Overland Journey to India

The Mahmoudye Canal connects Alexandria with Atfeh, a navigable point on the Nile. This important public work was begun in 1819, and completed in little more than six months, having been opened on the 24th of January 1520. It is forty-eight miles in length, ninety feet across, and about eighteen feet in depth. For a long distance, the banks of the canal are ornamented on one side by neat villas, with most beautiful shrubberies and flower-gardens in front of them. The little kiosks, or summer-seats, consisting in a circle of benches, shadowed by lofty trees, almost hang over the banks. The canal is nowhere strait, and passes along a country so perfectly level, that locks are not required. One only exists at Ada. As many as a hundred and fifty thousand people are said to have been employed in the excavation of the canal: the inhabitants of all the villages in Lower Egypt were marched down to the stations respectively assigned to them, one month's pay having been advanced to enable them to supply themselves with provisions. The assemblage of so enormous a multitude, which would have formed a double line from end to end of the canal, had they stood as close as possible to each other, was sure to be productive of fatal results; and accordingly twenty thousand are understood to have perished on the occasion. Provisions ran scanty, many fell victims to starvation, and pestilence swept many more away. Two-thirds of them were without tools or clothing of any kind whatever, groping up the mud, and lifting it out with their hands. The last portion of this statement appeared to myself incredible, until I had seen people engaged in cleaning out a portion of an old canal near the Lake Mareotis. They dug with their hands into the soft mud, until a portion about a cubic foot in size was detached; this was passed on to the nearest workman, and so conveyed by others to the bank. Not one vestige of implement or attire was possessed, or apparently desired by them.

The banks of the canal are sufficiently high to intercept the view of the adjoining country, so that, after passing the villas already alluded to, there is really nothing to be seen. A good sailing-boat traversed the distance in eight hours; one, tugged by horses, in ten. A small high-pressure steamer is presently employed, which goes snort, snorting along at the rate of about five miles an hour. The boats containing the passengers and luggage are towed behind. We started at half-past six, and were no less than eleven hours on the canal, reaching Atfeh on the Nile at half-past five. It has always been my fortune to pass this filthy little village late at night, or early in the morning, so as scarcely to be able to see it, and the matter did not seem entitled to excite much regret. On reaching the Nile, the traveler finds a neatly-kept and commodious steamer awaiting him not very roomy, but such as passengers, if not numbering more than fifty, may put up with without much discomfort. In going up the Nile, several large works for assisting the irrigation of the country are passed.

One who has examined the magnificent specimens of grain now grown in England, is exceedingly disappointed on examining that for which Egypt, for thirty centuries, has been famous. I collected many specimens in 1840: it is exceedingly prolific on the root, but not more so than grain at home thinly sown on rich soil. The stalks of the barley are seldom above eighteen or twenty inches long each root produces from six to twenty-five stems, fifteen being about the average. There are six rows of grains or pickles on each stalk, each row containing at an average about ten grains, so that the return from the seed in from six to nine hundred. The roots are from six to fourteen inches from each other, and I do not believe that an acre of land in Egypt will yield nearly so much grain, by measure or weight, as a similar surface in England - both under present cultivation. The barley itself, when rubbed out, would have been little short of unsaleable in average season at home, so thin, husky, and poor it was. It is trampled out of the straw by oxen, and cleared of chaff by the wind. The straw is chopped or cut up into what we in India call boosa, by an implement closely resembling a turnip-sowing harrow, drawn over it by oxen, each roller being armed with three or four circular cutters. The crop which most surprises by its abundance is tobacco, vast fields of which extend in all directions. Nor is it to be wondered at that the cultivation of this narcotic should rival in extent that of grain, or roots, or fruits for human food. In Egypt, every man who can afford it smokes at every hour of the day. The dull and watery eye, the want of energy and enterprise apparent in all, tell too plainly how the drug is doing its work. It is sad to see Englishmen reducing themselves to the level of Turks, as is too often the case, by the filthy and degrading practice of everlasting smoking. A singular variety of raft, consisting of a framework of slight sticks, buoyed up by a vast number of earthen pots, is frequently to be seen on the Nile. They appear to be chiefly employed in carrying coarse earthenware down the river.