CHAPTER V. 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.