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About midway between the pyramids of Geza and Aboosier we arrived at the desert, and here it was that the full force of the Egyptian fable regarding the perpetual contest of Typhon and Osiris became apparent, for the desert is yearly encroaching on the cultivated land wherever the inundation has not extended. The line of demarcation is most accurately defined; and as the crop which ought naturally to extend to the very verge of the sand, and which acts like a wall to keep out the desert, is now in many parts of Egypt neglected from want of labourers, it is slowly but undoubtedly conducing to the narrowing of the land, an event which all writers agree has taken place since the days of the ancient Egyptians.
We are now upon the vast Lybian desert, the fertile plains of Egypt to our left, the pyramids of Geza behind us, and those of Dashoor and Sackara in front, raised a considerable height from the valley of the Nile by a ledge of rock that runs parallel with the fertile land. This wall of rock is partly covered with the sand, which, rising in a crest above it, and in some places presenting an undulating surface, as it bounds over the barrier, gives it the remarkable appearance of one vast rolling swell suddenly arrested in its onward course to swallow up the land, which smiles beneath it in all the luxuriance of nature's richest clothing. Were I to offer an opinion of my own, I should say, that this rock once formed the enclosure of a vast city, that extended all along the plain, between the pyramids and the river ; and should any wealthy or enterprising traveller attempt to clear away some of the sand that now covers its face, at one or two points, I am strongly inclined to think, judging from what I saw at Sackara, that many tombs and excavations would be discovered, as it is more than conjecture that the catacombs extend the whole length of all the pyramids. It may be in some secret or traditionary knowledge of this kind that the story told by the Arabs has originated, of there being a subterranean passage all along from the chambers of Sackara to the pyramid of Cheops.
Numbers of birds fluttered over the desert, and several noble eagles soared high above our heads in the liquid ether of an atmosphere peculiarly Egyptian. It was a most lovely-day, though one of the warmest since our arrival, and as we passed forward I had ample opportunity of observing the various animals around me. The swallow tribe were in great plenty; the red-breasted
swallow, and the small grey martin, particularly attracted our notice. I find that these little birds do not migrate like the swifts, (which, however, do not approach this part of the country,) but remain all the year round in the vicinity of the pyramids. I was not a little surprised at the good feeling and familiarity that seemed to exist between them and numbers of kestrils that flew round with the most graceful motion, now skimming in rapid flight along the sands, and anon balanced on extended wing for minutes together ere they pounced upon their quarry. Their prey was not birds, but a large species of grass or sand-hopper, with remarkably brilliant crimson legs. The wings and back of this insect were the exact colour of the sand, so that when the animal lay quiet on the ground, not even the eye of a hawk could distinguish it. The bird, however, marked with unerring accuracy the spot whereon it alighted, and remained hovering over it, as described, till the insect again took flight, when its red legs and the underpart of the body rendering it very conspicuous, he pounced upon it while on the wing. But neither did this hawk appear to mind the smaller birds, nor did they, as if aware of their security, seem to pay the least attention to him. Although at constant war in other countries, here the swallow and hawk were on the best terms. I examined several of these kestrils, and found that instead of the usual membranous stomach, peculiar to rapacious birds, theirs had been altered to meet the exigency of the case, and had become a perfect gizzard, having a detached cuticle, stained of a bright red by the colouring matter of the grasshopper, pieces of the hard shells of which, and small pebbles, I invariably found in the digestive apparatus of this insectivorous hawk.
The pratingole is also found in the vicinity of Cairo, and I have one in my possession now, brought from the neighbourhood of Old Cairo, but they are rare in Egypt.
Another little animal that particularly called my attention, and excited my admiration, was the scarabæus, or sacred beetle. Numbers of these were running about in all directions in the warm sunshine, engaged in rolling their balls over the desert with such industry, and in so curious a manner, that I cannot refrain, although on the path to the pyramids, from stopping to notice the insect so famed in Egyptian story, and that formed so conspicuous a part in the symbolic language and the mythology of
THE SACRED BEETLE.
this ancient people. The more I consider the habits and manners of animals, the more am I convinced that it was an accurate observation of their natural history and instincts that attracted the attention of the ancients, and on which was formed much of their mythological system and hieroglyphic character. This was not peculiar to the Egyptians, for we find the car of Bacchus drawn by tigers, evidently alluding to the conquest of a country to which those animals were peculiar; and in like manner are represented the conquests of Alexander, not expressed in words or by any written character, but shown forth by the representations of the animals peculiar to each region, as depicted in the mosaic pavement at Præneste.
These little creatures, the scarabæi, which are possessed of amazing strength and perseverance, form balls of clay and camel's dung, which they mix up into a kind of mortar, very like that used by swallows to construct their nests; in these they deposit their eggs, and thus it forms a crust or shell to the larvæ within ; they then roll these balls, when sufficiently dried, over the sand in a truly remarkable manner. The male is provided with two projections in the form of horns on the head, and uses them as a lever to raise and push the ball forward from behind, while the female mounting before keeps it revolving onward by drawing it down with her fore feet, as in the annexed representation.
Sometimes three or four will gather about one ball, either for the mere sake of work, or to get it over any impediment. Others again propel them with their hind legs, and will sometimes assume the most grotesque attitudes, literally standing on their heads, and pushing at them with their hind feet. So far as I am able to judge, they keep rolling these balls about over the 254
THE SACKING OF THE TOMBS.
sand for the whole day, and do not place them at once in holes, like other coleopterous insects. I have watched them at evening, and as soon as the sun had set they invariably deserted their charge, and returned to their holes, and what is more remarkable, if the day became suddenly clouded, off they waddled, and left the ball till a gleam of returning sunshine called them again to work with renewed vigour. It appears to me, from the manner they rolled these balls, that they intended the sun should act equally on all sides of them, and thus secure a certain temperature in the process of incubation. It may, however, be but for the purpose of drying the surface. The sexes of these beetles are well known to the Arabs, one of whom, who could just speak a word or two of English, pointed out the difference in the forms of the “men” and the “women" scarabæi.
Scarabæi, in every shape and attitude, and of all sizes, are figured on the Egyptian monuments, are used in the hieroglyphics, and models of them are generally found on the breasts of mummies ; besides, many of a smaller size form part of the necklaces worn by such. In these two latter positions they may have been used as amulets. Others are carved in different stones and gems, as signets, having the names of the various Egyptian kings cut in hieroglyphics on the face. It was the emblem of creative power, of the earth, and of the sun, in which latter case the ball alone is often used.*
I now passed the pyramids of Aboosier, but without time to do more than just look at them. They are apparently less carefully constructed than either those of Geza or Sackara, and are much dilapidated. The whole of the ground I rode over presented a most extraordinary spectacle ; for miles it is literally strewn over with the sacking of the tombs, consisting of quantities of linen, pieces of broken mummy-cases, and bits of blue crockery-ware, with remains of human bones, and also those of the inferior animals, which, since their exposure to light and air, have become intensely white, but excessively friable, crumbling in the fingers. The whole plain is covered with heaps of rubbish, like mole-hills, thrown up from the tombs, which have been opened by the Arabs for the sake of their contents. These
tombs consist of square apertures in the ground, faced with stone, or cut in the sand-stone rock, but now nearly choked with rubbish. I was well inclined to spend some time in examining the bones of the different animals on which my donkey trode at every step, but Paulo hurried me onward, as the day was wearing, and we had yet to make some preparation for our night's sojourn in the tombs.
We arrived at the village of Sackara about three or four o'clock, but could hear nothing of the third donkey which had been sent round by the plain ; it was to have met us here, and as it was the bearer of the provender, and the wretched place we were in could afford us little or nothing, our situation was any thing but enviable. Paulo was for applying to the sheykh, and threatening biin with the inevitable displeasure of Mohammad Alee unless we were instantly supplied—however, we soon spied our sumpter ass creeping slowly towards us. We then retraced our steps to the tombs, which are situate in the great wall of rock to the northwest of the village. Arrived thither, we found some Arab guides whom a Frenchman had the day before employed to raise a mummy for him, and which he had just then deserted, leaving the case and the different broken parts of the body strewn about in one of the large chambers, having had it removed from a pit in the neighbourhood for the mere purpose of seeing it opened, and for the sake of the ornaments it might contain. This wasteful proceeding is one too often resorted to by travellers; it had, however, its use, as the very fragments he threw aside as useless, were to me some of the most interesting objects I could have discovered.
The mummy-case itself was one of great beauty and perfection, and evidently belonged to a person of distinction. The head, chest, and arms, having been stripped of their coverings, were flung into a corner of the chamber, and on examination I found that the arms of the body, which appeared to be that of a young man, presented an appearance so truly abnormal, and so different from any thing the effect of disease, or any known congenital malformation, that I carried them away with me, and the drawing upon the next page represents the left humerus or arm-bone of this most remarkably deformed human subject.
The person from whose thorax I removed these upper extremities, appeared to be a man of about twenty-five years of age, and from the adornment of the sarcophagus, and the care exhibited