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The greatest temple complex of the ancient world
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
-- THEBES IN SUNLIGHT --
explorations and excavations at Karnac
It is two o'clock in the afternoon. A white angry fire pours from the
sky, which is pale from excess of light. The Sun scorches the enormous fossil which, crumbling in places,
is all that remains of the great temples of Karnak at Thebes.
In the hypostyle there is a little blue shade behind the monstrous
pillars, but even that shade is dusty and hot. The columns too are
hot, and so are all the blocks. Yet, it is winter and the nights
are cold, even to the point of frost. Heat and dust; a reddish dust,
which hangs like an eternal cloud over these ruins of Upper Egypt,
exhaling an odor of spices and mummy.
The great heat seems to augment the retrospective sensation of fatigue
which seizes you as you regard these stones--too heavy for human
strength--which are here in mountains. One almost seems to
participate in the efforts, the exhaustions and the sweating toils of
that people who carried and piled such masses.
Even the stones themselves tell of fatigue--the fatigue of being
crushed by one another's weight for thousands of years. Perhaps they have been too exactly carved, and too nicely placed
one above the other, so that they seem to be riveted together by the
force of their mere weight. Oh! the poor stones of the base that bear
the weight of these awsome pilings!
And the ardent color of these things surprises you. It has persisted.
On the red sandstone of the hypostyle, the paintings of more than
three thousand years ago are still to be seen. Above the
central chamber, almost in the sky, the capitals, in the form of great
flowers, have kept the lapis blues, the greens and yellows with which
their strange petals were long ago bespeckled.
Decrepitude and crumbling and dust. In broad daylight, under the
magnificent splendor of the life-giving Sun, one realises clearly
that all here is dead, and dead since days which the imagination is
scarcely able to conceive. And the ruin appears utterly irreparable.
Here and there are a few impotent and almost infantine attempts at
reparation, undertaken in the ancient epochs of history by the Greeks
and Romans. Columns have been put together, holes have been filled
with cement. But the great blocks lie in confusion, and one feels,
even to the point of despair, how impossible it is ever to restore to
order such a chaos of crushing, overthrown things.
And then, what surprises and oppresses you is the want of clear space,
the little room that remained for the multitudes in these halls which
are nevertheless immense. The whole space between the walls was
encumbered with pillars. The temples were half filled with colossal
forests of stone.
The men who built Thebes lived in the beginning of
time, and had not yet discovered the thing which to us today seems so
simple--namely, the vault. And yet they were marvellous pioneers,
these architects. They had already succeeded in evolving a number of conceptions which, from the beginning no
doubt, slumbered in mysterious germ in the human brain: the straight line, the right angle, the vertical line, of
which Nature furnishes no example. Even symmetry, which, if you
consider it well, is less explicable still. They employed symmetry
with a consummate mastery, understanding as well as we do all the
effect that is to be obtained by the repetition of like objects placed
en pendant on either side of a portico or an avenue.
But they did
not invent the vault. And therefore, since there was a limit to the
size of the stones which they were able to place flat like beams, they
had recourse to this profusion of columns to support their stupendous
ceilings. And thus it is that there seems to be a want of air, that
one seems to stifle in the middle of their temples, dominated and
obstructed as they are by the rigid presence of so many stones.
Yet today you can see quite clearly in these temples, for, since the
suspended rocks which served for roof have fallen, floods of light
descend from all parts. But formerly, when a kind of half night
reigned in the deep halls, beneath the immovable carapaces of
stone, how oppressive and sepulchral it must all have
been. How final and pitiless.
day, however, in each year, here at Karnak, a light as of a
conflagration used to penetrate from one end to the other of the
sanctuaries of Amun. For the middle artery is open towards the north-
west, and is aligned in such a fashion that, once a year, on the evening of the summer solstice, the Sun as it sets is
able to plunge its reddened rays straight into the sanctuaries.
At the moment when it enlarges its disc before descending
behind the desolation of the Libyan mountains, it arrives in the very
axis of this avenue, which measures more than
800 yards in length. On these evenings it shone
horizontally beneath the giant ceilings--between these rows of
pillars, and threw for some
seconds its colors of molten copper into the obscurity of the holy
of holies. And then the whole temple would resound with the clashing
of music, and the glory of the god of Thebes was celebrated in the
depths of the forbidden halls.
Like a cloud, like a veil, the continual red-colored dust floats
everywhere above the ruins, and, here and there, the sun
traces long, white beams. But at one point of the avenue, behind the
obelisks, it seems to rise in clouds, this dust of Egypt, as if it
were smoke. For the workers of bronze are assembled there today and,
hour by hour, without ceasing, they dig in the sacred soil.
Ridiculously small and almost negligible by the side of the great
monoliths, they dig and dig. Patiently they clear the ruins, and the
earth goes away in little parcels in rows of baskets carried in the form of a chain. The periodical deposits of the Nile,
and the sand carried by the wind of the desert, had raised the soil by
about six yards (meters) since the time when Thebes ceased to live. But now men
are endeavouring to restore the ancient ground level. At first sight the task
seemed impossible, but they will achieve it in the end, even with
their simple means.
Soon the grand hypostyle will be freed
from rubbish. Its columns, which even before seemed so tremendous, have added another twenty feet to their
height. A number of colossal statues, which lay asleep beneath this
shroud of earth and sand, have been brought back to the light, set
upright again and have resumed their watch for a new period of quasi-eternity. Year by year the
town-mummy is being slowly exhumed by dint of prodigious effort and
is repeopled again by gods and kings who had been hidden for thousands
As is generally known, the maintenance of the ancient monuments of Egypt and their restoration, so far as that may be possible, has been entrusted to the French. M. Maspero has delegated to Thebes an artist and a scholar, M. Legrain by name, who is devoting his life passionately to the work.
Year in, year out, the digging continues--deeper and
deeper. It is scarcely known to what depth the debris and the ruins
descend. Thebes had endured for so many centuries, the earth here is
so penetrated with human past, that it is averred that, under the
oldest of the known temples there are still others, older still and
more massive, of which there was no suspicion, and whose age must
exceed eight thousand years.
The Temple of Amun, Karnac, Thebes
Photograph by Arnoux, 1894.
In spite of the burning Sun and of the clouds of dust raised by the
blows of the pickaxes, one might linger for hours amongst the dust-
stained fellahs, watching the excavations in this unique soil. Everything that is revealed is by way of being a surprise and
a lucky find. The least carved stone had a past of glory, formed
part of the first architectural splendours, was a stone of Thebes.
Scarcely a moment passes but, at the bottom of the trenches, as the
digging proceeds, some new thing gleams. Perhaps it is the polished
flank of a colossus, fashioned out of granite from Syene, or a little
copper Osiris, the debris of a vase, a golden trinket beyond price, or
even a simple blue pearl that has fallen from the necklace of some
waiting-maid of a queen.
This activity of the excavators, which alone reanimates certain
quarters during the day, ends at sunset. Every evening the lean
fellahs receive the daily wage of their labor, and take themselves
off to sleep in the silent neighborhood in their huts of mud. The
iron gates are shut behind them. At night, except for the guards at
the entrance, no one inhabits the ruins.
Crumbling and dust. . . . Far around, on every side of these palaces
and temples of the central artery stretch great mournful spaces, on which the
Sun from morning till evening pours an implacable light. There,
amongst the lank desert plants, lie blocks scattered at hazard--the
remains of sanctuaries, of which neither the plan nor the form will
ever be discovered. But on these stones, fragments of the history of
the world are still to be read in clear-cut hieroglyphs.
Entrance to the great Hypostyle Hall, Karnac, Thebes
By David Roberts, 1839.
To the west of the hypostyle hall there is a region strewn with discs,
all equal and all alike. It might be a draught-board for Titans with
draughts that would measure ten yards in circumference. They are the
scattered fragments, slices, as it were, of a colonnade of the Ramesses.
Farther on the ground seems to have passed through fire. You walk over
blackish scoriae encrusted with brazen bolts and particles of melted
glass. It is the quarter burnt by the soldiers of Cambyses. They were
great destroyers of the queen city, these Persian soldiers.
To break up the obelisks and the colossal statues they conceived the
plan of scorching them by lighting bonfires around them, and then,
when they saw them burning hot, they deluged them with cold water. And
the granites cracked from top to base.
It is well known, of course, that Thebes used to extend for a
considerable distance both on this, the right, bank of the Nile, where
the Pharaohs resided, and opposite, on the Libyan bank. But today,
except for the great palaces of the center, it is little more than a
litter of ruins. The long avenues, lined with endless rows of
sphinxes or rams, are lost, goodness knows where, buried beneath the
At wide intervals, however, in the midst of these cemeteries of
things, a temple here and there remains upright, preserving still its
sanctified gloom beneath its cavernous carapace. One, where certain
celebrated oracles used to be delivered, is even more prisonlike and
sepulchral than the others in its eternal shadow. High up in a wall
the black hole of a kind of grotto opens, to which a secret corridor
coming from the depths used to lead. It was there that the face of the
priest charged with the announcement of the sibylline words appeared. The ceiling of his niche is all covered still with the smoke from
the flame of his lamp, which was extinguished more than two thousand
What a number of ruins, scarcely emerging from the sand of the desert,
are hereabout! And in the old dried-up soil, how many strange
treasures remain hidden! When the Sun lights thus the forlorn
distances, when you perceive stretching away to the horizon these
fields of ruins, you realise better what kind of a place this Thebes
once was. Rebuilt as it were in the imagination it appears excessive,
superabundant and multiple, like those flowers of the antediluvian
world which the fossils reveal to us. Compared with it how our modern
towns are dwarfed, and our hasty little palaces, our stuccoes and old
Karnac from the East, facing the Nile,
by David Roberts, 1839.
And it is so mystical, this town of Thebes, with its dark sanctuaries,
once inhabited by gods and symbols. All the sublime, fresh-minded
striving of the human soul after the Unknowable is
petrified in these ruins, in forms diverse and immeasurably grand.
this people, who thought only of eternity, we are a lot of pitiful
dotards, who soon will be past caring about the wherefore of life, or
thought, or death. Such beginnings presaged, surely, something greater
than our humanity of the present day, given over to despair, to
alcohol and to explosives!
Crumbling and dust! This same Sun of Thebes is in its place each day,
parching, exhausting, cracking and pulverizing.
On the ground where once stood so much magnificence there are fields
of grain, spread out like green carpets, which tell of the return of
the humble life of tillage. Above all, there is the sand, encroaching
now upon the very threshold of the Pharaohs. There is the yellow
desert; there is the world of reflections and of silence, which
approaches like a slow submerging tide.
In the distance, where the
mirage trembles from morning till evening, the burying is already
almost achieved. The few poor stones which still appear, barely
emerging from the advancing dunes, are the remains of what men, in
their superb revolts against death, had contrived to make the most indestructible.
And this Sun, this eternal Sun, which parades over Thebes the irony of
its duration--for us so impossible to calculate or to conceive!
Nowhere so much as here does one suffer from the dismay of knowing how small our lives are in the course of times without end
and without beginning.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
Karnac from the Air
by Kofler, 1914.
By this time the chaos of loose stones
was arranged in rows in every direction
to enable the slow reconstruction of the temples.
Additional images on this page by: Fredrich Perlberg, David Roberts and Hector Horeau (2).
The Temples of Thebes
Karnac at Sunset
Karnac at Night
Karnac by Day
Lion Goddess Sekhet and Mut
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