AscendingPassage.com HOME PAGE.
See a list of chapters.

Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER VII --THE OUTSKIRTS OF CAIRO
The tombs of the Caliphs

Night. A long straight road, the artery of some capital, through which our carriage drives at a fast trot, making a deafening clatter on the pavement. Electric light everywhere. The shops are closing; it must needs be late.

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

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

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

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

But now almost at once, after the short intervening nothingness, we find ourselves in a new town; streets with little low houses, little cross-roads, little squares, all of them white, on whitened sands, beneath a white moon. . . . But there is no electricity in this town, no lights, and nobody is stirring; doors and windows are shut: no movement of any kind, and the silence, at first, is like that of the surrounding desert.

It is a town in which the half-light of the moon, amongst so much vague whiteness, is diffused in such a way that it seems to come from all sides at once and things cast no shadows which might give them definiteness; a town where the soil is so yielding that our progress is weakened and retarded, as in dreams. It seems unreal; and, in penetrating farther into it, a sense of fear comes over you that can neither be dismissed nor defined.

For assuredly this is no ordinary town. . . . And yet the houses, with their windows barred like those of a harem, are in no way singular-- except that they are shut and silent. It is all this whiteness, perhaps, which freezes us. And then, too, the silence is not, in fact, like that of the desert, which did at least seem natural, inasmuch as there was nothing there; here, on the contrary, there is a sense of innumerable presences, which shrink away as you pass but nevertheless continue to watch attentively. . . .

silent stones and chapels.
The cemetery of Cairo,
original plate by Geo Colucci.


We pass mosques in total darkness and they too are silent and white, with a slight bluish tint cast on them by the moon. And sometimes, between the houses, there are little enclosed spaces, like narrow gardens, but which can have no possible verdure. And in these gardens numbers of little obelisks rise from the sand--white obelisks, it is needless to say, for to-night we are in the kingdom of absolute whiteness. What can they be, these strange little gardens? . . . And the sand, meanwhile, which covers the streets with its thick coatings, continues to deaden the sound of our progress, out of compliment no doubt to all these watchful things that are so silent around us.

At the crossings and in the little squares the obelisks become more numerous, erected always at either end of a slab of stone that is about the length of a man. Their little motionless groups, posted as if on the watch, seem so little real in their vague whiteness that we feel tempted to verify them by touching, and, verily, we should not be astonished if our hand passed through them as through a ghost.

Farther on there is a wide expanse without any houses at all, where these ubiquitous little obelisks abound in the sand like ears of corn in a field. There is now no further room for illusion. We are in a cemetery, and have been passing in the midst of houses of the dead, and mosques of the dead, in a town of the dead.

Once emerged from this cemetery, which in the end at least disclosed itself in its true character, we are involved again in the continuation of the mysterious town, which takes us back into its network. Little houses follow one another as before, only now the little gardens are replaced by little burial enclosures.

And everything grows more and more indistinct, in the gentle light, which gradually grows less. It is as if someone were putting frosted globes over the moon, so that soon, but for the transparency of this air of Egypt and the prevailing whiteness of things, there would be no light at all. Once at a window the light of a lamp appears; it is the lantern of gravediggers. Anon we hear the voices of men chanting a prayer; and the prayer is a prayer for the dead.

These tenantless houses were never built for dwellings. They are simply places where men assemble on certain anniversaries, to pray for the dead. Every Moslem family of any note has its little temple of this kind, near to the family graves. And there are so many of them that now the place is become a town--and a town in the desert--that is to say, in a place useless for any other purpose; a secure place indeed, for we may be sure that the ground occupied by these poor tombs runs no risk of being coveted--not even in the irreverent times of the future.

No, it is on the other side of Cairo--on the other bank of the Nile, amongst the verdure of the palm-trees, that we must look for the suburb in course of transformation, with its villas of the invading foreigner, and the myriad electric lights along its motor roads. On this side there is no such fear; the peace and desuetude are eternal; and the winding sheet of the Arabian sands is ready always for its burial office.

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

a group of tombs of the Caliphs.
The Tombs of the Khalifs (Caliphs or Mamelule Sultans)
By David Roberts, 1839.


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

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

The mosque-like tombs of the Caliphs.
By David Roberts, 1839.


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

And meanwhile our carriage, proceeding always without noise, traces on this same sand little furrows which the wind will have effaced by to-morrow. There are no roads of any kind; they would indeed be as useless as they are impossible to make. You may pass here where you like, and fancy yourself far away from any place inhabited by living beings.

The great town, which we know to be so close, appears from time to time, thanks to the undulations of the ground, as a mere phosphorescence, a reflection of its myriad electric lights. We are indeed in the desert of the dead, in the sole company of the moon, which, by the fantasy of this wonderful Egyptian sky, is to-night a moon of grey pearl, one might almost say a moon of mother-of-pearl.

A mosque stands in a neglected graveyard.
The Green Mosque
By Jean Gerome, 1878.


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

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

The tombs of the Caliphs are like ghosts in the distance.
The Tombs of the Khalifs
By David Roberts, 1839.



We had chosen a time when the light was doubtful in order that we might avoid the tourists, but as we approach the funeral dwelling of Sultan Barkuk, the assassin, we see, issuing from it, a whole band, some twenty in a line, who emerge from the darkness of the abandoned walls, each trotting on his little donkey and each followed by the inevitable Bedouin driver, who taps with his stick upon the rump of the beast. They are returning to Cairo, their visit ended, and exchange in a loud voice, from one ass to another, more or less inept impressions in various European languages. . . .

And look! There is even amongst them the almost proverbial belated dame who, for private reasons of her own, follows at a respectable distance behind. She is a little mature perhaps, so far as can be judged in the moonlight, but nevertheless still sympathetic to her driver, who, with both hands, supports her from behind on her saddle, with a touching solicitude that is peculiar to the country. Ah! these little donkeys of Egypt, so observant, so philosophical and sly, why cannot they write their memoirs! What a number of droll things they must have seen at night in the outskirts of Cairo!

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

NEXT CHAPTER


wings of the Sun.

La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

Go to the NEXT CHAPTER.
See a list of chapters.
AscendingPassage.com HOME PAGE.


For Beautiful Jewelry of Nepal and Tibet
See: JewelryTibet.com.