Letters from Egypt. — III. From Cairo to Akasheh

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Letters from Egypt. — III. From Cairo to Akasheh is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 9 april 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the 3rd article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.

Letters from Egypt

The Westminster Gazette (9 april 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (9 april 1896, p. 2)

III. From Cairo to Akasheh


Open a good map of Egypt and examine once more the course of this wonderful river upon which the eyes of the world are fixed to-day, as they have been so often in the past. It is worth while now, at the beginning, to gain a grasp of the very simple geographical a, strategical problems involved.

Here is Cairo at one end of the chain, and blank barbarism at the other. The well-turned-out carriage and pair stops on the Kasr-el-Nil Bridge, and the young English girl coming from the polo match at the Ghezireh ground glances down at the brown silent sweep of water. But this same water has washed the sides of the crocodile and of the hippopotamus; it has been lapped by wild creatures in lands where no white man has been; and has, for all that we know, been tinged by the barbaric warfare which is for ever being waged at one point or other of its course, or that of its interminable tributaries. Throughout all history savagery has held the upper reaches of the river the lower, and the border-line has ebbed and flowed with the fluctuations of a world-old war. Egyptians have forced their way to the Great Lakes Ethiopians have been crowned kings of Lower Egypt. Of late years the balance has been against the more civilised race. But now, with rush leadership and a strong backing, it may be turned, though England will have to throw her heat, sword into the scales first.

Ascend the river from Cairo. Here on the right at your very start lie the various groups of pyramids, most gigantic an, most childish of the works of man. There are still unsolved secrets in those huge masses of stone, and unfound treasure also, as Professor de Morgan knows, who picked jewels to the value of £40,000 out of one of them last year. Thence for hundreds of miles extends the line of redand yellow sandstone cliffs upon the Arabian bank of the river, and of narrow green cultivation upon the Libyan. With occasional breaks it may be said to stretch all the way to the first cataract at Assouan, and the man who has teen five miles of it has seen it all. Here and there the coppery green line of the burseen crops is broken by a straggling drab coloured village, or by the high double pylons of a two thousand-year-old temple, looking fresher and newer than the mud-walled Arab houses around it. When the yellow cliffs draw nearer to the river one can see that they are pierced with rows and tiers of graves, like the port-holes of a three-decker, and you realise that the whole valley from end to end end has been inhabited by so many successive generations that it has become one gigantic graveyard. Those holes in the rock are of interest to the student of Christian history, for it was on those burrows that the early hermits spent their profitless lives, and there, where they bend back from the river upon the Arabian side, is the famous Thebard, the headquarters of monastic asceticism.

There is one strategical point to be observed in that long stretch, from Cairo to Assouan. That is the village of Keneh, upon the Arabian bank, about two-thirds of the way up. To us this is perhaps the most important point in Upper Egypt, for it is the nearest to that salt water which is needful to nourish the root of British power. Across the desert by the caravan route to Kosseir upon the Red Sea is only 120 miles. And from Bombay to Kosseir is not more than ten days. It follows then that if our fleet were once more to abandon the Mediterranean entirely, as they did in 1797, and if our garrison in Egypt were cut off from home, we could none the less hold the country with India as our base, and have sepoys upon the Nile within three weeks of an order coming from Downing Street. In the beginning of the century Baird came across by this route with 5,000 Anglo-Indians, and dropped down into Cairo as unexpectedly as if he had come from the mountains of the moon. Menon had, I believe, surrendered before his arrival to the British forces advancing from Alexandria, but Baird's march was not thrown away if it shows how easily Egypt can be turned into an outlying bastion of India. To-day as we passed this same Keneh we had speech with three khaki-clad men, with faces of a rich flower-pot tint, who could only be recognised as fellow-countrymen by the eye-glass of the elder and the bulldog pipe of the junior. They had come over the desert route with the 9th Blacks, who starting on foot from the Red Sea at three o'clock on the Sunday were within sight of the Nile at the same hour on Thursday — thirty miles a day over broken ground under an Egyptian sun. These are the same gallant Blacks who proudly call themselves the second battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, and who still carry the flag which their Scotch comrades them after the battle of Ginnes.

This is a digression, however, from that bird's-eye view of the Nile valley which I was endeavouring to give. At present the railway extends unfortunately only half-way to Assouan, and stores which should go up in two days take at least five. The first cataract, however, is not a very formidable affair, and a little ten-mile railway runs round it. Above there is a clear stretch of 200 miles to Wady Halfa, where the river runs through the strange, weird country of Nubia, amidst black volcanic hills, and silent deserted cities, and huge rock-cut temples all girt round with the same unspeakable desert. Here and there are scattered villages, but a fiercer enemy than Nature and a worse danger than the sandstorm bangs over these poor Nubians, for you are already within the zone of the Dervish raids. Here, for example, is the village of Attentat, which I visited a few weeks ago, and where I heard the story of their misfortunes from the lips of the son of the Sheik. It was at four o'clock in the afternoon that the marauders rode over the low sandhills upon the desert side, one hundred and twenty of them, on camel back, with red turbans and yellow shoes. To the sound of a bugle they broke into two flanking parties, and one central body which rode into the village, shooting right and left with their Remingtons. Seventeen of the poor creatures were killed, and many wounded — one old man showed me the half-healed pucker where the bullet had passed through his neck. It was only the timely passing of the post boat which prevented the extermination of the whole village. And these people were under our protection. We it was who guaranteed their safety, and they were far within the frontier line which we had drawn. I confess that, with every desire to be on the side of the party of peace, I cannot see what you are to do with such a neighbour as this except to crush him.

In this Nubian stretch of the river the one important strategic point is Korosko. From that town a desert march of fourteen days, with one well of slightly diluted Epsom salts, brings one out at Abou Hamed, and cuts off the whole province of Dongola, with all the worst of the river navigation. This, with a railway, is the ideal line of advance into the Soudan. But as long as the river costs nothing and the railway half a million Egypt must trust nature rather than the contractor. But a little sprout of railway has begun of late to grow out of Korosko to the south and east, showing that this would have been the deliberate line of advance had recent events not forced the hand of the Government. Two young English subalterns of sappers were taking the levels when I was there in January, and a hot, lonely, and somewhat dangerous job they had when they were working at the desert end of their little line. "Ground bait for Dervishes" was their own epigram to express their position.

It was here, on the right bank of the river, half-way between Assouan and Hala, and about five miles inland, that Nejumi and his valiant starving crew were overwhelmed by the Egyptians in 1889. Nejumi was the most dangerous of all the Mahdi leaders — a stern, ascetic man, lean and wiry, with immense ambitions in his head and a beggar's coat upon his back. It was in this action of Toski that the black troops when the Dervishes charged down the hill whooped and cheered them on, holding their rifles above their heads to encourage them until they had them right on their muzzles, when they practically won the battle with a single volley. The whole proceeding was strictly unofficial, with no reference to their English officers, but it gave those English officers an assurance of the spirit of their men, which sends them with light hearts into Dongola. It is said that the Khalifa, recognising a dangerous rival in Nejumi, sent him to the invasion of Egypt in the hope that some evil would befall him; but however that may be, the volley from the dismounted cavalry which finally brought down the Dervish chief cut short the career of one who was more after the pattern of the early Ottoman conquerors than any man whom these troubles have brought to the front.

Wady Halfa, the frontier town — to be the frontier town no longer — is connected by a railway which flanks the great cataract for forty miles with the military outpost of Sarras. This little railway will be of immense use now. It is provoking to think that it was formerly prolonged to Akasheh, thus getting over the horrible wilderness of the "Belly of Stones," which has hitherto acted as a protective glacis to Egypt, but which is now the gravest obstacle to our advance. When the troops were withdrawn the Dervishes bent the rails, doing it, curiously enough, according to the most up-to-date methods of the Soldier's Pocket Book, and burned the sleepers. New sleepers and rails are now being hurried up, and doubtless many of the old rails are still serviceable. As the sleepers alone will weigh something over 3,000 tons it will be some time before the line is ready, and meanwhile there are those sixty miles in our rear, along which, either by camel or by boat, every tin of bully beef has got to go.

At the far end of this sixty miles of desert is the hollow of Akasheh, which is one of the most insanitary and indefensible positions possible. It is quite certain that, whatever assurances may be given in Parliament, a force majeure will cause any commander to abandon a position which is commanded on all sides and without shelter from the sun, and to move onwards towards Suarda, where the country begins to open out a little.

At present the position is that a single black battalion has been escorted across by the camel corps, which left them entrenched there and went back for another one tip the time that this teaches you they will have 5,000 men or so at that point, and it is rumoured that with this force the Sirdar is prepared to make a dash into the fertile province of Dongola with the double object of securing supplies for himself and cutting them off from the Dervishes. If a battle is fought, as will almost certainly be the case, it will probably be at the point where the really fertile province begins, near Argo perhaps, in order to prevent the invaders from establishing themselves among the newly-grown crops. Such is the opinion her, at present, but very likely before this reaches you the telegraph will have shown how ungrounded local opinion may be.