THE SPELL OF EGYPT
by Robert Hichens
This text was prepared from a 1911 edition, published by The Century Co., New York.
THE PYRAMIDS THE SPHINX SAKKARA ABYDOS THE NILE DENDERAH KARNAK LUXOR COLOSSI OF MEMNON MEDINET-ABU THE RAMESSEUM DEIR-EL-BAHARI THE TOMBS OF THE KINGS EDFU KOM OMBOS PHILAE "PHARAOH'S BED" OLD CAIRO
Why do you come to Egypt? Do you come to gain a dream, or to regain lost dreams of old; to gild your life with the drowsy gold of romance, to lose a creeping sorrow, to forget that too many of your hours are sullen, grey, bereft? What do you wish of Egypt?
The Sphinx will not ask you, will not care. The Pyramids, lifting their unnumbered stones to the clear and wonderful skies, have held, still hold, their secrets; but they do not seek for yours. The terrific temples, the hot, mysterious tombs, odorous of the dead desires of men, crouching in and under the immeasurable sands, will muck you with their brooding silence, with their dim and sombre repose. The brown children of the Nile, the toilers who sing their antique songs by the shadoof and the sakieh, the dragomans, the smiling goblin merchants, the Bedouins who lead your camel into the pale recesses of the dunes—these will not trouble themselves about your deep desires, your perhaps yearning hunger of the heart and the imagination.
Yet Egypt is not unresponsive.
I came back to her with dread, after fourteen years of absence—years filled for me with the rumors of her changes. And on the very day of my arrival she calmly reassured me. She told me in her supremely magical way that all was well with her. She taught me once more a lesson I had not quite forgotten, but that I was glad to learn again—the lesson that Egypt owes her most subtle, most inner beauty to Kheper, although she owes her marvels to men; that when he created the sun which shines upon her, he gave her the lustre of her life, and that those who come to her must be sun-worshippers if they would truly and intimately understand the treasure or romance that lies heaped within her bosom.
Thoth, says the old legend, travelled in the Boat of the Sun. If you would love Egypt rightly, you, too, must be a traveller in that bark. You must not fear to steep yourself in the mystery of gold, in the mystery of heat, in the mystery of silence that seems softly showered out of the sun. The sacred white lotus must be your emblem, and Horus, the hawk-headed, merged in Ra, your special deity. Scarcely had I set foot once more in Egypt before Thoth lifted me into the Boat of the sun and soothed my fears to sleep.
I arrived in Cairo. I saw new and vast hotels; I saw crowded streets; brilliant shops; English officials driving importantly in victorias, surely to pay dreadful calls of ceremony; women in gigantic hats, with Niagaras of veil, waving white gloves as they talked of—I guess—the latest Cairene scandal. I perceived on the right hand and on the left waiters created in Switzerland, hall porters made in Germany, Levantine touts, determined Jews holding false antiquities in their lean fingers, an English Baptist minister, in a white helmet, drinking chocolate on a terrace, with a guide-book in one fist, a ticket to visit monuments in the other. I heard Scottish soldiers playing, "I'll be in Scotland before ye!" and something within me, a lurking hope, I suppose, seemed to founder and collapse—but only for a moment. It was after four in the afternoon. Soon day would be declining. And I seemed to remember that the decline of day in Egypt had moved me long ago—moved me as few, rare things have ever done. Within half an hour I was alone, far up the long road—Ismail's road—that leads from the suburbs of Cairo to the Pyramids. And then Egypt took me like a child by the hand and reassured me.
It was the first week of November, high Nile had not subsided, and all the land here, between the river and the sand where the Sphinx keeps watch, was hidden beneath the vast and tranquil waters of what seemed a tideless sea—a sea fringed with dense masses of date-palms, girdled in the far distance by palm-trees that kept the white and the brown houses in their feathery embrace. Above these isolated houses pigeons circled. In the distance the lateen sails of boats glided, sometimes behind the palms, coming into view, vanishing and mysteriously reappearing among their narrow trunks. Here and there a living thing moved slowly, wading homeward through this sea: a camel from the sands of Ghizeh, a buffalo, two donkeys, followed by boys who held with brown hands their dark blue skirts near their faces, a Bedouin leaning forward upon the neck of his quickly stepping horse. At one moment I seemed to look upon the lagoons of Venice, a watery vision full of a glassy calm. Then the palm-trees in the water, and growing to its edge, the pale sands that, far as the eyes could see, from Ghizeh to Sakkara and beyond, fringed it toward the west, made me think of the Pacific, of palmy islands, of a paradise where men grow drowsy in well-being, and dream away the years. And then I looked farther, beyond the pallid line of the sands, and I saw a Pyramid of gold, the wonder Khufu had built. As a golden wonder it saluted me after all my years of absence. Later I was to see it grey as grey sands, sulphur color in the afternoon from very near at hand, black as a monument draped in funereal velvet for a mourning under the stars at night, white as a monstrous marble tomb soon after dawn from the sand-dunes between it and Sakkara. But as a golden thing it greeted me, as a golden miracle I shall remember it.
Slowly the sun went down. The second Pyramid seemed also made of gold. Drowsily splendid it and its greater brother looked set on the golden sands beneath the golden sky. And now the gold came traveling down from the desert to the water, turning it surely to a wine like the wine of gold that flowed down Midas's throat; then, as the magic grew, to a Pactolus, and at last to a great surface that resembled golden ice, hard, glittering, unbroken by any ruffling wave. The islands rising from this golden ice were jet black, the houses black, the palms and their shadows that fell upon the marvel black. Black were the birds that flew low from roof to roof, black the wading camels, black the meeting leaves of the tall lebbek-trees that formed a tunnel from where I stood to Mena House. And presently a huge black Pyramid lay supine on the gold, and near it a shadowy brother seemed more humble than it, but scarcely less mysterious. The gold deepened, glowed more fiercely. In the sky above the Pyramids hung tiny cloud wreaths of rose red, delicate and airy as the gossamers of Tunis. As I turned, far off in Cairo I saw the first lights glittering across the fields of doura, silvery white, like diamonds. But the silver did not call me. My imagination was held captive by the gold. I was summoned by the gold, and I went on, under the black lebbek-trees, on Ismail's road, toward it. And I dwelt in it many days.
The wonders of Egypt man has made seem to increase in stature before the spirits' eyes as man learns to know them better, to tower up ever higher till the imagination is almost stricken by their looming greatness. Climb the great Pyramid, spend a day with Abou on its summit, come down, penetrate into its recesses, stand in the king's chamber, listen to the silence there, feel it with your hands—is it not tangible in this hot fastness of incorruptible death?—creep, like the surreptitious midget you feel yourself to be, up those long and steep inclines of polished stone, watching the gloomy darkness of the narrow walls, the far-off pinpoint of light borne by the Bedouin who guides you, hear the twitter of the bats that have their dwelling in this monstrous gloom that man has made to shelter the thing whose ambition could never be embalmed, though that, of all qualities, should have been given here, in the land it dowered, a life perpetual. Now you know the Great Pyramid. You know that you can climb it, that you can enter it. You have seen it from all sides, under all aspects. It is familiar to you.
No, it can never be that. With its more wonderful comrade, the Sphinx, it has the power peculiar, so it seems to me, to certain of the rock and stone monuments of Egypt, of holding itself ever aloof, almost like the soul of man which can retreat at will, like the Bedouin retreating from you into the blackness of the Pyramid, far up, or far down, where the pursuing stranger, unaided, cannot follow.
One day at sunset I saw a bird trying to play with the Sphinx—a bird like a swallow, but with a ruddy brown on its breast, a gleam of blue somewhere on its wings. When I came to the edge of the sand basin where perhaps Khufu saw it lying nearly four thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sphinx and the bird were quite alone. The bird flew near the Sphinx, whimsically turning this way and that, flying now low, now high, but ever returning to the magnet which drew it, which held it, from which it surely longed to extract some sign of recognition. It twittered, it posed itself in the golden air, with its bright eyes fixed upon those eyes of stone which gazed beyond it, beyond the land of Egypt, beyond the world of men, beyond the centre of the sun to the last verges of eternity. And presently it alighted on the head of the Sphinx, then on its ear, then on its breast; and over the breast it tripped jerkily, with tiny, elastic steps, looking upward, its whole body quivering apparently with a desire for comprehension—a desire for some manifestation of friendship. Then suddenly it spread its wings, and, straight as an arrow, it flew away over the sands and the waters toward the doura-fields and Cairo.
And the sunset waned, and the afterglow flamed and faded, and the clear, soft African night fell. The pilgrims who day by day visit the Sphinx, like the bird, had gone back to Cairo. They had come, as the bird had come; as those who have conquered Egypt came; as the Greeks came, Alexander of Macedon, and the Ptolemies; as the Romans came; as the Mamelukes, the Turks, the French, the English came.
They had come—and gone.
And that enormous face, with the stains of stormy red still adhering to its cheeks, grew dark as the darkness closed in, turned brown as a fellah's face, as the face of that fellah who whispered his secret in the sphinx's ear, but learnt no secret in return; turned black almost as a Nubian's face. The night accentuated its appearance of terrible repose, of super-human indifference to whatever might befall. In the night I seemed to hear the footsteps of the dead—of all the dead warriors and the steeds they rode, defiling over the sand before the unconquerable thing they perhaps thought that they had conquered. At last the footsteps died away. There was a silence. Then, coming down from the Great Pyramid, surely I heard the light patter of a donkey's feet. They went to the Sphinx and ceased. The silence was profound. And I remembered the legend that Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Child once halted here on their long journey, and that Mary laid the tired Christ between the paws of the Sphinx to sleep. Yet even of the Christ the soul within that body could take no heed at all.
It is, I think, one of the most astounding facts in the history of man that a man was able to contain within his mind, to conceive, the conception of the Sphinx. That he could carry it out in the stone is amazing. But how much more amazing it is that before there was the Sphinx he was able to see it with his imagination! One may criticize the Sphinx. One may say impertinent things that are true about it: that seen from behind at a distance its head looks like an enormous mushroom growing in the sand, that its cheeks are swelled inordinately, that its thick-lipped mouth is legal, that from certain places it bears a resemblance to a prize bull-dog. All this does not matter at all. What does matter is that into the conception and execution of the Sphinx has been poured a supreme imaginative power. He who created it looked beyond Egypt, beyond the life of man. He grasped the conception of Eternity, and realized the nothingness of Time, and he rendered it in stone.
I can imagine the most determined atheist looking at the Sphinx and, in a flash, not merely believing, but feeling that he had before him proof of the life of the soul beyond the grave, of the life of the soul of Khufu beyond the tomb of his Pyramid. Always as you return to the Sphinx you wonder at it more, you adore more strangely its repose, you steep yourself more intimately in the aloof peace that seems to emanate from it as light emanates from the sun. And as you look on it at last perhaps you understand the infinite; you understand where is the bourne to which the finite flows with all its greatness, as the great Nile flows from beyond Victoria Nyanza to the sea.
And as the wonder of the Sphinx takes possession of you gradually, so gradually do you learn to feel the majesty of the Pyramids of Ghizeh. Unlike the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, which, even when one is near it, looks like a small mountain, part of the land on which it rests, the Pyramids of Ghizeh look what they are—artificial excrescences, invented and carried out by man, expressions of man's greatness. Exquisite as they are as features of the drowsy golden landscape at the setting of the sun, I think they look most wonderful at night, when they are black beneath the stars. On many nights I have sat in the sand at a distance and looked at them, and always, and increasingly, they have stirred my imagination. Their profound calm, their classical simplicity, are greatly emphasized when no detail can be seen, when they are but black shapes towering to the stars. They seem to aspire then like prayers prayed by one who has said, "God does not need any prayers, but I need them." In their simplicity they suggest a crowd of thoughts and of desires. Guy de Maupassant has said that of all the arts architecture is perhaps the most aesthetic, the most mysterious, and the most nourished by ideas. How true this is you feel as you look at the Great Pyramid by night. It seems to breathe out mystery. The immense base recalls to you the labyrinth within; the long descent from the tiny slit that gives you entrance, your uncertain steps in its hot, eternal night, your falls on the ice-like surfaces of its polished blocks of stone, the crushing weight that seemed to lie on your heart as you stole uncertainly on, summoned almost as by the desert; your sensation of being for ever imprisoned, taken and hidden by a monster from Egypt's wonderful light, as you stood in the central chamber, and realized the stone ocean into whose depths, like some intrepid diver, you had dared deliberately to come. And then your eyes travel up the slowly shrinking walls till they reach the dark point which is the top. There you stood with Abou, who spends half his life on the highest stone, hostages of the sun, bathed in light and air that perhaps came to you from the Gold Coast. And you saw men and camels like flies, and Cairo like a grey blur, and the Mokattam hills almost as a higher ridge of the sands. The mosque of Mohammed Ali was like a cup turned over. Far below slept the dead in that graveyard of the Sphinx, with its pale stones, its sand, its palm, its "Sycamores of the South," once worshipped and regarded as Hathor's living body. And beyond them on one side were the sleeping waters, with islands small, surely, as delicate Egyptian hands, and on the other the great desert that stretches, so the Bedouins say, on and on "for a march of a thousand days."
That base and that summit—what suggestion and what mystery in their contrast! What sober, eternal beauty in the dark line which unites them, now sharply, yet softly, defined against the night, which is purple as the one garment of the fellah! That line leads the soul irresistibly from earth to the stars.
It was the "Little Christmas" of the Egyptians as I rode to Sakkara, after seeing a wonderful feat, the ascent and descent of the second Pyramid in nineteen minutes by a young Bedouin called Mohammed Ali who very seriously informed me that the only Roumi who had ever reached the top was an "American gentlemens" called Mark Twain, on his first visit to Egypt. On his second visit, Ali said, Mr. Twain had a bad foot, and declared he could not be bothered with the second Pyramid. He had been up and down without a guide; he had disturbed the jackal which lives near its summit, and which I saw running in the sunshine as Ali drew near its lair, and he was satisfied to rest on his immortal laurels. To the Bedouins of the Pyramids Mark Twain's world-wide celebrity is owing to one fact alone: he is the only Roumi who has climbed the second Pyramid. That is why his name is known to every one.
It was the "Little Christmas," and from the villages in the plain the Egyptians came pouring out to visit their dead in the desert cemeteries as I passed by to visit the dead in the tombs far off on the horizon. Women, swathed in black, gathered in groups and jumped monotonously up and down, to the accompaniment of stained hands clapping, and strange and weary songs. Tiny children blew furiously into tin trumpets, emitting sounds that were terribly European. Men strode seriously by, or stood in knots among the graves, talking vivaciously of the things of this life. As the sun rose higher in the heavens, this visit to the dead became a carnival of the living. Laughter and shrill cries of merriment betokened the resignation of the mourners. The sand-dunes were black with running figures, racing, leaping, chasing one another, rolling over and over in the warm and golden grains. Some sat among the graves and ate. Some sang. Some danced. I saw no one praying, after the sun was up. The Great Pyramid of Ghizeh was transformed in this morning hour, and gleamed like a marble mountain, or like the hill covered with salt at El-Outaya, in Algeria. As we went on it sank down into the sands, until at last I could see only a small section with its top, which looked almost as pointed as a gigantic needle. Abou was there on the hot stones in the golden eye of the sun—Abou who lives to respect his Pyramid, and to serve Turkish coffee to those who are determined enough to climb it. Before me the Step Pyramid rose, brown almost as bronze, out of the sands here desolate and pallid. Soon I was in the house of Marriette, between the little sphinxes.
Near Cairo, although the desert is real desert, it does not give, to me, at any rate, the immense impression of naked sterility, of almost brassy, sun-baked fierceness, which often strikes one in the Sahara to the south of Algeria, where at midday one sometimes has a feeling of being lost upon a waste of metal, gleaming, angry, tigerish in color. Here, in Egypt, both the people and the desert seem gentler, safer, more amiable. Yet these tombs of Sakkara are hidden in a desolation of the sands, peculiarly blanched and mournful; and as you wander from tomb to tomb, descending and ascending, stealing through great galleries beneath the sands, creeping through tubes of stone, crouching almost on hands and knees in the sultry chambers of the dead, the awfulness of the passing away of dynasties and of race comes, like a cloud, upon your spirit. But this cloud lifts and floats from you in the cheerful tomb of Thi, that royal councillor, that scribe and confidant, whose life must have been passed in a round of serene activities, amid a sneering, though doubtless admiring, population.
Into this tomb of white, vivacious figures, gay almost, though never wholly frivolous—for these men were full of purpose, full of an ardor that seduces even where it seems grotesque—I took with me a child of ten called Ali, from the village of Kafiah; and as I looked from him to the walls around us, rather than the passing away of the races, I realized the persistence of type. For everywhere I saw the face of little Ali, with every feature exactly reproduced. Here he was bending over a sacrifice, leading a sacred bull, feeding geese from a cup, roasting a chicken, pulling a boat, carpentering, polishing, conducting a monkey for a walk, or merely sitting bolt upright and sneering. There were lines of little Alis with their hands held to their breasts, their faces in profile, their knees rigid, in the happy tomb of Thi; but he glanced at them unheeding, did not recognize his ancestors. And he did not care to penetrate into the tombs of Mera and Meri-Ra-ankh, into the Serapeum and the Mestaba of Ptah-hotep. Perhaps he was right. The Serapeum is grand in its vastness, with its long and high galleries and its mighty vaults containing the huge granite sarcophagi of the sacred bulls of Apis; Mera, red and white, welcomes you from an elevated niche benignly; Ptah-hotep, priest of the fifth dynasty, receives you, seated at a table that resembles a rake with long, yellow teeth standing on its handle, and drinking stiffly a cup of wine. You see upon the wall near by, with sympathy, a patient being plied by a naked and evidently an unyielding physician with medicine from a jar that might have been visited by Morgiana, a musician playing upon an instrument like a huge and stringless harp. But it is the happy tomb of Thi that lingers in your memory. In that tomb one sees proclaimed with a marvellous ingenuity and expressiveness the joy and the activity of life. Thi must have loved life; loved prayer and sacrifice, loved sport and war, loved feasting and gaiety, labor of the hands and of the head, loved the arts, the music of flute and harp, singing by the lingering and plaintive voices which seem to express the essence of the east, loved sweet odors, loved sweet women—do we not see him sitting to receive offerings with his wife beside him?—loved the clear nights and the radiant days that in Egypt make glad the heart of man. He must have loved the splendid gift of life, and used it completely. And so little Ali had very right to make his sole obeisance at Thi's delicious tomb, from which death itself seems banished by the soft and embracing radiance of the almost living walls.
This delicate cheerfulness, a quite airy gaiety of life, is often combined in Egypt, and most beautifully and happily combined, with tremendous solidity, heavy impressiveness, a hugeness that is well-nigh tragic; and it supplies a relief to eye, to mind, to soul, that is sweet and refreshing as the trickle of a tarantella from a reed flute heard under the shadows of a temple of Hercules. Life showers us with contrasts. Art, which gives to us a second and a more withdrawn life, opening to us a door through which we pass to our dreams, may well imitate life in this.
Through a long and golden noontide, and on into an afternoon whose opulence of warmth and light it seemed could never wane, I sat alone, or wandered gently quite alone, in the Temple of Seti I. at Abydos. Here again I was in a place of the dead. In Egypt one ever seeks the dead in the sunshine, black vaults in the land of the gold. But here in Abydos I was accompanied by whiteness. The general effect of Seti's mighty temple is that it is a white temple when seen in full sunshine and beneath a sky of blinding blue. In an arid place it stands, just beyond an Egyptian village that is a maze of dust, of children, of animals, and flies. The last blind houses of the village, brown as brown paper, confront it on a mound, and as I came toward it a girl-child swathed in purple with ear-rings, and a twist of orange handkerchief above her eyes, full of cloud and fire, leaned from a roof, sinuously as a young snake, to watch me. On each side, descending, were white, ruined walls, stretched out like defaced white arms of the temple to receive me. I stood still for a moment and looked at the narrow, severely simple doorway, at the twelve broken columns advanced on either side, white and greyish white with their right angles, their once painted figures now almost wholly colorless.
Here lay the Osirians, those blessed dead of the land of Egypt, who worshipped the Judge of the Dead, the Lord of the Underworld, and who hoped for immortality through him—Osiris, husband of Isis, Osiris, receiver of prayers. Osiris the sun who will not be conquered by night, but eternally rises again, and so is the symbol of the resurrection of the soul. It is said that Set, the power of Evil, tore the body of Osiris into fourteen fragments and scattered them over the land. But multitudes of worshippers of Osiris believed him buried near Abydos and, like those who loved the sweet songs of Hafiz, they desired to be buried near him whom they adored; and so this place became a place of the dead, a place of many prayers, a white place of many longings.
I was glad to be alone there. The guardian left me in perfect peace. I happily forgot him. I sat down in the shadow of a column upon its mighty projecting base. The sky was blinding blue. Great bees hummed, like bourdons, through the silence, deepening the almost heavy calm. These columns, architraves, doorways, how mighty, how grandly strong they were! And yet soon I began to be aware that even here, where surely one should read only the Book of the Dead, or bend down to the hot ground to listen if perchance one might hear the dead themselves murmuring over the chapters of Beatification far down in their hidden tombs, there was a likeness, a gentle gaiety of life, as in the tomb of Thi. The effect of solidity was immense. These columns bulged, almost like great fruits swollen out by their heady strength of blood. They towered up in crowds. The heavy roof, broken in places most mercifully to show squares and oblongs of that perfect, calling blue, was like a frowning brow. And yet I was with grace, with gentleness, with lightness, because in the place of the dead I was again with the happy, living walls. Above me, on the roof, there was a gleam of palest blue, like the blue I have sometimes seen at morning on the Ionian sea just where it meets the shore. The double rows of gigantic columns stretched away, tall almost as forest trees, to right of me and to left, and were shut in by massive walls, strong as the walls of a fortress. And on these columns, and on these walls, dead painters and gravers had breathed the sweet breath of life. Here in the sun, for me alone, as it seemed, a population followed their occupations. Men walked, and kneeled, and stood, some white and clothed, some nude, some red as the red man's child that leaped beyond the sea. And here was the lotus-flower held in reverent hands, not the rose-lotus, but the blossom that typified the rising again of the sun, and that, worn as an amulet, signified the gift of eternal youth. And here was hawk-faced Horus, and here a priest offering sacrifice to a god, belief in whom has long since passed away. A king revealed himself to me, adoring Ptah, "Father of the beginnings," who established upon earth, my figures thought, the everlasting justice, and again at the knees of Amen burning incense in his honor. Isis and Osiris stood together, and sacrifice was made before their sacred bark. And Seti worshipped them, and Seshta, goddess of learning, wrote in the book of eternity the name of the king.
The great bees hummed, moving slowly in the golden air among the mighty columns, passing slowly among these records of lives long over, but which seemed still to be. And I looked at the lotus-flowers which the little grotesque hands were holding, had been holding for how many years—the flowers that typified the rising again of the sun and the divine gift of eternal youth. And I thought of the bird and the Sphinx, the thing that was whimsical wooing the thing that was mighty. And I gazed at the immense columns and at the light and little figures all about me. Bird and Sphinx, delicate whimsicality, calm and terrific power! In Egypt the dead men have combined them, and the combination has an irresistible fascination, weaves a spell that entrances you in the sunshine and beneath the blinding blue. At Abydos I knew it. And I loved the columns that seemed blown out with exuberant strength, and I loved the delicate white walls that, like the lotus-flower, give to the world a youth that seems eternal—a youth that is never frivolous, but that is full of the divine, and yet pathetic, animation of happy life.
The great bees hummed more drowsily. I sat quite still in the sun. And then presently, moved by some prompting instinct, I turned my head, and, far off, through the narrow portal of the temple, I saw the girl-child swathed in purple still lying, sinuously as a young snake, upon the palm-wood roof above the brown earth wall to watch me with her eyes of cloud and fire.
And upon me, like cloud and fire—cloud of the tombs and the great temple columns, fire of the brilliant life painted and engraved upon them—there stole the spell of Egypt.
I do not find in Egypt any more the strangeness that once amazed, and at first almost bewildered me. Stranger by far is Morocco, stranger the country beyond Biskra, near Mogar, round Touggourt, even about El Kantara. There I feel very far away, as a child feels distance from dear, familiar things. I look to the horizon expectant of I know not what magical occurrences, what mysteries. I am aware of the summons to advance to marvellous lands, where marvellous things must happen. I am taken by that sensation of almost trembling magic which came to me when first I saw a mirage far out in the Sahara. But Egypt, though it contains so many marvels, has no longer for me the marvellous atmosphere. Its keynote is seductiveness.
In Egypt one feels very safe. Smiling policemen in clothes of spotless white—emblematic, surely, of their innocence!—seem to be everywhere, standing calmly in the sun. Very gentle, very tender, although perhaps not very true, are the Bedouins at the Pyramids. Up the Nile the fellaheen smile as kindly as the policemen, smile protectingly upon you, as if they would say, "Allah has placed us here to take care of the confiding stranger." No ferocious demands for money fall upon my ears; only an occasional suggestion is subtly conveyed to me that even the poor must live and that I am immensely rich. An amiable, an almost enticing seductiveness seems emanating from the fertile soil, shining in the golden air, gleaming softly in the amber sands, dimpling in the brown, the mauve, the silver eddies of the Nile. It steals upon one. It ripples over one. It laps one as if with warm and scented waves. A sort of lustrous languor overtakes one. In physical well-being one sinks down, and with wide eyes one gazes and listens and enjoys, and thinks not of the morrow.
The dahabiyeh—her very name, the Loulia, has a gentle, seductive, cooing sound—drifts broadside to the current with furled sails, or glides smoothly on before an amiable north wind with sails unfurled. Upon the bloomy banks, rich brown in color, the brown men stoop and straighten themselves, and stoop again, and sing. The sun gleams on their copper skins, which look polished and metallic. Crouched in his net behind the drowsy oxen, the little boy circles the livelong day with the sakieh. And the sakieh raises its wailing, wayward voice and sings to the shadoof; and the shadoof sings to the sakieh; and the lifted water falls and flows away into the green wilderness of doura that, like a miniature forest, spreads on every hand to the low mountains, which do not perturb the spirit, as do the iron mountains of Algeria. And always the sun is shining, and the body is drinking in its warmth, and the soul is drinking in its gold. And always the ears are full of warm and drowsy and monotonous music. And always the eyes see the lines of brown bodies, on the brown river-banks above the brown waters, bending, straightening, bending, straightening, with an exquisitely precise monotony. And always the Loulia seems to be drifting, so quietly she slips up, or down, the level waterway.
And one drifts, too; one can but drift, happily, sleepily, forgetting every care. From Abydos to Denderah one drifts, and from Denderah to Karnak, to Luxor, to all the marvels on the western shore; and on to Edfu, to Kom Ombos, to Assuan, and perhaps even into Nubia, to Abu-Simbel, and to Wadi-Halfa. Life on the Nile is a long dream, golden and sweet as honey of Hymettus. For I let the "divine serpent," who at Philae may be seen issuing from her charmed cavern, take me very quietly to see the abodes of the dead, the halls of the vanished, upon her green and sterile shores. I know nothing of the bustling, shrieking steamer that defies her, churning into angry waves her waters for the edification of those who would "do" Egypt and be gone before they know her.
If you are in a hurry, do not come to Egypt. To hurry in Egypt is as wrong as to fall asleep in Wall street, or to sit in the Greek Theatre at Taormina, reading "How to Make a Fortune with a Capital of Fifty Pounds."
From Abydos, home of the cult of Osiris, Judge of the Dead, I came to Denderah, the great temple of the "Lady of the Underworld," as the goddess Hathor was sometimes called, though she was usually worshipped as the Egyptian Aphrodite, goddess of joy, goddess of love and loveliness. It was early morning when I went ashore. The sun was above the eastern hills, and a boy, clad in a rope of plaited grass, sent me half shyly the greeting, "May your day be happy!"
Youth is, perhaps, the most divine of all the gifts of the gods, as those who wore the lotus-blossom amulet believed thousands of years ago, and Denderah, appropriately, is a very young Egyptian temple, probably, indeed, the youngest of all the temples on the Nile. Its youthfulness—it is only about two thousand years of age—identifies it happily with the happiness and beauty of its presiding deity, and as I rode toward it on the canal-bank in the young freshness of the morning, I thought of the goddess Safekh and of the sacred Persea-tree. When Safekh inscribed upon a leaf of the Persea-tree the name of king or conqueror, he gained everlasting life. Was it the life of youth? An everlasting life of middle age might be a doubtful benefit. And then mentally I added, "unless one lived in Egypt." For here the years drop from one, and every golden hour brings to one surely another drop of the wondrous essence that sets time at defiance and charms sad thoughts away.
Unlike White Abydos, White Denderah stands apart from habitations, in a still solitude upon a blackened mound. From far off I saw the facade, large, bare, and sober, rising, in a nakedness as complete as that of Aphrodite rising from the wave, out of the plain of brown, alluvial soil that was broken here and there by a sharp green of growing things. There was something of sadness in the scene, and again I thought of Hathor as the "Lady of the Underworld," some deep-eyed being, with a pale brow, hair like the night, and yearning, wistful hands stretched out in supplication. There was a hush upon this place. The loud and vehement cry of the shadoof-man died away. The sakieh droned in my ears no more like distant Sicilian pipes playing at Natale. I felt a breath from the desert. And, indeed, the desert was near—that realistic desert which suggests to the traveller approaches to the sea, so that beyond each pallid dune, as he draws near it, he half expects to hear the lapping of the waves. Presently, when, having ascended that marvellous staircase of the New Year, walking in procession with the priests upon its walls toward the rays of Ra, I came out upon the temple roof, and looked upon the desert—upon sheeny sands, almost like slopes of satin shining in the sun, upon paler sands in the distance, holding an Arab campo santo, in which rose the little creamy cupolas of a sheikh's tomb, surrounded by a creamy wall, those little cupolas gave to me a feeling of the real, the irresistible Africa such as I had not known since I had been in Egypt; and I thought I heard in the distance the ceaseless hum of praying and praising voices.
"God hath rewarded the faithful with gardens through which flow rivulets. They shall be for ever therein, and that is the reward of the virtuous."
The sensation of solemnity which overtook me as I approached the temple deepened when I drew close to it, when I stood within it. In the first hall, mighty, magnificent, full of enormous columns from which faces of Hathor once looked to the four points of the compass, I found only one face almost complete, saved from the fury of fanatics by the protection of the goddess of chance, in whom the modern Egyptian so implicitly believes. In shape it was a delicate oval. In the long eyes, about the brow, the cheeks, there was a strained expression that suggested to me more than a gravity—almost an anguish—of spirit. As I looked at it, I thought of Eleanora Duse. Was this the ideal of joy in the time of the Ptolemies? Joy may be rapturous, or it may be serene; but could it ever be like this? The pale, delicious blue that here and there, in tiny sections, broke the almost haggard, greyish whiteness of this first hall with the roof of black, like bits of an evening sky seen through tiny window-slits in a sombre room, suggested joy, was joy summed up in color. But Hathor's face was weariful and sad.
From the gloom of the inner halls came a sound, loud, angry, menacing, as I walked on, a sound of menace and an odor, heavy and deathlike. Only in the first hall had those builders and decorators of two thousand years ago been moved by their conception of the goddess to hail her, to worship her, with the purity of white, with the sweet gaiety of turquoise. Or so it seems to-day, when the passion of Christianity against Hathor has spent itself and died. Now Christians come to seek what Christian Copts destroyed; wander through the deserted courts, desirous of looking upon the faces that have long since been hacked to pieces. A more benign spirit informs our world, but, alas! Hathor has been sacrificed to deviltries of old. And it is well, perhaps, that her temple should be sad, like a place of silent waiting for the glories that are gone.
With every step my melancholy grew. Encompassed by gloomy odors, assailed by the clamour of gigantic bats, which flew furiously among the monstrous pillars near a roof ominous as a storm-cloud, my spirit was haunted by the sad eyes of Hathor, which gaze for ever from that column in the first hall. Were they always like that? Once that face dwelt with a crowd of worship. And all the other faces have gone, and all the glory has passed. And, like so many of the living, the goddess has paid for her splendors. The pendulum swung, and where men adored, men hated her—her the goddess of love and loveliness. And as the human face changes when terror and sorrow come, I felt as if Hathor's face of stone had changed upon its column, looking toward the Nile, in obedience to the anguish in her heart; I felt as if Denderah were a majestic house of grief. So I must always think of it, dark, tragic, and superb. The Egyptians once believed that when death came to a man, the soul of him, which they called the Ba, winged its way to the gods, but that, moved by a sweet unselfishness, it returned sometimes to his tomb, to give comfort to the poor, deserted mummy. Upon the lids of sarcophagi it is sometimes represented as a bird, flying down to, or resting upon, the mummy. As I went onward in the darkness, among the columns, over the blocks of stone that form the pavements, seeing vaguely the sacred boats upon the walls, Horus and Thoth, the king before Osiris; as I mounted and descended with the priests to roof and floor, I longed, instead of the clamour of the bats, to hear the light flutter of the soft wings of the Ba of Hathor, flying from Paradise to this sad temple of the desert to bring her comfort in the gloom. I thought of her as a poor woman, suffering as only women can in loneliness.
In the museum of Cairo there is the mummy of "the lady Amanit, priestess of Hathor." She lies there upon her back, with her thin body slightly turned toward the left side, as if in an effort to change her position. Her head is completely turned to the same side. Her mouth is wide open, showing all the teeth. The tongue is lolling out. Upon the head the thin, brown hair makes a line above the little ear, and is mingled at the back of the head with false tresses. Round the neck is a mass of ornaments, of amulets and beads. The right arm and hand lie along the body. The expression of "the lady Amanit" is very strange, and very subtle; for it combines horror—which implies activity—with a profound, an impenetrable repose, far beyond the reach of all disturbance. In the temple of Denderah I fancied the lady Amanit ministering sadly, even terribly, to a lonely goddess, moving in fear through an eternal gloom, dying at last there, overwhelmed by tasks too heavy for that tiny body, the ultra-sensitive spirit that inhabited it. And now she sleeps—one feels that, as one gazes at the mummy—very profoundly, though not yet very calmly, the lady Amanit. But her goddess—still she wakes upon her column.
When I came out at last into the sunlight of the growing day, I circled the temple, skirting its gigantic, corniced walls, from which at intervals the heads and paws of resting lions protrude, to see another woman whose fame for loveliness and seduction is almost as legendary as Aphrodite's. It is fitting enough that Cleopatra's form should be graven upon the temple of Hathor; fitting, also, that though I found her in the presence of deities, and in the company of her son, Caesarion, her face, which is in profile, should have nothing of Hathor's sad impressiveness. This, no doubt, is not the real Cleopatra. Nevertheless, this face suggests a certain self-complacent cruelty and sensuality essentially human, and utterly detached from all divinity, whereas in the face of the goddess there is a something remote, and even distantly intellectual, which calls the imagination to "the fields beyond."
As I rode back toward the river, I saw again the boy clad in the rope of plaited grass, and again he said, less shyly, "May your day be happy!" It was a kindly wish. In the dawn I had felt it to be almost a prophecy. But now I was haunted by the face of the goddess of Denderah, and I remembered the legend of the lovely Lais, who, when she began to age, covered herself from the eyes of men with a veil, and went every day at evening to look upon her statue, in which the genius of Praxiteles had rendered permanent the beauty the woman could not keep. One evening, hanging to the statue's pedestal by a garland of red roses, the sculptor found a mirror, upon the polished disk of which were traced these words:
"Lais, O Goddess, consecrates to thee her mirror: no longer able to see there what she was, she will not see there what she has become."
My Hathor of Denderah, the sad-eyed dweller on the column in the first hall, had she a mirror, would surely hang it, as Lais hung hers, at the foot of the pedestal of the Egyptian Aphrodite; had she a veil, would surely cover the face that, solitary among the cruel evidences of Christian ferocity, silently says to the gloomy courts, to the shining desert and the Nile:
"Once I was worshipped, but I am worshipped no longer."
Buildings have personalities. Some fascinate as beautiful women fascinate; some charm as a child may charm, naively, simply, but irresistibly. Some, like conquerors, men of blood and iron, without bowels of mercy, pitiless and determined, strike awe to the soul, mingled with the almost gasping admiration that power wakes in man. Some bring a sense of heavenly peace to the heart. Some, like certain temples of the Greeks, by their immense dignity, speak to the nature almost as music speaks, and change anxiety to trust. Some tug at the hidden chords of romance and rouse a trembling response. Some seem to be mingling their tears with the tears of the dead; some their laughter with the laughter of the living. The traveller, sailing up the Nile, holds intercourse with many of these different personalities. He is sad, perhaps, as I was with Denderah; dreams in the sun with Abydos; muses with Luxor beneath the little tapering minaret whence the call to prayer drops down to be answered by the angelus bell; falls into a reverie in the "thinking place" of Rameses II., near to the giant that was once the mightiest of all Egyptian statues; eagerly wakes to the fascination of record at Deir-el-Bahari; worships in Edfu; by Philae is carried into a realm of delicate magic, where engineers are not. Each prompts him to a different mood, each wakes in his nature a different response. And at Karnak what is he? What mood enfolds him there? Is he sad, thoughtful, awed, or gay?
An old lady in a helmet, and other things considered no doubt by her as suited to Egypt rather than to herself, remarked in my hearing, with a Scotch accent and an air of summing up, that Karnak was "very nice indeed." There she was wrong—Scotch and wrong. Karnak is not nice. No temple that I have seen upon the banks of the Nile is nice. And Karnak cannot be summed up in a phrase or in many phrases; cannot even be adequately described in few or many words.
Long ago I saw it lighted up with colored fires one night for the Khedive, its ravaged magnificence tinted with rose and livid green and blue, its pylons glittering with artificial gold, its population of statues, its obelisks, and columns, changing from things of dreams to things of day, from twilight marvels to shadowy specters, and from these to hard and piercing realities at the cruel will of pigmies crouching by its walls. Now, after many years, I saw it first quietly by moonlight after watching the sunset from the summit of the great pylon. That was a pageant worth more than the Khedive's.
I was in the air; had something of the released feeling I have often known upon the tower of Biskra, looking out toward evening to the Sahara spaces. But here I was not confronted with an immensity of nature, but with a gleaming river and an immensity of man. Beneath me was the native village, in the heart of daylight dusty and unkempt, but now becoming charged with velvety beauty, with the soft and heavy mystery that at evening is born among great palm-trees. Along the path that led from it, coming toward the avenue of sphinxes with ram's-heads that watch for ever before the temple door, a great white camel stepped, its rider a tiny child with a close, white cap upon his head. The child was singing to the glory of the sunset, or was it to the glory of Amun, "the hidden one," once the local god of Thebes, to whom the grandest temple in the world was dedicated? I listen to the childish, quavering voice, twittering almost like a bird, and one word alone came up to me—the word one hears in Egypt from all the lips that speak and sing: from the Nubians round their fires at night, from the little boatmen of the lower reaches of the Nile, from the Bedouins of the desert, and the donkey boys of the villages, from the sheikh who reads one's future in water spilt on a plate, and the Bisharin with buttered curls who runs to sell one beads from his tent among the sand-dunes.
"Allah!" the child was singing as he passed upon his way.
Pigeons circled above their pretty towers. The bats came out, as if they knew how precious is their black at evening against the ethereal lemon color, the orange and the red. The little obelisk beyond the last sphinx on the left began to change, as in Egypt all things change at sunset—pylon and dusty bush, colossus and baked earth hovel, sycamore, and tamarisk, statue and trotting donkey. It looked like a mysterious finger pointed in warning toward the sky. The Nile began to gleam. Upon its steel and silver torches of amber flame were lighted. The Libyan mountains became spectral beyond the tombs of the kings. The tiny, rough cupolas that mark a grave close to the sphinxes, in daytime dingy and poor, now seemed made of some splendid material worthy to roof the mummy of a king. Far off a pool of the Nile, that from here looked like a little palm-fringed lake, turned ruby-red. The flags from the standard of Luxor, among the minarets, flew out straight against a sky that was pale as a primrose almost cold in its amazing delicacy.
I turned, and behind me the moon was risen. Already its silver rays fell upon the ruins of Karnak; upon the thickets of lotus columns; upon solitary gateways that now give entrance to no courts; upon the sacred lake, with its reeds, where the black water-fowl were asleep; upon sloping walls, shored up by enormous stanchions, like ribs of some prehistoric leviathan; upon small chambers; upon fallen blocks of masonry, fragments of architrave and pavement, of capital and cornice; and upon the people of Karnak—those fascinating people who still cling to their habitation in the ruins, faithful through misfortune, affectionate with a steadfastness that defies the cruelty of Time; upon the little, lonely white sphinx with the woman's face and the downward-sloping eyes full of sleepy seduction; upon Rameses II., with the face of a kindly child, not of a king; upon the Sphinx, bereft of its companion, which crouches before the kiosk of Taharga, the King of Ethiopia; upon those two who stand together as if devoted, yet by their attitudes seem to express characters diametrically opposed, grey men and vivid, the one with folded arms calling to Peace, the other with arms stretched down in a gesture of crude determination, summoning War, as if from the underworld; upon the granite foot and ankle in the temple of Rameses III., which in their perfection, like the headless Victory in Paris, and the Niobide Chiaramonti in the Vatican, suggest a great personality that once met with is not to be forgotten: upon these and their companions, who would not forsake the halls and courts where once they dwelt with splendor, where now they dwell with ruin that attracts the gaping world. The moon was risen, but the west was still full of color and light. It faded. There was a pause. Only a bar of dull red, holding a hint of brown, by where the sun had sunk. And minutes passed—minutes for me full of silent expectation, while the moonlight grew a little stronger, a few more silver rays slipped down upon the ruins. I turned toward the east. And then came that curious crescendo of color and of light which, in Egypt, succeeds the diminuendo of color and of light that is the prelude to the pause before the afterglow. Everything seemed to be in subtle movement, heaving as a breast heaves with the breath; swelling slightly, as if in an effort to be more, to attract attention, to gain in significance. Pale things became livid, holding apparently some under-brightness which partly penetrated its envelope, but a brightness that was white and almost frightful. Black things seemed to glow with blackness. The air quivered. Its silence surely thrilled with sound—with sound that grew ever louder.
In the east I saw an effect. To the west I turned for the cause. The sunset light was returning. Horus would not permit Tum to reign even for a few brief moments, and Khuns, the sacred god of the moon, would be witness of a conflict in that lovely western region of the ocean of the sky where the bark of the sun had floated away beneath the mountain rim upon the red-and-orange tides. The afterglow was like an exquisite spasm, is always like an exquisite spasm, a beautiful, almost desperate effort ending in the quiet darkness of defeat. And through that spasmodic effort a world lived for some minutes with a life that seemed unreal, startling, magical. Color returned to the sky—color ethereal, trembling as if it knew it ought not to return. Yet it stayed for a while and even glowed, though it looked always strangely purified, and full of a crystal coldness. The birds that flew against it were no longer birds, but dark, moving ornaments, devised surely by a supreme artist to heighten here and there the beauty of the sky. Everything that moved against the afterglow—man, woman, child, camel and donkey, dog and goat, languishing buffalo, and plunging horse—became at once an ornament, invented, I fancied, by a genius to emphasize, by relieving it, the color in which the sky was drowned. And Khuns watched serenely, as if he knew the end. And almost suddenly the miraculous effort failed. Things again revealed their truth, whether commonplace or not. That pool of the Nile was no more a red jewel set in a feathery pattern of strange design, but only water fading from my sight beyond a group of palms. And that below me was only a camel going homeward, and that a child leading a bronze-colored sheep with a curly coat, and that a dusty, flat-roofed hovel, not the fairy home of jinn, or the abode of some magician working marvels with the sun-rays he had gathered in his net. The air was no longer thrilling with music. The breast that had heaved with a divine breath was still as the breast of a corpse.
And Khuns reigned quietly over the plains of Karnak.
Karnak has no distinctive personality. Built under many kings, its ruins are as complex as were probably once its completed temples, with their shrines, their towers, their courts, their hypo-style halls. As I looked down that evening in the moonlight I saw, softened and made more touching than in day-time, those alluring complexities, brought by the night and Khuns into a unity that was both tender and superb. Masses of masonry lay jumbled in shadow and in silver; gigantic walls cast sharply defined gloom; obelisks pointed significantly to the sky, seeming, as they always do, to be murmuring a message; huge doorways stood up like giants unafraid of their loneliness and yet pathetic in it; here was a watching statue, there one that seemed to sleep, seen from afar. Yonder Queen Hatshepsu, who wrought wonders at Deir-el-Bahari, and who is more familiar perhaps as Hatasu, had left there traces, and nearer, to the right, Rameses III. had made a temple, surely for the birds, so fond they are of it, so pertinaciously they haunt it. Rameses II., mutilated and immense, stood on guard before the terrific hall of Seti I.; and between him and my platform in the air rose the solitary lotus column that prepares you for the wonder of Seti's hall, which otherwise might almost overwhelm you—unless you are a Scotch lady in a helmet. And Khuns had his temple here by the Sphinx of the twelfth Rameses, and Ptah, who created "the sun egg and the moon egg," and who was said—only said, alas!—to have established on earth the "everlasting justice," had his, and still their stones receive the silver moon-rays and wake the wonder of men. Thothmes III., Thothmes I., Shishak, who smote the kneeling prisoners and vanquished Jeroboam, Medamut and Mut, Amenhotep I., and Amenhotep II.—all have left their records or been celebrated at Karnak. Purposely I mingled them in my mind—did not attempt to put them in their proper order, or even to disentangle gods and goddesses from conquerors and kings. In the warm and seductive night Khuns whispered to me: "As long ago at Bekhten I exorcised the demon from the suffering Princess, so now I exorcise from these ruins all spirits but my own. To-night these ruins shall suggest nothing but majesty, tranquillity, and beauty. Their records are for Ra, and must be studied by his rays. In mine they shall speak not to the intellectual, but only to the emotions and the soul."
And presently I went down, and yielding a complete and happy obedience to Khuns, I wandered along through the stupendous vestiges of past eras, dead ambitions, vanished glory, and long-outworn belief, and I ignored eras, ambitions, glory, and belief, and thought only of form, and height, of the miracle of blackness against silver, and of the pathos of statues whose ever-open eyes at night, when one is near them, suggest the working of some evil spell, perpetual watchfulness, combined with eternal inactivity, the unslumbering mind caged in the body that is paralysed.
There is a temple at Karnak that I love, and I scarcely know why I care for it so much. It is on the right of the solitary lotus column before you come to the terrific hall of Seti. Some people pass it by, having but little time, and being hypnotized, it seems, by the more astounding ruin that lies beyond it. And perhaps it would be well, on a first visit, to enter it last; to let its influence be the final one to rest upon your spirit. This is the temple of Rameses III., a brown place of calm and retirement, an ineffable place of peace. Yes, though the birds love it and fill it often with their voices, it is a sanctuary of peace. Upon the floor the soft sand lies, placing silence beneath your footsteps. The pale brown of walls and columns, almost yellow in the sunshine, is delicate and soothing, and inclines the heart to calm. Delicious, suggestive of a beautiful tapestry, rich and ornate, yet always quiet, are the brown reliefs upon the stone. What are they? Does it matter? They soften the walls, make them more personal, more tender. That surely is their mission. This temple holds for me a spell. As soon as I enter it, I feel the touch of the lotus, as if an invisible and kindly hand swept a blossom lightly across my face and downward to my heart. This courtyard, these small chambers beyond it, that last doorway framing a lovely darkness, soothe me even more than the terra-cotta hermitages of the Certosa of Pavia. And all the statues here are calm with an irrevocable calmness, faithful through passing years with a very sober faithfulness to the temple they adorn. In no other place, one feels it, could they be thus at peace, with hands crossed for ever upon their breasts, which are torn by no anxieties, thrilled by no joys. As one stands among them or sitting on the base of a column in the chamber that lies beyond them, looks on them from a little distance, their attitude is like a summons to men to contend no more, to be still, to enter into rest.
Come to this temple when you leave the hall of Seti. There you are in a place of triumph. Scarlet, some say, is the color of a great note sounded on a bugle. This hall is like a bugle-call of the past, thrilling even now down all the ages with a triumph that is surely greater than any other triumphs. It suggests blaze—blaze of scarlet, blaze of bugle, blaze of glory, blaze of life and time, of ambition and achievement. In these columns, in the putting up of them, dead men sought to climb to sun and stars, limitless in desire, limitless in industry, limitless in will. And at the tops of the columns blooms the lotus, the symbol of rising. What a triumph in stone this hall was once, what a triumph in stone its ruin is to-day! Perhaps, among temples, it is the most wondrous thing in all Egypt, as it was, no doubt, the most wondrous temple in the world; among temples I say, for the Sphinx is of all the marvels of Egypt by far the most marvellous. The grandeur of this hall almost moves one to tears, like the marching past of conquerors, stirs the heart with leaping thrills at the capacities of men. Through the thicket of columns, tall as forest trees, the intense blue of the African sky stares down, and their great shadows lie along the warm and sunlit ground. Listen! There are voices chanting. Men are working here—working as men worked how many thousands of years ago. But these are calling upon the Mohammedan's god as they slowly drag to the appointed places the mighty blocks of stone. And it is to-day a Frenchman who oversees them.
"Help! Help! Allah give us help! Help! Help! Allah give us help!"
The dust flies up about their naked feet. Triumph and work; work succeeded by the triumph all can see. I like to hear the workmen's voices within the hall of Seti. I like to see the dust stirred by their tramping feet.
And then I like to go once more to the little temple, to enter through its defaced gateway, to stand alone in its silence between the rows of statues with their arms folded upon their quiet breasts, to gaze into the tender darkness beyond—the darkness that looks consecrated—to feel that peace is more wonderful than triumph, that the end of things is peace.
Triumph and deathless peace, the bugle-call and silence—these are the notes of Karnak.
Upon the wall of the great court of Amenhotep III. in the temple of Luxor there is a delicious dancing procession in honor of Rameses II. It is very funny and very happy; full of the joy of life—a sort of radiant cake-walk of old Egyptian days. How supple are these dancers! They seem to have no bones. One after another they come in line upon the mighty wall, and each one bends backward to the knees of the one who follows. As I stood and looked at them for the first time, almost I heard the twitter of flutes, the rustic wail of the African hautboy, the monotonous boom of the derabukkeh, cries of a far-off gaiety such as one often hears from the Nile by night. But these cries came down the long avenues of the centuries; this gaiety was distant in the vasty halls of the long-dead years. Never can I think of Luxor without thinking of those happy dancers, without thinking of the life that goes in the sun on dancing feet.
There are a few places in the world that one associates with happiness, that one remembers always with a smile, a little thrill at the heart that whispers "There joy is." Of these few places Luxor is one—Luxor the home of sunshine, the suave abode of light, of warmth, of the sweet days of gold and sheeny, golden sunsets, of silver, shimmering nights through which the songs of the boatmen of the Nile go floating to the courts and the tombs of Thebes. The roses bloom in Luxor under the mighty palms. Always surely beneath the palms there are the roses. And the lateen-sails come up the Nile, looking like white-winged promises of future golden days. And at dawn one wakes with hope and hears the songs of the dawn; and at noon one dreams of the happiness to come; and at sunset one is swept away on the gold into the heart of the golden world; and at night one looks at the stars, and each star is a twinkling hope. Soft are the airs of Luxor; there is no harshness in the wind that stirs the leaves of the palms. And the land is steeped in light. From Luxor one goes with regret. One returns to it with joy on dancing feet.
One day I sat in the temple, in the huge court with the great double row of columns that stands on the banks of the Nile and looks so splendid from it. The pale brown of the stone became almost yellow in the sunshine. From the river, hidden from me stole up the songs of the boatmen. Nearer at hand I heard pigeons cooing, cooing in the sun, as if almost too glad, and seeking to manifest their gladness. Behind me, through the columns, peeped some houses of the village: the white home of Ibrahim Ayyad, the perfect dragoman, grandson of Mustapha Aga, who entertained me years ago, and whose house stood actually within the precincts of the temple; houses of other fortunate dwellers in Luxor whose names I do not know. For the village of Luxor crowds boldly about the temple, and the children play in the dust almost at the foot of the obelisks and statues. High on a brown hump of earth a buffalo stood alone, languishing serenely in the sun, gazing at me through the columns with light eyes that were full of a sort of folly of contentment. Some goats tripped by, brown against the brown stone—the dark brown earth of the native houses. Intimate life was here, striking the note of coziness of Luxor. Here was none of the sadness and the majesty of Denderah. Grand are the ruins of Luxor, noble is the line of columns that boldly fronts the Nile, but Time has given them naked to the air and to the sun, to children and to animals. Instead of bats, the pigeons fly about them. There is no dreadful darkness in their sanctuaries. Before them the life of the river, behind them the life of the village flows and stirs. Upon them looks down the Minaret of Abu Haggag; and as I sat in the sunshine, the warmth of which began to lessen, I saw upon its lofty circular balcony the figure of the muezzin. He leaned over, bending toward the temple and the statues of Rameses II. and the happy dancers on the wall. He opened his lips and cried to them:
"God is great. God is great . . . I bear witness that there is no god but God. . . . I bear witness that Mohammed is the Apostle of God. . . . Come to prayer! Come to prayer! . . . God is great. God is great. There is no god but God."
He circled round the minaret. He cried to the Nile. He cried to the Colossi sitting in their plain, and to the yellow precipices of the mountains of Libya. He cried to Egypt:
"Come to prayer! Come to prayer! There is no god but God. There is no god but God."
The days of the gods were dead, and their ruined temple echoed with the proclamation of the one god of the Moslem world. "Come to prayer! Come to prayer!" The sun began to sink.
"Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me."
The voice of the muezzin died away. There was a silence; and then, as if in answer to the cry from the minaret, I heard the chime of the angelus bell from the Catholic church of Luxor.
"Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark."
I sat very still. The light was fading; all the yellow was fading, too, from the columns and the temple walls. I stayed till it was dark; and with the dark the old gods seemed to resume their interrupted sway. And surely they, too, called to prayer. For do not these ruins of old Egypt, like the muezzin upon the minaret, like the angelus bell in the church tower, call one to prayer in the night? So wonderful are they under stars and moon that they stir the fleshly and the worldly desires that lie like drifted leaves about the reverence and the aspiration that are the hidden core of the heart. And it is released from its burden; and it awakes and prays.
Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khuns, the king of the gods, his wife, mother of gods, and the moon god, were the Theban triad to whom the holy buildings of Thebes on the two banks of the Nile were dedicated; and this temple of Luxor, the "House of Amun in the Southern Apt," was built fifteen hundred years before Christ by Amenhotep III. Rameses II., that vehement builder, added to it immensely. One walks among his traces when one walks in Luxor. And here, as at Denderah, Christians have let loose the fury that should have had no place in their religion. Churches for their worship they made in different parts of the temple, and when they were not praying, they broke in pieces statues, defaced bas-reliefs, and smashed up shrines with a vigor quite as great as that displayed in preservation by Christians of to-day. Now time has called a truce. Safe are the statues that are left. And day by day two great religions, almost as if in happy brotherly love, send forth their summons by the temple walls. And just beyond those walls, upon the hill, there is a Coptic church. Peace reigns in happy Luxor. The lion lies down with the lamb, and the child, if it will, may harmlessly put its hand into the cockatrice's den.
Perhaps because it is so surrounded, so haunted by life and familiar things, because the pigeons fly about it, the buffalo stares into it, the goats stir up the dust beside its columns, the twittering voices of women make a music near its courts, many people pay little heed to this great temple, gain but a small impression from it. It decorates the bank of the Nile. You can see it from the dahabiyehs. For many that is enough. Yet the temple is a noble one, and, for me, it gains a definite attraction all its own from the busy life about it, the cheerful hum and stir. And if you want fully to realize its dignity, you can always visit it by night. Then the cries from the village are hushed. The houses show no lights. Only the voices from the Nile steal up to the obelisk of Rameses, to the pylon from which the flags of Thebes once flew on festal days, to the shrine of Alexander the Great, with its vultures and its stars, and to the red granite statues of Rameses and his wives.
These last are as expressive as and of course more definite than my dancers. They are full of character. They seem to breathe out the essence of a vanished domesticity. Colossal are the statues of the king, solid, powerful, and tremendous, boldly facing the world with the calm of one who was thought, and possibly thought himself, to be not much less than a deity. And upon each pedestal, shrinking delicately back, was once a little wife. Some little wives are left. They are delicious in their modesty. Each stands away from the king, shyly, respectfully. Each is so small as to be below his down-stretched arm. Each, with a surely furtive gesture, reaches out her right hand, and attains the swelling calf of her noble husband's leg. Plump are their little faces, but not bad-looking. One cannot pity the king. Nor does one pity them. For these were not "Les desenchantees," the restless, sad-hearted women of an Eastern world that knows too much. Their longings surely cannot have been very great. Their world was probably bounded by the calf of Rameses's leg. That was "the far horizon" of the little plump-faced wives.
The happy dancers and the humble wives, they always come before me with the temple of Luxor—joy and discretion side by side. And with them, to my ears, the two voices seem to come, muezzin and angelus bell, mingling not in war, but peace. When I think of this temple, I think of its joy and peace far less than of its majesty.
And yet it is majestic. Look at it, as I have often done, toward sunset from the western bank of the Nile, or climb the mound beyond its northern end, where stands the grand entrance, and you realize at once its nobility and solemn splendor. From the Loulia's deck it was a procession of great columns; that was all. But the decorative effect of these columns, soaring above the river and its vivid life, is fine.
By day all is turmoil on the river-bank. Barges are unloading, steamers are arriving, and throngs of donkey-boys and dragomans go down in haste to meet them. Servants run to and fro on errands from the many dahabiyehs. Bathers leap into the brown waters. The native craft pass by with their enormous sails outspread to catch the wind, bearing serried mobs of men, and black-robed women, and laughing, singing children. The boatmen of the hotels sing monotonously as they lounge in the big, white boats waiting for travellers to Medinet-Abu, to the Ramesseum, to Kurna, and the tombs. And just above them rise the long lines of columns, ancient, tranquil, and remote—infinitely remote, for all their nearness, casting down upon the sunlit gaiety the long shadow of the past.
From the edge of the mound where stands the native village the effect of the temple is much less decorative, but its detailed grandeur can be better grasped from there; for from there one sees the great towers of the propylon, two rows of mighty columns, the red granite Obelisk of Rameses the great, and the black granite statues of the king. On the right of the entrance a giant stands, on the left one is seated, and a little farther away a third emerges from the ground, which reaches to its mighty breast.
And there the children play perpetually. And there the Egyptians sing their serenades, making the pipes wail and striking the derabukkeh; and there the women gossip and twitter like the birds. And the buffalo comes to take his sun-bath; and the goats and the curly, brown sheep pass in sprightly and calm processions. The obelisk there, like its brother in Paris, presides over a cheerfulness of life; but it is a life that seems akin to it, not alien from it. And the king watches the simplicity of this keen existence of Egypt of to-day far up the Nile with a calm that one does not fear may be broken by unsympathetic outrage, or by any vision of too perpetual foreign life. For the tourists each year are but an episode in Upper Egypt. Still the shadoof-man sings his ancient song, violent and pathetic, bold as the burning sun-rays. Still the fellaheen plough with the camel yoked with the ox. Still the women are covered with protective amulets and hold their black draperies in their mouths. The intimate life of the Nile remains the same. And that life obelisk and king have known for how many, many years!
And so I love to think of this intimacy of life about the temple of the happy dancers and the humble little wives, and it seems to me to strike the keynote of the golden coziness of Luxor.
COLOSSI OF MEMNON
Nevertheless, sometimes one likes to escape from the thing one loves, and there are hours when the gay voices of Luxor fatigue the ears, when one desires a great calm. Then there are silent voices that summon one across the river, when the dawn is breaking over the hills of the Arabian desert, or when the sun is declining toward the Libyan mountains—voices issuing from lips of stone, from the twilight of sanctuaries, from the depths of rock-hewn tombs.
The peace of the plain of Thebes in the early morning is very rare and very exquisite. It is not the peace of the desert, but rather, perhaps, the peace of the prairie—an atmosphere tender, delicately thrilling, softly bright, hopeful in its gleaming calm. Often and often have I left the Loulia very early moored against the long sand islet that faces Luxor when the Nile has not subsided, I have rowed across the quiet water that divided me from the western bank, and, with a happy heart, I have entered into the lovely peace of the great spaces that stretch from the Colossi of Memnon to the Nile, to the mountains, southward toward Armant, northward to Kerekten, to Danfik, to Gueziret-Meteira. Think of the color of young clover, of young barley, of young wheat; think of the timbre of the reed flute's voice, thin, clear, and frail with the frailty of dewdrops; think of the torrents of spring rushing through the veins of a great, wide land, and growing almost still at last on their journey. Spring, you will say, perhaps, and high Nile not yet subsided! But Egypt is the favored land of a spring that is already alert at the end of November, and in December is pushing forth its green. The Nile has sunk away from the feet of the Colossi that it has bathed through many days. It has freed the plain to the fellaheen, though still it keeps my island in its clasp. And Hapi, or Kam-wra, the "Great Extender," and Ra, have made this wonderful spring to bloom on the dark earth before the Christian's Christmas.
What a pastoral it is, this plain of Thebes, in the dawn of day! Think of the reed flute, I have said, not because you will hear it, as you ride toward the mountains, but because its voice would be utterly in place here, in this arcady of Egypt, playing no tarantella, but one of those songs, half bird-like, and half sadly, mysteriously human, which come from the soul of the East. Instead of it, you may catch distant cries from the bank of the river, where the shadoof-man toils, lifting ever the water and his voice, the one to earth, the other, it seems, to sky; and the creaking lay of the water-wheel, which pervades Upper Egypt like an atmosphere, and which, though perhaps at first it irritates, at last seems to you the sound of the soul of the river, of the sunshine, and the soil.
Much of the land looks painted. So flat is it, so young are the growing crops, that they are like a coating of green paint spread over a mighty canvas. But the doura rises higher than the heads of the naked children who stand among it to watch you canter past. And in the far distance you see dim groups of trees—sycamores and acacias, tamarisks and palms. Beyond them is the very heart of this "land of sand and ruins and gold"; Medinet-Abu, the Ramesseum, Deir-el Medinet, Kurna, Deir-el-Bahari, the tombs of the kings, the tombs of the queens and of the princes. In the strip of bare land at the foot of those hard, and yet poetic mountains, have been dug up treasures the fame of which has gone to the ends of the world. But this plain, where the fellaheen are stooping to the soil, and the women are carrying the water-jars, and the children are playing in the doura, and the oxen and the camels are working with ploughs that look like relics of far-off days, is the possession of the two great presiding beings whom you see from an enormous distance, the Colossi of Memnon. Amenhotep III. put them where they are. So we are told. But in this early morning it is not possible to think of them as being brought to any place. Seated, the one beside the other, facing the Nile and the home of the rising sun, their immense aspect of patience suggests will, calmly, steadily exercised, suggests choice; that, for some reason, as yet unknown, they chose to come to this plain, that they choose solemnly to remain there, waiting, while the harvests grow and are gathered about their feet, while the Nile rises and subsides, while the years and the generations come, like the harvests, and are stored away in the granaries of the past. Their calm broods over this plain, gives to it a personal atmosphere which sets it quite apart from every other flat space of the world. There is no place that I know on the earth which has the peculiar, bright, ineffable calm of the plain of these Colossi. It takes you into its breast, and you lie there in the growing sunshine almost as if you were a child laid in the lap of one of them. That legend of the singing at dawn of the "vocal Memnon," how could it have arisen? How could such calmness sing, such patience ever find a voice? Unlike the Sphinx, which becomes ever more impressive as you draw near to it, and is most impressive when you sit almost at its feet, the Colossi lose in personality as you approach them and can see how they have been defaced.
From afar one feels their minds, their strange, unearthly temperaments commanding this pastoral. When you are beside them, this feeling disappears. Their features are gone, and though in their attitudes there is power, and there is something that awakens awe, they are more wonderful as a far-off feature of the plain. They gain in grandeur from the night in strangeness from the moonrise, perhaps specially when the Nile comes to their feet. More than three thousand years old, they look less eternal than the Sphinx. Like them, the Sphinx is waiting, but with a greater purpose. The Sphinx reduces man really to nothingness. The Colossi leave him some remnants of individuality. One can conceive of Strabo and AElius Gallus, of Hadrian and Sabina, of others who came over the sunlit land to hear the unearthly song in the dawn, being of some—not much, but still of some—importance here. Before the Sphinx no one is important. But in the distance of the plain the Colossi shed a real magic of calm and solemn personality, and subtly seem to mingle their spirit with the flat, green world, so wide, so still, so fecund, and so peaceful; with the soft airs that are surely scented with an eternal springtime, and with the light that the morning rains down on wheat and clover, on Indian corn and barley, and on brown men laboring, who, perhaps, from the patience of the Colossi in repose have drawn a patience in labor that has in it something not less sublime.
From the Colossi one goes onward toward the trees and the mountains, and very soon one comes to the edge of that strange and fascinating strip of barren land which is strewn with temples and honeycombed with tombs. The sun burns down on it. The heat seems thrown back upon it by the wall of tawny mountains that bounds it on the west. It is dusty, it is arid; it is haunted by swarms of flies, by the guardians of the ruins, and by men and boys trying to sell enormous scarabs and necklaces and amulets, made yesterday, and the day before, in the manufactory of Kurna. From many points it looks not unlike a strangely prolonged rubbish-heap in which busy giants have been digging with huge spades, making mounds and pits, caverns and trenches, piling up here a monstrous heap of stones, casting down there a mighty statue. But how it fascinates! Of curse one knows what it means. One knows that on this strip of land Naville dug out at Deir-el-Bahari the temple of Mentu-hotep, and discovered later, in her shrine, Hathor, the cow-goddess, with the lotus-plants streaming from her sacred forehead to her feet; that long before him Mariette here brought to the light at Drah-abu'l-Neggah the treasures of kings of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties; that at the foot of those tiger-colored precipices Theodore M. Davis the American found the sepulcher of Queen Hatshepsu, the Queen Elizabeth of the old Egyptian world, and, later, the tomb of Yuaa and Thuaa, the parents of Queen Thiy, containing mummy-cases covered with gold, jars of oil and wine, gold, silver, and alabaster boxes, a bed decorated with gilded ivory a chair with gilded plaster reliefs, chairs of state, and a chariot; that here Maspero, Victor Loret, Brugsch Bey, and other patient workers gave to the world tombs that had been hidden and unknown for centuries; that there to the north is the temple of Kurna, and over there the Ramesseum; that those rows of little pillars close under the mountain, and looking strangely modern, are the pillars of Hatshepsu's temple, which bears upon its walls the pictures of the expedition to the historic land of Punt; that the kings were buried there, and there the queens and the princes of the vanished dynasties; that beyond to the west is the temple of Deir-el-Medinet with its judgment of the dead; that here by the native village is Medinet-Abu. One knows that, and so the imagination is awake, ready to paint the lily and to gild the beaten gold. But even if one did not know, I think one would be fascinated. This turmoil of sun-baked earth and rock, grey, yellow, pink, orange, and red, awakens the curiosity, summons the love of the strange, suggests that it holds secrets to charm the souls of men.
At the entrance to the temple of Medinet-Abu, near the small groups of palms and the few brown houses, often have I turned and looked back across the plain before entering through the first beautiful doorway, to see the patient backs and right sides of the Colossi, the far-off, dreamy mountains beyond Karnak and the Nile. And again, when I have entered and walked a little distance, I have looked back at the almost magical picture framed in the doorway; at the bottom of the picture a layer of brown earth, then a strip of sharp green—the cultivated ground—then a blur of pale yellow, then a darkness of trees, and just the hint of a hill far, very far away. And always, in looking, I have thought of the "Sposalizio" of Raphael in the Brera at Milan, of the tiny dream of blue country framed by the temple doorway beyond the Virgin and Saint Joseph. The doorways of the temples of Egypt are very noble, and nowhere have I been more struck by their nobility than in Medinet-Abu. Set in huge walls of massive masonry, which rise slightly above them on each side, with a projecting cornice, in their simplicity they look extraordinarily classical, in their sobriety mysterious, and in their great solidity quite wonderfully elegant. And they always suggest to me that they are giving access to courts and chambers which still, even in our times, are dedicated to secret cults—to the cults of Isis, of Hathor, and of Osiris.
Close to the right of the front of Medinet-Abu there are trees covered with yellow flowers; beyond are fields of doura. Behind the temple is a sterility which makes one think of metal. A great calm enfolds the place. The buildings are of the same color as the Colossi. When I speak of the buildings, I include the great temple, the pavilion of Rameses III., and the little temple, which together may be said to form Medinet-Abu. Whereas the temple of Luxor seems to open its arms to life, and the great fascination of the Ramesseum comes partly from its invasion by every traveling air and happy sun-ray, its openness and freedom, Medinet-Abu impresses by its colossal air of secrecy, by its fortress-like seclusion. Its walls are immensely thick, and are covered with figures the same color as the walls, some of them very tall. Thick-set, massive, heavy, almost warlike it is. Two seated statues within, statues with animals' faces, steel-colored, or perhaps a little darker than that, look like savage warders ready to repel intrusion.
Passing between them, delicately as Agag, one enters an open space with ruins, upon the right of which is a low, small temple, grey in hue, and covered with inscriptions, which looks almost bowed under its tremendous weight of years. From this dignified, though tiny, veteran there comes a perpetual sound of birds. The birds in Egypt have no reverence for age. Never have I seen them more restless, more gay, or more impertinent, than in the immemorial ruins of the ancient land. Beyond is an enormous portal, on the lofty ceiling of which still linger traces of faded red and blue, which gives access to a great hall with rows of mighty columns, those on the left hand round, those on the right square, and almost terribly massive. There is in these no grace, as in the giant lotus columns of Karnak. Prodigious, heavy, barbaric, they are like a hymn in stone to Strength. There is something brutal in their aspect, which again makes one think of war, of assaults repelled, hordes beaten back like waves by a sea-wall. And still another great hall, with more gigantic columns, lies in the sun beyond, and a doorway through which seems to stare fiercely the edge of a hard and fiery mountain. Although one is roofed by the sky, there is something oppressive here; an imprisoned feeling comes over one. I could never be fond of Medinet-Abu, as I am fond of Luxor, of parts of Karnak, of the whole of delicious, poetical Philae. The big pylons, with their great walls sloping inward, sand-colored, and glowing with very pale yellow in the sun, the resistant walls, the brutal columns, the huge and almost savage scale of everything, always remind me of the violence in men, and also—I scarcely know why—make me think of the North, of sullen Northern castles by the sea, in places where skies are grey, and the white of foam and snow is married in angry nights.
And yet in Medinet-Abu there reigns a splendid calm—a calm that sometimes seems massive, resistant, as the columns and the walls. Peace is certainly inclosed by the stones that call up thoughts of war, as if, perhaps, their purpose had been achieved many centuries ago, and they were quit of enemies for ever. Rameses III. is connected with Medinet-Abu. He was one of the greatest of the Egyptian kings, and has been called the "last of the great sovereigns of Egypt." He ruled for thirty-one years, and when, after a first visit to Medinet-Abu, I looked into his records, I was interested to find that his conquests and his wars had "a character essentially defensive." This defensive spirit is incarnated in the stones of these ruins. One reads in them something of the soul of this king who lived twelve hundred years before Christ, and who desired, "in remembrance of his Syrian victories," to give to his memorial temple an outward military aspect. I noticed a military aspect at once inside this temple; but if you circle the buildings outside it is more unmistakable. For the east front has a battlemented wall, and the battlements are shield-shaped. This fortress, or migdol, a name which the ancient Egyptians borrowed from the nomadic tribes of Syria, is called the "Pavilion of Rameses III.," and his principal battles are represented upon its walls. The monarch does not hesitate to speak of himself in terms of praise, suggesting that he was like the God Mentu, who was the Egyptian war god, and whose cult at Thebes was at one period more important even than was the cult of Amun, and also plainly hinting that he was a brave fellow. "I, Rameses the King," he murmurs, "behaved as a hero who knows his worth." If hieroglyphs are to be trusted, various Egyptian kings of ancient times seem to have had some vague suspicion of their own value, and the walls of Medinet-Abu are, to speak sincerely, one mighty boast. In his later years the king lived in peace and luxury, surrounded by a vicious and intriguing Court, haunted by magicians, hags, and mystery-mongers. Dealers in magic may still be found on the other side of the river, in happy Luxor. I made the acquaintance of two when I was there, one of whom offered for a couple of pounds to provide me with a preservative against all such dangers as beset the traveller in wild places. In order to prove its efficacy he asked me to come to his house by night, bringing a dog and my revolver with me. He would hang the charm about the dog's neck, and I was then to put six shots into the animal's body. He positively assured me that the dog would be uninjured. I half-promised to come and, when night began to fall, looked vaguely about for a dog. At last I found one, but it howled so dismally when I asked Ibrahim Ayyad to take possession of it for experimental purposes, that I weakly gave up the project, and left the magician clamoring for his hundred and ninety-five piastres.