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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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