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CAIRO — II
Fascinating though the streets of Cairo are, continuous sight-seeing in the heat and glare is tiring, and it is always a pleasant change to escape from the movement and bustle outside, and enjoy the quietude of some cool mosque or palace courtyard.
Having described the exterior of the native house, it will interest you to know what it is like inside. Entering from the street, one usually has to descend one or more steps to the entrance hall or passage, which, in the case of the older houses, is invariably built with at least one turning, so that no one from the street could see into the interior court or garden should the door be open, for privacy was always jealously guarded by the Mohammedans. On one side is a raised stone platform, seat for the "boab" or door-keeper, and other servants of the house. Passing through this passage, we reach the courtyard, which is often very large and open to the sky, and into which most of the windows of the house open. On one side is a large recess or bay raised slightly above the pavement of the court, and furnished with benches of carved wood. The beams of the ceiling and handsome cornice are richly ornamented with carving and illumination, and the heavy beam which spans the entrance is supported by a pillar of elegant shape and proportion. Here, or in the "mandara"3 inside the house, the Arab host receives his male guests. On the most shady side of the court are placed the "zīrs," while several doors lead to the harīm, as the ladies' quarters are called, and the various offices and reception-rooms of the house. These doors are always panelled in elaborate geometrical designs, and the principal one, which is reached by a short flight of stone steps, is set in a lofty recess, the trefoil head of which is richly carved. This gives access to the reception-room on the first floor. One side is entirely open to the air, and through three archways connected by a low balustrade of perforated stonework overlooks the court. The floor is paved in tiles or marble of various colours, usually in some large design, in the centre of which is a shallow basin in which a fountain plays. Round the three walls is a raised daīs called "lewan," covered with rugs or mattresses, on which the guests recline. Little recesses in the walls, which in the homes of the wealthy are elaborately decorated with mosaic or tile work, contain the water jars, and the "tisht wa abrīk," or water-jug and basin, used for the ceremonial washing of hands before meat. The walls are usually plain, and are only broken by the "dulab," or wall cupboard, in which pipes and other articles are kept. The ceiling is heavily beamed and illuminated, or covered with appliqué work in some rich design, the spaces variously coloured or picked out in gold.
For cold weather another similar room is provided in the interior of the house much as the one I have described, but with the addition of a cupola or dome over the fountain, while the large windows, in the recesses of which couches are placed, are filled with the beautiful "mushrabiyeh" work we have noticed from the streets, or by stained glass set in perforated plaster work. These rooms contain practically no furniture, excepting the low "sahniyeh," or tray, upon which refreshments are served, and the copper brazier which contains the charcoal fire, but from the ceiling hang numbers of beautifully-wrought lamps of metal and coloured glass. We can imagine how rich a scene such a room would form when illuminated for the reception of guests whose gorgeous Oriental costumes accord so well with its handsome interior, while the finishing touch is given by the performance of the musicians and singing girls with which the guests are entertained, leading one instinctively to call to mind many similar scenes so wonderfully described in the "Arabian Nights." Many of the adventures of its heroes and heroines are suggested by the secret passages which the wall cupboards often hide, and may well have occurred in houses we may visit to-day in Cairo, for, more than any other, Cairo is the city of the "Arabian Nights," and in our walks one may at any moment meet the hunchback or the pastry-cook, or the one-eyed calender, whose adventures fills so many pages of that fascinating book; while the summary justice and drastic measures of the old khalifs are recalled by the many instruments of torture or of death which may still be seen hanging in the bazaars or from the city gates.
Everyone who goes to Cairo is astonished at the great number and beauty of its mosques, nearly every street having one or more. Altogether there are some 500 or more in Cairo, as well as a great number of lesser shrines where the people worship. I will tell you how this comes about. We have often read in the "Arabian Nights" in what a high-handed and frequently unjust manner the property of some poor unfortunate would be seized and given to another. This was very much the case in Cairo in the olden days, and khalifs and cadis, muftis and pashas, were not very scrupulous about whose money or possessions they administered, and even to-day in some Mohammedan countries it is not always wise for a man to grow rich.
And so it was that in order to escape robbery in the name of law many wealthy merchants preferred to build during their lifetime a mosque or other public building, while money left for this purpose was regarded as sacred, and so the many beautiful sebīls and mosques of Cairo came into existence.
Egypt is so old that even the Roman times appear new, and one is tempted to regard these glorious buildings of the Mohammedan era as only of yesterday. Yet many of the mosques which people visit and admire are older than any church or cathedral in England. We all think of Lincoln Cathedral or Westminster Abbey as being very venerable buildings, and so they are; but long before they were built the architecture of the Mohammedans in Egypt had developed into a perfect style, and produced many of the beautiful mosques in which the Cairene prays to-day.
A MOSQUE INTERIOR.
As a rule the mosque was also the tomb of its founder, and the dome was designed as a canopy over his burial-place, so that when a mosque is domed we know it to be the mausoleum of some great man, while the beautiful minaret or tower is common to all mosques, whether tomb-mosque or not.
One of the most striking features of a mosque is the doorway, which is placed in a deep arched recess, very lofty and highly ornamented. A flight of stone steps lead from the street to the door, which is often of hammered bronze and green with age, and from a beam which spans the recess hang curious little lamps, which are lit on fete days.
At the top of the steps is a low railing or barrier which no one may cross shod, for beyond this is holy ground, where, as in the old days of Scripture, every one must "put off his shoes from off his feet."
The interior of the mosque is often very rich and solemn. It is usually built in the form of a square courtyard, open to the sky, in which is the "hanafieh," or tank, where "the faithful" wash before prayers. The court is surrounded by cloisters supported by innumerable pillars, or else lofty horseshoe arches lead into deep bays or recesses, the eastern one of which, called the "kibleh," is the holiest, and corresponds to our chancel, and in the centre of the wall is the "mirhab," or niche, which is in the direction of Mecca, and the point towards which the Moslem prays.
Marble pavements, beautiful inlay of ivory and wood, stained-glass windows, and elaborately decorated ceilings and domes, beautify the interior, and go to form a rich but subdued coloured scheme, solemn and restful, and of which perhaps my picture will give you some idea.
Attached to most mosques is a sebīl, also beautiful in design. The lower story has a fountain for the use of wayfarers; above, in a bright room open to the air, is a little school, where the boys and girls of the quarter learn to recite sundry passages from the Koran, and which until recently was practically all the education they received.
And now I must tell you something about the bazaars, which, after the mosques, are the most interesting relics in Cairo, and in many cases quite as old. First, I may say that the word "bazaar" means "bargain," and as in the East a fixed price is unusual, and anything is worth just what can be got for it, making a purchase is generally a matter of patience, and one may often spend days in acquiring some simple article of no particular value. An exception is the trade in copper ware, which is sold by weight, and it is a common practice among the poorer classes to invest their small savings in copper vessels of which they have the benefit, and which can readily be sold again should money be wanted. This trade is carried on in a very picturesque street, called the "Sûk-en-Nahassīn," or street of the coppersmiths, where in tiny little shops 4 or 5 feet square, most of the copper and brass industry of Cairo is carried on. Opening out of this street are other bazaars, many very ancient, and each built for some special trade. So we have the shoemaker's bazaar, the oil, spice, Persian and goldsmith's bazaars, and many others, each different in character, and generally interesting as architecture. The Persian bazaar is now nearly demolished, and the "Khan Khalili," once the centre of the carpet trade, and the most beautiful of all, is now split up into a number of small curio shops, for the people are becoming Europeanized, and the Government, alas! appear to have no interest in the preservation of buildings of great historic interest and beauty.
One other feature of old Cairo I must notice before leaving the subject. In the old days of long caravan journeys, when merchants from Persia, India, and China brought their wares to Cairo overland, it was their custom to travel in strong companies capable of resisting possible attacks by the wild desert tribes, and in Cairo special "khans," or inns, were built to accommodate the different nationalities or trades. In the central court the horses and camels of the different caravans were tethered; surrounding it, and raised several feet above the ground, were numerous bays in which the goods were exposed for sale. Above, several storeys provided sleeping accommodation for the travellers. Like the bazaars, many of these khans are very ancient, and are most interesting architecturally as well as being fast disappearing relics of days which, until the introduction of railways and steamers, perpetuated in our own time conditions of life and trade which had continued uninterruptedly since that time so long ago when Joseph first built his store cities and granaries in Egypt.
It is impossible in a few pages to convey any real impression of Cairo, and I have only attempted to describe a few of its most characteristic features. There is, however, a great deal more to see — the citadel, built by that same Saladīn against whom our crusaders fought in Palestine, and which contains many ancient mosques and other buildings of historic interest, and the curious well called Joseph's Well, where, by means of many hundreds of stone steps, the visitor descends into the heart of the rock upon which the citadel is built, and which until recently supplied it with water. Close by is the parapet from which the last of the Memlūks made his desperate leap for freedom, and became sole survivor of his class so treacherously murdered by Mohammed Ali; behind, crowning the Mokhattam Hills, is the little fort built by Napoleon the Great to command the city, while in every direction are views almost impossible of description. To the east is that glorious cemetery known as the "tombs of the khalifs," which contains many of the finest architectural gems of mediæval Egypt; to the west is Fostat, the original "city of the tent," from which Cairo sprang, while over the rubbish heaps of old Babylon, the Roman aqueduct stretches towards Rhoda, that beautiful garden island on whose banks tradition has it that the infant Moses was found, while still further across the river, sail-dotted and gleaming in the sun, the great Pyramids mark the limit of the Nile Valley and the commencement of that enormous desert which stretches to the Atlantic Ocean. Looking south, past Memphis and the Pyramids of Sakkara and Darshūr, the Nile loses itself in the distant heat haze, while to the north is stretched before us the fertile plains of the Delta.
A STREET IN CAIRO.
At our feet lies the wonderful Arab town, whose domes and minarets rise high above the dwellings which screen the streets from view, but whose seething life is evidenced by the dull roar which reaches you even at this distance. It is a city of sunlight, rich in buildings of absorbing interest and ablaze with colour. As for the people, ignorant and noisy though they are, they have much good-humour and simple kindness in their natures, and it is worth notice that a stranger may walk about in safety in the most squalid quarters of the city, and of what European capital could this be said?
3 Guest chamber.