The Commander of the Faithful, by Pierre Loti

from Into Morocco (adapted)

These events are succeeded by a few moments of silent waiting. Then suddenly the long lines of soldiers vibrate under a thrill of religious awe; the band, with its great basses and its drums, strikes up a deafening, mournful air. The fifty little black slaves run, run as if their lives were at stake, deploying [Footnote: Deploying: unfolding, opening out.] from their base like the sticks of a fan, resembling bees swarming, or a flock of birds. And yonder, in the shadowy light of the ogive, [Footnote: Ogive: the arch which crosses a Gothic vault diagonally.] upon which all eyes are turned, there appears a tall, brown-faced mannikin, all veiled in white muslin, mounted on a splendid white horse led in hand by four slaves; over his head is held an umbrella of antique form, such an one as must have protected the Queen of Sheba, [Footnote: Queen of Sheba: the queen who came to test the wisdom of Solomon.] and two gigantic negroes, one in pink, the other in blue, wave fly-flaps around the person of the sovereign.

While the strange mannikin, or mummy, almost shapeless, but majestic notwithstanding in his robes of snowy white, is advancing towards us, the music, as if exasperated to madness, wails louder and louder and in a shriller key; it strikes up a slow and distressful religious air, the time of which is accentuated by a frightful beating of the bass-drums. The mannikin's horse rears wildly, restrained with difficulty by the four black slaves, and this music, so mournful and so strange to us, affects our nerves with an indescribable agonizing sensation.

Here, at last, drawn up close beside us, stands this last authentic descendant of Mahomet, crossed with Nubian blood. His attire, of the finest mousseline-de-laine, is of immaculate whiteness. His charger, too, is entirely white, his great stirrups are of gold, and his saddle and equipments are of a very pale green silk, lightly embroidered in a still paler shade of green. The slaves who hold his horse, the one who carries the great red umbrella, and the two—the pink and blue ones—who shake napkins in the monarch's face to drive away imaginary flies, are all herculean negroes whose countenances are wrinkled into fierce smiles; they are all old men, and their gray or white beards contrast with the blackness of their features. This ceremonial of a bygone age harmonizes with the wailing music, and could not suit better the huge walls around us, which rear their crumbling summits high in the air.

This man, who thus presents himself before us with the surroundings which I have described, is the last faithful exponent of a religion, a civilization that is about to die. He is the personification, in fact, of ancient Islam. [Footnote: Islam: the religion of the Mohammedans.] What result can we expect to obtain from an embassy to such a man, who, together with his people, spends his life torpid and motionless among ancient dreams of humanity that have almost disappeared from the surface of the earth? There is not a single point on which we can understand each other; the distance between us is nearly that which would separate us from a caliph [Footnote: Caliph: the head of the Moslem state and defender of the faith.] of Cordova [Footnote: Cordova: a city of Spain. It is famous for its manufactures of leather and silverware. It contains many Moorish antiquities, and is celebrated for its cathedral—once a mosque.] or Bagdad [Footnote: Bagdad: a city of Mesopotamia on the Tigris. It was formerly a city of great importance, and was a celebrated centre of Arabic learning and civilization.] who should come to life again after a slumber of a thousand years. What do we wish to obtain from him, and why have we brought him forth from his impenetrable palace?

His brown, parchment-like face in its setting of white muslin, has regular and noble features; dull, expressionless eyes, the whites of which appear beneath the balls that are half concealed by the drooping lashes; his expression is that of exceeding melancholy, a supreme lassitude, a supreme ennui. He has an appearance of benignity, and is really kindhearted, according to what they say who know him. (If the people of Fez [Footnote: Fez: a city in northern Morocco.] are to be believed, he is even too much so—he does not chop off as many heads as he ought to for the holy cause of Islam.) But this kindheartedness, no doubt, is relative in degree, as was often the case with ourselves in the middle ages; a mildness which is not over-sensitive in the face of shedding blood when there is a necessity for it, nor in face of an array of human heads set up in a row over the fine gateway at the entrance to the palace. Assuredly he is not cruel; he could not be so with that gentle, sad expression. He punishes with severity sometimes, as his divine authority gives him the right to do, but it is said that he finds a still keener pleasure in pardoning. He is a priest and a warrior, and carries each of these characters perhaps to excess; feeling as deeply as a prophet the responsibility of his heavenly mission, chaste in the midst of his seraglio, [Footnote: Seraglio: a harem.] strict in his attention to onerous [Footnote: Onerous: burdensome.] religious observances, and hereditarily very much of a fanatic—he aims to form himself upon Mahomet [Footnote: Mahomet (Mohammed): the founder of Mohammedanism. Born about 570 in Mecca(?) and died in 632.] as perfectly as may be: all this, moreover, is legible in his eyes, upon his fine countenance, in the upright majesty of his bearing. He is a man whom we can neither understand nor judge in the times we live in, but he is surely a great man, a man of mark.

—PIERKE LOTI (adapted).

[Footnote: What things in the description would tell you that the scene was Oriental? What observations does the author make on the difference between East and West? As a spectator, what things would you find most interesting in the scene? Do you know why the author calls the Sultan's palace impenetrable? Why does the author think that his interview with the Sultan may be useless?]

Louise de la Ramee