They must awake; and already the awakening is at hand. Here, in Egypt, where the need is felt to change so many things, it is proposed, too, to reform the old university of El-Azhar, one of the chief centres of Islam. One thinks of it with a kind of fear, knowing what danger there is in laying hands upon institutions which have lasted for a thousand years. Reform, however, has, in principle, been decided upon. New knowledge, brought from the West, is penetrating into the tabernacle of the Fatimites. Has not the Prophet said: “Go; seek knowledge far and wide, if needs be even into China”? What will come of it? Who can tell? But this, at least, is certain: that in the dazzling hours of noon, or in the golden hours of evening, when the crowd of these modernised students spreads itself over the vast courtyard, overlooked by its countless minarets, there will no longer be seen in their eyes the mystic light of to-day; and it will no longer be the old unshakable faith, nor the lofty and serene indifference, nor the profound peace, that these messengers will carry to the ends of the Mussulman earth. . . .
IN THE TOMBS OF THE APIS
The dwelling-places of the Apis, in the grim darkness beneath the Memphite desert, are, as all the world knows, monster coffins of black granite ranged in catacombs, hot and stifling as eternal stoves.
To reach them from the banks of the Nile we have first to traverse the low region which the inundations of the ancient river, regularly repeated since the beginning of time, have rendered propitious to the growth of plants and to the development of men; an hour or two’s journey, this evening through forests of date-trees whose beautiful palms temper the light of the March sun, which is now half veiled in clouds and already declining. In the distance herds are grazing in the cool shade. And we meet fellahs leading back from the field towards the village on the river-bank their little donkeys, laden with sheaves of corn. The air is mild and wholesome under the high tufts of these endless green plumes, which move in the warm wind almost without noise. We seem to be in some happy land, where the pastoral life should be easy, and even a little paradisiacal.
But beyond, in front of us, quite a different world is gradually revealed. Its aspect assumes the importance of a menace from the unknown; it awes us like an apparition of chaos, of universal death. . . . It is the desert, the conquering desert, in the midst of which inhabited Egypt, the green valleys of the Nile, trace merely a narrow ribbon. And here, more than elsewhere, the sight of this sovereign desert rising up before us is startling and thrilling, so high up it seems, and we so low in the Edenlike valley shaded by the palms. With its yellow hues, its livid marblings, and its sands which make it look somehow as if it lacked consistency, it rises on the