It has often been said, and with perfect truth, that Egypt is a land by itself, unlike any other part of the world. On approaching Alexandria from the sea, nothing can be less attractive than the flat shore which stretches east and west as far as the eye can reach, without an elevation of more importance than bare and barren sand-dunes to break its even line. This monotonous coast extends for two hundred miles between the most extreme of the ancient arms of the Nile, from the Canopic in the west to the Pelusiac in the east, and forms the northwardly turned base-line of the triangular area of Lower Egypt, the shape of which led the Greeks to call it the delta.
In the journey from Alexandria southward to Cairo, the traveler finds himself in a boundless plain, as flat as the flattest part of Lincolnshire or of Holland. At first, rising only here and there above the level of the Mediterranean, it is full of morasses and stagnant lakes of great extent, the waters of which vary from salt to fresh, and from fresh to salt, according as the Nile or the Mediterranean is the predominant contributor to their contents. Beyond this region, the wide expanse of black alluvial soil, intersected by innumerable water-courses, departs from absolute horizontality, rising some three or four inches in the mile. Here and there, low mounds bearing groups of date palms, or thickets of sycamores and acacias, indicate the deserted site of an ancient city, or preserve from the periodic floods the assemblage of hovels which constitutes a modern Egyptian village. In autumn, the soil, save these mounds and their connecting dikes, disappears under the overflow of the flooded Nile; in early spring, the exuberant vegetation of the young crops no less completely hides it under a carpet of the brightest imaginable green.
For more than a hundred miles, as the crow flies, this is the general character of the country between Alexandria and Cairo. But, long before the latter city is reached, the plain begins to be limited by distant heights which spring up on either hand. First, a ridge of low hills makes its appearance on the western or Libyan side; and then, a range of more distant but bolder and loftier heights shows itself, far away, on the eastern or Arabian horizon. With every advance southward the plain diminishes in extent, while its Libyan and Arabian boundaries approach, until, at Cairo, they are not more than six or seven miles apart.
Nothing can be more sharply contrasted than the aspect of the plain and that of its limitary heights. For the low, rounded ridges on the west and the higher plateau with its steep and cliffy face on the east are utterly waterless—mere wastes of bare rock or sand—without a bush or a patch of soil on which it could grow, to veil their savage nakedness. Under our own pale and faintly-lighted sky, such bare hills and rugged cliffs as those which bound the prospect here and everywhere in Upper Egypt would fitly represent the abomination of desolation. But, framed as they are in an atmosphere of limpid purity,