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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER XIII -- MODERN LUXOR
The waters of the Nile being already low my dahabiya--delayed by
strandings--had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored
ourselves, as the darkness began to fall, at a casual spot on the
"We are quite near," the pilot had told me before departing to make
his evening prayer; "in an hour, to-morrow, we shall be there."
And the gentle night descended upon us in this spot which did not seem
to differ at all from so any others where, for a month past now, we
had moored our boat at hazard to await the daybreak. On the banks were
dark confused masses of foliage, above which here and there a high
date-palm outlined its black plumes.
The air was filled with the
multitudinous chirpings of the crickets of Upper Egypt, which make
their music here almost throughout the year in the odorous warmth of
the grass. And, presently, in the midst of the silence, rose the cries
of the night birds, like the mournful mewings of cats. And that was
all--save for the infinite calm of the desert that is always present,
dominating everything, although scarcely noticed and, as it were,
And this morning, at the rising of the sun, is pure and splendid as
all other mornings. A tint of rosy coral comes gradually to life on
the summit of the Libyan mountains, standing out from the gridelin
shadows which, in the heavens, were the rearguard of the night.
But my eyes, grown accustomed during the last few weeks to this
glorious spectacle of the dawn, turn themselves, as if by force of
some attraction, towards a strange and quite unusual thing, which,
less than a mile away along the river, on the Arabian bank, rises
upright in the midst of the mournful plains.
At first it looks like a
mass of towering rocks, which in this hour of twilight magic have
taken on a pale violet colour, and seem almost transparent. And the
sun, scarcely emerged from the desert, lights them in a curious
gradation, and orders their contours with a fringe of fresh rose-
colour. And they are not rocks, in fact, for as we look more closely,
they show us lines symmetrical and straight. Not rocks, but
architectural masses, tremendous and superhuman, placed there in
attitudes of quasi-eternal stability. And out of them rise the points
of two obelisks, sharp as the blade of a lance. And then, at once, I
Thebes! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it
was so near. But Thebes assuredly it is, for nothing else in the world
could produce such an apparition. And I salute with a kind of shudder
of respect this unique and sovereign ruin, which had haunted me for
many years, but which until now life had not left me time to visit.
The Temple of Luxor
By David Roberts, 1839.
And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of
the royal town, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we
must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous palace
which the rising sun has just disclosed to us.
And while my equipage of bronze--intoning that song, as old as Egypt
and everlastingly the same, which seems to help the men in their
arduous work--is busy unfastening the chain which binds us to the
bank, I continue to watch the distant apparition. It emerges gradually
from the light morning mists which, perhaps, made it seem even larger
than it is. The clear light of the ascending sun shows it now in
detail; and reveals it as all battered, broken and ruinous in the
midst of a silent plain, on the yellow carpet of the desert. And how
this sun, rising in its clear splendour, seems to crush it with its
youth and stupendous duration.
This same sun had attained to its
present round form, had acquired the clear precision of its disc, and
begun its daily promenade over the country of the sands, countless
centuries of centuries, before it saw, as it might be yesterday, this
town of Thebes arise; an attempt at magnificence which seemed to
promise for the human pygmies a sufficiently interesting future, but
which, in the event, we have not been able even to equal. And it
proved, too, a thing quite puny and derisory, since here it is laid
low, after having subsisted barely four negligible thousands of years.
The Temple of Luxor from the east
By Vivant Denon, 1800.
An hour later we arrive at Luxor, and what a surprise awaits us there!
The thing which dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six
miles away, is the Winter Palace Hotel, a hasty modern production which has
grown on the border of the Nile during the past year: a colossal
hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of
iron. Twice or three times as high as the admirable Pharaonic Temple,
its impudent facade rises there, painted a dirty yellow.
thing, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure
pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its
little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well
not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns
admire themselves in vain in the waters of the river. It is the end of
And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the
opposite bank seems so absolutely desertlike, with its stretches of
golden sand and, on the horizon, its mountains of the colour of
glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.
Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats, a sort of two
or three storeyed barracks, which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo
to the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos
make an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my
dahabiya, where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to
We can now see nothing of the palaces of Thebes, whither I am to
repair in the evening. We are farther from them than we were last
night. The apparition during our morning's journey had slowly receded
in the plains flooded by sunlight. And then the Winter Palace and the
new boats shut out the view.
Luxor Temple from the West, by David Roberts, 1838
But this modern quay of Luxor, where I disembark at ten o'clock in the
morning in clear and radiant sunshine, is not without its amusing
In a line with the Winter Palace a number of stalls follow one
another. All those things with which our tourists are wont to array
themselves are on sale there: fans, fly flaps, helmets and blue
spectacles. And, in thousands, photographs of the ruins. And there too
are the toys, the souvenirs of the Sudan: old knives, panther-
skins and gazelle horns. Numbers of Indians even are come to this
improvised fair, bringing their stuffs from Rajputana and Cashmere.
And, above all, there are dealers in mummies, offering for sale
mysteriously shaped coffins, mummy-cloths, dead hands, gods, scarabaei
--and the thousand and one things that this old soil has yielded for
centuries like an inexhaustible mine.
Along the stalls, keeping in the shade of the houses and the scattered
palms, pass representatives of the plutocracy of the world. Dressed by
the same costumiers, bedecked in the same plumes, and with faces
reddened by the same sun, the millionaire daughters of Chicago
merchants elbow their sisters of the old nobility. Pressing amongst
them impudent young Bedouins pester the fair travellers to mount their
saddled donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a
note of beauty, the battalions of Mr. Cook, of both sexes, and always
in a hurry, pass by with long strides.
Beyond the shops, following the line of the quay, there are other
hotels. Less aggressive, all of them, than the Winter Palace, they
have had the discretion not to raise themselves too high, and to cover
their fronts with white chalk in the Arab fashion, even to conceal
themselves in clusters of palm-trees.
And finally there is the colossal temple of Luxor, looking as out of
place now as the poor obelisk which Egypt gave us as a present, and
which stands to-day in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
The Entrance of the Temple of Luxor.
The Egyptians had built their houses within and atop the temple.
A mosque that was built in the temple remains today, the houses are gone.
By David Roberts, 1839.
Bordering the Nile, it is a colossal grove of stone, about three
hundred yards in length. In epochs of a magnificence that is now
scarcely conceivable this forest of columns grew high and thick,
rising impetuously at the bidding of Amenophis and the great Ramses.
And how beautiful it must have been even yesterday, dominating in its
superb disarray this surrounding country, vowed for centuries to
neglect and silence!
But to-day, with all these things that men have built around it, you
might say that it no longer exists.
We reach an iron-barred gate and, to enter, have to show our permit to
the guards. Once inside the immense sanctuary, perhaps we shall find
solitude again. But, alas, under the profaned columns a crowd of
people passes, with Baedekers in their hands, the same people that
one sees here everywhere, the same world as frequents Nice and the
Riviera. And, to crown the mockery, the noise of the dynamos pursues
us even here, for the boats of Messrs. Cook are moored to the bank
Hundreds of columns, columns which are anterior by many centuries to
those of Greece, and represent, in their na´ve enormity, the first
conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the
impression of sheaves of monstrous weeds (Lotus flowers); others, quite plain and
simple, imitate the stem of the papyrus, and bear by way of capital
its strange flower.
Lotus and Papyrus columns at the Temple of Luxor
Photographs by Francis Frith, c.1865.
The tourists, like the flies, enter at certain
times of the day, which it suffices to know. Soon the little bells of
the hotels will call them away and the hour of midday will find me
here alone. But what in heaven's name will deliver me from the noise
of the dynamos?
in fact, almost indestructible by reason of its massiveness, has
passed through the hands of diverse masters. Its antiquity was already
legendary in the time of Alexander the Great, on whose behalf a chapel
was added to it; and later on, in the first ages of Christianity, a
corner of the ruins was turned into a cathedral.
The tourists begin to
depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the neighbouring tables
d'hotel; and while I wait till they shall be gone, I occupy myself in
following the bas-reliefs which are displayed for a length of more
than a hundred yards along the base of the walls. It is one long row
of people moving in their thousands all in the same direction--the
ritual procession of the God Amen.
With the care which characterised
the Egyptians to draw everything from life so as to render it eternal,
there are represented here the smallest details of a day of festival
three or four thousand years ago. And how like it is to a holiday of
the people of to-day! Along the route of the procession are ranged
jugglers and sellers of drinks and fruits, and negro acrobats who walk
on their hands and twist themselves into all kinds of contortions.
the procession itself was evidently of a magnificence such as we no
longer know. The number of musicians and priests, of corporations, of
emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amen himself came
by water, on the river, in his golden barge with its raised prow,
followed by the barques of all the other gods and goddesses of his
heaven. The reddish stone, carved with minute care, tells me all this,
as it has already told it to so many dead generations, so that I seem
almost to see it.
And now everybody has gone: the colonnades are empty and the noise of
the dynamos has ceased. Midday approaches with its torpor. The whole
temple seems to be ablaze with rays, and I watch the clear-cut shadows
cast by this forest of stone gradually shortening on the ground. The
sun, which just now shone, all smiles and gaiety, upon the quay of the
new town amid the uproar of the stall-keepers, the donkey drivers and
the cosmopolitan passengers, casts here a sullen, impassive and
Meanwhile the shadows shorten--and just as they do
every day, beneath this sky which is never overcast, just as they have
done for five and thirty centuries, these columns, these friezes and
this temple itself, like a mysterious and solemn sundial, record
patiently on the ground the slow passing of the hours. Verily for us,
the ephemerae of thought, this unbroken continuity of the sun of Egypt
has more of melancholy even than the changing, overcast skies of our
And now, at last, the temple is restored to solitude and all noise in the neighbourhood has ceased.
The Temple of Luxor
From "la Description de l'Egypte"
An avenue bordered by very high columns, of which the capitals are in
the form of the full-blown flowers of the papyrus, leads me to a place
shut in and almost terrible, where is massed an assembly of colossi.
Two, who, if they were standing, would be quite ten yards in height,
are seated on thrones on either side of the entrance. The others,
ranged on the three sides of the courtyard, stand upright behind
colonnades, but look as if they were about to issue thence and to
stride rapidly towards me. Some broken and battered, have lost their
faces and preserve only their intimidating attitude. Those that remain
intact--white faces beneath their Sphinx's headgear--open their eyes
wide and smile.
This was formerly the principal entrance, and the office of these
colossi was to welcome the multitudes. But now the gates of honour
flanked by obelisks of red granite, are obstructed by a litter of
enormous ruins. And the courtyard has become a place voluntarily
closed, where nothing of the outside world is any longer to be seen.
In moments of silence, one can abstract oneself from all the
neighbouring modern things, and forget the hour, the day, the century
even, in the midst of these gigantic figures, whose smile disdains the
flight of ages. The granites within which we are immured--and in such
terrible company--shut out everything save the point of an old
neighbouring minaret which shows now against the blue of the sky: a
humble graft of Islam which grew here amongst the ruins some centuries
ago, when the ruins themselves had already subsisted for three
thousand years--a little mosque built on a mass of debris, which it
new protects with its inviolability. How many treasures and relics and
documents are hidden and guarded by this mosque of the peristyle! For
none would dare to dig in the ground within its sacred walls.
Gradually the silence of the temple becomes profound. And if the
shortened shadows betray the hour of noon, there is nothing to tell to
what millennium that hour belongs. The silences and middays like to
this, which have passed before the eyes of these giants ambushed in
their colonnades--who could count them?
High above us, lost in the incandescent blue, soar the birds of prey--
and they were there in the times of the Pharaohs, displaying in the
air identical plumages, uttering the same cries. The beasts and
plants, in the course of time, have varied less than men, and remain
unchanged in the smallest details.
Each of the colossi around me--standing there proudly with one leg
advanced as if for a march, heavy and sure, which nothing should
withstand--grasps passionately in his clenched fist, at the end of the
muscular arm, a kind of buckled cross, which in Egypt was the symbol
of eternal life. And this is what the decision of their movement
symbolises: confident all of them in this poor bauble which they hold
in their hand, they cross with a triumphant step the threshold of
death. . . .
"Eternal Life"--the thought of immortality--how the human
soul has been obsessed by it, particularly in the periods marked by
its greatest strivings! The tame submission to the belief that the
rottenness of the grave is the end of all is characteristic of ages of
decadence and mediocrity.
Map and ground plan of the Temple of Luxor
by Vivant Denon, 1800.
The three similar giants, little damaged in the course of their long
existence, who align the eastern side of this courtyard strewn with
blocks, represent, as indeed do all the others, that same Ramses II.,
whose effigy was multiplied so extravagantly at Thebes and Memphis.
But these three have preserved a powerful and impetuous life. They
might have been carved and polished yesterday. Between the monstrous
reddish pillars, they look like white apparitions issuing from their
embrasure of columns and advancing together like soldiers at
The sun at this moment falls perpendicularly on their
heads and strange headgear, details their everlasting smile, and then
sheds itself on their shoulders and their naked torso, exaggerating
their athletic muscles. Each holding in his hand the symbolical cross,
the three giants rush forward with a formidable stride, heads raised,
smiling, in a radiant march into eternity.
Oh! this midday sun, that now pours down upon the white faces of these
giants, and displaces ever so slowly the shadows cast upon their
breasts by their chins and Osiridean beards. To think how often in the
midst of this same silence, this same ray has fallen thus, fallen from
the same changeless sky, to occupy itself in this same tranquil play!
Yes, I think that the fogs and rains of our winters, upon these
stupendous ruins, would be less sad and less terrible than the calm of
this eternal sunshine.
Suddenly a ridiculous noise begins to make the air tremble; the
dynamos of the Agencies have been put in motion, and ladies in green
spectacles arrive, a charming throng, with guidebooks and cameras. The
tourists, in short, are come out of their hotels, at the same hour as
the flies awake. And the midday peace of Luxor has come to an end.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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