Eothen: Traces of Travel in the East - A. W. Kinglake


[Illustration] from Eothen - Travel in the East by A. W. Kinglake

I was hospitably entertained by the British consul, or agent, as he is there styled. He is the employee of the East India Company, and not of the Home Government. Napoleon during his stay of five days at Suez had been the guest of the consul's father, and I was told that the divan in my apartment had been the bed of the great commander.

There are two opinions as to the point at which the Israelites passed the Red Sea. One is, that they traversed only the very small creek at the northern extremity of the inlet, and that they entered the bed of the water at the spot on which Suez now stands; the other, that they crossed the sea from a point eighteen miles down the coast. The Oxford theologians, who, with Milman their professor, believe that Jehovah conducted His chosen people without disturbing the order of nature, adopt the first view, and suppose that the Israelites passed during an ebb-tide, aided by a violent wind. One among many objections to this supposition is, that the time of a single ebb would not have been sufficient for the passage of that vast multitude of men and beasts, or even for a small fraction of it. Moreover, the creek to the north of this point can be compassed in an hour, and in two hours you can make the circuit of the salt marsh over which the sea may have extended in former times. If, therefore, the Israelites crossed so high up as Suez, the Egyptians, unless infatuated by Divine interference, might easily have recovered their stolen goods from the encumbered fugitives by making a slight detour. The opinion which fixes the point of passage at eighteen miles' distance, and from thence right across the ocean depths to the eastern side of the sea, is supported by the unanimous tradition of the people, whether Christians or Mussulmans, and is consistent with Holy Writ: "the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.  The Cambridge mathematicians seem to think that the Israelites were enabled to pass over dry land by adopting a route not usually subjected to the influx of the sea. This notion is plausible in a merely hydrostatical point of view, and is supposed to have been adopted by most of the Fellows of Trinity, but certainly not by Thorp, who is one of the most amiable of their number. It is difficult to reconcile this theory with the account given in Exodus, unless we can suppose that the words "sea" and "waters" are there used in a sense implying dry land.

Napoleon when at Suez made an attempt to follow the supposed steps of Moses by passing the creek at this point, but it seems, according to the testimony of the people at Suez, that he and his horsemen managed the matter in a way more resembling the failure of the Egyptians than the success of the Israelites. According to the French account, Napoleon got out of the difficulty by that warrior-like presence of mind which served him so well when the fate of nations depended on the decision of a moment—he ordered his horsemen to disperse in all directions, in order to multiply the chances of finding shallow water, and was thus enabled to discover a line by which he and his people were extricated. The story told by the people of Suez is very different: they declare that Napoleon parted from his horse, got thoroughly submerged, and was only fished out by the assistance of the people on shore.

I bathed twice at the point assigned to the passage of the Israelites, and the second time that I did so I chose the time of low water and tried to walk across, but I soon found myself out of my depth, or at least in water so deep, that I could only advance by swimming.

The dromedary, which had bolted in the Desert, was brought into Suez the day after my arrival, but my pelisse and my pistols, which had been attached to the saddle, had disappeared. These articles were treasures of great importance to me at that time, and I moved the Governor of the town to make all possible exertions for their recovery. He acceded to my wishes as well as he could, and very obligingly imprisoned the first seven poor fellows he could lay his hands on.

At first the Governor acted in the matter from no other motive than that of courtesy to an English traveller, but afterwards, and when he saw the value which I set upon the lost property, he pushed his measures with a degree of alacrity and heat, which seemed to show that he felt a personal interest in the matter. It was supposed either that he expected a large present in the event of succeeding, or that he was striving by all means to trace the property, in order that he might lay his hands on it after my departure.

I went out sailing for some hours, and when I returned I was horrified to find that two men had been bastinadoed by order of the Governor, with a view to force them to a confession of their theft. It appeared, however, that there really was good ground for supposing them guilty, since one of the holsters was actually found in their possession. It was said too (but I could hardly believe it), that whilst one of the men was undergoing the bastinado, his comrade was overheard encouraging him to bear the torment without peaching. Both men, if they had the secret, were resolute in keeping it, and were sent back to their dungeon. I of course took care that there should be no repetition of the torture, at least so long as I remained at Suez.

The Governor was a thorough Oriental, and until a comparatively recent period had shared in the old Mahometan feeling of contempt for Europeans. It happened however, one day that an English gun-brig had appeared off Suez, and sent her boats ashore to take in fresh water. Now fresh water at Suez is a somewhat scarce and precious commodity: it is kept in tanks, the chief of which is at some distance from the place. Under these circumstances the request for fresh water was refused, or at all events, was not complied with. The captain of the brig was a simple-minded man with a strongish will, and he at once declared that if his casks were not filled in three hours, he would destroy the whole place. "A great people indeed!" said the Governor; "a wonderful people, the English!" He instantly caused every cask to be filled to the brim from his own tank, and ever afterwards entertained for the English a degree of affection and respect, for which I felt infinitely indebted to the gallant captain.

The day after the abortive attempt to extract a confession from the prisoners, the Governor, the consul, and I sat in council, I know not how long, with a view of prosecuting the search for the stolen goods. The sitting, considered in the light of a criminal investigation, was characteristic of the East. The proceedings began as a matter of course by the prosecutor's smoking a pipe and drinking coffee with the Governor, who was judge, jury, and sheriff. I got on very well with him (this was not my first interview), and he gave me the pipe from his lips in testimony of his friendship. I recollect, however, that my prime adviser, thinking me, I suppose, a great deal too shy and retiring in my manner, entreated me to put up my boots and to soil the Governor's divan, in order to inspire respect and strike terror. I thought it would be as well for me to retain the right of respecting myself, and that it was not quite necessary for a well-received guest to strike any terror at all.

Our deliberations were assisted by the numerous attendants who lined the three sides of the room not occupied by the divan. Any one of these who took it into his head to offer a suggestion would stand forward and humble himself before the Governor, and then state his views; every man thus giving counsel was listened to with some attention.

After a great deal of fruitless planning the Governor directed that the prisoners should be brought in. I was shocked when they entered, for I was not prepared to see them come carried  into the room upon the shoulders of others. It had not occurred to me that their battered feet would be too sore to bear the contact of the floor. They persisted in asserting their innocence. The Governor wanted to recur to the torture, but that I prevented, and the men were carried back to their dungeon.

One of the attendants now suggested a scheme—a scheme which seemed to me most childishly absurd, but nevertheless it was tried. A man went down to the dungeon with instructions to make the prisoners believe that he had gained permission to see them upon some invented pretext; and when a spy had thus won a little of their confidence, he was to attempt a sham treaty with them for the purchase of the stolen goods. This shallow expedient of course failed.

The Governor himself had not nominally the power of life and death over the people in his district, but he could if he chose send them to Cairo, and have them hanged there. I proposed, therefore, that the prisoners should be threatened  with this fate. The answer of the Governor made me feel rather ashamed of my effeminate suggestion. He said that if I wished it he would willingly threaten them with death, but he also said that if he threatened, he would surely make his words good.

Thinking at last that nothing was to be gained by keeping the prisoners any longer in confinement, I requested that they might be set free. To this the Governor acceded, though only, as he said, out of favour to me, for he had a strong impression that the men were guilty. I went down to see the prisoners let out with my own eyes. They were very grateful, and fell down to the earth, kissing my boots. I gave them a present to console them for their wounds, and they seemed to be highly delighted.

Although the matter terminated in a manner so satisfactory to the principal sufferers, there were symptoms of some angry excitement in the place: it was said that public opinion was much shocked at the fact that Mahometans had been beaten on account of a loss sustained by a Christian. My journey was to recommence the next day, and it was hinted that if I preservered in my intention of proceeding, the people would have an easy and profitable opportunity of wreaking their vengeance on me. If ever they formed any scheme of the kind, they at all events refrained from any attempt to carry it into effect.

One of the evenings during my stay at Suez was enlivened by a triple wedding. There was a long and slow procession. Some carried torches, and others were thumping drums and firing pistols. The bridegrooms came last, all walking abreast. My only reason for mentioning the ceremony (which was otherwise uninteresting) is, that I scarcely ever in all my life saw any phenomena so ridiculous as the meekness and gravity of those three young men whilst being "led to the altar."