See a list of chapters.


La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

The Apis (Hapis, Hape or Hapi-ankh) cult worshiped a sacred black bull that was chosen by a series of markings on its hide. The Apis is known from the second dynasty and may be linked to the beginnings of the age of Taurus before 4000 BC. Yet the worship of the sacred bull did not end until Christian times, a clear case of a sect outliving its era.

Apis was bringer of life force and fertility. At the age of 28 the Apis was killed and a sucessor sought. The body of the slain bull was buried, in late times in extensive tunnels near Saqqara that are now called the "Serapeum" from the Greek version of the god: Serapis.

A merry parade with music and palm fronds as the Apis bull is led through town.
Procession of the Apis Bull
by Frederick Bridgman.

The dwelling-places of the Apis in the grim darkness beneath the Memphite Saqqara desert, are, as all the world knows, monster coffins of black granite ranged in catacombs (the Serapeum), hot and stifling as eternal stoves.

To reach them from the banks of the Nile we have first to traverse the low region which the inundations of the ancient river, regularly repeated since the beginning of time, have rendered propitious to the growth of plants and to the development of men; an hour or two's journey, this evening through forests of date-trees whose beautiful palms temper the light of the March sun, which is now half veiled in clouds and already declining.

In the distance herds are grazing in the cool shade. And we meet fellahs leading back from the field towards the village on the river-bank their little donkeys, laden with sheaves of corn. The air is mild and wholesome under the high tufts of these endless green plumes, which move in the warm wind almost without noise. We seem to be in some happy land, where the pastoral life should be easy, and even a little paradisiacal.

But beyond, in front of us, quite a different world is gradually revealed. Its aspect assumes the importance of a menace from the unknown; it awes us like an apparition of chaos, of universal death. . . . It is the desert, the conquering desert, in the midst of which inhabited Egypt, the green valleys of the Nile, trace merely a narrow ribbon. And here, more than elsewhere, the sight of this sovereign desert rising up before us is startling and thrilling, so high up it seems, and we so low in the Edenlike valley shaded by the palms. With its yellow hues, its livid marblings, and its sands which make it look somehow as if it lacked consistency, it rises on the whole horizon like a kind of soft wall or a great fearsome cloud--or rather, like a long cataclysmic wave, which does not move indeed, but which, if it did, would overwhelm and swallow everything. It is the Memphite desert--Saqqara--a place, that is to say, such as does not exist elsewhere on earth; a fabulous necropolis, in which men of earlier times, heaped up for some three thousand years the embalmed bodies of their dead, exaggerating, as time went on, the foolish grandeur of their tombs.

Now, above the sand which looks like the front of some great tidal wave arrested in its progress, we see on all sides, and far into the distance, triangles of superhuman proportions which were once the tombs of mummies; pyramids, still upright, all of them, on their sinister pedestal of sand. Some are comparatively near; others almost lost in the background of the solitudes--and perhaps more awesome in that they are merely outlined in grey, high up among the clouds.

The little carriages that have brought us to the necropolis of Memphis, through the interminable forest of palm-trees, had their wheels fitted with large pattens for their journey over the sand.

Now, arrived at the foot of the fearsome region, we commence to climb a hill where all at once the trot of our horses ceases to be heard; the moving felting of the soil establishes a sudden silence around us, as indeed is always the case when we reach these sands. It seems as if it were a silence of respect which the desert itself imposes.

The valley of life sinks and fades behind us, until at last it disappears, hidden by a line of sandhills--the first wave, as one might say, of this waterless sea--and we are now mounted into the kingdom of the dead, swept at this moment by a withering and almost icy wind, which from below one would not have expected.

This desert of Memphis has not yet been profaned by hotels or motor roads, such as we have seen in the "little desert" of the Sphinx-- whose three pyramids indeed we can discern at the extreme limit of the view, prolonging almost to infinity for our eyes this domain of mummies. There is nobody to be seen, nor any indication of the present day, amongst these mournful undulations of yellow or pale grey sand, in which we seem lost as in the swell of an ocean. The sky is cloudy-- such as you can scarcely imagine the sky of Egypt.

In this immense nothingness of sand and stones, which stands out now more clearly against the clouds on the horizon, there is nothing anywhere save the silhouettes of those eternal triangles; the pyramids, gigantic things which rise here and there at hazard, some half in ruin, others almost intact and preserving still their sharp point.

To-day they are the only landmarks of this necropolis, which is nearly six miles in length, and was formerly covered by temples of a magnificence and a vastness unimaginable to the minds of our day. Except for one which is quite near us (the fantastic grandfather of the others, that of King Zoser, who died nearly 5000 years ago), except for this one, which is made of six colossal superposed terraces, they are all built after that same conception of the Triangle, which is at once the most mysteriously simple figure of geometry, and the strongest and most permanently stable form of architecture.

And now that there remains no trace of the frescoed portraits which used to adorn them, nor of their multicoloured coatings, now that they have taken on the same dead colour as the desert, they look like the huge bones of giant fossils, that have long outlasted their other contemporaries on earth. Beneath the ground, however, the case is different; there, still remain the bodies of men, and even of cats and birds, who with their own eyes saw these vast structures building, and who sleep intact, swathed in bandages, in the darkness of their tunnels.

We know, for we have penetrated there before, what things are hidden in the womb of this old desert, on which the yellow shroud of the sand grows thicker and thicker as the centuries pass. The whole deep rock had been perforated patiently to make hypogea and sepulchral chambers, great and small, and veritable palaces for the dead, adorned with innumerable painted figures.

And though now, for some two thousand years, men have set themselves furiously to exhume the sarcophagi and the treasures that are buried here, the subterranean reserves are not yet exhausted. There still remain, no doubt, pleiads of undisturbed sleepers, who will never be discovered.

As we advance the wind grows stronger and colder beneath a sky that becomes increasingly cloudy, and the sand is flying on all sides. The sand is the undisputed sovereign of the necropolis; if it does not surge and roll like some enormous tidal wave, as it appears to do when seen from the green valley below, it nevertheless covers everything with an obstinate persistence which has continued since the beginning of time. Already at Memphis it has buried innumerable statues and colossi and temples of the Sphinx.

It comes without a pause, from Libya, from the great Sahara, which contain enough to powder the universe. It harmonises well with the tall skeletons of the pyramids, which form immutable rocks on its always shifting extent; and if one thinks of it, it gives a more thrilling sense of anterior eternities even than all these Egyptian ruins, which, in comparison with it, are things of yesterday. The sand--the sand of the primitive seas--which represents a labour of erosion of a duration impossible to conceive, and bears witness to a continuity of destruction which, one might say, had no beginning.

Here, in the midst of these solitudes, is a humble habitation, old and half buried in sand, at which we have to stop. It was once the house of the Egyptologist Mariette, and still shelters the director of the excavations, from whom we have to obtain permission to descend amongst the Apis. The whitewashed room in which he receives us is encumbered with the age-old debris which he is continually bringing to light. The parting rays of the sun, which shines low down from between two clouds, enter through a window opening on to the surrounding desolation; and the light comes mournfully, yellowed by the sand and the evening.

The master of the house, while his Bedouin servants are gone to open and light up for us the underground habitations of the Apis, shows us his latest astonishing find, made this morning in a hypogeum of one of the most ancient dynasties. It is there on a table, a group of little people of wood, of the size of the marionettes of our theatres. And since it was the custom to put in a tomb only those figures or objects which were most pleasing to him who dwelt in it, the man-mummy to whom this toy was offered in times anterior to all precise chronology must have been extremely partial to dancing-girls.

Women dance in Robert's time, perhaps in the manner they danced for the owner of the tomb.
Traditional Egyptian dance in the 19th century
by David Roberts, 1839.

In the middle of the group the man himself is represented, sitting in an armchair, and on his knee he holds his favourite dancing-girl. Other girls posture before him in a dance of the period; and on the ground sit musicians touching tambourines and strangely fashioned harps. All wear their hair in a long plait, which falls below their shoulders like the pigtail of the Chinese. It was the distinguishing mark of these kinds of courtesans. And these little people had kept their pose in the darkness for some three thousand years before the commencement of the Christian era. . . .

In order to show it to us better the group is brought to the window, and the mournful light which enters from across the infinite solitudes of the desert colours them yellow and shows us in detail their little doll-like attitudes and their comical and frightened appearance--frightened perhaps to find themselves so old and issuing from so deep a night. They had not seen a setting of the sun, such as they now regard with their queer eyes, too long and too wide open, they had not seen such a thing for some five thousand years. . . .

The habitation of the Apis, the lords of the necropolis, is little more than two hundred yards away. We are told that the place is now lighted up and that we may betake ourselves thither.

The descent is by a narrow, rapidly sloping passage, dug in the soil, between banks of sand and broken stones. We are now completely sheltered from the bitter wind which blows across the desert, and from the dark doorway that opens before us comes a breath of air as from an oven. It is always dry and hot in the underground funeral places of Egypt, which make indeed admirable stoves for mummies. The threshold once crossed we are plunged first of all in darkness and, preceded by a lantern, make our way, by devious turnings, over large flagstones, passing obelisks, fallen blocks of stone and other gigantic debris, in a heat that continually increases.

A dark tunnel awaits, roughly cut into the rock.
The Serapeum, tombs of the Apis.
photo by Bonfils, c1880.

At last the principal artery of the hypogeum appears, a thoroughfare more than five hundred yards long, cut in the rock, where the Bedouins have prepared for us the customary feeble light.

It is a place of fearful aspect. As soon as one enters one is seized by the sense of a mournfulness beyond words, by an oppression as of something too heavy, too crushing, almost superhuman. The impotent little flames of the candles, placed in a row, in groups of fifty, on tripods of wood from one end of the route to the other, show on the right and left of the immense avenue rectangular sepulchral caverns, containing each a black coffin, but a coffin as if for a mastodon.

All these coffins, so sombre and so alike, are square shaped too, severely simple like so many boxes; but made out of a single block of rare granite that gleams like marble. They are entirely without ornament. It is necessary to look closely to distinguish on the smooth walls the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the rows of little figures, little owls, little jackals, that tell in a lost language the history of ancient peoples. Here is the signature of King Amasis; beyond, that of King Cambyses. . . .

Who were the Titans who, century after century, were able to hew these coffins (they are at least twelve feet long by ten feet high), and, having hewn them, to carry them underground (they weigh on an average between sixty and seventy tons), and finally to range them in rows here in these strange chambers, where they stand as if in ambuscade on either side of us as we pass?

Each in its turn has contained quite comfortably the mummy of a bull Apis, armoured in plates of gold. But in spite of their weight, in spite of their solidity which effectively defies destruction, they have been despoiled--when is not precisely known, probably by the soldiers of the King of Persia. And this notwithstanding that merely to open them represents a labour of astonishing strength and patience.

In some cases the thieves have succeeded, by the aid of levers, in moving a few inches the formidable lid; in others, by persevering with blows of pickaxes, they have pierced, in the thickness of the granite, a hole through which a man has been enabled to crawl like a rat, or a worm, and then, groping his way, to plunder the sacred mummy.

One, however, remains intact in the walled cavern, and thus preserves for us the only Apis which has come down to our days. And one recalls the emotion of Mariette, when, on entering it, he saw on the sandy ground the imprint of the naked feet of the last Egyptian who left it thirty-seven centuries before.

What strikes us most of all in the colossal hypogeum is the meeting there, in the middle of the stairway by which we leave, with yet another black coffin, which lies across our path as if to bar it. It is as monstrous and as simple as the others, its seniors, which many centuries before, as the deified bulls died, had commenced to line the great straight thoroughfare. But this one has never reached its place and never held its mummy. It was the last. Even while men were slowly rolling it, with tense muscles and panting cries, towards what might well have seemed its eternal chamber, others gods were born, and the cult of the Apis had come to an end--suddenly, then and there!

Such a fate may happen indeed to each and all of the religions and institutions of men, even to those most deeply rooted in their hearts and their ancestral past. . . . That perhaps is the most disturbing of all our positive notions: to know that there will be a last of all things, not only a last temple, and a last priest, but a last birth of a human child, a last sunrise, a last day. . . .

In these hot catacombs we had forgotten the cold wind that blew outside, and the physiognomy of the Memphite desert, the aspects of horror that were awaiting us above had vanished from our mind. Sinister as it is under a blue sky, this desert becomes absolutely intolerable to look upon if by chance the sky is cloudy when the daylight fails.

On our return to it, from the subterranean darkness, everything in its dead immensity has begun to take on the blue tint of the night. On the top of the sandhills, of which the yellow colour has greatly paled since we went below, the wind amuses itself by raising little vortices of sand that imitate the spray of an angry sea. On all sides dark clouds stretch themselves as at the moment of our descent. The horizon detaches itself more and more clearly from them, and, farther towards the east, it actually seems to be tilted up; one of the highest of the waves of this waterless sea, a mountain of sand whose soft contours are deceptive in the distance, makes it look as if it sloped towards us, so as almost to produce a sensation of vertigo.

The sun itself has deigned to remain on the scene a few seconds longer, held beyond its time by the effect of mirage; but it is so changed behind its thick veils that we would prefer that it should not be there. Of the colour of dying embers, it seems too near and too large; it has ceased to give any light, and is become a mere rose-coloured globe, that is losing its shape and becoming oval. No longer in the free heavens, but stranded there on the extreme edge of the desert, it watches the scene like a large dull eye, about to close itself in death. And the mysterious superhuman triangles, they too, of course, are there, waiting for us on our return from underground, some near, some far, posted in their eternal places; but surely they have grown gradually more blue. . . .

Such a night, in such a place, it seems the last night.


It seems certain tricks of the supposed guardians of the antiquities of Egypt never get old, for on this editor's visit to the Serapeum in 1980 the lights again failed. A handful of us were stranded in the depths of the tunnels to await the arrival of the guard with a lantern. It seemed to be merely chance, although the guard did seem a bit surprised to see we were not overly bothered by the event and therefore not interested in rewarding him for our rescue. After reading the above account of seventy years earlier I would caution visitors to the Serapeum to expect a similar "accident".


wings of the Sun.

La Mort De Philae

by Pierre Loti, 1924

See a list of chapters. HOME PAGE.

For Beautiful Jewelry of Nepal and Tibet