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La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
CHAPTER IV -- THE HALL OF THE MUMMIES
a night-time walk in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
There are two of us, and as we light our way by the aid of a lantern
through these vast halls we might be taken for a night watch on its
round. We have just shut behind us and doubly locked the door by which
we entered, and we know that we are alone, rigorously alone, although
this place is so vast, with its endless, communicating halls, its high
vestibules and great flights of stairs; mathematically alone, one
might say, for this palace that we are in is one quite out of the
ordinary, and all its outlets were closed and sealed at nightfall.
Every night indeed the doors are sealed, on account of the priceless
relics that are collected here. So we shall not meet with any living
being in these halls to-night, in spite of their vast extent and
endless turnings, and in spite too of all these mysterious things that
are ranged on every side and fill the place with shadows and hiding-
Our round takes us first along the ground floor over flagstones that
resound to our footsteps. It is about ten of the clock. Here and there
through some stray windows gleams a small patch of luminous blue sky,
lit by the stars which for the good folk outside lend transparency to
the night; but there, none the less, the place is filled with a solemn
gloom, and we lower our voices, remembering perhaps the dead that fill
the glass cases in the halls above.
And these things which line the walls on either side of us as we pass
also seem to be in the nature of receptacles for the dead. For the
most part they are sarcophagi of granite, proud and indestructible:
some of them, in the shape of gigantic boxes, are laid out in line on
pedestals; others, in the form of mummies, stand upright against the
walls and display enormous faces, surmounted by equally enormous head-
dresses. Assembled there they look like a lot of malformed giants,
with oversized heads sunk curiously in their shoulders.
besides, some that are merely statues, colossal figures that have
never held a corpse in their interiors; these all wear a strange,
scarcely perceptible smile; in their huge sphinx-like headgear they
reach nearly to the ceiling and their set stare passes high above our
heads. And there are others that are not larger than ourselves, some
even quite little, with the stature of gnomes. And, every now and
then, at some sudden turning, we encounter a pair of eyes of enamel,
wide-open eyes, that pierce straight into the depths of ours, that
seem to follow us as we pass and make us shiver as if by the contact
of a thought that comes from the abysm of the ages.
We pass on rapidly, however, and somewhat inattentively, for our
business here to-night is not with these simulacra on the ground
floor, but with the more redoubtable hosts above. Besides our lantern
sheds so little light in these great halls that all these people of
granite and sandstone and marble appear only at the precise moment of
our passage, appear only to disappear, and, spreading their fantastic
shadows on the walls, mingle the next moment with the great mute
crowd, that grows ever more numerous behind us.
Placed at intervals are apparatus for use in case of fire, coils of
hose and standpipes that shine with the warm glow of burnished copper,
and I ask my companion of the watch: "What is there that could burn
here? Are not these good people all of stone?" And he answers: "Not
here indeed; but consider how the things that are above would blaze."
Ah! yes. The "things that are above"--which are indeed the object of
my visit to-night. I had no thought of fire catching hold in an
assembly of mummies; of the old withered flesh, the dead, dry hair,
the venerable carcasses of kings and queens, soaked as they are in
natron and oils, crackling like so many boxes of matches. It is
chiefly on account of this danger indeed that the seals are put upon
the doors at nightfall, and that it needs a special favour to be
allowed to penetrate into this place at night with a lantern.
In the daytime this "Museum of Egyptian Antiquities" is as vulgar a
thing as you can conceive, filled though it is with priceless
treasures. It is the most pompous, the most outrageous of those
buildings, of no style at all, by which each year the New Cairo is
enriched; open to all who care to gaze at close quarters, in a light
that is almost brutal, upon these august dead, who fondly thought that
they had hidden themselves for ever.
But at night! . . . Ah! at night when all the doors are closed, it is
the palace of nightmare and of fear. At night, so say the Arab
guardians, who would not enter it at the price of gold--no, not even
after offering up a prayer--at night, horrible "forms" escape, not
only from the embalmed bodies that sleep in the glass cases above, but
also from the great statues, from the papyri, and the thousand and one
things that, at the bottom of the tombs, have long been impregnated
with human essence. And these "forms" are like unto dead bodies, and
sometimes to strange beasts, even to beasts that crawl. And, after
having wandered about the halls, they end by assembling for their
nocturnal conferences on the roofs.
We next ascend a staircase of monumental proportions, empty in the
whole extent, where we are delivered for a little while from the
obsession of those rigid figures, from the stares and smiles of the
good people in white stone and black granite who throng the galleries
and vestibules on the ground floor. None of them, to be sure, will
follow us; but all the same they guard in force and perplex with their
shadows the only way by which we can retreat, if the formidable hosts
above have in store for us too sinister a welcome.
He to whose courtesy I owe the relaxation of the orders of the night
is the illustrious savant to whose care has been entrusted the
direction of the excavations in Egyptian soil; he is also the
comptroller of this vast museum, and it is he himself who has kindly
consented to act as my guide to-night through its mazy labyrinth.
Across the silent halls above we now proceed straight towards those of
whom I have demanded this nocturnal audience.
To-night the succession of these rooms, filled with glass cases, which
cover more than four hundred yards along the four sides of the
building, seems to be without end. After passing, in turn, the papyri,
the enamels, the vases that contain human entrails, we reach the
mummies of the sacred beasts: cats, ibises, dogs, hawks, all with
their mummy cloths and sarcophagi; and monkeys, too, that remain
grotesque even in death.
Then commence the human masks, and, upright
in glass-fronted cupboards, the mummy cases in which the body, swathed
in its mummy cloths, was moulded, and which reproduced, more or less
enlarged, the figure of the deceased. Quite a lot of courtesans of the
Greco-Roman epoch, moulded in paste in this wise after death and
crowned with roses, smile at us provokingly from behind their windows.
Masks of the colour of dead flesh alternate with others of gold which
gleam as the light of our lantern plays upon them momentarily in our
rapid passage. Their eyes are always too large, the eyelids too wide
open and the dilated pupils seem to stare at us with alarm.
Original plate by Geo Colucci.
these mummy cases and these coffin lids fashioned in the shape of the
human figure, there are some that seem to have been made for giants;
the head especially, beneath its cumbrous head-dress, the head stuffed
as it were between the hunchback shoulders, looks enormous, out of all
proportion to the body which, towards the feet, narrows like a
Although our little lantern maintains its light we seem to see here
less and less: the darkness around us in these vast rooms becomes
almost overpowering--and these are the rooms, too, that, leading one
into the other, facilitate the midnight promenade of those dread
"forms" which, every evening, are released and roam about. . . .
On a table in the middle of one of these rooms a thing to make you
shudder gleams in a glass box, a fragile thing that failed of life
some two thousand years ago. It is the mummy of a human embryo, and
someone, to appease the malice of this born-dead thing, had covered
its face with a coating of gold--for, according to the belief of the
Egyptians, these little abortions became the evil genii of their
families if proper honour was not paid to them. At the end of its
negligible body, the gilded head, with its great foetus eyes, is
unforgettable for its suffering ugliness, for its frustrated and
In the halls into which we next penetrate there are veritable dead
bodies ranged on either side of us as we pass; their coffins are
displayed in tiers one above the other; the air is heavy with the
sickly odour of mummies; and on the ground, curled always like some
huge serpent, the leather hoses are in readiness, for here indeed is
the danger spot for fire.
And the master of this strange house whispers to me: "This is the
place. Look! There they are."
In truth I recognise the place, having often come here in the daytime,
like other people. In spite of the darkness, which commences at some
ten paces from us--so small is the circle of light cast by our lantern
--I can distinguish the double row of the great royal coffins, open
without shame in their glass cases. And standing against the walls,
upright, like so many sentinels, are the coffin lids, fashioned in the
shape of the human figure. We are there at last, admitted at this unseasonable hour into the
guest-chamber of kings and queens, for an audience that is private
And there, first of all, is the woman with the baby, upon whom,
without stopping, we throw the light of our lantern. A woman who died
in giving to the world a little dead prince. Since the old embalmers
no one has seen the face of this Queen Makeri. In her coffin there she
is simply a tall female figure, outlined beneath the close-bound
swathings of brown-coloured bandages. At her feet lies the fatal baby,
grotesquely shrivelled, and veiled and mysterious as the mother
herself; a sort of doll, it seems, put there to keep her eternal
company in the slow passing of endless years.
More fearsome to approach is the row of unswathed mummies that follow.
Here, in each coffin over which we bend, there is a face which stares
at us--or else closes its eyes in order that it may not see us; and
meagre shoulders and lean arms, and hands with overgrown nails that
protrude from miserable rags. And each royal mummy that our lantern
lights reserves for us a fresh surprise and the shudder of a different
fear--they resemble one another so little.
Some of them seem to laugh,
showing their yellow teeth; others have an expression of infinite
sadness and suffering. Sometimes the faces are small, refined and
still beautiful despite the pinching of the nostrils; sometimes they
are excessively enlarged by putrid swelling, with the tip of the nose
eaten away. The embalmers, we know, were not sure of their means, and
the mummies were not always a success. In some cases putrefaction
ensued, and corruption and even sudden hatchings of larvae, those
"companions without ears and without eyes," which died indeed in time
but only after they had perforated all the flesh.
Hard by are ranked according to dynasty, and in chronological order,
the proud Pharaohs in a piteous row: father, son, grandson, great-
grandson. And common paper tickets tell their tremendous names, Seti
I., Ramses II., Seti II., Ramses III., Ramses IV. . . . Soon the
muster will be complete, with such energy have men dug in the heart of
the rocks to find them all; and these glass cases will no doubt be
their final resting-place.
In olden days, however, they made many
pilgrimages after their death, for in the troubled times of the
history of Egypt it was one of the harassing preoccupations of the
reigning sovereign to hide, to hide at all costs, the mummies of his
ancestors, which filled the earth increasingly, and which the
violators of tombs were so swift to track. Then they were carried
clandestinely from one grave to another, raised each from his own
pompous sepulchre, to be buried at last together in some humble and
less conspicuous vault. But it is here, in this museum of Egyptian
antiquities, that they are about to accomplish their return to dust,
which has been deferred, as if by miracle, for so many centuries. Now,
stripped of their bandages, their days are numbered, and it behoves us
to hasten to draw these physiognomies of three or four thousand years
ago, which are about to perish.
In that coffin--the last but one of the row on the left--it is the
great Sesostris himself who awaits us. We know of old that face of
ninety years, with its nose hooked like the beak of a falcon; and the
gaps between those old man's teeth; the meagre, birdlike neck, and the
hand raised in a gesture of menace. Twenty years have elapsed since he
was brought back to the light, this master of the world. He was
wrapped thousands of times in a marvellous winding-sheet, woven of
aloe fibres, finer than the muslin of India, which must have taken
years in the making and measured more than 400 yards in length.
unswathing, done in the presence of the Khedive Tewfik and the great
personages of Egypt, lasted two hours, and after the last turn, when
the illustrious figure appeared, the emotion amongst the assistants
was such that they stampeded like a herd of cattle, and the Pharaoh
He has, moreover, given much cause for conversation,
this great Sesostris, since his installation in the museum. Suddenly
one day with a brusque gesture, in the presence of the attendants, who
fled howling with fear, he raised that hand which is still in the air,
and which he has not deigned since to lower. And subsequently there
supervened, beginning in the old yellowish-white hair, and then
swarming over the whole body, a hatching of cadaveric fauna, which
necessitated a complete bath in mercury. He also has his paper ticket,
pasted on the end of his box, and one may read there, written in a
careless hand, that name which once caused the whole world to tremble
--"Ramses II. (Sesostris)"!
It need not be said that he has greatly
fallen away and blackened even in the fifteen yeas that I have known
him. He is a phantom that is about to disappear; in spite of all the
care lavished upon him, a poor phantom about to fall to pieces, to
sink into nothingness. We move our lantern about his hooked nose, the
better to decipher, in the play of shadow, his expression, that still
remains authoritative. . . .
To think that once the destinies of the
world were ruled, without appeal, by the nod of this head, which looks
now somewhat narrow, under the dry skin and the horrible whitish hair.
What force of will, of passion and colossal pride must once have dwelt
therein! Not to mention the anxiety, which to us now is scarcely
conceivable, but which in his time overmastered all others--the
anxiety, that is to say, of assuring the magnificence and
inviolability of sepulture! . . .
And this horrible scarecrow,
toothless and senile, lying here in its filthy rags, with the hand
raised in an impotent menace, was once the brilliant Sesostris, the
master of kings, and by virtue of his strength and beauty the demigod
also, whose muscular limbs and deep athletic chest many colossal
statues at Memphis, at Thebes, at Luxor, reproduce and try to make
eternal. . . .
In the next coffin lies his father, Seti I., who reigned for a much
shorter period, and died much younger than he. This youthfulness is
apparent still in the features of the mummy, which are impressed
besides with a persistent beauty. Indeed this good King Seti looks the
picture of calm and serene reverie. There is nothing shocking in his
dead face, with its long closed eyes, its delicate lips, its noble
chin and unblemished profile. It is soothing and pleasant even to see
him sleeping there with his hands crossed upon his breast. And it
seems strange, that he, who looks so young, should have for son the
old man, almost a centenarian, who lies beside him.
In our passage we have gazed on many other royal mummies, some
tranquil and some grimacing. But, to finish, there is one of them (the
third coffin there, in the row in front of us), a certain Queen
Nsitanebashru, whom I approach with fear, albeit it is mainly on her
account that I have ventured to make this fantastical round. Even in
the daytime she attains to the maximum of horror that a spectral
figure can evoke. What will she be like to-night in the uncertain
light of our little lantern?
There she is indeed, the dishevelled vampire in her place right
enough, stretched at full length, but looking always as if she were
about to leap up; and straightway I meet the sidelong glance of her
enamelled pupils, shining out of half-closed eyelids, with lashes that
are still almost perfect. Oh! the terrifying person! Not that she is
ugly, on the contrary we can see that she was rather pretty and was
What distinguishes her from the others is her air of
thwarted anger, of fury, as it were, at being dead. The embalmers have
coloured her very religiously, but the pink, under the action of the
salts of the skin, has become decomposed here and there and given
place to a number of green spots. Her naked shoulders, the height of
the arms above the rags which were once her splendid shroud, have
still a certain sleek roundness, but they, too, are stained with
greenish and black splotches, such as may be seen on the skins of
Assuredly no corpse, either here or elsewhere, has ever
preserved such an expression of intense life, of ironical, implacable
ferocity. Her mouth is twisted in a little smile of defiance; her
nostrils pinched like those of a ghoul on the scent of blood, and her
eyes seem to say to each one who approaches: "Yes, I am laid in my
coffin; but you will very soon see I can get out of it." There is
something confusing in the thought that the menace of this terrible
expression, and this appearance of ill-restrained ferocity had endured
for some hundreds of years before the commencement of our era, and
endured to no purpose in the secret darkness of a closed coffin at the
bottom of some doorless vault.
Now that we are about to retire, what will happen here, with the
complicity of silence, in the darkest hours of the night? Will they
remain inert and rigid, all these embalmed bodies, once left to
themselves, who pretended to be so quiet because we were there? What
exchanges of old human fluid will recommence, as who can doubt they do
each night between one coffin and another.
Formerly these kings and
queens, in their anxiety as to the future of their mummy, had foreseen
violation, pillage and scattering amongst the sands of the desert, but
never this: that they would be reunited one day, almost all unveiled,
so near to one another under panes of glass. Those who governed Egypt
in the lost centuries and were never known except by history, by the
papyri inscribed with hieroglyphics, brought thus together, how many
things will they have to say to one another, how many ardent questions
to ask about their loves, about their crimes! As soon as we shall have
departed, nay, as soon as our lantern, at the end of the long
galleries, shall seem no more than a foolish, vanishing spot of fire,
will not the "forms" of whom the attendants are so afraid, will they
not start their nightly rumblings and in their hollow mummy voices,
whisper, with difficulty, words? . . .
Heavens! How dark it is! Yet our lantern has not gone out. But it
seems to grow darker and darker. And at night, when all is shut up,
how one smells the odour of the oils in which the shrouds are
saturated, and, more intolerable still, the sickly stealthy stench,
almost, of all these dead bodies! . . .
As I traverse the obscurity of these endless halls, a vague instinct
of self-preservation induces me to turn back again, and look behind.
And it seems to me that already the woman with the baby is slowly
raising herself, with a thousand precautions and stratagems, her head
still completely covered. While farther down, that dishevelled
hair. . . . Oh! I can see her well, sitting up with a sudden jerk, the
ghoul with the enamel eyes, the lady Nsitanebashru!
La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1924
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