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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER X -- A CHARMING LUNCHEON
... of temples and tourists in Abydos

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

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

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

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

We have been journeying a little more than an hour amongst the verdure of the growing corn that lies upon the fields like a carpet, when suddenly, beyond the little houses and tress of a village, quite a different world is disclosed--the familiar world of glare and death which presses so closely upon inhabited Egypt: the desert!

The desert of Libya, and now as ever when we come upon it suddenly from the banks of the old river it rises up before us; beginning at once, without transition, absolute and terrible, as soon as we leave the thick velvet of the last field, the cool shade of the last acacia. Its sands seem to slope towards us, in a prodigious incline, from the strange mountains that we saw from the happy plain, and which now appear, enthroned beyond, like the monarchs of all this nothingness.

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

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

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

These necropoles of Abydos once--and for thousands of years--exercised an extraordinary fascination over this people--the precursor of peoples--who dwelt in the valley of the Nile. According to one of the most ancient of human traditions, the head of Osiris, the lord of the other world, reposed in the depths of one of the temples which to-day are buried in the sands. And men, as soon as their thought commenced to issue from the primeval night, were haunted by the idea that there were localities helpful, as if were, to the poor corpses that lay beneath the earth, that there were certain holy places where it behoved them to be buried if they wished to be ready when the signal of awakening was given.

In old Egypt, therefore, each one, at the hour of death, turned his thoughts to these stones and sands, in the ardent hope that he might be able to sleep near the remains of his god. And when the place was becoming crowded with sleepers, those who could obtain no place there conceived the idea of having humble obelisks planted on the holy ground, which at least should tell their names; or even recommended that their mummies might be there for some weeks, even if they were afterwards removed. And thus, funeral processions passed to and fro without ceasing through the cornfields that separate the Nile from the desert.

Abydos! In the sad human dream dominated by the thought of dissolution, Abydos preceded by many centuries the Valley of Jehosophat of the Hebrews, the cemeteries around Mecca of the Moslems, and the holy tombs beneath our oldest cathedrals! . . . Abydos! It behoves us to walk here pensively and silently out of respect for all those thousands of souls who formerly turned towards this place, with outstretched hands, in the hour of death.

The first great temple--that which King Seti raised to the mysterious Prince of the Other World, who in those days was called Osiris--is quite close--a distance of little more than 200 yards in the glare of the desert. We come upon it suddenly, so that it almost startles us, for nothing warns us of its proximity. The sand from which it has been exhumed, and which buried it for 2000 years, still rises almost to its roof.

Through an iron gate, guarded by two tall Bedouin guards in black robes, we plunge at once into the shadow of enormous stones. We are in the house of the god, in a forest of heavy Osiridean columns, surrounded by a world of people in high coiffures, carved in bas- relief on the pillars and walls--people who seem to be signalling one to another and exchanging amongst themselves mysterious signs, silently and for ever.

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

Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses are you come. . . . This excess of grotesqueness in profanation is more insulting surely than to be sacked by barbarians! Behold a table set for some thirty guests, and the guests themselves--of both sexes--merry and lighthearted, belong to that special type of humanity which patronises Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.).

They wear cork helmets, and the classic green spectacles; drink whisky and soda, and eat voraciously sandwiches and other viands out of greasy paper, which now litters the floor. And the women! Heavens! what scarecrows they are! And this kind of thing, so the black-robed Bedouin guards inform us, is repeated every day so long as the season lasts. A luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part of the programme of pleasure trips. Each day at noon a new band arrives, on heedless and unfortunate donkeys. The tables and the crockery remain, of course, in the old temple!

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

But alas! even when we are outside, alone again on the expanse of dazzling sands, we can no longer take things seriously. Abydos and the desert have ceased to exist. The faces of those women remain to haunt us, their faces and their hats, and those looks which they vouchsafed us from over their solar spectacles. . . .

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

Once more to Osiris, the god of heavenly awakening in the necropolis of Abydos, this sanctuary was built by Ramses II. But the sands have covered it with their winding sheet in vain, and have been able to preserve for us only the lower and more deeply buried parts. Men in their blind greed have destroyed the upper portions, and its ruins, protected and cleared as they are to-day, rise only some ten or twelve feet from the ground. In the bas-reliefs the majority of the figures have only legs and a portion of the body; their heads and shoulders have disappeared with the upper parts of the walls.

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

But they seem to have preserved their vitality: the gesticulations, the exaggerated pantomime of the attitudes of these headless things, are more strange, more striking, perhaps, than if their faces still remained. And they have preserved too, in an extraordinary degree, the brightness of their antique paintings, the fresh tints of their costumes, of their robes of turquoise blue, or lapis, or emerald-green, or golden-yellow. It is an artless kind of fresco-work, which nevertheless amazes us by remaining perfect after thirty-five centuries.

All that these people did seems as if made for immortality. It is true, however, that such brilliant colours are not found in any of the other Pharaonic monuments, and that here they are heightened by the white background. For, notwithstanding the bluish, black and red granite of the porticoes, the walls are all of a fine limestone, of exceeding whiteness, and, in the holy of holies, of a pure alabaster.

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

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


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

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

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

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

In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, men already marvelled at this temple, as at a relic of the most distant and nebulous past. The geographer Strabo wrote in those days: "It is an admirable palace built in the fashion of the Labyrinth save that it has fewer galleries."

There are galleries enough however, and one can readily lose oneself in its mazy turnings. Seven chapels, consecrated to Osiris and to different gods and goddesses of his suite; seven vaulted chambers; seven doors for the processions of kings and multitudes; and, at the sides, numberless halls, corridors, secondary chapels, dark chambers and hidden doorways.

That very primitive column, suggestive of reeds, which is called in architecture the "plant column" and resembles a monstrous stem of papyrus, rises here in a thick forest, to support the stones of the blue ceilings, which are strewn with stars, in the likeness of the sky of this country.

In many cases these stones are missing and leave large openings on to the real sky above. Their massiveness, which one might have thought would secure them an endless duration, has availed them nothing; the sun of so many centuries has cracked them, and their own weight, then, has brought them headlong to the ground. And floods of light now enter through the gaps, into the very chapels where the men of old had thought to ensure a holy gloom.

Seti I is blessed by Horus and another god.
Seti I receives blessings, Abydos Temple
photo by Zangaki, c1880.


Despite the disaster which has overtaken the ceilings, this is nevertheless one of the most perfect of the sanctuaries of ancient Egypt. The sands, those gentle sextons, have here succeeded miraculously in their work of preservation. They might have been carved yesterday, these innumerable people, who, everywhere--on the walls, on this forest of columns--gesticulate and, with their arms and long hands, continue with animation their eternal mute conversation.

The whole temple, with the openings which give it light, is more beautiful perhaps than in the time of the Pharaohs. In place of the old-time darkness, a transparent gloom now alternates with shafts of sunlight. Here and there the subjects of the bas-reliefs, so long buried in the darkness, are deluged with burning rays which detail their attitudes, their muscles, their scarcely altered colours, and endow them again with life and youth.

There is no part of the wall, in this immense place, but is covered with divinities, with hieroglyphs and emblems. Osiris in high coiffure, the beautiful Isis in the helmet of a bird, jackal-headed Anubis, falcon-headed Horus, and ibis-headed Thoth are repeated a thousand times, welcoming with strange gestures the kings and priests who are rendering them homage.

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

Seti I as a child sits in the lap of Isis.
Seti I with the Goddess Isis
photo by Sebah, c1890.


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

We thought we had finished with the Cooks and Cookesses of the luncheon. But alas! our horses, faster than their donkeys, overtake them in the return journey amongst the green cornfields of Abydos; and in a stoppage in the narrow roadway, caused by a meeting with a number of camels laden with lucerne, we are brought to a halt in their midst.

Almost touching me is a dear little white donkey, who looks at me pensively and in such a way that we at once understand each other. A mutual sympathy unites us. A Cookess in spectacles surmounts him--the most hideous of them all, bony and severe. Over her travelling costume, already sufficiently repulsive, she wears a tennis jersey, which accentuates the angularity of her figure, and in her person she seems the very incarnation of the respectability of the British Isles. It would be more equitable, too--so long are those legs of hers--if she carried the donkey.

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

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

"She is, indeed, my poor little donkey. But think of this: fixed on thy back as she is, thou hast this advantage over me--thou seest her not!"

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

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We also have the 1904 papers detailing the discovery and excavation of the mysterious:
Osirion at Abydos by W.F. Petrie and M. Murray.


wings of the Sun.

La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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