CHAPTER VIII. ARCHAIC CHRISTIANITY
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.
What can it be? Why have they descended into this dark hole, these little ones, who howl in the midst of the smoke, held by these phantoms in mourning? Had we entered it unawares we might have thought it a den of wicked sorcery, an underground cavern for the black mass.
But no. It is the crypt of the basilica of St. Sergius during the Coptic mass of Easter morning. And when, after the first surprise, we examine these phantoms, we find that, for the most part, they are young mothers, with the refined and gentle faces of Madonnas, who hold the plaintive little ones beneath their black veils and seek to comfort them. And the sorcerer, who plays the cymbals, is a kind old priest, or sacristan, who smiles paternally. If he makes all this noise, in a rhythm which in itself is full of joy, it is to mark the gladness of Easter morn, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ - and a little, too, no doubt, to distract the little ones, some of whom are woefully put out. But their mammas do not prolong the proof - a mere momentary visit to this venerable place, which is to bring them happiness, and they carry their babes away: and others are led in by the dark, narrow staircase, so low that one cannot stand upright in it. And thus the crypt is not emptied. And meanwhile mass is being said in the church overhead.
But what a number of people, of black veils, are in this hovel, where the air can scarcely be breathed, and where the barbarous music, mingled with wailings and cries, deafens you! And what an air of antiquity marks all things here! The defaced walls, the low roof that one can easily touch, the granite pillars which sustain the shapeless arches are all blackened by the smoke of the wax candles, and scarred and worn by the friction of human hands.
At the end of the crypt there is a very sacred recess round which a crowd presses: a coarse niche, a little larger than those cut in the wall to receive the tapers, a niche which covers the ancient stone on which, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary rested, with the child Jesus, in the course of the flight into Egypt. This holy stone is sadly worn to-day and polished smooth by the touch of many pious hands, and the Byzantine cross which once was carved on it is almost effaced.
But even if the Virgin had never rested there, the humble crypt of St. Sergius would remain no less one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries in the world. And the Copts who still assemble there with veneration have preceded by many years the greater part of our Western nations in the religion of the Bible.
Although the history of Egypt envelops itself in a sort of night at the moment of the appearance of Christianity, we know that the growth of the new faith there was as rapid and impetuous as the germination of plants under the overflow of the Nile. The old Pharaonic cults, amalgamated at that time with those of Greece, were so obscured under a mass of rites and formulae, that they had ceased to have any meaning. And nevertheless here, as in imperial Rome, there brooded the ferment of a passionate mysticism. Moreover, this Egyptian people, more than any other, was haunted by the terror of death, as is proved by the folly of its embalmments. With what avidity therefore must it have received the Word of fraternal love and immediate resurrection?
In any case Christianity was so firmly implanted in this Egypt that centuries of persecution did not succeed in destroying it. As one goes up the Nile, many little human settlements are to be seen, little groups of houses of dried mud, where the whitened dome of the modest house of prayer is surmounted by a cross and not a crescent. They are the villages of those Copts, those Egyptians, who have preserved the Christian faith from father to son since the nebulous times of the first martyrs.
The simple Church of St. Sergius is a relic hidden away and almost buried in the midst of a labyrinth of ruins. Without a guide it is almost impossible to find your way thither. The quarter in which it is situated is enclosed within the walls of what was once a Roman fortress, and this fortress in its turn is surrounded by the tranquil ruins of "Old Cairo" - which is to the Cairo of the Mamelukes and the Khedives, in a small degree, what Versailles is to Paris.