THE MOSQUES OF CAIRO
They are almost innumerable, more than 3000, and this great town, which covers some twelve miles of plain, might well be called a city of mosques. (I speak, of course, of the ancient Cairo, of the Cairo of the Arabs. The new Cairo, the Cairo of sham elegance and of “Semiramis Hotels,” does not deserve to be mentioned except with a smile.)
A city of mosques, then, as I was saying. They follow one another along the streets, sometimes two, three, four in a row; leaning one against the other, so that their confines become merged. On all sides their minarets shoot up into the air, those minarets embellished with arabesques, carved and complicated with the most changing fancy. They have their little balconies, their rows of little columns; they are so fashioned that the daylight shows through them. Some are far away in the distance; others quite close, pointing straight into the sky above our heads. No matter where one looks—as far as the eye can see—still there are others; all of the same familiar colour, a brown turning into rose. The most ancient of them, those of the old easy-tempered times, bristle with shafts of wood, placed there as resting-places for the great free birds of the air, and vultures and ravens may always be seen perched there, contemplating the horizon of the sands, the line of the yellow solitudes.
Three thousand mosques! Their great straight walls, a little severe perhaps, and scarcely pierced by their tiny ogive windows, rise above the height of the neighbouring houses. These walls are of the same brown colour as the minarets, except that they are painted with horizontal stripes of an old red, which has been faded by the sun; and they are crowned invariably with a series of trefoils, after the fashion of battlements, but trefoils which in every case are different and surprising.
Before the mosques, which are raised like altars, there is always a flight of steps with a balustrade of white marble. From the door one gets a glimpse of the calm interior in deep shadow. Once inside there are corridors, astonishingly lofty, sonorous and enveloped in a kind of half gloom; immediately on entering one experiences a sense of coolness and pervading peace; they prepare you as it were, and you begin to be filled with a spirit of devotion, and instinctively to speak low. In the narrow street outside there was the clamorous uproar of an Oriental crowd, cries of sellers, and the noise of humble old-world trading; men and beasts jostled you; there seemed a scarcity of air beneath those so numerous overhanging mushrabiyas. But here suddenly there is silence, broken only by the vague murmur of prayers and the sweet songs of birds; there is silence too, and the sense of open space, in the holy garden enclosed within high walls; and again in the sanctuary, resplendent in its quiet and restful magnificence. Few people