Five days sailing from Bombay across the Arabian Sea in a course little south of west brought us to Aden at the southwestern extremity of Arabia, a distance of one thousand six hundred and sixty-four miles. As we sailed for some hours along the rocky cliffs that form the southern Arabian shore, I watched in vain for a sign of verdure, seeing only one small tuft of what appeared to be wild reeds growing at the water’s edge. Nor is there anything to relieve the barrenness as we approach the port. Aden is located on the slopes of a high promontory of desert rocks and sand. Its importance is derived from its position, which makes it a convenient coaling station and trans-shipping point for eastern African points, and a military post of strategic value. Its salubrious climate, the heat being tempered with sea breezes, and the sun being rarely obscured by clouds, is supposed to have furnished the ancient Arabs with a reason for calling it Aden, that is, Eden, or paradise. The average period of rain does not exceed one day in a year, and sometimes even that is missing. In the high hills back of the city the ancient inhabitants excavated great reservoirs for storing the rain. These were located in ravines, and as but little of the water soaked into the ground, in the course of a very few hours’ rain, an immense quantity of water would be collected. Some of these reservoirs have been restored, and at present form the sole source of fresh-water supply.
Many years ago sagacious England saw the strategic value of Aden, standing like a second Gibraltar at the entrance of the Red Sea. In 1838 an English vessel was wrecked in the vicinity, and the survivors were very badly treated by the Arabs. This furnished a pretext for demanding reparation, and by the judicious addition of some money consideration, the old sultan was induced to turn the promontory of Aden over to Great Britain. He afterward changed his mind, but the English statesmen did not change theirs. After a few hours of fighting in January, 1839, the place fell into the hands of the British government. Great Britain at once strongly fortified this gateway of the East, which is now rendered far more important by the opening of the Suez Canal, It is the wise policy of England to sit entrenched by all the great channels of commerce. We did not go ashore here as our stay was short and there is but little to entice one to make the effort. The native city is not in sight from the shipping, but the harbor and fortifications present a busy appearance. Scarcely had we dropped anchor, before the vessel was surrounded by Somali boys on little rude canoes or floats, who would offer to dive for coins This is part of the experience in every half-civilized port in warm climates, and the agility of the lads in diving and scrambling for the money that is thrown into the water, is somewhat interesting and surprising, but not nearly so much so as the foolishness of the passengers who continue to throw sixpences and shillings away after having seen the performance scores of times. The abnormal but prevailing craving to see human life in jeopardy manifested itself here by offering an extra reward to one of the divers to climb to the yard-arm, and from a height of sixty feet to plunge into the water. This is frequently done, but is said to be a very injurious practice which soon ends the life of the diver even if an accident does not kill him outright.
Seven hours’ sailing in the early part of a beautiful moonlit night brought us from Aden to the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the southern portal of the Red Sea. The name signifies “The gate of tears.” A promontory over eight hundred feet in height, of the same name as the strait, juts out from the Arabian side. Twenty miles across are the rocky shores of` Africa, nearly four hundred feet high. In the channel, two miles from the Arabian side, is a rocky island which divides the strait. This island is occupied as a British fort. The currents here are strong, and the place dangerous for small vessels. The majestic scenery in the bright moonlight well repaid for the little loss of sleep which the view of it cost.
The Red Sea is one of the most ancient bodies of water mentioned in history, but usually it occupies so small a place on our maps that we are not likely to gain a correct idea of its proportions until we become acquainted with it from other sources than ordinary geographies. It is one thousand two hundred miles in length with an average width of but little over one hundred miles. Its center affords a safe channel for the passage of vessels, but its coasts are rendered dangerous by many coral reefs. Its length, extending northwest and southeast, forms the principal portion of the boundary between the two continents, Asia and Africa. Much of the time the shore is in view on one side or the other, but everywhere is the same dreary appearance of rocky or clay cliffs or sandy desert beach.
The passage through the Red Sea, is usually much dreaded on account of the extreme heat that prevails, especially at the time of year when the sun is overhead. At that time the heated deserts on either side glow like ovens, and seem to combine their forces upon the narrow basin of water that lies between. Deaths among passengers from the heat are not very uncommon, and the sufferings of the poor men who have to shovel coal into the fiery furnaces far down below the water line can hardly be imagined. We were destined to be highly favored, for the weather was not uncomfortably hot, except during a very small period of our journey. But several of the firemen, who are all of them negroes, were brought to the deck in a fainting condition, and were restored by having buckets of cold water repeatedly dashed over them. The next morning after entering this sea, we found ourselves sailing before a brisk southern gale. Suddenly we became aware that our ship had lost its vigor, and soon, “The engines have stopped!” “The engines have stopped ! ” passed from one to another. This is always one of the most unwelcome episodes of ocean travel, for there are such a multitude of contingent mishaps that may appear as the cause that there is any amount of uneasiness until the cause is explained. And then the knowledge that we were in a narrow channel and drifting before a strong wind out of our course did not relieve the situation in our minds. Soon our vessel was “in the trough of the sea,” that is, it was lying broadside to the waves and tumbling out of one trough into another as fast as the troughs came along. The calm assurance of the officers, who told us that we were all right and would be running in an hour, helped to put us at our ease, but that which gave us full assurance was to feel once more the strong but almost silent pulse-beats of the great iron heart of the ship, and to see our good vessel turn its sharp prow into the waves and cleave them asunder as if it were but sport.
From Thursday at midnight till Monday afternoon we were on the Red Sea. Early Monday morning we entered the western of the two branches into which the sea divides at its northern end. This is called the Gulf of Suez, and it forms one of the boundaries of the Sinaitic peninsula. Soon after entering this most interesting tract of water, Captain Parfit kindly invited me to his chart room, and took pains to point out our location, which showed that we were within forty miles of Alt. Sinai. Its top, seven thousand feet high, could not be seen on account of an intervening coast range two thousand feet in height. Soon we were sailing along the coast down which the children of Israel must have passed in their march from Egypt. Whatever the country may have been at that time, it is certainly most dreary and uninviting now. It is easy to understand from one’s own experiences that they simply gave way to the most natural kind of feelings when they complained at beinb led out of the rich fields of Egypt into such a region. But as it is our privilege to look above immediate surroundings and live and walk by faith, so it was theirs.
In all the route visible from the decks of vessels there is but one verdant spot, and that is called ” Ain Mousa,” or the Well of Moses. It is a few miles from Suez, and consists of a cluster of low palm trees and a pool of fresh water. By some it is thought to be identical with Elim. Ex. 15: 27. But of this there is no certainty. Just before reaching Suez, on the west side, is pointed out the defile down which the children of Israel marched when they were confronted by the sea. But this is even more improbable than the tradition concerning g the other place.
Suez stands at the head of the gulf and at the southern outlet of the famous Suez canal. Its harbor was beautifully placid on that afternoon, and we could look down into the clear water to a great depth. Our ship cast anchor, and we waited for our turn to come to pass into the canal, for there are so many vessels that order must be preserved, and vessels move only by orders front on shore, as trains move front station to station by orders from the train-dispatcher.
The town is partly French and partly Arabic, and is dependent upon the canal for importance and livelihood. Some very clever jugglers came on board at this point and amused us with their tricks, one or two of which were as follows : Taking a strip of muslin four yards long, the juggler asked for a knife with which he sawed the cloth in two in the middle. The separated pieces were held up before us. A match was lighted, and the ends of the cloth were set afire and then quenched, but we could easily see where they had been burned. Then holding the ends of the cloth behind him a moment, he presented the piece of cloth whole without sign of cutting or fire. He asked a passenger to show him a shilling, which he took, and after examining it a moment, handed it back with the injunction to hold it tightly in his hand lest he should lose it. He asked the Englishman if he had the shilling. “Yes,” was the reply, and he exhibited it safely in the palm of his hand. Again he was told to watch it closely lest he lose it. After fumbling in his bag a moment, the trickster again asked if he was sure he had the shilling. ” Yes, very sure,” was the reply. “Well, look,” said the juggler, and lo, it was a half-penny. But none of us saw him touch the man’s hand, and no one was so much surprised as the Englishman himself. In about two hours we received the signal for which we were waiting, and soon were sailing across a desert of sand instead of the waste of waters.
The dimensions of the canal are about as follows : Width at the bottom, seventy-two feet, depth of water, twenty-six feet, length, eighty-three miles. To prevent the wash of the banks, no greater speed than five miles an hour is allowed. At short distances apart are located turning-out places where a ship may lie close to the bank while another passes. And no vessel can pass one of these places unless permission is given by a semaphore on the bank. The canal forms a congested artery of commerce through which the ships of a11 nations are continually crowding, though one may have to look a long time before he sees the stars and stripes. The stupendous character of the undertaking becomes apparent as one passes through the long channel which is lined on each side by a small range of sand mountains thrown out by the excavators. And its maintenance gives employment to a large army of workers of various crafts and callings. The controlling interests are in English hands, though direct management of the business is under the French.
The country traversed by the canal is a barren waste of sand, and from the decks of the vessels one may obtain glimpses of desert Arab life in which wretched poverty, big and little Arabs, and camels were mixed up in scenes of the utmost desolation. How little we who live surrounded by all that makes life pleasant realize the utter destitution in which the lives of a great portion of earth’s inhabitants are spent.
The town of Ismailia is located midway on the canal, and at this point we took leave of the “Clyde.” It was ten o’clock in the evening when we reached the lake upon which the place is situated, and the night was as ” dark as Egypt.” A small launch carne out for passengers and mail. A half hour was sufficient to make the transfer from the decks of the steamship to the genial comforts of a nice bed in a French hotel. A railway runs the length of the canal, and at Ismailia branches off to Cairo and Alexandria.
An American’s first experience with a French breakfast is apt to make a lasting impression, so I will relate mine. Being a little more than usually hungry at the proper time, I took my seat at the table upon which there was bread and butter. I was alone in the dining room except for a solitary waiter. Soon it became apparent that I was doing the principal amount of waiting, and I called the young man’s attention to the fact that I would like some breakfast. He replied that I was to help myself. But not being particularly fond of either bread or butter, I intimated that it would be a proper thing for him to bring on something to eat. He asked me if I desired coffee, and when I told him, No, he was through, for he said that was all that they had for breakfast, but that lunch came at eleven o’clock. I was not in any condition to dally, so I told him in simple English to bring me something to eat if he had anything in the house, and he being persuaded of my honest intentions, I succeeded in making a comfortable breakfast. With the English, the heavy dinner in the evening does not forestall the breakfast, though it is often quite meager enough for one who insists upon eating his dinner near mid-day, but in French usage it, seems almost to supersede the idea of any breakfast.