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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 6
Desaix's expedition to Upper Egypt—Action of Sediman—Province of Faioum— Faoue—Lake Meeris—City of the Dead—Attempt of Mourad Bey after the insurrection at Cairo.

THE waters of the Nile had reached their greatest height when General Bonaparte arrived at Cairo on his return from the pursuit of Ibrahim Bey. He then ordered the departure of Desaix's division for the twofold purpose of occupying Upper Egypt and fighting Mourad Bey, who had fled thither. This division consisted of eight battalions only, one of them, since its arrival at Cairo, having been sent to garrison Alexandria. The whole division was embarked at Boulac on board of djermes, vessels which navigate the Nile. It was provided with only two pieces of artillery, and ascended the Nile, without stopping, as far as Siout, the capital of Upper Egypt. The whole country was inundated by the over flowing of the river, and the towns and villages, which are built upon artificial elevations of ground, had become so many small islands.

General Desaix learned at Siout that Mourad Bey had again penetrated into the country along the borders of the desert on the left bank, leaving the inundation on his right, and contemplating to approach Cairo. He had been informed of the preparations making for an insurrection against the French, and was anxious to take advantage of it.

As the inundation compelled him to pass through Faïoum, so as to secure at any time his retreat into the desert, and as his march was retarded by the camels loaded with provisions which followed in his train. General Desaix formed the plan of overtaking him. The decrease of the Nile had commenced when he caused his fleet of djermes to descend as far as the entrance of Joseph's Canal, which is four or five leagues below Siout, between Minieh and Melaoui. He made all his vessels enter, one after the other, into the canal, which is every where ten or twelve toises broad, and in its whole length runs parallel to the Nile, along the borders of the desert.

The current of water in the canal brought the whole fleet close to Sediman, a small village standing on the edge of the desert and on one of the banks of the canal.We descried the mamelukes, who fled into the desert on our approach. General Desaix, however, proceeded no farther on the canal, but landed the troops as well as the two pieces of artillery, and we advanced towards the desert in a compact square, offering battle to the mamelukes, who, however, refused it.

The sufferings from thirst and the approach of night made us retire to the banks of the inundated land, where we had left our boats and all our provisions: the mamelukes followed, and bivouacked at the distance of two hundred paces from us; so that we were obliged to take rest without breaking our square, each soldier holding his musket between his knees.

The merit of French troops in circumstances of difficulty can be appreciated by those only who have lived amongst them. On the present occasion, each soldier was so impressed with the reality of the danger, that be had not to be put upon his guard ; the exercise of discipline was wholly uncalled for, so satisfied was he of the necessity of obedience. The troops would, of their own accord, have punished any one amongst them guilty of a neglect calculated to compromise the safety of all.

At daybreak, that is to say, at two or three o'clock the next morning, all the troops were under arms, without being called to it by beat of drum: the boats were immediately set afloat, to spare us the trouble of protecting them: we formed into three squares, a large one flanked by two smaller ones, and advanced towards the desert.

Our two pieces of artillery were stationed at the two angles of our front, and could be removed to the angles in the rear by penetrating through the interior of the square.

We were ascending, in this order, one of the hills of the desert, to take possession of its summit, and command a greater extent of country, when, without receiving any other notice of the approach of the mamelukes than the noise of their tam-tam, and the cloud of dust which they raised in their advance, our squares were suddenly charged by a swarm of this impetuous cavalry, and with such desperate fury, that the right was broken, and lost fifteen or twenty men by the fault of its commander. This officer, who was a man of undoubted courage, had formed the plan of reserving his fire until a sure aim could be taken: he tried the experiment ; it happened, however, that the horses of the mamelukes, though pierced with shot, forced their way through the square, and dropped at a hundred paces beyond it, so that they made openings in the ranks, into which the mamelukes who were behind did not fail to penetrate. General Desaix severely reprimanded this officer, who, with the best intentions, committed an error which was likely, for a few moments, to be attended with serious consequences.

We had but just time to halt, point our artillery, and commence a firing in double files, which, for the space of half an hour, prevented our distinguishing any object, owing to the smoke, dust, and confusion. The action, very opportunely for us, ceased with the firing, as we had only nine cannon-shot left, and our cartridges were nearly exhausted.

The conflict had been very disastrous to the mamelukes, who fled in all directions. The ground was cleared before us in a very few minutes, and we continued to ascend the hill, from the summit of which the beautiful and richly cultivated province of Faïoum presented itself to our view.

We retraced our steps down the hill in order to be in communication with our boats, which had witnessed the late encounter from the midst of the inundated lands: they followed our movement, and came up with us at the small village of Sediman, where we passed the night.

Our departure the next morning was rather accelerated by the decrease of the waters, as it hardly allowed our boats sufficient time to reach the lower entrance of the canal through which they were to return to the Nile.

We therefore quitted Sediman at daybreak, and took up a position at the entrance of the province of Faïoum, a distance of only one league from the village.

Joseph's Canal runs in front of the neck of land that unites this province to the valley of the Nile.

During the heaviest inundations the canal discharges its superabundant waters into another canal which branches off from the first at the village of Illaon, and carries them to the town of Faoue, and thence to Lake Moeris.

The bed of this canal is lower than that of Joseph's Canal. At their point of junction there is a dike of separation, in work of solid masonry, surmounted with a stone bridge of very great antiquity: we crossed it for the purpose of fixing ourselves at the entrance of the province towards which we were marching.

General Desaix, having landed every thing belonging to his division, sent the boats back to the Nile, and bivouacked his troops in a wood of date trees, quite impenetrable to the sun's rays, and on the borders of the canal of Illaon.

We remained some days in this position, where we bad every thing in abundance. The canal was deep enough to admit of our bathing in it. Exhausted as we were by oppressive heat, after marching through the desert for seven or eight successive days, we indulged without restraint in the delightful enjoyment of these baths. The abuse of them was productive of pernicious consequences to us; forty-eight hours afterwards, eight hundred of our men were attacked with ophthalmia, in so severe a manner as to become entirely blind. General Desaix himself was of the number, and experienced the most acute sufferings.

Our situation alarmed us to such a degree, that we immediately made arrangements for proceeding to Faoue, where we expected to find some relief for our numerous sick.

We placed General Desaix, with some soldiers, in a small boat, which descended the canal, whilst the column followed the road leading to Faoue along its bank.

The soldiers suffering from blindness exceeded in numbers those in health : each soldier having the use of his sight, or only, attacked in one eye, led several of his blind comrades, who, nevertheless, carried their own arms and baggage. We bore a much greater resemblance to men discharged from an hospital than to a warlike body.

After penetrating for several hours through fields in au admirable state of cultivation, and covered with rose-trees in fall bloom, we arrived at Faoue in the wretched condition I have described. The town is of considerable size, the capital of Faïoum, and situated in the heart of that province, which presents to the eye an uniform sheet of verdure. Its only communication with Egypt is by a neck of land, of which Illaon is the extreme point. The canal of Illaon runs through the province and the capital, whence it branches out into a multitude of irrigating streams, that fertilise the surrounding country in their course towards Lake Moeris, into which they discharge their superfluous waters.

This province enjoys a greater degree of tranquillity than any part of Egypt, with which country it has very little intercourse.

Over the canal running through the town is a bridge of great antiquity, and resembling those I had seen in Egypt; they appeared to be of kindred origin. I do not think they exceeded five in number; one of them, thrown over the canal running at the bases of the Pyramids, and, no doubt, connected with Memphis in former days; another at Illaon; a third at Faoue; and the remaining two at Siout.

We stayed at Faoue until the disappearance of the waters ; an occurrence soon followed by the drying up of the country, or rather by that adherence of the ground which is necessary for sowing; an operation simply consisting in throwing the seed over the mud, and imbedding it by means of men, who tread over the field in every direction. The ground is never ploughed, except when it has become too hard to admit of being sown in the manner I have just described.

At no period since our arrival in Egypt had we enjoyed so much comfort as during our stay in Faïoum: we remained there upwards of a month, at the end of which all our sufferers from ophthalmia had recovered. Ovens were erected, and the military administration of the province was organised.

"We were soon prepared to resume our march, and proceeded across the beautiful and verdant fields of a country which was about to display to our sight its wonderful and unexpected fecundity.

General Bonaparte had signified to General Desaix his satisfaction at the conduct of his division, and instructed him to levy money and horses in the province of Faïoum. This order was punctually carried into effect, and afforded us the opportunity of visiting the famous Lake Moeris, which receives the waters of the canal that forms a junction with Joseph's Canal at the village of Illaon.

Those travellers must have been greatly mistaken who have pretended that this lake was formed as a reservoir for the overflowing waters of the Nile, which it afterwards discharged over the country during the drought. This opinion is probably maintained by people who have not had the advantage of personal knowledge. We certainly discovered near Illaon, on the right bank of the canal and of the road leading to Faoue, a very spacious basin, constructed of masonry, which was then full of water; it may be two hundred feet long, and of equal breadth. It is also more elevated than the surrounding land, and can only be filled by the waters of the Nile, when at its greatest rise ; or by means of small flood-gates, which were opened for the double purpose of admitting the water, or of letting it out : they still answer the same purpose. This basin, however, cannot be the one alluded to by travellers. There is hardly a single mill in Europe the pond of which does not hold a greater volume of water ; and the whole contents of the basin would hardly be sufficient to irrigate a few acres of land: it cannot therefore be the celebrated Lake Moeris, or the exaggeration of historians must have exceeded all bounds.

I had the command of the first detachment of light infantry sent from Faoue to overrun the province. My attention was particularly attracted to the remains which it exhibited of its ancient state of civilization, and to the system of irrigation, which prevailed in as great perfection as in Italy.

A multitude of little canals branch out in all directions from the town of Faoue, and carry their waters into every village of the province: each village has its canal, and keeps it in proper repair.

When a village has excited displeasure, the flood-gate of its canal is closed, and it is deprived of water until the orders signified to it have been complied with. No other means of coercion could be productive of so prompt and effectual a result.

The government of the province requires only the aid of one man to open or close the flood-gates.

I believe I was the first person in the army who visited Lake Moeris; and this imposing sight convinced me that the canal of Faiourn formerly ran through the mounds of sand which the winds had collected in heaps at the extremity of the lake, and that its waters discharged themselves into the Mediterranean through Lake Moeris, in the vicinity of Alexandria. The winds constantly prevailing in that quarter have by degrees driven these sand-hills into the canal, and completely choked up the part beyond them, which is called at the present day the Waterless River, in which the inhabitants assured me that fragments of petrified boats were still to be seen.

As the waters carried every year to this spot, by the rising of the Nile, found no longer any outlet, they must necessarily have overflowed and formed an immense sewer, which has gone on constantly increasing, but which, being in the lowest ground in the province, could never lose its waters by other means than evaporation, under the burning sun of this climate.

I do not think that the existence of Lake Moeris can be accounted for in any other manner.

There is a small island, about the centre of the lake, upon which the inhabitants of the town of Faoue (the Arsinoe of antiquity) constructed their City of the .Dead, and erected a temple, which is still in existence. Every opulent family had its tomb in it, with a sepulchral recess for each of its members. In those days, as at the present time, it was an object of constant occupation with the Egyptians to provide for their last home. The City of the Dead had, accordingly, become as extensive as that of the living, and the dwellings were more or less alike in both. This City of the Dead could only be approached in a boat; and in all likelihood the boatman, who was at the same time the guardian of the tombs) went by the name of Charon, since the inhabitants of the province still give to Lake Moeris the appellation of Birket-el-Caron (the Lake of Charon).

The funeral of the higher classes was attended with great pomp : the inferior ranks were buried with less display, and the family of the deceased, after embalming the body, carried it to a spot destined for the purpose on the border of the lake, near the place of embarkation, whence Charon removed it to his boat, and transported it across to the tomb appropriated for its reception. The boatman waited until several bodies had been brought down by the respective families, who never failed to place on each corpse the name of the deceased, and the piece of coin which accrued to Charon as his perquisite. Each family afterwards proceeded to the respective tombs on an appointed day, and rendered the last duties to their deceased relatives.

The poor, who neither possessed a tomb, nor the means of being embalmed, were no doubt carried to the border of the lake by their relatives, who placed on their tongues the piece of coin claimed by Charon as his due previously to burying them. Nearly the same practice is still prevalent in Egypt, in all towns of sufficient extent to possess a city of tombs.

The Egyptians have still the habit of hiding their money under the tongue: it appeared very extraordinary to us, on our first arrival, that a Turk, before he handed us any change, would spit out all the medins which he kept concealed in his mouth, sometimes to the number of a hundred and fifty or two hundred, without either his voice or his powers of eating and drinking being at all affected by it.

An event occurred during our stay at Faouë which compelled us to resume our march with the soldiers who had but just recovered from the ophthalmia.

Mourad Bey, who had been informed of the plan of an insurrection contemplated at Cairo, had approached that city, which had in reality been the scene of a seditious movement. The populace, urged on by the influential inhabitants and the cheiks, had repaired to the different residences of the Beys, where we had placed some of our establishments. A few assassinations took place in the streets ; but the insurrection was so ill-directed as to afford the garrison time to run to arms, and proceed to the several points threatened with an attack. A prompt and severe example was made of the first who were taken in the act, and the agitation was soon appeased. The leaders sued for pardon; and it was granted them under the condition of a heavy contribution, which we were not sorry to have an opportunity of imposing upon them.

On being informed of this result, Mourad Bey had again retreated into Upper Egypt, along the border of the desert, and reached the extremity of the province of Faiourn, where he endeavoured to raise an insurrection against us. We quitted Faoue with the intention of encountering him, or driving him back, leaving our sick and the rest of our blind soldiers in the house which the government had deserted on our arrival, and of which we barricadoed the entrance. This house had terraces commanding the approaches to it, and contained our stores of ammunition and provisions. We had scarcely reached the distance of a few leagues from the town, when the mamelukes we were in pursuit of escaped our vigilance, and rushed into the town, hoping to excite the inhabitants to an attack upon the house in which our soldiers were quartered ; having failed, however, in this object, they made the attempt themselves, and prepared to scale the walls.

The sick instantly rushed out of their beds; those affected with ophthalmia threw the bandages from their eyes: all flew to arms, and ascended the terraces of the house, and by the fire of their musketry succeeded in driving away the assailants, and compelling them to relinquish the attempt.

Mourad Bey retreated through the town, into the desert, in a direction opposite to the one in which he had first made his appearance, and withdrew a second time to Upper Egypt.

The intelligence of this event was communicated to General Desaix by an inhabitant of Faoue, who had been dispatched to him by the commander of the soldiers he had left in the town.

He retraced his steps, and was well pleased to find that an attack, which might have been attended with fatal consequences, had not cost a single life.

In our last excursion we met with a large quagmire of considerable dimensions, since it extended the whole length of the province, from its opening towards Egypt, as far as Lake Moeris, and was as broad as one of the first rivers in Europe. This quagmire seems to have been one of the receptacles for the waters of the Nile ; a circumstance tending to confirm the opinion I have expressed respecting the formation of Lake Moeris and the Waterless River.

It is far too deep and spacious to be a work of human construction. The bottom of it still presents a stream bordered by very high rushes; and we were told by the inhabitants that this muddy stream was supplied with water all the year round. We remarked, along the road from Illaon to Faoue, a very ancient bridge, such as the one we had seen in the village itself, and constructed, in like manner, over a projecting dike, made of solid masonry, consisting of enormous stones, and in excellent condition. We endeavoured to ascertain the direction taken by the waters, which, during the heavy swellings of the Nile, exceed the elevation of this dike, the surface of which was an inclined plane of perfect smoothness; and we found that they discharged themselves into this quagmire. In very remote ages, therefore, it must have had a destination, respecting which we did not exert our powers of conjecture.

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