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Climate of the valley of the Nile.—Extreme dryness.—General appearance of Egyptian ruins.—Temples, tombs.—Arts of design in ancient Egypt.—Principal localities on the Nile.
It may serve to make more intelligible what follows, to advert here to the general appearance of the Egyptian ruins, the arts of design as exhibited in painting and sculpture, and the climate of the valley of the Nile. We must therefore detain the reader for a short time with the consideration of these.
Egypt is a valley lying between two ranges of mountains, that extend from south to north; and is bounded also, on three of its sides, by deserts. The mountains are of no great elevation; on the east are the deserts of Arabia, interrupted only by the comparatively narrow waters of the Red Sea; while on the south and west stretches out the vast expanse of sand known as the Libyan desert, reaching on the south into the heart of Africa, and on the west, to the shores of the Atlantic. The position of Egypt, therefore, is marked by a striking peculiarity. It is in the centre of the largest tract of uninterrupted sterility and sand, on the face of our globe; and, as one of the consequences of its position, rain in Lower Egypt (which is the only Egypt spoken of in the Mosaic history) is generally said to be altogether unknown. It has,
however, been known to fall near the shores of the Mediterranean; this, however, is rare. Even in the Thebaid, or Upper Egypt, where it has sometimes fallen, its appearance is so rare, that the occurrence is deemed very remarkable.
This valley which we have described is, throughout its whole length, traversed by the river Nile; which, rising in the regions south of ancient Egypt, holds on its course northwardly, and empties its waters into the Mediterranean. To this river Egypt is indebted for its wondrous fertility. Ordinarily the waters of the river are somewhat muddy; and yet the universal testimony, both of natives and foreigners, bears witness to the pleasantness and salubrity of the water. Place the Egyptian where you will, there is no physical enjoyment of his country which memory oftener recalls, or for which he pines with more irrepressible longing, than for the waters of his beloved river. Regularly, every year, about the time of the summer solstice, (June 21,) the waters of the Nile suddenly change their appearance, and become red and turbid, being highly charged with fine black alluvial matter washed down by the torrents from the table lands of Abyssinia. They begin gradually to rise within the banks of the stream until about the middle of July, when they overflow them; and as the surface of the valley is convex, and the river runs as it were in a furrow over the highest part, it will be seen that a beautiful provision is thus made by nature for watering a region, that otherwise would be utterly barren. About the 20th of August, the valley presents the appearance of a great inland sea, spotted over with villages and towns. Causeways that have been laid on ridges or mounds erected for the purpose, furnish the only means of land communication between them.
Appearance during an Inundation.
About the period of the autumnal equinox the waters begin to subside, and before the end of November, the river is once more within its banks. The skill and industry of the inhabitants have for years been employed to increase, by artificial aids, this periodical season of natural irrigation. By canals and embankments, and in former times, by artificial lakes of almost incredible size, they have sought to lose not the smallest advantage that could be derived from the increase of the waters.
Another remarkable feature in Egypt is the extraordinary dryness of the atmosphere. The question has sometimes been asked, how it has been possible that the monuments of this ancient nation should have survived the touch of time for so many centuries, and, though dilapidated in some degree, should yet present to the eye of the traveller,
• "A noble wreck, in ruinous perfection,"
so widely different from the architectural memorials of the past, to be found in the tropical regions of our own Central America and Yucatan? The burning sands of the almost boundless deserts have abstracted, from the atmosphere of Egypt, the great physical agent in the decomposition of matter,—moisture. Hence but little corrosion of the monuments,