EGYPT (LA MORT DE PHILAE)
by Pierre Loti
Translated from the French by
W. P. Baines
A WINTER MIDNIGHT BEFORE THE GREAT SPHINX
A night wondrously clear and of a colour unknown to our climate; a place of dreamlike aspect, fraught with mystery. The moon of a bright silver, which dazzles by its shining, illumines a world which surely is no longer ours; for it resembles in nothing what may be seen in other lands. A world in which everything is suffused with rosy color beneath the stars of midnight, and where granite symbols rise up, ghostlike and motionless.
Is that a hill of sand that rises yonder? One can scarcely tell, for it has as it were no shape, no outline; rather it seems like a great rosy cloud, or some huge, trembling billow, which once perhaps raised itself there, forthwith to become motionless for ever. . . . And from out this kind of mummified wave a colossal human effigy emerges, rose-coloured too, a nameless, elusive rose; emerges, and stares with fixed eyes and smiles. It is so huge it seems unreal, as if it were a reflection cast by some mirror hidden in the moon. . . . And behind this monster face, far away in the rear, on the top of those undefined and gently undulating sandhills, three apocalyptic signs rise up against the sky, those rose-coloured triangles, regular as the figures of geometry, but so vast in the distance that they inspire you with fear. They seem to be luminous of themselves, so vividly do they stand out in their clear rose against the deep blue of the star-spangled vault. And this apparent radiation from within, by its lack of likelihood, makes them seem more awful.
And all around is the desert; a corner of the mournful kingdom of sand. Nothing else is to be seen anywhere save those three awful things that stand there upright and still—the human likeness magnified beyond all measurement, and the three geometric mountains; things at first sight like exhalations, visionary things, with nevertheless here and there, and most of all in the features of the vast mute face, subtleties of shadow which show that it at least exists, rigid and immovable, fashioned out of imperishable stone.
Even had we not known, we must soon have guessed, for these things are unique in the world, and pictures of every age have made the knowledge of them commonplace: the Sphinx and the Pyramids! But what is strange is that they should be so disquieting. . . . And this pervading colour of rose, whence comes it, seeing that usually the moon tints with blue the things it illumines? One would not expect this colour either, which, nevertheless, is that of all the sands and all the granites of Egypt and Arabia. And then too, the eyes of the statue, how often have we not seen them? And did we not know that they were capable only of their one fixed stare? Why is it then that their motionless regard surprises and chills us, even while we are obsessed by the smile of the sealed lips that seem to hold back the answer to the supreme enigma? . . .
It is cold, but cold as in our country are the fine nights of January, and a wintry mist rises low down in the little valleys of the sand. And that again we were not expecting; beyond question the latest invaders of this country, by changing the course of the old Nile, so as to water the earth and make it more productive, have brought hither the humidity of their own misty isle. And this strange cold, this mist, light as it still is, seem to presage the end of ages, give an added remoteness and finality to all this dead past, which lies here beneath us in subterranean labyrinths haunted by a thousand mummies.
And the mist, which, as the night advances, thickens in the valleys, hesitates to mount to the great daunting face of the Sphinx; and covers it with the merest and most transparent gauze; and, like everything else here to-night, this gauze, too, is rose-colored. And meanwhile the Sphinx, which has seen the unrolling of all the history of the world, attends impassively the change in Egypt's climate, plunged in profound and mystic contemplation of the moon, its friend for the last 5000 years.
Here and there on the soft pathway of the sandhills are pigmy figures of men that move about or sit squatting as if on the watch; and small as they are, low down in the hollows and far away, this wonderful silver moon reveals even their slightest gestures; for their white robes and black cloaks stand sharply out against the monotonous rose of the desert. At times they call to one another in a harsh, aspirate tongue, and then go off at a run, noiselessly, barefooted, with burnous flying, like moths in the night. They lie in wait for the parties of tourists who arrive from time to time. For the great symbols, during the hundreds and thousands of years that have elapsed since men ceased to venerate them, have nevertheless scarcely ever been alone, especially on nights with a full moon. Men of all races, of all times, have come to wander round them, vaguely attracted by their immensity and mystery. In the days of the Romans they had already become symbols of a lost significance, legacies of a fabulous antiquity, but people came curiously to contemplate them, and tourists in toga and in peplus carved their names on the granite of their bases for the sake of remembrance.
The tourists who have come to-night, and upon whom have pounced the black-cloaked Bedouin guides, wear cap and ulster or furred greatcoat; their intrusion here seems almost an offence; but, alas, such visitors become more numerous in each succeeding year. The great town hard by—which sweats gold now that men have started to buy from it its dignity and its soul—is become a place of rendezvous and holiday for the idlers and upstarts of the whole world. The modern spirit encompasses the old desert of the Sphinx on every side. It is true that up to the present no one has dared to profane it by building in the immediate neighbourhood of the great statue. Its fixity and calm disdain still hold some sway, perhaps. But little more than a mile away there ends a road travelled by hackney carriages and tramway cars, and noisy with the delectable hootings of smart motor cars; and behind the pyramid of Cheops squats a vast hotel to which swarm men and women of fashion, the latter absurdly feathered, like Redskins at a scalp dance; and sick people, in search of purer air; and consumptive English maidens; and ancient English dames, a little the worse for wear, who bring their rheumatisms for the treatment of the dry winds.
Passing on our way hither, we had seen this road and this hotel and these people in the glare of the electric lights, and from an orchestra that was playing there we caught the trivial air of a popular refrain of the music halls; but when in a dip of the ground all this had disappeared, what a sense of deliverance possessed us, how far off this turmoil seemed! As soon as we commenced to tread upon the sand of centuries, where all at once our footsteps made no sound, nothing seemed to have existence, save only the great calm and the religious awe of this world into which we were come, of this world with its so crushing commentary upon our own, where all seemed silent, undefined, gigantic and suffused with rose-colour.
And first there is the pyramid of Cheops, whose immutable base we had to skirt on our way hither. In the moonlight we could see the separate blocks, so enormous, so regular, so even in their layers, which lie one above the other to infinity, getting ever smaller and smaller, and mounting, mounting in diminishing perspective, until at last high up they form the apex of this giddy triangle. And the pyramid seemed to be illumined by some sad dawn of the end of the world, a dawn which made ruddy only the sands and the granites of earth, and left the heavens, pricked with their myriad stars, more awful in their darkness. How impossible it is for us to conceive the mental attitude of that king who, during some half-century, spent the lives of thousands and thousands of his slaves in the construction of this tomb, in the fond and foolish hope of prolonging to infinity the existence of his mummy.
The pyramid once passed there was still a short way to go before we confronted the Sphinx, in the middle of what our contemporaries have left him of his desert. We had to descend the slope of that sandhill which looked like a cloud, and seemed as if covered with felt, in order to preserve in such a place a more complete silence. And here and there we passed a gaping black hole—an airhole, as it seemed, of the profound and inextricable kingdom of mummies, very populous still, in spite of the zeal of the exhumers.
As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon; its head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light it seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like downhanging ears. And then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in profile, shorn of its nose—flat-nosed like a death's head—but having already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side; already disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious smile. And when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face to face with it—without however encountering its gaze, which passed high above our heads—there came over us at once the sentiment of all the secret thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and make eternal behind this mutilated mask.
But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which no longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it comes to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.
For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of awe-inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought so long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished simply to sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the most profound of our human speculations. . . . It is said that the Sphinx was once of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and colouring animated the face, and it was enthroned at its full height on a kind of esplanade paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then more sovereign than it is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost buried beneath the sand of the Libyan desert, which now quite hides its base, it rises at this hour like a phantom which nothing solid sustains in the air.
It has gone midnight. In little groups the tourists of the evening have disappeared; to regain perhaps the neighbouring hotel, where the orchestra doubtless has not ceased to rage; or may be, remounting their cars, to join, in some club of Cairo, one of those bridge parties, in which the really superior intellects of our time delight; some—the stouthearted ones—departed talking loudly and with cigar in mouth; others, however, daunted in spite of themselves, lowered their voices as people instinctively do in church. And the Bedouin guides, who a moment ago seemed to flutter about the giant monument like so many black moths—they too have gone, made restless by the cold air, which erstwhile they had not known. The show for to-night is over, and everywhere silence reigns.
The rosy tint fades on the Sphinx and the pyramids; all things in the ghostly scene grow visibly paler; for the moon as it rises becomes more silvery in the increasing chilliness of midnight. The winter mist, exhaled from the artificially watered fields below, continues to rise, takes heart and envelops the great mute face itself. And the latter persists in its regard of the dead moon, preserving still the old disconcerting smile. It becomes more and more difficult to believe that here before us is a real colossus, so surely does it seem nothing other than a dilated reflection of a thing which exists elsewhere, in some other world. And behind in the distance are the three triangular mountains. Them, too, the fog envelops, till they also cease to exist, and become pure visions of the Apocalypse.
Now it is that little by little an intolerable sadness is expressed in those large eyes with their empty sockets—for, at this moment, the ultimate secret, that which the Sphinx seems to have known for so many centuries, but to have withheld in melancholy irony, is this: that all these dead men and women who sleep in the vast necropolis below have been fooled, and the awakening signal has not sounded for a single one of them; and that the creation of mankind—mankind that thinks and suffers—has had no rational explanation, and that our poor aspirations are vain, but so vain as to awaken pity.
THE PASSING OF CAIRO
Ragged, threatening clouds, like those that bring the showers of our early spring, hurry across a pale evening sky, whose mere aspect makes you cold. A wintry wind, raw and bitter, blows without ceasing, and brings with it every now and then some furtive spots of rain.
A carriage takes me towards what was once the residence of the great Mehemet Ali: by a steep incline it ascends into the midst of rocks and sand—and already, and almost in a moment, we seem to be in the desert; though we have scarcely left behind the last houses of an Arab quarter, where long-robed folk, who looked half frozen, were muffled up to the eyes to-day. . . . Was there formerly such weather as this in this country noted for its unchanging mildness?
This residence of the great sovereign of Egypt, the citadel and the mosque which he had made for his last repose, are perched like eagles' nests on a spur of the mountain chain of Arabia, the Mokattam, which stretches out like a promontory towards the basin of the Nile, and brings quite close to Cairo, so as almost to overhang it, a little of the desert solitude. And so the eye can see from far off and from all sides the mosque of Mehemet Ali, with the flattened domes of its cupolas, its pointed minarets, the general aspect so entirely Turkish, perched high up, with a certain unexpectedness, above the Arab town which it dominates. The prince who sleeps there wished that it should resemble the mosques of his fatherland, and it looks as if it had been transported bodily from Stamboul.
A short trot brings us up to the lower gate of the old fortress; and, by a natural effect, as we ascend, all Cairo which is near there, seems to rise with us: not yet indeed the endless multitude of its houses; but at first only the thousands of its minarets, which in a few seconds point their high towers into the mournful sky, and suggest at once that an immense town is about to unfold itself under our eyes.
Continuing to ascend—past the double rampart, the double or triple gates, which all these old fortresses possess, we penetrate at length into a large fortified courtyard, the crenellated walls of which shut out our further view. Soldiers are on guard there—and how unexpected are such soldiers in this holy place of Egypt! The red uniforms and the white faces of the north: Englishmen, billeted in the palace of Mehemet Ali!
The mosque first meets the eye, preceding the palace. And as we approach, it is Stamboul indeed—for me dear old Stamboul—which is called to mind; there is nothing, whether in the lines of its architecture or in the details of its ornamentation, to suggest the art of the Arabs—a purer art it may be than this and of which many excellent examples may be seen in Cairo. No; it is a corner of Turkey into which we are suddenly come.
Beyond a courtyard paved with marble, silent and enclosed, which serves as a vast parvis, the sanctuary recalls those of Mehemet Fatih or the Chah Zade: the same sanctified gloom, into which the stained glass of the narrow windows casts a splendour as of precious stones; the same extreme distance between the enormous pillars, leaving more clear space than in our churches, and giving to the domes the appearance of being held up by enchantment.
The walls are of a strange white marble streaked with yellow. The ground is completely covered with carpets of a sombre red. In the vaults, very elaborately wrought, nothing but blacks and gold: a background of black bestrewn with golden roses, and bordered with arabesques like gold lace. And from above hang thousands of gold chains supporting the vigil lamps for the evening prayers. Here and there are people on their knees, little groups in robe and turban, scattered fortuitously upon the red of the carpets, and almost lost in the midst of the sumptuous solitude.
In an obscure corner lies Mehemet Ali, the prince adventurous and chivalrous as some legendary hero, and withal one of the greatest sovereigns of modern history. There he lies behind a grating of gold, of complicated design, in that Turkish style, already decadent, but still so beautiful, which was that of his epoch.
Through the golden bars may be seen in the shadow the catafalque of state, in three tiers, covered with blue brocades, exquisitely faded, and profusely embroidered with dull gold. Two long green palms freshly cut from some date-tree in the neighbourhood are crossed before the door of this sort of funeral enclosure. And it seems that around us is an inviolable religious peace. . . .
But all at once there comes a noisy chattering in a Teutonic tongue—and shouts and laughs! . . . How is it possible, so near to the great dead? . . . And there enters a group of tourists, dressed more or less in the approved "smart" style. A guide, with a droll countenance, recites to them the beauties of the place, bellowing at the top of his voice like a showman at a fair. And one of the travellers, stumbling in the sandals which are too large for her small feet, laughs a prolonged, silly little laugh like the clucking of a turkey. . . .
Is there then no keeper, no guardian of this holy mosque? And amongst the faithful prostrate here in prayer, none who will rise and make indignant protest? Who after this will speak to us of the fanaticism of the Egyptians? . . . Too meek, rather, they seem to me everywhere. Take any church you please in Europe where men go down on their knees in prayer, and I should like to see what kind of a welcome would be accorded to a party of Moslem tourists who—to suppose the impossible—behaved so badly as these savages here.
Behind the mosque is an esplanade, and beyond that the palace. The palace, as such, can scarcely be said to exist any longer, for it has been turned into a barrack for the army of occupation. English soldiers, indeed, meet us at every turn, smoking their pipes in the idleness of the evening. One of them who does not smoke is trying to carve his name with a knife on one of the layers of marble at the base of the sanctuary.
At the end of this esplanade there is a kind of balcony from which one may see the whole of the town, and an unlimited extent of verdant plains and yellow desert. It is a favourite view of the tourists of the agencies, and we meet again our friends of the mosque, who have preceded us hither—the gentlemen with the loud voices, the bellowing guide and the cackling lady. Some soldiers are standing there too, smoking their pipes contemplatively. But spite of all these people, in spite, too, of the wintry sky, the scene which presents itself on arrival there is ravishing.
A very fairyland—but a fairyland quite different from that of Stamboul. For whereas the latter is ranged like a great amphitheatre above the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, here the vast town is spread out simply, in a plain surrounded by the solitude of the desert and dominated by chaotic rocks. Thousands of minarets rise up on every side like ears of corn in a field; far away in the distance one can see their innumerable slender points—but instead of being simply, as at Stamboul, so many white spires, they are here complicated by arabesques, by galleries, clock-towers and little columns, and seem to have borrowed the reddish colour of the desert.
The flat rocks tell of a region which formerly was without rain. The innumerable palm-trees of the gardens, above this ocean of mosques and houses, sway their plumes in the wind, bewildered as it were by these clouds laden with cold showers. In the south and in the west, at the extreme limits of the view, as if upon the misty horizon of the plains, appear two gigantic triangles. They are Gizeh and Memphis—the eternal pyramids.
At the north of the town there is a corner of the desert quite singular in its character—of the colour of bistre and of mummy—where a whole colony of high cupolas, scattered at random, still stand upright in the midst of sand and desolate rocks. It is the proud cemetery of the Mameluke Sultans, whose day was done in the Middle Ages.
But if one looks closely, what disorder, what a mass of ruins there are in this town—still a little fairylike—beaten this evening by the squalls of winter. The domes, the holy tombs, the minarets and terraces, all are crumbling: the hand of death is upon them all. But down there, in the far distance, near to that silver streak which meanders through the plains, and which is the old Nile, the advent of new times is proclaimed by the chimneys of factories, impudently high, that disfigure everything, and spout forth into the twilight thick clouds of black smoke.
The night is falling as we descend from the esplanade to return to our lodgings.
We have first to traverse the old town of Cairo, a maze of streets still full of charm, wherein the thousand little lamps of the Arab shops already shed their quiet light. Passing through streets which twist at their caprice, beneath overhanging balconies covered with wooden trellis of exquisite workmanship, we have to slacken speed in the midst of a dense crowd of men and beasts. Close to us pass women, veiled in black, gently mysterious as in the olden times, and men of unmoved gravity, in long robes and white draperies; and little donkeys pompously bedecked in collars of blue beads; and rows of leisurely camels, with their loads of lucerne, which exhale the pleasant fragrance of the fields. And when in the gathering gloom, which hides the signs of decay, there appear suddenly, above the little houses, so lavishly ornamented with mushrabiyas and arabesques, the tall aerial minarets, rising to a prodigious height into the twilight sky, it is still the adorable East.
But nevertheless, what ruins, what filth, what rubbish! How present is the sense of impending dissolution! And what is this: large pools of water in the middle of the road! Granted that there is more rain here than formerly, since the valley of the Nile has been artificially irrigated, it still seems almost impossible that there should be all this black water, into which our carriage sinks to the very axles; for it is a clear week since any serious quantity of rain fell. It would seem that the new masters of this land, albeit the cost of annual upkeep has risen in their hands to the sum of fifteen million pounds, have given no thought to drainage. But the good Arabs, patiently and without murmuring, gather up their long robes, and with legs bare to the knee make their way through this already pestilential water, which must be hatching for them fever and death.
Further on, as the carriage proceeds on its course, the scene changes little by little. The streets become vulgar: the houses of "The Arabian Nights" give place to tasteless Levantine buildings; electric lamps begin to pierce the darkness with their wan, fatiguing glare, and at a sharp turning the new Cairo is before us.
What is this? Where are we fallen? Save that it is more vulgar, it might be Nice, or the Riviera, or Interkalken, or any other of those towns of carnival whither the bad taste of the whole world comes to disport itself in the so-called fashionable seasons. But in these quarters, on the other hand, which belong to the foreigners and to the Egyptians rallied to the civilisation of the West, all is clean and dry, well cared for and well kept. There are no ruts, no refuse. The fifteen million pounds have done their work conscientiously.
Everywhere is the blinding glare of the electric light; monstrous hotels parade the sham splendour of their painted facades; the whole length of the streets is one long triumph of imitation, of mud walls plastered so as to look like stone; a medley of all styles, rockwork, Roman, Gothic, New Art, Pharaonic, and, above all, the pretentious and the absurd. Innumerable public-houses overflow with bottles; every alcoholic drink, all the poisons of the West, are here turned into Egypt with a take-what-you-please.
And taverns, gambling dens and houses of ill-fame. And parading the side-walks, numerous Levantine damsels, who seek by their finery to imitate their fellows of the Paris boulevards, but who by mistake, as we must suppose, have placed their orders with some costumier for performing dogs.
This then is the Cairo of the future, this cosmopolitan fair! Good heavens! When will the Egyptians recollect themselves, when will they realise that their forebears have left to them an inalienable patrimony of art, of architecture and exquisite refinement; and that, by their negligence, one of those towns which used to be the most beautiful in the world is falling into ruin and about to perish?
And nevertheless amongst the young Moslems and Copts now leaving the schools there are so many of distinguished mind and superior intelligence! When I see the things that are here, see them with the fresh eyes of a stranger, landed but yesterday upon this soil, impregnated with the glory of antiquity, I want to cry out to them, with a frankness that is brutal perhaps, but with a profound sympathy:
"Bestir yourselves before it is too late. Defend yourselves against this disintegrating invasion—not by force, be it understood, not by inhospitality or ill-humour—but by disdaining this Occidental rubbish, this last year's frippery by which you are inundated. Try to preserve not only your traditions and your admirable Arab language, but also the grace and mystery that used to characterise your town, the refined luxury of your dwelling-houses. It is not a question now of a poet's fancy; your national dignity is at stake. You are Orientals—I pronounce respectfully that word, which implies a whole past of early civilisation, of unmingled greatness—but in a few years, unless you are on your guard, you will have become mere Levantine brokers, exclusively preoccupied with the price of land and the rise in cotton."
THE MOSQUES OF CAIRO
They are almost innumerable, more than 3000, and this great town, which covers some twelve miles of plain, might well be called a city of mosques. (I speak, of course, of the ancient Cairo, of the Cairo of the Arabs. The new Cairo, the Cairo of sham elegance and of "Semiramis Hotels," does not deserve to be mentioned except with a smile.)
A city of mosques, then, as I was saying. They follow one another along the streets, sometimes two, three, four in a row; leaning one against the other, so that their confines become merged. On all sides their minarets shoot up into the air, those minarets embellished with arabesques, carved and complicated with the most changing fancy. They have their little balconies, their rows of little columns; they are so fashioned that the daylight shows through them. Some are far away in the distance; others quite close, pointing straight into the sky above our heads. No matter where one looks—as far as the eye can see—still there are others; all of the same familiar colour, a brown turning into rose. The most ancient of them, those of the old easy-tempered times, bristle with shafts of wood, placed there as resting-places for the great free birds of the air, and vultures and ravens may always be seen perched there, contemplating the horizon of the sands, the line of the yellow solitudes.
Three thousand mosques! Their great straight walls, a little severe perhaps, and scarcely pierced by their tiny ogive windows, rise above the height of the neighbouring houses. These walls are of the same brown colour as the minarets, except that they are painted with horizontal stripes of an old red, which has been faded by the sun; and they are crowned invariably with a series of trefoils, after the fashion of battlements, but trefoils which in every case are different and surprising.
Before the mosques, which are raised like altars, there is always a flight of steps with a balustrade of white marble. From the door one gets a glimpse of the calm interior in deep shadow. Once inside there are corridors, astonishingly lofty, sonorous and enveloped in a kind of half gloom; immediately on entering one experiences a sense of coolness and pervading peace; they prepare you as it were, and you begin to be filled with a spirit of devotion, and instinctively to speak low. In the narrow street outside there was the clamorous uproar of an Oriental crowd, cries of sellers, and the noise of humble old-world trading; men and beasts jostled you; there seemed a scarcity of air beneath those so numerous overhanging mushrabiyas. But here suddenly there is silence, broken only by the vague murmur of prayers and the sweet songs of birds; there is silence too, and the sense of open space, in the holy garden enclosed within high walls; and again in the sanctuary, resplendent in its quiet and restful magnificence. Few people as a rule frequent the mosques, except of course at the hours of the five services of the day. In a few chosen corners, particularly cool and shady, some greybeards isolate themselves to read from morning till night the holy books and to ponder the thought of approaching death: they may be seen there in their white turbans, with their white beards and grave faces. And there may be, too, some few poor homeless outcasts, who are come to seek the hospitality of Allah, and sleep, careless of the morrow, stretched to their full length on mats.
The peculiar charm of the gardens of the mosques, which are often very extensive, is that they are so jealously enclosed within their high walls—crowned always with stone trefoils—which completely shut out the hubbub of the outer world. Palm-trees, which have grown there for some hundred years perhaps, rise from the ground, either separately or in superb clusters, and temper the light of the always hot sun on the rose-trees and the flowering hibiscus. There is no noise in the gardens, any more than in the cloisters, for people walk there in sandals and with measured tread. And there are Edens, too, for the birds, who live and sing therein in complete security, even during the services, attracted by the little troughs which the imams fill for their benefit each morning with water from the Nile.
As for the mosque itself it is rarely closed on all sides as are those in the countries of the more sombre Islam of the north. Here in Egypt—since there is no real winter and scarcely ever any rain—one of the sides of the mosque is left completely open to the garden; and the sanctuary is separated from the verdure and the roses only by a simple colonnade. Thus the faithful grouped beneath the palm-trees can pray there equally as well as in the interior of the mosque, since they can see, between the arches, the holy Mihrab.[*]
[*] The Mihrab is a kind of portico indicating the direction of Mecca. It is placed at the end of each mosque, as the altar is in our churches, and the faithful are supposed to face it when they pray.
Oh! this sanctuary seen from the silent garden, this sanctuary in which the pale gold gleams on the old ceiling of cedarwood, and mosaics of mother-of-pearl shine on the walls as if they were embroideries of silver that had been hung there.
There is no faience as in the mosques of Turkey or of Iran. Here it is the triumph of patient mosaic. Mother-of-pearl of all colours, all kinds of marble and of porphyry, cut into myriads of little pieces, precise and equal, and put together again to form the Arab designs, which, never borrowing from the human form, nor indeed from the form of any animal, recall rather those infinitely varied crystals that may be seen under the microscope in a flake of snow. It is always the Mihrab which is decorated with the most elaborate richness; generally little columns of lapis lazuli, intensely blue, rise in relief from it, framing mosaics so delicate that they look like brocades of fine lace. In the old ceilings of cedarwood, where the singing birds of the neighbourhood have their nests, the golds mingle with some most exquisite colourings, which time has taken care to soften and to blend together. And here and there very fine and long consoles of sculptured wood seem to fall, as it were, from the beams and hang upon the walls like stalactites; and these consoles, too, in past times, have been carefully coloured and gilded. As for the columns, always dissimilar, some of amaranth-coloured marble, others of dark green, others again of red porphyry, with capitals of every conceivable style, they are come from far, from the night of the ages, from the religious struggles of an earlier time and testify to the prodigious past which this valley of the Nile, narrow as it is, and encompassed by the desert, has known. They were formerly perhaps in the temples of the pagans, or have known the strange faces of the gods of Egypt and of ancient Greece and Rome; they have been in the churches of the early Christians, or have seen the statues of tortured martyrs, and the images of the transfigured Christ, crowned with the Byzantine aureole. They have been present at battles, at the downfall of kingdoms, at hecatombs, at sacrileges; and now brought together promiscuously in these mosques, they behold on the walls of the sanctuary simply the thousand little designs, ideally pure, of that Islam which wishes that men when they pray should conceive Allah as immaterial, a Spirit without form and without feature.
Each one of these mosques has its sainted dead, whose name it bears, and who sleeps by its side, in an adjoining mortuary kiosk; some priest rendered admirable by his virtues, or perhaps a khedive of earlier times, or a soldier, or a martyr. And the mausoleum, which communicates with the sanctuary by means of a long passage, sometimes open, sometimes covered with gratings, is surmounted always by a special kind of cupola, a very high and curious cupola, which raises itself into the sky like some gigantic dervish hat. Above the Arab town, and even in the sand of the neighbouring desert, these funeral domes may be seen on every side adjoining the old mosques to which they belong. And in the evening, when the light is failing, they suggest the odd idea that it is the dead man himself, immensely magnified, who stands there beneath a hat that is become immense. One can pray, if one wishes, in this resting-place of the dead saint as well as in the mosque. Here indeed it is always more secluded and more in shadow. It is more simple, too, at least up to the height of a man: on a platform of white marble, more or less worn and yellowed by the touch of pious hands, nothing more than an austere catafalque of similar marble, ornamented merely with a Cufic inscription. But if you raise your eyes to look at the interior of the dome—the inside, as it were, of the strange dervish hat—you will see shining between the clusters of painted and gilded stalactites a number of windows of exquisite colouring, little windows that seem to be constellations of emeralds and rubies and sapphires. And the birds, you may be sure, have their nests also in the house of the holy one. They are wont indeed to soil the carpets and the mats on which the worshippers kneel, and their nests are so many blots up there amid the gildings of the carved cedarwood; but then their song, the symphony that issues from that aviary, is so sweet to the living who pray and to the dead who dream. . . .
But yet, when all is said, these mosques seem somehow to be wanting. They do not wholly satisfy you. The access to them perhaps is too easy, and one feels too near to the modern quarters of the town, where the hotels are full of visitors—so that at any moment, it seems, the spell may be broken by the entry of a batch of Cook's tourists, armed with the inevitable Baedeker. Alas! they are the mosques of Cairo, of poor Cairo, that is invaded and profaned. The memory turns to those of Morocco, so jealously guarded, to those of Persia, even to those of Old Stamboul, where the shroud of Islam envelops you in silence and gently bows your shoulders as soon as you cross their thresholds.
And yet what pains are being taken to-day to preserve these mosques, which in olden times were such delightful retreats. Neglected for whole centuries, never repaired, notwithstanding the veneration of their heedless worshippers, the greater part of them were fallen into ruin; the fine woodwork of their interiors had become worm-eaten, their cupolas were cracked and their mosaics covered the floor as with a hail of mother-of-pearl, of porphyry and marble. It seemed that to repair all this was a task incapable of fulfilment; it was sheer folly, people said, to conceive the idea of it.
Nevertheless, for nearly twenty years now an army of workers has been at the task, sculptors, marble-cutters, mosaicists. Already certain of the sanctuaries, the most venerable of them indeed, have been entirely renovated. After having re-echoed for some years to the sounds of hammers and chisels, during the course of these vast renovations, they are restored now to peace and to prayer, and the birds have recommenced to build their nests in them.
It will be the glory of the present reign that it has preserved, before it was too late, all this magnificent legacy of Moslem art. When the city of "The Arabian Nights," which was formerly there, shall have entirely disappeared, to give place to a vulgar entrepot of commerce and of pleasure, to which the plutocracy of the whole world comes every winter to disport itself, so much at least will remain to bear testimony to the lofty and magnificent thought that inspired the earlier Arab life. These mosques will continue to remain into the distant future, even when men shall have ceased to pray in them, and the winged guests shall have departed, for the want of those troughs of water from the Nile, filled for them by the good imams, whose hospitality they repay by making heard in the courts, beneath the arched roofs, beneath the ceilings of cedarwood, the sweet, piping music of birds.
THE HALL OF THE MUMMIES
There are two of us, and as we light our way by the aid of a lantern through these vast halls we might be taken for a night watch on its round. We have just shut behind us and doubly locked the door by which we entered, and we know that we are alone, rigorously alone, although this place is so vast, with its endless, communicating halls, its high vestibules and great flights of stairs; mathematically alone, one might say, for this palace that we are in is one quite out of the ordinary, and all its outlets were closed and sealed at nightfall. Every night indeed the doors are sealed, on account of the priceless relics that are collected here. So we shall not meet with any living being in these halls to-night, in spite of their vast extent and endless turnings, and in spite too of all these mysterious things that are ranged on every side and fill the place with shadows and hiding-places.
Our round takes us first along the ground floor over flagstones that resound to our footsteps. It is about ten of the clock. Here and there through some stray windows gleams a small patch of luminous blue sky, lit by the stars which for the good folk outside lend transparency to the night; but there, none the less, the place is filled with a solemn gloom, and we lower our voices, remembering perhaps the dead that fill the glass cases in the halls above.
And these things which line the walls on either side of us as we pass also seem to be in the nature of receptacles for the dead. For the most part they are sarcophagi of granite, proud and indestructible: some of them, in the shape of gigantic boxes, are laid out in line on pedestals; others, in the form of mummies, stand upright against the walls and display enormous faces, surmounted by equally enormous head-dresses. Assembled there they look like a lot of malformed giants, with oversized heads sunk curiously in their shoulders. There are, besides, some that are merely statues, colossal figures that have never held a corpse in their interiors; these all wear a strange, scarcely perceptible smile; in their huge sphinxlike headgear they reach nearly to the ceiling and their set stare passes high above our heads. And there are others that are not larger than ourselves, some even quite little, with the stature of gnomes. And, every now and then, at some sudden turning, we encounter a pair of eyes of enamel, wide-open eyes, that pierce straight into the depths of ours, that seem to follow us as we pass and make us shiver as if by the contact of a thought that comes from the abysm of the ages.
We pass on rapidly, however, and somewhat inattentively, for our business here to-night is not with these simulacra on the ground floor, but with the more redoubtable hosts above. Besides our lantern sheds so little light in these great halls that all these people of granite and sandstone and marble appear only at the precise moment of our passage, appear only to disappear, and, spreading their fantastic shadows on the walls, mingle the next moment with the great mute crowd, that grows ever more numerous behind us.
Placed at intervals are apparatus for use in case of fire, coils of hose and standpipes that shine with the warm glow of burnished copper, and I ask my companion of the watch: "What is there that could burn here? Are not these good people all of stone?" And he answers: "Not here indeed; but consider how the things that are above would blaze." Ah! yes. The "things that are above"—which are indeed the object of my visit to-night. I had no thought of fire catching hold in an assembly of mummies; of the old withered flesh, the dead, dry hair, the venerable carcasses of kings and queens, soaked as they are in natron and oils, crackling like so many boxes of matches. It is chiefly on account of this danger indeed that the seals are put upon the doors at nightfall, and that it needs a special favour to be allowed to penetrate into this place at night with a lantern.
In the daytime this "Museum of Egyptian Antiquities" is as vulgar a thing as you can conceive, filled though it is with priceless treasures. It is the most pompous, the most outrageous of those buildings, of no style at all, by which each year the New Cairo is enriched; open to all who care to gaze at close quarters, in a light that is almost brutal, upon these august dead, who fondly thought that they had hidden themselves for ever.
But at night! . . . Ah! at night when all the doors are closed, it is the palace of nightmare and of fear. At night, so say the Arab guardians, who would not enter it at the price of gold—no, not even after offering up a prayer—at night, horrible "forms" escape, not only from the embalmed bodies that sleep in the glass cases above, but also from the great statues, from the papyri, and the thousand and one things that, at the bottom of the tombs, have long been impregnated with human essence. And these "forms" are like unto dead bodies, and sometimes to strange beasts, even to beasts that crawl. And, after having wandered about the halls, they end by assembling for their nocturnal conferences on the roofs.
We next ascend a staircase of monumental proportions, empty in the whole extent, where we are delivered for a little while from the obsession of those rigid figures, from the stares and smiles of the good people in white stone and black granite who throng the galleries and vestibules on the ground floor. None of them, to be sure, will follow us; but all the same they guard in force and perplex with their shadows the only way by which we can retreat, if the formidable hosts above have in store for us too sinister a welcome.
He to whose courtesy I owe the relaxation of the orders of the night is the illustrious savant to whose care has been entrusted the direction of the excavations in Egyptian soil; he is also the comptroller of this vast museum, and it is he himself who has kindly consented to act as my guide to-night through its mazy labyrinth.
Across the silent halls above we now proceed straight towards those of whom I have demanded this nocturnal audience.
To-night the succession of these rooms, filled with glass cases, which cover more than four hundred yards along the four sides of the building, seems to be without end. After passing, in turn, the papyri, the enamels, the vases that contain human entrails, we reach the mummies of the sacred beasts: cats, ibises, dogs, hawks, all with their mummy cloths and sarcophagi; and monkeys, too, that remain grotesque even in death. Then commence the human masks, and, upright in glass-fronted cupboards, the mummy cases in which the body, swathed in its mummy cloths, was moulded, and which reproduced, more or less enlarged, the figure of the deceased. Quite a lot of courtesans of the Greco-Roman epoch, moulded in paste in this wise after death and crowned with roses, smile at us provokingly from behind their windows. Masks of the colour of dead flesh alternate with others of gold which gleam as the light of our lantern plays upon them momentarily in our rapid passage. Their eyes are always too large, the eyelids too wide open and the dilated pupils seem to stare at us with alarm. Amongst these mummy cases and these coffin lids fashioned in the shape of the human figure, there are some that seem to have been made for giants; the head especially, beneath its cumbrous head-dress, the head stuffed as it were between the hunchback shoulders, looks enormous, out of all proportion to the body which, towards the feet, narrows like a scabbard.
Although our little lantern maintains its light we seem to see here less and less: the darkness around us in these vast rooms becomes almost overpowering—and these are the rooms, too, that, leading one into the other, facilitate the midnight promenade of those dread "forms" which, every evening, are released and roam about. . . .
On a table in the middle of one of these rooms a thing to make you shudder gleams in a glass box, a fragile thing that failed of life some two thousand years ago. It is the mummy of a human embryo, and someone, to appease the malice of this born-dead thing, had covered its face with a coating of gold—for, according to the belief of the Egyptians, these little abortions became the evil genii of their families if proper honour was not paid to them. At the end of its negligible body, the gilded head, with its great foetus eyes, is unforgettable for its suffering ugliness, for its frustrated and ferocious expression.
In the halls into which we next penetrate there are veritable dead bodies ranged on either side of us as we pass; their coffins are displayed in tiers one above the other; the air is heavy with the sickly odour of mummies; and on the ground, curled always like some huge serpent, the leather hoses are in readiness, for here indeed is the danger spot for fire.
And the master of this strange house whispers to me: "This is the place. Look! There they are."
In truth I recognise the place, having often come here in the daytime, like other people. In spite of the darkness, which commences at some ten paces from us—so small is the circle of light cast by our lantern—I can distinguish the double row of the great royal coffins, open without shame in their glass cases. And standing against the walls, upright, like so many sentinels, are the coffin lids, fashioned in the shape of the human figure.
We are there at last, admitted at this unseasonable hour into the guest-chamber of kings and queens, for an audience that is private indeed.
And there, first of all, is the woman with the baby, upon whom, without stopping, we throw the light of our lantern. A woman who died in giving to the world a little dead prince. Since the old embalmers no one has seen the face of this Queen Makeri. In her coffin there she is simply a tall female figure, outlined beneath the close-bound swathings of brown-coloured bandages. At her feet lies the fatal baby, grotesquely shrivelled, and veiled and mysterious as the mother herself; a sort of doll, it seems, put there to keep her eternal company in the slow passing of endless years.
More fearsome to approach is the row of unswathed mummies that follow. Here, in each coffin over which we bend, there is a face which stares at us—or else closes its eyes in order that it may not see us; and meagre shoulders and lean arms, and hands with overgrown nails that protrude from miserable rags. And each royal mummy that our lantern lights reserves for us a fresh surprise and the shudder of a different fear—they resemble one another so little. Some of them seem to laugh, showing their yellow teeth; others have an expression of infinite sadness and suffering. Sometimes the faces are small, refined and still beautiful despite the pinching of the nostrils; sometimes they are excessively enlarged by putrid swelling, with the tip of the nose eaten away. The embalmers, we know, were not sure of their means, and the mummies were not always a success. In some cases putrefaction ensued, and corruption and even sudden hatchings of larvae, those "companions without ears and without eyes," which died indeed in time but only after they had perforated all the flesh.
Hard by are ranked according to dynasty, and in chronological order, the proud Pharaohs in a piteous row: father, son, grandson, great-grandson. And common paper tickets tell their tremendous names, Seti I., Ramses II., Seti II., Ramses III., Ramses IV. . . . Soon the muster will be complete, with such energy have men dug in the heart of the rocks to find them all; and these glass cases will no doubt be their final resting-place. In olden days, however, they made many pilgrimages after their death, for in the troubled times of the history of Egypt it was one of the harassing preoccupations of the reigning sovereign to hide, to hide at all costs, the mummies of his ancestors, which filled the earth increasingly, and which the violators of tombs were so swift to track. Then they were carried clandestinely from one grave to another, raised each from his own pompous sepulchre, to be buried at last together in some humble and less conspicuous vault. But it is here, in this museum of Egyptian antiquities, that they are about to accomplish their return to dust, which has been deferred, as if by miracle, for so many centuries. Now, stripped of their bandages, their days are numbered, and it behoves us to hasten to draw these physiognomies of three or four thousand years ago, which are about to perish.
In that coffin—the last but one of the row on the left—it is the great Sesostris himself who awaits us. We know of old that face of ninety years, with its nose hooked like the beak of a falcon; and the gaps between those old man's teeth; the meagre, birdlike neck, and the hand raised in a gesture of menace. Twenty years have elapsed since he was brought back to the light, this master of the world. He was wrapped thousands of times in a marvellous winding-sheet, woven of aloe fibres, finer than the muslin of India, which must have taken years in the making and measured more than 400 yards in length. The unswathing, done in the presence of the Khedive Tewfik and the great personages of Egypt, lasted two hours, and after the last turn, when the illustrious figure appeared, the emotion amongst the assistants was such that they stampeded like a herd of cattle, and the Pharaoh was overturned. He has, moreover, given much cause for conversation, this great Sesostris, since his installation in the museum. Suddenly one day with a brusque gesture, in the presence of the attendants, who fled howling with fear, he raised that hand which is still in the air, and which he has not deigned since to lower.[*] And subsequently there supervened, beginning in the old yellowish-white hair, and then swarming over the whole body, a hatching of cadaveric fauna, which necessitated a complete bath in mercury. He also has his paper ticket, pasted on the end of his box, and one may read there, written in a careless hand, that name which once caused the whole world to tremble—"Ramses II. (Sesostris)"! It need not be said that he has greatly fallen away and blackened even in the fifteen yeas that I have known him. He is a phantom that is about to disappear; in spite of all the care lavished upon him, a poor phantom about to fall to pieces, to sink into nothingness. We move our lantern about his hooked nose, the better to decipher, in the play of shadow, his expression, that still remains authoritative. . . . To think that once the destinies of the world were ruled, without appeal, by the nod of this head, which looks now somewhat narrow, under the dry skin and the horrible whitish hair. What force of will, of passion and colossal pride must once have dwelt therein! Not to mention the anxiety, which to us now is scarcely conceivable, but which in his time overmastered all others—the anxiety, that is to say, of assuring the magnificence and inviolability of sepulture! . . . And this horrible scarecrow, toothless and senile, lying here in its filthy rags, with the hand raised in an impotent menace, was once the brilliant Sesostris, the master of kings, and by virtue of his strength and beauty the demigod also, whose muscular limbs and deep athletic chest many colossal statues at Memphis, at Thebes, at Luxor, reproduce and try to make eternal. . . .
[*] This movement is explained by the action of the sun, which, falling on the unclothed arm, is supposed to have expanded the bone of the elbow.
In the next coffin lies his father, Seti I., who reigned for a much shorter period, and died much younger than he. This youthfulness is apparent still in the features of the mummy, which are impressed besides with a persistent beauty. Indeed this good King Seti looks the picture of calm and serene reverie. There is nothing shocking in his dead face, with its long closed eyes, its delicate lips, its noble chin and unblemished profile. It is soothing and pleasant even to see him sleeping there with his hands crossed upon his breast. And it seems strange, that he, who looks so young, should have for son the old man, almost a centenarian, who lies beside him.
In our passage we have gazed on many other royal mummies, some tranquil and some grimacing. But, to finish, there is one of them (the third coffin there, in the row in front of us), a certain Queen Nsitanebashru, whom I approach with fear, albeit it is mainly on her account that I have ventured to make this fantastical round. Even in the daytime she attains to the maximum of horror that a spectral figure can evoke. What will she be like to-night in the uncertain light of our little lantern?
There she is indeed, the dishevelled vampire in her place right enough, stretched at full length, but looking always as if she were about to leap up; and straightway I meet the sidelong glance of her enamelled pupils, shining out of half-closed eyelids, with lashes that are still almost perfect. Oh! the terrifying person! Not that she is ugly, on the contrary we can see that she was rather pretty and was mummied young. What distinguishes her from the others is her air of thwarted anger, of fury, as it were, at being dead. The embalmers have coloured her very religiously, but the pink, under the action of the salts of the skin, has become decomposed here and there and given place to a number of green spots. Her naked shoulders, the height of the arms above the rags which were once her splendid shroud, have still a certain sleek roundness, but they, too, are stained with greenish and black splotches, such as may be seen on the skins of snakes. Assuredly no corpse, either here or elsewhere, has ever preserved such an expression of intense life, of ironical, implacable ferocity. Her mouth is twisted in a little smile of defiance; her nostrils pinched like those of a ghoul on the scent of blood, and her eyes seem to say to each one who approaches: "Yes, I am laid in my coffin; but you will very soon see I can get out of it." There is something confusing in the thought that the menace of this terrible expression, and this appearance of ill-restrained ferocity had endured for some hundreds of years before the commencement of our era, and endured to no purpose in the secret darkness of a closed coffin at the bottom of some doorless vault.
Now that we are about to retire, what will happen here, with the complicity of silence, in the darkest hours of the night? Will they remain inert and rigid, all these embalmed bodies, once left to themselves, who pretended to be so quiet because we were there? What exchanges of old human fluid will recommence, as who can doubt they do each night between one coffin and another. Formerly these kings and queens, in their anxiety as to the future of their mummy, had foreseen violation, pillage and scattering amongst the sands of the desert, but never this: that they would be reunited one day, almost all unveiled, so near to one another under panes of glass. Those who governed Egypt in the lost centuries and were never known except by history, by the papyri inscribed with hieroglyphics, brought thus together, how many things will they have to say to one another, how many ardent questions to ask about their loves, about their crimes! As soon as we shall have departed, nay, as soon as our lantern, at the end of the long galleries, shall seem no more than a foolish, vanishing spot of fire, will not the "forms" of whom the attendants are so afraid, will they not start their nightly rumblings and in their hollow mummy voices, whisper, with difficulty, words? . . .
Heavens! How dark it is! Yet our lantern has not gone out. But it seems to grow darker and darker. And at night, when all is shut up, how one smells the odour of the oils in which the shrouds are saturated, and, more intolerable still, the sickly stealthy stench, almost, of all these dead bodies! . . .
As I traverse the obscurity of these endless halls, a vague instinct of self-preservation induces me to turn back again, and look behind. And it seems to me that already the woman with the baby is slowly raising herself, with a thousand precautions and stratagems, her head still completely covered. While farther down, that dishevelled hair. . . . Oh! I can see her well, sitting up with a sudden jerk, the ghoul with the enamel eyes, the lady Nsitanebashru!
A CENTRE OF ISLAM
"To learn is the duty of every Moslem." —Verse from the Hadith or Words of the Prophet.
In a narrow street, hidden in the midst of the most ancient Arab quarters of Cairo, in the very heat of a close labyrinth mysteriously shady, an exquisite doorway opens into a wide space bathed in sunshine; a doorway formed of two elaborate arches, and surmounted by a high frontal on which intertwined arabesques form wonderful rosework, and holy writings are enscrolled with the most ingenious complications.
It is the entrance to El-Azhar, a venerable place in Islam, whence have issued for nearly a thousand years the generations of priests and doctors charged with the propagation of the word of the Prophet amongst the nations, from the Mohreb to the Arabian Sea, passing through the great deserts. About the end of our tenth century the glorious Fatimee Caliphs built this immense assemblage of arches and columns, which became the seat of the most renowned Moslem university in the world. And since then successive sovereigns of Egypt have vied with one another in perfecting and enlarging it, adding new halls, new galleries, new minarets, till they have made of El-Azhar almost a town within a town.
"He who seeks instruction is more loved of God than he who fights in a holy war." —A verse from the Hadith.
Eleven o'clock on a day of burning sunshine and dazzling light. El-Azhar still vibrates with the murmur of many voices, although the lessons of the morning are nearly finished.
Once past the threshold of the double ornamented door we enter the courtyard, at this moment empty as the desert and dazzling with sunshine. Beyond, quite open, the mosque spreads out its endless arcades, which are continued and repeated till they are lost in the gloom of the far interior, and in this dim place, with its perplexing depths, innumerable people in turbans, sitting in a close crowd, are singing, or rather chanting, in a low voice, and marking time as it were to their declamation by a slight rhythmic swaying from the hips. They are the ten thousand students come from all parts of the world to absorb the changeless doctrine of El-Azhar.
At the first view it is difficult to distinguish them, for they are far down in the shadow, and out here we are almost blinded by the sun. In little attentive groups of from ten to twenty, seated on mats around a grave professor, they docilely repeat their lessons, which in the course of centuries have grown old without changing like Islam itself. And we wonder how those in the circles down there, in the aisles at the bottom where the daylight scarcely penetrates, can see to read the old difficult writings in the pages of their books.
In any case, let us not trouble them—as so many tourists nowadays do not hesitate to do; we will enter a little later, when the studies of the morning are over.
This court, upon which the sun of the forenoon now pours its white fire, is an enclosure severely and magnificently Arab; it has isolated us suddenly from time and things; it must lend to the Moslem prayer what formerly our Gothic churches lent to the Christian. It is vast as a tournament list; confined on one side by the mosque itself, and on the others by a high wall which effectively separates it from the outer world. The walls are of a reddish hue, burnt by centuries of sun into the colour of raw sienna or of bloodstone. At the bottom they are straight, simple, a little forbidding in their austerity, but their summits are elaborately ornamented and crowned with battlements, which show in profile against the sky a long series of denticulated stonework. And over this sort of reddish fretwork of the top, which seems as if it were there as a frame to the deep blue vault above us, we see rising up distractedly all the minarets of the neighbourhood; and these minarets are red-coloured too, redder even than the jealous walls, and are decorated with arabesques, pierced by the daylight and complicated with aerial galleries. Some of them are a little distance away; others, startlingly close, seem to scale the zenith; and all are ravishing and strange, with their shining crescents and outstretched shafts of wood that call to the great birds of space. Spite of ourselves we raise our heads, fascinated by all the beauty that is in the air; but there is only this square of marvellous sky, a sort of limpid sapphire, set in the battlements of El-Azhar and fringed by those audacious slender towers. We are in the religious East of olden days and we feel how the mystery of this magnificent court—whose architectural ornament consists merely in geometrical designs repeated to infinity, and does not commence till quite high up on the battlements, where the minarets point into the eternal blue—must cast its spell upon the imagination of the young priests who are being trained here.
"He who instructs the ignorant is like a living man amongst the dead."
"If a day passes without my having learnt something which brings me nearer to God, let not the dawn of that day be blessed."
Verses from the Hadith.
He who has brought me to this place to-day is my friend, Mustapha Kamel Pacha, the tribune of Egypt, and I owe to his presence the fact that I am not treated like a casual visitor. Our names are taken at once to the great master of El-Azhar, a high personage in Islam, whose pupil Mustapha formerly was, and who no doubt will receive us in person.
It is in a hall very Arab in its character, furnished only with divans, that the great master welcomes us, with the simplicity of an ascetic and the elegant manners of a prelate. His look, and indeed his whole face, tell how onerous is the sacred office which he exercises: to preside, namely, at the instruction of these thousands of young priests, who afterwards are to carry faith and peace and immobility to more than three hundred millions of men.
And in a few moments Mustapha and he are busy discussing—as if it were a matter of actual interest—a controversial question concerning the events which followed the death of the Prophet, and the part played by Ali. . . . In that moment how my good friend Mustapha, whom I had seen so French in France, appeared all at once a Moslem to the bottom of his soul! The same thing is true indeed of the greater number of these Orientals, who, if we meet them in our own country, seem to be quite parisianised; their modernity is only on the surface: in their inmost souls Islam remains intact. And it is not difficult to understand, perhaps, how the spectacle of our troubles, our despairs, our miseries, in these new ways in which our lot is cast, should make them reflect and turn again to the tranquil dream of their ancestors. . . .
While waiting for the conclusion of the morning studies, we are conducted through some of the dependencies of El-Azhar. Halls of every epoch, added one to another, go to form a little labyrinth; many contain Mihrabs, which, as we know already, are a kind of portico, festooned and denticulated till they look as if covered with rime. And library after library, with ceilings of cedarwood, carved in times when men had more leisure and more patience. Thousands of precious manuscripts, dating back some hundreds of years, but which here in El-Azhar are no whit out of date. Open, in glass cases, are numerous inestimable Korans, which in olden times had been written fair and illuminated on parchment by pious khedives. And, in a place of honour, a large astronomical glass, through which men watch the rising of the moon of Ramadan. . . . All this savours of the past. And what is being taught to-day to the ten thousand students of El-Azhar scarcely differs from what was taught to their predecessors in the glorious reign of the Fatimites—and which was then transcendent and even new: the Koran and all its commentaries; the subtleties of syntax and of pronunciation; jurisprudence; calligraphy, which still is dear to the heart of Orientals; versification; and, last of all, mathematics, of which the Arabs were the inventors.
Yes, all this savours of the past, of the dust of remote ages. And though, assuredly, the priests trained in this thousand-year-old university may grow to men of rarest soul, they will remain, these calm and noble dreamers, merely laggards, safe in their shelter from the whirlwind which carries us along.
"It is a sacrilege to prohibit knowledge. To seek knowledge is to perform an act of adoration towards God; to instruct is to do an act of charity."
"Knowledge is the life of Islam, the column of faith."
Verses from the Hadith.
The lesson of the morning is now finished and we are able, without disturbing anybody, to visit the mosque.
When we return to the great courtyard, with its battlemented walls, it is the hour of recreation for this crowd of young men in robes and turbans, who now emerge from the shadow of the sanctuary.
Since the early morning they have remained seated on their mats, immersed in study and prayer, amid the confused buzzing of their thousands of voices; and now they scatter themselves about the contiguous Arab quarters until such time as the evening lessons commence. They walk along in little groups, sometimes holding one another's hands like children; most of them carry their heads high and raise their eyes to the heavens, although the sun which greets them outside dazzles them a little with its rays. They seem innumerable, and as they pass show us faces of the most diverse types. They come from all quarters of the world; some from Baghdad, others from Bassorah, from Mossul and even from the interior of Hedjaz. Those from the north have eyes that are bright and clear; and amongst those from Moghreb, from Morocco and the Sahara, are many whose skins are almost black. But the expression of all the faces is alike: something of ecstasy and of aloofness marks them all; the same detachment, a preoccupation with the self-same dream. And in the sky, to which they raise their eyes, the heavens—framed always by the battlements of El-Azhar—are almost white from the excess of light, with a border of tall, red minarets, which seem to be aglow with the refection of some great fire. And, watching them pass, all these young priests or jurists, at once so different and so alike, we understand better than before how Islam, the old, old Islam, keeps still its cohesion and its power.
The mosque in which they pursue their studies is now almost empty. In its restful twilight there is silence, and the unexpected music of little birds; it is the brooding season and the ceilings of carved wood are full of nests, which nobody disturbs.
A world, this mosque, in which thousands of people could easily find room. Some hundred and fifty marble columns, brought from ancient temples, support the arches of the seven parallel aisles. There is no light save that which comes through the arcade opening into the courtyard, and it is so dark in the aisles at the far end that we wonder again how the faithful can see to read when the sun of Egypt happens to be veiled.
Some score of students, who seem almost lost in the vast solitude, still remain during the hour of rest, and are busy sweeping the floor with long palms made into a kind of broom. These are the poor students, whose only meal is of dry bread, and who at night stretch themselves to sleep on the same mat on which they have sat studying during the day.
The residence at the university is free to all the scholars, the cost of their education and maintenance being provided by pious donations. But, inasmuch as the bequests are restricted according to nationality, there is necessarily inequality in the treatment doled out to the different students: thus the young men of a given country may be almost rich, possessing a room and a good bed; while those of a neighbouring country must sleep on the ground and have barely enough to keep body and soul together. But none of them complain, and they know how to help one another.[*]
[*] The duration of the studies at El-Azhar varies from three to six years.
Near to us, one of these needy students is eating, without any false shame, his midday meal of dry bread; and he welcomes with a smile the sparrows and the other little winged thieves who come to dispute with him the crumbs of his repast. And farther down, in the dimly lighted vaults at the end, is one who disdains to eat, or who, maybe, has no bread; who, when his sweeping is done, reseats himself on his mat, and, opening his Koran, commences to read aloud with the customary intonation. His voice, rich and facile, and moderated with discretion, has a charm that is irresistible in the sonorous old mosque, where at this hour the only other sound is the scarcely perceptible twittering of the little broods above, among the dull gold beams of the ceiling. Those who have been familiar with the sanctuaries of Islam know, as well as I, that there is no book so exquisitely rhythmical as that of the Prophet. Even if the sense of the verses escape you, the chanted reading, which forms part of certain of the offices, acts upon you by the simple magic of its sounds, in the same way as the oratorios which draw tears in the churches of Christ. Rising and falling like some sad lullaby, the declamation of this young priest, with his face of visionary, and garb of decent poverty, swells involuntarily, till gradually it seems to fill the seven deserted aisles of El-Azhar.
We stop in spite of ourselves, and listen, in the midst of the silence of midday. And in this so venerable place, where dilapidation and the usury of centuries are revealed on every side—even on the marble columns worn by the constant friction of hands—this voice of gold that rises alone seems as if it were intoning the last lament over the death-pang of Old Islam and the end of time, the elegy, as it were, of the universal death of faith in the heart of man.
"Science is one religion; prayer is another. Study is better than worship. Go; seek knowledge everywhere, if needs be, even into China."
Verses from the Hadith.
Amongst us Europeans it is commonly accepted as a proven fact that Islam is merely a religion of obscurantism, bringing in its train the stagnation of nations, and hampering them in that march to the unknown which we call "progress." But such an attitude shows not only an absolute ignorance of the teaching of the Prophet, but a blind forgetfulness of the evidence of history. The Islam of the earlier centuries evolved and progressed with the nations, and the stimulus it gave to men in the reign of the ancient caliphs is beyond all question. To impute to it the present decadence of the Moslem world is altogether too puerile. The truth is that nations have their day; and to a period of glorious splendour succeeds a time of lassitude and slumber. It is a law of nature. And then one day some danger threatens them, stirs them from their torpor and they awake.
This immobility of the countries of the Crescent was once dear to me. If the end is to pass through life with the minimum of suffering, disdaining all vain striving, and to die entranced by radiant hopes, the Orientals are the only wise men. But now that greedy nations beset them on all sides their dreaming is no longer possible. They must awake, alas.
They must awake; and already the awakening is at hand. Here, in Egypt, where the need is felt to change so many things, it is proposed, too, to reform the old university of El-Azhar, one of the chief centres of Islam. One thinks of it with a kind of fear, knowing what danger there is in laying hands upon institutions which have lasted for a thousand years. Reform, however, has, in principle, been decided upon. New knowledge, brought from the West, is penetrating into the tabernacle of the Fatimites. Has not the Prophet said: "Go; seek knowledge far and wide, if needs be even into China"? What will come of it? Who can tell? But this, at least, is certain: that in the dazzling hours of noon, or in the golden hours of evening, when the crowd of these modernised students spreads itself over the vast courtyard, overlooked by its countless minarets, there will no longer be seen in their eyes the mystic light of to-day; and it will no longer be the old unshakable faith, nor the lofty and serene indifference, nor the profound peace, that these messengers will carry to the ends of the Mussulman earth. . . .
IN THE TOMBS OF THE APIS
The dwelling-places of the Apis, in the grim darkness beneath the Memphite desert, are, as all the world knows, monster coffins of black granite ranged in catacombs, hot and stifling as eternal stoves.
To reach them from the banks of the Nile we have first to traverse the low region which the inundations of the ancient river, regularly repeated since the beginning of time, have rendered propitious to the growth of plants and to the development of men; an hour or two's journey, this evening through forests of date-trees whose beautiful palms temper the light of the March sun, which is now half veiled in clouds and already declining. In the distance herds are grazing in the cool shade. And we meet fellahs leading back from the field towards the village on the river-bank their little donkeys, laden with sheaves of corn. The air is mild and wholesome under the high tufts of these endless green plumes, which move in the warm wind almost without noise. We seem to be in some happy land, where the pastoral life should be easy, and even a little paradisiacal.
But beyond, in front of us, quite a different world is gradually revealed. Its aspect assumes the importance of a menace from the unknown; it awes us like an apparition of chaos, of universal death. . . . It is the desert, the conquering desert, in the midst of which inhabited Egypt, the green valleys of the Nile, trace merely a narrow ribbon. And here, more than elsewhere, the sight of this sovereign desert rising up before us is startling and thrilling, so high up it seems, and we so low in the Edenlike valley shaded by the palms. With its yellow hues, its livid marblings, and its sands which make it look somehow as if it lacked consistency, it rises on the whole horizon like a kind of soft wall or a great fearsome cloud—or rather, like a long cataclysmic wave, which does not move indeed, but which, if it did, would overwhelm and swallow everything. It is the Memphite desert—a place, that is to say, such as does not exist elsewhere on earth; a fabulous necropolis, in which men of earlier times, heaped up for some three thousand years the embalmed bodies of their dead, exaggerating, as time went on, the foolish grandeur of their tombs. Now, above the sand which looks like the front of some great tidal wave arrested in its progress, we see on all sides, and far into the distance, triangles of superhuman proportions which were once the tombs of mummies; pyramids, still upright, all of them, on their sinister pedestal of sand. Some are comparatively near; others almost lost in the background of the solitudes—and perhaps more awesome in that they are merely outlined in grey, high up among the clouds.
The little carriages that have brought us to the necropolis of Memphis, through the interminable forest of palm-trees, had their wheels fitted with large pattens for their journey over the sand.
Now, arrived at the foot of the fearsome region, we commence to climb a hill where all at once the trot of our horses ceases to be heard; the moving felting of the soil establishes a sudden silence around us, as indeed is always the case when we reach these sands. It seems as if it were a silence of respect which the desert itself imposes.
The valley of life sinks and fades behind us, until at last it disappears, hidden by a line of sandhills—the first wave, as one might say, of this waterless sea—and we are now mounted into the kingdom of the dead, swept at this moment by a withering and almost icy wind, which from below one would not have expected.
This desert of Memphis has not yet been profaned by hotels or motor roads, such as we have seen in the "little desert" of the Sphinx—whose three pyramids indeed we can discern at the extreme limit of the view, prolonging almost to infinity for our eyes this domain of mummies. There is nobody to be seen, nor any indication of the present day, amongst these mournful undulations of yellow or pale grey sand, in which we seem lost as in the swell of an ocean. The sky is cloudy—such as you can scarcely imagine the sky of Egypt. And in this immense nothingness of sand and stones, which stands out now more clearly against the clouds on the horizon, there is nothing anywhere save the silhouettes of those eternal triangles; the pyramids, gigantic things which rise here and there at hazard, some half in ruin, others almost intact and preserving still their sharp point. To-day they are the only landmarks of this necropolis, which is nearly six miles in length, and was formerly covered by temples of a magnificence and a vastness unimaginable to the minds of our day. Except for one which is quite near us (the fantastic grandfather of the others, that of King Zoser, who died nearly 5000 years ago), except for this one, which is made of six colossal superposed terraces, they are all built after that same conception of the Triangle, which is at once the most mysteriously simple figure of geometry, and the strongest and most permanently stable form of architecture. And now that there remains no trace of the frescoed portraits which used to adorn them, nor of their multicoloured coatings, now that they have taken on the same dead colour as the desert, they look like the huge bones of giant fossils, that have long outlasted their other contemporaries on earth. Beneath the ground, however, the case is different; there, still remain the bodies of men, and even of cats and birds, who with their own eyes saw these vast structures building, and who sleep intact, swathed in bandages, in the darkness of their tunnels. We know, for we have penetrated there before, what things are hidden in the womb of this old desert, on which the yellow shroud of the sand grows thicker and thicker as the centuries pass. The whole deep rock had been perforated patiently to make hypogea and sepulchral chambers, great and small, and veritable palaces for the dead, adorned with innumerable painted figures. And though now, for some two thousand years, men have set themselves furiously to exhume the sarcophagi and the treasures that are buried here, the subterranean reserves are not yet exhausted. There still remain, no doubt, pleiads of undisturbed sleepers, who will never be discovered.
As we advance the wind grows stronger and colder beneath a sky that becomes increasingly cloudy, and the sand is flying on all sides. The sand is the undisputed sovereign of the necropolis; if it does not surge and roll like some enormous tidal wave, as it appears to do when seen from the green valley below, it nevertheless covers everything with an obstinate persistence which has continued since the beginning of time. Already at Memphis it has buried innumerable statues and colossi and temples of the Sphinx. It comes without a pause, from Libya, from the great Sahara, which contain enough to powder the universe. It harmonises well with the tall skeletons of the pyramids, which form immutable rocks on its always shifting extent; and if one thinks of it, it gives a more thrilling sense of anterior eternities even than all these Egyptian ruins, which, in comparison with it, are things of yesterday. The sand—the sand of the primitive seas—which represents a labour of erosion of a duration impossible to conceive, and bears witness to a continuity of destruction which, one might say, had no beginning.
Here, in the midst of these solitudes, is a humble habitation, old and half buried in sand, at which we have to stop. It was once the house of the Egyptologist Mariette, and still shelters the director of the excavations, from whom we have to obtain permission to descend amongst the Apis. The whitewashed room in which he receives us is encumbered with the age-old debris which he is continually bringing to light. The parting rays of the sun, which shines low down from between two clouds, enter through a window opening on to the surrounding desolation; and the light comes mournfully, yellowed by the sand and the evening.
The master of the house, while his Bedouin servants are gone to open and light up for us the underground habitations of the Apis, shows us his latest astonishing find, made this morning in a hypogeum of one of the most ancient dynasties. It is there on a table, a group of little people of wood, of the size of the marionettes of our theatres. And since it was the custom to put in a tomb only those figures or objects which were most pleasing to him who dwelt in it, the man-mummy to whom this toy was offered in times anterior to all precise chronology must have been extremely partial to dancing-girls. In the middle of the group the man himself is represented, sitting in an armchair, and on his knee he holds his favourite dancing-girl. Other girls posture before him in a dance of the period; and on the ground sit musicians touching tambourines and strangely fashioned harps. All wear their hair in a long plait, which falls below their shoulders like the pigtail of the Chinese. It was the distinguishing mark of these kinds of courtesans. And these little people had kept their pose in the darkness for some three thousand years before the commencement of the Christian era. . . . In order to show it to us better the group is brought to the window, and the mournful light which enters from across the infinite solitudes of the desert colours them yellow and shows us in detail their little doll-like attitudes and their comical and frightened appearance—frightened perhaps to find themselves so old and issuing from so deep a night. They had not seen a setting of the sun, such as they now regard with their queer eyes, too long and too wide oepn, they had not seen such a thing for some five thousand years. . . .