But nobody venerates these tombs of the Mameluke oppressors, or keeps them in repair; and within them there are no more chants, no prayers to Allah. Night after night they pass in an infinity of silence. Piety contents itself with not destroying them; leaving them there at the mercy of time and the sun and the wind which withers and crumbles them. And all around are the signs of ruin. Tottering cupolas show us irreparable cracks; the halves of broken arches are outlined to-night in shadow against the mother-of-pearl light of the sky, and debris of sculptured stones are strewn about. But nevertheless these tombs, that are well-nigh accursed, still stir in us a vague sense of alarm—particularly those in the distance, which rise up like silhouettes of misshapen giants in enormous hats—dark on the white sheet of sand—and stand there in groups, or scattered in confusion, at the entrance to the vast empty regions beyond.
We had chosen a time when the light was doubtful in order that we might avoid the tourists, but as we approach the funeral dwelling of Sultan Barkuk, the assassin, we see, issuing from it, a whole band, some twenty in a line, who emerge from the darkness of the abandoned walls, each trotting on his little donkey and each followed by the inevitable Bedouin driver, who taps with his stick upon the rump of the beast. They are returning to Cairo, their visit ended, and exchange in a loud voice, from one ass to another, more or less inept impressions in various European languages. . . . And look! There is even amongst them the almost proverbial belated dame who, for private reasons of her own, follows at a respectable distance behind. She is a little mature perhaps, so far as can be judged in the moonlight, but nevertheless still sympathetic to her driver, who, with both hands, supports her from behind on her saddle, with a touching solicitude that is peculiar to the country. Ah! these little donkeys of Egypt, so observant, so philosophical and sly, why cannot they write their memoirs! What a number of droll things they must have seen at night in the outskirts of Cairo!
This good lady evidently belongs to that extensive category of hardy explorers who, despite their high respectability at home, do not hesitate, once they are landed on the banks of the Nile, to supplement their treatment by the sun and the dry winds with a little of the “Bedouin cure.”
Dimly lighted by the flames of a few poor slender tapers which flicker against the walls in stone arches, a dense crowd of human figures veiled in black, in a place overpowering and suffocating—underground, no doubt—which is filled with the perfume of the incense of Arabia; and a noise of almost wicked movement, which sirs us to alarm and even horror: bleatings of new-born babies, cries of distress of tiny mites whose voices are drowned, as if on purpose, by a clinking of cymbals.