Egypt (La Mort De Philae)

Author: Pierre Loti

Chapter II the Passing of Cairo

Ragged, threatening clouds, like those that bring the showers of our early spring, hurry across a pale evening sky, whose mere aspect makes you cold. A wintry wind, raw and bitter, blows without ceasing, and brings with it every now and then some furtive spots of rain.

A carriage takes me towards what was once the residence of the great Mehemet Ali: by a steep incline it ascends into the midst of rocks and sand—and already, and almost in a moment, we seem to be in the desert; though we have scarcely left behind the last houses of an Arab quarter, where long-robed folk, who looked half frozen, were muffled up to the eyes to-day. . . . Was there formerly such weather as this in this country noted for its unchanging mildness?

This residence of the great sovereign of Egypt, the citadel and the mosque which he had made for his last repose, are perched like eagles’ nests on a spur of the mountain chain of Arabia, the Mokattam, which stretches out like a promontory towards the basin of the Nile, and brings quite close to Cairo, so as almost to overhang it, a little of the desert solitude. And so the eye can see from far off and from all sides the mosque of Mehemet Ali, with the flattened domes of its cupolas, its pointed minarets, the general aspect so entirely Turkish, perched high up, with a certain unexpectedness, above the Arab town which it dominates. The prince who sleeps there wished that it should resemble the mosques of his fatherland, and it looks as if it had been transported bodily from Stamboul.

A short trot brings us up to the lower gate of the old fortress; and, by a natural effect, as we ascend, all Cairo which is near there, seems to rise with us: not yet indeed the endless multitude of its houses; but at first only the thousands of its minarets, which in a few seconds point their high towers into the mournful sky, and suggest at once that an immense town is about to unfold itself under our eyes.

Continuing to ascend—past the double rampart, the double or triple gates, which all these old fortresses possess, we penetrate at length into a large fortified courtyard, the crenellated walls of which shut out our further view. Soldiers are on guard there—and how unexpected are such soldiers in this holy place of Egypt! The red uniforms and the white faces of the north: Englishmen, billeted in the palace of Mehemet Ali!

The mosque first meets the eye, preceding the palace. And as we approach, it is Stamboul indeed—for me dear old Stamboul—which is called to mind; there is nothing, whether in the lines of its architecture or in the details of its ornamentation, to suggest the art of the Arabs—a purer art it may be than this and of which many excellent examples may be seen in Cairo. No; it is a corner of Turkey into which we are suddenly come.

Beyond a courtyard paved with marble, silent and enclosed, which serves as a vast parvis, the sanctuary recalls those of Mehemet Fatih or the Chah Zade: the same sanctified gloom, into which the stained glass of the narrow windows casts a splendour as of precious stones; the same extreme distance between the enormous pillars, leaving more clear space than in our churches, and giving to the domes the appearance of being held up by enchantment.

The walls are of a strange white marble streaked with yellow. The ground is completely covered with carpets of a sombre red. In the vaults, very elaborately wrought, nothing but blacks and gold: a background of black bestrewn with golden roses, and bordered with arabesques like gold lace. And from above hang thousands of gold chains supporting the vigil lamps for the evening prayers. Here and there are people on their knees, little groups in robe and turban, scattered fortuitously upon the red of the carpets, and almost lost in the midst of the sumptuous solitude.

In an obscure corner lies Mehemet Ali, the prince adventurous and chivalrous as some legendary hero, and withal one of the greatest sovereigns of modern history. There he lies behind a grating of gold, of complicated design, in that Turkish style, already decadent, but still so beautiful, which was that of his epoch.

Through the golden bars may be seen in the shadow the catafalque of state, in three tiers, covered with blue brocades, exquisitely faded, and profusely embroidered with dull gold. Two long green palms freshly cut from some date-tree in the neighbourhood are crossed before the door of this sort of funeral enclosure. And it seems that around us is an inviolable religious peace. . . .

But all at once there comes a noisy chattering in a Teutonic tongue— and shouts and laughs! . . . How is it possible, so near to the great dead? . . . And there enters a group of tourists, dressed more or less in the approved "smart" style. A guide, with a droll countenance, recites to them the beauties of the place, bellowing at the top of his voice like a showman at a fair. And one of the travellers, stumbling in the sandals which are too large for her small feet, laughs a prolonged, silly little laugh like the clucking of a turkey. . . .

Is there then no keeper, no guardian of this holy mosque? And amongst the faithful prostrate here in prayer, none who will rise and make indignant protest? Who after this will speak to us of the fanaticism of the Egyptians? . . . Too meek, rather, they seem to me everywhere. Take any church you please in Europe where men go down on their knees in prayer, and I should like to see what kind of a welcome would be accorded to a party of Moslem tourists who—to suppose the impossible —behaved so badly as these savages here.

Behind the mosque is an esplanade, and beyond that the palace. The palace, as such, can scarcely be said to exist any longer, for it has been turned into a barrack for the army of occupation. English soldiers, indeed, meet us at every turn, smoking their pipes in the idleness of the evening. One of them who does not smoke is trying to carve his name with a knife on one of the layers of marble at the base of the sanctuary.

At the end of this esplanade there is a kind of balcony from which one may see the whole of the town, and an unlimited extent of verdant plains and yellow desert. It is a favourite view of the tourists of the agencies, and we meet again our friends of the mosque, who have preceded us hither—the gentlemen with the loud voices, the bellowing guide and the cackling lady. Some soldiers are standing there too, smoking their pipes contemplatively. But spite of all these people, in spite, too, of the wintry sky, the scene which presents itself on arrival there is ravishing.

A very fairyland—but a fairyland quite different from that of Stamboul. For whereas the latter is ranged like a great amphitheatre above the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, here the vast town is spread out simply, in a plain surrounded by the solitude of the desert and dominated by chaotic rocks. Thousands of minarets rise up on every side like ears of corn in a field; far away in the distance one can see their innumerable slender points—but instead of being simply, as at Stamboul, so many white spires, they are here complicated by arabesques, by galleries, clock-towers and little columns, and seem to have borrowed the reddish colour of the desert.

The flat rocks tell of a region which formerly was without rain. The innumerable palm-trees of the gardens, above this ocean of mosques and houses, sway their plumes in the wind, bewildered as it were by these clouds laden with cold showers. In the south and in the west, at the extreme limits of the view, as if upon the misty horizon of the plains, appear two gigantic triangles. They are Gizeh and Memphis—the eternal pyramids.

At the north of the town there is a corner of the desert quite singular in its character—of the colour of bistre and of mummy—where a whole colony of high cupolas, scattered at random, still stand upright in the midst of sand and desolate rocks. It is the proud cemetery of the Mameluke Sultans, whose day was done in the Middle Ages.

But if one looks closely, what disorder, what a mass of ruins there are in this town—still a little fairylike—beaten this evening by the squalls of winter. The domes, the holy tombs, the minarets and terraces, all are crumbling: the hand of death is upon them all. But down there, in the far distance, near to that silver streak which meanders through the plains, and which is the old Nile, the advent of new times is proclaimed by the chimneys of factories, impudently high, that disfigure everything, and spout forth into the twilight thick clouds of black smoke.

The night is falling as we descend from the esplanade to return to our lodgings.

We have first to traverse the old town of Cairo, a maze of streets still full of charm, wherein the thousand little lamps of the Arab shops already shed their quiet light. Passing through streets which twist at their caprice, beneath overhanging balconies covered with wooden trellis of exquisite workmanship, we have to slacken speed in the midst of a dense crowd of men and beasts. Close to us pass women, veiled in black, gently mysterious as in the olden times, and men of unmoved gravity, in long robes and white draperies; and little donkeys pompously bedecked in collars of blue beads; and rows of leisurely camels, with their loads of lucerne, which exhale the pleasant fragrance of the fields. And when in the gathering gloom, which hides the signs of decay, there appear suddenly, above the little houses, so lavishly ornamented with mushrabiyas and arabesques, the tall aerial minarets, rising to a prodigious height into the twilight sky, it is still the adorable East.

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 fifteen million pounds, 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.

Further on, as the carriage proceeds on its course, the scene changes little by little. The streets become vulgar: the houses of "The Arabian Nights" give place to tasteless Levantine buildings; electric lamps begin to pierce the darkness with their wan, fatiguing glare, and at a sharp turning the new Cairo is before us.

What is this? Where are we fallen? Save that it is more vulgar, it might be Nice, or the Riviera, or Interkalken, or any other of those towns of carnival whither the bad taste of the whole world comes to disport itself in the so-called fashionable seasons. But in these quarters, on the other hand, which belong to the foreigners and to the Egyptians rallied to the civilisation of the West, all is clean and dry, well cared for and well kept. There are no ruts, no refuse. The fifteen million pounds have done their work conscientiously.

Everywhere is the blinding glare of the electric light; monstrous hotels parade the sham splendour of their painted facades; the whole length of the streets is one long triumph of imitation, of mud walls plastered so as to look like stone; a medley of all styles, rockwork, Roman, Gothic, New Art, Pharaonic, and, above all, the pretentious and the absurd. Innumerable public-houses overflow with bottles; every alcoholic drink, all the poisons of the West, are here turned into Egypt with a take-what-you-please.

And taverns, gambling dens and houses of ill-fame. And parading the side-walks, numerous Levantine damsels, who seek by their finery to imitate their fellows of the Paris boulevards, but who by mistake, as we must suppose, have placed their orders with some costumier for performing dogs.

This then is the Cairo of the future, this cosmopolitan fair! Good heavens! When will the Egyptians recollect themselves, when will they realise that their forebears have left to them an inalienable patrimony of art, of architecture and exquisite refinement; and that, by their negligence, one of those towns which used to be the most beautiful in the world is falling into ruin and about to perish?

And nevertheless amongst the young Moslems and Copts now leaving the schools there are so many of distinguished mind and superior intelligence! When I see the things that are here, see them with the fresh eyes of a stranger, landed but yesterday upon this soil, impregnated with the glory of antiquity, I want to cry out to them, with a frankness that is brutal perhaps, but with a profound sympathy:

"Bestir yourselves before it is too late. Defend yourselves against this disintegrating invasion—not by force, be it understood, not by inhospitality or ill-humour—but by disdaining this Occidental rubbish, this last year’s frippery by which you are inundated. Try to preserve not only your traditions and your admirable Arab language, but also the grace and mystery that used to characterise your town, the refined luxury of your dwelling-houses. It is not a question now of a poet’s fancy; your national dignity is at stake. You are /Orientals/—I pronounce respectfully that word, which implies a whole past of early civilisation, of unmingled greatness—but in a few years, unless you are on your guard, you will have become mere Levantine brokers, exclusively preoccupied with the price of land and the rise in cotton."


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Chicago: Pierre Loti, "Chapter II the Passing of Cairo," Egypt (La Mort De Philae), ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Baines, William Peter in Egypt (La Mort De Philae) (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: Loti, Pierre. "Chapter II the Passing of Cairo." Egypt (La Mort De Philae), edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Baines, William Peter, in Egypt (La Mort De Philae), Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Loti, P, 'Chapter II the Passing of Cairo' in Egypt (La Mort De Philae), ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Egypt (La Mort De Philae), Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from