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CAIRO — I
Usually its capital may be taken as typical of its country; but in Egypt this is not so. Cairo is essentially different from anything else in Egypt, not only in its buildings and architecture, but in the type and mode of life of its inhabitants.
How shall I give you any real idea of a city which is often considered to be the most beautiful Oriental capital in the world, as it is certainly one of the most interesting? From a distance, looking across the fields of Shoubra,2 it is very beautiful, especially at sunset, when beyond the dark green foliage of the sycamore and cypress trees which rise above the orange groves, the domes and minarets of the native quarter gleam golden in the sunlight. Behind is the citadel, crowned by Mohammed Ali's tomb-mosque of white marble, whose tall twin minarets seem to tower above the rosy-tinted heights of the Mokattam Hills. Even here the noise of the city reaches you in a subdued hum, for Cairo is not only a large city, but it is densely populated, and contains nearly a twelfth part of the whole population of Egypt. Away towards the sunset the pyramids stand out clearly against the glowing sky, and the tall masts and sails of the Nile boats reach high above the palm groves and buildings which screen the river from view.
Cairo consists of two distinct and widely different parts, the Esbikiyeh and Ismailieh quarters of the west end, built for and almost entirely occupied by Europeans, and the purely native town, whose streets and bazaars, mosques and palaces, have remained practically unchanged for centuries.
At one time the European quarters were in many ways charming, though too much like some fashionable continental town to be altogether picturesque; but of late years the shady avenues and gardens of the west end have entirely disappeared to make way for streets of commercial buildings, while the new districts of Kasr-el-Dubara and Ghezireh have arisen to house the well-to-do. Our interest in Cairo, therefore, is centred in the native quarters, where miles of streets and alleys, rich in Arabesque buildings, are untouched except by the mellowing hand of Time.
It is difficult at first to form any true idea of native Cairo; its life is so varied and its interests so diverse that the new-comer is bewildered.
Types of many races, clad in strange Eastern costumes, crowd the narrow streets, which are overlooked by many beautiful buildings whose dark shadows lend additional glory to the sunlight. Richly carved doorways give glimpses of cool courts and gardens within the houses, while awnings of many colours shade the bazaars and shopping streets.
Heavily laden camels and quaint native carts with difficulty thread their way through the crowd, amongst which little children, clad in the gayest of dresses, play their games. Goats and sheep pick up a living in the streets, clearing it of garbage, and often feeding more generously, though surreptitiously, from a fruit or vegetable shop. Hawks and pigeons wheel and circle in the air, which is filled with the scent of incense and the sound of the street cries. Everywhere is movement and bustle, and the glowing colour of the buildings and costumes of every tint and texture.
Let us study a little more closely the individual types and occupations that make up the life of the streets, and a pleasant way in which to do so is to seat oneself on the high bench of some native café, where, undisturbed by the traffic, we may watch the passers-by.
AN ARAB CAFÉ, CAIRO.
The cafés themselves play an important part in the life of the people, being a rendezvous not only for the refreshment provided, but for gossip and the interchange of news. They are very numerous all over the city, and are generally fronted by three or more wooden archways painted in some bright colour and open to the street. Outside are the "dekkas," or high benches, on which, sitting cross-legged, the customer enjoys his coffee or his pipe. Indoors are a few chairs, and the square tiled platform on which are placed the cooking-pots and little charcoal fire of the café-keeper. Generally an awning of canvas covered with patches of coloured cloth screens you from the sun, or gives shelter from the occasional winter showers which clear the streets of passengers and render them a sea of mud, for the streets are unpaved and no drainage exists to carry off the surface water.
The café-owner is always polite, and glad to see you, and the coffee he makes is nearly always excellent, though few of his European guests would care to regale themselves with the curiously shaped water-pipes with which the native intoxicates himself with opium or "hashīsh," and which are used indiscriminately by all the customers.
Like most of the small tradesmen, our host is clad in a "gelabieh," or long gown of white or blue cotton, gathered round the waist by a girdle of coloured cloth. Stuck jauntily on the back of his head is the red "tarbūsh," or fez, universal in the towns, or, if married, he wears a turban of fine white cotton; his shoes are of red or yellow leather, but are generally carried in his hand if the streets are muddy.
And now, having noticed our café and our host, let us sit comfortably and try and distinguish the various types which go to form the crowd which from dawn to dark throngs the thoroughfares.
First of all it will be noticed how many different trades are carried on in the streets, most prominent of all being that of the water-sellers, for Cairo is hot and dusty, and water is in constant demand.
There are several grades of water-carriers. First, the "sakka," who carries on his back a goat-skin filled with water; one of the fore-legs forms the spout, which is simply held tight in the hand to prevent the water from escaping. He is the poorest of them all, barefooted and wearing an often ragged blue gelabieh, while a leather apron protects his back from the dripping goat-skin. He it is who waters the streets and fills the "zīrs," or filters, in the shops, a number of shop-keepers combining to employ him to render this service to their section of a street.
A superior grade is the "khamali," who carries upon his back a large earthen pot of filtered water. When he wishes to fill the brass drinking-cups, which he cleverly tinkles as he walks, he has simply to bend forward until the water runs out of the spout above his shoulder and is caught in one of the cups, and it is interesting to notice that he seldom spills a drop.
Then there is that swaggering and often handsome fellow clad in red, and with a coloured scarf around his head, who, with shoulders well set back, carries, slung in a broad leather belt, a terra-cotta jar. This is the "sussi," who sells liquorice water, or a beverage made from prunes, and which he hands to his customers in a dainty blue and white china bowl.
The highest grade of all is the "sherbutli," also gaily dressed, who from an enormous green glass bottle, brass mounted, and cooled by a large lump of ice held in a cradle at the neck, dispenses sherbet, lemonade, or other cooling drink. Each of these classes of water-seller is well patronized, for Egypt is a thirsty land.
Here comes a bread-seller, whose fancy loaves and cakes are made in rings and strung upon wands which project from the rim of a basket; or on a tray of wicker-work or queer little donkey-cart are piled the flat unleavened loaves of the people.
To remind us of the chief baker's dream, the pastry-cook still cries his wares, which, carried in baskets on his head, are often raided by the thieving hawk or crow, while delicious fruits and fresh vegetables are vended from barrows, much like the coster trade in London.
Many of the passers-by are well to do, shopkeepers and merchants, clothed in flowing "khaftan" of coloured cloth or silk, over which, hanging loosely from their shoulders, is the black goat's wool "arbiyeh," or cloak.
The shops also make a gay addition to the general colour scheme. Of these the fruit shop is perhaps the prettiest; here rosy apples and juicy oranges, or pink-fleshed water-melons, are tastefully arranged in baskets or on shelves covered with papers of different tints. Even the tallow-chandler renders his shop attractive by means of festoons of candles, some of enormous size, and all tinted in patterns, while the more important shopping streets are one continuous display of many coloured silks and cotton goods, the glittering wares of the jeweller or coppersmith, and the gay trappings of the saddler.
In between the shops may often be noticed small doorways, whose white plaster is decorated by some bright though crude design in many colours; this is the "hammam," or public bath, while the shop of the barber, chief gossip and story-teller of his quarter, is easily distinguished by the fine-meshed net hung across the entrance as a protection against flies, for flies abound in Cairo, which, however disagreeable they may be, is perhaps fortunate in a country where the laws of sanitation are so lightly regarded.
Noise enters largely into street life, and the native is invariably loud voiced. No bargain is concluded without an apparent squabble, and every tradesman in the street calls his wares, while drivers of vehicles are incessant in their cries of warning to foot-passengers. All the sounds are not unmusical, however, for from the minarets comes the "muezzin's" sweet call to prayer, to mingle with the jingling bells and the tinkling of the cups of the water-sellers.
Then the donkey-boys, everywhere to be found in Cairo, add much to the liveliness of the streets. Their donkeys are fine animals, usually grey and very large, and their bodies are shaved in such a manner as to leave patterns on the legs and snout, which are often coloured. The saddles are of red leather and cloth, and from them hang long tassels which swing as they canter through the streets, while the musical rattle of coloured beads and the chains of copper and brass which all donkeys wear around their necks, add their quota to the many noises of the streets, through which in a low murmur one may distinguish the drone of flies.
Among all the bustle and confusion, shimmering lights, and varied colour which constitute a Cairo street scene, the native woman passes with graceful dignity. Her features are hidden by the "bourka," or veil, which is generally worn, but her beautiful eyes fascinate; nor does the voluminous cloak she wears entirely conceal the dainty, if brilliant, clothing beneath, nor the extreme beauty of her well-shaped hands and feet.
Quite as picturesque as the life of the streets are the buildings which enclose them, and the great glory of Cairo consists of its bazaars and mosques and old-time palaces.
The streets are usually irregular in width and often winding, and are sometimes so narrow as to render driving impossible, for when Cairo was built wheeled vehicles were not in use, and space within its walls was limited. The houses are very lofty, and are built of limestone or rubble covered with white plaster, and the lower courses are often coloured in stripes of yellow, white, and red. Handsome carved doorways open from the street, and the doors are panelled in bold arabesque design, or enriched by metal studs and knockers of bronze. The windows on the ground-floor, which are usually small, are closed by a wooden or iron grating, and are placed too high in the wall for passengers to look through them, and frequently, even in the best houses, small recesses in the walls serve as shops.
The upper storeys usually project beyond the ground-floor, and are supported on corbels or brackets of stone, which also are frequently carved. This method of building has two advantages, for the projecting upper storeys afford a little shade in the streets, and at the same time give greater space to the houses without encroaching upon the already narrow thorough-fares.
These upper storeys are very picturesque, for all the windows are filled with lattice-work, and large window balconies supported on carved wooden beams project far over the street. These are called "mushrabiyehs," a name which is derived from an Arabic word which means "the place for drink." Originally they were simply small cages of plain lattice-work in which the water jars were placed to cool, but as prosperity increased and the homes of the people became more ornate, first the edges of the lattice-work were cut so as to form a pattern, and the little cages presently developed into these large balconies, which in place of simple lattice-work were enclosed by screens formed of innumerable small pieces of turned wood built up so as to form designs of great beauty, and behind which the ladies of the harīm might sit and enjoy the air and the animation of the streets unseen.
Unfortunately this beautiful work is fast disappearing; visitors have discovered how adaptable it is to home decoration, and the dealers in Cairo eagerly buy up all that can be obtained to be converted into those many articles of Arab furniture with which we are now so familiar in England.
Picturesque as all the streets of Cairo are, they are not all so animated as those I have described, and in many quarters one may ride for miles through streets so narrow that no vehicle could pass, and so silent as to appear deserted. Very often their projecting upper storeys almost touch across the street, and make it so dark as to be almost like a tunnel. The handsome doorways also are often half buried in the débris which for three hundred years or more has been accumulating in the narrow lanes, so much so that in many cases the doors cannot be opened at all. There is an air of decay and sadness in many of these quarters, for these half ruinous houses, once the palaces of the Memlūks, are now the habitations of the lowest of the people, and poverty and squalor reign where once had been gaiety and the fashionable life of Cairo.
2 A distant suburb of Cairo.