A short trot brings us up to the lower gate of the old fortress; and, by a natural effect, as we ascend, all Cairo which is near there, seems to rise with us: not yet indeed the endless multitude of its houses; but at first only the thousands of its minarets, which in a few seconds point their high towers into the mournful sky, and suggest at once that an immense town is about to unfold itself under our eyes.
Continuing to ascend—past the double rampart, the double or triple gates, which all these old fortresses possess, we penetrate at length into a large fortified courtyard, the crenellated walls of which shut out our further view. Soldiers are on guard there—and how unexpected are such soldiers in this holy place of Egypt! The red uniforms and the white faces of the north: Englishmen, billeted in the palace of Mehemet Ali!
The mosque first meets the eye, preceding the palace. And as we approach, it is Stamboul indeed—for me dear old Stamboul—which is called to mind; there is nothing, whether in the lines of its architecture or in the details of its ornamentation, to suggest the art of the Arabs—a purer art it may be than this and of which many excellent examples may be seen in Cairo. No; it is a corner of Turkey into which we are suddenly come.
Beyond a courtyard paved with marble, silent and enclosed, which serves as a vast parvis, the sanctuary recalls those of Mehemet Fatih or the Chah Zade: the same sanctified gloom, into which the stained glass of the narrow windows casts a splendour as of precious stones; the same extreme distance between the enormous pillars, leaving more clear space than in our churches, and giving to the domes the appearance of being held up by enchantment.
The walls are of a strange white marble streaked with yellow. The ground is completely covered with carpets of a sombre red. In the vaults, very elaborately wrought, nothing but blacks and gold: a background of black bestrewn with golden roses, and bordered with arabesques like gold lace. And from above hang thousands of gold chains supporting the vigil lamps for the evening prayers. Here and there are people on their knees, little groups in robe and turban, scattered fortuitously upon the red of the carpets, and almost lost in the midst of the sumptuous solitude.
In an obscure corner lies Mehemet Ali, the prince adventurous and chivalrous as some legendary hero, and withal one of the greatest sovereigns of modern history. There he lies behind a grating of gold, of complicated design, in that Turkish style, already decadent, but still so beautiful, which was that of his epoch.
Through the golden bars may be seen in the shadow the catafalque of state, in three tiers, covered with blue brocades, exquisitely faded, and profusely embroidered with dull gold. Two long green palms freshly cut from some date-tree in the neighbourhood are crossed before the door of this sort of funeral enclosure. And it seems that around us is an inviolable religious peace. . . .