By Old Cairo I do not mean only le vieux Caire of the guide-book, the little, desolate village containing the famous Coptic church of Abu Sergius, in the crypt of which the Virgin Mary and Christ are said to have stayed when they fled to the land of Egypt to escape the fury of King Herod; but the Cairo that is not new, that is not dedicated wholly to officialdom and tourists, that, in the midst of changes and the advance of civilisation - civilisation that does so much harm as well as so much good, that showers benefits with one hand and defaces beauty with the other - preserves its immemorial calm or immemorial turmult; that stands aloof, as stands aloof ever the Eastern from the Western man, even in the midst of what seems, perhaps, like intimacy; Eastern to the soul, though the fantasies, the passions, the vulgarities, the brilliant ineptitudes of the West beat about it like waves about some unyielding wall of the sea.

When I went back to Egypt, after a lapse of many years, I fled at once from Cairo, and upon the long reaches of the Nile, in the great spaces of the Libyan Desert, in the luxuriant palm-grooves of the Fayyum, among the tamarisk-bushes and on the pale waters of Kurun, I forgot the changes which, in my brief glimpse of the city and its environs, had moved me to despondency. But one cannot live in the solitudes for ever. And at last from Madi-nat-al-Fayyum, with the first pilgrims starting for Mecca, I returned to the great city, determined to seek in it once more for the fascinations it used to hold, and perhaps still held in the hidden ways where modern feet, nearly always in a hurry, had seldom time to penetrate.

A mist hung over the land. Out of it, with a sort of stern energy, there came to my ears loud hymns sung by the pilgrim voices - hymns in which, mingled with the enthusiasm of devotees en route for the holiest shrine of their faith, there seemed to sound the resolution of men strung up to confront the fatigues and the dangers of a great journey through a wild and unknown country. Those hymns led my feet to the venerable mosques of Cairo, the city of mosques, guided me on my lesser pilgrimage among the cupolas and the colonnades, where grave men dream in the silence near marble fountains, or bend muttering their prayers beneath domes that are dimmed by the ruthless fingers of Time. In the buildings consecrated to prayer and to meditation I first sought for the magic that still lurks in the teeming bosom of Cairo.

Long as I had sought it elsewhere, in the brilliant bazaars by day, and by night in the winding alleys, where the dark-eyed Jews looked stealthily forth from the low-browed doorways; where the Circassian girls promenade, gleaming with golden coins and barbaric jewels; where the air is alive with music that is feverish and antique, and in strangely lighted interiors one sees forms clad in brilliant draperies, or severely draped in the simplest pale-blue garments, moving in languid dances, fluttering painted figures, bending, swaying, dropping down, like the forms that people a dream.

In the bazaars is the passion for gain, in the alleys of music and light is the passion for pleasure, in the mosques is the passion for prayer that connects the souls of men with the unseen but strongly felt world. Each of these passions is old, each of these passions in the heart of Islam is fierce. On my return to Cairo I sought for the hidden fire that is magic in the dusky places of prayer.

A mist lay over the city as I stood in a narrow byway, and gazed up at a heavy lattice, of which the decayed and blackened wood seemed on guard before some tragic or weary secret. Before me was the entrance to the mosque of Ibn-Tulun, older than any mosque in Cairo save only the mosque of Amru. It is approached by a flight of steps, on each side of which stand old, impenetrable houses. Above my head, strung across from one house to the other, were many little red and yellow flags ornamented with gold lozenges. These were to bear witness that in a couple of days' time, from the great open place beneath the citadel of Cairo, the Sacred Carpet was to set out on its long journey to Mecca. My guide struck on a door and uttered a fierce cry. A small shutter in the blackened lattice was opened, and a young girl, with kohl-tinted eyelids, and a brilliant yellow handkerchief tied over her coarse black hair, leaned out, held a short parley, and vanished, drawing the shutter to behind her. The mist crept about the tawdry flags, a heavy door creaked, whined on its hinges, and from the house of the girl there came an old, fat man bearing a mighty key. In a moment I was free of the mosque of Ibn-Tulun.

I ascended the steps, passed through a doorway, and found myself on a piece of waste ground, flanked on the right by an old, mysterious wall, and on the left by the long wall of the mosque, from which close to me rose a grey, unornamented minaret, full of the plain dignity of unpretending age. Upon its summit was perched a large and weary- looking bird with draggled feathers, which remained so still that it seemed to be a sad ornament set there above the city, and watching it for ever with eyes that could not see. At right angles, touching the mosque, was such a house as one can see only in the East - fantastically old, fantastically decayed, bleared, discolored, filthy, melancholy, showing hideous windows, like windows in the slum of a town set above coal-pits in a colliery district, a degraded house, and yet a house which roused the imagination and drove it to its work. In this building once dwelt the High Priest of the mosque. This dwelling, the ancient wall, the grey minaret with its motionless bird, the lamentable waste ground at my feet, prepared me rightly to appreciate the bit of old Cairo I had come to see.

People who are bored by Gothic churches would not love the mosque of Ibn-Tulun. No longer is it used for worship. It contains no praying life. Abandoned, bare, and devoid of all lovely ornament, it stands like some hoary patriarch, naked and calm, waiting its destined end without impatience and without fear. It is a fatalistic mosque, and is impressive, like a fatalistic man. The great court of it, three hundred feet square, with pointed arches supported by piers, double, and on the side looking toward Mecca quintuple arcades, has a great dignity of sombre simplicity. Not grace, not a light elegance of soaring beauty, but massiveness and heavy strength are distinguishing features of this mosque. Even the octagonal basin and its protecting cupola that stands in the middle of the court lack the charm that belongs to so many of the fountains of Cairo. There are two minarets, the minaret of the bird, and a larger one, approached by a big stairway up which, so my dragoman told me, a Sultan whose name I have forgotten loved to ride his favorite horse. Upon the summit of this minaret I stood for a long time, looking down over the city.

Grey it was that morning, almost as London is grey; but the sounds that came up softly to my ears out of the mist were not the sounds of London. Those many minarets, almost like columns of fog rising above the cupolas, spoke to me of the East even upon this sad and sunless morning. Once from where I was standing at the time appointed went forth the call to prayer, and in the barren court beneath me there were crowds of ardent worshippers. Stern men paced upon the huge terrace just at my feet fingering their heads, and under that heavy cupola were made the long ablutions of the faithful. But now no man comes to this old place, no murmur to God disturbs the heavy silence. And the silence, and the emptiness, and the greyness under the long arcades, all seem to make a tremulous proclamation; all seem to whisper, "I am very old, I am useless, I cumber the earth." Even the mosque of Amru, which stands also on ground that looks gone to waste, near dingy and squat houses built with grey bricks, seems less old than this mosque of Ibn-Tulun. For its long façade is striped with white and apricot, and there are lebbek-trees growing in its court near the two columns between which if you can pass you are assured of heaven. But the mosque of Ibn-Tulun, seen upon a sad day, makes a powerful impression, and from the summit of its minaret you are summoned by the many minarets of Cairo to make the pilgrimage of the mosques, to pass from the "broken arches" of these Saracenic cloisters to the "Blue Mosque," the "Red Mosque," the mosques of Mohammed Ali, of Sultan Hassan, of Kait Bey, of El-Azhar, and so on to the Coptic church that is the silent centre of "old Cairo." It is said that there are over four hundred mosques in Cairo. As I looked down from the minaret of Ibn-Tulun, they called me through the mist that blotted completely out all the surrounding country, as if it would concentrate my attention upon the places of prayer during these holy days when the pilgrims were crowding in to depart with the Holy Carpet. And I went down by the staircase of the house, and in the mist I made my pilgrimage.

As every one who visits Rome goes to St. Peter's, so every one who visits Cairo goes to the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the citadel, a gorgeous building in a magnificent situation, the interior of which always makes me think of Court functions, and of the pomp of life, rather than of prayer and self-denial. More attractive to me is the "Blue Mosque," to which I returned again and again, enticed almost as by the fascination of the living blue of a summer day.

This mosque, which is the mosque of Ibrahim Aga, but which is familiarly known to its lovers as the "Blue Mosque," lies to the left of a ramshackle street, and from the outside does not look specially inviting. Even when I passed through its door, and stood in the court beyond, at first I felt not its charm. All looked old and rough, unkempt and in confusion. The red and white stripes of the walls and the arches of the arcade, the mean little place for ablution - a pipe and a row of brass taps - led the mind from a Neapolitan ice to a second-rate school, and for a moment I thought of abruptly retiring and seeking more splendid precincts. And then I looked across the court to the arcade that lay beyond, and I saw the exquisite "love- color" of the marvellous tiles that gives this mosque its name.

The huge pillars of this arcade are striped and ugly, but between them shone, with an ineffable lustre, a wall of purple and blue, of purple and blue so strong and yet so delicate that it held the eyes and drew the body forward. If ever color calls, it calls in the blue mosque of Ibrahim Aga. And when I had crossed the court, when I stood beside the pulpit, with its delicious, wooden folding-doors, and studied the tiles of which this wonderful wall is composed, I found them as lovely near as they are lovely far off. From a distance they resemble a Nature effect, are almost like a bit of Southern sea or of sky, a fragment of gleaming Mediterranean seen through the pillars of a loggia, or of Sicilian blue watching over Etna in the long summer days. When one is close to them, they are a miracle of art. The background of them is a milky white upon which is an elaborate pattern of purple and blue, generally conventional and representative of no known object, but occasionally showing tall trees somewhat resembling cypresses. But it is impossible in words adequately to describe the effect of these tiles, and of the tiles that line to the very roof the tomb-house on the right of the court. They are like a cry of ecstasy going up in this otherwise not very beautiful mosque; they make it unforgettable, they draw you back to it again and yet again. On the darkest day of winter they set something of summer there. In the saddest moment they proclaim the fact that there is joy in the world, that there was joy in the hearts of creative artists years upon years ago. If you are ever in Cairo, and sink into depression, go to the "Blue Mosque" and see if it does not have upon you an uplifting moral effect. And then, if you like go on from it to the Gamia El Movayad, sometimes called El Ahmar, "The Red," where you will find greater glories, though no greater fascination; for the tiles hold their own among all the wonders of Cairo.

Outside the "Red Mosque," by its imposing and lofty wall, there is always an assemblage of people, for prayers go up in this mosque, ablutions are made there, and the floor of the arcade is often covered with men studying the Koran, calmly meditating, or prostrating themselves in prayer. And so there is a great coming and going up the outside stairs and through the wonderful doorway: beggars crouch under the wall of the terrace; the sellers of cakes, of syrups and lemon- water, and of the big and luscious watermelons that are so popular in Cairo, display their wares beneath awnings of orange-colored sackcloth, or in the full glare of the sun, and, their prayers comfortably completed or perhaps not yet begun, the worshippers stand to gossip, or sit to smoke their pipes, before going on their way into the city or the mosque. There are noise and perpetual movement here. Stand for a while to gain an impression from them before you mount the steps and pass into the spacious peace beyond.

Orientals must surely revel in contrasts. There is no tumult like the tumult in certain of their market-places. There is no peace like the peace in certain of their mosques. Even without the slippers carefully tied over your boots you would walk softly, gingerly, in the mosque of El Movayad, the mosque of the columns and the garden. For once within the door you have taken wings and flown from the city, you are in a haven where the most delicious calm seems floating like an atmosphere. Through a lofty colonnade you come into the mosque, and find yourself beneath a magnificently ornamental wooden roof, the general effect of which is of deep brown and gold, though there are deftly introduced many touches of very fine red and strong, luminous blue. The walls are covered with gold and superb marbles, and there are many quotations from the Koran in Arab lettering heavy with gold. The great doors are of chiseled bronze and of wood. In the distance is a sultan's tomb, surmounted by a high and beautiful cupola, and pierced with windows of jeweled glass. But the attraction of this place of prayer comes less from its magnificence, from the shining of its gold, and the gleaming of its many-colored marbles, than from its spaciousness, its airiness, its still seclusion, and its garden. Mohammedans love fountains and shady places, as can surely love them only those who carry in their minds a remembrance of the desert. They love to have flowers blowing beside them while they pray. And with the immensely high and crenelated walls of this mosque long ago they set a fountain of pure white marble, covered it with a shelter of limestone, and planted trees and flowers about it. There beneath palms and tall eucalyptus- trees even on this misty day of the winter, roses were blooming, pinks scented the air, and great red flowers, that looked like emblems of passion, stared upward almost fiercely, as if searching for the sun. As I stood there among the worshippers in the wide colonnade, near the exquisitely carved pulpit in the shadow of which an old man who looked like Abraham was swaying to and fro and whispering his prayers, I thought of Omar Khayyam and how he would have loved this garden. But instead of water from the white marble fountain, he would have desired a cup of wine to drink beneath the boughs of the sheltering trees. And he could not have joined without doubt or fear in the fervent devotions of the undoubting men, who came here to steep their wills in the great will that flowed about them like the ocean about little islets of the sea.

From the "Red Mosque" I went to the great mosque of El-Azhar, to the wonderful mosque of Sultan Hassan, which unfortunately was being repaired and could not be properly seen, though the examination of the old portal covered with silver, gold, and brass, the general color- effect of which is a delicious dull green, repaid me for my visit, and to the exquisitely graceful tomb-mosque of Kait Bey, which is beyond the city walls. But though I visited these, and many other mosques and tombs, including the tombs of the Khalifas, and the extremely smart modern tombs of the family of the present Khedive of Egypt, no building dedicated to worship, or to the cult of the dead, left a more lasting impression upon my mind than the Coptic church of Abu Sergius, or Abu Sargah, which stands in the desolate and strangely antique quarter called "Old Cairo." Old indeed it seems, almost terribly old. Silent and desolate is it, untouched by the vivid life of the rich and prosperous Egypt of to-day, a place of sad dreams, a place of ghosts, a place of living spectres. I went to it alone. Any companion, however dreary, would have tarnished the perfection of the impression Old Cairo and its Coptic church can give to the lonely traveller.

I descended to a gigantic door of palm-wood which was set in an old brick arch. This door upon the outside was sheeted with iron. When it opened, I left behind me the world I knew, the world that belongs to us of to-day, with its animation, its impetus, its flashing changes, its sweeping hurry and "go." I stepped at once into, surely, some moldering century long hidden in the dark womb of the forgotten past. The door of palm-wood closed, and I found myself in a sort of deserted town, of narrow, empty streets, beetling archways, tall houses built of grey bricks, which looked as if they had turned gradually grey, as hair does on an aged head. Very, very tall were these houses. They all appeared horribly, almost indecently, old. As I stood and stared at them, I remembered a story of a Russian friend of mine, a landed proprietor, on whose country estate dwelt a peasant woman who lived to be over a hundred. Each year when he came from Petersburg, this old woman arrived to salute him. At last she was a hundred and four, and, when he left his estate for the winter, she bade him good-bye for ever. For ever! But, lo! the next year there she still was - one hundred and five years old, deeply ashamed and full of apologies for being still alive. "I cannot help it," she said. "I ought no longer to be here, but it seems I do not know anything. I do not know even how to die!" The grey, tall houses of Old Cairo do not know how to die. So there they stand, showing their haggard facades, which are broken by protruding, worm-eaten, wooden lattices not unlike the shaggy, protuberant eyebrows which sometimes sprout above bleared eyes that have seen too much. No one looked out from these lattices. Was there, could there be, any life behind them? Did they conceal harems of centenarian women with wrinkled faces, and corrugated necks and hands? Here and there drooped down a string terminating in a lamp covered with minute dust, that wavered in the wintry wind which stole tremulously between the houses. And the houses seemed to be leaning forward, as if they were fain to touch each other and leave no place for the wind, as if they would blot out the exiguous alleys so that no life should ever venture to stir through them again. Did the eyes of the Virgin Mary, did the baby eyes of the Christ Child, ever gaze upon these buildings? One could almost believe it. One could almost believe that already these buildings were there when, fleeing from the wrath of Herod, Mother and Child sought the shelter of the crypt of Abu Sargah.

I went on, walking with precaution, and presently I saw a man. He was sitting collapsed beneath an archway, and he looked older than the world. He was clad in what seemed like a sort of cataract of multi- colored rags. An enormous white beard flowed down over his shrunken breast. His face was a mass of yellow wrinkles. His eyes were closed. His yellow fingers were twined about a wooden staff. Above his head was drawn a patched hood. Was he alive or dead? I could not tell, and I passed him on tiptoe. And going always with precaution between the tall, grey houses and beneath the lowering arches, I came at last to the Coptic church.

Near it, in the street, were several Copts - large, fat, yellow- skinned, apparently sleeping, in attitudes that made them look like bundles. I woke one up, and asked to see the church. He stared, changed slowly from a bundle to a standing man, went away and presently, returning with a key and a pale, intelligent-looking youth, admitted me into one of the strangest buildings it was ever my lot to enter.

The average Coptic church is far less fascinating than the average mosque, but the church of Abu Sargah is like no other church that I visited in Egypt. Its aspect of hoary age makes it strangely, almost thrillingly impressive. Now and then, in going about the world, one comes across a human being, like the white-bearded man beneath the arch, who might be a thousand years old, two thousand, anything, whose appearance suggests that he or she, perhaps, was of the company which was driven out of Eden, but that the expulsion was not recorded. And now and then one happens upon a building that creates the same impression. Such a building is this church. It is known and recorded that more than a thousand years ago it had a patriarch whose name was Shenuti; but it is supposed to have been built long before that time, and parts of it look as if they had been set up at the very beginning of things. The walls are dingy and whitewashed. The wooden roof is peaked, with many cross-beams. High up on the walls are several small square lattices of wood. The floor is of discolored stone. Everywhere one sees wood wrought into lattices, crumbling carpets that look almost as frail and brittle and fatigued as wrappings of mummies, and worn-out matting that would surely become as the dust if one set his feet hard upon it. The structure of the building is basilican, and it contains some strange carvings of the Last Supper, the Nativity, and St. Demetrius. Around the nave there are monolithic columns of white marble, and one column of the red and shining granite that is found in such quantities at Assuan. There are three altars in three chapels facing toward the East. Coptic monks and nuns are renowned for their austerity of life, and their almost fierce zeal in fasting and in prayer, and in Coptic churches the services are sometimes so long that the worshippers, who are almost perpetually standing, use crutches for their support. In their churches there always seems to me to be a cold and austere atmosphere, far different from the atmosphere of the mosques or of any Roman Catholic church. It sometimes rather repels me, and generally make me feel either dull or sad. But in this immensely old church of Abu Sargah the atmosphere of melancholy aids the imagination.

In Coptic churches there is generally a great deal of woodwork made into lattices, and into the screens which mark the divisions, usually four, but occasionally five, which each church contains, and, which are set apart for the altar, for the priests, singers, and ministrants, for the male portion of the congregation, and for the women, who sit by themselves. These divisions, so different from the wide spaciousness and airiness of the mosques, where only pillars and columns partly break up the perspective, give to Coptic buildings an air of secrecy and of mystery, which, however, is often rather repellent than alluring. In the high wooden lattices there are narrow doors, and in the division which contains the altar the door is concealed by a curtain embroidered with a large cross. The Mohammedans who created the mosques showed marvellous taste. Copts are often lacking in taste, as they have proved here and there in Abu Sargah. Above one curious and unlatticed screen, near to a matted dais, droops a hideous banner, red, purple, and yellow, with a white cross. Peeping in, through an oblong aperture, one sees a sort of minute circus, in the form of a half-moon, containing a table with an ugly red-and-white striped cloth. There the Eucharist, which must be preceded by confession, is celebrated. The pulpit is of rosewood, inlaid with ivory and ebony, and in what is called the "haikal-screen" there are some fine specimens of carved ebony.

As I wandered about over the tattered carpets and the crumbling matting, under the peaked roof, as I looked up at the flat-roofed galleries, or examined the sculpture and ivory mosaics that, bleared by the passing of centuries, seemed to be fading away under my very eyes, as upon every side I was confronted by the hoary wooden lattices in which the dust found a home and rested undisturbed, and as I thought of the narrow alleys of grey and silent dwellings through which I had come to this strange and melancholy "Temple of the Father," I seemed to feel upon my breast the weight of the years that had passed since pious hands erected this home of prayer in which now no one was praying. But I had yet to receive another and a deeper impression of solemnity and heavy silence. By a staircase I descended to the crypt, which lies beneath the choir of the church, and there, surrounded by columns of venerable marble, beside an altar, I stood on the very spot where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary soothed the Christ Child to sleep in the dark night. And, as I stood there, I felt that the tradition was a true one, and that there indeed had stayed the wondrous Child and the Holy Mother long, how long ago.

The pale, intelligent Coptic youth, who had followed me everywhere, and who now stood like a statue gazing upon me with his lustrous eyes, murmured in English, "This is a very good place; this most interestin' place in Cairo."

Certainly it is a place one can never forget. For it holds in its dusty arms - what? Something impalpable, something ineffable, something strange as death, spectral, cold, yet exciting, something that seems to creep into it out of the distant past and to whisper: "I am here. I am not utterly dead. Still I have a voice and can murmur to you, eyes and can regard you, a soul and can, if only for a moment, be your companion in this sad, yet sacred, place."

Contrast is the salt, the pepper, too, of life, and one of the great joys of travel is that at will one can command contrast. From silence one can plunge into noise, from stillness one can hasten to movement, from the strangeness and the wonder of the antique past one can step into the brilliance, the gaiety, the vivid animation of the present. From Babylon one can go to Bulak; and on to Bab Zouweleh, with its crying children, its veiled women, its cake-sellers, its fruiterers, its turbaned Ethiopians, its black Nubians, and almost fair Egyptians; one can visit the bazaars, or on a market morning spend an hour at Shareh-el-Gamaleyeh, watching the disdainful camels pass, soft-footed, along the shadowy streets, and the flat-nosed African negroes, with their almost purple-black skins, their bulging eyes, in which yellow lights are caught, and their huge hands with turned-back thumbs, count their gains, or yell their disappointment over a bargain from which they have come out not victors, but vanquished. If in Cairo there are melancholy, and silence, and antiquity, in Cairo may be found also places of intense animation, of almost frantic bustle, of uproar that cries to heaven. To Bulak still come the high-prowed boats of the Nile, with striped sails bellying before a fair wind, to unload their merchandise. From the Delta they bring thousands of panniers of fruit, and from Upper Egypt and from Nubia all manner of strange and precious things which are absorbed into the great bazaars of the city, and are sold to many a traveller at prices which, to put it mildly, bring to the sellers a good return. For in Egypt if one leave his heart, he leaves also not seldom his skin. The goblin men of the great goblin market of Cairo take all, and remain unsatisfied and calling for more. I said, in a former chapter, that no fierce demands for money fell upon my ears. But I confess, when I said it, that I had forgotten certain bazaars of Cairo.

But what matters it? He who has drunk Nile waters must return. The golden country calls him; the mosques with their marble columns, their blue tiles, their stern-faced worshippers; the narrow streets with their tall houses, their latticed windows, their peeping eyes looking down on the life that flows beneath and can never be truly tasted; the Pyramids with their bases in the sand and their pointed summits somewhere near the stars; the Sphinx with its face that is like the enigma of human life; the great river that flows by the tombs and the temples; the great desert that girdles it with a golden girdle.

Egypt calls - even across the space of the world; and across the space of the world he who knows it is ready to come, obedient to its summons, because in thrall to the eternal fascination of the "land of sand, and ruins, and gold"; the land of the charmed serpent, the land of the afterglow, that may fade away from the sky above the mountains of Libya, but that fades never from the memory of one who has seen it from the base of some great column, or the top of some mighty pylon; the land that has a spell - wonderful, beautiful Egypt.