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The Temple at Luxor

The Temple of Luxor was built by a number of pharaohs, mostly in the New Kingdom (c.1500 BC). It is ancient Thebes, the massive temple complex at Karnak is located a mile or so downriver. The temples were connected by an avenue of sphinxes which was used in yearly ceremonies. Like Karnak, the focus here was mostly the ram-headed god Amon. Priests of Amon held great political power in the New Kingdom.

The importance of Luxor is underlined by the fact that many pharaohs came to this temple for their coronation, even when their capital was elsewhere.

Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924

Statue at the entrance to Luxor Temple, by David Roberts.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, tomorrow, 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 was 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 shadows which 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 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 color, 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- color. 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--Karnak!

Karnak! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it was so near. But Karnak 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.

And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of the royal town of Thebes, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous place which the rising sun has just disclosed to us.

And while my boatman intones that song, as old as Egypt and everlastingly the same, which seems to help men in their arduous work, he is unfastening the chain that 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 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 marked its' path countless centuries of centuries before it saw this town arise. Thebes was 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.

Papyrus columns at the Temple of Luxor
Photograph by Henri Bechard.

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. It is a colossal Egyptian temple, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the admirable genuine Pharaonic Temple, its impudent facade rises, painted a dirty yellow.

One such monster, 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 columns admire themselves in vain in the waters of the Nile.

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 color of glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.

Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats 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?

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 have 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, gods, scarabs --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 among them impudent young Bedouins pester the fair travelers to mount their saddled donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a note of order, 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 gift, and which stands today 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!

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 naïve enormity, the first conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the impression of sheaves of monstrous weeds of Papyrus; others, quite plain and simple, imitate the stem of the Lotus, and bear as a capital its strange flower.

Luxor watchfire by Fredrich Perlberg 1901.
Lotus columns at Luxor Temple.

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. Later on, in the first ages of Christianity, a corner of the ruins was turned into a church.

Luxor The tourists, like the flies, enter at certain times of the day, which it suffices to know. Soon the tourists begin to depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the neighboring tables d'hotel. The hour of midday will find me here alone 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 Amun.

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 today! Along the route of the procession are ranged jugglers and sellers of drinks and fruits, and 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 emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amun 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 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. Mid-day 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-- 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 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 neighborhood has ceased.

An avenue bordered by very high columns leads me to a place shut in and almost solitary, where is massed an assembly of colossi. Two, who, if they were standing, would be quite ten yards (9 meters) 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 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 honor 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.

The entrance to Luxor Temple.

In moments of silence, one can abstract oneself from all the neighboring 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 stones within which we are surrounded shut out everything save the point of an old neighboring minaret which shows now against the blue of the sky. It is a humble graft of Islam which grew here among the ruins some centuries ago, when the ruins themselves had already existed for three thousand years. A little mosque built on a mass of debris, which it now 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.
Artwork: (L) David Roberts, 1838, (R) Vivant Denon, 1808.

Thoth has the head of a long-billed bird (ibis) and carries a stylus. Seshat  has a seven point star above her.

(Left) Thoth, scribe of the gods. (Right) the goddess Seshat, mistress of divine books. These two carvings were found on the back of a large statue of Pharaoh Ramses II at Luxor.
Photographs from EgyptArchive.
(A full length Seshat photo is below)

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 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 Luxor. 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 is standing there proudly with one leg advanced as if for a march, heavy and sure, which nothing should withstand. He grasps passionately in his clenched fist a kind of buckled cross (Ank), 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. . . .

The western Obelisk near the first Pylon
is now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris

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 on maneuvers.

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.

Suddenly a rumbling 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.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924

Luxor Temple.
Map and ground plan of the Temple of Luxor
by Vivant Denon, 1800.

Full length photo of Seshat holding a stylus and a rod.

Thoth, Seshat and the Black Cubit

A few paragraphs above are photos of Thoth and Seshat from Luxor. What is shown in the long photo here is the curious item she holds in her left (receptive) hand.

Excerpted from The Temple In Man
by R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, 1949
.....the Black Cubit of unknown origin.
This cubit is carved on the socle of the black granite colossus (to the east of the entrance leading from the court of Ramses to the great colonnade) in Luxor. This black cubit is found only on black stones or on what corresponds to their symbol. Its measured length is 54 cm (about 21.25 inches).
/end excerpt

Schwaller is speaking of another statue, but it is not clear what Seshat holds, if not a measure.

The Cubit is an ancient unit of measure found in early Mesopotamia, along with Egypt. It is difficult for modern people to grasp that this standard was not standard at all. Generally the cubit was 18 to 22 inches. Lepsius, an early archaeologist, compared 14 copper cubits and found they measured from 523.5 to 529.2 mm (20.61 to 20.83 in) in length. The Royal Cubit, reserved for only the pharaoh's use, was larger.

The Egyptians used a different cubit to design each temple. Each cubit was derived from the Neter (essence) of the space and the intended purpose of the temple. This is part of how Egyptian temples seem alive in a half-felt way. Perhaps the black cubit is invariable, which would be almost a sacrilege to the Egyptians of 3500 years ago.
Seshat photo by Karen Green, CreativeCommons.

Papyrus columns at Luxor Temple replicate a bundle of stalks with a bud shape at the top.
Papyrus columns at the Temple of Luxor.
Screens and tools used in excavation can be seen.
Photograph by Francis Frith, c.1865.

The Excavation of Luxor

Excerpted from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile
by Amelia B. Edwards, 1887
Professor Maspero, during the two last years of his official rule as successor to the late Mariette Pasha, did for this magnificent relic of Pharaonic times what his predecessor did for the more recent temple of Edfu. The difficulties of carrying out this great undertaking were so large as to appear at the first sight almost insurmountable. The fellâheen refused at first to sell their houses. Mustapha Aga asked the exorbitant price of £3,000 for his consular residence, built as it was between the columns of Horemheb, facing the river. For no pecuniary consideration whatever was it possible to purchase the right of pulling down the mosque in the first great courtyard of the temple.

After twelve months of negotiation, the fellâheen were at last bought out on fair terms. Each proprietor received a stated price for his dwelling and a piece of land elsewhere upon which to build another. Some thirty families were thus got rid of, about eight or ten only refusing to leave at any price. The work of demolition was begun in 1885. In 1886, the few families yet lingering in the ruins followed the example of the rest. In the course of that season the temple was cleared from end to end, only the little native mosque being left standing within the precincts, and Mustapha Aga’s house on the side next the landing place.

Professor Maspero’s resignation followed in 1887, since then the work has been carried on by his successor, M. Grébaut, with the result that in place of a crowded, sordid, unintelligible labyrinth of mud huts, yards, stables, alleys and dung-heaps, a noble temple now marshals its avenues of columns and uplifts its sculptured architraves along the crest of the ridge which here rises high above the eastern bank of the Nile.

Some of those columns, now that they are cleared down to the level of the original pavement, measure fifty-seven feet in the shaft. In the courtyard built by Rameses II, which measures one hundred and ninety feet by one hundred and seventy, a series of beautiful colossal statues of that Pharaoh in highly polished red granite have been discovered. Some were yet standing in situ, having been built into the walls of the mud structures and imbedded (for who shall say how many centuries?) in a sepulcher of ignoble clay. Last of all, Mustapha Aga, the kindly and popular old British consul, whose hospitality will long be remembered by English travelers, died about twelve months since. The house in which he entertained so many English visitors, and upon which he set so high a value, is even now in course of demolition.
Excerpted from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile
by Amelia B. Edwards,
1877 (sic)(internal evidence places publication at 1887, or a little later)

A modern view of Luxor Temple
Photograph from EgyptArchive.

Additional images on this page by David Roberts.

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