Sketches, by Benjamin Disraeli


Oriental palaces, except perhaps in the great Indian peninsula, do not realise the dreams and glittering visions of the Arabian Nights, or indeed the authentic histories written in the flush and fullness of the success of the children of the desert, the Tartar and the Saracen. Commerce once followed in the train of the conquerors of Asia, and the vast buildings which they hastily threw up of slight and perishing materials, were filled, not only with the plunder of the East, but furnished with all the productions of art and curious luxury, which the adventurous spirit of man brought from every quarter of the globe to Samarcand and Bagdad. The site of these mighty capitals is almost erased from the map of the modern traveller; but tribute and traffic have also ceased to sustain even the dilapidated serail of the once omnipotent Stamboul, and, until very recently, all that remained of the splendour of the Caliphs of Egypt was the vast Necropolis, which still contains their palatial sepulchres.

How the bold Roumelian peasant who in our days has placed himself on the ancient throne of the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies, as Napoleon on the seat of the Merovingian kings, usurping political power by military prowess, lodged and contented himself in the valley of the Nile, was not altogether an uninteresting speculation; and it was with no common curiosity that some fifteen years ago, before he had conquered Syria and scared Constantinople, I made one morning a visit to Shoubra, the palace of Mehemet Ali.

Nothing can be conceived more animated and picturesque than Cairo during the early morning or at night. It seems the most bustling and populous city in the world. The narrow streets, abounding with bazaars, present the appearance of a mob, through which troops of richly dressed cavaliers force with difficulty their prancing way, arrested often in their course by the procession of a harem returning from the bath, the women enveloped in inscrutable black garments, and veils and masks of white linen, and borne along by the prettiest donkeys in the world. The attendant eunuchs beat back the multitude; even the swaggering horsemen, with their golden and scarlet jackets, rich shawls and scarfs, and shining arms, trampling on those around, succeed in drawing aside; but all efforts are vain, for at the turning of the street appears the first still solemn visage of a long string of tall camels bearing provisions to the citadel, a Nubian astride on the neck of the leader, and beating a wild drum, to apprise the people of his approach. The streets, too, in which these scenes occur are in themselves full of variety and architectural beauty. The houses are lofty and latticed, abounding in balconies; fountains are frequent and vast and as richly adorned as Gothic shrines; sometimes the fortified palace of one of the old Mamlouks, now inhabited by a pasha, still oftener the exquisite shape of an Arabian mosque. The temples of Stamboul cannot vie with the fanes of Cairo. Their delicate domes and airy cupolas, their lofty minarets covered with tracery, and the flowing fancy of their arabesques recalled to me the glories of the Alhambra, the fantastic grace of the Alcazars and the shrines of Seville and Cordova.

At night the illuminated coffee-houses, the streaming population, each person carrying a lantern, in an atmosphere warmer and softer than our conservatories, and all the innocent amusements of an out-door life — the Nubian song, the Arabian tale, the Syrian magic — afford a different, but not less delightful scene.

It was many hours before noon, however, that I made my first visit to Shoubra, beneath a sky as cloudless as it remained during the whole six months I was in Egypt, during which time I have no recollection that we were favoured by a single drop of rain; and yet the ever-living breeze on the great river, and the excellent irrigation of the earth, produce a freshness in the sky and soil, which are missed in other Levantine regions, where there is more variety of the seasons.

Shoubra is about four or five miles from the metropolis. It rises on the banks of the Nile, and the road to it from Cairo is a broad but shady avenue, formed of sycamores, of noble growth and colour; on one side delightful glimpses of the river, with its palmy banks and sparkling villages, and on the other, after a certain tract of vivid vegetation, the golden sands of the desert, and the shifting hillocks which it forms; or, perhaps, the grey peaks of some chain of pyramids.

The palace of Shoubra is a pile of long low buildings looking to the river — moderate in its character, and modest in its appointments; but clean, orderly, and in a state of complete repair; and, if we may use such an epithet with reference to oriental life, comfortable. It possesses all the refined conveniences of European manners, of which the pasha at the time I am referring to was extremely proud. Most of these had been the recent gift of the French government, and his highness occasionally amused his guests — some sheikh from Arabia, or some emir from the Lebanon — by the exhibition of some scientific means of domestic accommodation with which use has made us familiar, but which I was assured had sensibly impressed the magnates of the desert and the mountain with the progress of modern civilisation.

The gardens of Shoubra, however, are vast, fanciful, and kept in admirable order. They appeared to me in their character also entirely oriental. You enter them by long, low, winding walks of impenetrable shade; you emerge upon an open ground sparkling with roses, arranged in beds of artificial forms, and leading to gilded pavilions and painted kiosks. Arched walks of orange trees, with the fruit and the flowers hanging over your head, lead again to fountains, or to some other garden-court, where myrtles border beds of tulips, and you wander on mosaic walks of polished pebbles. A vase flashes amid a group of dark cypresses, and you are invited to repose under a Syrian walnut tree by a couch or a summer-house.

The most striking picture, however, of this charming retreat is a lake surrounded by light cloisters of white marble, and in its centre a fountain of crocodiles, carved in the same material. That material as well as the art, however, are European. It was Carrara that gave the pure and glittering blocks, and the Tuscan chisel called them into life. It is a pity that the honourable board of directors, in their recent offering of the silver fountain to the pasha, had not been aware of the precedent thus afforded by his highness’s own creation for the introduction of living forms into Moslem sculpture and carving. They might have varied their huge present with advantage. Indeed, with the crocodile and the palm-tree, surely something more beautiful and not less characteristic than their metallic mausoleum might easily have been devised.

This marble pavilion at Shoubra, indeed, with its graceful, terraced peristyles, its chambers and divans, the bright waters beneath, with their painted boats, wherein the ladies of the harem chase the gleaming shoals of gold and silver fish, is a scene worthy of a sultan; but my attendant, a Greek employed in the garden, told me I ought to view it on some high festival, crowded by the court in their rich costumes, to appreciate all its impressive beauty. This was a scene not reserved for me, yet my first visit to Shoubra closed with an incident not immemorable.

I had quitted the marble pavilion and was about to visit the wilderness where roam, in apparent liberty, many rare animals, when I came, somewhat suddenly, on a small circular plot into which several walks emptied, cut through a thick hedge of myrtle. By a sun-dial stood a little man, robust, though aged, rather stout, and of a very cheerful countenance; his attire plain and simple, a pelisse of dark silk, and a turban white as his snowy beard; he was in merry conversation with his companion, who turned out to be his jester. In the background, against the myrtle wall, stood three or four courtiers in rich dresses — courtiers, for the little old man was their princely master — the great Pasha of Egypt.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53