AscendingPassage.com HOME PAGE.
See a list of chapters.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
from "la Description de l'Egypte".
CHAPTER XIV -- A TWENTIETH-CENTURY EVENING AT THEBES
sunset at Karnac (Karnak) Temple
An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud;
a dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with
gold, it leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of
remote ages, of things destroyed; a dust that is here continually--of
which the gold at this moment fades to green at the zenith, but flames
and glistens in the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which
marks the end of the day's decline, and the still burning globe of the
sun, quite low down in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the
conflagration of the evening.
This setting sun illumines with splendour a silent chaos of granite,
which is not that of the slipping of mountains, but that of ruins. And
of such ruins as, to our eyes unaccustomed hereditarily to proportions
so gigantic, seem superhuman. In places, huge masses of carven stone--
pylons--still stand upright, rising like hills. Others are crumbling
in all directions in bewildering cataracts of stone.
It is difficult
to conceive how these things, so massive that they might have seemed
eternal, could come to suffer such an utter ruin. Fragments of
columns, fragments of obelisks, broken by downfalls of which the mere
imagination is awful, heads and head-dresses of giant divinities, all
lie higgledy-piggledy in a disorder beyond possible redress. Nowhere
surely on our earth does the sun in his daily revolution cast his
light on such debris as this, on such a litter of vanished palaces and
It was even here, seven or eight thousand years ago, under this pure
crystal sky, that the first awakening of human thought began. Our
Europe then was still sleeping, wrapped in the mantle of its damp
forests; sleeping that sleep which still had thousands of years to
run. Here, a precocious humanity, only recently emerged from the Age
of Stone, that earliest form of all, an infant humanity, which saw
massively on its issue from the massiveness of the original matter,
conceived and built terrible sanctuaries for gods, at first dreadful
and vague, such as its nascent reason allowed it to conceive them.
Then the first megalithic blocks were erected; then began that mad
heaping up and up, which was to last nearly fifty centuries; and
temples were built above temples, palaces over palaces, each
generation striving to outdo its predecessor by a more titanic
Karnac, Thebes - by J. Ricci and G Belzoni, 1820.
Afterwards, four thousand years ago, Thebes was in the height of her
glory, encumbered with gods and with magnificence, the focus of the
light of the world in the most ancient historic periods; while our
Occident was still asleep and Greece and Assyria were scarcely
awakened. Only in the extreme East, a humanity of a different race,
called to follow in totally different ways, was
fixing, so that they remain even to our day, the oblique lines of its
angular roofs and the rictus of its monsters.
The men of Thebes, if they still saw too massively and too vastly, at
least saw straight; they saw calmly, at the same time as they saw
forever. Their conceptions, which had begun to inspire those of
Greece, were afterwards in some measure to inspire our own. In
religion, in art, in beauty under all its aspects, they were as much
our ancestors as were the Aryans.
Later again, sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, in one
of the apogees of the town which, in the course of its interminable
duration, experienced so many fluctuations, some ostentatious kings
thought fit to build on this ground, already covered with temples,
that which still remains the most arresting marvel of the ruins: the
hypostyle hall, dedicated to the God Amen, with its forest of columns,
as monstrous as the trunk of the baobab and as high as towers,
compared with which the pillars of our cathedrals are utterly
In those days the same gods reigned at Thebes as three thousand years before, but in the interval they had been transformed
little by little in accordance with the progressive development of
human thought, and Amen, the host of this prodigious hall, asserted
himself more and more as the sovereign master of life and eternity.
Pharaonic Egypt was really tending, in spite of some revolts, towards
the notion of a divine unity; even, one might say, to the notion of a
supreme pity, for she already had her Apis, emanating from the All-
Powerful, born of a virgin mother, and come humbly to the earth in
order to make acquaintance with suffering.
After Seti I. and the Ramses had built, in honour of Amen, this
temple, which, beyond all doubt, is the grandest and most durable in
the world, men still continued for another fifteen centuries to heap
up in its neighbourhood those blocks of granite and marble and
sandstone, whose enormity now amazes us. Even for the invaders of
Egypt, the Greeks and Romans, this old ancestral town of towns
remained imposing and unique. They repaired its ruins, and built here
temple after temple, in a style which hardly ever changes. Even in the
ages of decadence everything that raised itself from the old, sacred
soil, seemed to be impregnated a little with the ancient grandeur.
And it was only when the early Christians ruled here, and after them
the Moslem iconoclasts, that the destruction became final. To these
new believers, who, in their simplicity, imagined themselves to be
possessed of the ultimate religious formula and to know by His right
name the great Unknowable, Thebes became the haunt of "false gods,"
the abomination of abominations, which it behoved them to destroy.
And so they set to work, penetrating with an ever-present fear into
the profound depths of the gloomy sanctuaries, mutilating first of all
the thousands of visages whose disconcerting smile frightened them,
and then exhausting themselves in the effort to uproot the colossi,
which even with the help of levers, they could not move. It was no
easy task indeed, for everything was as solid as geological masses, as
rocks or promontories. But for five or six hundred years the town was
given over to the caprice of desecrators.
And then came the centuries of silence and oblivion under the shroud
of the desert sands, which, thickening each year, proceeded to bury,
and, in the event, to preserve for us, this peerless relic.
Avenue of Sphinxes leading to Karnac Temple
by Hector Horeau, 1841.
And now, at last, Thebes is being exhumed and restored to a semblance
of life--now, after a cycle of seven or eight thousand years, when our
Western humanity, having left the primitive gods that we see here, to
embrace the Christian conception, which, even yesterday, made it live,
is in way of denying everything, and struggles before the enigma of
death in an obscurity more dismal and more fearful than in the
commencement of the ages. (More dismal and more fearful still in this,
that plea of youth is gone.)
From all parts of Europe curious and
unquiet spirits, as well as mere idlers, turn their steps towards
Thebes, the ancient mother. Men clear the rubbish from its remains,
devise ways of retarding the enormous fallings of its ruins, and dig
in its old soil, stored with hidden treasure.
And this evening on one of the portals to which I have just mounted--
that which opens at the north-west and terminates the colossal artery
of temples and palaces, many very diverse groups have already taken
their places, after the pilgrimage of the day amongst the ruins. And
others are hastening towards the staircase by which we have just
climbed, so as not to miss the grand spectacle of the sun setting,
always with the same serenity, the same unchanging magnificence,
behind the town which once was consecrated to it.
French, German, English; I see them below, a lot of pygmy figures,
issuing from the hypostyle hall, and making their way towards us. Mean
and pitiful they look in their twentieth-century travellers' costumes,
hurrying along that avenue where once defiled so many processions of
gods and goddesses.
And yet this, perhaps, is the only occasion on
which one of these bands of tourists does not seem to me altogether
ridiculous. Amongst these groups of unknown people, there is none who
is not collected and thoughtful, or who does not at least pretend to
be so; and there is some saving quality of grace, even some grandeur
of humility, in the sentiment which has brought them to this town of
Amen, and in the homage of their silence.
We are so high on this portal that we might fancy ourselves upon a
tower, and the defaced stones of which it is built are immeasurably
large. Instinctively each one sits with his face to the glowing sun,
and consequently to the outspread distances of the fields and the
Before us, under our feet, an avenue stretches away, prolonging
towards the fields the pomp of the dead city--an avenue bordered by
monstrous rams, larger than buffaloes, all crouched on their pedestals
in two parallel rows in the traditional hieratic pose. The avenue
terminates beyond at a kind of wharf or landing-stage which formerly
gave on to the Nile. It was there that the God Amen, carried and
followed by long trains of priests, came every year to take his golden
barge for a solemn procession. But it leads to-day only to the
cornfields, for, in the course of successive centuries, the river has
receded little by little and now winds its course a thousand yards
away in the direction of Libya.
We can see, beyond, the old sacred Nile between the clusters of palm-
trees on its banks; meandering there like a rosy pathway, which
remains, nevertheless, in this hour of universal incandescence,
astonishingly pale, and gleams occasionally with a bluish light. And
on the farther bank, from one end to the other of the western horizon,
stretches the chain of the Libyan mountains behind which the sun is
about to plunge; a chain of red sandstone, parched since the beginning
of the world--without a rival in the preservation to perpetuity of
dead bodies--which the Thebans perforated to its extreme depths to
fill it with sarcophagi.
The Libyan mountains, from the roof of Luxor Temple
By David Roberts, 1839.
We watch the sun descend. But we turn also to see, behind us, the
ruins in this the traditional moment of their apotheosis. Thebes, the
immense town-mummy, seems all at once to be ablaze--as if its old
stones were able still to burn; all its blocks, fallen or upright,
appear to have been suddenly made ruddy by the glow of fire.
On this side, too, the view embraces great peaceful distances. Past
the last pylons, and beyond the crumbling ramparts the country, down
there behind the town, presents the same appearance as that we were
facing a moment before. The same cornfields, the same woods of date-
trees, that make a girdle of green palms around the ruins. And, right
in the background, a chain of mountains is lit up and glows with a
vivid coral colour. It is the chain of the Arabian desert, lying
parallel to that of Libya, along the whole length of the Nile Valley--
which is thus guarded on right and left by stones and sand stretched
out in profound solitudes.
In all the surrounding country which we command from this spot there
is no indication of the present day; only here and there, amongst the
palm-trees, the villages of the field labourers, whose houses of dried
earth can scarcely have changed since the days of the Pharaohs. Our
contemporary desecrators have up till now respected the infinite
desuetude of the place, and, for the tourists who begin to haunt it,
no one yet has dared to build a hotel.
Slowly the sun descends; and behind us the granites of the town-mummy
seem to burn more and more. It is true that a slight shadow of a
warmer tint, an amaranth violet, begins to encroach upon the lower
parts, spreading along the avenues and over the open spaces. But
everything that rises into the sky--the friezes of the temples, the
capitals of the columns, the sharp points of the obelisks--are still
red as glowing embers. These all become imbued with light and continue
to glow and shed a rosy illumination until the end of the twilight.
It is a glorious hour, even for the old dust of Egypt, which fills the
air eternally, without detracting at all from its wonderful clearness.
It savours of spices, of the Bedouin, of the bitumen of the
sarcophagus. And here now it is playing the role of those powders of
different shades of gold which the Japanese use for the backgrounds of
their lacquered landscapes. It reveals itself everywhere, close to and
on the horizon, modifying at its pleasure the colour of things, and
giving them a kind of metallic lustre. The phantasy of its changes is
unimaginable. Even in the distances of the countryside, it is busy
indicating by little trailing clouds of gold the smallest pathways
traversed by the herds.
And now the disc of the God of Thebes has disappeared behind the
Libyan mountains, after changing its light from red to yellow and from
yellow to green.
And thereupon the tourists, judging that the display is over for the
night, commence to descend and make ready for departure. Some in
carriages, others on donkeys, they go to recruit themselves with the
electricity and elegance of Luxor, the neighbouring town (wines and
spirits are paid for as extras, and we dress for dinner). And the dust
condescends to mark their exodus also by a last cloud of gold beneath
the palm-trees of the road.
An immediate solemnity succeeds to their departure. Above the mud
houses of the fellah villages rise slender columns of smoke, which are
of a periwinkle-blue in the midst of the still yellow atmosphere. They
tell of the humble life of these little homesteads, subsisting here,
where in the backward of the ages were so many palaces and splendours.
And the first bayings of the watchdogs announce already the vague
uneasiness of the evenings around the ruins. There is no one now
within the mummy-town, which seems all at once to have grown larger in
the silence. Very quickly the violet shadow covers it, all save the
extreme points of its obelisks, which keep still a little of their
rose-colour. The feeling comes over you that a sovereign mystery has
taken possession of the town, as if some vague phantom things had just
passed into it.
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
Go to the NEXT CHAPTER.
See a list of chapters.
Ascending Passage .com HOME PAGE.
For Beautiful Jewelry of Nepal and Tibet