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Isis


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 bank.

"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, latent.


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 understand--Thebes!

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 Luxor Temple from across the Nile seems to extend to the horizon.
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.


Luxor Temple is a series of rows of different size columns.
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.

One such thing, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns admire themselves in vain in the waters of the river. It is the end of Luxor.

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

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

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

Luxor Egypt
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 side.

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 to Luxor Temple - a great confusion of columns, pylons, statues and an obelisk.
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 close by.

Hundreds of columns, columns which are anterior by many centuries to those of Greece, and represent, in their na´ve enormity, the first conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the impression of sheaves of monstrous weeds (Lotus flowers); others, quite plain and simple, imitate the stem of the papyrus, and bear by way of capital its strange flower.

 Lotus columns at Luxor Temple are thick and round with a trumpet shape a the top..   Papyrus columns at Luxor Temple replicate a bundle of stalks with a bud shapeat the top. 
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?

This temple, in fact, almost indestructible by reason of its massiveness, has passed through the hands of diverse masters. Its antiquity was already legendary in the time of Alexander the Great, on whose behalf a chapel was added to it; and later on, in the first ages of Christianity, a corner of the ruins was turned into a cathedral.

The tourists begin to depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the neighbouring tables d'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.

But the procession itself was evidently of a magnificence such as we no longer know. The number of musicians and priests, of corporations, of emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amen himself came by water, on the river, in his golden barge with its raised prow, followed by the barques of all the other gods and goddesses of his heaven. The reddish stone, carved with minute care, tells me all this, as it has already told it to so many dead generations, so that I seem almost to see it.

And now everybody has gone: the colonnades are empty and the noise of the dynamos has ceased. Midday approaches with its torpor. The whole temple seems to be ablaze with rays, and I watch the clear-cut shadows cast by this forest of stone gradually shortening on the ground. The sun, which just now shone, all smiles and gaiety, upon the quay of the new town amid the uproar of the stall-keepers, the donkey drivers and the cosmopolitan passengers, casts here a sullen, impassive and consuming fire.

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 climate.

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

rows of giant columns at Luxor temple.
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.

the towering obelisk and Rameses statues at the entrance of the Temple of Luxor.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.

Luxor Temple.
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 manoeuvres.

The sun at this moment falls perpendicularly on their heads and strange headgear, details their everlasting smile, and then sheds itself on their shoulders and their naked torso, exaggerating their athletic muscles. Each holding in his hand the symbolical cross, the three giants rush forward with a formidable stride, heads raised, smiling, in a radiant march into eternity.

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

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

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La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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