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in the Night

Excerpted from: La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
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 at nightfall.

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, surrounding walls.

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 shroud.

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 massiveness.

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.

Temple  of Thutmosis III at Karnac by John Woodward 1880

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 itself.

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 the desert.

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.

A lady brings offerings to Horus-Ra, by the Earl of Belmore. 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.

Thebes-South-Temple-La-Description-1809 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.

Two dark rows of massive columns.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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