May 5, 2012

The Tombs of the Caliphs, 1873

The Tombs of the Caliphs, 1873
Gabriel Charmes

Tombs of the Caliphs
All at once, between the two walls of sand, appear the Tombs of the Caliphs. Nothing can give an idea of this sight, the most melancholy and the finest I have ever met with in my life. The background of the picture is formed on the left by a fiery-red hill, named the Montagne-Rouge; it joins the bluish escarpments of the Mokatam, bathed in a transparent vapour, which gives them a fairy aspect; on the right, the Citadel, more gloomy, lifts its great walls into the azure of the sky. Before the girdle of rocks, which seem to be arranged like reflectors of light, an immense group of minarets and cupolas, crowded together, glitter like a magic apparition. It is the Necropolis of the Caliphs a city of tombs, a cemetery of a special kind, that resembles in no way Turkish cemeteries, since it does not contain a blade of verdure, since one sees there only walls and dust, but the debris of construction scattered in the desert. The Arabs desired to place their tombs in the solitude, far from the eyes of the world, in the centre of a valley of sand, as if to hinder the busy noise of life from troubling their last sleep.

The environs of the Caliphs are formed of mounds, amid which one often loses himself without seeing any other object around than a yellowish rampart that surrounds him everywhere. I remember having tarried for a long time in one of these numerous promenades at the Tombs of the Caliphs, in the bottom of a sort of funnel of an intense colour, like the brightest gold; the sky, of an intense blue, seemed superposed on the summit of this funnel, which it closed in hermetically. This contrast of two tones equally violent, deprived of any shade, would have been anywhere else offensive and insufferable; it was there, without knowing why, of marvellous harmony. Nature alone can permit herself such liberties; Art would be impotent to imitate them. But when one encounters them in reality, they produce a mixture of inexpressible surprise and admiration; they are impressions that partake of a dream, the remembrance of which, though always intense, leaves on the mind the sentiment of a prodigious illusion.

When you advance amid the Tombs of the Caliphs, you soon find yourself surrounded by a crowd of children, who frolic merrily on these sepulchral ruins. Through a sort of caprice of fortune, dawning life bursts forth everywhere in this great cemetery; never has the antithesis of youth and death taken a more tangible or striking form. They are the guardians of the tombs and the few inhabitants of this mortuary city that people it with this numerous offspring. Surrounded with the desert, without wants like all other Arabs, working consequently seldom, they bring forth children, it seems, in order to pass away the time. I asked one day a guardian of one of the tombs, who was walking about, surrounded with an immense family, whence came the prolific ardour, the results of which I witnessed.

“What should I do?” he replied. “It is so wearisome here.”

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