Part 3 out of 3
our climate scorches the enormous fossil which, crumbling in places,
is all that remains of Thebes and which lies there like the carcass of
a gigantic beast that has been dead for thousands of years, but is too
massive ever to be annihilated.
In the hypostyle there is a little blue shade behind the monstrous
pillars, but even that shade is dusty and hot. The columns too are
hot, and so are all the blocks--and yet it is winter and the nights
are cold, even to the point of frost. Heat and dust; a reddish dust,
which hangs like an eternal cloud over these ruins of Upper Egypt,
exhaling an odour of spices and mummy.
The great heat seems to augment the retrospective sensation of fatigue
which seizes you as you regard these stones--too heavy for human
strength--which are massed here in mountains. One almost seems to
participate in the efforts, the exhaustions and the sweating toils of
that people, with their muscles of brand new steel, who in the
carrying and piling of such masses had to bear the yoke for thirty
Even the stones themselves tell of fatigue--the fatigue of being
crushed by one another's weight for thousands of years; the suffering
that comes of having been too exactly carved, and too nicely placed
one above the other, so that they seem to be riveted together by the
force of their mere weight. Oh! the poor stones of the base that bear
the weight of these awful pilings!
And the ardent colour of these things surprises you. It has persisted.
On the red sandstone of the hypostyle, the paintings of more than
three thousand years ago are still to be seen; especially above the
central chamber, almost in the sky, the capitals, in the form of great
flowers, have kept the lapis blues, the greens and yellows with which
their strange petals were long ago bespeckled.
Decrepitude and crumbling and dust. In broad daylight, under the
magnificent splendour of the life-giving sun, one realises clearly
that all here is dead, and dead since days which the imagination is
scarcely able to conceive. And the ruin appears utterly irreparable.
Here and there are a few impotent and almost infantine attempts at
reparation, undertaken in the ancient epochs of history by the Greeks
and Romans. Columns have been put together, holes have been filled
with cement. But the great blocks lie in confusion, and one feels,
even to the point of despair, how impossible it is ever to restore to
order such a chaos of crushing, overthrown things--even with the help
of legions of workers and machines, and with centuries before you in
which to complete the task.
And then, what surprises and oppresses you is the want of clear space,
the little room that remained for the multitudes in these halls which
are nevertheless immense. The whole space between the walls was
encumbered with pillars. The temples were half filled with colossal
forests of stone. The men who built Thebes lived in the beginning of
time, and had not yet discovered the thing which to us to-day seems so
simple--namely, the vault. And yet they were marvellous pioneers,
these architects. They had already succeeded in evolving out of the
dark, as it were, a number of conceptions which, from the beginning no
doubt, slumbered in mysterious germ in the human brain--the idea of
rectitude, the straight line, the right angle, the vertical line, of
which Nature furnishes no example, even symmetry, which, if you
consider it well, is less explicable still. They employed symmetry
with a consummate mastery, understanding as well as we do all the
effect that is to be obtained by the repetition of like objects placed
/en pendant/ on either side of a portico or an avenue. But they did
not invent the vault. And therefore, since there was a limit to the
size of the stones which they were able to place flat like beams, they
had recourse to this profusion of columns to support their stupendous
ceilings. And thus it is that there seems to be a want of air, that
one seems to stifle in the middle of their temples, dominated and
obstructed as they are by the rigid presence of so many stones. And
yet to-day you can see quite clearly in these temples, for, since the
suspended rocks which served for roof have fallen, floods of light
descend from all parts. But formerly, when a kind of half night
reigned in the deep halls, beneath the immovable carapaces of
sandstone or granite, how oppressive and sepulchral it must all have
been--how final and pitiless, like a gigantic palace of Death! On one
day, however, in each year, here at Thebes, a light as of a
conflagration used to penetrate from one end to the other of the
sanctuaries of Amen; for the middle artery is open towards the north-
west, and is aligned in such a fashion that, once a year, one solitary
time, on the evening of the summer solstice, the sun as it sets is
able to plunge its reddened rays straight into the sanctuaries. At the
moment when it enlarges its blood-coloured disc before descending
behind the desolation of the Libyan mountains, it arrives in the very
axis of this avenue, of this suite of aisles, which measures more than
800 yards in length. Formerly, then, on these evenings it shone
horizontally beneath the terrible ceilings--between these rows of
pillars which are as high as our Colonne Vendome--and threw, for some
seconds, its colours of molten copper into the obscurity of the holy
of holies. And then the whole temple would resound with the clashing
of music, and the glory of the god of Thebes was celebrated in the
depths of the forbidden halls.
Like a cloud, like a veil, the continual red-coloured dust floats
everywhere above the ruins, and, athwart it, here and there, the sun
traces long, white beams, But at one point of the avenue, behind the
obelisks, it seems to rise in clouds, this dust of Egypt, as if it
were smoke. For the workers of bronze are assembled there to-day and,
hour by hour, without ceasing, they dig in the sacred soil.
Ridiculously small and almost negligible by the side of the great
monoliths they dig and dig. Patiently they clear the ruins, and the
earth goes away in little parcels in rows of baskets carried by
children in the form of a chain. The periodical deposits of the Nile,
and the sand carried by the wind of the desert, had raised the soil by
about six yards since the time when Thebes ceased to live. But now men
are endeavouring to restore the ancient level. At first sight the task
seemed impossible, but they will achieve it in the end, even with
their simple means, these fellah toilers, who sing as they labour at
their incessant work of ants. Soon the grand hypostyle will be freed
from rubbish, and its columns, which even before seemed so tremendous,
uncovered now to the base, have added another twenty feet to their
height. A number of colossal statues, which lay asleep beneath this
shroud of earth and sand, have been brought back to the light, set
upright again and have resumed their watch in the intimidating
thoroughfares for a new period of quasi-eternity. Year by year the
town-mummy is being slowly exhumed by dint of prodigious effort; and
is repeopled again by gods and kings who had been hidden for thousands
of years![*] Year in, year out, the digging continues--deeper and
deeper. It is scarcely known to what depth the debris and the ruins
descend. Thebes had endured for so many centuries, the earth here is
so penetrated with human past, that it is averred that, under the
oldest of the known temples there are still others, older still and
more massive, of which there was no suspicion, and whose age must
exceed eight thousand years.
[*] As is generally known, the maintenance of the ancient monuments of
Egypt and their restoration, so far as that may be possible, has
been entrusted to the French. M. Maspero has delegated to Thebes
an artist and a scholar, M. Legrain by name, who is devoting his
life passionately to the work.
In spite of the burning sun, and of the clouds of dust raised by the
blows of the pickaxes, one might linger for hours amongst the dust-
stained, meagre fellahs, watching the excavations in this unique soil
--where everything that is revealed is by way of being a surprise and
a lucky find, where the least carved stone had a past of glory, formed
part of the first architectural splendours, was /a stone of Thebes/.
Scarcely a moment passes but, at the bottom of the trenches, as the
digging proceeds, some new thing gleams. Perhaps it is the polished
flank of a colossus, fashioned out of granite from Syene, or a little
copper Osiris, the debris of a vase, a golden trinket beyond price, or
even a simple blue pearl that has fallen from the necklace of some
waiting-maid of a queen.
This activity of the excavators, which alone reanimates certain
quarters during the day, ends at sunset. Every evening the lean
fellahs receive the daily wage of their labour, and take themselves
off to sleep in the silent neighbourhood in their huts of mud; and the
iron gates are shut behind them. At night, except for the guards at
the entrance, no one inhabits the ruins.
Crumbling and dust. . . . Far around, on every side of these palaces
and temples of the central artery--which are the best preserved and
remain proudly upright--stretch great mournful spaces, on which the
sun from morning till evening pours an implacable light. There,
amongst the lank desert plants, lie blocks scattered at hazard--the
remains of sanctuaries, of which neither the plan nor the form will
ever be discovered. But on these stones, fragments of the history of
the world are still to be read in clear-cut hieroglyphs.
To the west of the hypostyle hall there is a region strewn with discs,
all equal and all alike. It might be a draught-board for Titans with
draughts that would measure ten yards in circumference. They are the
scattered fragments, slices, as it were, of a colonnade of the Ramses.
Farther on the ground seems to have passed through fire. You walk over
blackish scoriae encrusted with brazen bolts and particles of melted
glass. It is the quarter burnt by the soldiers of Cambyses. They were
great destroyers of the queen city, were these same Persian soldiers.
To break up the obelisks and the colossal statues they conceived the
plan of scorching them by lighting bonfires around them, and then,
when they saw them burning hot, they deluged them with cold water. And
the granites cracked from top to base.
It is well known, of course, that Thebes used to extend for a
considerable distance both on this, the right, bank of the Nile, where
the Pharaohs resided, and opposite, on the Libyan bank, given over to
the preparers of mummies and to the mortuary temples. But to-day,
except for the great palaces of the centre, it is little more than a
litter of ruins, and the long avenues, lined with endless rows of
sphinxes or rams, are lost, goodness knows where, buried beneath the
At wide intervals, however, in the midst of these cemeteries of
things, a temple here and there remains upright, preserving still its
sanctified gloom beneath its cavernous carapace. One, where certain
celebrated oracles used to be delivered, is even more prisonlike and
sepulchral than the others in its eternal shadow. High up in a wall
the black hole of a kind of grotto opens, to which a secret corridor
coming from the depths used to lead. It was there that the face of the
priest charged with the announcement of the sibylline words appeared--
and the ceiling of his niche is all covered still with the smoke from
the flame of his lamp, which was extinguished more than two thousand
What a number of ruins, scarcely emerging from the sand of the desert,
are hereabout! And in the old dried-up soil, how many strange
treasures remain hidden! When the sun lights thus the forlorn
distances, when you perceive stretching away to the horizon these
fields of death, you realise better what kind of a place this Thebes
once was. Rebuilt as it were in the imagination it appears excessive,
superabundant and multiple, like those flowers of the antediluvian
world which the fossils reveal to us. Compared with it how our modern
towns are dwarfed, and our hasty little palaces, our stuccoes and old
And it is so mystical, this town of Thebes, with its dark sanctuaries,
once inhabited by gods and symbols. All the sublime, fresh-minded
striving of the human soul after the Unknowable is as it were
petrified in these ruins, in forms diverse and immeasurably grand. And
subsisting thus down to our day it puts us to shame. Compared with
this people, who thought only of eternity, we are a lot of pitiful
dotards, who soon will be past caring about the wherefore of life, or
thought, or death. Such beginnings presaged, surely, something greater
than our humanity of the present day, given over to despair, to
alcohol and to explosives!
Crumbling and dust! This same sun of Thebes is in its place each day,
parching, exhausting, cracking and pulverising.
On the ground where once stood so much magnificence there are fields
of corn, spread out like green carpets, which tell of the return of
the humble life of tillage. Above all, there is the sand, encroaching
now upon the very threshold of the Pharaohs; there is the yellow
desert; there is the world of reflections and of silence, which
approaches like a slow submerging tide. In the distance, where the
mirage trembles from morning till evening, the burying is already
almost achieved. The few poor stones which still appear, barely
emerging from the advancing dunes, are the remains of what men, in
their superb revolts against death, had contrived to make the most
And this sun, this eternal sun, which parades over Thebes the irony of
its duration--for us so impossible to calculate or to conceive!
Nowhere so much as here does one suffer from the dismay of knowing
that all our miserable little human effervescence is only a sort of
fermentation round an atom emanated from that sinister ball of fire,
and that that fire itself, the wonderful sun, is no more than an
ephemeral meteor, a furtive spark, thrown off during one of the
innumerable cosmic transformations, in the course of times without end
and without beginning.
AN AUDIENCE OF AMENOPHIS II.
King Amenophis II. has resumed his receptions, which he found himself
obliged to suspend for three thousand, three hundred and some odd
years, by reason of his decease. They are very well attended; court
dress is not insisted upon, and the Grand Master of ceremonies is not
above taking a tip. He holds them every morning in the winter from
eight o'clock, in the bowels of a mountain in the desert of Libya; and
if he rests himself during the remainder of the day it is only
because, as soon as midday sounds, they turn off the electric light.
Happy Amenophis! Out of so many kings who tried so hard to hide for
ever their mummies in the depths of impenetrable caverns he is the
only one who has been left in his tomb. And he "makes the most of it"
every time he opens his funeral salons.
It is important to arrive before midday at the dwelling of this
Pharaoh, and at eight o'clock sharp, therefore, on a clear February
morning, I set out from Luxor, where for many days my dahabiya had
slumbered against the bank of the Nile. It is necessary first of all
to cross the river, for the Theban kings of the Middle Empire all
established their eternal habitations on the opposite bank--far beyond
the plains of the river shore, right away in those mountains which
bound the horizon as with a wall of adorable rose-colour. Other
canoes, which are also crossing, glide by the side of mine on the
tranquil water. The passengers seem to belong to that variety of
Anglo-Saxons which is equipped by Thomas Cook & Sons (Egypt Ltd.), and
like me, no doubt, they are bound for the royal presence.
We land on the sand of the opposite bank, which to-day is almost
deserted. Formerly there stretched here a regular suburb of Thebes--
that, namely, of the preparers of mummies, with thousands of ovens
wherein to heat the natron and the oils, which preserved the bodies
from corruption. In this Thebes, where for some fifty centuries,
everything that died, whether man or beast, was minutely prepared and
swathed in bandages, it will readily be understood what importance
this quarter of the embalmers came to assume. And it was to the
neighbouring mountains that the products of so many careful wrappings
were borne for burial, while the Nile carried away the blood from the
bodies and the filth of their entrails. That chain of living rocks
that rises before us, coloured each morning with the same rose, as of
a tender flower, is literally stuffed with dead bodies.
We have to cross a wide plain before reaching the mountains, and on
our way cornfields alternate with stretches of sand already
desertlike. Behind us extends the old Nile and the opposite bank which
we have lately quitted--the bank of Luxor, whose gigantic Pharaonic
colonnades are as it were lengthened below by their own reflection in
the mirror of the river. And in this radiant morning, in this pure
light, it would be admirable, this eternal temple, with its image
reversed in the depth of the blue water, were it not that at its
sides, and to twice its height, rises the impudent Winter Palace, that
monster hotel built last year for the fastidious tourists. And yet,
who knows? The jackanapes who deposited this abomination on the sacred
soil of Egypt perhaps imagines that he equals the merit of the artist
who is now restoring the sanctuaries of Thebes, or even the glory of
the Pharaohs who built them.
As we draw nearer to the chain of Libya, where this king awaits us, we
traverse fields still green with growing corn--and sparrows and larks
sing around us in the impetuous spring of this land of Thebes.
And now beyond two menhirs, as it were, become gradually distinct. Of
the same height and shape, alike indeed in every respect, they rise
side by side in the clear distance in the midst of these green plains,
which recall so well our fields of France. They wear the headgear of
the Sphinx, and are gigantic human forms seated on thrones--the
colossal statues of Memnon. We recognise them at once, for the
picture-makers of succeeding ages have popularised their aspect, as in
the case of the pyramids. What is strange is that they should stand
there so simply in the midst of these fields of growing corn, which
reach to their very feet, and be surrounded by these humble birds we
know so well, who sing without ceremony on their shoulders.
They do not seem to be scandalised even at seeing now, passing quite
close to them, the trucks of a playful little railway belonging to a
local industry, that are laden with sugar-canes and gourds.
The chain of Libya, during the last hour, has been growing gradually
larger against the profound and excessively blue sky. And now that it
rises up quite near to us, overheated, and as it were incandescent,
under this ten o'clock sun, we begin to see on all sides, in front of
the first rocky spurs of the mountains, the debris of palaces,
colonnades, staircases and pylons. Headless giants, swathed like dead
Pharaohs, stand upright, with hands crossed beneath their shroud of
sandstone. They are the temples and statues for the manes of
numberless kings and queens, who during three or four thousand years
had their mummies buried hard by in the heart of the mountains, in the
deepest of the walled and secret galleries.
And now the cornfields have ceased; there is no longer any herbage--
nothing. We have crossed the desolate threshold, we are in the desert,
and tread suddenly upon a disquieting funereal soil, half sand, half
ashes, that is pitted on all sides with gaping holes. It looks like
some region that had long been undermined by burrowing beasts. But it
is men who, for more than fifty centuries, have vexed this ground,
first to hide the mummies in it, and afterwards, and until our day, to
exhume them. Each of these holes has enclosed its corpse, and if you
peer within you may see yellow-coloured rags still trailing there; and
bandages, or legs and vertebrae of thousands of years ago. Some lean
Bedouins, who exercise the office of excavators, and sleep hard by in
holes like jackals, advance to sell us scarabaei, blue-glass trinkets
that are half fossilised, and feet or hands of the dead.
And now farewell to the fresh morning. Every minute the heat becomes
more oppressive. The pathway that is marked only by a row of stones
turns at last and leads into the depths of the mountain by a tragical
passage. We enter now into that "Valley of the Kings" which was the
place of the last rendezvous of the most august mummies. The breaths
of air that reach us between these rocks are become suddenly burning,
and the site seems to belong no longer to earth but to some calcined
planet which had for ever lost its clouds and atmosphere. This Libyan
chain, in the distance so delicately rose, is positively frightful now
that it overhangs us. It looks what it is--an enormous and fantastic
tomb, a natural necropolis, whose vastness and horror nothing human
could equal, an ideal stove for corpses that wanted to endure for
ever. The limestone, on which for that matter no rain ever falls from
the changeless sky, looks to be in one single piece from summit to
base, and betrays no crack or crevice by which anything might
penetrate into the sepulchres within. The dead could sleep, therefore,
in the heart of these monstrous blocks as sheltered as under vaults of
lead. And of what there is of magnificence the centuries have taken
care. The continual passage of winds laden with dust has scaled and
worn away the face of the rocks, so as to leave only the denser veins
of stone, and thus have reappeared strange architectural fantasies
such as Matter, in the beginning, might have dimly conceived.
Subsequently the sun of Egypt has lavished on the whole its ardent
reddish patines. And now the mountains imitate in places great organ-
pipes, badigeoned with yellow and carmine, and elsewhere huge
bloodstained skeletons and masses of dead flesh.
Outlined upon the excessive blue of the sky, the summits, illumined to
the point of dazzling, rise up in the light--like red cinders of a
glowing fire, splendours of living coal, against the pure indigo that
turns almost to darkness. We seem to be walking in some valley of the
Apocalypse with flaming walls. Silence and death, beneath a
transcendent clearness, in the constant radiance of a kind of mournful
apotheosis--it was such surroundings as these that the Egyptians chose
for their necropoles.
The pathway plunges deeper and deeper in the stifling defiles, and at
the end of this "Valley of the Kings," under the sun now nearly
meridian, which grows each minute more mournful and terrible, we
expected to come upon a dread silence. But what is this?
At a turning, beyond there, at the bottom of a sinister-looking
recess, what does this crowd of people, what does this uproar mean? Is
it a meeting, a fair? Under awnings to protect them from the sun stand
some fifty donkeys, saddled in the English fashion. In a corner an
electrical workshop, built of new bricks, shoots forth the black
smoke, and all about, between the high blood-coloured walls, coming
and going, making a great stir and gabbling to their hearts' content,
are a number of Cook's tourists of both sexes, and some even who
verily seem to have no sex at all. They are come for the royal
audience; some on asses, some in jaunting cars, and some, the stout
ladies who are grown short of wind, in chairs carried by the Bedouins.
From the four points of Europe they have assembled in this desert
ravine to see an old dried-up corpse at the bottom of a hole.
Here and there the hidden palaces reveal their dark, square-shaped
entrances, hewn in the massive rock, and over each a board indicates
the name of a kingly mummy--Ramses IV., Seti I., Thothmes III., Ramses
IX., etc. Although all these kings, except Amenophis II., have
recently been removed and carried away to Lower Egypt, to people the
glass cases of the museum of Cairo, their last dwellings have not
ceased to attract crowds. From each underground habitation are
emerging now a number of perspiring Cooks and Cookesses. And from that
of Amenophis, especially, they issue rapidly. Suppose that we have
come too late and that the audience is over!
And to think that these entrances had been walled up, had been masked
with so much care, and lost for centuries! And of all the perseverance
that was needed to discover them, the observation, the gropings, the
soundings and random discoveries!
But now they are being closed. We loitered too long around the colossi
of Memnon and the palaces of the plain. It is nearly noon, a noon
consuming and mournful, which falls perpendicularly upon the red
summits, and is burning to its deepest recesses the valley of stone.
At the door of Amenophis we have to cajole, beseech. By the help of a
gratuity the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies allows himself to be
persuaded. We are to descend with him, but quickly, quickly, for the
electric light will soon be extinguished. It will be a short audience,
but at least it will be a private one. We shall be alone with the
In the darkness, where at first, after so much sunlight, the little
electric lamps seem to us scarcely more than glow-worms, we expected a
certain amount of chilliness as in the undergrounds of our climate.
But here there is only a more oppressive heat, stifling and withering,
and we long to return to the open air, which was burning indeed, but
was at least the air of life.
Hastily we descend: by steep staircases, by passages which slope so
rapidly that they hurry us along of themselves, like slides; and it
seems that we shall never ascend again, any more than the great mummy
who passed here so long ago on his way to his eternal chamber. All
this brings us, first of all, to a deep well--dug there to swallow up
the desecrators in their passage--and it is on one of the sides of
this oubliette, behind a casual stone carefully sealed, that the
continuation of these funeral galleries was discovered. Then, when we
have passed the well, by a narrow bridge that has been thrown across
it, the stairs begin again, and the steep passages that almost make
you run; but now, by a sharp bend, they have changed their direction.
And still we descend, descend. Heavens! how deep down this king
dwells! And at each step of our descent we feel more and more
imprisoned under the sovereign mass of stone, in the centre of all
this compact and silent thickness.
The little electric globes, placed apart like a garland, suffice now
for our eyes which have forgotten the sun. And we can distinguish
around us myriad figures inviting us to solemnity and silence. They
are inscribed everywhere on the smooth, spotless walls of the colour
of old ivory. They follow one another in regular order, repeating
themselves obstinately in parallel rows, as if the better to impose
upon our spirit, with gestures and symbols that are eternally the
same. The gods and demons, the representatives of Anubis, with his
black jackal's head and his long erect ears, seem to make signs to us
with their long arms and long fingers: "No noise! Look, there are
mummies here!" The wonderful preservation of all this, the vivid
colours, the clearness of the outlines, begin to cause a kind of
stupor and bewilderment. Verily you would think that the painter of
these figures of the shades had only just quitted the hypogeum. All
this past seems to draw you to itself like an abyss to which you have
approached too closely. It surrounds you, and little by little masters
you. It is so much at home here that it has /remained the present/.
Over and above the mere descent into the secret bowels of the rock
there has been a kind of seizure with vertigo, which we had not
anticipated and which has whirled us far away into the depths of the
These interminable, oppressive passages, by which we have crawled to
the innermost depths of the mountain, lead at length to something
vast, the walls divide, the vault expands and we are in the great
funeral hall, of which the blue ceiling, all bestrewn with stars like
the sky, is supported by six pillars hewn in the rock itself. On
either side open other chambers into which the electricity permits us
to see quite clearly, and opposite, at the end of the hall, a large
crypt is revealed, which one divines instinctively must be the
resting-place of the Pharaoh. What a prodigious labour must have been
entailed by this perforation of the living rock! And this hypogeum is
not unique. All along the "Valley of the Kings" little insignificant
doors--which to the initiated reveal the "Sign of the Shadow,"
inscribed on their lintels--lead to other subterranean places, just as
sumptuous and perfidiously profound, with their snares, their hidden
wells, their oubliettes and the bewildering multiplicity of their
mural figures. And all these tombs this morning were full of people,
and, if we had not had the good fortune to arrive after the usual
hour, we should have met here, even in this dwelling of Amenophis, a
battalion equipped by Messrs. Cook.
In this hall, with its blue ceiling, the frescoes multiply their
riddles: scenes from the book of Hades, all the funeral ritual
translated into pictures. On the pillars and walls crowd the different
demons that an Egyptian soul was likely to meet in its passage through
the country of shadows, and underneath the passwords which were to be
given to each of them are recapitulated so as not to be forgotten.
For the soul used to depart simultaneously under the two forms of a
flame[*] and a falcon[+] respectively. And this country of shadows,
called also the west, to which it had to render itself, was that where
the moon sinks and where each evening the sun goes down; a country to
which the living were never able to attain, because it fled before
them, however fast they might travel across the sands or over the
waters. On its arrival there, the scared soul had to parley
successively with the fearsome demons who lay in wait for it along its
route. If at last it was judged worthy to approach Osiris, the great
Dead Sun, it was subsumed in him and reappeared, shining over the
world the next morning and on all succeeding mornings until the
consummation of time--a vague survival in the solar splendour, a
continuation without personality, of which one is scarcely able to say
whether or not it was more desirable than eternal non-existence.
[*] The Khou, which never returned to our world.
[+] The Bai, which might, at its will, revisit the tomb.
And, moreover, it was necessary to preserve the body at whatever cost,
for a certain /double/ of the dead man continued to dwell in the dry
flesh, and retained a kind of half life, barely conscious. Lying at
the bottom of the sarcophagus it was able to see, by virtue of those
two eyes, which were painted on the lid, always in the same axis as
the empty eyes of the mummy. Sometimes, too, this /double/, escaping
from the mummy and its box, used to wander like a phantom about the
hypogeum. And, in order that at such times it might be able to obtain
nourishment, a mass of mummified viands wrapped in bandages were
amongst the thousand and one things buried at its side. Even natron
and oils were left, so that it might re-embalm itself, if the worms
came to life in its members.
Oh! the persistence of this /double/, sealed there in the tomb, a prey
to anxiety, lest corruption should take hold of it; which had to serve
its long duration in suffocating darkness, in absolute silence,
without anything to mark the days and nights, or the seasons or the
centuries, or the tens of centuries without end! It was with such a
terrible conception of death as this that each one in those days was
absorbed in the preparation of his eternal chamber.
And for Amenophis II. this more or less is what happened to his
/double/. Unaccustomed to any kind of noise, after three or four
hundred years passed in the company of certain familiars, lulled in
the same heavy slumber as himself, he heard the sound of muffled blows
in the distance, by the side of the hidden well. The secret entrance
was discovered: men were breaking through its walls! Living beings
were about to appear, pillagers of tombs, no doubt, come to unswathe
them all! But no! Only some priests of Osiris, advancing with fear in
a funeral procession. They brought nine great coffins containing the
mummies of nine kings, his sons, grandsons and other unknown
successors, down to that King Setnakht, who governed Egypt two and a
half centuries after him. It was simply to hide them better that they
brought them hither, and placed them all together in a chamber that
was immediately walled up. Then they departed. The stones of the door
were sealed afresh, and everything fell again into the old mournful
and burning darkness.
Slowly the centuries rolled on--perhaps ten, perhaps twenty--in a
silence no longer even disturbed by the scratchings of the worms, long
since dead. And a day came when, at the side of the entrance, the same
blows were heard again. . . . And this time it was the robbers.
Carrying torches in their hands, they rushed headlong in, with shouts
and cries and, except in the safe hiding-place of the nine coffins,
everything was plundered, the bandages torn off, the golden trinkets
snatched from the necks of the mummies. Then, when they had sorted
their booty, they walled up the entrance as before, and went their
way, leaving an inextricable confusion of shrouds, of human bodies, of
entrails issuing from shattered vases, of broken gods and emblems.
Afterwards, for long centuries, there was silence again, and finally,
in our days, the /double/, then in its last weakness and almost non-
existent, perceived the same noise of stones being unsealed by blows
of pickaxes. The third time, the living men who entered were of a race
never seen before. At first they seemed respectful and pious, only
touching things gently. But they came to plunder everything, even the
nine coffins in their still inviolate hiding-place. They gathered the
smallest fragments with a solicitude almost religious. That they might
lose nothing they even sifted the rubbish and the dust. But, as for
Amenophis, who was already nothing more than a lamentable mummy,
without jewels or bandages, they left him at the bottom of his
sarcophagus of sandstone. And since that day, doomed to receive each
morning numerous people of a strange aspect, he dwells alone in his
hypogeum, where there is now neither a being nor a thing belonging to
But yes, there is! We had not looked all round. There in one of the
lateral chambers some bodies are lying, dead bodies--three corpses
(unswathed at the time of the pillage), side by side on their rags.
First, a woman, the queen probably, with loosened hair. Her profile
has preserved its exquisite lines. How beautiful she still is! And
then a young boy with the little greyish face of a doll. His head is
shaved, except for that long curl at the right side, which denotes a
prince of the royal blood. And the third a man. Ugh! How terrible he
is--looking as if he found death a thing irresistibly comical. He even
writhes with laughter, and eats a corner of his shroud as if to
prevent himself from bursting into a too unseemly mirth.
And then, suddenly, black night! And we stand as if congealed in our
place. The electric light has gone out--everywhere at once. Above, on
the earth, midday must have sounded--for those who still have
cognisance of the sun and the hours.
The guard who has brought us hither shouts in his Bedouin falsetto, in
order to get the light switched on again, but the infinite thickness
of the walls, instead of prolonging the vibrations, seems to deaden
them; and besides, who could hear us, in the depths where we now are?
Then, groping in the absolute darkness, he makes his way up the
sloping passage. The hurried patter of his sandals and the flapping of
his burnous grow faint in the distance, and the cries that he
continues to utter sound so smothered to us soon that we might
ourselves be buried. And meanwhile we do not move. But how comes it
that it is so hot amongst these mummies? It seems as if there were
fires burning in some oven close by. And above all there is a want of
air. Perhaps the corridors, after our passage, have contracted, as
happens sometimes in the anguish of dreams. Perhaps the long fissure
by which we have crawled hither, perhaps it has closed in upon us.
But at length the cries of alarm are heard and the light is turned on
again. The three corpses have not profited by the unguarded moments to
attempt any aggressive movement. Their positions, their expressions
have not changed: the queen calm and beautiful as ever; the man eating
still the corner of his rags to stifle the mad laughter of thirty-
The Bedouin is now returned, breathless from his journey. He urges us
to come to see the king before the electric light is again
extinguished, and this time for good and all. Behold us now at the end
of the hall, on the edge of a dark crypt, leaning over and peering
within. It is a place oval in form, with a vault of a funereal black,
relieved by frescoes, either white or of the colour of ashes. They
represent, these frescoes, a whole new register of gods and demons,
some slim and sheathed narrowly like mummies, others with big heads
and big bellies like hippopotami. Placed on the ground and watched
from above by all these figures is an enormous sarcophagus of stone,
wide open; and in it we can distinguish vaguely the outline of a human
body: the Pharaoh!
At least we should have liked to see him better. The necessary light
is forthcoming at once: the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies touches
an electric button and a powerful lamp illumines the face of
Amenophis, detailing with a clearness that almost frightens you the
closed eyes, the grimacing countenance, and the whole of the sad
mummy. This theatrical effect took us by surprise; we were not
prepared for it.
He was buried in magnificence, but the pillagers have stripped him of
everything, even of his beautiful breastplate of tortoiseshell, which
came to him from a far-off Oriental country, and for many centuries
now he has slept half naked on his rags. But his poor bouquet is there
still--of mimosa, recognisable even now, and who will ever tell what
pious or perhaps amorous hand it was that gathered these flowers for
him more than three thousand years ago.
The heat is suffocating. The whole crushing mass of this mountain, of
this block of limestone, into which we have crawled through relatively
imperceptible holes, like white ants or larvae, seems to weigh upon
our chest. And these figures too, inscribed on every side, and this
mystery of the hieroglyphs and the symbols, cause a growing
uneasiness. You are too near them, they seem too much the masters of
the exits, these gods with their heads of falcon, ibis and jackal,
who, on the walls, converse in a continual exalted pantomime. And then
the feeling comes over you, that you are guilty of sacrilege standing
there, before this open coffin, in this unwonted insolent light. The
dolorous, blackish face, half eaten away, seems to ask for mercy:
"Yes, yes, my sepulchre has been violated and I am returning to dust.
But now that you have seen me, leave me, turn out that light, have
pity on my nothingness."
In sooth, what a mockery! To have taken so many pains, to have adopted
so many stratagems to hide his corpse; to have exhausted thousands of
men in the hewing of this underground labyrinth, and to end thus, with
his head in the glare of an electric lamp, to amuse whoever passes.
And out of pity--I think it was the poor bouquet of mimosa that
awakened it--I say to the Bedouin: "Yes, put out the light, put it
out--that is enough."
And then the darkness returns above the royal countenance, which is
suddenly effaced in the sarcophagus. The phantom of the Pharaoh is
vanished, as if replunged into the unfathomable past. The audience is
And we, who are able to escape from the horror of the hypogeum,
reascend rapidly towards the sunshine of the living, we go to breathe
the air again, the air to which we have still a right--for some few
AT THEBES IN THE TEMPLE OF THE OGRESS
This evening, in the vast chaos of ruins--at the hour in which the
light of the sun begins to turn to rose--I make my way along one of
the magnificent roads of the town-mummy, that, in fact, which goes off
at a right angle to the line of the temples of Amen, and, losing
itself more or less in the sands, leads at length to a sacred lake on
the border of which certain cat-headed goddesses are seated in state
watching the dead water and the expanse of the desert. This particular
road was begun three thousand four hundred years ago by a beautiful
queen called Makeri,[*] and in the following centuries a number of
kings continued its construction. It was ornamented with pylons of a
superb massiveness--pylons are monumental walls, in the form of a
trapezium with a wide base, covered entirely with hieroglyphs, which
the Egyptians used to place at either side of their porticoes and long
avenues--as well as by colossal statues and interminable rows of rams,
larger than buffaloes, crouched on pedestals.
[*] To-day the mummy with the baby in the museum at Cairo.
At the first pylons I have to make a detour. They are so ruinous that
their blocks, fallen down on all sides, have closed the passage. Here
used to watch, on right and left, two upright giants of red granite
from Syene. Long ago in times no longer precisely known, they were
broken off, both of them, at the height of the loins. But their
muscular legs have kept their proud, marching attitude, and each in
one of the armless hands, which reach to the end of the cloth that
girds their loins, clenches passionately the emblem of eternal life.
And this Syenite granite is so hard that time has not altered it in
the least; in the midst of the confusion of stones the thighs of these
mutilated giants gleam as if they had been polished yesterday.
Farther on we come upon the second pylons, foundered also, before
which stands a row of Pharaohs.
On every side the overthrown blocks display their utter confusion of
gigantic things in the midst of the sand which continues patiently to
bury them. And here now are the third pylons, flanked by their two
marching giants, who have neither head nor shoulders. And the road,
marked majestically still by the debris, continues to lead towards the
And then the fourth and last pylons, which seem at first sight to mark
the extremity of the ruins, the beginning of the desert nothingness.
Time-worn and uncrowned, but stiff and upright still, they seem to be
set there so solidly that nothing could ever overthrow them. The two
colossal statues which guard them on the right and left are seated on
thrones. One, that on the eastern side, has almost disappeared. But
the other stands out entire and white, with the whiteness of marble,
against the brown-coloured background of the enormous stretch of wall
covered with hieroglyphs. His face alone has been mutilated; and he
preserves still his imperious chin, his ears, his Sphinx's headgear,
one might almost say his meditative expression, before this deployment
of the vast solitude which seems to begin at his very feet.
Here however was only the boundary of the quarters of the God Amen.
The boundary of Thebes was much farther on, and the avenue which will
lead me directly to the home of the cat-headed goddesses extends
farther still to the old gates of the town; albeit you can scarcely
distinguish it between the double row of Krio-sphinxes all broken and
The day falls, and the dust of Egypt, in accordance with its
invariable practice every evening, begins to resemble in the distance
a powder of gold. I look behind me from time to time at the giant who
watches me, seated at the foot of his pylon on which the history of a
Pharaoh is carved in one immense picture. Above him and above his
wall, which grows each minute more rose-coloured, I see, gradually
mounting in proportion as I move away from it, the great mass of the
palaces of the centre, the hypostyle hall, the halls of Thothmes and
the obelisks, all the entangled cluster of those things at once so
grand and so dead, which have never been equalled on earth.
And as I continue to gaze upon the ruins, resplendent now in the rosy
apotheosis of the evening, they come to look like the crumbling
remains of a gigantic skeleton. They seem to be begging for a merciful
surcease, as if they were tired of this endless gala colouring at each
setting of the sun, which mocks them with its eternity.
All this is now a long way behind me; but the air is so limpid, the
outlines remain so clear that the illusion is rather that the temples
and the pylons grow smaller, lower themselves and sink into the earth.
The white giant who follows me always with his sightless stare is now
reduced to the proportions of a simple human dreamer. His attitude
moreover has not the rigid hieratic aspect of the other Theban
statues. With his hands upon his knees he looks like a mere ordinary
mortal who had stopped to reflect.[*] I have known him for many days--
for many days and many nights, for, what with his whiteness and the
transparency of these Egyptian nights, I have seen him often outlined
in the distance under the dim light of the stars--a great phantom in
his contemplative pose. And I feel myself obsessed now by the
continuance of his attitude at this entrance of the ruins--I who shall
pass without a morrow from Thebes and even from the earth--even as we
all pass. Before conscious life was vouchsafed to me he was there, had
been there since times which make you shudder to think upon. For three
and thirty centuries, or thereabouts, the eyes of myriads of unknown
men and women, who have gone before me, saw him just as I see him now,
tranquil and white, in this same place, seated before this same
threshold, with his head a little bent, and his pervading air of
[*] Statue of Amenophis III.
I make my way without hastening, having always a tendency to stop and
look behind me, to watch the silent heap of palaces and the white
dreamer, which now are all illumined with a last Bengal fire in the
daily setting of the sun.
And the hour is already twilight when I reach the goddesses.
Their domain is so destroyed that the sands had succeeded in covering
and hiding it for centuries. But it has lately been exhumed.
There remain of it now only some fragments of columns, aligned in
multiple rows in a vast extent of desert. Broken and fallen stones and
debris.[*] I walk on without stopping, and at length reach the sacred
lake on the margin of which the great cats are seated in eternal
council, each one on her throne. The lake, dug by order of the
Pharaohs, is in the form of an arc, like a kind of crescent. Some
marsh birds, that are about to retire for the night, now traverse its
mournful, sleeping water. Its borders, which have known the utmost of
magnificence, are become mere heaps of ruins on which nothing grows.
And what one sees beyond, what the attentive goddesses themselves
regard, is the empty desolate plain, on which some few poor fields of
corn mingle in this twilight hour with the sad infinitude of the
sands. And the whole is bounded on the horizon by the chain, still a
little rose-coloured, of the limestones of Arabia.
[*] The temple of the Goddess Mut.
They are there, the cats, or, to speak more exactly, the lionesses,
for cats would not have those short ears, or those cruel chins,
thickened by tufts of beard. All of black granite, images of Sekhet
(who was the Goddess of War, and in her hours the Goddess of Lust),
they have the slender body of a woman, which makes more terrible the
great feline head surmounted by its high bonnet. Eight or ten, or
perhaps more, they are more disquieting in that they are so numerous
and so alike. They are not gigantic, as one might have expected, but
of ordinary human stature--easy therefore to carry away, or to
destroy, and that again, if one reflects, augments the singular
impression they cause. When so many colossal figures lie in pieces on
the ground, how comes it that they, little people seated so tranquilly
on their chairs, have contrived to remain intact, during the passing
of the three and thirty centuries of the world's history?
The passage of the march birds, which for a moment disturbed the clear
mirror of the lake, has ceased. Around the goddesses nothing moves and
the customary infinite silence envelops them as at the fall of every
night. They dwell indeed in such a forlorn corner of the ruins! Who,
to be sure, even in broad daylight, would think of visiting them?
Down there in the west a trailing cloud of dust indicates the
departure of the tourists, who had flocked to the temple of Amen, and
now hasten back to Luxor, to dine at the various /tables d'hote/. The
ground here is so felted with sand that in the distance we cannot hear
the rolling of their carriages. But the knowledge that they are gone
renders more intimate the interview with these numerous and identical
goddesses, who little by little have been draped in shadow. Their
seats turn their backs to the palaces of Thebes, which now begin to be
bathed in violet waves and seem to sink towards the horizon, to lose
each minute something of their importance before the sovereignty of
And the black goddesses, with their lioness' heads and tall headgear--
seated there with their hands upon their knees, with eyes fixed since
the beginning of the ages, and a disturbing smile on their thick lips,
like those of a wild beast--continue to regard--beyond the little dead
lake--that desert, which now is only a confused immensity, of a bluish
ashy-grey. And the fancy seizes you that they are possessed of a kind
of life, which has come to them after long waiting, by virtue of that
/expression/ which they have worn on their faces so long, oh! so long.
Beyond, at the other extremity of the ruins, there is a sister of
these goddesses, taller than they, a great Sekhet, whom in these parts
men call the Ogress, and who dwells alone and upright, ambushed in a
narrow temple. Amongst the fellahs and the Bedouins of the
neighbourhood she enjoys a very bad reputation, it being her custom of
nights to issue from her temple, and devour men; and none of them
would willingly venture near her dwelling at this late hour. But
instead of returning to Luxor, like the good people whose carriages
have just departed, I rather choose to pay her a visit.
Her dwelling is some distance away, and I shall not reach it till the
dead of night.
First of all I have to retrace my steps, to return along the whole
avenue of rams, to pass again by the feet of the white giant, who has
already assumed his phantomlike appearance, while the violet waves
that bathed the town-mummy thicken and turn to a greyish-blue. And
then, leaving behind me the pylons guarded by the broken giants, I
thread my way among the palaces of the centre.
It is among these palaces that I encounter for good and all the night,
with the first cries of the owls and ospreys. It is still warm there,
on account of the heat stored by the stones during the day, but one
feels nevertheless that the air is freezing.
At a crossing a tall human figure looms up, draped in black and armed
with a baton. It is a roving Bedouin, one of the guards, and this more
or less is the dialogue exchanged between us (freely and succinctly
"Your permit, sir."
"Here it is."
(Here we combine our efforts to illuminate the said permit by the
light of a match.)
"Good, I will go with you."
"No. I beg of you."
"Yes; I had better. Where are you going?"
"Beyond, to the temple of that lady--you know, who is great and
powerful and has a face like a lioness."
"Ah! . . . Yes, I think I understand that you would prefer to go
alone." (Here the intonation becomes infantine.) "But you are a kind
gentleman and will not forget the poor Bedouin all the same."
He goes on his way. On leaving the palaces I have still to traverse an
extent of uncultivated country, where a veritable cold seizes me.
Above my head no longer the heavy suspended stones, but the far-off
expanse of the blue night sky--where are shining now myriads upon
myriads of stars. For the Thebans of old this beautiful vault,
scintillating always with its powder of diamonds, shed no doubt only
serenity upon their souls. But for us, /who knows, alas!/ it is on the
contrary the field of the great fear, which, out of pity, it would
have been better if we had never been able to see; the incommensurable
black void, where the worlds in their frenzied whirling precipitate
themselves like rain, crash into and annihilate one another, only to
be renewed for fresh eternities.
All this is seen too vividly, the horror of it becomes intolerable, on
a clear night like this, in a place so silent and littered so with
ruins. More and more the cold penetrates you--the mournful cold of the
sidereal spheres from which nothing now seems to protect you, so
rarefied--almost non-existent--does the limpid atmosphere appear. And
the gravel, the poor dried herbs, that crackle under foot, give the
illusion of the crunching noise we know at home on winter nights when
the frost is on the ground.
I approach at length the temple of the Ogress. These stones which now
appear, whitish in the night, this secret-looking dwelling near the
boundary wall of Thebes, proclaim the spot, and verily at such an hour
as this it has an evil aspect. Ptolemaic columns, little vestibules,
little courtyards where a dim blue light enables you to find your way.
Nothing moves; not even the flight of a night bird: an absolute
silence, magnified awfully by the presence of the desert which you
feel encompasses you beyond these walls. And beyond, at the bottom,
three chambers made of massive stone, each with its separate entrance.
I know that the first two are empty. It is in the third that the
Ogress dwells, unless, indeed, she has already set out upon her
nocturnal hunt for human flesh. Pitch darkness reigns within and I
have to grope my way. Quickly I light a match. Yes, there she is
indeed, alone and upright, almost part of the end wall, on which my
little light makes the horrible shadow of her head dance. The match
goes out--irreverently I light many more under her chin, under that
heavy, man-eating jaw. In very sooth, she is terrifying. Of black
granite--like her sisters, seated on the margin of the mournful lake--
but much taller than they, from six to eight feet in height, she has a
woman's body, exquisitely slim and young, with the breasts of a
virgin. Very chaste in attitude, she holds in her hand a long-stemmed
lotus flower, but by a contrast that nonplusses and paralyses you the
delicate shoulders support the monstrosity of a huge lioness' head.
The lappets of her bonnet fall on either side of her ears almost down
to her breast, and surmounting the bonnet, by way of addition to the
mysterious pomp, is a large moon disc. Her dead stare gives to the
ferocity of her visage something unreasoning and fatal; an
irresponsible ogress, without pity as without pleasure, devouring
after the manner of Nature and of Time. And it was so perhaps that she
was understood by the initiated of ancient Egypt, who symbolised
everything for the people in the figures of gods.
In the dark retreat, enclosed with defaced stones, in the little
temple where she stands, alone, upright and grand, with her enormous
head and thrust-out chin and tall goddess' headdress--one is
necessarily quite close to her. In touching her, at night, you are
astonished to find that she is less cold than the air; she becomes
somebody, and the intolerable dead stare seems to weigh you down.
During the /tete-a-tete/, one thinks involuntarily of the
surroundings, of these ruins in the desert, of the prevailing
nothingness, of the cold beneath the stars. And, now, that summation
of doubt and despair and terror, which such an assemblage of things
inspires in you, is confirmed, if one may say so, by the meeting with
this divinity-symbol, which awaits you at the end of the journey, to
receive ironically all human prayer; a rigid horror of granite, with
an implacable smile and a devouring jaw.
A TOWN PROMPTLY EMBELLISHED
Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its
metamorphosis. Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was
a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned,
in elegance and even in comfort.
Not that it was without picturesqueness and historical interest. Quite
the contrary. The Nile, charged with the waters of equatorial Africa,
flung itself close by from the height of a mass of black granite, in a
majestic cataract; and then, before the little Arab houses, became
suddenly calm again, and flowed between islets of fresh verdure where
clusters of palm-trees swayed their plumes in the wind.
And around were a number of temples, of hypogea, of Roman ruins, of
ruins of churches dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The
ground was full of souvenirs of the great primitive civilisations. For
the place, abandoned for ages and lulled in the folds of Islam under
the guardianship of its white mosque, was once one of the centres of
the life of the world.
And, moreover, in the adjoining desert, some three or four thousand
years ago, the ancient history of the world had been written by the
Pharaohs in immortal hieroglyphics--well-nigh everywhere, on the
polished sides of the strange blocks of blue and red granite that lie
scattered about the sands and look now like the forms of antediluvian
Yes, but it was necessary that all this should be co-ordinated,
focused as it were, and above all rendered accessible to the delicate
travellers of the Agencies. And to-day we have the pleasure of
announcing that, from December to March, Assouan (for that is the name
of the fortunate locality) has a "season" as fashionable as those of
Ostend or Spa.
In approaching it, the huge hotels erected on all sides--even on the
islets of the old river--charm the eye of the traveller, greeting him
with their welcoming signs, which can be seen a league away. True,
they have been somewhat hastily constructed, of mud and plaster, but
they recall none the less those gracious palaces with which the
Compagnie des Wagon-Lits has dowered the world. And how negligible
now, how dwarfed by the height of their facades, is the poor little
town of olden times, with its little houses, whitened with chalk, and
its baby minaret.
The cataract, on the other hand, has disappeared from Assouan. The
tutelary Albion wisely considered that it would be better to sacrifice
that futile spectacle and, in order to increase the yield of the soil,
to dam the waters of the Nile by an artificial barrage: a work of
solid masonry which (in the words of the Programme of Pleasure Trips)
"affords an interest of a very different nature and degree" (sic).
But nevertheless Cook & Son--a business concern glossed with poetry,
as all the world knows--have endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of
the cataract by giving its name to a hotel of 500 rooms, which as a
result of their labours has been established opposite to those rocks--
now reduced to silence--over which the old Nile used to seethe for so
many centuries. "Cataract Hotel!"--that gives the illusion still, does
it not?--and looks remarkably well at the head of a sheet of
Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.) have even gone so far as to conceive the idea
that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain
/cachet/ of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces (in imitation, of
course--but then you must not expect the impossible) the interior of
one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour it is one of the
prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy
cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook's tourists of both
sexes, the while a concealed orchestra strikes up the "Mattchiche."
The dam, it is true, in suppressing the cataract has raised some
thirty feet or so the level of the water upstream, and by so doing has
submerged a certain Isle of Philae, which passed, absurdly enough, for
one of the marvels of the world by reason of its great temple of Isis,
surrounded by palm-trees. But between ourselves, one may say that the
beautiful goddess was a little old-fashioned for our times. She and
her mysteries had had their day. Besides, if there should be any
chagrined soul who might regret the disappearance of the island, care
has been taken to perpetuate the memory of it, in the same way as that
of the cataract. Charming coloured postcards, taken before the
submerging of the island and the sanctuary, are on sale in all the
bookshops along the quay.
Oh! this quay of Assouan, already so British in its orderliness, its
method! Nothing better cared for, nothing more altogether charming
could be conceived. First of all there is the railway, which, passing
between balustrades painted a grass-green, gives out its fascinating
noise and joyous smoke. On one side is a row of hotels and shops, all
European in character--hairdressers, perfumers, and numerous dark
rooms for the use of the many amateur photographers, who make a point
of taking away with them photographs of their travelling companions
grouped tastefully before some celebrated hypogeum.
And then numerous cafes, where the whisky is of excellent quality.
And, I ought to add, in justice to the result of the /Entente
Cordiale/, you may see there, too, aligned in considerable quantities
on the shelves, the products of those great French philanthropists, to
whom indeed our generation does not render sufficient homage for all
the good they have done to its stomach and its head. The reader will
guess that I have named Pernod, Picon and Cusenier.
It may be indeed that the honest fellahs and Nubians of the
neighbourhood, so sober a little while ago, are apt to abuse these
tonics a little. But that is the effect of novelty, and will pass. And
anyhow, amongst us Europeans, there is no need to conceal the fact--
for we do not all make use of it involuntarily?--that alcoholism is a
powerful auxiliary in the propagation of our ideas, and that the
dealer in wines and spirits constitutes a valuable vanguard pioneer
for our Western civilisation. Races, insensibly depressed by the abuse
of our "appetisers," become more supple, more easy to lead in the true
path of progress and liberty.
On this quay of Assouan, so carefully levelled, defiles briskly a
continual stream of fair travellers ravishingly dressed as only those
know how who have made a tour with Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.). And along
the Nile, in the shade of the young trees, planted with the utmost
nicety and precision, the flower-beds and straight-cut turf are
protected efficaciously by means of wire-netting against certain acts
of forgetfulness to which dogs, alas, are only too much addicted.
Here, too, everything is ticketed, everything has its number: the
donkeys, the donkey-drivers, the stations even where they are allowed
to stand--"Stand for six donkeys, stand for ten, etc." Some very
handsome camels, fitted with riding saddles, wait also in their
respective places and a number of Cook ladies, meticulous on the point
of local colour, even when it is merely a question of making some
purchases in the town, readily mount for some moments one or other of
these "ships of the desert."
And at every fifty yards a policeman, still Egyptian in his
countenance, but quite English in his bearing and costume, keeps a
vigilant eye on everything--would never suffer, for example, that an
eleventh donkey should dare to take a place in a stand for ten, which
was already full.
Certain people, inclined to be critical, might consider, perhaps, that
these policemen were a little too ready to chide their fellow-
countrymen; whereas on the contrary they showed themselves very
respectful and obliging whenever they were addressed by a traveler in
a cork helmet. But that is in virtue of an equitable and logical
principle, derived by them from the high places of the new
administration--namely, that the Egypt of to-day belongs far less to
the Egyptians than to the noble foreigners who have come to brandish
there the torch of civilisation.
In the evening, after dark, the really respectable travellers do not
quit the brilliant dining saloons of the hotels, and the quay is left
quite solitary beneath the stars. It is at such a time that one is
able to realise how extremely hospitable certain of the natives are
become. If, in an hour of melancholy, you walk alone on the bank of
the Nile, smoking a cigarette, you will not fail to be accosted by one
of these good people, who misunderstanding the cause of the unrest in
your soul, offers eagerly, and with a touching frankness, to introduce
you to the gayest of the young ladies of the country.
In the other towns, which still remain purely Egyptian, the people
would never practise such an excess of affability and good manners,
which have been learnt, beyond all question from our beneficent
Assouan possesses also its little Oriental bazaar--a little
improvised, a little new perhaps; but then one, at least, was needed,
and that as quickly as possible, in order that nothing might be
wanting to the tourists.
The shopkeepers have contrived to provision themselves (in the leading
shops, under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli) with as much tact as
good taste, and the Cook ladies have the innocent illusion of making
bargains every day. One may even buy there, hung up by the tail,
stuffed with straw and looking extremely real, the last crocodiles of
Egypt, which, particularly at the end of the season, may be had at
very advantageous prices.
Even the old Nile has allowed itself to be fretted and brought up to
date in the progress of evolution.
First, the women, draped in black veils, who come daily to draw the
precious water, have forsaken the fragile amphorae of baked earth,
which had come to them from barbarous times--and which the
Orientalists grossly abused in their picture; and in their stead have
taken to old tin oil-cans, placed at their disposal by the kindness of
the big hotels. But they carry them in the same easy graceful manner
as erstwhile the discarded pottery, and without losing in the least
the gracious tanagrine outline.
And then there are the great tourist boats of the Agencies, which are
here in abundance, for Assouan has the privilege of being the terminus
of the line; and their whistlings, their revolving motors, their
electric dynamos maintain from morning till night a captivating
symphony. It might be urged perhaps against these structures that they
resemble a little the washhouses on the Seine; but the Agencies,
desirous of restoring to them a certain local colour, have given them
names so notoriously Egyptian that one is reduced to silence. They are
called Sesostris, Amenophis or Ramses the Great.
And finally there are the rowing boats, which carry passengers
incessantly backwards and forwards between the river-banks. So long as
the season remains at its height they are bedecked with a number of
little flags of red cotton-cloth, or even of simple paper. The rowers,
moreover, have been instructed to sing all the time the native songs
which are accompanied by a derboucca player seated in the prow. Nay,
they have even learnt to utter that rousing, stimulating cry which
Anglo-Saxons use to express their enthusiasm or their joy: "Hip! Hip!
Hurrah!" and you cannot conceive how well it sounds, coming between
the Arab songs, which otherwise might be apt to grow monotonous.
But the triumph of Assouan is its desert. It begins at once without
transition as soon as you pass the close-cropped turf of the last
square. A desert which, except for the railroad and the telegraph
poles, has all the charm of the real thing: the sand, the chaos of
overthrown stones, the empty horizons--everything, in short, save the
immensity and infinite solitude, the horror, in a word which formerly
made it so little desirable. It is a little astonishing, it must be
owned, to find, on arriving there, that the rocks have been carefully
numbered in white paint, and in some cases marked with a large cross
"which catches the eye from a greater distance still"(sic). But I
agree that the effect of the whole has lost nothing.
In the morning before the sun gets too hot, between breakfast and
luncheon to be precise, all the good ladies in cork helmets and blue
spectacles (dark-coloured spectacles are recommended on account of the
glare) spread themselves over these solitudes, domesticated as it were
to their use, with as much security as in Trafalgar Square or
Kensington Gardens. Not seldom even you may see one of them making her
way alone, book in hand, towards one of the picturesque rocks--No.
363, for example, or No. 364, if you like it better--which seems to be
making signs to her with its white ticket, in a manner which, to the
uninitiated observer, might seem even a little improper.
But what a sense of safety families may feel here, to be sure! In
spite of the huge numbers, which at first sight look a little
equivocal, nothing in the least degree reprehensible can happen among
these granites; which are, moreover, in a single piece, without the
least crack or hole into which the straggler could contrive to crawl.
No. The figures and the crosses denote simple blocks of stones,
covered with hieroglyphics, and correspond to a chaste catalogue where
each Pharaonic inscription may be found translated in the most
This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the
initiative of an English Egyptologist.
THE PASSING OF PHILAE
Leaving Assouan--as soon as we have passed the last house--we come at
once upon the desert. And now the night is falling, a cold February
night, under a strange, copper-coloured sky.
Incontestably it is the desert, with its chaos of granite and sand,
its warm tones and reddish colour. But there are telegraph poles and
the lines of a railroad, which traverse it in company, and disappear
in the empty horizon. And then too how paradoxical and ridiculous it
seems to be travelling here on full security and in a carriage! (The
most commonplace of hackney-carriages, which I hired by the hour on
the quay of Assouan.) A desert indeed which preserves still its
aspects of reality, but has become domesticated and tamed for the use
of the tourists and the ladies.
First, immense cemeteries surrounded by sand at the beginning of these
quasi-solitudes. Such old cemeteries of every epoch of history. The
thousand little cupolas of saints of Islam are crumbling side by side
with the Christian obelisks of the first centuries; and, underneath,
the Pharaonic hypogea. In the twilight, all these ruins of the dead,
all the scattered blocks of granite are mingled in mournful groupings,
outlined in fantastic silhouette against the pale copper of the sky;
broken arches, tilted domes, and rocks that rise up like tall
Farther on, when we have left behind this region of tombs, the
granites alone litter the expanse of sand, granites to which the usury
of centuries has given the form of huge round beasts. In places they
have been thrown one upon the other and make great heaps of monsters.
Elsewhere they lie alone among the sands, as if lost in the midst of
the infinitude of some dead sea-shore. The rails and the telegraph
poles have disappeared; by the magic of twilight everything is become
grand again, beneath one of those evening skies of Egypt which, in
winter, resemble cold cupolas of metal. And now it is that you feel
yourself verily on the threshold of the profound desolations of
Arabia, from which no barrier, after all separates you. Were it not
for the lack of verisimilitude in the carriage that has brought us
hither, we should be able now to take this desert quite seriously--for
in fact it has no limits.
After travelling for about three-quarters of an hour, we see in the
distance a number of lights, which have already been kindled in the
growing darkness. They seem too bright to be those of an Arab
encampment. And our driver turning round and pointing to them says:
Chelal--that is the name of the Arab village, on the riverside, where
you take the boat for Philae. To our disgust the place is lighted by
electricity. It consists of a station, a factory with a long smoking
chimney, and a dozen or so suspicious-looking taverns, reeking of
alcohol, without which, it would seem, our European civilisation could
not implant itself in a new country.
And here we embark for Philae. A number of boats are ready: for the
tourists allured by many advertisements flock hither every winter in
docile herds. All the boats, without a single exception, are profusely
decorated with little English flags, as if for some regatta on the
Thames. There is no escape therefore from this beflagging of a foreign
holiday--and we set out with a homesick song of Nubia, which the
boatmen sing to the cadence of the oars.
The copper-coloured heaven remains so impregnated with cold light that
we still see clearly. We are amid magnificent tragic scenery on a lake
surrounded by a kind of fearful amphitheatre outlined on all sides by
the mountains of the desert. It was at the bottom of this granite
circus that the Nile used to flow, forming fresh islets, on which the
eternal verdure of the palm-trees contrasted with the high desolate
mountains that surrounded it like a wall. To-day, on account of the
barrage established by the English, the water has steadily risen, like
a tide that will never recede; and this lake, almost a little sea,
replaces the meanderings of the river and has succeeded in submerging
the sacred islets. The sanctuary of Isis--which was enthroned for
thousands of years on the summit of a hill, crowded with temples and
colonnades and statues--still half emerges; but it is alone and will
soon go the way of the others, There it is, beyond, like a great rock,
at this hour in which the night begins to obscure everything.
Nowhere but in Upper Egypt have the winter nights these transparencies
of absolute emptiness nor these sinister colourings. As the light
gradually fails, the sky passes from copper to bronze, but remains
always metallic. The zenith becomes brownish like a brazen shield,
while the setting sun alone retains its yellow colour, growing slowly
paler till it is almost of the whiteness of latten; and, above, the
mountains of the desert edge their sharp outlines with a tint of burnt
sienna. To-night a freezing wind blows fiercely in our faces. To the
continual chant of the rowers we pass slowly over the artificial lake,
which is upheld as it were in the air by the English masonry,
invisible now in the distance, but divined nevertheless and revolting.
A sacrilegious lake one might call it, since it hides beneath its
troubled waters ruins beyond all price; temples of the gods of Egypt,
churches of the first centuries of Christianity, obelisks,
inscriptions and emblems. It is over these things that we now pass,
while the spray splashes in our faces, and the foam of a thousand
angry little billows.
We draw near to what was once the holy isle. In places dying palm-
trees, whose long trunks are to-day under water, still show their
moistened plumes and give an appearance of inundation, almost of
Before coming to the sanctuary of Isis, we touch at the kiosk of
Philae, which has been reproduced in the pictures of every age, and is
as celebrated even as the Sphinx and the pyramids. It used to stand on
a pedestal of high rocks, and around it the date-trees swayed their
bouquets of aerial palms. To-day it has no longer a base; its columns
rise separately from this kind of suspended lake. It looks as if it
had been constructed in the water for the purpose of some royal
naumachy. We enter with our boat--a strange port indeed, in its
ancient grandeur; a port of a nameless melancholy, particularly at
this yellow hour of the closing twilight, and under these icy winds
that come to us mercilessly from the neighbouring deserts. And yet how
adorable it is, this kiosk of Philae, in this the abandonment that
precedes its downfall! Its columns placed, as it were, upon something
unstable, become thereby more slender, seem to raise higher still the
stone foliage of their capitals. A veritable kiosk of dreamland now,
which one feels is about to disappear for ever under these waters
which will subside no more!
And now, for another few moments, it grows quite light again, and
tints of a warmer copper reappear in the sky. Often in Egypt when the
sun has set and you think the light is gone, this furtive recoloration
of the air comes thus to surprise you, before the darkness finally
descends. The reddish tints seem to return to the slender shafts that
surround us, and also, beyond, to the temple of the goddess, standing
there like a sheer rock in the middle of this little sea, which the
wind covers with foam.
On leaving the kiosk our boat--on this deep usurping water, among the
submerged palm-trees--makes a detour in order to lead us to the temple
by the road which the pilgrims of olden times used to travel on foot--
by that way which, a little while ago, was still magnificent, bordered
with colonnades and statues. But now the road is entirely submerged,
and will never be seen again. Between its double row of columns the
water lifts us to the height of the capitals, which alone emerge and
which we could touch with our hands. It seems like some journey of the
end of time, in a kind of deserted Venice, which is about to topple
over, to sink and be forgotten.
We arrive at the temple. Above our heads rise the enormous pylons,
ornamented with figures in bas-relief: an Isis who stretches out her
arms as if she were making signs to us, and numerous other divinities
gesticulating mysteriously. The door which opens in the thickness of
these walls is low, besides being half flooded, and gives on to depths
already in darkness. We row on and enter the sanctuary, and as soon as
one boat has crossed the sacred threshold the boatmen stop their song
and suddenly give voice to the new cry that has been taught them for
the benefit of the tourists: "Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" Coming at this
moment, when, with heart oppressed by all the utilitarian vandalism
that surrounds us, we were entering the sanctuary, what an effect of
gross and imbecile profanation this bellowing of English joy produces!
The boatmen know, moreover, that they have been displaced, that their
day has gone for ever; perhaps even, in the depths of their Nubian
souls, they understand us, for all that we have imposed silence on
them. The darkness increases within, although the place is open to the
sky, and the icy wind blows more mournfully than it did outside. A
penetrating humidity--a humidity altogether unknown in this country
before the inundation--chills us to the bone. We are now in that part
of the temple which was left uncovered, the part where the faithful
used to kneel. The sonority of the granites round about exaggerates
the noise of the oars on the enclosed water, and there is something
confusing in the thought that we are rowing and floating between the
walls where formerly, and for centuries, men were used to prostrate
themselves with their foreheads on the stones.
And now it is quite dark; the hour grows late. We have to bring the
boat close to the walls to distinguish the hieroglyphs and rigid gods
which are engraved there as finely as by the burin. These walls,
washed for nearly four years by the inundation, have already taken on
at the base that sad blackish colour which may be seen on the old
Halt and silence. It is dark and cold. The oars no longer move, and we
hear only the sighing of the wind and the lapping of the water against
the columns and the bas-reliefs--and then suddenly there comes the
noise of a heavy body falling, followed by endless eddies. A great
carved stone has plunged, at its due hour, to rejoin in the black
chaos below its fellows that have already disappeared, to rejoin the
submerged temples and old Coptic churches, and the town of the first
Christian centuries--all that was once the Isle of Philae, the "pearl
of Egypt," one of the marvels of the world.
The darkness is now extreme and we can see no longer. Let us go and
shelter, no matter where, to await the moon. At the end of this
uncovered hall there opens a door which gives on to deep night. It is
the holy of holies, heavily roofed with granite, the highest part of
the temple, the only part which the waters have not yet reached, and
there we are able to put foot to earth. Our footsteps resound noisily
on the large resonant flags, and the owls take to flight. Profound
darkness; the wind and the dampness freeze us. Three hours to go
before the rising of the moon; to wait in this place would be our
death. Rather let us return to Chelal, and shelter ourselves in any
lodging that offers, however wretched it may be.
A tavern of the horrible village in the light of an electric lamp. It
reeks of absinthe, this desert tavern, in which we warm ourselves at a
little smoking fire. It has been hastily built of old tin boxes, of
the debris of whisky cases, and by way of mural decoration the
landlord, an ignorant Maltese, has pasted everywhere pictures cut from
our European pornographic newspapers. During our hours of waiting,
Nubians and Arabians follow one another hither, asking for drink, and
are supplied with brimming glassfuls of our alcoholic beverages. They
are the workers in the new factories who were formerly healthy beings,
living in the open air. But now their faces are stained with coal
dust, and their haggard eyes look unhappy and ill.
The rising of the moon is fortunately at hand. Once more in our boat
we make our way slowly towards the sad rock which to-day is Philae.
The wind has fallen with the night, as happens almost invariably in
this country in winter, and the lake is calm. To the mournful yellow
sky has succeeded one that is blue-black, infinitely distant, where
the stars of Egypt scintillate in myriads.
A great glimmering light shows now in the east and at length the full
moon rises, not blood-coloured as in our climates but straightway very
luminous, and surrounded by an aureole of a kind of mist, caused by
the eternal dust of the sands. And when we return to the baseless
kiosk--lulled always by the Nubian song of the boatmen--a great disc
is already illuminating everything with a gentle splendour. As our
little boat winds in and out, we see the great ruddy disc passing and
repassing between the high columns, so striking in their archaism,
whose images are repeated in the water, that is now grown calm--more
than ever a kiosk of dreamland, a kiosk of old-world magic.
In returning to the temple of the goddess, we follow for a second time
the submerged road between the capitals and friezes of the colonnade
which emerge like a row of little reefs.
In the uncovered hall which forms the entrance to the temple, it is
still dark between the sovereign granites. Let us moor our boat
against one of the walls and await the good pleasure of the moon. As
soon as she shall have risen high enough to cast her light here, we
shall see clearly.
It begins by a rosy glimmer on the summit of the pylons; and then
takes the form of a luminous triangle, very clearly defined, which
grows gradually larger on the immense wall. Little by little it
descends towards the base of the temple, revealing to us by degrees
the intimidating presence of the bas-reliefs, the gods, goddesses and
hieroglyphs, and the assemblies of people who make signs among
themselves. We are no longer alone--a whole world of phantoms has been
evoked around us by the moon, some little, some very large. They had
been hiding there in the shadow and now suddenly they recommence their
mute conversations, without breaking the profound silence, using only
their expressive hands and raised fingers. And now also the colossal
Isis begins to appear--the one carved on the left of the portico by
which you enter; first, her refined head with its bird's helmet,
surmounted by a solar disc; then, as the light continues to descend,
her neck and shoulders, and her arm, raised to make who knows what
mysterious, indicating sign; and finally the slim nudity of her torso,
and her hips close bound in a sheath. Behold her now, the goddess,
come completely out of the shadow. . . . But she seems surprised and
disturbed at seeing at her feet, instead of the stones she had known
for two thousand years, her own likeness, a reflection of herself,
that stretches away, reversed in the mirror of the water. . . .
And suddenly, in the mist of the deep nocturnal calm of this temple,
isolated here in the lake, comes again the sound of a kind of mournful
booming, of things that topple, precious stones that become detached
and fall--and then, on the surface of the lake, a thousand concentric
circles form, close one another and disappear, ruffling indefinitely
this mirror embanked between the terrible granites, in which Isis
regards herself sorrowfully.
/Postscript./--The submerging of Philae, as we know, has increased by
no less than seventy-five millions of pounds the annual yield of the
surrounding land. Encouraged by this success, the English propose next
year to raise the barrage of the Nile another twenty feet. As a
consequence this sanctuary of Isis will be completely submerged, the
greater part of the ancient temples of Nubia will be under water, and
fever will infect the country. But, on the other hand, the cultivation
of cotton will be enormously facilitated. . . .