« PreviousContinue »
notable. Each cage is by itself in a woodsy park. As far as possible, each exhibit simulates the native freedom of the open. And to see the baby rhinoceros galloping gayly about his compound like a kid at play, the young hippopotamus gravely splashing in and out of his pool obedient to the whistle of his master, or the shoe-billed stork in his absurd dignity parading about his inclosure, is worth an afternoon any day. Go to the zoölogical gardens by all means, as you would go to the Pyramids and the Sphinx. It is on no account to be omitted. And as you are a human being with capacity for being amused, do not overlook the shoe-billed stork, alias, the “Bellæneceps Rex.” You might as well go to Plymouth and omit visiting the Rock, or Agra and miss the Taj, or Athens and ignore the Acropolis. A sacred bird in his native land is the shoe-bill, and he looks as if he knew it. He is the most grotesque creature in the world, and at the same time stately enough for a khedive. At rest, which is most of the time, he is irresistible. On the walk he is simply, outrageously, and indescribably funny. One may admire the dancing cranes in their slim-legged ballet at sundown; one may shiver at the sinister aspect of the vultures, marvel at the antics of the monkeys, cringe before the full-throated roar of the lions — but the shoe-bill is easily the compelling
attraction. The Bellæneceps is, in short, facile princeps.
An aquarium of sorts is also located in the Ghezireh island, which repays a visit, although it is devoted only to Nile fish. One should not visit it too shortly before dining, however. Nile fish are far from beautiful and their lack of attraction is not atoned for by any of the redeeming qualities of the stork just mentioned. They are a bearded lot of monsters, unlovely, and not especially appealing to the devotee of fish dinners.
Interesting, but in a totally different way, is the eastern margin of the town. No broad plain here intervenes between Cairo and the Arabian Desert. Where the town stops, the cliffs rise almost at once, and behind them lies the waste of barren sands. A low range of foothills, composed of dust and gravel and bits of broken pottery, serves to separate the buildings of the native city from a barren plateau where lie the tomb-mosques of the old Caliphs and an array of modern cemeteries. The latter might easily be mistaken for dwellings as one passes them in the dusty tangle of streets. Outwardly they have the appearance of low houses. Inwardly they are quadrangles containing native graves. No cemetery that I know so nearly merits the name of a necropolis-a city of the dead.
Scattered among these, and lying also in detached magnificence to the northward along the surface of the desert, rise the mosques reared to shelter the tombs of the monarchs of the fifteenth century. These are mainly in ruins, though now conserved by the Government. Their revenues are gone. But as they tower out of the yellow sands against the cloudless blue of an Egyptian day, they afford a delight to the eyes. To this pleasant prospect the weavers, or rather spinners, plying their craft over the desert plain add not a little. Possibly a hundred great reels of yellow fibre are located there, served by twice that number of youths clad in the blue garments of the country. Each bears a long spindle on which the yellow fibre is wound, and they race to and fro across the desert twisting the strands as they go. They will tell you that it is silk they are spinning - but if silk it be it is a very coarse and "fishliney” variety. The whole effect is not easily to be described, nor is it readily forgotten. The blue-gowned boys, the bright yellow strands, the tawny desert, and the equally tawny mosques, standing sharp and clear against that sky without a cloud, form a picture for the artist rather than the mere painter in words.