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THE two religions confront each other. The drama begins, and we must observe that the ideas which Islam was bringing to the Occidental civilizations and the results of those ideas were more numerous than those which Christianity had, up to that time, offered to the civilizations of the Orient. Islam, which in a savage burst of disinterested faith had launched forth, poor and free, upon the conquest of the earth, having no homeland save its tents and the infinity of a dream which it pursued in the gallop of its horses, in the wind that carried the burnooses and the clouds of dust—Islam, throughout the Middle Ages, was the true champion of the never-attained idea which, the more we seek to grasp it, plunges us only more deeply into the future.

When Justinian had closed the schools of Athens and had driven the artists and scholars from the Empire—at about the period when Gregory the Great burned the Palatine library-—it was with the Sassanian King Chosroes that almost all of them took refuge. History has magnificent strokes of chance. The Arabs, masters of Iran, found there the treasures snatched from the shipwreck, and it was these that permitted their scholars to initiate the new Europe into the thought of antiquity. While the shadows were growing thicker over the Occident, the caliphs were opening universities, digging canals, tracing gardens, reviving the study of geometry, geography, and medicine, creating algebra, and covering the conquered lands with caravanseries, mosques, and palaces. Against the black background of the history of those times we see their works as in a dazzling fairy tale, a great heroic story from the Thousand and One Nights.

The miracle of the Arabian mind is that it remained itself everywhere and dominated everywhere without, of itself, creating anything. Anarchic, nomadic, and a unit, as little bounded by moral as by material frontiers, it could, through that very fact, adapt its genius to that of the conquered peoples and at the same time persuade the vanquished to allow themselves to be absorbed in the unity of that genius. Coptic in Egypt, Berber in the Moghreb and in Spain, Persian in Persia, Indian in India, Islam allows the converted races—in Egypt, in the Moghreb, in Spain, in Persia, and in India—to express, according to their nature, the new enthusiasm which it knew so well how to communicate to them. Wherever it established itself, it remained master of the people's heart.

When Abu-Bekr proclaimed the holy war after the death of Mohammed, the first conquerors of Syria and Egypt installed their immobile dream in the Byzantine or Coptic churches which they came upon in their path. The earlier consecration of the edifice did not matter much to them. They were at home everywhere. They covered the mosaics and the frescoes with a coat of paint, hollowed out a mihrab in the wall facing toward Mecca, and lost themselves in ecstasy, their eyes fixed on that spot. When, in Egyptian, Greek, or Roman ruins, they found ancient columns, they assembled them haphazard, often with the capital downward, all mingling like trees in the same living unity. On three sides of the inner court, where the fountain for ablutions brought to the dried-out soil the eternal freshness of the earth, their parallel rows of columns carried ogive arcades which supported the flat roofs common to the hot countries. The outer walls remained as bare as ramparts. Egypt recognized its dream in that of its conquerors.

But enthusiasm creates action and incites to discovery. Three centuries have passed, the era of the conquests has closed. Islam extends, via northern Africa, from the plateau of Iran to the Pyrenees. The nomad enjoys his conquered domains, arouses the energies that had grown weary there, and consents to animate with his spirit the plastic genius of the vanquished peoples, who have become fanatics. All the oases that sow the deserts of Africa and Spain transform themselves into white cities, are surrounded with crenelated walls, and behold, springing up rapidly, palaces rich in shade where the emirs come to seek the cool after having crossed the sands. When the horde or the caravan has marched long days in the reddish and moving circle whose edge is never reached, it is no longer the bouquet of palms that it sees when the burning air that vibrates and rises has hung a vision in the sky: it is a pink or bluish haze wherein terraces, rounded needles, and cupolas tremble behind an imponderable veil. The Moslem soul, even at the hour when it thought it had gained control over itself, never grasped more than a mirage, a cool shadow, spread for an hour between two sheets of flame over which the conquerors passed.

When their great drive was ended, when the dream which had always surged like a wave before them found itself stopped by the sea or by barriers of mountains or by the walls of Byzantium or the squadrons of the Franks, it had to find some other escape and, the horizon being closed, it had to move upward. Now it stifles under the Byzantine cupola, it spreads and stretches out under the ceiling of the Egyptians [Al. Gayet, L’Art Arabe]. The heavy semicircular arch of the basilicas has already become the broken arch that launches upward. The spherical cupola will likewise take on ascending lines. It will find again the old Assyrian forms that Sassanian Persia had continued until the times of Islam. The slender ovoid dome carries the eye upward until we get the illusion that the dream of the builders is gliding with its forms and follows its fleeing curve to escape at its summit; the base of the cupola is strangled so that its point of support may be masked and the mystery of the suspended infinite be realized. Beginning with the fourteenth century, the columns disappear and the bareness of the great naves evokes the desert, with its circular horizon and the vault of heaven—the only repose for the eyes as they look upward. Outside, above the vertical walls that are as naked as the soil, one sees the cupola rising in purity, accompanied by the flying minarets from which, by the voice of the muezzins, the words from above descend at the hour of prayer.

The mysticism of the nomads had found its resting place. Only the Turk, who mirrored his heavy soul in the dull tones of Persian faïences, retained the Byzantine curve with the flattened cupola, invisible under the clumps of black cypresses from which shoot up the pointed roofs of the cylindrical minarets. It was without knowing it that he inherited the glory of Byzantium; he did not see the torrent of the white, blue, and pink stones streaming to the sea, lighting up in the morning, and dying out at evening, nor the domes of gold which, till the fall of night, retained the flame of the twilight. But, aside from the Turks, the Moslem architects, from Egypt to Spain, attached themselves by instinct to the upward-springing forms of the windows and cupolas, and here their mystic aspiration was not limited, even if, with the changing direction of their genius, they changed the distribution of the domes, the disposition of the naves, or the type of the minarets, which are now round, now square, now octagonal—smooth or damascened. The Egyptian mosques remained as bare as the spirit of the desert; the mosques of the Moghreb and of Spain crossed their arcades of black-and-white arch stones and gave a double rise to their rows of cylindrical columns that are like thickets of palm trees from which droop the long leaves. The great mosque of Cordova, dating from the time of uncompromising faith, is almost a dark forest. In its shadows, made denser by the perspective of the silent shafts, one feels the presence of a terrible infinite that is impossible to seize.

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