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Isis


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 and surprising.

The beautifully carved and colored entrance of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan.
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 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.

people relax in a garden with arches and trees.
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.

Onion shaped arches bring a deep peace to the interior of the Mosque of Ghoree.
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 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.

The courtyard inside a Mosque is quiet with a richness of beauty.
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.

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. . . .

The Mosque of Sultan Hassan is glowing white, looming over a plaza full of people.
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.

Two men stand on the tower of a mosque calling the evening prayers.
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.

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La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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