Egypt

  "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.

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.

Night. A long straight road, the artery of some capital, through which our carriage drives at a fast trot, making a deafening clatter on the pavement. Electric light everywhere. The shops are closing; it must needs be late.

Dimly lighted by the flames of a few poor slender tapers which flicker against the walls in stone arches, a dense crowd of human figures veiled in black, in a place overpowering and suffocating - underground, no doubt - which is filled with the perfume of the incense of Arabia; and a noise of almost wicked movement, which sirs us to alarm and even horror: bleatings of new-born babies, cries of distress of tiny mites whose voices are drowned, as if on purpose, by a clinking of cymbals.

A monotonous chant on three notes, which must date from the first Pharaohs, may still be heard in our days on the banks of the Nile, from the Delta as far as Nubia. At different places along the river, half-made men, with torsos of bronze and voices all alike, intone it in the morning when they commence their endless labours and continue it throughout the day, until the evening brings repose.

Whoever has journeyed in a dahabiya up the old river will remember this song of the water-drawers, with its accompaniment, in slow cadence, of creakings of wet wood.

We are making our way through the fields of Abydos in the dazzling splendour of the forenoon, having come, like so many pilgrims of old, from the banks of the Nile to visit the sanctuaries of Osiris, which lie beyond the green plains, on the edge of the desert.

Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological period, when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval, almost the forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began to trace their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a whole watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent across the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts.

It is the month of March, but as gay and splendid as in our June. Around us are fields of corn, of lucerne, and the flowering bean. And the air is full of restless birds, singing deliriously for very joy in the voluptuous business of their nests and coveys.

The waters of the Nile being already low my dahabiya - delayed by strandings - had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored ourselves, as the darkness began to fall, at a casual spot on the bank.

"We are quite near," the pilot had told me before departing to make his evening prayer; "in an hour, to-morrow, we shall be there."

An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud; a dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with gold, it leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of remote ages, of things destroyed; a dust that is here continually - of which the gold at this moment fades to green at the zenith, but flames and glistens in the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which marks the end of the day's decline, and the still burning globe of the sun, quite low down in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the conflagration of the evening.

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