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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER XVII -- AN AUDIENCE OF AMENOPHIS II.
The Valley of the Kings

The guardian of the dead, Anubis, appears againKing Amenophis II. has resumed his receptions, which he found himself obliged to suspend for three thousand, three hundred and some odd years, by reason of his decease. They are very well attended; court dress is not insisted upon, and the Grand Master of ceremonies is not above taking a tip. He holds them every morning in the winter from eight o'clock, in the bowels of a mountain in the desert of Libya; and if he rests himself during the remainder of the day it is only because, as soon as midday sounds, they turn off the electric light.

Happy Amenophis! Out of so many kings who tried so hard to hide for ever their mummies in the depths of impenetrable caverns he is the only one who has been left in his tomb. And he "makes the most of it" every time he opens his funeral salons.

It is important to arrive before midday at the dwelling of this Pharaoh, and at eight o'clock sharp, therefore, on a clear February morning, I set out from Luxor, where for many days my dahabiya had slumbered against the bank of the Nile. It is necessary first of all to cross the river, for the Theban kings of the Middle Empire all established their eternal habitations on the opposite bank--far beyond the plains of the river shore, right away in those mountains which bound the horizon as with a wall of adorable rose-colour. Other canoes, which are also crossing, glide by the side of mine on the tranquil water. The passengers seem to belong to that variety of Anglo-Saxons which is equipped by Thomas Cook & Sons (Egypt Ltd.), and like me, no doubt, they are bound for the royal presence.

We land on the sand of the opposite bank, which to-day is almost deserted. Formerly there stretched here a regular suburb of Thebes-- that, namely, of the preparers of mummies, with thousands of ovens wherein to heat the natron and the oils, which preserved the bodies from corruption. In this Thebes, where for some fifty centuries, everything that died, whether man or beast, was minutely prepared and swathed in bandages, it will readily be understood what importance this quarter of the embalmers came to assume.

And it was to the neighbouring mountains that the products of so many careful wrappings were borne for burial, while the Nile carried away the blood from the bodies and the filth of their entrails. That chain of living rocks that rises before us, coloured each morning with the same rose, as of a tender flower, is literally stuffed with dead bodies.

We have to cross a wide plain before reaching the mountains, and on our way cornfields alternate with stretches of sand already desertlike. Behind us extends the old Nile and the opposite bank which we have lately quitted--the bank of Luxor, whose gigantic Pharaonic colonnades are as it were lengthened below by their own reflection in the mirror of the river.

In this radiant morning, in this pure light, it would be admirable, this eternal temple, with its image reversed in the depth of the blue water, were it not that at its sides, and to twice its height, rises the impudent Winter Palace, that monster hotel built last year for the fastidious tourists. And yet, who knows? The jackanapes who deposited this abomination on the sacred soil of Egypt perhaps imagines that he equals the merit of the artist who is now restoring the sanctuaries of Thebes, or even the glory of the Pharaohs who built them.

As we draw nearer to the chain of Libya, where this king awaits us, we traverse fields still green with growing corn--and sparrows and larks sing around us in the impetuous spring of this land of Thebes.


The Giant statues of Memnon.
Memnon
from "la Description de l'Egypte".


And now beyond two menhirs, as it were, become gradually distinct. Of the same height and shape, alike indeed in every respect, they rise side by side in the clear distance in the midst of these green plains, which recall so well our fields of France. They wear the headgear of the Sphinx, and are gigantic human forms seated on thrones--the colossal statues of Memnon. We recognise them at once, for the picture-makers of succeeding ages have popularised their aspect, as in the case of the pyramids. What is strange is that they should stand there so simply in the midst of these fields of growing corn, which reach to their very feet, and be surrounded by these humble birds we know so well, who sing without ceremony on their shoulders.

They do not seem to be scandalised even at seeing now, passing quite close to them, the tracks of a playful little railway belonging to a local industry, that are laden with sugar-canes and gourds.

The chain of Libya, during the last hour, has been growing gradually larger against the profound and excessively blue sky. And now that it rises up quite near to us, overheated, and as it were incandescent, under this ten o'clock sun, we begin to see on all sides, in front of the first rocky spurs of the mountains, the debris of palaces, colonnades, staircases and pylons.

Headless giants, swathed like dead Pharaohs, stand upright, with hands crossed beneath their shroud of sandstone. They are the temples and statues for the manes of numberless kings and queens, who during three or four thousand years had their mummies buried hard by in the heart of the mountains, in the deepest of the walled and secret galleries.

And now the cornfields have ceased; there is no longer any herbage-- nothing. We have crossed the desolate threshold, we are in the desert, and tread suddenly upon a disquieting funereal soil, half sand, half ashes, that is pitted on all sides with gaping holes. It looks like some region that had long been undermined by burrowing beasts. But it is men who, for more than fifty centuries, have vexed this ground, first to hide the mummies in it, and afterwards, and until our day, to exhume them.

Each of these holes has enclosed its corpse, and if you peer within you may see yellow-coloured rags still trailing there; and bandages, or legs and vertebrae of thousands of years ago. Some lean Bedouins, who exercise the office of excavators, and sleep hard by in holes like jackals, advance to sell us scarabaei, blue-glass trinkets that are half fossilised, and feet or hands of the dead.

And now farewell to the fresh morning. Every minute the heat becomes more oppressive. The pathway that is marked only by a row of stones turns at last and leads into the depths of the mountain by a tragical passage.

The Giant statues of Memnon.
The pyramid shaped mountain known today as el Qurn
stands above the burial sites of New Kingdom Pharaohs:
The Valley of the Kings.
Lithograph by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.




AnubisAnubisWe enter now into that "Valley of the Kings" which was the place of the last rendezvous of the most august mummies. The breaths of air that reach us between these rocks are become suddenly burning, and the site seems to belong no longer to earth but to some calcined planet which had for ever lost its clouds and atmosphere. This Libyan chain, in the distance so delicately rose, is positively frightful now that it overhangs us.

It looks what it is--an enormous and fantastic tomb, a natural necropolis, whose vastness and horror nothing human could equal, an ideal store for corpses that wanted to endure for ever. The limestone, on which for that matter no rain ever falls from the changeless sky, looks to be in one single piece from summit to base, and betrays no crack or crevice by which anything might penetrate into the sepulchres within. The dead could sleep, therefore, in the heart of these monstrous blocks as sheltered as under vaults of lead.

And of what there is of magnificence the centuries have taken care. The continual passage of winds laden with dust has scaled and worn away the face of the rocks, so as to leave only the denser veins of stone, and thus have reappeared strange architectural fantasies such as Matter, in the beginning, might have dimly conceived. Subsequently the sun of Egypt has lavished on the whole its ardent reddish patines. And now the mountains imitate in places great organ- pipes, badigeoned with yellow and carmine, and elsewhere huge bloodstained skeletons and masses of dead flesh.

Outlined upon the excessive blue of the sky, the summits, illumined to the point of dazzling, rise up in the light--like red cinders of a glowing fire, splendours of living coal, against the pure indigo that turns almost to darkness. We seem to be walking in some valley of the Apocalypse with flaming walls. Silence and death, beneath a transcendent clearness, in the constant radiance of a kind of mournful apotheosis--it was such surroundings as these that the Egyptians chose for their necropoles.

Stark, desolate, the Valley of the Kings appears.
The Valley of the Kings, Thebes
by David Roberts, 1839.


The pathway plunges deeper and deeper in the stifling defiles, and at the end of this "Valley of the Kings," under the sun now nearly meridian, which grows each minute more mournful and terrible, we expected to come upon a dread silence. But what is this?

At a turning, beyond there, at the bottom of a sinister-looking recess, what does this crowd of people, what does this uproar mean? Is it a meeting, a fair? Under awnings to protect them from the sun stand some fifty donkeys, saddled in the English fashion. In a corner an electrical workshop, built of new bricks, shoots forth the black smoke, and all about, between the high blood-coloured walls, coming and going, making a great stir and gabbling to their hearts' content, are a number of Cook's tourists of both sexes, and some even who verily seem to have no sex at all.

They are come for the royal audience; some on asses, some in jaunting cars, and some, the stout ladies who are grown short of wind, in chairs carried by the Bedouins. From the four points of Europe they have assembled in this desert ravine to see an old dried-up corpse at the bottom of a hole.

Here and there the hidden palaces reveal their dark, square-shaped entrances, hewn in the massive rock, and over each a board indicates the name of a kingly mummy--Ramses IV., Seti I., Thothmes III., Ramses IX., etc. Although all these Pharaohs, except Amenophis II., have recently been removed and carried away to Lower Egypt, to people the glass cases of the museum of Cairo, their last dwellings have not ceased to attract crowds. From each underground habitation are emerging now a number of perspiring Cooks and Cookesses. And from that of Amenophis, especially, they issue rapidly. Suppose that we have come too late and that the audience is over!

And to think that these entrances had been walled up, had been masked with so much care, and lost for centuries! And of all the perseverance that was needed to discover them, the observation, the gropings, the soundings and random discoveries!

But now they are being closed. We loitered too long around the colossi of Memnon and the palaces of the plain. It is nearly noon, a noon consuming and mournful, which falls perpendicularly upon the red summits, and is burning to its deepest recesses the valley of stone.

At the door of Amenophis we have to cajole, beseech. By the help of a gratuity the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies allows himself to be persuaded. We are to descend with him, but quickly, quickly, for the electric light will soon be extinguished. It will be a short audience, but at least it will be a private one. We shall be alone with the king.

A long dark tunnel awaits.
The tomb of Rameses IX in the Valley of the Kings.
photo by Zangaki, c1890.




AnubisAnubisIn the darkness, where at first, after so much sunlight, the little electric lamps seem to us scarcely more than glow-worms, we expected a certain amount of chilliness as in the undergrounds of our climate. But here there is only a more oppressive heat, stifling and withering, and we long to return to the open air, which was burning indeed, but was at least the air of life.

AnubisHastily we descend: by steep staircases, by passages which slope so rapidly that they hurry us along of themselves, like slides; and it seems that we shall never ascend again, any more than the great mummy who passed here so long ago on his way to his eternal chamber.

AnubisAll this brings us, first of all, to a deep well--dug there to swallow up the desecrators in their passage--and it is on one of the sides of this oubliette, behind a casual stone carefully sealed, that the continuation of these funeral galleries was discovered.

AnubisThen, when we have passed the well, by a narrow bridge that has been thrown across it, the stairs begin again, and the steep passages that almost make you run; but now, by a sharp bend, they have changed their direction. And still we descend, descend. Heavens! how deep down this king dwells! And at each step of our descent we feel more and more imprisoned under the sovereign mass of stone, in the centre of all this compact and silent thickness.


AnubisThe little electric globes, placed apart like a garland, suffice now for our eyes which have forgotten the sun. And we can distinguish around us myriad figures inviting us to solemnity and silence. They are inscribed everywhere on the smooth, spotless walls of the colour of old ivory. They follow one another in regular order, repeating themselves obstinately in parallel rows, as if the better to impose upon our spirit, with gestures and symbols that are eternally the same.

Osiris, god of rebirth.
Osiris, from the tomb of Rameses IX
photo by Zangaki, c1890.




AnubisAnubisThe gods and demons, the representatives of Anubis, with his black jackal's head and his long erect ears, seem to make signs to us with their long arms and long fingers: "No noise! Look, there are mummies here!" The wonderful preservation of all this, the vivid colours, the clearness of the outlines, begin to cause a kind of stupor and bewilderment. Verily you would think that the painter of these figures of the shades had only just quitted the hypogeum.

AnubisAll this past seems to draw you to itself like an abyss to which you have approached too closely. It surrounds you, and little by little masters you. It is so much at home here that it has remained the present. Over and above the mere descent into the secret bowels of the rock there has been a kind of seizure with vertigo, which we had not anticipated and which has whirled us far away into the depths of the ages.

AnubisThese interminable, oppressive passages, by which we have crawled to the innermost depths of the mountain, lead at length to something vast, the walls divide, the vault expands and we are in the great funeral hall, of which the blue ceiling, all bestrewn with stars like the sky, is supported by six pillars hewn in the rock itself. On either side open other chambers into which the electricity permits us to see quite clearly, and opposite, at the end of the hall, a large crypt is revealed, which one divines instinctively must be the resting-place of the Pharaoh.

AnubisWhat a prodigious labour must have been entailed by this perforation of the living rock! And this hypogeum is not unique. All along the "Valley of the Kings" little insignificant doors--which to the initiated reveal the "Sign of the Shadow," inscribed on their lintels--lead to other subterranean places, just as sumptuous and perfidiously profound, with their snares, their hidden wells, their oubliettes and the bewildering multiplicity of their mural figures. And all these tombs this morning were full of people, and, if we had not had the good fortune to arrive after the usual hour, we should have met here, even in this dwelling of Amenophis, a battalion equipped by Messrs. Cook.

AnubisIn this hall, with its blue ceiling, the frescoes multiply their riddles: scenes from the book of Hades, all the funeral ritual translated into pictures. On the pillars and walls crowd the different demons that an Egyptian soul was likely to meet in its passage through the country of shadows, and underneath the passwords which were to be given to each of them are recapitulated so as not to be forgotten.

AnubisFor the soul used to depart simultaneously under the two forms of a flame [The Khou, which never returned to our world] and a falcon [The Bai, which might, at its will, revisit the tomb] respectively. And this country of shadows, called also the west, to which it had to render itself, was that where the moon sinks and where each evening the sun goes down; a country to which the living were never able to attain, because it fled before them, however fast they might travel across the sands or over the waters.

AnubisOn its arrival there, the scared soul had to parley successively with the fearsome demons who lay in wait for it along its route. If at last it was judged worthy to approach Osiris, the great Dead Sun, it was subsumed in him and reappeared, shining over the world the next morning and on all succeeding mornings until the consummation of time--a vague survival in the solar splendour, a continuation without personality, of which one is scarcely able to say whether or not it was more desirable than eternal non-existence.

AnubisAnd, moreover, it was necessary to preserve the body at whatever cost, for a certain double of the dead man continued to dwell in the dry flesh, and retained a kind of half life, barely conscious. Lying at the bottom of the sarcophagus it was able to see, by virtue of those two eyes, which were painted on the lid, always in the same axis as the empty eyes of the mummy.

AnubisSometimes, too, this double, escaping from the mummy and its box, used to wander like a phantom about the hypogeum. And, in order that at such times it might be able to obtain nourishment, a mass of mummified viands wrapped in bandages were amongst the thousand and one things buried at its side. Even natron and oils were left, so that it might re-embalm itself, if the worms came to life in its members.

AnubisOh! the persistence of this double, sealed there in the tomb, a prey to anxiety, lest corruption should take hold of it; which had to serve its long duration in suffocating darkness, in absolute silence, without anything to mark the days and nights, or the seasons or the centuries, or the tens of centuries without end! It was with such a terrible conception of death as this that each one in those days was absorbed in the preparation of his eternal chamber.

AnubisAnd for Amenophis II. this more or less is what happened to his double. Unaccustomed to any kind of noise, after three or four hundred years passed in the company of certain familiars, lulled in the same heavy slumber as himself, he heard the sound of muffled blows in the distance, by the side of the hidden well. The secret entrance was discovered: men were breaking through its walls! Living beings were about to appear, pillagers of tombs, no doubt, come to unswathe them all!

AnubisBut no! Only some priests of Osiris, advancing with fear in a funeral procession. They brought nine great coffins containing the mummies of nine kings, his sons, grandsons and other unknown successors, down to that King Setnakht, who governed Egypt two and a half centuries after him. It was simply to hide them better that they brought them hither, and placed them all together in a chamber that was immediately walled up. Then they departed. The stones of the door were sealed afresh, and everything fell again into the old mournful and burning darkness.

AnubisSlowly the centuries rolled on--perhaps ten, perhaps twenty--in a silence no longer even disturbed by the scratchings of the worms, long since dead. And a day came when, at the side of the entrance, the same blows were heard again. . . . And this time it was the robbers. Carrying torches in their hands, they rushed headlong in, with shouts and cries and, except in the safe hiding-place of the nine coffins, everything was plundered, the bandages torn off, the golden trinkets snatched from the necks of the mummies. Then, when they had sorted their booty, they walled up the entrance as before, and went their way, leaving an inextricable confusion of shrouds, of human bodies, of entrails issuing from shattered vases, of broken gods and emblems.

AnubisAfterwards, for long centuries, there was silence again, and finally, in our days, the double, then in its last weakness and almost non- existent, perceived the same noise of stones being unsealed by blows of pickaxes. The third time, the living men who entered were of a race never seen before. At first they seemed respectful and pious, only touching things gently.

AnubisBut they came to plunder everything, even the nine coffins in their still inviolate hiding-place. They gathered the smallest fragments with a solicitude almost religious. That they might lose nothing they even sifted the rubbish and the dust. But, as for Amenophis, who was already nothing more than a lamentable mummy, without jewels or bandages, they left him at the bottom of his sarcophagus of sandstone. And since that day, doomed to receive each morning numerous people of a strange aspect, he dwells alone in his hypogeum, where there is now neither a being nor a thing belonging to his time.

AnubisBut yes, there is! We had not looked all round. There in one of the lateral chambers some bodies are lying, dead bodies--three corpses (unswathed at the time of the pillage), side by side on their rags. First, a woman, the queen probably, with loosened hair. Her profile has preserved its exquisite lines. How beautiful she still is!

AnubisAnd then a young boy with the little greyish face of a doll. His head is shaved, except for that long curl at the right side, which denotes a prince of the royal blood. And the third a man. Ugh! How terrible he is--looking as if he found death a thing irresistibly comical. He even writhes with laughter, and eats a corner of his shroud as if to prevent himself from bursting into a too unseemly mirth.

AnubisAnd then, suddenly, black night! And we stand as if congealed in our place. The electric light has gone out--everywhere at once. Above, on the earth, midday must have sounded--for those who still have cognisance of the sun and the hours.

AnubisThe guard who has brought us hither shouts in his Bedouin falsetto, in order to get the light switched on again, but the infinite thickness of the walls, instead of prolonging the vibrations, seems to deaden them; and besides, who could hear us, in the depths where we now are?

AnubisThen, groping in the absolute darkness, he makes his way up the sloping passage. The hurried patter of his sandals and the flapping of his burnous grow faint in the distance, and the cries that he continues to utter sound so smothered to us soon that we might ourselves be buried. And meanwhile we do not move.

AnubisBut how comes it that it is so hot amongst these mummies? It seems as if there were fires burning in some oven close by. And above all there is a want of air. Perhaps the corridors, after our passage, have contracted, as happens sometimes in the anguish of dreams. Perhaps the long fissure by which we have crawled hither, perhaps it has closed in upon us.

AnubisBut at length the cries of alarm are heard and the light is turned on again. The three corpses have not profited by the unguarded moments to attempt any aggressive movement. Their positions, their expressions have not changed: the queen calm and beautiful as ever; the man eating still the corner of his rags to stifle the mad laughter of thirty- three centuries.

AnubisThe Bedouin is now returned, breathless from his journey. He urges us to come to see the king before the electric light is again extinguished, and this time for good and all.


A sarcophagus surrounded by carved walls.
The sarcophagus of Rameses IV.
photograph by Schroeder.





AnubisAnubisBehold us now at the end of the hall, on the edge of a dark crypt, leaning over and peering within. It is a place oval in form, with a vault of a funereal black, relieved by frescoes, either white or of the colour of ashes. They represent, these frescoes, a whole new register of gods and demons, some slim and sheathed narrowly like mummies, others with big heads and big bellies like hippopotami. Placed on the ground and watched from above by all these figures is an enormous sarcophagus of stone, wide open; and in it we can distinguish vaguely the outline of a human body: the Pharaoh!

AnubisAt least we should have liked to see him better. The necessary light is forthcoming at once: the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies touches an electric button and a powerful lamp illumines the face of Amenophis, detailing with a clearness that almost frightens you the closed eyes, the grimacing countenance, and the whole of the sad mummy. This theatrical effect took us by surprise; we were not prepared for it.

AnubisHe was buried in magnificence, but the pillagers have stripped him of everything, even of his beautiful breastplate of tortoiseshell, which came to him from a far-off Oriental country, and for many centuries now he has slept half naked on his rags. But his poor bouquet is there still--of mimosa, recognisable even now, and who will ever tell what pious or perhaps amorous hand it was that gathered these flowers for him more than three thousand years ago.

AnubisThe heat is suffocating. The whole crushing mass of this mountain, of this block of limestone, into which we have crawled through relatively imperceptible holes, like white ants or larvae, seems to weigh upon our chest. And these figures too, inscribed on every side, and this mystery of the hieroglyphs and the symbols, cause a growing uneasiness. You are too near them, they seem too much the masters of the exits, these gods with their heads of falcon, ibis and jackal, who, on the walls, converse in a continual exalted pantomime.

AnubisAnd then the feeling comes over you, that you are guilty of sacrilege standing there, before this open coffin, in this unwonted insolent light. The dolorous, blackish face, half eaten away, seems to ask for mercy: "Yes, yes, my sepulchre has been violated and I am returning to dust. But now that you have seen me, leave me, turn out that light, have pity on my nothingness."

AnubisIn sooth, what a mockery! To have taken so many pains, to have adopted so many stratagems to hide his corpse; to have exhausted thousands of men in the hewing of this underground labyrinth, and to end thus, with his head in the glare of an electric lamp, to amuse whoever passes.

And out of pity--I think it was the poor bouquet of mimosa that awakened it--I say to the Bedouin: "Yes, put out the light, put it out--that is enough."

And then the darkness returns above the royal countenance, which is suddenly effaced in the sarcophagus. The phantom of the Pharaoh is vanished, as if replunged into the unfathomable past. The audience is over.

And we, who are able to escape from the horror of the hypogeum, reascend rapidly towards the sunshine of the living, we go to breathe the air again, the air to which we have still a right--for some few days longer.

Anubis, the guardian


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