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ALEXANDRIA - 3

From Half Hours in the Holy Land by Norman Macleod, 1884

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Before leaving the bazaar, let us look into this coffee-sbop open from the street. There is no ornament of any kind in it, nor does it aim at the magnificence and glitter seen in our whisky and gin shops at home - such palaces being unknown in the East. It is of the humblest description, having no ornament of any kind but a few mats on its floor and upon its raised dais. Capital is not required - a little charcoal, a coffee-pot, and some coffee forming the whole stock in trade.

Odd-looking, turbaned men, smoking their nargiles, are each a picture of quiet contentment. But the chief attraction to me was a blind man, who sat cross-legged on the dais, with a rude sort of fiddle, on which, resting it perpendicularly on his knee, he played a monotonous accompaniment to his chant. He was apparently an improvisatore, who had to think for a little time before composing his verse, or more probably he was only a reciter of old Arab poems. While chanting and scraping on the fiddle, there was a smile of good-humour on his face. No sooner were two or three lines repeated, than his audience exhibited the greatest satisfaction, and turned their eyes to a young man who sat on the opposite dais, quietly smoking - a competitor, apparently, with the blind musician and ballad-singer. He seemed sometimes puzzled for a moment, as he blew a few rapid whiffs from his pipe, while the blind man listened with the greatest attention. But no sooner was his response given than a general movement was visible among the auditors, who turned to the blind minstrel as if saying, "Match that, old fellow, if you can!"

Along the whole bazaar there were little episodes of this sort, presenting features of social life totally different from our own. My excellent friend laughed heartily at my enthusiasm, assuring me that I would think nothing of all this by the time I reached Damascus, and begged I would come away, as we must have a drive and see a few sights before dinner; although, to tell the truth, I was much more pleased with the sort of sights around me than with the prospect of beholding even Pompey's Pillar.

Obeying orders, we were soon in the square, or long parallelogram which forms the respectable part of the town and where the chief hotels are situated; but it had no more interest for me than Euston Square. Not so the drive.

Soon after leaving the hotel we were again in the East, with its dust, poverty, picturesqueness, and confusion. We visited an old Greek church, which had been excavated out of a mass of debris. We gazed with interest upon its walls dimly frescoed with Christian subjects, and looked into its dark burial vaults, and thought of "the Alexandrian school," and of those who had worshipped, probably more than a thousand years ago, in this old edifice. We passed lines of camel-hair tents perched upon a rising ground and occupied by the Bedouin, who had come from the desert, perhaps to buy or to sell; we passed the brown clay huts of the Fellaheen, with their yelling dogs and naked children; we passed crowds of donkeys bearing water-skins, resembling black pigs that had been drowned and were oozing with water; we saw with delight that feature of the East - groves of palms (needing no glass to cover them) drooping their feathered heads in the sunny sky; we stood, where many generations had stood before, beneath what is called Pompey's Pillar, and repeated the speculations of past ages as to how it could have been erected there, what a glorious portico that must have been of which it had formed a unit, and what a magnificent temple it must have adorned. We then returned to the square from which we had started, feeling more and more that we were in a new world.

Water Bottle

Water Bottle

One or two other sights added to our enjoyment of this first day in the East. One was a bare-legged syce with silver-headed cane, who flow along, like an ostrich, to clear the way for the carriage of his noble Jewish master and mistress, and to announce their august presence, while they reclined in their handsome chariot, driven by a Nubian charioteer, with comfortable satisfaction in their look, such as their ancestors manifested when, in the same country long ago, they enjoyed leeks and garlic, wishing for little better.

Another sight was a funeral, in which the body was carried on a bier, preceded, as the custom is, by blind men, and followed by relatives, and women as hired I mourners who did their duty well, giving loud lamentations for their money. And another was a marriage procession, in which the bridegroom was going for his bride with lanterns and wild Turkish screaming instruments intended to represent music. And having seen all this we joined European society at the table d'hote at a late hour, and fell again into the old grooves of modern civilisation. After taking a short stroll to look at the stars, and observing that there was as yet no gas in Alexandria with all its progress and wealth, but that every one was obliged by law to carry a lantern, we retired to bed.

We met there with some friends, whose acquaintance we had made in other portions of the civilised world; but, fortunately, owing to the cool state of the weather, they did not press their company upon us so as to be numbered amongst the plagues of Egypt. It was many years since we had met the genuine mosquito; but who that has once experienced it, can forget the nervous shock which runs through the body when his sharp "ping" is heard close to the ear as he blows his trumpet for battle! To open the net curtains in order to drive a single enemy out, is probably to let a dozen in; and once they are in, how difficult to discover the aerial imps! and, when discovered, how difficult to get at them! and when all this labour has been gone through, and the curtains are again tucked in, and every crevice closed, and the fortress made secure, and the.hope indulged that the enemy has fled, and the sweet feeling of unctuous repose again mesmerises soul and body - oh, horror, to hear again at both ears " ping, ping-ing!"

On this first night we did battle with intense energy and bravery against one intruder, and having slain him we were at peace; but then came the barking of the dogs - those ceaseless serenaders of Eastern cities, of which more anon - and then sleep.

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The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt
by Ian Shaw
  The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt describes the emergence and development of the distinctive civilization of the ancient Egyptians, from their prehistoric origins to their conquest by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. It details the changing nature of life and death in the Nile valley, which gave rise to some of the earliest masterpieces of art, architecture, and literature in the ancient world.
  More information and prices from:
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