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We also had a view of the best bit of Damietta, the great curve of palace-bordered river which suggests the Grand Canal of Venice-a humble Venice tottering to decay. The houses, though built of wood, are distinctly Venetian in type; they have the same arched and grouped windows, the same broad fights of steps leading down to the river ; the minarets of Damietta look passably like the campanili of the faded Queen of the Adriatic.
When we landed we realised what Nubia and the Sudan would have been like without Cook? Be it never so humble, there is no place like Cook's office in a country where you don't speak the language.
But in Egypt there is generally some poor man with a Pentecostal gift of tongues; and while we were shivering on the brink of the Damietta arm of the Nile, there arose, before us, as if by magic, a man following the apostolic profession of fisherman, who had the apostolic gift. His name was Shoukry Bey. Why he was a bey I can't imagine ; even Beys ought to have at least two piastres in their pockets to jingle against each other.
The Bey volunteered to place himself and his gift of tongues at our disposal for the rest of the day for one shilling Egyptian, and with him we went in search of a hotel. His “gift" consisted of six words of English, five of Italian, four of French, three of German, and, as he said, though we had only his word for it, “Many, yes, many of Greek.”
He recommended the Hôtel Khedivieh. It sounded all right, so we allowed him to conduct us there. When we got there we could not see anything, but he dived down a passage and landed us in a large Egyptian house. The dirt rose in stacks, and the landlady, apparently a Greek, looked such a murderess that we decided not to go there, and said loftily that the accommodation would not do; and it wouldn't.
The Bey admitted that there was another inn, the Hôtel de France, and seemed to have no objection to our trying it. Its entrance was still more unpromising ; we had, in fact, to go through a donkey-stable and up a ship's companion into another large Egyptian house, built of mud. The land.
lord was not in the city, and the landlady would not come out of the harem. But with fine illogic she allowed her daughters to come out, one of whom spoke a little German and the other a little French. We interviewed them in a large room surrounded by mastabas. The daughters were closely veiled, and sat, with their legs under them, on the mastabas while we discussed terms.
The Bey had to show us the rooms, and was bursting with pride because each had a toothcomb. The various drawbacks of that hotel I have dwelt on in my chapter on the humours of Egyptian hotels. It was no blow to us to be told that we could not have anything to eat or drink in the hotel.
There we left the various packages, which the Bey had been carrying for us, and went off to see Damietta. I never saw such a tumbly place. All the houses are being pulled down, or look as if they ought to be, though some of them are so picturesque that they might well be made national monuments to preserve the tradition of Damietta architecture. Damietta is all front, like the Palazzata of Messina after the earthquake. If you go behind the splendid sweep of Venetian-looking palaces fringing that elbow of the Nile, you see nothing but ruins and hovels.
The architecture of Damietta is as perishable as that of Rosetta is permanent. Instead of good fire-baked bricks to defy the moisture of the climate, and loggias of antique columns, Damietta houses are built of wood. At a glance one can see that woodwork is the speciality of Damietta. Instead of ordinary meshrebiya, some of the houses had massive lattices of carved hard-wood like the screens of the fourteenth century mosques in Cairo. And the ceilings and eaves, supported on heavy brackets under the harem windows, were of specially handsome appliqué wood-work. The other speciality, chiefly used in passages and under the arcades round courtyards, was a coarse plaster imitation of palmtrees, rather like the fanwork of our Perpendicular ceilings at Christ Church, Oxford, and elsewhere. There were some nice courtyards, and a few old mosques of no great size or richness, though they were decidedly picturesque, in the
town. One old mosque we went into had a good painted ceiling, a quaint pulpit on antique classical columns, and very fine specimens of Damietta window-woodwork. Its courtyards, like the other Damietta mosques, were decorated with classical columns. The noble old mansions, of which the guide-books speak as bordering the bazar for a mile and a half, no longer exist, though Rosetta is so rich in them.
Damietta is a primitive place; it has no drains, but a ditch a foot wide running down each side of the street. It is such a very native place that nothing which would pass for a curio is sold in the whole bazar. Its principal industries are basket-weaving and silk-yarn making. It is in preparation for the former that half the houses in Damietta have great stacks of palm-leaves leaning against them ; the silkspinning establishments might be in Italy if it was not for the dress of the workmen. As we made our way through the city to see the great mosque of Abu'l-Ma'ata, in the suburb of El-Gebana, we were shocked at the ruins of fine old mansions, which showed what Damietta must have been in its glory. There was hardly anything perfect, except here and there a beautiful colonnade. The Abu'l-Ma'ata mosque looks as old as the days of the Crusades; it may well have been standing when Damietta was taken by King John of Jerusalem nearly seven hundred years ago, or, at all events, when St. Louis occupied it, exactly six hundred and sixty years ago. It belongs to the day when Damietta was famous for its leather and weaving and oil of sesame, as tasty to the Oriental as it is abominable to the Westerner : rancid butter is less objectionable.
Damietta fell as Rosetta fell, by the conquest of commerce, not of arms. Mehemet Ali killed it by diverting the produce of the Nile along the Mahmudiya Canal to Alexandria. The Abu'l-Ma'ata mosque has the appearance of being abandoned, though it is kept locked from beggars and children, a consideration for foreigners visiting the forgotten Damietta. They hammered at the door, as if they were thirsting for our blood, all the time that we were in the mosque. It has three excellent colonnades with perished
classical columns of verde antico and other precious marbles, some of which are shored up with timber to prevent them falling. The pulpit is of old painted woodwork, the mihrab is unimportant. There are two Oriental alabaster columns in it, worn with tongues and the rubbing of lemons, used for the same purpose as their prototype in the mosque of Amr' at Cairo. I have forgotten what the exact purpose was, but I have an idea that the pillars were first rubbed with lemon, and then with new-born babies' tongues. The sour taste made the babies cry, and ensured them against spending their lives in dumbness. This did not seem to me so reasonable as women squeezing themselves between the pair of columns on the opposite side of Amr's mosque-to show what they would be expected to show; though some people say that both sexes did it to show that they were Mohammedans and not unbelievers. But that would have been preposterous in a country, where half of the Faithful become uncomfortably obese as they approach middle age. That is almost as difficult to believe in as the column, which transported itself through the air from Mecca at the command of the Caliph Omar, that successful Mohammedan Canute.
To turn to the Abu'l-Ma'ata mosque, I should have mentioned its picturesque old reading-desk on wooden columns, and its little old minaret. It was very venerablelooking, and had much beauty in its decay. As the most sacred spot in Damietta, it was surrounded with old tombs of the Faithful, some of them very odd old tombs. Near this mosque was a small bazar, much more ornamental and Oriental than the principal bazar, and a very busy fishmarket, where they really sold fish, unlike the Cairo Fishmarket.
Old Damietta was in such a very fragmentary condition, that we had to think what we should do with ourselves on the next day, to make up for the ordeal of passing the night in a Damietta hotel. We decided to go to the police-station and ask the captain, who would be sure to talk English or French, what was the best way of going to the Damietta mouth of the Nile. We would get him to decide what we
were to pay the boatman, or coachman. Damietta seemed to possess a cab. Sailing down the river would doubtless be preferable, if we could be sure of getting back in time.
The police-captain was a very youthful-looking person, as spruce and elegant as an Italian officer.
He did speak English very well, and he was delighted to see us. If not a native of Damietta, he must have been ennuyé : he exhibited the usual incompetence of the Egyptian to take the smallest initiative. He said he should have to inquire. We did not know then that he meant to refer the question to the Governer of Damietta. At Damietta the arrival of English people is an event which needs the interposition of Jove. He asked us to come back at eight o'clock. We thought this meant that we were to go now, but that was not the policecaptain's idea. He was only speaking of the time at which we were to receive the official decision. In the interval he invited us to see the town with him and his very rich friend. The rich friend was there, and squinted horribly at the suggestion. It did not mean that he was displeased, but that he was paralysed with pleasure, for one member of our party was an uncommonly pretty and well-dressed girl. The very rich friend at once suggested that we should dine with him, but we felt that we could not accept such a invitation from a man we had only known for an instant, who did not look more than eighteen. He seemed knocked out for a few seconds, but came up from his corner before time with: “Then may I be allowed to have the young lady's photograph?” We thought the best thing to say was that the young lady had never been photographed in her life. But he produced a camera and asked if he might be allowed to take one. As it was now six o'clock, and it gets dusk pretty early in Egypt, we agreed to this. The camera was a Brownie No. I. He then invited us to go to his house, which the police-captain said was the only old mansion left perfect in Damietta. When we got there we found it had all been renewed except one room, and that room had not been unlocked for so long, that nobody knew where the key was: eventually he had the door forced. There was nothing to show but a fine old Damietta wood