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Egypt (La Mort De Philae) by Pierre Loti

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Etext prepared by Dagny, dagnyj@hotmail.com
and John Bickers, jbickers@ihug.co.nz

Egypt (La Mort De Philae)

by Pierre Loti

Translated from the French by




A night wondrously clear and of a colour unknown to our climate; a
place of dreamlike aspect, fraught with mystery. The moon of a bright
silver, which dazzles by its shining, illumines a world which surely
is no longer ours; for it resembles in nothing what may be seen in
other lands. A world in which everything is suffused with rosy color
beneath the stars of midnight, and where granite symbols rise up,
ghostlike and motionless.

Is that a hill of sand that rises yonder? One can scarcely tell, for
it has as it were no shape, no outline; rather it seems like a great
rosy cloud, or some huge, trembling billow, which once perhaps raised
itself there, forthwith to become motionless for ever. . . . And from
out this kind of mummified wave a colossal human effigy emerges, rose-
coloured too, a nameless, elusive rose; emerges, and stares with fixed
eyes and smiles. It is so huge it seems unreal, as if it were a
reflection cast by some mirror hidden in the moon. . . . And behind
this monster face, far away in the rear, on the top of those undefined
and gently undulating sandhills, three apocalyptic signs rise up
against the sky, those rose-coloured triangles, regular as the figures
of geometry, but so vast in the distance that they inspire you with
fear. They seem to be luminous of themselves, so vividly do they stand
out in their clear rose against the deep blue of the star-spangled
vault. And this apparent radiation from within, by its lack of
likelihood, makes them seem more awful.

And all around is the desert; a corner of the mournful kingdom of
sand. Nothing else is to be seen anywhere save those three awful
things that stand there upright and still--the human likeness
magnified beyond all measurement, and the three geometric mountains;
things at first sight like exhalations, visionary things, with
nevertheless here and there, and most of all in the features of the
vast mute face, subtleties of shadow which show that /it/ at least
exists, rigid and immovable, fashioned out of imperishable stone.

Even had we not known, we must soon have guessed, for these things are
unique in the world, and pictures of every age have made the knowledge
of them commonplace: the Sphinx and the Pyramids! But what is strange
is that they should be so disquieting. . . . And this pervading colour
of rose, whence comes it, seeing that usually the moon tints with blue
the things it illumines? One would not expect this colour either,
which, nevertheless, is that of all the sands and all the granites of
Egypt and Arabia. And then too, the eyes of the statue, how often have
we not seen them? And did we not know that they were capable only of
their one fixed stare? Why is it then that their motionless regard
surprises and chills us, even while we are obsessed by the smile of
the sealed lips that seem to hold back the answer to the supreme
enigma? . . .

It is cold, but cold as in our country are the fine nights of January,
and a wintry mist rises low down in the little valleys of the sand.
And that again we were not expecting; beyond question the latest
invaders of this country, by changing the course of the old Nile, so
as to water the earth and make it more productive, have brought hither
the humidity of their own misty isle. And this strange cold, this
mist, light as it still is, seem to presage the end of ages, give an
added remoteness and finality to all this dead past, which lies here
beneath us in subterranean labyrinths haunted by a thousand mummies.

And the mist, which, as the night advances, thickens in the valleys,
hesitates to mount to the great daunting face of the Sphinx; and
covers it with the merest and most transparent gauze; and, like
everything else here to-night, this gauze, too, is rose-colored. And
meanwhile the Sphinx, which has seen the unrolling of all the history
of the world, attends impassively the change in Egypt's climate,
plunged in profound and mystic contemplation of the moon, its friend
for the last 5000 years.

Here and there on the soft pathway of the sandhills are pigmy figures
of men that move about or sit squatting as if on the watch; and small
as they are, low down in the hollows and far away, this wonderful
silver moon reveals even their slightest gestures; for their white
robes and black cloaks stand sharply out against the monotonous rose
of the desert. At times they call to one another in a harsh, aspirate
tongue, and then go off at a run, noiselessly, barefooted, with
burnous flying, like moths in the night. They lie in wait for the
parties of tourists who arrive from time to time. For the great
symbols, during the hundreds and thousands of years that have elapsed
since men ceased to venerate them, have nevertheless scarcely ever
been alone, especially on nights with a full moon. Men of all races,
of all times, have come to wander round them, vaguely attracted by
their immensity and mystery. In the days of the Romans they had
already become symbols of a lost significance, legacies of a fabulous
antiquity, but people came curiously to contemplate them, and tourists
in toga and in peplus carved their names on the granite of their bases
for the sake of remembrance.

The tourists who have come to-night, and upon whom have pounced the
black-cloaked Bedouin guides, wear cap and ulster or furred greatcoat;
their intrusion here seems almost an offence; but, alas, such visitors
become more numerous in each succeeding year. The great town hard by--
which sweats gold now that men have started to buy from it its dignity
and its soul--is become a place of rendezvous and holiday for the
idlers and upstarts of the whole world. The modern spirit encompasses
the old desert of the Sphinx on every side. It is true that up to the
present no one has dared to profane it by building in the immediate
neighbourhood of the great statue. Its fixity and calm disdain still
hold some sway, perhaps. But little more than a mile away there ends a
road travelled by hackney carriages and tramway cars, and noisy with
the delectable hootings of smart motor cars; and behind the pyramid of
Cheops squats a vast hotel to which swarm men and women of fashion,
the latter absurdly feathered, like Redskins at a scalp dance; and
sick people, in search of purer air; and consumptive English maidens;
and ancient English dames, a little the worse for wear, who bring
their rheumatisms for the treatment of the dry winds.

Passing on our way hither, we had seen this road and this hotel and
these people in the glare of the electric lights, and from an
orchestra that was playing there we caught the trivial air of a
popular refrain of the music halls; but when in a dip of the ground
all this had disappeared, what a sense of deliverance possessed us,
how far off this turmoil seemed! As soon as we commenced to tread upon
the sand of centuries, where all at once our footsteps made no sound,
nothing seemed to have existence, save only the great calm and the
religious awe of this world into which we were come, of this world
with its so crushing commentary upon our own, where all seemed silent,
undefined, gigantic and suffused with rose-colour.

And first there is the pyramid of Cheops, whose immutable base we had
to skirt on our way hither. In the moonlight we could see the separate
blocks, so enormous, so regular, so even in their layers, which lie
one above the other to infinity, getting ever smaller and smaller, and
mounting, mounting in diminishing perspective, until at last high up
they form the apex of this giddy triangle. And the pyramid seemed to
be illumined by some sad dawn of the end of the world, a dawn which
made ruddy only the sands and the granites of earth, and left the
heavens, pricked with their myriad stars, more awful in their
darkness. How impossible it is for us to conceive the mental attitude
of that king who, during some half-century, spent the lives of
thousands and thousands of his slaves in the construction of this
tomb, in the fond and foolish hope of prolonging to infinity the
existence of his mummy.

The pyramid once passed there was still a short way to go before we
confronted the Sphinx, in the middle of what our contemporaries have
left him of his desert. We had to descend the slope of that sandhill
which looked like a cloud, and seemed as if covered with felt, in
order to preserve in such a place a more complete silence. And here
and there we passed a gaping black hole--an airhole, as it seemed, of
the profound and inextricable kingdom of mummies, very populous still,
in spite of the zeal of the exhumers.

As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the
Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon
us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon;
its head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light
it seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like
downhanging ears. And then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in
profile, shorn of its nose--flat-nosed like a death's head--but having
already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side;
already disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious
smile. And when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face
to face with it--without however encountering its gaze, which passed
high above our heads--there came over us at once the sentiment of all
the secret thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and
make eternal behind this mutilated mask.

But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as
it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of
iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as
inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which
no longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it
comes to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.

For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun
God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the
one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised
everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of awe-
inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after
having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought
so long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished
simply to sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the
most profound of our human speculations. . . . It is said that the
Sphinx was once of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and
colouring animated the face, and it was enthroned at its full height
on a kind of esplanade paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then
more sovereign than it is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost
buried beneath the sand of the Libyan desert, which now quite hides
its base, it rises at this hour like a phantom which nothing solid
sustains in the air.


It has gone midnight. In little groups the tourists of the evening
have disappeared; to regain perhaps the neighbouring hotel, where the
orchestra doubtless has not ceased to rage; or may be, remounting
their cars, to join, in some club of Cairo, one of those bridge
parties, in which the really superior intellects of our time delight;
some--the stouthearted ones--departed talking loudly and with cigar in
mouth; others, however, daunted in spite of themselves, lowered their
voices as people instinctively do in church. And the Bedouin guides,
who a moment ago seemed to flutter about the giant monument like so
many black moths--they too have gone, made restless by the cold air,
which erstwhile they had not known. The show for to-night is over, and
everywhere silence reigns.

The rosy tint fades on the Sphinx and the pyramids; all things in the
ghostly scene grow visibly paler; for the moon as it rises becomes
more silvery in the increasing chilliness of midnight. The winter
mist, exhaled from the artificially watered fields below, continues to
rise, takes heart and envelops the great mute face itself. And the
latter persists in its regard of the dead moon, preserving still the
old disconcerting smile. It becomes more and more difficult to believe
that here before us is a real colossus, so surely does it seem nothing
other than a dilated reflection of a thing which exists /elsewhere/,
in some other world. And behind in the distance are the three
triangular mountains. Them, too, the fog envelops, till they also
cease to exist, and become pure visions of the Apocalypse.

Now it is that little by little an intolerable sadness is expressed in
those large eyes with their empty sockets--for, at this moment, the
ultimate secret, that which the Sphinx seems to have known for so many
centuries, but to have withheld in melancholy irony, is this: that all
these dead men and women who sleep in the vast necropolis below have
been fooled, and the awakening signal has not sounded for a single one
of them; and that the creation of mankind--mankind that thinks and
suffers--has had no rational explanation, and that our poor
aspirations are vain, but so vain as to awaken pity.



Ragged, threatening clouds, like those that bring the showers of our
early spring, hurry across a pale evening sky, whose mere aspect makes
you cold. A wintry wind, raw and bitter, blows without ceasing, and
brings with it every now and then some furtive spots of rain.

A carriage takes me towards what was once the residence of the great
Mehemet Ali: by a steep incline it ascends into the midst of rocks and
sand--and already, and almost in a moment, we seem to be in the
desert; though we have scarcely left behind the last houses of an Arab
quarter, where long-robed folk, who looked half frozen, were muffled
up to the eyes to-day. . . . Was there formerly such weather as this
in this country noted for its unchanging mildness?

This residence of the great sovereign of Egypt, the citadel and the
mosque which he had made for his last repose, are perched like eagles'
nests on a spur of the mountain chain of Arabia, the Mokattam, which
stretches out like a promontory towards the basin of the Nile, and
brings quite close to Cairo, so as almost to overhang it, a little of
the desert solitude. And so the eye can see from far off and from all
sides the mosque of Mehemet Ali, with the flattened domes of its
cupolas, its pointed minarets, the general aspect so entirely Turkish,
perched high up, with a certain unexpectedness, above the Arab town
which it dominates. The prince who sleeps there wished that it should
resemble the mosques of his fatherland, and it looks as if it had been
transported bodily from Stamboul.

A short trot brings us up to the lower gate of the old fortress; and,
by a natural effect, as we ascend, all Cairo which is near there,
seems to rise with us: not yet indeed the endless multitude of its
houses; but at first only the thousands of its minarets, which in a
few seconds point their high towers into the mournful sky, and suggest
at once that an immense town is about to unfold itself under our eyes.

Continuing to ascend--past the double rampart, the double or triple
gates, which all these old fortresses possess, we penetrate at length
into a large fortified courtyard, the crenellated walls of which shut
out our further view. Soldiers are on guard there--and how unexpected
are such soldiers in this holy place of Egypt! The red uniforms and
the white faces of the north: Englishmen, billeted in the palace of
Mehemet Ali!

The mosque first meets the eye, preceding the palace. And as we
approach, it is Stamboul indeed--for me dear old Stamboul--which is
called to mind; there is nothing, whether in the lines of its
architecture or in the details of its ornamentation, to suggest the
art of the Arabs--a purer art it may be than this and of which many
excellent examples may be seen in Cairo. No; it is a corner of Turkey
into which we are suddenly come.

Beyond a courtyard paved with marble, silent and enclosed, which
serves as a vast parvis, the sanctuary recalls those of Mehemet Fatih
or the Chah Zade: the same sanctified gloom, into which the stained
glass of the narrow windows casts a splendour as of precious stones;
the same extreme distance between the enormous pillars, leaving more
clear space than in our churches, and giving to the domes the
appearance of being held up by enchantment.

The walls are of a strange white marble streaked with yellow. The
ground is completely covered with carpets of a sombre red. In the
vaults, very elaborately wrought, nothing but blacks and gold: a
background of black bestrewn with golden roses, and bordered with
arabesques like gold lace. And from above hang thousands of gold
chains supporting the vigil lamps for the evening prayers. Here and
there are people on their knees, little groups in robe and turban,
scattered fortuitously upon the red of the carpets, and almost lost in
the midst of the sumptuous solitude.

In an obscure corner lies Mehemet Ali, the prince adventurous and
chivalrous as some legendary hero, and withal one of the greatest
sovereigns of modern history. There he lies behind a grating of gold,
of complicated design, in that Turkish style, already decadent, but
still so beautiful, which was that of his epoch.

Through the golden bars may be seen in the shadow the catafalque of
state, in three tiers, covered with blue brocades, exquisitely faded,
and profusely embroidered with dull gold. Two long green palms freshly
cut from some date-tree in the neighbourhood are crossed before the
door of this sort of funeral enclosure. And it seems that around us is
an inviolable religious peace. . . .

But all at once there comes a noisy chattering in a Teutonic tongue--
and shouts and laughs! . . . How is it possible, so near to the great
dead? . . . And there enters a group of tourists, dressed more or less
in the approved "smart" style. A guide, with a droll countenance,
recites to them the beauties of the place, bellowing at the top of his
voice like a showman at a fair. And one of the travellers, stumbling
in the sandals which are too large for her small feet, laughs a
prolonged, silly little laugh like the clucking of a turkey. . . .

Is there then no keeper, no guardian of this holy mosque? And amongst
the faithful prostrate here in prayer, none who will rise and make
indignant protest? Who after this will speak to us of the fanaticism
of the Egyptians? . . . Too meek, rather, they seem to me everywhere.
Take any church you please in Europe where men go down on their knees
in prayer, and I should like to see what kind of a welcome would be
accorded to a party of Moslem tourists who--to suppose the impossible
--behaved so badly as these savages here.

Behind the mosque is an esplanade, and beyond that the palace. The
palace, as such, can scarcely be said to exist any longer, for it has
been turned into a barrack for the army of occupation. English
soldiers, indeed, meet us at every turn, smoking their pipes in the
idleness of the evening. One of them who does not smoke is trying to
carve his name with a knife on one of the layers of marble at the base
of the sanctuary.

At the end of this esplanade there is a kind of balcony from which one
may see the whole of the town, and an unlimited extent of verdant
plains and yellow desert. It is a favourite view of the tourists of
the agencies, and we meet again our friends of the mosque, who have
preceded us hither--the gentlemen with the loud voices, the bellowing
guide and the cackling lady. Some soldiers are standing there too,
smoking their pipes contemplatively. But spite of all these people, in
spite, too, of the wintry sky, the scene which presents itself on
arrival there is ravishing.

A very fairyland--but a fairyland quite different from that of
Stamboul. For whereas the latter is ranged like a great amphitheatre
above the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, here the vast town is
spread out simply, in a plain surrounded by the solitude of the desert
and dominated by chaotic rocks. Thousands of minarets rise up on every
side like ears of corn in a field; far away in the distance one can
see their innumerable slender points--but instead of being simply, as
at Stamboul, so many white spires, they are here complicated by
arabesques, by galleries, clock-towers and little columns, and seem to
have borrowed the reddish colour of the desert.

The flat rocks tell of a region which formerly was without rain. The
innumerable palm-trees of the gardens, above this ocean of mosques and
houses, sway their plumes in the wind, bewildered as it were by these
clouds laden with cold showers. In the south and in the west, at the
extreme limits of the view, as if upon the misty horizon of the
plains, appear two gigantic triangles. They are Gizeh and Memphis--the
eternal pyramids.

At the north of the town there is a corner of the desert quite
singular in its character--of the colour of bistre and of mummy--where
a whole colony of high cupolas, scattered at random, still stand
upright in the midst of sand and desolate rocks. It is the proud
cemetery of the Mameluke Sultans, whose day was done in the Middle

But if one looks closely, what disorder, what a mass of ruins there
are in this town--still a little fairylike--beaten this evening by the
squalls of winter. The domes, the holy tombs, the minarets and
terraces, all are crumbling: the hand of death is upon them all. But
down there, in the far distance, near to that silver streak which
meanders through the plains, and which is the old Nile, the advent of
new times is proclaimed by the chimneys of factories, impudently high,
that disfigure everything, and spout forth into the twilight thick
clouds of black smoke.

The night is falling as we descend from the esplanade to return to our

We have first to traverse the old town of Cairo, a maze of streets
still full of charm, wherein the thousand little lamps of the Arab
shops already shed their quiet light. Passing through streets which
twist at their caprice, beneath overhanging balconies covered with
wooden trellis of exquisite workmanship, we have to slacken speed in
the midst of a dense crowd of men and beasts. Close to us pass women,
veiled in black, gently mysterious as in the olden times, and men of
unmoved gravity, in long robes and white draperies; and little donkeys
pompously bedecked in collars of blue beads; and rows of leisurely
camels, with their loads of lucerne, which exhale the pleasant
fragrance of the fields. And when in the gathering gloom, which hides
the signs of decay, there appear suddenly, above the little houses, so
lavishly ornamented with mushrabiyas and arabesques, the tall aerial
minarets, rising to a prodigious height into the twilight sky, it is
still the adorable East.

But nevertheless, what ruins, what filth, what rubbish! How present is
the sense of impending dissolution! And what is this: large pools of
water in the middle of the road! Granted that there is more rain here
than formerly, since the valley of the Nile has been artificially
irrigated, it still seems almost impossible that there should be all
this black water, into which our carriage sinks to the very axles; for
it is a clear week since any serious quantity of rain fell. It would
seem that the new masters of this land, albeit the cost of annual
upkeep has risen in their hands to the sum of fifteen million pounds,
have given no thought to drainage. But the good Arabs, patiently and
without murmuring, gather up their long robes, and with legs bare to
the knee make their way through this already pestilential water, which
must be hatching for them fever and death.

Further on, as the carriage proceeds on its course, the scene changes
little by little. The streets become vulgar: the houses of "The
Arabian Nights" give place to tasteless Levantine buildings; electric
lamps begin to pierce the darkness with their wan, fatiguing glare,
and at a sharp turning the new Cairo is before us.

What is this? Where are we fallen? Save that it is more vulgar, it
might be Nice, or the Riviera, or Interkalken, or any other of those
towns of carnival whither the bad taste of the whole world comes to
disport itself in the so-called fashionable seasons. But in these
quarters, on the other hand, which belong to the foreigners and to the
Egyptians rallied to the civilisation of the West, all is clean and
dry, well cared for and well kept. There are no ruts, no refuse. The
fifteen million pounds have done their work conscientiously.

Everywhere is the blinding glare of the electric light; monstrous
hotels parade the sham splendour of their painted facades; the whole
length of the streets is one long triumph of imitation, of mud walls
plastered so as to look like stone; a medley of all styles, rockwork,
Roman, Gothic, New Art, Pharaonic, and, above all, the pretentious and
the absurd. Innumerable public-houses overflow with bottles; every
alcoholic drink, all the poisons of the West, are here turned into
Egypt with a take-what-you-please.

And taverns, gambling dens and houses of ill-fame. And parading the
side-walks, numerous Levantine damsels, who seek by their finery to
imitate their fellows of the Paris boulevards, but who by mistake, as
we must suppose, have placed their orders with some costumier for
performing dogs.

This then is the Cairo of the future, this cosmopolitan fair! Good
heavens! When will the Egyptians recollect themselves, when will they
realise that their forebears have left to them an inalienable
patrimony of art, of architecture and exquisite refinement; and that,
by their negligence, one of those towns which used to be the most
beautiful in the world is falling into ruin and about to perish?

And nevertheless amongst the young Moslems and Copts now leaving the
schools there are so many of distinguished mind and superior
intelligence! When I see the things that are here, see them with the
fresh eyes of a stranger, landed but yesterday upon this soil,
impregnated with the glory of antiquity, I want to cry out to them,
with a frankness that is brutal perhaps, but with a profound sympathy:

"Bestir yourselves before it is too late. Defend yourselves against
this disintegrating invasion--not by force, be it understood, not by
inhospitality or ill-humour--but by disdaining this Occidental
rubbish, this last year's frippery by which you are inundated. Try to
preserve not only your traditions and your admirable Arab language,
but also the grace and mystery that used to characterise your town,
the refined luxury of your dwelling-houses. It is not a question now
of a poet's fancy; your national dignity is at stake. You are
/Orientals/--I pronounce respectfully that word, which implies a whole
past of early civilisation, of unmingled greatness--but in a few
years, unless you are on your guard, you will have become mere
Levantine brokers, exclusively preoccupied with the price of land and
the rise in cotton."



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.)

A city of mosques, then, as I was saying. They follow one another
along the streets, sometimes two, three, four in a row; leaning one
against the other, so that their confines become merged. On all sides
their minarets shoot up into the air, those minarets embellished with
arabesques, carved and complicated with the most changing fancy. They
have their little balconies, their rows of little columns; they are so
fashioned that the daylight shows through them. Some are far away in
the distance; others quite close, pointing straight into the sky above
our heads. No matter where one looks--as far as the eye can see--still
there are others; all of the same familiar colour, a brown turning
into rose. The most ancient of them, those of the old easy-tempered
times, bristle with shafts of wood, placed there as resting-places for
the great free birds of the air, and vultures and ravens may always be
seen perched there, contemplating the horizon of the sands, the line
of the yellow solitudes.

Three thousand mosques! Their great straight walls, a little severe
perhaps, and scarcely pierced by their tiny ogive windows, rise above
the height of the neighbouring houses. These walls are of the same
brown colour as the minarets, except that they are painted with
horizontal stripes of an old red, which has been faded by the sun; and
they are crowned invariably with a series of trefoils, after the
fashion of battlements, but trefoils which in every case are different
and surprising.

Before the mosques, which are raised like altars, there is always a
flight of steps with a balustrade of white marble. From the door one
gets a glimpse of the calm interior in deep shadow. Once inside there
are corridors, astonishingly lofty, sonorous and enveloped in a kind
of half gloom; immediately on entering one experiences a sense of
coolness and pervading peace; they prepare you as it were, and you
begin to be filled with a spirit of devotion, and instinctively to
speak low. In the narrow street outside there was the clamorous uproar
of an Oriental crowd, cries of sellers, and the noise of humble old-
world trading; men and beasts jostled you; there seemed a scarcity of
air beneath those so numerous overhanging mushrabiyas. But here
suddenly there is silence, broken only by the vague murmur of prayers
and the sweet songs of birds; there is silence too, and the sense of
open space, in the holy garden enclosed within high walls; and again
in the sanctuary, resplendent in its quiet and restful magnificence.
Few people as a rule frequent the mosques, except of course at the
hours of the five services of the day. In a few chosen corners,
particularly cool and shady, some greybeards isolate themselves to
read from morning till night the holy books and to ponder the thought
of approaching death: they may be seen there in their white turbans,
with their white beards and grave faces. And there may be, too, some
few poor homeless outcasts, who are come to seek the hospitality of
Allah, and sleep, careless of the morrow, stretched to their full
length on mats.

The peculiar charm of the gardens of the mosques, which are often very
extensive, is that they are so jealously enclosed within their high
walls--crowned always with stone trefoils--which completely shut out
the hubbub of the outer world. Palm-trees, which have grown there for
some hundred years perhaps, rise from the ground, either separately or
in superb clusters, and temper the light of the always hot sun on the
rose-trees and the flowering hibiscus. There is no noise in the
gardens, any more than in the cloisters, for people walk there in
sandals and with measured tread. And there are Edens, too, for the
birds, who live and sing therein in complete security, even during the
services, attracted by the little troughs which the imams fill for
their benefit each morning with water from the Nile.

As for the mosque itself it is rarely closed on all sides as are those
in the countries of the more sombre Islam of the north. Here in Egypt
--since there is no real winter and scarcely ever any rain--one of the
sides of the mosque is left completely open to the garden; and the
sanctuary is separated from the verdure and the roses only by a simple
colonnade. Thus the faithful grouped beneath the palm-trees can pray
there equally as well as in the interior of the mosque, since they can
see, between the arches, the holy Mihrab.[*]

[*] The Mihrab is a kind of portico indicating the direction of Mecca.
It is placed at the end of each mosque, as the altar is in our
churches, and the faithful are supposed to face it when they pray.

Oh! this sanctuary seen from the silent garden, this sanctuary in
which the pale gold gleams on the old ceiling of cedarwood, and
mosaics of mother-of-pearl shine on the walls as if they were
embroideries of silver that had been hung there.

There is no faience as in the mosques of Turkey or of Iran. Here it is
the triumph of patient mosaic. Mother-of-pearl of all colours, all
kinds of marble and of porphyry, cut into myriads of little pieces,
precise and equal, and put together again to form the Arab designs,
which, never borrowing from the human form, nor indeed from the form
of any animal, recall rather those infinitely varied crystals that may
be seen under the microscope in a flake of snow. It is always the
Mihrab which is decorated with the most elaborate richness; generally
little columns of lapis lazuli, intensely blue, rise in relief from
it, framing mosaics so delicate that they look like brocades of fine
lace. In the old ceilings of cedarwood, where the singing birds of the
neighbourhood have their nests, the golds mingle with some most
exquisite colourings, which time has taken care to soften and to blend
together. And here and there very fine and long consoles of sculptured
wood seem to fall, as it were, from the beams and hang upon the walls
like stalactites; and these consoles, too, in past times, have been
carefully coloured and gilded. As for the columns, always dissimilar,
some of amaranth-coloured marble, others of dark green, others again
of red porphyry, with capitals of every conceivable style, they are
come from far, from the night of the ages, from the religious
struggles of an earlier time and testify to the prodigious past which
this valley of the Nile, narrow as it is, and encompassed by the
desert, has known. They were formerly perhaps in the temples of the
pagans, or have known the strange faces of the gods of Egypt and of
ancient Greece and Rome; they have been in the churches of the early
Christians, or have seen the statues of tortured martyrs, and the
images of the transfigured Christ, crowned with the Byzantine aureole.
They have been present at battles, at the downfall of kingdoms, at
hecatombs, at sacrileges; and now brought together promiscuously in
these mosques, they behold on the walls of the sanctuary simply the
thousand little designs, ideally pure, of that Islam which wishes that
men when they pray should conceive Allah as immaterial, a Spirit
without form and without feature.

Each one of these mosques has its sainted dead, whose name it bears,
and who sleeps by its side, in an adjoining mortuary kiosk; some
priest rendered admirable by his virtues, or perhaps a khedive of
earlier times, or a soldier, or a martyr. And the mausoleum, which
communicates with the sanctuary by means of a long passage, sometimes
open, sometimes covered with gratings, is surmounted always by a
special kind of cupola, a very high and curious cupola, which raises
itself into the sky like some gigantic dervish hat. Above the Arab
town, and even in the sand of the neighbouring desert, these funeral
domes may be seen on every side adjoining the old mosques to which
they belong. And in the evening, when the light is failing, they
suggest the odd idea that it is the dead man himself, immensely
magnified, who stands there beneath a hat that is become immense. One
can pray, if one wishes, in this resting-place of the dead saint as
well as in the mosque. Here indeed it is always more secluded and more
in shadow. It is more simple, too, at least up to the height of a man:
on a platform of white marble, more or less worn and yellowed by the
touch of pious hands, nothing more than an austere catafalque of
similar marble, ornamented merely with a Cufic inscription. But if you
raise your eyes to look at the interior of the dome--the inside, as it
were, of the strange dervish hat--you will see shining between the
clusters of painted and gilded stalactites a number of windows of
exquisite colouring, little windows that seem to be constellations of
emeralds and rubies and sapphires. And the birds, you may be sure,
have their nests also in the house of the holy one. They are wont
indeed to soil the carpets and the mats on which the worshippers
kneel, and their nests are so many blots up there amid the gildings of
the carved cedarwood; but then their song, the symphony that issues
from that aviary, is so sweet to the living who pray and to the dead
who dream. . . .


But yet, when all is said, these mosques seem somehow to be wanting.
They do not wholly satisfy you. The access to them perhaps is too
easy, and one feels too near to the modern quarters of the town, where
the hotels are full of visitors--so that at any moment, it seems, the
spell may be broken by the entry of a batch of Cook's tourists, armed
with the inevitable /Baedeker/. Alas! they are the mosques of Cairo,
of poor Cairo, that is invaded and profaned. The memory turns to those
of Morocco, so jealously guarded, to those of Persia, even to those of
Old Stamboul, where the shroud of Islam envelops you in silence and
gently bows your shoulders as soon as you cross their thresholds.

And yet what pains are being taken to-day to preserve these mosques,
which in olden times were such delightful retreats. Neglected for
whole centuries, never repaired, notwithstanding the veneration of
their heedless worshippers, the greater part of them were fallen into
ruin; the fine woodwork of their interiors had become worm-eaten,
their cupolas were cracked and their mosaics covered the floor as with
a hail of mother-of-pearl, of porphyry and marble. It seemed that to
repair all this was a task incapable of fulfilment; it was sheer
folly, people said, to conceive the idea of it.

Nevertheless, for nearly twenty years now an army of workers has been
at the task, sculptors, marble-cutters, mosaicists. Already certain of
the sanctuaries, the most venerable of them indeed, have been entirely
renovated. After having re-echoed for some years to the sounds of
hammers and chisels, during the course of these vast renovations, they
are restored now to peace and to prayer, and the birds have
recommenced to build their nests in them.

It will be the glory of the present reign that it has preserved,
before it was too late, all this magnificent legacy of Moslem art.
When the city of "The Arabian Nights," which was formerly there, shall
have entirely disappeared, to give place to a vulgar /entrepot/ of
commerce and of pleasure, to which the plutocracy of the whole world
comes every winter to disport itself, so much at least will remain to
bear testimony to the lofty and magnificent thought that inspired the
earlier Arab life. These mosques will continue to remain into the
distant future, even when men shall have ceased to pray in them, and
the winged guests shall have departed, for the want of those troughs
of water from the Nile, filled for them by the good imams, whose
hospitality they repay by making heard in the courts, beneath the
arched roofs, beneath the ceilings of cedarwood, the sweet, piping
music of birds.



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.
Every night indeed the doors are sealed, on account of the priceless
relics that are collected here. So we shall not meet with any living
being in these halls to-night, in spite of their vast extent and
endless turnings, and in spite too of all these mysterious things that
are ranged on every side and fill the place with shadows and hiding-

Our round takes us first along the ground floor over flagstones that
resound to our footsteps. It is about ten of the clock. Here and there
through some stray windows gleams a small patch of luminous blue sky,
lit by the stars which for the good folk outside lend transparency to
the night; but there, none the less, the place is filled with a solemn
gloom, and we lower our voices, remembering perhaps the dead that fill
the glass cases in the halls above.

And these things which line the walls on either side of us as we pass
also seem to be in the nature of receptacles for the dead. For the
most part they are sarcophagi of granite, proud and indestructible:
some of them, in the shape of gigantic boxes, are laid out in line on
pedestals; others, in the form of mummies, stand upright against the
walls and display enormous faces, surmounted by equally enormous head-
dresses. Assembled there they look like a lot of malformed giants,
with oversized heads sunk curiously in their shoulders. There are,
besides, some that are merely statues, colossal figures that have
never held a corpse in their interiors; these all wear a strange,
scarcely perceptible smile; in their huge sphinxlike headgear they
reach nearly to the ceiling and their set stare passes high above our
heads. And there are others that are not larger than ourselves, some
even quite little, with the stature of gnomes. And, every now and
then, at some sudden turning, we encounter a pair of eyes of enamel,
wide-open eyes, that pierce straight into the depths of ours, that
seem to follow us as we pass and make us shiver as if by the contact
of a thought that comes from the abysm of the ages.

We pass on rapidly, however, and somewhat inattentively, for our
business here to-night is not with these simulacra on the ground
floor, but with the more redoubtable hosts above. Besides our lantern
sheds so little light in these great halls that all these people of
granite and sandstone and marble appear only at the precise moment of
our passage, appear only to disappear, and, spreading their fantastic
shadows on the walls, mingle the next moment with the great mute
crowd, that grows ever more numerous behind us.

Placed at intervals are apparatus for use in case of fire, coils of
hose and standpipes that shine with the warm glow of burnished copper,
and I ask my companion of the watch: "What is there that could burn
here? Are not these good people all of stone?" And he answers: "Not
here indeed; but consider how the things that are above would blaze."
Ah! yes. The "things that are above"--which are indeed the object of
my visit to-night. I had no thought of fire catching hold in an
assembly of mummies; of the old withered flesh, the dead, dry hair,
the venerable carcasses of kings and queens, soaked as they are in
natron and oils, crackling like so many boxes of matches. It is
chiefly on account of this danger indeed that the seals are put upon
the doors at nightfall, and that it needs a special favour to be
allowed to penetrate into this place at night with a lantern.

In the daytime this "Museum of Egyptian Antiquities" is as vulgar a
thing as you can conceive, filled though it is with priceless
treasures. It is the most pompous, the most outrageous of those
buildings, of no style at all, by which each year the New Cairo is
enriched; open to all who care to gaze at close quarters, in a light
that is almost brutal, upon these august dead, who fondly thought that
they had hidden themselves for ever.

But at night! . . . Ah! at night when all the doors are closed, it is
the palace of nightmare and of fear. At night, so say the Arab
guardians, who would not enter it at the price of gold--no, not even
after offering up a prayer--at night, horrible "forms" escape, not
only from the embalmed bodies that sleep in the glass cases above, but
also from the great statues, from the papyri, and the thousand and one
things that, at the bottom of the tombs, have long been impregnated
with human essence. And these "forms" are like unto dead bodies, and
sometimes to strange beasts, even to beasts that crawl. And, after
having wandered about the halls, they end by assembling for their
nocturnal conferences on the roofs.

We next ascend a staircase of monumental proportions, empty in the
whole extent, where we are delivered for a little while from the
obsession of those rigid figures, from the stares and smiles of the
good people in white stone and black granite who throng the galleries
and vestibules on the ground floor. None of them, to be sure, will
follow us; but all the same they guard in force and perplex with their
shadows the only way by which we can retreat, if the formidable hosts
above have in store for us too sinister a welcome.

He to whose courtesy I owe the relaxation of the orders of the night
is the illustrious savant to whose care has been entrusted the
direction of the excavations in Egyptian soil; he is also the
comptroller of this vast museum, and it is he himself who has kindly
consented to act as my guide to-night through its mazy labyrinth.

Across the silent halls above we now proceed straight towards those of
whom I have demanded this nocturnal audience.

To-night the succession of these rooms, filled with glass cases, which
cover more than four hundred yards along the four sides of the
building, seems to be without end. After passing, in turn, the papyri,
the enamels, the vases that contain human entrails, we reach the
mummies of the sacred beasts: cats, ibises, dogs, hawks, all with
their mummy cloths and sarcophagi; and monkeys, too, that remain
grotesque even in death. Then commence the human masks, and, upright
in glass-fronted cupboards, the mummy cases in which the body, swathed
in its mummy cloths, was moulded, and which reproduced, more or less
enlarged, the figure of the deceased. Quite a lot of courtesans of the
Greco-Roman epoch, moulded in paste in this wise after death and
crowned with roses, smile at us provokingly from behind their windows.
Masks of the colour of dead flesh alternate with others of gold which
gleam as the light of our lantern plays upon them momentarily in our
rapid passage. Their eyes are always too large, the eyelids too wide
open and the dilated pupils seem to stare at us with alarm. Amongst
these mummy cases and these coffin lids fashioned in the shape of the
human figure, there are some that seem to have been made for giants;
the head especially, beneath its cumbrous head-dress, the head stuffed
as it were between the hunchback shoulders, looks enormous, out of all
proportion to the body which, towards the feet, narrows like a

Although our little lantern maintains its light we seem to see here
less and less: the darkness around us in these vast rooms becomes
almost overpowering--and these are the rooms, too, that, leading one
into the other, facilitate the midnight promenade of those dread
"forms" which, every evening, are released and roam about. . . .

On a table in the middle of one of these rooms a thing to make you
shudder gleams in a glass box, a fragile thing that failed of life
some two thousand years ago. It is the mummy of a human embryo, and
someone, to appease the malice of this born-dead thing, had covered
its face with a coating of gold--for, according to the belief of the
Egyptians, these little abortions became the evil genii of their
families if proper honour was not paid to them. At the end of its
negligible body, the gilded head, with its great foetus eyes, is
unforgettable for its suffering ugliness, for its frustrated and
ferocious expression.

In the halls into which we next penetrate there are veritable dead
bodies ranged on either side of us as we pass; their coffins are
displayed in tiers one above the other; the air is heavy with the
sickly odour of mummies; and on the ground, curled always like some
huge serpent, the leather hoses are in readiness, for here indeed is
the danger spot for fire.

And the master of this strange house whispers to me: "This is the
place. Look! There they are."

In truth I recognise the place, having often come here in the daytime,
like other people. In spite of the darkness, which commences at some
ten paces from us--so small is the circle of light cast by our lantern
--I can distinguish the double row of the great royal coffins, open
without shame in their glass cases. And standing against the walls,
upright, like so many sentinels, are the coffin lids, fashioned in the
shape of the human figure.

We are there at last, admitted at this unseasonable hour into the
guest-chamber of kings and queens, for an audience that is private

And there, first of all, is the woman with the baby, upon whom,
without stopping, we throw the light of our lantern. A woman who died
in giving to the world a little dead prince. Since the old embalmers
no one has seen the face of this Queen Makeri. In her coffin there she
is simply a tall female figure, outlined beneath the close-bound
swathings of brown-coloured bandages. At her feet lies the fatal baby,
grotesquely shrivelled, and veiled and mysterious as the mother
herself; a sort of doll, it seems, put there to keep her eternal
company in the slow passing of endless years.

More fearsome to approach is the row of unswathed mummies that follow.
Here, in each coffin over which we bend, there is a face which stares
at us--or else closes its eyes in order that it may not see us; and
meagre shoulders and lean arms, and hands with overgrown nails that
protrude from miserable rags. And each royal mummy that our lantern
lights reserves for us a fresh surprise and the shudder of a different
fear--they resemble one another so little. Some of them seem to laugh,
showing their yellow teeth; others have an expression of infinite
sadness and suffering. Sometimes the faces are small, refined and
still beautiful despite the pinching of the nostrils; sometimes they
are excessively enlarged by putrid swelling, with the tip of the nose
eaten away. The embalmers, we know, were not sure of their means, and
the mummies were not always a success. In some cases putrefaction
ensued, and corruption and even sudden hatchings of larvae, those
"companions without ears and without eyes," which died indeed in time
but only after they had perforated all the flesh.

Hard by are ranked according to dynasty, and in chronological order,
the proud Pharaohs in a piteous row: father, son, grandson, great-
grandson. And common paper tickets tell their tremendous names, Seti
I., Ramses II., Seti II., Ramses III., Ramses IV. . . . Soon the
muster will be complete, with such energy have men dug in the heart of
the rocks to find them all; and these glass cases will no doubt be
their final resting-place. In olden days, however, they made many
pilgrimages after their death, for in the troubled times of the
history of Egypt it was one of the harassing preoccupations of the
reigning sovereign to hide, to hide at all costs, the mummies of his
ancestors, which filled the earth increasingly, and which the
violators of tombs were so swift to track. Then they were carried
clandestinely from one grave to another, raised each from his own
pompous sepulchre, to be buried at last together in some humble and
less conspicuous vault. But it is here, in this museum of Egyptian
antiquities, that they are about to accomplish their return to dust,
which has been deferred, as if by miracle, for so many centuries. Now,
stripped of their bandages, their days are numbered, and it behoves us
to hasten to draw these physiognomies of three or four thousand years
ago, which are about to perish.

In that coffin--the last but one of the row on the left--it is the
great Sesostris himself who awaits us. We know of old that face of
ninety years, with its nose hooked like the beak of a falcon; and the
gaps between those old man's teeth; the meagre, birdlike neck, and the
hand raised in a gesture of menace. Twenty years have elapsed since he
was brought back to the light, this master of the world. He was
wrapped /thousands of times/ in a marvellous winding-sheet, woven of
aloe fibres, finer than the muslin of India, which must have taken
years in the making and measured more than 400 yards in length. The
unswathing, done in the presence of the Khedive Tewfik and the great
personages of Egypt, lasted two hours, and after the last turn, when
the illustrious figure appeared, the emotion amongst the assistants
was such that they stampeded like a herd of cattle, and the Pharaoh
was overturned. He has, moreover, given much cause for conversation,
this great Sesostris, since his installation in the museum. Suddenly
one day with a brusque gesture, in the presence of the attendants, who
fled howling with fear, he raised that hand which is still in the air,
and which he has not deigned since to lower.[*] And subsequently there
supervened, beginning in the old yellowish-white hair, and then
swarming over the whole body, a hatching of cadaveric fauna, which
necessitated a complete bath in mercury. He also has his paper ticket,
pasted on the end of his box, and one may read there, written in a
careless hand, that name which once caused the whole world to tremble
--"Ramses II. (Sesostris)"! It need not be said that he has greatly
fallen away and blackened even in the fifteen yeas that I have known
him. He is a phantom that is about to disappear; in spite of all the
care lavished upon him, a poor phantom about to fall to pieces, to
sink into nothingness. We move our lantern about his hooked nose, the
better to decipher, in the play of shadow, his expression, that still
remains authoritative. . . . To think that once the destinies of the
world were ruled, without appeal, by the nod of this head, which looks
now somewhat narrow, under the dry skin and the horrible whitish hair.
What force of will, of passion and colossal pride must once have dwelt
therein! Not to mention the anxiety, which to us now is scarcely
conceivable, but which in his time overmastered all others--the
anxiety, that is to say, of assuring the magnificence and
inviolability of sepulture! . . . And this horrible scarecrow,
toothless and senile, lying here in its filthy rags, with the hand
raised in an impotent menace, was once the brilliant Sesostris, the
master of kings, and by virtue of his strength and beauty the demigod
also, whose muscular limbs and deep athletic chest many colossal
statues at Memphis, at Thebes, at Luxor, reproduce and try to make
eternal. . . .

[*] This movement is explained by the action of the sun, which,
falling on the unclothed arm, is supposed to have expanded the
bone of the elbow.

In the next coffin lies his father, Seti I., who reigned for a much
shorter period, and died much younger than he. This youthfulness is
apparent still in the features of the mummy, which are impressed
besides with a persistent beauty. Indeed this good King Seti looks the
picture of calm and serene reverie. There is nothing shocking in his
dead face, with its long closed eyes, its delicate lips, its noble
chin and unblemished profile. It is soothing and pleasant even to see
him sleeping there with his hands crossed upon his breast. And it
seems strange, that he, who looks so young, should have for son the
old man, almost a centenarian, who lies beside him.

In our passage we have gazed on many other royal mummies, some
tranquil and some grimacing. But, to finish, there is one of them (the
third coffin there, in the row in front of us), a certain Queen
Nsitanebashru, whom I approach with fear, albeit it is mainly on her
account that I have ventured to make this fantastical round. Even in
the daytime she attains to the maximum of horror that a spectral
figure can evoke. What will she be like to-night in the uncertain
light of our little lantern?

There she is indeed, the dishevelled vampire in her place right
enough, stretched at full length, but looking always as if she were
about to leap up; and straightway I meet the sidelong glance of her
enamelled pupils, shining out of half-closed eyelids, with lashes that
are still almost perfect. Oh! the terrifying person! Not that she is
ugly, on the contrary we can see that she was rather pretty and was
mummied young. What distinguishes her from the others is her air of
thwarted anger, of fury, as it were, at being dead. The embalmers have
coloured her very religiously, but the pink, under the action of the
salts of the skin, has become decomposed here and there and given
place to a number of green spots. Her naked shoulders, the height of
the arms above the rags which were once her splendid shroud, have
still a certain sleek roundness, but they, too, are stained with
greenish and black splotches, such as may be seen on the skins of
snakes. Assuredly no corpse, either here or elsewhere, has ever
preserved such an expression of intense life, of ironical, implacable
ferocity. Her mouth is twisted in a little smile of defiance; her
nostrils pinched like those of a ghoul on the scent of blood, and her
eyes seem to say to each one who approaches: "Yes, I am laid in my
coffin; but you will very soon see I can get out of it." There is
something confusing in the thought that the menace of this terrible
expression, and this appearance of ill-restrained ferocity had endured
for some hundreds of years before the commencement of our era, and
endured to no purpose in the secret darkness of a closed coffin at the
bottom of some doorless vault.

Now that we are about to retire, what will happen here, with the
complicity of silence, in the darkest hours of the night? Will they
remain inert and rigid, all these embalmed bodies, once left to
themselves, who pretended to be so quiet because we were there? What
exchanges of old human fluid will recommence, as who can doubt they do
each night between one coffin and another. Formerly these kings and
queens, in their anxiety as to the future of their mummy, had foreseen
violation, pillage and scattering amongst the sands of the desert, but
never this: that they would be reunited one day, almost all unveiled,
so near to one another under panes of glass. Those who governed Egypt
in the lost centuries and were never known except by history, by the
papyri inscribed with hieroglyphics, brought thus together, how many
things will they have to say to one another, how many ardent questions
to ask about their loves, about their crimes! As soon as we shall have
departed, nay, as soon as our lantern, at the end of the long
galleries, shall seem no more than a foolish, vanishing spot of fire,
will not the "forms" of whom the attendants are so afraid, will they
not start their nightly rumblings and in their hollow mummy voices,
whisper, with difficulty, words? . . .

Heavens! How dark it is! Yet our lantern has not gone out. But it
seems to grow darker and darker. And at night, when all is shut up,
how one smells the odour of the oils in which the shrouds are
saturated, and, more intolerable still, the sickly stealthy stench,
almost, of all these dead bodies! . . .

As I traverse the obscurity of these endless halls, a vague instinct
of self-preservation induces me to turn back again, and look behind.
And it seems to me that already the woman with the baby is slowly
raising herself, with a thousand precautions and stratagems, her head
still completely covered. While farther down, that dishevelled
hair. . . . Oh! I can see her well, sitting up with a sudden jerk, the
ghoul with the enamel eyes, the lady Nsitanebashru!



"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

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

"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

It is in a hall very Arab in its character, furnished only with
divans, that the great master welcomes us, with the simplicity of an
ascetic and the elegant manners of a prelate. His look, and indeed his
whole face, tell how onerous is the sacred office which he exercises:
to preside, namely, at the instruction of these thousands of young
priests, who afterwards are to carry faith and peace and immobility to
more than three hundred millions of men.

And in a few moments Mustapha and he are busy discussing--as if it
were a matter of actual interest--a controversial question concerning
the events which followed the death of the Prophet, and the part
played by Ali. . . . In that moment how my good friend Mustapha, whom
I had seen so French in France, appeared all at once a Moslem to the
bottom of his soul! The same thing is true indeed of the greater
number of these Orientals, who, if we meet them in our own country,
seem to be quite parisianised; their modernity is only on the surface:
in their inmost souls Islam remains intact. And it is not difficult to
understand, perhaps, how the spectacle of our troubles, our despairs,
our miseries, in these new ways in which our lot is cast, should make
them reflect and turn again to the tranquil dream of their
ancestors. . . .

While waiting for the conclusion of the morning studies, we are
conducted through some of the dependencies of El-Azhar. Halls of every
epoch, added one to another, go to form a little labyrinth; many
contain /Mihrabs/, which, as we know already, are a kind of portico,
festooned and denticulated till they look as if covered with rime. And
library after library, with ceilings of cedarwood, carved in times
when men had more leisure and more patience. Thousands of precious
manuscripts, dating back some hundreds of years, but which here in El-
Azhar are no whit out of date. Open, in glass cases, are numerous
inestimable Korans, which in olden times had been written fair and
illuminated on parchment by pious khedives. And, in a place of honour,
a large astronomical glass, through which men watch the rising of the
moon of Ramadan. . . . All this savours of the past. And what is being
taught to-day to the ten thousand students of El-Azhar scarcely
differs from what was taught to their predecessors in the glorious
reign of the Fatimites--and which was then transcendent and even new:
the Koran and all its commentaries; the subtleties of syntax and of
pronunciation; jurisprudence; calligraphy, which still is dear to the
heart of Orientals; versification; and, last of all, mathematics, of
which the Arabs were the inventors.

Yes, all this savours of the past, of the dust of remote ages. And
though, assuredly, the priests trained in this thousand-year-old
university may grow to men of rarest soul, they will remain, these
calm and noble dreamers, merely laggards, safe in their shelter from
the whirlwind which carries us along.


"It is a sacrilege to prohibit knowledge. To seek knowledge is to
perform an act of adoration towards God; to instruct is to do an
act of charity."

"Knowledge is the life of Islam, the column of faith."

Verses from the Hadith.

The lesson of the morning is now finished and we are able, without
disturbing anybody, to visit the mosque.

When we return to the great courtyard, with its battlemented walls, it
is the hour of recreation for this crowd of young men in robes and
turbans, who now emerge from the shadow of the sanctuary.

Since the early morning they have remained seated on their mats,
immersed in study and prayer, amid the confused buzzing of their
thousands of voices; and now they scatter themselves about the
contiguous Arab quarters until such time as the evening lessons
commence. They walk along in little groups, sometimes holding one
another's hands like children; most of them carry their heads high and
raise their eyes to the heavens, although the sun which greets them
outside dazzles them a little with its rays. They seem innumerable,
and as they pass show us faces of the most diverse types. They come
from all quarters of the world; some from Baghdad, others from
Bassorah, from Mossul and even from the interior of Hedjaz. Those from
the north have eyes that are bright and clear; and amongst those from
Moghreb, from Morocco and the Sahara, are many whose skins are almost
black. But the expression of all the faces is alike: something of
ecstasy and of aloofness marks them all; the same detachment, a
preoccupation with the self-same dream. And in the sky, to which they
raise their eyes, the heavens--framed always by the battlements of El-
Azhar--are almost white from the excess of light, with a border of
tall, red minarets, which seem to be aglow with the refection of some
great fire. And, watching them pass, all these young priests or
jurists, at once so different and so alike, we understand better than
before how Islam, the old, old Islam, keeps still its cohesion and its

The mosque in which they pursue their studies is now almost empty. In
its restful twilight there is silence, and the unexpected music of
little birds; it is the brooding season and the ceilings of carved
wood are full of nests, which nobody disturbs.

A world, this mosque, in which thousands of people could easily find
room. Some hundred and fifty marble columns, brought from ancient
temples, support the arches of the seven parallel aisles. There is no
light save that which comes through the arcade opening into the
courtyard, and it is so dark in the aisles at the far end that we
wonder again how the faithful can see to read when the sun of Egypt
happens to be veiled.

Some score of students, who seem almost lost in the vast solitude,
still remain during the hour of rest, and are busy sweeping the floor
with long palms made into a kind of broom. These are the poor
students, whose only meal is of dry bread, and who at night stretch
themselves to sleep on the same mat on which they have sat studying
during the day.

The residence at the university is free to all the scholars, the cost
of their education and maintenance being provided by pious donations.
But, inasmuch as the bequests are restricted according to nationality,
there is necessarily inequality in the treatment doled out to the
different students: thus the young men of a given country may be
almost rich, possessing a room and a good bed; while those of a
neighbouring country must sleep on the ground and have barely enough
to keep body and soul together. But none of them complain, and they
know how to help one another.[*]

[*] The duration of the studies at El-Azhar varies from three to six

Near to us, one of these needy students is eating, without any false
shame, his midday meal of dry bread; and he welcomes with a smile the
sparrows and the other little winged thieves who come to dispute with
him the crumbs of his repast. And farther down, in the dimly lighted
vaults at the end, is one who disdains to eat, or who, maybe, has no
bread; who, when his sweeping is done, reseats himself on his mat,
and, opening his Koran, commences to read aloud with the customary
intonation. His voice, rich and facile, and moderated with discretion,
has a charm that is irresistible in the sonorous old mosque, where at
this hour the only other sound is the scarcely perceptible twittering
of the little broods above, among the dull gold beams of the ceiling.
Those who have been familiar with the sanctuaries of Islam know, as
well as I, that there is no book so exquisitely rhythmical as that of
the Prophet. Even if the sense of the verses escape you, the chanted
reading, which forms part of certain of the offices, acts upon you by
the simple magic of its sounds, in the same way as the oratorios which
draw tears in the churches of Christ. Rising and falling like some sad
lullaby, the declamation of this young priest, with his face of
visionary, and garb of decent poverty, swells involuntarily, till
gradually it seems to fill the seven deserted aisles of El-Azhar.

We stop in spite of ourselves, and listen, in the midst of the silence
of midday. And in this so venerable place, where dilapidation and the
usury of centuries are revealed on every side--even on the marble
columns worn by the constant friction of hands--this voice of gold
that rises alone seems as if it were intoning the last lament over the
death-pang of Old Islam and the end of time, the elegy, as it were, of
the universal death of faith in the heart of man.


"Science is one religion; prayer is another. Study is better than
worship. Go; seek knowledge everywhere, if needs be, even into

Verses from the Hadith.

Amongst us Europeans it is commonly accepted as a proven fact that
Islam is merely a religion of obscurantism, bringing in its train the
stagnation of nations, and hampering them in that march to the unknown
which we call "progress." But such an attitude shows not only an
absolute ignorance of the teaching of the Prophet, but a blind
forgetfulness of the evidence of history. The Islam of the earlier
centuries evolved and progressed with the nations, and the stimulus it
gave to men in the reign of the ancient caliphs is beyond all
question. To impute to it the present decadence of the Moslem world is
altogether too puerile. The truth is that nations have their day; and
to a period of glorious splendour succeeds a time of lassitude and
slumber. It is a law of nature. And then one day some danger threatens
them, stirs them from their torpor and they awake.

This immobility of the countries of the Crescent was once dear to me.
If the end is to pass through life with the minimum of suffering,
disdaining all vain striving, and to die entranced by radiant hopes,
the Orientals are the only wise men. But now that greedy nations beset
them on all sides their dreaming is no longer possible. They must
awake, alas.

They must awake; and already the awakening is at hand. Here, in Egypt,
where the need is felt to change so many things, it is proposed, too,
to reform the old university of El-Azhar, one of the chief centres of
Islam. One thinks of it with a kind of fear, knowing what danger there
is in laying hands upon institutions which have lasted for a thousand
years. Reform, however, has, in principle, been decided upon. New
knowledge, brought from the West, is penetrating into the tabernacle
of the Fatimites. Has not the Prophet said: "Go; seek knowledge far
and wide, if needs be even into China"? What will come of it? Who can
tell? But this, at least, is certain: that in the dazzling hours of
noon, or in the golden hours of evening, when the crowd of these
modernised students spreads itself over the vast courtyard, overlooked
by its countless minarets, there will no longer be seen in their eyes
the mystic light of to-day; and it will no longer be the old
unshakable faith, nor the lofty and serene indifference, nor the
profound peace, that these messengers will carry to the ends of the
Mussulman earth. . . .



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.

To reach them from the banks of the Nile we have first to traverse the
low region which the inundations of the ancient river, regularly
repeated since the beginning of time, have rendered propitious to the
growth of plants and to the development of men; an hour or two's
journey, this evening through forests of date-trees whose beautiful
palms temper the light of the March sun, which is now half veiled in
clouds and already declining. In the distance herds are grazing in the
cool shade. And we meet fellahs leading back from the field towards
the village on the river-bank their little donkeys, laden with sheaves
of corn. The air is mild and wholesome under the high tufts of these
endless green plumes, which move in the warm wind almost without
noise. We seem to be in some happy land, where the pastoral life
should be easy, and even a little paradisiacal.

But beyond, in front of us, quite a different world is gradually
revealed. Its aspect assumes the importance of a menace from the
unknown; it awes us like an apparition of chaos, of universal death.
. . . It is the desert, the conquering desert, in the midst of which
inhabited Egypt, the green valleys of the Nile, trace merely a narrow
ribbon. And here, more than elsewhere, the sight of this sovereign
desert rising up before us is startling and thrilling, so high up it
seems, and we so low in the Edenlike valley shaded by the palms. With
its yellow hues, its livid marblings, and its sands which make it look
somehow as if it lacked consistency, it rises on the whole horizon
like a kind of soft wall or a great fearsome cloud--or rather, like a
long cataclysmic wave, which does not move indeed, but which, if it
did, would overwhelm and swallow everything. It is the /Memphite
desert/--a place, that is to say, such as does not exist elsewhere on
earth; a fabulous necropolis, in which men of earlier times, heaped up
for some three thousand years the embalmed bodies of their dead,
exaggerating, as time went on, the foolish grandeur of their tombs.
Now, above the sand which looks like the front of some great tidal
wave arrested in its progress, we see on all sides, and far into the
distance, triangles of superhuman proportions which were once the
tombs of mummies; pyramids, still upright, all of them, on their
sinister pedestal of sand. Some are comparatively near; others almost
lost in the background of the solitudes--and perhaps more awesome in
that they are merely outlined in grey, high up among the clouds.


The little carriages that have brought us to the necropolis of
Memphis, through the interminable forest of palm-trees, had their
wheels fitted with large pattens for their journey over the sand.

Now, arrived at the foot of the fearsome region, we commence to climb
a hill where all at once the trot of our horses ceases to be heard;
the moving felting of the soil establishes a sudden silence around us,
as indeed is always the case when we reach these sands. It seems as if
it were a silence of respect which the desert itself imposes.

The valley of life sinks and fades behind us, until at last it
disappears, hidden by a line of sandhills--the first wave, as one
might say, of this waterless sea--and we are now mounted into the
kingdom of the dead, swept at this moment by a withering and almost
icy wind, which from below one would not have expected.

This desert of Memphis has not yet been profaned by hotels or motor
roads, such as we have seen in the "little desert" of the Sphinx--
whose three pyramids indeed we can discern at the extreme limit of the
view, prolonging almost to infinity for our eyes this domain of
mummies. There is nobody to be seen, nor any indication of the present
day, amongst these mournful undulations of yellow or pale grey sand,
in which we seem lost as in the swell of an ocean. The sky is cloudy--
such as you can scarcely imagine the sky of Egypt. And in this immense
nothingness of sand and stones, which stands out now more clearly
against the clouds on the horizon, there is nothing anywhere save the
silhouettes of those eternal triangles; the pyramids, gigantic things
which rise here and there at hazard, some half in ruin, others almost
intact and preserving still their sharp point. To-day they are the
only landmarks of this necropolis, which is nearly six miles in
length, and was formerly covered by temples of a magnificence and a
vastness unimaginable to the minds of our day. Except for one which is
quite near us (the fantastic grandfather of the others, that of King
Zoser, who died nearly 5000 years ago), except for this one, which is
made of six colossal superposed terraces, they are all built after
that same conception of the /Triangle/, which is at once the most
mysteriously simple figure of geometry, and the strongest and most
permanently stable form of architecture. And now that there remains no
trace of the frescoed portraits which used to adorn them, nor of their
multicoloured coatings, now that they have taken on the same dead
colour as the desert, they look like the huge bones of giant fossils,
that have long outlasted their other contemporaries on earth. Beneath
the ground, however, the case is different; there, still remain the
bodies of men, and even of cats and birds, who with their own eyes saw
these vast structures building, and who sleep intact, swathed in
bandages, in the darkness of their tunnels. /We know/, for we have
penetrated there before, what things are hidden in the womb of this
old desert, on which the yellow shroud of the sand grows thicker and
thicker as the centuries pass. The whole deep rock had been perforated
patiently to make hypogea and sepulchral chambers, great and small,
and veritable palaces for the dead, adorned with innumerable painted
figures. And though now, for some two thousand years, men have set
themselves furiously to exhume the sarcophagi and the treasures that
are buried here, the subterranean reserves are not yet exhausted.
There still remain, no doubt, pleiads of undisturbed sleepers, who
will never be discovered.

As we advance the wind grows stronger and colder beneath a sky that
becomes increasingly cloudy, and the sand is flying on all sides. The
sand is the undisputed sovereign of the necropolis; if it does not
surge and roll like some enormous tidal wave, as it appears to do when
seen from the green valley below, it nevertheless covers everything
with an obstinate persistence which has continued since the beginning
of time. Already at Memphis it has buried innumerable statues and
colossi and temples of the Sphinx. It comes without a pause, from
Libya, from the great Sahara, which contain enough to powder the
universe. It harmonises well with the tall skeletons of the pyramids,
which form immutable rocks on its always shifting extent; and if one
thinks of it, it gives a more thrilling sense of anterior eternities
even than all these Egyptian ruins, which, in comparison with it, are
things of yesterday. The sand--the sand of the primitive seas--which
represents a labour of erosion of a duration impossible to conceive,
and bears witness to a continuity of destruction which, one might say,
had no beginning.

Here, in the midst of these solitudes, is a humble habitation, old and
half buried in sand, at which we have to stop. It was once the house
of the Egyptologist Mariette, and still shelters the director of the
excavations, from whom we have to obtain permission to descend amongst
the Apis. The whitewashed room in which he receives us is encumbered
with the age-old debris which he is continually bringing to light. The
parting rays of the sun, which shines low down from between two
clouds, enter through a window opening on to the surrounding
desolation; and the light comes mournfully, yellowed by the sand and
the evening.

The master of the house, while his Bedouin servants are gone to open
and light up for us the underground habitations of the Apis, shows us
his latest astonishing find, made this morning in a hypogeum of one of
the most ancient dynasties. It is there on a table, a group of little
people of wood, of the size of the marionettes of our theatres. And
since it was the custom to put in a tomb only those figures or objects
which were most pleasing to him who dwelt in it, the man-mummy to whom
this toy was offered in times anterior to all precise chronology must
have been extremely partial to dancing-girls. In the middle of the
group the man himself is represented, sitting in an armchair, and on
his knee he holds his favourite dancing-girl. Other girls posture
before him in a dance of the period; and on the ground sit musicians
touching tambourines and strangely fashioned harps. All wear their
hair in a long plait, which falls below their shoulders like the
pigtail of the Chinese. It was the distinguishing mark of these kinds
of courtesans. And these little people had kept their pose in the
darkness for some three thousand years before the commencement of the
Christian era. . . . In order to show it to us better the group is
brought to the window, and the mournful light which enters from across
the infinite solitudes of the desert colours them yellow and shows us
in detail their little doll-like attitudes and their comical and
frightened appearance--frightened perhaps to find themselves so old
and issuing from so deep a night. They had not seen a setting of the
sun, such as they now regard with their queer eyes, too long and too
wide oepn, they had not seen such a thing for some five thousand
years. . . .

The habitation of the Apis, the lords of the necropolis, is little
more than two hundred yards away. We are told that the place is now
lighted up and that we may betake ourselves thither.

The descent is by a narrow, rapidly sloping passage, dug in the soil,
between banks of sand and broken stones. We are now completely
sheltered from the bitter wind which blows across the desert, and from
the dark doorway that opens before us comes a breath of air as from an
oven. It is always dry and hot in the underground funeral places of
Egypt, which make indeed admirable stoves for mummies. The threshold
once crossed we are plunged first of all in darkness and, preceded by
a lantern, make our way, by devious turnings, over large flagstones,
passing obelisks, fallen blocks of stone and other gigantic debris, in
a heat that continually increases.

At last the principal artery of the hypogeum appears, a thoroughfare
more than five hundred yards long, cut in the rock, where the Bedouins
have prepared for us the customary feeble light.

It is a place of fearful aspect. As soon as one enters one is seized
by the sense of a mournfulness beyond words, by an oppression as of
something too heavy, too crushing, almost superhuman. The impotent
little flames of the candles, placed in a row, in groups of fifty, on
tripods of wood from one end of the route to the other, show on the
right and left of the immense avenue rectangular sepulchral caverns,
containing each a black coffin, but a coffin as if for a mastodon. And
all these coffins, so sombre and so alike, are square shaped too,
severely simple like so many boxes; but made out of a single block of
rare granite that gleams like marble. They are entirely without
ornament. It is necessary to look closely to distinguish on the smooth
walls the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the rows of little figures,
little owls, little jackals, that tell in a lost language the history
of ancient peoples. Here is the signature of King Amasis; beyond, that
of King Cambyses. . . . Who were the Titans who, century after
century, were able to hew these coffins (they are at least twelve feet
long by ten feet high), and, having hewn them, to carry them
underground (they weigh on an average between sixty and seventy tons),
and finally to range them in rows here in these strange chambers,
where they stand as if in ambuscade on either side of us as we pass?
Each in its turn has contained quite comfortably the mummy of a bull
Apis, armoured in plates of gold. But in spite of their weight, in
spite of their solidity which effectively defies destruction, they
have been despoiled[*]--when is not precisely known, probably by the
soldiers of the King of Persia. And this notwithstanding that merely
to open them represents a labour of astonishing strength and patience.
In some cases the thieves have succeeded, by the aid of levers, in
moving a few inches the formidable lid; in others, by persevering with
blows of pickaxes, they have pierced, in the thickness of the granite,
a hole through which a man has been enabled to crawl like a rat, or a
worm, and then, groping his way, to plunder the sacred mummy.

[*] One, however, remains intact in the walled cavern, and thus
preserves for us the only Apis which has come down to our days.
And one recalls the emotion of Mariette, when, on entering it, he
saw on the sandy ground the imprint of the naked feet of the last
Egyptian who left it thirty-seven centuries before.

What strikes us most of all in the colossal hypogeum is the meeting
there, in the middle of the stairway by which we leave, with yet
another black coffin, which lies across our path as if to bar it. It
is as monstrous and as simple as the others, its seniors, which many
centuries before, as the deified bulls died, had commenced to line the
great straight thoroughfare. But this one has never reached its place
and never held its mummy. It was the last. Even while men were slowly
rolling it, with tense muscles and panting cries, towards what might
well have seemed its eternal chamber, others gods were born, and the
cult of the Apis had come to an end--suddenly, then and there! Such a
fate may happen indeed to each and all of the religions and
institutions of men, even to those most deeply rooted in their hearts
and their ancestral past. . . . That perhaps is the most disturbing of
all our positive notions: to know that there will be a /last/ of all
things, not only a last temple, and a last priest, but a last birth of
a human child, a last sunrise, a last day. . . .


In these hot catacombs we had forgotten the cold wind that blew
outside, and the physiognomy of the Memphite desert, the aspects of
horror that were awaiting us above had vanished from our mind.
Sinister as it is under a blue sky, this desert becomes absolutely
intolerable to look upon if by chance the sky is cloudy when the
daylight fails.

On our return to it, from the subterranean darkness, everything in its
dead immensity has begun to take on the blue tint of the night. On the
top of the sandhills, of which the yellow colour has greatly paled
since we went below, the wind amuses itself by raising little vortices
of sand that imitate the spray of an angry sea. On all sides dark
clouds stretch themselves as at the moment of our descent. The horizon
detaches itself more and more clearly from them, and, farther towards
the east, it actually seems to be tilted up; one of the highest of the
waves of this waterless sea, a mountain of sand whose soft contours
are deceptive in the distance, makes it look as if it sloped towards
us, so as almost to produce a sensation of vertigo. The sun itself has
deigned to remain on the scene a few seconds longer, held beyond its
time by the effect of mirage; but it is so changed behind its thick
veils that we would prefer that it should not be there. Of the colour
of dying embers, it seems too near and too large; it has ceased to
give any light, and is become a mere rose-coloured globe, that is
losing its shape and becoming oval. No longer in the free heavens, but
stranded there on the extreme edge of the desert, it watches the scene
like a large dull eye, about to close itself in death. And the
mysterious superhuman triangles, they too, of course, are there,
waiting for us on our return from underground, some near, some far,
posted in their eternal places; but surely they have grown gradually
more blue. . . .

Such a night, in such a place, it seems the /last/ night.



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.

The road is Levantine in its general character; and we should have no
clear notion of the place did we not see in our rapid, noisy passage
signs that recall us to the land of the Arabs. People pass dressed in
the long robe and tarboosh of the East; and some of the houses, above
the European shops, are ornamented with mushrabiyas. But this blinding
electricity strikes a false note. In our hearts are we quite sure we
are in the East?

The road ends, opening on to darkness. Suddenly, without any warning,
it abuts upon a void in which the eyes see nothing, and we roll over a
yielding, felted soil, where all noise abruptly ceases--it is the
/desert/! . . . Not a vague, nondescript stretch of country such as in
the outskirts of our towns, not one of the solitudes of Europe, but
the threshold of the vast desolations of Arabia. /The desert/; and,
even if we had not known that it was awaiting us, we should have
recognised it by the indescribable quality of harshness and uniqueness
which, in spite of the darkness, cannot be mistaken.

But the night after all is not so black. It only seemed so, at the
first moment, by contrast with the glaring illumination of the street.
In reality it is transparent and blue. A half-moon, high up in the
heavens, and veiled by a diaphanous mist, shines gently, and as it is
an Egyptian moon, more subtle than ours, it leaves to things a little
of their colour. We can see now, as well as feel, this desert, which
has opened and imposed its silence upon us. Before us is the paleness
of its sands and the reddish-brown of its dead rocks. Verily, in no
country but Egypt are there such rapid surprises: to issue from a
street flanked by shops and stalls and, without transition, to find
this! . . .

Our horses have, inevitably, to slacken speed as the wheels of our
carriage sink into the sand. Around us still are some stray ramblers,
who presently assume the air of ghosts, with their long black or white
draperies, and noiseless tread. And then, not a soul; nothing but the
sand and the moon.

But now almost at once, after the short intervening nothingness, we
find ourselves in a new town; streets with little low houses, little
cross-roads, little squares, all of them white, on whitened sands,
beneath a white moon. . . . But there is no electricity in this town,
no lights, and nobody is stirring; doors and windows are shut: no
movement of any kind, and the silence, at first, is like that of the
surrounding desert. It is a town in which the half-light of the moon,
amongst so much vague whiteness, is diffused in such a way that it
seems to come from all sides at once and things cast no shadows which
might give them definiteness; a town where the soil is so yielding
that our progress is weakened and retarded, as in dreams. It seems
unreal; and, in penetrating farther into it, a sense of fear comes
over you that can neither be dismissed nor defined.

For assuredly this is no ordinary town. . . . And yet the houses, with
their windows barred like those of a harem, are in no way singular--
except that they are shut and silent. It is all this whiteness,
perhaps, which freezes us. And then, too, the silence is not, in fact,
like that of the desert, which did at least seem natural, inasmuch as
there was nothing there; here, on the contrary, there is a sense of
innumerable presences, which shrink away as you pass but nevertheless
continue to watch attentively. . . . We pass mosques in total darkness
and they too are silent and white, with a slight bluish tint cast on
them by the moon. And sometimes, between the houses, there are little
enclosed spaces, like narrow gardens, but which can have no possible
verdure. And in these gardens numbers of little obelisks rise from the
sand--white obelisks, it is needless to say, for to-night we are in
the kingdom of absolute whiteness. What can they be, these strange
little gardens? . . . And the sand, meanwhile, which covers the
streets with its thick coatings, continues to deaden the sound of our
progress, out of compliment no doubt to all these watchful things that
are so silent around us.

At the crossings and in the little squares the obelisks become more
numerous, erected always at either end of a slab of stone that is
about the length of a man. Their little motionless groups, posted as
if on the watch, seem so little real in their vague whiteness that we
feel tempted to verify them by touching, and, verily, we should not be
astonished if our hand passed through them as through a ghost. Farther
on there is a wide expanse without any houses at all, where these
ubiquitous little obelisks abound in the sand like ears of corn in a
field. There is now no further room for illusion. We are in a
cemetery, and have been passing in the midst of houses of the dead,
and mosques of the dead, in a town of the dead.

Once emerged from this cemetery, which in the end at least disclosed
itself in its true character, we are involved again in the
continuation of the mysterious town, which takes us back into its
network. Little houses follow one another as before, only now the
little gardens are replaced by little burial enclosures. And
everything grows more and more indistinct, in the gentle light, which
gradually grows less. It is as if someone were putting frosted globes
over the moon, so that soon, but for the transparency of this air of
Egypt and the prevailing whiteness of things, there would be no light
at all. Once at a window the light of a lamp appears; it is the
lantern of gravediggers. Anon we hear the voices of men chanting a
prayer; and the prayer is a prayer for the dead.

These tenantless houses were never built for dwellings. They are
simply places where men assemble on certain anniversaries, to pray for
the dead. Every Moslem family of any note has its little temple of
this kind, near to the family graves. And there are so many of them
that now the place is become a town--and a town in the desert--that is
to say, in a place useless for any other purpose; a secure place
indeed, for we may be sure that the ground occupied by these poor
tombs runs no risk of being coveted--not even in the irreverent times
of the future. No, it is on the other side of Cairo--on the other bank
of the Nile, amongst the verdure of the palm-trees, that we must look
for the suburb in course of transformation, with its villas of the
invading foreigner, and the myriad electric lights along its motor
roads. On this side there is no such fear; the peace and desuetude are
eternal; and the winding sheet of the Arabian sands is ready always
for its burial office.

At the end of this town of the dead, the desert again opens before us
its mournful whitened expanse. On such a night as this, when the wind
blows cold and the misty moon shows like a sad opal, it looks like a
steppe under snow.

But it is a desert planted with ruins, with the ghosts of mosques; a
whole colony of high tumbling domes are scattered here at hazard on
the shifting extent of the sands. And what strange old-fashioned domes
they are! The archaism of their silhouettes strikes us from the first,
as much as their isolation in such a place. They look like bells, or
gigantic dervish hats placed on pedestals, and those farthest away
give the impression of squat, large-headed figures posted there as
sentinels, watching the vague horizon of Arabia beyond.

They are the proud tombs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
where the Mameluke Sultans, who oppressed Egypt for nearly three
hundred years, sleep now in complete abandonment. Nowadays, it is
true, some visits are beginning to be paid to them--on winter nights
when the moon is full and they throw on the sands their great clear-
cut shadows. At such times the light is considered favourable, and
they rank among the curiosities exploited by the agencies. Numbers of
tourists (who persist in calling them the tombs of the caliphs) betake
themselves thither of an evening--a noisy caravan mounted on little
donkeys. But to-night the moon is too pale and uncertain, and we shall
no doubt be alone in troubling them in their ghostly communion.

To-night indeed the light is quite unusual. As just now in the town of
the dead, it is diffused on all sides and gives even to the most
massive objects the transparent semblance of unreality. But
nevertheless it shows their detail and leaves them something of their
daylight colouring, so that all these funeral domes, raised on the
ruins of the mosques, which serve them as pedestals, have preserved
their reddish or brown colours, although the sand which separates
them, and makes between the tombs of the different sultans little dead
solitudes, remains pale and wan.

And meanwhile our carriage, proceeding always without noise, traces on
this same sand little furrows which the wind will have effaced by
to-morrow. There are no roads of any kind; they would indeed be as
useless as they are impossible to make. You may pass here where you
like, and fancy yourself far away from any place inhabited by living
beings. The great town, which we know to be so close, appears from
time to time, thanks to the undulations of the ground, as a mere
phosphorescence, a reflection of its myriad electric lights. We are
indeed in the desert of the dead, in the sole company of the moon,
which, by the fantasy of this wonderful Egyptian sky, is to-night a
moon of grey pearl, one might almost say a moon of mother-of-pearl.

Each of these funeral mosques is a thing of splendour, if one examines
it closely in its solitude. These strange upraised domes, which from a
distance look like the head-dresses of dervishes or magi, are
embroidered with arabesques, and the walls are crowned with
denticulated trefoils of exquisite fashioning.

But nobody venerates these tombs of the Mameluke oppressors, or keeps
them in repair; and within them there are no more chants, no prayers
to Allah. Night after night they pass in an infinity of silence. Piety
contents itself with not destroying them; leaving them there at the
mercy of time and the sun and the wind which withers and crumbles
them. And all around are the signs of ruin. Tottering cupolas show us
irreparable cracks; the halves of broken arches are outlined to-night
in shadow against the mother-of-pearl light of the sky, and debris of
sculptured stones are strewn about. But nevertheless these tombs, that
are well-nigh accursed, still stir in us a vague sense of alarm--
particularly those in the distance, which rise up like silhouettes of
misshapen giants in enormous hats--dark on the white sheet of sand--
and stand there in groups, or scattered in confusion, at the entrance
to the vast empty regions beyond.


We had chosen a time when the light was doubtful in order that we
might avoid the tourists, but as we approach the funeral dwelling of
Sultan Barkuk, the assassin, we see, issuing from it, a whole band,
some twenty in a line, who emerge from the darkness of the abandoned
walls, each trotting on his little donkey and each followed by the
inevitable Bedouin driver, who taps with his stick upon the rump of
the beast. They are returning to Cairo, their visit ended, and
exchange in a loud voice, from one ass to another, more or less inept
impressions in various European languages. . . . And look! There is
even amongst them the almost proverbial belated dame who, for private
reasons of her own, follows at a respectable distance behind. She is a
little mature perhaps, so far as can be judged in the moonlight, but
nevertheless still sympathetic to her driver, who, with both hands,
supports her from behind on her saddle, with a touching solicitude
that is peculiar to the country. Ah! these little donkeys of Egypt, so
observant, so philosophical and sly, why cannot they write their
memoirs! What a number of droll things they must have seen at night in
the outskirts of Cairo!

This good lady evidently belongs to that extensive category of hardy
explorers who, despite their high respectability at home, do not
hesitate, once they are landed on the banks of the Nile, to supplement
their treatment by the sun and the dry winds with a little of the
"Bedouin cure."



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

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.

On this Easter morning, having set out from the Cairo of to-day to be
present at this mass, we have first to traverse a suburb in course of
transformation, upon whose ancient soil will shortly appear numbers of
these modern horrors, in mud and metal--factories or large hotels--
which multiply in this poor land with a stupefying rapidity. Then
comes a mile or so of uncultivated ground, mixed with stretches of
sand, and already a little desertlike. And then the walls of Old
Cairo; after which begins the peace of the deserted houses, of little
gardens and orchards among the ruins. The wind and the dust beset us
the whole way, the almost eternal wind and the eternal dust of this
land, by which, since the beginning of the ages, so many human eyes
have been burnt beyond recovery. They keep us now in blinding
whirlwinds, which swarm with flies. The "season" indeed is already
over, and the foreign invaders have fled until next autumn. Egypt is
now more Egyptian, beneath a more burning sky. The sun of this Easter
Sunday is as hot as ours of July, and the ground seems as if it would
perish of drought. But it is always thus in the springtime of this
rainless country; the trees, which have kept their leaves throughout
the winter, shed them in April as ours do in November. There is no
shade anywhere and everything suffers. Everything grows yellow on the
yellow sands. But there is no cause for uneasiness: the inundation is
at hand, which has never failed since the commencement of our
geological period. In another few weeks the prodigious river will
spread along its banks, just as in the times of the God Amen, a
precocious and impetuous life. And meanwhile the orange-trees, the
jasmine and the honeysuckle, which men have taken care to water with
water from the Nile, are full of riotous bloom. As we pass the gardens
of Old Cairo, which alternate with the tumbling houses, this continual
cloud of white dust that envelops us comes suddenly laden with their
sweet fragrance; so that, despite the drought and the bareness of the
trees, the scents of a sudden and feverish springtime are already in
the air.

When we arrive at the walls of what used to be the Roman citadel we
have to descend from our carriage, and passing through a low doorway
penetrate on foot into the labyrinth of a Coptic quarter which is
dying of dust and old age. Deserted houses that have become the
refuges of outcasts; mushrabiyas, worm-eaten and decayed; little
mousetrap alleys that lead us under arches of the Middle Ages, and
sometimes close over our heads by reason of the fantastic bending of
the ruins. Even by such a route as this are we conducted to a famous
basilica! Were it not for these groups of Copts, dressed in their
Sunday garb, who make their way like us through the ruins to the
Easter mass, we should think that we had lost our way.

And how pretty they look, these women draped like phantoms in their
black silks. Their long veils do not completely hide them, as do those
of the Moslems. They are simply placed over their hair and leave
uncovered the delicate features, the golden necklet and the half-bared
arms that carry on their wrists thick twisted bracelets of virgin
gold. Pure Egyptians as they are, they have preserved the same
delicate profile, the same elongated eyes, as mark the old goddesses
carved in bas-relief on the Pharaonic walls. But some, alas, amongst
the young ones have discarded their traditional costume, and are
arrayed /a la franque/, in gowns and hats. And such gowns, such hats,
such flowers! The very peasants of our meanest villages would disdain
them. Oh! why cannot someone tell these poor little women, who have it
in their power to be so adorable, that the beautiful folds of their
black veils give to them an exquisite and characteristic distinction,
while this poor tinsel, which recalls the mid-Lent carnivals, makes of
them objects that excite our pity!

In one of the walls which now surround us there is a low and shrinking
doorway. Can this be the entrance to the basilica? The idea seems

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