It is the entrance to El-Azhar, a venerable place in Islam, whence have issued for nearly a thousand years the generations of priests and doctors charged with the propagation of the word of the Prophet amongst the nations, from the Mohreb to the Arabian Sea, passing through the great deserts. About the end of our tenth century the glorious Fatimee Caliphs built this immense assemblage of arches and columns, which became the seat of the most renowned Moslem university in the world. And since then successive sovereigns of Egypt have vied with one another in perfecting and enlarging it, adding new halls, new galleries, new minarets, till they have made of El-Azhar almost a town within a town.
“He who seeks
instruction is more loved of God than he who fights
in a holy war.”
—A verse from the Hadith.
Eleven o’clock on a day of burning sunshine and dazzling light. El-Azhar still vibrates with the murmur of many voices, although the lessons of the morning are nearly finished.
Once past the threshold of the double ornamented door we enter the courtyard, at this moment empty as the desert and dazzling with sunshine. Beyond, quite open, the mosque spreads out its endless arcades, which are continued and repeated till they are lost in the gloom of the far interior, and in this dim place, with its perplexing depths, innumerable people in turbans, sitting in a close crowd, are singing, or rather chanting, in a low voice, and marking time as it were to their declamation by a slight rhythmic swaying from the hips. They are the ten thousand students come from all parts of the world to absorb the changeless doctrine of El-Azhar.
At the first view it is difficult to distinguish them, for they are far down in the shadow, and out here we are almost blinded by the sun. In little attentive groups of from ten to twenty, seated on mats around a grave professor, they docilely repeat their lessons, which in the course of centuries have grown old without changing like Islam itself. And we wonder how those in the circles down there, in the aisles at the bottom where the daylight scarcely penetrates, can see to read the old difficult writings in the pages of their books.
In any case, let us not trouble them—as so many tourists nowadays do not hesitate to do; we will enter a little later, when the studies of the morning are over.
This court, upon which the sun of the forenoon now pours its white fire, is an enclosure severely and magnificently Arab; it has isolated us suddenly from time and things; it must lend to the Moslem prayer what formerly our Gothic churches lent to the Christian. It is vast as a tournament list; confined on one side by the mosque itself, and on the others by a high wall which effectively separates it from the outer world. The walls are of a reddish hue, burnt by centuries of sun into the colour of raw sienna or of bloodstone. At the bottom they are straight,