For months the Jebel Shárr, the grand block which backs El–Muwaylah, had haunted us, starting up unexpectedly in all directions, with its towering heads, that shifted shape and colour from every angle, and with each successive change of weather. We could hardly leave unexplored the classical “Hippos Mons,” the Moslem’s El–Ishárah (“the Landmark”), and the Bullock’s Horns of the prosaic British tar.174 The few vacant days before the arrival of the Sinnár offered an excellent opportunity for studying the Alpine ranges of maritime Midian. Their stony heights, they said, contain wells and water in abundance, with palms, remains of furnaces, and other attractions. Every gun was brought into requisition, by tales of leopard and ibex, the latter attaining the size of bullocks (!) and occasionally finding their way to the fort:— it was curious to hear our friends, who, as usual, were great upon “le shport,” gravely debating whether it would be safe to fire upon le léopard. I was anxious to collect specimens of botany and natural history from an altitude hitherto unreached by any traveller in Western Arabia; and, lastly, there was geography as well as mineralogy to be done.
The Hydrographic Chart gives the Mountain a maximum of nine thousand175 feet, evidently a clerical error often repeated — really those Admiralty gentleman are too incurious: Wellsted, who surveyed it, remarks (II. X.), “The height of the most elevated peak was found to be 6500 feet, and it obtained from us the appellation of ‘Mowilabh High Peak”’— when there are native names for every head. We had been convinced that the lesser is the true measure, by our view from the Hismá plateau, 3800 feet above sea-level. Again, the form, the size, and the inclination of the noble massif are wrongly laid down by the hydrographers. It is a compact block, everywhere rising abruptly from low and sandy watercourses, and completely detached from its neighbours by broad Wadys — the Surr to the north and east, while southwards run the Kuwayd and the Zahakán. The huge long-oval prism measures nineteen and a half by five miles (= ninety-seven and a half square miles of area); and its lay is 320° (mag.), thus deflected 40° westward of the magnetic north. The general appearance, seen in profile from the west, is a Pentedactylon, a central apex, with two others on each side, tossed, as it were, to the north and south, and turning, like chiens de faïence, their backs upon one another.
Moreover, the Chart assigns to its “Mount Mowilah” only two great culminations —“Sharp Peak, 6330 feet,” to the north; and south of it, “High Peak, 9000.” The surveyors doubtless found difficulty in obtaining the Bedawi names for the several features, which are unknown to the citizens of the coast; but they might easily have consulted the only authorities, the Jeráfín-Huwaytát, who graze their flocks and herds on and around the mountain. As usual in Arabia, the four several main “horns” are called after the Fiumaras that drain them. The northernmost is the Abú Gusayb (Kusayb) or Ras el-Gusayb (the “Little Reed”), a unity composed of a single block and of three knobs in a knot; the tallest of the latter, especially when viewed from the south, resembles an erect and reflexed thumb — hence our “Sharp Peak.” Follows Umm el-Furút (the “Mother of Plenty”), a mural crest, a quoin-shaped wall, cliffing to the south: the face, perpendicular where it looks seawards, bears a succession of scars, upright gashes, the work of wind and weather; and the body which supports it is a slope disposed at the natural angle. An innominatus, in the shape of a similar quoin, is separated by a deep Col, apparently a torrent-bed, from a huge Beco de Papagaio — the “Parrot’s Bill” so common in the Brazil. This is the Abú Shenázir or Shaykhánib (the “Father of Columns”); and, as if two names did not suffice, it has a third, Ras el-Huwayz (“of the Little Cistern”). It is our “High Peak,” the most remarkable feature of the sea-façade, even when it conceals the pair of towering pillars that show conspicuously to the north and south. From the beak-shaped apex the range begins to decline and fall; there is little to notice in the fourth horn, whose unimportant items, the Ras Lahyánah, the Jebel Maí‘h, and the Umm Gisr (Jisr), end the wall. Each has its huge white Wady, striping the country in alternation with dark-brown divides, and trending coastwards in the usual network.
The material of the four crests is the normal grey granite, enormous lumps and masses rounded by degradation; all chasms and naked columns, with here and there a sheet burnished by ancient cataracts, and a slide trickling with water, unseen in the shade and flashing in the sun like a sheet of crystal. The granite, however, is a mere mask or excrescence, being everywhere based upon and backed by the green and red plutonic traps which have enveloped it. And the prism has no easy inland slopes, as a first glance suggests; instead of being the sea-wall of a great plateau, it falls abruptly to the east as well as to the west. The country behind it shows a perspective of high and low hills, lines of dark rock divided from one another by Wadys of the usual exaggerated size. Of these minor heights only one, the Jebel el-Sahhárah looks down upon the sea, rising between the Dibbagh–Kh’shabríyyah block to the north, and the Shárr to the south. Beyond the broken eastern ground, the ruddy Hismá and the gloomy Harrah form the fitting horizon.
After this much for geography, we may view the monarch of Midianite mountains in the beauty and the majesty of his picturesque form. Seen from El–Muwaylah, he is equally magnificent in the flush of morning, in the still of noon, and in the evening glow. As the rays, which suggested the obelisk, are shooting over the southern crests, leaving the basement blue with a tint between the amethyst and the lapis lazuli, its northern third lies wrapped in a cloak of cold azure grey, and its central length already dons a half-light of warmer hue. Meanwhile, the side next the sun is flooded with an aerial aureole of subtle mist, a drift of liquid gold, a gush of living light, rippling from the unrisen orb, decreasing in warmth and brilliancy, paling and fading and waxing faint with infinite gradations proportioned to the increase of distance. Again, after the clear brooding sheen of day has set off the “stark strength and grandeur of rock-form contrasted with the brilliancy and sprightliness of sea,” the sinking sun paints the scene with the most gorgeous of blazonings. The colours of the pale rock-skeleton are so faint that there is nothing to interfere with the perfect development of atmospheric effects: it is a white sheet spread to catch the grand illumination, lambent lights of saffron and peach-blossom and shades of purple and hyacinth. As indescribably lovely is the after-glow, the zodiacal light which may have originated the pyramid; the lively pink reflection from the upper atmosphere; the vast variety of tints with which the greens and the reds, the purples and the fiery crimsons of the western sky tincture the receptive surface of the neutral-hued granites; and the chameleon-shiftings of the dying day, as it sinks into the arms of night. Nor less admirable are the feats of the fairy Refraction. The mighty curtain seems to rise and fall as if by magic: it imitates, as it were, the framework of man. In early morning the dancing of the air adds many a hundred cubits to its apparent stature: it is now a giant, when at midnight, after the equipoise of atmospheric currents, it becomes a dwarf replica of its former self.
I had neglected to order overnight the camels from El–Muwaylah, a penny-wise proceeding which delayed our departure. It was nearly nine a.m. (March 13th) before we left the Mukhbir, whose unhappies still sighed and yearned for the civilization and dissipation of Suez; landed at the head of the Sharm Yáhárr, and marched up the Wady Hárr. We were guided by two Jeráfín, Sulayman ibn Musallim and Farj ibn ‘Awayz; the former a model hill-man, a sturdy, thick-legged, huge-calved, gruff-voiced, full-bearded fellow, hot-tempered, good-humoured, and renowned as an ibex-hunter. His gun, marked “Lazari Coitinaz,” was a long-barrelled Spanish musket, degraded to a matchlock: it had often changed hands, probably by theft, and the present owner declared that he had bought it for seventy dollars — nearly £15! Yet its only luxury was the bottom of a breechloader brass cartridge, inlaid and flanked by the sharp incisors of the little Wabar, or mountain coney. These Bedawin make gunpowder for themselves; they find saltpetre in every cavern, and they buy from Egypt the sulphur which is found in their own hills.
After a few minutes we left the Hárr, which drains the tallest of the inland hillock-ranges, and the red block “Hamrá el-Maysarah;” and we struck south-east into the Wady Sanawíyyah. It is a vulgar valley with a novelty, the Tamrat Faraj. This cairn of brick-coloured boulders buttressing the right bank has, or is said to have, the Memnonic property of emitting sounds — Yarinn is the Bedawi word. The boomings and bellowings are said to be loudest at sunrise and sunset. The “hideous hum” of such subterraneous thunderings is alluded to by all travellers in the Dalmatian Island of Melada, and in the Narenta Valley. The marvel has been accounted for by the escape of imprisoned air unequally expanded, but “a veil of mystery hangs over the whole.”176 The valley-sides of dark trap were striped with white veins of heat-altered argil; the sole with black magnetic sand; and patches of the bed were buttercup-yellow with the Handán (dandelion), the Cytisus, and the Zaram (Panicum turgidum) loved by camels. Their jaundiced hue contrasted vividly with the red and mauve blossoms of the boragine El–Kahlá, the blue flowerets of the Lavandula (El–Zayti), and the delicate green of the useless177 asphodel (El–Borag), which now gave a faint and shadowy aspect of verdure to the slopes. Although the rise was inconsiderable, the importance of the vegetation palpably decreased as we advanced inland.
After four miles we reached the Wady-head, and wasted a couple of hours awaiting the camels that carried our supplies. The path then struck over a stony divide, with the Hamrá to the left or north, and on the other side the Hamrá el-Mu’arrash, made familiar to us by our last march. The latter ends in an isolated peak, the Jebel Gharghúr, which, on our return, was mistaken for the sulphur-hill of Jibbah. Presently we renewed acquaintance with the Wady el-Bayzá, whose lower course we had crossed south of Sharm Yáhárr: here it is a long and broad, white and tree-dotted expanse, glaring withal, and subtending all this section of the Shárr’s sea-facing base. We reached, after a total of eight miles, the Jibál el-Kawáim, or “the Perpendiculars,” one of the features which the Bedawin picturesquely call the Aulád el-Shárr (“Sons of the Sha’rr”). The three heads, projected westwards from the Umm Furút peak and then trending northwards, form a lateral valley, a bay known as Wady el-Káimah. It is a picturesque feature with its dark sands and red grit, while the profile of No. 3 head, the Káimat Abú Rákí, shows a snub-nosed face in a judicial wig, the trees forming an apology for a beard. I thought of “Buzfuz Bovill.”
We camped early, as the Safh el-Shárr (the “Plain of the Shárr”) and the lateral valley were found strewed with quartzes, white, pink, and deep slate-blue. The guides had accidentally mentioned a “Jebel el-Marú,” and I determined to visit it next morning. The night was warm and still. The radiation of heat from the huge rock-range explained the absence of cold, so remarkable during all this excursion — hence the African traveller ever avoids camping near bare stones. Dew, however, wetted our boxes like thin rain: the meteor, remarked for the first time on March 13th, will last, they say, three months, and will greatly forward vegetation. It seems to be uncertain, or rather to be influenced by conditions which we had no opportunity of studying: at times it would be exceptionally heavy, and in other places it was entirely absent. Before evening new contract-boots, bought from the Mukhbir, were distributed to the soldiers and all the quarrymen, who limped painfully on their poor bare feet:— next day all wore their well-hidden old boots.
Early on March 14th we ascended the Wady el-Káimah, which showed a singular spectacle, and read us another lecture upon the diversity of formation which distinguishes this region. An abrupt turn then led over rough ground, the lower folds of the Umm Furút, where a great granite gorge, the Nakb Abú Shár, ran up to a depression in the dorsum, an apparently practicable Col. Suddenly the rocks assumed the quaintest hues and forms. The quartz, slaty-blue and black, was here spotted and streaked with a dull, dead white, as though stained by the droppings of myriad birds: there it lay veined and marbled with the most vivid of rainbow colours — reds and purples, greens and yellows, set off by the pale chalky white. Evident signs of work were remarked in a made road running up to the Jebel el-Marú (proper), whose strike is 38° (mag.), and whose dip is westward. It is an arête, a cock’s-comb of snowy quartz some sixty feet high by forty-five broad at the base; crowning a granitic fold that descends abruptly, with a deep fall on either side, from the “Mother of Plenty.” This strangely isolated wall, left standing by the denudation that swept away the containing stone, had been broken by perpendicular rifts into four distinct sections; the colour became whiter as it neared the coping, and each rock was crowned with a capping that sparkled like silver in the sudden glance of the “cloud-compelling” sun. The sight delighted us; and M. Lacaze here made one of his most effective croquis, showing the explorers reduced to the size of ants. As yet we had seen nothing of the kind; nor shall we see a similar vein till we reach Abú‘l-Marwah, near our farthest southern point. I expected a corresponding formation upon the opposite eastern versant: we found only a huge crest, a spine of black plutonic rock, intensely ugly and repulsive. As we rode back down the “Valley of the Perpendiculars,” the aspect of the Jebel el-Marú was épâtant — to use another favourite camp-word. Standing sharply out from its vague and gloomy background made gloomier by the morning mists, the Col, whose steep rain-cut slopes and sole were scattered with dark trees and darker rocks, this glittering wall became the shell of an enchanted castle in Gustave Doré.
Returning to our old camping-ground after a ride of three hours and thirty minutes (= nine miles), we crossed two short divides, and descended the Wady el-Kusayb, which gives a name to “Sharp Peak.” Here a few formless stone-heaps and straggling bushes represented the ruins, the gardens of palms, and the bullrushes of the Bedawi shepherd lads.178 Our tents had been pitched in the rond-point of the Wady Surr, which before had given us hospitality (February 19th), on a Safh or high bouldery ledge of the left bank, where it receives the broad Kusayb watercourse. The day had been sultry; the sun was a “rain sun,” while the clouds massed thick to the south-west; and at night the lamps of heaven shone with a reddish, lurid light. The tent-pegs were weighted with camel-boxes against the storm; nevertheless, our mess-tent was levelled in a moment by the howling north-easter — warm withal — which, setting in about midnight, made all things uncomfortable enough.
Whilst the caravan was ordered to march straight up the noble Wady Surr, we set off next morning at six a.m. up the Wady Malíh, the north-eastern branch of the bulge in the bed. A few Arab tents were scattered about the bushes above the mouth; and among the yelping curs was a smoky-faced tyke which might have been Eskimo-bred:— hereabouts poor ‘Brahim had been lost, and was not fated to be found. A cross-country climb led to the Jebel Malíh, whose fame for metallic wealth gave us the smallest expectations — hitherto all our discoveries came by surprise. A careful examination showed nothing at all; but a few days afterwards glorious specimens of cast copper were brought in, the Bedawi declaring that he had found them amongst the adjoining hills. In the re-entering angles of the subjacent Wady the thrust of a stick is everywhere followed by the reappearance of stored-up rain, and the sole shows a large puddle of brackish and polluted water. Perhaps the Malayh of the Bedawin may mean “the salt” (Málih), not “the pleasant” (Malíh). Malíh, or Mallih, is also the name of a plant, the Reaumuria vernice of Forskâl.
Resuming our ride up the torrent-bed, and crossing to the Wady Daumah (of the “Single Daum-palm”), we dragged our mules down a ladder of rock and boulder, the left bank of the upper Surr. The great valley now defines, sharply as a knife-cut, the northernmost outlines of the Shárr, whose apex, El–Kusayb, towered above our heads. Thorn-trees are abundant; fan-palm bush grows in patches; and we came upon what looked like a flowing stream ruffled by the morning breeze: the guides declared that it is a rain-pool, dry as a bone in summer. Presently the rocky bed made a sharp turn; and its “Gate,” opened upon another widening, the meeting place of four Wadys, the northern being the Wady Zibayyib that drains ruddy Abá‘l-bárid.
After a short halt to examine the rude ruins reported by Mr. Clarke,179 we resumed the ascent of the Surr, whose left bank still defines the eastern edge of the Shárr. The latter presently puts forth the jagged spine of black and repulsive plutonic rock, which notes the Sha’b Makhúl, the corresponding versant of the Nakb Abú Sha’r. The Bedawin, who, as usual, luxuriate in nomenclature, distinguish between the eastern and western faces of the same block, and between the Wadys of the scarp and the counter-scarp. For instance, the eastern front of the Ras el-Kusayb is called Abú Kurayg (Kurayj). This is natural, as the formations, often of a different material, show completely different features.
A little further on, the continuity of the right bank is broken by the Wady el-Hámah. It receives the Wady Kh’shabríyyah, which, bifurcating in the upper bed, drains the Dibbagh and the Umm Jedayl blocks; and in the fork lie, we were told, the ruins of El–Fara’, some five hours’ march from this section of the Surr. At the confluence of El-Hámah we found the camels grazing and the tents pitched without orders: the two Shaykhs were determined to waste another day, so they were directed to reload while we breakfasted. Everything was in favour of a long march; the dusty, gusty north-easter had blown itself out in favour of a pleasant southerly wind, a sea breeze deflected from the west.
After marching three miles we camped at the foot of the ridge to be ascended next morning: the place is called Safhat el-Mu’ayrah from a slaty schistose hill on the eastern bank. The guides declared that the only practicable line to the summit was from this place; and that the Sha’bs (Cols) generally cannot be climbed even by the Arabs — I have reason to believe the reverse. Musallim, an old Bedawi, brought, amongst other specimens from the adjacent atelier, the Mashghal el-Mu’ayrah, a bright bead about the size of No. 5 shot: in the evening dusk it was taken for gold, and it already aroused debates concerning the proper direction of the promised reward, fifty dollars. The morning light showed fine copper. Here free metal was distinctly traceable in the scoriæ, and it was the first time that we had seen slag so carelessly worked. Not a little merriment was caused by the ostentatious display of “gold-stones,” marked by M. Philipin’s copper-nailed boots. Sulaymán, the Bedawi, had killed a Wabar, whose sadly mutilated form appeared to be that of the Syrian hill coney: these men split the bullet into four; “pot” at the shortest distance, and, of course, blow to pieces any small game they may happen to hit.
Early on March 16th we attacked the Shárr in a general direction from north to south, where the ascent looked easy enough. On the left bank a porphyritic block, up whose side a mule can be ridden, is disposed in a slope of the palest and most languid of greens, broken by piles of black rock so regular as to appear artificial. This step leads to a horizontal crest, a broken wall forming its summit: it is evidently an outlier; and experience asked, What will be behind it? The more distant plane showed only the heads of the Shenázir or “Pins,” the two quaint columns which are visible as far as the Shárr itself. This lower block is bounded, north and south, by gorges; fissures that date from the birth of the mountain, deepened by age and raging torrents: apparently they offered no passage. In the former direction yawns the Rushúh Abú Tinázib, so called from its growth — the Tanzub-tree180 (Sodada decidua); and in the latter the Sháb Umm Khárgah (Khárjah). I should have preferred a likely looking Nakb, south of this southern gorge, but the Bedawin, and especially Abú Khartúm, who had fed his camels and sheep upon the mountain, overruled me.
The ascent of the outlier occupied three very slow hours, spent mostly in prospecting and collecting. At nine a.m. we stood 3200 feet above sea-level (aner. 26.79), high enough to make our tents look like bits of white macadam. What most struck us was the increased importance of the vegetation, both in quantity and quality; the result, doubtless, of more abundant dew and rain, as well as of shade from each passing mist-cloud. The view formed a startling contrast of fertility and barrenness. At every hundred yards the growths of the plain became more luxuriant in the rich humus filling the fissures, and, contrary to the general rule, the plants, especially the sorrel (Rumex) and the dandelion (Taraxacum), instead of dwindling, gained in stature. The strong-smelling Ferula looked like a bush, and the Sarh grew into a tree: the Ar’ar,181 a homely hawthorn (hawthorn-leaved Rhus), whose appearance was a surprise, equalled the Cratœgus of Syria; and the upper heights must have been a forest of fine junipers (Habíbah = Juniperus Phœnicea), with trunks thick as a man’s body. The guides spoke of wild figs, but we failed to find them. Our chasseurs, who had their guns, eagerly conned over the traces of ibex and hyenas, and the earths, as well as the large round footprints, of un léopard; but none of the larger animals were seen. The Bedawi matchlock has made them wary; chance might give a shot the first day: on the other hand, skill might be baffled for a month or two — I passed six weeks upon the Anti–Libanus before seeing a bear. The noble Shinnár-partridge again appeared; an eagle’s feather lay on the ground; two white papillons and one yellow butterfly reminded me of the Camarones Mountain; the wild bee and the ladybird-like Ba’úzah stuck to us as though they loved us; and we were pestered by the attentions of the common fly. The Egyptian symbol for “Paul Pry” is supposed to denote an abundance of organic matter: it musters strong throughout Midian, even in the dreariest wastes; and it accompanies us everywhere, whole swarms riding upon our backs.
The only semblance of climbing was over the crest of brown, burnished, and quartzless traps. Even there the hands were hardly required, although our poor feet regretted the want of Spartelles.182 Here the track debouched upon an inverted arch, with a hill, or rather a tall and knobby outcrop of rock, on either flank of the keystone. The inland or eastward view was a map of the region over which we had travelled; a panorama of little chains mostly running parallel with the great range, and separated from it by Wadys, lateral, oblique, and perpendicular. Of these torrent-beds some were yellow, others pink, and others faint sickly green with decomposed trap; whilst all bore a fair growth of thorn-trees — Acacias and Mimosas. High over and beyond the monarch of the Shafah Mountains, Jebel Sahhárah, whose blue poll shows far out at sea, ran the red levels of the Hismá, backed at a greater elevation by the black-blue Harrah. The whole Tihámah range, now so familiar to us, assumed a novel expression. The staple material proved to be blocks and crests of granite, protruding from the younger plutonics, which enfolded and enveloped their bases and backs. The one exception was the dwarf Umm Jedayl, a heap composed only of grey granite. The Jebel Kh’shabríyyah in the Dibbagh block attracted every eye; the head was supported by a neck swathed as with an old-fashioned cravat.
The summit of the outlier is tolerably level, and here the shepherds had built small hollow piles of dry stone, in which their newly yeaned lambs are sheltered from the rude blasts. The view westwards, or towards the sea, which is not seen, almost justifies by its peculiarity the wild traditions of built wells, of a “moaning mountain,” and of furnaces upon the loftiest slopes: it is notable that the higher we went, the less we heard of these features, which at last vanished into thin air. Our platform is, as I suspected, cut off from the higher plane by a dividing gorge; but the depth is only three hundred feet, and to the south it is bridged by a connecting ridge. Beyond it rises the great mask of granite forming the apex, a bonier skeleton than any before seen. Down the northern sheet-rocks trickled a thin stream that caught the sun’s eye; thus the ravine is well supplied with water in two places. South of it rises a tempting Col, with a slope apparently easy, separating a dull mass of granite on the right from the peculiar formation to the left. The latter is a dome of smooth, polished, and slippery grey granite, evidently unpleasant climbing; and from its landward slope rise abrupt, as if hand-built, two isolated gigantic “Pins,” which can hardly measure less than four hundred feet in stature. They are the remains of a sharp granitic comb whose apex was once the “Parrot’s Beak.” The mass, formerly mammilated, has been broken and denticulated by the destruction of softer strata. Already the lower crest, bounding the Sha’b Umm Khárgah, shows perpendicular fissures which, when these huge columns shall be gnawed away by the tooth of Time, will form a new range of pillars for the benefit of those ascending the Shárr, let us say in about A.D. 10,000. Such are the “Pins” which name the mountain; and which, concealed from the coast, make so curious a show to the north, south, and east of this petrified glacier.
After breaking their fast, M.M. Clarke, Lacaze, and Philipin volunteered to climb the tempting Col. None of them had ever ascended a mountain, and they duly despised the obstacles offered by big rocks distance-dwarfed to paving-stones; and of sharp angles, especially the upper, perspective-blunted to easy slopes. However, all three did exceeding well: for such a “forlorn hope” young recruits are better than old soldiers. They set out at eleven a.m., and lost no time in falling asunder; whilst the quarrymen, who accompanied them with the water-skins, shirked work as usual, lagged behind, sat and slept in some snug hollow, and returned, when dead-tired of slumber, declaring that they had missed the “Effendis.”
M. Philipin took singly the sloping side of the connecting ridge; and, turning to the right, made straight for the “Pins,” below which was spread a fleck of lean and languid green. The ascent was comparatively mild, except where it became a sheet of smooth and slippery granite; but when he reached a clump of large junipers, his course was arrested by a bergschrund, which divides this block — evidently a second outlier — from the apex of the Shárr, the “Dome” and the “Parrot’s Beak.” It was vain to attempt a passage of the deep gash, with perpendicular upper walls, and lower slopes overgrown with vegetation; nor could he advance to the right and rejoin his companions, who were parted from him by the precipices on the near side of the Col. Consequently, he beat a retreat, and returned to us at 2.30 p.m., after three hours and thirty minutes of exceedingly thirsty work: the air felt brisk and cool, but the sun shone pitilessly, unveiled by the smallest scrap of mist. He brought with him an ibex-horn still stained with blood, and a branch of juniper, straight enough to make an excellent walking-stick.
The other two struck across the valley, and at once breasted the couloir leading to the Col, where we had them well in sight. They found the ascent much “harder on the collar” than they expected: fortunately the sole of the huge gutter yielded a trickle of water. The upper part was, to their naive surprise, mere climbing on all fours; and they reached the summit, visible from our halting-place, in two hours. Here they also were summarily stopped by perpendicular rocks on either side, and by the deep gorge or crevasse, shedding seawards and landwards, upon whose further side rose the “Parrot’s Beak.” The time employed would give about two thousand feet, not including the ascent from the valley (three hundred feet); and thus their highest point could hardly be less than 5200 feet. Allowing another thousand for the apex, which they could not reach,183 the altitude of the Shárr would be between 6000 and 6500 feet.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen before the two reappeared, and the delay caused no small apprehension; the Sayyid showed a kindly agitation that was quite foreign to his calm and collected demeanour, when threatened by personal danger. To be benighted amongst these cruel mountains must be no joke; nor would it have been possible to send up a tent or even mouth-munition. However, before the sun had reached the west, they came back triumphant with the spoils of war. One was a snake (Echis colorata, Günther), found basking upon the stones near the trickle of water. It hissed at them, and, when dying, it changed colour, they declared, like a chameleon — that night saw it safely in the spirit-tin. They were loaded with juniper boughs, and fortunately they had not forgotten the berries; the latter establish the identity of the tree with the common Asiatic species. M. Lacaze brought back several Alpine plants, a small Helix which he had found near the summit, and copious scrawls for future croquis — his studies of the “Pins” and the “Dome” were greatly admired at Cairo.
Ere the glooms of night had set in, we found ourselves once more at the tents. Only one man suffered from the ascent, and his sunstroke was treated in Egyptian fashion. Instead of bleeding like that terrible, murderous Italian school of Sangrados, the Fellahs tie a string tightly round the head; and after sunset — which is considered de rigueur — they fill the ears with strong brine. According to them the band causes a bunch of veins to swell in the forehead, and, when pressed hard, it bursts like a pistol-shot. The cure is evidently effected by the cold salt-and-water. The evening ended happily with the receipt of a mail, and with the good news that the Sinnár corvette had been sent to take the place of El–Mukhbir, the unfortunate. Once more we felt truly grateful to the Viceroy and the Prince who so promptly and so considerately had supplied all our wants, and whose kindness would convert our southern cruise into a holiday gîte, without the imminent deadly risk of a burst boiler.
We set out in high spirits on the next morning (6.15 a.m., March 17th), riding, still southwards, up the Surr: the stony, broken surface now showed that we were fast approaching its source. Beyond the Umm Khárgah gorge on the western bank, rose a tall head, the Ras el-Rukabíyyah; and beyond it was a ravine, in which palms and water are said to be found. The opposite side raised its monotonous curtain of green and red traps, whose several projections bore the names of Jebel el-Wu’ayrah — the hill behind our camping-ground — Jebel el-Maín, and Jebel Sháhitah. A little beyond the latter debouched the Darb el-Kufl (“Road of Caravans”), alias Darb el-Ashárif (“Road of the Sherifs”), a winding gap, the old line of the Egyptian pilgrims, by which the Sulaymáyyán Bedawin still wend their way to Suez. The second name, perhaps, conserves the tradition of long-past wars waged between the Descendants of the Apostle and the Beni ‘Ukbah.184 The broad mouth was dotted with old graves, with quartz-capped memorial-cairns, and, here and there, with a block bearing some tribal mark. The Wady-sole grew a “stinkhorn” held to be poisonous, and called, from its fetor, “Faswat el-‘Agúz” (Cynophallus impudicus): one specimen was found on the tip of an ibex-horn, and the other had been impaled with a stick. After two hours and thirty minutes (= seven miles) we sighted the head of the Wady Surr proper, whose influents drain the southern Khurayatah or Hismá Pass. Here the amount of green surface, and the number of birds, especially the blue-rock and the insect-impaling “butcher,” whose nests were in the thin forest of thorn-trees, argue that water is not far off. The Ras Wady Surr is a charming halting-place.
Our Arabs worked hard to gain another day. The only tolerable Pass rounding the southern Shárr was, they declared, the Wady Aújar, an influent of the Wady Zahakán, near Zibá. The Col el-Kuwayd, now within a few yards of us, is so terrible that the unfortunate camels would require, before they could attempt it, at least twenty-four hours of preparatory rest and rich feeding; and so forth. However, we pushed them on with flouts and jeers, and we ourselves followed at eleven a.m.
The Pass proved to be one of the easiest. It began with a gradual rise up a short broad Wady, separating the southernmost counterforts of the Shárr from the north end of the Jebel el-Ghuráb. This “Raven Mountain” is a line of similar but lower formation, which virtually prolongs the great “Landmark,” down coast. The bottom was dotted with lumps of pure “Marú,” washed from the upper levels. We reached the summit in forty minutes, and the seaward slope beyond it was a large outcrop of quartz in situ, that assumed the strangest appearance — a dull, dead chalky-white, looking as if heat-altered or mixed with clay. The rock-ladder leading to the lower Wady Kuwayd, which has an upper branch of the same name, offered no difficulty to man or beast; and the aneroid showed its height to be some 470 feet (28.13 — 28.50). The caravan, having preceded us, revenged itself by camping at the nearest pool, distant nineteen and a half direct geographical miles from our destination.
This day was the first of the Khamsín or, as M. Loufti (?), a Coptic student, writes it, “Khamasín,” from Khama (“warm”) and Sina (“air”).185 The Midianites call it El–Daufún, the hot blasts, and expect it to blow at intervals for a couple of months. This scirocco has been modified in Egypt, at least during the spring, apparently by the planting of trees. About a quarter-century ago, its regular course was three days: on the first it set in; the second was its worst; and men knew that it would exhaust itself on the third. Now it often lasts only a single day, and even that short period has breaks.
The site of the camp made sleep well-nigh impossible — a bad preparation for the only long ride of this excursion. Setting off at dark (4.20 a.m., March 18th), we finished the monotonous Wady Kuwayd, which mouths upon the rolling ground falling coastwards. The track then struck to the north-west, across and sometimes down the network of Wadys that subtends the south-western Shárr — their names have already been mentioned. As we sighted the cool green-blue sea, its horizon-line appeared prodigiously uplifted, as if the Fountains of the great Deep were ready for another Deluge. I remembered the inevitable expressions of surprise with which, young Alpinists and ballooners, expecting the rim of the visible circle to fall away, see it rising around them in saucer-shape. The cause is simply that which breaks the stick in water, and which elevates the Sha’rr every morning — Refraction.
After a march of seven hours (= twenty-two miles), we debouched, viâ the Wady Hárr, upon our old Sharm, the latter showing, for the first time since its creation, two war-steamers, with their “tender,” a large Sambúk. The boats did not long keep us waiting; and we were delighted to tread once more the quarter-deck of the corvette Sinnár. Captain Ali Bey Shukri’s place had been taken by Captain Hasan–Bey, an Osmanli of Cavala who, having been forty-eight years in the service, sighed for his pension. He did, however, everything in his power to make us feel “at home;” and the evening ended with a fantasia of a more pronounced character than anything that I had yet seen.186
Résumé of the March Through Eastern or Central Midian.
Our journey through Eastern or Central Midian lasted eighteen days (February 19 — March 8), with an excursion of six (March 13 — 18) to its apex, the mighty Shárr, which I would add to our exploration of Central Midian. Despite enforced slow marches at the beginning of the first section, we visited in round numbers, according to my itinerary, 197 miles: Lieutenant Amir’s map gives a linear length of 222 miles, not including the offsets. The second part covered fifty-five miles, besides the ascent of the mountain to a height of about five thousand feet: the mapper also increased this figure to 59 2/3. Thus the route-line shows a grand total of 252 to 281 2/3 in direct statute miles. The number of camels engaged from Shaykhs ‘Alayán and Hasan was sixty-one; and the hire, according to Mr. Clarke, represented £147 6s. 6d., not including the £40 of which we were plundered by the bandit Ma’ázah. The ascent of the Shárr also cost £40, making a grand total of £187 6s. 6d.
The march to the Hismá gave us a fair idea of the three main formations of Madyan, which lie parallel and east of one another:— 1. The sandy and stony maritime region, the foot-hills of the Gháts, granites and traps with large veins and outcrops of quartz; and Wadys lined with thick beds of conglomerate. 2. The Jibál el-Tihámah, the majestic range that bounds the seaboard inland, with its broad valleys and narrow gorges forming the only roads. 3. The Jibál el-Shafah, or interior ridge, the “lip” of North–Western Arabia; in fact, the boundary-wall of the Nejd plateau.
The main object of this travel was to ascertain the depth from west to east of the quartz-formations, which had been worked by the Ancients. I had also hoped to find a virgin region lying beyond El–Harrah, the volcanic tract subtending the east of the Hismá, or plateau of New Red Sandstone. We ascertained, by inquiry, that the former has an extent wholly unsuspected by Dr. Wallin and by the first Expedition; and that a careful examination of it is highly desirable. But we were stopped upon the very threshold of the Hismá by the Ma’ázah, a tribe of brigands which must be subjected to discipline before the province of Madyan can be restored to its former status.
This northern portion had been visited by Dr. Wallin; the other two-thirds of the march lay, I believe, over untrodden ground. We brought back details concerning the three great parallel Wadys; the Salmá, the Dámah, that “Arabian Arcadia,” and the ‘Aslah–Aznab. We dug into, and made drawings and plans of, the two principal ruined cities, Shuwák and Shaghab, which probably combined to form the classical [Greek]; and of the two less important sites, El–Khandaki and Umm Ámil.
The roads of this region, and indeed of all Midian, are those of Iceland without her bogs and snows: for riding considerations we may divide them into four kinds:—
1. Wady — the Fiumara or Nullah; called by travellers “winter-brook” and “dry river-bed.” It is a channel without water, formed, probably, by secular cooling and contraction of the earth’s surface, like the fissures which became true streams in the tropics, and in the higher temperate zones. Its geological age would be the same as the depressions occupied by the ocean and the “massive” eruptions forming the mountain-skeleton of the globe. Both the climate and the vegetation of Midian must have changed immensely if these huge features, many of them five miles broad, were ever full of water. In modern days, after the heaviest rains, a thin thread meanders down a wilderness of bed.
The Wady-formation shows great regularity. Near the mouth its loose sands are comfortable to camels and distressing to man and mule. The gravel of the higher section is good riding; the upper part is often made impassable by large stones and overfalls of rock; and the head is a mere couloir. Flaked clay or mud show the thalweg; and the honeycombed ground, always above the line of highest water, the homes of the ant, beetle, jerboa, lizard, and (Girdi) rat, will throw even the cautious camel.
2. Ghadír — the basin where rain-water sinks. It is mostly a shining bald flat of hard yellow clay, as admirable in dry as it is detestable in wet weather.
3. Majrá— here pronounced “Maghráh”187 — the divide; literally, the place of flowing. It is the best ground of all, especially where the yellow or brown sands are overlaid by hard gravel, or by a natural metalling of trap and other stones.
4. Wa’r — the broken stony surface, over which camels either cannot travel, or travel with difficulty: it is the horror of the Bedawi; and, when he uses the word, it usually means that it causes man to dismount. It may be of two kinds; either the Majrá proper (“divide”) or the Nakb (“pass”), and the latter may safely be left to the reader’s imagination.
The partial ascent of the mighty Shárr gave an admirable study of the mode in which the granites have been enfolded and enveloped by the later eruptions of trap. Nor less curious, also, was it to remark how, upon this Arabian Alp, vegetation became more important; increasing, contrary to the general rule, not only in quantity but in size, and changing from the date and the Daum to the strong smelling Ferula, the homely hawthorn, and the tall and balmy juniper-tree. There is game, ibex and leopard, in these mountains; but the traveller, unless a man of leisure, must not expect to shoot or even to sight it.
174 “Irwin’s Voyage,” 1777.
175 This was probably a misprint originally, but it has been repeated in subsequent editions. Hence it imposed upon even such careful workmen as the late Lieutenant Henry Raper, “The Practice of Navigation,” etc., p. 527, 6th edition.
176 See an excellent description of the phenomenon in that honest and courageous work, “Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot,” by Arthur J. Evans, B.A., F.S.A. London: Longmans, 1877.
177 There is, however, nothing to prevent its being eaten.
178 See Chap. X.
179 Chap. X.
180 Not to be confounded with the luguminous “Tanúb” mentioned by Forskâl (“Flora,” etc., p. 197).
181 The word classically means the cypress or the juniper-tree: in Jeremiah, where it occurs twice (xvii. 6 and xlviii. 6), the Authorized Version renders it by “heath.” It is now generally translated “savin” (Juniperus sabina), a shrub whose purple berries have a strong turpentine flavour. When shall we have a reasonable version of Hebrew Holy Writ, which will retain the original names of words either untranslatable or to be translated only by guess-work?
182 In Cairo generally called Espadrilles, and sold for 1.25 francs. Nothing punishes the feet at these altitudes so much as leather, black leather.
183 The explorers laid this down at a few hundred feet. But they judged from the eye; and probably they did not sight the true culmination. Unfortunately, and by my fault, they were not provided with an aneroid.
184 See Chap. V.
185 For the usual interpretations see Chapter I. The Egyptians, like other nations, often apply their own names, which have a meaning, to the older terms which have become unintelligible. Thus, near Cairo, the old goddess, Athor el-Núbí (“of the Gold”), became Asr el-Nabi (“the Footprint of the Apostle”).
186 “The Gold–Mines of Midian,” Chap. XI.
187 See Chap. XI.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48