"Chapter II: Cairo and the Mecca Pilgrimage." by Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892)
Publication: Edwards, Amelia B. A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. London: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, 1891. pp. 18-34.
THE mosque of Sultan Hassan, confessedly the most beautiful in Cairo, is also perhaps the most beautiful in the Moslem world. It was built at just that happy moment when Arabian art in Egypt, having ceased merely to appropriate or imitate, had at length evolved an original architectural style out of the heterogeneous elements of Roman and early Christian edifices. The mosques of a few centuries earlier (as, for instance, that of Tulûn, which marks the first departure from the old Byzantine model) consisted of little more than a courtyard with colonnades leading to a hall supported on a forest of pillars. A little more than a century later, and the national style had already experienced the beginnings of that prolonged eclipse which finally resulted in the bastard Neo-Byzantine Renaissance represented by the mosque of Mehemet Ali. But the mosque of Sultan Hassan, built ninety-seven years before the taking of Constantinople, may justly be regarded as the highest point reached by Saracenic art in Egypt after it had used up the Greek and Roman material of Memphis, and before its newborn originality became modified by influences from beyond the Bosphorus. Its pre-eminence is due neither to the greatness of its dimensions nor to the splendour of its materials. It is neither so large as the great mosque at Damascus, nor so rich in costly marbles as Saint Sophia in Constantinople ; but in design, proportion, and a certain lofty grace impossible to describe, it surpasses these, and every other mosque, whether original or adapted, with which the writer is acquainted.
The whole structure is purely national. Every line and curve in it, and every inch of detail, is in the best style of the best period of the Arabian school. And above all, it was designed expressly for its present purpose. The two famous mosques of Damascus and Constantinople having, on the contrary, been Christian churches, betray evidences of adaptation. In Saint Sophia, the space once occupied by the figure of the Redeemer may be distinctly traced in the mosaic-work of the apse, filled in with gold tesseræ of later date ; while the magnificent gates of the great mosque at Damascus are decorated, among other Christian emblems, with the sacramental chalice. But the mosque of Sultan Hassan, built by En Nasîr Hassan in the high and palmy days of the Memlook rule, is marred by no discrepancies. For a mosque it was designed, and a mosque it remains. Too soon it will be only a beautiful ruin.
A number of small streets having lately been demolished in this quarter, the approach to the mosque lies across a desolate open space littered with débris, but destined to be laid out as a public square. With this desirable end in view, some half dozen workmen were lazily loading as many camels with rubble, which is the Arab way of carting rubbish. If they persevere, and the Minister of Public Works continues to pay their wages with due punctuality, the ground will perhaps get cleared in eight or ten years' time.
Driving up with some difficulty to the foot of the great steps, which were crowded with idlers smoking and sleeping, we observed a long and apparently fast-widening fissure reaching nearly from top to bottom of the main wall of the building, close against the minaret. It looked like just such a rent as might be caused by a shock of earthquake, and, being still new to the East, we wondered the Government had not set to work to mend it. We had yet to learn that nothing is ever mended in Cairo. Here, as in Constantinople, new buildings spring up apace, but the old, no matter how venerable, are allowed to moulder away, inch by inch, till nothing remains but a heap of ruins.
Going up the steps and through a lofty hall, up some more steps and along a gloomy corridor, we came to the great court, before entering which, however, we had to take off our boots and put on slippers brought for the purpose. The first sight of this court is an architectural surprise. It is like nothing one has seen before, and its beauty equals its novelty. Imagine an immense marble quadrangle, open to the sky and enclosed within lofty walls, with, at each side, a vast recess framed in by a single arch. The quadrangle is more than 100 feet square, and the walls are more than 100 feet high. Each recess forms a spacious hall for rest and prayer, and all are matted ; but that at the eastern end is wider and considerably deeper than the other three, and the noble arch that encloses it like the proscenium of a splendid stage, measures, according to Fergusson, 69 feet 5 inches in the span. It looks much larger. This principal hall, the floor of which is raised one step at the upper end, measures 90 feet in depth and 90 in height. The dais is covered with prayer-rugs, and contains the holy niche and the pulpit of the preacher. We observed that those who came up here came only to pray. Having prayed, they either went away or turned aside into one of the other recesses to rest. There was a charming fountain in the court, with a dome-roof as light and fragile-looking as a big bubble, at which each worshipper performed his ablutions on coming in. This done, he left his slippers on the matting and trod the carpeted dais barefoot.
This was the first time we had seen Moslems at prayer, and we could not but be impressed by their profound and unaffected devotion. Some lay prostrate, their foreheads touching the ground ; others were kneeling ; others bowing in the prescribed attitudes of prayer. So absorbed were they, that not even our unhallowed presence seemed to disturb them. We did not then know that the pious Moslem is as devout out of the mosque as in it ; or that it is his habit to pray when the appointed hours come round, no matter where he may be, or how occupied. We soon became so familiar, however, with this obvious trait of Mohammedan life, that it seemed quite a matter of course that the camel-driver should dismount and lay his forehead in the dust by the roadside ; or the merchant spread his prayer-carpet on the narrow mastabah of his little shop in the public bazaar ; or the boatman prostrate himself with his face to the east, as the sun went down behind the hills of the Libyan desert.
While we were admiring the spring of the roof and the intricate Arabesque decorations of the pulpit, a custode came up with a big key and invited us to visit the tomb of the founder. So we followed him into an enormous vaulted hall a hundred feet square, in the centre of which stood a plain, railed-off tomb, with an empty iron-bound coffer at the foot. We afterwards learned that for five hundred years – that is to say, ever since the death and burial of Sultan Hassan – this coffer had contained a fine copy of the Korân, traditionally said to have been written by Sultan Hassan's own hand ; but that the Khedive, who is collecting choice and antique Arabic MSS., had only the other day sent an order for its removal.
Nothing can be bolder or more elegant than the proportions of this noble sepulchral hall, the walls of which are covered with tracery in low relief incrusted with discs and tesseræ of turquoise-coloured porcelain ; while high up, in order to lead off the vaulting of the roof, the corners are rounded by means of recessed clusters of exquisite Arabesque woodwork, like pendent stalactites. But the tesseræ are fast falling out, and most of their places are vacant ; and the beautiful woodwork hangs in fragments, tattered and cobwebbed, like time-worn banners which the first touch of a brush would bring down.
Going back again from the tomb to the courtyard, we everywhere observed traces of the same dilapidation. The fountain, once a miracle of Saracenic ornament, was fast going to destruction. The rich marbles of its basement were cracked and discoloured, its stuccoed cupola was flaking off piecemeal, its enamels were dropping out, its lace-like wood tracery shredding away by inches.
Presently a tiny brown and golden bird perched with pretty confidence on the brink of the basin, and having splashed, and drunk, and preened its feathers like a true believer at his ablutions, flew up to the top of the cupola and sang deliciously. All else was profoundly still. Large spaces of light and shadow divided the quadrangle. The sky showed overhead as a square opening of burning solid blue ; while here and there, reclining, praying, or quietly occupied, a number of turbaned figures were picturesquely scattered over the matted floors of the open halls around. Yonder sat a tailor cross-legged, making a waistcoat ; near him, stretched on his face at full length, sprawled a basket-maker with his half-woven basket and bundle of rushes beside him ; and here, close against the main entrance, lay a blind man and his dog ; the master asleep, the dog keeping watch. It was, as I have said, our first mosque, and I well remember the surprise with which I saw that tailor sewing on his buttons, and the sleepers lying about in the shade. We did not then know that a Mohammedan mosque is as much a place of rest and refuge as of prayer ; or that the houseless Arab may take shelter there by night or day as freely as the birds may build their nests in the cornice, or the blind man's dog may share the cool shade with his sleeping master.
From the mosque of this Memlook sovereign it is but a few minutes' uphill drive to the mosque of Mehemet Ali, by whose orders the last of that royal race were massacred just sixty-four years ago.1 This mosque, built within the precincts of the citadel on a spur of the Mokattam Hills overlooking the city, is the most conspicuous object in Cairo. Its attenuated minarets and clustered domes show from every point of view for miles around, and remain longer in sight, as one leaves, or returns to, Cairo, than any other landmark. It is a spacious, costly, gaudy, commonplace building, with nothing really beautiful about it, except the great marble courtyard and fountain. The inside, which is entirely built of Oriental alabaster, is carpeted with magnificent Turkey carpets and hung with innumerable cut-glass chandeliers, so that it looks like a huge vulgar drawing-room from which the furniture has been cleared out for dancing.
The view from the outer platform is, however, magnificent. We saw it on a hazy day, and could not therefore distinguish the point of the Delta, which ought to have been visible on the north ; but we could plainly see as far southward as the Pyramids of Sakkârah, and trace the windings of the Nile for many miles across the plain. The Pyramids of Ghîzeh, on their daïs of desert rock about twelve miles off, looked, as they always do look from a distance, small and unimpressive ; but the great alluvial valley dotted over with mud villages and intersected by canals and tracts of palm forest ; the shining river specked with sails ; and the wonderful city, all flat roofs, cupolas, and minarets, spread out like an intricate model at one's feet, were full of interest and absorbed our whole attention. Looking down upon it from this elevation, it is as easy to believe that Cairo contains four hundred mosques, as it is to stand on the brow of the Pincio and believe in the three hundred and sixty five churches of modern Rome.
As we came away, they showed us the place in which the Memlook nobles, four hundred and seventy2 in number, were shot down like mad dogs in a trap, that fatal first of March A.D. 1811. We saw the upper gate which was shut behind them as they came out from the presence of the Pasha, and the lower gate which was shut before them to prevent their egress. The walls of the narrow roadway in which the slaughter was done are said to be pitted with bullet-marks ; but we would not look for them.
I have already said that I do not very distinctly remember the order of our sight-seeing in Cairo, for the reason that we saw some places before we went up the river, some after we came back, and some (as for instance the Museum at Boulak) both before and after, and indeed as often as possible. But I am at least quite certain that we witnessed a performance of howling dervishes, and the departure of the caravan for Mecca, before starting.
Of all the things that people do by way of pleasure, the pursuit of a procession is surely one of the most wearisome. They generally go a long way to see it ; they wait a weary time ; it is always late ; and when at length it does come, it is over in a few minutes. The present pageant fulfilled all these conditions in a superlative degree. We breakfasted uncomfortably early, started soon after half-past seven, and had taken up our position outside the Báb en-Nasr, on the way to the desert, by half-past eight. Here we sat for nearly three hours, exposed to clouds of dust and a burning sun, with nothing to do but to watch the crowd and wait patiently. All Shepheard's Hotel was there, and every stranger in Cairo ; and we all had smart open carriages drawn by miserable screws and driven by bare-legged Arabs. These Arabs, by the way, are excellent whips, and the screws get along wonderfully ; but it seems odd at first, and not a little humiliating, to be whirled along behind a coachman whose only livery consists of a rag of dirty white turban, a scant tunic just reaching to his knees, and the top boots with which Nature has provided him.
Here, outside the walls, the crowd increased momentarily. The place was like a fair with provision-stalls, swings, story-tellers, serpent-charmers, cake-sellers, sweetmeat-sellers, sellers of sherbet, water, lemonade, sugared nuts, fresh dates, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, and sliced water-melon. Veiled women carrying little bronze Cupids of children astride upon the right shoulder, swarthy Egyptians, coal-black Abyssinians, Arabs and Nubians of every shade from golden-brown to chocolate, fellahs, dervishes, donkey-boys, street urchins, and beggars with every imaginable deformity, came and went ; squeezed themselves in and out among the carriages ; lined the road on each side of the great towered gateway ; swarmed on the top of every wall ; and filled the air with laughter, a Babel of dialects, and those odours of Araby that are inseparable from an Eastern crowd. A harmless, unsavoury, good-humoured, inoffensive, throng, one glance at which was enough to put to flight all one's preconceived notions about Oriental gravity of demeanour! For the truth is that gravity is by no means an Oriental characteristic. Take a Mohammedan at his devotions, and he is a model of religious abstraction ; bargain with him for a carpet, and he is as impenetrable as a judge ; but see him in his hours of relaxation, or on the occasion of a public holiday, and he is as garrulous and full of laughter as a big child. Like a child, too, he loves noise and movement for the mere sake of noise and movement, and looks upon swings and fireworks as the height of human felicity. Now swings and fireworks are Arabic for bread and circuses, and our pleb's passion for them is insatiable. He not only indulges in them upon every occasion of public rejoicing, but calls in their aid to celebrate the most solemn festivals of his religion. It so happened that we afterwards came in the way of several Mohammedan festivals both in Egypt and Syria, and we invariably found the swings at work all day and the fireworks going off every evening.
To-day, the swings outside the Báb en-Nasr were never idle. Here were creaking Russian swings hung with little painted chariots for the children ; and plain rope swings, some of them as high as Haman's gallows, for the men. For my own part, I know no sight much more comic and incongruous than the serene enjoyment with which a bearded, turbaned, middle-aged Egyptian squats upon his heels on the tiny wooden seat of one of these enormous swings, and, holding on to the side-ropes for dear life, goes careering up forty feet high into the air at every turn.
At a little before midday, when the heat and glare were becoming intolerable, the swings suddenly ceased going, the crowd surged in the direction of the gate, and a distant drumming announced the approach of the procession. First came a string of baggage camels laden with tent-furniture ; then some two hundred pilgrims on foot, chanting passages from the Korân ; then a regiment of Egyptian infantry, the men in a coarse white linen uniform consisting of coat, baggy trousers and gaiters, with cross-belts and cartouche-boxes of plain black leather, and the red fez, or tarboosh, on the head. Next after these came more pilgrims, followed by a body of dervishes carrying green banners embroidered with Arabic sentences in white and yellow ; then a native cavalry regiment headed by a general and four colonels in magnificent gold embroidery and preceded by an excellent military band ; then another band and a second regiment of infantry ; then more colonels, followed by a regiment of lancers mounted on capital grey horses and carrying lances topped with small red and green pennants. After these had gone by there was a long stoppage, and then, with endless breaks and interruptions, came a straggling irregular crowd of pilgrims, chiefly of the fellah class, beating small darabukkehs, or native drums. Those about us estimated their number at two thousand. And now, their guttural chorus audible long before they arrived in sight, came the howling dervishes – a ragged, wild-looking, ruffianly set, rolling their heads from side to side, and keeping up a hoarse incessant cry of "Allàh! Allàh! Allàh!" Of these there may have been a couple of hundred. The sheykhs of the principal orders of dervishes came next in order, superbly dressed in robes of brilliant colours embroidered with gold, and mounted on magnificent Arabs. Finest of all, in a green turban and scarlet mantle, rode the Sheykh of the Hasaneyn, who is a descendant of the Prophet ; but the most important, the Sheykh el Bekree, who is a sort of Egyptian Archbishop of Canterbury and head of all the dervishes, came last, riding a white Arab with gold-embroidered housings. He was a placid-looking old man, and wore a violet robe and an enormous red and green turban.
This very reverend personage was closely followed by the chief of the carpet-makers' guild – a handsome man sitting sidewise on a camel.
Then happened another break in the procession – an eager pause – a gathering murmur. And then, riding a gaunt dromedary at a rapid trot, his fat sides shaking, and his head rolling in a stupid drunken way at every step, appeared a bloated, half-naked Silenus, with long fuzzy black locks and a triple chin, and no other clothing than a pair of short white drawers and red slippers. A shiver of delight ran through the crowd at sight of this holy man – the famous Sheykh of the Camel (Sheykh el-Gemel), the "great, good Priest" – the idol of the people. We afterwards learned that this was his twentieth pilgrimage, and that he was supposed to fast, roll his head, and wear nothing but this pair of loose drawers, all the way to and from Mecca.
But the crowning excitement was yet to come, and the rapture with which the crowd had greeted the Sheykh el-Gemel was as nothing compared with their ecstasy when the Mahmal, preceded by another group of mounted officers and borne by a gigantic camel, was seen coming through the gateway. The women held up their children ; the men swarmed up the scaffoldings of the swings and behind the carriages. They screamed ; they shouted ; they waved handkerchiefs and turbans ; they were beside themselves with excitement. Meanwhile the camel, as if conscious of the dignity of his position and the splendour of his trappings, came on slowly and ponderously with his nose in the air, and passed close before our horses' heads. We could not possibly have had a better view of the Mahmal ; which is nothing but a sort of cage, or pagoda, of gilded tracery very richly decorated. In the days of the Memlooks, the Mahmal represented the litter of the Sultan, and went empty, like a royal carriage at a public funeral;3 but we were told that it now carried the tribute-carpet sent annually by the carpet-makers of Cairo to the tomb of the Prophet.
This closed the procession. As the camel passed, the crowd surged in, and everything like order was at an end. The carriages all made at once for the Gate, so meeting the full tide of the outpouring crowd and causing unimaginable confusion. Some stuck in the sand half-way – our own among the number ; and all got into an inextricable block in the narrow part just inside the gate. Hereupon the drivers abused each other, and the crowd got impatient, and some Europeans got pelted.
Coming back, we met two or three more regiments. The men, both horse and foot, seemed fair average specimens, and creditably disciplined. They rode better than they marched, which was to be expected. The uniform is the same for cavalry and infantry throughout the service ; the only difference being that the former wear short black riding boots, and the latter, Zouave gaiters of white linen. They are officered up to a certain point by Egyptians ; but the commanding officers and the staff (among whom are enough colonels and generals to form an ordinary regiment) are chiefly Europeans and Americans.
It had seemed, while the procession was passing, that the proportion of pilgrims was absurdly small when compared with the display of military ; but this, which is called the departure of the caravan, is in truth only the procession of the sacred carpet from Cairo to the camp outside the walls ; and the troops are present merely as part of the pageant. The true departure takes place two days later. The pilgrims then muster in great numbers ; but the soldiery is reduced to a small escort. It was said that seven thousand souls went out this year from Cairo and its neighbourhood.
The procession took place on Thursday the 21st day of the Mohammedan month of Showwál, which was our 11th of December. The next day, Friday, being the Mohammedan Sabbath, we went to the Convent of the Howling Dervishes, which lies beyond the walls in a quiet nook between the riverside and the part known as Old Cairo.
We arrived a little after two, and passing through a courtyard shaded by a great sycamore, were ushered into a large, square, whitewashed hall with a dome-roof and a neatly-matted floor. The place in its arrangements resembled none of the mosques that we had yet seen. There was, indeed, nothing to arrange – no pulpit, no holy niche, no lamps, no prayer-carpets ; nothing but a row of cane-bottomed chairs at one end, some of which were already occupied by certain of our fellow-guests at Shepheard's Hotel. A party of some forty or fifty wild-looking dervishes were squatting in a circle at the opposite side of the hall, their outer kuftâns and queer pyramidal hats lying in a heap close by.
Being accomodated with chairs among the other spectators, we waited for whatever might happen. More dervishes and more English dropped in from time to time. The new dervishes took off their caps and sat down among the rest, laughing and talking together at their ease. The English sat in a row, shy, uncomfortable, and silent ; wondering whether they ought to behave as if they were in church, and mortally ashamed of their feet. For we had all been obliged to take off or cover our boots before going in, and those who had forgotten to bring slippers had their feet tied up in pocket-handkerchiefs.
A long time went by thus. At last, when the number of dervishes had increased to about seventy, and every one was tired of waiting, eight musicians came in – two trumpets, two lutes, a cocoa-nut fiddle, a tambourine, and two drums. Then the dervishes, some of whom were old and white-haired and some mere boys, formed themselves into a great circle, shoulder to shoulder ; the band struck up a plaintive, discordant air ; and a grave middle-aged man, placing himself in the centre of the ring, and inclining his head at each repetition, began to recite the name of Allàh.
Softly at first, and one by one, the dervishes took up the chant: – "Allàh! Allàh! Allàh!" Their heads and their voices rose and fell in unison. The dome above gave back a hollow echo. There was something strange and solemn in the ceremony.
Presently, however, the trumpets brayed louder – the voices grew hoarser – the heads bowed lower – the name of Allàh rang out faster and faster, fiercer and fiercer. The leader, himself cool and collected, began sensibly accelerating the time of the chorus ; and it became evident that the performers were possessed by a growing frenzy. Soon the whole circle was madly rocking to and fro ; the voices rose to a hoarse scream ; and only the trumpets were audible above the din. Now and then a dervish would spring up convulsively some three or four feet above the heads of the others ; but for the most part they stood rooted firmly to one spot – now bowing their heads almost to their feet – now flinging themselves so violently back, that we, standing behind, could see their faces foreshortened upside down ; and this with such incredible rapidity, that their long hair had scarcely time either to rise or fall, but remained as if suspended in mid-air. Still the frenzy mounted ; still the pace quickened. Some shrieked – some groaned – some, unable to support themselves any longer, were held up in their places by the bystanders. All were mad for the time being. Our own heads seemed to be going round at last ; and more than one of the ladies present looked longingly towards the door. It was, in truth, a horrible sight, and needed only darkness and torchlight to be quite diabolical.
At length, just as the fury was at its height and the very building seemed to be rocking to and fro above our heads, one poor wretch staggered out of the circle and fell writhing and shrieking close against our feet. At the same moment, the leader clapped his hands ; the performers, panting and exhausted, dropped into a sitting posture ; and the first zikr, as it is called, came abruptly to an end. Some few, however, could not stop immediately, but kept on swaying and muttering to themselves ; while the one in the fit, having ceased to shriek, lay out stiff and straight, apparently in a state of coma.
There was a murmur of relief and a simultaneous rising among the spectators. It was announced that another zikr, with a reinforcement of fresh dervishes, would soon begin ; but the Europeans had had enough of it, and few remained for the second performance.
Going out, we paused beside the poor fellow on the floor, and asked if nothing could be done for him.
"He is struck by Mohammed," said gravely an Egyptian official who was standing by.
At that moment, the leader came over, knelt down beside him, touched him lightly on the head and breast, and whispered something in his ear. The man was then quite rigid, and white as death. We waited, however, and after a few more minutes saw him struggle back into a dazed, half-conscious state, when he was helped to his feet and led away by his friends.
The courtyard as we came out was full of dervishes sitting on cane benches in the shade, and sipping coffee. The green leaves rustled overhead, with glimpses of intensely blue sky between ; and brilliant patches of sunshine flickered down upon groups of wild-looking, half-savage figures in parti-coloured garments. It was one of those ready-made subjects that the sketcher passes by with a sigh, but which live in his memory for ever.
From hence, being within a few minutes' drive of Old Cairo, we went on as far as the Mosque of 'Amr – an uninteresting ruin standing alone among the rubbish-mounds of the first Mohammedan capital of Egypt. It is constructed on the plan of a single quadrangle 225 feet square, surrounded by a covered colonnade one range of pillars in depth on the west (which is the side of the entrance) ; four on the north ; three on the south ; and six on the east, which is the place of prayer, and contains three holy niches and the pulpit. The columns, 245 in number, have been brought from earlier Roman and Byzantine buildings. They are of various marbles and have all kinds of capitals. Some being originally too short, have been stilted on disproportionately high bases ; and in one instance the necessary height has been obtained by adding a second capital on the top of the first. We observed one column of that rare black and white speckled marble of which there is a specimen in the pulpit of St. Mark's in Venice ; and one of the holy niches contains some fragments of Byzantine mosaics. But the whole building seems to have been put together in a barbarous way, and would appear to owe its present state of dilapidation more to bad workmanship than to time. Many of the pillars, especially on the western side, are fallen and broken ; the octagonal fountain in the centre is a roofless ruin ; and the little minaret at the S. E. corner is no longer safe.
Apart, however, from its poverty of design and detail, the Mosque of 'Amr is interesting as a point of departure in the history of Saracenic architecture. It was built by 'Amr Ebn el-'As, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, in the twenty-first year of the Hegira (A.D. 642), just ten years after the death of Mohammed ; and it is the earliest Saracenic edifice in Egypt. We were glad, therefore, to have seen it for this reason, if for no other. But it is a barren, dreary place ; and the glare reflected from all sides of the quadrangle was so intense that we were thankful to get away again into the narrow streets beside the river.
Here we presently fell in with a wedding procession consisting of a crowd of men, a band, and some three or four hired carriages full of veiled women, one of whom was pointed out as the bride. The bridegroom walked in the midst of the men, who seemed to be teasing him, drumming round him, and opposing his progress ; while high above the laughter, the shouting, the jingle of tambourines and the thrumming of darabukkehs, was heard the shrill squeal of some instrument that sounded exactly like a bagpipe.
It was a brilliant afternoon, and we ended our day's work, I remember, with a drive on the Shubra road and a glance at the gardens of the Khedive's summer palace. The Shubra road is the Champs Elysées of Cairo, and is thronged every day from four to half-past six. Here little sheds of roadside cafés alternate with smart modern villas ; ragged fellâheen on jaded donkeys trot side by side with elegant attachés on high-stepping Arabs ; while tourists in hired carriages, Jew bankers in unexceptionable phaetons, veiled hareems in London-built broughams, Italian shopkeepers in preposterously fashionable toilettes, grave sheykhs on magnificent Cairo asses, officers in frogged and braided frocks, and English girls in tall hats and close-fitting habits followed by the inevitable little solemn-looking English groom, pass and repass, precede and follow each other, in one changing, restless, heterogeneous stream, the like of which is to be seen in no other capital in the world. The sons of the Khedive drive here daily, always in separate carriages and preceded by four Saïses and four guards. They are of all ages and sizes, from the Hereditary Prince, a pale, gentlemanly-looking young man of four or five and twenty, down to one tiny, imperious atom of about six, who is dressed like a little man, and is constantly leaning out of his carriage-window and shrilly abusing his coachman.4
Apart, however, from those who frequent it, the Shubra road is a really fine drive, broad, level, raised some six or eight feet above the cultivated plain, closely planted on both sides with acacias and sycamore fig-trees, and reaching straight away for four miles out of Cairo, counting from the railway terminus to the Summer Palace. The carriage-way is about as wide as the road across Hyde Park which connects Bayswater with Kensington ; and towards the Shubra end, it runs close beside the Nile. Many of the sycamores are of great size and quite patriarchal girth. Their branches meet overhead nearly all the way, weaving a delicious shade and making a cool tunnel of the long perspective.
We did not stay long in the Khedive's gardens, for it was already getting late when we reached the gates ; but we went far enough to see that they were tolerably well kept, not over formal, and laid out with a view to masses of foliage, shady paths, and spaces of turf inlaid with flower-beds, after the style of the famous Sarntheim and Moser gardens at Botzen in the Tyrol. Here are Sont trees (Acacia Nilotica) of unusual size, powdered all over with little feathery tufts of yellow blossom ; orange and lemon trees in abundance ; heaps of little green limes ; bananas bearing heavy pendent bunches of ripe fruit ; winding thickets of pomegranates, oleanders, and salvias ; and great beds, and banks, and trellised walks of roses. Among these, however, I observed none of the rarer varieties. As for the Pointsettia, it grows in Egypt to a height of twenty feet, and bears blossoms of such size and colour as we in England can form no idea of. We saw large trees of it both here and at Alexandria that seemed as if bending beneath a mantle of crimson stars, some of which cannot have measured less than twenty-two inches in diameter.
A large Italian fountain in a rococo style is the great sight of the place. We caught a glimpse of it through the trees, and surprised the gardener who was showing us over by declining to inspect it more nearly. He could not understand why we preferred to give our time to the shrubs and flower-beds.
Driving back presently towards Cairo with a big handful of roses apiece, we saw the sun going down in an aureole of fleecy pink and golden clouds, the Nile flowing by like a stream of liquid light, and a little fleet of sailing boats going up to Boulak before a puff of north wind that had sprung up as the sun neared the horizon. That puff of north wind, those gliding sails, had a keen interest for us now, and touched us nearly ; because – I have delayed this momentous revelation till the last moment – because we were to start to-morrow!
And this is why I have been able, in the midst of so much that was new and bewildering, to remember quite circumstantially the dates, and all the events connected with these last two days. They were to be our last two days in Cairo ; and to-morrow morning, Saturday the 13th of December, we were to go on board a certain dahabeeyah now lying off the iron bridge at Boulak, therein to begin that strange aquatic life to which we had been looking forward with so many hopes and fears, and towards which we had been steering through so many preliminary difficulties.
But the difficulties were all over now, and everything was settled ; though not in the way we had at first intended. For in place of a small boat, we had secured one of the largest on the river ; and instead of going alone, we had decided to throw in our lot with that of three other travellers. One of these three was already known to the Writer. The other two, friends of the first, were on their way out from Europe, and were not expected in Cairo for another week. We knew nothing of them but their names.
Meanwhile L. and the Writer, assuming sole possession of the dahabeeyah, were about to start ten days in advance ; it being their intention to push on as far as Rhoda (the ultimate point then reached by the Nile railway), and there to await the arrival of the rest of the party. Now Rhoda (more correctly Roda) is just one hundred and eighty miles south of Cairo ; and we calculated upon seeing the Sakkârah pyramids, the Turra quarries, the tombs of Beni Hassan, and the famous grotto of the Colossus on the Sledge, before our fellow-travellers should be due.
"It depends on the wind, you know," said our dragoman, with a lugubrious smile.
We knew that it depended on the wind ; but what then? In Egypt, the wind is supposed always to blow from the north at this time of the year, and we had ten good days at our disposal. The observation was clearly irrelevant.
1 Now, seventy-seven years ago ; the first Edition of this book having been published thirteen years ago. [Note to Second Edition.]
2 One only is said to have escaped – a certain Emîn Bey, who leaped his horse over a gap in the wall, alighted safely in the piazza below, and galloped away into the desert. The place of this famous leap continued to be shown for many years, but there are no gaps in the wall now, the citadel being the only place in Cairo which is kept in thorough repair.
3 "It is related that the Sultan Ez-Zahir Beybars, King of Egypt, was the first who sent a Mahmal with the caravan of pilgrims to Mecca, in the year of the Flight 670 (A.D. 1272) or 675 ; but this custom, it is generally said, had its origin a few years before his accession to the throne. Sheger-ed-Durr, a beautiful Turkish female slave, who became the favorite wife of the Sultan Es-Sáleh Negm-ed-Deen, and on the death of his son (with whom terminated the dynasty of the house of the Eiyoob) caused herself to be acknowledged as Queen of Egypt, performed the pilgrimage in a magnificent 'hódag,' or covered litter, borne by a camel ; and for several successive years her empty 'hódag' was sent with the caravan, merely for the sake of state. Hence, succeeding princes of Egypt sent with each year's caravan of pilgrims a kind of 'hódag' (which received the name of Mahmal) as an emblem of royalty." – The Modern Egyptians, by E. W. Lane, chap. xxiv. London, 1860.
4 The Hereditary Prince, it need scarcely be said, is the present Khedive, Tewfik Pasha. [Note to Second Edition.]