Egypt of the Magicians VI

The Face of the Desert


(notes edited by John Radcliffe, drawing on the work of the ORG Editors)

Publication History

This letter was first published in Nash’s Magazine and Cosmopolitan for November1914, under the title “The Dead of Old Battles” in Nash’s, and “Egypt of the Magicians VI” in Cosmopolitan. In Nash’s there were two illustrations by Fortunino Matania (1861-1963) the celebrated Italian illustrator.

The story

Kipling visits the parched desert lands of Upper Egypt beyond the narrow strip of culttivation along the Nile, dangerous country, and hostile to Man, though deceptively beautiful. He sees the temples at Abu Simbel at dawn, where the huge statues seem briefly to become alive in the red light of the sun. As his journey continues up the Nile, up which great armies had moved to Sudan by steamer in years gone by, he recalls old British campaigns on the upper Nile, including the death of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885.

Notes on the Text

[Page 264, lines 5-7] a rifle-shot …. a bow-shot In other words the cultivated area was a couple of miles (say 3 km) across at its widest, and a few hundred yards (or metres) at its narrowest.

[Page 264, line 9] Cape Blanco The westermost point of Africa, in Mauritania, on the western side of the Sahara.

[Page 264, line 11] Karachi Club The great port city of Karach, once in British India, now in Sind Province, Pakistan, the chief port and financial centre of the country.

[Page 265, line 21] tricked out as a Nautch girl Nautch girls were dancing girls who performed for the entertainment of the courts of the Moghuls and princely states of India. They would have been beautifully attired.

[Page 266, line 4] Benedicite Omnia Opera part of the Order for Morning Prayer of the Church of England. It begins: ‘O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever’..

[Page 266, line 8 and 9] Adam, Eve, Eden see Genesis Chapter 3.

Eblis In Christian mythology, when Adam—the first man—was created, God commanded all the angels to worship him, but Eblis refused. God turned the disobedient angel into a devil (Sheytan, or Shaitan) and he became the father of devils. The Qran says: ‘When he said to the angels `Worship Adam’, all worshipped him except Eblis’.

[Page 266, line 16] Gobi the Gobi Desert lies largely in Mongolia, to the north of China.

Timbuctoo In Mali, on the upper Niger towards the south of the Sahara Desert.

[Page 267, line 10] a new aerial route The Wright brothers in the United States had made the first successful powered flight only ten years before, in 1903, and the first crossing over the sea from France to England had been made by the French aviator Bleriot in 1909. Kipling was fascinated by the possibilities of aeroplanes; see his story “With the Night Mail” (1905).

[Page 268, line 20] ravines dongas and nullahs A dongaThree words for virtually the same thing.

Ravine A long deep gully caused by a torrent, a gorge, a narrow gully or cleft (Cassel’s Concise English Dictionary 1962).

Donga A gully, a water-course with steep sides (South African native name) (Cassel’s Concise English Dictionary, 1962)

Nullah (Hindi) A water-course, not necessarily a dry water-course, though this is perhaps more frequently indicated in the Anglo-Indian use.
, 1902)

While they could each have had slightly different meanings for Kipling, having learnt the last two in the lands of their origin, it is odd that he used them all to describe a landscape he imagines to be carved by the winds and not water.

[Page 268, line 23] silver-point a process of sketching on prepared paper with a silver-pointed stylus. See “Hal o’ the Draft” in Puck of Pook’s Hill p. 231. The silver point makes a barely visible indentation, as the silver is deposited on the prepared surface.


[Page 269, line 1 ] Temple of Abu Simbel About 150 miles down river from Wady Halfa.

In the 1960s the complex was relocated in its entirety on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, high above the Aswan High Dam on the Nile, to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive reservoir formed after the building of the Dam.

[Page 269, line 16] dimmered up like pewter An expression coined by Kipling. Strictly there is no verb, or noun, “dimmer”. He clearly meant to suggests that in the morning light the river gleamed with the silvery grey colour of polished pewter.

[Page 269, line 26] topaz Topaz is a gemstone. reddish-orange, or yellow..

[Page 269, line 31] pinioned men in the death-chair before the current is switched on for the electric chair, a method of execution used at that time in a number of states in the USA.

[Page 270, line 8] “She” the title and chief character of the novel (1887) by Sir (Henry) Rider Haggard (1856-1925), Kipling’s great friend.

[Page 270, lines 9-10] the grave of an English officer killed in a fight against dervishes

We have established from The Royal Regiment of Dragoons by General D. E. Ainslie (London, 1887) that Major Tidswell actually died of illness at Abu Simbel, rather than in battle as Kipling had thought.

It was not uncommon in campaigns such as those in the Sudan, or in the South Afican Wars, for more soldiers to be lost through disease than in combat. His grave may well lie now beneath the waters of Lake Nasser. The ORG editors obtained a copy of the inscription.

BORN 11TH MAY 1850

[Page 270, line 17] Suakim or Suakin. A mediaeval seaport on the Red Sea, now superseded by the modern Port Sudan. See the introduction.

[Page 270, line 22] Gordon Charles George (1833-85), soldier, administrator and philanthropist, originally a Royal Engineer Officer who fought in China in 1863-64. See the introduction.

[Page 270, line 23] Omdurman Across the Nile from Khartoum. See the Introduction.

[Page 270, lines 26-28] Hicks the Egyptian Government in Cairo resolved to suppress the insurrection of the Mahdi and his followers, and in 1883 raised an army of 10,000 men, under the command of the English Colonel Hicks (Hicks Pasha).

The expedition was a disaster; it was ambushed at El Obeid by the Mahdi in November 1883. Hicks and his staff were slaughtered, with the whole of his army except three hundred wounded, who escaped.

[Page 270, lines 26-28] Val Baker (Baker Pasha), younger brother of Sir Samuel Baker, hastening with 3,000 Egyptian troops to relieve Tokar near Suakin, met the Mahdi’s forces under Osman Digna at the First Battle of El Teb on February 4th 1884. Panic-stricken at the first onrush, the men were slaughtered like sheep. Baker and some of his officers cut their way out, but his force was annihilated.

Osman Digna Originally a slave-dealer who came from Alexandria in Egypt, he left Egypt in 1882 after the failure of the Ali Pasha rebellion, and threw in his lot with the Mahdi in Sudan.

He became Amir of Eastern Sudan, and was one of the Mahdi’s most successful generals, raising an army of the local tribes on the Red Sea coasts, investing Sinkat and Tokar, and destroying Egyptian reinforcements.

The destruction of General Baker’s force at El Teb followed. See the introduction.

[Page 270, line 32] my Lord Granville chirruping Earl Granville was Foreign Secretary in the Liberal Government. The Liberals tended to be less enthusiastic than the Conservatives about enlarging the Empire. Kipling was never impressed by them.

[Page 271, line 4] a delightfully mad Irish war correspondent Probably The Times correspondent, Frank Power.

[Page 271, lines 6] the Suakin-Berber Railway A railway line which the British planned to build in 1884-5 from the Red Sea coast to Khartoum. The project was abandoned in 1885 after only fifteen mles of track had been laid.

[Page 271, lines 6-18] Korti—Abu Klea—the Desert Column…a steamer called Safieh… ‘Hashin’ … Names from the old campaigns against the Mahdists. See the introduction.

[Page 271, line 14] Osman Digna See above.

[Page 271, line 16] ‘MacNeill’s Zareba’ This was a battle in the Red Sea Province north of Suakin, in March 1885. Kipling has mis-spelt the name of Maj-Gen Sir John McNeill,VC.

While the unfinished zareba made of interlaced thorn bushes was square-shaped, some units of McNeill’s 2nd Brigade and Brig-Gen J Hudson’s Native Infantry Brigade were caught both inside it and outside it but just managed to drive off Digna’s men with heavy losses. They did not fight in a traditional defensive square.

[Page 271, line 18] 15th Sikhs The15th Ludhiana Sikhs. One of the units of Hudson’s Native Infantry Brigade, all of which were involved at McNeill’s zareba.

[Page 271, line 20] Wady Halfa The Sudanese frontier town on the border with Egypt, and the railhead for Khartoum.

[Page 271, lines 21-22] Suakim: Gemaiza; Handub; Trinkitat, and Tokar Places that figured in the various campaigns against the Mahdist forces.

Suakim See above.

Gemaiza According to Henry Keown Boyd (A Good Dusting, Guild Publishing, London, 1986), Gemaizeh was where Osman Digna’s force dug themselves in just outside the Suakin defences, a position from which they were ousted on 20 December 1888. The name is said to have been given to the action because the only feature which identified Digna’s position was a wild fig tree, in Arabic, a gemaizeh.

Handub Boyd identifies this as the site of a minor action on 17 January 1888 involving Kitchener and a small force, notable only for the fact that Kitchener received a wound to the face, his only wound in action. Boyd places it just north of Suakin, which is confirmed by maps from other sources.

Trinkitat on the Red Sea, south of Suakin.

Tokar inland, south of Trinkitat.

[Page 271, line 30] picked up the ball … and touched down in Khartoum A metaphor from Rugby football. In this context, to ‘pick up the ball’ is to take the initiative; to ‘touch down’ is to score a success.

This refers to the reconquest of the Sudan by an Anglo-Egyptian army under General Kitchener. Action against the Khalifa went on for another year; the climax was the battle of Omdurman in September 1898.

[Page 271, line 31] the Cook boat. the Kiplings were aboard one of the steamers operated on the Nile for tourists by Thomas Cook, the celebrated travel agents.

[Page 272, line 3] Assouan The modern spelling is “Aswan”.

[Page 272, line 14] fezzed Jew A Jew wearing a fez or tarboosh. The tarboosh was formerly the badge of a Turkish subject in Turkey and Egypt, where it was red in colour with a black blue, or blue-black tassel.

European officers of the Egyptian army and the Egyptian administrative service wore it. In this instance it indicates that the Jew was a man of some substance.

[Page 272, lines 14 and 15] watching him as a stoat watches a rabbit this refers to the reputed hypnotic effect of the stoat’s gaze on its prey. It is hard to acquit Kipling of the charge of anti-Semitism here. One can recall that he writes sympathetically of the Jewish financier Kadmiel in “The Treasure and the Law” (1906) in Rewards and Fairies, of the Jewish business-man in “The House Surgeon” (1909) in Actions and Reactions, and of a small Jewish community in an Indian city in “Jews in Shushan” (1887) in Life’s Handicap. Also, the motivation for Kipling’s remarks here was probably more to do with his preference for Muslims, both amongst the people of India and later, than with the fact that the stall owner was Jewish. But to a modern reader the passage is distasteful.

[Page 272, line 19] thumping wildly on a tambourine Both hares and rabbits thump or drum with the feet and hindquarters in fear; the tambourine, a little drum, conjures up an image of desperate rhythmic movement.

©John Radcliffe 2010 All rights reserved