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Then wept the warrior chief, and bade
And, one by one, each heavy braid
Before the victor lay.
Thick were the plaited locks, and long,
Shone many a wedge of gold among
The dark and crispèd hair.
"Look! feast thy greedy eyes with gold,
Take it; my wife the long, long day,
Weeps by the cocoa tree;
"I take thy gold; but I have made
His heart was broken-crazed his brain;
THE Sahara may be likened to a vast ocean separating the negro kingdoms of equatorial Africa from the more civilized states of the north; and the numerous oases with which it is studded are like so many islands, or archipelagoes of islands, in the midst of the desert waste. This waste, however, though destitute of everything helpful to human life and comfort, does not always consist of barren sands. There is a vast extent of dry, stunted herbage, on which the camel can pasture; and thus a passage across the desert is rendered practicable by routes which would be hermetically sealed were the Sahara what it is often represented as being-one wide sandy plain.
In the desert a route through the sand is always chosen in ference to any other; because in the sandy tracts the springs are most likely to be found, and because the sand presents a soft dry bed on which the traveller can repose after the fatigues of the day. It is this preference of the natives which has led Europeans to suppose that the whole of the Sahara is a sandy waste. The character of the desert is very much the reverse of this, there being hundreds of miles of hard, firm soil, and hundreds more a mixture of stony fragments and pebbles.
Travelling on sand, there is of course no visible road, as the
fierce winds that frequently recur soon obliterate all trace of footsteps. The guides, therefore, find their way by landmarks, which they carefully renew when necessary. These are often the most
trifling objects, such as a tuft of herbage, a single plant, or the summit of a swell in the soil. In places where the plain is one void and arid flat, even such objects are wanting, and their place is supplied by heaps of stones or cairns piled at great distances. Sometimes the route will extend for ten or twelve days over a plain affording not a single drop of moisture.
Along nearly the whole length of the northern shores of the continent there extends a fertile belt of land, called by the natives the Tell, the cultivation of which yields the means of life to the populations of the coast. In the neighbourhood of this fertile belt there are numerous oases extending into the interior; while others, fortunately for the purposes of commerce and civilization, exist within practicable distances across the whole desert.
Further eastward, near the limits of the Sahara, a line of oases extends from its northern to its southern boundary. Of these, the Great Oasis of Thebes is a hundred and twenty miles in length.
The oases invariably lie in the lowest levels of the soil, and doubtless owe their existence to the moisture which naturally gravitates towards such localities. Most of these isolated spots, even though hundreds of miles apart, enjoy a constant supply of water, and are favourable to the cultivation of the date palm and other fruit-trees, as well as of various kinds of vegetables.
The date palm supplies a large proportion of the food of the dwellers in the desert. The tree is thirty-three years in coming to maturity, after which it will bear fruit for seventy years more, the annual crop of each tree averaging from three to four hundred pounds weight. Not only man, but all the animals of the desert can feed on the date. The fruit is easily preserved by packing it closely in woollen bags; and when thus compressed into solid masses it will keep for several years. Sometimes a tree is tapped
for the sake of its sap, which is much relished as a beverage, and when allowed to ferment forms a drink resembling cider. A single tree will yield fourteen or fifteen quarts a day for two years, but will die if the drain be continued longer.
Every part of the date palm is turned to profitable account. The wood is used for building and every species of carpenterwork; the fibre is twisted into ropes; baskets are made of the branches; and sheep are fattened with the pounded stones of the fruit.
The population of the desert is necessarily sparse and scanty in comparison with its enormous area. It consists of various tribes of two distinct nations;-the Berbers, made up of descendants of the ancient Libyans, the Romans, and the Vandals; and the Arabs, originally invaders, and who yet retain, in no small degree, their original characteristics.
The Berbers are the settled inhabitants of the oases, where the men cultivate the ground, and the women manage the manufactures. They maintain amicable relations with their nomadic brethren, to whom they are in the habit of confiding the care of such cattle as they possess, and of whose property they undertake the custody during the wanderings of the owners. The oasis generally contains a village (Ksar), built of stone, and, together with the gardens, walled in. Nothing is grown but what will produce food of some kind or other, and the utmost use is made of every foot of land and drop of water. At the same time provision is made for defence, and sentinels are kept continually on the watch for an enemy. Outside the walls are the marabets, or sepulchres of the dead, upon which are lavished far more expense and taste than on the abodes of the living. Near each tomb rises a little sepulchral chapel, executed in a finished style of architecture by the most skilful artisans that can be procured. These buildings are universally held sacred; and even the foe who would slaughter the living and make a prey of their property, will leave the resting-places of the dead inviolate.
The life of the desert nomads, even when free from war and brigandage, is one of perpetual variety and excitement. They spend the winter and spring in the wilderness, where, at these seasons, there is both water and pasture; but they remain in one spot only for a few days, striking their tents and migrating to another as soon as the pasture is consumed. As summer approaches they resort to the oases where their property is kept; here they load their camels with merchandise, and journey northward. They arrive in the Tell just at harvest-time, when the price of corn is low: the land being reaped, their flocks and herds are allowed to browse on it freely, and manure it by their droppings. Here the inhabitants of the desert pass the summer in barterings and commerce, exchanging their woollen goods and dates for raw wool, sheep, &c. At the close of the summer they are again off southward, arriving at the oases in October, just as the dates are ripe. Their assistance is now valuable in gathering in the crops, at which they occupy themselves for a month, and another month is spent in bartering their raw wool and other late purchases for a portion of the dates which they have helped to gather, and the manufactured garments made by the women. These they deposit in their magazines, and then withdraw again to the desert, with their flocks and herds, until the return of summer summons them back to the oases.
There are two classes of caravans, either of which a traveller may join if he choose. The first, and most expeditious, is the gafala, or merchants' caravans, which start with some degree of regularity from certain depôts in the northern oases, and whose departures are always made known beforehand. The camel-drivers regulate the speed of the journey, generally travelling from twenty to twenty-five miles a day, save in regions infested by robbers, where they will occasionally double that rate of speed. In case of attack every one defends himself and his property as he best
can, and the timid are seen rushing towards the centre to escape being cut off as stragglers.
The second species of caravan is the neja, which consists of a whole tribe in migration, and which travels much more slowly. They carry with them, not their merchandise merely, but all their cattle, tents, and household stuff, together with their women, children, domestic animals, and poultry. They jog along at an easy rate, and the journey is pleasant enough so long as no enemy appears; but should they meet the bands of a hostile tribe while thus encumbered, it may chance to go hard with them. The battle which ensues is one in which quarter is neither asked nor given—the Arabs being much more bitter in their warfare against each other than in their encounters with Europeans. Sunset is the signal for the cessation of the strife, and the defeated party is allowed to make off in the night. In these conflicts prisoners are never made, the conquerors preferring the heads of their victims to any ransom that could be offered.
From Morocco six caravans traverse the Sahara every year, when from two to three thousand camels are loaded with European produce, and start for the distant countries of the interior. Some of these caravans penetrate as far into Soudan as Timbuctu, Kanou, and Noufi. They bring thence gold dust, gooroo nuts, buffalo skins, ivory, senna, alkali, rhinoceros-horns, indigo, diamonds, perfumes, gums, &c., &c. On reaching the banks of the Niger, the Moors deposit their merchandise on a hill: they then retire, and the negroes advance and criticise the goods; after an examination of three days they generally come to terms, and the business is done.