AscendingPassage.com HOME PAGE.
See a list of chapters.

Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER XVI -- 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. A sun inimical to the men of our climate scorches the enormous fossil which, crumbling in places, is all that remains of Thebes and which lies there like the carcass of a gigantic beast that has been dead for thousands of years, but is too massive ever to be annihilated.

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--and 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 odour 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 massed here in mountains. One almost seems to participate in the efforts, the exhaustions and the sweating toils of that people, with their muscles of brand new steel, who in the carrying and piling of such masses had to bear the yoke for thirty centuries.

Even the stones themselves tell of fatigue--the fatigue of being crushed by one another's weight for thousands of years; the suffering that comes of having 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 awful pilings!

And the ardent colour 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; especially 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 splendour 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--even with the help of legions of workers and machines, and with centuries before you in which to complete the task.

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 to-day seems so simple--namely, the vault. And yet they were marvellous pioneers, these architects. They had already succeeded in evolving out of the dark, as it were, a number of conceptions which, from the beginning no doubt, slumbered in mysterious germ in the human brain--the idea of rectitude, 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 to-day 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 sandstone or granite, how oppressive and sepulchral it must all have been--how final and pitiless, like a gigantic palace of Death!

On one day, however, in each year, here at Thebes, a light as of a conflagration used to penetrate from one end to the other of the sanctuaries of Amen; for the middle artery is open towards the north- west, and is aligned in such a fashion that, once a year, one solitary time, 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 blood-coloured disc before descending behind the desolation of the Libyan mountains, it arrives in the very axis of this avenue, of this suite of aisles, which measures more than 800 yards in length. Formerly, then, on these evenings it shone horizontally beneath the terrible ceilings--between these rows of pillars which are as high as our Colonne Vendome--and threw, for some seconds, its colours 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-coloured dust floats everywhere above the ruins, and, athwart it, 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 to-day 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 by children 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 since the time when Thebes ceased to live. But now men are endeavouring to restore the ancient level. At first sight the task seemed impossible, but they will achieve it in the end, even with their simple means, these fellah toilers, who sing as they labour at their incessant work of ants.

Soon the grand hypostyle will be freed from rubbish, and its columns, which even before seemed so tremendous, uncovered now to the base, 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 in the intimidating thoroughfares 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.

a group of Egyptians relax with a hookah.
At the Temple of Amun, Karnac, Thebes
by David Roberts, 1839.


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, meagre fellahs, watching the excavations in this unique soil --where everything that is revealed is by way of being a surprise and a lucky find, where 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 labour, and take themselves off to sleep in the silent neighbourhood in their huts of mud; and 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--which are the best preserved and remain proudly upright--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 Ramses.

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, were these same 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.

lines of ram headed sphinxes lead to a shrine with two short obelisks.
Likely this place of Sun worship in Thebes
exists only in the mind of the artist, Prisse d'Avennes (1878).


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, given over to the preparers of mummies and to the mortuary temples. But to-day, except for the great palaces of the centre, it is little more than a litter of ruins, and 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-- and 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 death, 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 as it were petrified in these ruins, in forms diverse and immeasurably grand. And subsisting thus down to our day it puts us to shame.

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 pulverising.

On the ground where once stood so much magnificence there are fields of corn, 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 massively 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 that all our miserable little human effervescence is only a sort of fermentation round an atom emanated from that sinister ball of fire, and that that fire itself, the wonderful sun, is no more than an ephemeral meteor, a furtive spark, thrown off during one of the innumerable cosmic transformations, in the course of times without end and without beginning.

NEXT CHAPTER


wings of the Sun.

La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

Go to the NEXT CHAPTER.
See a list of chapters.
AscendingPassage.com HOME PAGE.


For Beautiful Jewelry of Nepal and Tibet
See: JewelryTibet.com.