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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER XVII -- AN AUDIENCE OF AMENOPHIS II.
The Valley of the Kings
King 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.
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
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
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.
We 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
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.
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
The tomb of Rameses IX in the Valley of the Kings.
photo by Zangaki, c1890.
In 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.
Hastily 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.
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.
Then, 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.
The 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
Osiris, from the tomb of Rameses IX
photo by Zangaki, c1890.
The 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.
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
These 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.
What 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.
In 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.
For 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
On 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.
And, 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.
Sometimes, 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.
Oh! 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.
And 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
But 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.
Slowly 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.
Afterwards, 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.
But 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
But 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!
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.
And 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.
The 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?
Then, 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.
But 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.
But 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-
The 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.
The sarcophagus of Rameses IV.
photograph by Schroeder.
Behold 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!
At 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.
He 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.
The 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.
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."
In 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
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
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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