Christmas Shopping at Assuan

“Rows and rows of beads, amber and glass, were strung around our necks, as the least troublesome method of carrying them. Swords and spears were brandished in triumph, and absurd little drums of black clay were beaten joyously with narrow strips of leather.”

Library of Congress

“Now, Ann, what would you like to do this afternoon?” I once heard an Englishwoman say to her young daughter, as they came slowly down the stairs of a Paris hotel. “Would you like to go to the Louvre, the Luxembourg, or the Salon?” To which the girl replied, with wistful candor. “If you don’t really mind, mamma, I should like to go and shop.”

That child’s sentiments were my own when Christmas Eve found us at Assuân, within a stone’s throw of the most interesting bazaars on the Nile. In vain our dragoman suggested a second trip to Philæ, and the really intelligent sightseers of the party reminded me severely that i had not examined half the inscriptions on my previous day’s visit. In vain the conscientious members urged that we had never been to the island of Elephantine at all, the sacred island where the god of the cataracts dwelt in his hidden shrine. In vain a few adventurous spirits urged us to ride to a Nubian village amid the sandhills and see a sword-dance, — “the real thing this time, and no mistake.” It was Christmas Eve. Shopping was the legitimate employment of the day. I thought of the English girl, and her fine rejection of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Salon, gathered a few unintelligent unconscientious, and unadventurous idlers around me, and started for the bazaars.

Now, shopping on the Nile is a very different matter from shopping on Chestnut Street or Broadway. In the first place, it is not a question of buying what you want, but of buying what you see. In the second place, it is not a question of paying what is asked, but of paying what you please, — provided only that you can get the merchant to agree with you. He begins by asking five times, ten times, twenty times the worth of the article, in hopes that your bid will be correspondingly high. If you are an old and wary bargainer, this false start fails to daunt you; but as it is hard to discover the real market value of a thing, or rather as nothing has a market value, there is no estimate save that of your own desires. How much is it worth to you? I have known a first-class dealer in Cairo to demand forty pounds for an antique basin and ever of Persian enameled copper, and to end by selling it for fifteen, and he was presumed to be a reliable merchant. The wary Egyptian who stands behind his tiny counter at Assuân is prepared for greater falls than this. One swarthy and excitable person, from whom I wished to purchase a small blue stone toad, fresh from the factory of Luxor, assured me its “last price” was a sovereign. On my hinting as gently as I could that a shilling would be rather too dear, he flung out his arms with a noble dramatic gesture, and called Heaven to witness that he could get a sovereign for it any day he pleased; many people would be glad to pay that price for such a curious and beautiful antique. We said that he would do well to keep it for these generous customers, and were passing on, when he slipped out of his bazaar, and caught my gown with one hand, while he held up the little monster alluringly with the other. “A pound is cheap—cheap!” he protested. “What then does madame expect to give, if she desires to possess such a treasure?” Madame intimated her willingness to pay sixpence, and no more; whereupon, like Lady Clare’s lover,

He laughed a laugh of merry scorn

and swept the toad so swiftly up his sleeve that for one brief moment I was beguiled into believing the thing really had some mysterious value, and that i had betrayed my ignorance by the modesty of my bid. But five minutes later, as we were bargaining at another bazaar for a Soudanese battle-axe, I felt a hand laid persuasively on my arm, and there stood my friend with the toad, more reproachful and more dramatic than ever. The price had fallen now to fifteen shillings. He was downcast, but resigned. Since the rich American lady was unwilling to give more, the poor Egyptian must be content to lose. “Take it for fifteen shillings and good-by.” The rich American lady explained that sixpence was her final offer, and continued her negotiations for the axe. It took a long time for this weapon to fall, by slow degrees, from thirty shillings to eight, at which price it was finally purchased, and I had forgotten all about my toad in this new excitement, when a voice whispered mournfully in my ear, “What you like to give, then? Twenty shillings?” I shook my head. The Egyptian seemed pained. He looked at me as if I had gone back on my promised word. I moved away. He followed me from stall to stall, and the shillings dropped off at every step, like leaves from a tree in autumn. Nine—eight—seven—six—five—four—three—two—one—then a long, incredulous pause. “Madame will not give one shilling for a stone two thousand years old? Take it for sixpence!” The toad was thrust into my hand, and its former proprietor withdrew, no longer melancholy, but wreathed with smiles, and plainly well pleased with his bargain.

Imitation antiques, however, play but an insignificant part in the trade of an Assuân bazaar. Curious and beautiful things lie heaped up on these narrow shelves; and the dim light that filters down through the loosely timbered roof, in strong contrast to the yellow glare outside, conceals many a flaw and rent, and lends a deceptive charm to the gaudy tissues and barbaric ornaments around us. Here are the gold-embroidered veils of Assiut, so soft in texture that they may be drawn through a woman’s bracelet, yet so indestructible that they are handed down as heirlooms from one generation to another. These veils are always dear. A good one, well covered with embroidery, costs from two to three pounds; but they represent long weeks of labor, and pass through manly hands before reaching the European purchaser. The best are to be bought at Assiut, the only place in Egypt where they are made; but they find their way in small quantities to Assuân, and even to the bazaars of Cairo. At Assuân, too, is the famous red and black pottery of Assiut, displayed in tempting rows, and amazing us by the grace and delicacy of its designs. How can we resist this beautiful and brittle ware, though we know by sad experience the difficulty of carrying it unbroken? The most charming pieces, too, are invariably the most fragile. I can buy a crocodile paper-weight or a little dish with some chance of security; but I do not want a dish, and an Assiut paperweight is a violent accommodation of native pottery to the needs of a saddened civilization which fills me with abhorrence. What I really desire is an incense-box, an oval incense-box, with a tapering lid, and a slender stem at least seven inches high. Its color is a dark, smooth red, and a finely wrought arabesque runs three times around the bowl and the delicate stand which supports it. My companions look askance upon this exquisite and useless toy, the price of which is a paltry shilling, and remind me unkindly of somewhat similar pieces I bought at Assiut, and the fragments of which now lie buried at the bottom of the Nile. But the most wonderful thing about my incense-box is that it unscrews, actually unscrews into five parts, and may be packed and put together again whenever and wherever I please. This discovery makes it irresistible. I point out triumphantly how safely it can be carried, pay my shilling, and walk proudly away. Five minutes later, a small Arab boy, darting through the bazaars, jolts violently against me. My box shivers, unscrews itself with extraordinary facility, and, before I realize what has happened, the stem lies shattered on the ground, while a murmured chorus of “I told you so” rises distinctly, and, I think, joyously, around me. “Learn, my son,” says the satirist, “to bear tranquilly the misfortunes of others.”

Perhaps the most interesting things at Assuân are the weapons, fantastically arranged, and of a picturesquely ferocious appearance; long and heavy swords, sheathed in snakeskin; spears taller than the tallest man; battle-axes, with inlaid blades and snakeskin handles; rhinoceros shields; double-bladed daggers, curved and sinister; slender knives; slings for throwing stones, after the primitive fashion of David. All these warlike instruments are said to be of Soudanese workmanship. At least such is the claim of the merchants, though the dragomans are apt to deny it, and to declare that there is not a single real Soudanese weapon in the bazaars. Be this as it may, the Soudan is to the tradesmen of upper Egypt what Paris is to the milliners and dressmakers of America, — a sacred name used to enhance the value of their wares, and to conjure big prices from the credulous. Every string of beads, every silver anklet, every rusty knife and cracked little tom-tom, has the same legend connected with it, and repeated over and over again with serene and hardy assurance. — “Soudanese.” After a time this undaunted mendacity wins its way into our estimation. We know, for instance, that these pretty necklaces are made on the spot: we have all of use seen men sitting at the street corners stringing the beads. We know, too, that the beads themselves are imported from England, — everybody knows this; and yet we acquiesce little by little in the pious fiction of the Soudan. We begin, probably, by exhibiting our purchases to one another as “Soudanese ornaments.” This does not mean much, because nobody is deceived. It is a mere figure of speech. In a day or two, however, I find myself writing home. “I bought a string of yellow Soudanese beads for two shillings;” and only when it is down in uncompromising black and white do I recognize—yet without compunction—the robust nature of my falsehood. By the time I am back in America, I expect to believe implicitly that all my beads—yellow, and blue, and milky white, like old translucent Venetian glass—are really and truly what they claim to be, “necklaces from the Soudan.”

As for the amber which hangs in festoons from many of the bazaars, it is wonderfully cheap, but dull in color and very clumsily cut. The big lumpy beads are sometimes the size of walnuts, and when small they look exactly like kernels of corn strung together by a country child. Yet the native women, especially the jet-black wives of the jet-black Soudanese soldiers stationed at Assuân, value this amber very highly. One sees long strings of it hanging over their bosoms and around their children’s necks, and almost always there are silver amulets attached, inscribed with texts from the Koran. I bought two of these amulets in the bazaars, after a great deal of troublesome bargaining. At Assuân, as at Cairo, all silver is sold by weight. English shillings and half-crowns are heaped into the measure until the scale turns, when a moderate additional charge is made for workmanship. It seems the most reasonable system in the world, and is in reality the most delusive. When the same articles differ strikingly in price at rival bazaars, and when each dealer demonstrates that he is asking the value of the silver, one’s faith in weights and measures is cruelly shaken.

Indian merchants are wonderful adepts in this gentle art of over-charging; but they make valiant efforts to meet the supposed requirements of their customers. Tea-pots, pepper-pots, fat little cream-jugs, heavy umbrella-handles, salt-cellars, toilet-bottles, — an endless array of useful inutilities, — litter their stalls. The designs and decorations are always the same: a fine tracery of scrolls or arabesques; a succession of Hindu gods sitting on their heels; or a spirited representation of animals chasing each other in a circle, so that one cannot easily determine whether the dog is pursuing the hare, or the hare is capturing the lion, all being of equal size and activity.

The Egyptian goldsmith, however, indulges in none of these alien vagaries. He makes—as his great-grandfather made before him—bracelets, and anklets, and necklaces, and ravishing cups that will not stand, and beautiful clumsy boxes that will not shut, and amulets like those I purchased at Assuân. These cannot be compared for a moment with the exquisite Byzantine amulets that hang in the old silver-shops of Athens, richly chased, curiously bordered, inlaid with black enamel, and representing with vigorous simplicity the triumph of St. George over the dragon, or one of the six-winged angels of St. Sophia’s, half smothered in her excess of plumage. The Byzantine amulet is a work of art. The Egyptian boasts of no such distinction, but it possesses one advantage over its Greek rival: it is still an object of recognized utility, not a mere curio dangling in a shop window for the allurement of unbelieving strangers. There is hardly a barefooted little girl on the Nile who does not wear one of these pious safeguards strung around her neck, and often enough she has a second, wrapped up in rags, and hidden away somewhere amid her scanty drapery. Even the donkeys, provided they are donkeys of substance, well fed and well cared for, are decorated and preserved from evil by a silver amulet, and sometimes by two or three, according to the wealth or piety of their proprietors. The amulets worn by the donkeys are triangular or cylindrical in shape, hung round with tiny balls, and hollow for the accommodation of strips of paper on which are written the sacred texts. They are made fo the thinnest and poorest silver, ar roughly wrought, and of no especial value, save when a European prices them in the bazaars. Then they rise instantly in native estimation, are handled reverently as if there were none other like them in all Egypt, and can be made to outweigh any number of shillings that the dealer thinks fit.

Much prettier than these are the flat disks or squares of silver, inscribed with texts, and worn, half as ornaments, half as charms, by Egyptian women and children. One of those I secured is engraved on both sides with Arabic characters, and our dragoman, who enjoys the reputation of being the best scholar on the Nile, read me their meaning thus: “May Allah, the all-powerful and all-merciful, hold you in the wisdom of his ways.” This seems a great deal to be conveyed by letters so few in number, but I am too well pleased with the translation to risk its loss by showing it to more reliable authorities.

By the time this last bargain was concluded, the afternoon light was waning fast, and the bazaars had grown dim with shadows. Reluctantly we turned our faces to the river, and started home, laden with Christmas spoils. As boxes, wrapping-paper, string, packages of any kind, are unknown luxuries on the Nile, everybody had a comfortable view of everybody’s else purchases, save when a few were laboriously hidden away, to reappear as gifts on the morrow. We presented a curious spectacle as we strolled along the bank in the golden haze of an Egyptian sunset, and our friends on board, who impatiently awaited our return, greeted us with mingled derision and delight. Rows and rows of beads, amber and glass, were strung around our necks, as the least troublesome method of carrying them. Swords and spears were brandished in triumph, and absurd little drums of black clay were beaten joyously with narrow strips of leather. Enthusiastic members of the party had invested in “Madam Nubias,” those brilliant fringes of leather and beads and shells which constitute the simple wardrobe of a Nubian girl until she reaches maturity. The leather is cut into thin strips, and well soaked in castor-oil to make it pliable. The bright-colored beads are woven into a sort of network, terminating in a row of shells which clatter cheerfully at every step she takes. I had seen children attired in this costume, eked out by a necklace or two and half a dozen bracelets, and presenting a very picturesque and comfortable appearance; but I had no ambition to emulate the traveler in A Scrap of Paper by carrying home such primitive fashions for the embarrassment of Western decorum. Silver ear-rings and nose-rings prettily fashioned, clumsy anklets hung round with bells, stirps of embroidered silk and muslin, and yellow morocco slippers with pointed toes had all been deservedly popular; while those light-hearted travelers who never take into consideration the distance of Egypt from America, or the repressive force of trunks and custom-houses, had invested in copper drinking vessels, earthenware bowls, and gayly decorated gourds. A few persevering natives followed us even to the water’s edge with cheap turquoises or imitation scarabs; and one man held out to me a string of beads, yellow and black, precisely like those I already wore. “Soudanese,” he murmured insinuatingly, “only eight shillings.” For reply I showed him my own necklace. “Two shillings,” I said, “in the bazaars.” He nodded intelligently, examined my beads with a pleased smile, and then, shrugging his shoulders with the air of one defeated in argument, hande me the second string. “All right,” he answered resignedly. “Take it for five.” And he really seemed amazed that I refused.