Traveling through Abyssinia
Through the
Danakil Desert
by L. M. Nesbitt

As we accompanied the Secretary to the meeting, he explained to us that the Sultan had ordered his camp to be removed to a little distance. He said it was the habit of the great ones never to remain long on the same spot when they were travelling. This precaution was taken as a measure of safety, though the Sultan himself had a large bodyguard always in attendance, and as many more soldiers scattered in the woods round his camp. In fact, Pastori and I had already seen a number of men watching from places of concealment.

Continuing through the forest we presently came to a spot where the trees were very large, the thick grass growing underneath them. Under a large mimosa we saw a group of the royal guards. Other soldiers loitered about, some of them with their rifles in red flannel bags. The almost religious silence and solemnity which hovered over these people plainly told us that the Sultan was present.

Our messenger signed to us to halt, and himself went forword. But in a moment he turned round again and bowed to us, whereat we advanced. In the shadow of the great tree the Sultan sat surrounded by his ministers and courtiers. All stood stiffly erect, and as motionless as though they had been statues. There was no turning round, or gaping or craning of necks, but a formal stiffness, which I much appreciated.

The Sultan rose from his folding chair and came a few steps forward to take our hands. He bowed many times, and spoke continually in a low soft tone, very pleasant to the ear, though we could not understand his words. We responded in similar tones in our own tongue, and there we stood for some minutes, the Aussan Sultan and three Europeans, all whispering together, and bending our heads with great assiduity, and holding hands. The Sultan then, with a sweep of his hand, effected a general introduction between ourselves and his ministers. These now relaxed their stiff attitudes, smiled upon us, and said a few words, to which we responded. The Sultan then made a sign, and all, after bowing low to us, retired to the shade of a distant tree. We were now left alone with the Sultan and our interpreter.

We seated ourselves on some boxes, which we ourselves had lent His Highness for seats the evening before. Abdul Kader, in a new turbancloth, stood at one side.

The Anfari, or Sultan, Muhammad Yaio was some thirty-two years of age, small, intelligent, with features of a European cast under his coffee-brown skin. He had soft eyes, and a constant smile slightly curved the corners of his month, unobscured by the little beard. Though small, he was well proportioned, and his gestures were quiet and tranquil, the movements of a man accustomed to command. He wore a fine cotton cloth wound round his shoulders and body, and his head was uncovered. He had slipped off his sandals when we approached, and now, having re-seated himself on his chair, he placed his toes on the lowest rung. He wore no weapon, and seemed altogether a simple-mannered man.

This pleasant ruler asked for news of our journey, and inquired as to whether we had met with any difficulties, and where we wished to go next. These inquiries were repeated several times, in order to denote a high degree of kindly interest in the speaker, such being the custom of the country.

We asked the Anfari to sanction our purchase of camels and millet and goatskins, and to this he agreed immediately. He then inquired as to whether we really intended to cross the Biru Sultanate, and pass on to the 'lands of fire', meaning the active volcanic zone of Upper Danakil, and when we replied in the affirmative, he advised us to abandon the risky plan, and turn towards Tajura in French Somaliland. There, said he, we might hire a native boat to take us to Jibuti: thus we might be sure of seeing our homes again. But when he saw that we were firm in our purpose, he wished us success. He said that he could promise that no harm should befall us so long as we remained in his dominions, but that as soon as we proposed to leave them and enter the Biru Sultanate, we must do so at our own peril. He further hinted, doubtless as a piece of advice, that to have got thus far on our way we must have used our heads far more than our rifles.

The Sultan then asked about those iron birds which flew with people inside them, and wanted to know how many soldiers one of them could carry. Further, he asked, was it true that I was putting all of the country on a piece of paper? Was such a thing possible? I replied that all the world was inside a few books.

He asked us to describe Khartoum and Istanboul to him. And what was this America? He also wanted to see our "watch," by means of which we could ascertain where there were villages and water. This last was a pocket compass, which Pastori had shown to the Secretary one day. We told the Sultan that we would send him one of these watches in the afternoon.

After talking for some two hours, and the heat increasing greatly, we decided to take leave of our host. We thanked him again for his bountiful hospitality, and for promising that we should be enabled to purchase such camels and millet as we required. He said that he had already given orders about this matter, and added that he intended to supply us with a guide, and also with "the Silver Baton of Command," when we were ready to leave for Biru. We thanked him heartily for this great favour, for the Silver Baton would ensure us a safe passage through any part of his dominions. I offered to take a photograph of the Sultan, but he answered very amiably that he could not do what his father had never done. We then took leave of him and retired.

In the afternoon Pastori, who was clever at bargaining, went to discuss with the Sultan's men the purchase of the camels we required. They demanded a thousand thalers for ten animals, a price at least double that which was usual. We were to receive as a gift three large sacks of millet, and twenty-six goatskin water-bags; also the camels were in perfect condition, with humps so high and round that it would be difficult to place a pack-saddle securely on their backs. Nevertheless, in spite of all these advantages the price asked was exorbitant. The Secretary, never at a loss for a word of explanation or advice, observed that when one of the great ones of the earth condescends to dispose of his possessions he cannot be expected to use the same prices as an ordinary merchant. It appeared that we had no alternative but to pay the price demanded, so we sent Settic with some others of our men to select the ten best from a herd of forty splendid animals. These were all branded on the neck with the Sultan's five-pointed star. Our men were so anxious to choose only superlatively good beasts, that they contented themselves with selecting only seven from that herd. They were to get the remaining three camels at Furzi, when they went to receive the three sacks of millet and the goatskin bags. The Sultan, having carried his point, and obtained the price he had demanded, graciously sent us a further gift of eight cow and twenty goats. These, however, we decided not to accept.

In the afternoon three murderers, who had lately been terrorizing the district, were brought to justice. Finding themselves relentlessly hunted, they had surrendered, hoping that the unusual nature of the Sultan's visit to these parts would have created in his breast a feeling conducive to light sentences. They made a miscalculation, for Sultan acted as his father would have done, and had their heads cut off.

We heard a good deal about Muhammad Yaio's father. When he had grown old and appeared about to die, his wise men had recommended that a male and a female slave should be put to death near the old man's bed so that their death agonies might shed some light on the measures to be taken to save his life. This was done, the earthen floor of the palace was flooded with human blood, but the Sultan died. Some of the wise men asserted that two victims had not been sufficient in the case of so great a monarch, so an effort was made to atone for that shortcoming on the installation of the new Sultan.

The Anftri returned to his palace at Furzi on the evening of the day on which we had been received by him. The shrilling of the bugles called all his men together, and then the cavalcade defiled through the trees until it was lost to sight to the southward. The bugle-notes grew fainter and fainter, and at last ceased altogether. So departed the most exalted of the Danakils, the ruler of the legendary Aussa.

In our camp, nothing was now heard but the sounds of the men's labour, and the infrequent voices of the few gapers who remained. All the great concourse of officials and soldiers and populace had vanished as though they had never been. Only the Secretary, urbane as ever, remained as his master's representative.

--- From Desert and Forest
©1934, Penguin Books

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