Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

Exploring the Soudan

There is no more wonderful or interesting story than that which tells how bit by bit the great dark continent of Africa has been explored, and made to yield up its secrets. But did you ever think what a long story it is, and how very early it begins? It is in Egypt that we find the first chapters of the story; and they can still be read, written in the quaint old picture writing which the Egyptians used, on the rock tombs of a place in the south of Egypt, called Elephantine.

In early days the land of Egypt used to end at what was called the First Cataract of the Nile, a place where the river came down in a series of rapids among a lot of rocky islets. The First Cataract has disappeared now, for British engineers have made a great dam across the Nile just at this point, and turned the whole country, for miles above the dam, into a lake. But in those days the Egyptians used to believe that the Nile, to which they owed so much, began at the First Cataract. Yet they knew of the wild country of Nubia beyond and, in very early times indeed, about 5,000 years ago, they used to send exploring expeditions into that half-desert land which we have come to know as the Soudan.

Near the First Cataract there lies the island of Elephantine, and when the Egyptian kingdom was young the great barons who owned this island were the Lords of the Egyptian Marches, just as the Percies and the Douglases were the Lords of the Marches in England and Scotland. It was their duty to keep in order the wild Nubian tribes south of the Cataract, to see that they allowed the trading caravans to pass safely, and sometimes to lead these caravans through the desert themselves. A caravan was a very different thing then from the long train of camels that we think of now when we hear the name. For, though there are some very old pictures which show that, before Egyptian history begins at all, the camel was known in Egypt, somehow that useful animal seems to have disappeared from the land for many hundreds of years. The Pharaohs and their adventurous barons never used the queer, ungainly creature that carries the desert postman in our picture, and the ivory, gold-dust, and ebony that came from the Soudan had to be carried on the backs of hundreds of asses.



The barons of Elephantine bore the proud title of "Keepers of the Door of the South," and, in addition, they display, seemingly just as proudly, the title "Caravan Conductors." In those days it was no easy task to lead a caravan through the Soudan, and bring it back safe with its precious load through all the wild and savage tribes who inhabited the land of Nubia. More than one of the barons of Elephantine set out with a caravan never to return, but to leave his bones, and those of his companions, to whiten among the desert sands; and one of them has told us how, hearing that his father had been killed on one of these adventurous journeys, he mustered his retainers, marched south with a train of a hundred asses, punished the tribe which had been guilty of the deed, and brought his father's body home, to be buried with all due honours.

Some of the records of these early journeys, the first attempts to explore the interior of Africa, may still be read, carved on the walls of the tombs where the brave explorers sleep. One baron, called Herkhuf, has told us of no fewer than four separate expeditions which he made into the Soudan. On his first journey, as he was still young, he went in company with his father, and was away for seven months. The next time he was allowed to go alone, and brought back his caravan safely after an absence of eight months.

On his third journey he went farther than before, and gathered so large a quantity of ivory and gold-dust that three hundred asses were required to bring his treasure home. So rich a caravan was a tempting prize for the wild tribes on the way; but Herkhuf persuaded one of the Soudanese chiefs to furnish him with a large escort, and the caravan was so strongly guarded that the other tribes did not venture to attack it, but were glad to help its leader with guides and gifts of cattle. Herkhuf brought his treasures safely back to Egypt, and the King was so pleased with his success that he sent a special messenger with a boat full of delicacies to refresh the weary traveller.

But the most successful of all his expeditions was the fourth. The King who had sent him on the other journeys had died, and was succeeded by a little boy called Pepy, who was only about six years old when he came to the throne, and who reigned for more than ninety years—the longest reign in the world's history. In the second year of Pepy's reign, the bold Herkhuf set out again for the Soudan, and this time, along with other treasures, he brought back something that his boy-King valued far more than gold or ivory.

You know how, when Stanley went in search of Emin Pasha, he discovered in the Central African forests a strange race of dwarfs, living by themselves, and very shy of strangers. Well, for all these thousands of years, the forefathers of these little dwarfs must have been living in the heart of the Dark Continent. In early days they evidently lived not so far away from Egypt as when Stanley found them, for, on at least one occasion, one of Pharaoh's servants had been able to capture one of the little men, and bring him down as a present to his master, greatly to the delight of the King and Court. Herkhuf was equally fortunate. He managed to secure a dwarf from one of these pigmy tribes, and brought him back with his caravan, that he might please the young King with his quaint antics and his curious dances.

When the King heard of the present which his brave servant was bringing back for him, he was wild with delight. The thought of this new toy was far more to the little eight-year-old, King though he was, than all the rest of the treasure which Herkhuf had gathered; and he caused a letter to be written to the explorer, telling him of his delight, and giving him all kinds of advice as to how careful he should be that the dwarf should come to no harm on the way to Court.

The letter, through all its curious old phrases, is very much the kind of letter that any boy might send on hearing of some new toy that was coming to him. "My Majesty," says the little eight-year-old Pharaoh, "wisheth to see this pigmy more than all the tribute of Punt. And if thou comest to Court having this pigmy with thee sound and whole, My Majesty will do for thee more than King Assa did for the Chancellor Baurded." (This was the man who had brought back the other dwarf in earlier days.) Little King Pepy then gives careful directions that Herkhuf is to provide proper people to see that the precious dwarf does not fall into the Nile on his way down the river; and these guards are to watch behind the place where he sleeps, and look into his bed ten times each night, that they may be sure that nothing has gone wrong.

The poor little dwarf must have had rather an uncomfortable time of it, one fancies, if his sleep was to be broken so often. Perhaps there was more danger of killing him with kindness and care, than if they had left him more to himself; but Pepy's anxiety was very like a boy. However, Herkhuf evidently succeeded in bringing his dwarf safe and sound to the King's Court, and no doubt the quaint little savage proved a splendid toy for the young King. One wonders what he thought of the great cities and the magnificent Court of Egypt, and whether his heart did not weary sometimes for the wild freedom of his lost home.

Herkhuf was so proud of the King's letter that he caused it to be engraved, word for word, on the walls of the tomb which he hewed out for himself at Elephantine, and there to this day the words can be read which tell us how old is the story of African exploration, and how a boy was always just a boy, even though he lived five thousand years ago, and reigned over a great kingdom.