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Even a prejudiced observer will readily admit that the most valuable mineral on earth is mud. Diamonds and rubies are just nowhere by comparison. I don’t mean weight for weight, of course–mud is ‘cheap as dirt,’ to buy in small quantities–but aggregate for aggregate. Quite literally, and without hocus-pocus of any sort, the money valuation of the mud in the world must outnumber many thousand times the money valuation of all the other minerals put together. Only we reckon it usually not by the ton, but by the acre, though the acre is worth most where the mud lies deepest. Nay, more, the world’s wealth is wholly based on mud. Corn, not gold, is the true standard of value. Without mud there would be no human life, no productions of any kind: for food stuffs of every description are raised on mud; and where no mud exists, or can be made to exist, there, we say, there is desert or sand-waste. Land, without mud, has no economic value. To put it briefly, the only parts of the world that count much for human habitation are the mud deposits of the great rivers, and notably of the Nile, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Indus, the Irrawaddy, the Hoang Ho, the Yang-tse-Kiang; of the Po, the Rhone, the Danube, the Rhine, the Volga, the Dnieper; of the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Orinoco, the Amazons, the La Plata. A corn-field is just a big mass of mud; and the deeper and purer and freer from stones or other impurities it is the better.

But England, you say, is not a great river-mud field; yet it supports the densest population in the world. True; but England is an exceptional product of modern civilization. She can’t feed herself: she is fed from Odessa, Alexandria, Bombay, New York, Montreal, Buenos Ayres–in other words, from the mud fields of the Russian, the Egyptian, the Indian, the American, the Canadian, the Argentine rivers. Orontes, said Juvenal, has flowed into Tiber; Nile, we may say nowadays, with equal truth, has flowed into Thames.

There is nothing to make one realize the importance of mud, indeed, like a journey up Nile when the inundation is just over. You lounge on the deck of your dahabieh, and drink in geography almost without knowing it. The voyage forms a perfect introduction to the study of mudology, and suggests to the observant mind (meaning you and me) the real nature of mud as nothing else on earth that I know of can suggest it. For in Egypt you get your phenomenon isolated, as it were, from all disturbing elements. You have no rainfall to bother you, no local streams, no complex denudation: the Nile does all, and the Nile does everything. On either hand stretches away the bare desert, rising up in grey rocky hills. Down the midst runs the one long line of alluvial soil–in other words, Nile mud–which alone allows cultivation and life in that rainless district. The country bases itself absolutely on mud. The crops are raised on it; the houses and villages are built of it; the land is manured with it; the very air is full of it. The crude brick buildings that dissolve in dust are Nile mud solidified; the red pottery of Assiout is Nile mud baked hard; the village mosques and minarets are Nile mud whitewashed. I have even seen a ship’s bulwarks neatly repaired with mud. It pervades the whole land, when wet, as mud undisguised; when dry, as dust-storm.

Egypt, says Herodotus, is a gift of the Nile. A truer or more pregnant word was never spoken. Of course it is just equally true, in a way, that Bengal is a gift of the Ganges, and that Louisiana and Arkansas are gifts of the Mississippi; but with this difference, that in the case of the Nile the dependence is far more obvious, far freer from disturbing or distracting details. For that reason, and also because the Nile is so much more familiar to most English-speaking folk than the American rivers, I choose Egypt first as my type of a regular mud-land. But in order to understand it fully you mustn’t stop all your time in Cairo and the Delta; you mustn’t view it only from the terrace of Shepheard’s Hotel or the rocky platform of the Great Pyramid at Ghizeh: you must push up country early, under Mr. Cook’s care, to Luxor and the First Cataract. It is up country that Egypt unrolls itself visibly before your eyes in the very process of making: it is there that the full importance of good, rich black mud first forces itself upon you by undeniable evidence.