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ART. II-The Highlands of Æthiopia described, during Eighteen Months' residence of a British Embassy at the Christian Court of Shoa. By Major W. CORNWALLIS HARRIS, of the Hon. E. I. Company's Engineers. Second Edition. 3 vols. 8vo.
IN N April 1841, a British Embassy left Bombay for Shoa, under the conduct and command of Major Harris, already well known as the author of a work on the Wild Sports of Southern Africa, and other popular publications.
The Embassy first disembarked at Aden. This place, now one of the stages in the greatest highway of the world that from Europe to India-is nevertheless so recent an acquisition of British enterprise, that the name awakens as yet no familiar ideas. It stands at the southern extremity of the Arabian continent, on a little mountainous peninsula, connected with the mainland only by a spit of sand. The surrounding region is without seed, water, or tree;' a black, burning desert of lava and volcanic sand a cluster of barren rocks, which might fitly be likened to heaps of fused coal out of a glass-house.' As if to complete the parallel with Gibraltar, its native tenants are chiefly a long-tailed race of monkeys, whom the Adenites believe to be the remnant of the mighty tribe of Ad, whose ancient seat, the paradise of Irem,' (familiar to the readers of Thalaba,) is supposed to exist, though undiscoverable by mortals, somewhere in the sultry wilderness around. This barren spot, however, was occupied by a great city in the time of Constantine; was honoured by the preaching of Mahomet himself; and was still important, 500 years ago, in the days of Ibn Batuta. It fell to ruin in the revolutions which followed the Turkish conquest. At the period of the British occupation, ninety decayed houses, giving shelter to six hundred meagre Arabs, were all that remained to attest its ancient glories, except its huge reservoirs and cisterns, and extensive necropolis. Three years afterwards,
This Article was written before Major Harris published his second edition, with rather a fiery introduction. In it, he defends his mission and his narrative against various unjust attacks; and so far we quite agree with him; but he also argues in support of his own notions of style and composition, on which, we fear, we must continue to differ. Indeed, he has himself, in his new edition, pruned away the exuberance of several turgid passages; but this does not materially alter the general strain of his narrative, which, though occasionally relieved with some striking descriptions, is stiff and stilted in a painful degree.
the population had increased to 20,000: Arabs, Somaulis from the coast of Africa, Hindoos, Parsees, Negroes, Nubians, and Jews, sweat and wrangle in its broiling bazars. But a few more years of security will make Aden one of the great emporia of the East. Such is the constant cycle of events in that ancient quarter of the world. Empires come and go like shadowscities disappear from the map-all but their traditions vanishes: the same spot of earth witnesses the waxing and waning of several successive births of human pride or industry; yet man remains unchangeable all the while; and the Bedouin who frequents the market of Aden, so completely represents his first forefathers, that it requires but an effort of imagination to fancy him Khizzer the immortal, coming back, every five hundred years, to visit the same points in the eternal round of his travels, and witness the result of the revolutions of Time.
Und aber nach fünf hundert Jahren
Kam ich desselbigen Weges gefahren.'
Two days brought the Embassy to a very different scene--the port of Tajura, in Africa, where they arrived on the 17th of May. Tajura is situated on a very deep bay or gulf, hitherto unnoticed in our maps, which runs fifty miles inland at the very entrance of the Red Sea. The whole of the coast, for some hundred miles on either side, is mere desert; and probably the hottest and most detestable corner of the whole habitable earth. The part in which Tajura is situated, is called by Major Harris the Tehama ;' but what latitude or longitude he assigns to this general designation, we cannot tell; and, to say it once for all, there is a looseness about dates, distances, and names, in his work, which is to us exceedingly perplexing; inasmuch that, in order to make out the particulars of this early part of the journey, we have been forced to turn from his more bulky narrative to the modest Diary of Assistant-Surgeon Kirk, in the Journal of the London Geographical Society. This is the more provoking, because we are half convinced that it arises less from carelessness, than from a notion on the part of the Major, that such vulgar preciseness is inconsistent with that dignity of lofty narrative, to which he unhappily aspires. This region, however, is better known on our map by the name of Adel,' a contraction of ́ Adaiel'—the general name of the tribes who inhabit it; of whom the principal, as far as we can make out the author's nomenclature, are the Danakil, or Dankali nation. These may pass for some of the fiercest and most utterly irreclaimable barbarians of the earth. Their country is a parched wilderness, entirely without cultivation except in one or two singular oases;
and extends from the sea to the foot of the Abyssinian mountains, a distance of about 300 miles. They are Mahometans of the most bigoted character. The neighbouring Arabia has exercised a very extensive influence over this portion of Africa. Arab chiefs rule many of the East African states, and Arab colonies are scattered along the coast, even far to the south of the equator. And the national fanaticism has assumed in them a still darker tinge, from their close bordering on the Pagans of the interior, and the Christians of Abyssinia, with whom they are in constant enmity.
The road from Tajura to Shoa crosses this desert for two hundred miles. Shortly after leaving Tajura, it brings the traveller to the shores of that remarkable lake, the Bahr Assal, which has only become known within a few years back to European travellers. It is a lake six or seven miles long, partially filling a deep hollow, in an extremely rugged country of volcanic formation, surrounded by mountains on three sides; divided on the fourth from the inner part of the deep gulf of Tajura (called in Arabic Ghoobut el Kharab, the Basin of Foulness) by a belt of lava formation, about six miles across. The extraordinary feature of this pool is, that it lies at a level of no less than 570 feet below that of the neighbouring sea. Of course the waters are intensely salt; they are continually receding by evaporation; and thus furnish the great natural storehouse of salt, which supplies the wants not only of the Adaiel tribes, but of great part of Abyssinia, where bars of salt form the common circulating medium. It need hardly be added, too, that the shores of this dead sea of the Tehama desert, in the month of June, were intolerably hot; and terrible were the sufferings of the crowd of men, and beasts of burden which accompanied the British Embassy, during a whole day's bivouac on its banks.
The first glimpse of the strange phenomenon, although curious, was far from pleasing. An elliptical basin, seven miles in its transverse axis, half filled with smooth water of the deepest cerulean blue, and half with a solid sheet of glittering snow-white salt, the offspring of evaporationgirded on three sides by huge hot-looking mountains, which dip their bases into the very bowl, and on the fourth by crude half-formed rocks of lava, broken and divided by the most unintelligible chasms-it presented the appearance of a spoiled, or at least of a very unfinished, piece of work. No sound broke on the ear; not a ripple played upon the water; the molten surface of the lake, like burnished steel, lay unruffled by a breeze'; the fierce sky was without a cloud; and the angry sun, like a ball of metal at a white heat, rode triumphant in a full blaze of noontide refulgence, which in sickening glare was darted back on the straining vision of the fainting wayfarer, by the hot sulphury mountains that encircled the still, hollow, basin. A white foam on the shelving shore of the dense water,
did contrive for a brief moment to deceive the eye with an appearance of motion and fluidity; but the spot, on more attentive observation, ever remained unchanged—a crystallized efflorescence. . . . A close mephitic stench, impeding respiration, arose from the saline exhalations of the stagnant lake. A frightful glare from the white salt and limestone hillocks threatened destruction to the vision; and a sickening heaviness in the loaded atmosphere was enhanced rather than alleviated by the fiery breath of the parching north-westerly wind, which blew without any intermission during the entire day. The air was inflamed, the sky sparkled, and columns of burning sand, which at quick intervals towered high into the dazzling atmosphere, became so illumined as to appear like tall pillars of fire. Crowds of horses, mules, and fetid camels, tormented to madness by the dire persecutions of the poisonous gad-fly, flocked recklessly, with an instinctive dread of the climate, to share the only bush; and obstinately disputing with their heels the slender shelter it afforded, compelled several of the party to seek refuge in noisome caves, formed along the foot of the range by fallen masses of volcanic rock, which had become heated to a temperature seven times in excess of a potter's kiln, and fairly baked up the marrow in the bones.
In this unventilated and diabolical hollow, dreadful indeed were the sufferings in store both for man and beast. Not a drop of fresh water existed within many miles; and, notwithstanding that every human precaution had been taken to secure a supply, by means of skins carried upon camels, the very great extent of most impracticable country to be traversed, which had unavoidably led to the detention of nearly all, added to the difficulty of restraining a multitude maddened by the tortures of burning thirst, rendered the provision quite insufficient; and during the whole of this appalling day, with the mercury in the thermometer standing at 126° under the shade of cloaks and umbrellas, in a suffocating Pandemonium, depressed 570 feet below the ocean, where no zephyr fanned the fevered skin, and where the glare arising from the sea of white salt was most painful to the eyes; where the furnacelike vapour exhaled, almost choking respiration, created an indomitable thirst, and not the smallest shade or shelter existed, save such as was afforded, in cruel mockery, by the stunted boughs of the solitary leafless acacia, or, worse still, by black blocks of heated lava, it was only practicable, during twelve tedious hours, to supply to each of the party two quarts of the most mephitic brick-dust coloured fluid, which the direst necessity could alone have forced down the parched throat, and which, after all, far from alleviating thirst, served materially to augment its insupportable horrors.'-(Vol. I. p. 100–103.)
The crystallized salt floats on the surface of the water near the shore, like a rough coarse sheet of ice, irregularly cracked.' Much interest has been excited of late years respecting these curious depressions of the surface of the earth; of, which the Caspian sea forms by far the largest known instance, although the estimate of its level has been raised by recent measurement to only eighty feet below that of the sea. On the other hand,
the results of Lieutenant Symonds's recent triangulation of part of Palestine, have been to fix the level of the Dead Sea at the extraordinary depth of 1312 feet below the Mediterranean. These last are phenomena for which Geology can only account by some of her more recondite speculations. That of the Bahr Assal is conjecturally explained by Major Harris in a much simpler manner. The depth of the gulf of Tajura is very great; in Ghoobut el Kharab, the innermost basin, the soundings are not less than 690 feet, or 120 below the surface of the Salt Lake. Supposing a portion of the bottom to have been upheaved by volcanic action, of which the neighbourhood shows, such extensive traces, so as to dyke off part of the ancient gulf, and form it into a separate lake-that lake, receiving no fresh water in that torrid climate, except after rains, would continually diminish by evaporation. Five hundred cubic feet of depth may have passed away in vapour since the upheaving took place. Premising the depression of the lake to have been formerly 'correspondent' (with the depth of Ghoobut el Kharab,) 120 'feet may be assumed as its present depth. To this it has been 'reduced by the great annual evaporation that must take placean evaporation decreasing every year as the salt solution becomes more intensely concentrated, and evinced by the saline incrustation on the surface no less than by a horizontal efflorescence, in strata, at a considerable height on the face of the circumjacent rocks. In the lapse of years, should the present order of things continue undisturbed from below, the water will probably disappear altogether, leaving a field of rock salt.'* These extracts will serve to convey an idea of the sufferings of an Embassy, traversing the tropical desert between the sea and the Abyssinian mountains; and, at the same time, of the ultra-tropical luxuriance of Major Harris's style. We shall, therefore, forbear to accompany him in his weary marches through the low country of the Adaiel, and in his wranglings with bloodthirsty and larcenous tribes by the way. In fact, our interest in the personal adventures of the Embassy is altogether, and provokingly baffled, by the diplomatic cloud in which the Major thinks it necessary, or becoming, to envelope its objects, proceedings, and fortunes. If the peace of Europe depended on the contents of his official budget, he could not more reverentially abstain from violating its secresy. Nowhere does he drop a hint of the origin, or object, of the important expedition. The names of
* Vol. i. p. 111. The same solution of this phenomenon, was suggested by M. Rochet d'Héricourt, whose travels in Shoa were published in 1841.