Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/March 1898/Aspects of Nature in the African Sahara: A Summer Journey I

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 52 March 1898 (1898)
Aspects of Nature in the African Sahara: A Summer Journey I by Angelo Heilprin
1391674Popular Science Monthly Volume 52 March 1898 — Aspects of Nature in the African Sahara: A Summer Journey I1898Angelo Heilprin




MARCH, 1898





IT was, I believe, Fromentin, the eminent French scholar and art critic, who remarked that the sudden view of the Orient through the gateway of El-Kantara presented the most contrasting picture of life and Nature that was to be found anywhere on the surface of the earth. How nearly true this statement may be it is hardly possible to determine, but it is certain that it would be difficult to find elsewhere on the globe a more striking closing of one world and opening of another. Through El-Kantara passes the solemn tread of the camel trains, whose destination is the silent Sahara and the deeper Soudan; in it are offered up the fervent Moslem prayers for a safe journey and return. The giant buttresses of the Atlas Mountains, red and purple with the glow of the morning and twilight sun, look down upon a tempestuous mountain torrent which has cut its way athwart their core, and grim and crag-eaten rocks, buried deep within their own bowlder masses, wall off with heights of three thousand to five thousand feet the gray and yellow panorama of shifting sands—the warm heart of the southern Sahara.

For years I had longed to see and feel this mysterious land—the land which had made forever famous the names of travelers who had sought to penetrate it—a land in which even to-day a "No trespass" is loudly written. Mungo Park, Denham, Clapperton, Barth, Nachtigal, and the lately deceased Gerhard Rohlfs, were heroes of my boyhood days, and now we were approaching the theater of their exploits—not, however, in the manner of these pioneers, with a slowly pacing camel, but behind the energy of the iron horse. Let it not, however, be supposed that the passage of the locomotive through El-Kantara has revolutionized the desert; true, it has facilitated

El-Kantara; The Gateway to the Desert.

entrance to it, and has secured a certain passageway farther into the interior. But the desert is still the desert of old; the skeletons of camels and mules lie scattered to the right and to the left—wrecks of vain effort to make the passage—the sands send back to the sun the heat that they have received from the fiery luminary, and hordes of wandering Tuareg's, armed with gun and spear, still patrol the caravan ways that penetrate to the interior.

With all the wild, fitful, and forbidding Nature that belongs to the Sahara, it has also its elements of peace and good will. The cheer of a green oasis is, indeed, one of its first greetings, and long before the great flat expanse of sand is reached the traveler approaching from the north looks down upon an island of emerald verdure. The oasis of El-Kantara, the "first oasis" of the desert on the great caravan route leading to Lake Tchad, backs up its sea of palms to the very walls of the Great Atlas, and far into the gateway itself the feathered dates scatter themselves to meet the poplars from the north. How different, then, is this first view of the Sahara from that which the mind had pictured! It was late in the afternoon of an early September day, with the thermometer steadily rising from perhaps 92° to 98°, that we approached this land of true Africa. The bare and rugged rocks roll off from either side of us, to mingle with the almost endless wilderness of bowlders which cover the mountain foot, far off to the limits of vision. We pass caravans and parts of caravans, the swarthy children of the South contemplating our passage with at least the interest with which we drink in their picturesque garbs, the complacently meditating camels, the trains of yelping Arab curs, and children galore. How different the two modes of travel, and what feelings must the contrast inspire within the minds of these poor toilers of the desert sands!

A few days after our first approach to El-Kantara we returned to it for the purpose of better studying the character of this first oasis of the desert, and of entering into that delightful pursuit of searching for the evidences of past life in the neighborhood. We had been informed that fossils, mainly of a marine type, with beds of giant oysters, were to be found here, and, indeed, under the guidance of two Arabs who were well familiar with the region it did not take long to verify the statement that was made to us. The mountain slopes, especially where they had been furrowed into successive lines of depression and elevation, were teeming with the fossilized parts of an ancient fauna of the sea; sea urchins and oysters were particularly abundant, and their beautiful state of preservation added not a little to the delight of gathering specimens of their kind on the borders of a relentless desert.

To those who still conceive an oasis to be a gathering of a mere hundred or so of palm trees, protecting in its shade a basin of water that is hardly sufficient to quench the thirst of a few dismal-looking men and animals that may have straggled to it, the impression produced by the oasis of El-Kantara will be a pleasantly and refreshingly disappointing one. Seen from the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains, or from the superb roadway which French engineering science has constructed on the line of the old Roman approach to the Sahara, the oasis stretches out a charming

A Corner of the Oasis, Biskra.

wilderness of green, the closely matted tree tufts presenting so dense a canopy of verdure that the eye fails to penetrate to the soil that gives it birth. For the better part of a mile this sea of green extends virtually unbroken, throwing up a brilliance of monochrome coloring which it would be difficult to conceive equaled. Upward of eighty thousand date palms are the main adornment of this patch of green, but let it not be supposed that they alone constitute the vegetation of the oasis. Following in the path of our guide, Ben-Labri, one of the Arab residents of the little adobe village of El-Kantara situated on the outside, we entered the wilderness of green by a tortuous, narrow passageway leading between the mud houses, and found ourselves in a garden lane of striking and refreshing beauty. The fact is that the apparently unbroken oasis is in reality a number of distinct garden areas, belonging individually to separate families of the village, each one walled off by its casing of stone or adobe, much in the manner of field properties of more civilized regions. Between these walls run the numerous dividing lanes, buried in that dark shade which elsewhere would hardly be possible except in a primeval forest. Tumbling brooks and water courses, most of the latter of artificial conduct, follow the lines of these lanes, or course over the separating gardens, giving to the numerous basins which have here and there been cut around the clumps of palms their needed quantity of water. What perhaps surprised us more than anything else in the construction of the oasis was the large number of trees and bushes other than those of a desert aspect which formed a part of the vegetation. Orange and lemon trees, figs, pomegranates, peaches, and dwarf apples were well mixed in with the palms, besides a multitude of other plants, of which our limited botanical knowledge could hardly determine the natural order. The carob, with its long, pendent pods, and the prickly pear or nopal, the distinctive cactus of northern Africa, were conspicuously noticeable by their abundance. Here and there the trailing vine hung its luscious fruit, although not with that richness and vigor which characterize the grape growth of North America generally; also an occasional dandelion brought memories to us of our own fields and meadows, an association in no way lessened through the presence of clumps of raspberry and blackberry.

Comparatively few of the date palms carry their shafts to a height exceeding fifty or sixty feet, the greater number of them probably not rising higher than twenty-five to thirty feet. They were heavily laden with brown or yellow fruit, which, of course, constitutes one of the staple articles of food to the native. We found them much too sweet for our taste, and while the fruit was always attainable, the bunches frequently hanging down to within a few feet of the ground, we rarely availed ourselves of our opportunity. The system of irrigation that is here carried on is so perfect that, despite the excessive heat of the summer season and the three months of dry heat that had already passed, we were scarcely able to discover a dry leaf or shoot among the hundreds of thousands by which we were surrounded. This was indeed a most extraordinary aspect, and one that specially appealed to the eye looking down from a mountain elevation.

A cluster of mud or adobe houses, whose one-storied rooms lie beneath the impending leaves of the palm, constitute the Arab village to the inhabitants of which is apportioned the proprietorship of the oasis. The Arabs here are naturally not nomads, but permanent fixtures, to whom a life in the desert has little of that Africa associated with it which is the proper service of the Arab of the caravan. Under the guidance of Ben-Labri we visited a number of the houses, most of which were constituted of two or three almost entirely vacant rooms, capped by thatchings of palm leaves. In some instances a semblance of a second story was presented by a projecting veranda, on which was pitched a round tent. What little of woodwork was necessary for the support of the walls or the roof, or to outline doorways and windows, was mainly constructed from the shaft of the palm, but a rather incongruous piece of architecture occasionally carried the eye to bits or entire frames of Venetian blinds. A somewhat rarer element of construction was to be found in blocks of ancient Roman masonry, whose fanciful carvings at one time graced much more imposing structures of the desert. It must be admitted that the first inspection of the hard earth flooring of the houses, with visions of scorpions and centipeds coursing over it in wild affray, or of a lurking horned viper eagerly scanning the path of each intruder, was not immediately conducive to a real desire to share its space; but a few moments' careful study of corners and under-spaces, which brought out only wandering humpbacked ants, soon dispelled the first feeling of uncanniness which a conceived danger inspires, and with the assistance of a large mat we were soon placed at ease and comparative comfort. We visited one of the schools, where the teacher as in days of old was inculcating the doctrines of the Koran to some twelve or fifteen little barefooted urchins, and also went through the village mosque. Judiciously taking the border of the room, or in the center avoiding the holy carpet, we were allowed to enter far enough to gratify a photographer's passion, and in a few minutes' time the drop-shutter announced several pictures taken.

Surprising as from many points of view was this oasis of El-Kantara, it only cleared the way for a still greater surprise when we reached Biskra, the present terminus of the Constantine-Saharan

The Caravan Route to Lake Tchad Passing Through Biskra

Railway. Biskra has not inappropriately been termed "The Pearl of the Sahara," for in truth it combines much that would tend to make almost any place attractive. Its oasis extends over a linear expanse of nearly five miles, and in its area is crowded a forest of upward of a quarter of a million of date palms, in whose shade a multitude of trees and plants of the European flora find a congenial home. Biskra also has its true gardens, which have grown up under Trench rule and domination, and in some of these the rustic chair and table are by no means an unpleasant association. If the truth has to be told, the heart of Biskra might just as well be a town in the interior of Trance as part of an African oasis. One can not, to be sure, overlook the large number of Arabs and Ethiopians who congregate everywhere in troops or marching lines, or lounge in indifferent attitudes before their not wholly lordly manors—some shouting, some bargaining, and all, with the exception of the women, practically indifferent to the presence of the stranger; but with these products of the African soil rise up the outliers of European civilization—the hotels, the cafés, and a number of by no means unstately mansions which constitute the home of the foreign contingent of the population. The Hôtels du Sahara, de 1'Oasis, and Victoria would do credit to far more important places than this, and while, perhaps, the accommodations and comforts served by them have in a measure been Africanized, they yet provide to the traveler all that is needed by way of relaxation and sustenance.

We put up at the Hôtel du Sahara, where we found a charming hostess in the person of Madame Chabert. Under the amiable method of this lady, supported by the plaisir of her two daughters, we were not long in reaching the conclusion that even a summer day in the African desert can not only be made bearable but decidedly enjoyable. Our arrival in the evening did not permit us to clearly make out the exact nature of our surroundings, but sufficient was visible to indicate that in our entertainment we should be obliged to conform in part to entirely new and interesting situations. The dining room was constituted by the tunnel which opened into the street in front and the court in the rear, and its continuation was the open air-space beyond. Our part of the meal was served under the waving tufts of the date palm overhead, and it was a no mean luxury to be fed in good, old-fashioned French style in this al fresco corner of the garden. The thermometer at this time, about eight o'clock, covered the better part of its range of 100°, and thus, while still sufficiently high, it had already lost about sixteen degrees of its column. A steaming heat this, but nevertheless, and despite the fatigue of the day's journey, it did not feel particularly oppressive. The two delicacies that were served to us were the grape of

Bound for the Soudan—Crossing the Outaia.

North Africa—than which a more luscious fruit can hardly be found anywhere, not even on the volcanic slopes of the famous Hegyalya of Hungary—and ice. Unfortunately, health considerations required (or, at least, we thought that they so required) that the last-named article should be associated with some vinous or mineral water, and we therefore could not indulge in what would have been at the time one of the greatest of luxuries—ice-water.

Still early in the evening the pattering of raindrops taught us that the Sahara was even in the most heated and driest portion of the year not entirely rainless—a correction to geographical statements of a kind of which we had many to make during our African experiences. The rain was of not long duration, nor of more than feeble quality, but before it ceased it was accompanied by hail and a vivid showing of lightning in the western sky.

The sleeping apartments of this interesting hotel opened on stone corridors either in the front or in the rear; the spacious doorways, which in most cases took the place of both doorway and window, permitted of a generous exchange of inside and outside air, but it can not be said that there was enough of this to produce a really cooling effect. Even sprinkling the stone flooring of the rooms produced hardly more than a momentary relief against the pressure of a somewhat suffocating atmosphere; yet, with all, we managed to pass a sufficiently comfortable night, and one that surely was not lacking in interest as the first night in an African oasis.

Biskra lies thirty-three miles beyond El-Kantara, and therefore about this distance within the Sahara itself. To it outliers of the Great Atlas still descend, but beyond its final palm begins that almost endless expanse of gravel and sand—gently moving here into dunes and sand hills, elsewhere covering with a thin crust the underlying rock of the region—which constitutes the sandy Sahara. From any eminence in the town the eye wanders far into the wilderness of this lonely expanse—flat as the surface of the sea, more silent than the melancholy waste of the deep ocean. Biskra is elevated but three hundred and sixty feet above the sea, and from it the land gently falls away until, at the great Schott Melghigh, it is carried down seventy feet or more below the actual ocean level. It lies on the caravan route to Tuggart, Ouargla, and the central Soudan, the route which as late as 1881 saw the annihilation of the Government expedition of Flatters, and passes but little to one side of the territory of Ghadames, where was enacted the tragedy of the past year—the extermination of the exploring column of Count Moras.

It can hardly be said that Biskra is as yet what has been claimed for it, a truly charming wintering resort. If climate alone can make a place charming, it probably is such, as, apart from sand storms and other meteorological phenomena which pertain more properly to the land surface than to the air, the winter climate of this spot is probably all that need be desired; but the oasis, and with it the town, lacks those attributes of pleasurable comfort which are needed to sustain and insure periodic change to the resting body. The kaleidoscopic sublimity of the Atlas Mountains, receiving that indescribable glow of coloring which even the painter's hand can hardly touch, entrances by its polychrome effect; the passing caravans are an interest for some days or perhaps even weeks; but the utter

The Leader of a Caravan.

sameness of the desert beyond, its vast monotonous solitudes of resting or driving sands, begins to pall upon the mind, which seeks for change, for some relief whether of climate, life, or scene, but finds it not. It is true that in their customary way as colonizers and as seekers of the humble pleasures, the French are striving to make tenable those amusements which are a part of the habit and life of the mother country; the polo field, tennis court, and racecourse are all here, but they are not sufficient to wear away the wearisome sameness of Biskra life. Even the clamor or glamour of an Arab or Ethiopian market, especially where the rates of sale are seemingly inordinately high, is incapable of dispelling the feeling of desert loneliness that pervades both mind and body; nor yet more conducive to hilarity is the daily visit of the "pet of the desert," the name given to a somewhat aged and feeble lion, once a monarch of the surrounding sands, which, attended or unattended, saunters about the open squares and roadways, neither disturbing the peace of the community nor in any way disturbed by it. Aged women pet it, little children fondle it, but the great mane no longer rises in wrath, nor does the bushy tail lash the body in the fury of excitement. Impending darkness has settled upon the eyes of the once noble animal, and before long it will be only a chain and scent that will direct its course. The lion was not in Biskra at the time of our visit, and we thus missed the town's most interesting inhabitant.

We remained only a few days in Biskra, but in that time sufficiently familiarized ourselves with the locality to know its most distinctive and special features. Even during the greatest heat of the day it was hardly inconvenient to follow the long lines of roadway; and where these passed within the shade of overhanging palms, or alongside the cool meandering waters of natural streams or artesian wells, there was little in the temperature to suggest that we were sightseeing in presumably very nearly the hottest part of the earth's surface and in its hottest season. During nearly all hours of the day caravans or parts of caravans file out on the long central avenue which leads through the oasis and continues across the open sand fiats that follow upon the last palm. This is the great caravan route to the region of Lake Tchad. Near the southern end of the town is the Ethiopian village where one sees the life of the true African, though not the true negro—the people whom we associate with the dynasties of Egypt and Nubia, the people who constituted the followers of Cleopatra, and who probably were in the line of parentage of Cleopatra herself. It is here, as well as in the oases farther south, that one sees the stately nut-brown women who figure in the characteristic scenes of ancient Africa, their loose draperies of dark blue, their pendants of gold still hanging and glittering as in days of old. Their high earthen water pots, borne erect on the head or shoulder, still go to the well as they did thousands of years ago, and the litle infant continues to cling to the mother's back, suspended in the folds of the parent's tunic.

We found these people, especially the younger women, exceedingly shy, and hardly any amount of coaxing could induce them to stand for a photograph. Sitting in front of their mud houses, rolling out corn or some manufacture from corn flour, they would rise the moment they obtained a glimpse of the camera box, and not even

Bedouin Encampment in the Sahara. Atlas Mountains in the Distance.

a free exhibition of coppers would return to the places those whom we had disturbed. We fared better with the older women, partly because they objected less to the privileges we were assuming for ourselves, and partly (perhaps it can be said mainly) because their slower movements gave us the opportunity to make a result with the instantaneous shutter.

A corner, or rather street, of Biskra which has its special attraction for the as yet rather limited number of strangers who have discovered in the oasis a true climatic resort is the Ouled-el-Nail, or "street of the dancing girls," as it is most generally known. Here congregate the Arab women, young and old, of the tribe of Nail, whose graces and abandon have earned for them a special reputation throughout the land. They are the "select of the select," but just why they should be considered so will probably not be apparent to most strangers. Feminine Arab beauty, despite what poets and some few travelers may have said or written about it, is not an unmitigated joy to the eye, nor that dream of loveliness toward which the artist has swung his minstrel harp. By the average European or American the Arab woman would be rated homely, if nothing more; the redeeming features of her face are the lustrous and truly exquisite eyes and the veil which hides the remaining features of her visage. Among the women of the Nail tribe, at least among those whom we had the opportunity to meet, sitting on the street curbs, lounging in the doorways, or going through their Terpsichorean antics in the coffeehouses, there was hardly a respectable feature to be seen, the worn and haggard countenances and deeply furrowed lines plainly reading the histories of their debauched lives; add to this in most cases an ungainly or warped figure, clothed in a most bizarre attire of brilliant coloring, and elaborately assisted by a veritable storehouse of jewels and gold and silver ornaments, and we have the general make-up of these nymphs of the desert. The quantity of precious plate and chains that is worn by the women is truly astonishing, the decoration of the person, manifestly, being limited only by the quantity of material that may be had to put on. We visited one of the coffeehouses where a portion of the evening was, on demand, given over to dancing, but we found the movements and the whole proceedings so slow and tiresome that we left almost immediately after we had disposed of our coffee. The coffee-house is itself—as, indeed, we found most of the native coffeehouses of the country—a model of good order, wholly relieved of riotous manner, and the very embodiment of ease and cleanliness. We enjoyed the privilege of seats, but the greater number of those present were squatted directly upon the stone or brick flooring, or upon a mat or rug that was pulled over it. Rich and poor frequent these houses alike, and in them are usually treated to music of a not absolutely inferior quality. To say that good coffee is to be had at the native coffeehouses is stating a truism, and a condition which probably few will venture to deny. Coffee is the soul of the land, and its history a part of the history of the people themselves.