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Isis


The Spell of Egypt

by Robert Hichens,
published 1911, The Century Co., New York.
Etext prepared by Dagny, dagnyj@hotmail.com
and John Bickers, jbickers@ihug.co.nz
Adapted for AscendingPassage.com.



CHAPTER XII -- DEIR-EL-BAHARI
Queen Hatshepsut's Temple - an architectural treasure


Make Way for Queen Hatshepsut (Hatshepsu)!

Surely she comes to a sound of flutes, a merry noise of thin, bright music, backed by a clashing of barbaric cymbals, along the corridors of the past; this Queen who is shown upon Egyptian walls dressed as a man, who is said to have worn a beard, and who sent to the land of Punt the famous expedition which covered her with glory and brought gold to the god Amun.

To me most feminine she seemed when I saw her temple at Deir-el-Bahari, with its brightness and its suavity; its pretty shallowness and sunshine; its white, and blue, and yellow, and red, and green and orange; all very trim and fanciful, all very smart and delicate; full of finesse and laughter, and breathing out to me of the twentieth century the coquetry of a woman in 1500 B.C.

After the terrific masculinity of Medinet-Abu, after the great freedom of the Ramesseum, and the grandeur of its colossus, the manhood of all the ages concentrated in granite, the temple at Deir-el-Bahari came upon me like a delicate woman, perfumed and arranged, clothed in a creation of white and blue and orange, standing--ever so knowingly--against a background of orange and pink, of red and of brown-red, a smiling coquette of the mountain, a gay and sweet enchantress who knew her pretty powers and meant to exercise them.

Hatshepsut with a beard! Never will I believe it. Or if she ever seemed to wear one, I will swear it was only the tattooed ornament with which all the lovely women of the Fayum decorate their chins to-day, throwing into relief the smiling, soft lips, the delicate noses, the liquid eyes, and leading one from it step by step to the beauties it precedes.

Mr. Wallis Budge says in his book on the antiquities of Egypt: "It would be unjust to the memory of a great man and a loyal servant of Hatshepsu, if we omitted to mention the name of Senmut, the architect and overseer of works at Deir-el-Bahari." By all means let Senmut be mentioned, and then let him be utterly forgotten.

A radiant Queen reigns here--a Queen of fantasy and splendor, and of that divine shallowness--refined frivolity literally cut into the mountain--which is the note of Deir-el-Bahari. And what a clever background! Oh, Hatshepsut knew what she was doing when she built her temple here. It was not the solemn Senmut (he wore a beard, I'm sure) who chose that background, if I know anything of women.

Hatshepsut's Temple at Deir-el Bahari sits low against the towering cliffs
Hatshepsut's Temple,
photograph by Lekegian, c.1895.


Long before I visited Deir-el-Bahari I had looked at it from afar. My eyes had been drawn to it merely from its situation right underneath the mountains. I had asked: "What do those little pillars mean? And are those little doors?" I had promised myself to go there, as one promises oneself a bonne bouche to finish a happy banquet. And I had realized the subtlety, essentially feminine, that had placed a temple there.

And Menu-Hotep's temple, perhaps you say, was it not there before the Queen's? Then he must have possessed a subtlety purely feminine, or have been advised by one of his wives in his building operations, or by some favorite female slave. Blundering, unsubtle man would probably think that the best way to attract and to fix attention on any object was to make it much bigger than things near and around it, to set up a giant among dwarfs.

only the foundation and a few portions of columns remain of Menu-Hoteps temple
Little remains of Menu-Hotep's Temple, seen in the background.
Photograph: Photoglob, c.1895.


Not so Queen Hatshepsut. More artful in her generation, she set her long but little temple against the precipices of Libya. And what is the result? Simply that whenever one looks toward them one says, "What are those little pillars?" Or if one is more instructed, one thinks about Queen Hatshepsu. The precipices are as nothing. A woman's wile has blotted them out.

And yet how grand they are! I have called them tiger-colored precipices. And they suggest tawny wild beasts, fierce, bred in a land that is the prey of the sun. Every shade of orange and yellow glows and grows pale on their bosses, in their clefts. They shoot out turrets of rock that blaze like flames in the day. They show great teeth, like the tiger when any one draws near. And, like the tiger, they seem perpetually informed by a spirit that is angry. Blake wrote of the tiger:

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night."


a female lion among papryus plants
Howard Carter copied this lion(?)
from the wall of Hatshepsut's temple c.1890


These tiger-precipices of Libya are burning things, avid like beasts of prey. But the restored apricot-colored pillars are not afraid of their impending fury--fury of a beast baffled by a tricky little woman, almost it seems to me; and still less afraid are the white pillars, and the brilliant paintings that decorate the walls within.

As many people in the sad but lovely islands off the coast of Scotland believe in "doubles," as the old classic writers believed in man's "genius," so the ancient Egyptian believed in his "Ka," or separate entity, a sort of spiritual other self, to be propitiated and ministered to, presented with gifts, and served with energy and ardor. On this temple of Deir-el-Bahari is the scene of the birth of Hatshepsut, and there are two babies, the princess and her Ka. For this imagined Ka, when a great Queen, long after, she built this temple, or chapel, that offerings might be made there on certain appointed days.

Fortunate Ka of Hatshepsut to have had so cheerful a dwelling! Liveliness pervades Deir-el-Bahari. I remember, when I was on my first visit to Egypt, lunching at Thebes with Monsieur Naville and Mr. Hogarth, and afterward going with them to watch the digging away of the masses of sand and rubbish which concealed this gracious building. I remember the songs of the half-naked workmen toiling and sweating in the sun. and I remember seeing a white temple wall come up into the light with all the painted figures dancing with joy upon it. And they are surely dancing still.

trees in ancient times lined the walkways of Hatshepsut's Temple
Trees in pots, wall carvings in Hatshepsut's Temple,
photograph by Sebah, c.1890.


Here you may see, brilliant as yesterday's picture anywhere, fascinatingly decorative trees growing bravely in little pots, red people offering incense which is piled up on mounds like mountains, Ptah-Seket, Osiris receiving a royal gift of wine, the queen in the company of various divinities, and the terrible ordeal of the cows.

a gift of cows to honor Queen Hatshepsut
Cows being weighed, wall carving in Hatshepsut's Temple,
photograph by Sebah, c.1890.


The cows are being weighed in scales. There are three of them. One is a philosopher, and reposes with an air that says, "Even this last indignity of being weighed against my will cannot perturb my soaring spirit." But the other two sitting up, look as apprehensive as old ladies in a rocking express, expectant of an accident.

The vividness of the colors in this temple is quite wonderful. And much of its great attraction comes rather from its position, and from them, than essentially from itself. At Deir-el-Bahari, what the long shell contains--its happy murmur of life--is more fascinating than the shell. There, instead of being uplifted or overawed by form, we are rejoiced by color, by the high vivacity of arrested movement, by the story that color and movement tell. And over all there is the bright, blue, painted sky, studded, almost distractedly studded, with a plethora of the yellow stars the Egyptians made like starfish.

The restored apricot-colored columns outside look unhappily suburban when you are near them. The white columns with their architraves are more pleasant to the eyes. The niches full of bright hues, the arched chapels, the small white steps leading upward to shallow sanctuaries, the small black foxes facing each other on little yellow pedestals-- attract one like the details and amusing ornaments of a clever woman's boudoir. Through this most characteristic temple one roves in a gaily attentive mood, feeling all the time Hatshepsut's fascination.

You may see her, if you will, a little lady on the wall, with a face decidedly sensual--a long, straight nose, thick lips, an expression rather determined than agreeable. Hatshepsut's mother looks Semitic, her father, Thothmes II, has a weak and poor-spirited countenance--decidedly an accomplished performer on the second violin.

The Queen Mother with a finely carved face and the flail of office, usually held by the Pharaoh
Queen Ahmes, mother of Hatshepsut
photograph of a plaster cast made at Deir el Bahari


The mother wears on her head a vulture headdress, the symbol of maternal care. Thothmes is clad in a loin-cloth. And a god, with a sleepy expression and a very fish-like head, appears in this group of personages to offer the key of life.

Another painting of the Queen shows her on her knees drinking milk from the sacred cow, with an intent and greedy figure, and an extraordinarily sensual and expressive face. That she was well guarded is surely proved by a brave display of her soldiers--red men on a white wall. Full of life and gaiety all in a row they come, holding weapons, and, apparently, branches, and advancing with a gait of triumph that tells of "spacious days." And at their head is an officer, who looks back, much like a modern drill sergeant, to see how his men are marching.

Queen Hatshepsut's honor guard
Queen Hatshepsut's guard,
photograph by Beato c.1890.


In the southern shrine of the temple, cut in the rock as is the northern shrine, once more I found traces of the "Lady of the Under- World." For this shrine was dedicated to Hathor, though the whole temple was sacred to the Theban god Amun. Upon a column were the remains of the goddess's face, with a broad brow and long, large eyes. Some fanatic had hacked away the mouth.

The tomb of Hatshepsut was found by Mr. Theodore M. Davis, and the famous Vache of Deir-el-Bahari by Monsieur Naville as lately as 1905. It stands in the museum at Cairo, but for ever it will be connected in the minds of men with the tiger-colored precipices and the Colonnades of Thebes. Behind the ruins of the temple of Mentu- Hotep III, in a chapel of painted rock, the Vache-Hathor was found.

It is not easy to convey by any description the impression this marvellous statue makes. Many of us love our dogs, our horses, some of us adore our cats; but which of us can think, without a smile, of worshipping a cow? Yet the cow was the Egyptian Aphrodite's sacred animal. Under the form of a cow she was often represented. And in the statue she is presented to us as a limestone cow. And positively this cow is to be worshipped.

She is shown in the act apparently of stepping gravely forward out of a small arched shrine, the walls of which are decorated with brilliant paintings. Her color is red and yellowish red, and is covered with dark blotches of a very dark green, which look almost black. Only one or two are of a bluish color. Her height is moderate. I stand about five foot nine, and I found that on her pedestal the line of her back was about level with my chest.

The lower part of the body, much of which is concealed by the under block of limestone, is white, tinged with yellow. The tail is red. Above the head, open and closed lotus- flowers form a head-dress, with the lunar disk and two feathers. And the long lotus-stalks flow down on each side of the neck toward the ground. At the back of this head-dress are a scarab and a cartouche. The goddess is advancing solemnly and gently. A wonderful calm, a matchless, serene dignity, enfold her.

In the body of this cow one is able, indeed one is almost obliged, to feel the soul of a goddess. The incredible is accomplished. The dead Egyptian makes the ironic, the skeptical modern world feel deity in a limestone cow. How is it done? I know not; but it is done. Genius can do nearly everything, it seems.

Under the chin of the cow there is a standing statue of the King Mentu-Hotep, and beneath her the king kneels as a boy. Wonderfully expressive and solemnly refined is the cow's face, which is of dark color, like the color of almost black earth--earth fertilized by the Nile. Dignified, dominating, almost but just not stern, strongly intelligent, and, through its beautiful intelligence, entirely sympathetic ("to understand all, is to pardon all"), this face, once thoroughly seen, completely noticed, can never be forgotten. This is one of the most beautiful statues in the world.

When I was at Deir-el-Bahari I thought of it and wished that it still stood there near the Colonnades of Thebes under the tiger-colored precipices. And then I thought of Hatshepsut. Surely she would not brook a rival to-day near the temple which she made--a rival long lost and long forgotten.

Hatshepsut's Temple - a series of three set back columned terraces spaced by ramps in the middle.
Hatshepsut's Temple today, with the third terrace restored.
Image by Hajor, Dec.2001 - Wikipedia, License


Is not her influence still there upon the terraced platforms, among the apricot and the white columns, near the paintings of the land of Punt? Did it not whisper to the antiquaries, even to the soldiers from Cairo, who guarded the Vache-Hathor in the night, to make haste to take her away far from the hills of Thebes and from the Nile's long southern reaches, that the great Queen might once more reign alone?

They obeyed. Hatshepsut was appeased. And, like a delicate woman, perfumed and arranged, clothed in a creation of white and blue and orange, standing ever so knowingly against a background of orange and pink, of red and of brown-red, she rules at Deir-el-Bahari.


wings of the Sun.

adapted from: The Spell of Egypt

by Robert Hichens, published 1911


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