This interesting study of the Copts deserves attention. The Copts are the descendants of the ancient Egyptians, though many of them show a strain of Syrian or Jewish blood, and the Coptic church preserves in a somewhat debased form the primitive Christianity of the fourth century when it parted from Rome and Constantinople. Through the ages the Copts have preserved their faith and their customs; they form about a tenth of the population of Egypt and play a leading part in commerce. This study of the manners and customs of the Copts is notable for its comprehensive and scholarly handling of the subject, for grace of style and rich, descriptive backgrounds.
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Modern Sons of the Pharaohs
A Study Of The Manners And Customs Of The Copts Of Egypt
SIMON HENRY LEEDER
Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, S. H. Leeder
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
Availability: Publicly available via the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA) through the following Creative Commons attribution license: "You are free: to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work; to make derivative works; to make commercial use of the work. Under the following conditions: By Attribution. You must give the original author credit. For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder. Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above." (Status: unknown)
CHAPTER I. A Visit to the Village of a Coptic Squire. 3
CHAPTER II. The Home-Life of the Squire. 17
CHAPTER III. Country Rambles and Chats with Bedouins and Fellaheen 27
CHAPTER IV. Amongst the Country-Folk. Their Beliefs and Superstitions. The Interest and Humour of their Talk 38
CHAPTER V. Birth and its Attendant Celebrations. 49
CHAPTER VI. Baptism... 57
CHAPTER VII. How a Wife is Chosen. 63
CHAPTER VIII. The Coptic Wedding. 68
CHAPTER IX. The Oriental in Grief; and the Coptic Burial Customs. 74
CHAPTER X. The Marvels of the Saints' Tombs, and their Birthday Fairs 82
CHAPTER XI. Oriental Shopkeepers and Handicraftsmen. 88
CHAPTER I. The Oriental Christian in his Church. 100
CHAPTER II. The People at Worship. 108
CHAPTER III. Of the Bread and the Wine, of Holy Water, and the Extraordinary Fasts 123
CHAPTER IV. The Beliefs of the Copts. 134
CHAPTER V. A Sketch of the Aged Coptic Patriarch, Cyril V.144
CHAPTER VI. A Visit to the Venerated Bishop of the Fayoum, Amba Abraam 156
CHAPTER VII. Does the Ancient Race of the Pharaohs still survive in Egypt? 182
CHAPTER VIII. The Egyptian Christians and British Rule. 195
THE BURYING OF THE PICTURE IN THE ALTAR.. 205
THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD... 205
IT was the intention of the publishers that this book should appear in the autumn of the year 1914, and the author completed the MS. by the very last day of July, the day that seems to us now to have been fated to mark the close of a world epoch. In the uncertainty of the upheaval a postponement of publication was agreed upon ; " till the end of the war," was at that time a phrase fresh and hopeful. Three years have more than passed ; the war goes on, and after what perhaps has been a surfeit, readers are seeking for books unconnected with translations of the doctrines of Hunnish savagery and German philosophy, or even of the allied politics and the history of the war itself. Moreover, Egypt and its native people (although the exigencies of war have sealed the country to the mere tourist) have become the centre of new interest through a realisation of its vital importance to the very existence of our Empire, and by reason of the great armies which have assembled there from every part of the Empire to assert and protect our rights. And so the publication of this study of the Coptic people of Egypt has been decided on for the early days of 1918.
The writer has not been in Egypt during the period of the war, though the pleasure of correspondence with many native friends there—Moslem and Coptic—has happily not been interrupted. When he left the valley of the Nile, after the last of several prolonged visits, the " Coptic question," to which he refers in the last chapter, was in an acute stage provoking much controversy. The advent of war put an end, of course, to all agitation of that nature. As the days of strain and trial to our Empire multiplied, the disposition increased on the part of the Coptic people to assist the Government in every possible way—in the realm of politics as well as philanthropy.
The author has thought it would best serve the Coptic people and the responsible Government of Egypt to leave his work exactly as the beginning of the war found it. After the long truce, which will end with the war, it may be useful to be able to turn to a clear and unbiased record of the things these ancient dwellers in the land of Pharaoh have regarded as necessary for reform, and to have the original statement of their reasons and arguments for a different treatment, side by side with the official answer to their claims. It is not unlikely that in the light of the revelation which may come from the tremendous experiences of the world war the mistakes of both sides may stand out plain and clear—the suppliant may see that he has asked too much, and the governing power that it has been willing to accede too little.
There is promise of a new era for Egypt when the days of normal government are resumed. A corrupt Court has been scattered, and the firm authority of Britain has been established in the place of counsels feebly divided with Turkey. The thousand social and administrative scandals arising from the Capitulations have been removed. Mosque and Church alike have been freed from the chance of internal corruption and bribery through the exercise of national control over their considerable revenues. In view of all the hopes which will herald the new day, is it too much to trust that a way will be found to satisfy the Coptic aspirations, which I would ask those in authority in Egypt to believe —whatever may be said of their political value—are as honest and sincere as they are heartfelt?
TO me the village life of Egypt has an irresistible fascination. I have had the privilege of staying in several of the out-of-the-way hamlets, and the more I have seen of the fellaheen, the more I have appreciated the charm of their simple courtesies, their unaffected hospitality, and a certain native grace, even in the common people, which shines through all the ways of a life so primitive as to belong to the days little removed from those when man was driven out of the Garden to eat bread by the sweat of his brow all the days of his life.
In recent years this primitive life has been tempered in some villages by the increase of wealth on the part of the landed classes, and by the return of much of the land into the hands of the people from whom it was confiscated by a succession of tyrant rulers, ending with the earlier Khedives, who had declared themselves the owners of the whole country. Much of this wealth is in the hands of the Copts, who have prospered exceedingly under the security of British rule.
There is on the part of some few of the wealthy Copts a genuine desire in increasing and improving their estates, to rule their domains in such a way as to gain the esteem and affection of their many dependants.
Nothing could make for the lasting good of Egypt so surely as the enthusiasm for skilled farming these men are showing. They are encouraging the study of scientific agriculture, by which means the productivity of their country is being enormously increased; and at the same time, by the introduction of every sort of modern appliance, they are rapidly bringing into fuller cultivation vast areas which have until now been dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile for a single crop, but which is now made by artificial irrigation to yield a succession of crops throughout the year.
In the Delta—especially by great systems of levelling of the soil—these landowners are rescuing immense tracts of pure desert and brine-logged earth, and making it to smile under the waving corn which, as by magic, springs up where once the sea reigned or the hot dry sand refused to yield a single green blade.
Lower Egypt, in a very true sense, is the gift of the Nile. There was a time when the Delta was a bay of the Mediterranean Sea, and before the Nile deposits filled it up, the limestone ridge of the famous Mokattam Hills, behind Cairo, was washed by the sea.
In addition to the wide tracts that have been recovered, there are still in the Delta a million and a half acres of land lying waste, waiting to be freed from the salt which has impregnated it and rendered it sterile for ages. Experience shows that it can be brought into cultivation, and will then grow not only rice but cotton.
Speaking broadly, from the deductions of the geologist, it may be said that the mighty river, since modern time began, made itself the generous servant of mankind by its never-ceasing task of pushing back with its rich deposits the Mediterranean Sea; in early times the gift grew in magnitude as the population increased to receive it; and at the present day history is repeating itself.
The part that man has played in supplementing the work of the river has always been an important one. It may be doubted if the skill used to-day far exceeds that of the early Egyptians, who applied themselves to develop this rich gift of the sacred river. There is ample evidence that they understood the science of irrigation, as well as that of construction in wood, brick, and stone.
It only needs a glance at the figures of the fabulous increase in the population of Egypt, under its present conditions of justice and security, to show how necessary for the support of human life the work of men, such as I have spoken of, is, even in supplementing the activities of the Government, in the way of reclamation by immense systems of irrigation and drainage.
It is scarcely realisable that while the population of Egypt about seventy years since was roughly two millions, it is now nearly ten, and that the greater part of this increase has come under British rule, which only dates from the year 1882.
Forced labour no longer condemns tens of thousands of men to a slavery which often proved a quick road to death. It is a strange reflection, that an august lady is still living for whose pleasure a Khedive made a road —from Cairo to the Pyramids—in such brutal hurry that many thousands of lives were sacrificed in two or three weeks.
There are many works in Egypt gained at a like cost in human agony and blood. In the days of the corvée, so comparatively recent, the villages used to echo with the piercing cries of demented mothers whose sons were snatched away from them, either for forced labour or for the army. Well those poor mothers knew that from either service the chances of seeing their loved ones again were less than faint.
Under Lord Cromer the corvée came to an end, and to-day the army service causes no wailing; the mother, and the youthful wife, look forward to seeing the lad again, strong and straight, a travelled man with many things to tell, and even with a little money in his pocket.
Having an invitation from a Coptic squire to visit his domain, we are, as the Eastern custom ordains, taken in charge by our host, from the time we leave our own dwelling in Cairo to the moment when he will bring us back to the same threshold. I know that I must not insult an Egyptian host by offering even to pay my own railway fare, and can only console myself in submitting to such an un-English custom by the promise he has made me to visit me at my home in England, when it will be polite for me to show him equal consideration.
Arrived at the country station, we are met by several servants, with an odd collection of camels, mules, and donkeys, on which our party are to ride across the country to the out-of-the-way village. The salaams and greetings between the folk assembled to meet us are instinct with genial courtesy on all sides, and we all call down the blessings of peace, with wishes for a bright and happy day, upon each other.
It is a glorious morning in January, the sun having dispelled the coldness of the night (it has only just escaped actual frost) and the white mists of early dawn.
After many delays, all so characteristic of Egypt to those who know its casual habits, our cavalcade starts, and leaving the little town we are soon travelling single file along the raised bank of the canal, almost the only sort of road known in the country.
How exhilarating it all is—the dry, sun-warmed air, the blue sky, the vivid colouring all touched with a pale golden glow so peculiar to the land of the Nile. The fields are green now with the burseem, a sort of indigenous clover, and the beans, filling the air with that delicious scent which speaks so subtly to an Englishman of the first warm days of summer at home. The scents here are not the elusive whiffs of the English countryside, but take us in full and warm embrace—the earth is transformed into a very paradise of delicate perfumes. We draw deep breath; the air is not only delicious, but full of exhilarating and health-giving powers, with suggestions of an eternal youthfulness in which care falls away and the spirit of man becomes free and untrammelled.
The bird life by the waterside is enchanting. Here the kingfisher, whose glory of colour and sheen have never been known to those who have not seen him boldly flitting about in such sunlight as this, shows little trace of any fear of man. I have seen twenty of these birds together at one moment, darting about over a canal. In Egypt it has never occurred to the boys, small or large, to disturb the pleasures of the birds.
Small owls, too, fly in and out of the banks, having apparently forgotten the night habits of their species; or, if they choose to sleep, we pass them on the bare boughs of the few small trees, nestling together in couples.
The lark is here, with a little song of its own, where nearly all the birds are silent; and the busy wagtail. The beautiful hoopoe is as tame as the pigeons of St. Mark's, while other tiny specks of vivid living colour flit to and fro like animated flowers.
One of the features in the landscape of Egypt is the procession of natives along by the waterways, the men in their blue cotton robes, and the women swathed in dusty black, a procession which, from the rising till the setting of the sun, seems never ending.
Because we are riding, we give, by immemorial custom, the salaam to those who walk, and in return receive the greetings and the smiles of the passers-by.
Soon we leave the canal, and take one of the paths cutting across the fields, worn hard by the countless feet that have passed over it.
There is a market to be held to-day, at the nearest town; and as we come within its range we are met by great numbers of men, women, and children, all leading animals—camels, oxen, asses, goats, and sheep, the young lambs being sometimes carried across the shoulders, or literally in the bosom of the shepherd.
By the wayside, a number of youths, on the way to market, have stopped to play at the word-games in which they delight, and which provoke them to subdued bursts of merriment.
Here again a group of schoolboys, released from their morning studies, are playing a very ancient game, something like rounders. One of the smaller ones has shed all his clothes, and is chaffed by his companions because a Frangee has seen him naked. “Oh,” he replies in a flash, “he will think that I am the ginn of the noonday” —a familiar afreet of the Nile valley.
In one field a young fellah is guiding one of the primitive ploughs, drawn by a great ox, the while he sings in a pleasant monotone a very ancient song of the soil, the words of which I afterwards secured from another labourer in the fields. This is a very free translation:
Warm is the sun, The flood waters run; Safe is the seed I have sown.
Soon I shall reap, The young lambs will leap; Glad will be harvest home!
In wet sand will the cool melons grow, And green cucumbers hang from the bough, And the grape, and the peach, and the red pomegranate, Will gladden the days when the waters run low.
The sounds that rise from the sunlit fields in Egypt create an impression of natural gladness unlike that of any other country. Whether it is the lowing of the contented cattle at this time of the year when the burseem is in crop, or the laughter and shouts of the dancing children who attend them, or the twittering of the birds, that gives to the great anthem its special note, I do not know, but here one seems to be listening to the primeval song of seething young life in the first Garden before the sunshine had ever been overcast.
In Egypt every animal is considered to have the right to a course of burseem, which has a name signifying “taste of the spring.” By this name it is called by the man who sells it in the streets of Cairo, for the benefit of the horses and donkeys on hire there. The drivers feed their beasts with it at every opportunity, and the green litter of burseem is a characteristic of the Oriental city which all visitors will remember. Our host tells us that his city horses are all sent by train into the country every year for their “taste of the spring”; we are, indeed, bringing with us two or three of the animals at this time.
You cannot of course turn a number of animals loose into a clover field to feed. Each beast, whether it is a goat or a buffalo, is tethered at the edge of the crop, the stake being placed with nice discrimination as to the amount of clover to be allowed in a given time.
Our cavalcade passed through two or three villages, having to take the narrow passage-ways in single file. The huts are built of unbaked bricks of mud from the Nile banks, and have flat roofs, generally stacked with the yellow sticks of Indian corn which is used as fuel.
The huts are windowless; but as all things that love the sun are out of doors, one sees all the life of the village going on in the small open spaces.
Here some women are churning for butter, the milk being simply thrown from side to side in a goat's skin, suspended from a bamboo tripod—a group of women and girls sitting round, of course, to discuss the operation.
Here a mother sits in the sun, with her back to the wall of her hut, nursing her babe. Other women are coming up from the river with the water-pots on their heads. The women are all swathed in the black robe of Egypt, so unsuitable where every pathway is a track of dust; as we appear, their faces are covered until the men of our party have passed.
It would be most improper for men to address the women, but my wife generally rides behind so that she may have the pleasure of greeting them. For her, they drop the covering from their faces completely, and smile as they offer all sorts of compliments and good wishes. Will she not stop and drink of their milk? Can they bring her food? Having been in Algeria, she recognises a form of greeting which is in general use by the Arabs there, but which in Egypt is used only by the women—sabah el khayr.
The ordinary sight-seer who visits Egypt will learn with surprise that off the tourist tract the word backsheesh is never heard, however poor the people may be. Indeed, on every side they are anxious not to take, but to give of their humble best to the visitor, who by ancient tradition is the guest of all.
As it is noonday there is generally a group of men, returned from the fields, who are resting on the village “green.” The fact that it is not green, but dust-grey, seems to have no effect on the activities of the great flock of fine-looking geese who forage upon it to good result.
The fellah, like all classes of men in the East, delights in conversation, and it is allowable by the strictest rules of politeness for all men to forgather where talk is going on.
The news of the day naturally goes by word of mouth, and no man who has the advantage of being able to read would be so churlish as to deprive the great majority of his neighbours, who cannot read, of the benefit of his enviable gift. The passer-by will always stop and quietly take a seat near a group of men who are talking, his presence never being resented.
The Eastern laws of politeness, almost as old as time, are so well understood that there is rarely anything unseemly in these casual gatherings. The good breeding which prevents a man from addressing directly another man with a recognised claim to higher respect, also dictates to the man of better position a gentle consideration of his lowly companion. It is not good to presume on superiority of education or wealth; and boisterousness of voice or manner is universally deprecated for all men. For this reason no one ever whistles with his mouth in the East.
The politeness of Egypt is far deeper than any sort of ceremonial observance. I have read of an old Coptic monk whose rules for eating were very strict, but with visitors he would eat against these rules when he thought that it would put them at their ease. It is such courtesy as this that gives a foreign visitor at the present day the perfect repose in strange society which makes for social enjoyment. A faux pas is impossible, in this way, that whatever a visitor does (no matter how contrary to the custom of the country) it is excused without a sign. If any apology is made, it is met with a gentle smile and the words, “We knew that what you did was polite in your own country.” The only time I have ever known an English visitor to give deep offence was when a lady, after attending one of the Coptic church services, insisted on buying as a souvenir the cymbals that had been used. Fortunately the politeness which allowed the lady to have her way was rewarded by the intervention of a man who understood the nature of the wound so thoughtlessly inflicted, and the church's property was restored.
The fellah is a being full of curiosity, as a lover of gossip will always be. Quietly, but tersely, our servants are questioned again and again all along the journey, as to who the strangers are! Why they are visiting a part of the country where tourists never go; how long are they going to stay; above all, has the gentleman any connection with the Government?
And the news travels forward in all directions, by those magic means only known in the East. As in scriptural days, the watchman on the housetop, and the guardian of the fields on his mound, send out their signals.
At last we see in the distance, across the emerald fields, the village in which we are to stay. It is, as all the hamlets are, a picturesque huddle of mud huts, built all over a slight eminence so as to be lifted out of the flood at high Nile. It is dominated by the graceful minaret of the mosque, and by the one great white house, or gasr, to which we are going, and by the small domes which distinguish the Coptic church. In any other country the dirt surrounding the villages would be insufferable. It is one of the wonders of Egypt how the sunshine redeems everything.
In the hieroglyphic annals of ancient Egypt, mention is frequently made of houses which were distinguished from the ordinary dwellings by the title of “white ones.” The treasury of Pharaoh was called “the double white house.” It is just the same to-day. The greater number of buildings of the Egyptian Government are whitened by lime, and may be recognised afar off by the traveller. The dwelling of every Egyptian of standing in the country has its walls whitened. Now that there is no need to hide the Christian churches, they too are whitened as of old. Even the chapels attended by those many Copts who have been won to Presbyterianism by the American Mission, stand out from the dull yellow mud colour of the dwellings of the people in gleaming whiteness.
Arrived at the house, we are bidden welcome with delightful courtesy by our host, who introduces us to his chief nazir, or factor; and to other important servants, who all from that moment devote themselves to our comfort and entertainment.
It is interesting to find that this house, though it dates only from the early days of the British occupation which brought the security and much of the wealth on which the fortunes of its owner are founded, yet follows a plan closely corresponding to that of the ancient Egyptian dwellings of like importance.
The unbaked bricks of the Exodus are its material, and the inner courtyard surrounded by chambers used for the reception of visitors, for court-room or mandara, and for household and general stores, are much the same as in those days.
This large courtyard has leading from it the workshops, the estate offices, the servants' sleeping-rooms, the kitchens, the lumber-rooms, and even the stables of those animals in immediate use by the family. It is in the courtyard that visitors dismount. Most courteous are the servants who hurry to his assistance, and offer him the eloquent greetings which custom requires.
The folding doors of the courtyard, with wooden lock, are very like those of ancient days, and so are the tall conical pigeon-houses which flank the entrance. The doors have been strengthened with metal plates, which may well remind us of how the doors of the Pharaoh's temples were plated with gold or bronze—to be stolen by foreign foes without any respect to the deity.
The pigeon towers are of great interest. The pigeon is a very important item of food in all country places. The origin of the towers, ages ago, was doubtless the discovery that the pigeon in this hot climate likes to hide itself for sleep during part of the day in any cool pot or pitcher it can find. These conical towers are built up simply of mud with old pots stuck into it. No one thinks of buying pigeons in Egypt; to supply these cool retreats is always enough to attract as many birds as you can provide for in this way. The towers are seldom disturbed even to be cleaned out, except to remove the guano, which is of great value. It is, however, characteristic of the dove to show no trace of the dust and dirt of its surroundings. When, towards sunset, the pigeons come out in circling flights, and catch the golden light of the sun, it seems that the poetic line of the Psalmist must have been inspired by just such a sight—“Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.”
In the interior decoration of his house the ancient Egyptian showed great taste: applied ornament was greatly used, the walls were all painted, and the furniture was decorative. The modern country house in Egypt, like this one we are visiting, is usually without mural decoration of any sort, the walls being left roughly plastered. The furniture is scanty and hideous, but for the divan coverings, which are sometimes of good material, and the rugs and carpets—generally of great value. It is an interesting point, however, to those who believe that the Copt is directly descended from the people of the Pharaohs, to see how, with a return of prosperity, an extraordinary love of elaborate decoration of the home is growing up. I know several Coptic houses on which a great amount of wealth has been spent in the ornamentation of all the principal rooms. Nothing, indeed, but the ancient skill and taste is lacking in these costly attempts to adorn the home. It is hoped that, as a result of the care that is being given by the Government in the teaching of handicrafts, in the excellent technical schools, the old talents may be found to be only dormant and not utterly lost.
On the part of the peasantry, the only attempts at any sort of decoration are the crude drawings, made round the doorway of the huts to show when one of the inhabitants has been on a pilgrimage. If the man is a Moslem, his journey to Mecca gives him the title of hadj, and his friends prepare for his honoured return by painting hideous representations of the camels, trains, and ships, by which he is supposed to have travelled, on his house wall round the doorway.
But it should be remembered that sacred pilgrimages in the East are not confined to the Moslems. The Copt should strive equally to visit Jerusalem, and to bathe in the Jordan. In Egypt they are both unconsciously carrying on a custom of the ancients, for the pilgrimage to a temple was an earnest obligation and a sacred adventure; also to be painted on the houses.
When guests arrived in ancient days they were offered a small cup of wine and a nosegay of flowers. Now there is the inevitable cup of coffee and the cigarette. It is the very modern and travelled Copt who departs from this custom, universal to Moslem and Christian alike, and orders the whisky bottle and the syphon.
The Copt should be jealous of preserving the coffee-drinking custom, for it was to a Coptic monk, so says a tradition, that its discovery is due; his experiments to find something that would enable him to keep awake for his long devotions in the night, led him to decide that the coffee berry was the very thing he sought.
It is impolite to offer a full cup of coffee, and I have only rarely seen a second cup offered; I have been told that to offer a third cup would be taken as a studied insult—“the third for the sword,” as the saying has it.
Our host is of the old-fashioned order, so that we sip our coffee on the sunny side of the courtyard, where seats have been placed and rugs spread for us, while all the uninterrupted life of a feudal stronghold goes on around us.
In the middle of the great courtyard is a beautiful spreading sycamore tree, in the branches of which numbers of birds are chattering. One or two groups of the children of servants are sitting under its shade, gazing at the visitors and exchanging amusing comments about us. Their highly coloured garments make a gay note in the scene. A few of them are negroes, born of the bowabs, the gatekeepers who sit silently on guard by the entrance, having their home in the small single rooms on each side of the doorway. Service in Egypt never means celibacy; the significance of the fateful word “encumbrances” is unknown either to master or man. It is this sort of life that we read of in early pages of the Bible, where there are so many references to the children of the servants—“the son of thine handmaid.”
The primitive Eastern people hold celibacy in the utmost detestation, as childlessness is a terrible infliction. Religious monasticism, although it was the early growth of the Coptic Church, has made no impression on the views of the people on this matter. The Oriental also hates a hairless masculine face.
The position of our host is like that of a feudal lord, and the people look to him for countenance and protection, and give him reverence, as did the serfs of old. The negro bowab, who keeps the gate, has little to do, for entry to the courtyard is practically free, not only for those who have even a pretence of business, but for any one who desires to feast his eyes on the grandeur of his overlord, or merely wishes to enjoy a drink of water from the great gulah, or zir, under the shade of the tree, and to rest, in a squatting position, on one of the mats on the ground; or, if he chooses to sit on one of the wooden seats provided, the slippers are dropped off and the legs are almost always drawn up on to the seat with the arms clasped round them. It was so that the ancient Egyptian sat, as the monuments illustrate.
There is one form of resting, which Christianity and Mohammedanism have alike made impossible. On the ancient monuments men are seen resting on one knee, especially in the presence of superiors; but since the Prophet's day it has been universally held that it is wrong for any man to prostrate himself except to God alone.
I have seen a poor man who in distress was humbly suing for favour from a Pasha, take dust from the ground of the courtyard and press it to his lips as a form of deep obeisance; but the same man would not prostrate himself, even to the Khedive.
All day the courtyard is the meeting-place of all in the neighbourhood who have any leisure—the men, the women, and the children. Old men who are past work spend many hours here every day, enjoying a sight of the activities of the place, telling their beads if they are Moslems; muttering their prayers, “Our Fathers,” and “Kyrie Eleisons,” if they are Copts, also with a rosary; exchanging reminiscences of days long past, when life was a sterner thing than now, and every back of men of their order was scarred with the tyrant's whip.
The night watchmen, with their long staves, are here to make report; the fun-loving donkey-boys, with their whips, await orders.
Generally there is a group of young men and old lying on the ground playing those simple games with stones, which the ancients played. If we think them childish games, we may conclude that these simple folk are all children.
And always there reigns, however many people are assembled, a stillness and gravity peculiar to the Oriental. It must not be thought, because these people are not boisterous, that they are melancholy. There is a brightness about them which is no less joyous because it is subdued. Their appreciation of drollery and mirth is unquenchable. They show the greatest court to any man who can “give a good answer,” or who excels in mimicry, or has any touch of wit or humour.
Perhaps it is because his mirth never depends on any degree of intoxication that the Egyptian fellah is not boisterous: one hears the cheerful laugh, although it is seldom very loud; but the guffaws and the shouting of the common people who assemble in the beery resorts of Western lands are never heard. The Oriental is taught from early youth that every form of self-demonstration is impoliteness to be discountenanced.
The Egyptian of any wealth, never, under any circumstances, lives on the ground floor of any house or hotel, whether in town or in country; to sleep there, especially, he thinks highly injurious to health. It is therefore on the first floor that the reception-rooms are found, to which we are now taken.
Here are the broad and brightly covered divans of the East, running round the room, and the floor coverings of costly and beautiful rugs. There are many windows, often in a state of ill-repair; some will not shut, or odd panes are cracked or broken. This is an instance of how the Egyptian can make an excellent garment, but will not sew on the last button. Fortunately he likes fresh air in his apartments, and wrapping himself up in the evening when he sits indoors he inhales “the life-giving breath of the north,” with the same pleasure as did his early ancestors, who used this exact expression in the hieroglyphics to describe the north wind. In the Book of Job it speaks of “fair weather cometh out of the north.”
The Arab's hatred of wind, which the Prophet himself shared, is solely confined in Egypt to the khamseen, that hot and sand-laden breath of the desert, which is indeed a thing to dread, when its season approaches.
There are two great suites of rooms, traversing the whole length of the buildings; each room leading out of the other, so that to reach the apartment at the end one must go through the whole suite—an arrangement which to remotest times has been customary in Egypt. One suite is open to visitors, the other is hareem, or “reserved,” to use the word which has been so mischievously distorted in the West. The hareem, in this instance, is merely the wing of the house in which the family lives; it is reserved for the wife and children, and no one of the male sex outside a certain degree of relationship may visit it.
It is often asked if the Copts follow the same customs in the seclusion and veiling of women as do the Moslems. The question needs a careful answer, because a certain number of educated and enlightened Egyptian Christians have broken away, since the British occupation, from the old customs which till then were universally followed by Copt and Moslem alike.
The rich Coptic ladies of Assiout, for instance, have entirely discarded the veil, and move about as freely as if they were in England, except for such slight compromise as is made necessary by the fact that it is still a matter of comment for them to be seen in public in a country where seclusion is the rule.
In Fayoum, again, a few ladies of the upper and middle class are banded together to advance their position on Western lines. In Cairo and Alexandria there are families where the home-life knows nothing of seclusion or reserved apartments: friends of both sexes are invited to the lunch and dinner table, and perfect freedom of intercourse has become the rule.
I have met in this way a number of very intelligent Coptic ladies. They are often beautiful, with a gentle charm born of the hidden life from which they have just emerged, enhanced by a pretty self-possession which their excellent education by foreign governesses from France and England has cultivated. They speak our language perfectly, and turn with easy fluency to the speech they use when on their yearly shopping excursions in Paris, where they buy all their clothes—indeed, their native Arabic does not go so far towards classical perfection as do these acquired languages.
A very accomplished and charming Coptic girl friend of my wife's writes not only English prose which would do credit to a graduate of Girton, but English verse, in which her Oriental imagination finds rich expression.
But interesting as it is to find this advance, it has to be admitted that it is confined to a very small class. Strict seclusion, and the closely drawn veil, must still be described as the Coptic rule; and that not alone amongst the rustic and the ignorant. There are young men who, in spite of education in the learned centres of Europe (perhaps because of it), have determined that the Oriental customs, so far as they are concerned, shall be conserved. I know more than one young Copt, graduates of English Universities, who have returned to Egypt, determined to keep their young wives strictly veiled and secluded.
With the great bulk of the people, rich and poor, the matter has scarcely been questioned. In the heart of Cairo I have visited Copts of all classes, from my wealthy country host in his town house to the government official, and from young professional men to the priests and singers of the church, without ever seeing a sign of the wives and daughters of the family. Just as in the Moslem households, my wife has been taken off alone to the Coptic hareem, and it has been through her that I have heard of all the interesting life that is going on behind those guarded doors.
It must not be supposed that the women, in their seclusion, are caged birds beating their wings against gilded prison bars. There has been more nonsense written about the hareem than about any other of the details of Oriental life, concerning which Western writers are so fruitful in the false (and often salacious) deductions with which they cover their want of exact knowledge.
It has always been one of the libels most readily accepted in Western lands, that the wearing of the veil and the seclusion of the hareem were the invention of the Prophet Mohammed, maintained by his debased followers, and that the Christians in Egypt had perforce to adopt the pernicious customs from their Arab conquerors.
It is rather to ancient Egypt, and to Old Testament times, that such a position of women as these things imply, must be traced. The Syrian women depicted by Renan, just as did the women of old Egypt, held themselves aloof from the general activities and social interests of their lords, content to look after his well-being at a distance, to receive him with gentleness when he visited them, and to find their pleasure in a thousand feminine ways, surrounded by their beloved children; to receive their friends, and return their visits, to discuss, as all women do, the clothes they will wear, and all the family news, in great detail.
The ladies of the hareem in such a house as this we are visiting are not idle, as is generally supposed. The care of their households occupies them a great deal; and their skill in certain details of cooking is a thing they delight in. They are worthy of their ancient ancestry in the perfection of the innumerable pasties they make for the great feasts in which their lords and their friends have pleasure.
In the matter of dress, there is prolonged and serious consideration of the rich stuffs, and of the costly jewels sent by the city merchants for inspection. The silks and satins chosen will be bright in colour, sheeny or iridescent, with tissues of silver and gold. As for jewellery, in no country is the artificer in precious metals and stones so important a personage; if you know where to look for them you will find rarer jewels and more beautiful settings in Cairo than in Paris. The favourite jeweller is kept continually at work for ladies with even moderate wealth; for if they are not adding to their possessions, they are having the costly tiara, or the heavy necklace, or bracelets, remodelled, so that they may renew their delight in their diamonds, and pearls, rubies, and emeralds—the favourite stones.
And when the lady of this class is not so engaged, the embroidery frame is in her hands, with skilful and beautiful results. The selection of the many Eastern perfumes which she and her daughters use is one of her minor occupations; she is a good judge, and as her husband also uses a favourite scent—probably it will be jasmine—she will select this for him. She uses henna to stain the nails of her feet and hands to add to their beauty (apart from its more lavish ceremonial use), and antimony to make the eyes look long.
If she retains her husband's affection, the Egyptian lady asks nothing more for perfect happiness; indeed, if he were to suggest a removal of the boundaries which are supposed to make a prisoner of her, she would think his care and love were deserting her, and all the world would seem for her to be falling in ruin.
Very many of the marriages are perfectly happy; and if the old suggestion is made that the women are mere toys of the men, I can say that I know of numbers of clever women whose intelligence and character are greatly respected by their husbands; of many a hareem which is the favourite resort at all times of the husband and sons, who never take a single important step in life without seeking the wise counsel of the gracious lady who reigns there—the lady who, when the closing days of a long life are in sight, still retains the veneration and respect of all the men who have the right of entry to her domain.
When we had arrived in the courtyard, we were quite sure that behind the lattices of the women's apartments many curious eyes had observed us, and chattering tongues had acutely discussed every detail of our appearance, and our travelling possessions.
I was sure the ladies were delighted at the pleasure we showed in our greetings of the children, who had come down to join their father in our welcome, for we have long since learned enough of Oriental lore to know how to use discretion in conveying to proud parents our admiration of their beautiful offspring, so as not to scare them with all the awful fears of the envious eye, which have abated no whit with time's advance. The belief in “the evil eye” is both primeval and universal, and in many countries is as current to-day as it was in prehistoric times. “Ma'shallah!” we say, as the children greet us; “Praised be God!” “May God keep them for you!” “Ma'shallah! May God let them grow and bless them!” And we do not let the parents know but that we too have a quiverful of children, almost as beautiful as these, for only by such means will they have any delight in our admiration.
I have myself seen children of the rich, especially the boys, allowed to run about shabby and dirty, so as to escape the eye of envy—though this habit is dying out, especially in the cities, where the children are often nowadays beautifully dressed, and are cared for by French and English nurses and governesses.
LATER, as we rest in one of the suite of rooms, which are, we know, used as reception-rooms, or bedrooms, according to the needs of the moment (it only wants the spreading of mattresses and sleeping rugs to change them from one to the other), our host discreetly questions us as to our preferences in the matter of food, while he tries to find out what are our usual times for meals. A gentle battle of polite evasions arises between us, my desire being to follow the customs of the house, while courtesy demands of him to adapt his whole establishment to the predilections, however foreign, of his guests.
He claps his hands, and the servant whose chief care is the commissariat quietly appears, holds himself erect and with dignity, while he receives from his lord the softly muttered orders, making no response but the Arabic word which may be translated “Perfectly.”
He then disappears, to translate the necessary details to Marcus the cook, a valued servant, of whom we later hear that he is a native genius, having gone, from a village near by, as an utterly illiterate youth, to Cairo, where his talent in cooking was developed in the kitchen of a great hotel. The powers of memory and of observation in Eastern people have always been
wonderful: this man seems never to have forgotten anything he ever learned; he cooks equally well in the native or the Parisian way. If he is asked to provide a French meal, he will insist on a menu being written out, dictating correctly the French name of each item. To-day, by our special desire, Marcus is to cook a purely Egyptian meal.
While the food is preparing, our host invites us to stroll with him through his garden, to enjoy the cooler air now that the sun is setting. An Egyptian garden is at the same time an exquisite delight and an indefinable disappointment. There are at all times flowers in abundance, and the warm rich fragrance in which one is steeped at every turn is a revelation to the senses. The Egyptian counts everything that grows, however beautiful, a mere nameless weed, and no flower, unless it gives forth a pleasing scent.
Here are roses in rich abundance in January, bringing a wealth of colour to the scene; here is a great hedge of jasmine, white with its large blooms, breathing a delicate ecstasy; and orange trees in blossom, inviting us to delights embarrassing in their profusion.
When we reach the prosaic corner devoted to vegetable production, we find the fragrant bean deliberately cultivated for its scent, for our host has scores of acres of beans growing on his home farm.
But what is it about these gardens which, for all their varied delights, disappoints? For one thing, the sober repose of the well-tilled soil of England is impossible where a daily flooding and splashing of water, brought from the river, is the only way to keep anything alive—the splashing which turns the flower-beds into untidy muddy spaces. Then, the paths of an Oriental garden are, in the absence of anything like pavement or gravel, never pleasing to the eye which delights in contour and neatness.
And above all, there is nothing comparable to our English lawns to be found in this land, where in the hot days of summer all grass must perish, so that a new crop has to be cultivated every winter; and consequently it never makes anything but a green pretence of a lawn to those who know the richness of the English sward, sometimes centuries old.
Having thrown off the cares of the day, our host is now in a humorous and genial mood. As we wander about the garden, he invites us to gather and eat of the many fruits; knowledge of the length of Egyptian banquets, however, makes us discreet, and we leave such delicacies as ripe green figs, oranges, strawberries, and other rare fruits, untasted.
There is often occasion to remark on the fact that the Oriental always does everything in an exactly opposite way from the Western people. This applies equally to the things he eats. The same taste which leads him to prefer the green end of a radish, accounts for my host gathering the young flowers and the shoots of the green pea, which he commends to me as far more delicious than the peas which I persist in taking from the pod.
Laughingly he tells me one of those stories which are current in the East. The most sacred duty of any man, and of those of nomadic descent especially—and there are many pure Arabs wandering the deserts of Egypt, some of them of great wealth—is that of unstinting hospitality. It is as important as to be brave.
There was once a bedouin who, although he was not poor, had so far forgotten the traditions of his ancient race, that he meanly begrudged the refreshment of travellers, who in that remote region so confidently crossed the threshold of his tents. To say them nay was unthinkable to bedouin pride, but this man, in his meanness, cunningly sought to be rid of the hungry wayfarers at the least possible expense.
While the meal they expected was preparing, he would take them for a long-drawn-out visit to his garden, and as he talked with them he repeatedly gathered handfuls of beans—the cheapest food in Egypt—for them to eat. Long delay, of which no man would complain in the dilatory East, made them hungry, and all unsuspectingly they became replenished before the more costly goods were ready; at which the man, whose meanness disgraced the noble race of those whose pride it is to dwell in tents, as their forefather Abraham did, was gratified.
With laughter in his eyes, my host declared that this was his reason for bringing us to the beans, while his feast was cooking!
We now return to the house, where in the great reception-room preparations are almost complete for the banquet.
It is easy to forget, at times, in such entertainments, that there is any distinction between Copts and Moslems; there is one thing, however, that will almost always come up to remind us. The whisky bottle and the liqueur decanter, even in the most temperate households, make their appearance in the last period of waiting for dinner, and some of the men drink, as an aperitif, nibbling the while at tiny dishes of Eastern hors-d' æuvre; for it is a belief of the Copts that it is injurious to drink spirits without some sort of food. The choice is offered to the visitor of every sort of Scotch and Irish liquor, of all the famous brands.
Several large round trays have been placed on low portable stands; properly, we should seat ourselves on the floor, but a concession has been made to our different habits by the provision of chairs.
The first act of ceremony at a banquet is to go to the table and secure one's serviette, as large as a towel, and then withdraw again to the outer hall, where two or more servants are waiting with the water-jugs (the ibreek) so that we may wash our hands over the basin (called tisht) in running water. It is a never-failing source of surprise to the Oriental that any one can bring himself to wash, even his hands, in standing or “dead” water—to him the habit is too dirty to contemplate. We make a great lather with the soap, for it is polite to show particularity in washing the hands before food. We dry our hands on our serviettes, and at once return to the table, the host being the last to wash.
The company is now in merriest mood; we all beam with gaiety, and a charm steals over us which it is difficult to suggest to those who have never experienced it. One element of the sorcery which the Oriental wields in his hospitality, is a soothing feeling that one is amongst friends or brothers; the atmosphere is that of a form of good breeding which puts no check on good humour. It is subtly conveyed to you, that, as a guest, you are the object of every attention, while no sign obtrudes itself even of the solicitude of which you are the object, which might ruffle your peaceful enjoyment.
The Oriental is incapable of suffering sombre thoughts of the future; he indeed realises that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; that the morrow is in the hands of God, whose concern it remains.
The gravest of the Egyptians—and some Orientals of middle life can be very grave—are still by nature the children of a joyous sociability, able to surround their friends with such an atmosphere of good humour and a forgetfulness of the sterner claims of life, that even an Englishman finds it easy in such society to turn awhile from the displeasures of memory, and the irksomeness of duty, and even the claims of time itself, in the blissful content of the moment.
It has been told of the present Sultan of Morocco, that lately he gave a banquet at Fez, to the French Resident-General. The guest noticed that the clocks in the palace were all stopped, and hinted that he would like to present His Majesty with a timepiece that would keep time. The Sultan's answer was characteristic of the manners of the Orient. “The clocks were stopped by my orders,” he said. “During your Excellency's too brief stay with us, why be reminded of the flight of the hours?” God made eternity; man invented the despotism of the timepiece.
With Moslems, the Eastern graciousness of manner is perhaps more marked than with my Coptic friends, and I can only think that something is sacrificed to the artificial stimulus imported from the stills of Northern Britain. The Koran prohibits all intoxicating drink.
A great deal of the charm which distinguishes the Oriental as a conversationalist comes from the picturesque language in which he instinctively clothes anything he has to say; and from the inherited wisdom that finds expression in the wealth of proverb always to hand. At such gatherings as this, I always note the proverbs that flow so easily into the conversation. I take these from my notes of this occasion: A man who is bitten by a serpent will be frightened by the sight of a rope.”
“A man who has no brother is like a person who has a left arm, but no right.”
“Stretch your legs according to the coverlet.”
“He is your brother who shares your disaster.”
“Be as friends in social life, but be as strangers in business.”
“The devil is no match for an old woman.”
“Without human companions Paradise itself would be an undesirable place.” (This is the more remarkable because it is also a Moslem proverb.)
“The truest man on earth is he who remembers his friend when he is absent, when he is in distress, and when he is dying.”
“An unmarried daughter has a broken wing.”
“The central gate of heaven is open to the man who has been dutiful to his parents.”
“Paradise is opened at the command of mothers.” (This is a variant of the Moslem proverb, “Paradise is at the feet of the mother.”)
It was interesting to find here a proverbial saying to denote a profitless character—You can do nothing with such a man, “his mind is salt.” I remembered that it is recorded of one of the monks of Lower Egypt, as long since as the fourth century, that certain brethren entreated Abba Epiphanius on one occasion, saying, “Father, speak unto us some word of life, even though when thou speakest we may not grasp the seed of thy word, because the soil is salt.”
A rich man of a neighbouring village was mentioned, with a guarded expression of disapproval, put in the form of an ancient proverb, “Grass grows on his fire-place.” This was a familiar saying in Egypt fifteen centuries ago, applied to a man lacking in the virtue of hospitality.
Another saying was used, which I have heard before in Egypt. “He only loosed the tent-peg” was amusingly applied to a man present, who had, a few years since, created a great deal of strife in the Church, on the occasion of the visit of the Patriarch, when the ill-feeling between those Copts who had joined the American Presbyterians and those who remained orthodox, had led to a riot. The man protested that what he had said and done was so trifling that he should not be blamed. Our host quietly agreed that the man “had only loosed the tent-peg a little,” the comment provoking such general merriment that I begged for the origin of the saying. It is this.
A young afreet, a very fiend for mischief, travelling with an older being, in passing through a peaceful encampment one night, set the whole place in a terrible uproar. When the old man accused him, he denied that he had done anything to account for the hubbub. “What then has caused it?” “I can't imagine unless the sheikh's stallion has broken loose. He was tethered to a tent-peg, and I thought I would just see if he was properly fastened. I may have loosed the peg a little.”
Personal gossip, however, especially of a spiteful nature, is cautiously avoided, in conversation of this sort, lest any kind of offence, however indirect, should be given; though this does not say that the Egyptian is not a shrewd judge of character. The Government, on the contrary, in all conversation is criticised with astonishing freedom of speech; and weird alternative political schemes, from those before the country, are suggested in such terms as make one think of debates in Bedlam.
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