The Gentleman's Magazine/Volume 253/November 1882/Egyptian Dervishes

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Egyptian Dervishes  (1882) 
by Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming


" ...What if to Thee, in Thine Infinity,
These multiform and many-coloured creeds
Seem but the robe man wraps as masquer's weeds
Round the one living truth Thou givest him—Thee?
What if these varied forms that worship prove
(Being heart-worship) reach Thy perfect ear
But as a monotone, complete and clear,
Of which the music is (through Christ's Name) Love?
For ever rising in sublime increase
To—'Glory in the Highest—on earth peace.'"

Nothing can be more strangely diverse than the impression produced on the mind by the motley faiths of Africa, to one coming direct from the comparative uniformity of worship in Europe, or to one returning from India—a land which (in addition to harbouring all these) claims thirty-three million deities of its own. To the former, the medley of Mahommedans and Jews, Copts, Armenians, Greeks, and all other Christian varieties, seems so strangely incongruous—while to the latter, the absence of idolatry, and the knowledge that all these nations are worshippers of One God, seems to raise them to one broad level; and though, practically, we know too well how they hate one another, and wrestle, and jostle, and fight for the corpse of truth, still, we remember that one golden thread does run through all their creeds; and though the land is divided in its observance of holy days—Friday, Saturday, or (in a minimum degree) Sunday, the mere fact of obedience to the same commandment seems something of a bond, which, theoretically, should link them all together.

As a mere question of scenic effect, it must be confessed that these more solemn forms of worship, and the abhorrence of all manner of graven images, do disappoint the eye which has become accustomed to grotesque and curious forms, masses of rich carving, and gaudy processions; and has forgotten its first feeling of disgust and horror at the puerile absurdities of a gross idolatry.

As you wander about in Cairo every new turn brings you to the door of one of the four hundred mosques, which seem to take up a vast proportion of every street; their domes and minarets are all more or less diverse in form and decoration; most of the minarets are octagonal; having many galleries and richly moulded balustrades. Often the walls bear inscriptions from the Khoran, and very intricate arabesques. Still, on the whole, there is a great sameness in them, and the eye wearies of the perpetual lines of red and white paint. The interiors are, also, much alike, simple, solemn, silent, and for the most part corporeal, instead of the polished marble of the Indian mosques. On one side, a deep recess, called the kiblah, marks the direction of Mecca, and shows the devout Mahommedan where to turn his face. There is also a mimbar, or pulpit where lies a copy of the Khoran, whence the Imam expounds to the faithful.

All the "show" mosques, which are frequented by European visitors, keep a supply of woollen overshoes ready to slip over their dusty boots, which is considered equivalent to removing them, and more convenient; not a very "-outré" mark of respect to Eastern customs; nevertheless, one which, with the rude British habit of despising everything foreign, occasionally gives half-fledged lads an excuse for "chafing" quiet, dignified greybeards to an extent very annoying to witness. It is never pleasant to see your countrymen assuming an utterly false position, and certainly no more perfect type of Dignity and Impudence could well be found, than occasionally shocks both eye and ear, when a wretched little Briton (too often possessed of snub features, and clad in ill-cut broad-cloth) presumes to give himself consequential airs with these stately Orientals, who invariably treat him with the courtesy of conscious superiority. But if this sort of thing is disgusting on ordinary occasions, it is tenfold worse when you come across it in one of these grand, solemn mosques, for it really seems as if travelling Britons could not recognise "holy ground" anywhere, save in their own chapels.

Of course, the turbaned men invariably expect a tip; but for that matter, what would the verger of a cathedral think if you failed to produce this customary tribute? After all, the petition for "Backsheesh" is only equivalent to the old English cry of "Largesse;" and though that word may now be obsolete, the custom still prevails, and the hand goes to the pocket just as often in the West as in the East and for much larger coins—the only difference lies in not being asked.

One of the mosques to which unbelievers are not admitted, is the Mosque of Flowers, where a carpet of superb embroidery of gold and silks is annually worked with infinite reverence, and is sent to Mecca as a covering for the Tomb of the Prophet. Though commonly called "The Holy Carpet," this Kiswet e' Nebbee is really a curtain. It is a hanging of rich silk, on which sacred sentences in Arabic are embroidered in gold, and it is designed as a lining for the Káaba, which is the temple of Mecca, the Holy of Holies of the Mahommedan world. I believe that Roberts (who, when painting in the East adopted Eastern raiment) was one of the few foreigners who has ever found his way into this most holy workroom; but his presence being detected, he was compelled to fly for his life, and was considered fortunate, indeed, to have escaped paying the penalty of his rash curiosity. When the sacred carpet is to be despatched, about forty thousand pilgrims accompany the offering, which is borne by a sacred camel, led by a very holy Dervish, "the great Hadji."

This vast concourse of people encamp on the plain, beside the Mosque of Hassan; then passing through Bab e Nusr (the Gate of Victory), the Pilgrimage of the Haag starts on its long toilsome journey.

Halting first at Birket el Haag, the lake of the pilgrims, they make their way by slow marches till they reach the peninsula Mount Sinai, and thence travel through Arabia till they reach the Holy City of Mecca, where it is theoretically supposed that seventy thousand pilgrims, representing all the Mahommedan nations, ought to assemble to witness the ceremonies of this great festival. It is said that, should the faithful fail to muster the requisite number of worshippers, the angels assemble to make up the missing number.

The pilgrims march in procession seven times round the Káaba, and kiss the most holy black stone, which was held sacred by the Arabs long before the days of Mahomet, who deemed it prudent to adopt it, and to cause it to be built into the corner of this most sacred shrine.

One curious ceremony is practised the day before the pilgrims reach Mecca. They ascend the sacred mount Arafat, where they offer sacrifice, to commemorate the sacrifice by Abraham of the ram in lieu of his son Ishmael (not Isaac). Then coming down from the mountain they proceed with their eyes closed, or blindfold, to pick up seven-times-seven small stones, which at nightfall they cast upon "the tomb of the devil."

Next day they proceed to Mecca, where they halt for a fortnight; then they start on their return journey to Cairo, where they ought to arrive on the sixty-seventh day from the date of their departure, namely, on the birthday of the Prophet, when the whole city holds festival, and seems as if it were the scene of a great fair. This is the only occasion on which all Egyptian women, however high their station, are suffered to appear in public, a permission of which a vast number take advantage, and come out in their festival robes and yashmaks, all of white.

The returning pilgrims bring back to Cairo the doubly sacred hangings which have adorned the Káaba for the last year, and which are eventually cut up into shreds for distribution among the faithful.

The great Dervish who leads the procession is held to be a person of such wondrous sanctity, that even a blow from his horse's hoof is an honour worthy to be desired; and when a vast crowd have assembled to witness the ceremony of the Doseh, or Trampling, a passage about six feet wide is cleared, down which comes a rushing torrent of young dervishes, swaying from side to side, drunk with fanaticism, and gasping Allah, Allah!

Suddenly they all stop and throw themselves flat on their faces; a living pavement, which, however, twitches convulsively while the miserable enthusiasts go on violently rubbing their noses in the dust, as their heads jerk from side to side, while they continue to reiterate the Name of God. Meanwhile the fanatical infection spreads, and many of the bystanders fall prone on the ground with the rest of the grovelling herd. Then, amid dead silence, the great Dervish, riding a powerful horse, surrounded by about a dozen followers, passes over the prostrate bodies, and as the pain of that heavy tread is added to the previous excitement, some writhe in agony, some swoon, some are in fits, while still with foaming lips they strive to murmur the praise of Allah.

This year a totally new feature was added to the first scene in this strange ceremony, namely, the marked honour paid to the Holy Carpet by the British authorities at Cairo—marks of official respect by the followers of the Cross, to one of the most strangely superstitious observances of the followers of the Crescent, which might well call forth wondering comments from all present, and from all who subsequently heard thereof, though, from a political point of view, well calculated to assuage the religious rancour of the Mahommedan population, and to prove to them how it is that so vast a number of their co-religionists are content to live peaceably under the British flag, and to serve a Christian sovereign in time of war.

Never within the memory of living Egyptians has the ceremony (which commemorates the tragic pilgrimage of Zobeida) been celebrated with such splendour as this year, when "the infidel dogs" rule supreme in Cairo. On the morning of October 5 the Holy Carpet was carried with all possible honour to the great mosque, where the accustomed religious service was performed. It was then placed on a gorgeously caparisoned camel, beneath a velvet canopy called a Mahmel, heavily embroidered with gold.

Behind it followed twelve other camels, on one of which rode the Great Dervish, in charge of the precious treasure, a wild-looking being, with long unkempt locks streaming on his bare shoulders. He was naked from the waist upwards, and seemed to have been selected for his magnificent figure. His head was in ceaseless motion, constantly tossing from side to side.

On the other camels were mounted musicians and singers, who indulged in most unmelodious discords.

The caravan made its way to the Mahmoudieh Square, where a large force of British troops were drawn up. Seven times it made the circuit of the Square, doubtless to symbolize the seven mystic sunwise turns to be performed by the faithful around the Káaba at Mecca. From the great citadel overlooking the scene a salute of twenty-one guns was fired, while the procession advanced to the spot where the Khedive and the Sheik-ul-Islam stood, waiting to kiss the tassel of the Holy Carpet, and present their offerings in money.

On the right hand of the Khedive stood the Duke of Connaught, on the left Sir E. Malet and Sir Garnet Wolseley.

The British infantry, and all the Mahommedans in the Indian native infantry, and native cavalry, then formed in long files, and started as the vanguard of the procession, which slowly wound its way through the narrow crowded streets of the native city, the Indian regiments who guarded the sacred offering during its two hours of struggling along narrow thoroughfares, receiving their full share of admiration from the Mahommedan population; their proud, soldierly bearing contrasting strangely with that of the average Egyptians who composed the greater part of the multitude.

Leaving the narrow streets, the procession emerged into the more open ground of the Esbekieh, and so made its way to the railway station. For another novel feature of the great ceremonial of 1882 was, that instead of proceeding to the Holy City by the usual pilgrim route, a special train was appointed to convey the carpet, the dervishes, and the camels to Suez, whence a special steamer was to convey them to Jeddah, This unusual course is said to be a precautionary measure, as it was feared that the hordes of wild Bedouins, well armed with Remington rifles, might forget their duty to the Prophet, in the temptation of looting his carpet,

So a gaily decorated truck was prepared to convey the gifts of the Khedive to the holy shrine.

In approaching Cairo, the prominent object which attracts our notice is Mohammed Ali's beautiful white mosque, which is built within the Citadel, above whose mighty ramparts tower the great dome and tall minarets. This noble mass of masonry stands on a detached rock, 200 feet above the level of the Nile—a spur of the Mokattem range, which stretches away in the background.

As these craggy and sandy hills completely overlook the Citadel, I at once decided on making my way thither, as being unmistakably the finest sketching ground; so, ignoring all the remonstrances of my dragoman, who suggested all manner of official opposition, I ventured to lead the way to the summit of the crags, whence we obtained so magnificent a view of the city and of the great desert outstretched beyond, traversed by the silvery Nile, with its ribbon-like edging of vivid fertile green, as amply repaid us for the exertion.

Right before us rose the mighty Citadel, which is said to have been restored by the great Saladin about the year 1176. All around it lies the city, wlth its forest of mosques and tall minarets.

The city is enclosed by battlemented walls, outside of which lie great tracts of desolate suburbs—vast mounds of city refuse, and countless ruined tombs and minarets standing in the desert; the mosques having in many cases disappeared, as if destroyed by violence, while these more fragile minarets remain. Even those that remain are allowed to crumble away piecemeal, no modern Egyptians caring to prop up their fine old ancestral temples, or finding in them any interest either as works of art or matters of history; the name of the greatest caliph or of the meanest slave being alike forgotten. Too often the precious ruins are merely treated as quarries, for there are Goths in all lands.

Among the most striking of these ruins, are the long line of arches of a great aqueduct; and winding beneath these we noted other lines of small moving creatures, which proved to be long strings of camels, their diminutive size affording a good scale by which to estimate the great buildings among which they moved.

This Citadel was in 1811 the scene of the massacre of the last of the Mamelukes by Mahomed Ali, a deed of base treachery, but of consummate and successful policy; a coup d'état, in fact. You remember how the Mamelukes had risen from the position of slaves to that of sultans. This Circassian dynasty produced a race of military princes, who waged war with the Ottoman sultans. The last but one, Sultan Ghoree, was slain in battle in Syria, and his successor, Toman Bey, was routed on the plan between Cairo and Heliopolis. He was taken captive and hanged, and his hea stuck on the malefactors' gateway, Bab Zooayleh. Though the supreme power had thus passed away from them, the Mameluke aristocracy still maintained their ancient valour, till their brilliant cavalry was routed by Napoleon at the battle of the Pyramids, and but a small remnant left.

These Mameluke nobles had helped Mahomed Ali to the pachalik; but it is supposed that they had changed their minds, and were plotting to destroy him. At all events, having used them as the ladder of his ambition, he found it expedient to get rid of them. He therefore invited them all to be present within the Citadel, when a pasha was to be invested with some military command. Four hundred and seventy of these magnificent beings accordingly rode up in great state, but when they turned to depart they found the gates closed, and from every corner a murderous fire of musketry rained upon them.

From this horrible carnage one alone escaped, namely, Amyn Bey, who forced his horse to leap the rampart, a fall of forty feet. Happily he lighted on a heap of rubbish, and though the horse was killed, the man escaped and, giving himself into the care of the Arabs, found protection during the ensuing days, when the houses of the Mamelukes were plundered, and all their relations, numbering about one thousand, were murdered, and the gate of Bab Zooayleh literally covered with those ghastly trophies, the heads of the slain.

It is said that from this final massacre one other man escaped, Suleiman Aga by name, who disguised himself in the long blue robe of an Arab woman, and, thus veiled, escaped his foes. This man had been the Pasha's prime favourite, and the story goes that without showing any special disgust at his friend's treachery, returned to his post of favourite, and even repeated the little joke of dressing up as an Arab damsel, who appearing before his Highness as a suppliant, pleaded her own cause with volubility, and carried her case, whereupon, removing her veil, she displayed the features of Suleiman, who is affirmed by English eye-witnesses to have continued for many years the cordial friend of the Pasha and other great folks in Cairo.

It is said to have been either as a thank-offering for this brilliant affair, or as an atonement for possible evil in it, that Mahomed Ali built his beautiful mosque within the Citadel. As we looked upon it, we could not but remember the Divine prohibition, which forbade King David to build a temple to the Most High, because he had shed blood abundant1y[1] upon the earth. In this instance, even the building of the great Mosque was a work of oppression and wrong. Among the hundreds of hard-worked and unpaid fellah, there were bands of young girls of from nine to thirteen years of age, divided into companies of about thirty, each marshalled by a brutal fellow carrying a heavy koorbash with which he dealt cruel blows right and left, whenever the weary, jaded creatures paused for a moment. And all the time they were compelled to sing in chorus—a ceaseless joyless song, sung by unwilling lips and sad hopeless hearts.

With the exception of the domes, the mosque is built entirely of white stone, and the interior of Egyptian alabaster—slabs of motley yellowish white—which were brought from a quarry near Benisoueff on the east bank of the Nile two days' journey in the desert. The arcades, the richly ornamental pillars, the beautiful fountain in the outer court, for ceremonial ablutions, are all of thr same material. The interior is very fine; something like St. Paul's, with four small domes clustered round the great central one. Very large, very solemn, very silent; the foot moving noiselessly over rich Turkish carpets, while here and there some venerable patriarch kneels in prayer, seeming wholly abstracted from the visible world. It is a temple that you feel to be meet for its object. But if you come back in the evening, to see the Dervishes go through functions, you may be somewhat désillusionné, as we were.

Meanwhile, we went on to look at Joseph's Well—not the Joseph of Scripture, but the Sultan, Yussuf Ben Sala Eddin, whom we commonly call Saladin. He bored this well through nearly 300 feet of solid rock, so as to supply the Citadel with water, should the supply from the Nile aqueduct be cut off. Winding round and round the shaft is a spiral gallery where mules and bullocks ascend and descend to the water-level. Its incline is so gradual that if you wish it, you may ride down on a donkey. The width is about six feet by seven, cut in the solid rock like a huge corkscrew. It is lighted by openings into the great shaft.

The method of working this great well is unique. As it would be impossible to raise the water to so great a height by one . ft,[?] the shaft is made in two divisions, the lower one being a little to one side. Thus two sets of oxen are continually working; one set at the surface of the ground, the others 165 feet lower; while the water lies 132 feet lower still. It is raised by means of an endless double-rope carrying innumerable earthen jars, passing over two wheels, at the top and bottom. This is set in motion by the oxen walking round and round, and as fast as the water is lifted, it pours itself into a great reservoir at the bottom of the upper shaft, whence it is raised to the surface by another endless chain of pots, worked by the upper detachment of oxen. The shaft tapers from 24 feet by 18 at the top, to 15 feet by 9 at the bottom. Altogether it is a very wonderful piece of boring.

Leaving this high ground, we drove off in search of the Tombs of the Mameluke Sultans—beautiful mouldering ruins, some of them being of white alabaster, carved with endless variety of devices and arabesque tracery, lying under the blue heaven.

Afterwards we saw the Tombs of the Pashas and their wives, all in one great building. Each has a gorgeous tomb painted in vivid colours, covered by one great slab, from the head of which rise long round stones, like the stalks of mushrooms, and of divers lengths, to indicate the number and age of the children, each bearing an inscription. That erected to the head of the house is marked by a carved turban or fez surmounting the stone. This family grouping may be ohserved on most of the Mahommedan tombs in Cairo.

Speaking of Pashas, do you know that the curious dignity of owning one, two, or three tails is not a mere fiction, but a real fact? In any procession, involving flags and such like, the tails are duly present!—horsehair tails, suspended from a gilt ball on a long pole. The origin of this was, that when the Turks were in danger of defeat and had lost their flag, a Bashaw cut off his horse's long and much-prized tail, and, fixing it on his spear, rallied his troops and gained the day; since which time it has been adopted as the highest honorary distinction.

Wishing to have a nearer inspection of the ruined mosques, I walked back with the old dragoman. The ruins seemed literally without number, all bearing a certain family likeness to one another—square buildings with slender windows, and domes of varied form covered with arabesque tracery. They have no kindly moss or lichen, no veiling green of creepers or of grass; but they rise from the arid sand or rock, sharp and clean-chiselled, as if they belonged to the world of yesterday.

The old city is now "a couching place for camels." They approach in line, following their self-elected leader, and are very particular in preserving their own order of precedence; their action always looks shaky and disjointed, from the habit of moving the two "off" legs and then the two "near" legs simultaneously. Here they rest beside their Arab masters, whose long camel-hair robes, falling in large folds of heavy drapery, are always so attractive to the artistic eye. These are real Bedouins—men whose glory it is to have no certain dwelling-place—to whom a halt thus near a city savours of danger, so that they long to be up and away, back in their own free desert, where the black tents fie and the homely home-welcome awaits them; where at daybreak they hear their sheik call the solemn hour of prayer, and every man kneels at the door of his tent, with his face towards Mecca; back to the old patriarchal life that has changed so little, while the wave of change and progress has swept over all other lands.

There is still the old Bedouin honour in observing the wild rule of the desert. Should a wayfarer's camel sink and die beneath its burden, the owner need only draw a circle round the dead beast and go on his way, secure of finding his goods untouched when able to return and remove them. And not only is the inviolable reverence for the hospitality of the tent, when once granted, fully maintained, but we are even told by travellers that they have occasionally left a tent in the desert for upwards of a twelvemonth, and returned to [fi]nd that not one cord or one peg had been touched.

There have even been cases in which travellers, who, according to the rules of the desert, had been quite legitimately robbed, have, by a sudden appeal to the honour of their captors, obtained not only their freedom, but a restitution of their stolen property. Such was the experience of Sonnini, a scientific French traveller, who, when crossing the desert near the Natron lakes, was surprised by a troop of about a hundred well-mounted Bedouins. In presence of such a force, his own small party of six, two of whom were Egyptians, were altogether helpless. They were at once disarmed and stripped of their money, arms, provisions, and most of their clothes. The robbers then spread out their booty on the sand and proceeded to divide it among themselves.

Meanwhile their Arab guide, Hussein, himself a Bedouin, though of another tribe, addressed a pathetic appeal to the robber chief. "Arabs," said he, "you have stripped a man entrusted to my protection, and for whose safety I will stake my life; a man with whom I have eaten, who has slept in my tent, and has become my brother! Never again can I enter that tent; never again dare I return to my camp; never more look upon the face of my wife or my children. Arabs! take my life, or restore to my brother every article of his property." As he spoke, he snatched back his gun from the Arab who had first seized it and levelled it at the chief, determined to shoot him in case of refusal, though well aware that his own life would instantly be forfeit.

His brave bearing, combined with the pathos of his words, touched these sons of the desert The sheik consented that everything should be restored, and though some of his followers sorely grudged giving up their spoils, every article was delivered up, with the exception of a considerable sum of money, which had been abstracted from M. Sonnini's purse, and divided by the Arabs among themselves. The sheik was very particular in enquiring whether the full sum had been restored, but the traveller deeming himself fortunate to have got off so well, assured him that he had received everything right.

Not content with this act of restitution, the Arabs now became exceedingly cordial. The sheik insisted that M. Sonnini should ride his (the sheik's) horse while he walked beside him. The same compliment was paid by other Arabs to his companions, all of whom thanked Heaven that no blood had been shed, at the same time blaming the foreigners for their temerity in exploring the desert, and thus, as it were, offering themselves as fair objects for pillage.

As the sun set, the whole troop of Arabs knelt in devout worship in that bleak desert, having previously rubbed their arms and legs with its dry sand—a substitute for ceremonial ablutions, specially prescribed by Mahomet who (himself an Arab) foresaw how often his followers would find themselves in the parched desert, and be unable to procure water for the washing which must invariably precede prayer.

The amazing power of endurance of these Bedouins would astonish even a Highlander, more especially their almost incredible keenness of sight. Those who possess camels are wealthy enough, as these supply them with all things needful—milk, cheese, fuel, raiment, tents; even meat when they can afford to slaughter one of the herd. But many of the tribe are often miserably poor, and find enough to test their faith in the struggle for daily bread—a faith, however, which rarely seems to fail. . . . One of them was asked how he managed to live, whereupon he displayed his strong white teeth, saying, "He Who created this mill can easily supply it with material to grind."

At the time of my visit to Cairo, these men, like all their neighbours, were rigidly observing the long forty days of Ramadhan—a fast so real that, from sunrise to sunset, not one crumb of bread, one drop of water, one whiff of soothing smoke, may pass their lips. Hard as this is at any time, conceive what it must be when working in the burning sun; for this holy season is an exceedingly movable fast, and sometimes occurs late in the spring. Still, the self-indulgent mortal who would infringe the law would be held in sore contempt by men whose minds so thoroughly rule the poor body, and with such tyrannous empire. Imagine how they must despise our.easy-going, comfort-loving lives. Imagine, too, how sore it must be for Mahommedan servants, under a burning Indian sun, to minister to our luxuries, while they themselves are keeping such a fast as this. The only exception to their law is in favour of travellers and young children, the latter being allowed to eat fruit, such as dates, or sugar-cane.

Of course, these poor hungry creatures become highly irascible, and the peace of the domestic hearth is liable to be endangered. It is said that more divorces for incompatibility of temper occur during the Ramadhan than in all the rest of the year. It seems that in Egypt divorces are allowed on the most trivial pretexts. A wife may be returned to her father without any reason whatever being assigned, and her husband need only allow her maintenance for three months, at the end of which she is free to marry again. Should he, in the mean time, wish her to return, she must do so, and this little matrimonial difference may be repeated a second time. But if a third disagreement arise, the wife may not return till she has actually married another husband, after which she may, if she chooses, leave him and return to number one! Of course, this easy state of law leads to very rapid varieties in domestic establishments, more especially as four wives at a time are the prescribed allowance. It is considered advantageous to marry girls very young, as, after the age of fourteen, the father would receive a smaller dower, and this again would be very considerably diminished on her second marriage. Moreover, a girl's value depends much on her fat, the lean kine being in small estimation.

While good old Mahommed Sheik (my dragoman) solaced his hunger by a little gossip with the Bedouins, I wandered on over those mountains of broken crockery and rubbish of every species, which have been accumulating for centuries till they form a natural feature in the landscape. Here, too (where all things worn and worthless find their last haven), among broken crockery and cast-away raiment, are laid the poor worn-out human machines that have finished their hard life-work. Thousands of humblest tombs lie here, half hidden by the shifting sand, and countless thousands of those too poor to raise the simplest monument have here buried their dead in the shallow sand—out of their sight indeed, but by no means beyond reach of the prowling pariahs, always on the scent for hid treasure, seeking what they may devour. It is a waste, howling, boundless wilderness, with nothing to suggest the calm peace of God's Acre. Strange it seems to stand here alone in the uncared-for desert, where on every side "the dead of three thousand years" (perhaps of far more) sleep so silently beneath that blue heaven. . . . You think, and dream, and wonder—

"O! I do ponder with most strange delight
On the calm slumbers of the dead man's night.—
Would that the silent earth
Of what it holds could speak, and every grave
Be as a volume—shut, yet capable
Of yielding its contents to ear and eye!"

I lingered among the tombs till towards sunset, when the carriage was to have met me at a given point. Our coachman for the day was a huge, ill-favoured monster, whom we had dubbed "The Egyptian Demon," by reason of the brutal manner in which he flogged his horses. On the present occasion neither carriage nor demon were forthcoming.

Poor old Sheik was faint with hunger, and had not even a light for the pipe which he held, ready to commence the moment the sun sank below the horizon. We dared not leave our trysting-place till after gunfire, as, till then, the carriage might come viâ the Citadel and just miss us. That moment past, we started to walk towards the city; the ploughing through deep sand was very tiring, but on and on we went among the ruins, half dreading the ghostly touch of some shadowy spirit that might leave us bereft of reason, according to the Arab tradition

At last my companion peeped into one of the dark buildings, then joyously bade me halt, for he had found a little group of friends squatting round a fire; they offered him coffee and gave him a light, and in a few minutes he was ready to start again. By the time we reached the city it was quite dark The streets were hushed and silent—and, as we dived down all manner of short cuts, there seemed no end to the intricate countless windings of those narrow overhanging streets; often pitch dark from end to end—perhaps one man carrying a hand-lantern, affording the only glimmer of light—along dead walls of dark mosques and dark gateways. They were just such places as might have dark tales to tell of intrigue and revenge.

We scarcely met anyone, even the donkey-boys had all vanished from these deserted regions. At last, when I could hardly crawl farther, we hailed with delight the trot of little feet and captured one solitary donkey—a prize indeed. But, alas! its saddle was an Eastern saddle masculine, and how to stick sideways thereon was quite a problem. For a short distance the good old Sheik supported me most affectionately, but I think he was decidedly relieved when I found there was no alternative but to ride à califourchon, which he vowed was the orthodox attitude or Greek, Italian, and Turkish women—besides, as he justly remarked, "if we did meet acquaintances, they would not know us in the dark."

So on we went, through all manner of out-of-the-way places, and saw the evening life of Cairo, which consisted in universal coffee-drinking and smoking, to take off the first edge of hunger, after the long fasting day. Very picturesque were those well-lighted groups, as seen from the dark streets—the turbaned figures, the long pipes, the very coffee-pots, each with a grace of its own. Then we passed through the flaring bazaars, and saw them, too, under new aspects; and at last, dismissing the small Arab and his donkey, rejoined somewhat anxious friends; and so ended a memorable night-ride through the ruins and byways of Cairo.

An hour later we returned to the Citadel to witness the Dervish festival in the great solemn mosque; and truly, of all the strange varieties of religious observance which it has been my fortune to witness in many lands, I know none which has left so bewildering an impression on my mind as this.

The building was lighted by a multitude of very Oriental hanging lamps. A great concourse of people moved silently over the soft rich carpets. They were not worshippers, but had assembled as spectators (partly awed, partly amused) of the strange ceremonial of a great company of Dervishes of diverse orders, whose worship was about to commence.

The first set were Twirlers. They wear a tall conical hat of drab-coloured felt, a loose upper jacket, and a dress of white cotton, fitting to the figure, and hanging straight down to the ground, like a nightgown, gored, and weighted at the bottom with bits of lead. Their faces looked sickly and unnatural, as if they were hysterical—and no wonder! First a Dervish lays down a sheepskin on a praying carpet. This is emblematic of the founder of the order, and is reverenced accordingly, so each in turn bows to the carpet. Then enters the sheik—a sort of lord abbot, dressed in black and green—and kneels on the carpet, whilst his followers also kneel in silent prayer. A plaintive chaunt is now raised, after which a villanous brass instrument commences to play, whereupon the sheik rises, and heading the procession, each in turn again bows to the carpet—to the man in front of him—to the man behind him. Then, throwing off their upper jacket, they appear in the long white dress, cross their hands on the breast, and with humble reverence kiss the hand of the sheik. Then slowly extending the arms, with the palm of the right hand turned up, and that of the left turned down, they commence twirling after the manner of children making "cheeses." The skirt, held out by bits of lead, flies round in a circle. The head droops on one shoulder, the eyes are half closed, as though in some strange trance.

Thus they continue to spin like tee-totums, revolving on their own axis, and, by some instinct, seem never to touch one another. As the music quickens, so does the rate of rotation, but apparently without any consciousness on the part of the silent twirlers, whose pale, solemn faces wear a strange supernatural look of ecstasy. At the end of thirty minutes, at a given signal, the majority suddenly halt; only two or three, extra devout, continue their strange giddy turning, like silent white moths, all the time that the Howling Dervishes are going through their performances.

These are dressed like ordinary Turks, with large turbans, which, in their excitement, they throw off, and the long hair which marks their saintly character falls below their waist. Like the Nazarites of old, they have vowed that no razor shall touch their head. Now the brazen instrument redoubles its hideous noise. The Dervishes rapidly sway from side to side, rolling themselves and their unlucky heads in wondrous style; every feature writhes, the eyes roll wildly, while with deep sepulchral groan they grunt out A1 lâh! Al lâh! Then with violent spasmodic jerks, dashing themselves backwards and forwards, they touch the ground with their hands, and their wildly dishevelled hair tosses back right into our faces, when we shrink back in some alarm, and all the time the shout of Allāh-el-Al-lāh! followed by a deep groan, goes on unceasingly in measured chorus.

The exhaustion is terrific—every muscle strained—the eyes bloodshot—the mouth foaming—the whole frame quivering with frightful excitement.

Suddenly, at the bidding of the priest, they halt, still swaying like drunken men. Rapidly they bend the knee a thousand times, still shouting the Holy Name; then resume the grunting; and still the white twirlers go on calmly rotating like some sleepy humming-top in a fairy dream. After an hour of this wild work the howlers have wrought themselves into a state of frenzied insanity, amounting to positive madness, and as they are by this time quite irresponsible, and the smallest excuse might rouse their fanatical rage, it was judged unsafe for us infidels to remain longer in the mosque. The evening's excitement sometimes ends by producing cataleptic fits.

Amongst the strange beings was one who was unmistakably a gentleman; he wore his ordinary dress and red fez. It was strange to see an educated man seeking favour of God by this frenzied "bodily exercise.' Favour of men is abundantly gained, as the reputed sanctity of the Dervish secures him admission wherever he may please to enter. Of course many of them are truly religious men, others mere impostors who gain their living by writing charms and amulets, by divination, healing the sick by means of incantations, and so on. Many are simply idiots, who for that very reason receive the sort of reverence accorded to such as are believed to be especially cared for by God, inasmuch as He has deprived them of responsibility.

We quitted the hot glaring mosque, that in the morning had seemed so solemn and temple-like, and Mahommed Sheik was well pleased to see us safe outside of it, though his responsibility had been shared by an Egyptian officer, to whom Sheik whispered we should give a Backsheesh. The English officer who produced the tip blushed as he offered it, but it was accepted with perfect composure.

And now we were once more beneath the quiet stars, and could breathe more freely in presence of the solemn night; but we felt hushed and bewildered by the scene we had witnessed; and the turning, twisting twirling beings with the pale dreamy faces still seemed to be moving before us. I almost felt as if I should have brain fever, and be haunted by these creatures in perpetual motion (just as I always think a delirious chorister must inevitably be haunted by a pointed edition of the Psahns, with Big Words, and Middle-sized Words, and Small Words, and Little Tiny Words, and italics all jumbled together, and dancing up and down in a mazy whirl.

We had all gone "to see the Dervishes," rather inclined to laugh; only expecting to see some men "valsing heavenlily," as a damsel told me her favourite partner did; but there was an intense earnestness in the whole scene that quelled all sense of the ludicrous, and sent us away subdued and sad, only filling us with deepest pity for the strange beings of whose unsatisfying and unprofitable daily worship we had had this glimpse. Still more were we filled with wonder how so preposterous a ceremonial could be an off-shoot of grave, stately Mahommedanism; by it acknowledged and cherished—the same solemn Mahommedanism that we had seen in India sneering so contemptuously at the vagaries of Hindoo faith.

Then we bethought us of still stranger excrescences of a purer faith—of Christian sects who pervert Scriptural injunctions to new meanings—of so-called "Jumpers," who testify the gladness of the Christian llfe by jumping, because they say that of old "men leaped for joy"; while others twirl like the Dervishes, because Ezekiel said, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?"

How many thousands quote St. Paul in support of their eccentric doctrines of every description, including spiritual wife-dom; and how many more deem it necessary still to dance and sing after the example of David or Miriam, in token of spiritual joy.

Witness such scenes as those enacted in Banffshire at the revival meetings, as described by the local papers:[2] scenes of intense so-called religious excitement; when the whole multitude assembled from the neighbouring fishing villages, poured along the streets of Buckie, singing and dancing, waving their caps, Bibles, and hymn-books, and shouting Hallelujah! Great strong fishermen singing and shouting "till they were quite hot;" women with their infants in their arms, and streaming hair, dancing and singing; lassies with their clothes tucked up as if they had just left their work joining hands and shouting; boys and girls and little children all joining in the chorus. A new feature in the movement was the introduction of what is called the gospel dance. At first there was merely a keeping time to the hymn music, while the people sat, but soon they all joined in, and the whole crowd kept up a sort of interminable jig that was suggestive rather of an Irish fair than of a religious meeting in grave Scotland. Next followed the "holy kiss," as it is called; a devotional exercise which, in spite of all Scriptural authority, our cold Western churches have in general seen fit to omit; though our Roman sister, with her usual wisdom, has substituted the kissing of certain holy toes; a privilege which, as has been very justly observed, is not likely to foster excess. The whole description might be that of the religious dance of the Himalayan Hill tribes round the ark of their god.

Look too at the "Shakers" in America. Some recent spectators of their worship describe how men and women form in lines facing each other down the chapel, all dressed in a sort of conventual uniform. All join in most fervent hymns, and take it by turns to exhort one another. Then commences the mystic dance. All hold out their hands with the palms upturned as if waiting to catch a blessing. The women kiss each other, and dance and sing. After a while three brethren and three sisters stand in the middle, and the rest form a procession, two and two, holding their hands out open as before; men and women in different lines, each headed by an elder. With the utmost gravity and solemnity these now commence a curious hopping dance, which gradually quickens till it becomes a sort of reel, while those stationed in the centre sing hymns.

The Shakers are said to acquire the same sort of inane expression and pale complexion as the Dervishes. Frances Anne Kemble has given us a description of an American Shaker village, inhabited by seven hundred men and women, whose profession of religion has for one of its principal objects the extinguishing of the human race by devoting themselves, and persuading others, to celibacy and the strictest chastity. She says they are perfectly moral and exemplary in their lives and conduct, miraculously clean and neat, and incredibly shrewd, thrifty, and money-making. Their dress is hideous, and their worship, to which they admit spectators, consists of a fearful species of dancing, in which the whole of them engage, going round and round their vast hall or temple of prayer, shaking their hands like the paws of a dog sitting up to beg, and singing a deplorable psalm tune in brisk jig time: the men without their coats, in their shirt-sleeves, with their lank hair hanging on their shoulders; the women without a single hair escaping from beneath their hideous caps; mounted upon very high-heeled shoes, and every one of them with a white handkerchief folded napkin-fashion, and hanging over her arm. In summer they all dress in white, and what with their pale immovable countenances, their ghost-like figures, and ghastly mad spiritual dance, they looked like the nuns in "Robert the Devil," condemned to dance with ill-taught bears.[3]

Still pondering on these things, I fell into a troubled sleep, perplexed with visions of human spinning-wheels and humming-tops spinning and humming for ever and ever, to the hideous music of those brazen instruments; and just when in my dream Dante was beginning a new canto thereupon, for his Inferno, I awoke to the consciousness that the sun was already above the horizon, and that we had no time to lose in starting on our further journey—by no romantic caravan of slow-stepping camels, but the swift train of English-built carriages, and the snorting iron horse.

An hour later we were looking back regretfully, to catch one last glimpse of the beautiful mosque whose white dome and minarets gleamed in the morning light—in truth, a stately temple. Much we marvelled to think that so fair an object should have been bequeathed to Cairo by so cruel a despot as Mahomet Ali—whose treacherous massacre of the Mamelukes, on the very spot where he subsequently reared the mosque, was but one of his many deeds of blood. It is said that no fewer than twenty-three thousand of his subjects lie burind along the banks of the fresh-water canal which bears his name, all victims to the scourge of the cruel taskmaster of this hard-hearted tyrant.

Certainly, if we may judge of a creed by the lives of those who profess it, mercy and justice are not prominent features in Mahommedan faith. The Arab proverb says, "The worshipper will become like what he worships," and the hard, unloving belief in a God who guides relentless, pitiless Fate, is reflected in the hard unbending character of the followers of the Prophet.

The "La Allāh-el-Allāh" (there is no God but God) which greets your ear so often, is said to express to their mind a summary all His absolute supremacy and resistless will; together with the utter passiveness of all created beings as mere instruments for good or evil; tools utterly helpless in the hands of an omnipotent and utterly unsympathising Power. So this unloving faith produces an unloving life; and the oppression of the poor under the amiable Turkish rule has become so entirely a matter of course, that they never even lift up their voice in remonstrance, but accept their lot in patient misery.

One of their proverbs in allusion to this state of things is, that their masters "take from the sorefooted his sandals." Another, referring to the custom of bribery, says, that "to seek for wealth without wealth, is like carrying water in a sieve;" an expression of striking force to anyone who has watched their primitive method of irrigation, when, in order to raise water from a lower to a higher level, two men stand, one on each side of the lower ditch, swinging backwards and forwards, by means of two ropes, a frail wicker basket which allows about three-fourths of the water to run out, before it can possibly reach the upper ditch.

They describe the generosity of their task-masters by saying that "it is easy to cut broad thongs from other men's leather;" a proverb which always reminds me of that charming definition of Benevolence as "the feeling which prompts A, on seeing B in trouble, to ask C to help him!" The procrastinating Turks say, that he who lingers by the way, and he who hastens, alike meet at the ferry; but I believe that to the more diligent Arabs we owe the proverb that "By the lane of by-and-bye, one comes to the gate of never." In no other country have I seen a population that impressed me as being so abjectly poor and miserable as these Egyptian fellahs. They are said to be an utterly degraded race, but who can wonder if they are?

Poor wretches, they have hard enough lives, to make them as bad as they are called; no sunshine of happiness seems ever to gild their sad days. Nothing but work and oppression from their birth to their grave; forced to labour at wages that will barely sustain life even in Egypt, and urged to their work by the sharp whips of Arab taskmasters. Even their little children are forced to work by the same whip, and you see little ones of five and six staggering along with a heavy basket-load of earth. The more independent agriculturist fares little better, and it is computed that in work, in money, or in kind, he is compelled to give up ninety-five per cent. of the produce of his labour, thanks to the system of extortion, cheating, and beating whereby the revenue is collected.

The sheik of each village contrives by dint of cruel beatings to extract the utmost farthing from the wretched fellahs under his rule, keeping for himself as much as he dare, though he, in turn, suffers the Naboot at the hands of the Nazir, another petty officer, of peasant origin like himself, and for that very cause all the more ruthless. He knows that he must make his own harvest off the moneys paid by the sheiks, and yet receive the Naboot should he fall to satisfy the Turkish governor of the province, who also wants to take his pickings before handing over the revenue to the Pasha, and so it goes on. Of course the miserable fellah must beat some one, so he lords it in his own household, and wife and children suffer in their turn. If, as Keats says,

"Love in a hut, on water and a crust,
Is (Love, forgive us!) cinders, ashes, dust,"

what must life be in an Egyptian mud-hut, with blows and bickerings to increase the amenities of poverty! It is a home of the earth earthy. The walls are of clay, the roofs of palm rafters covered with clay. No furniture save a clay bedstead over a clay oven, heated with fuel of camel-dung. On a clay dish-stand are set the earthen dishes and water-jars which constitute the "plenishings" of an Egyptian home. No wonder that the inmates should be more filthy and more wretched than anything you can well imagine

Then on we whirled over sand and pebbles—pebbles and sand—sometimes so strangely like our own desolate Culbyn sand-hills on the shores of Morayshlre, that it seemed quite homelike! The sun set like a ball of fire, sending rays of ruby light athwart the desert, and darkness rapidly followed. Then came the clear moonlight gleaming on the white latine sails of boats sailing on the canal, close to the railway. Then Suez—then the Red Sea.


1.   1 Chron. xxii, 8.
2.   Feb. 1871.
3.   Records of Later Life, by Frances Anne Kemble.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

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