In the nave, supported by columns of marble, brought in days gone by from Pagan temples, there are, as in all these old Coptic churches, high transverse wooden partitions, elaborately wrought in the Arab fashion, which divide it into three sections: the first, into which one comes on entering the church, is allotted to the women, the second is for the baptistery, and the third, at the end adjoining the iconostasis, is reserved for the men.
These women who are gathered this morning in their apportioned space—so much at home there with their suckling little ones—wear, almost all of them, the long black silk veils of former days. In their harmonious and endlessly restless groups, the gowns a la franque and the poor hats of carnival are still the exception. The congregation, as a whole, preserves almost intact its naive, old-time flavour.
And there is movement too, beyond, in the compartment of the men, which is bounded at the farther end by the iconostasis—a thousand-year-old wall decorated with inlaid cedarwood and ivory of precious antique workmanship, and adorned with strange old icons, blackened by time. It is behind this wall—pierced by several doorways—that mass is now being said. From this last sanctuary shut off thus from the people comes the vague sound of singing; from time to time a priest raises a faded silk curtain and from the threshold makes the sign of blessing. His vestments are of gold, and he wears a golden crown, but the humble faithful speak to him freely, and even touch his gorgeous garments, that might be those of one of the Wise Kings. He smiles, and letting fall the curtain, which covers the entrance to the tabernacle, disappears again into this innocent mystery.
Even the least things here tell of decay. The flagstones, trodden by the feet of numberless dead generations, are become uneven through the settling of the soil. Everything is askew, bent, dusty and worn-out. The daylight comes from above, through narrow barred windows. There is a lack of air, so that one almost stifles. But though the sun does not enter, a certain indefinable reflection from the whitened walls reminds us that outside there is a flaming, resplendent Eastern spring.
In this, the old grandfather, as it were, of churches, filled now with a cloud of odorous smoke, what one hears, more even than the chanting of the mass, is the ceaseless movement, the pious agitation of the faithful; and more even than that, the startling noise that rises from the holy crypt below—the sharp clashing of cymbals and those multitudinous little wailings, that sound like the mewings of kittens.
But let me not harbour thoughts of irony! Surely not. If, in our Western lands, certain ceremonies seem to me anti-Christian—as, for example, one of those spectacular high masses in the over-pompous Cathedral of Cologne, where halberdiers overawe the crowd—here, on the contrary, the simplicity of this primitive cult is touching and respectable in the extreme. These Copts who install themselves in their church, as round their firesides, who make their home there and encumber the place with their fretful little ones, have, in their own way, well understood the word of Him who said: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”