Page images
PDF
EPUB

in the South Kensington Museum. The almost deserted mosque of Amr has a humble exterior ; but, inside, the forest of antique columns, restored in the fifteenth century, give its liwån a noble effect.

There is no better way to enter the city of Ibn Tulun, the second part of the mediæval city, than by walking over the mounds of Fustat, a mountainous desert in miniature, keeping on your right the aqueduct of Saladin, which might, but for its pointed arches, be the work of a Roman Emperor, and, fixing your eyes on the pageant of the Mameluke Tombs, second only to the Tombs of the Caliphs for splendour in the cemeteries of the Mohammedan world, and the Citadel crowned by the soaring Mosque of Mehemet Ali, rivalling the marvellous skyline of the Golden Horn. Behind the mosque and the tombs are the Golden Hills of the Mokattam range, with their horizon of desert broken by antique mosques, the true Citadel for Cairo.

In El-Katai, the city of Ibn Tulun, there is not a trace of the famous Golden House, for which he and his son exhausted the art, the luxury, and the imaginativeness of their times. But of Ibn Tulun's mosque only the colour and the pulpit carvings have gone, though a thousand years are beginning to tell their tale on the rich plaster tracery of the windows of the clerestory at the back of the sanctuary. The hardest stone of Gothic church-builders would have stood no longer than this marvellous stucco. The mosque is of vast extent, one of the largest in the world, and every roof and every pier is standing in its place, though it was abandoned for the very poor to fill with mud houses till the wise English rule induced the Mohammedan Wakfs to look after their monuments. It was the first mosque to employ piers instead of columns, the suggestion of a Christian slave, for otherwise every church in Egypt would have been robbed of the columns garnered from antique temples. In the centre stands the famous minaret, with an outside staircase winding round its exterior, for which Ibn Tulun twisted the design out of a piece of paper, when his architect's ingenuity ran dry.

At the back of the mosque--if you can find your tortuous

way beneath the tall, overhanging houses of the Mameluke period, whose harem windows (vast oriels decorated with old meshrebiya screens) are a delight to artists—lies the Mosque of Kait Bey, one of the gems of Cairo, the most perfect specimen of the period when Egyptian mosques ceased to be open cloisters, with their Eastern colonnade deepened to shelter the worshippers from the sun as they prostrated themselves before the mihrab.

The Kait Bey type of mosque was like the hall of an emir's palace, hardly longer than its height, with a richly painted roof, and windows with tiny bits of coloured glass set like gems in a delicate filigree of plaster. The sunken floor under the exquisitely graceful dome was inlaid, like the walls, in rare marbles with the choicest taste, and surrounded by four dayses, cut off by the lofty Moorish arches which sustained the dome. The eastern dars was adorned with a mihrab in delicate mosaics, and a tall pulpit with a Jacob'sladder stair of the same rare woodwork as the Coptic screens.

No part of Cairo is so rich in small ancient buildings as ElKatai. Between it and El-Kahira lie the ancient mosques and dervish tekkes of the Hilmiya and the Gamamise, leading to the palace of Sheikh Sadat, the type of the great Arab mansion, where, till he was poisoned by a would-be son-inlaw a few years ago, the chief descendant of the Prophet lived. His palace is quite a castle, which has a selamlik as large as a mosque, with its lofty walls inlaid with old Persian tiles, and a range of superb oriels, screened by the richest meshrebiya, for the ladies of the harem, over a feudal gateway.

There are three approaches from El-Katai to the Bab-esSuweyla, the chief gate of El-Kahira—the Bazar of the Armourers, starting by Sultan Hassan's mosque, the most majestic in Cairo; the Sharia Serougiya, a little to the left of this, and the Sharia-el-Magar, leading down from the shoulder of the Citadel hill. All of them abound in mediæval beauties. The Sharia Serougiya takes you past a succession of little mosques with domes which are dreams of slender grace, and a few old mansions, into the busy

Bazar of the Tentmakers, who embroider the awnings which render Mohammedan festivals so gay. At its end is the Bab-es-Suweyla. The Sak of the Armourers conducts you through a magnificent old street lined on both sides with ancient Arab mansions, and containing the lovely mediæval baths of Sultan Beshtak, still in use, to the back of the El-Merdani mosque, five centuries old, the most gracious in all Cairo, with its wide gateways revealing its sunny court and the antique glories of its sanctuary.

In the Haret-es-Merdani is the old mansion whose courtyard artists love to paint. For one side of it is rich with all the architectural graces of the Arabs-its Mak'ad or open hall, has three great arches rising to the roof, a recessed doorway, almost as lofty, at the head of the steps which lead up from the court, and a balcony graced with two pavilions of meshrebiya for the harem ladies : its windows are screened with old woodwork, and its walls are arabesqued. At ElMerdani this joins the Sharia-el-Tabbana, the continuation of the Sharia-el-Magar, the finest of the three approaches. For that starts on the ridge, between the procession of old mosques which leads up from Sultan Hassan's mosque to the gate of the Citadel, and the lordly mediæval cemetery called the Tombs of the Caliphs, whose shrines, stretching into the desert, form the most beautiful and romantic vision in the kingdom of Arabian art.

From this point the road leads swiftly down past mosque after mosque, mansion after mansion-fantastic creations, mostly like Ibrahim Agha's (called the Blue Mosque from the old Persian tiles which line its spacious sanctuary), mellowed by the hands of time and decay into lines of exquisite softness.

The Kitchmas mosque, perfect, and of the fifteenth century, is built across the street. As you round it you come on a vision hardly less lovely than the Tombs of the Caliphs. For there, below you, capped by the fantastic minarets of the old El-Muayyad mosque, profiled against the blue Egyptian sky, is the Bab-es-Suweyla gate-the heart of ancient Cairo.

Here you can put off Europe and modernity as the worshipper, entering the mosque beside the gate, puts off his shoes. For in the Sukkariya, the broad road spanned by the gate—though it is vulgarised by European haberdashery, you are never out of sight of one of its noble mosques and sebils. The street, in Arab fashion, changes its name twice or thrice before you reach the Sudanese bazar, with its painted chests and leopard skins, and turn up to the vast and ancient precincts of El-Azhar, the thousand-year-old university of all Islam.

Step across the Muski, and for a while the spell is broken, for, though the Khordaguiya is guarded at its entrance by an ancient mosque, and has on its left the narrow-laned bazar, crowded with veiled women, where the goldsmiths are forging their delicate filigree over charcoal flames, this street, and the brass market at its end, have intrusions of foreigners and foreign wares flowing out of the Khanil-Khalil, the great bazar on the right, where the sellers of carpets, embroideries, precious stones, laces, and antiquities arrange their wares in foreign ways for the foreigners to buy.

You are soon through this nightmare and back in your pleasant dream of the Middle Ages in the Mosque land of El-Nahassin, the most romantic highway of antiquity in all Cairo. The Muristan and mosque of Sultan Kalaûn, the mosque and tomb of Sultan En-Nasr, the mosque of Sultan Barkûk, and the old sheikh's house beyond-where else is such a thicket of the flowers of old Arab architecture to be found? This majestic cluster of mosques has a Gothic richness and a Gothic gateway, a captive from Acre; the exquisite minarets present a diapering of hoary stone, like the handiwork of the lacemaker or the chaser of precious metals. And, within, there is every antique grace, from the ruins in the hospital of Kalaûn and the tomb of En-Nasr to the resurrection of mediæval art, from its ashes in Kalaun's mosque, and the imperishable splendour of the fifteenth century. There are the ruins of a Caliph's palace opposite and other

' A fascinating place, where I have bargained for whole days.

old mosques beyond-El-Hakim itself, indeed, and the mighty wall and gates of the age of Saladin ; but we must turn up to the Beit-el-Kadi, with the only five-arched Mak'ad in Cairo. Was it not the palace of the Grand Cadi, and of the Caliphs of El-Kahira before him?

Turning our backs on this, we are soon in the Gamaliya, the stronghold of Cairo mediævalism, the street which delights the heart of the Arab. At its entrance, look where you will, you see noble old Mameluke palaces overshadowing the street, with their ranges of harem oriels screened with the old brown pierced woodwork of their meshrebiya. Here is a ruined mosque; there is a stately fountain ; there one of the ancient gates for closing the ends of streets at night. Push boldly through it. Step to the end of the alley and knock at a feudal doorway. This is the palace of Sultan Beybars. The major-domo of the courteous sheikh will come out and conduct you through a leafy court, with the grandest screen of meshrebiya in all Cairo, resting on the garden hall at the end, into the throne-room of Sultan Beybars, who died six hundred years ago. The carved wood throne, from which he administered justice, stands where it stood. Behind that is the hall of the fêtes of the harem, like a mosque of Kait Bey, as high as it is long, with mellow-painted ceiling and graceful moresco arches to separate the darses from the sunken floor, tessellated with rare marbles, under the cupola. But here this floor has an added grace-an exquisite Moorish fountain in its centre, and the dayses are spread with the rich carpets and soft divans, which betoken that its mediæval splendour does not form a museum, but the home in which a Cairo notable of to-day leads his luxurious life.

« PreviousContinue »