The choice between dahabeeyah and steamer is like the choice between travelling with post-horses and travelling by rail. The one is expensive, leisurely, delightful; the other is cheap, swift, and comparatively comfortless. Those who are content to snatch but a glimpse of the Nile will doubtless prefer the steamer.
With regard to temperature, we found it cool—even cold, sometimes—in December and January; mild in February; very warm in March and April. The climate of Nubia is simply perfect. It never rains; and once past the limit of the tropic, there is no morning or evening chill upon the air. Yet even in Nubia, and especially along the forty miles which divide Abou Simbel from Wady Halfeh, it is cold when the wind blows strongly from the north.
Touching the title of this book, it may be objected that the distance from the port of Alexandria to the Second Cataract falls short of a thousand miles. But from the Rock of Abusir, five miles above Wady Halfeh, the traveller looks over an extent of country far exceeding the thirty or thirty-five miles necessary to make up the full tale of a thousand. We distinctly saw from this point the summits of mountains which lie about miles to the southward of Wady Halfeh, and which look down upon the Third Cataract. Perhaps I ought to say something in answer to the repeated inquiries of those who looked for the publication of this volume a year ago.
I can, however, only reply that the Writer, instead of giving one year, has given two years to the work. To write rapidly about Egypt is impossible. The subject grows with the book, and with the knowledge one acquires by the way. It is, moreover, a subject beset with such obstacles as must impede even the swiftest pen; and to that swiftest pen I lay no claim. Moreover the writer, who seeks to be accurate, has frequently to go for his facts, if not actually to original sources which would be the texts themselves , at all events to translations and commentaries locked up in costly folios, or dispersed far and wide among the pages of scientific journals and the transactions of learned societies.
A date, a name, a passing reference, may cost hours of seeking. This by way of apology. More pleasant is it to remember labour lightened than to consider time spent; and I have yet to thank the friends who have spared no pains to help this book on its way. Cox, I desire to offer my hearty and grateful acknowledgments.
It is surely not least among the glories of learning, that those who adorn it most and work hardest should ever be readiest to share the stores of their knowledge. I am anxious also to express my cordial thanks to Mr. Pearson, under whose superintendence the whole of the illustrations have been engraved. To say that his patience and courtesy have been inexhaustible, and that he has spared neither time nor cost in the preparation of the blocks, is but a dry statement of facts, and conveys no idea of the kind of labour involved.
Where engravings of this kind are executed, not from drawings made at first-hand upon the wood, but from water-colour drawings which have not only to be reduced in size, but to be, as it were, translated into black and white, the difficulty of the work is largely increased. In order to meet this difficulty and to ensure accuracy, Mr. Pearson has not only called in the services of accomplished draughtsmen, but in many instances has even photographed the subjects direct upon the wood.
It seems to me that some of these blocks may stand for examples of the farthest point to which the art of engraving upon wood has yet been carried. The principal illustrations have all been drawn upon the wood by Mr. Percival Skelton; and no one so fully as myself can appreciate how much the subjects owe to the delicacy of his pencil, and to the artistic feelings with which he has interpreted the original drawings.
Of the fascination of Egyptian travel, of the charm of the Nile, of the unexpected and surpassing beauty of the desert, of the ruins which are the wonder of the world, I have said enough elsewhere. I must, however, add that I brought home with me an impression that things and people are much less changed in Egypt than we of the present day are wont to suppose. The household life and social ways of even the provincial gentry are little changed. Though the lotus-blossom is missing, a bouquet is still given to each guest when he takes his place at table. The head of the sheep killed for the banquet is still given to the poor.
Those who are helped to meat or drink touch the head and breast in acknowledgment, as of old. The musicians still sit at the lower end of the hall; the singers yet clap their hands in time to their own voices; the dancing-girls still dance, and the buffoon in his high cap still performs uncouth antics, for the entertainment of the guests.
Water is brought to table in jars of the same shape manufactured at the same town, as in the days of Cheops and Chephren; and the mouths of the bottles are filled in precisely the same way with fresh leaves and flowers. The cucumber stuffed with minced-meat was a favorite dish in those times of old; and I can testify to its excellence in Little boys in Nubia yet wear the side-lock that graced the head of Rameses in his youth; and little girls may be seen in a garment closely resembling the girdle worn by young princesses of the time of Thothmes the First.
In these and in a hundred other instances, all of which came under my personal observation and have their place in the following pages, it seemed to me that any obscurity which yet hangs over the problem of life and thought in ancient Egypt originates most probably with ourselves. Our own habits of life and thought are so complex that they shut us off from the simplicity of that early world. So it was with the problem of hieroglyphic writing. The thing was so obvious that no one could find it out. As long as the world persisted in believing that every hieroglyph was an abstruse symbol, and every hieroglyphic inscription a profound philosophical rebus, the mystery of Egyptian literature remained insoluble.
If there were not thousands who still conceive that the sun and moon were created, and are kept going, for no other purpose than to lighten the darkness of our little planet; if only the other day a grave gentleman had not written a perfectly serious essay to show that the world is a flat plain, one would scarcely believe that there could still be people who doubt that ancient Egyptian is now read and translated as fluently as ancient Greek.
Yet an Englishman whom I met in Egypt—an Englishman who had long been resident in Cairo, and who was well acquainted with the great Egyptologists who are attached to the service of the Khedive—assured me of his profound disbelief in the discovery of Champollion. As I then knew nothing of Egyptian, I could say nothing to controvert this speech. Since that time, however, and while writing this book, I have been led on step by step to the study of hieroglyphic writing, and I now know that Egyptian can be read, for the simple reason that I find myself able to read an Egyptian sentence.
The study of Egyptian literature has advanced of late years with rapid strides. Papyri are found less frequently than they were some thirty or forty years ago; but the translation of those contained in the museums of Europe goes on now more diligently than at any former time. Religious books, variants of the Ritual, moral essays, maxims, private letters, hymns, epic poems, historical chronicles, accounts, deeds of sale, medical, magical and astronomical treatises, geographical records, travels, and even romances and tales, are brought to light, photographed, facsimiled in chromo-lithography, printed in hieroglyphic type, and translated in forms suited both to the learned and to the general reader.
Not all this literature is written, however, on papyrus. The greater proportion of it is carved in stone. Some is painted on wood, written on linen, leather, potsherds, and other substances. So the old mystery of Egypt, which was her literature, has vanished. The key to the hieroglyphs is the master-key that opens every door.
Each year that now passes over our heads sees some old problem solved. Each day brings some long-buried truth to light. Some thirteen years ago, 2 a distinguished American artist painted a very beautiful pictured called The Secret of the Sphinx. In its widest sense, the Secret of the Sphinx would mean, I suppose, the whole uninterpreted and undiscovered past of Egypt.
In its narrower sense, the Secret of the Sphinx was, till quite lately, the hidden significance of the human-headed lion which is one of the typical subjects of Egyptian Art. Thirteen years is a short time to look back upon; yet great things have been done in Egypt, and in Egyptology, since then. Edfu, with its extraordinary wealth of inscriptions, has been laid bare. The whole contents of the Boulak Museum have been recovered from the darkness of the tombs.
The very mystery of the Sphinx has been disclosed; and even within the last eighteen months, M. Chabas announces that he has discovered the date of the pyramid of Mycerinus; so for the first time establishing the chronology of ancient Egypt upon an ascertained foundation. Thus the work goes on; students in their libraries, excavators under Egyptian skies, toiling along different paths towards a common goal. The picture means more to-day than it meant thirteen years ago—means more, even, than the artist intended.
The Sphinx has no secret now, save for the ignorant. Some instinct of the old Egyptian blood tells him that the creature is God-like. He is conscious of a great mystery lying far back in the past. He has, perhaps, a dim, confused notion that the Big Head knows it all, whatever it may be. He has never heard of the morning-song of Memnon; but he fancies, somehow, that those closed lips might speak if questioned. It is night, and the stars are shining. Has he chosen the right hour? What does he seek to know? What does he hope to hear? Vedder has permitted me to enrich this book with an engraving from his picture.
It tells its own tale; or rather it tells as much of its own tale as the artist chooses. George Routledge and Sons, Limited, Here assemble daily some two to three hundred persons of all ranks, nationalities, and pursuits; half of whom are Anglo-Indians homeward or outward bound, European residents, or visitors established in Cairo for the winter.
The other half, it may be taken for granted, are going up the Nile. His curiousity, however, is soon gratified.
The rest will be mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health; artists in search of subjects; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles; statesman out for a holiday; special correspondents alert for gossip; collectors on the scent of papyri and mummies; men of science with only scientific ends in view; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel, or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiousity.
People asked each other, most likely, where these two wandering Englishwomen had come from; why they had not dressed for dinner; what brought them to Egypt; and if they also were going up the Nile—to which questions it would have been easy to give satisfactory answers. We came from Alexandria, having had a rough passage from Brindisi followed by forty-eight hours of quarantine.
We had not dressed for dinner because, having driven on from the station in advance of dragoman and luggage, we were but just in time to take seats with the rest. We intended, of course, to go up the Nile; and had any one ventured to inquire in so many words what brought us to Egypt, we should have replied: For in simple truth we had drifted hither by accident, with no excuse of health, or business, or any serious object whatever; and had just taken refuge in Egypt as one might turn aside into the Burlington Arcade or the Passage des Panoramas—to get out of the rain.
And with good reason. Washed out of the hill-country, we fared no better in the plains. At Nismes, it poured for a month without stopping. Debating at last whether it were better to take our wet umbrellas back at once to England, or push on farther still in search of sunshine, the talk fell upon Algiers—Malta—Cairo; and Cairo carried it. Never was distant expedition entered upon with less premeditation. The thing was no sooner decided than we were gone. Nice, Genoa, Bologna, Ancona flitted by, as in a dream; and Bedreddin Hassan when he awoke at the gates of Damascus was scarcely more surprised than the writer of these pages, when she found herself on board the Simla , and steaming out of the port of Brindisi.
Here, then, without definite plans, outfit, or any kind of Oriental experience, behold us arrived in Cairo on the 29th of November , literally, and most prosaically, in search of fine weather. But what had memory to do with rains on land, or storms at sea, or the impatient hours of quarantine, or anything dismal or disagreeable, when one awoke at sunrise to see those grey-green palms outside the window solemnly bowing their plumed heads towards each other, against a rose-coloured dawn?
It was dark last night, and I had no idea that my room overlooked an enchanted garden, far-reaching and solitary, peopled with stately giants beneath whose tufted crowns hung rich clusters of maroon and amber dates. It was a still, warm morning. Grave grey and black crows flew heavily from tree to tree, or perched, cawing meditatively, upon the topmost branches. Yonder, between the pillared stems, rose the minaret of a very distant mosque; and here where the garden was bounded by a high wall and a windowless house, I saw a veiled lady walking on the terraced roof in the midst of a cloud of pigeons.
Nothing could be more simple than the scene and its accessories; nothing, at the same time, more Eastern, strange, and unreal. But in order thoroughly to enjoy an overwhelming, ineffaceable first impression of Oriental out-of-doors life, one should begin in Cairo with a day in the native bazaars; neither buying, nor sketching, nor seeking information, but just taking in scene after scene, with its manifold combinations of light and shade, colour, costume, and architectural detail. Every shop-front, every street corner, every turbaned group is a ready-made picture.
The old Turk who sets up his cake-stall in the recess of a sculptured doorway; the donkey-boy with his gaily caparisoned ass, waiting for customers; the beggar asleep on the steps of the mosque; the veiled woman filling her water jar at the public fountain—they all look as if they had been put there expressly to be painted.
Nor is the background less picturesque than the figures. The houses are high and narrow. The upper stories project; and from these again jut windows of delicate turned latticework in old brown wood, like big bird-cages. The street is roofed in overhead with long rafters and pieces of matting, through which a dusty sunbeam struggles here and there, casting patches of light upon the moving crowd.
The unpaved thoroughfare—a mere narrow lane, full of ruts and watered profusely twice or thrice a day—is lined with little wooden shop-fronts, like open cabinets full of shelves, where the merchants sit cross-legged in the midst of their goods, looking out at the passers-by and smoking in silence. Meanwhile, the crowd ebbs and flows unceasingly—a noisy, changing, restless, parti-coloured tide, half European, half Oriental, on foot, on horseback, and in carriages.
Now a water-carrier goes by, bending under the weight of his newly replenished goatskin, the legs of which being tied up, the neck fitted with a brass cock, and the hair left on, looks horribly bloated and life-like. The lady wears a rose-coloured silk dress and white veil, besides a black silk outer garment, which, being cloak, hood, and veil all in one, fills out with the wind as she rides, like a balloon. She sits astride; her naked feet, in their violet velvet slippers, just resting on the stirrups.
She takes care to display a plump brown arm laden with massive gold bracelets, and, to judge by the way in which she uses a pair of liquid black eyes, would not be sorry to let her face be seen also. Nor is the steed less well dressed than his mistress. His close-shaven legs and hindquarters are painted in blue and white zigzags picked out with bands of pale yellow; his high-pommelled saddle is resplendent with velvet and embroidery; and his headgear is all tags, tassels, and fringes. Such a donkey as this is worth from sixty to a hundred pounds sterling.
Next passes an open barouche full of laughing Englishwomen; or a grave provincial sheykh all in black, riding a handsome bay Arab, demi-sang; or an Egyptian gentleman in European dress and Turkish fez, driven by an English groom in an English phaeton. No person of position drives in Cairo without one or two of these attendants.
The pace kills them. Next passes a lemonade-seller, with his tin jar in one hand, and his decanter and brass cups in the other; or an itinerant slipper-vendor with a bunch of red and yellow morocco shoes dangling at the end of a long pole; or a London-built miniature brougham containing two ladies in transparent Turkish veils, preceded by a Nubian outrider in semi-military livery; or, perhaps, a train of camels, ill-tempered and supercilious, craning their scrannel necks above the crowd, and laden with canvas bales scrawled over with Arabic addresses. But the Egyptian, Arab, and Turkish merchants, whether mingling in the general tide or sitting on their counters, are the most picturesque personages in all this busy scene.
They wear ample turbans, for the most part white; long vests of striped Syrian silk reaching to the feet; and an outer robe of braided cloth or cashmere. The vest is confined round the waist by a rich sash; and the outer robe, or gibbeh , is generally of some beautiful degraded color, such as maize, mulberry, olive, peach, sea-green, salmon-pink, sienna-brown, and the like.
That these stately beings should vulgarly buy and sell, instead of reposing all their lives on luxurious divans and being waited upon by beautiful Circassians, seems altogether contrary to the eternal fitness of things. Here, for instance, is a Grand Vizier in a gorgeous white and amber satin vest, who condescends to retail pipe-bowls,—dull red clay pipe-bowls of all sizes and prices.
He sells nothing else, and has not only a pile of them on the counter, but a binful at the back of his shop. They are made at Siout in Upper Egypt, and may be bought at the Algerine shops in London almost as cheaply as in Cairo. Another majestic Pasha deals in brass and copper vessels, drinking-cups, basins, ewers, trays, incense-burners, chafing-dishes, and the like; some of which are exquisitely engraved with Arabesque patterns or sentences from the poets.
A third sells silk from the looms of Lebanon, and gold and silver tissues from Damascus. Others, again, sell old arms, old porcelain, old embroideries, second-hand prayer-carpets, and quaint little stools and cabinets of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Here, too, the tobacco-merchant sits behind a huge cake of Latakia as big as his own body; and the sponge-merchant smokes his long chibouk in a bower of sponges. Most amusing of all, however, are those bazaars in which each trade occupies its separate quarter.
You pass through an old stone gateway or down a narrow turning, and find yourself amid a colony of saddlers stitching, hammering, punching, riveting. You walk up one alley and down another, between shop-fronts hung round with tasselled head-gear and hump-backed saddles of all qualities and colours.
Another turn or two, and you are in the slipper bazaar, walking down avenues of red and yellow morocco slippers; the former of home manufacture, the latter from Tunis. Here are slippers with pointed toes, turned-up toes, and toes as round and flat as horse-shoes; walking slippers with thick soles, and soft yellow slippers to be worn as inside socks, which have no soles at all. These absurd little scarlet bluchers with tassels are for little boys; the brown morocco shoes are for grooms; the velvet slippers embroidered with gold and beads and seed-pearls are for wealthy hareems, and are sold at prices varying from five shillings to five pounds the pair.
The carpet bazaar is of considerable extent, and consists of a network of alleys and counter-alleys opening off to the right of the Muski, which is the Regent Street of Cairo. The houses in most of these alleys are rich in antique lattice-windows and Saracenic doorways. One little square is tapestried all round with Persian and Syrian rugs, Damascus saddle-bags, and Turkish prayer-carpets. He has set up his little stove and hanging-shelf beside the doorway of a dilapidated Khan, the walls of which are faced with Arabesque panellings in old carved stone.
The striped carpets of Tunis; the dim grey and blue, or grey and red fabrics of Algiers; the shaggy rugs of Laodicea and Smyrna; the rich blues and greens and subdued reds of Turkey; and the wonderfully varied, harmonious patterns of Persia, have each their local habitation in the neighbouring alleys. One is never tired of traversing these half-lighted avenues all aglow with gorgeous color and peopled with figures that come and go like the actors in some Christmas piece of Oriental pageantry.
The alleys are so narrow in this part that two persons can with difficulty walk in them abreast; and the shops, tinier than ever, are mere cupboards with about three feet of frontage. The back of each cupboard is fitted with tiers of little drawers and pigeon-holes, and in front is a kind of matted stone step, called a mastabah, which serves for seat and counter.
The customer sits on the edge of the mastabah; the merchant squats, cross-legged, inside. In this position he can, without rising, take out drawer after drawer; and thus the space between the two becomes piled with gold and silver ornaments. These differ from each other only in the metal, the patterns being identical; and they are sold by weight, with a due margin for profit. In dealing with strangers who do not understand the Egyptian system of weights, silver articles are commonly weighed against rupees or five-franc pieces, and gold articles against napoleons or sovereigns.
As for the merchants, their civility and patience are inexhaustible. One may turn over their whole stock, try on all their bracelets, go away again and again without buying, and yet be always welcomed and dismissed with smiles. But the bazaars, however picturesque, are far from being the only sights of Cairo. There are mosques in plenty; grand old Saracenic gates; ancient Coptic churches; the museum of Egyptian antiquities; and, within driving distance, the tombs of the Caliphs, Heliopolis, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx.
To remember in what order the present travellers saw these things would now be impossible; for they lived in a dream, and were at first too bewildered to catalogue their impressions very methodically. Some places they were for the present obliged to dismiss with only a passing glance; others had to be wholly deferred till their return to Cairo. In the meanwhile, our first business was to look at dahabeeyahs; and the looking at dahabeeyahs compelled us constantly to turn our steps and our thoughts in the direction of Boulak—a desolate place by the river, where some two or three hundred Nile-boats lay moored for hire.
Now, most persons know something of the miseries of house-hunting; but only those who have experienced them know how much keener are the miseries of dahabeeyah-hunting. It is more bewildering and more fatiguing, and is beset by its own special and peculiar difficulties. The boats, in the first place, are built on the same plan, which is not the case with houses; and except as they run bigger or smaller, cleaner or dirtier, are as like each other as twin oysters.
The same may be said of their captains, with the same differences; for to a person who has been only a few days in Egypt, one black or copper-coloured man is exactly like every other black or copper-coloured man. Nor is this all. Dahabeeyahs are given to changing their places, which houses do not do; so that the boat which lay yesterday alongside the eastern bank may be over at the western bank to-day, or hidden in the midst of a dozen others half a mile lower down the river.
Their names, again,—Ghazal, Sarawa, Fostat, Dongola,—unlike any names one has ever heard before, afford as yet no kind of help to the memory. Neither do the names of their captains; for they are all Mohammeds or Hassans. Neither do their prices; for they vary from day to day, according to the state of the market as shown by the returns of arrivals at the principal hotels. Thus it came to pass that, for the first ten days or so, some three or four hours had to be devoted every morning to the business of the boats; at the end of which time we were no nearer a conclusion than at first.
The largest boats, which alone seemed unexceptionable, contained from eight to ten cabins, besides two saloons, and were obviously too large for a party consisting of only L. And all were exorbitantly dear. Meanwhile, however, we met some former acquaintances; made some new ones; and when not too tired or down-hearted, saw what we could of the sights of Cairo—which helped a little to soften the asperities of our lot. We started immediately after an early luncheon, followed an excellent road all the way, and were back in time for dinner at half-past six.
But it must be understood that we did not go to see the Pyramids. We went only to look at them. Later on having meanwhile been up the Nile and back, and gone through months of training , we came again not only with due leisure, but also with some practical understanding of the manifold phases through which the arts and architecture of Egypt had passed, since those far-off days of Cheops and Chephren.
Then, only, we can be said to have seen the Pyramids; and till we arrived at that stage of our pilgrimage, it will be well to defer everything like a detailed account of them or their surroundings. Of this first brief visit, enough therefore a brief record. The first glimpse that most travellers now get of the Pyramids is from the window of the railway carriage as they come from Alexandria; and it is not impressive. The well-known triangular forms look small and shadowy, and are too familiar to be in any way startling. And the same, I think, is true of every distant view of them—that is, of every view which is too distant to afford the means of scaling them against other objects.
It is only in approaching them, and observing how they grow with every foot of the road, that one begins to feel they are not so familiar after all. It shuts out the sky and the horizon. It shuts out all the other Pyramids. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder. Now, too, one discovers that it was with the forms of the Pyramids, and only their forms, that one had been acquainted all these years past. Of their surface, their colour, their relative position, their number to say nothing of their size , one had hitherto entertained no kind of definite idea.
The most careful study of plans and measurements, the clearest photographs, the most elaborate descriptions, had done little or nothing, after all, to make one know the place beforehand. This undulating table-land of sand and rock, pitted with open graves and cumbered with mounds of shapeless masonry, is wholly unlike the desert of our dreams. The Pyramids of Cheops and Chephren are bigger than we had expected; the Pyramid of Mycerinus is smaller. Here, too, are nine Pyramids, instead of three.
They are all entered in the plans and mentioned in the guide-books; but, somehow, one is unprepared to find them there, and cannot help looking upon them as intruders. These six extra Pyramids are small and greatly dilapidated. One, indeed, is little more than a big cairn. Even the Great Pyramid puzzles us with an unexpected sense of unlikeness. We all know, and have known from childhood, that it was stripped of its outer blocks some five hundred years ago to build Arab mosques and palaces; but the rugged, rock-like aspect of that giant staircase takes us by surprise, nevertheless.
Nor does it look like a partial ruin, either. It looks as if it had been left unfinished, and as if the workmen might be coming back to-morrow morning. The colour again is a surprise.
Few persons can be aware beforehand of the rich tawny hue that Egyptian limestone assumes after ages of exposure to the blaze of an Egyptian sky. Seen in certain lights, the Pyramids look like piles of massy gold. Having but one hour and forty minutes to spend on the spot, we resolutely refused on this first occasion to be shown anything, or told anything, or to be taken anywhere,—except, indeed, for a few minutes to the brink of the sand-hollow in which the Sphinx lies couchant.
We wished to give our whole attention, and all the short time at our disposal, to the Great Pyramid only. To gain some impression of the outer aspect and size of this enormous structure,—to steady our minds to something like an understanding of its age,—was enough, and more than enough, for so brief a visit. For it is no easy task to realize, however imperfectly, the duration of six or seven thousand years; and the Great Pyramid, which is supposed to have been some four thousand two hundred and odd years old at the time of the birth of Christ, is now in its seventh millennary. Standing there close against the base of it; touching it; measuring her own height against one of its lowest blocks; looking up all the stages of that vast, receding, rugged wall, which leads upward like an Alpine buttress and seems almost to touch the sky, the Writer suddenly became aware that these remote dates had never presented themselves to her mind until this moment as anything but abstract numerals.
Now, for the first time, they resolved themselves into something concrete, definite, real. They were no longer figures, but years with their changes of season, their high and low Niles, their seed-times and harvests. The consciousness of that moment will never, perhaps, quite wear away. To appreciate the size of the Great Pyramid is less difficult than to apprehend its age. No one who has walked the length of one side, climbed to the top, and learned the dimensions from Murray, can fail to form a tolerably clear idea of its mere bulk.
The measurements given by Sir Gardner Wilkinson are as follows: These are sufficiently matter-of-fact statements, and sufficiently intelligible; but, like most calculations of the kind, they diminish rather than do justice to the dignity of the subject. More impressive by far than the weightiest array of figures of the most striking comparisons, was the shadow cast by the Great Pyramid as the sun went down. That mighty Shadow, sharp and distinct, stretched across the stony platform of the desert and over full three-quarters of a mile of the green plain below.
It divided the sunlight where it fell, just as its great original divided the sunlight in the upper air; and it darkened the space it covered, like an eclipse. It was still lengthening over the landscape as we went down the long sand-slope and regained the carriage. Some six or eight Arabs in fluttering white garments ran on ahead to bid us a last good-bye. That we should have driven over from Cairo only to sit quietly down and look at the Great Pyramid had filled them with unfeigned astonishment.
With such energy and despatch as the modern traveller uses, we might have been to the top, and seen the temple of the Sphinx, and done two or three of the principal tombs in the time. So, promising to return ere long, we drove away; well content, nevertheless, with the way in which our time had been spent. The Pyramid Bedouins have been plentifully abused by travellers and guide-books, but we found no reason to complain of them now or afterwards. They neither crowded round us, nor followed us, nor importuned us in any way. They are naturally vivacious and very talkative; yet the gentle fellows were dumb as mutes when they found we wished for silence.
And they were satisfied with a very moderate bakhshish at parting. As a fitting sequel to this excursion, we went, I think next day, to see the mosque of Sultan Hassan, which is one of those medieval structures said to have been built with the casing-stones of the Great Pyramid. Calculating from the rock-cut sockets at the four corners, and from the true level of the pavement, Mr. Petrie finds that the square of the original base of the structure, in inches, is of these dimensions: For the height, Mr.
See The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh , chap. The mosque of Sultan Hassan, confessedly the most beautiful in Cairo, is also perhaps the most beautiful in the Moslem world. It was built at just that happy moment when Arabian art in Egypt, having ceased merely to appropriate or imitate, had at length evolved an original architectural style out of the heterogeneous elements of Roman and early Christian edifices.
A little more than a century later, and the national style had already experienced the beginnings of that prolonged eclipse which finally resulted in the bastard Neo-Byzantine Renaissance represented by the mosque of Mehemet Ali. But the mosque of Sultan Hassan, built ninety-seven years before the taking of Constantinople, may justly be regarded as the highest point reached by Saracenic art in Egypt after it had used up the Greek and Roman material of Memphis, and before its newborn originality became modified by influences from beyond the Bosphorus.
Its pre-eminence is due neither to the greatness of its dimensions nor to the splendour of its materials. It is neither so large as the great mosque at Damascus, nor so rich in costly marbles as Saint Sophia in Constantinople; but in design, proportion, and a certain lofty grace impossible to describe, it surpasses these, and every other mosque, whether original or adapted, with which the writer is acquainted. The whole structure is purely national. Every line and curve in it, and every inch of detail, is in the best style of the best period of the Arabian school.
And above all, it was designed expressly for its present purpose. The two famous mosques of Damascus and Constantinople having, on the contrary, been Christian churches, betray evidences of adaptation. For a mosque it was designed, and a mosque it remains. Too soon it will be only a beautiful ruin. With this desirable end in view, some half dozen workmen were lazily loading as many camels with rubble, which is the Arab way of carting rubbish. Driving up with some difficulty to the foot of the great steps, which were crowded with idlers smoking and sleeping, we observed a long and apparently fast-widening fissure reaching nearly from top to bottom of the main wall of the building, close against the minaret.
It looked like just such a rent as might be caused by a shock of earthquake, and, being still new to the East, we wondered the Government had not set to work to mend it. We had yet to learn that nothing is ever mended in Cairo. Here, as in Constantinople, new buildings spring up apace, but the old, no matter how venerable, are allowed to moulder away, inch by inch, till nothing remains but a heap of ruins.
Going up the steps and through a lofty hall, up some more steps and along a gloomy corridor, we came to the great court, before entering which, however, we had to take off our boots and put on slippers brought for the purpose. The first sight of this court is an architectural surprise. It is like nothing one has seen before, and its beauty equals its novelty.
Imagine an immense marble quadrangle, open to the sky and enclosed within lofty walls, with, at each side, a vast recess framed in by a single arch. The quadrangle is more than feet square, and the walls are more than feet high. Each recess forms a spacious hall for rest and prayer, and all are matted; but that at the eastern end is wider and considerably deeper than the other three, and the noble arch that encloses it like the proscenium of a splendid stage, measures, according to Fergusson, 69 feet 5 inches in the span. It looks much larger. This principal hall, the floor of which is raised one step at the upper end, measures 90 feet in depth and 90 in height.
The dais is covered with prayer-rugs, and contains the holy niche and the pulpit of the preacher. We observed that those who came up here came only to pray. Having prayed, they either went away or turned aside into one of the other recesses to rest. There was a charming fountain in the court, with a dome-roof as light and fragile-looking as a big bubble, at which each worshipper performed his ablutions on coming in.
This done, he left his slippers on the matting and trod the carpeted dais barefoot. This was the first time we had seen Moslems at prayer, and we could not but be impressed by their profound and unaffected devotion. Some lay prostrate, their foreheads touching the ground; others were kneeling; others bowing in the prescribed attitudes of prayer.
So absorbed were they, that not even our unhallowed presence seemed to disturb them. We did not then know that the pious Moslem is as devout out of the mosque as in it; or that it is his habit to pray when the appointed hours come round, no matter where he may be, or how occupied. We soon became so familiar, however, with this obvious trait of Mohammedan life, that it seemed quite a matter of course that the camel-driver should dismount and lay his forehead in the dust by the roadside; or the merchant spread his prayer-carpet on the narrow mastabah of his little shop in the public bazaar; or the boatman prostrate himself with his face to the east, as the sun went down behind the hills of the Libyan desert.
While we were admiring the spring of the roof and the intricate Arabesque decorations of the pulpit, a custode came up with a big key and invited us to visit the tomb of the founder. So we followed him into an enormous vaulted hall a hundred feet square, in the centre of which stood a plain, railed-off tomb, with an empty iron-bound coffer at the foot. Going back again from the tomb to the courtyard, we everywhere observed traces of the same dilapidation.
The fountain, once a miracle of Saracenic ornament, was fast going to destruction. The rich marbles of its basement were cracked and discoloured, its stuccoed cupola was flaking off piecemeal, its enamels were dropping out, its lace-like wood tracery shredding away by inches. Presently a tiny brown and golden bird perched with pretty confidence on the brink of the basin, and having splashed, and drunk, and preened its feathers like a true believer at his ablutions, flew up to the top of the cupola and sang deliciously.
All else was profoundly still. Large spaces of light and shadow divided the quadrangle. The sky showed overhead as a square opening of burning solid blue; while here and there, reclining, praying, or quietly occupied, a number of turbaned figures were picturesquely scattered over the matted floors of the open halls around. Yonder sat a tailor cross-legged, making a waistcoat; near him, stretched on his face at full length, sprawled a basket-maker with his half-woven basket and bundle of rushes beside him; and here, close against the main entrance, lay a blind man and his dog; the master asleep, the dog keeping watch.
It was, as I have said, our first mosque, and I well remember the surprise with which I saw that tailor sewing on his buttons, and the sleepers lying about in the shade. Its attenuated minarets and clustered domes show from every point of view for miles around, and remain longer in sight, as one leaves, or returns to, Cairo, than any other landmark.
It is a spacious, costly, gaudy, commonplace building, with nothing really beautiful about it, except the great marble courtyard and fountain. The inside, which is entirely built of Oriental alabaster, is carpeted with magnificent Turkey carpets and hung with innumerable cut-glass chandeliers, so that it looks like a huge vulgar drawing-room from which the furniture has been cleared out for dancing. The view from the outer platform is, however, magnificent. Looking down upon it from this elevation, it is as easy to believe that Cairo contains four hundred mosques, as it is to stand on the brow of the Pincio and believe in the three hundred and sixty five churches of modern Rome.
As we came away, they showed us the place in which the Memlook nobles, four hundred and seventy 2 in number, were shot down like mad dogs in a trap, that fatal first of March A. We saw the upper gate which was shut behind them as they came out from the presence of the Pasha, and the lower gate which was shut before them to prevent their egress.
The walls of the narrow roadway in which the slaughter was done are said to be pitted with bullet-marks; but we would not look for them. I have already said that I do not very distinctly remember the order of our sight-seeing in Cairo, for the reason that we saw some places before we went up the river, some after we came back, and some as for instance the Museum at Boulak both before and after, and indeed as often as possible.
But I am at least quite certain that we witnessed a performance of howling dervishes, and the departure of the caravan for Mecca, before starting.
Of all the things that people do by way of pleasure, the pursuit of a procession is surely one of the most wearisome. They generally go a long way to see it; they wait a weary time; it is always late; and when at length it does come, it is over in a few minutes. The present pageant fulfilled all these conditions in a superlative degree. Here we sat for nearly three hours, exposed to clouds of dust and a burning sun, with nothing to do but to watch the crowd and wait patiently. These Arabs, by the way, are excellent whips, and the screws get along wonderfully; but it seems odd at first, and not a little humiliating, to be whirled along behind a coachman whose only livery consists of a rag of dirty white turban, a scant tunic just reaching to his knees, and the top boots with which Nature has provided him.
Here, outside the walls, the crowd increased momentarily. The place was like a fair with provision-stalls, swings, story-tellers, serpent-charmers, cake-sellers, sweetmeat-sellers, sellers of sherbet, water, lemonade, sugared nuts, fresh dates, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, and sliced water-melon.
Veiled women carrying little bronze Cupids of children astride upon the right shoulder, swarthy Egyptians, coal-black Abyssinians, Arabs and Nubians of every shade from golden-brown to chocolate, fellahs, dervishes, donkey-boys, street urchins, and beggars with every imaginable deformity, came and went; squeezed themselves in and out among the carriages; lined the road on each side of the great towered gateway; swarmed on the top of every wall; and filled the air with laughter, a Babel of dialects, and those odours of Araby that are inseparable from an Eastern crowd.
For the truth is that gravity is by no means an Oriental characteristic. Take a Mohammedan at his devotions, and he is a model of religious abstraction; bargain with him for a carpet, and he is as impenetrable as a judge; but see him in his hours of relaxation, or on the occasion of a public holiday, and he is as garrulous and full of laughter as a big child. Like a child, too, he loves noise and movement for the mere sake of noise and movement, and looks upon swings and fireworks as the height of human felicity. He not only indulges in them upon every occasion of public rejoicing, but calls in their aid to celebrate the most solemn festivals of his religion.
It so happened that we afterwards came in the way of several Mohammedan festivals both in Egypt and Syria, and we invariably found the swings at work all day and the fireworks going off every evening. For my own part, I know no sight much more comic and incongruous than the serene enjoyment with which a bearded, turbaned, middle-aged Egyptian squats upon his heels on the tiny wooden seat of one of these enormous swings, and, holding on to the side-ropes for dear life, goes careering up forty feet high into the air at every turn.
At a little before midday, when the heat and glare were becoming intolerable, the swings suddenly ceased going, the crowd surged in the direction of the gate, and a distant drumming announced the approach of the procession. Next after these came more pilgrims, followed by a body of dervishes carrying green banners embroidered with Arabic sentences in white and yellow; then a native cavalry regiment headed by a general and four colonels in magnificent gold embroidery and preceded by an excellent military band; then another band and a second regiment of infantry; then more colonels, followed by a regiment of lancers mounted on capital grey horses and carrying lances topped with small red and green pennants.
After these had gone by there was a long stoppage, and then, with endless breaks and interruptions, came a straggling irregular crowd of pilgrims, chiefly of the fellah class, beating small darabukkehs, or native drums. Those about us estimated their number at two thousand. The sheykhs of the principal orders of dervishes came next in order, superbly dressed in robes of brilliant colours embroidered with gold, and mounted on magnificent Arabs.
Finest of all, in a green turban and scarlet mantle, rode the Sheykh of the Hasaneyn, who is a descendant of the Prophet; but the most important, the Sheykh el Bekree, who is a sort of Egyptian Archbishop of Canterbury and head of all the dervishes, came last, riding a white Arab with gold-embroidered housings.
He was a placid-looking old man, and wore a violet robe and an enormous red and green turban. Then happened another break in the procession—an eager pause—a gathering murmur. And then, riding a gaunt dromedary at a rapid trot, his fat sides shaking, and his head rolling in a stupid drunken way at every step, appeared a bloated, half-naked Silenus, with long fuzzy black locks and a triple chin, and no other clothing than a pair of short white drawers and red slippers. We afterwards learned that this was his twentieth pilgrimage, and that he was supposed to fast, roll his head, and wear nothing but this pair of loose drawers, all the way to and from Mecca.
But the crowning excitement was yet to come, and the rapture with which the crowd had greeted the Sheykh el-Gemel was as nothing compared with their ecstasy when the Mahmal, preceded by another group of mounted officers and borne by a gigantic camel, was seen coming through the gateway. The women held up their children; the men swarmed up the scaffoldings of the swings and behind the carriages. They screamed; they shouted; they waved handkerchiefs and turbans; they were beside themselves with excitement. We could not possibly have had a better view of the Mahmal; which is nothing but a sort of cage, or pagoda, of gilded tracery very richly decorated.
In the days of the Memlooks, the Mahmal represented the litter of the Sultan, and went empty, like a royal carriage at a public funeral; 3 but we were told that it now carried the tribute-carpet sent annually by the carpet-makers of Cairo to the tomb of the Prophet. This closed the procession. As the camel passed, the crowd surged in, and everything like order was at an end.
The carriages all made at once for the Gate, so meeting the full tide of the outpouring crowd and causing unimaginable confusion. Some stuck in the sand half-way—our own among the number; and all got into an inextricable block in the narrow part just inside the gate. Hereupon the drivers abused each other, and the crowd got impatient, and some Europeans got pelted. Coming back, we met two or three more regiments. The men, both horse and foot, seemed fair average specimens, and creditably disciplined. They rode better than they marched, which was to be expected.
The uniform is the same for cavalry and infantry throughout the service; the only difference being that the former wear short black riding boots, and the latter, Zouave gaiters of white linen. They are officered up to a certain point by Egyptians; but the commanding officers and the staff among whom are enough colonels and generals to form an ordinary regiment are chiefly Europeans and Americans.
It had seemed, while the procession was passing, that the proportion of pilgrims was absurdly small when compared with the display of military; but this, which is called the departure of the caravan, is in truth only the procession of the sacred carpet from Cairo to the camp outside the walls; and the troops are present merely as part of the pageant. The true departure takes place two days later.
The pilgrims then muster in great numbers; but the soldiery is reduced to a small escort. It was said that seven thousand souls went out this year from Cairo and its neighbourhood. The next day, Friday, being the Mohammedan Sabbath, we went to the Convent of the Howling Dervishes, which lies beyond the walls in a quiet nook between the riverside and the part known as Old Cairo.
We arrived a little after two, and passing through a courtyard shaded by a great sycamore, were ushered into a large, square, whitewashed hall with a dome-roof and a neatly-matted floor. The place in its arrangements resembled none of the mosques that we had yet seen. Being accomodated with chairs among the other spectators, we waited for whatever might happen.
More dervishes and more English dropped in from time to time. The new dervishes took off their caps and sat down among the rest, laughing and talking together at their ease. The English sat in a row, shy, uncomfortable, and silent; wondering whether they ought to behave as if they were in church, and mortally ashamed of their feet. For we had all been obliged to take off or cover our boots before going in, and those who had forgotten to bring slippers had their feet tied up in pocket-handkerchiefs.
A long time went by thus. At last, when the number of dervishes had increased to about seventy, and every one was tired of waiting, eight musicians came in—two trumpets, two lutes, a cocoa-nut fiddle, a tambourine, and two drums. Softly at first, and one by one, the dervishes took up the chant: The dome above gave back a hollow echo.
There was something strange and solemn in the ceremony. The leader, himself cool and collected, began sensibly accelerating the time of the chorus; and it became evident that the performers were possessed by a growing frenzy.
Soon the whole circle was madly rocking to and fro; the voices rose to a hoarse scream; and only the trumpets were audible above the din. Now and then a dervish would spring up convulsively some three or four feet above the heads of the others; but for the most part they stood rooted firmly to one spot—now bowing their heads almost to their feet—now flinging themselves so violently back, that we, standing behind, could see their faces foreshortened upside down; and this with such incredible rapidity, that their long hair had scarcely time either to rise or fall, but remained as if suspended in mid-air.
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