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Pierre Loti's Mistakes about Egypt
LL through the winter our newspapers have been re
viewing Pierre Loti's “ Egypt" (through the medium of the translation brought out so sumptuously by Mr. Werner Laurie) with bated breath. They have been treating the Egyptology of this exquisite spinner of gossamer with as much respect as if he were a Dennis writing of Etruria, instead of an ill-read egotist who only sees with one eye. M. Loti's gift of observation is limited. If he has given us a “Madame Chrysanthème " with an admirable general effect, he has also given us books upon other countries with not much more resemblance to the originals than the Abyssinia of Rasselas bore to the actual dominions of the Negus.
M. Loti does not observe the country about which he intends to write ; he uses it as a paint-box full of brilliant pigments, with which he creates chefs-d'auvres. His style is delightful. There is no French author whose works i enjoy so much. But he is a stylist, and not a serious writer of travel-books, and therefore when he makes sweeping and unjust attacks on the work of the English in Egypt, and upon Thomas Cook & Son, who have done so much to benefit the poor Egyptians, and to open the glories of Egypt for the traveller, it behoves one to demonstrate how little importance need be attached to what he says.
M. Loti is amazingly inaccurate. You see this, if you know anything about Egypt, before you have read fifty pages of his book. While he is trying to work-up the Oriental aspect, for instance, he multiplies the number of mosques and minarets by ten or twelve. On p. 181 of the English edition and
1 " Les milliers de minarets."
p. 22' he uses the expression “thousands of minarets," and on P. 312 he says that there are more than three thousand mosques.
What are the facts ?
In the guide-book written by the great Wilkinson in the days when mosques which have now fallen were still standing, it is stated that Cairo contains 264 mosques and 225 sawiyas or chapels. No one has ever known Egypt better than the author of “ Ancient Egypt," who devoted his life to it
Of these 264 mosques quite a large proportion have no minarets. Cairo is not a city of many minarets. For its size, it contains comparatively few. One can safely say that there is not a street in Cairo which contains a dozen minarets. In the face of this M. Loti says "thousands of minarets rise up on every side.” It would be stretching a point to say that even scores rise up on every side.
But, then, M. Loti is never accurate. On p. 7, writing about the Sphinx, he says that "a little more than a mile away there ends a road travelled by hackney carriages and tramway-cars," and on p. 2194 he calls Thebes, by which he means Karnak, "a league away from the Hotels of Luxor "absurd exaggerations of distance.
But to return to mosques, which he has taken under his special protection, though his remarks show that he could only have visited very few, because there is hardly any mosque of which they are all true but Al Moayy'ad. You would gather from his book that the mosques of Cairo are surrounded with regular parks. On p. 33 he writes, ó "The peculiar charm of the gardens of the mosques, which are often very extensive, is that they are so jealously enclosed within their high walls
I “Les minarets par milliers se lèvent de partout.”
$ “Mais, à une demi-lieue à peine, aboutit une route où circulent des fiacres, des tramways, où des automobiles de bonne marque viennent pousser leurs gracieux cris de canard."
4 “A une lieue d'ici, à Louxor, dans les hôtels. . ."
5 « Le charme rare de ces jardins de mosquée, souvent très vastes, est d'être si jalousement enclos entre leurs grands murs-toujours couronnés de trèfles de pierre-qui n'y laissent rien deviner des agitations du dehors; des palmiers de cent ans y jaillissent du sol, séparément ou en bouquets superbes. ... Quant à la mosquée elle-même, rarement elle est un lieu fermé de tous côtés, comme dans les pays de l'Islam plus sombre du Nord; en Égypte, non . . . on a pu laisser une des faces complètement ouverte sur le jardin."
crowned always with stone trefoils which completely shut out the hubbub of the outer world. Palm-trees, which have grown there for some hundred years perhaps, rise from the ground either separately or in superb clusters. . . . As for the mosque itself, it is rarely closed on all sides, as are those of the countries of the sombre Islam of the north. . . . One of the sides of the mosque is left completely open to the garden.”
This paragraph bristles with inaccuracies. There is not a mosque in Cairo which has a very extensive garden. The only mosque which has a garden worth mentioning is Al Moayy'ad, of that, doubtless, he is thinking, because it is surrounded by magnificent walls, which cut it off from the hubbub round the Bab-es-Zuweyla. It has some good palmtrees, but not as old as the palms of Bordighera, and, in the matter of size, it is only as large as a fair-sized London square. The next best, chiefly on account of its size, is that of the Mosque of Ibrahim Agha—the famous Blue Mosque. But it can hardly be called a garden at all—it is a sandy waste with a few good palm-trees very picturesquely grouped in the centre.
Moreover, M. Loti seems never to have been in this mosque, for he says on p. 35, “ There is no faience as in the
of Turkey or Iran,”1 and this mosque gets its name of “The Blue Mosque" from its liwan being lined throughout with old turquoise blue titles. One or two other mosques have charming shady quadrangles, but they are small, and to the English mind are courts, not gardens. I might instance the delightful little mosque of El Mase, or that curious old double mosque of the dervishes, which has a road between its two parts—the Chikhûn. That sentence, “As for the mosque itself, it is rarely closed on all sides . . . one of the sides of the mosque is left completely open to the garden," alone would show how loosely M. Loti writes. The whole enclosure (including the courtyard, which he calls the garden) is the mosque : the sanctuary, to which he confines the term
'Point de faiences, comme dans les mosquées de la Turquie ou de l'Iran.
mosque," is only one portion of it, the liwån. If only this part formed the mosque you would not be compelled to take off your shoes (or put on overshoes) until you came to it, whereas this has to be done the moment you enter the mosque precincts. His inaccuracy as an observer is shown again immediately below, where he says, “It is always the mihrab which is decorated with the most elaborate richness; generally little columns of lapis-lazuli, intensely blue, rise in relief from it.” The mihrab is sometimes, as at El Azhar itself, hardly decorated at all, and the little blue columns, which are certainly a feature of many a mihrab, are not made of lapis-lazuli, but of turquoise-blue farence. It is difficult to forgive a man, who is so fond of using colourepithets, for confusing the utterly different turquoise and lapis-lazuli blues.
With this we may pass from the subject of mosques, merely pointing out that it is absurd on p. 24, to talk of “the tall aerial minarets rising to a prodigious height into the twilight sky."! One could not use the epithet prodigious about any of them except perhaps those of the Mosque of Mehemet Ali on the Citadel, which is avowedly a modern imitation of the mosques of Constantinople. As a class, Egyptian minarets are low, rising but little above the roofs of the mosques.
In his anxiety to gird at the English, M. Loti lays all the troubles of rainage and drainage at their door. In the matter of rain he contradicts himself. For on p. 109, still speaking of Cairo, he says, “ It is always thus in the springtime of this rainless country,” 3 having already on p. 5 accused the English of bringing “the humidity of their own misty isles"4 over it by their irrigation works. The statistics of meteorologists prove that there has been no change in the climate.
I “C'est toujours le mihrab qui est orné avec la plus minutieuse richesse : en général des colonnettes de lapis, intensement bleues, s'y détachent en relief.”
? “Des grands minarets aériens qui s'élancent prodigieusement haut dans le ciel crépusculaire."
3 « C'est toujours ainsi, le printemps de ce pays sans pluie.”
• “Les nouveaux envahisseurs de ce pays ont apporté sans doute l'humidité de leur ile brumeuse, en changeant le régime des eaux du vieux Nil," ete
From rainage he passes to drainage. “But, nevertheless, what ruins, what filth, what rubbish! How present is the sense of impending dissolution! And what is this ? Large pools of water in the middle of the road! Granted that there is more rain here than formerly, since the valley of the Nile has been artificially irrigated, it still seems almost impossible that there should be all this black water, into which our carriage sinks to the very axles ; for it is a clear week since any serious quantity of rain fell. It would seem that the new masters of this land, albeit the cost of annual upkeep has risen in their hands to the sum of £15,000,000, have given no thought to drainage. But the good Arabs, patiently and without murmuring, gather up their long robes, and with legs bare to the knee make their way through this already pestilential water, which must be hatching for them fever and death.” 1
This is a most ignorant, if innocent, perversion of facts. All over the world the English are known to be more careful than any nation about drainage, and at Cairo the ConsulGeneral and the unofficial British residents vie with each other in their anxiety to have the place properly drained. But they are met by a stone wall of opposition from certain of the nations who enjoy Capitulation privileges. The Greek and the Greco-Levantine, who are very numerously represented, frankly prefer cesspools to drainage, and even, if there was a main drain running past their houses, the lowerclass Levantines would not allow their houses to be connected with it. This is proved by what happens at Alexandria where there is some system of drainage, and where there are
I “Cependant, que de ruines, d'immondices, de décombres ! Comme on sent que tout cela se meurt !... Et puis quoi : des lacs maintenant, en pleine rue ! On sait bien qu'il pleut ici beaucoup plus que jadis, depuis que la vallée du Nil est artificiellement inondée ; mais c'est invraisemblable quand même, toute cette eau noire où notre voiture s'enfonce jusqu'aux essieux, car il y a huit jours que n'est tombée une averse un peu sérieuse. Alors les nouveaux maîtres n'ont pas songé au drainage, dans ce pays dont le budget d'entretien annuel a été porté par leurs soins à quinze millions de livres ?—Et les bons Arabes, avec patience, sans mur. murer, retroussent leurs robes, jambes nues jusqu'aux genoux, pour cheminer au milieu de cette eau déjá pestilentielle, qui doit couver pour eux des fièvres et de la mort."