Okel (Okala) - Expo Paris 1867

Okel (Okala) at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

A little further on and down towards the Suffren Gate, we see a large Egyptian house. It is a dwelling like many in Cairo and especially in Aswan in Upper Egypt, where the great heat is more bearable in the inner courtyards than in the streets.

The general appearance of this house is grandiose though very simple. These large buildings are so arranged that men can easily live together, pay polite and business visits to each other, sell, buy, exchange goods and ideas, and meet in each other's homes, without, however, in any way allowing anyone to enter the intimate inner life, which is spent with the better half of the human race.

It is in the shop, or the couch, or the first courtyard of the dwellings that the relations of men take place freely: the upper floors are occupied by the harems, the refuge of the family where only the father can penetrate. All the windows in this part of the dwellings are fitted with moucharabiehs or tightly closed blinds through which it is impossible to catch any glimpse of the faces of the women and young girls who come, with their faces uncovered, to breathe a little fresh air behind these close-knit wooden screens.

There would be volumes to be written on the moral and physical state of Oriental women: but all that can be said on this subject must lack accuracy for the very simple reason that observations are extremely difficult. The impenetrability of intimate Muslim life and the absolute ignorance in which we in Europe find ourselves about the feelings of the Arab woman are such that the accounts of travellers on this subject must be quarantined.

A host of chronicles are told which are full of very dramatic events and which usually end very badly for foreigners who are too curious or for women who are too romantic. This is the only aspect in which oriental morals have retained something of their severity in Egypt: outside of Egypt I know of no people with whom ordinary relations are more charming and gentle.

The Arab house in the Exhibition represents an okala. This is the name given to the inner courtyards in which several shops or shops are grouped together.

I have seen much larger ones than this in Cairo, and I have also seen smaller ones. In general, it is traders, merchants, or manufacturers of the same kind who occupy all the shops of the same okala or okel, which then takes the name of the industry that has taken refuge there.

In Cairo there is the okel of jewellers, carpet merchants, tailors, druggists and often several okels for the same industry which are more or less close to each other, but generally in the same district.

Here, to give an idea of the very original and sometimes very naive way in which Egyptian industries are carried on, several merchants or manufacturers whose articles have no connection with each other have been brought together in the same okala. This almost never happens in Egypt.

Usually the main door of the okel gives shelter to a very small caouaggi, i.e. hot coffee merchant, who has his eye constantly fixed on his domain; as soon as a customer is greeted with a certain grace by one of the okel merchants and sits down on the front of his shop, the caouaggi comes in with his small cups of hot coffee. He has an account with all the okel traders, and you would be doing something unpleasant either by refusing or by wanting to pay for the coffee. One is very quickly aware of these small customs which are more important in the East than one might think.

In front of the okala, there was a large Arabian coffee shop such as there are in Cairo and in the other cities of Egypt. Coffee is taken everywhere in the East: but in these establishments one goes mainly to smoke the hookah, to play draughts or chess, to listen to some good talker or to meet some friends. These establishments are seldom open in the evening; for towards nightfall each one returns to his family and shuns all his relations until the following morning.

Here the upper floors of the okala have been arranged to accommodate some curious objects. One room, among others, will contain an anthropological collection of the highest interest.... for scholars: it contains four hundred and twenty-three skulls, some of which date back to great antiquity, and six mummies of the most beautiful preservation. But this is of little interest to those who have not directed their studies in this direction.

Another room will be reserved for the work of the Egyptian Commission. Honour to it, the work it has done so far is above all praise.

Let us also do justice to the skilful architect who has supervised and executed all these difficult and delicate works. Mr. J. Drevet, architect of the Egyptian Vice-Regal Commission, has acquired unquestionable titles by the complete success of his work.

The Egyptian Commission, out of a sense of taste, wanted to pay tribute to the illustrious scholar of whom France is so proud.

It has placed between the temple of Philoe and the okel the statue of Champollion.

The famous academician is depicted in the meditative attitude he must have often had in the presence of the Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799 by the first French expedition to Egypt. This inscription, now in London, relates the historical facts of the minority of Ptolemy V, who reigned 193 years before Christ. They are recorded in three languages: hieroglyphics, vulgar Egyptian and Greek.

It was with the help of the Rosetta inscription that Champollion was the first to find the key to the hieroglyphs, which are now commonly read by archaeologists; they even pronounce them. It is probable that it would leave something to be desired by the delicate ears of one of its brown characters, so faithfully traced on the walls of the temple which we have just seen; but it is no less ingenious.

Not so long ago that the oldest among us cannot remember, the state of the roads in France left much to be desired. It will not surprise us too much if we say that in the East they have to be created for the most part.

This absence of roads explains,. In regions fertile enough to provide, almost without work, and well beyond the necessities, for the consumption of their inhabitants, the lack of commercial movement elsewhere than on the coast, bordered by the great maritime routes; the scarcity of journeys and the obligation to make them in troops; the uselessness of hostels, whose existence would be impossible, and the absolute necessity of replacing them by establishments of another kind, unknown in Europe, and intended to serve as a shelter for travellers and to provide them with the means of taking advantage of the resources they must carry with them.

These establishments, which in France are commonly called caravanserais, a word little used in the East, are called Han by the Turks and Persians, and Okel or Okala by the Arabs. Muslim charity, which alone pays for them, generally places these constructions in some suitable site for resting, after long fatigues, at the bottom of a valley where the men of the escort: Zaptiés, Cawass, of the same soldiers, by pushing from side to side a time of gallop, discover them hidden in a fold of ground, and seated as much as possible on the edge of a stream or near a source.

The travellers, provided with carpets, mats and cushions for sleeping, and with food bought at the last halt made in a town, find there vast and convenient rooms, masonry stoves and sometimes also utensils for cooking. Nearby, one at the top of the hill, in the woods which cover its front, the other at its foot, flowing on fine sand, are fire and water.

In the cities, the liberality of the sovereigns and that of rich individuals provide, by means of these same Hans, for the accommodation of foreigners whose stay, of short duration, will be limited by the sale of goods brought from the depths of distant provinces. Well-vaulted and well-enclosed stone shops temporarily receive these goods, near the small flat, consisting of two or three rooms, which is granted to the rich for a small rent, and to the poor free of charge. Kitchens situated on the ground floor provide the inhabitants of the Han with cheap food; a café, made absolutely necessary by oriental habits, is never lacking; it is almost always there that business is transacted.

The vast courtyard that stretches out in the middle of a Han or Okel is used by building, as in the Champ de Mars, rooms for workers, usually all of the same trade, who make it both their workshop and their shop, and where the materials they use and even the smallest details of their workmanship are always within sight of the buyer.
In the middle of the courtyard there is always a fountain with circular taps for religious ablutions. In the Champ de Mars, this fountain, thus placed, would have impeded the circulation; this is why it is in a chamber or rather in a deep niche, at the side of the building, at the very place from which, in our engraving, we see an Arab coming out who has undoubtedly just prepared himself for one of the obligatory prayers of each day.

Opposite the portico of the Okel of the Champ de Mars is the door of a café, a little more comfortable perhaps than those of the Hans of the East, but which is similar to them in all its architectural arrangements, both in its great lines and in the details of its ornamentation. It lacks, however, in the middle of the room, the traditional fountain with jets of water, the marble or alabaster fountain with superimposed basins, from one to the other of which the water escapes and falls back in turn, with a crystalline murmur, a monotonous song accompanied in the bass by the low gurgling of the narghileh.

The entrance to this café is not public; but one is admitted on presentation of tokens which one obtains from Mr. Charles-Edmond Choïesky, general commissioner of the Egyptian vice-regal exhibition.

With these tokens, you are received with a very French politeness by the steward of the house, Abdallah Sadyk, who serves you, with an eagerness worthy of praise, coffee and chibonk or narghileh, offered free of charge to visitors.

These drinks are surrounded by all the desirable local colour: Six Arab servants, with swarthy complexions, dressed in black robes soberly embroidered with gold, wearing turbans of fine damask wool, red or yellow slippers with slightly raised tips, and girded with the white apron, the badge of their rank, serve the coffee in the small porcelain cup, elegantly supported by the silver filigree zarf, which so many eminent Parisians insist on mistaking for an eggcup.

They bring you with gravity the amber imam tchibouk, encircled with jade or aventurine, if not diamonds; with a long maple wood pipe covered with a cashmere case, the folds of which are stopped in the middle and at both ends by rings made of gold and silver threads; or, if you prefer, the narghileh of ancient form, a monument of gilt bronze or solid silver, embellished with sculptures, engravings and niello, on which the eye likes to rest, while one savours the pungent aroma of the tumbeki.

When you have sufficiently enjoyed the charm of this oriental reception, and gained a faint idea of the Kief, alas the closed letter for most Westerners, the door is respectfully opened to you, and you take advantage of it to go up to the upper floor, where the flat of the vice-regal commission is situated, and the room reserved for the anthropological collection, which you can also visit by means of a card signed Charles-Edmond, which will be courteously granted to you, on written request.

You will see, in showcases arranged around the room, about five hundred mummy heads classified by dynasty and at the same time by locality. At the bottom of these showcases, sarcophagi, some open, others closed, show the entire mummy, here still wrapped in its cloths and bandages, there, laid bare for anthropological studies. Such a collection, unique to this day, cannot fail to be of the greatest use to science.

Before leaving the Okel to enter the Park, let us not forget to admire the moucharabieh with which the windows are decorated, in imitation of those of the houses of Cairo. These are wooden grills, forming extremely intricate and charming patterns, designed to allow women to see outside, while hiding them from prying eyes.

It goes without saying that similar moucharabiehs are not to be found in the Hans or the Okels, which are always exclusively inhabited by men; but they are there to give an idea of the intimate life of the Orientals, and to serve at the same time as ornaments to the building of the Champ de Mars, a double model, in its details, of a rich private house, and in its whole, of a dwelling for travellers and workmen.

On leaving, let us also notice this bronze chandelier so curiously worked, which hangs from the ceiling of the hall; it comes from the mosque of Kaïd Bey, in Cairo, where it was used for illuminations. On each of its sides, three or four tiers of iron arms superimposed on each other and projecting outside, supported glass cups filled with oil, where lit wicks burned night and day. On festival nights, these night lights are replaced by innumerable wax candles, offered as ex-voto; all the chandeliers of the mosques are covered with them, and a great quantity of iron wires are added, on which candles are also fixed, and which cross the building in all directions, forming a thousand capricious patterns of light.