Orient

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.)

Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its metamorphosis. Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned, in elegance and even in comfort.

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.

Leaving Assouan - as soon as we have passed the last house - we come at once upon the desert. And now the night is falling, a cold February night, under a strange, copper-coloured sky.

  "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.

Syndicate content