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in the Night
Excerpted from: La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
-- THEBES BY NIGHT --
a visit to a darkened Karnak Temple
The feeling, almost, that you have grown suddenly smaller by entering
there. You are dwarfed to less than human size.....The proportions of these ruins seem to crush you. The illusion,
also, that the light, instead of being extinguished with the evening,
seems to only have changed its color and become blue. That one
experiences on a clear Egyptian night, in walking between the
colonnades of the great temple at Thebes, Karnak (Karnac).
The place is so singular that its mere name
would at once cast a spell upon the spirit, even if one were ignorant
of the place itself. The hypostyle of the temple of the God Amun--that
could be no other thing but one. For this hall is unique in the world,
in the same way as the Grotto of Fingal and the Himalayas are unique.
Karnak from La Description de l'Egypte 1809.
To wander absolutely alone at night in Karnak requires a certain amount of stratagem and a knowledge of the routine of
the tourists. It is necessary, first of all, to choose a night on
which the Moon rises late and then, having entered before the close of
the day, to escape the notice of the Bedouin guards who shut the gates
Thus have I waited with the patience of a stone Osiris,
till the grand transformation scene of the setting of the sun was
played out once more upon the ruins. Karnak during the day is
almost animate by reason of the presence of the visitors and the gangs
of fellahs who, singing the while, are busy at the diggings and the
clearing away of the rubbish. Now the temple has emptied itself little by little,
while the blue shadows were mounting from the base of the giant
sanctuaries. I watched the people moving in a long row, like a trail
of ants, towards the western gate between the pylons of the Ptolemies. The last of them had disappeared before the rosy light died away
on the topmost points of the obelisks.
It seemed as if the silence and the night arrived together from beyond
the Arabian desert. They advanced together across the plain, then gained the town from east to west, and
rose rapidly from the ground to the very summits of the temples. This march of the darkness was infinitely solemn, the practice of long centuries.
A sense of
uneasiness takes hold of you in the midst of this confusion of
enormous stones. In the darkness would this become a quite
inextricable maze? Oh! the horror of being lost in these ruins and not being able to see!
But the air preserved
its transparency to such a degree, and the stars began soon to
scintillate so brightly, that the surrounding things could be
distinguished almost as well as in the day.
Indeed, now that the time of transition between the day and night has
passed, the eyes grow accustomed to the strange, blue, persistent
clearness. You seem suddenly to have acquired the pupils of a
cat. The ultimate effect is as if you saw through a smoked
glass which changed all the various shades of this reddish-colored
country into one uniform tint of blue.
Behold me then, for some two or three hours, alone among the temples
of the Pharaohs. The tourists, whom the carriages and donkeys are at
this moment taking back to the hotels of Luxor, will not return till
very late, when the full Moon will have risen and be shedding its
clear light upon the ruins. My post, while I waited, was high up among
the ruins on the margin of the sacred Lake of Osiris. The still and
enclosed water of this lake has remained there
for so many centuries. It still conceals, no doubt, numberless
treasures confided to it in the days when
the armies of the Persian and Nubian kings forced the thick,
In a few minutes, thousands of stars appear at the bottom of this
water, reflecting symmetrically the veritable ones which now
scintillate everywhere in the heavens. A sudden cold spreads over the
town-mummy, whose stones, still warm from their exposure to the sun,
cool very rapidly in this nocturnal blue which envelops them as in a
I am free to wander where I please without risk of meeting
anyone, and I begin to descend by the steps made by the falling of the stone blocks, which have formed on all sides staircases as if for
giants. On the overturned surfaces, my hands encounter the deep,
clear-cut hollows of the hieroglyphs. Sometimes they find those
inevitable people, carved in profile, who raise their arms and make signs to one another. On arriving at the bottom I am
received by a row of statues with battered faces, seated on thrones. Without hindrance of any kind, and recognising everything in the
blue transparency which takes the place of day, I come to the great
avenue of the palaces of Amun.
We have nothing on earth in the least degree comparable to this
avenue. Passive multitudes took their
energies in carrying these stones over centuries, which our machines now could not
move. They would prolong indefinitely
the perspectives of pylons, colossi and obelisks, continuing always
this same artery of temples and palaces in the direction of the old
Nile. And that great river, on the contrary, receded slowly towards Libya.
It is here, and especially at night, that
you suffer the feeling of having been shrunken.
All round you rise monoliths mighty as gods. You have to take twenty
paces to pass the base of a single one of them. They are placed quite
close together, too close, it seems, in view of their enormity and
mass. There is not enough air between them, and the closeness of their
juxtaposition disconcerts you more, perhaps, even than their
The avenue which I have followed in an easterly direction abuts on as
disconcerting a chaos of granite as exists in Karnak--the hall of the
feasts of Thothmes III. What kind of feasts were they, that this king
gave here, in this forest of thick-set columns? The smallest stone from these
ceilings, if it fell, would crush twenty
men! In places the friezes, the colonnades, which seem almost
diaphanous in the air, are outlined still with a proud magnificence in
unbroken alignment against the star-strewn sky. Elsewhere the
destruction is bewildering; fragments of columns, entablatures, bas-
reliefs lie about in indescribable confusion, like scattered
wreckage after a world-wide tempest.
For it was not enough that the
hand of man should overturn these things. Tremblings of the earth, at
different times, have also come to shake this Cyclops' palace which
threatened to be eternal. And all this--which represents such an
excess of force, of movement, of impulsion, alike for its erection as
for its overthrow--all this is tranquil this evening. Oh! so tranquil,
although toppling as if for an imminent downfall. Tranquil forever,
congealed by the cold and by the night.
I was prepared for silence in such a place, but not for the sounds
which I began to hear. First an osprey sounds the prelude,
above my head and so close to me that it holds me trembling throughout
its long cry. Then other voices answer from the depths of the ruins,
voices very diverse, but all eerie. Some are only able to mew on
two long-drawn notes, some yelp like jackals round a cemetery, and
others would imitate the sound of a steel spring slowly unwinding
And this concert comes always from above. Owls, ospreys, all the different kinds of birds, with hooked beaks and
round eyes and silken wings that enable them to fly noiselessly, have
their homes amongst the massive stones upheld in the air. They
are celebrating now, each after its own fashion, the nocturnal
festival. Intermittent calls break upon the air, long-drawn
infinitely mournful wailings that sometimes swell and sometimes seem
to be strangled, to end in a kind of sob.
And then, in spite of the
sonority of the vast straight walls, in spite of the echoes which
prolong the cries, the silence obstinately returns. Silence. The
silence after all and beyond all doubt is the true master at this hour
of this kingdom at once colossal, motionless and blue. A silence that
seems to be infinite, because we know that there is nothing around
these ruins, nothing but the line of the dead sands, the threshold of
Karnac by Otto Georgi 1850
I retrace my steps towards the west in the direction of the hypostyle,
traversing again the avenue of monstrous splendours, imprisoned and,
as it were, dwarfed between the rows of sovereign stones. There are
obelisks there, some upright, some overthrown. One like those of
Luxor, but much higher, remains intact and raises its sharp point into
the sky. Others, less well known in their exquisite simplicity, are
quite plain and straight from base to summit. They bear only
gigantic lotus flowers in relief, whose long climbing stems bloom above in the
half light cast by the stars.
The passage becomes narrower and more
obscure, and it is necessary sometimes to grope my way. And then again
my hands encounter the everlasting hieroglyphs carved everywhere, and
sometimes the legs of a colossus seated on its throne. The stones are
still slightly warm, so fierce has been the heat of the sun during the
day. And certain of the granites, so hard that our steel chisels could
not cut them, have kept their polish despite the lapse of centuries. My fingers slip in touching them.
There is now no sound. The music of the night birds has ceased. I
listen in vain--so attentively that I can hear the beating of my
heart. Not a sound, not even the buzzing of a fly. Everything is
silent, everything is ghostly. In spite of the persistent warmth
of the stones the air grows colder and colder, and one gets the
impression that everything here is frozen--definitely--as in the
coldness of death.
A vast silence reigns, a silence that has subsisted for centuries, on
this same spot, where formerly for a thousand years rose
such an uproar of living men. To think of the clamorous multitudes who
once assembled here, of their cries of triumph and anguish. First of all the pantings of those thousands of
harnessed workers, exhausting themselves generation after generation,
under the burning sun, in dragging and placing one above the other
these stones, whose enormity now amazes us.
Surely there were prodigious feasts with
the music of the long harps and the blares of the brazen trumpets. Recall the great battles when Thebes was the great and unique capital of
the world, an object of fear and envy to their neighbors. These
peoples commenced to awake in commerce and conflict. To think of all this, here on this ground, on a night so calm
and blue! And these same walls, on which my puny
hands now rest, to think of the beings who have touched them in
passing, who have fallen by their side in last deadly conflicts,
without rubbing even the polish from their changeless surfaces!
I now arrive at the hypostyle of the temple of Amun, and a sensation
of fear makes me hesitate at first on the threshold. To find himself
in the dead of night before such a place might well make a man falter.
It seems like some hall for Titans, a remnant of fabulous ages, which
has maintained itself, during its long duration, by force of its very
massiveness, like the mountains. Nothing human is so vast. Nowhere on
earth have men conceived such dwellings.
Columns after columns, higher
and more massive than towers, follow one another so closely, in an
excess of accumulation, that they produce a feeling almost of
suffocation. They mount into the clear sky and sustain there traverses
of stone which you scarcely dare to contemplate. One hesitates to
advance. A feeling comes over you that you have become infinitesimally
small, as easy to crush as an insect. The silence grows
preternaturally solemn. The stars through all the gaps in the fearful
ceilings seem to send their scintillations to you in an abyss. It is
cold and clear and blue.
The central bay of this hypostyle is in the same line as the road I
have been following since I left the hall of Thothmes. It prolongs and
magnifies as in an apotheosis that same long avenue, for the gods and
kings, which was the glory of Thebes, and which in the succession of
the ages nothing has contrived to equal. The columns which border it
are gigantic. (About 30 feet in circumference and 75 feet in height including the capital) Their tops, formed of mysterious full-blown
petals high above the ground on which we crawl, are completely
bathed in the diffuse clearness of the sky.
Enclosing this kind of
nave on either side, like a terrible forest, is another mass of
columns. More monster columns, of an earlier style, of which the capitals
close instead of opening, imitating the buds of some flower which will
never blossom. Sixty to the right, sixty to the left, too close
together for their size, they grow thick like a forest of giant trees that
wanted space. They induce a feeling of oppression without possible
deliverance, of massive and mournful eternity.
And this was the place that I had wished to traverse alone,
without even the Bedouin guard, who at night believes it his duty to
follow the visitors. But now it grows lighter and lighter. Too light
even, for a blue phosphorescence, coming from the eastern horizon,
begins to filter through the opacity of the colonnades. The glow
outlines the monstrous shafts, and details them by vague glimmerings
on their edges. The full Moon is risen, alas! and my hours of solitude
are nearly over.
The Moon! Suddenly the stones of the summit, the copings, the
formidable friezes, are lighted by rays of clear light. Here and
there, on the bas-reliefs encircling the pillars, appear luminous
trails which reveal the gods and goddesses engraved in the stone. They
were watching in myriads around me, as I knew well,--coifed, all of
them, in discs or great horns.
They stare at one another with their
arms raised, spreading out their long fingers in an eager attempt at
conversation. They are numberless, these eternally gesticulating gods.
Wherever you look their forms are multiplied with a stupefying
repetition. They seem to have some mysterious secret to convey to one
another, but have perforce to remain silent. For all the
expressiveness of their attitudes, their hands do not move. And
hieroglyphs, too, repeated to infinity, envelop you on all sides like
a multiple tapestry of mystery.
Minute by minute now, everything among these rigid dead things grows
more precise. Cold, hard rays penetrate through the immense ruin,
separating with a sharp incisiveness the light from the shadows. The
feeling that these stones, wearied as they were with their long
duration, might still be thoughtful, still mindful of their past,
grows less. Less than it was a few moments before, far less than
during the preceding blue phantasmagoria. Under this clear, pale
light, as in the daytime, under the fire of the sun, Karnak has lost
for the moment whatever remained to it of soul. It has receded farther
into time, and appears now nothing more than a vast
gigantic fossil that excites only our wonder and our fear.
But the tourists will soon be here, attracted by the Moon. A league
away, in the hotels of Luxor, I can fancy how they have hurried away
from the tables, for fear of missing the celebrated spectacle. For me,
therefore, it is time to retreat, and, by the great avenue
again, I direct my steps towards the pylons of the Ptolemies, where
the night guards are waiting.
They are busy already, these Bedouins, in opening the gates for some
tourists. They have shown their permits, and carry Kodaks with
magnesium to light up the temples--quite an outfit. in short.
Farther on, when I have taken the road to Luxor, it is not long before
I meet the crowd, the main
body of the arrivals--some in carriages, some on horseback, some on
donkeys. There is a noise of voices speaking all sorts of non-Egyptian
languages. One is tempted to ask: "What is happening? A ball, a
holiday, a grand marriage?" No. The Moon is full to-night at Karnak,
upon the ruins. That is all.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
NEXT CHAPTER: Karnak by Day
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