The Gentleman's Magazine/Volume 253/Alexandria
| Alexandria (1882)
|From The Gentleman's Magazine/Volume 253, August 1882, pp. 145-165|
WE were nearing the ancient land of Misraim and the far-famed city of Alexander the Great. On the horizon flashed one fiery spark—
- A ruddy gem of changeful light,
- Bound on the dusky brow of night.
The morning star had not yet paled before the dawn, and no prosaic reality was visible to dull our early illusions. A vision rose before me of an old picture-book, over which we pored in our childhood, showing a mighty tower 1,000 cubits high, built in divers stories like some huge telescope, with an outer winding stair by which beasts of burden could ascend to the very top, bearing fuel for the beacon fires which blazed in a vast lantern, with reflecting mirrors so arranged that the light was visible for a hundred miles. These mirrors acted a double part, as they reflected the ships approaching Egypt while at so great a distance as to be still imperceptible to the eye.
It was all built of the finest stone, with pillars and galleries and ornaments beautifully wrought in marble, on which (you remember the old story) the architect Sostratus engraved his own name in durable characters, and then, overlaying these with cement, thereon left a frail memorial of the fame of Ptolemy, his master.
The lighthouse, surrounded by a strong sea wall, was built on the Isle of Pharos, whence it derived the name which it has transmitted to a thousand descendants. It formed the natural breakwater of that great harbour which the wise Alexander considered might acquire such vast social importance as the outlet of commerce between the eastern and western worlds.
So here he himself planned the city, designing it in the form of a Macedonian cloak, which, however, should cover eighty furlongs (in other words, it was fifteen miles in circumference); and his soldiers strewed meal to mark the line where its walls were to rise. Then, at his bidding, temples, obelisks, palaces, theatres, gymnasiums were built—(the old story said 400 temples, 4,000 palaces, 4,000 public baths, and 12,000 shops for the sale of vegetables only). There was one broad main street with a vista of shipping at either end—for it extended in a direct line from the Lake Mareotis to the Mediterranean—and another broad street intersected this at right angles; and both these great streets were adorued with stately colonnades, running the whole length of. the city.
In short, the glory of Tyre was here reproduced; and Heliopolis was no longer to be the chief seat of science. During the 300 years that the Ptolemies held sway, all sages were drawn to Alexandria by the encouragement given to learning of all kinds: arts and sciences, poets and philosophers here found a welcome, such names as that of Euclid being of the number; and though the Egyptians were conciliated by the building of magnificent temples, the restoration of their ancient monuments, and of many of their old forms of worship, the more graceful manners and customs of Greece were generally adopted; and the highest favour the Govermnent awarded was to admit any person to the rank of Macedonian citizenship. To such an extent was this carried that whenever the inhabitants met in public assembly they were addressed as "Ye men of Macedonia."
It was not only to the faith of the Egyptians that the Ptolemies showed such toleration. Alexander himself had shown the utmost favour to the Jews, and had induced a vast number of them to become citizens of Alexandria by granting them equal privileges with the Macedonians. The first Ptolemy is said to have imported a hundred thousand more as captives, many of whom he raised to high offices of trust. About a hundred years later, however—that is to say, about two centuries before Christ—the high priest at Jerusalem excited the wrath of Ptolemy Philopater (who had offered large sacrifices and given valuable gifts to the Temple) by refusing to let him enter the Holy of Holies, whereupon the vengeful king returned to Alexandria, determined to destroy all the Jews in the city. He caused multitudes of them to assemble in the arena, where they were delivered up to wild beasts. The legend goes on to tell that the discriminating lions refused to touch the Jews, but made large havoc of the Greeks.
Meanwhile the learning both of Jews and Pagans continued to flow to Alexandria. It was by command of Philadelphus that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, and that those seven hundred thousand precious volumes were stored up in the great library.
So it was a great, busy, learned city—the emporium of mind and matter for the eastern and western worlds, the combined Liverpool and Oxford of heathendom. This state of things continued till the Christian Church established itself here, and strove to carry matters with a high hand; then followed shameful riots in the name of religion—the Christian monks versus the Pagans. At length the Arabs, under Omar, captured and plundered the enfeebled city (((sc|a.d.}} 638), and ere it could in any measure recover itself a second capture by the Turks in (((sc|a.d.}} 868 completed its destruction. So now we find only a modern semi-European town, with hardly a trace of all the former splendour; and the wail of Ichabod! Ichabod ! may well find echo amidst the mounds of rubble and ruin which surround the modern city in every direction.
Of the mighty Pharos, some ruins remained in the twelfth century; but of the spot where Alexander was buried by his favourite general (Ptolemy) there is no trace; and of the precious library not one leaf remains.
The more valuable works on mechanics, astronomy, medicine, and all other branches of science and literature were stored in the museum, which was accidentally destroyed during the war with Julius Cæsar, when Egypt became a Roman province.
The remaining volumes, numbering 700,000, were kept in the Temple of Serapis, and consisted chiefly of theological controversies; they were destroyed by the conquering Saracens, (((sc|a.d.}} 640, the bigoted Caliph Omar declaring that the Koran was all-sufficient reading. Consequently they were used as fuel for the 4,000 baths, and are said to have sufficed for that purpose for several months. I suppose papyrus must have predominated over vellum, for I do not think the old MSS. in most charter-rooms would make a blaze in a hurry! For twenty years after this cruel burning the empty book-shelves remained in the great library, to mock the grief of all wise and learned men.
And of the great Temple of Serapis, and its 400 pillars, what trace remains? One solitary column, now known as Pompey's Pillar—a monolith of red granite, sixty-eight feet high, with base and capital about thirty feet more; and as it stands on rising ground near the sea, it still acts as a landmark to sailors as they approach the low, flat shore, where long rows of windmills are grinding away, as if they could not work hard enough.
Through the purply haze, that lends a dreamy beauty of its own to the dull, barren coast, we discern those ever-turning sails, mingling with a forest of masts, telling how the ships of many lands are once more crowding the Alexandrian harbour. These all merge into our dream-world, and we picture to ourselves how, in days of old, this same harbour was crowded with gay galleys, freighted with women from all parts of the known world—chiefly from the Grecian Isles and from Syracuse (distant about a thousand miles)—who here assembled to celebrate the great Festival of Adonis and Astarte, whose statues they carried through the city in joyous procession, strewing flowers and perfumes by the way.
Another memory, of more modern days, and of dearer interest to "a Britisher," comes over us as we near the shore—the memory of Nelson's great victory, when, in Aboukir Bay, he found the whole French fleet awaiting Napoleon's return from the battle of the Pyramids, and manned by well-nigh 10,000 men. When morning dawned, two frigates were all that remained to enable the mighty conqueror to return to "la belle France."
Conceive the horrors of that night, when the huge old Orient, with her 120 guns, caught fire, and in the darkness of midnight came the roar which deadened the din of battle, and the fearful glare which lighted up the whole bay. Then sudden silence fell on both fleets, and not a gun was fired, while all watched for that awful explosion which they knew must come—when "burning ropes and flaming timbers flew high in mid-air, and shattered bodies and torn and blackened limbs of many a gallant mariner fell on the decks of the neighbouring vessels or into the seething waves." Among those victims were the gallant Casa Bianca and his brave boy.
As we draw near the quay, we note a summary method of dealing with an extortionate dragoman, who, determined to cling to his victims to the last, has ventured to step on board the boat which is to carry them back to their ship. One strong back-hander, dealt without the slightest apparent effort, and he is submerged. In a moment he rises to the surface, and is restored to dry land by amused spectators; when he stands quivering with impotent rage, his splendid Eastern eyes flashing fire, and with hands and arms gesticulating, and action all over, he pours forth a stream of imprecations on the laughing young Englishmen, whose boat meanwhile has pushed off, and placed them beyond reach of his wrath and his knife. Not of his memory, however, should they ever return to his neighbourhood; and that "La vengeance se mange bien froide" is a proverb which doubtless has its counterpart in Eastern tongues.
The confusion on landing is amazing, the noisy crowd consisting of representatives of every nation—black, white, brown, yellow—shouting and quarrelling, all contending for us and our luggage. At last we are safely deposited in an African hotel, and gain our first experience of cold, barn-like rooms—for so they seem to the outward-bound. On our return from India we think it so generous of an hotel-keeper to provide us with bedding and sheets and towels, that we feel these same rooms to be luxurious quarters.
There are no bells, but attentive Italian or German waiters are on the alert; and are extra attentive if addressed as if they were human beings. I confess I felt touched and gratified when, twelve months later, we occupied these same rooms, and the only cheery soul that wished us a happy new year was one of these same men, whose face gleamed with kindly recognition on our arrival.
We were in the Hôtel d'Europe, which has the advantage of capital balconies overlooking the Grand Square, and the tank where all manner of picturesque life congregates: groups of stately Bedouins, who rest here awhile, while their camels stand swaying from side to side, impatient to return to the desert; half-naked Arabs and hard-working Fellahs, with their brown felt caps; splendid Armenians; overgrown Negroes, whose skin, black and glossy as the raven's wing, contrasts with their white robes, as their scarlet fez does with their woolly head; women, stately from long habit of carrying their graceful double-handled water-jug poised on the head; ladies waddling along, veiled by their great black silk cloaks, so that they look like walking sacks; snarling dogs, and splendid dignified donkeys with scarlet leather saddles; and donkey-boys, shouting a chorus of African and European small-talk, marvellously jumbled into one strange patois. There is no conceivable tint that human skin can assume that is not here represented—from the clearest creamy roses, fresh from Britain, to the yellows and browns and jet black of all other nations. And as to eyes—their variety is a study in itself. Such orbs! Eyes of every shade, from light hazel to black—eyes gentle; eyes sad; eyes laughing; eyes wild; wicked eyes; loving eyes; dreamy eyes. One fair British damsel, after gazing for some time in open-mouthed admiration at a group of magnificent Moors, confided to me that in her wildest moments she had never dreamt of such eyes, but that now she could sympathise with Desdemona!
All day long, if you choose, you can sit and watch this ever-varying kaleidoscope, with every shade and variety of eastern and western life—white men in dark clothes, dark men in bright clothes; Jews (of whom multitudes have found their way back to the old house of bondage), Turks, Greeks, infidels, and heretics; Copts, Nubians (in full dress of fresh oil), Albanians (in rich and striking attire), Americans, Europeans of all nations, Englishmen of every type, from the representative of the stately old school, down to the veriest riff-raff of Cockneyism, who think it necessary at once to adopt the orthodox scarlet fez, the wearisome fez, which you here see worn indiscriminately by representatives of all nations. All these combine to make a balcony in an Alexandrian street as striking a post of observation as you can possibly find in any land.
Concerning the fleshpots of Egypt, I cannot say that either the German and Italian hotel-keepers, or their chefs, have done much to improve the viands. Day after day we rang the changes on divers messes boiled or roast, but always the same hard, black, uncertain material which Thackeray long ago declared could only be the flesh of ancient donkeys. So we were driven to such an unwarrantable consumption of dates and plantains, that we have hardly been able to face them ever since.
At the table d'hôte the streams of outward-and-homeward-bound meet for the first time. And a sadly diverse set they are—the former with their store of English health and spirits, with life all before them; the latter having had their tussle with climate and crowded offices, and all life's realities; Eastern potentates, perhaps rulers and judges of provinces as big as Great Britain, now returning contentedly to the position of average Englishmen (because England is home), when, like dear old Colonel Newcome, they may chance to find that the welcome home, of which they have dreamed through long, weary years, may be that invitation to dine a fortnight hence!
You can tell by a glance at a man's hat to which set he belongs, for young England's first investment on landing is a puggaree, white or with coloured stripe, which he wears round his hat during the voyage, after which it is never seen again, being a plaything which is quickly replaced by the genuine article, a thick, white linen helmet for the military, or a huge hat of white pith for other mortals: a sort of great mushroom to which the human body acts as a stalk. The effect of a very large fungus of this species on a small man is always suggestive of Punch's vulgar little boy, "Oh! it's no use pretending you're not there, 'cos I see your legs dangling!"
The "gamin" is much the same in most countries, and some of these young Arabs understand "a sell" as well as any well-educated young Briton—as well, for instance, as the sharp lad who gave such clear evidence in a Glasgow police-court, that the benevolent judge determined to try and rescue him from evil company. A question as to his home was, however, sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the street Arab, who felt he must at any price put his lordship off the scent by an indirect answer. "Ye ken the Gallowgate? D'ye ken Fule's Close? D'ye ken the pump at the end o' it? Well, ye may jist gang and pump yon, for ye'll no pump me!"
A gentleman of our party was terribly worried by the eternal prayer for backsheesh. At last he halted, and, holding out his hand to one of the little dark-eyed suppliants, mimicked his petition. In a moment the little chap unfastened his girdle, produced a dirty little leather bag containing two or three minute coins, one of which he gravely bestowed on our friend! I need scarcely say that no almsgiving ever brought in more rapid returns.
Of course we very quickly found our way to the bazaars, "to mingle with the strange and turbaned crowd," those marvellous throngs of picturesque life; new forms, animate and inanimate; new sounds, new human beings, new animals, mingled beauty and dirt, of which no description can convey the slightest idea—nothing but actual sight. The fruit market, full of things as yet unknown and untasted—the market for such game as is brought from Lake Mareotis, and treasures of every description brought here from every corner of the eastern world by those long strings of patient, heavy-laden camels: crockery, saddlery, gold and silver embroidery, the scarlet fez, the yellow slippers (with turn-up toes, for the exclusive use of the faithful), firearms, glittering swords and daggers, gorgeous raiment of needlework, from the coarsest stuff to the rarest brocades, of material and colour alike rich and harmonious; jewelled pipes, spices, carved wood and ivory, sweetmeats, rich stuffs woven by patient hands, playthings—many stalls together dealing in the same article. For just as in London you expect to find bankers in Lombard Street, silkweavers in Spitalfields, coachbuilders in Long Acre, watchmakers in Clerkenwell, and so forth, so in the East each trade has its own bazaar—the silkweavers, the coppersmiths, the saddlers, letter-writers, the dealers in Moorish, Turkish, Persian, or Algerian stuffs, each cluster together in their own quarter.
But the chief charm of these bazaars lies in the throng of human beings of all sorts and kinds; the almost bewildering medley of voices talking "every man his own tongue wherein he was born"; the perpetual motion, the intensity of colours, the vivid sunlight, the cool, deep shadows.
It is curious to stand beside the dealer in firearms and watch the simple process of manufacture. The workman, sitting on his counter, holds a long wire between his toes, and, slowly winding it round the tin barrel, produces a lethal weapon which would astonish Purdie or Lancaster. It is a fowling-piece which a British sportsman would regard with awe if required to fire it; nevertheless, it proves fatal to a vast number of snipe and quails, and rarely leads to any accident.
Those yellow slippers, too, are worthy of notice. The orthodox bright yellow dye with which the leather is stained is obtained from the rinds of pomegranates. Every blue-robed woman whom you meet probably carries on her head a great flat basket of fruits and vegetables, her little marketing for the day; or else on her shoulder sits a quaint eastern baby, and a group of bigger children clustered round her—little creatures whose large, calm eyes would be so beautiful were it not for flies and filth; but, alas! as some one suggested, "What is beauty without soap?" (and, indeed, soap seems a thing unknown in Egypt, or at least wonderfully precious, judging from the prices charged for washing!) As to these poor dark-eyed little ones, their mothers keep them filthy on purpose, lest any one passing should admire them, and so excite the envy of evil spirits.
Moreover, they believe it strengthens the sight to paint the eyelids of even the youngest baby with khol, a mixture of soot and antimony, which is carefully applied with a silver bodkin. This certainly makes the eye look immensely large, but painfully unnatural. Then, the amount of ophthalmia is something frightful. It is due chiefly to the intense dryness of the atmosphere and the subtle, impalpable dust which for ever floats in the air above the crowded city. Exceeding dirt also does its part; while the swarms of flies which cluster on the sores, and there revel undisturbed, are a sight to fill you with disgust. Of course they carry infection to the next eye on which they settle, and so the loathsome disease spreads, and that with such frightful rapidity that sometimes the whole eye is reduced to a mere opaque pulp within twenty-four hours, even when the sufferer is otherwise in perfect health. The consequent amount of blindness is startling; and I believe the computation is that one man in six has lost the sight of either one or both eyes.
Even where actual blindness does not exist, the powers of vision are singularly defective, and when it became necessary for the railway, in selecting its servants, to test their sight, it was found that a very small minority of the candidates could distinguish a red signal from a green one at a distance of a hundred yards. I believe this is partly the reason that so large a proportion of the company's servants are Europeans.
It is said that in the time of Mahomet Ali many children were artificially made blind of one eye to exempt them from the conscription; indeed, grown-up men voluntarily blinded themselves to avoid the hated service, forgetting that the wilful destruction of one eye might always involve the loss of both. A gentleman who was travelling in Egypt at that time told me that of his eight boatmen two had lost one eye, a third was nearly blind of both, four had purposely knocked out three upper teeth on the right side, to avoid biting cartridges, while the eighth had chopped off the trigger finger from the right hand. He adds, that in a whole day he had failed to notice one peasant working in the fields who was what he termed a sound man, that is, one who had not subjected himself to some such voluntary nmtilation to escape conscription. Mahomet Ali, however, hit on the expedient of raising a one-eyed regiment, so as to utilise as many as possible of these refractory subjects.
The ravages of ophthalmia tell cruelly on the beauty of the Egyptian women. Too often the dark blue veil, which just reveals one dreamy brown eye, conceals a hideous chasm in the place where its fellow should be.
How little Moore can have suspected so prosaic a cause when he describes
- The mask that shades
- The features of young Arab maids,
- A mask that leaves but one eye free
- To do its best in witchery.
The said mask, or rather veil, is the inevitable yashmak—a mantle veiling the whole head and figure, and fastened across the nose by a brass ornament, so as just to leave an opening for the eyes (or eye, as the case may be). With the poor, this veil is invariably of a deep blue, dyed with indigo; but richer folk wear black silk, and their attendants white linen, and when the wind blows back this covering it reveals indoor raiment of vivid colours, beautifully embroidered.
To an unaccustomed eye, a ramble through the city offers a constant succession of pictures, and we peered and peeped down curious courts and alleys, noting where here and there a quaintly carved stone, the broken shaft of a column, or richly wrought old capital, built roughly into the wall, told of the ruins of the grand old city; till a courteous stranger warned us that we were approaching the poultry market, where the very dust was literally hopping and crawling. Evidently, the old Egyptian plagues had not all been repealed! By the way, it is said that the plague of lice of which we read probably referred rather to swarms of dust ticks, which at all times abound in Egypt, and which, fastening themselves on some victim, fatten at his expense, and in a few hours distend from the size of a grain of sand to that of a pea.
Not being anxious to experimentalise in this matter, we turned away and entered a large Roman Catholic Church, whose perfect stillness and deep gloom were in pleasant contrast with the hot glare and incessant noise and motion outside. There we rested, rejoicing in the solemn silence. After a while, we discerned a small group emerge from the darkness, and a young couple were married by an old priest; an attendant lighting his book with one feeble little taper. It was a very dreary ceremonial.
One of the first things that attracted our attention in one of the quiet side streets was a lugubrious procession, followed by a great company of blue-robed women uttering a cry, which I can only describe as "clucking," it was so exactly the note of a joyous hen announcing newly laid eggs. The similarity was so extraordinary, that we went close up to them to make sure that it was really not some curious procession of poultry; when we perceived that it was a funeral, the uncoffined corpse, wrapped in white linen, and laid on a bier, being carried head foremost, and preceded by a long string of men with dishevelled beards, who were chanting a solemn dirge. These almost without exception were blind of one or both eyes, a fact for which we could only account by imagining they might be the Muezzins hired as mourners; blind men being always preferred to fill that sacred office, inasmuch as their morning and evening ascents of the minarets to call the faithful to worship would give too good occasion for prying into their neighbours' domestic life in the courtyard or on the fiat roof.
The women are also hired to howl and make lamentation, and throw dust on their heads. At the funeral of a rich man from sixty to a hundred of these hired mourners are present, wailing and beating their breasts. In cases of real grief it is customary for women of whatever rank to sit unveiled in the dust. The dead is laid in the grave with the face turned to Mecca, and the survivors offer up prayers for the forgiveness and peace of the departed. The lament and wailing are renewed every Thursday and Friday following, until forty days are fulfilled; the tomb being strewn with green leaves, and alms given to the poor.
At the funerals of the wealthy, raw meat is often given to the needy. Sometimes a small herd of buffaloes are slain, and before they are half skinned the mob generally contrive to rush in and tear or cut off lumps of flesh, every man for himself hacking the carcase to pieces; when satisfied with their booty, they retire, probably covered with blood. A more revolting scramble could hardly be imagined. Yet I well remember a similar scene in one of the principal towns in the South of England on the night of a Royal marriage, when an ox roasted whole was to have been distributed to the poor. The roughs, however, took the division into their own hands, and, tearing the prize limb from limb, scrambled and fought over the half-raw meat till not one fragment remained for those to whom it had been promised.
Among the first traces of the olden days which we searched out were the Catacombs, which lie about two miles from the city on the edge of the Libyan Desert, and which run underground in every direction from near Pompey's Pillar, and all along the ridge of low shore where the busy windmills at first caught our attention. They are strangely little known, even to the natives, and travellers are by no means sure of finding the right entrance. Even the coachmen from the principal hotels are more than likely to waste your afternoon in driving you about over sands and ruins and execrable masses of disintegrated rock, mis-called roads; and after all may be compelled to acknowledge that they do not know where to go next. Indeed, the ancient entrance is unknown. One great chamber, however, has been forced open and made into a stable for Egyptian cavalry. From this, other chambers open; one of these is about thirty feet in diameter, and all round the walls are niches for bodies, in which skulls and mouldering bones still lie. All along the sea coast are caves or chambers scooped out, which probably led into some of the longer passages.
One of these especially attracted our interest, having something the form of a chapel; and remembering how the early Christians were driven to take refuge in these catacombs, we felt that the ground was hallowed—that Apollos, the fellow-worker of St. Paul (whose birthplace was in this city), or perhaps St. Mark himself, had here ministered to their persecuted brethren.
Then a gruesome thought chased away these hallowed memories as we recollected the horrible trade which modern Egyptians have here carried on with their ancestral dust.
You may remember how disgusted we all were when, among the vast supplies of bones brought to certain mills from Russian slaughter-houses, it was reported that human bones collected from Crimean battle-fields were freely mixed with those of cattle, and were all ground up together to enrich British soil.
Still more hideous was the recent digging up of that vast human quarry which lay at the back of our National Gallery; those horrible pits wherein all the dead of London, victims of the Great Plague, were cast wholesale; thence, after only two centuries (and while many of the bones yet retained some semblance of human form), to be dug up and spread over Kensington Gardens as a pleasant fertilising agent to enrich roses and lilies. Thus speedily do all things find their uses.
Doubtless the fields around Paris will for many a year be all the greener by reason of the blood of her murdered sons poured out like water upon every side. Within three short weeks of those dread days the decree was issued that all those ghastly cemeteries, where hundreds of corpses had been piled in "gruesome" heaps, should be covered with fresh soil, and sown with quick-growing grasses, mustard, and tall sunflowers; such crops as might yield both forage and fuel. It may be that joyous children, toddling knee-deep mid those rich grasses, may deem it no rare thing to find a whitening skull upturned by the plough, may even carry it home as some choice plaything.
But it is strange indeed to find a nation such as Egypt once was—the greatest and most civilised of all people—now so literally proving herself (as Ezekiel foretold she would become) "the basest of the nations"; that, not content with converting the bones of thousands and tens of thousands of her ancestors into charcoal, to be used in refining sugar for their degenerate descendants and their foreign taskmasters, she must needs actually make merchandise of her dead. These precious mummies, which in the days of her glory were accounted worthy of such exceeding honour that they were considered the very best security on which to lend money (inasmuch as the Egyptian who had been driven to pawn his deceased father or mother would sooner die than fail to redeem his pledge), now in the hour of Egypt's degradation are valued at so much per ton, and sold to strangers and aliens as a suitable manure for foreign soil.
As you journey towards Memphis you might very recently have chanced to meet long strings of camels, heavily laden with human bone dust from the tombs. Here too, from these old Alexandrian catacombs to the merchant vessels in the harbour, barges laden with brown dust ply to and fro; their cargo is carried on board in baskets, and thrown into the hold, and the vessels deliver their choice goods in British ports at 6l. 10s. per ton, to be mixed with the guano of Peru, and sold at a considerable profit. Several eye-witnesses have told us how they visited the ancient sepulchres while this work was going on, and saw pieces of human bone, small earthenware lamps, and tear-glasses among the dishonoured dust of these myriad Egyptians, who were to be carried over the seas to fertilise English fields. We turned away from Alexandrian catacombs marvelling how many generations may elapse before the coming race deals thus with England's dead.
The bones of bygone generations of old Egyptians are not the only relics with which this present age has dealt ruthlessly. A gentleman told me that a few years ago he had ridden about seven miles into the plain to the east of Alexandria, a spot rarely visited, where to his amazement he found ruins of buildings, pillars, and sepulchres carved in the rock, which he could only compare to those of Arabia Petrea. While he stood there some workmen were employed in dragging forth a sarcophagus carved with intricate figures—a treasure for any museum. Its destination, however, was to be cast into a lime kiln, as being the easiest way to obtain lime for building some modern mosque!
Leaving the Catacombs, we next turned to Pompey's Pillar, which received in its old age a Roman dedication. It was originally the great central pillar of the Serapium—the gorgeous temple of Serapis—second only in its magnificence to the Capitol of Rome. This lofty column stood alone in the centre of a great roofless court, surrounded with pillars and porticoes, all of which it overtopped, so as to be seen by the sailors when far out at sea. Four hundred of the surrounding pillars were still standing in the days of Saladin (so say various Arabian writers), but these were eventually cast into the sea, and now there remains only this mighty column, which the Arabs still call the Pillar of the Colonnades: it stands alone, almost the only specimen of Greek art that could, in size and strength, vie with the old Egyptian work.
As we stood amid the desolate mounds of sand and ruin, we tried to picture to ourselves the once magnificent temple, glittering with all the gorgeous ceremonial of Egyptian worship. It was built entirely of marble, the inner walls being faced with gold. Moreover, it was filled with statues plated with gold, and with votive offerings of solid gold. When the Christians gained the ascendency in the city, the Emperors for many years spared this and other rich temples of their heathen subjects, but at length there came a bishop of Alexandria, so avaricious that he determined to appropriate all this treasnre. So he laid siege to the building and pillaged the temple, storing the gold and precious stones in the cellars of his palace, till he could therewith decorate some costly church with offerings that had cost him nothing, save his good name. For the people no longer called him Theophilus—"Lover of God"—but Lithomanus, "one with a mania for stones," and Chrysolater, "the worshipper of gold."
His nephew, Cyril (the most bigoted, fiery, and intolerant bishop who ever made the standard of the cross hateful in the sight of the heathen), chose this place for his headquarters, and the Temple of Serapis became the Temple of Christ; and its courts gave shelter to those hordes of cruel and ignorant monks who proved their own faith chiefly by such acts of violence as the wholesale plundering of the wealthy Jews, or the barbarous murder of that beautiful heathen maiden Hypatia, who by her subtle teaching of philosophy, no less than by her loveliness, held captive the men of Alexandria, and strove to uphold the falling credit of the gods whom she herself worshipped. Such were the scenes of riot and bloodshed which disgraced the Christian cause in these later days.
But from an earlier century there rose to our memory a far different vision—of the days when the name of the Nazarene was a byeword of contempt, and when the great ones of the earth thronged these courts to do homage to them that were no gods.
At a Christian altar in the city St. Mark was ministering, when an infuriated body of heathen burst into the church, and, dragging him forth, hurried him along to this Great Temple, offering him pardon and safety if he would burn but one little handful of incense to the gods. Steadfast in his faith, he faced that raging sea of idolaters, and calmly met the terrible fate before him. Finding they could nowise shake the loyalty of that solitary, brave Christian, they dragged him to the Bucelus, a precipice by the sea, where stood the State prison. There they left him for-the night, and his peaceful slumbers were gladdened by a glorious vision of the appearance of One who told him that his name was written in the Book of Life. When morning broke his tormentors returned, and dragged him to and fro about the city until he died. Then loving hands rescued that honoured clay, and, burning the body, sent the ashes to be treasured up at Venice.
There are other saintly names intimately associated with this city. St. Anthony, we know, came forth from his cell in Upper Egypt, and travelled to Alexandria to cheer and encourage his brethren in the mines and caves; accompanying the martyrs to their dungeons, and standing fearlessly by them, even in their last dread hour, clad in his white monastic robe, as one nowise shrinking from the crown of martyrdom. This, however, was not in store for him; so when the persecution abated, he returned to his cell, which he had made on a mountain difficult of access, hoping thereby to get beyond reach of the multitudinous visitors, who broke in upon his peaceful solitude. Nevertheless, he tilled a garden in the desert, that he might have refreshment to offer to such as persisted in following him.
In later years he returned to Alexandria, to confound the teaching of the Arians. Even the pagans flocked to hear a man so holy, so learned, and withal so meek and humble. They found him sociable and courteous; and he altogether won their hearts by his gentleness and simple charity to all men. They marvelled how one so wise could choose to live alone in the desert, apart from men and books; but he taught them that he never was alone, and that, as for books, Nature was the great volume which to him supplied the place of all others. So he abode awhile in the city, comforting the sad, and teaching all, and then returned to the desert to dwell, sometimes in his cell, sometimes in his monastery, whence he wrote letters of loving counsel to the Emperor Constantine and his sons, and where finally he died unmolested.
Another of the names best known to us, in the great host of Alexandria's saints and martyrs, is that of St. Catherine. Here it was that the cruel wheel for once refused its office, and flew in pieces so soon as the intended victim was bound to it, striking several of her persecutors with such force that they died. Finally she was beheaded, but ere she died she prayed that her body might not be left in the hands of pagans, and in answer to her prayer the angels came, and, snatching it away from these furious heathen, they carried it to Mount Sinai and there buried it, on the spot where the convent dedicated to St. Catherine now stands.
So great was the multitude of pilgrims who flocked to this holy shrine, that a special order of knighthood was instituted for their protection from the marauding Arabs. These were the Knights of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai. They wore a white habit, whereon was embroidered a half-wheel armed with spikes, and traversed by a sword stained with blood, the instruments of her martyrdom.
Here too it was that St. Jerome came to study under the learned Didymus, who, although blind from his infancy (by reason of ophthalmia, such as is but too common among the Alexandrian infants of the present day), nevertheless, with the assistance of hired readers and copiers, made himself master of every conceivable branch of science, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy, so that he was esteemed a prodigy, and, being also a man of exceeding holiness, was appointed by St. Athanasius to the charge of the great school of Alexandria.
To facilitate his study of the Holy Scriptures, he-got the letters of the alphabet cut in wood, and learned to distinguish them by the touch. So it seems that raised books for the blind are no modern invention, any more than boxes of alphabets, inasmuch as we find one of these saintly fathers counselling a young matron on the education of her family, and recommending that they should in early years be accustomed to play with such boxes of letters carved in wood or ivory.
Yet another name familiar in our ears is that of St. Athanasius, who for forty-six years held high and honourable office as Primate of Alexandria during the troublous times of the Arian heresy. Again and again he was driven from his bishopric, and forced to find refuge in the caves and dens in the desert, though happily the last years of the good old man were years of peace, and he was suffered to end his days calmly, surrounded by his beloved flock. We, who associate his name solely with a dogmatic creed of much later date, rarely picture to ourselves his life of energy, zeal, and devotion; the incessant battle of his life as a Christian general, and the daily hardships which he was called to endure for the faith.
Foremost among his foes was that George of Cappadocia who headed the Arians, and who, from time to time, superseded Athanasius in the Archbishopric. This is that St. George whom Gibbon has thought fit to identify with England's patron saint, though by his showing one little worthy of such honour.
He declares him to have been employed on the commissariat, to provide the army with bacon, an item which he contrived to turn into a mine of wealth for his own pocket. Afterwards he became a zealous convert to Arianism, and was raised by Constantius to the Archepiscopate, when he distinguished himself by the appalling cruelty with which he persecuted the Athanasians—confiscating their goods, branding and torturing some, putting multitudes to death, pillaging houses, burning churches, or profaning them, even polluting and ransacking the cemeteries. Women were forcibly baptized, and such as refused to communicate with him were seized and scourged, while the consecrated elements were forced into their mouths. Such as still retained their constancy of purpose were stripped of their garments and beaten on the face so that none could recognise them, while the men were scourged to death. Thus this loving shepherd of the Alexandrian flock pretended to seek the peace of the Church, and to teach lessons of charity and love.
Not content, however, with persecuting the Arians, he recruited his coffers by plundering the heathen temples, and taxing Christians and Pagans alike, till his oppression became unendurable and the people expelled him from the city. Once more reinstated by Constantius, he held his ground till the accession of Julian, when his day of retribution came. Dragged to prison by his foes, in company with two of his adherents, he there lay twenty-four days, after which the people would wait no longer for their revenge, but, bursting open the prison doors, they murdered the Archbishop and his companions, carried their bodies triumphantly through the city, and threw them into the sea.
Of course such a death, at the hands of the heathen, was speedily described as martyrdom, and canonisation soon followed. Some there were who still doubted the sanctity of "the ex-contractor of Cappadocia," but the Arians stuck by their saint, and in after ages others besides Gibbon have confused his name with that of the real St. George, also born in Cappadocia, who, sixty years previously, had given his life for the faith, being the first martyr in the persecution under Diocletian.
He was a military Tribune, though only twenty years of age; when, being present at a Council assembled by the Emperor to consult how best to crush the Christians, he spoke up for them like a man, and so betrayed his own faith. Then all looked in amazement on the grand beauty of that young face. Nevertheless he was subjected to grievous tortures, in all of which he was miraculously preserved, and such signs and wonders followed, that many were conveirted to the faith, including Athanasius the sorcerer, who had prepared poisonous drinks for him.
Finally he was beheaded, but failed not to reappear from time to time for the encouragement of warriors; and when, during the Crusades, the saint actually appeared to Cœur de Lion, and fought for Godfrey de Bouillon, his fame became undying and romance and chivalry chose him as their patron.
His conflicts with spiritual enemies were very soon materialised into those wars with the Libian Dragon of which England has heard so much. The fable was of rapid growth, inasmuch as the Emperor Constantine had a painting of St. George and the Dragon on the porch of his palace at Constantinople, before St. George of Alexandria had ever been heard of. He had also built a church near the sea and called it by his name, this being the first church dedicated to St. George.
Leaving Pompey's Pillar, we next found ourselves in one of those shady, bowery shrubberies, which all over the East are called gardens, though shade, and nothing but shade, is their chief characteristic. A Turkish band was playing execrably, and we endured half an hour's anguish, after which the musicians happily departed, as it was Friday—the Mahommedan Sabbath—and the faithful were required elsewhere. I believe the Turks, like the Hindoos, pique themselves on their knowledge and love of music, and say it is the one thing of which the English are thoroughly ignorant!
Our drive next lay along the Mahmoudiah Canal, which connects Alexandria with the Rosetta branch of the Nile at Atfeh. It was cut, by command of Mehemet Ali, in the year 1819, the destruction of the old one, eighteen years previously, having ruined Alexandrian trade, by isolating the city from the grand old river. After the death of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, when the British were trying to dislodge the French troops from Alexandria, they cut great sluices through the banks of the canal near Damietta, intending thereby to cut off the garrison from communication with the rest of Egypt, as also to stop the supply of fresh water. In the rush which ensued, the waters of the Lake Aboukir were drained down to the ancient bed of the Lake Mareotis, producing a vast inundation to the east and south of the city—a new feature in the country, which the French soon turned to their own advantage, bringing a flotilla of gunboats to work on this newly created sea.
So the Pasha very wisely determined to make a new canal; but he showed neither wisdom nor mercy in the way he set about it. Vast multitudes of those poor hard-worked and much-oppressed Fellahs, about whom we have lately heard so much, were gathered together—250,000 men, women, and children, half naked, were forced to work in the burning sun, under command of brutal task-masters, who, as in the days of Pharaoh, did not hesitate freely to use their scourge of cords, to encourage the weary.
Not the men only, but women and little children, were lashed till they literally streamed with blood. No regular tools were provided; each brought his own poor basket of palm-leaves to carry away the sand and mud, which they scooped up with their hands. No wages were given, and only the most miserable food; so it was small wonder that, by the very lowest computation, 23,000 of these poor wretches perished from starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Their bodies, being shovelled in with the sand and mud, helped to raise the canal banks, making them at the same time into a horrible, ghastly cemetery. But the fifty miles of canal were completed in one year (some accounts say in six weeks!); and human life in Egypt is of small importance when balanced against a great man's will.
From first to last these Egyptian canals have weighed heavily on the labourers; for what with artificial lakes and rivers, means of locomotion or of irrigation, each successive generation seems to have devised for itself some new experiment in waterworks.
In the very first reign of which we have trustworthy historical records—namely, that of Menes, who lived about 500 years before Abraham—we find him undertaking, and successfully accomplishing, a trifling little alteration in the position of the Nile. He found that its natural course somewhat interfered with his plans for the beautiful new city of Memphis; so, without more ado, he resolved to turn the mighty river aside, and compel it to flow in a new bed to the eastward. This he accomplished by constructing a dyke, with mounds and embankments so strong, that the amazed stream found itself effectually bridled, and calmly flowed in its new channel.
The next great work of the sort was that vast artificial lake constructed in the reign of Mœceris, for purposes of irrigation—a lake 300 feet in depth, and measuring 450 miles in circumference—which, being fed by the mother Nile through countless artificial channels, became a huge store-house, wherein were treasured the waters of the annual overflow. These, being imprisoned by mighty locks and floodgates, were therein retained till the earth had drunk up the last drop of the Nile's great gift. Then, when the thirsty land once more gasped and craved for refreshment, these precious waters flowed forth, by a network of veins, and gave new life to the parched soil. It is supposed that to this great reservoir was partly due old Egypt's safety in those dread years of famine, when she alone had corn enough and to spare, both for herself and for the starving nations around.
We also hear of various attempts to. connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean—ancient versions of the great Suez Canal. The first who seems to have thought of this—or, at all events, to have attempted it—was Sesostris. His work was taken up by Pharaoh-Neco, who wasted 100,000 lives of his miserable people before he would give in, and who was at length forbidden by an oracle to continue the work, as it would open Egypt to the invasion of strangers.
It was doubtless to this great canal that Ezekiel, his contemporary, alludes in describing Pharaoh as the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his river, "which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself." And it was as the penalty of his pride in his own works that the sentence of the Most High went forth against him: "Behold, I am against thee, and against thy rivers, and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste" (or, as the margin gives it, "wastes of waste") "and desolate, from Migdol to Syene, even unto the border of Ethiopia." It shall be "a base kingdom, the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations." 
Again, in comparing Pharaoh's overweening greatness to that of a mighty cedar, overtopping the forest, like unto a shadowing shroud, Ezekiel says: "The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running about his plants, and sent out her little conduits unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted . . . because of the multitude of the waters, when he sent them forth." "Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches: for his root was by great waters. But because his heart was lifted up in his height, therefore it was appointed that the mighty tree should fall; and the great waters were stayed; and all the trees of the field, 'even all that drink water' fainted and became black because of the failing of the streams." This was the fate appointed for "Pharaoh and all his multitude." These words, of course, allude to his fresh-water canals and vast systems of irrigation; but in the following chapter another reference seems intended to the great connecting link between the seas, when Pharaoh is addressed, "A dragon in the seas, which camest forth with thy rivers, and troublest the waters with thy feet, and fouledst their rivers."
This vast work, which Pharaoh-Neco failed to complete, was carried on by Darius, who actually did connect the two seas, and no doubt there was as gay a gala day on that occasion as any that were witnessed in January 1870. This great canal was perfected by Ptolemy II.; nevertheless, for some reason unknown, it seems to have fallen into disrepair and disuse, and though still distinctly traceable in many places, it continued for many long ages to be considered only a monument of folly and presumption; and a treasure for antiquaries.
Now, part of that old canal is the very bed through which the new fresh water canal flows to Suez from Ismailia,. having been brought thither from Cairo, by M. de Lesseps, as a preliminary to beginning his mighty work; and in spite of unnumbered difficulties from every side and every source, he accomplished (without oppressing the people) that which all the wisdom of the Pharaohs failed to work out, and has given to the nations a new and wonderful river, a broad highway for the shipping and the traffic of all ends of the earth; a river ninety miles in length, averaging rather above three hundred feet in width, and twenty-six in depth. We trust that a better fate is reserved for these great waters than attended the works of the proud Pharaohs; and that the blessing of heaven may rest upon Egypt's new river—a blessing which not priests and people alone, but also the crowned heads of many nations, both Christian and Mahommedan, united so solemnly to implore, when, ere the great canal was opened for traffic, each nation present did in its own tongue and after its own manner most earnestly commend this (one of the mightiest works ever wrought by human hands) to the special care of the Almighty Ruler of the Floods.
Wondertul as were the means employed in overcoming the tremendous difficulties which at every turn of this vast work uplifted their hydra heads, nothing was more astonishing to the people of Egypt than the fact, that so far from having been as a new grindstone for the faces of the poor, it supplied toiling myriads with regular work at fair wages; a boon in itself inestimable, and one which shows M. de Lesseps' canal in very glowing colours, as compared with those of his predecessors. It is impossible to stand on the banks of the Mahmoudiah Canal, and look on its glassy waters, without a shuddering memory of the twenty-three thousand men, women, and little children (some say far more) who only sixty years ago perished in making it, welcoming the death that freed them from torture, and laying down their poor exhausted bodies, to find rest at last in those great mudbanks at which, in hunger and burning heat, they had toiled so wearily.
- C. F. GORDON CUMMING.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.