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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER V -- A CENTRE OF ISLAM
"To learn is the duty of every Moslem."
Verse from the Hadith or Words of the Prophet.
The arabesques on this page are by Prisse d'Avennes.
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.
original plate by Geo Colucci.
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
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
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.
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
"He who instructs the ignorant
is like a living man amongst the dead."
"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.
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
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 years.]
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.
The 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
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 centers 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. . . .
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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