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J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)


L E T T E R   V.


      DURING our visit to the pyramids we saw some of the wonders of ancient Egypt which I omitted from my last letter. Foremost among these is the celebrated Sphinx. As our readers are aware, this enormous piece of sculpture has the body of a lion, reclining, and the head of a man. Its height, from the pavement on which the forelegs of the lion are stretched out to the crown of the head, is 66 feet. The breadth of the face is 13 feet 8 inches, and the width of the mouth is 7 feet 7 inches,--a tolerably large mouth. The neck is disproportionately large, being 67 feet in circuit. The width across the front of the breast is 37 feet, measured along the surface of the sand which always covers the outstretched legs except when it is freshly dug away. Sand is constantly drifting in from the desert, covering all the face of the cliff and encroaching on the valley of the Nile. The length of the lion's back, measured from the back of the neck to the haunches, is 123 feet, while its width in the middle is 27 feet, and across the haunches 51 feet. This enormous figure is a part of the cliff on which it stands, and it was formed by cutting away the rock from around it [432] and leaving it as it is, and where it will remain, unless destroyed by the hand of man, until the pyramid shall have crumbled into dust and the earth itself shall pass away. Its original design and the date of its formation are alike unknown, though they are the subject of many conjectures. Its face is toward the east, and it gazes with a steady eye from age to age toward the rising sun. Its features are greatly mutilated, but they still retain an expression of amiability, and the peculiar curve of the lips is suggestive of a smile. The cut which we give below is correct, except that it fails to give the true expression.


      Near the Sphinx, a short distance to the southeast, the sand has been dug away from a curious and massive structure whose original design is as great a puzzle as that of the Sphinx itself. It appears, as we approach it, somewhat like a deep and very large cellar from which the house above has been removed. Square columns of finely-polished red granite, 4 feet square and 12 high, arranged in rows which correspond to the walls of large rooms, with passages between, support blocks of the same material almost as large and long enough to reach from column to column. Whether a superstructure ever stood above this, and if so what kind of building it was, is unknown, and not a vestige of such a structure is visible. It is called the Granite Temple.

      The space all about the pyramids, including many acres, is excavated into sepulchres and catacombs, some of the latter two and three stories [433] deep, and many of these retain on their walls sculptured figures of beasts and birds, and of men engaged in all manner of agricultural and seafaring pursuits. Broken pieces of mummy-skulls and other bones, together with the cloth wrappings which have been torn from them, lie scattered around where they have been thrown by the searchers after relics. How little the ancient Egyptians imagined, when they were devoting uncounted wealth and enormous labor to the embalming of their dead and the construction of these burial-chambers in the solid rock, that the sleeping bodies would thus be dragged out of their tombs, dismembered, carried to distant lands as curiosities, or scattered about the ground like common dust! But such is the vanity of human hopes and the emptiness of man's grandest achievements when misdirected.

      Our day at the pyramids was Saturday, and consequently the next day was a day of rest. We needed it, for our limbs were stiff and sore from Saturday's excursion. We attended public worship at the American Mission, the only Protestant preaching-station in the city, and heard an edifying sermon in English by Dr. Lansing, the chief missionary. The audience was small, only about two dozen persons being present; but the audience at the Arabic service, which was concluded just as we reached the place, numbered probably 200 persons. The mission belongs to the Reformed Presbyterian Church. It owns a large building in the most elegant part of the city, containing a chapel, school-rooms for a large school, and apartments for a family. There is also, in another part of the city, an English mission-school, in which 300 boys and 200 girls of the native population receive instruction in Arabic, French, and English, and use the New Testament as a text-book for reading. A large portion of the Mohammedan population of the city is being leavened by the influence of these missionary labors, and the results will be widespreading in the future.

      We spent the remainder of the Lord's day in our hotel, the "Grand New Hotel," and I must say to its credit that it furnished us the most pleasant apartments, the most attentive service, and the best-supplied table that we had enjoyed in all of our travels thus far. It is new, as its name imports, and it is really "grand." It is built of beautifully-colored limestone, three stories high, with an arcade veranda of stone across the entire front of every story. The rooms are airy and well furnished, and a broad yard in front is filled with beautiful trees and shrubbery, among them a number of splendid bananas. Across the street, which is wide and clean, is a beautiful park of about 20 acres, with clean walks winding among shade-trees and rustic buildings, and [434] there a brass band furnishes excellent music every evening. The park is brilliantly lighted with gas, and crowds of well-dressed and orderly people resort to it every evening to promenade, drink wine, and sit in the cool air. Lest any should think strange of such scenes in an Oriental city, I must remark that while old Cairo is as Oriental as Damascus itself, there is a new European Cairo which has sprung up since the Crimean war in the midst of the old city. The influence which France and England acquired over Turkey during that war has been pushed to the utmost, and now the most lucrative lines of trade and finance in all the great cities of the empire are in the hands of capitalists and adventurers from those two countries, and from Italy, Germany, and Austria. The population of Cairo is estimated at 400,000 souls, of whom 20,000 are Europeans. There are also 7000 Jewish inhabitants, and some negroes, Bed'awins, Syrians, Persians, and Indians. One who travels for mere pleasure and curiosity might spend an entire month there without being wearied with seeing objects of interest belonging to almost every period of the world's history. I cannot take time to even mention a tithe of them.

      On Monday we made an excursion to the necropolis of Sakkar'a, the southern extremity of the line of sepulchres and pyramids back of ancient Memphis, and about 12 miles south of the Pyramids of Gizeh. We crossed the Nile again on the new bridge and drove to the station of the Upper Egypt Railroad, which runs up the western bank of the Nile, taking with us a guide, a lot of candles, and a lunch. We went about eight miles by rail to a station called Bedrashen', whence we rode on donkeys about five miles. This was my first experience in donkey-riding. My donkey was named Abdallah, and the donkey-boy was Mohammed. From this boy I received my first lesson in Arabic. When I mounted the donkey started, and I drew up the reins and said "Wo!" The boy looked at me, shook his head and said, "English wo! Ar'ab she-e-e." So after that, when I wished the donkey to stop, I said she-e-e, and he obeyed me.

      Our ride took us over a part of the site of ancient Memphis and through a grove of date-palms, which extends five or six miles along the railway track and is two or three miles wide. It was the first native grove of this tree through which I had passed.

      Among other relics of the old city of the Pharaohs we saw a mutilated colossal statue of Rameses II., called by the Greeks Sesostris. When erect it was 42 feet in height, but it is now prostrate on its face in an excavation five or six feet deep, which was made in uncovering it, and which was partly filled with stagnant water when we saw it. It [435] was discovered in 1820 and presented to the British Museum, but, owing to the difficulty of transporting it, it has never been removed. The features, like those of the Sphinx, have a very mild and amiable expression.

      But what interested us the most on this day's excursion was the Serape'um, or the sepulchre of the sacred bulls. It will be remembered that the ancient Egyptians worshiped their god Apis under the image of a white bull, and that one was kept continually in the temple of that god. When he died he was embalmed and buried like a king. Their sepulchres consist of a series of chambers with a passage between them, all excavated in the solid rock of the cliff many feet below the surface. The entrance to them was completely hidden by sand which had drifted over it, until it was excavated a few years ago by M. Mariette, a French archæologist, who built a house in the vicinity and spent several winters there, with his family, engaged in researches into the antiquities of that part of Egypt. It is now entered through a perpendicular doorway closed by a wooden shutter. Candles in hand, we passed through this door, and found ourselves in a long passage, about 12 feet wide and the same in height, with solid rock for its floor, sides, and ceiling. As we advanced we saw chambers on the right and the left, each about 12 feet wide and 15 feet deep, the side next to the passage being entirely open and rock partitions about 3 feet thick left between them. These are occupied by the sarcophagi of the bulls, of which 23 still remain in their places. The sarcophagi vary a little in size, but they are all of smoothly-polished granite, and some of them are carved on the end with elaborate inscriptions. We measured one of the handsomest, and found its dimensions as follows: Exterior length, 12 feet 5 inches; exterior width, 7 feet 6½ inches; exterior height, 7 feet 9 inches; thickness of lid, 3 feet 2 inches; entire height, with lid on, 10 feet 11 inches.

      The lids of all of them but one were slid to one side, and the contents all gone, when first discovered. That one still contained the mummy of a bull.1 The interior dimensions of the one I measured--showing the space chiseled out for the mummy of the bull--was 10 feet 2 inches long, 4 feet 10 inches wide, and 5 feet 6 inches deep.

      About midway the length of the passage we found a sarcophagus which was being moved to its chamber, but for some reason was left there, almost blocking up the pass-way. At the end of this passage there is another, which runs at a right angle to it a few yards and leads into [436] another passage exactly like the first, and parallel to it. This latter passage has also its chambers like the first, 11 of which are occupied, and it brings us back even with the place of entrance, so that a narrow cross-passage from it leads us again to the front-door.

      After examining these curious relics of ancient heathenism, and seeing some other remarkable tombs and many pyramids, we returned by a lively ride on our donkeys to the railway station. The donkey-boys followed us, and did their driving very well, except that whenever we rode slow they would gather in a bunch to talk and get so far behind that we had to call them when we wanted to ride faster. Our gaits were only two, a walk and a canter. When I dismounted at the station I had the curiosity to measure my donkey, and I found him just three feet four inches high. On another occasion I tried the weight of one. By putting one hand under his neck and the other under his girth, I lifted his fore-feet from the ground without difficulty. A stout man could shoulder one of them, and I have often seen a man riding one when I thought it would be a fairer thing for the man to carry the donkey.

      While we were waiting at the railway station I took time to notice particularly the kind of cross-ties which they use in Egyptian railways. They are not of wood, for there is no timber in Egypt suitable for the purpose. They are merely iron bars with their ends resting on inverted "wash-bowls," as Brother Taylor called them. These are bowl-shaped castings about two feet in diameter, which, laid down bottom upward on the sand, will not sink under the weight of the train. The iron cross-ties are fastened on these by projecting tips made in the castings for the purpose, and the track thus constructed seems to answer every purpose. If wooden cross-ties were a necessity in Egypt, the cost of her railroads would be enormous; as it is, they are built at very little expense. The grading on that level and sandy surface costs but little.

      We left Cairo on Tuesday, April 8th, by rail for Suez. The route is along the road to Alexandria for some distance; then it turns to the northeast and goes direct to Ismailî'a, midway the Suez Canal; thence down the western bank of that canal, a little east of south, to Suez. The first part of the route is through the richest portion of Egypt, where grain and cotton are produced in great quantities, and by methods of cultivation similar to those in Palestine, except that everything is here produced by irrigation. Where irrigation is employed, Egypt is green and beautiful the year round; but where it stops, on the very next foot of earth the bare desert of yellow sand begins. The Nile is the single source of water for irrigation, and, consequently, but for [437] that river, and especially for its annual overflow, the whole country would be a desert like the Sahara. The overflow fills canals and reservoirs, and also saturates the earth with water, so that shallow wells may be dug in many places in the midst of the fields which are irrigated from them. Men may be seen everywhere dipping water by rudely-constructed "sweeps," and sending it through little mud channels to the spots which need it. Water-wheels worked by cattle and donkeys are also common throughout the country.

      The distance from Cairo to Ismailî'a by rail is 99½ miles, and thence to Suez 53 miles. A canal runs parallel, or nearly so, with the railroad all the way, intended to supply the engines with water, to irrigate fields by the way, and to furnish fresh water to the towns of Ismailî'a and Suez. It was dug while the Suez Canal was in course of construction, and previous to its opening 1600 camels were constantly employed carrying water for the 20,000 laborers who were employed on that stupendous work. The canal is 153 miles long, and it conveys a stream of water 26 feet wide and 7 feet deep. We ran over the distance in seven hours, reaching Suez at 6 P. M. This town now claims a population of 14,000, though before the opening of the canal it had scarcely 1500. As a town it possesses no attractions.

      Our object in visiting Suez was to study the question of the crossing-place of the children of Israel; and for this purpose we gave ourselves two days there. Three theories have been advanced on this subject by explorers, the careful study of which had left my mind in uncertainty and confusion. Our consul at Cairo, Mr. Forman, of New York, who has been at Suez, told me that I would probably be worse confused after visiting the place than I was already; but I was resolved to fully test the matter, let the result be what it might.

      One of these theories is, that the Red Sea, in the time of Moses, extended so far north as to connect with the Bitter Lakes,--a series of shallow lakes northwest of the present head of the sea, distant about 50 miles,--and that the crossing occurred at the head of these lakes. Those who adopt this theory suppose that a heavy wind blowing off shore at low tide carried the water out, leaving a dry beach on which Israel crossed over, and that, as Pharaoh and his host followed, the wind changed, the tide came in, and they were drowned.

      The second theory adopts the same supposition in regard to the northward extension of the sea, and assumes that the crossing occurred a short distance above the present head of the sea, where there is a depression a mile or so wide, in which the miracle and the disaster might have taken place. Dr. Robinson, whose judgment I have [438] learned to regard with the highest respect, adopted this view when he visited the place in 1838.

      The third theory, and the one which was universal until the former two almost entirely supplanted it among Europeans and Americans, is that the crossing occurred several miles south of the present head of the sea, where the water is deep, and its width is from 8 to 10 miles.

      I was determined that on this question, as on all others pertaining to sacred geography, the Bible should be my guide-book, and that I would accept no place as the one at which Moses crossed which fails to meet the requirements of the Scriptures. These requirements are as follows:

      1. The place was so situated as to require Israel to turn from the direct route toward Canaan in order to reach it (Ex. xiv. 2).

      2. It was such that when Israel reached it they were "entangled in the land," so that Pharaoh was encouraged to pursue them (xiv. 3).

      3. It was such that when Pharaoh overtook them there was no escape for them except by going through the sea (xiv. 10, 13, 16).

      4. It was such that in opening a passage the waters were divided, not driven away to one side, and that they were "a wall on the right hand and on the left" (xiv. 16, 21, 22, 29).

      5. The distance across was sufficient to allow all the 600 chariots and the horsemen of Pharaoh to be within it at one time, and the water was deep enough to prevent the escape of a single person when the two walls of water rushed together (xiv. 7, 9, 28).

      6. The place was near enough to Ma'rah, now Huwar'ah, 33 miles below Suez, to allow Israel to march thither in three days (xv. 22, 23).

      7. It was where Israel, after crossing, could find an immediate supply of drinking-water, so that they did not suffer for water till they came to Ma'rah (xv. 22, 23).

      With these requirements before us, we may dismiss the first theory mentioned above at once; for, although in a slight degree it meets the first three requirements, it is utterly inconsistent with the other four. Indeed, it denies entirely the miraculous character of the crossing; and, if this event was not miraculous, it was nothing.

      It required only my observations from the train in approaching Suez, and a few minutes spent on the flat roof of the hotel next morning, to satisfy me that the second theory is also untenable. I stood on the rear platform of the car (it was one built on the American model) for many miles as we approached the head of the sea, watching for the indications on this subject, and I searched for them carefully at Suez; but, although the supposition of a passage at or above Suez would meet in a good degree all the requirements of the text had there been [439] enough water there, the absence of water is fatal to it. If Moses had been led by this route, he would have reached the head of the sea, and he could have passed around it to the left by making a détour of more than a mile to pass around it. Only on the supposition that the main body of this arm of the sea extended many miles above its present head can this theory be accepted; and this supposition is utterly void of historic evidence. Indeed, the historic evidence is in opposition to it. In order to be safe in our conclusions, we must take the sea as it is, without stretching it, and the Bible as it is, without mutilating it.

      Our next task at Suez was to test the third and last theory, and to this we devoted our two days there. The first day we went down to Ay'un Musa (the Fountains of Moses), about eight miles below the head of the sea on the east side. We took one of the rude Ar'ab sailboats which abound in the harbor of Suez, for about half the distance, carrying in it, besides the four boatmen and ourselves, our guide, five donkeys, and two donkey-drivers. After landing we rode one hour and a half on the donkeys, the drivers running behind to make them go and to guide them: the rider can do neither very easily. Mine was well gaited, and we had no little fun on the ride. The fountains lie about a mile from the seashore, and are seven in number. We dismounted at the largest one, took its dimensions, and ate our lunch in a rude building by its side intended for this use.

      The fountain rises in the centre of an oblong inclosure, which has been made around it by building a stone wall some three or four feet high to keep out the sand. This wall is even with the ground outside, and the basin inclosed is 46 feet long, 36 feet wide at one end, and 27 feet at the other. The water forces itself up through soft mud in the centre, and with it rises a constant succession of gas-bubbles, which explode as they reach the surface. Through an opening in the wall at the north side the water flows away in a lively stream two feet wide and four inches deep. This stream is led through a garden of three or four acres and irrigates it. The garden is filled with a luxuriant growth of date-palms, acacia- and pomegranate-trees, and under these beds of garden vegetables and patches of wheat. Another fountain, which sends off no stream, helps to supply the water for irrigation. There are three such gardens standing in a line parallel to the seashore, and separated from each other only by pass-ways like roads. They are watered by five fountains, and constitute a most beautiful oasis in the midst of a perfectly barren desert. In the hands of a European of taste and means they could be made a little paradise for resort from the dirt and the heat of Suez. [440]

      All these fountains rise on top of a sandstone ridge, 15 or 20 feet above the beach which spreads between them and the sea, and nearly that high above the sand immediately east of them; yet they are 30 feet below the general level of the desert which stretches away to the southeast, and along which the Israelites continued their journey after crossing the sea.


      We could see at a glance that this spot answers all the demands of the Scriptures as a landing-place for Israel after crossing. A gently ascending beach one mile wide, and stretching about five miles up and down the seashore, an abundant supply of water for their immediate use, and an easy march of three days to Ma'rah, only 25 miles distant, are the features it presents; whereas, but a short distance above, there is no sea to cross, and immediately below there is a perpendicular shore at least 50 feet high. Looking directly across the sea, we saw plainly the gap in the mountains on that side suitable for Israel's approach to the shore, and we determined to explore it the next day.

      A range of mountains called Jebel Atâ'kah presents an almost perpendicular wall on the west side of the sea, beginning at its head, and stretching along the shore about eight or nine miles. Farther down the shore there rises the high and dark wall of another range, called Jebel Abu Durâj. Between these there is a gap, and for this gap we started in our Arabian boat the next morning. A pleasant breeze was [441] blowing, making the temperature delightful, but it was a contrary wind, compelling us to sail in a zig-zag, and making our progress very slow. As we approached the southeastern extremity of the Atâ'kah bluffs, we discovered that a low sand-beach, stretching out like a cape two or three miles into the sea, lay in our way. Our boatmen said that they were afraid to pass around it, on account of the heavy waves then rolling in the open sea beyond, and that it was only half a mile across it, so we landed and struck out afoot. Instead of half a mile, we found it two miles across the beach. We also found that, though we had now come abreast of the hill which had appeared to be the last of the Atâ'kah range, another had come into view beyond it and apparently about a mile away. After taking lunch we struck out for it, but found it three miles away instead of one, and we found on reaching it that instead of being a hill about 50 feet high, as it at first appeared, it was at least 300 feet high, and its front was almost perpendicular. We had not yet learned to estimate distances and heights in this clear atmosphere by the eye.

      Though somewhat fatigued we clambered to the top of this cliff, and found that, though we had not even yet reached the terminus of this mountain range, the hills beyond grew rapidly lower and lower, and there was unmistakable evidence of a valley several miles wide between it and the mountains beyond. Here, then, was the valley by which Israel is supposed to have descended between the two mountain ranges to the seashore, and the entire scene of the crossing--meeting in the minutest particular all the requirements of the Scriptures--lay in full view at our feet. About three miles to the south of us, and a little west, was the mouth of the valley, probably three miles wide. On reaching the sea through that pass, Israel could not turn to the right because of the Abu Durâj' Mountains in that direction, but to the left a smooth beach, almost as smooth as a floor and gently sloping to the sea, opened a line of march two miles wide and diverging about 30 degrees from their former course. When their marching column had stretched out nine miles along this beach, its front rank found its progress checked by the body of water, four miles across, over which we had sailed in the morning. Here, then, they camped beside the sea, as the Lord had commanded, with the sea on their right and a mountain-wall on their left, the sea also passing around their front and meeting the mountain-wall in front of their left flank. While thus encamped, Pharaoh's host came down the mountain-pass behind them; the cloudy pillar stretched itself across the mouth of the pass, hiding Israel from the Egyptians, while it spread itself over Israel and the sea, a canopy [442] of light. The sea was opened from the Abu Durâj' Mountains on the southwest to the projecting beach on the northeast, a width of about five miles, and the entire column of the host of Israel marched by a flank movement directly across the dried bed of the sea. The Fountains of Moses, distinctly in view from our hill-top, are nearly directly opposite the centre of this line of march, and the depth of the water before us, according to the British and French soundings quoted by Baedeker in his guide-book, varies from 9 to 16 fathoms in the midst of the sea. On both sides the approach to this depth is gradual--as we can testify from having taken a delightful bath in the water on both sides during the two hot days of our excursion--and the distance across was about 8 miles for the head of the column, and 10 or 12 for the rear.

      I came down from our hill-top with my mind at rest on the subject of the crossing-place, and I felt well repaid already for the time and money invested in my journey. We walked to the seashore at a right angle to the line of our former walk, and then started for our boat. I had directed our boatmen to come around the beach as far as they could, to meet us, but they had not moved the boat from where we left it. I got back to it leg-weary, foot-sore, and almost ready to drop on the sand. Estimating the distance by my pace and the time occupied, as I had learned to do with great accuracy by my walk of a mile and a half to college every morning, we had walked since noon twelve miles, and it was now growing dark. I reached the shore near the boat last of all our company, and found that the ebbing of the tide had compelled the boatmen to withdraw their vessel a hundred yards from the shore. I thought I would have to wade through the shallow water to it, but, the first thing I knew, one of the Ar'abs went behind me, stuck his head between my legs, and, lifting me up astride of the back of his neck, walked to the boat with me, turned around, and seated me on it. The wind had fallen to a gentle breeze; we had drunk up, several hours previously, all the water which we had brought with us from the hotel; we had a burning thirst, and at least two hours of slow sailing were before us. My feet were almost blistered and very painful. I pulled off my boots, and, sitting on the side of the boat, hung my feet in the cool salt water as we sailed along. The effect was almost magical. I felt refreshed all over; the soreness soon passed away; my thirst was partially quenched; and after enjoying this bath about half an hour I stretched myself on my back, looked up at the stars, thought of home, listened to the sigh of the wind around the edge of the sail and the ripple of the water as it broke past the rudder, and fell into a [443] sweet sleep. I was awakened by the mutterings of one of the Mussulmans going through his evening prayer, and found that we were passing the ships in the harbor, and were nearly home. Thus ended the most toilsome, but the most satisfactory day of our wanderings thus far.

      1 Baedeker, 374. [436]


[LOB 432-444]

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J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)

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