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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



The enormous facade and columns of the courtyard at Karnac (Karnak).
Karnac Temple
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 dead colossi.

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 grandeur.

Karnac is a  vast plain filled with columns and blocks, some standing, some tumbled.
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 insignificant.

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.

Rows of giant sphinxes line the road to Karnac.
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 desert.

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.

Above the columns the wide fertile valley of the Nile and, rising beyond, the rugged mountains that mark the beginnings of the Sahara.
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.

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by Pierre Loti, 1924

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