At the end of this town of the dead, the desert again opens before us its mournful whitened expanse. On such a night as this, when the wind blows cold and the misty moon shows like a sad opal, it looks like a steppe under snow.
But it is a desert planted with ruins, with the ghosts of mosques; a whole colony of high tumbling domes are scattered here at hazard on the shifting extent of the sands. And what strange old-fashioned domes they are! The archaism of their silhouettes strikes us from the first, as much as their isolation in such a place. They look like bells, or gigantic dervish hats placed on pedestals, and those farthest away give the impression of squat, large-headed figures posted there as sentinels, watching the vague horizon of Arabia beyond.
They are the proud tombs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries where the Mameluke Sultans, who oppressed Egypt for nearly three hundred years, sleep now in complete abandonment. Nowadays, it is true, some visits are beginning to be paid to them—on winter nights when the moon is full and they throw on the sands their great clear-cut shadows. At such times the light is considered favourable, and they rank among the curiosities exploited by the agencies. Numbers of tourists (who persist in calling them the tombs of the caliphs) betake themselves thither of an evening—a noisy caravan mounted on little donkeys. But to-night the moon is too pale and uncertain, and we shall no doubt be alone in troubling them in their ghostly communion.
To-night indeed the light is quite unusual. As just now in the town of the dead, it is diffused on all sides and gives even to the most massive objects the transparent semblance of unreality. But nevertheless it shows their detail and leaves them something of their daylight colouring, so that all these funeral domes, raised on the ruins of the mosques, which serve them as pedestals, have preserved their reddish or brown colours, although the sand which separates them, and makes between the tombs of the different sultans little dead solitudes, remains pale and wan.
And meanwhile our carriage, proceeding always without noise, traces on this same sand little furrows which the wind will have effaced by to-morrow. There are no roads of any kind; they would indeed be as useless as they are impossible to make. You may pass here where you like, and fancy yourself far away from any place inhabited by living beings. The great town, which we know to be so close, appears from time to time, thanks to the undulations of the ground, as a mere phosphorescence, a reflection of its myriad electric lights. We are indeed in the desert of the dead, in the sole company of the moon, which, by the fantasy of this wonderful Egyptian sky, is to-night a moon of grey pearl, one might almost say a moon of mother-of-pearl.
Each of these funeral mosques is a thing of splendour, if one examines it closely in its solitude. These strange upraised domes, which from a distance look like the head-dresses of dervishes or magi, are embroidered with arabesques, and the walls are crowned with denticulated trefoils of exquisite fashioning.