can hardly wonder that sun worship was an instinct of the
earliest races, or that the little child believes that the East lies
near the rising sun.
On, on we go, past the ruins of ancient cities, never pausing in the
upward journey: it is only on the return that you visit the places of
There lies Karnac, with its myriads of gigantic columns. Yonder sits
Memnon, "beloved of the morning," which was said to give forth a note of
music when the rising sun shone upon it. There is Luxor, Dendereh,
Thebes. Sometimes amid the warm light your thoughts will go away
thousands of miles, where the frosts shiver upon the windows, the snows
lie heavy upon the hills, and warm hearts are praying for the traveller;
but the days will creep swiftly by on the Nile, and too soon will come
the hour when, the journey ended, we must leave the river, the palms,
the Pyramids, and bid a long adieu to our pleasant floating home.