But yet, when all is said, these mosques seem somehow to be wanting. They do not wholly satisfy you. The access to them perhaps is too easy, and one feels too near to the modern quarters of the town, where the hotels are full of visitors—so that at any moment, it seems, the spell may be broken by the entry of a batch of Cook’s tourists, armed with the inevitable Baedeker. Alas! they are the mosques of Cairo, of poor Cairo, that is invaded and profaned. The memory turns to those of Morocco, so jealously guarded, to those of Persia, even to those of Old Stamboul, where the shroud of Islam envelops you in silence and gently bows your shoulders as soon as you cross their thresholds.
And yet what pains are being taken to-day to preserve these mosques, which in olden times were such delightful retreats. Neglected for whole centuries, never repaired, notwithstanding the veneration of their heedless worshippers, the greater part of them were fallen into ruin; the fine woodwork of their interiors had become worm-eaten, their cupolas were cracked and their mosaics covered the floor as with a hail of mother-of-pearl, of porphyry and marble. It seemed that to repair all this was a task incapable of fulfilment; it was sheer folly, people said, to conceive the idea of it.
Nevertheless, for nearly twenty years now an army of workers has been at the task, sculptors, marble-cutters, mosaicists. Already certain of the sanctuaries, the most venerable of them indeed, have been entirely renovated. After having re-echoed for some years to the sounds of hammers and chisels, during the course of these vast renovations, they are restored now to peace and to prayer, and the birds have recommenced to build their nests in them.
It will be the glory of the present reign that it has preserved, before it was too late, all this magnificent legacy of Moslem art. When the city of “The Arabian Nights,” which was formerly there, shall have entirely disappeared, to give place to a vulgar entrepot of commerce and of pleasure, to which the plutocracy of the whole world comes every winter to disport itself, so much at least will remain to bear testimony to the lofty and magnificent thought that inspired the earlier Arab life. These mosques will continue to remain into the distant future, even when men shall have ceased to pray in them, and the winged guests shall have departed, for the want of those troughs of water from the Nile, filled for them by the good imams, whose hospitality they repay by making heard in the courts, beneath the arched roofs, beneath the ceilings of cedarwood, the sweet, piping music of birds.