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Queer Things About Egypt
Cairo an Arab City of the Middle Ages
EDIÆVAL Cairo is a subject so fascinating, so full
of details, that it demands a volume to itself. The only way in which I could include it in the present work without devoting to it at least fifty or sixty thousand words, and thereby curtailing the space indispensable for a description of the life and cities on the Nile, from the Sea to Assuan, was to generalise upon it in an introductory essay. My point of view is indicated by the title I have chosen for it, Cairo an Arab City of the Middle Ages. I have an additional reason for relegating this little historical study of the glorious old buildings of Cairo into an introduction. For it is written in a serious vein, while the rest of the book, especially the dozen chapters about the irresistible drolleries of education, Society, and housekeeping in Egypt, which follow the Introduction, present queer things about Egypt at every turn.
In the Ismailia quarter, where the Savoy Hotel lies, Cairo is a cross between Northumberland Avenue and Victoria Street. A mile away, in the Bab-es-Suweyla, the apparition of Saladin, the chivalrous Sultan who fought against our Richard Cour de Lion in the Crusades, would look quite natural.
And Saladin must often have passed here, for he was one of the principal founders of the greatness of Cairo, and the
Bab-es-Suweyla is one of the gates of El-Kahira, the city founded by his predecessors two hundred years before.
It was Saladin who gave Cairo her Citadel ; it was Saladin who founded the first Medressa, or mosque-college, which he attached to the venerable Mosque of Imam Shafyi, now surrounded by the tombs of the Mamelukes, one of the three mosques in Cairo which Christians are not allowed to visit, and the only one of the three which is worth a visit from the artistic point of view.
The Citadel of Cairo may be taken as an example of the surviving mediæval spirit of the Arab builder almost as much as the Mosque of El-Bordeini, built in the seventeenth century, and the Mosque of Mohammed Bey, built in the eighteenth. Its appearance from below is altogether mediæval, though the two principal features, the Bab-elAzab and the Mosque of Mehemet Ali, were, the former, rebuilt in the eighteenth century, and the latter built altogether in the nineteenth. The Mosque of Mehemet Ali, whose beauties are all external, and depend on distance for enchantment, is the crowning grace of Cairo. No matter whether you are on your house-top courting the breeze at sunset, or floating on the waters of the Nile, or seated on the Great Pyramid, the landscape is always crowned by the vast dome and obelisk minarets of the mosque erected to the memory of the founder of the dynasty of the Khedives. But its arcaded courtyard is only tolerable, and its interior not better than that of the Brighton Pavilion.
The Bab-el-Azab, inside, shows less of the cloven foot of modern cheapness. And this historic gateway admits the wayfarer to a true bit of the Middle Ages—a narrow, winding, climbing lane, commanded by the wall of the Citadel on one side, and on the other by its rocks scarped until they are almost steeper than the wall. This was the scene of the famous massacre of the Mamelukes-the turbulent barons in armour, each with his commando of armed retainers, who were no doubt only waiting for an opportunity to throw off the rule of Mehemet Ali. Even if Mehemet Ali, who had wrested the virtual independence of Egypt
from the Turks, and his son, the warlike Ibrahim, who as a general outshone himself, could have controlled the Mamelukes, their weak descendants like Ismail would have fallen an easy prey, and Egypt would have been plunged back into the civil wars of the Middle Ages. Mehemet Ali determined to remove them at a single blow. He asked them all to a state reception, and gave them a splendid escort of his choicest troops to take them home. When the whole cortège was between the middle gate of the Citadel and the Bab-el-Azab, he caused both gates to be closed, and this was the signal for the escort to fall on them. They were so dazed that few offered any resistance, and these were shot down by marksmen on the rocks and walls. But one survived, and he did not take the famous Mameluke leap from the Citadel walls, though he may have galloped off to Syria when he found himself shut outside, while his kinsmen were being massacred within.
It was Saladin who scarped the Citadel's rocks and gave it its noble ring of walls, though En-Nasir strengthened and extended his fortifications so much that the work of Saladin cannot be distinguished. Within the walls he built a superb palace, which lasted till the present dynasty replaced it with their mosque, and a palace even worse in taste than the interior of the mosque. Its massive vaults and foundations may yet be seen. The most beautiful buildings in the Citadel are the roofless halls of the royal mosque founded by EnNasir and the marble Mosque of Sultan Selim, the gem of sixteenth-century Cairo. The most interesting feature is the well, going back to the times of the Pharaohs, though it may have been called Joseph's well after Saladin himself, whose name was Youssuf. This is 300 ft. deep, and may still be descended to half its depth by the path which winds round it, like that which used to ascend the fallen campanile of Venice. It was the well which made Saladin choose this site, for there is a higher rock behind, which even the poor artillery of Mehemet Ali could render untenable.
The anomaly of the city being built before its citadel is only apparent, for the founder of El-Kahira already possessed two citadels, the Babylon of Old Cairo on the Nile and the Citadel of the Air, the palace founded by the great Sultan Ibn Tulun, beside his mosque, which still survives. These were quite strong enough to give the powerful Sultans of Egypt time to recover from any blow an enemy could deal them till suddenly they were confronted by the better armed and more warlike chivalry of the Crusades. It was then that Saladin projected his Citadel, which was impregnable till the invention of artillery. The Cairo which is still a mediæval city with antique mosques and palaces and baths and fountains and churches, may be divided into three partsBabylon, El-Katai, and El-Kahira; in other words, the Roman citadel behind old Cairo, the quarter of which the Tulun Mosque is the centre, divided from the first by the mounds of El-Fustat, and the quarter which stretches from the Citadel to the Muski. It is the last which foreigners know best, though they seldom know more than a few picturesque spots in it, such as the bazars and the Blue Mosque.
I will begin with Babylon, which is now exclusively Christian. It and the well in the Citadel are the only things in Cairo anterior to the Saracen invasion. Its name, Bab-el-On, is thought to imply that it was an outwork of On or Heliopolis, one of the early capitals of Egypt, which is six miles away on the other side of Cairo. In the 'mounds' which cover the ruins of Fustat just outside its gates, little dumps of ancient Egyptian antiquities are found. I myself picked up a tiny image of Knum, the Ram-headed god, there, when I was howking for remains of Arab pottery. The Egyptian Babylon still has its Roman walls and one great Roman gate, as fine as those of Rome.
Inside it is a beehive of Copts. The Coptic Babylon is almost an underground city. The Copts built right over their streets as if they were bees, though now they are beginning to leave a little more of them open to the sky. And to reach their churches you always have to dive under a house. These churches are very, very ancient, and go back to the days when the churches were the particular object of Moslem