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A Day at Tantah by E. S.

1878

"Tantah, a town of Lower Egypt, in the Delta province and 5 miles S. W. of Menoof, on the Damietta branch of the Nile. It has a government school."

This, and nothing more, from the Gazetteer. It does not promise much, and yet Tantah is an important place, and, in spite of the Gazetteer, is not on the Damietta branch, but in the very heart of the Delta, among the smaller water-courses. On this account it is not often visited by travellers.

And first I must tell how I came to go to Tantah. In the year 1867 the sloop-of-war ——, to which I was attached, was cruising in the Levant, touching now and again at Canea or at Suda Bay to see how the Turks and the Cretans were getting on with their war, or at Larneka to lend the "influence of the flag" to that pleasant gentleman, General di Cesnola, then in the full tide of archæological research in Cyprus. Sometimes we were sipping fruity wine in Samos or eating "lumps of delight" and smoking Latakia in Smyrna; and generally we represented the United States in these uttermost parts with great dignity.

One day while at Smyrna we received orders by the mail-steamer to go at once to Jaffa, and there afford assistance to certain "distressed Americans" then sojourning on the Plain of Sharon. We already knew something about them. These people were the remains—the sediment, so to speak—of a certain "American colony" which had come out from New England, principally from Maine and New Hampshire, a year or two before, being the latest crusaders on record, and "bound to occupy the land" on the way to the Holy City. They had some kind of queer, fanatical belief, which had been fostered by their leader, one Adams, a long, raw-boned, bearded Yankee, until they sold their farms or shops and tools of trade, and placed the proceeds in a common stock under the charge of their prophet and leader. This Adams was said to have formerly been an actor, and then a Methodist minister in St. Louis, a Mormon (some people said) after that; and finally he had invented a creed and founded a sect of his own. It does not speak very well for the vaunted New England shrewdness and intelligence that near two hundred and fifty persons of all ages cast in their lot with him, or, rather, cast in their lots for him. He chartered a vessel, freighted it with provisions, seed for planting, agricultural implements and lumber for houses, and forthwith sailed for the Holy Land at the head of his followers, intending to sow and reap and prepare for the coming of the nations at the millennium, supposed by the colonists to be near at hand. Such people are apt to be useful so long as their enthusiasm lasts, whatever the motives which prompt them. This even the Turks could see; and a firman had been procured without difficulty, enabling them to erect their houses and to lease and cultivate a certain portion of land, planting American seed-wheat and maize where before grew only gran turco, barley, sesamum and anise.

Thus it came about that there was to be seen the curious contrast of staring Yankee frame houses and a regulation "meeting-house" peeping over the orange-groves of Jaffa. Yankee-built farm-wagons passed along the dusty cactus-hedged lanes in company with panniered donkeys and laden camels, while Yankee forms and voices were daily seen and heard in the filthy narrow streets of the old town itself. I wonder how much these simple, homely people knew of Roman assaults and massacres or of Napoleon's butcheries enacted on the very ground where their hearthstones were laid? Not much, I fancy. And it was hard to get them to talk freely or connectedly on any subject. In fact, their experience had not been happy; and by this time the Plain of Sharon was dust and ashes to them, and "their dolls were stuffed with sawdust." Some of the younger members of the community did confess to a passing knowledge of Jonah and the whale, and of the ships which brought the cedar of Lebanon to the port where their lot was cast; but they seemed as much at sea as Jonah was when the Crusades were mentioned. At any rate, here was this American-born community ploughing this historic soil, most of the members of which had never been fifty miles from home before they took this great blind leap into the dark.

I never knew just how much Adams believed in himself and his mission. On a previous visit, while all was still couleur de rose with the colony, I had asked him how he proposed to keep order among his flock and to settle the disputes and difficulties which must inevitably arise. "Why, sir," he answered, "we have no disputes; but should any arise, I, with the elders, will sit and judge them in the gate, just as in Bible times—just as was done right here twenty-five centuries ago."

We found matters sadly changed since our visit of the year before. It was now almost harvest-time, and there was little to reap, for little had been planted. Many of the colonists had fallen sick, and not a few had laid their bones under the strange soil to mingle with the dust of ages. Some had been assisted to return to their Western home by a benevolent member of the party whose pilgrimage is immortalized by Mark Twain in the Innocents Abroad. Some who had privately and wisely retained a small sum for a "rainy day" had gone off, abandoning their interest in the common weal. But many had, in the inception, with unquestioning faith, placed their all in the common stock, and were unable to extract any part thereof from the custody of Adams, who not only did not account for the funds, but by this time had taken to drink, and was generally to be seen (when to be seen at all) in a state either of maudlin piety or of morose defiance of all questions and demands. Of course, under these circumstances the business-affairs of the colony went to rack and ruin. The small number of his disciples who remained were suffering from want of comforts and from malaria, home-sickness and disappointment. One or two of the women had taken to themselves Syrian husbands, and one or two of the men, with Yankee readiness and adaptation where a penny was to be turned, had taken to "guiding" travellers to Jerusalem or trading in horseflesh; but nearly all of those who were left were longing for "home," and would be glad to get there on any terms.

It was determined very soon after our arrival, in spite of Adams's covert opposition, that those who wished to leave should be taken on board our ship and transported to Alexandria, whence they could be sent by the consul to Liverpool as "distressed American citizens," and thence to America. Poor people! they had little to bring on board but the clothes in which they stood—well worn and mended, but generally clean and decent. Some few had modest bundles, and the younger women had even retained a little personal finery. Indeed, the women and girls all showed in their deportment much of the self-respect and quaint good manners due to their New England birth and training. These were all provided with private quarters for the short passage in the cabin and wardroom. The men were quartered upon the different messes among the crew, and they seemed to have suffered more degradation in their fallen fortunes than the women. Among the males was to be seen an occasional tarboush or a pair of baggy trousers and sash; and it was curious to observe how the wearers of these garments had acquired a loaferish, farniente air worthy of a native. Our officers and men did what they could toward assisting these poor people with spare clothing and a little cash. They seemed, however, to move about in a kind of daze, receiving the contributions properly enough, but in a quiet, undemonstrative kind of way; so different from the usual backsheesh transactions to which we were accustomed in this part of the world that the contrast of itself would have proclaimed them a foreign race. In one or two cases the women, as soon as they found out what was going on, made a private request that any cash intended for them might be put into their own hands, "their men bein' kind of shiftless-like, you see."

A quiet run of thirty hours brought us to the busy port of Alexandria, where the crowded harbor and the rush and bustle of the Overland traffic and travel caused a turmoil to which we had been for months unaccustomed. It must have been fairly bewildering to our passengers, fresh from their humdrum existence. The arrangements on their behalf were made in a few hours, and our poor fellow-countrymen were soon off for England in the steerage of a huge cotton-loaded freight-steamer, having a new experience in the companionship of Bengalese, Maltese, Arabs, English navvies and riff-raff of all tongues and complexions. In fact, the Overland route, at that time especially, afforded about the most curious aggregation of nationalities and costumes that the world has ever seen since the Crusades.

"It is an ill wind which blows nobody good." We had earnestly desired, during two terms of service in the Levant, to visit Egypt, but some untoward event had always prevented us from doing so. A threatened massacre at Damascus, some consul's squabble at Sidon or Haïffa, or some fresh atrocity reported in the course of the Cretan insurrection, or the desire on the part of our minister to have "the flag shown" at Constantinople, had invariably barred us from getting to the south. But here we were at last within sight of Pompey's Pillar, and we felt sure that we should not leave the East again, as we had done once before, without a peep at the Pyramids, and at least a glance at the wonderful work of M. de Lesseps, then approaching completion.

On the day after our arrival, while dining with our consul-general, the great fair then being held at Tantah became the subject of conversation. As most of us had never even heard of Tantah, we were informed that it was a large and flourishing town in the Delta, about halfway between Alexandria and Cairo, where an annual fair—the fair of Egypt—had been held time out of mind. That is, out of modern Egyptian mind, which, in strange contrast with its belongings and residence, does not seem to remember anything much before the last harvest, the last hatching of eggs and the last conscription. Lately, the fair had been interdicted by the viceroy on account of cholera having been introduced by the pilgrims returning from Mecca and Jeddah, and then spread by the multitude which congregated there; for the fair was held just at the time that the pilgrims returned from the "Hadj," and hadjis, as a rule, are not averse to dealing and turning an honest penny.

This year, however, the fair was in full blast again, and more frequented than ever on account of its temporary suspension. To this point were drawn not only the Fellahs of the surrounding Delta, but Nubians, Soudanese and Copts from the south; Arabs from across the Red Sea and from Fezzan and Tripoli; Mograbs on their western way from the Hadj; Turks from Aleppo, Broussa and Constantinople; Greeks, both Hellenes and Fanariots; Maltese, Italians and Syrians; Armenians and Jews. The time was late in April, and the weather already very hot, so that the tribe of winter Nile travellers would be conspicuous by its absence, and visitors to the fair would be spared their airs and graces, and have an opportunity to enjoy a scene of genuine local color without a pervading sense of tourists to spoil it.

The consul-general kindly proposed that we should make up a party for the next day, undertaking to procure a vice-regal order (Ismail was not yet khedive) for a special car to be attached to the morning-train, wait for us, and bring us back to Alexandria in the evening. The consuls-general of Russia and Belgium, who were present, volunteered to join the party. Each of them, as well as our own consul, was to be attended by his two cavasses—magnificent persons in costume gay with color and lace, and bristling with weapons; in addition to which they carried in the hand a long and heavy rod.

We reached Tantah before nine o'clock, and emerged from the station under the close inspection of a motley crowd of loafers, to find the day, as usual, splendidly clear and bright, but already too hot for comfort. The American vice-consul was in waiting to receive us—a Syrian merchant of some substance, whose office was a sinecure, and who spoke no word of English, but to whom the position was of much importance as a protection from any petty persecution of the local authorities. He seemed to be quite overwhelmed by the honor done him by the visit, which would add immensely to his social and business standing.

Forming a sort of procession, we walked slowly toward the centre of the town, preceded by the six cavasses, who shouted to the motley crowd to make way for their high lordships, and when the promptest obedience was not rendered whacked the offenders with their canes with great impartiality and no light hand. Hardly a curse or a scowl resulted from this treatment, the crowd mostly seeming to take the stick discipline as a joke.

The town of Tantah is, for Egypt, a very modern place, on flat ground of course, containing the usual bazaars, mosques, barracks and pasha's residence or konak, with some substantial private buildings near the centre, from which the houses soon dwindle to the ordinary mud residence of the Fellah. The place was said to contain some fifty or sixty thousand people, while more than double that number was just now drawn to it by the fair.

The vice-consul, swelling with pride and shiny with perspiration, led us straight to his residence, a large house in one of the principal streets. Here we had breakfast, with coffee and pipes, which occupied an hour, the whole large establishment seething and working with the unwonted excitement of entertaining such distinguished guests. This was evident even to such utter strangers as ourselves, for we were constantly aware of a scuffling and whispering outside the large room in which we were entertained, and every now and then became aware of eyes surveying us curiously from some coign of vantage; which eyes, on meeting ours, suddenly and silently disappeared.

As soon as possible we sallied out to pay the necessary visit to the pasha of the district. Our coming had been duly announced, and upon arriving at his residence we found him at the landing of the staircase ready to receive us, for consuls-general are great people in Egypt, having diplomatic functions, and being, in all but name, ministers resident. The pasha was a small, spare, dark little man, with his black beard clipped as close as scissors could do it. He was dressed in the official costume—a single-breasted black coat such as some of our Episcopal clergymen wear, black trousers, patent-leather boots, and of course the red fez. The reception-room into which he led us was a large one—cool by comparison with the outside air, and somewhat dirty and shabby, as such places are apt to be, according to my experience. Seating ourselves according to rank on the rather greasy divan which ran round three sides of the apartment, we were offered cooling drinks and cigarettes. (Chibouks are things of the past for all ordinary occasions. It's a pity, for they are better smoking than cigarettes, and certainly more picturesque.) Compliments were exchanged in bad French, and the ordinary topics discussed, but nothing was said as to the weather except that it was warm—a self-evident proposition. The weather is not a fruitful topic in Egypt. After a little time some officials came in with a whole pile of papers for signature, and we took the opportunity to terminate our mutual discomfort, the pasha with a perfunctory grin shaking hands with everybody, at the same time ordering some of his own cavasses to join ours as a special bodyguard to clear the way for us through the narrow, crowded streets.

Having attended to the bienséances, we sallied out for sightseeing, going first to the principal mosque, as it was in our way and evidently considered by our guides one of the "lions." Whether it was owing to the rank of some of our party or to the presence of the pasha's cavasses I don't know, but we walked straight into this mosque, without taking off our boots or putting papooshes over them—the first and last time, in my experience of the East, in which such a thing was done. There was suppressed grumbling on the part of some dervishes and some old-fashioned turbaned individuals grouped in the arcaded porch, but nobody seemed to care much about them. There was nothing particular to see inside the mosque after we got there. It had not the grand proportions or elaborate decoration of some of the Cairene mosques, neither was the pulpit as handsomely carved or the hanging lamps and ostrich-shells as numerous. The coolness of the thick-walled, domed building was, however, most grateful, for the heat in the streets was by this time almost insufferable, and the smells awful.

But we had no time for coolness or comfort on this day. We were to dine with the vice-consul at two o'clock, and we had not yet seen the fair. Passing hurriedly through the principal bazaars, we could only glance about, for we were almost suffocated by the surging crowds, which pressed upon us in spite of the utmost exertions of our cavasses. Indeed, we were all too much accustomed to bazaars to have much curiosity about these. Escaping to the outskirts of the town, where the real fair was held, we found the fun growing fast and furious, and the different sights and sounds more and more bewildering. Here were hundreds of tents and other temporary erections, and swarms of people of the quaintest appearance, buying and selling, cooking, eating and drinking, praying, quarrelling and chaffing. Of course the blue cotton long shirts of the indigenous Fellahs lent the principal color to the crowd, but this was relieved by the most brilliant-colored clothing among the visitors and traders, including the red fez on most heads, the red and yellow headgear of the Arabs, the black caps of the Copts, and the white uniforms of the viceroy's nizam or regular soldiers. Sherbet- and water-sellers pervaded the scene, and added the chatter of their voices and the clatter of their brass cups to the already indescribable din. There were piles of different sorts of grain; harness for horses, camels and buffaloes; heaps of carpets and rugs and clothing; fez caps, papooshes, pipes and tobacco, mostly the common Jibileh; brass and copper cups and cooking utensils, and cheap jewelry and trinkets. Farther on was a space reserved for buying and selling horses, donkeys, camels and cattle, and here were to be seen fellows who would not be off their feet at Tattersall's or at a Kentucky "quarter race," so much are jockeys and horse-dealers alike all the world over. It was really amusing to recognize the well-known "horsey" look from under the kufieh of an Arab whenever the chance for a "trade" presented itself.

Near the horse-fair we became aware of music of a peculiar kind, with a good deal of tambourine in it, proceeding from a closed tent; and upon its becoming known that our party was present, out streamed from the door a group of musicians and almehs, or dancing-women; the latter in rather light attire, but covered, as to their heads, bosoms, arms and ankles, with strings of jingling coins—some with toe-rings, and all with the eyes heavily lined out with kohl and fingers stained with henna. These people have not, for many years, been permitted publicly to exercise their vocation in Northern Egypt, but have been banished away up the Nile. I presume their presence at the fair was winked at by the authorities, and they were probably not the best of their class. Some of the women were by no means bad-looking, and they danced with a sway of figure and a grace and abandon perfect in their way. It is the same dance, with the same steps and gestures, which is painted on the walls of many an ancient Egyptian tomb, and transmitted from the time of Osortasen and the Pharaoh who knew Joseph. A tremendous crowd at once collected on the prospect of a dance at the expense of the strangers, and, gaping over each other's shoulders, divided their stares between our party and the almehs. The sun, all this time, was beating down upon the scene with power sufficient, one would have thought, to bake the unprotected brains of most of the company. One of our party became fairly ill from this cause, and we were all glad to escape from the reeking markets and streets, and to take refuge once more in the cool and spacious house of our vice-consul.

Here we managed to cool off a little, and in due time were ushered into the dining-room, where was a table handsomely decked and furnished in the European style. Our host took his place at the head of the table, but during the whole dinner never touched a morsel, occupying himself in superintending the movements of the numerous servants and in smiling blandly on each of us as we caught his eye, and evidently inviting us by his gestures to "go in and win." When we had had eight or ten courses of the usual soups, fish and roast and boiled, accompanied by wine of several sorts, we began to feel that there was a limit to our capacity. But there appeared to be none to the resources of our host's larder and kitchen, for course after course of native dishes was now brought on, and we were pressed to try one after another of strange-looking and still stranger-tasting concoctions. Finally, the list of these seemed to be exhausted, and the roasts began over again, until, on the appearance of a huge turkey stuffed with pistachios, my right-hand neighbor, who had a statistical mind, announced that this formed the twentieth course. At this point the consul-general interfered, and informed our host, with many thanks and compliments, that we could positively eat no more. With a gratified smile and the air of a general who had won a victory he turned to his servants and ordered the cooking to cease. We were told afterward that it was the etiquette of a grand repast among wealthy people of this class that the courses should continue to appear until the guests asked the host's mercy or gave other decided evidence of repletion. Our consul-general, knowing this, had been willing to let us see how far the thing could go.

When we had risen from table and taken seats upon the divan, the wife and daughter of our host (Syrian Christians) served us with basins of perfumed water and fine fringed towels, after which they raised the hands of the principal members of the party to their lips and foreheads and thanked them for the great honor they had done them.

The sun was by this time low, and the time for our train had quite arrived. So we left the house of our entertainer to walk the short distance to the station. On the way we met the horses of one of the viceroy's squadrons going to water. Beautiful animals they were—all dark bay or chestnut, splendidly groomed, and marching to the sound of the trumpet as steadily as if each carried a rider. The men in charge of them were well-set-up, soldier-like fellows, who, barring their white uniforms and dark faces, might have just ridden out of Knightsbridge Barracks or the gate of Saumur.

At the station we found our car just being attached to the evening-train from Cairo; which train, by the by, had been waiting for us for some time, to the very apparent disgust of the English-speaking and other European passengers. The native passengers seemed to take the delay calmly and as a matter of course, some of them spreading their prayer-carpets upon the platform to recite the evening prayer, to which the muezzins were calling from the minarets as we left the town: "La Illah illa Allāh! Mohammed du russûl Allā-ā-h!"

We were soon off, passing through most monotonous scenery, with constantly recurring groups of Fellahs and their animals returning from their long day of labor, and filing along the causeways and embankments toward the mud villages and towns, over which the pigeons were whirling their last flight before betaking themselves to their cotes for the night. The air became cooler and the moon rose as we rolled along the embankment of Lake Mareotis, and the whole scene was so calm and peaceful and conducive to reverie that it seemed a rude awakening when we dashed into the station at Alexandria and the touts and donkey-boys began their tiresome yells and shouts, as if they had never left off since morning: "Onkle Sam, sir! werry good donkey, my master."—"Dis Jim Crow! more better, sir!"—"Hôtel Mediterranée, signori!" Bidding good-night to our pleasant and courteous fellow-sightseers, we were soon clattering through the streets to the custom-house landing. Our cutter was waiting: "Up oars! let fall! give way all!" and twenty-four strong, bronzed arms were pulling us over the smooth surface of the moonlit harbor. In ten minutes we were once more on board our floating home, and turned in forthwith, tired enough to sleep without rocking.

E. S.