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Isis


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924



CHAPTER XX--
THE PASSING OF PHILAE
"Progress" comes to the Temple of Isis

Leaving Assouan (Aswan)--as soon as we have passed the last house--we come at once upon the desert. And now the night is falling, a cold February night, under a strange, copper-coloured sky.

Incontestably it is the desert, with its chaos of granite and sand, its warm tones and reddish color. But there are telegraph poles and the lines of a railroad, which traverse it in company, and disappear in the empty horizon. And then too how paradoxical and ridiculous it seems to be traveling here on full security and in a carriage! (The most commonplace of hackney-carriages, which I hired by the hour on the quay of Assouan.) A desert indeed which preserves still its aspects of reality, but has become domesticated and tamed for the use of the tourists and the ladies.

First, immense cemeteries surrounded by sand at the beginning of these quasi-solitudes. Such old cemeteries of every epoch of history. The thousand little cupolas of saints of Islam are crumbling side by side with the Christian obelisks of the first centuries; and, underneath, the Pharaonic hypogea. In the twilight, all these ruins of the dead, all the scattered blocks of granite are mingled in mournful groupings, outlined in fantastic silhouette against the pale copper of the sky; broken arches, tilted domes, and rocks that rise up like tall phantoms.

Farther on, when we have left behind this region of tombs, the granites alone litter the expanse of sand, granites to which the usury of centuries has given the form of huge round beasts. In places they have been thrown one upon the other and make great heaps of monsters. Elsewhere they lie alone among the sands, as if lost in the midst of the infinitude of some dead sea-shore.

The rails and the telegraph poles have disappeared; by the magic of twilight everything is become grand again, beneath one of those evening skies of Egypt which, in winter, resemble cold cupolas of metal. And now it is that you feel yourself verily on the threshold of the profound desolations of Arabia, from which no barrier, after all separates you. Were it not for the lack of verisimilitude in the carriage that has brought us hither, we should be able now to take this desert quite seriously--for in fact it has no limits.

After travelling for about three-quarters of an hour, we see in the distance a number of lights, which have already been kindled in the growing darkness. They seem too bright to be those of an Arab encampment. And our driver turning round and pointing to them says: "Chelal!"

Chelal--that is the name of the Arab village, on the riverside, where you take the boat for Philae (Egyptian: P'aaleq). To our disgust the place is lighted by electricity. It consists of a station, a factory with a long smoking chimney, and a dozen or so suspicious-looking taverns, reeking of alcohol, without which, it would seem, our European civilisation could not implant itself in a new country.

And here we embark for Philae. A number of boats are ready: for the tourists allured by many advertisements flock hither every winter in docile herds. All the boats, without a single exception, are profusely decorated with little English flags, as if for some regatta on the Thames. There is no escape therefore from this beflagging of a foreign holiday--and we set out with a homesick song of Nubia, which the boatmen sing to the cadence of the oars.

The copper-colored heaven remains so impregnated with cold light that we still see clearly. We are amid magnificent tragic scenery on a lake surrounded by a kind of fearful amphitheatre outlined on all sides by the mountains of the desert. It was at the bottom of this granite circus that the Nile used to flow, forming fresh islets, on which the eternal verdure of the palm-trees contrasted with the high desolate mountains that surrounded it like a wall.

Today, on account of the barrage established by the English, the water has steadily risen, like a tide that will never recede; and this lake, almost a little sea, replaces the meanderings of the river and has succeeded in submerging the sacred islets. The sanctuary of Isis (Aset)--which was enthroned for thousands of years on the summit of a hill, crowded with temples and colonnades and statues--still half emerges; but it is alone and will soon go the way of the others, There it is, beyond, like a great rock, at this hour in which the night begins to obscure everything.

Nowhere but in Upper Egypt have the winter nights these transparencies of absolute emptiness nor these sinister colourings. As the light gradually fails, the sky passes from copper to bronze, but remains always metallic. The zenith becomes brownish like a brazen shield, while the setting sun alone retains its yellow colour, growing slowly paler till it is almost of the whiteness of latten; and, above, the mountains of the desert edge their sharp outlines with a tint of burnt sienna.

To-night a freezing wind blows fiercely in our faces. To the continual chant of the rowers we pass slowly over the artificial lake, which is upheld as it were in the air by the English masonry, invisible now in the distance, but divined nevertheless and revolting. A sacrilegious lake one might call it, since it hides beneath its troubled waters ruins beyond all price; temples of the gods of Egypt, churches of the first centuries of Christianity, obelisks, inscriptions and emblems. It is over these things that we now pass, while the spray splashes in our faces, and the foam of a thousand angry little billows.

We draw near to what was once the holy isle. In places dying palm-trees, whose long trunks are to-day under water, still show their moistened plumes and give an appearance of inundation, almost of cataclysm.

smaller temple at Philae.
Philae Kiosk - built by order of Roman Emperor Trajan
sometimes called the Hypaethral Temple or the "Bed of Pharaoh"
from "la Description de l'Egypte".

Before coming to the sanctuary of Isis, we touch at the kiosk of Philae, which has been reproduced in the pictures of every age, and is as celebrated even as the Sphinx and the pyramids. It used to stand on a pedestal of high rocks, and around it the date-trees swayed their bouquets of aerial palms. To-day it has no longer a base; its columns rise separately from this kind of suspended lake. It looks as if it had been constructed in the water for the purpose of some royal naumachy.

We enter with our boat--a strange port indeed, in its ancient grandeur; a port of a nameless melancholy, particularly at this yellow hour of the closing twilight, and under these icy winds that come to us mercilessly from the neighbouring deserts. And yet how adorable it is, this kiosk of Philae, in this the abandonment that precedes its downfall! Its columns placed, as it were, upon something unstable, become thereby more slender, seem to raise higher still the stone foliage of their capitals. A veritable kiosk of dreamland now, which one feels is about to disappear for ever under these waters which will subside no more!



The smaller Phalae Temple, again, a cube, more Roman than Egyptian, the lower half solid, above which five columns per side support the roof.
Another view of the smaller (Hypaethral) Temple at Philae
by David Roberts, 1839.


And now, for another few moments, it grows quite light again, and tints of a warmer copper reappear in the sky. Often in Egypt when the sun has set and you think the light is gone, this furtive recoloration of the air comes thus to surprise you, before the darkness finally descends. The reddish tints seem to return to the slender shafts that surround us, and also, beyond, to the temple of the goddess, standing there like a sheer rock in the middle of this little sea, which the wind covers with foam.

On leaving the kiosk our boat--on this deep usurping water, among the submerged palm-trees--makes a detour in order to lead us to the temple by the road which the pilgrims of olden times used to travel on foot-- by that way which, a little while ago, was still magnificent, bordered with colonnades and statues. But now the road is entirely submerged, and will never be seen again. Between its double row of columns the water lifts us to the height of the capitals, which alone emerge and which we could touch with our hands. It seems like some journey of the end of time, in a kind of deserted Venice, which is about to topple over, to sink and be forgotten.

a wide courtyard surrounded by columns, leads to a huge wall of stone - the first pylon of Philae Temple.
The approach to Philae Temple
by David Roberts, 1839.


We arrive at the temple. Above our heads rise the enormous pylons, ornamented with figures in bas-relief: an Isis who stretches out her arms as if she were making signs to us, and numerous other divinities gesticulating mysteriously. The door which opens in the thickness of these walls is low, besides being half flooded, and gives on to depths already in darkness. We row on and enter the sanctuary, and as soon as one boat has crossed the sacred threshold the boatmen stop their song and suddenly give voice to the new cry that has been taught them for the benefit of the tourists: "Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" Coming at this moment, when, with heart oppressed by all the utilitarian vandalism that surrounds us, we were entering the sanctuary, what an effect of gross and imbecile profanation this bellowing of English joy produces!

The boatmen know, moreover, that they have been displaced, that their day has gone for ever; perhaps even, in the depths of their Nubian souls, they understand us, for all that we have imposed silence on them. The darkness increases within, although the place is open to the sky, and the icy wind blows more mournfully than it did outside. A penetrating humidity--a humidity altogether unknown in this country before the inundation--chills us to the bone.

We are now in that part of the temple which was left uncovered, the part where the faithful used to kneel. The sonority of the granites round about exaggerates the noise of the oars on the enclosed water, and there is something confusing in the thought that we are rowing and floating between the walls where formerly, and for centuries, men were used to prostrate themselves with their foreheads on the stones.

a peaceful open area, with much of the original multi-colored paint remaining.
Portico of the Temple of Philae
by David Roberts, 1839.


And now it is quite dark; the hour grows late. We have to bring the boat close to the walls to distinguish the hieroglyphs and rigid gods which are engraved there as finely as by the burin. These walls, washed for nearly four years by the inundation, have already taken on at the base that sad blackish colour which may be seen on the old Venetian palaces.

Halt and silence. It is dark and cold. The oars no longer move, and we hear only the sighing of the wind and the lapping of the water against the columns and the bas-reliefs--and then suddenly there comes the noise of a heavy body falling, followed by endless eddies. A great carved stone has plunged, at its due hour, to rejoin in the black chaos below its fellows that have already disappeared, to rejoin the submerged temples and old Coptic churches, and the town of the first Christian centuries--all that was once the Isle of Philae, the "pearl of Egypt," one of the marvels of the world.

The darkness is now extreme and we can see no longer. Let us go and shelter, no matter where, to await the moon. At the end of this uncovered hall there opens a door which gives on to deep night. It is the holy of holies, heavily roofed with granite, the highest part of the temple, the only part which the waters have not yet reached, and there we are able to put foot to earth. Our footsteps resound noisily on the large resonant flags, and the owls take to flight. Profound darkness; the wind and the dampness freeze us. Three hours to go before the rising of the moon; to wait in this place would be our death. Rather let us return to Chelal, and shelter ourselves in any lodging that offers, however wretched it may be.

A tavern of the horrible village in the light of an electric lamp. It reeks of absinthe, this desert tavern, in which we warm ourselves at a little smoking fire. It has been hastily built of old tin boxes, of the debris of whisky cases, and by way of mural decoration the landlord, an ignorant Maltese, has pasted everywhere pictures cut from our European pornographic newspapers.

During our hours of waiting, Nubians and Arabians follow one another hither, asking for drink, and are supplied with brimming glassfuls of our alcoholic beverages. They are the workers in the new factories who were formerly healthy beings, living in the open air. But now their faces are stained with coal dust, and their haggard eyes look unhappy and ill.

Philae Temple.
The Great Philae Temple
from "la Description de l'Egypte".


The rising of the moon is fortunately at hand. Once more in our boat we make our way slowly towards the sad rock which to-day is Philae. The wind has fallen with the night, as happens almost invariably in this country in winter, and the lake is calm. To the mournful yellow sky has succeeded one that is blue-black, infinitely distant, where the stars of Egypt scintillate in myriads.

A great glimmering light shows now in the east and at length the full moon rises, not blood-coloured as in our climates but straightway very luminous, and surrounded by an aureole of a kind of mist, caused by the eternal dust of the sands. And when we return to the baseless kiosk--lulled always by the Nubian song of the boatmen--a great disc is already illuminating everything with a gentle splendour.

As our little boat winds in and out, we see the great ruddy disc passing and repassing between the high columns, so striking in their archaism, whose images are repeated in the water, that is now grown calm--more than ever a kiosk of dreamland, a kiosk of old-world magic.

In returning to the temple of the goddess, we follow for a second time the submerged road between the capitals and friezes of the colonnade which emerge like a row of little reefs.

In the uncovered hall which forms the entrance to the temple, it is still dark between the sovereign granites. Let us moor our boat against one of the walls and await the good pleasure of the moon. As soon as she shall have risen high enough to cast her light here, we shall see clearly.

It begins by a rosy glimmer on the summit of the pylons; and then takes the form of a luminous triangle, very clearly defined, which grows gradually larger on the immense wall. Little by little it descends towards the base of the temple, revealing to us by degrees the intimidating presence of the bas-reliefs, the gods, goddesses and hieroglyphs, and the assemblies of people who make signs among themselves. We are no longer alone--a whole world of phantoms has been evoked around us by the moon, some little, some very large. They had been hiding there in the shadow and now suddenly they recommence their mute conversations, without breaking the profound silence, using only their expressive hands and raised fingers.

And now also the colossal Isis begins to appear--the one carved on the left of the portico by which you enter; first, her refined head with its bird's helmet, surmounted by a solar disc; then, as the light continues to descend, her neck and shoulders, and her arm, raised to make who knows what mysterious, indicating sign; and finally the slim nudity of her torso, and her hips close bound in a sheath. Behold her now, the goddess, come completely out of the shadow. . . .

But she seems surprised and disturbed at seeing at her feet, instead of the stones she had known for two thousand years, her own likeness, a reflection of herself, that stretches away, reversed in the mirror of the water. . . .

Suddenly, in the mist of the deep nocturnal calm of this temple, isolated here in the lake, comes again the sound of a kind of mournful booming, of things that topple, precious stones that become detached and fall--and then, on the surface of the lake, a thousand concentric circles form, close one another and disappear, ruffling indefinitely this mirror embanked between the terrible granites, in which Isis regards herself sorrowfully.

A photo of Philae temple, flooded as the author saw it.
Philae Temple.
photo by Peridis, c.1910.


~~~~~~~~~

Author's Postscript: -- The submerging of Philae, as we know, has increased by no less than seventy-five millions of pounds the annual yield of the surrounding land. Encouraged by this success, the English propose next year to raise the barrage of the Nile another twenty feet. As a consequence this sanctuary of Isis will be completely submerged, the greater part of the ancient temples of Nubia will be under water, and fever will infect the country. But, on the other hand, the cultivation of cotton will be enormously facilitated.
. . . P.L.


The Isle of Philae at sunset
Sunset at Philae in 1839,
long before the building of dams at Aswan,
By David Roberts.


An update: The first dam at Aswan was constructed in 1898--1902. Pierre Loti therefore visited the island about 1905. The first dam was built higher in 1907-12 and again in 1929-34. The second, still higher Aswan dam was built upstream of Philae. And yes, the temple of Philae was moved in 1972 - 1980 to another island nearby, Agilkia, and most of the damage covered. The Priestesses of Isis likely were not consulted.


wings of the Sun.

La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

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