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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER III -- THE MOSQUES OF CAIRO
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
The entrance to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan
built of the limestone casing taken from the Great Pyramid.
By David Roberts, 1839.
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
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 mosque garden,
original plate by Geo Colucci.
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.
The Mosque of Ghoree
By David Roberts, 1839.
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
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.
The interior courtyard of a Mosque
by Jean Gerome - 1875.
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.
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. . . .
The Mosque of Sultan Hassan
by David Roberts, 1839.
But 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.
Moonlight call to prayer
By Jean Greome, 1880.
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.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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