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Egypt (La Mort De Philae) by Pierre Loti

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absurd. And yet some of the pretty creatures in the black veils and
bracelets of gold, who were in front of us, have disappeared through
it, and already the perfume of the censers is wafted towards us. A
kind of corridor, astonishingly poor and old, twists itself
suspiciously, and then issues into a narrow court, more than a
thousand years old, where offertory boxes, fixed on Oriental brackets,
invite our alms. The odour of the incense becomes more pronounced, and
at last a door, hidden in shadow at the end of this retreat, gives
access to the venerable church itself.

The church! It is a mixture of Byzantine basilica, mosque and desert
hut. Entering there, it is as if we were introduced suddenly to the
na´ve infancy of Christianity, as if we surprised it, as it were, in
its cradle--which was indeed Oriental. The triple nave is full of
little children (here also, that is what strikes us first), of little
mites who cry or else laugh and play; and there are mothers suckling
their new-born babes--and all the time the invisible mass is being
celebrated beyond, behind the iconostasis. On the ground, on mats,
whole families are seated in circle, as if they were in their homes. A
thick deposit of white chalk on the defaced, shrunken walls bears
witness to great age. And over all this is a strange old ceiling of
cedarwood, traversed by large barbaric beams.

In the nave, supported by columns of marble, brought in days gone by
from Pagan temples, there are, as in all these old Coptic churches,
high transverse wooden partitions, elaborately wrought in the Arab
fashion, which divide it into three sections: the first, into which
one comes on entering the church, is allotted to the women, the second
is for the baptistery, and the third, at the end adjoining the
iconostasis, is reserved for the men.

These women who are gathered this morning in their apportioned space--
so much at home there with their suckling little ones--wear, almost
all of them, the long black silk veils of former days. In their
harmonious and endlessly restless groups, the gowns /a la franque/ and
the poor hats of carnival are still the exception. The congregation,
as a whole, preserves almost intact its na´ve, old-time flavour.

And there is movement too, beyond, in the compartment of the men,
which is bounded at the farther end by the iconostasis--a thousand-
year-old wall decorated with inlaid cedarwood and ivory of precious
antique workmanship, and adorned with strange old icons, blackened by
time. It is behind this wall--pierced by several doorways--that mass
is now being said. From this last sanctuary shut off thus from the
people comes the vague sound of singing; from time to time a priest
raises a faded silk curtain and from the threshold makes the sign of
blessing. His vestments are of gold, and he wears a golden crown, but
the humble faithful speak to him freely, and even touch his gorgeous
garments, that might be those of one of the Wise Kings. He smiles, and
letting fall the curtain, which covers the entrance to the tabernacle,
disappears again into this innocent mystery.

Even the least things here tell of decay. The flagstones, trodden by
the feet of numberless dead generations, are become uneven through the
settling of the soil. Everything is askew, bent, dusty and worn-out.
The daylight comes from above, through narrow barred windows. There is
a lack of air, so that one almost stifles. But though the sun does not
enter, a certain indefinable reflection from the whitened walls
reminds us that outside there is a flaming, resplendent Eastern

In this, the old grandfather, as it were, of churches, filled now with
a cloud of odorous smoke, what one hears, more even than the chanting
of the mass, is the ceaseless movement, the pious agitation of the
faithful; and more even than that, the startling noise that rises from
the holy crypt below--the sharp clashing of cymbals and those
multitudinous little wailings, that sound like the mewings of kittens.

But let me not harbour thoughts of irony! Surely not. If, in our
Western lands, certain ceremonies seem to me anti-Christian--as, for
example, one of those spectacular high masses in the over-pompous
Cathedral of Cologne, where halberdiers overawe the crowd--here, on
the contrary, the simplicity of this primitive cult is touching and
respectable in the extreme. These Copts who install themselves in
their church, as round their firesides, who make their home there and
encumber the place with their fretful little ones, have, in their own
way, well understood the word of Him who said: "Suffer the little
children to come unto Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the
kingdom of God."



A monotonous chant on three notes, which must date from the first
Pharaohs, may still be heard in our days on the banks of the Nile,
from the Delta as far as Nubia. At different places along the river,
half-made men, with torsos of bronze and voices all alike, intone it
in the morning when they commence their endless labours and continue
it throughout the day, until the evening brings repose.

Whoever has journeyed in a dahabiya up the old river will remember
this song of the water-drawers, with its accompaniment, in slow
cadence, of creakings of wet wood.

It is the song of the "shaduf," and the "shaduf" is a primitive
rigging, which has remained unchanged since times beyond all
reckoning. It is composed of a long antenna, like the yard of a
tartan, which is supported in see-saw fashion on an upright beam, and
carries at its extremity a wooden bucket. A man, with movements of
singular beauty, works it while he sings, lowers the antenna, draws
the water from the river, and raises the filled bucket, which another
man catches in its ascent and empties into a basin made out of the mud
of the river bank. When the river is low there are three such basins,
placed one above the other, as if they were stages by which the
precious water mounts to the fields of corn and lucerne. And then
three "shadufs," one above the other, creak together, lowering and
raising their great scarabaeus' horns to the rhythm of the same song.

All along the banks of the Nile this movement of the antennae of the
shadufs is to be seen. It had its beginning in the earliest ages and
is still the characteristic manifestation of human life along the
river banks. It ceases only in the summer, when the river, swollen by
the rains of equatorial Africa, overflows this land of Egypt, which it
itself has made in the midst of the Saharan sands. But in the winter,
which is here a time of luminous drought and changeless blue skies, it
is in full swing. Then every day, from dawn until the evening prayer,
the men are busy at their water-drawing, transformed for the time into
tireless machines, with muscles that work like metal bands. The action
never changes, any more than the song, and often their thoughts must
wander from their automatic toil, and lose themselves in some dream,
akin to that of their ancestors who were yoked to the same rigging
four or five thousands years ago. Their torsos, deluged at each rising
of the overflowing bucket, stream constantly with cold water; and
sometimes the wind is icy, even while the sun burns; but these
perpetual workers are, as we have said, of bronze, and their hardened
bodies take no harm.

These men are the fellahs, the peasants of the valley of the Nile--
pure Egyptians, whose type has not changed in the course of centuries.
In the oldest of the bas-reliefs of Thebes or Memphis you may see many
such, with the same noble profile and thickish lips, the same
elongated eyes shadowed by heavy eyelids, the same slender figure,
surmounted by broad shoulders.

The women who from time to time descend to the river, to draw water
also, but in their case in the vases of potters' clay which they
carry--this fetching and carrying of the life-giving water is the one
primordial occupation in this Egypt, which has no rain, nor any living
spring, and subsists only by its river--these women walk and posture
with an inimitable grace, draped in black veils, which even the
poorest allow to trail behind them, like the train of a court dress.
In this bright land, with its rose-coloured distances, it is strange
to see them, all so sombrely clothed, spots of mourning, as it were,
in the gay fields and the flaring desert. Machine-like creatures, all
untaught, they yet possess by instinct, as did once the daughters of
Hellas, a sense of nobility in attitude and carriage. None of the
women of Europe could wear these coarse black stuffs with such a
majestic harmony, and none surely could so raise their bare arms to
place on their heads the heavy jars filled with Nile water, and then,
departing, carry themselves so proudly, so upright and resilient under
their burden.

The muslin tunics which they wear are invariably black like the veils,
set off perhaps with some red embroidery or silver spangles. They are
unfastened across the chest, and, by a narrow opening which descends
to the girdle, disclose the amber-coloured flesh, the median swell of
bosoms of pale bronze, which, during their ephemeral youth at least,
are of a perfect contour. The faces, it is true, when they are not
hidden from you by a fold of the veil, are generally disappointing.
The rude labours, the early maternity and lactations, soon age and
wither them. But if by chance you see a young woman she is usually an
apparition of beauty, at once vigorous and slender.

As for the fellah babies, who abound in great numbers and follow, half
naked their mammas or their big sisters, they would for the most part
be adorable little creatures, were it not for the dirtiness which in
this country is a thing almost prescribed by tradition. Round their
eyelids and their moist lips are glued little clusters of Egyptian
flies, which are considered here to be beneficial to the children, and
the latter have no thought of driving them away, so resigned are they
become, by force of heredity, to whatever annoyance they thereby
suffer. Another example indeed of the passivity which their fathers
show when brought face to face with the invading foreigners!

Passivity and meek endurance seem to be the characteristics of this
inoffensive people, so graceful in their rags, so mysterious in their
age-old immobility, and so ready to accept with an equal indifference
whatever yoke may come. Poor, beautiful people, with muscles that
never grow tired! Whose men in olden times moved the great stones of
the temples, and knew no burden that was too heavy; whose women, with
their slender, pale-tawny arms and delicate small hands, surpass by
far in strength the burliest of our peasants! Poor beautiful race of
bronze! No doubt it was too precocious and put forth too soon its
astonishing flower--in times when the other peoples of the earth were
till vegetating in obscurity; no doubt its present resignation comes
from lassitude, after so many centuries of effort and expansive power.
Once it monopolised the glory of the world, and here it is now--for
some two thousand years--fallen into a kind of tired sleep, which has
left it an easy prey alike to the conquerors of yesterday and to the
exploiters of to-day.

Another trait which, side by side with their patience, prevails
amongst these true-blooded Egyptians of the countryside is their
attachment to the soil, to the soil which nourishes them, and in which
later on they will sleep. To possess land, to forestall at any price
the smallest portion of it, to reclaim patches of it from the shifting
desert, that is the sole aim, or almost so, which the fellahs pursue
in this world: to possess a field, however small it may be--a field,
moreover, which they till with the oldest plough invented by man, the
exact design of which may be seen carved on the walls of the tombs at

And this same people, which was the first of any to conceive
magnificence, whose gods and kings were formerly surrounded with an
over-powering splendour, contrives, to live to-day, pell-mell with its
sheep and goats, in humble, low-roofed cabins made out of sunbaked
mud! The Egyptian villages are all of the neutral colour of the soil;
a little white chalk brightens, perhaps, the minaret or cupola of the
mosque; but except for that little refuge, whither folk come to pray
each evening--for no one here would retire for the night without
having first prostrated himself before the majesty of Allah--
everything is of a mournful grey. Even the costumes of the people are
dull-coloured and wretched-looking. It is an East grown poor and old,
although the sky remains as wonderful as ever.

But all this past grandeur has left its imprint on the fellahs. They
have a refinement of appearance and manner, all unknown amongst the
majority of the good people of our villages. And those amongst them
who by good fortune become prosperous have forthwith a kind of
distinction, and seem to know, as if by birth, how to dispense the
gracious hospitality of an aristocrat. The hospitality of even the
humblest preserves something of courtesy and ease, which tells of
breed. I remember those clear evenings when, after the peaceful
navigation of the day, I used to stop and draw up my dahabiya to the
bank of the river. (I speak now of out-of-the-way places--free as yet
from the canker of the tourist element--such as I habitually chose.)
It was in the twilight at the hour when the stars began to shine out
from the golden-green sky. As soon as I put foot upon the shore, and
my arrival was signalled by the barking of the watchdogs, the chief of
the nearest hamlet always came to meet me. A dignified man, in a long
robe of striped silk or modest blue cotton, he accosted me with
formulae of welcome quite in the grand manner; insisted on my
following him to his house of dried mud; and there, escorting me,
after the exchange of further compliments, to the place of honour on
the poor divan of his lodging, forced me to accept the traditional cup
of Arab coffee.


To wake these fellahs from their strange sleep, to open their eyes at
last, and to transform them by a modern education--that is the task
which nowadays a select band of Egyptian patriots is desirous of
attempting. Not long ago, such an endeavour would have seemed to me a
crime; for these stubborn peasants were living under conditions of the
least suffering, rich in faith and poor in desire. But to-day they are
suffering from an invasion more undermining, more dangerous than that
of the conquerors who killed by sword and fire. The Occidentals are
there, everywhere, amongst them, profiting by their meek passivity to
turn them into slaves for their business and their pleasure. The work
of degradation of these simpletons is so easy: men bring them new
desires, new greeds, new needs,--and rob them of their prayers.

Yet, it is time perhaps to wake them from their sleep of more than
twenty centuries, to put them on their guard, and to see what yet they
may be capable of, what surprises they may have in store for us after
that long lethargy, which must surely have been restorative. In any
case the human species, in course of deterioration through overstrain,
would find amongst these singers of the shaduf and these labourers
with the antiquated plough, brains unclouded by alcohol, and a whole
reserve of tranquil beauty, of well-balanced physique, of vigour
untainted by bestiality.



We are making our way through the fields of Abydos in the dazzling
splendour of the forenoon, having come, like so many pilgrims of old,
from the banks of the Nile to visit the sanctuaries of Osiris, which
lie beyond the green plains, on the edge of the desert.

It is a journey of some ten miles or so, under a clear sky and a
burning sun. We pass through fields of corn and lucerne, whose
wonderful green is piqued with little flowers, such as may be seen in
our climate. Hundreds of little birds sing to us distractedly of the
joy of life; the sun shines radiantly, magnificently; the impetuous
corn is already in the ear; it might be some gay pageant of our days
of May. One forgets that it is February, that we are still in the
winter--the luminous winter of Egypt.

Here and there amongst the outspread fields are villages buried under
the thick foliage of trees--under acacias which, in the distance,
resemble ours at home; beyond indeed the mountain chain of Libya, like
a wall confining the fertile fields, looks strange perhaps in its
rose-colour, and too desolate; but, nevertheless amidst this glad
music of the fields, these songs of larks and twitterings of sparrows,
you scarcely realise that you are in a foreign land.

Abydos! What magic there is in the name! "Abydos is at hand, and in
another moment we shall be there." The mere words seem somehow to
transform the aspect of the homely green fields, and make this
pastoral region almost imposing. The buzzing of the flies increases in
the overheated air and the song of the birds subsides until at last it
dies away in the approach of noon.

We have been journeying a little more than an hour amongst the verdure
of the growing corn that lies upon the fields like a carpet, when
suddenly, beyond the little houses and tress of a village, quite a
different world is disclosed--the familiar world of glare and death
which presses so closely upon inhabited Egypt: the desert! The desert
of Libya, and now as ever when we come upon it suddenly from the banks
of the old river it rises up before us; beginning at once, without
transition, absolute and terrible, as soon as we leave the thick
velvet of the last field, the cool shade of the last acacia. Its sands
seem to slope towards us, in a prodigious incline, from the strange
mountains that we saw from the happy plain, and which now appear,
enthroned beyond, like the monarchs of all this nothingness.

The town of Abydos, which has vanished and left no wrack behind, rose
once in this spot where we now stand, on the very threshold of the
solitudes; but its necropoles, more venerated even than those of
Memphis, and its thrice-holy temples, are a little farther on, in the
marvellously conserving sand, which has buried them under its tireless
waves and preserved them almost intact up till the present day.

The desert! As soon as we put foot upon its shifting soil, which
smothers the sound of our steps, the atmosphere too seems suddenly to
change; it burns with a strange new heat, as if great fires had been
lighted in the neighbourhood.

And this whole domain of light and drought, right away into the
distance, is shaded and streaked with the familiar brown, red and
yellow colours. The mournful reflection of adjacent things augments to
excess the heat and light. The horizon trembles under the little
vapours of mirage like water ruffled by the wind. The background,
which mounts gradually to the foot of the Libyan mountains, is strewn
with the debris of bricks and stones--shapeless ruins which, though
they scarcely rise above the sand, abound nevertheless in great
numbers, and serve to remind us that here indeed is a very ancient
soil, where men laboured in centuries that have drifted out of
knowledge. One divines instinctively and at once the catacombs, the
hypogea and the mummies that lie beneath!

These necropoles of Abydos once--and for thousands of years--exercised
an extraordinary fascination over this people--the precursor of
peoples--who dwelt in the valley of the Nile. According to one of the
most ancient of human traditions, the head of Osiris, the lord of the
/other world/, reposed in the depths of one of the temples which
to-day are buried in the sands. And men, as soon as their thought
commenced to issue from the primeval night, were haunted by the idea
that there were localities helpful, as if were, to the poor corpses
that lay beneath the earth, that there were certain holy places where
it behoved them to be buried if they wished to be ready when the
signal of awakening was given. And in old Egypt, therefore, each one,
at the hour of death, turned his thoughts to these stones and sands,
in the ardent hope that he might be able to sleep near the remains of
his god. And when the place was becoming crowded with sleepers, those
who could obtain no place there conceived the idea of having humble
obelisks planted on the holy ground, which at least should tell their
names; or even recommended that their mummies might be there for some
weeks, even if they were afterwards removed. And thus, funeral
processions passed to and fro without ceasing through the cornfields
that separate the Nile from the desert. Abydos! In the sad human dream
dominated by the thought of dissolution, Abydos preceded by many
centuries the Valley of Jehosophat of the Hebrews, the cemeteries
around Mecca of the Moslems, and the holy tombs beneath our oldest
cathedrals! . . . Abydos! It behoves us to walk here pensively and
silently out of respect for all those thousands of souls who formerly
turned towards this place, with outstretched hands, in the hour of

The first great temple--that which King Seti raised to the mysterious
Prince of the Other World, who in those days was called Osiris--is
quite close--a distance of little more than 200 yards in the glare of
the desert. We come upon it suddenly, so that it almost startles us,
for nothing warns us of its proximity. The sand from which it has been
exhumed, and which buried it for 2000 years, still rises almost to its
roof. Through an iron gate, guarded by two tall Bedouin guards in
black robes, we plunge at once into the shadow of enormous stones. We
are in the house of the god, in a forest of heavy Osiridean columns,
surrounded by a world of people in high coiffures, carved in bas-
relief on the pillars and walls--people who seem to be signalling one
to another and exchanging amongst themselves mysterious signs,
silently and for ever.

But what is this noise in the sanctuary? It seems to be full of
people. There, sure enough, beyond a second row of columns, is quite a
little crowd talking loudly in English. I fancy that I can hear the
clinking of glasses and the tapping of knives and forks.

Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses are you come. . . . This
excess of grotesqueness in profanation is more insulting surely than
to be sacked by barbarians! Behold a table set for some thirty guests,
and the guests themselves--of both sexes--merry and lighthearted,
belong to that special type of humanity which patronises Thomas Cook &
Son (Egypt Ltd.). They wear cork helmets, and the classic green
spectacles; drink whisky and soda, and eat voraciously sandwiches and
other viands out of greasy paper, which now litters the floor. And the
women! Heavens! what scarecrows they are! And this kind of thing, so
the black-robed Bedouin guards inform us, is repeated every day so
long as the season lasts. A luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part
of the programme of pleasure trips. Each day at noon a new band
arrives, on heedless and unfortunate donkeys. The tables and the
crockery remain, of course, in the old temple!

Let us escape quickly, if possible before the sight shall have become
graven on our memory.

But alas! even when we are outside, alone again on the expanse of
dazzling sands, we can no longer take things seriously. Abydos and the
desert have ceased to exist. The faces of those women remain to haunt
us, their faces and their hats, and those looks which they vouchsafed
us from over their solar spectacles. . . . The ugliness associated
with the name of Cook was once explained to me in this wise, and the
explanation at first sight seemed satisfactory: "The United Kingdom,
justifiably jealous of the beauty of its daughters, submits them to a
jury when they reach the age of puberty; and those who are classed as
too ugly to reproduce their kind are accorded an unlimited account at
Thomas Cook & Sons, and thus vowed to a course of perpetual travel,
which leaves them no time to think of certain trifles incidental to
life." The explanation, as I say, seduced me for the time being. But a
more attentive examination of the bands who infest the valley of the
Nile enables me to aver that all these good English ladies are of an
age notoriously canonical; and the catastrophe of procreation
therefore, supposing that such an accident could ever have happened to
them, must date back to a time long anterior to their enrolment. And I
remain perplexed!

Without conviction now, we make our way towards another temple,
guaranteed solitary. Indeed the sun blazes there a lonely sovereign in
the midst of a profound silence, and Egypt and the past take us again
into their folds.

Once more to Osiris, the god of heavenly awakening in the necropolis
of Abydos, this sanctuary was built by Ramses II. But the sands have
covered it with their winding sheet in vain, and have been able to
preserve for us only the lower and more deeply buried parts. Men in
their blind greed have destroyed the upper portions,[*] and its ruins,
protected and cleared as they are to-day, rise only some ten or twelve
feet from the ground. In the bas-reliefs the majority of the figures
have only legs and a portion of the body; their heads and shoulders
have disappeared with the upper parts of the walls. But they seem to
have preserved their vitality: the gesticulations, the exaggerated
pantomime of the attitudes of these headless things, are more strange,
more striking, perhaps, than if their faces still remained. And they
have preserved too, in an extraordinary degree, the brightness of
their antique paintings, the fresh tints of their costumes, of their
robes of turquoise blue, or lapis, or emerald-green, or golden-yellow.
It is an artless kind of fresco-work, which nevertheless amazes us by
remaining perfect after thirty-five centuries. All that these people
did seems as if made for immortality. It is true, however, that such
brilliant colours are not found in any of the other Pharaonic
monuments, and that here they are heightened by the white background.
For, notwithstanding the bluish, black and red granite of the
porticoes, the walls are all of a fine limestone, of exceeding
whiteness, and, in the holy of holies, of a pure alabaster.

[*] Not long ago a manufacturer, established in the neighbourhood,
discovering that the limestone of its walls was friable, used this
temple as a quarry, and for some years bas-reliefs beyond price
served as aliment to the mills of the factory.

Above the truncated walls, with their bright clear colours, the desert
appears, and shows quite brown by contrast; one sees the great yellow
swell of sand and stones above the pictures of these decapitated
people. It rises like a colossal wave and stretches out to bathe the
foot of the Libyan mountains beyond. Towards the north and west of the
solitudes, shapeless ruins of tawny-coloured blocks follow one another
in the sands until the dazzling distance ends in a clear-cut line
against the sky. Apart from this temple of Ramses, where we now stand,
and that of Seti in the vicinity, where the enterprise of Thomas Cook
& Son flourishes, there is nothing around us but ruins, crumbled and
pulverised beyond all possible redemption. But they give us pause,
these disappearing ruins, for they are the debris of that ageless
temple, where sleeps the head of the god, the debris of the tombs of
the Middle and Ancient Empires, and they indicate still the wide
extent and development of the necropoles of Abydos, so old that it
almost makes one giddy to think of their beginning.

Here, as at Thebes and Memphis, the tombs of the Egyptians are met
with only amongst the sands and the parched rocks. The great ancestral
people, who would have shuddered at our black trees, and the
corruption of the damp graves, liked to place its embalmed dead in the
midst of this luminous, changeless splendour of death, which men call
the desert.


And what is this now that is happening in the holy neighbourhood of
unhappy Osiris? A troupe of donkeys, belaboured by Bedouin drivers, is
being driven in the direction of the adjacent temple, dedicated to the
god by Seti! The luncheon no doubt is over and the band about to
depart, sharp to the appointed hour of the programme. Let us watch
them from a prudent distance.

To be brief, they all mount into their saddles, these Cooks and
Cookesses, and opening, not without a conscious air of majesty, their
white cotton parasols, take themselves off in the direction of the
Nile. They disappear and the place belongs to us.

When we venture at last to return to the first sanctuary, where they
had lunched their fill in the shade, the guardians are busy clearing
away the leavings and the dirty paper. And they pack the dubious
crockery, which will be required for to-morrow's luncheon, into large
chests on which may be read in large letters of glory the names of the
veritable sovereigns of modern Egypt: "Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt

All this happily ends with the first hypostyle. Nothing dishonours the
halls of the interior, where silence has again descended, the vast
silence of the noon of the desert.

In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, men already marvelled at this
temple, as at a relic of the most distant and nebulous past. The
geographer Strabo wrote in those days: "It is an admirable palace
built in the fashion of the Labyrinth save that it has fewer
galleries." There are galleries enough however, and one can readily
lose oneself in its mazy turnings. Seven chapels, consecrated to
Osiris and to different gods and goddesses of his suite; seven vaulted
chambers; seven doors for the processions of kings and multitudes;
and, at the sides, numberless halls, corridors, secondary chapels,
dark chambers and hidden doorways. That very primitive column,
suggestive of reeds, which is called in architecture the "plant
column" and resembles a monstrous stem of papyrus, rises here in a
thick forest, to support the stones of the blue ceilings, which are
strewn with stars, in the likeness of the sky of this country. In many
cases these stones are missing and leave large openings on to the real
sky above. Their massiveness, which one might have thought would
secure them an endless duration, has availed them nothing; the sun of
so many centuries has cracked them, and their own weight, then, has
brought them headlong to the ground. And floods of light now enter
through the gaps, into the very chapels where the men of old had
thought to ensure a holy gloom.

Despite the disaster which has overtaken the ceilings, this is
nevertheless one of the most perfect of the sanctuaries of ancient
Egypt. The sands, those gentle sextons, have here succeeded
miraculously in their work of preservation. They might have been
carved yesterday, these innumerable people, who, everywhere--on the
walls, on this forest of columns--gesticulate and, with their arms and
long hands, continue with animation their eternal mute conversation.
The whole temple, with the openings which give it light, is more
beautiful perhaps than in the time of the Pharaohs. In place of the
old-time darkness, a transparent gloom now alternates with shafts of
sunlight. Here and there the subjects of the bas-reliefs, so long
buried in the darkness, are deluged with burning rays which detail
their attitudes, their muscles, their scarcely altered colours, and
endow them again with life and youth. There is no part of the wall, in
this immense place, but is covered with divinities, with hieroglyphs
and emblems. Osiris in high coiffure, the beautiful Isis in the helmet
of a bird, jackal-headed Anubis, falcon-headed Horus, and ibis-headed
Thoth are repeated a thousand times, welcoming with strange gestures
the kings and priests who are rendering them homage.

The bodies, almost nude, with broad shoulders and slim waist, have a
slenderness, a grace, infinitely chaste, and the features of the faces
are of an exquisite purity. The artists who carved these charming
heads, with their long eyes, full of the ancient dream, were already
skilled in their art; but through a deficiency, which puzzles us, they
were only able to draw them in profile. All the legs, all the feet are
in profile too, although the bodies, on the other hand, face us fully.
Men needed yet some centuries of study before they understood
perspective--which to us now seems so simple--and the foreshortening
of figures, and were able to render the impression of them on a plane

Many of the pictures represent King Seti, drawn without doubt from
life, for they show us almost the very features of his mummy,
exhibited now in the museum at Cairo. At his side he holds
affectionately his son, the prince-royal, Ramses (later on Ramses II.,
the great Sesostris of the Greeks). They have given the latter quite a
frank air, and he wears a curl on the side of his head, as was the
fashion then in childhood. He, also, has his mummy in a glass case in
the museum, and anyone who has seen that toothless, sinister wreck,
who had already attained the age of nearly a hundred years before
death delivered him to the embalmers of Thebes, will find it difficult
to believe that he could ever have been young, and worn his hair
curled so; that he could ever have played and been a child.


We thought we had finished with the Cooks and Cookesses of the
luncheon. But alas! our horses, faster than their donkeys, overtake
them in the return journey amongst the green cornfields of Abydos; and
in a stoppage in the narrow roadway, caused by a meeting with a number
of camels laden with lucerne, we are brought to a halt in their midst.
Almost touching me is a dear little white donkey, who looks at me
pensively and in such a way that we at once understand each other. A
mutual sympathy unites us. A Cookess in spectacles surmounts him--the
most hideous of them all, bony and severe. Over her travelling
costume, already sufficiently repulsive, she wears a tennis jersey,
which accentuates the angularity of her figure, and in her person she
seems the very incarnation of the respectability of the British Isles.
It would be more equitable, too--so long are those legs of hers,
which, to be sure, have scant interest for the tourist--if she carried
the donkey.

The poor little white thing regards me with melancholy. His ears
twitch restlessly and his beautiful eyes, so fine, so observant of
everything, say to me as plain as words:

"She is a beauty, isn't she?"

"She is, indeed, my poor little donkey. But think of this: fixed on
thy back as she is, thou hast this advantage over me--thou seest her

But my reflection, though judicious enough, does not console him, and
his look answers me that he would be much prouder if he carried, like
so many of his comrades, a simple pack of sugarcanes.



Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological
period, when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval,
almost the forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began
to trace their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a
whole watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent
across the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to
the Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts. And this
enormous waterway, lost as it was in the sands, by-and-by regulated
its course: it became the Nile, and with untiring patience set itself
to the proper task of river, which in this accursed zone might well
have seemed an impossible one. First it had to round all the blocks of
granite scattered in its way in the high plains of Nubia; and then,
and more especially, to deposit, little by little, successive layers
of mud, to form a living artery, to create, as it were, a long green
ribbon in the midst of this infinite domain of death.

How long ago is it since the work of the great river began? There is
something fearful in the thought. During the 5000 years of which we
have any knowledge the incessant deposit of mud has scarcely widened
this strip of inhabited Egypt, which at the most ancient period of
history was almost as it is to-day. And as for the granite blocks on
the plains of Nubia, how many thousands of years did it need to roll
them and to polish them thus? In the times of the Pharaohs they
already had their present rounded forms, worn smooth by the friction
of the water, and the hieroglyphic inscriptions on their surfaces are
not perceptibly effaced, though they have suffered the periodical
inundation of the summer for some forty or fifty centuries!

It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and
unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the
great river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days
and the humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless
sky of the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that
might dim the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no
doubt, and this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first
fruits of human thought. This same Nile, after having so patiently
created the soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people,
which led the way for all others--like those early branches that one
sees in spring, which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die
before the summer. It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we
discover to-day with surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very
dawn, in the midst of the original barbarity, conceived magnificently
the infinite and the divine; who placed with such certainty and
grandeur the first architectural lines, from which afterwards our
architecture was to be derived; who laid the bases of art, of science,
and of all knowledge.

Later on, when this beautiful flower of humanity was faded, the Nile,
flowing always in the midst of its deserts, seems to have had for
mission, during nearly two thousand years, the maintenance on its
banks of a kind of immobility and desuetude, which was in a way a
homage of respect for these stupendous relics. While the sand was
burying the ruins of the temples and the battered faces of the
colossi, nothing changed under this sky of changeless blue. The same
cultivation proceeded on the banks as in the oldest ages; the same
boats, with the same sails, went up and down the thread of water; the
same songs kept time to the eternal human toil. The race of fellahs,
the unconscious guardian of a prodigious past, slept on without desire
of change, and almost without suffering. And time passed for Egypt in
a great peace of sunlight and of death.

But to-day the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the old
Nile--wakened to enslave it. In less than twenty years they have
disfigured its valley, which until then had preserved itself like a
sanctuary. They have silenced its cataracts, captured its precious
water by dams, to pour it afar off on plains that are become like
marshes and already sully with their mists the crystal clearness of
the sky. The ancient rigging no longer suffices to water the land
under cultivation. Machines worked by steam, which draw the water more
quickly, commence to rise along the banks, side by side with new
factories. Soon there will scarcely be a river more dishonoured than
this, by iron chimneys and thick, black smoke. And it is happening
apace, this exploitation of the Nile--hastily, greedily, as in a hunt
for spoils. And thus all its beauty disappears, for its monotonous
course, through regions endless alike, won us only by its calm and its
old-world mystery.

Poor Nile of the prodigies! One feels sometimes still its departing
charm, stray corners of it remain intact. There are days of
transcendent clearness, incomparable evenings, when one may still
forget the ugliness and the smoke. But the classic expedition by
dahabiya, the ascent of the river from Cairo to Nubia, will soon have
ceased to be worth making.

Ordinarily this voyage is made in the winter, so that the traveller
may follow the course of the sun as it makes its escape towards the
southern hemisphere. The water then is low and the valley parched.
Leaving the cosmopolitan town of modern Cairo, the iron bridges, and
the pretentious hotels, with their flaunting inscriptions, it imparts
a sense of sudden peacefulness to pass along the large and rapid
waters of this river, between the curtains of palm-trees on the banks,
borne by a dahabiya where one is master and, if one likes, may be

At first, for a day or two, the great haunting triangles of the
pyramids seem to follow you, those of Dashur and that of Sakkarah
succeeding to those of Gizeh. For a long time the horizon is disturbed
by their gigantic silhouettes. As we recede from them, and they
disengage themselves better from neighbouring things, they seem, as
happens in the case of mountains, to grow higher. And when they have
finally disappeared, we have still to ascend slowly and by stages some
six hundred miles of river before we reach the first cataract. Our way
lies through monotonous desert regions where the hours and days are
marked chiefly by the variations of the wonderful light. Except for
the phantasmagoria of the mornings and evenings, there is no
outstanding feature on these dull-coloured banks, where may be seen,
with never a change at all, the humble pastoral life of the fellahs.
The sun is burning, the starlit nights clear and cold. A withering
wind, which blows almost without ceasing from the north, makes you
shiver as soon as the twilight falls.

One may travel for league after league along this slimy water and make
head for days and weeks against its current--which glides
everlastingly past the dahabiya, in little hurrying waves--without
seeing this warm, fecundating river, compared with which our rivers of
France are mere negligible streams, either diminish or increase or
hasten. And on the right and left of us as we pass are unfolded
indefinitely the two parallel chains of barren limestone, which
imprison so narrowly the Egypt of the harvests: on the west that of
the Libyan desert, which every morning the first rays of the sun tint
with a rosy coral that nothing seems to dull; and in the east that of
the desert of Arabia, which never fails in the evening to retain the
light of the setting sun, and looks then like a mournful girdle of
glowing embers. Sometimes the two parallel walls sheer off and give
more room to the green fields, to the woods of palm-trees, and the
little oases, separated by streaks of golden sand. Sometimes they
approach so closely to the Nile that habitable Egypt is no wider than
some two or three poor fields of corn, lying right on the water's
edge, behind which the dead stones and the dead sands commence at
once. And sometimes, even, the desert chain closes in so as to
overhang the river with its reddish-white cliffs, which no rain ever
comes to freshen, and in which, at different heights, gape the square
holes leading to the habitations of the mummies. These mountains,
which in the distance look so beautiful in their rose-colour, and
make, as it were, interminable back-cloths to all that happens on the
river banks, were perforated, during some 5000 years, for the
introduction of sarcophagi and now they swarm with old dead bodies.

And all that passes on the banks, indeed, changes as little as the

First there is that gesture, supple and superb, but always the same,
of the women in their long black robes who come without ceasing to
fill their long-necked jars and carry them away balanced on their
veiled heads. Then the flocks which shepherds, draped in mourning,
bring to the river to drink, goats and sheep and asses all mixed up
together. And then the buffaloes, massive and mud-coloured, who
descend calmly to bathe. And, finally, the great labour of the
watering: the traditional noria, turned by a little bull with bandaged
eyes and, above all, the shaduf, worked by men whose naked bodies
stream with the cold water.

The shadufs follow one another sometimes as far as the eye can see. It
is strange to watch the movement--confused in the distance--of all
these long rods which pump the water without ceasing, and look like
the swaying of living antennae. The same sight was to be seen along
this river in the times of the Ramses. But suddenly, at some bend of
the river, the old Pharaonic rigging disappears, to give place to a
succession of steam machines, which, more even than the muscles of the
fellahs, are busy at the water-drawing. Before long their blackish
chimneys will make a continuous border to the tamed Nile.

Did one not know their bearings, the great ruins of this Egypt would
pass unnoticed. With a few rare exceptions they lie beyond the green
plains on the threshold of the solitudes. And against the changeless,
rose-coloured background of these cliffs of the desert, which follow
you during the whole of this tranquil navigation of some 600 miles,
are to be seen only the humble towns and villages of to-day, which
have the neutral colour of the ground. Some openwork minarets dominate
them--white spots above the prevailing dullness. Clouds of pigeons
whirl round in the neighbourhood. And amongst the little houses, which
are only cubes of mud, baked in the sun, the palm-trees of Africa,
either singly or in mighty clusters, rise superbly and cast on these
little habitations the shade of their palms which sway in the wind.
Not long ago, although indeed everything in these little towns was
mournful and stagnant, one would have been tempted to stop in passing,
drawn by that nameless peace that belonged to the Old East and to
Islam. But, now, before the smallest hamlet--amongst the beautiful
primitive boats, that still remain in great numbers, pointing their
yards, like very long reeds, into the sky--there is always, for the
meeting of the tourist boats, an enormous black pontoon, which spoils
the whole scene by its presence and its great advertising inscription:
"Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.)." And, what is more, one hears the
whistling of the railway, which runs mercilessly along the river,
bringing from the Delta to the Soudan the hordes of European invaders.
And to crown all, adjoining the station is inevitably some modern
factory, throned there in a sort of irony, and dominating the poor
crumbling things that still presume to tell of Egypt and of mystery.

And so now, except at the towns or villages which lead to celebrated
ruins, we stop no longer. It is necessary to proceed farther and for
the halt of the night to seek an obscure hamlet, a silent recess,
where we may moor our dahabiya against the venerable earth of the

And so one goes on, for days and weeks, between these two interminable
cliffs of reddish chalk, filled with their hypogea and mummies, which
are the walls of the valley of the Nile, and will follow us up to the
first cataract, until our entrance into Nubia. There only will the
appearance and nature of the rocks of the desert change, to become the
more sombre granite out of which the Pharaohs carved their obelisks
and the great figures of their gods.

We go on and on, ascending the thread of this eternal current, and the
regularity of the wind, the persistent clearness of the sky, the
monotony of the great river, which winds but never ends, all conspire
to make us forget the hours and days that pass. However deceived and
disappointed we may be at seeing the profanation of the river banks,
here, nevertheless, isolated on the water, we do not lose the peace of
being a wanderer, a stranger amongst an equipage of silent Arabs, who
every evening prostrate themselves in confiding prayer.

And, moreover, we are moving towards the south, towards the sun, and
every day has a more entrancing clearness, a more caressing warmth,
and the bronze of the faces that we see on our way takes on a deeper

And then too one mixes intimately with the life of the river bank,
which is still so absorbing and, at certain hours, when the horizon is
unsullied by the smoke of pit-coal, recalls you to the days of artless
toil and healthy beauty. In the boats that meet us, half-naked men,
revelling in their movement, in the sun and air, sing, as they ply
their oars, those songs of the Nile that are as old as Thebes or
Memphis. When the wind rises there is a riotous unfurling of sails,
which, stretched on their long yards, give to the dahabiyas the air of
birds in full flight. Bending right over in the wind, they skim along
with a lively motion, carrying their cargoes of men and beasts and
primitive things. Women are there draped still in the ancient fashion,
and sheep and goats, and sometimes piles of fruit and gourds, and
sacks of grain. Many are laden to the water's edge with these
earthenware jars, unchanged for 3000 years, which the fellaheens know
how to place on their heads with so much grace--and one sees these
heaps of fragile pottery gliding along the water as if carried by the
gigantic wings of a gull. And in the far-off, almost fabulous, days
the life of the mariners of the Nile had the same aspect, as is shown
by the bas-reliefs on the oldest tombs; it required the same play of
muscles and of sails; was accompanied no doubt by the same songs, and
was subject to the withering caress of this same desert wind. And
then, as now, the same unchanging rose coloured the continuous curtain
of the mountains.

But all at once there is a noise of machinery, and whistlings, and in
the air, which was just now so pure, rise noxious columns of black
smoke. The modern steamers are coming, and throw into disorder the
flotillas of the past; colliers that leave great eddies in their wake,
or perhaps a wearisome lot of those three-decked tourist boats, which
make a great noise as they plough the water, and are laden for the
most part with ugly women, snobs and imbeciles.

Poor, poor Nile! which reflected formerly on its warm mirror the
utmost of earthly splendour, which bore in its time so many barques of
gods and goddesses in procession behind the golden barge of Amen, and
knew in the dawn of the ages only an impeccable purity, alike of the
human form and of architectural design! What a downfall is here! To be
awakened from that disdainful sleep of twenty centuries and made to
carry the floating barracks of Thomas Cook & Son, to feed sugar
factories, and to exhaust itself in nourishing with its mud the raw
material for English cotton-stuffs.



It is the month of March, but as gay and splendid as in our June.
Around us are fields of corn, of lucerne, and the flowering bean. And
the air is full of restless birds, singing deliriously for very joy in
the voluptuous business of their nests and coveys. Our way lies over a
fertile soil, saturated with vital substances--some paradise for
beasts no doubt, for they swarm on every side: flocks of goats with a
thousand bleating kids; she-asses with their frisking young; cows and
cow-buffaloes feeding their calves; all turned loose among the crops,
to browse at their leisure, as if there were here a superabundance of
the riches of the soil.

What country is this that shows no sign of human habitation, that
knows no village, nor any distant spire? The crops are like ours at
home--wheat, lucerne, and the flowering bean that perfumes the air
with its white blossoms. But there is an excess of light in the sky
and, in the distance, an extraordinary clearness. And then these
fertile plains, that might be those of some "Promised Land," seem to
be bounded far away, on left and right, by two parallel stone walls,
two chains of rose-coloured mountains, whose aspect is obviously
desertlike. Besides, amongst the numerous animals that are familiar,
there are camels, feeding their strange nurslings that look like four-
legged ostriches. And finally some peasants appear beyond in the
cornfields; they are veiled in long black draperies. It is the East
then, an African land, or some oasis of Arabia?

The sun at this moment is hidden from us by a band of clouds, that
stretches, right above our head, from one end of the sky to the other,
like a long skein of white wool. It is alone in the blue void, and
seems to make more peaceful, and even a little mysterious, the
wonderful light of the fields we traverse--these fields intoxicated
with life and vibrant with the music of birds; while, by contrast, the
distant landscape, unshaded by clouds, is resplendent with a more
incisive clearness and the desert beyond seems deluged with rays.

The pathway that we have been following, ill defined as it is in the
grassy fields, leads us at length under a large ruinous portico--a
relic of goodness knows what olden days--which still rises here, quite
isolated, altogether strange and unexpected, in the midst of the green
expanse of pasture and tillage. We had seen it from a great distance,
so pure and clear is the air; and in approaching it we perceive that
it is colossal, and in relief on its lintel is designed a globe with
two long wings outspread symmetrically.

It behoves us now to make obeisance with almost religious reverence,
for this winged disc is a symbol which gives at length an indication
of the place immediate and absolute. It is Egypt, the country--Egypt,
our ancient mother. And there before us must once have stood a temple
reverenced of the people, or some great vanished town; its fragments
of columns and sculptured capitals are strewn about in the fields of
lucerne. How inexplicable it seems that this land of ancient
splendours, which never ceased indeed to be nutritive and prodigiously
fertile, should have returned, for some hundreds of years now, to the
humble pastoral life of the peasants.

Through the green crops and the assembled herds our pathway seems to
lead to a kind of hill rising alone in the midst of the plains--a hill
which is neither of the same colour nor the same nature as the
mountains of the surrounding deserts. Behind us the portico recedes
little by little in the distance; its tall imposing silhouette, as
mournful and solitary, throws an infinite sadness on this sea of
meadows, which spread their peace where once was a centre of

The wind now rises in sharp, lashing gusts--the wind of Egypt that
never seems to fall, and is bitter and wintry for all the burning of
the sun. The growing corn bends before it, showing the gloss of its
young quivering leaves, and the herded beasts move close to one
another and turn their backs to the squall.

As we draw nearer to this singular hill it is revealed as a mass of
ruins. And the ruins are all of a kind, of a brownish-red. They are
the remains of the colonial towns of the Romans, which subsisted here
for some two or three hundred years (an almost negligible moment of
time in the long history of Egypt), and then fell to pieces, to become
in time mere shapeless mounds on the fertile margins of the Nile and
sometimes even in the submerging sands.

A heap of little reddish bricks that once were fashioned into houses;
a heap of broken jars or amphorae--myriads of them--that served to
carry the water from the old nourishing river; and the remains of
walls, repaired at diverse epochs, where stones inscribed with
hieroglyphs lie upside down against fragments of Grecian obelisks or
Coptic sculptures or Roman capitals. In our countries, where the past
is of yesterday, we have nothing resembling such a chaos of dead

Nowadays the sanctuary is reached through a large cutting in this hill
of ruins; incredible heaps of bricks and broken pottery enclose it on
all sides like a jealous rampart. Until recently indeed they covered
it almost to its roof. From the very first its appearance is
disconcerting: it is so grand, so austere and gloomy. A strange
dwelling, to be sure, for the Goddess of Love and Joy. It seems more
fit to be the home of the Prince of Darkness and of Death. A severe
doorway, built of gigantic stones and surmounted by a winged disc,
opens on to an asylum of religious mystery, on to depths where massive
columns disappear in the darkness of deep night.

Immediately on entering there is a coolness and a resonance as of a
sepulchre. First, the pronaos, where we still see clearly, between
pillars carved with hieroglyphs. Were it not for the large human faces
which serve for the capitals of the columns, and are the image of the
lovely Hathor, the goddess of the place, this temple of the decadent
epoch would scarcely differ from those built in this country two
thousand years before. It has the same square massiveness.

And in the dark blue ceilings there are the same frescoes, filled with
stars, with the signs of the Zodiac, and series of winged discs; in
bas-relief on the walls, the same multitudinous crowd of people who
gesticulate and make signs to one another with their hands--eternally
the same mysterious signs, repeated to infinity, everywhere--in the
palaces, the hypogea, the syringes, and on the sarcophagi and papyri
of the mummies.

The Memphite and Theban temples, which preceded this by so many
centuries, and far surpassed it in grandeur, have all lost, in
consequence of the falling of the enormous granites of their roofs,
their cherished gloom, and, what is the same thing, their religious
mystery. But in the temple of the lovely Hathor, on the contrary,
except for some figures mutilated by the hammers of Christians or
Moslems, everything has remained intact, and the lofty ceilings still
throw their fearsome shadows.

The gloom deepens in the hypostyle which follows the pronaos. Then
come, one after another, two halls of increasing holiness, where the
daylight enters regretfully through narrow loopholes, barely lighting
the superposed rows of innumerable figures that gesticulate on the
walls. And then, after other majestic corridors, we reach the heart of
this heap of terrible stones, the holy of holies, enveloped in deep
gloom. The hieroglyphic inscriptions name this place the "Hall of
Mystery" and formerly the high priest /alone, and he only once in each
year/, had the right to enter it for the performance of some now
unknown rites.

The "Hall of Mystery" is empty to-day, despoiled long since of the
emblems of gold and precious stones that once filled it. The meagre
little flames of the candles we have lit scarcely pierce the darkness
which thickens over our heads towards the granite ceilings; at the
most they only allow us to distinguish on the walls of the vast
rectangular cavern the serried ranks of figures who exchange among
themselves their disconcerting mute conversations.

Towards the end of the ancient and at the beginning of the Christian
era, Egypt, as we know, still exercised such a fascination over the
world, by its ancestral prestige, by the memory of its dominating
past, and the sovereign permanence of its ruins, that it imposed its
gods upon its conquerors, its handwriting, its architecture, nay, even
its religious rites and its mummies. The Ptolemies built temples here,
which reproduce those of Thebes and Abydos. Even the Romans, although
they had already discovered the /vault/, followed here the primitive
models, and continued those granite ceilings, made of monstrous slabs,
placed flat, like our beams. And so this temple of Hathor, built
though it was in the time of Cleopatra and Augustus, on a site
venerable in the oldest antiquity, recalls at first sight some
conception of the Ramses.

If, however, you examine it more closely, there appears, particularly
in the thousands of figures in bas-relief, a considerable divergence.
The poses are the same indeed, and so too are the traditional
gestures. But the exquisite grace of line is gone, as well as the
hieratic calm of the expressions and the smiles. In the Egyptian art
of the best periods the slender figures are as pure as the flowers
they hold in their hands; their muscles may be indicated in a precise
and skilful manner, but they remain, for all that, immaterial. The god
Amen himself, the procreator, drawn often with an absolute crudity,
would seem chaste compared with the hosts of this temple. For here, on
the contrary, the figures might be those of living people, palpitating
and voluptuous, who had posed themselves for sport in these
consecrated attitudes. The throat of the beautiful goddess, her hips,
her unveiled nakedness, are portrayed with a searching and lingering
realism; the flesh seems almost to quiver. She and her spouse, the
beautiful Horus, son of Iris, contemplate each other, naked, one
before the other, and their laughing eyes are intoxicated with love.

Around the holy of holies is a number of halls, in deep shadow and
massive as so many fortresses. They were used formerly for mysterious
and complicated rites, and in them, as everywhere else, there is no
corner of the wall but is overloaded with figures and hieroglyphs.
Bats are asleep in the blue ceilings, where the winged discs, painted
in fresco, look like flights of birds; and the hornets of the
neighbouring fields have built their nests there in hundreds, so that
they hang like stalactites.

Several staircases lead to the vast terraces formed by the great roofs
of the temple--staircases narrow, stifling and dimly lighted by
loopholes that reveal the heart-breaking thickness of the walls. And
here again are the inevitable rows of figures, carved on all the
walls, in the same familiar attitudes; they mount with us as we
ascend, making all the time the self-same signs one to another.

As we emerge on to the roofs, bathed now in Egyptian sunlight and
swept by a cold and bitter wind, we are greeted by a noise as of an
aviary. It is the kingdom of the sparrows, who have built their nests
in thousands in this temple of the complaisant goddess. They twitter
now all together and with all their might out of very joy of living.
It is an esplanade, this roof--a solitude paved with gigantic
flagstones. From it we see, beyond the heaps of ruins, those happy
plains, which are spread out with such a perfect serenity on the very
ground where once stood the town of Denderah, beloved of Hathor and
one of the most famous of Upper Egypt. Exquisitely green are these
plains with the new growth of wheat and lucerne and bean; and the
herds that are grouped here and there on the fresh verdure of the
level pastures, swaying now and undulating in the wind, look like so
many dark patches. And the two chains of mountains of rose-coloured
stone, that run parallel--on the east that of the desert of Arabia, on
the west that of the Libyan desert--enclose, in the distance, this
valley of the Nile, this land of plenty, which, alike in antiquity as
in our days, has excited the greed of predatory races. The temple has
also some underground dependencies or crypts into which you descend by
staircases as of dungeons; sometimes even you have to crawl through
holes to reach them. Long superposed galleries which might serve as
hiding-places for treasure; long corridors recalling those which, in
bad dreams, threaten to close in and bury you. And the innumerable
figures, of course, are here too, gesticulating on the walls; and
endless representations of the lovely goddess, whose swelling bosom,
which has preserved almost intact the flesh colour applied in the
times of the Ptolemies, we have perforce to graze as we pass.


In one of the vestibules that we have to traverse on our way out of
the sanctuary, amongst the numerous bas-reliefs representing various
sovereigns paying homage to the beautiful Hathor, is one of a young
man, crowned with a royal tiara shaped like the head of a uraeus. He
is shown seated in the traditional Pharaonic pose and is none other
than the Emperor Nero!

The hieroglyphs of the cartouche are there to affirm his identity,
albeit the sculptor, not knowing his actual physiognomy, has given him
the traditional features, regular as those of the god Horus. During
the centuries of the Roman domination the Western emperors used to
send from home instructions that their likeness should be placed on
the walls of the temples, and that offerings should be made in their
name to the Egyptian divinities--and this notwithstanding that in
their eyes Egypt must have seemed so far away, a colony almost at the
end of the earth. (And it was such a goddess as this, of secondary
rank in the times of the Pharaohs, that was singled out as the
favourite of the Romans of the decadence.)

The Emperor Nero! As a matter of fact at the very time these bas-
reliefs--almost the last--and these expiring hieroglyphics were being
inscribed, the confused primitive theogonies had almost reached their
end and the days of the Goddess of Joy were numbered. There had been
conceived in Judaea symbols more lofty and more pure, which were to
rule a great part of the world for two thousand years--afterwards,
alas, to decline in their turn; and men were about to throw themselves
passionately into renunciation, asceticism and fraternal pity.

How strange it is to say! Even while the sculptor was carving this
archaic bas-relief, and was using, for the engraving of its name,
characters that dated back to the night of the ages, there were
already Christians assembled in the catacombs at Rome and dying in
ecstasy in the arena!



The waters of the Nile being already low my dahabiya--delayed by
strandings--had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored
ourselves, as the darkness began to fall, at a casual spot on the

"We are quite near," the pilot had told me before departing to make
his evening prayer; "in an hour, to-morrow, we shall be there."

And the gentle night descended upon us in this spot which did not seem
to differ at all from so any others where, for a month past now, we
had moored our boat at hazard to await the daybreak. On the banks were
dark confused masses of foliage, above which here and there a high
date-palm outlined its black plumes. The air was filled with the
multitudinous chirpings of the crickets of Upper Egypt, which make
their music here almost throughout the year in the odorous warmth of
the grass. And, presently, in the midst of the silence, rose the cries
of the night birds, like the mournful mewings of cats. And that was
all--save for the infinite calm of the desert that is always present,
dominating everything, although scarcely noticed and, as it were,


And this morning, at the rising of the sun, is pure and splendid as
all other mornings. A tint of rosy coral comes gradually to life on
the summit of the Libyan mountains, standing out from the gridelin
shadows which, in the heavens, were the rearguard of the night.

But my eyes, grown accustomed during the last few weeks to this
glorious spectacle of the dawn, turn themselves, as if by force of
some attraction, towards a strange and quite unusual thing, which,
less than a mile away along the river, on the Arabian bank, rises
upright in the midst of the mournful plains. At first it looks like a
mass of towering rocks, which in this hour of twilight magic have
taken on a pale violet colour, and seem almost transparent. And the
sun, scarcely emerged from the desert, lights them in a curious
gradation, and orders their contours with a fringe of fresh rose-
colour. And they are not rocks, in fact, for as we look more closely,
they show us lines symmetrical and straight. Not rocks, but
architectural masses, tremendous and superhuman, placed there in
attitudes of quasi-eternal stability. And out of them rise the points
of two obelisks, sharp as the blade of a lance. And then, at once, I

Thebes! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it
was so near. But Thebes assuredly it is, for nothing else in the world
could produce such an apparition. And I salute with a kind of shudder
of respect this unique and sovereign ruin, which had haunted me for
many years, but which until now life had not left me time to visit.

And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of
the royal town, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we
must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous palace
which the rising sun has just disclosed to us.

And while my equipage of bronze--intoning that song, as old as Egypt
and everlastingly the same, which seems to help the men in their
arduous work--is busy unfastening the chain which binds us to the
bank, I continue to watch the distant apparition. It emerges gradually
from the light morning mists which, perhaps, made it seem even larger
than it is. The clear light of the ascending sun shows it now in
detail; and reveals it as all battered, broken and ruinous in the
midst of a silent plain, on the yellow carpet of the desert. And how
this sun, rising in its clear splendour, seems to crush it with its
youth and stupendous duration. This same sun had attained to its
present round form, had acquired the clear precision of its disc, and
begun its daily promenade over the country of the sands, countless
centuries of centuries, before it saw, as it might be yesterday, this
town of Thebes arise; an attempt at magnificence which seemed to
promise for the human pygmies a sufficiently interesting future, but
which, in the event, we have not been able even to equal. And it
proved, too, a thing quite puny and derisory, since here it is laid
low, after having subsisted barely four negligible thousands of years.


An hour later we arrive at Luxor, and what a surprise awaits us there!

The thing which dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six
miles away, is the Winter Palace, a hasty modern production which has
grown on the border of the Nile during the past year: a colossal
hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of
iron. Twice or three times as high as the admirable Pharaonic Temple,
its impudent facade rises there, painted a dirty yellow. One such
thing, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure
pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its
little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well
not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns
admire themselves in vain in the waters of the river. It is the end of

And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the
opposite bank seems so absolutely desertlike, with its stretches of
golden sand and, on the horizon, its mountains of the colour of
glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.

Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats, a sort of two
or three storeyed barracks, which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo
to the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos
make an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my
dahabiya, where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to
disturb me?

We can now see nothing of the palaces of Thebes, whither I am to
repair in the evening. We are farther from them than we were last
night. The apparition during our morning's journey had slowly receded
in the plains flooded by sunlight. And then the Winter Palace and the
new boats shut out the view.

But this modern quay of Luxor, where I disembark at ten o'clock in the
morning in clear and radiant sunshine, is not without its amusing

In a line with the Winter Palace a number of stalls follow one
another. All those things with which our tourists are wont to array
themselves are on sale there: fans, fly flaps, helmets and blue
spectacles. And, in thousands, photographs of the ruins. And there too
are the toys, the souvenirs of the Soudan: old negro knives, panther-
skins and gazelle horns. Numbers of Indians even are come to this
improvised fair, bringing their stuffs from Rajputana and Cashmere.
And, above all, there are dealers in mummies, offering for sale
mysteriously shaped coffins, mummy-cloths, dead hands, gods, scarabaei
--and the thousand and one things that this old soil has yielded for
centuries like an inexhaustible mine.

Along the stalls, keeping in the shade of the houses and the scattered
palms, pass representatives of the plutocracy of the world. Dressed by
the same costumiers, bedecked in the same plumes, and with faces
reddened by the same sun, the millionaire daughters of Chicago
merchants elbow their sisters of the old nobility. Pressing amongst
them impudent young Bedouins pester the fair travellers to mount their
saddled donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a
note of beauty, the battalions of Mr. Cook, of both sexes, and always
in a hurry, pass by with long strides.

Beyond the shops, following the line of the quay, there are other
hotels. Less aggressive, all of them, than the Winter Palace, they
have had the discretion not to raise themselves too high, and to cover
their fronts with white chalk in the Arab fashion, even to conceal
themselves in clusters of palm-trees.

And finally there is the colossal temple of Luxor, looking as out of
place now as the poor obelisk which Egypt gave us as a present, and
which stands to-day in the Place de la Concorde.

Bordering the Nile, it is a colossal grove of stone, about three
hundred yards in length. In epochs of a magnificence that is now
scarcely conceivable this forest of columns grew high and thick,
rising impetuously at the bidding of Amenophis and the great Ramses.
And how beautiful it must have been even yesterday, dominating in its
superb disarray this surrounding country, vowed for centuries to
neglect and silence!

But to-day, with all these things that men have built around it, you
might say that it no longer exists.

We reach an iron-barred gate and, to enter, have to show our permit to
the guards. Once inside the immense sanctuary, perhaps we shall find
solitude again. But, alas, under the profaned columns a crowd of
people passes, with /Baedekers/ in their hands, the same people that
one sees here everywhere, the same world as frequents Nice and the
Riviera. And, to crown the mockery, the noise of the dynamos pursues
us even here, for the boats of Messrs. Cook are moored to the bank
close by.

Hundreds of columns, columns which are anterior by many centuries to
those of Greece, and represent, in their na´ve enormity, the first
conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the
impression of sheaves of monstrous weeds; others, quite plain and
simple, imitate the stem of the papyrus, and bear by way of capital
its strange flower. The tourists, like the flies, enter at certain
times of the day, which it suffices to know. Soon the little bells of
the hotels will call them away and the hour of midday will find me
here alone. But what in heaven's name will deliver me from the noise
of the dynamos? But look! beyond there, at the bottom of the
sanctuaries, in the part which should be the holy of holies, that
great fresco, now half effaced, but still clearly visible on the wall
--how unexpected and arresting it is! An image of Christ! Christ
crowned with the Byzantine aureole. It has been painted on a coarse
plaster, which seems to have been added by an unskilful hand, and is
wearing off and exposing the hieroglyphs beneath. . . . This temple,
in fact, almost indestructible by reason of its massiveness, has
passed through the hands of diverse masters. Its antiquity was already
legendary in the time of Alexander the Great, on whose behalf a chapel
was added to it; and later on, in the first ages of Christianity, a
corner of the ruins was turned into a cathedral. The tourists begin to
depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the neighbouring /tables
d'hote/; and while I wait till they shall be gone, I occupy myself in
following the bas-reliefs which are displayed for a length of more
than a hundred yards along the base of the walls. It is one long row
of people moving in their thousands all in the same direction--the
ritual procession of the God Amen. With the care which characterised
the Egyptians to draw everything from life so as to render it eternal,
there are represented here the smallest details of a day of festival
three or four thousand years ago. And how like it is to a holiday of
the people of to-day! Along the route of the procession are ranged
jugglers and sellers of drinks and fruits, and negro acrobats who walk
on their hands and twist themselves into all kinds of contortions. But
the procession itself was evidently of a magnificence such as we no
longer know. The number of musicians and priests, of corporations, of
emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amen himself came
by water, on the river, in his golden barge with its raised prow,
followed by the barques of all the other gods and goddesses of his
heaven. The reddish stone, carved with minute care, tells me all this,
as it has already told it to so many dead generations, so that I seem
almost to see it.

And now everybody has gone: the colonnades are empty and the noise of
the dynamos has ceased. Midday approaches with its torpor. The whole
temple seems to be ablaze with rays, and I watch the clear-cut shadows
cast by this forest of stone gradually shortening on the ground. The
sun, which just now shone, all smiles and gaiety, upon the quay of the
new town amid the uproar of the stall-keepers, the donkey drivers and
the cosmopolitan passengers, casts here a sullen, impassive and
consuming fire. And meanwhile the shadows shorten--and just as they do
every day, beneath this sky which is never overcast, just as they have
done for five and thirty centuries, these columns, these friezes and
this temple itself, like a mysterious and solemn sundial, record
patiently on the ground the slow passing of the hours. Verily for us,
the ephemerae of thought, this unbroken continuity of the sun of Egypt
has more of melancholy even than the changing, overcast skies of our

And now, at last, the temple is restored to solitude and all noise in
the neighbourhood has ceased.

An avenue bordered by very high columns, of which the capitals are in
the form of the full-blown flowers of the papyrus, leads me to a place
shut in and almost terrible, where is massed an assembly of colossi.
Two, who, if they were standing, would be quite ten yards in height,
are seated on thrones on either side of the entrance. The others,
ranged on the three sides of the courtyard, stand upright behind
colonnades, but look as if they were about to issue thence and to
stride rapidly towards me. Some broken and battered, have lost their
faces and preserve only their intimidating attitude. Those that remain
intact--white faces beneath their Sphinx's headgear--open their eyes
wide and smile.

This was formerly the principal entrance, and the office of these
colossi was to welcome the multitudes. But now the gates of honour
flanked by obelisks of red granite, are obstructed by a litter of
enormous ruins. And the courtyard has become a place voluntarily
closed, where nothing of the outside world is any longer to be seen.
In moments of silence, one can abstract oneself from all the
neighbouring modern things, and forget the hour, the day, the century
even, in the midst of these gigantic figures, whose smile disdains the
flight of ages. The granites within which we are immured--and in such
terrible company--shut out everything save the point of an old
neighbouring minaret which shows now against the blue of the sky: a
humble graft of Islam which grew here amongst the ruins some centuries
ago, when the ruins themselves had already subsisted for three
thousand years--a little mosque built on a mass of debris, which it
new protects with its inviolability. How many treasures and relics and
documents are hidden and guarded by this mosque of the peristyle! For
none would dare to dig in the ground within its sacred walls.

Gradually the silence of the temple becomes profound. And if the
shortened shadows betray the hour of noon, there is nothing to tell to
what millennium that hour belongs. The silences and middays like to
this, which have passed before the eyes of these giants ambushed in
their colonnades--who could count them?

High above us, lost in the incandescent blue, soar the birds of prey--
and they were there in the times of the Pharaohs, displaying in the
air identical plumages, uttering the same cries. The beasts and
plants, in the course of time, have varied less than men, and remain
unchanged in the smallest details.

Each of the colossi around me--standing there proudly with one leg
advanced as if for a march, heavy and sure, which nothing should
withstand--grasps passionately in his clenched fist, at the end of the
muscular arm, a kind of buckled cross, which in Egypt was the symbol
of eternal life. And this is what the decision of their movement
symbolises: confident all of them in this poor bauble which they hold
in their hand, they cross with a triumphant step the threshold of
death. . . . "Eternal Life"--the thought of immortality--how the human
soul has been obsessed by it, particularly in the periods marked by
its greatest strivings! The tame submission to the belief that the
rottenness of the grave is the end of all is characteristic of ages of
decadence and mediocrity.

The three similar giants, little damaged in the course of their long
existence, who align the eastern side of this courtyard strewn with
blocks, represent, as indeed do all the others, that same Ramses II.,
whose effigy was multiplied so extravagantly at Thebes and Memphis.
But these three have preserved a powerful and impetuous life. They
might have been carved and polished yesterday. Between the monstrous
reddish pillars, they look like white apparitions issuing from their
embrasure of columns and advancing together like soldiers at
manoeuvres. The sun at this moment falls perpendicularly on their
heads and strange headgear, details their everlasting smile, and then
sheds itself on their shoulders and their naked torso, exaggerating
their athletic muscles. Each holding in his hand the symbolical cross,
the three giants rush forward with a formidable stride, heads raised,
smiling, in a radiant march into eternity.

Oh! this midday sun, that now pours down upon the white faces of these
giants, and displaces ever so slowly the shadows cast upon their
breasts by their chins and Osiridean beards. To think how often in the
midst of this same silence, this same ray has fallen thus, fallen from
the same changeless sky, to occupy itself in this same tranquil play!
Yes, I think that the fogs and rains of our winters, upon these
stupendous ruins, would be less sad and less terrible than the calm of
this eternal sunshine.


Suddenly a ridiculous noise begins to make the air tremble; the
dynamos of the Agencies have been put in motion, and ladies in green
spectacles arrive, a charming throng, with guidebooks and cameras. The
tourists, in short, are come out of their hotels, at the same hour as
the flies awake. And the midday peace of Luxor has come to an end.



An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud;
a dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with
gold, it leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of
remote ages, of things destroyed; a dust that is here continually--of
which the gold at this moment fades to green at the zenith, but flames
and glistens in the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which
marks the end of the day's decline, and the still burning globe of the
sun, quite low down in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the
conflagration of the evening.

This setting sun illumines with splendour a silent chaos of granite,
which is not that of the slipping of mountains, but that of ruins. And
of such ruins as, to our eyes unaccustomed hereditarily to proportions
so gigantic, seem superhuman. In places, huge masses of carven stone--
pylons--still stand upright, rising like hills. Others are crumbling
in all directions in bewildering cataracts of stone. It is difficult
to conceive how these things, so massive that they might have seemed
eternal, could come to suffer such an utter ruin. Fragments of
columns, fragments of obelisks, broken by downfalls of which the mere
imagination is awful, heads and head-dresses of giant divinities, all
lie higgledy-piggledy in a disorder beyond possible redress. Nowhere
surely on our earth does the sun in his daily revolution cast his
light on such debris as this, on such a litter of vanished palaces and
dead colossi.

It was even here, seven or eight thousand years ago, under this pure
crystal sky, that the first awakening of human thought began. Our
Europe then was still sleeping, wrapped in the mantle of its damp
forests; sleeping that sleep which still had thousands of years to
run. Here, a precocious humanity, only recently emerged from the Age
of Stone, that earliest form of all, an infant humanity, which saw
massively on its issue from the massiveness of the original matter,
conceived and built terrible sanctuaries for gods, at first dreadful
and vague, such as its nascent reason allowed it to conceive them.
Then the first megalithic blocks were erected; then began that mad
heaping up and up, which was to last nearly fifty centuries; and
temples were built above temples, palaces over palaces, each
generation striving to outdo its predecessor by a more titanic

Afterwards, four thousand years ago, Thebes was in the height of her
glory, encumbered with gods and with magnificence, the focus of the
light of the world in the most ancient historic periods; while our
Occident was still asleep and Greece and Assyria were scarcely
awakened. Only in the extreme East, a humanity of a different race,
the yellow people, called to follow in totally different ways, was
fixing, so that they remain even to our day, the oblique lines of its
angular roofs and the rictus of its monsters.

The men of Thebes, if they still saw too massively and too vastly, at
least saw straight; they saw calmly, at the same time as they saw
forever. Their conceptions, which had begun to inspire those of
Greece, were afterwards in some measure to inspire our own. In
religion, in art, in beauty under all its aspects, they were as much
our ancestors as were the Aryans.

Later again, sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, in one
of the apogees of the town which, in the course of its interminable
duration, experienced so many fluctuations, some ostentatious kings
thought fit to build on this ground, already covered with temples,
that which still remains the most arresting marvel of the ruins: the
hypostyle hall, dedicated to the God Amen, with its forest of columns,
as monstrous as the trunk of the baobab and as high as towers,
compared with which the pillars of our cathedrals are utterly
insignificant. In those days the same gods reigned at Thebes as three
thousand years before, but in the interval they had been transformed
little by little in accordance with the progressive development of
human thought, and Amen, the host of this prodigious hall, asserted
himself more and more as the sovereign master of life and eternity.
Pharaonic Egypt was really tending, in spite of some revolts, towards
the notion of a divine unity; even, one might say, to the notion of a
supreme pity, for she already had her Apis, emanating from the All-
Powerful, born of a virgin mother, and come humbly to the earth in
order to make acquaintance with suffering.

After Seti I. and the Ramses had built, in honour of Amen, this
temple, which, beyond all doubt, is the grandest and most durable in
the world, men still continued for another fifteen centuries to heap
up in its neighbourhood those blocks of granite and marble and
sandstone, whose enormity now amazes us. Even for the invaders of
Egypt, the Greeks and Romans, this old ancestral town of towns
remained imposing and unique. They repaired its ruins, and built here
temple after temple, in a style which hardly ever changes. Even in the
ages of decadence everything that raised itself from the old, sacred
soil, seemed to be impregnated a little with the ancient grandeur.

And it was only when the early Christians ruled here, and after them
the Moslem iconoclasts, that the destruction became final. To these
new believers, who, in their simplicity, imagined themselves to be
possessed of the ultimate religious formula and to know by His right
name the great Unknowable, Thebes became the haunt of "false gods,"
the abomination of abominations, which it behoved them to destroy.

And so they set to work, penetrating with an ever-present fear into
the profound depths of the gloomy sanctuaries, mutilating first of all
the thousands of visages whose disconcerting smile frightened them,
and then exhausting themselves in the effort to uproot the colossi,
which even with the help of levers, they could not move. It was no
easy task indeed, for everything was as solid as geological masses, as
rocks or promontories. But for five or six hundred years the town was
given over to the caprice of desecrators.

And then came the centuries of silence and oblivion under the shroud
of the desert sands, which, thickening each year, proceeded to bury,
and, in the event, to preserve for us, this peerless relic.

And now, at last, Thebes is being exhumed and restored to a semblance
of life--now, after a cycle of seven or eight thousand years, when our
Western humanity, having left the primitive gods that we see here, to
embrace the Christian conception, which, even yesterday, made it live,
is in way of denying everything, and struggles before the enigma of
death in an obscurity more dismal and more fearful than in the
commencement of the ages. (More dismal and more fearful still in this,
that plea of youth is gone.) From all parts of Europe curious and
unquiet spirits, as well as mere idlers, turn their steps towards
Thebes, the ancient mother. Men clear the rubbish from its remains,
devise ways of retarding the enormous fallings of its ruins, and dig
in its old soil, stored with hidden treasure.

And this evening on one of the portals to which I have just mounted--
that which opens at the north-west and terminates the colossal artery
of temples and palaces, many very diverse groups have already taken
their places, after the pilgrimage of the day amongst the ruins. And
others are hastening towards the staircase by which we have just
climbed, so as not to miss the grand spectacle of the sun setting,
always with the same serenity, the same unchanging magnificence,
behind the town which once was consecrated to it.

French, German, English; I see them below, a lot of pygmy figures,
issuing from the hypostyle hall, and making their way towards us. Mean
and pitiful they look in their twentieth-century travellers' costumes,
hurrying along that avenue where once defiled so many processions of
gods and goddesses. And yet this, perhaps, is the only occasion on
which one of these bands of tourists does not seem to me altogether
ridiculous. Amongst these groups of unknown people, there is none who
is not collected and thoughtful, or who does not at least pretend to
be so; and there is some saving quality of grace, even some grandeur
of humility, in the sentiment which has brought them to this town of
Amen, and in the homage of their silence.

We are so high on this portal that we might fancy ourselves upon a
tower, and the defaced stones of which it is built are immeasurably
large. Instinctively each one sits with his face to the glowing sun,
and consequently to the outspread distances of the fields and the

Before us, under our feet, an avenue stretches away, prolonging
towards the fields the pomp of the dead city--an avenue bordered by
monstrous rams, larger than buffaloes, all crouched on their pedestals
in two parallel rows in the traditional hieratic pose. The avenue
terminates beyond at a kind of wharf or landing-stage which formerly
gave on to the Nile. It was there that the God Amen, carried and
followed by long trains of priests, came every year to take his golden
barge for a solemn procession. But it leads to-day only to the
cornfields, for, in the course of successive centuries, the river has
receded little by little and now winds its course a thousand yards
away in the direction of Libya.

We can see, beyond, the old sacred Nile between the clusters of palm-
trees on its banks; meandering there like a rosy pathway, which
remains, nevertheless, in this hour of universal incandescence,
astonishingly pale, and gleams occasionally with a bluish light. And
on the farther bank, from one end to the other of the western horizon,
stretches the chain of the Libyan mountains behind which the sun is
about to plunge; a chain of red sandstone, parched since the beginning
of the world--without a rival in the preservation to perpetuity of
dead bodies--which the Thebans perforated to its extreme depths to
fill it with sarcophagi.

We watch the sun descend. But we turn also to see, behind us, the
ruins in this the traditional moment of their apotheosis. Thebes, the
immense town-mummy, seems all at once to be ablaze--as if its old
stones were able still to burn; all its blocks, fallen or upright,
appear to have been suddenly made ruddy by the glow of fire.

On this side, too, the view embraces great peaceful distances. Past
the last pylons, and beyond the crumbling ramparts the country, down
there behind the town, presents the same appearance as that we were
facing a moment before. The same cornfields, the same woods of date-
trees, that make a girdle of green palms around the ruins. And, right
in the background, a chain of mountains is lit up and glows with a
vivid coral colour. It is the chain of the Arabian desert, lying
parallel to that of Libya, along the whole length of the Nile Valley--
which is thus guarded on right and left by stones and sand stretched
out in profound solitudes.

In all the surrounding country which we command from this spot there
is no indication of the present day; only here and there, amongst the
palm-trees, the villages of the field labourers, whose houses of dried
earth can scarcely have changed since the days of the Pharaohs. Our
contemporary desecrators have up till now respected the infinite
desuetude of the place, and, for the tourists who begin to haunt it,
no one yet has dared to build a hotel.

Slowly the sun descends; and behind us the granites of the town-mummy
seem to burn more and more. It is true that a slight shadow of a
warmer tint, an amaranth violet, begins to encroach upon the lower
parts, spreading along the avenues and over the open spaces. But
everything that rises into the sky--the friezes of the temples, the
capitals of the columns, the sharp points of the obelisks--are still
red as glowing embers. These all become imbued with light and continue
to glow and shed a rosy illumination until the end of the twilight.

It is a glorious hour, even for the old dust of Egypt, which fills the
air eternally, without detracting at all from its wonderful clearness.
It savours of spices, of the Bedouin, of the bitumen of the
sarcophagus. And here now it is playing the role of those powders of
different shades of gold which the Japanese use for the backgrounds of
their lacquered landscapes. It reveals itself everywhere, close to and
on the horizon, modifying at its pleasure the colour of things, and
giving them a kind of metallic lustre. The phantasy of its changes is
unimaginable. Even in the distances of the countryside, it is busy
indicating by little trailing clouds of gold the smallest pathways
traversed by the herds.

And now the disc of the God of Thebes has disappeared behind the
Libyan mountains, after changing its light from red to yellow and from
yellow to green.

And thereupon the tourists, judging that the display is over for the
night, commence to descend and make ready for departure. Some in
carriages, others on donkeys, they go to recruit themselves with the
electricity and elegance of Luxor, the neighbouring town (wines and
spirits are paid for as extras, and we dress for dinner). And the dust
condescends to mark their exodus also by a last cloud of gold beneath
the palm-trees of the road.

An immediate solemnity succeeds to their departure. Above the mud
houses of the fellah villages rise slender columns of smoke, which are
of a periwinkle-blue in the midst of the still yellow atmosphere. They
tell of the humble life of these little homesteads, subsisting here,
where in the backward of the ages were so many palaces and splendours.

And the first bayings of the watchdogs announce already the vague
uneasiness of the evenings around the ruins. There is no one now
within the mummy-town, which seems all at once to have grown larger in
the silence. Very quickly the violet shadow covers it, all save the
extreme points of its obelisks, which keep still a little of their
rose-colour. The feeling comes over you that a sovereign mystery has
taken possession of the town, as if some vague phantom things had just
passed into it.



The feeling, almost, that you have grown suddenly smaller by entering
there, that you are dwarfed to less than human size--to such an extent
do the proportions of these ruins seem to crush you--and the illusion,
also, that the light, instead of being extinguished with the evening,
has only changed its colour, and become blue: that is what one
experiences on a clear Egyptian night, in walking between the
colonnades of the great temple at Thebes.

The place is, moreover, so singular and so terrible that its mere name
would at once cast a spell upon the spirit, even if one were ignorant
of the place itself. The hypostyle of the temple of the God Amen--that
could be no other thing but one. For this hall is unique in the world,
in the same way as the Grotto of Fingal and the Himalayas are unique.


To wander absolutely alone at night in Thebes requires during the
winter a certain amount of stratagem and a knowledge of the routine of
the tourists. It is necessary, first of all, to choose a night on
which the moon rises late and then, having entered before the close of
the day, to escape the notice of the Bedouin guards who shut the gates
at nightfall. Thus have I waited with the patience of a stone Osiris,
till the grand transformation scene of the setting of the sun was
played out once more upon the ruins. Thebes, which, during the day, is
almost animate by reason of the presence of the visitors and the gangs
of fellahs who, singing the while, are busy at the diggings and the
clearing away of the rubbish, has emptied itself little by little,
while the blue shadows were mounting from the base of the monstrous
sanctuaries. I watched the people moving in a long row, like a trail
of ants, towards the western gate between the pylons of the Ptolemies,
and the last of them had disappeared before the rosy light died away
on the topmost points of the obelisks.

It seemed as if the silence and the night arrived together from beyond
the Arabian desert, advanced together across the plain, spreading out
like a rapid oil-stain; then gained the town from east to west, and
rose rapidly from the ground to the very summits of the temples. And
this march of the darkness was infinitely solemn.

For the first few moments, indeed, you might imagine that it was going
to be an ordinary night such as we know in our climate, and a sense of
uneasiness takes hold of you in the midst of this confusion of
enormous stones, which in the darkness would become a quite
inextricable maze. Oh! the horror of being lost in those ruins of
Thebes and not being able to see! But in the event the air preserved
its transparency to such a degree, and the stars began soon to
scintillate so brightly that the surrounding things could be
distinguished almost as well as in the daytime.

Indeed, now that the time of transition between the day and night has
passed, the eyes grow accustomed to the strange, blue, persistent
clearness so that you seem suddenly to have acquired the pupils of a
cat; and the ultimate effect is merely as if you saw through a smoked
glass which changed all the various shades of this reddish-coloured
country into one uniform tint of blue.

Behold me then, for some two or three hours, alone among the temples
of the Pharaohs. The tourists, whom the carriages and donkeys are at
this moment taking back to the hotels of Luxor, will not return till
very late, when the full moon will have risen and be shedding its
clear light upon the ruins. My post, while I waited, was high up among
the ruins on the margin of the sacred Lake of Osiris, the still and
enclosed water of which is astonishing in that it has remained there
for so many centuries. It still conceals, no doubt, numberless
treasures confided to it in the days of slaughters and pillages, when
the armies of the Persian and Nubian kings forced the thick,
surrounding walls.

In a few minutes, thousands of stars appear at the bottom of this
water, reflecting symmetrically the veritable ones which now
scintillate everywhere in the heavens. A sudden cold spreads over the
town-mummy, whose stones, still warm from their exposure to the sun,
cool very rapidly in this nocturnal blue which envelops them as in a
shroud. I am free to wander where I please without risk of meeting
anyone, and I begin to descend by the steps made by the falling of the
granite blocks, which have formed on all sides staircases as if for
giants. On the overturned surfaces, my hands encounter the deep,
clear-cut hollows of the hieroglyphs, and sometimes of those
inevitable people, carved in profile, who raise their arms, all of
them, and make signs to one another. On arriving at the bottom I am
received by a row of statues with battered faces, seated on thrones,
and without hindrance of any kind, and recognising everything in the
blue transparency which takes the place of day, I come to the great
avenue of the palaces of Amen.

We have nothing on earth in the least degree comparable to this
avenue, which passive multitudes took nearly three thousand years to
construct, expending, century after century, their innumerable
energies in carrying these stones, which our machines now could not
move. And the objective was always the same: to prolong indefinitely
the perspectives of pylons, colossi and obelisks, continuing always
this same artery of temples and palaces in the direction of the old
Nile--while the latter, on the contrary, receded slowly, from century
to century, towards Libya. It is here, and especially at night, that
you suffer the feeling of having been shrunken to the size of a pygmy.
All round you rise monoliths mighty as rocks. You have to take twenty
paces to pass the base of a single one of them. They are placed quite
close together, too close, it seems, in view of their enormity and
mass. There is not enough air between them, and the closeness of their
juxtaposition disconcerts you more, perhaps, even than their

The avenue which I have followed in an easterly direction abuts on as
disconcerting a chaos of granite as exists in Thebes--the hall of the
feasts of Thothmes III. What kind of feasts were they, that this king
gave here, in this forest of thick-set columns, beneath these
ceilings, of which the smallest stone, if it fell, would crush twenty
men? In places the friezes, the colonnades, which seem almost
diaphanous in the air, are outlined still with a proud magnificence in
unbroken alignment against the star-strewn sky. Elsewhere the
destruction is bewildering; fragments of columns, entablatures, bas-
reliefs lie about in indescribable confusion, like a lot of scattered
wreckage after a world-wide tempest. For it was not enough that the
hand of man should overturn these things. Tremblings of the earth, at
different times, have also come to shake this Cyclops palace which
threatened to be eternal. And all this--which represents such an
excess of force, of movement, of impulsion, alike for its erection as
for its overthrow--all this is tranquil this evening, oh! so tranquil,
although toppling as if for an imminent downfall--tranquil forever,
one might say, congealed by the cold and by the night.

I was prepared for silence in such a place, but not for the sounds
which I commence to hear. First of all an osprey sounds the prelude,
above my head and so close to me that it holds me trembling throughout
its long cry. Then other voices answer from the depths of the ruins,
voices very diverse, but all sinister. Some are only able to mew on
two long-drawn notes: some yelp like jackals round a cemetery, and
others again imitate the sound of a steel spring slowly unwinding
itself. And this concert comes always from above. Owls, ospreys,
screech-owls, all the different kinds of birds, with hooked beaks and
round eyes, and silken wings that enable them to fly noiselessly, have
their homes amongst the granites massively upheld in the air; and they
are celebrating now, each after its own fashion, the nocturnal
festival. Intermittent calls break upon the air, and long-drawn
infinitely mournful wailings, that sometimes swell and sometimes seem
to be strangled and end in a kind of sob. And then, in spite of the
sonority of the vast straight walls, in spite of the echoes which
prolong the cries, the silence obstinately returns. Silence. The
silence after all and beyond all doubt is the true master at this hour
of this kingdom at once colossal, motionless and blue--a silence that
seems to be infinite, because we know that there is nothing around
these ruins, nothing but the line of the dead sands, the threshold of
the deserts.


I retrace my steps towards the west in the direction of the hypostyle,
traversing again the avenue of monstrous splendours, imprisoned and,
as it were, dwarfed between the rows of sovereign stones. There are
obelisks there, some upright, some overthrown. One like those of
Luxor, but much higher, remains intact and raises its sharp point into
the sky; others, less well known in their exquisite simplicity, are
quite plain and straight from base to summit, bearing only in relief
gigantic lotus flowers, whose long climbing stems bloom above in the
half light cast by the stars. The passage becomes narrower and more
obscure, and it is necessary sometimes to grope my way. And then again
my hands encounter the everlasting hieroglyphs carved everywhere, and
sometimes the legs of a colossus seated on its throne. The stones are
still slightly warm, so fierce has been the heat of the sun during the
day. And certain of the granites, so hard that our steel chisels could
not cut them, have kept their polish despite the lapse of centuries,
and my fingers slip in touching them.

There is now no sound. The music of the night birds has ceased. I
listen in vain--so attentively that I can hear the beating of my
heart. Not a sound, not even the buzzing of a fly. Everything is
silent, everything is ghostly; and in spite of the persistent warmth
of the stones the air grows colder and colder, and one gets the
impression that everything here is frozen--definitely--as in the
coldness of death.

A vast silence reigns, a silence that has subsisted for centuries, on
this same spot, where formerly for three or four thousand years rose
such an uproar of living men. To think of the clamorous multitudes who
once assembled here, of their cries of triumph and anguish, of their
dying agonies. First of all the pantings of those thousands of
harnessed workers, exhausting themselves generation after generation,
under the burning sun, in dragging and placing one above the other
these stones, whose enormity now amazes us. And the prodigious feasts,
the music of the long harps, the blares of the brazen trumpets; the
slaughters and battles when Thebes was the great and unique capital of
the world, an object of fear and envy to the kings of the barbarian
peoples who commenced to awake in neighbouring lands; the symphonies
of siege and pillage, in days when men bellowed with the throats of
beasts. To think of all this, here on this ground, on a night so calm
and blue! And these same walls of granite from Syene, on which my puny
hands now rest, to think of the beings who have touched them in
passing, who have fallen by their side in last sanguinary conflicts,
without rubbing even the polish from their changeless surfaces!


I now arrive at the hypostyle of the temple of Amen, and a sensation
of fear makes me hesitate at first on the threshold. To find himself
in the dead of night before such a place might well make a man falter.
It seems like some hall for Titans, a remnant of fabulous ages, which
has maintained itself, during its long duration, by force of its very
massiveness, like the mountains. Nothing human is so vast. Nowhere on
earth have men conceived such dwellings. Columns after columns, higher
and more massive than towers, follow one another so closely, in an
excess of accumulation, that they produce a feeling almost of
suffocation. They mount into the clear sky and sustain there traverses
of stone which you scarcely dare to contemplate. One hesitates to
advance; a feeling comes over you that you are become infinitesimally
small and as easy to crush as an insect. The silence grows
preternaturally solemn. The stars through all the gaps in the fearful
ceilings seem to send their scintillations to you in an abyss. It is
cold and clear and blue.

The central bay of this hypostyle is in the same line as the road I
have been following since I left the hall of Thothmes. It prolongs and
magnifies as in an apotheosis that same long avenue, for the gods and
kings, which was the glory of Thebes, and which in the succession of
the ages nothing has contrived to equal. The columns which border it
are so gigantic[*] that their tops, formed of mysterious full-blown
petals, high up above the ground on which we crawl, are completely
bathed in the diffuse clearness of the sky. And enclosing this kind of
nave on either side, like a terrible forest, is another mass of
columns--monster columns, of an earlier style, of which the capitals
close instead of opening, imitating the buds of some flower which will
never blossom. Sixty to the right, sixty to the left, too close
together for their size, they grow thick like a forest of baobabs that
wanted space: they induce a feeling of oppression without possible
deliverance, of massive and mournful eternity.

[*] About 30 feet in circumference and 75 feet in height including the

And this, forsooth, was the place that I had wished to traverse alone,
without even the Bedouin guard, who at night believes it his duty to
follow the visitors. But now it grows lighter and lighter. Too light
even, for a blue phosphorescence, coming from the eastern horizon,
begins to filter through the opacity of the colonnades on the right,
outlines the monstrous shafts, and details them by vague glimmerings
on their edges. The full moon is risen, alas! and my hours of solitude
are nearly over.


The moon! Suddenly the stones of the summit, the copings, the
formidable friezes, are lighted by rays of clear light, and here and
there, on the bas-reliefs encircling the pillars, appear luminous
trails which reveal the gods and goddesses engraved in the stone. They
were watching in myriads around me, as I knew well,--coifed, all of
them, in discs or great horns. They stare at one another with their
arms raised, spreading out their long fingers in an eager attempt at
conversation. They are numberless, these eternally gesticulating gods.
Wherever you look their forms are multiplied with a stupefying
repetition. They seem to have some mysterious secret to convey to one
another, but have perforce to remain silent, and for all the
expressiveness of their attitudes their hands do not move. And
hieroglyphs, too, repeated to infinity, envelop you on all sides like
a multiple woof of mystery.


Minute by minute now, everything amongst these rigid dead things grows
more precise. Cold, hard rays penetrate through the immense ruin,
separating with a sharp incisiveness the light from the shadows. The
feeling that these stones, wearied as they were with their long
duration, might still be thoughtful, still mindful of their past,
grows less--less than it was a few moments before, far less than
during the preceding blue phantasmagoria. Under this clear, pale
light, as in the daytime, under the fire of the sun, Thebes has lost
for the moment whatever remained to it of soul; it has receded farther
into the backward of time, and appears now nothing more than a vast
gigantic fossil that excites only our wonder and our fear.


But the tourists will soon be here, attracted by the moon. A league
away, in the hotels of Luxor, I can fancy how they have hurried away
from the tables, for fear of missing the celebrated spectacle. For me,
therefore, it is time to beat a retreat, and, by the great avenue
again, I direct my steps towards the pylons of the Ptolemies, where
the night guards are waiting.

They are busy already, these Bedouins, in opening the gates for some
tourists, who have shown their permits, and who carry Kodaks,
magnesium to light up the temples--quite an outfit in short.

Farther on, when I have taken the road to Luxor, it is not long before
I meet, under the palm-trees and on the sands, the crowd, the main
body of the arrivals--some in carriages, some on horseback, some on
donkeys. There is a noise of voices speaking all sorts of non-Egyptian
languages. One is tempted to ask: "What is happening? A ball, a
holiday, a grand marriage?" No. The moon is full to-night at Thebes,
upon the ruins. That is all.



It is two o'clock in the afternoon. A white angry fire pours from the
sky, which is pale from excess of light. A sun inimical to the men of

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