Saturday, January 23, 2010

Budgie Finds the Mother Lode and Begins to Feed

In December 1886, Budge left Cairo in the company of Gen. Grenfell and his staff. They went by rail to a port further upriver and there boarded a new and splendid passenger steamer, the Prince Abbas, this was the first of a new line of large passenger steamers that Thomas Cook had brought to the Nile. Cook’s son, John, was on board to personally direct her maiden voyage.
Budge tells us that John was called the “King of Egypt,” as he seemed bent on commandeering all tourism and transport needs on the Nile. The steamer made stops at Luxor then Edfu and Kom Ombo as they made their way to Aswan. Just before arriving in Aswan, the crew dressed the steamer with many hundreds of the gaudy flags which according to Budge, “...were so dear to the heart of the Egyptian...on arrival a large crowd of natives ran along the river bank waving flags, and shouting and beating little drums with appalling vigor. We steamed on quite slowly, accompanied by an awful noise from the bank, and as we neared the town we saw that almost every building in the town was decorated with flags.”

The town was occupied by a considerable number of British troops, for whom Cook and Sons had provided transport. They had made an enormous effort to get the British Army troops there in order to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, an effort that though heroic was a logistical nightmare reported around the world. With Gordon’s death in 1885, the troops were being slowly withdrawn to Cairo and Alexandria.

The British Tommy may have had no regrets at leaving behind a wind-swept village of mud huts, but the Cooks with their steamers and ability to organize a new item they called a “package tour” thought of Aswan as a paradise. They were determined to open it to tourism and show the world exactly where Aswan was, and they were right, it prospered so well that by the 21st Century, once the High Dam had become a reality, and once local business development had gone forward, Aswan, after Cairo and Luxor, was the most popular place on the river.

Not long after this Cook established the Cataract Hotel and posted an ad in The Egyptian Gazette, as of 11 December 1899 he promised that the new hotel could accommodate 60 guests in, "Every modern comfort. Large and small apartment rooms, library, billiard room, fireplaces in halls, salons and the main rooms. Electrical lights running all night...”

What did it look like? If you saw the 1978 movie Death on the Nile, which starred Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis, you saw the sumptuous ball room and dining room of the hotel.

In Budge’s time the principal exports of Aswan were dates and cut stone, though some items came on camel from all over Africa and passed through here, ostrich feathers, ivory, tamarind, skins were found then and now in the local markets. Other than the Hotel and the tour boats, large and small, the dominant features of Aswan were its date palms and bare land in open tracts on both river banks. These features persisted until later years when the town became important economically because of the Aswan Dam.
As predicted by John Cook, Aswan did develop into a tourist stop, though for many years it was a place where almost all provisions had to be brought in from elsewhere. The same steamship that carried Budge was still in service in 1910 as we see in a story in the New York Times: "Out of the deathless stillness came a sharp whistle from the distance, and the sleepy town at once woke up. Arab curio merchants got out their ancient wares for the inspection of the tourist, the gangway was fitted to the old barge that served as a landing stage, and everything was in readiness as Cook’s steamboat Prince Abbas came chugging her way around the bend with the Reis standing in his gold braided frock coat and his long tasseled tarbush on the bridge. “Allah Kerim” (“God is great,") the Reis exclaimed in his native tongue when the boat had been made fast and tourists were streaming ashore in their white suits, with helmets and green veils on their way to the bazaars (The Guileful Dragoman, April 3, 1910 N.Y. Times)."

I arrived in Aswan on the modern equivalent of the Prince Abbas, the Royal Lily, a vessel the size of a small city block. We tied up by lashing our gigantic ship to three other “city blocks,” and immediately released a horde of tourists who joined the mass of hundreds streaming into Aswan every day from other tour ships. They lined the Corniche along the river, and as we stepped ashore we saw there were many other tour boats so lashed.

Our tour guides kept us to a tight schedule and moved us quickly through the city and the main sights. In 1886 Budge was not so fortunate, it took him several days to get organized. His largest concern was the lack of housing and no store or kiosk to buy food. Luckily, the Army took him in and made him a temporary member of the Officers’ mess. They also provided him with a hut inside their camp.

He was thus protected from prying eyes, which he soon learned were focussed on him. The Antiquities Service in Cairo had sent a man there specifically to watch him, Mustafa Shakir.

Mustapha would warn anyone who would listen that Budge seemed poised to make off with any artifact not nailed down. They obviously knew their man because Budge soon had a stream of dealers coming to his hut, but his close alliance to the military meant that Mustafa couldn’t touch him.

In Egypt the material used most often for building in ancient days was limestone, but the Pharaohs also had need for the red, gray and black granite from the quarries of Aswan. Scarcely a mile from the town are the famous granite quarries of Syene from which was hewn the stone for most of the famous obelisks and other granite monoliths. The area is laced with quarries and stonemason yards where many monuments were carved before sending them downriver to the temple cities where building programs were in progress throughout the ages. The quarries also are of great interest since they are strewn with monuments steles and obelisks half done. In this way they show the process by which blocks, pillars and columns were quarried. There is even a 130 ft. obelisk lying there that is twice as large as any Egyptian obelisk ever erected.

Its weight is estimated at over a thousand tons, and it was cut
on all sides save one when cracks appeared and the project was given up. The bottom side of the obelisk is still attached to bedrock so the process used can be seen in a row of holes that was bored along the length of the proposed obelisk into which wooden wedges were driven. Water was then poured on the wedges and the swelling cracked the stone and separate it from the surrounding mass of rock.

Mustafa, the man sent to watch Budge, realizing that he could not go up against the Army, tried to scare off local dealers by spreading the word that Budge was absolutely unscrupulous, a swindler, a rogue and a lawbreaker and that he was intent on “stripping Egypt of its monuments.” Perhaps this only served to whet their appetites, it certainly did nothing to stop Budge, who was determined to take advantage of his luck.

On his first trip to Egypt, as he rode into Cairo, Budge had described the Pyramids as two huge breasts. Unconsciously he perhaps saw himself feeding from the “Mother of the World,” as that city was called in A Thousand and One Nights. Now in Aswan he had landed in the mother lode, the place where Pharaohs for centuries had cut and shaped the major monuments of Egypt.
As did the Pharaohs before him, Budge decided to help himself and drink deeply...
The next post brings trouble as we run for our lives from an Arab cemetery!

© Copyright 2009 John J. Gaudet, All Rights Reserved

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