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Isis


The Spell of Egypt

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



CHAPTER XIV (excerpt) -- Edfu
Temple of the Hidden God.

There is one temple on the Nile which seems to embrace in its arms all the worship of the past; to be full of prayers and solemn praises; to be the holder, the noble keeper, of the sacred longings, of the unearthly desires and aspirations, of the dead. It is the temple of Edfu (Edfou, formerly Appolinopolis). From all the other temples it stands apart.

It is the temple of inward flame, of the secret soul of man; of that mystery within us that is exquisitely sensitive, and exquisitely alive; that has longings it cannot tell, and sorrows it dare not whisper, and loves it can only love.

The approach to Edfu temple.
The Temple of Edfu
From "la Description de l'Egypte"


To Horus it was dedicated--hawk-headed Horus--the son of Isis and Osiris, who was crowned with many crowns, who was the young Apollo of the old Egyptian world. But though I know this, I am never able to associate Edfu with Horus, that child wearing the side-lock--when he is not hawk-headed in his solar aspect--that boy with his finger in his mouth, that youth who fought against Set, murderer of his father.

Edfu, in its solemn beauty, in its perfection of form, seems to me to pass into a region altogether beyond identification with the worship of any special deity, with particular attributes, perhaps with particular limitations; one who can be graven upon walls, and upon architraves and pillars painted in brilliant colors; one who can personally pursue a criminal, like some policeman in the street; even one who can rise upon the world in the visible glory of the sun.

To me, Edfu must always represent the world-worship of "the Hidden One"; not Amun, god of the dead, fused with Ra, with Amsu, or with Khnum: but that other "Hidden One," who is God of the happy hunting-ground, with whom the Buddhist strives to merge his strange serenity of soul; who is adored in the "Holy Places" by the Moslem, and lifted mystically above the heads of kneeling Catholics in cathedrals dim with incense. The God who is merrily praised with the banjo and the trumpet in the streets of black English cities; who is asked for children by longing women, and for new dolls by lisping babes; whom the atheist denies in the day, and fears in the darkness of night; who is on the lips alike of priest and blasphemer, and in the soul of all human life.

Edfu stands alone, not near any other temple. It is not pagan; it is not Christian: it is a place in which to worship according to the dictates of your heart.

The approach to Edfu temple.
The Temple of Edfu
By David Roberts, 1838


Edfu stands alone on the bank of the Nile between Luxor and Assuan. It is not very far from El-Kab, once the capital of Upper Egypt, and it is about two thousand years old. The building of it took over one hundred and eighty years, and it is the most perfectly preserved temple to-day of all the antique world. It is huge and it is splendid. It has towers one hundred and twelve feet high, a propylon two hundred and fifty-two feet broad, and walls four hundred and fifty feet long. Begun in the reign of Ptolemy III., it was completed only fifty-seven years before the birth of Christ.

You know these facts about it, and you forget them, or at least you do not think of them. What does it all matter when you are alone in Edfu? Let the antiquarian go with his anxious nose almost touching the stone; let the Egyptologist peer through his glasses at hieroglyphs and puzzle out the meaning of cartouches: but let us wander at ease, and worship and regard the exquisite form, and drink in the mystical spirit, of this very wonderful temple.

Do you care about form? Here you will find it in absolute perfection. Edfu is the consecration of form. In proportion it is supreme above all other Egyptian temples. Its beauty of form is like the chiselled loveliness of a perfect sonnet. While the world lasts, no architect can arise to create a building more satisfying, more calm with the calm of faultlessness, more serene with a just serenity.

Or so it seems to me. I think of the most lovely buildings I know in Europe--of the Alhambra at Granada, of the Cappella Palatina in the palace at Palermo. And Edfu I place with them--Edfu utterly different from them, more different, perhaps, even than they are from each other, but akin to them, as all great beauty is mysteriously akin.

I have spent morning after morning in the Alhambra, and many and many an hour in the Cappella Palatina; and never have I been weary of either, or longed to go away. And this same sweet desire to stay came over me in Edfu. The boat Loulia was tied up by the high bank of the Nile. The sailors were glad to rest. There was no steamer sounding its hideous siren to call me to its crowded deck. So I yielded to my desire, and for long I stayed in Edfu. And when at last I left it I said to myself, "This is a supreme thing," and I knew that within me had suddenly developed the curious passion for buildings that some people never feel, and that others feel ever growing and growing.

The coartyard of Edfu temple was filled with sand nearly to the tops of the columns in 1838.
Yes, Edfu is supreme. No alteration could improve it. Any change made in it, however slight, could only be harmful to it. Pure and perfect is its design--broad propylon, great open courtyard with pillared galleries, halls, chambers, sanctuary. Its dignity and its sobriety are matchless.

I know they must be, because they touched me so strangely, with a kind of reticent enchantment, and I am not by nature enamored of sobriety, of reticence and calm, but am inclined to delight in almost violent force, in brilliance, and, especially, in combinations of color.

In the Alhambra one finds both force and fairylike lightness, delicious proportions, delicate fantasy, a spell as of subtle magicians; in the Cappella Palatina, a jeweled splendor, combined with a small perfection of form which simply captivates the whole spirit and leads it to adoration.

In Edfu you are face to face with hugeness and with grandeur; but soon you are scarcely aware of either--in the sense, at least, that connects these qualities with a certain overwhelming, almost striking down, of the spirit and the faculties. What you are aware of is your own immense and beautiful calm of utter satisfaction--a calm which has quietly inundated you, like a waveless tide of the sea.

How rare it is to feel this absolute satisfaction, this praising serenity! The critical spirit goes, like a bird from an opened window. The excited, laudatory, voluble spirit goes. And this splendid calm is left. If you stay here, you, as this temple has been, will be molded into a beautiful sobriety. From the top of the pylon you have received this still and glorious impression from the matchless design of the whole building, which you see best from there. When you descend the shallow staircase, when you stand in the great court, when you go into the shadowy halls, then it is that the utter satisfaction within you deepens. Then it is that you feel the need to worship in this place created for worship.

The ancient Egyptians made most of their temples in conformity with a single type. The sanctuary was at the heart, the core, of each temple --the sanctuary surrounded by the chambers in which were laid up the precious objects connected with ceremonies and sacrifices. Leading to this core of the temple, which was sometimes called "the divine house," were various halls the roofs of which were supported by columns--those hypostyle halls which one sees perpetually in Egypt.

The towering wall of the first pylon of Edfou temple.
The First Pylon, from the courtyard, Edfou Temple
From "la Description de l'Egypte".


Before the first of these halls was a courtyard surrounded by a colonnade. In the courtyard the priests of the temple assembled. The people were allowed to enter the colonnade. A gateway with towers gave entrance to the courtyard.

If one visits many of the Egyptian temples, one soon becomes aware of the subtlety, combined with a sort of high simplicity and sense of mystery and poetry, of these builders of the past. As a great writer leads one on, with a concealed but beautiful art, from the first words to which all the other words are ministering servants; as the great musician--Wagner in his "Meistersinger," for instance--leads one from the first notes of his score to those final notes which magnificently reveal to the listeners the real meaning of those first notes, and of all the notes which follow them: so the Egyptian builders lead the spirit gently, mysteriously forward from the gateway between the towers to the distant house divine.

When one enters the outer court, one feels the far-off sanctuary. Almost unconsciously one is aware that for that sanctuary all the rest of the temple was created; that to that sanctuary everything tends. And in spirit one is drawn softly onward to that very holy place.

Slowly, perhaps, the body moves from courtyard to hypostyle hall, and from one hall to another. Hieroglyphs are examined, cartouches puzzled out, paintings of processions, or bas-reliefs of pastimes and of sacrifices, looked at with care and interest; but all the time one has the sense of waiting, of a want unsatisfied. And only when one at last reaches the sanctuary is one perfectly at rest. For then the spirit feels: "This is the meaning of it all."

One of the means which the Egyptian architects used to create this sense of approach is very simple, but perfectly effective. It consisted only in making each hall on a very slightly higher level than the one preceding it, and the sanctuary, which is narrow and mysteriously dark on the highest level of all.

People built their houses atop Edfu Temple to avoid the bugs.
Each time one takes an upward step, or walks up a little incline of stone, the body seems to convey to the soul a deeper message of reverence and awe. In no other temple is this sense of approach to the heart of a thing so acute as it is when one walks in Edfu. In no other temple, when the sanctuary is reached, has one such a strong consciousness of being indeed within a sacred heart.

The color of Edfu is a pale and delicate brown, warm in the strong sunshine, but seldom glowing. Its first doorway is extraordinarily high, and is narrow, but very deep, with a roof showing traces of that delicious clear blue-green which is like a thin cry of joy rising up in the solemn temples of Egypt. A small sphinx keeps watch on the right, just where the guardian stands; this guardian, the gift of the past, squat, even fat, with a very perfect face of a determined and handsome man.

In the court, upon a pedestal, stands a big bird, and near it is another bird, or rather half of a bird, leaning forward, and very much defaced. And in this great courtyard there are swarms of living birds, twittering in the sunshine. Through the doorway between the towers one sees a glimpse of a native village with the cupolas of a mosque.

I stood and looked at the cupolas for a moment. Then I turned, and forgot for a time the life of the world without--that men, perhaps, were praying beneath those cupolas, or praising the Moslem's God. For when I turned, I felt, as I have said, as if all the worship of the world must be concentrated here.

quietly two men sit below the giant pillars of Edfu temple.
Inside the Temple of Edfu
From "la Description de l'Egypte"


Standing far down the open court, in the full sunshine, I could see into the first hypostyle hall, but beyond only a darkness--a darkness which led me on, in which the further chambers of the house divine were hidden. As I went on slowly, the perfection of the plan of the dead architects was gradually revealed to me, when the darkness gave up its secrets; when I saw not clearly, but dimly, the long way between the columns, the noble columns themselves, the gradual, slight upward slope--graduated by genius; there is no other word--which led to the sanctuary, seen at last as a little darkness, in which all the mystery of worship, and of the silent desires of men, was surely concentrated, and kept by the stone for ever.

Even the succession of the darknesses, like shadows growing deeper and deeper, seemed planned by some great artist in the management of light, and so of shadow effects. The perfection of form is in Edfu, impossible to describe, impossible not to feel. The tremendous effect it has--an effect upon the soul--is created by a combination of shapes, of proportions, of different levels, of different heights, by consummate graduation.

And these shapes, proportions, different levels, and heights, are seen in dimness. Not that jewelled dimness one loves in Gothic cathedrals, but the heavy dimness of windowless, mighty chambers lighted only by a rebuked daylight ever trying to steal in. One is captured by no ornament, seduced by no lovely colors. Better than any ornament, greater than any radiant glory of color, is this massive austerity.

It is like the ultimate in an art. Everything has been tried, every strangeness bizarrerie, absurdity, every wild scheme of hues, every preposterous subject--and at the end a genius writes a little song, and the world gives the tribute of its breathless silence and its tears. And it knows that though other things may be done, better things can never be done. For no perfection can exceed any other perfection.

The courtyard of Edfu temple.
Edfu Courtyard.
In later life David Roberts sometimes created
oil versions of the subjects of his earlier engravings.


And so in Edfu I feel that this untinted austerity is perfect; that whatever may be done in architecture during future ages of the world, Edfu, while it lasts, will remain a thing supreme--supreme in form and, because of this supremacy, supreme in the spell which it casts upon the soul.

The sanctuary is just a small, beautifully proportioned, inmost chamber, with a black roof, containing a sort of altar of granite, and a great polished granite shrine which no doubt once contained the god Horus. I am glad he is not there now. How far more impressive it is to stand in an empty sanctuary in the house divine of "the Hidden One," whom the nations of the world worship, whether they spread their robes on the sand and turn their faces to Mecca, or beat the tambourine and sing "glory hymns" of salvation, or flagellate themselves in the night before the patron saint of the Passionists, or only gaze at the snow- white plume that floats from the snows of Etna under the rose of dawn, and feel the soul behind Nature. Among the temples of Egypt, Edfu is the house divine of "the Hidden One," the perfect temple of worship.


wings of the Sun.

excerpt from: The Spell of Egypt

by Robert Hichens, published 1911


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