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The greatest temple complex of the ancient world

Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
explorations and excavations at Karnac

Karnac by Weidenbach, 1850It 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.

the leaning column, from the other side, seems even more unlikely to remain standing.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.

Main Axis, Karnac, by Hector Horeau, 1841 On one 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.

Karnac, by Hector Horeau, 1841
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 of years!

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.

A small group of men is almost lost in a field of overturned columns.
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 sand.

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 years ago!

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 iron!

From the rear, the extent of the ruins of Karnac is astounding.
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.

Compared with 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
Khonsu Temple
Lion Goddess Sekhet and Mut

wings of the Sun.

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