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

Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER VIII -- ARCHAIC CHRISTIANITY
The Coptic Church of St. Sergius

Dimly lighted by the flames of a few poor slender tapers which flicker against the walls in stone arches, a dense crowd of human figures veiled in black, in a place overpowering and suffocating--underground, no doubt--which is filled with the perfume of the incense of Arabia; and a noise of almost wicked movement, which sirs us to alarm and even horror: bleatings of new-born babies, cries of distress of tiny mites whose voices are drowned, as if on purpose, by a clinking of cymbals.

What can it be? Why have they descended into this dark hole, these little ones, who howl in the midst of the smoke, held by these phantoms in mourning? Had we entered it unawares we might have thought it a den of wicked sorcery, an underground cavern for the black mass.

But no. It is the crypt of the basilica of St. Sergius during the Coptic mass of Easter morning. And when, after the first surprise, we examine these phantoms, we find that, for the most part, they are young mothers, with the refined and gentle faces of Madonnas, who hold the plaintive little ones beneath their black veils and seek to comfort them.

The sorcerer, who plays the cymbals, is a kind old priest, or sacristan, who smiles paternally. If he makes all this noise, in a rhythm which in itself is full of joy, it is to mark the gladness of Easter morn, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ--and a little, too, no doubt, to distract the little ones, some of whom are woefully put out. But their mammas do not prolong the proof--a mere momentary visit to this venerable place, which is to bring them happiness, and they carry their babes away: and others are led in by the dark, narrow staircase, so low that one cannot stand upright in it. And thus the crypt is not emptied. And meanwhile mass is being said in the church overhead.

But what a number of people, of black veils, are in this hovel, where the air can scarcely be breathed, and where the barbarous music, mingled with wailings and cries, deafens you! And what an air of antiquity marks all things here! The defaced walls, the low roof that one can easily touch, the granite pillars which sustain the shapeless arches are all blackened by the smoke of the wax candles, and scarred and worn by the friction of human hands.

At the end of the crypt there is a very sacred recess round which a crowd presses: a coarse niche, a little larger than those cut in the wall to receive the tapers, a niche which covers the ancient stone on which, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary rested, with the child Jesus, in the course of the flight into Egypt. This holy stone is sadly worn to-day and polished smooth by the touch of many pious hands, and the Byzantine cross which once was carved on it is almost effaced.

But even if the Virgin had never rested there, the humble crypt of St. Sergius would remain no less one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries in the world. And the Copts who still assemble there with veneration have preceded by many years the greater part of our Western nations in the religion of the Bible.

Although the history of Egypt envelops itself in a sort of night at the moment of the appearance of Christianity, we know that the growth of the new faith there was as rapid and impetuous as the germination of plants under the overflow of the Nile. The old Pharaonic cults, amalgamated at that time with those of Greece, were so obscured under a mass of rites and formulae, that they had ceased to have any meaning. And nevertheless here, as in imperial Rome, there brooded the ferment of a passionate mysticism. Moreover, this Egyptian people, more than any other, was haunted by the terror of death, as is proved by the folly of its embalmments. With what avidity therefore must it have received the Word of fraternal love and immediate resurrection?

In any case Christianity was so firmly implanted in this Egypt that centuries of persecution did not succeed in destroying it. As one goes up the Nile, many little human settlements are to be seen, little groups of houses of dried mud, where the whitened dome of the modest house of prayer is surmounted by a cross and not a crescent. They are the villages of those Copts, those Egyptians, who have preserved the Christian faith from father to son since the nebulous times of the first martyrs.


The simple Church of St. Sergius is a relic hidden away and almost buried in the midst of a labyrinth of ruins. Without a guide it is almost impossible to find your way thither. The quarter in which it is situated is enclosed within the walls of what was once a Roman fortress, and this fortress in its turn is surrounded by the tranquil ruins of "Old Cairo"--which is to the Cairo of the Mamelukes and the Khedives, in a small degree, what Versailles is to Paris.

On this Easter morning, having set out from the Cairo of to-day to be present at this mass, we have first to traverse a suburb in course of transformation, upon whose ancient soil will shortly appear numbers of these modern horrors, in mud and metal--factories or large hotels-- which multiply in this poor land with a stupefying rapidity. Then comes a mile or so of uncultivated ground, mixed with stretches of sand, and already a little desertlike.

And then the walls of Old Cairo; after which begins the peace of the deserted houses, of little gardens and orchards among the ruins. The wind and the dust beset us the whole way, the almost eternal wind and the eternal dust of this land, by which, since the beginning of the ages, so many human eyes have been burnt beyond recovery. They keep us now in blinding whirlwinds, which swarm with flies.

The "season" indeed is already over, and the foreign invaders have fled until next autumn. Egypt is now more Egyptian, beneath a more burning sky. The sun of this Easter Sunday is as hot as ours of July, and the ground seems as if it would perish of drought. But it is always thus in the springtime of this rainless country; the trees, which have kept their leaves throughout the winter, shed them in April as ours do in November. There is no shade anywhere and everything suffers. Everything grows yellow on the yellow sands.

But there is no cause for uneasiness: the inundation is at hand, which has never failed since the commencement of our geological period. In another few weeks the prodigious river will spread along its banks, just as in the times of the God Amen, a precocious and impetuous life. And meanwhile the orange-trees, the jasmine and the honeysuckle, which men have taken care to water with water from the Nile, are full of riotous bloom. As we pass the gardens of Old Cairo, which alternate with the tumbling houses, this continual cloud of white dust that envelops us comes suddenly laden with their sweet fragrance; so that, despite the drought and the bareness of the trees, the scents of a sudden and feverish springtime are already in the air.

When we arrive at the walls of what used to be the Roman citadel we have to descend from our carriage, and passing through a low doorway penetrate on foot into the labyrinth of a Coptic quarter which is dying of dust and old age. Deserted houses that have become the refuges of outcasts; mushrabiyas, worm-eaten and decayed; little mousetrap alleys that lead us under arches of the Middle Ages, and sometimes close over our heads by reason of the fantastic bending of the ruins. Even by such a route as this are we conducted to a famous basilica! Were it not for these groups of Copts, dressed in their Sunday garb, who make their way like us through the ruins to the Easter mass, we should think that we had lost our way.

And how pretty they look, these women draped like phantoms in their black silks. Their long veils do not completely hide them, as do those of the Moslems. They are simply placed over their hair and leave uncovered the delicate features, the golden necklet and the half-bared arms that carry on their wrists thick twisted bracelets of virgin gold. Pure Egyptians as they are, they have preserved the same delicate profile, the same elongated eyes, as mark the old goddesses carved in bas-relief on the Pharaonic walls.

But some, alas, amongst the young ones have discarded their traditional costume, and are arrayed a la franque, in gowns and hats. And such gowns, such hats, such flowers! The very peasants of our meanest villages would disdain them. Oh! why cannot someone tell these poor little women, who have it in their power to be so adorable, that the beautiful folds of their black veils give to them an exquisite and characteristic distinction, while this poor tinsel, which recalls the mid-Lent carnivals, makes of them objects that excite our pity!

In one of the walls which now surround us there is a low and shrinking doorway. Can this be the entrance to the basilica? The idea seems absurd. And yet some of the pretty creatures in the black veils and bracelets of gold, who were in front of us, have disappeared through it, and already the perfume of the censers is wafted towards us. A kind of corridor, astonishingly poor and old, twists itself suspiciously, and then issues into a narrow court, more than a thousand years old, where offertory boxes, fixed on Oriental brackets, invite our alms. The odour of the incense becomes more pronounced, and at last a door, hidden in shadow at the end of this retreat, gives access to the venerable church itself.

The church! It is a mixture of Byzantine basilica, mosque and desert hut. Entering there, it is as if we were introduced suddenly to the na´ve infancy of Christianity, as if we surprised it, as it were, in its cradle--which was indeed Oriental. The triple nave is full of little children (here also, that is what strikes us first), of little mites who cry or else laugh and play; and there are mothers suckling their new-born babes--and all the time the invisible mass is being celebrated beyond, behind the iconostasis. On the ground, on mats, whole families are seated in circle, as if they were in their homes. A thick deposit of white chalk on the defaced, shrunken walls bears witness to great age. And over all this is a strange old ceiling of cedarwood, traversed by large barbaric beams.

In the nave, supported by columns of marble, brought in days gone by from Pagan temples, there are, as in all these old Coptic churches, high transverse wooden partitions, elaborately wrought in the Arab fashion, which divide it into three sections: the first, into which one comes on entering the church, is allotted to the women, the second is for the baptistery, and the third, at the end adjoining the iconostasis, is reserved for the men.

Women gather in the coolness of an ancient church.
In the Church of St. Sergius,
original plate by Geo Colucci.


These women who are gathered this morning in their apportioned space--so much at home there with their suckling little ones--wear, almost all of them, the long black silk veils of former days. In their harmonious and endlessly restless groups, the gowns a la franque and the poor hats of carnival are still the exception. The congregation, as a whole, preserves almost intact its na´ve, old-time flavour.

And there is movement too, beyond, in the compartment of the men, which is bounded at the farther end by the iconostasis--a thousand- year-old wall decorated with inlaid cedarwood and ivory of precious antique workmanship, and adorned with strange old icons, blackened by time. It is behind this wall--pierced by several doorways--that mass is now being said.

From this last sanctuary shut off thus from the people comes the vague sound of singing; from time to time a priest raises a faded silk curtain and from the threshold makes the sign of blessing. His vestments are of gold, and he wears a golden crown, but the humble faithful speak to him freely, and even touch his gorgeous garments, that might be those of one of the Wise Kings. He smiles, and letting fall the curtain, which covers the entrance to the tabernacle, disappears again into this innocent mystery.

Even the least things here tell of decay. The flagstones, trodden by the feet of numberless dead generations, are become uneven through the settling of the soil. Everything is askew, bent, dusty and worn-out. The daylight comes from above, through narrow barred windows. There is a lack of air, so that one almost stifles. But though the sun does not enter, a certain indefinable reflection from the whitened walls reminds us that outside there is a flaming, resplendent Eastern spring.

In this, the old grandfather, as it were, of churches, filled now with a cloud of odorous smoke, what one hears, more even than the chanting of the mass, is the ceaseless movement, the pious agitation of the faithful; and more even than that, the startling noise that rises from the holy crypt below--the sharp clashing of cymbals and those multitudinous little wailings, that sound like the mewings of kittens.

But let me not harbour thoughts of irony! Surely not. If, in our Western lands, certain ceremonies seem to me anti-Christian--as, for example, one of those spectacular high masses in the over-pompous Cathedral of Cologne, where halberdiers overawe the crowd--here, on the contrary, the simplicity of this primitive cult is touching and respectable in the extreme. These Copts who install themselves in their church, as round their firesides, who make their home there and encumber the place with their fretful little ones, have, in their own way, well understood the word of Him who said: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God."

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.