The Land of Midian/Chapter 16
Again there were preliminaries to be settled before we could leave El–Wijh for the interior. Shaykh Mohammed ‘Afnán had been marrying his son; and the tale of camels came in slowly enough. On the day after our return from El–Haurá the venerable old man paid us a visit aboard Sinnár. He declares that he was a boy when the Wahhábi occupied Meccah and El–Medínah—that is, in 1803–4. Yet he has wives and young children. His principal want is a pair of new eyes; and the train of thought is, “I can’t see when older men than myself can.” The same idea makes the African ever attribute his sickness and death to sorcery: “Why should I lose life when all around me are alive?”—and this is the idea that lies at the bottom of all witch-persecution. Two pair of spectacles were duly despatched to him after our return to Cairo; and M. Lacaze there exhibited a capital sketch of the picturesque, white-bearded face, with the straight features and the nutcracker chin, deep buried in the folds of a huge red shawl.
The son, Sulaymán, has been espoused to a cousin older, they say, than himself; and he seems in no hurry to conclude the marriage. He would willingly accompany us to Egypt, but he is the father’s favourite, and the old man can do nothing without him. A youth of about eighteen, and even more handsome than his sire, he has the pretty look, the sloping shoulders, the soft snaky movements, and the quiet, subdued voice of a nice girl. During the first marches he dressed in the finery of the Bedawin—the brilliant head-kerchief, the parti-coloured sandals, and the loose cloak of expensive broadcloth. The “toggery” looked out of place as the toilettes of the Syrian ladies who called upon us in laces and blue satins amid the ruins of Ba’lbek. Although all the hired camels belonged, as is customary, to the tribe, not to the Shaykh, the latter was accompanied by the usual “Hieland tail;” by his two nephews, Hammád and Náji, the latter our head-guide, addicted to reading, writing, and lying; by his favourite and factotum, Abdullah, an African mulatto, Muwallid or “house-born;” and by his Wakíl (“agent”), a big black slave, Abdullah Mohammed, ready of tongue and readier of fist. Lastly, I must mention one ‘Audah ‘Adayni, a Huwayti bred in the Baliyy country, a traveller to Cairo, passing intelligent and surpassing unscrupulous. Confidential for a consideration, he told all the secrets of his employers, and it is my firm conviction that he was liberally paid for so doing by both parties of wiseacres.
The immediate objective of this, our last march, was the Badá plain, of which we first heard at Shaghab. I purposed subsequently to collect specimens of a traditional coal-mine, to which his Highness the Viceroy had attached the highest importance. Then we would march upon the Móchoura of the ancients, the mediaeval El–Marwah or Zú Marwah, the modern Marwát-cum-Abá‘l-Marú. Finally, we would return to El–Wijh, viâ the Wady Hamz, inspecting both it and the ruins first sighted by MM. Marie and Philipin.
On Friday, March 29th, I gave a breakfast, in the wooden barracks, to the officers of the Sinnár and the officials of the port. After which, some took their opium and went to sleep; while others, it being church-day, went to Mosque. We ran out of El–Wijh at 1.45 p.m., our convoy consisting of fifty-eight camels, forty-four of which were loaded; seven were dromedaries, and an equal number carried water. All had assured us that the rains of the two past years had been wanting: last winter they were scanty; this cold season they were nil. In truth, the land was suffering terribly from drought. Our afternoon was hot and unpleasant: about later March the Hawá el’-Uwwah, a violent sand-raising norther, sets in and lasts through a fortnight. It is succeeded, in early April, by the calms of El–Ni’ám (“the Blessings”), which, divided into the Greater and the Less, last forty days. After that the summer—Jehannum!
From the raised and metalled bank, upon which the Burj stands, we descended to the broad mouth of the Wijh valley, draining the low rolling blue-brown line of porphyritic hillocks on the east. To our right lay the sparkling, glittering white plain and pool, El–Melláhah, “the salina.” After an hour and a quarter of sandy and dusty ride, we passed through a “gate” formed by the Hamírat-Wijh, the red range which, backing the gape of the valley and apparently close behind the town, strikes the eye from the offing. Here the gypsum, ruddy and mauve, white and black, was underlaid by granite in rounded masses; and the Secondary formation is succeeded by the usual red and green traps. Though this part of our route lies in El–Tihámah, which, in fact, we shall not leave, we are again threading the Wady Sadr of the northern Shafah-range. A pleasant surprise was a fine vein of sugary quartz trending north-south: at that period we little suspected the sub-range to the south—perhaps also the northern—of being, in places, one mighty mass of “white stone.”
After covering six miles in an hour and three-quarters, exaggerated by the guides to three, we suddenly sighted the inland fort. Its approach is that of a large encamping-ground, and such, indeed, it is; the Egyptian pilgrim-caravan here halts on the fourth day from El–Muwaylah. The broken, untidy environs, strewed with bones and rubbish, show low mounds that mean ovens; stone rings, where tents are pitched; and the usual graves, amongst which a reverend man, Shaykh Sálih, rests in a manner of round tower. The site is, in one point at least, admirably well-chosen, a kind of carrefour where four valleys and as many roads meet; and thus it commands the mouths of all the gorges leading inland.
Riding up to the fort, we were welcomed by its commandant, Lieutenant Násir Ahmed, a peculiarly good specimen of his arm, the infantry. His garrison consists of thirteen regulars, whose clean uniforms show discipline, and whose hale and hearty complexions testify to the excellence of the water and the air. The men are paid annually by the treasurer of the Hajj-caravan. They are supposed to be relieved after seven years; but they have wives and families; and, like the British soldier in India half a century ago, they are content to pass their working lives in local service. The commandant showed us over his castle, which was in excellent order; and brewed coffee, which we drank in the cool porch of the single gate. He then led us about the neighbourhood, and ended with inviting the Sáyyid, Furayj, and the Wakíl Mohammed Shahádah to a copious feast.
The fort is the usual square, straight-curtained work of solid masonry, with a circular bastion at each angle, and a huge arched main-entrance in the western façade. It is, in fact, one of the buildings that belong to the solid, sturdy age of Sultán Selim, and of the Sinnán Pasha so well known about Damascus. An inscription, with an illegible date, bears the name of Ahmed ibn Taylún, the founder of the Taylunide dynasty, in A.D. 868—884: this is another proof that the Mamlúk Soldans were lords of the soil; and that, even in the ninth century, South Midian was a province, or a dependency, of Egypt. Moreover, we picked up, to the north-east of the work, old and well-treated scoriæ, suggesting a more ancient settlement. Perhaps it was the locale preferred by the proprietors of the slaves who worked the inner mines, hidden from view and from the sea-breeze by the hills.
The castle being perfectly commanded by the heights behind, the circular towers to the east have crests raised in that direction, giving them a spoon-shape, and a peculiar aptitude for arresting every cannon-ball coming from the west. The Bedawin, however, have no great guns; and apparently this shelter has been added since Wellsted’s day.212 To the curtains are attached the usual hovels, mat, palm-leaf, and walls of dry stone or mud, which here, as at Palmyra, inevitably suggest wasp-nests. The northern side is subtended by three large cisterns, all strengthened at the inner angles by the stepped buttresses first noticed when we were exploring Magháir Shu’ayb.
Up the valley and behind the fort, or to the north-east, lie the palm-plantations, the small kitchen-gardens, and the far-famed wells which, dug by Sultán Selim and repaired by Ibrahim Pasha in A.D. 1524 (?), supply the Hajj-caravan. The sandy bed, disposed east-west, is streaked, dotted, and barred with walls and outcrops of the hardest greenstone porphyry; and those which run north-south must arrest, like dykes, the flow of water underground. One of these reefs is laboriously scraped with Bedawi Wusúm, and with Moslem inscriptions comparatively modern. The material is heavy, but shows no quartz; whereas the smaller valleys which debouch upon the northern or right bank of the main line, display a curious conformation of the “white stone,” contorted like oyster shells, and embedded in the trap.
Of the six wells, revetted with masonry and resembling in all points those of Ziba, four, including El–Tawílah, the deepest, supply brackish water; and the same is the case with a fifth inside the fort, close to the chapel of his Holiness, Shaykh Abubakr. The water, however, appeared potable; and perhaps cleaning out and deepening might increase the quantity. The sweet element drunk by the richards of El–Wijh comes from the Bir el-Za’faráníyyah (“of Saffron”), and from its north-eastern neighbour, El-‘Ajwah (“the Date-paste”). The latter measures four or five fathoms; and the water appears under a boulder in situ that projects from the southern side. The reader will now agree with me that El–Wijh is not too drouthy for a quarantine-ground.
The plots of green meat lie about the water, sheltered from the burning sun by a luxuriant growth of date-trees. The Egyptian is the best man in the world for dabbling in mud; and here, by scraping away the surface-sand, he has come upon a clayey soil sufficiently fertile to satisfy his wants. The growth is confined to tobacco, potatoes, and cabbages, purslain (Portulaca, pourpier), radishes, the edible Hibiscus, and tomatoes, which are small and green. Lettuces do not thrive; cucumbers and water-melons have been tried here and up country; and—man wants little in Midian.
We set out early on the next day (5.30 a.m., March 30th) in disorderly style. The night had been cool and comfortable, dry and dewless; but the Shaykhs were torpid after the feast, and the escort and quarrymen had been demoralized by a week of sweet “do-nothing.” Striking up the Wady el-Wijh, which now becomes narrow and gorge-like, with old and new wells and water-pits dotting the sole, we were stopped, after half an hour’s walk, by a “written rock” on the right side of the bed. None of the guides seemed to know or, at any rate, to care for it; although I afterwards learnt that Admiral M’Killop (Pasha), during his last visit to El–Wijh, obtained a squeeze of the inscriptions. Wellsted (II. x.) erroneously calls this valley “Wádí el-Moyah,” the name of a feature further south—thus leading me to expect the find elsewhere. Moreover, he has copied the scrawls with a carelessness so prodigious, that we failed at first to recognize the original. He has hit upon the notable expedient of massing together in a single dwarf wood-cut (Vol. II. p. 189) what covers many square feet of stone; and I was fool enough to republish his copy.213
A tall, fissured rock, of the hardest porphyritic greenstone, high raised from the valley-sole, facing north-west, and reducible to two main blocks, is scattered over with these “inscriptions,” that spread in all directions. Most of them are Arab Wusum, others are rude drawings of men and beasts, amongst which are conspicuous the artless camel and the serpent; and there is a duello between two funny warriors armed with sword and shield. These efforts of art resemble, not a little, the “Totem” attempts of the “Red Indians” in North and South America. There are, however, two scrapings evidently alphabetic, and probably Nabathæan, which are offered to the specialists in epigraphy: six appear in Wellsted’s illustration, especially that with a long line above it, near the left and lower corner of the cut. M. Lacaze and I copied the most striking features in our carnets; he taking the right or southern side and leaving the other block to me. But the results did not satisfy us; and on April 10th I sent him with M. Philipin to make photographs. The latter, again, are hardly as satisfactory as they might be, because the inscriptions have not been considered the central points of interest. We shall pass during our present journey many of these Oriental “John Joneses” and “Bill Browns:” they will suggest the similar features of Sinaitic Wady Mukattib, which begot those monstrous growths, “The One Primaeval Language” and “The Voice of Israel from Mount Sinai.”214 From the “written rock” the caravan travelled westward up an easy watercourse, “El–Khaur,” distinguished as El–Shimálí (“the Northern”): it winds round by the north, and we shall descend it tomorrow. The mule-riders left the Wady el-Wijh, which extends some two hours eastward, and struck to the east-south-east. The bridle-path, running up the left bank of an ugly rocky torrent, the Wady Zurayb, presently reaches a plateau undulating in low rises. Burnt with heat, almost bare of trees, and utterly waterless, it is the model of a mining country: elevate it from five hundred to nine thousand feet, and it would be the living (or dead) likeness of a Peruvian cerro. The staple material, porphyritic trap, shows scatters of quartz and huge veins, mostly trending north-south: large trenches made, according to the guides, by the ancients, and small cairns or stone piles, modern work, were also pointed out to us.
Crossing the heads of sundry watercourses, we fell into the Wady Umm el-Karáyat:215 it begins, as is here the rule, with a gravelly bed, nice riding enough; it then breaks into ugly rocky drops and slides, especially at the hill shoulders, where thorn-trees and other obstacles often suggest that it is better to dismount; and, finally, when nearing the mouth, it becomes a matured copy of its upper self on an enlarged scale. Presently we turned to the left over a short divide, and stared with astonishment at the airy white heap, some two hundred feet high, which, capped and strewed with snowy boulders, seemed to float above our heads. The Wady-bed at our feet, lined along the left bank with immense blocks of similar quartz, showed the bases of black walls—ruins. “Behold Umm el-Karáyát!” exclaimed Nájí, the guide, pointing with a wave of the arm, his usual theatrical gesture, to the scene before us. We could hardly believe our eyes: he had just assured us that the march from the fort is four hours, and we had ridden it in two hours and fifteen minutes (= six miles and a quarter).
Dismounting at once, and ordering the camp to be pitched near the ruins, we climbed up the south-eastern face of the quartz-hill, whose appearance was a novelty to us. Instead of being a regular, round-headed cone, like the Jebel el-Abyaz for instance, the summit was distinctly crateriform. The greater part of the day was spent in examining it, and the following are the results. This Jebel el-Marú showed, for the first time during the whole journey, signs of systematic and civilized work. In many parts the hill has become a mere shell. We found on the near side a line of air-holes, cut in the quartz rock, disposed north-south of one another; and preserving a rim, sunk like that of a sarcophagus, to receive a cover. Possibly it was a precaution against the plunder which ruined Brazilian Gongo Soco. The Arabs have no fear of these places, as in Wellsted’s day, and Abdullah, the mulatto, readily descended into one about twelve feet below the surface. Messrs. Clarke and Marie explored the deepest by means of ropes, and declared that it measured sixty feet. They had to be ready with their bayonets, as sign of hyenas was common; and the beast, which slinks away in the open is apt, when brought to bay in caverns, to rush past the intruder, carrying off a jawful of calf or thigh.
This pit had two main galleries, both choked with rubbish, leading to the east and west; and the explorers could see light glimmering through the cracks and crevices of the roof—these doubtless gave passage to the wild carnivore. In other parts the surface, especially where the earth is red, was pitted with shallow basins; and a large depression showed the sinking of the hollowed crust. Negro quartz was evidently abundant; but we came to the conclusion that the rock mostly worked was, like that of Shuwák, a rosy, mauve-coloured schist, with a deep-red fracture, and brilliant colours before they are tarnished by atmospheric oxygen. It abounds in mica, which, silvery as fish-scales, overspreads it in patches; and the precious metal had probably been sought in the veinlets between the schist and its quartz-walling. In two pieces, specks, or rather paillettes, of gold were found lightly and loosely adhering to the “Marú ;” so lightly, indeed, that they fell off when carelessly pocketed Veins of schist still remained, but in the galleries they had been followed out to the uttermost fibril.
Reaching the crateriform summit, we found that the head of the cone had either “caved in,” or had been carried off bodily to be worked. Here traces of fire, seen on the rock, suggested that it had been split by cold affusion. A view from the summit of this burrowed mound gave us at once the measure of the past work and a most encouraging prospect for the future. We determined that the Marwah or “quartz-hill” of Umm el-Karáyát was the focus and centre of the southern mining region, even as the northern culminates in the Jebel el-Abyaz. Further experience rejected the theory, and showed us half a dozen foci and centres in this true quartz-region. The main hill projects a small southern spur, also bearing traces of the miner. The block of green trap to the south-west has a capping and a vein-network of quartz: here also the surface is artificially pitted. Moreover, there are detached white-yellow pitons to the north-east, the east, and the south; whilst a promising hillock, bearing nearly due north, adjoins the great outcrop. All have rounded conical summits and smooth sides, proving that they are yet virgin; and here, perhaps, I should prefer to begin work.
At our feet, and in north lat. 26° 13’, lies the settlement, in a short gravelly reach disposed north-west to south-east; and the bed is enclosed by a rim of trap and quartz hills. The ruins lie upon a fork where two gorges, running to the east and the north-east, both fall into the broad Wady el-Khaur, and the latter feeds the great Wady el-Miyáh, the “Fiumara of the Waters,” of which more presently. The remains on the upper (eastern) branch-valley show where the rock was pulverized by the number of grinding implements, large and small, coarse and fine, all, save the most solid, broken to pieces by the mischievous Bedawi. Some are of the normal basalt, which may also have served for crushing grain; others are cut out of grey and ruddy granites: a few are the common Mahrákah or “rub-stones,” and the many are handmills, of which we shall see admirable specimens further on. One was an upper stone, with holes for the handle and for feeding the mill: these articles are rare. I also secured the split half of a ball, or rather an oblate spheroid, of serpentine with depressions, probably where held by finger and thumb; the same form is still used for grinding in the Istrian island of Veglia. This is one of the few rude stone implements that rewarded our careful search.
The north-eastern, which is the main Wady, has a sole uneven with low swells and falls. It was dry as summer dust: I had expected much in the way of botanical collection, but the plants were not in flower, and the trees, stripped of their leaves, looked “black as negroes out of holiday suits.” Here lie the principal ruins, forming a rude parallelogram from north-east to south-west. The ground plan shows the usual formless heaps of stones and pebbles, with the bases of squares and oblongs, regular and irregular, large and small. There were no signs of wells or aqueducts; and the few furnaces were betrayed only by ashen heaps, thin scatters of scoriæ, and bits of flux—dark carbonate of lime. Here and there mounds of the rosy micaceous schist, still unworked, looked as if it had been washed out by the showers of ages. The general appearance is that of an ergastulum like Umm Ámil: here perhaps the ore was crushed and smelted, when not rich enough to be sent down the Wady for water-working at the place where the inland fort now is.
The quarrymen, placed at the most likely spots, were ordered to spall rock for specimens: with their usual perversity, they picked up, when unwatched, broken bits of useless stuff; they spent the whole day dawdling over three camel-loads, and they protested against being obliged to carry the sacks to their tents. Meanwhile Nájí, who had told marvellous tales concerning a well in the neighbouring hills, which showed the foundations of houses in its bowels, was directed to guide Lieutenant Amir. He objected that the enormous distance would be trying to the stoutest mule, and yet he did not blush when it was reached after a mile’s ride to the southwest (240° mag.). It proved to be a long-mouthed pit, sunk in the trap hill-slope some four fathoms deep, but much filled up; and, so far from being built in, it had not even the usual wooden platform. Eastward of it, and at the head of the Wady Shuwaytanah, “the Devilling,” lay a square ruin like a small Mashghal of white quartz: here also were three stones scribbled with pious ejaculations, such as Yá Allah! and Bismillah, in a modern Kufic character.
Umm el-Karáyát, “the Mother of the Villages,” derives her title, according to the Baliyy, from the numerous offspring of minor settlements scattered around her. We shall pass several on the next day’s march, and I am justified in setting down the number at a dozen. The Wady el-Kibli, the southern valley, was visited by Lieutenants Amir and Yusuf on April 8th, when we were encamped below it at Abá‘l-Marú216. After riding about six miles to the north-north-west, down the Wady el-Mismáh and up the Wady el-‘Argah, they reached, on the left bank of the latter, the ruins known as Marú el-Khaur. The remains of the daughter are those of the “mother.” There are two large heaps of quartz to the north and to the south-east of the irregular triangle, whose blunted apex faces northwards: the south-eastern hill shows an irregular Fahr (“pit”) in the reef of white stone, leading to a number of little tunnels.
I lost all patience with Wellsted,217 whose blunders concerning the Umm el-Karáyát are really surprising, even for a sailor on camel-back. He reaches the ruins after ten miles from the fort, when they lie between twelve and thirteen from El–Wijh. He calls the porphyritic trap “dark granite.” He makes the grand quartz formation “limestone, of which the materials used for constructing the town (coralline!) appear to have been chiefly derived.” He descends the “caves” with ropes and lights; yet he does not perceive that they are mining shafts and tunnels, puits d’air, adits for the workmen, and pits by which the ore was “brought to grass.” And the Hydrographic Chart is as bad. It locates the inland fort six miles and three-quarters from the anchorage, but the mine is thrust eastwards ten miles and a quarter from the fort; the latter distance being, as has been seen, little more than the former. Moreover, the ruins are placed to the north, when they lie nearly on the same parallel of latitude as El–Wijh. Ahmed Kaptán fixed them, by solar observations, in north lat. 26° 13’, so that we made only one mile of southing. It ignores the porphyritic sub-range in which the “Mother of the Villages” lies: and it brings close to the east of it the tall peaks of the Tihámat-Balawíyyah’ which, from this point, rise like azure shadows on the horizon. Finally, it corrupts Umm el-Karáyát to Feyrabat. “Impossible, but true!”
The night at the ruins was dry and cool, even cold; disturbed only by the coughing of the men, the moaning of the camels, and the bleating of the sheep. We would willingly have spent here another day, but water and forage were absolutely wanting; and the guides assured us that even greater marvels, in the shape of ruins and quartz-reefs, lay ahead. We set out shortly after five a.m. (March 31st): the morning was pearly and rosy; but puffs of a warmer wind announced the Dufún (local Khamsin), which promised us three days of ugly working weather. Leaving Umm el-Karáyát by the upper or eastern valley-fork, we soon fell into and descended its absorbent, the broad (northern) Wady el-Khaur. Upon the right bank of the latter rose the lesser “Mountain of Quartz,” a cone white as snow, looking shadowy and ghostly in the petit jour, the dim light of morning. For the next two hours (= seven miles) we saw on both sides nothing but veins and outcrops of “Marú,” worked as well as unworked. All was bare and barren as the gypsum: the hardy ‘Aushaz (Lycium), allied to the tea-tree, is the only growth that takes root in humus-filled hollows of the stone.
Presently the quartz made way for long lines and broad patches of a yellow-white, heat-altered clay, often revetted with iron, and passably aping the nobler rock: from one reef I picked up what appeared to be trachyte, white like that of Shaghab. The hill-casing of the valley forms no regular line; the heaps of black, red, and rusty trap are here detached and pyramidal, there cliffing as if in presence of the sea. The vegetation improved as we advanced; the trees were no longer black and heat-blasted; and we recognized once more the dandelion, the thistle, the senna, the Aristida grass, and other familiar growths. Tents, shepherds, and large flocks of goats and kids showed that water was not distant; and, here in Baliyy-land, even the few young women seemed to have no fear of the white face.
After a slow, dull ride in the burning and sickly wind, we crossed the head of our former route, Wady Zurayb the Ugly, and presently entered the Wady el-Kubbah (“of the Cupola,”), where our immediate destination rose before us. It is a grisly black saddleback, banded with two perpendicular stripes of dark stone that shines like specular iron; and upon its tall northern end, the pommel, stands a small ruin, the oft spoken of “Dome.” Sketches of paths wind up the western flank; but upon this line, we were assured, no ruins are seen save a few pits. So we rounded the block by the north, following the broad Wady to the Máyat el-Kubbah, water-pits in the sand whose produce had not been libelled when described as salt, scanty, and stinking. The track then turned up a short, broad branch-Wady, running from south to north, and falling into the left bank of the “Dome Valley:” a few yards brought us to a halt at the ruins of El–Kubbah. We had pushed on sharply during the last half of the way, and our morning’s ride had lasted four hours (= thirteen miles).
The remains lie in the uneven quartzose basin at the head of the little lateral watercourse: they are built with good cement, and they evidently belong to the race that worked the “Mother of the Villages;” but there is nothing to distinguish them except the ruins of a large Sákiyah (“draw-well”), with its basin of weathered alabaster. We were perplexed by the shallow conical pits in the porphyritic trap, to the east and west of the “Dome Hill;” the ground is too porous for rain cisterns, and the depth is not sufficient for quarrying. The furnaces showed the normal slag; but the only “metals” lying around them were poor iron-clay, and a shining black porphyry, onyxed with the whitest quartz. There were, however, extensive scatters of Negro, which had evidently been brought there; and presently we found large heaps of rosy-coloured, washed-out schist.218 These explained the raison d’être of this dreary and dismal hole.
Meanwhile the juniors ascended the rocky “Kubbah” hill, which proved to be a small matter of 120 feet (aner. 29.34) above the valley-sole (aner. 29.46). The “Dome” was nothing but a truncated circle of wall, porphyry and cement, just large enough to hold a man; the cupola-roof, if there ever had been one, was clean gone; and adjoining it yawned a rock-cut pit some fifteen feet deep. I came to the conclusion that here might have been a look-out where, possibly, the “bale-fire” was also lit. The “ascensionists” brought back a very healthy thirst.
We rested till noon in the filmy shade of the thorn-trees. The caravan was at once sent forward to reach the only good water, lying, said the guides, many a mile beyond. We had made up our minds for a good long march; and I was not a little vexed when, after half an hour, we were led out of the Wady el-Kubbah, whose head, our proper line, lies to the north, into its eastern influent, the Wady el-Dasnah. Here, after an afternoon “spell” of forty-five minutes (= two miles and a half), and a total of four hours and forty-five minutes (= fifteen miles and a half), a day nearly half wasted, we found the tents pitched. The heat had strewed the Wady with soldiers and quarrymen; and the large pit in the bed, supplying “water sweet as the Nile,’, showed a swarm of struggling blacks, which the Egyptian officers compared with Aráfít or “demons;” we with large pismires. A sentinel was placed to prevent waste and pollution at the Máyat el-Dasnah, whose position is in north lat. 26° 23’.
April Fools’ day was another that deserved to be marked with a white stone. I aroused the camp at 3.30 a.m., in order that the camels might load with abundance of water: we were to reach the springs of Umm Gezáz, but a presentiment told me that we might want drink. At that hour the camp was a melancholy sight: the Europeans surly because they had discussed a bottle of cognac when they should have slept; the good Sayyid without his coffee, and perhaps without his prayers; Wakíl Mohammed sorrowfully attempting to gnaw tooth-breaking biscuit; and the Bedawin working and walking like somnambules. However, at 5.10 a.m. we struck north, over a low divide of trap hill, by a broad and evidently made road, and regained the Wady el-Kubbah: here it is a pleasant spectacle rich in trees, and vocal with the cooing of the turtle-dove. After an hour’s sharp riding we reached its head, a fair round plain some two miles across, and rimmed with hills of red, green, and black plutonics, the latter much resembling coal. It was a replica of the Sadr-basin below the Hismá, even to the Khuraytah or “Pass” at the northern end. Here, however, the Col is a mere bogus; that is, no raised plateau lies beyond it.
We crossed a shallow prism and a feeding-basin: an ugly little gorge then led to the important Wady Sirr. We are now in the hydrographic area of the Wady Nejd,219 which, numbering influents by the dozen, falls into the Salbah (Thalbah) of Sharm Dumaghah. The Sirr, though still far from its mouth, is at least three miles broad; and the guides speak of it as the Asl el-Balawíyyah, or “Old Home of the Baliyy.” The view from its bed is varied and extensive. Behind us lies the Tihámat-Balawíyyah, the equivalent of the Gháts of North Midian, from the Zahd to the Shárr. The items are the little Jebel ‘Antar, which, peeping over the Fiumara’s high left bank, is continued south by the lower Libn. The latter attaches to the higher Libn, whose triad of peaks, the central and highest built of three distinct castellations, flush and blush with a delicate pink-white cheek as it receives the hot caresses of the sun. We are now haunted by the Libn, which, like its big brother the Shárr, seems everywhere to accompany us.
Beyond the neutral ground, over which we are travelling, appear in front the pale-blue heights bordering the Wady Nejd to the north-west, and apparently connected with the Jebelayn el-Jayy in the far north (30° mag.). To the north-east the view is closed by the lumpy Jebel el-Kurr (the Qorh of Arabian geographers?); followed southwards by the peaked wall of the Jebel el-Ward, and by El–Safhah with its “Pins.” For the last eighteen miles we had seen no quartz, which, however, might have veined the underground-rock. The sole of the Sirr now appeared spread with snow, streaked and patched with thin white paint; the stones were mostly water-rolled, the discharge of valleys draining from afar. The ground was unpleasantly pitted and holed; the camels were weak with semi-starvation and the depressing south-wester; Lieutenant Amir put his dromedary to speed, resulting in a nose-flattening fall; and the Sayyid nearly followed suit.
This is our second day of Khamsin; yet on the northern slope of the great Fiumara we meet the cool land-wind. Either it or the sea-breeze generally sets in between seven and eight a.m., when the stony, sandy world has been thoroughly sunned. The short divide beyond the far bank of the Sirr is strewn with glittering mica-schist that takes the forms of tree-trunks and rotten wood; and with dark purple-blue fragments of clay-slate looking as if they had been worked. A counterslope of the same material, which makes excellent path-metal placed us in the Wady Rubayyigh (“the Little Rábigh” or “Green-grown Spring”), a short and proportionally very broad branch draining to the Sirr. Here large outcrops of quartz mingled with the clay slate. A few yards further it abutted upon a small gravelly basin with ruins and a huge white reef of “Mará,” which caused a precipitate dismounting. We had marched only four hours (= thirteen miles); but the loss of time has its compensations. Our Arabs, who consider this a fair day’s work, will now, in hopes of a halt, show us every strew of quartz and every fragment of wall. They congratulated us upon reaching a part of their country absolutely unvisited by Europeans.
The site of our discovery was the water-parting of the Wady Rubayyigh with the Wady Rábigh, both feeders of the Sirr; this to the north, that to the south. The ruins, known as Umm el-Haráb, “Mother of Desolation,” are the usual basement-lines: they lie in the utterly waterless basin, our camping-ground, stretching west of Mará Rubayyigh, the big white reef. This “Mother” bears nearly north of Umm el-Karáyát, in north lat. 26° 33’ 36” (Ahmed Kaptán): her altitude was made upwards of a thousand feet above sea-level (aner. 28.92)
At Umm el-Haráb we saw for the first time an open mine, scientifically worked by the men of old. They chose a pear-shaped quartz-reef; the upper dome exposed, the converging slopes set and hidden in green trap to the east and west, and the invisible stalk extending downwards, probably deep into Earth’s bowels. They began by sinking, as we see from certain rounded apertures, a line of shafts striking north-north-east (45°—50° mag.) to south-south-west across the summit, which may measure one hundred and twenty yards. The intervening sections of the roof are now broken away; and a great yawning crevasse in the hill-top gives this saddleback of bare cream-coloured rock, spangled with white where recently fractured, the semblance of a “comb” or cresting reef.
We descended into this chasm, whose slope varies from a maximum of 45° to a minimum of 36° at the south. The depth apparently did not exceed thirty feet, making allowance for the filling up of centuries; but in places the hollow sound of the hammer suggested profounder pits and wells. I should greatly doubt that such shallow sinking as this could have worked out any beyond the upper part of the vein. Here it measures from six to eight feet in diameter, diminishing to four and a half and even three below. The sloping roof has been defended from collapse by large pillars of the rock, left standing as in the old Egyptian quarries; it shows the clumsy but efficient practice that preceded timbering. The material worked was evidently the pink-coloured and silver-scaled micaceous schist; but there was also a whitish quartz, rich in geodes and veinlets of dark-brown and black dust. The only inhabitants of the cave, bats and lizards (Gongylus ocellatus, L., etc.), did not prevent M. Lacaze making careful study of the excavation; the necessity of brown shadows, however, robs the scene of its charm, the delicate white which still shimmers under its transparent veil of shade. Similar features exist at El–Muwaylah and El–Aujah, in the wilderness of Kadesh: but those are latomiæ; these are gold mines.220
Another sign of superior labour is shown by the quartz-crushing implements. Here they are of three kinds: coarse and rough basaltic lava for the first and rudest work; red granite and syenitic granite for the next stage; and, lastly, an admirable handmill of the compactest grey granite, smooth as glass and hard as iron. Around the pin-hole are raised and depressed concentric circles intended for ornament; and the “dishing” towards the rim is regular as if turned by machinery. We have seen as yet nothing like this work; nor shall we see anything superior to it. All are nether millstones, so carefully smashed that one can hardly help suspecting the kind of superstitious feeling which suggested iconoclasm. The venerable Shaykh ‘Afnán showed a touching ignorance concerning the labours of the ancients; and, when lectured about the Nabat (Nabathæans), only exclaimed, “Allah, Allah!”
In the evening we ascended the porphyry hills to the north of the little camping-basin; and we found the heights striped by two large vertical bands of quartz. The eastern vein, like the Jebel el-Marú, has a north-east to south-west strike (45° mag.); the western runs east-west with a dip to south. From the summit we could see that the quartz-mountain, as usual an exaggerated vein, is hemmed in on both sides by outcrops and hills of trap, black, green, and yellow, which culminate eastward in the Jebel el-Guráb (Juráb). We had a fine bird’s-eye view of the Wady Rábigh, and of our next day’s march towards the Shafah Mountains: the former was white with quartz as if hail-strewn. Far beyond its right bank rose an Ash’hab, or “grey head,” which seemed to promise quartzose granite: it will prove an important feature. Before sleeping, I despatched to El–Wijh two boxes of micaceous schist and two bags of quartz, loads for a pair of camels.