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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter LVIII

Innocents Abroad

Chapter LVIII

The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good
condition, all fast and all willing to prove it. They were the best we
had found any where, and the most 'recherche'. I do not know what
'recherche' is, but that is what these donkeys were, anyhow. Some were
of a soft mouse-color, and the others were white, black, and vari-
colored. Some were close-shaven, all over, except that a tuft like a
paint-brush was left on the end of the tail. Others were so shaven in
fanciful landscape garden patterns, as to mark their bodies with curving
lines, which were bounded on one side by hair and on the other by the
close plush left by the shears. They had all been newly barbered, and
were exceedingly stylish. Several of the white ones were barred like
zebras with rainbow stripes of blue and red and yellow paint. These were
indescribably gorgeous. Dan and Jack selected from this lot because they
brought back Italian reminiscences of the "old masters." The saddles
were the high, stuffy, frog-shaped things we had known in Ephesus and
Smyrna. The donkey-boys were lively young Egyptian rascals who could
follow a donkey and keep him in a canter half a day without tiring. We
had plenty of spectators when we mounted, for the hotel was full of
English people bound overland to India and officers getting ready for the
African campaign against the Abyssinian King Theodorus. We were not a
very large party, but as we charged through the streets of the great
metropolis, we made noise for five hundred, and displayed activity and
created excitement in proportion. Nobody can steer a donkey, and some
collided with camels, dervishes, effendis, asses, beggars and every thing
else that offered to the donkeys a reasonable chance for a collision.
When we turned into the broad avenue that leads out of the city toward
Old Cairo, there was plenty of room. The walls of stately date-palms
that fenced the gardens and bordered the way, threw their shadows down
and made the air cool and bracing. We rose to the spirit of the time and
the race became a wild rout, a stampede, a terrific panic. I wish to
live to enjoy it again.

Somewhere along this route we had a few startling exhibitions of Oriental
simplicity. A girl apparently thirteen years of age came along the great
thoroughfare dressed like Eve before the fall. We would have called her
thirteen at home; but here girls who look thirteen are often not more
than nine, in reality. Occasionally we saw stark-naked men of superb
build, bathing, and making no attempt at concealment. However, an hour's
acquaintance with this cheerful custom reconciled the pilgrims to it, and
then it ceased to occasion remark. Thus easily do even the most
startling novelties grow tame and spiritless to these sight-surfeited

Arrived at Old Cairo, the camp-followers took up the donkeys and tumbled
them bodily aboard a small boat with a lateen sail, and we followed and
got under way. The deck was closely packed with donkeys and men; the two
sailors had to climb over and under and through the wedged mass to work
the sails, and the steersman had to crowd four or five donkeys out of the
way when he wished to swing his tiller and put his helm hard-down. But
what were their troubles to us? We had nothing to do; nothing to do but
enjoy the trip; nothing to do but shove the donkeys off our corns and
look at the charming scenery of the Nile.

On the island at our right was the machine they call the Nilometer, a
stone-column whose business it is to mark the rise of the river and
prophecy whether it will reach only thirty-two feet and produce a famine,
or whether it will properly flood the land at forty and produce plenty,
or whether it will rise to forty-three and bring death and destruction to
flocks and crops--but how it does all this they could not explain to us
so that we could understand. On the same island is still shown the spot
where Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the bulrushes. Near the spot we
sailed from, the Holy Family dwelt when they sojourned in Egypt till
Herod should complete his slaughter of the innocents. The same tree they
rested under when they first arrived, was there a short time ago, but the
Viceroy of Egypt sent it to the Empress Eugenie lately. He was just in
time, otherwise our pilgrims would have had it.

The Nile at this point is muddy, swift and turbid, and does not lack a
great deal of being as wide as the Mississippi.

We scrambled up the steep bank at the shabby town of Ghizeh, mounted the
donkeys again, and scampered away. For four or five miles the route lay
along a high embankment which they say is to be the bed of a railway the
Sultan means to build for no other reason than that when the Empress of
the French comes to visit him she can go to the Pyramids in comfort.
This is true Oriental hospitality. I am very glad it is our privilege to
have donkeys instead of cars.

At the distance of a few miles the Pyramids rising above the palms,
looked very clean-cut, very grand and imposing, and very soft and filmy,
as well. They swam in a rich haze that took from them all suggestions of
unfeeling stone, and made them seem only the airy nothings of a dream--
structures which might blossom into tiers of vague arches, or ornate
colonnades, may be, and change and change again, into all graceful forms
of architecture, while we looked, and then melt deliciously away and
blend with the tremulous atmosphere.

At the end of the levee we left the mules and went in a sailboat across
an arm of the Nile or an overflow, and landed where the sands of the
Great Sahara left their embankment, as straight as a wall, along the
verge of the alluvial plain of the river. A laborious walk in the
flaming sun brought us to the foot of the great Pyramid of Cheops. It
was a fairy vision no longer. It was a corrugated, unsightly mountain of
stone. Each of its monstrous sides was a wide stairway which rose
upward, step above step, narrowing as it went, till it tapered to a point
far aloft in the air. Insect men and women--pilgrims from the Quaker
City--were creeping about its dizzy perches, and one little black swarm
were waving postage stamps from the airy summit--handkerchiefs will be

Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs
who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top--all tourists are. Of
course you could not hear your own voice for the din that was around you.
Of course the Sheiks said they were the only responsible parties; that
all contracts must be made with them, all moneys paid over to them, and
none exacted from us by any but themselves alone. Of course they
contracted that the varlets who dragged us up should not mention
bucksheesh once. For such is the usual routine. Of course we contracted
with them, paid them, were delivered into the hands of the draggers,
dragged up the Pyramids, and harried and be-deviled for bucksheesh from
the foundation clear to the summit. We paid it, too, for we were
purposely spread very far apart over the vast side of the Pyramid. There
was no help near if we called, and the Herculeses who dragged us had a
way of asking sweetly and flatteringly for bucksheesh, which was
seductive, and of looking fierce and threatening to throw us down the
precipice, which was persuasive and convincing.

Each step being full as high as a dinner-table; there being very, very
many of the steps; an Arab having hold of each of our arms and springing
upward from step to step and snatching us with them, forcing us to lift
our feet as high as our breasts every time, and do it rapidly and keep it
up till we were ready to faint, who shall say it is not lively,
exhilarating, lacerating, muscle-straining, bone-wrenching and perfectly
excruciating and exhausting pastime, climbing the Pyramids? I beseeched
the varlets not to twist all my joints asunder; I iterated, reiterated,
even swore to them that I did not wish to beat any body to the top; did
all I could to convince them that if I got there the last of all I would
feel blessed above men and grateful to them forever; I begged them,
prayed them, pleaded with them to let me stop and rest a moment--only one
little moment: and they only answered with some more frightful springs,
and an unenlisted volunteer behind opened a bombardment of determined
boosts with his head which threatened to batter my whole political
economy to wreck and ruin.

Twice, for one minute, they let me rest while they extorted bucksheesh,
and then continued their maniac flight up the Pyramid. They wished to
beat the other parties. It was nothing to them that I, a stranger, must
be sacrificed upon the altar of their unholy ambition. But in the midst
of sorrow, joy blooms. Even in this dark hour I had a sweet consolation.
For I knew that except these Mohammedans repented they would go straight
to perdition some day. And they never repent--they never forsake their
paganism. This thought calmed me, cheered me, and I sank down, limp and
exhausted, upon the summit, but happy, so happy and serene within.

On the one hand, a mighty sea of yellow sand stretched away toward the
ends of the earth, solemn, silent, shorn of vegetation, its solitude
uncheered by any forms of creature life; on the other, the Eden of Egypt
was spread below us--a broad green floor, cloven by the sinuous river,
dotted with villages, its vast distances measured and marked by the
diminishing stature of receding clusters of palms. It lay asleep in an
enchanted atmosphere. There was no sound, no motion. Above the date-
plumes in the middle distance, swelled a domed and pinnacled mass,
glimmering through a tinted, exquisite mist; away toward the horizon a
dozen shapely pyramids watched over ruined Memphis: and at our feet the
bland impassible Sphynx looked out upon the picture from her throne in
the sands as placidly and pensively as she had looked upon its like full
fifty lagging centuries ago.

We suffered torture no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for
bucksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes and poured incessantly from Arab
lips. Why try to call up the traditions of vanished Egyptian grandeur;
why try to fancy Egypt following dead Rameses to his tomb in the Pyramid,
or the long multitude of Israel departing over the desert yonder? Why
try to think at all? The thing was impossible. One must bring his
meditations cut and dried, or else cut and dry them afterward.

The traditional Arab proposed, in the traditional way, to run down
Cheops, cross the eighth of a mile of sand intervening between it and the
tall pyramid of Cephron, ascend to Cephron's summit and return to us on
the top of Cheops--all in nine minutes by the watch, and the whole
service to be rendered for a single dollar. In the first flush of
irritation, I said let the Arab and his exploits go to the mischief.
But stay. The upper third of Cephron was coated with dressed marble,
smooth as glass. A blessed thought entered my brain. He must infallibly
break his neck. Close the contract with dispatch, I said, and let him
go. He started. We watched. He went bounding down the vast broadside,
spring after spring, like an ibex. He grew small and smaller till he
became a bobbing pigmy, away down toward the bottom--then disappeared.
We turned and peered over the other side--forty seconds--eighty seconds--
a hundred--happiness, he is dead already!--two minutes--and a quarter--
"There he goes!" Too true--it was too true. He was very small, now.
Gradually, but surely, he overcame the level ground. He began to spring
and climb again. Up, up, up--at last he reached the smooth coating--now
for it. But he clung to it with toes and fingers, like a fly. He
crawled this way and that--away to the right, slanting upward--away to
the left, still slanting upward--and stood at last, a black peg on the
summit, and waved his pigmy scarf! Then he crept downward to the raw
steps again, then picked up his agile heels and flew. We lost him
presently. But presently again we saw him under us, mounting with
undiminished energy. Shortly he bounded into our midst with a gallant
war-whoop. Time, eight minutes, forty-one seconds. He had won. His
bones were intact. It was a failure. I reflected. I said to myself, he
is tired, and must grow dizzy. I will risk another dollar on him.

He started again. Made the trip again. Slipped on the smooth coating
--I almost had him. But an infamous crevice saved him. He was with us
once more--perfectly sound. Time, eight minutes, forty-six seconds.

I said to Dan, "Lend me a dollar--I can beat this game, yet."

Worse and worse. He won again. Time, eight minutes, forty-eight
seconds. I was out of all patience, now. I was desperate.--Money was
no longer of any consequence. I said, "Sirrah, I will give you a hundred
dollars to jump off this pyramid head first. If you do not like the
terms, name your bet. I scorn to stand on expenses now. I will stay
right here and risk money on you as long as Dan has got a cent."

I was in a fair way to win, now, for it was a dazzling opportunity for an
Arab. He pondered a moment, and would have done it, I think, but his
mother arrived, then, and interfered. Her tears moved me--I never can
look upon the tears of woman with indifference--and I said I would give
her a hundred to jump off, too.

But it was a failure. The Arabs are too high-priced in Egypt. They put
on airs unbecoming to such savages.

We descended, hot and out of humor. The dragoman lit candles, and we all
entered a hole near the base of the pyramid, attended by a crazy rabble
of Arabs who thrust their services upon us uninvited. They dragged us up
a long inclined chute, and dripped candle-grease all over us. This chute
was not more than twice as wide and high as a Saratoga trunk, and was
walled, roofed and floored with solid blocks of Egyptian granite as wide
as a wardrobe, twice as thick and three times as long. We kept on
climbing, through the oppressive gloom, till I thought we ought to be
nearing the top of the pyramid again, and then came to the "Queen's
Chamber," and shortly to the Chamber of the King. These large apartments
were tombs. The walls were built of monstrous masses of smoothed
granite, neatly joined together. Some of them were nearly as large
square as an ordinary parlor. A great stone sarcophagus like a bath-tub
stood in the centre of the King's Chamber. Around it were gathered a
picturesque group of Arab savages and soiled and tattered pilgrims, who
held their candles aloft in the gloom while they chattered, and the
winking blurs of light shed a dim glory down upon one of the
irrepressible memento-seekers who was pecking at the venerable
sarcophagus with his sacrilegious hammer.

We struggled out to the open air and the bright sunshine, and for the
space of thirty minutes received ragged Arabs by couples, dozens and
platoons, and paid them bucksheesh for services they swore and proved by
each other that they had rendered, but which we had not been aware of
before--and as each party was paid, they dropped into the rear of the
procession and in due time arrived again with a newly-invented delinquent
list for liquidation.

We lunched in the shade of the pyramid, and in the midst of this
encroaching and unwelcome company, and then Dan and Jack and I started
away for a walk. A howling swarm of beggars followed us--surrounded us--
almost headed us off. A sheik, in flowing white bournous and gaudy head-
gear, was with them. He wanted more bucksheesh. But we had adopted a
new code--it was millions for defense, but not a cent for bucksheesh. I
asked him if he could persuade the others to depart if we paid him. He
said yes--for ten francs. We accepted the contract, and said--

"Now persuade your vassals to fall back."

He swung his long staff round his head and three Arabs bit the dust. He
capered among the mob like a very maniac. His blows fell like hail, and
wherever one fell a subject went down. We had to hurry to the rescue and
tell him it was only necessary to damage them a little, he need not kill
them.--In two minutes we were alone with the sheik, and remained so.
The persuasive powers of this illiterate savage were remarkable.

Each side of the Pyramid of Cheops is about as long as the Capitol at
Washington, or the Sultan's new palace on the Bosporus, and is longer
than the greatest depth of St. Peter's at Rome--which is to say that each
side of Cheops extends seven hundred and some odd feet. It is about
seventy-five feet higher than the cross on St. Peter's. The first time I
ever went down the Mississippi, I thought the highest bluff on the river
between St. Louis and New Orleans--it was near Selma, Missouri--was
probably the highest mountain in the world. It is four hundred and
thirteen feet high. It still looms in my memory with undiminished
grandeur. I can still see the trees and bushes growing smaller and
smaller as I followed them up its huge slant with my eye, till they
became a feathery fringe on the distant summit. This symmetrical Pyramid
of Cheops--this solid mountain of stone reared by the patient hands of
men--this mighty tomb of a forgotten monarch--dwarfs my cherished
mountain. For it is four hundred and eighty feet high. In still earlier
years than those I have been recalling, Holliday's Hill, in our town, was
to me the noblest work of God. It appeared to pierce the skies. It was
nearly three hundred feet high. In those days I pondered the subject
much, but I never could understand why it did not swathe its summit with
never-failing clouds, and crown its majestic brow with everlasting snows.
I had heard that such was the custom of great mountains in other parts of
the world. I remembered how I worked with another boy, at odd afternoons
stolen from study and paid for with stripes, to undermine and start from
its bed an immense boulder that rested upon the edge of that hilltop; I
remembered how, one Saturday afternoon, we gave three hours of honest
effort to the task, and saw at last that our reward was at hand; I
remembered how we sat down, then, and wiped the perspiration away, and
waited to let a picnic party get out of the way in the road below--and
then we started the boulder. It was splendid. It went crashing down the
hillside, tearing up saplings, mowing bushes down like grass, ripping and
crushing and smashing every thing in its path--eternally splintered and
scattered a wood pile at the foot of the hill, and then sprang from the
high bank clear over a dray in the road--the negro glanced up once and
dodged--and the next second it made infinitesimal mince-meat of a frame
cooper-shop, and the coopers swarmed out like bees. Then we said it was
perfectly magnificent, and left. Because the coopers were starting up
the hill to inquire.

Still, that mountain, prodigious as it was, was nothing to the Pyramid of
Cheops. I could conjure up no comparison that would convey to my mind a
satisfactory comprehension of the magnitude of a pile of monstrous stones
that covered thirteen acres of ground and stretched upward four hundred
and eighty tiresome feet, and so I gave it up and walked down to the

After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so
sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of
earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any
thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image
of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of
the landscape, yet looking at nothing--nothing but distance and vacancy.
It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into
the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time--over lines of
century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and
nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward
the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed
ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations
whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose
annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the
grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the
type of an attribute of man--of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was
MEMORY--RETROSPECTION--wrought into visible, tangible form. All who know
what pathos there is in memories of days that are accomplished and faces
that have vanished--albeit only a trifling score of years gone by--will
have some appreciation of the pathos that dwells in these grave eyes that
look so steadfastly back upon the things they knew before History was
born--before Tradition had being--things that were, and forms that moved,
in a vague era which even Poetry and Romance scarce know of--and passed
one by one away and left the stony dreamer solitary in the midst of a
strange new age, and uncomprehended scenes.

The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude;
it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is
that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with
its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one
something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful
presence of God.

There are some things which, for the credit of America, should be left
unsaid, perhaps; but these very things happen sometimes to be the very
things which, for the real benefit of Americans, ought to have prominent
notice. While we stood looking, a wart, or an excrescence of some kind,
appeared on the jaw of the Sphynx. We heard the familiar clink of a
hammer, and understood the case at once. One of our well meaning
reptiles--I mean relic-hunters--had crawled up there and was trying to
break a "specimen" from the face of this the most majestic creation the
hand of man has wrought. But the great image contemplated the dead ages
as calmly as ever, unconscious of the small insect that was fretting at
its jaw. Egyptian granite that has defied the storms and earthquakes of
all time has nothing to fear from the tack-hammers of ignorant
excursionists--highwaymen like this specimen. He failed in his
enterprise. We sent a sheik to arrest him if he had the authority, or to
warn him, if he had not, that by the laws of Egypt the crime he was
attempting to commit was punishable with imprisonment or the bastinado.
Then he desisted and went away.

The Sphynx: a hundred and twenty-five feet long, sixty feet high, and a
hundred and two feet around the head, if I remember rightly--carved out
of one solid block of stone harder than any iron. The block must have
been as large as the Fifth Avenue Hotel before the usual waste (by the
necessities of sculpture) of a fourth or a half of the original mass was
begun. I only set down these figures and these remarks to suggest the
prodigious labor the carving of it so elegantly, so symmetrically, so
faultlessly, must have cost. This species of stone is so hard that
figures cut in it remain sharp and unmarred after exposure to the weather
for two or three thousand years. Now did it take a hundred years of
patient toil to carve the Sphynx? It seems probable.

Something interfered, and we did not visit the Red Sea and walk upon the
sands of Arabia. I shall not describe the great mosque of Mehemet Ali,
whose entire inner walls are built of polished and glistening alabaster;
I shall not tell how the little birds have built their nests in the
globes of the great chandeliers that hang in the mosque, and how they
fill the whole place with their music and are not afraid of any body
because their audacity is pardoned, their rights are respected, and
nobody is allowed to interfere with them, even though the mosque be thus
doomed to go unlighted; I certainly shall not tell the hackneyed story of
the massacre of the Mamelukes, because I am glad the lawless rascals were
massacred, and I do not wish to get up any sympathy in their behalf; I
shall not tell how that one solitary Mameluke jumped his horse a hundred
feet down from the battlements of the citadel and escaped, because I do
not think much of that--I could have done it myself; I shall not tell of
Joseph's well which he dug in the solid rock of the citadel hill and
which is still as good as new, nor how the same mules he bought to draw
up the water (with an endless chain) are still at it yet and are getting
tired of it, too; I shall not tell about Joseph's granaries which he
built to store the grain in, what time the Egyptian brokers were "selling
short," unwitting that there would be no corn in all the land when it
should be time for them to deliver; I shall not tell any thing about the
strange, strange city of Cairo, because it is only a repetition, a good
deal intensified and exaggerated, of the Oriental cities I have already
spoken of; I shall not tell of the Great Caravan which leaves for Mecca
every year, for I did not see it; nor of the fashion the people have of
prostrating themselves and so forming a long human pavement to be ridden
over by the chief of the expedition on its return, to the end that their
salvation may be thus secured, for I did not see that either; I shall not
speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway--I shall only say
that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three
thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that
purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out
pettishly, "D--n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent--pass out
a King;"--[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am
willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]--I shall not tell of
the groups of mud cones stuck like wasps' nests upon a thousand mounds
above high water-mark the length and breadth of Egypt--villages of the
lower classes; I shall not speak of the boundless sweep of level plain,
green with luxuriant grain, that gladdens the eye as far as it can pierce
through the soft, rich atmosphere of Egypt; I shall not speak of the
vision of the Pyramids seen at a distance of five and twenty miles, for
the picture is too ethereal to be limned by an uninspired pen; I shall
not tell of the crowds of dusky women who flocked to the cars when they
stopped a moment at a station, to sell us a drink of water or a ruddy,
juicy pomegranate; I shall not tell of the motley multitudes and wild
costumes that graced a fair we found in full blast at another barbarous
station; I shall not tell how we feasted on fresh dates and enjoyed the
pleasant landscape all through the flying journey; nor how we thundered
into Alexandria, at last, swarmed out of the cars, rowed aboard the ship,
left a comrade behind, (who was to return to Europe, thence home,) raised
the anchor, and turned our bows homeward finally and forever from the
long voyage; nor how, as the mellow sun went down upon the oldest land on
earth, Jack and Moult assembled in solemn state in the smoking-room and
mourned over the lost comrade the whole night long, and would not be
comforted. I shall not speak a word of any of these things, or write a
line. They shall be as a sealed book. I do not know what a sealed book
is, because I never saw one, but a sealed book is the expression to use
in this connection, because it is popular.

We were glad to have seen the land which was the mother of civilization--
which taught Greece her letters, and through Greece Rome, and through
Rome the world; the land which could have humanized and civilized the
hapless children of Israel, but allowed them to depart out of her borders
little better than savages. We were glad to have seen that land which
had an enlightened religion with future eternal rewards and punishment in
it, while even Israel's religion contained no promise of a hereafter.
We were glad to have seen that land which had glass three thousand years
before England had it, and could paint upon it as none of us can paint
now; that land which knew, three thousand years ago, well nigh all of
medicine and surgery which science has discovered lately; which had all
those curious surgical instruments which science has invented recently;
which had in high excellence a thousand luxuries and necessities of an
advanced civilization which we have gradually contrived and accumulated
in modern times and claimed as things that were new under the sun; that
had paper untold centuries before we dreampt of it--and waterfalls before
our women thought of them; that had a perfect system of common schools so
long before we boasted of our achievements in that direction that it
seems forever and forever ago; that so embalmed the dead that flesh was
made almost immortal--which we can not do; that built temples which mock
at destroying time and smile grimly upon our lauded little prodigies of
architecture; that old land that knew all which we know now, perchance,
and more; that walked in the broad highway of civilization in the gray
dawn of creation, ages and ages before we were born; that left the
impress of exalted, cultivated Mind upon the eternal front of the Sphynx
to confound all scoffers who, when all her other proofs had passed away,
might seek to persuade the world that imperial Egypt, in the days of her
high renown, had groped in darkness.

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