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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti
... pen name of Louis Marie Julien Viaud (1850 - 1923).
First published: Editions Rene Kieffer, Paris, 1924.
Translated from the French by
W. P. Baines
Originally illustrated by Geo Colucci.
Additional illustrations by David Roberts,
from "la Description de l'Egypte"
and from other sources.
Etext prepared by
and John Bickers, email@example.com
Adapted for AscendingPassage.com .
CHAPTER I -- A WINTER MIDNIGHT
BEFORE THE GREAT SPHINX
A night wondrously clear and of a colour unknown to our climate; a
place of dreamlike aspect, fraught with mystery. The moon of a bright
silver, which dazzles by its shining, illumines a world which surely
is no longer ours; for it resembles in nothing what may be seen in
other lands. A world in which everything is suffused with rosy color
beneath the stars of midnight, and where granite symbols rise up,
ghostlike and motionless.
Is that a hill of sand that rises yonder? One can scarcely tell, for
it has as it were no shape, no outline; rather it seems like a great
rosy cloud, or some huge, trembling billow, which once perhaps raised
itself there, forthwith to become motionless for ever. . . . And from
out this kind of mummified wave a colossal human effigy emerges, rose-
coloured too, a nameless, elusive rose; emerges, and stares with fixed
eyes and smiles. It is so huge it seems unreal, as if it were a
reflection cast by some mirror hidden in the moon. . . .
this monster face, far away in the rear, on the top of those undefined
and gently undulating sandhills, three apocalyptic signs rise up
against the sky, those rose-coloured triangles, regular as the figures
of geometry, but so vast in the distance that they inspire you with
fear. They seem to be luminous of themselves, so vividly do they stand
out in their clear rose against the deep blue of the star-spangled
vault. And this apparent radiation from within, by its lack of
likelihood, makes them seem more awful.
The Pyramids of Chephren and Cheops
By David Roberts, 1839.
And all around is the desert; a corner of the mournful kingdom of
sand. Nothing else is to be seen anywhere save those three awful
things that stand there upright and still--the human likeness
magnified beyond all measurement, and the three geometric mountains;
things at first sight like exhalations, visionary things, with
nevertheless here and there, and most of all in the features of the
vast mute face, subtleties of shadow which show that it at least
exists, rigid and immovable, fashioned out of imperishable stone.
Even had we not known, we must soon have guessed, for these things are
unique in the world, and pictures of every age have made the knowledge
of them commonplace: the Sphinx and the Pyramids! But what is strange
is that they should be so disquieting. . . . And this pervading colour
of rose, whence comes it, seeing that usually the moon tints with blue
the things it illumines? One would not expect this colour either,
which, nevertheless, is that of all the sands and all the granites of
Egypt and Arabia. And then too, the eyes of the statue, how often have
we not seen them? And did we not know that they were capable only of
their one fixed stare? Why is it then that their motionless regard
surprises and chills us, even while we are obsessed by the smile of
the sealed lips that seem to hold back the answer to the supreme
enigma? . . .
It is cold, but cold as in our country are the fine nights of January,
and a wintry mist rises low down in the little valleys of the sand.
And that again we were not expecting; beyond question the latest
invaders of this country, by changing the course of the old Nile, so
as to water the earth and make it more productive, have brought hither
the humidity of their own misty isle. And this strange cold, this
mist, light as it still is, seem to presage the end of ages, give an
added remoteness and finality to all this dead past, which lies here
beneath us in subterranean labyrinths haunted by a thousand mummies.
And the mist, which, as the night advances, thickens in the valleys,
hesitates to mount to the great daunting face of the Sphinx; and
covers it with the merest and most transparent gauze; and, like
everything else here to-night, this gauze, too, is rose-colored. And
meanwhile the Sphinx, which has seen the unrolling of all the history
of the world, attends impassively the change in Egypt's climate,
plunged in profound and mystic contemplation of the moon, its friend
for the last 5000 years.
Here and there on the soft pathway of the sandhills are pigmy figures
of men that move about or sit squatting as if on the watch; and small
as they are, low down in the hollows and far away, this wonderful
silver moon reveals even their slightest gestures; for their white
robes and black cloaks stand sharply out against the monotonous rose
of the desert. At times they call to one another in a harsh, aspirate
tongue, and then go off at a run, noiselessly, barefooted, with
burnouses flying, like moths in the night. They lie in wait for the
parties of tourists who arrive from time to time.
The Pyramid of Chephren and the Sphinx
By David Roberts, 1839.
For the great
symbols, during the hundreds and thousands of years that have elapsed
since men ceased to venerate them, have nevertheless scarcely ever
been alone, especially on nights with a full moon. Men of all races,
of all times, have come to wander round them, vaguely attracted by
their immensity and mystery. In the days of the Romans they had
already become symbols of a lost significance, legacies of a fabulous
antiquity, but people came curiously to contemplate them, and tourists
in toga and in peplus carved their names on the granite of their bases
for the sake of remembrance.
The tourists who have come to-night, and upon whom have pounced the
black-cloaked Bedouin guides, wear cap and ulster or furred greatcoat;
their intrusion here seems almost an offence; but, alas, such visitors
become more numerous in each succeeding year. The great town hard by--
which sweats gold now that men have started to buy from it its dignity
and its soul--is become a place of rendezvous and holiday for the
idlers and upstarts of the whole world.
The modern spirit encompasses
the old desert of the Sphinx on every side. It is true that up to the
present no one has dared to profane it by building in the immediate
neighbourhood of the great statue. Its fixity and calm disdain still
hold some sway, perhaps. But little more than a mile away there ends a
road traveled by hackney carriages and tramway cars, and noisy with
the delectable hootings of smart motor cars; and behind the pyramid of
Cheops squats a vast hotel to which swarm men and women of fashion,
the latter absurdly feathered; and
sick people, in search of purer air; and consumptive English maidens;
and ancient English dames, a little the worse for wear, who bring
their rheumatisms for the treatment of the dry winds.
Passing on our way hither, we had seen this road and this hotel and
these people in the glare of the electric lights, and from an
orchestra that was playing there we caught the trivial air of a
popular refrain of the music halls; but when in a dip of the ground
all this had disappeared, what a sense of deliverance possessed us,
how far off this turmoil seemed! As soon as we commenced to tread upon
the sand of centuries, where all at once our footsteps made no sound,
nothing seemed to have existence, save only the great calm and the
religious awe of this world into which we were come, of this world
with its so crushing commentary upon our own, where all seemed silent,
undefined, gigantic and suffused with rose-colour.
The Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza
from "la Description de l'Egypte".
And first there is the Pyramid of Cheops, whose immutable base we had
to skirt on our way hither. In the moonlight we could see the separate
blocks, so enormous, so regular, so even in their layers, which lie
one above the other to infinity, getting ever smaller and smaller, and
mounting, mounting in diminishing perspective, until at last high up
they form the apex of this giddy triangle.
And the pyramid seemed to
be illumined by some sad dawn of the end of the world, a dawn which
made ruddy only the sands and the granites of earth, and left the
heavens, pricked with their myriad stars, more awful in their
darkness. How impossible it is for us to conceive the mental attitude
of that king who, during some half-century, spent the lives of
thousands and thousands of his people in the construction of this
tomb, in the fond and foolish hope of prolonging to infinity the
existence of his mummy.
The great Sphinx of Giza
from "la Description de l'Egypte".
The pyramid once passed there was still a short way to go before we
confronted the Sphinx, in the middle of what our contemporaries have
left him of his desert. We had to descend the slope of that sandhill
which looked like a cloud, and seemed as if covered with felt, in
order to preserve in such a place a more complete silence. And here
and there we passed a gaping black hole--an airhole, as it seemed, of
the profound and inextricable kingdom of mummies, very populous still,
in spite of the zeal of the exhumers.
As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the
Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon
us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon;
its head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light
it seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like
Then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in
profile, shorn of its nose--flat-nosed like a death's head--but having
already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side;
already disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious
smile. And when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face
to face with it--without however encountering its gaze, which passed
high above our heads--there came over us at once the sentiment of all
the secret thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and
make eternal behind this mutilated mask.
But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as
it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of
iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as
inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which
no longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it
comes to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.
For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun
God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the
one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised
everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of awe-
inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after
having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought
so long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished
simply to sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the
most profound of our human speculations. . . .
It is said that the
Sphinx was once of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and
colouring animated the face, and it was enthroned at its full height
on a kind of esplanade paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then
more sovereign than it is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost
buried beneath the sand of the Libyan desert, which now quite hides
its base, it rises at this hour like a phantom which nothing solid
sustains in the air.
It has gone midnight. In little groups the tourists of the evening
have disappeared; to regain perhaps the neighbouring hotel, where the
orchestra doubtless has not ceased to rage; or may be, remounting
their cars, to join, in some club of Cairo, one of those bridge
parties, in which the really superior intellects of our time delight;
some--the stouthearted ones--departed talking loudly and with cigar in
mouth; others, however, daunted in spite of themselves, lowered their
voices as people instinctively do in church. And the Bedouin guides,
who a moment ago seemed to flutter about the giant monument like so
many black moths--they too have gone, made restless by the cold air,
which erstwhile they had not known. The show for to-night is over, and
everywhere silence reigns.
original plate by Geo Colucci.
The rosy tint fades on the Sphinx and the pyramids; all things in the
ghostly scene grow visibly paler; for the moon as it rises becomes
more silvery in the increasing chilliness of midnight. The winter
mist, exhaled from the artificially watered fields below, continues to
rise, takes heart and envelops the great mute face itself. And the
latter persists in its regard of the dead moon, preserving still the
old disconcerting smile. It becomes more and more difficult to believe
that here before us is a real colossus, so surely does it seem nothing
other than a dilated reflection of a thing which exists elsewhere,
in some other world. And behind in the distance are the three
triangular mountains. Them, too, the fog envelops, till they also
cease to exist, and become pure visions of the Apocalypse.
Now it is that little by little an intolerable sadness is expressed in
those large eyes with their empty sockets--for, at this moment, the
ultimate secret, that which the Sphinx seems to have known for so many
centuries, but to have withheld in melancholy irony, is this: that all
these dead men and women who sleep in the vast necropolis below have
been fooled, and the awakening signal has not sounded for a single one
of them; and that the creation of mankind--mankind that thinks and
suffers--has had no rational explanation, and that our poor
aspirations are vain, but so vain as to awaken pity.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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