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Title: Egypt (La Mort de Philae)
Author: Loti, Pierre
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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by Pierre Loti

Translated from the French by

W. P. Baines



A night wondrously clear and of a colour unknown to our climate; a place
of dreamlike aspect, fraught with mystery. The moon of a bright silver,
which dazzles by its shining, illumines a world which surely is no
longer ours; for it resembles in nothing what may be seen in other
lands. A world in which everything is suffused with rosy color beneath
the stars of midnight, and where granite symbols rise up, ghostlike and

Is that a hill of sand that rises yonder? One can scarcely tell, for it
has as it were no shape, no outline; rather it seems like a great rosy
cloud, or some huge, trembling billow, which once perhaps raised itself
there, forthwith to become motionless for ever. . . . And from out this
kind of mummified wave a colossal human effigy emerges, rose-coloured
too, a nameless, elusive rose; emerges, and stares with fixed eyes and
smiles. It is so huge it seems unreal, as if it were a reflection cast
by some mirror hidden in the moon. . . . And behind this monster
face, far away in the rear, on the top of those undefined and gently
undulating sandhills, three apocalyptic signs rise up against the sky,
those rose-coloured triangles, regular as the figures of geometry, but
so vast in the distance that they inspire you with fear. They seem to be
luminous of themselves, so vividly do they stand out in their clear
rose against the deep blue of the star-spangled vault. And this apparent
radiation from within, by its lack of likelihood, makes them seem more

And all around is the desert; a corner of the mournful kingdom of sand.
Nothing else is to be seen anywhere save those three awful things that
stand there upright and still--the human likeness magnified beyond all
measurement, and the three geometric mountains; things at first sight
like exhalations, visionary things, with nevertheless here and there,
and most of all in the features of the vast mute face, subtleties
of shadow which show that _it_ at least exists, rigid and immovable,
fashioned out of imperishable stone.

Even had we not known, we must soon have guessed, for these things are
unique in the world, and pictures of every age have made the knowledge
of them commonplace: the Sphinx and the Pyramids! But what is strange is
that they should be so disquieting. . . . And this pervading colour of
rose, whence comes it, seeing that usually the moon tints with blue the
things it illumines? One would not expect this colour either, which,
nevertheless, is that of all the sands and all the granites of Egypt and
Arabia. And then too, the eyes of the statue, how often have we not seen
them? And did we not know that they were capable only of their one fixed
stare? Why is it then that their motionless regard surprises and chills
us, even while we are obsessed by the smile of the sealed lips that seem
to hold back the answer to the supreme enigma? . . .

It is cold, but cold as in our country are the fine nights of January,
and a wintry mist rises low down in the little valleys of the sand. And
that again we were not expecting; beyond question the latest invaders of
this country, by changing the course of the old Nile, so as to water the
earth and make it more productive, have brought hither the humidity
of their own misty isle. And this strange cold, this mist, light as it
still is, seem to presage the end of ages, give an added remoteness
and finality to all this dead past, which lies here beneath us in
subterranean labyrinths haunted by a thousand mummies.

And the mist, which, as the night advances, thickens in the valleys,
hesitates to mount to the great daunting face of the Sphinx; and covers
it with the merest and most transparent gauze; and, like everything
else here to-night, this gauze, too, is rose-colored. And meanwhile the
Sphinx, which has seen the unrolling of all the history of the world,
attends impassively the change in Egypt’s climate, plunged in profound
and mystic contemplation of the moon, its friend for the last 5000

Here and there on the soft pathway of the sandhills are pigmy figures
of men that move about or sit squatting as if on the watch; and small
as they are, low down in the hollows and far away, this wonderful silver
moon reveals even their slightest gestures; for their white robes
and black cloaks stand sharply out against the monotonous rose of the
desert. At times they call to one another in a harsh, aspirate tongue,
and then go off at a run, noiselessly, barefooted, with burnous flying,
like moths in the night. They lie in wait for the parties of tourists
who arrive from time to time. For the great symbols, during the hundreds
and thousands of years that have elapsed since men ceased to venerate
them, have nevertheless scarcely ever been alone, especially on nights
with a full moon. Men of all races, of all times, have come to wander
round them, vaguely attracted by their immensity and mystery. In
the days of the Romans they had already become symbols of a lost
significance, legacies of a fabulous antiquity, but people came
curiously to contemplate them, and tourists in toga and in peplus carved
their names on the granite of their bases for the sake of remembrance.

The tourists who have come to-night, and upon whom have pounced the
black-cloaked Bedouin guides, wear cap and ulster or furred greatcoat;
their intrusion here seems almost an offence; but, alas, such visitors
become more numerous in each succeeding year. The great town hard
by--which sweats gold now that men have started to buy from it its
dignity and its soul--is become a place of rendezvous and holiday
for the idlers and upstarts of the whole world. The modern spirit
encompasses the old desert of the Sphinx on every side. It is true that
up to the present no one has dared to profane it by building in the
immediate neighbourhood of the great statue. Its fixity and calm disdain
still hold some sway, perhaps. But little more than a mile away there
ends a road travelled by hackney carriages and tramway cars, and noisy
with the delectable hootings of smart motor cars; and behind the pyramid
of Cheops squats a vast hotel to which swarm men and women of fashion,
the latter absurdly feathered, like Redskins at a scalp dance; and sick
people, in search of purer air; and consumptive English maidens; and
ancient English dames, a little the worse for wear, who bring their
rheumatisms for the treatment of the dry winds.

Passing on our way hither, we had seen this road and this hotel and
these people in the glare of the electric lights, and from an orchestra
that was playing there we caught the trivial air of a popular refrain
of the music halls; but when in a dip of the ground all this had
disappeared, what a sense of deliverance possessed us, how far off
this turmoil seemed! As soon as we commenced to tread upon the sand of
centuries, where all at once our footsteps made no sound, nothing seemed
to have existence, save only the great calm and the religious awe of
this world into which we were come, of this world with its so crushing
commentary upon our own, where all seemed silent, undefined, gigantic
and suffused with rose-colour.

And first there is the pyramid of Cheops, whose immutable base we had
to skirt on our way hither. In the moonlight we could see the separate
blocks, so enormous, so regular, so even in their layers, which lie
one above the other to infinity, getting ever smaller and smaller, and
mounting, mounting in diminishing perspective, until at last high up
they form the apex of this giddy triangle. And the pyramid seemed to be
illumined by some sad dawn of the end of the world, a dawn which made
ruddy only the sands and the granites of earth, and left the heavens,
pricked with their myriad stars, more awful in their darkness. How
impossible it is for us to conceive the mental attitude of that
king who, during some half-century, spent the lives of thousands and
thousands of his slaves in the construction of this tomb, in the fond
and foolish hope of prolonging to infinity the existence of his mummy.

The pyramid once passed there was still a short way to go before we
confronted the Sphinx, in the middle of what our contemporaries have
left him of his desert. We had to descend the slope of that sandhill
which looked like a cloud, and seemed as if covered with felt, in order
to preserve in such a place a more complete silence. And here and there
we passed a gaping black hole--an airhole, as it seemed, of the profound
and inextricable kingdom of mummies, very populous still, in spite of
the zeal of the exhumers.

As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the
Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon
us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon; its
head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light it
seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like
downhanging ears. And then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in
profile, shorn of its nose--flat-nosed like a death’s head--but having
already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side; already
disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious smile. And
when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face to face with
it--without however encountering its gaze, which passed high above
our heads--there came over us at once the sentiment of all the secret
thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and make eternal
behind this mutilated mask.

But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as
it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of
iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as
inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which no
longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it comes
to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.

For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun
God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the
one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised
everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of
awe-inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after
having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought so
long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished simply to
sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the most profound
of our human speculations. . . . It is said that the Sphinx was once
of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and colouring animated the
face, and it was enthroned at its full height on a kind of esplanade
paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then more sovereign than it
is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost buried beneath the sand of
the Libyan desert, which now quite hides its base, it rises at this hour
like a phantom which nothing solid sustains in the air.


It has gone midnight. In little groups the tourists of the evening
have disappeared; to regain perhaps the neighbouring hotel, where the
orchestra doubtless has not ceased to rage; or may be, remounting their
cars, to join, in some club of Cairo, one of those bridge parties, in
which the really superior intellects of our time delight; some--the
stouthearted ones--departed talking loudly and with cigar in mouth;
others, however, daunted in spite of themselves, lowered their voices as
people instinctively do in church. And the Bedouin guides, who a moment
ago seemed to flutter about the giant monument like so many black
moths--they too have gone, made restless by the cold air, which
erstwhile they had not known. The show for to-night is over, and
everywhere silence reigns.

The rosy tint fades on the Sphinx and the pyramids; all things in the
ghostly scene grow visibly paler; for the moon as it rises becomes
more silvery in the increasing chilliness of midnight. The winter mist,
exhaled from the artificially watered fields below, continues to rise,
takes heart and envelops the great mute face itself. And the latter
persists in its regard of the dead moon, preserving still the old
disconcerting smile. It becomes more and more difficult to believe that
here before us is a real colossus, so surely does it seem nothing other
than a dilated reflection of a thing which exists _elsewhere_, in
some other world. And behind in the distance are the three triangular
mountains. Them, too, the fog envelops, till they also cease to exist,
and become pure visions of the Apocalypse.

Now it is that little by little an intolerable sadness is expressed
in those large eyes with their empty sockets--for, at this moment, the
ultimate secret, that which the Sphinx seems to have known for so many
centuries, but to have withheld in melancholy irony, is this: that all
these dead men and women who sleep in the vast necropolis below have
been fooled, and the awakening signal has not sounded for a single
one of them; and that the creation of mankind--mankind that thinks and
suffers--has had no rational explanation, and that our poor aspirations
are vain, but so vain as to awaken pity.



Ragged, threatening clouds, like those that bring the showers of our
early spring, hurry across a pale evening sky, whose mere aspect makes
you cold. A wintry wind, raw and bitter, blows without ceasing, and
brings with it every now and then some furtive spots of rain.

A carriage takes me towards what was once the residence of the great
Mehemet Ali: by a steep incline it ascends into the midst of rocks and
sand--and already, and almost in a moment, we seem to be in the desert;
though we have scarcely left behind the last houses of an Arab quarter,
where long-robed folk, who looked half frozen, were muffled up to the
eyes to-day. . . . Was there formerly such weather as this in this
country noted for its unchanging mildness?

This residence of the great sovereign of Egypt, the citadel and the
mosque which he had made for his last repose, are perched like eagles’
nests on a spur of the mountain chain of Arabia, the Mokattam, which
stretches out like a promontory towards the basin of the Nile, and
brings quite close to Cairo, so as almost to overhang it, a little of
the desert solitude. And so the eye can see from far off and from
all sides the mosque of Mehemet Ali, with the flattened domes of its
cupolas, its pointed minarets, the general aspect so entirely Turkish,
perched high up, with a certain unexpectedness, above the Arab town
which it dominates. The prince who sleeps there wished that it should
resemble the mosques of his fatherland, and it looks as if it had been
transported bodily from Stamboul.

A short trot brings us up to the lower gate of the old fortress; and, by
a natural effect, as we ascend, all Cairo which is near there, seems to
rise with us: not yet indeed the endless multitude of its houses; but at
first only the thousands of its minarets, which in a few seconds point
their high towers into the mournful sky, and suggest at once that an
immense town is about to unfold itself under our eyes.

Continuing to ascend--past the double rampart, the double or triple
gates, which all these old fortresses possess, we penetrate at length
into a large fortified courtyard, the crenellated walls of which shut
out our further view. Soldiers are on guard there--and how unexpected
are such soldiers in this holy place of Egypt! The red uniforms and the
white faces of the north: Englishmen, billeted in the palace of Mehemet

The mosque first meets the eye, preceding the palace. And as we
approach, it is Stamboul indeed--for me dear old Stamboul--which
is called to mind; there is nothing, whether in the lines of its
architecture or in the details of its ornamentation, to suggest the
art of the Arabs--a purer art it may be than this and of which many
excellent examples may be seen in Cairo. No; it is a corner of Turkey
into which we are suddenly come.

Beyond a courtyard paved with marble, silent and enclosed, which serves
as a vast parvis, the sanctuary recalls those of Mehemet Fatih or the
Chah Zade: the same sanctified gloom, into which the stained glass of
the narrow windows casts a splendour as of precious stones; the same
extreme distance between the enormous pillars, leaving more clear space
than in our churches, and giving to the domes the appearance of being
held up by enchantment.

The walls are of a strange white marble streaked with yellow. The ground
is completely covered with carpets of a sombre red. In the vaults, very
elaborately wrought, nothing but blacks and gold: a background of black
bestrewn with golden roses, and bordered with arabesques like gold lace.
And from above hang thousands of gold chains supporting the vigil lamps
for the evening prayers. Here and there are people on their knees,
little groups in robe and turban, scattered fortuitously upon the red of
the carpets, and almost lost in the midst of the sumptuous solitude.

In an obscure corner lies Mehemet Ali, the prince adventurous and
chivalrous as some legendary hero, and withal one of the greatest
sovereigns of modern history. There he lies behind a grating of gold, of
complicated design, in that Turkish style, already decadent, but still
so beautiful, which was that of his epoch.

Through the golden bars may be seen in the shadow the catafalque of
state, in three tiers, covered with blue brocades, exquisitely faded,
and profusely embroidered with dull gold. Two long green palms freshly
cut from some date-tree in the neighbourhood are crossed before the door
of this sort of funeral enclosure. And it seems that around us is an
inviolable religious peace. . . .

But all at once there comes a noisy chattering in a Teutonic tongue--and
shouts and laughs! . . . How is it possible, so near to the great dead?
. . . And there enters a group of tourists, dressed more or less in the
approved “smart” style. A guide, with a droll countenance, recites to
them the beauties of the place, bellowing at the top of his voice like
a showman at a fair. And one of the travellers, stumbling in the sandals
which are too large for her small feet, laughs a prolonged, silly little
laugh like the clucking of a turkey. . . .

Is there then no keeper, no guardian of this holy mosque? And amongst
the faithful prostrate here in prayer, none who will rise and make
indignant protest? Who after this will speak to us of the fanaticism of
the Egyptians? . . . Too meek, rather, they seem to me everywhere. Take
any church you please in Europe where men go down on their knees
in prayer, and I should like to see what kind of a welcome would
be accorded to a party of Moslem tourists who--to suppose the
impossible--behaved so badly as these savages here.

Behind the mosque is an esplanade, and beyond that the palace. The
palace, as such, can scarcely be said to exist any longer, for it has
been turned into a barrack for the army of occupation. English soldiers,
indeed, meet us at every turn, smoking their pipes in the idleness of
the evening. One of them who does not smoke is trying to carve his
name with a knife on one of the layers of marble at the base of the

At the end of this esplanade there is a kind of balcony from which one
may see the whole of the town, and an unlimited extent of verdant
plains and yellow desert. It is a favourite view of the tourists of the
agencies, and we meet again our friends of the mosque, who have preceded
us hither--the gentlemen with the loud voices, the bellowing guide and
the cackling lady. Some soldiers are standing there too, smoking their
pipes contemplatively. But spite of all these people, in spite, too,
of the wintry sky, the scene which presents itself on arrival there is

A very fairyland--but a fairyland quite different from that of Stamboul.
For whereas the latter is ranged like a great amphitheatre above the
Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, here the vast town is spread out
simply, in a plain surrounded by the solitude of the desert and
dominated by chaotic rocks. Thousands of minarets rise up on every side
like ears of corn in a field; far away in the distance one can see their
innumerable slender points--but instead of being simply, as at Stamboul,
so many white spires, they are here complicated by arabesques, by
galleries, clock-towers and little columns, and seem to have borrowed
the reddish colour of the desert.

The flat rocks tell of a region which formerly was without rain. The
innumerable palm-trees of the gardens, above this ocean of mosques and
houses, sway their plumes in the wind, bewildered as it were by these
clouds laden with cold showers. In the south and in the west, at the
extreme limits of the view, as if upon the misty horizon of the plains,
appear two gigantic triangles. They are Gizeh and Memphis--the eternal

At the north of the town there is a corner of the desert quite singular
in its character--of the colour of bistre and of mummy--where a whole
colony of high cupolas, scattered at random, still stand upright in
the midst of sand and desolate rocks. It is the proud cemetery of the
Mameluke Sultans, whose day was done in the Middle Ages.

But if one looks closely, what disorder, what a mass of ruins there
are in this town--still a little fairylike--beaten this evening by the
squalls of winter. The domes, the holy tombs, the minarets and terraces,
all are crumbling: the hand of death is upon them all. But down there,
in the far distance, near to that silver streak which meanders through
the plains, and which is the old Nile, the advent of new times is
proclaimed by the chimneys of factories, impudently high, that disfigure
everything, and spout forth into the twilight thick clouds of black

The night is falling as we descend from the esplanade to return to our

We have first to traverse the old town of Cairo, a maze of streets
still full of charm, wherein the thousand little lamps of the Arab shops
already shed their quiet light. Passing through streets which twist at
their caprice, beneath overhanging balconies covered with wooden trellis
of exquisite workmanship, we have to slacken speed in the midst of a
dense crowd of men and beasts. Close to us pass women, veiled in black,
gently mysterious as in the olden times, and men of unmoved gravity, in
long robes and white draperies; and little donkeys pompously bedecked in
collars of blue beads; and rows of leisurely camels, with their loads of
lucerne, which exhale the pleasant fragrance of the fields. And when
in the gathering gloom, which hides the signs of decay, there appear
suddenly, above the little houses, so lavishly ornamented with
mushrabiyas and arabesques, the tall aerial minarets, rising to a
prodigious height into the twilight sky, it is still the adorable East.

But nevertheless, what ruins, what filth, what rubbish! How present is
the sense of impending dissolution! And what is this: large pools of
water in the middle of the road! Granted that there is more rain here
than formerly, since the valley of the Nile has been artificially
irrigated, it still seems almost impossible that there should be all
this black water, into which our carriage sinks to the very axles; for
it is a clear week since any serious quantity of rain fell. It would
seem that the new masters of this land, albeit the cost of annual upkeep
has risen in their hands to the sum of fifteen million pounds, have
given no thought to drainage. But the good Arabs, patiently and without
murmuring, gather up their long robes, and with legs bare to the knee
make their way through this already pestilential water, which must be
hatching for them fever and death.

Further on, as the carriage proceeds on its course, the scene changes
little by little. The streets become vulgar: the houses of “The Arabian
Nights” give place to tasteless Levantine buildings; electric lamps
begin to pierce the darkness with their wan, fatiguing glare, and at a
sharp turning the new Cairo is before us.

What is this? Where are we fallen? Save that it is more vulgar, it might
be Nice, or the Riviera, or Interkalken, or any other of those towns
of carnival whither the bad taste of the whole world comes to disport
itself in the so-called fashionable seasons. But in these quarters,
on the other hand, which belong to the foreigners and to the Egyptians
rallied to the civilisation of the West, all is clean and dry, well
cared for and well kept. There are no ruts, no refuse. The fifteen
million pounds have done their work conscientiously.

Everywhere is the blinding glare of the electric light; monstrous hotels
parade the sham splendour of their painted facades; the whole length of
the streets is one long triumph of imitation, of mud walls plastered so
as to look like stone; a medley of all styles, rockwork, Roman, Gothic,
New Art, Pharaonic, and, above all, the pretentious and the absurd.
Innumerable public-houses overflow with bottles; every alcoholic
drink, all the poisons of the West, are here turned into Egypt with a

And taverns, gambling dens and houses of ill-fame. And parading the
side-walks, numerous Levantine damsels, who seek by their finery to
imitate their fellows of the Paris boulevards, but who by mistake, as
we must suppose, have placed their orders with some costumier for
performing dogs.

This then is the Cairo of the future, this cosmopolitan fair! Good
heavens! When will the Egyptians recollect themselves, when will they
realise that their forebears have left to them an inalienable patrimony
of art, of architecture and exquisite refinement; and that, by their
negligence, one of those towns which used to be the most beautiful in
the world is falling into ruin and about to perish?

And nevertheless amongst the young Moslems and Copts now leaving
the schools there are so many of distinguished mind and superior
intelligence! When I see the things that are here, see them with
the fresh eyes of a stranger, landed but yesterday upon this soil,
impregnated with the glory of antiquity, I want to cry out to them, with
a frankness that is brutal perhaps, but with a profound sympathy:

“Bestir yourselves before it is too late. Defend yourselves against
this disintegrating invasion--not by force, be it understood, not by
inhospitality or ill-humour--but by disdaining this Occidental rubbish,
this last year’s frippery by which you are inundated. Try to preserve
not only your traditions and your admirable Arab language, but also
the grace and mystery that used to characterise your town, the refined
luxury of your dwelling-houses. It is not a question now of a poet’s
fancy; your national dignity is at stake. You are _Orientals_--I
pronounce respectfully that word, which implies a whole past of early
civilisation, of unmingled greatness--but in a few years, unless you are
on your guard, you will have become mere Levantine brokers, exclusively
preoccupied with the price of land and the rise in cotton.”



They are almost innumerable, more than 3000, and this great town,
which covers some twelve miles of plain, might well be called a city of
mosques. (I speak, of course, of the ancient Cairo, of the Cairo of
the Arabs. The new Cairo, the Cairo of sham elegance and of “Semiramis
Hotels,” does not deserve to be mentioned except with a smile.)

A city of mosques, then, as I was saying. They follow one another along
the streets, sometimes two, three, four in a row; leaning one against
the other, so that their confines become merged. On all sides their
minarets shoot up into the air, those minarets embellished with
arabesques, carved and complicated with the most changing fancy. They
have their little balconies, their rows of little columns; they are so
fashioned that the daylight shows through them. Some are far away in the
distance; others quite close, pointing straight into the sky above our
heads. No matter where one looks--as far as the eye can see--still there
are others; all of the same familiar colour, a brown turning into rose.
The most ancient of them, those of the old easy-tempered times, bristle
with shafts of wood, placed there as resting-places for the great free
birds of the air, and vultures and ravens may always be seen perched
there, contemplating the horizon of the sands, the line of the yellow

Three thousand mosques! Their great straight walls, a little severe
perhaps, and scarcely pierced by their tiny ogive windows, rise above
the height of the neighbouring houses. These walls are of the same brown
colour as the minarets, except that they are painted with horizontal
stripes of an old red, which has been faded by the sun; and they are
crowned invariably with a series of trefoils, after the fashion
of battlements, but trefoils which in every case are different and

Before the mosques, which are raised like altars, there is always a
flight of steps with a balustrade of white marble. From the door one
gets a glimpse of the calm interior in deep shadow. Once inside there
are corridors, astonishingly lofty, sonorous and enveloped in a kind of
half gloom; immediately on entering one experiences a sense of coolness
and pervading peace; they prepare you as it were, and you begin to be
filled with a spirit of devotion, and instinctively to speak low. In
the narrow street outside there was the clamorous uproar of an Oriental
crowd, cries of sellers, and the noise of humble old-world trading; men
and beasts jostled you; there seemed a scarcity of air beneath those so
numerous overhanging mushrabiyas. But here suddenly there is silence,
broken only by the vague murmur of prayers and the sweet songs of birds;
there is silence too, and the sense of open space, in the holy garden
enclosed within high walls; and again in the sanctuary, resplendent in
its quiet and restful magnificence. Few people as a rule frequent the
mosques, except of course at the hours of the five services of the day.
In a few chosen corners, particularly cool and shady, some greybeards
isolate themselves to read from morning till night the holy books and to
ponder the thought of approaching death: they may be seen there in their
white turbans, with their white beards and grave faces. And there may
be, too, some few poor homeless outcasts, who are come to seek the
hospitality of Allah, and sleep, careless of the morrow, stretched to
their full length on mats.

The peculiar charm of the gardens of the mosques, which are often very
extensive, is that they are so jealously enclosed within their high
walls--crowned always with stone trefoils--which completely shut out the
hubbub of the outer world. Palm-trees, which have grown there for some
hundred years perhaps, rise from the ground, either separately or in
superb clusters, and temper the light of the always hot sun on the
rose-trees and the flowering hibiscus. There is no noise in the gardens,
any more than in the cloisters, for people walk there in sandals and
with measured tread. And there are Edens, too, for the birds, who
live and sing therein in complete security, even during the services,
attracted by the little troughs which the imams fill for their benefit
each morning with water from the Nile.

As for the mosque itself it is rarely closed on all sides as are
those in the countries of the more sombre Islam of the north. Here in
Egypt--since there is no real winter and scarcely ever any rain--one of
the sides of the mosque is left completely open to the garden; and the
sanctuary is separated from the verdure and the roses only by a simple
colonnade. Thus the faithful grouped beneath the palm-trees can pray
there equally as well as in the interior of the mosque, since they can
see, between the arches, the holy Mihrab.[*]

     [*] The Mihrab is a kind of portico indicating the direction
     of Mecca. It is placed at the end of each mosque, as the
     altar is in our churches, and the faithful are supposed to
     face it when they pray.

Oh! this sanctuary seen from the silent garden, this sanctuary in which
the pale gold gleams on the old ceiling of cedarwood, and mosaics of
mother-of-pearl shine on the walls as if they were embroideries of
silver that had been hung there.

There is no faience as in the mosques of Turkey or of Iran. Here it is
the triumph of patient mosaic. Mother-of-pearl of all colours, all kinds
of marble and of porphyry, cut into myriads of little pieces, precise
and equal, and put together again to form the Arab designs, which, never
borrowing from the human form, nor indeed from the form of any animal,
recall rather those infinitely varied crystals that may be seen under
the microscope in a flake of snow. It is always the Mihrab which is
decorated with the most elaborate richness; generally little columns of
lapis lazuli, intensely blue, rise in relief from it, framing mosaics so
delicate that they look like brocades of fine lace. In the old ceilings
of cedarwood, where the singing birds of the neighbourhood have their
nests, the golds mingle with some most exquisite colourings, which time
has taken care to soften and to blend together. And here and there very
fine and long consoles of sculptured wood seem to fall, as it were, from
the beams and hang upon the walls like stalactites; and these consoles,
too, in past times, have been carefully coloured and gilded. As for the
columns, always dissimilar, some of amaranth-coloured marble, others
of dark green, others again of red porphyry, with capitals of every
conceivable style, they are come from far, from the night of the ages,
from the religious struggles of an earlier time and testify to the
prodigious past which this valley of the Nile, narrow as it is, and
encompassed by the desert, has known. They were formerly perhaps in the
temples of the pagans, or have known the strange faces of the gods of
Egypt and of ancient Greece and Rome; they have been in the churches of
the early Christians, or have seen the statues of tortured martyrs,
and the images of the transfigured Christ, crowned with the Byzantine
aureole. They have been present at battles, at the downfall of kingdoms,
at hecatombs, at sacrileges; and now brought together promiscuously
in these mosques, they behold on the walls of the sanctuary simply the
thousand little designs, ideally pure, of that Islam which wishes that
men when they pray should conceive Allah as immaterial, a Spirit without
form and without feature.

Each one of these mosques has its sainted dead, whose name it bears,
and who sleeps by its side, in an adjoining mortuary kiosk; some priest
rendered admirable by his virtues, or perhaps a khedive of earlier
times, or a soldier, or a martyr. And the mausoleum, which communicates
with the sanctuary by means of a long passage, sometimes open, sometimes
covered with gratings, is surmounted always by a special kind of cupola,
a very high and curious cupola, which raises itself into the sky like
some gigantic dervish hat. Above the Arab town, and even in the sand of
the neighbouring desert, these funeral domes may be seen on every side
adjoining the old mosques to which they belong. And in the evening, when
the light is failing, they suggest the odd idea that it is the dead man
himself, immensely magnified, who stands there beneath a hat that is
become immense. One can pray, if one wishes, in this resting-place of
the dead saint as well as in the mosque. Here indeed it is always more
secluded and more in shadow. It is more simple, too, at least up to the
height of a man: on a platform of white marble, more or less worn and
yellowed by the touch of pious hands, nothing more than an austere
catafalque of similar marble, ornamented merely with a Cufic
inscription. But if you raise your eyes to look at the interior of the
dome--the inside, as it were, of the strange dervish hat--you will see
shining between the clusters of painted and gilded stalactites a number
of windows of exquisite colouring, little windows that seem to be
constellations of emeralds and rubies and sapphires. And the birds, you
may be sure, have their nests also in the house of the holy one.
They are wont indeed to soil the carpets and the mats on which the
worshippers kneel, and their nests are so many blots up there amid the
gildings of the carved cedarwood; but then their song, the symphony that
issues from that aviary, is so sweet to the living who pray and to the
dead who dream. . . .


But yet, when all is said, these mosques seem somehow to be wanting.
They do not wholly satisfy you. The access to them perhaps is too easy,
and one feels too near to the modern quarters of the town, where the
hotels are full of visitors--so that at any moment, it seems, the spell
may be broken by the entry of a batch of Cook’s tourists, armed with
the inevitable _Baedeker_. Alas! they are the mosques of Cairo, of
poor Cairo, that is invaded and profaned. The memory turns to those of
Morocco, so jealously guarded, to those of Persia, even to those of Old
Stamboul, where the shroud of Islam envelops you in silence and gently
bows your shoulders as soon as you cross their thresholds.

And yet what pains are being taken to-day to preserve these mosques,
which in olden times were such delightful retreats. Neglected for whole
centuries, never repaired, notwithstanding the veneration of their
heedless worshippers, the greater part of them were fallen into ruin;
the fine woodwork of their interiors had become worm-eaten, their
cupolas were cracked and their mosaics covered the floor as with a hail
of mother-of-pearl, of porphyry and marble. It seemed that to repair
all this was a task incapable of fulfilment; it was sheer folly, people
said, to conceive the idea of it.

Nevertheless, for nearly twenty years now an army of workers has been at
the task, sculptors, marble-cutters, mosaicists. Already certain of
the sanctuaries, the most venerable of them indeed, have been entirely
renovated. After having re-echoed for some years to the sounds of
hammers and chisels, during the course of these vast renovations, they
are restored now to peace and to prayer, and the birds have recommenced
to build their nests in them.

It will be the glory of the present reign that it has preserved, before
it was too late, all this magnificent legacy of Moslem art. When the
city of “The Arabian Nights,” which was formerly there, shall have
entirely disappeared, to give place to a vulgar _entrepot_ of commerce
and of pleasure, to which the plutocracy of the whole world comes every
winter to disport itself, so much at least will remain to bear testimony
to the lofty and magnificent thought that inspired the earlier Arab
life. These mosques will continue to remain into the distant future,
even when men shall have ceased to pray in them, and the winged guests
shall have departed, for the want of those troughs of water from the
Nile, filled for them by the good imams, whose hospitality they repay
by making heard in the courts, beneath the arched roofs, beneath the
ceilings of cedarwood, the sweet, piping music of birds.



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-places.

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. There are, 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 sphinxlike 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. Amongst 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 scabbard.

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 ferocious expression.

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. The 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 was overturned. 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. . . .

     [*] This movement is explained by the action of the sun,
     which, falling on the unclothed arm, is supposed to have
     expanded the bone of the elbow.

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 mummied young.
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 snakes. 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!



     “To learn is the duty of every Moslem.”
      --Verse from the Hadith or Words of the Prophet.

In a narrow street, hidden in the midst of the most ancient Arab
quarters of Cairo, in the very heat of a close labyrinth mysteriously
shady, an exquisite doorway opens into a wide space bathed in sunshine;
a doorway formed of two elaborate arches, and surmounted by a high
frontal on which intertwined arabesques form wonderful rosework, and
holy writings are enscrolled with the most ingenious complications.

It is the entrance to El-Azhar, a venerable place in Islam, whence
have issued for nearly a thousand years the generations of priests and
doctors charged with the propagation of the word of the Prophet amongst
the nations, from the Mohreb to the Arabian Sea, passing through the
great deserts. About the end of our tenth century the glorious Fatimee
Caliphs built this immense assemblage of arches and columns, which
became the seat of the most renowned Moslem university in the world. And
since then successive sovereigns of Egypt have vied with one another
in perfecting and enlarging it, adding new halls, new galleries, new
minarets, till they have made of El-Azhar almost a town within a town.


     “He who seeks instruction is more loved of God than he who fights
     in a holy war.”
      --A verse from the Hadith.

Eleven o’clock on a day of burning sunshine and dazzling light. El-Azhar
still vibrates with the murmur of many voices, although the lessons of
the morning are nearly finished.

Once past the threshold of the double ornamented door we enter the
courtyard, at this moment empty as the desert and dazzling with
sunshine. Beyond, quite open, the mosque spreads out its endless
arcades, which are continued and repeated till they are lost in the
gloom of the far interior, and in this dim place, with its perplexing
depths, innumerable people in turbans, sitting in a close crowd, are
singing, or rather chanting, in a low voice, and marking time as it were
to their declamation by a slight rhythmic swaying from the hips. They
are the ten thousand students come from all parts of the world to absorb
the changeless doctrine of El-Azhar.

At the first view it is difficult to distinguish them, for they are far
down in the shadow, and out here we are almost blinded by the sun. In
little attentive groups of from ten to twenty, seated on mats around a
grave professor, they docilely repeat their lessons, which in the course
of centuries have grown old without changing like Islam itself. And we
wonder how those in the circles down there, in the aisles at the
bottom where the daylight scarcely penetrates, can see to read the old
difficult writings in the pages of their books.

In any case, let us not trouble them--as so many tourists nowadays do
not hesitate to do; we will enter a little later, when the studies of
the morning are over.

This court, upon which the sun of the forenoon now pours its white fire,
is an enclosure severely and magnificently Arab; it has isolated us
suddenly from time and things; it must lend to the Moslem prayer what
formerly our Gothic churches lent to the Christian. It is vast as a
tournament list; confined on one side by the mosque itself, and on the
others by a high wall which effectively separates it from the outer
world. The walls are of a reddish hue, burnt by centuries of sun into
the colour of raw sienna or of bloodstone. At the bottom they are
straight, simple, a little forbidding in their austerity, but their
summits are elaborately ornamented and crowned with battlements, which
show in profile against the sky a long series of denticulated stonework.
And over this sort of reddish fretwork of the top, which seems as if it
were there as a frame to the deep blue vault above us, we see rising up
distractedly all the minarets of the neighbourhood; and these minarets
are red-coloured too, redder even than the jealous walls, and are
decorated with arabesques, pierced by the daylight and complicated
with aerial galleries. Some of them are a little distance away; others,
startlingly close, seem to scale the zenith; and all are ravishing and
strange, with their shining crescents and outstretched shafts of wood
that call to the great birds of space. Spite of ourselves we raise our
heads, fascinated by all the beauty that is in the air; but there is
only this square of marvellous sky, a sort of limpid sapphire, set
in the battlements of El-Azhar and fringed by those audacious slender
towers. We are in the religious East of olden days and we feel how the
mystery of this magnificent court--whose architectural ornament consists
merely in geometrical designs repeated to infinity, and does not
commence till quite high up on the battlements, where the minarets point
into the eternal blue--must cast its spell upon the imagination of the
young priests who are being trained here.


“He who instructs the ignorant is like a living man amongst the dead.”

“If a day passes without my having learnt something which brings me
nearer to God, let not the dawn of that day be blessed.”

Verses from the Hadith.

He who has brought me to this place to-day is my friend, Mustapha Kamel
Pacha, the tribune of Egypt, and I owe to his presence the fact that I
am not treated like a casual visitor. Our names are taken at once to
the great master of El-Azhar, a high personage in Islam, whose pupil
Mustapha formerly was, and who no doubt will receive us in person.

It is in a hall very Arab in its character, furnished only with divans,
that the great master welcomes us, with the simplicity of an ascetic and
the elegant manners of a prelate. His look, and indeed his whole face,
tell how onerous is the sacred office which he exercises: to preside,
namely, at the instruction of these thousands of young priests, who
afterwards are to carry faith and peace and immobility to more than
three hundred millions of men.

And in a few moments Mustapha and he are busy discussing--as if it were
a matter of actual interest--a controversial question concerning the
events which followed the death of the Prophet, and the part played by
Ali. . . . In that moment how my good friend Mustapha, whom I had seen
so French in France, appeared all at once a Moslem to the bottom of
his soul! The same thing is true indeed of the greater number of these
Orientals, who, if we meet them in our own country, seem to be quite
parisianised; their modernity is only on the surface: in their inmost
souls Islam remains intact. And it is not difficult to understand,
perhaps, how the spectacle of our troubles, our despairs, our miseries,
in these new ways in which our lot is cast, should make them reflect and
turn again to the tranquil dream of their ancestors. . . .

While waiting for the conclusion of the morning studies, we are
conducted through some of the dependencies of El-Azhar. Halls of every
epoch, added one to another, go to form a little labyrinth; many contain
_Mihrabs_, which, as we know already, are a kind of portico, festooned
and denticulated till they look as if covered with rime. And library
after library, with ceilings of cedarwood, carved in times when men
had more leisure and more patience. Thousands of precious manuscripts,
dating back some hundreds of years, but which here in El-Azhar are no
whit out of date. Open, in glass cases, are numerous inestimable Korans,
which in olden times had been written fair and illuminated on parchment
by pious khedives. And, in a place of honour, a large astronomical
glass, through which men watch the rising of the moon of Ramadan. . . .
All this savours of the past. And what is being taught to-day to the ten
thousand students of El-Azhar scarcely differs from what was taught to
their predecessors in the glorious reign of the Fatimites--and which was
then transcendent and even new: the Koran and all its commentaries; the
subtleties of syntax and of pronunciation; jurisprudence; calligraphy,
which still is dear to the heart of Orientals; versification; and, last
of all, mathematics, of which the Arabs were the inventors.

Yes, all this savours of the past, of the dust of remote ages. And
though, assuredly, the priests trained in this thousand-year-old
university may grow to men of rarest soul, they will remain, these calm
and noble dreamers, merely laggards, safe in their shelter from the
whirlwind which carries us along.


“It is a sacrilege to prohibit knowledge. To seek knowledge is to
perform an act of adoration towards God; to instruct is to do an act of

“Knowledge is the life of Islam, the column of faith.”

Verses from the Hadith.

The lesson of the morning is now finished and we are able, without
disturbing anybody, to visit the mosque.

When we return to the great courtyard, with its battlemented walls,
it is the hour of recreation for this crowd of young men in robes and
turbans, who now emerge from the shadow of the sanctuary.

Since the early morning they have remained seated on their mats,
immersed in study and prayer, amid the confused buzzing of their
thousands of voices; and now they scatter themselves about the
contiguous Arab quarters until such time as the evening lessons
commence. They walk along in little groups, sometimes holding one
another’s hands like children; most of them carry their heads high and
raise their eyes to the heavens, although the sun which greets them
outside dazzles them a little with its rays. They seem innumerable, and
as they pass show us faces of the most diverse types. They come from
all quarters of the world; some from Baghdad, others from Bassorah, from
Mossul and even from the interior of Hedjaz. Those from the north have
eyes that are bright and clear; and amongst those from Moghreb, from
Morocco and the Sahara, are many whose skins are almost black. But
the expression of all the faces is alike: something of ecstasy and of
aloofness marks them all; the same detachment, a preoccupation with the
self-same dream. And in the sky, to which they raise their eyes, the
heavens--framed always by the battlements of El-Azhar--are almost white
from the excess of light, with a border of tall, red minarets, which
seem to be aglow with the refection of some great fire. And, watching
them pass, all these young priests or jurists, at once so different
and so alike, we understand better than before how Islam, the old, old
Islam, keeps still its cohesion and its power.

The mosque in which they pursue their studies is now almost empty.
In its restful twilight there is silence, and the unexpected music of
little birds; it is the brooding season and the ceilings of carved wood
are full of nests, which nobody disturbs.

A world, this mosque, in which thousands of people could easily find
room. Some hundred and fifty marble columns, brought from ancient
temples, support the arches of the seven parallel aisles. There is
no light save that which comes through the arcade opening into the
courtyard, and it is so dark in the aisles at the far end that we wonder
again how the faithful can see to read when the sun of Egypt happens to
be veiled.

Some score of students, who seem almost lost in the vast solitude, still
remain during the hour of rest, and are busy sweeping the floor with
long palms made into a kind of broom. These are the poor students, whose
only meal is of dry bread, and who at night stretch themselves to sleep
on the same mat on which they have sat studying during the day.

The residence at the university is free to all the scholars, the cost of
their education and maintenance being provided by pious donations. But,
inasmuch as the bequests are restricted according to nationality, there
is necessarily inequality in the treatment doled out to the different
students: thus the young men of a given country may be almost rich,
possessing a room and a good bed; while those of a neighbouring country
must sleep on the ground and have barely enough to keep body and soul
together. But none of them complain, and they know how to help one

     [*] The duration of the studies at El-Azhar varies from
     three to six years.

Near to us, one of these needy students is eating, without any false
shame, his midday meal of dry bread; and he welcomes with a smile the
sparrows and the other little winged thieves who come to dispute with
him the crumbs of his repast. And farther down, in the dimly lighted
vaults at the end, is one who disdains to eat, or who, maybe, has no
bread; who, when his sweeping is done, reseats himself on his mat,
and, opening his Koran, commences to read aloud with the customary
intonation. His voice, rich and facile, and moderated with discretion,
has a charm that is irresistible in the sonorous old mosque, where at
this hour the only other sound is the scarcely perceptible twittering of
the little broods above, among the dull gold beams of the ceiling. Those
who have been familiar with the sanctuaries of Islam know, as well as I,
that there is no book so exquisitely rhythmical as that of the Prophet.
Even if the sense of the verses escape you, the chanted reading, which
forms part of certain of the offices, acts upon you by the simple magic
of its sounds, in the same way as the oratorios which draw tears in
the churches of Christ. Rising and falling like some sad lullaby, the
declamation of this young priest, with his face of visionary, and garb
of decent poverty, swells involuntarily, till gradually it seems to fill
the seven deserted aisles of El-Azhar.

We stop in spite of ourselves, and listen, in the midst of the silence
of midday. And in this so venerable place, where dilapidation and
the usury of centuries are revealed on every side--even on the marble
columns worn by the constant friction of hands--this voice of gold
that rises alone seems as if it were intoning the last lament over the
death-pang of Old Islam and the end of time, the elegy, as it were, of
the universal death of faith in the heart of man.


“Science is one religion; prayer is another. Study is better than
worship. Go; seek knowledge everywhere, if needs be, even into China.”

Verses from the Hadith.

Amongst us Europeans it is commonly accepted as a proven fact that
Islam is merely a religion of obscurantism, bringing in its train the
stagnation of nations, and hampering them in that march to the unknown
which we call “progress.” But such an attitude shows not only an
absolute ignorance of the teaching of the Prophet, but a blind
forgetfulness of the evidence of history. The Islam of the earlier
centuries evolved and progressed with the nations, and the stimulus it
gave to men in the reign of the ancient caliphs is beyond all question.
To impute to it the present decadence of the Moslem world is altogether
too puerile. The truth is that nations have their day; and to a period
of glorious splendour succeeds a time of lassitude and slumber. It is a
law of nature. And then one day some danger threatens them, stirs them
from their torpor and they awake.

This immobility of the countries of the Crescent was once dear to me.
If the end is to pass through life with the minimum of suffering,
disdaining all vain striving, and to die entranced by radiant hopes, the
Orientals are the only wise men. But now that greedy nations beset them
on all sides their dreaming is no longer possible. They must awake,

They must awake; and already the awakening is at hand. Here, in Egypt,
where the need is felt to change so many things, it is proposed, too,
to reform the old university of El-Azhar, one of the chief centres of
Islam. One thinks of it with a kind of fear, knowing what danger there
is in laying hands upon institutions which have lasted for a thousand
years. Reform, however, has, in principle, been decided upon. New
knowledge, brought from the West, is penetrating into the tabernacle
of the Fatimites. Has not the Prophet said: “Go; seek knowledge far and
wide, if needs be even into China”? What will come of it? Who can tell?
But this, at least, is certain: that in the dazzling hours of noon,
or in the golden hours of evening, when the crowd of these modernised
students spreads itself over the vast courtyard, overlooked by its
countless minarets, there will no longer be seen in their eyes the
mystic light of to-day; and it will no longer be the old unshakable
faith, nor the lofty and serene indifference, nor the profound peace,
that these messengers will carry to the ends of the Mussulman
earth. . . .



The dwelling-places of the Apis, in the grim darkness beneath the
Memphite desert, are, as all the world knows, monster coffins of black
granite ranged in catacombs, 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_--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. And 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. 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 oepn, 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.

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.
And 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.



Night. A long straight road, the artery of some capital, through which
our carriage drives at a fast trot, making a deafening clatter on the
pavement. Electric light everywhere. The shops are closing; it must
needs be late.

The road is Levantine in its general character; and we should have no
clear notion of the place did we not see in our rapid, noisy passage
signs that recall us to the land of the Arabs. People pass dressed in
the long robe and tarboosh of the East; and some of the houses, above
the European shops, are ornamented with mushrabiyas. But this blinding
electricity strikes a false note. In our hearts are we quite sure we are
in the East?

The road ends, opening on to darkness. Suddenly, without any warning,
it abuts upon a void in which the eyes see nothing, and we roll over
a yielding, felted soil, where all noise abruptly ceases--it is the
_desert_! . . . Not a vague, nondescript stretch of country such as in
the outskirts of our towns, not one of the solitudes of Europe, but the
threshold of the vast desolations of Arabia. _The desert_; and, even if
we had not known that it was awaiting us, we should have recognised it
by the indescribable quality of harshness and uniqueness which, in spite
of the darkness, cannot be mistaken.

But the night after all is not so black. It only seemed so, at the first
moment, by contrast with the glaring illumination of the street. In
reality it is transparent and blue. A half-moon, high up in the heavens,
and veiled by a diaphanous mist, shines gently, and as it is an Egyptian
moon, more subtle than ours, it leaves to things a little of their
colour. We can see now, as well as feel, this desert, which has opened
and imposed its silence upon us. Before us is the paleness of its sands
and the reddish-brown of its dead rocks. Verily, in no country but Egypt
are there such rapid surprises: to issue from a street flanked by shops
and stalls and, without transition, to find this! . . .

Our horses have, inevitably, to slacken speed as the wheels of our
carriage sink into the sand. Around us still are some stray ramblers,
who presently assume the air of ghosts, with their long black or white
draperies, and noiseless tread. And then, not a soul; nothing but the
sand and the moon.

But now almost at once, after the short intervening nothingness, we
find ourselves in a new town; streets with little low houses, little
cross-roads, little squares, all of them white, on whitened sands,
beneath a white moon. . . . But there is no electricity in this town, no
lights, and nobody is stirring; doors and windows are shut: no movement
of any kind, and the silence, at first, is like that of the surrounding
desert. It is a town in which the half-light of the moon, amongst so
much vague whiteness, is diffused in such a way that it seems to come
from all sides at once and things cast no shadows which might give them
definiteness; a town where the soil is so yielding that our progress
is weakened and retarded, as in dreams. It seems unreal; and, in
penetrating farther into it, a sense of fear comes over you that can
neither be dismissed nor defined.

For assuredly this is no ordinary town. . . . And yet the houses,
with their windows barred like those of a harem, are in no way
singular--except that they are shut and silent. It is all this
whiteness, perhaps, which freezes us. And then, too, the silence is
not, in fact, like that of the desert, which did at least seem natural,
inasmuch as there was nothing there; here, on the contrary, there is
a sense of innumerable presences, which shrink away as you pass but
nevertheless continue to watch attentively. . . . We pass mosques in
total darkness and they too are silent and white, with a slight bluish
tint cast on them by the moon. And sometimes, between the houses, there
are little enclosed spaces, like narrow gardens, but which can have no
possible verdure. And in these gardens numbers of little obelisks rise
from the sand--white obelisks, it is needless to say, for to-night
we are in the kingdom of absolute whiteness. What can they be, these
strange little gardens? . . . And the sand, meanwhile, which covers the
streets with its thick coatings, continues to deaden the sound of our
progress, out of compliment no doubt to all these watchful things that
are so silent around us.

At the crossings and in the little squares the obelisks become more
numerous, erected always at either end of a slab of stone that is about
the length of a man. Their little motionless groups, posted as if on the
watch, seem so little real in their vague whiteness that we feel tempted
to verify them by touching, and, verily, we should not be astonished if
our hand passed through them as through a ghost. Farther on there is a
wide expanse without any houses at all, where these ubiquitous little
obelisks abound in the sand like ears of corn in a field. There is
now no further room for illusion. We are in a cemetery, and have been
passing in the midst of houses of the dead, and mosques of the dead, in
a town of the dead.

Once emerged from this cemetery, which in the end at least disclosed
itself in its true character, we are involved again in the continuation
of the mysterious town, which takes us back into its network. Little
houses follow one another as before, only now the little gardens are
replaced by little burial enclosures. And everything grows more and more
indistinct, in the gentle light, which gradually grows less. It is as if
someone were putting frosted globes over the moon, so that soon, but for
the transparency of this air of Egypt and the prevailing whiteness of
things, there would be no light at all. Once at a window the light of a
lamp appears; it is the lantern of gravediggers. Anon we hear the voices
of men chanting a prayer; and the prayer is a prayer for the dead.

These tenantless houses were never built for dwellings. They are simply
places where men assemble on certain anniversaries, to pray for the
dead. Every Moslem family of any note has its little temple of this
kind, near to the family graves. And there are so many of them that now
the place is become a town--and a town in the desert--that is to say, in
a place useless for any other purpose; a secure place indeed, for we
may be sure that the ground occupied by these poor tombs runs no risk of
being coveted--not even in the irreverent times of the future. No, it is
on the other side of Cairo--on the other bank of the Nile, amongst the
verdure of the palm-trees, that we must look for the suburb in course
of transformation, with its villas of the invading foreigner, and the
myriad electric lights along its motor roads. On this side there is no
such fear; the peace and desuetude are eternal; and the winding sheet of
the Arabian sands is ready always for its burial office.

At the end of this town of the dead, the desert again opens before us
its mournful whitened expanse. On such a night as this, when the wind
blows cold and the misty moon shows like a sad opal, it looks like a
steppe under snow.

But it is a desert planted with ruins, with the ghosts of mosques; a
whole colony of high tumbling domes are scattered here at hazard on the
shifting extent of the sands. And what strange old-fashioned domes they
are! The archaism of their silhouettes strikes us from the first,
as much as their isolation in such a place. They look like bells, or
gigantic dervish hats placed on pedestals, and those farthest away give
the impression of squat, large-headed figures posted there as sentinels,
watching the vague horizon of Arabia beyond.

They are the proud tombs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
where the Mameluke Sultans, who oppressed Egypt for nearly three hundred
years, sleep now in complete abandonment. Nowadays, it is true, some
visits are beginning to be paid to them--on winter nights when the moon
is full and they throw on the sands their great clear-cut shadows. At
such times the light is considered favourable, and they rank among the
curiosities exploited by the agencies. Numbers of tourists (who persist
in calling them the tombs of the caliphs) betake themselves thither of
an evening--a noisy caravan mounted on little donkeys. But to-night
the moon is too pale and uncertain, and we shall no doubt be alone in
troubling them in their ghostly communion.

To-night indeed the light is quite unusual. As just now in the town of
the dead, it is diffused on all sides and gives even to the most massive
objects the transparent semblance of unreality. But nevertheless
it shows their detail and leaves them something of their daylight
colouring, so that all these funeral domes, raised on the ruins of the
mosques, which serve them as pedestals, have preserved their reddish or
brown colours, although the sand which separates them, and makes between
the tombs of the different sultans little dead solitudes, remains pale
and wan.

And meanwhile our carriage, proceeding always without noise, traces
on this same sand little furrows which the wind will have effaced by
to-morrow. There are no roads of any kind; they would indeed be as
useless as they are impossible to make. You may pass here where you
like, and fancy yourself far away from any place inhabited by living
beings. The great town, which we know to be so close, appears from
time to time, thanks to the undulations of the ground, as a mere
phosphorescence, a reflection of its myriad electric lights. We are
indeed in the desert of the dead, in the sole company of the moon,
which, by the fantasy of this wonderful Egyptian sky, is to-night a moon
of grey pearl, one might almost say a moon of mother-of-pearl.

Each of these funeral mosques is a thing of splendour, if one examines
it closely in its solitude. These strange upraised domes, which from
a distance look like the head-dresses of dervishes or magi, are
embroidered with arabesques, and the walls are crowned with denticulated
trefoils of exquisite fashioning.

But nobody venerates these tombs of the Mameluke oppressors, or keeps
them in repair; and within them there are no more chants, no prayers
to Allah. Night after night they pass in an infinity of silence. Piety
contents itself with not destroying them; leaving them there at the
mercy of time and the sun and the wind which withers and crumbles
them. And all around are the signs of ruin. Tottering cupolas show us
irreparable cracks; the halves of broken arches are outlined to-night
in shadow against the mother-of-pearl light of the sky, and debris of
sculptured stones are strewn about. But nevertheless these tombs,
that are well-nigh accursed, still stir in us a vague sense of
alarm--particularly those in the distance, which rise up like
silhouettes of misshapen giants in enormous hats--dark on the white
sheet of sand--and stand there in groups, or scattered in confusion, at
the entrance to the vast empty regions beyond.


We had chosen a time when the light was doubtful in order that we might
avoid the tourists, but as we approach the funeral dwelling of Sultan
Barkuk, the assassin, we see, issuing from it, a whole band, some twenty
in a line, who emerge from the darkness of the abandoned walls, each
trotting on his little donkey and each followed by the inevitable
Bedouin driver, who taps with his stick upon the rump of the beast. They
are returning to Cairo, their visit ended, and exchange in a loud voice,
from one ass to another, more or less inept impressions in various
European languages. . . . And look! There is even amongst them the
almost proverbial belated dame who, for private reasons of her own,
follows at a respectable distance behind. She is a little mature
perhaps, so far as can be judged in the moonlight, but nevertheless
still sympathetic to her driver, who, with both hands, supports her from
behind on her saddle, with a touching solicitude that is peculiar to
the country. Ah! these little donkeys of Egypt, so observant, so
philosophical and sly, why cannot they write their memoirs! What a
number of droll things they must have seen at night in the outskirts of

This good lady evidently belongs to that extensive category of hardy
explorers who, despite their high respectability at home, do not
hesitate, once they are landed on the banks of the Nile, to supplement
their treatment by the sun and the dry winds with a little of the
“Bedouin cure.”



Dimly lighted by the flames of a few poor slender tapers which flicker
against the walls in stone arches, a dense crowd of human figures veiled
in black, in a place overpowering and suffocating--underground, no
doubt--which is filled with the perfume of the incense of Arabia; and a
noise of almost wicked movement, which sirs us to alarm and even horror:
bleatings of new-born babies, cries of distress of tiny mites whose
voices are drowned, as if on purpose, by a clinking of cymbals.

What can it be? Why have they descended into this dark hole, these
little ones, who howl in the midst of the smoke, held by these phantoms
in mourning? Had we entered it unawares we might have thought it a den
of wicked sorcery, an underground cavern for the black mass.

But no. It is the crypt of the basilica of St. Sergius during the Coptic
mass of Easter morning. And when, after the first surprise, we examine
these phantoms, we find that, for the most part, they are young mothers,
with the refined and gentle faces of Madonnas, who hold the plaintive
little ones beneath their black veils and seek to comfort them. And the
sorcerer, who plays the cymbals, is a kind old priest, or sacristan,
who smiles paternally. If he makes all this noise, in a rhythm which
in itself is full of joy, it is to mark the gladness of Easter morn, to
celebrate the resurrection of Christ--and a little, too, no doubt, to
distract the little ones, some of whom are woefully put out. But
their mammas do not prolong the proof--a mere momentary visit to this
venerable place, which is to bring them happiness, and they carry their
babes away: and others are led in by the dark, narrow staircase, so low
that one cannot stand upright in it. And thus the crypt is not emptied.
And meanwhile mass is being said in the church overhead.

But what a number of people, of black veils, are in this hovel, where
the air can scarcely be breathed, and where the barbarous music, mingled
with wailings and cries, deafens you! And what an air of antiquity marks
all things here! The defaced walls, the low roof that one can easily
touch, the granite pillars which sustain the shapeless arches are all
blackened by the smoke of the wax candles, and scarred and worn by the
friction of human hands.

At the end of the crypt there is a very sacred recess round which a
crowd presses: a coarse niche, a little larger than those cut in the
wall to receive the tapers, a niche which covers the ancient stone on
which, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary rested, with the child
Jesus, in the course of the flight into Egypt. This holy stone is sadly
worn to-day and polished smooth by the touch of many pious hands, and
the Byzantine cross which once was carved on it is almost effaced.

But even if the Virgin had never rested there, the humble crypt of St.
Sergius would remain no less one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries in
the world. And the Copts who still assemble there with veneration have
preceded by many years the greater part of our Western nations in the
religion of the Bible.

Although the history of Egypt envelops itself in a sort of night at the
moment of the appearance of Christianity, we know that the growth of the
new faith there was as rapid and impetuous as the germination of plants
under the overflow of the Nile. The old Pharaonic cults, amalgamated at
that time with those of Greece, were so obscured under a mass of rites
and formulae, that they had ceased to have any meaning. And nevertheless
here, as in imperial Rome, there brooded the ferment of a passionate
mysticism. Moreover, this Egyptian people, more than any other, was
haunted by the terror of death, as is proved by the folly of its
embalmments. With what avidity therefore must it have received the Word
of fraternal love and immediate resurrection?

In any case Christianity was so firmly implanted in this Egypt that
centuries of persecution did not succeed in destroying it. As one goes
up the Nile, many little human settlements are to be seen, little groups
of houses of dried mud, where the whitened dome of the modest house
of prayer is surmounted by a cross and not a crescent. They are the
villages of those Copts, those Egyptians, who have preserved the
Christian faith from father to son since the nebulous times of the first


The simple Church of St. Sergius is a relic hidden away and almost
buried in the midst of a labyrinth of ruins. Without a guide it is
almost impossible to find your way thither. The quarter in which it is
situated is enclosed within the walls of what was once a Roman fortress,
and this fortress in its turn is surrounded by the tranquil ruins of
“Old Cairo”--which is to the Cairo of the Mamelukes and the Khedives, in
a small degree, what Versailles is to Paris.

On this Easter morning, having set out from the Cairo of to-day to be
present at this mass, we have first to traverse a suburb in course of
transformation, upon whose ancient soil will shortly appear numbers of
these modern horrors, in mud and metal--factories or large hotels--which
multiply in this poor land with a stupefying rapidity. Then comes a mile
or so of uncultivated ground, mixed with stretches of sand, and already
a little desertlike. And then the walls of Old Cairo; after which begins
the peace of the deserted houses, of little gardens and orchards among
the ruins. The wind and the dust beset us the whole way, the almost
eternal wind and the eternal dust of this land, by which, since the
beginning of the ages, so many human eyes have been burnt beyond
recovery. They keep us now in blinding whirlwinds, which swarm with
flies. The “season” indeed is already over, and the foreign invaders
have fled until next autumn. Egypt is now more Egyptian, beneath a more
burning sky. The sun of this Easter Sunday is as hot as ours of July,
and the ground seems as if it would perish of drought. But it is always
thus in the springtime of this rainless country; the trees, which have
kept their leaves throughout the winter, shed them in April as ours
do in November. There is no shade anywhere and everything suffers.
Everything grows yellow on the yellow sands. But there is no cause for
uneasiness: the inundation is at hand, which has never failed since
the commencement of our geological period. In another few weeks the
prodigious river will spread along its banks, just as in the times
of the God Amen, a precocious and impetuous life. And meanwhile the
orange-trees, the jasmine and the honeysuckle, which men have taken care
to water with water from the Nile, are full of riotous bloom. As we pass
the gardens of Old Cairo, which alternate with the tumbling houses, this
continual cloud of white dust that envelops us comes suddenly laden with
their sweet fragrance; so that, despite the drought and the bareness of
the trees, the scents of a sudden and feverish springtime are already in
the air.

When we arrive at the walls of what used to be the Roman citadel we
have to descend from our carriage, and passing through a low doorway
penetrate on foot into the labyrinth of a Coptic quarter which is dying
of dust and old age. Deserted houses that have become the refuges of
outcasts; mushrabiyas, worm-eaten and decayed; little mousetrap alleys
that lead us under arches of the Middle Ages, and sometimes close over
our heads by reason of the fantastic bending of the ruins. Even by such
a route as this are we conducted to a famous basilica! Were it not for
these groups of Copts, dressed in their Sunday garb, who make their way
like us through the ruins to the Easter mass, we should think that we
had lost our way.

And how pretty they look, these women draped like phantoms in their
black silks. Their long veils do not completely hide them, as do
those of the Moslems. They are simply placed over their hair and leave
uncovered the delicate features, the golden necklet and the half-bared
arms that carry on their wrists thick twisted bracelets of virgin
gold. Pure Egyptians as they are, they have preserved the same delicate
profile, the same elongated eyes, as mark the old goddesses carved in
bas-relief on the Pharaonic walls. But some, alas, amongst the young
ones have discarded their traditional costume, and are arrayed _a la
franque_, in gowns and hats. And such gowns, such hats, such flowers!
The very peasants of our meanest villages would disdain them. Oh! why
cannot someone tell these poor little women, who have it in their power
to be so adorable, that the beautiful folds of their black veils give
to them an exquisite and characteristic distinction, while this poor
tinsel, which recalls the mid-Lent carnivals, makes of them objects that
excite our pity!

In one of the walls which now surround us there is a low and shrinking
doorway. Can this be the entrance to the basilica? The idea seems
absurd. And yet some of the pretty creatures in the black veils and
bracelets of gold, who were in front of us, have disappeared through it,
and already the perfume of the censers is wafted towards us. A kind of
corridor, astonishingly poor and old, twists itself suspiciously, and
then issues into a narrow court, more than a thousand years old, where
offertory boxes, fixed on Oriental brackets, invite our alms. The odour
of the incense becomes more pronounced, and at last a door, hidden in
shadow at the end of this retreat, gives access to the venerable church

The church! It is a mixture of Byzantine basilica, mosque and desert
hut. Entering there, it is as if we were introduced suddenly to the
naïve infancy of Christianity, as if we surprised it, as it were, in
its cradle--which was indeed Oriental. The triple nave is full of little
children (here also, that is what strikes us first), of little mites
who cry or else laugh and play; and there are mothers suckling their
new-born babes--and all the time the invisible mass is being celebrated
beyond, behind the iconostasis. On the ground, on mats, whole families
are seated in circle, as if they were in their homes. A thick deposit of
white chalk on the defaced, shrunken walls bears witness to great age.
And over all this is a strange old ceiling of cedarwood, traversed by
large barbaric beams.

In the nave, supported by columns of marble, brought in days gone by
from Pagan temples, there are, as in all these old Coptic churches, high
transverse wooden partitions, elaborately wrought in the Arab fashion,
which divide it into three sections: the first, into which one comes
on entering the church, is allotted to the women, the second is for
the baptistery, and the third, at the end adjoining the iconostasis, is
reserved for the men.

These women who are gathered this morning in their apportioned space--so
much at home there with their suckling little ones--wear, almost all of
them, the long black silk veils of former days. In their harmonious and
endlessly restless groups, the gowns _a la franque_ and the poor hats
of carnival are still the exception. The congregation, as a whole,
preserves almost intact its naïve, old-time flavour.

And there is movement too, beyond, in the compartment of the men, which
is bounded at the farther end by the iconostasis--a thousand-year-old
wall decorated with inlaid cedarwood and ivory of precious antique
workmanship, and adorned with strange old icons, blackened by time. It
is behind this wall--pierced by several doorways--that mass is now being
said. From this last sanctuary shut off thus from the people comes the
vague sound of singing; from time to time a priest raises a faded silk
curtain and from the threshold makes the sign of blessing. His vestments
are of gold, and he wears a golden crown, but the humble faithful speak
to him freely, and even touch his gorgeous garments, that might be those
of one of the Wise Kings. He smiles, and letting fall the curtain,
which covers the entrance to the tabernacle, disappears again into this
innocent mystery.

Even the least things here tell of decay. The flagstones, trodden by
the feet of numberless dead generations, are become uneven through the
settling of the soil. Everything is askew, bent, dusty and worn-out.
The daylight comes from above, through narrow barred windows. There is
a lack of air, so that one almost stifles. But though the sun does not
enter, a certain indefinable reflection from the whitened walls reminds
us that outside there is a flaming, resplendent Eastern spring.

In this, the old grandfather, as it were, of churches, filled now with
a cloud of odorous smoke, what one hears, more even than the chanting
of the mass, is the ceaseless movement, the pious agitation of the
faithful; and more even than that, the startling noise that rises
from the holy crypt below--the sharp clashing of cymbals and those
multitudinous little wailings, that sound like the mewings of kittens.

But let me not harbour thoughts of irony! Surely not. If, in our Western
lands, certain ceremonies seem to me anti-Christian--as, for example,
one of those spectacular high masses in the over-pompous Cathedral of
Cologne, where halberdiers overawe the crowd--here, on the contrary,
the simplicity of this primitive cult is touching and respectable in the
extreme. These Copts who install themselves in their church, as round
their firesides, who make their home there and encumber the place with
their fretful little ones, have, in their own way, well understood the
word of Him who said: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and
do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”



A monotonous chant on three notes, which must date from the first
Pharaohs, may still be heard in our days on the banks of the Nile,
from the Delta as far as Nubia. At different places along the river,
half-made men, with torsos of bronze and voices all alike, intone it
in the morning when they commence their endless labours and continue it
throughout the day, until the evening brings repose.

Whoever has journeyed in a dahabiya up the old river will remember this
song of the water-drawers, with its accompaniment, in slow cadence, of
creakings of wet wood.

It is the song of the “shaduf,” and the “shaduf” is a primitive rigging,
which has remained unchanged since times beyond all reckoning. It
is composed of a long antenna, like the yard of a tartan, which is
supported in see-saw fashion on an upright beam, and carries at its
extremity a wooden bucket. A man, with movements of singular beauty,
works it while he sings, lowers the antenna, draws the water from the
river, and raises the filled bucket, which another man catches in its
ascent and empties into a basin made out of the mud of the river bank.
When the river is low there are three such basins, placed one above the
other, as if they were stages by which the precious water mounts to
the fields of corn and lucerne. And then three “shadufs,” one above
the other, creak together, lowering and raising their great scarabaeus’
horns to the rhythm of the same song.

All along the banks of the Nile this movement of the antennae of the
shadufs is to be seen. It had its beginning in the earliest ages and
is still the characteristic manifestation of human life along the river
banks. It ceases only in the summer, when the river, swollen by the
rains of equatorial Africa, overflows this land of Egypt, which it
itself has made in the midst of the Saharan sands. But in the winter,
which is here a time of luminous drought and changeless blue skies, it
is in full swing. Then every day, from dawn until the evening prayer,
the men are busy at their water-drawing, transformed for the time into
tireless machines, with muscles that work like metal bands. The action
never changes, any more than the song, and often their thoughts must
wander from their automatic toil, and lose themselves in some dream,
akin to that of their ancestors who were yoked to the same rigging four
or five thousands years ago. Their torsos, deluged at each rising of the
overflowing bucket, stream constantly with cold water; and sometimes the
wind is icy, even while the sun burns; but these perpetual workers are,
as we have said, of bronze, and their hardened bodies take no harm.

These men are the fellahs, the peasants of the valley of the Nile--pure
Egyptians, whose type has not changed in the course of centuries. In the
oldest of the bas-reliefs of Thebes or Memphis you may see many such,
with the same noble profile and thickish lips, the same elongated eyes
shadowed by heavy eyelids, the same slender figure, surmounted by broad

The women who from time to time descend to the river, to draw water
also, but in their case in the vases of potters’ clay which they
carry--this fetching and carrying of the life-giving water is the one
primordial occupation in this Egypt, which has no rain, nor any living
spring, and subsists only by its river--these women walk and posture
with an inimitable grace, draped in black veils, which even the poorest
allow to trail behind them, like the train of a court dress. In this
bright land, with its rose-coloured distances, it is strange to see
them, all so sombrely clothed, spots of mourning, as it were, in the
gay fields and the flaring desert. Machine-like creatures, all untaught,
they yet possess by instinct, as did once the daughters of Hellas, a
sense of nobility in attitude and carriage. None of the women of Europe
could wear these coarse black stuffs with such a majestic harmony, and
none surely could so raise their bare arms to place on their heads the
heavy jars filled with Nile water, and then, departing, carry themselves
so proudly, so upright and resilient under their burden.

The muslin tunics which they wear are invariably black like the veils,
set off perhaps with some red embroidery or silver spangles. They are
unfastened across the chest, and, by a narrow opening which descends
to the girdle, disclose the amber-coloured flesh, the median swell of
bosoms of pale bronze, which, during their ephemeral youth at least, are
of a perfect contour. The faces, it is true, when they are not hidden
from you by a fold of the veil, are generally disappointing. The rude
labours, the early maternity and lactations, soon age and wither them.
But if by chance you see a young woman she is usually an apparition of
beauty, at once vigorous and slender.

As for the fellah babies, who abound in great numbers and follow, half
naked their mammas or their big sisters, they would for the most part be
adorable little creatures, were it not for the dirtiness which in this
country is a thing almost prescribed by tradition. Round their eyelids
and their moist lips are glued little clusters of Egyptian flies, which
are considered here to be beneficial to the children, and the latter
have no thought of driving them away, so resigned are they become, by
force of heredity, to whatever annoyance they thereby suffer. Another
example indeed of the passivity which their fathers show when brought
face to face with the invading foreigners!

Passivity and meek endurance seem to be the characteristics of this
inoffensive people, so graceful in their rags, so mysterious in their
age-old immobility, and so ready to accept with an equal indifference
whatever yoke may come. Poor, beautiful people, with muscles that never
grow tired! Whose men in olden times moved the great stones of the
temples, and knew no burden that was too heavy; whose women, with their
slender, pale-tawny arms and delicate small hands, surpass by far in
strength the burliest of our peasants! Poor beautiful race of bronze!
No doubt it was too precocious and put forth too soon its astonishing
flower--in times when the other peoples of the earth were till
vegetating in obscurity; no doubt its present resignation comes from
lassitude, after so many centuries of effort and expansive power. Once
it monopolised the glory of the world, and here it is now--for some two
thousand years--fallen into a kind of tired sleep, which has left it an
easy prey alike to the conquerors of yesterday and to the exploiters of

Another trait which, side by side with their patience, prevails amongst
these true-blooded Egyptians of the countryside is their attachment to
the soil, to the soil which nourishes them, and in which later on they
will sleep. To possess land, to forestall at any price the smallest
portion of it, to reclaim patches of it from the shifting desert, that
is the sole aim, or almost so, which the fellahs pursue in this world:
to possess a field, however small it may be--a field, moreover, which
they till with the oldest plough invented by man, the exact design of
which may be seen carved on the walls of the tombs at Memphis.

And this same people, which was the first of any to conceive
magnificence, whose gods and kings were formerly surrounded with an
over-powering splendour, contrives, to live to-day, pell-mell with its
sheep and goats, in humble, low-roofed cabins made out of sunbaked
mud! The Egyptian villages are all of the neutral colour of the soil;
a little white chalk brightens, perhaps, the minaret or cupola of the
mosque; but except for that little refuge, whither folk come to pray
each evening--for no one here would retire for the night without having
first prostrated himself before the majesty of Allah--everything is of
a mournful grey. Even the costumes of the people are dull-coloured and
wretched-looking. It is an East grown poor and old, although the sky
remains as wonderful as ever.

But all this past grandeur has left its imprint on the fellahs. They
have a refinement of appearance and manner, all unknown amongst the
majority of the good people of our villages. And those amongst them who
by good fortune become prosperous have forthwith a kind of distinction,
and seem to know, as if by birth, how to dispense the gracious
hospitality of an aristocrat. The hospitality of even the humblest
preserves something of courtesy and ease, which tells of breed. I
remember those clear evenings when, after the peaceful navigation of the
day, I used to stop and draw up my dahabiya to the bank of the river. (I
speak now of out-of-the-way places--free as yet from the canker of the
tourist element--such as I habitually chose.) It was in the twilight at
the hour when the stars began to shine out from the golden-green sky. As
soon as I put foot upon the shore, and my arrival was signalled by the
barking of the watchdogs, the chief of the nearest hamlet always came to
meet me. A dignified man, in a long robe of striped silk or modest
blue cotton, he accosted me with formulae of welcome quite in the grand
manner; insisted on my following him to his house of dried mud; and
there, escorting me, after the exchange of further compliments, to the
place of honour on the poor divan of his lodging, forced me to accept
the traditional cup of Arab coffee.


To wake these fellahs from their strange sleep, to open their eyes at
last, and to transform them by a modern education--that is the task
which nowadays a select band of Egyptian patriots is desirous of
attempting. Not long ago, such an endeavour would have seemed to me a
crime; for these stubborn peasants were living under conditions of the
least suffering, rich in faith and poor in desire. But to-day they are
suffering from an invasion more undermining, more dangerous than that of
the conquerors who killed by sword and fire. The Occidentals are there,
everywhere, amongst them, profiting by their meek passivity to turn
them into slaves for their business and their pleasure. The work of
degradation of these simpletons is so easy: men bring them new desires,
new greeds, new needs,--and rob them of their prayers.

Yet, it is time perhaps to wake them from their sleep of more than
twenty centuries, to put them on their guard, and to see what yet they
may be capable of, what surprises they may have in store for us after
that long lethargy, which must surely have been restorative. In any case
the human species, in course of deterioration through overstrain, would
find amongst these singers of the shaduf and these labourers with the
antiquated plough, brains unclouded by alcohol, and a whole reserve
of tranquil beauty, of well-balanced physique, of vigour untainted by



We are making our way through the fields of Abydos in the dazzling
splendour of the forenoon, having come, like so many pilgrims of old,
from the banks of the Nile to visit the sanctuaries of Osiris, which lie
beyond the green plains, on the edge of the desert.

It is a journey of some ten miles or so, under a clear sky and a burning
sun. We pass through fields of corn and lucerne, whose wonderful green
is piqued with little flowers, such as may be seen in our climate.
Hundreds of little birds sing to us distractedly of the joy of life; the
sun shines radiantly, magnificently; the impetuous corn is already in
the ear; it might be some gay pageant of our days of May. One forgets
that it is February, that we are still in the winter--the luminous
winter of Egypt.

Here and there amongst the outspread fields are villages buried under
the thick foliage of trees--under acacias which, in the distance,
resemble ours at home; beyond indeed the mountain chain of Libya, like
a wall confining the fertile fields, looks strange perhaps in its
rose-colour, and too desolate; but, nevertheless amidst this glad music
of the fields, these songs of larks and twitterings of sparrows, you
scarcely realise that you are in a foreign land.

Abydos! What magic there is in the name! “Abydos is at hand, and in
another moment we shall be there.” The mere words seem somehow to
transform the aspect of the homely green fields, and make this pastoral
region almost imposing. The buzzing of the flies increases in the
overheated air and the song of the birds subsides until at last it dies
away in the approach of noon.

We have been journeying a little more than an hour amongst the verdure
of the growing corn that lies upon the fields like a carpet, when
suddenly, beyond the little houses and tress of a village, quite a
different world is disclosed--the familiar world of glare and death
which presses so closely upon inhabited Egypt: the desert! The desert of
Libya, and now as ever when we come upon it suddenly from the banks
of the old river it rises up before us; beginning at once, without
transition, absolute and terrible, as soon as we leave the thick velvet
of the last field, the cool shade of the last acacia. Its sands seem to
slope towards us, in a prodigious incline, from the strange mountains
that we saw from the happy plain, and which now appear, enthroned
beyond, like the monarchs of all this nothingness.

The town of Abydos, which has vanished and left no wrack behind, rose
once in this spot where we now stand, on the very threshold of the
solitudes; but its necropoles, more venerated even than those of
Memphis, and its thrice-holy temples, are a little farther on, in the
marvellously conserving sand, which has buried them under its tireless
waves and preserved them almost intact up till the present day.

The desert! As soon as we put foot upon its shifting soil, which
smothers the sound of our steps, the atmosphere too seems suddenly to
change; it burns with a strange new heat, as if great fires had been
lighted in the neighbourhood.

And this whole domain of light and drought, right away into the
distance, is shaded and streaked with the familiar brown, red and yellow
colours. The mournful reflection of adjacent things augments to excess
the heat and light. The horizon trembles under the little vapours of
mirage like water ruffled by the wind. The background, which mounts
gradually to the foot of the Libyan mountains, is strewn with the debris
of bricks and stones--shapeless ruins which, though they scarcely rise
above the sand, abound nevertheless in great numbers, and serve to
remind us that here indeed is a very ancient soil, where men laboured in
centuries that have drifted out of knowledge. One divines instinctively
and at once the catacombs, the hypogea and the mummies that lie beneath!

These necropoles of Abydos once--and for thousands of years--exercised
an extraordinary fascination over this people--the precursor of
peoples--who dwelt in the valley of the Nile. According to one of the
most ancient of human traditions, the head of Osiris, the lord of the
_other world_, reposed in the depths of one of the temples which to-day
are buried in the sands. And men, as soon as their thought commenced to
issue from the primeval night, were haunted by the idea that there were
localities helpful, as if were, to the poor corpses that lay beneath the
earth, that there were certain holy places where it behoved them to
be buried if they wished to be ready when the signal of awakening was
given. And in old Egypt, therefore, each one, at the hour of death,
turned his thoughts to these stones and sands, in the ardent hope that
he might be able to sleep near the remains of his god. And when the
place was becoming crowded with sleepers, those who could obtain no
place there conceived the idea of having humble obelisks planted on the
holy ground, which at least should tell their names; or even recommended
that their mummies might be there for some weeks, even if they were
afterwards removed. And thus, funeral processions passed to and fro
without ceasing through the cornfields that separate the Nile from
the desert. Abydos! In the sad human dream dominated by the thought of
dissolution, Abydos preceded by many centuries the Valley of Jehosophat
of the Hebrews, the cemeteries around Mecca of the Moslems, and the holy
tombs beneath our oldest cathedrals! . . . Abydos! It behoves us to walk
here pensively and silently out of respect for all those thousands of
souls who formerly turned towards this place, with outstretched hands,
in the hour of death.

The first great temple--that which King Seti raised to the mysterious
Prince of the Other World, who in those days was called Osiris--is quite
close--a distance of little more than 200 yards in the glare of the
desert. We come upon it suddenly, so that it almost startles us, for
nothing warns us of its proximity. The sand from which it has been
exhumed, and which buried it for 2000 years, still rises almost to its
roof. Through an iron gate, guarded by two tall Bedouin guards in black
robes, we plunge at once into the shadow of enormous stones. We are in
the house of the god, in a forest of heavy Osiridean columns, surrounded
by a world of people in high coiffures, carved in bas-relief on the
pillars and walls--people who seem to be signalling one to another and
exchanging amongst themselves mysterious signs, silently and for ever.

But what is this noise in the sanctuary? It seems to be full of people.
There, sure enough, beyond a second row of columns, is quite a little
crowd talking loudly in English. I fancy that I can hear the clinking of
glasses and the tapping of knives and forks.

Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses are you come. . . . This
excess of grotesqueness in profanation is more insulting surely than to
be sacked by barbarians! Behold a table set for some thirty guests, and
the guests themselves--of both sexes--merry and lighthearted, belong to
that special type of humanity which patronises Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt
Ltd.). They wear cork helmets, and the classic green spectacles; drink
whisky and soda, and eat voraciously sandwiches and other viands out of
greasy paper, which now litters the floor. And the women! Heavens! what
scarecrows they are! And this kind of thing, so the black-robed Bedouin
guards inform us, is repeated every day so long as the season lasts. A
luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part of the programme of pleasure
trips. Each day at noon a new band arrives, on heedless and unfortunate
donkeys. The tables and the crockery remain, of course, in the old

Let us escape quickly, if possible before the sight shall have become
graven on our memory.

But alas! even when we are outside, alone again on the expanse of
dazzling sands, we can no longer take things seriously. Abydos and the
desert have ceased to exist. The faces of those women remain to haunt
us, their faces and their hats, and those looks which they vouchsafed us
from over their solar spectacles. . . . The ugliness associated with the
name of Cook was once explained to me in this wise, and the explanation
at first sight seemed satisfactory: “The United Kingdom, justifiably
jealous of the beauty of its daughters, submits them to a jury when
they reach the age of puberty; and those who are classed as too ugly to
reproduce their kind are accorded an unlimited account at Thomas Cook &
Sons, and thus vowed to a course of perpetual travel, which leaves
them no time to think of certain trifles incidental to life.” The
explanation, as I say, seduced me for the time being. But a more
attentive examination of the bands who infest the valley of the Nile
enables me to aver that all these good English ladies are of an age
notoriously canonical; and the catastrophe of procreation therefore,
supposing that such an accident could ever have happened to them, must
date back to a time long anterior to their enrolment. And I remain

Without conviction now, we make our way towards another temple,
guaranteed solitary. Indeed the sun blazes there a lonely sovereign in
the midst of a profound silence, and Egypt and the past take us again
into their folds.

Once more to Osiris, the god of heavenly awakening in the necropolis
of Abydos, this sanctuary was built by Ramses II. But the sands have
covered it with their winding sheet in vain, and have been able to
preserve for us only the lower and more deeply buried parts. Men in
their blind greed have destroyed the upper portions,[*] and its ruins,
protected and cleared as they are to-day, rise only some ten or twelve
feet from the ground. In the bas-reliefs the majority of the figures
have only legs and a portion of the body; their heads and shoulders have
disappeared with the upper parts of the walls. But they seem to have
preserved their vitality: the gesticulations, the exaggerated pantomime
of the attitudes of these headless things, are more strange, more
striking, perhaps, than if their faces still remained. And they have
preserved too, in an extraordinary degree, the brightness of their
antique paintings, the fresh tints of their costumes, of their robes of
turquoise blue, or lapis, or emerald-green, or golden-yellow. It is an
artless kind of fresco-work, which nevertheless amazes us by remaining
perfect after thirty-five centuries. All that these people did seems
as if made for immortality. It is true, however, that such brilliant
colours are not found in any of the other Pharaonic monuments, and that
here they are heightened by the white background. For, notwithstanding
the bluish, black and red granite of the porticoes, the walls are all of
a fine limestone, of exceeding whiteness, and, in the holy of holies, of
a pure alabaster.

     [*] Not long ago a manufacturer, established in the
     neighbourhood, discovering that the limestone of its walls
     was friable, used this temple as a quarry, and for some
     years bas-reliefs beyond price served as aliment to the
     mills of the factory.

Above the truncated walls, with their bright clear colours, the desert
appears, and shows quite brown by contrast; one sees the great yellow
swell of sand and stones above the pictures of these decapitated people.
It rises like a colossal wave and stretches out to bathe the foot of the
Libyan mountains beyond. Towards the north and west of the solitudes,
shapeless ruins of tawny-coloured blocks follow one another in the sands
until the dazzling distance ends in a clear-cut line against the sky.
Apart from this temple of Ramses, where we now stand, and that of Seti
in the vicinity, where the enterprise of Thomas Cook & Son flourishes,
there is nothing around us but ruins, crumbled and pulverised beyond all
possible redemption. But they give us pause, these disappearing ruins,
for they are the debris of that ageless temple, where sleeps the head of
the god, the debris of the tombs of the Middle and Ancient Empires, and
they indicate still the wide extent and development of the necropoles
of Abydos, so old that it almost makes one giddy to think of their

Here, as at Thebes and Memphis, the tombs of the Egyptians are met
with only amongst the sands and the parched rocks. The great ancestral
people, who would have shuddered at our black trees, and the corruption
of the damp graves, liked to place its embalmed dead in the midst of
this luminous, changeless splendour of death, which men call the desert.


And what is this now that is happening in the holy neighbourhood of
unhappy Osiris? A troupe of donkeys, belaboured by Bedouin drivers, is
being driven in the direction of the adjacent temple, dedicated to the
god by Seti! The luncheon no doubt is over and the band about to depart,
sharp to the appointed hour of the programme. Let us watch them from a
prudent distance.

To be brief, they all mount into their saddles, these Cooks and
Cookesses, and opening, not without a conscious air of majesty, their
white cotton parasols, take themselves off in the direction of the Nile.
They disappear and the place belongs to us.

When we venture at last to return to the first sanctuary, where they had
lunched their fill in the shade, the guardians are busy clearing away
the leavings and the dirty paper. And they pack the dubious crockery,
which will be required for to-morrow’s luncheon, into large chests on
which may be read in large letters of glory the names of the veritable
sovereigns of modern Egypt: “Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.).”

All this happily ends with the first hypostyle. Nothing dishonours
the halls of the interior, where silence has again descended, the vast
silence of the noon of the desert.

In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, men already marvelled at this
temple, as at a relic of the most distant and nebulous past. The
geographer Strabo wrote in those days: “It is an admirable palace built
in the fashion of the Labyrinth save that it has fewer galleries.” There
are galleries enough however, and one can readily lose oneself in its
mazy turnings. Seven chapels, consecrated to Osiris and to different
gods and goddesses of his suite; seven vaulted chambers; seven doors for
the processions of kings and multitudes; and, at the sides, numberless
halls, corridors, secondary chapels, dark chambers and hidden doorways.
That very primitive column, suggestive of reeds, which is called in
architecture the “plant column” and resembles a monstrous stem of
papyrus, rises here in a thick forest, to support the stones of the blue
ceilings, which are strewn with stars, in the likeness of the sky of
this country. In many cases these stones are missing and leave large
openings on to the real sky above. Their massiveness, which one might
have thought would secure them an endless duration, has availed them
nothing; the sun of so many centuries has cracked them, and their own
weight, then, has brought them headlong to the ground. And floods of
light now enter through the gaps, into the very chapels where the men of
old had thought to ensure a holy gloom.

Despite the disaster which has overtaken the ceilings, this is
nevertheless one of the most perfect of the sanctuaries of ancient
Egypt. The sands, those gentle sextons, have here succeeded miraculously
in their work of preservation. They might have been carved yesterday,
these innumerable people, who, everywhere--on the walls, on this forest
of columns--gesticulate and, with their arms and long hands, continue
with animation their eternal mute conversation. The whole temple, with
the openings which give it light, is more beautiful perhaps than in the
time of the Pharaohs. In place of the old-time darkness, a transparent
gloom now alternates with shafts of sunlight. Here and there the
subjects of the bas-reliefs, so long buried in the darkness, are deluged
with burning rays which detail their attitudes, their muscles, their
scarcely altered colours, and endow them again with life and youth.
There is no part of the wall, in this immense place, but is covered with
divinities, with hieroglyphs and emblems. Osiris in high coiffure,
the beautiful Isis in the helmet of a bird, jackal-headed Anubis,
falcon-headed Horus, and ibis-headed Thoth are repeated a thousand
times, welcoming with strange gestures the kings and priests who are
rendering them homage.

The bodies, almost nude, with broad shoulders and slim waist, have a
slenderness, a grace, infinitely chaste, and the features of the faces
are of an exquisite purity. The artists who carved these charming heads,
with their long eyes, full of the ancient dream, were already skilled
in their art; but through a deficiency, which puzzles us, they were only
able to draw them in profile. All the legs, all the feet are in profile
too, although the bodies, on the other hand, face us fully. Men needed
yet some centuries of study before they understood perspective--which to
us now seems so simple--and the foreshortening of figures, and were able
to render the impression of them on a plane surface.

Many of the pictures represent King Seti, drawn without doubt from life,
for they show us almost the very features of his mummy, exhibited now
in the museum at Cairo. At his side he holds affectionately his son, the
prince-royal, Ramses (later on Ramses II., the great Sesostris of the
Greeks). They have given the latter quite a frank air, and he wears a
curl on the side of his head, as was the fashion then in childhood. He,
also, has his mummy in a glass case in the museum, and anyone who has
seen that toothless, sinister wreck, who had already attained the age
of nearly a hundred years before death delivered him to the embalmers of
Thebes, will find it difficult to believe that he could ever have been
young, and worn his hair curled so; that he could ever have played and
been a child.


We thought we had finished with the Cooks and Cookesses of the luncheon.
But alas! our horses, faster than their donkeys, overtake them in the
return journey amongst the green cornfields of Abydos; and in a stoppage
in the narrow roadway, caused by a meeting with a number of camels laden
with lucerne, we are brought to a halt in their midst. Almost touching
me is a dear little white donkey, who looks at me pensively and in such
a way that we at once understand each other. A mutual sympathy unites
us. A Cookess in spectacles surmounts him--the most hideous of them
all, bony and severe. Over her travelling costume, already sufficiently
repulsive, she wears a tennis jersey, which accentuates the angularity
of her figure, and in her person she seems the very incarnation of the
respectability of the British Isles. It would be more equitable, too--so
long are those legs of hers, which, to be sure, have scant interest for
the tourist--if she carried the donkey.

The poor little white thing regards me with melancholy. His ears twitch
restlessly and his beautiful eyes, so fine, so observant of everything,
say to me as plain as words:

“She is a beauty, isn’t she?”

“She is, indeed, my poor little donkey. But think of this: fixed on thy
back as she is, thou hast this advantage over me--thou seest her not!”

But my reflection, though judicious enough, does not console him, and
his look answers me that he would be much prouder if he carried, like so
many of his comrades, a simple pack of sugarcanes.



Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological period,
when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval, almost the
forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began to trace
their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a whole
watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent across
the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to the
Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts. And this enormous
waterway, lost as it was in the sands, by-and-by regulated its course:
it became the Nile, and with untiring patience set itself to the proper
task of river, which in this accursed zone might well have seemed
an impossible one. First it had to round all the blocks of granite
scattered in its way in the high plains of Nubia; and then, and more
especially, to deposit, little by little, successive layers of mud, to
form a living artery, to create, as it were, a long green ribbon in the
midst of this infinite domain of death.

How long ago is it since the work of the great river began? There is
something fearful in the thought. During the 5000 years of which we have
any knowledge the incessant deposit of mud has scarcely widened this
strip of inhabited Egypt, which at the most ancient period of history
was almost as it is to-day. And as for the granite blocks on the plains
of Nubia, how many thousands of years did it need to roll them and to
polish them thus? In the times of the Pharaohs they already had their
present rounded forms, worn smooth by the friction of the water, and the
hieroglyphic inscriptions on their surfaces are not perceptibly effaced,
though they have suffered the periodical inundation of the summer for
some forty or fifty centuries!

It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and
unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the great
river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days and the
humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless sky of
the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that might dim
the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no doubt, and
this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first fruits of
human thought. This same Nile, after having so patiently created the
soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people, which led the way
for all others--like those early branches that one sees in spring,
which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die before the summer.
It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we discover to-day with
surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very dawn, in the midst of the
original barbarity, conceived magnificently the infinite and the divine;
who placed with such certainty and grandeur the first architectural
lines, from which afterwards our architecture was to be derived; who
laid the bases of art, of science, and of all knowledge.

Later on, when this beautiful flower of humanity was faded, the Nile,
flowing always in the midst of its deserts, seems to have had for
mission, during nearly two thousand years, the maintenance on its banks
of a kind of immobility and desuetude, which was in a way a homage of
respect for these stupendous relics. While the sand was burying the
ruins of the temples and the battered faces of the colossi, nothing
changed under this sky of changeless blue. The same cultivation
proceeded on the banks as in the oldest ages; the same boats, with the
same sails, went up and down the thread of water; the same songs kept
time to the eternal human toil. The race of fellahs, the unconscious
guardian of a prodigious past, slept on without desire of change, and
almost without suffering. And time passed for Egypt in a great peace of
sunlight and of death.

But to-day the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the
old Nile--wakened to enslave it. In less than twenty years they have
disfigured its valley, which until then had preserved itself like a
sanctuary. They have silenced its cataracts, captured its precious water
by dams, to pour it afar off on plains that are become like marshes and
already sully with their mists the crystal clearness of the sky. The
ancient rigging no longer suffices to water the land under cultivation.
Machines worked by steam, which draw the water more quickly, commence to
rise along the banks, side by side with new factories. Soon there will
scarcely be a river more dishonoured than this, by iron chimneys and
thick, black smoke. And it is happening apace, this exploitation of
the Nile--hastily, greedily, as in a hunt for spoils. And thus all its
beauty disappears, for its monotonous course, through regions endless
alike, won us only by its calm and its old-world mystery.

Poor Nile of the prodigies! One feels sometimes still its departing
charm, stray corners of it remain intact. There are days of transcendent
clearness, incomparable evenings, when one may still forget the ugliness
and the smoke. But the classic expedition by dahabiya, the ascent of the
river from Cairo to Nubia, will soon have ceased to be worth making.

Ordinarily this voyage is made in the winter, so that the traveller may
follow the course of the sun as it makes its escape towards the southern
hemisphere. The water then is low and the valley parched. Leaving the
cosmopolitan town of modern Cairo, the iron bridges, and the pretentious
hotels, with their flaunting inscriptions, it imparts a sense of sudden
peacefulness to pass along the large and rapid waters of this river,
between the curtains of palm-trees on the banks, borne by a dahabiya
where one is master and, if one likes, may be alone.

At first, for a day or two, the great haunting triangles of the pyramids
seem to follow you, those of Dashur and that of Sakkarah succeeding
to those of Gizeh. For a long time the horizon is disturbed by their
gigantic silhouettes. As we recede from them, and they disengage
themselves better from neighbouring things, they seem, as happens in
the case of mountains, to grow higher. And when they have finally
disappeared, we have still to ascend slowly and by stages some six
hundred miles of river before we reach the first cataract. Our way lies
through monotonous desert regions where the hours and days are marked
chiefly by the variations of the wonderful light. Except for the
phantasmagoria of the mornings and evenings, there is no outstanding
feature on these dull-coloured banks, where may be seen, with never
a change at all, the humble pastoral life of the fellahs. The sun is
burning, the starlit nights clear and cold. A withering wind, which
blows almost without ceasing from the north, makes you shiver as soon as
the twilight falls.

One may travel for league after league along this slimy water and make
head for days and weeks against its current--which glides everlastingly
past the dahabiya, in little hurrying waves--without seeing this warm,
fecundating river, compared with which our rivers of France are mere
negligible streams, either diminish or increase or hasten. And on
the right and left of us as we pass are unfolded indefinitely the two
parallel chains of barren limestone, which imprison so narrowly the
Egypt of the harvests: on the west that of the Libyan desert, which
every morning the first rays of the sun tint with a rosy coral that
nothing seems to dull; and in the east that of the desert of Arabia,
which never fails in the evening to retain the light of the setting sun,
and looks then like a mournful girdle of glowing embers. Sometimes the
two parallel walls sheer off and give more room to the green fields, to
the woods of palm-trees, and the little oases, separated by streaks
of golden sand. Sometimes they approach so closely to the Nile that
habitable Egypt is no wider than some two or three poor fields of corn,
lying right on the water’s edge, behind which the dead stones and the
dead sands commence at once. And sometimes, even, the desert chain
closes in so as to overhang the river with its reddish-white cliffs,
which no rain ever comes to freshen, and in which, at different heights,
gape the square holes leading to the habitations of the mummies. These
mountains, which in the distance look so beautiful in their rose-colour,
and make, as it were, interminable back-cloths to all that happens
on the river banks, were perforated, during some 5000 years, for the
introduction of sarcophagi and now they swarm with old dead bodies.

And all that passes on the banks, indeed, changes as little as the

First there is that gesture, supple and superb, but always the same,
of the women in their long black robes who come without ceasing to fill
their long-necked jars and carry them away balanced on their veiled
heads. Then the flocks which shepherds, draped in mourning, bring to
the river to drink, goats and sheep and asses all mixed up together.
And then the buffaloes, massive and mud-coloured, who descend calmly to
bathe. And, finally, the great labour of the watering: the traditional
noria, turned by a little bull with bandaged eyes and, above all, the
shaduf, worked by men whose naked bodies stream with the cold water.

The shadufs follow one another sometimes as far as the eye can see. It
is strange to watch the movement--confused in the distance--of all
these long rods which pump the water without ceasing, and look like the
swaying of living antennae. The same sight was to be seen along this
river in the times of the Ramses. But suddenly, at some bend of
the river, the old Pharaonic rigging disappears, to give place to a
succession of steam machines, which, more even than the muscles of
the fellahs, are busy at the water-drawing. Before long their blackish
chimneys will make a continuous border to the tamed Nile.

Did one not know their bearings, the great ruins of this Egypt would
pass unnoticed. With a few rare exceptions they lie beyond the green
plains on the threshold of the solitudes. And against the changeless,
rose-coloured background of these cliffs of the desert, which follow you
during the whole of this tranquil navigation of some 600 miles, are to
be seen only the humble towns and villages of to-day, which have
the neutral colour of the ground. Some openwork minarets dominate
them--white spots above the prevailing dullness. Clouds of pigeons whirl
round in the neighbourhood. And amongst the little houses, which are
only cubes of mud, baked in the sun, the palm-trees of Africa, either
singly or in mighty clusters, rise superbly and cast on these little
habitations the shade of their palms which sway in the wind. Not long
ago, although indeed everything in these little towns was mournful and
stagnant, one would have been tempted to stop in passing, drawn by that
nameless peace that belonged to the Old East and to Islam. But, now,
before the smallest hamlet--amongst the beautiful primitive boats, that
still remain in great numbers, pointing their yards, like very long
reeds, into the sky--there is always, for the meeting of the tourist
boats, an enormous black pontoon, which spoils the whole scene by its
presence and its great advertising inscription: “Thomas Cook & Son
(Egypt Ltd.).” And, what is more, one hears the whistling of the
railway, which runs mercilessly along the river, bringing from the
Delta to the Soudan the hordes of European invaders. And to crown all,
adjoining the station is inevitably some modern factory, throned there
in a sort of irony, and dominating the poor crumbling things that still
presume to tell of Egypt and of mystery.

And so now, except at the towns or villages which lead to celebrated
ruins, we stop no longer. It is necessary to proceed farther and for the
halt of the night to seek an obscure hamlet, a silent recess, where we
may moor our dahabiya against the venerable earth of the bank.

And so one goes on, for days and weeks, between these two interminable
cliffs of reddish chalk, filled with their hypogea and mummies, which
are the walls of the valley of the Nile, and will follow us up to the
first cataract, until our entrance into Nubia. There only will the
appearance and nature of the rocks of the desert change, to become the
more sombre granite out of which the Pharaohs carved their obelisks and
the great figures of their gods.

We go on and on, ascending the thread of this eternal current, and
the regularity of the wind, the persistent clearness of the sky, the
monotony of the great river, which winds but never ends, all conspire
to make us forget the hours and days that pass. However deceived and
disappointed we may be at seeing the profanation of the river banks,
here, nevertheless, isolated on the water, we do not lose the peace of
being a wanderer, a stranger amongst an equipage of silent Arabs, who
every evening prostrate themselves in confiding prayer.

And, moreover, we are moving towards the south, towards the sun, and
every day has a more entrancing clearness, a more caressing warmth, and
the bronze of the faces that we see on our way takes on a deeper tint.

And then too one mixes intimately with the life of the river bank,
which is still so absorbing and, at certain hours, when the horizon is
unsullied by the smoke of pit-coal, recalls you to the days of artless
toil and healthy beauty. In the boats that meet us, half-naked men,
revelling in their movement, in the sun and air, sing, as they ply their
oars, those songs of the Nile that are as old as Thebes or Memphis. When
the wind rises there is a riotous unfurling of sails, which, stretched
on their long yards, give to the dahabiyas the air of birds in full
flight. Bending right over in the wind, they skim along with a lively
motion, carrying their cargoes of men and beasts and primitive things.
Women are there draped still in the ancient fashion, and sheep and
goats, and sometimes piles of fruit and gourds, and sacks of grain. Many
are laden to the water’s edge with these earthenware jars, unchanged for
3000 years, which the fellaheens know how to place on their heads with
so much grace--and one sees these heaps of fragile pottery gliding along
the water as if carried by the gigantic wings of a gull. And in the
far-off, almost fabulous, days the life of the mariners of the Nile had
the same aspect, as is shown by the bas-reliefs on the oldest tombs; it
required the same play of muscles and of sails; was accompanied no doubt
by the same songs, and was subject to the withering caress of this same
desert wind. And then, as now, the same unchanging rose coloured the
continuous curtain of the mountains.

But all at once there is a noise of machinery, and whistlings, and
in the air, which was just now so pure, rise noxious columns of black
smoke. The modern steamers are coming, and throw into disorder the
flotillas of the past; colliers that leave great eddies in their wake,
or perhaps a wearisome lot of those three-decked tourist boats, which
make a great noise as they plough the water, and are laden for the most
part with ugly women, snobs and imbeciles.

Poor, poor Nile! which reflected formerly on its warm mirror the utmost
of earthly splendour, which bore in its time so many barques of gods and
goddesses in procession behind the golden barge of Amen, and knew in the
dawn of the ages only an impeccable purity, alike of the human form and
of architectural design! What a downfall is here! To be awakened from
that disdainful sleep of twenty centuries and made to carry the floating
barracks of Thomas Cook & Son, to feed sugar factories, and to
exhaust itself in nourishing with its mud the raw material for English



It is the month of March, but as gay and splendid as in our June. Around
us are fields of corn, of lucerne, and the flowering bean. And the
air is full of restless birds, singing deliriously for very joy in
the voluptuous business of their nests and coveys. Our way lies over a
fertile soil, saturated with vital substances--some paradise for beasts
no doubt, for they swarm on every side: flocks of goats with a
thousand bleating kids; she-asses with their frisking young; cows and
cow-buffaloes feeding their calves; all turned loose among the crops, to
browse at their leisure, as if there were here a superabundance of the
riches of the soil.

What country is this that shows no sign of human habitation, that
knows no village, nor any distant spire? The crops are like ours at
home--wheat, lucerne, and the flowering bean that perfumes the air with
its white blossoms. But there is an excess of light in the sky and, in
the distance, an extraordinary clearness. And then these fertile plains,
that might be those of some “Promised Land,” seem to be bounded far
away, on left and right, by two parallel stone walls, two chains of
rose-coloured mountains, whose aspect is obviously desertlike. Besides,
amongst the numerous animals that are familiar, there are camels,
feeding their strange nurslings that look like four-legged ostriches.
And finally some peasants appear beyond in the cornfields; they are
veiled in long black draperies. It is the East then, an African land, or
some oasis of Arabia?

The sun at this moment is hidden from us by a band of clouds, that
stretches, right above our head, from one end of the sky to the other,
like a long skein of white wool. It is alone in the blue void, and seems
to make more peaceful, and even a little mysterious, the wonderful
light of the fields we traverse--these fields intoxicated with life
and vibrant with the music of birds; while, by contrast, the distant
landscape, unshaded by clouds, is resplendent with a more incisive
clearness and the desert beyond seems deluged with rays.

The pathway that we have been following, ill defined as it is in the
grassy fields, leads us at length under a large ruinous portico--a
relic of goodness knows what olden days--which still rises here, quite
isolated, altogether strange and unexpected, in the midst of the green
expanse of pasture and tillage. We had seen it from a great distance, so
pure and clear is the air; and in approaching it we perceive that it is
colossal, and in relief on its lintel is designed a globe with two long
wings outspread symmetrically.

It behoves us now to make obeisance with almost religious reverence, for
this winged disc is a symbol which gives at length an indication of
the place immediate and absolute. It is Egypt, the country--Egypt,
our ancient mother. And there before us must once have stood a temple
reverenced of the people, or some great vanished town; its fragments
of columns and sculptured capitals are strewn about in the fields of
lucerne. How inexplicable it seems that this land of ancient splendours,
which never ceased indeed to be nutritive and prodigiously fertile,
should have returned, for some hundreds of years now, to the humble
pastoral life of the peasants.

Through the green crops and the assembled herds our pathway seems to
lead to a kind of hill rising alone in the midst of the plains--a hill
which is neither of the same colour nor the same nature as the mountains
of the surrounding deserts. Behind us the portico recedes little by
little in the distance; its tall imposing silhouette, as mournful and
solitary, throws an infinite sadness on this sea of meadows, which
spread their peace where once was a centre of magnificence.

The wind now rises in sharp, lashing gusts--the wind of Egypt that never
seems to fall, and is bitter and wintry for all the burning of the
sun. The growing corn bends before it, showing the gloss of its young
quivering leaves, and the herded beasts move close to one another and
turn their backs to the squall.

As we draw nearer to this singular hill it is revealed as a mass of
ruins. And the ruins are all of a kind, of a brownish-red. They are the
remains of the colonial towns of the Romans, which subsisted here for
some two or three hundred years (an almost negligible moment of time in
the long history of Egypt), and then fell to pieces, to become in time
mere shapeless mounds on the fertile margins of the Nile and sometimes
even in the submerging sands.

A heap of little reddish bricks that once were fashioned into houses; a
heap of broken jars or amphorae--myriads of them--that served to carry
the water from the old nourishing river; and the remains of walls,
repaired at diverse epochs, where stones inscribed with hieroglyphs lie
upside down against fragments of Grecian obelisks or Coptic sculptures
or Roman capitals. In our countries, where the past is of yesterday, we
have nothing resembling such a chaos of dead things.

Nowadays the sanctuary is reached through a large cutting in this hill
of ruins; incredible heaps of bricks and broken pottery enclose it on
all sides like a jealous rampart. Until recently indeed they covered it
almost to its roof. From the very first its appearance is disconcerting:
it is so grand, so austere and gloomy. A strange dwelling, to be sure,
for the Goddess of Love and Joy. It seems more fit to be the home of
the Prince of Darkness and of Death. A severe doorway, built of gigantic
stones and surmounted by a winged disc, opens on to an asylum of
religious mystery, on to depths where massive columns disappear in the
darkness of deep night.

Immediately on entering there is a coolness and a resonance as of a
sepulchre. First, the pronaos, where we still see clearly, between
pillars carved with hieroglyphs. Were it not for the large human faces
which serve for the capitals of the columns, and are the image of the
lovely Hathor, the goddess of the place, this temple of the decadent
epoch would scarcely differ from those built in this country two
thousand years before. It has the same square massiveness.

And in the dark blue ceilings there are the same frescoes, filled with
stars, with the signs of the Zodiac, and series of winged discs; in
bas-relief on the walls, the same multitudinous crowd of people who
gesticulate and make signs to one another with their hands--eternally
the same mysterious signs, repeated to infinity, everywhere--in the
palaces, the hypogea, the syringes, and on the sarcophagi and papyri of
the mummies.

The Memphite and Theban temples, which preceded this by so many
centuries, and far surpassed it in grandeur, have all lost, in
consequence of the falling of the enormous granites of their roofs,
their cherished gloom, and, what is the same thing, their religious
mystery. But in the temple of the lovely Hathor, on the contrary, except
for some figures mutilated by the hammers of Christians or Moslems,
everything has remained intact, and the lofty ceilings still throw their
fearsome shadows.

The gloom deepens in the hypostyle which follows the pronaos. Then come,
one after another, two halls of increasing holiness, where the daylight
enters regretfully through narrow loopholes, barely lighting the
superposed rows of innumerable figures that gesticulate on the walls.
And then, after other majestic corridors, we reach the heart of this
heap of terrible stones, the holy of holies, enveloped in deep gloom.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions name this place the “Hall of Mystery” and
formerly the high priest _alone, and he only once in each year_, had the
right to enter it for the performance of some now unknown rites.

The “Hall of Mystery” is empty to-day, despoiled long since of the
emblems of gold and precious stones that once filled it. The meagre
little flames of the candles we have lit scarcely pierce the darkness
which thickens over our heads towards the granite ceilings; at the most
they only allow us to distinguish on the walls of the vast rectangular
cavern the serried ranks of figures who exchange among themselves their
disconcerting mute conversations.

Towards the end of the ancient and at the beginning of the Christian
era, Egypt, as we know, still exercised such a fascination over the
world, by its ancestral prestige, by the memory of its dominating past,
and the sovereign permanence of its ruins, that it imposed its gods
upon its conquerors, its handwriting, its architecture, nay, even its
religious rites and its mummies. The Ptolemies built temples here, which
reproduce those of Thebes and Abydos. Even the Romans, although they had
already discovered the _vault_, followed here the primitive models, and
continued those granite ceilings, made of monstrous slabs, placed flat,
like our beams. And so this temple of Hathor, built though it was in
the time of Cleopatra and Augustus, on a site venerable in the oldest
antiquity, recalls at first sight some conception of the Ramses.

If, however, you examine it more closely, there appears, particularly in
the thousands of figures in bas-relief, a considerable divergence. The
poses are the same indeed, and so too are the traditional gestures. But
the exquisite grace of line is gone, as well as the hieratic calm of the
expressions and the smiles. In the Egyptian art of the best periods the
slender figures are as pure as the flowers they hold in their hands;
their muscles may be indicated in a precise and skilful manner, but they
remain, for all that, immaterial. The god Amen himself, the procreator,
drawn often with an absolute crudity, would seem chaste compared with
the hosts of this temple. For here, on the contrary, the figures might
be those of living people, palpitating and voluptuous, who had posed
themselves for sport in these consecrated attitudes. The throat of the
beautiful goddess, her hips, her unveiled nakedness, are portrayed with
a searching and lingering realism; the flesh seems almost to quiver.
She and her spouse, the beautiful Horus, son of Iris, contemplate
each other, naked, one before the other, and their laughing eyes are
intoxicated with love.

Around the holy of holies is a number of halls, in deep shadow and
massive as so many fortresses. They were used formerly for mysterious
and complicated rites, and in them, as everywhere else, there is no
corner of the wall but is overloaded with figures and hieroglyphs. Bats
are asleep in the blue ceilings, where the winged discs, painted in
fresco, look like flights of birds; and the hornets of the neighbouring
fields have built their nests there in hundreds, so that they hang like

Several staircases lead to the vast terraces formed by the great
roofs of the temple--staircases narrow, stifling and dimly lighted by
loopholes that reveal the heart-breaking thickness of the walls. And
here again are the inevitable rows of figures, carved on all the walls,
in the same familiar attitudes; they mount with us as we ascend, making
all the time the self-same signs one to another.

As we emerge on to the roofs, bathed now in Egyptian sunlight and swept
by a cold and bitter wind, we are greeted by a noise as of an aviary. It
is the kingdom of the sparrows, who have built their nests in thousands
in this temple of the complaisant goddess. They twitter now all together
and with all their might out of very joy of living. It is an esplanade,
this roof--a solitude paved with gigantic flagstones. From it we see,
beyond the heaps of ruins, those happy plains, which are spread out with
such a perfect serenity on the very ground where once stood the town of
Denderah, beloved of Hathor and one of the most famous of Upper Egypt.
Exquisitely green are these plains with the new growth of wheat and
lucerne and bean; and the herds that are grouped here and there on the
fresh verdure of the level pastures, swaying now and undulating in the
wind, look like so many dark patches. And the two chains of mountains of
rose-coloured stone, that run parallel--on the east that of the desert
of Arabia, on the west that of the Libyan desert--enclose, in the
distance, this valley of the Nile, this land of plenty, which, alike in
antiquity as in our days, has excited the greed of predatory races. The
temple has also some underground dependencies or crypts into which you
descend by staircases as of dungeons; sometimes even you have to crawl
through holes to reach them. Long superposed galleries which might serve
as hiding-places for treasure; long corridors recalling those which,
in bad dreams, threaten to close in and bury you. And the innumerable
figures, of course, are here too, gesticulating on the walls; and
endless representations of the lovely goddess, whose swelling bosom,
which has preserved almost intact the flesh colour applied in the times
of the Ptolemies, we have perforce to graze as we pass.


In one of the vestibules that we have to traverse on our way out of
the sanctuary, amongst the numerous bas-reliefs representing various
sovereigns paying homage to the beautiful Hathor, is one of a young man,
crowned with a royal tiara shaped like the head of a uraeus. He is shown
seated in the traditional Pharaonic pose and is none other than the
Emperor Nero!

The hieroglyphs of the cartouche are there to affirm his identity,
albeit the sculptor, not knowing his actual physiognomy, has given him
the traditional features, regular as those of the god Horus. During the
centuries of the Roman domination the Western emperors used to send from
home instructions that their likeness should be placed on the walls
of the temples, and that offerings should be made in their name to the
Egyptian divinities--and this notwithstanding that in their eyes Egypt
must have seemed so far away, a colony almost at the end of the earth.
(And it was such a goddess as this, of secondary rank in the times of
the Pharaohs, that was singled out as the favourite of the Romans of the

The Emperor Nero! As a matter of fact at the very time these
bas-reliefs--almost the last--and these expiring hieroglyphics were
being inscribed, the confused primitive theogonies had almost reached
their end and the days of the Goddess of Joy were numbered. There had
been conceived in Judaea symbols more lofty and more pure, which were to
rule a great part of the world for two thousand years--afterwards,
alas, to decline in their turn; and men were about to throw themselves
passionately into renunciation, asceticism and fraternal pity.

How strange it is to say! Even while the sculptor was carving this
archaic bas-relief, and was using, for the engraving of its name,
characters that dated back to the night of the ages, there were already
Christians assembled in the catacombs at Rome and dying in ecstasy in
the arena!



The waters of the Nile being already low my dahabiya--delayed by
strandings--had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored
ourselves, as the darkness began to fall, at a casual spot on the bank.

“We are quite near,” the pilot had told me before departing to make his
evening prayer; “in an hour, to-morrow, we shall be there.”

And the gentle night descended upon us in this spot which did not seem
to differ at all from so any others where, for a month past now, we had
moored our boat at hazard to await the daybreak. On the banks were dark
confused masses of foliage, above which here and there a high date-palm
outlined its black plumes. The air was filled with the multitudinous
chirpings of the crickets of Upper Egypt, which make their music here
almost throughout the year in the odorous warmth of the grass. And,
presently, in the midst of the silence, rose the cries of the night
birds, like the mournful mewings of cats. And that was all--save for
the infinite calm of the desert that is always present, dominating
everything, although scarcely noticed and, as it were, latent.


And this morning, at the rising of the sun, is pure and splendid as
all other mornings. A tint of rosy coral comes gradually to life on the
summit of the Libyan mountains, standing out from the gridelin shadows
which, in the heavens, were the rearguard of the night.

But my eyes, grown accustomed during the last few weeks to this
glorious spectacle of the dawn, turn themselves, as if by force of some
attraction, towards a strange and quite unusual thing, which, less than
a mile away along the river, on the Arabian bank, rises upright in the
midst of the mournful plains. At first it looks like a mass of towering
rocks, which in this hour of twilight magic have taken on a pale violet
colour, and seem almost transparent. And the sun, scarcely emerged
from the desert, lights them in a curious gradation, and orders their
contours with a fringe of fresh rose-colour. And they are not rocks, in
fact, for as we look more closely, they show us lines symmetrical
and straight. Not rocks, but architectural masses, tremendous and
superhuman, placed there in attitudes of quasi-eternal stability. And
out of them rise the points of two obelisks, sharp as the blade of a
lance. And then, at once, I understand--Thebes!

Thebes! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it
was so near. But Thebes assuredly it is, for nothing else in the world
could produce such an apparition. And I salute with a kind of shudder
of respect this unique and sovereign ruin, which had haunted me for many
years, but which until now life had not left me time to visit.

And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of
the royal town, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we
must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous palace which
the rising sun has just disclosed to us.

And while my equipage of bronze--intoning that song, as old as Egypt
and everlastingly the same, which seems to help the men in their arduous
work--is busy unfastening the chain which binds us to the bank, I
continue to watch the distant apparition. It emerges gradually from the
light morning mists which, perhaps, made it seem even larger than it is.
The clear light of the ascending sun shows it now in detail; and reveals
it as all battered, broken and ruinous in the midst of a silent plain,
on the yellow carpet of the desert. And how this sun, rising in its
clear splendour, seems to crush it with its youth and stupendous
duration. This same sun had attained to its present round form, had
acquired the clear precision of its disc, and begun its daily promenade
over the country of the sands, countless centuries of centuries, before
it saw, as it might be yesterday, this town of Thebes arise; an
attempt at magnificence which seemed to promise for the human pygmies
a sufficiently interesting future, but which, in the event, we have
not been able even to equal. And it proved, too, a thing quite puny and
derisory, since here it is laid low, after having subsisted barely four
negligible thousands of years.


An hour later we arrive at Luxor, and what a surprise awaits us there!

The thing which dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six
miles away, is the Winter Palace, a hasty modern production which has
grown on the border of the Nile during the past year: a colossal hotel,
obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice
or three times as high as the admirable Pharaonic Temple, its impudent
facade rises there, painted a dirty yellow. One such thing, it will
readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of
the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its little white houses, its
minarets and its palm-trees, might as well not exist. The famous temple
and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns admire themselves in vain in
the waters of the river. It is the end of Luxor.

And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the opposite
bank seems so absolutely desertlike, with its stretches of golden sand
and, on the horizon, its mountains of the colour of glowing embers,
which, as we know, are full of mummies.

Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats, a sort of two or
three storeyed barracks, which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo to
the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos make
an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my dahabiya,
where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to disturb me?

We can now see nothing of the palaces of Thebes, whither I am to repair
in the evening. We are farther from them than we were last night. The
apparition during our morning’s journey had slowly receded in the plains
flooded by sunlight. And then the Winter Palace and the new boats shut
out the view.

But this modern quay of Luxor, where I disembark at ten o’clock in the
morning in clear and radiant sunshine, is not without its amusing side.

In a line with the Winter Palace a number of stalls follow one another.
All those things with which our tourists are wont to array themselves
are on sale there: fans, fly flaps, helmets and blue spectacles. And,
in thousands, photographs of the ruins. And there too are the toys, the
souvenirs of the Soudan: old negro knives, panther-skins and gazelle
horns. Numbers of Indians even are come to this improvised fair,
bringing their stuffs from Rajputana and Cashmere. And, above all, there
are dealers in mummies, offering for sale mysteriously shaped coffins,
mummy-cloths, dead hands, gods, scarabaei--and the thousand and
one things that this old soil has yielded for centuries like an
inexhaustible mine.

Along the stalls, keeping in the shade of the houses and the scattered
palms, pass representatives of the plutocracy of the world. Dressed
by the same costumiers, bedecked in the same plumes, and with faces
reddened by the same sun, the millionaire daughters of Chicago merchants
elbow their sisters of the old nobility. Pressing amongst them impudent
young Bedouins pester the fair travellers to mount their saddled
donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a note of
beauty, the battalions of Mr. Cook, of both sexes, and always in a
hurry, pass by with long strides.

Beyond the shops, following the line of the quay, there are other
hotels. Less aggressive, all of them, than the Winter Palace, they have
had the discretion not to raise themselves too high, and to cover their
fronts with white chalk in the Arab fashion, even to conceal themselves
in clusters of palm-trees.

And finally there is the colossal temple of Luxor, looking as out of
place now as the poor obelisk which Egypt gave us as a present, and
which stands to-day in the Place de la Concorde.

Bordering the Nile, it is a colossal grove of stone, about three hundred
yards in length. In epochs of a magnificence that is now scarcely
conceivable this forest of columns grew high and thick, rising
impetuously at the bidding of Amenophis and the great Ramses. And how
beautiful it must have been even yesterday, dominating in its superb
disarray this surrounding country, vowed for centuries to neglect and

But to-day, with all these things that men have built around it, you
might say that it no longer exists.

We reach an iron-barred gate and, to enter, have to show our permit to
the guards. Once inside the immense sanctuary, perhaps we shall find
solitude again. But, alas, under the profaned columns a crowd of people
passes, with _Baedekers_ in their hands, the same people that one sees
here everywhere, the same world as frequents Nice and the Riviera. And,
to crown the mockery, the noise of the dynamos pursues us even here, for
the boats of Messrs. Cook are moored to the bank close by.

Hundreds of columns, columns which are anterior by many centuries to
those of Greece, and represent, in their naïve enormity, the first
conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the impression
of sheaves of monstrous weeds; others, quite plain and simple, imitate
the stem of the papyrus, and bear by way of capital its strange flower.
The tourists, like the flies, enter at certain times of the day, which
it suffices to know. Soon the little bells of the hotels will call
them away and the hour of midday will find me here alone. But what in
heaven’s name will deliver me from the noise of the dynamos? But look!
beyond there, at the bottom of the sanctuaries, in the part which should
be the holy of holies, that great fresco, now half effaced, but still
clearly visible on the wall--how unexpected and arresting it is! An
image of Christ! Christ crowned with the Byzantine aureole. It has
been painted on a coarse plaster, which seems to have been added by an
unskilful hand, and is wearing off and exposing the hieroglyphs beneath.
. . . This temple, in fact, almost indestructible by reason of its
massiveness, has passed through the hands of diverse masters. Its
antiquity was already legendary in the time of Alexander the Great, on
whose behalf a chapel was added to it; and later on, in the first ages
of Christianity, a corner of the ruins was turned into a cathedral.
The tourists begin to depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the
neighbouring _tables d’hote_; and while I wait till they shall be gone,
I occupy myself in following the bas-reliefs which are displayed for a
length of more than a hundred yards along the base of the walls. It
is one long row of people moving in their thousands all in the same
direction--the ritual procession of the God Amen. With the care which
characterised the Egyptians to draw everything from life so as to render
it eternal, there are represented here the smallest details of a day
of festival three or four thousand years ago. And how like it is to a
holiday of the people of to-day! Along the route of the procession are
ranged jugglers and sellers of drinks and fruits, and negro acrobats who
walk on their hands and twist themselves into all kinds of contortions.
But the procession itself was evidently of a magnificence such as we no
longer know. The number of musicians and priests, of corporations, of
emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amen himself came by
water, on the river, in his golden barge with its raised prow, followed
by the barques of all the other gods and goddesses of his heaven. The
reddish stone, carved with minute care, tells me all this, as it has
already told it to so many dead generations, so that I seem almost to
see it.

And now everybody has gone: the colonnades are empty and the noise of
the dynamos has ceased. Midday approaches with its torpor. The whole
temple seems to be ablaze with rays, and I watch the clear-cut shadows
cast by this forest of stone gradually shortening on the ground. The
sun, which just now shone, all smiles and gaiety, upon the quay of the
new town amid the uproar of the stall-keepers, the donkey drivers
and the cosmopolitan passengers, casts here a sullen, impassive and
consuming fire. And meanwhile the shadows shorten--and just as they do
every day, beneath this sky which is never overcast, just as they have
done for five and thirty centuries, these columns, these friezes
and this temple itself, like a mysterious and solemn sundial, record
patiently on the ground the slow passing of the hours. Verily for us,
the ephemerae of thought, this unbroken continuity of the sun of Egypt
has more of melancholy even than the changing, overcast skies of our

And now, at last, the temple is restored to solitude and all noise in
the neighbourhood has ceased.

An avenue bordered by very high columns, of which the capitals are in
the form of the full-blown flowers of the papyrus, leads me to a place
shut in and almost terrible, where is massed an assembly of colossi.
Two, who, if they were standing, would be quite ten yards in height, are
seated on thrones on either side of the entrance. The others, ranged on
the three sides of the courtyard, stand upright behind colonnades, but
look as if they were about to issue thence and to stride rapidly towards
me. Some broken and battered, have lost their faces and preserve only
their intimidating attitude. Those that remain intact--white faces
beneath their Sphinx’s headgear--open their eyes wide and smile.

This was formerly the principal entrance, and the office of these
colossi was to welcome the multitudes. But now the gates of honour
flanked by obelisks of red granite, are obstructed by a litter of
enormous ruins. And the courtyard has become a place voluntarily closed,
where nothing of the outside world is any longer to be seen. In moments
of silence, one can abstract oneself from all the neighbouring modern
things, and forget the hour, the day, the century even, in the midst
of these gigantic figures, whose smile disdains the flight of ages. The
granites within which we are immured--and in such terrible company--shut
out everything save the point of an old neighbouring minaret which shows
now against the blue of the sky: a humble graft of Islam which grew
here amongst the ruins some centuries ago, when the ruins themselves had
already subsisted for three thousand years--a little mosque built on a
mass of debris, which it new protects with its inviolability. How many
treasures and relics and documents are hidden and guarded by this mosque
of the peristyle! For none would dare to dig in the ground within its
sacred walls.

Gradually the silence of the temple becomes profound. And if the
shortened shadows betray the hour of noon, there is nothing to tell
to what millennium that hour belongs. The silences and middays like
to this, which have passed before the eyes of these giants ambushed in
their colonnades--who could count them?

High above us, lost in the incandescent blue, soar the birds of
prey--and they were there in the times of the Pharaohs, displaying in
the air identical plumages, uttering the same cries. The beasts and
plants, in the course of time, have varied less than men, and remain
unchanged in the smallest details.

Each of the colossi around me--standing there proudly with one leg
advanced as if for a march, heavy and sure, which nothing should
withstand--grasps passionately in his clenched fist, at the end of the
muscular arm, a kind of buckled cross, which in Egypt was the symbol
of eternal life. And this is what the decision of their movement
symbolises: confident all of them in this poor bauble which they hold in
their hand, they cross with a triumphant step the threshold of death.
. . . “Eternal Life”--the thought of immortality--how the human soul has
been obsessed by it, particularly in the periods marked by its greatest
strivings! The tame submission to the belief that the rottenness of
the grave is the end of all is characteristic of ages of decadence and

The three similar giants, little damaged in the course of their long
existence, who align the eastern side of this courtyard strewn with
blocks, represent, as indeed do all the others, that same Ramses II.,
whose effigy was multiplied so extravagantly at Thebes and Memphis. But
these three have preserved a powerful and impetuous life. They might
have been carved and polished yesterday. Between the monstrous reddish
pillars, they look like white apparitions issuing from their embrasure
of columns and advancing together like soldiers at manoeuvres. The
sun at this moment falls perpendicularly on their heads and strange
headgear, details their everlasting smile, and then sheds itself on
their shoulders and their naked torso, exaggerating their athletic
muscles. Each holding in his hand the symbolical cross, the three giants
rush forward with a formidable stride, heads raised, smiling, in a
radiant march into eternity.

Oh! this midday sun, that now pours down upon the white faces of these
giants, and displaces ever so slowly the shadows cast upon their breasts
by their chins and Osiridean beards. To think how often in the midst of
this same silence, this same ray has fallen thus, fallen from the same
changeless sky, to occupy itself in this same tranquil play! Yes, I
think that the fogs and rains of our winters, upon these stupendous
ruins, would be less sad and less terrible than the calm of this eternal


Suddenly a ridiculous noise begins to make the air tremble; the dynamos
of the Agencies have been put in motion, and ladies in green spectacles
arrive, a charming throng, with guidebooks and cameras. The tourists,
in short, are come out of their hotels, at the same hour as the flies
awake. And the midday peace of Luxor has come to an end.



An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud; a
dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with gold, it
leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of remote ages, of
things destroyed; a dust that is here continually--of which the gold at
this moment fades to green at the zenith, but flames and glistens in
the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which marks the end of the
day’s decline, and the still burning globe of the sun, quite low down
in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the conflagration of the

This setting sun illumines with splendour a silent chaos of granite,
which is not that of the slipping of mountains, but that of ruins. And
of such ruins as, to our eyes unaccustomed hereditarily to proportions
so gigantic, seem superhuman. In places, huge masses of carven
stone--pylons--still stand upright, rising like hills. Others are
crumbling in all directions in bewildering cataracts of stone. It is
difficult to conceive how these things, so massive that they might have
seemed eternal, could come to suffer such an utter ruin. Fragments of
columns, fragments of obelisks, broken by downfalls of which the mere
imagination is awful, heads and head-dresses of giant divinities, all
lie higgledy-piggledy in a disorder beyond possible redress. Nowhere
surely on our earth does the sun in his daily revolution cast his light
on such debris as this, on such a litter of vanished palaces and dead

It was even here, seven or eight thousand years ago, under this pure
crystal sky, that the first awakening of human thought began. Our Europe
then was still sleeping, wrapped in the mantle of its damp forests;
sleeping that sleep which still had thousands of years to run. Here, a
precocious humanity, only recently emerged from the Age of Stone, that
earliest form of all, an infant humanity, which saw massively on its
issue from the massiveness of the original matter, conceived and built
terrible sanctuaries for gods, at first dreadful and vague, such as its
nascent reason allowed it to conceive them. Then the first megalithic
blocks were erected; then began that mad heaping up and up, which was
to last nearly fifty centuries; and temples were built above temples,
palaces over palaces, each generation striving to outdo its predecessor
by a more titanic grandeur.

Afterwards, four thousand years ago, Thebes was in the height of her
glory, encumbered with gods and with magnificence, the focus of the
light of the world in the most ancient historic periods; while our
Occident was still asleep and Greece and Assyria were scarcely awakened.
Only in the extreme East, a humanity of a different race, the yellow
people, called to follow in totally different ways, was fixing, so that
they remain even to our day, the oblique lines of its angular roofs and
the rictus of its monsters.

The men of Thebes, if they still saw too massively and too vastly,
at least saw straight; they saw calmly, at the same time as they saw
forever. Their conceptions, which had begun to inspire those of Greece,
were afterwards in some measure to inspire our own. In religion, in art,
in beauty under all its aspects, they were as much our ancestors as were
the Aryans.

Later again, sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, in one
of the apogees of the town which, in the course of its interminable
duration, experienced so many fluctuations, some ostentatious kings
thought fit to build on this ground, already covered with temples,
that which still remains the most arresting marvel of the ruins: the
hypostyle hall, dedicated to the God Amen, with its forest of columns,
as monstrous as the trunk of the baobab and as high as towers, compared
with which the pillars of our cathedrals are utterly insignificant.
In those days the same gods reigned at Thebes as three thousand years
before, but in the interval they had been transformed little by little
in accordance with the progressive development of human thought, and
Amen, the host of this prodigious hall, asserted himself more and more
as the sovereign master of life and eternity. Pharaonic Egypt was really
tending, in spite of some revolts, towards the notion of a divine unity;
even, one might say, to the notion of a supreme pity, for she already
had her Apis, emanating from the All-Powerful, born of a virgin
mother, and come humbly to the earth in order to make acquaintance with

After Seti I. and the Ramses had built, in honour of Amen, this temple,
which, beyond all doubt, is the grandest and most durable in the world,
men still continued for another fifteen centuries to heap up in its
neighbourhood those blocks of granite and marble and sandstone, whose
enormity now amazes us. Even for the invaders of Egypt, the Greeks and
Romans, this old ancestral town of towns remained imposing and unique.
They repaired its ruins, and built here temple after temple, in a style
which hardly ever changes. Even in the ages of decadence everything
that raised itself from the old, sacred soil, seemed to be impregnated a
little with the ancient grandeur.

And it was only when the early Christians ruled here, and after them
the Moslem iconoclasts, that the destruction became final. To these new
believers, who, in their simplicity, imagined themselves to be possessed
of the ultimate religious formula and to know by His right name
the great Unknowable, Thebes became the haunt of “false gods,” the
abomination of abominations, which it behoved them to destroy.

And so they set to work, penetrating with an ever-present fear into the
profound depths of the gloomy sanctuaries, mutilating first of all the
thousands of visages whose disconcerting smile frightened them, and then
exhausting themselves in the effort to uproot the colossi, which even
with the help of levers, they could not move. It was no easy task
indeed, for everything was as solid as geological masses, as rocks or
promontories. But for five or six hundred years the town was given over
to the caprice of desecrators.

And then came the centuries of silence and oblivion under the shroud of
the desert sands, which, thickening each year, proceeded to bury, and,
in the event, to preserve for us, this peerless relic.

And now, at last, Thebes is being exhumed and restored to a semblance
of life--now, after a cycle of seven or eight thousand years, when our
Western humanity, having left the primitive gods that we see here, to
embrace the Christian conception, which, even yesterday, made it live,
is in way of denying everything, and struggles before the enigma
of death in an obscurity more dismal and more fearful than in the
commencement of the ages. (More dismal and more fearful still in this,
that plea of youth is gone.) From all parts of Europe curious and
unquiet spirits, as well as mere idlers, turn their steps towards
Thebes, the ancient mother. Men clear the rubbish from its remains,
devise ways of retarding the enormous fallings of its ruins, and dig in
its old soil, stored with hidden treasure.

And this evening on one of the portals to which I have just
mounted--that which opens at the north-west and terminates the colossal
artery of temples and palaces, many very diverse groups have already
taken their places, after the pilgrimage of the day amongst the ruins.
And others are hastening towards the staircase by which we have just
climbed, so as not to miss the grand spectacle of the sun setting,
always with the same serenity, the same unchanging magnificence, behind
the town which once was consecrated to it.

French, German, English; I see them below, a lot of pygmy figures,
issuing from the hypostyle hall, and making their way towards us. Mean
and pitiful they look in their twentieth-century travellers’ costumes,
hurrying along that avenue where once defiled so many processions of
gods and goddesses. And yet this, perhaps, is the only occasion on
which one of these bands of tourists does not seem to me altogether
ridiculous. Amongst these groups of unknown people, there is none who is
not collected and thoughtful, or who does not at least pretend to be
so; and there is some saving quality of grace, even some grandeur of
humility, in the sentiment which has brought them to this town of Amen,
and in the homage of their silence.

We are so high on this portal that we might fancy ourselves upon a
tower, and the defaced stones of which it is built are immeasurably
large. Instinctively each one sits with his face to the glowing sun, and
consequently to the outspread distances of the fields and the desert.

Before us, under our feet, an avenue stretches away, prolonging towards
the fields the pomp of the dead city--an avenue bordered by monstrous
rams, larger than buffaloes, all crouched on their pedestals in two
parallel rows in the traditional hieratic pose. The avenue terminates
beyond at a kind of wharf or landing-stage which formerly gave on to
the Nile. It was there that the God Amen, carried and followed by long
trains of priests, came every year to take his golden barge for a solemn
procession. But it leads to-day only to the cornfields, for, in the
course of successive centuries, the river has receded little by little
and now winds its course a thousand yards away in the direction of

We can see, beyond, the old sacred Nile between the clusters of
palm-trees on its banks; meandering there like a rosy pathway, which
remains, nevertheless, in this hour of universal incandescence,
astonishingly pale, and gleams occasionally with a bluish light. And
on the farther bank, from one end to the other of the western horizon,
stretches the chain of the Libyan mountains behind which the sun is
about to plunge; a chain of red sandstone, parched since the beginning
of the world--without a rival in the preservation to perpetuity of dead
bodies--which the Thebans perforated to its extreme depths to fill it
with sarcophagi.

We watch the sun descend. But we turn also to see, behind us, the ruins
in this the traditional moment of their apotheosis. Thebes, the immense
town-mummy, seems all at once to be ablaze--as if its old stones were
able still to burn; all its blocks, fallen or upright, appear to have
been suddenly made ruddy by the glow of fire.

On this side, too, the view embraces great peaceful distances. Past the
last pylons, and beyond the crumbling ramparts the country, down there
behind the town, presents the same appearance as that we were facing a
moment before. The same cornfields, the same woods of date-trees,
that make a girdle of green palms around the ruins. And, right in the
background, a chain of mountains is lit up and glows with a vivid coral
colour. It is the chain of the Arabian desert, lying parallel to that of
Libya, along the whole length of the Nile Valley--which is thus
guarded on right and left by stones and sand stretched out in profound

In all the surrounding country which we command from this spot there
is no indication of the present day; only here and there, amongst the
palm-trees, the villages of the field labourers, whose houses of dried
earth can scarcely have changed since the days of the Pharaohs. Our
contemporary desecrators have up till now respected the infinite
desuetude of the place, and, for the tourists who begin to haunt it, no
one yet has dared to build a hotel.

Slowly the sun descends; and behind us the granites of the town-mummy
seem to burn more and more. It is true that a slight shadow of a warmer
tint, an amaranth violet, begins to encroach upon the lower parts,
spreading along the avenues and over the open spaces. But everything
that rises into the sky--the friezes of the temples, the capitals of
the columns, the sharp points of the obelisks--are still red as glowing
embers. These all become imbued with light and continue to glow and shed
a rosy illumination until the end of the twilight.

It is a glorious hour, even for the old dust of Egypt, which fills the
air eternally, without detracting at all from its wonderful clearness.
It savours of spices, of the Bedouin, of the bitumen of the sarcophagus.
And here now it is playing the role of those powders of different shades
of gold which the Japanese use for the backgrounds of their lacquered
landscapes. It reveals itself everywhere, close to and on the horizon,
modifying at its pleasure the colour of things, and giving them a kind
of metallic lustre. The phantasy of its changes is unimaginable. Even
in the distances of the countryside, it is busy indicating by little
trailing clouds of gold the smallest pathways traversed by the herds.

And now the disc of the God of Thebes has disappeared behind the Libyan
mountains, after changing its light from red to yellow and from yellow
to green.

And thereupon the tourists, judging that the display is over for
the night, commence to descend and make ready for departure. Some in
carriages, others on donkeys, they go to recruit themselves with the
electricity and elegance of Luxor, the neighbouring town (wines and
spirits are paid for as extras, and we dress for dinner). And the dust
condescends to mark their exodus also by a last cloud of gold beneath
the palm-trees of the road.

An immediate solemnity succeeds to their departure. Above the mud houses
of the fellah villages rise slender columns of smoke, which are of a
periwinkle-blue in the midst of the still yellow atmosphere. They tell
of the humble life of these little homesteads, subsisting here, where in
the backward of the ages were so many palaces and splendours.

And the first bayings of the watchdogs announce already the vague
uneasiness of the evenings around the ruins. There is no one now within
the mummy-town, which seems all at once to have grown larger in the
silence. Very quickly the violet shadow covers it, all save the extreme
points of its obelisks, which keep still a little of their rose-colour.
The feeling comes over you that a sovereign mystery has taken possession
of the town, as if some vague phantom things had just passed into it.



The feeling, almost, that you have grown suddenly smaller by entering
there, that you are dwarfed to less than human size--to such an extent
do the proportions of these ruins seem to crush you--and the illusion,
also, that the light, instead of being extinguished with the evening,
has only changed its colour, and become blue: that is what one
experiences on a clear Egyptian night, in walking between the colonnades
of the great temple at Thebes.

The place is, moreover, so singular and so terrible that its mere name
would at once cast a spell upon the spirit, even if one were ignorant
of the place itself. The hypostyle of the temple of the God Amen--that
could be no other thing but one. For this hall is unique in the world,
in the same way as the Grotto of Fingal and the Himalayas are unique.


To wander absolutely alone at night in Thebes requires during the winter
a certain amount of stratagem and a knowledge of the routine of the
tourists. It is necessary, first of all, to choose a night on which the
moon rises late and then, having entered before the close of the day, to
escape the notice of the Bedouin guards who shut the gates at nightfall.
Thus have I waited with the patience of a stone Osiris, till the grand
transformation scene of the setting of the sun was played out once more
upon the ruins. Thebes, which, during the day, is almost animate by
reason of the presence of the visitors and the gangs of fellahs who,
singing the while, are busy at the diggings and the clearing away of
the rubbish, has emptied itself little by little, while the blue shadows
were mounting from the base of the monstrous sanctuaries. I watched the
people moving in a long row, like a trail of ants, towards the western
gate between the pylons of the Ptolemies, and the last of them had
disappeared before the rosy light died away on the topmost points of the

It seemed as if the silence and the night arrived together from beyond
the Arabian desert, advanced together across the plain, spreading out
like a rapid oil-stain; then gained the town from east to west, and rose
rapidly from the ground to the very summits of the temples. And this
march of the darkness was infinitely solemn.

For the first few moments, indeed, you might imagine that it was going
to be an ordinary night such as we know in our climate, and a sense of
uneasiness takes hold of you in the midst of this confusion of enormous
stones, which in the darkness would become a quite inextricable maze.
Oh! the horror of being lost in those ruins of Thebes and not being able
to see! But in the event the air preserved its transparency to such a
degree, and the stars began soon to scintillate so brightly that the
surrounding things could be distinguished almost as well as in the

Indeed, now that the time of transition between the day and night
has passed, the eyes grow accustomed to the strange, blue, persistent
clearness so that you seem suddenly to have acquired the pupils of a
cat; and the ultimate effect is merely as if you saw through a smoked
glass which changed all the various shades of this reddish-coloured
country into one uniform tint of blue.

Behold me then, for some two or three hours, alone among the temples of
the Pharaohs. The tourists, whom the carriages and donkeys are at this
moment taking back to the hotels of Luxor, will not return till very
late, when the full moon will have risen and be shedding its clear light
upon the ruins. My post, while I waited, was high up among the ruins on
the margin of the sacred Lake of Osiris, the still and enclosed water
of which is astonishing in that it has remained there for so many
centuries. It still conceals, no doubt, numberless treasures confided
to it in the days of slaughters and pillages, when the armies of the
Persian and Nubian kings forced the thick, surrounding walls.

In a few minutes, thousands of stars appear at the bottom of this
water, reflecting symmetrically the veritable ones which now scintillate
everywhere in the heavens. A sudden cold spreads over the town-mummy,
whose stones, still warm from their exposure to the sun, cool very
rapidly in this nocturnal blue which envelops them as in a shroud. I
am free to wander where I please without risk of meeting anyone, and I
begin to descend by the steps made by the falling of the granite blocks,
which have formed on all sides staircases as if for giants. On the
overturned surfaces, my hands encounter the deep, clear-cut hollows of
the hieroglyphs, and sometimes of those inevitable people, carved
in profile, who raise their arms, all of them, and make signs to one
another. On arriving at the bottom I am received by a row of statues
with battered faces, seated on thrones, and without hindrance of any
kind, and recognising everything in the blue transparency which takes
the place of day, I come to the great avenue of the palaces of Amen.

We have nothing on earth in the least degree comparable to this avenue,
which passive multitudes took nearly three thousand years to construct,
expending, century after century, their innumerable energies in carrying
these stones, which our machines now could not move. And the objective
was always the same: to prolong indefinitely the perspectives of pylons,
colossi and obelisks, continuing always this same artery of temples
and palaces in the direction of the old Nile--while the latter, on the
contrary, receded slowly, from century to century, towards Libya. It
is here, and especially at night, that you suffer the feeling of having
been shrunken to the size of a pygmy. All round you rise monoliths
mighty as rocks. You have to take twenty paces to pass the base of a
single one of them. They are placed quite close together, too close,
it seems, in view of their enormity and mass. There is not enough air
between them, and the closeness of their juxtaposition disconcerts you
more, perhaps, even than their massiveness.

The avenue which I have followed in an easterly direction abuts on as
disconcerting a chaos of granite as exists in Thebes--the hall of the
feasts of Thothmes III. What kind of feasts were they, that this king
gave here, in this forest of thick-set columns, beneath these ceilings,
of which the smallest stone, if it fell, would crush twenty men? In
places the friezes, the colonnades, which seem almost diaphanous in the
air, are outlined still with a proud magnificence in unbroken alignment
against the star-strewn sky. Elsewhere the destruction is bewildering;
fragments of columns, entablatures, bas-reliefs lie about in
indescribable confusion, like a lot of scattered wreckage after a
world-wide tempest. For it was not enough that the hand of man should
overturn these things. Tremblings of the earth, at different times, have
also come to shake this Cyclops palace which threatened to be eternal.
And all this--which represents such an excess of force, of movement,
of impulsion, alike for its erection as for its overthrow--all this is
tranquil this evening, oh! so tranquil, although toppling as if for an
imminent downfall--tranquil forever, one might say, congealed by the
cold and by the night.

I was prepared for silence in such a place, but not for the sounds which
I commence to hear. First of all an osprey sounds the prelude, above my
head and so close to me that it holds me trembling throughout its long
cry. Then other voices answer from the depths of the ruins, voices very
diverse, but all sinister. Some are only able to mew on two long-drawn
notes: some yelp like jackals round a cemetery, and others again imitate
the sound of a steel spring slowly unwinding itself. And this concert
comes always from above. Owls, ospreys, screech-owls, all the different
kinds of birds, with hooked beaks and round eyes, and silken wings that
enable them to fly noiselessly, have their homes amongst the granites
massively upheld in the air; and they are celebrating now, each after
its own fashion, the nocturnal festival. Intermittent calls break upon
the air, and long-drawn infinitely mournful wailings, that sometimes
swell and sometimes seem to be strangled and end in a kind of sob. And
then, in spite of the sonority of the vast straight walls, in spite of
the echoes which prolong the cries, the silence obstinately returns.
Silence. The silence after all and beyond all doubt is the true master
at this hour of this kingdom at once colossal, motionless and blue--a
silence that seems to be infinite, because we know that there is
nothing around these ruins, nothing but the line of the dead sands, the
threshold of the deserts.


I retrace my steps towards the west in the direction of the hypostyle,
traversing again the avenue of monstrous splendours, imprisoned and,
as it were, dwarfed between the rows of sovereign stones. There are
obelisks there, some upright, some overthrown. One like those of Luxor,
but much higher, remains intact and raises its sharp point into the sky;
others, less well known in their exquisite simplicity, are quite plain
and straight from base to summit, bearing only in relief gigantic lotus
flowers, whose long climbing stems bloom above in the half light cast
by the stars. The passage becomes narrower and more obscure, and it is
necessary sometimes to grope my way. And then again my hands encounter
the everlasting hieroglyphs carved everywhere, and sometimes the legs of
a colossus seated on its throne. The stones are still slightly warm, so
fierce has been the heat of the sun during the day. And certain of the
granites, so hard that our steel chisels could not cut them, have kept
their polish despite the lapse of centuries, and my fingers slip in
touching them.

There is now no sound. The music of the night birds has ceased. I listen
in vain--so attentively that I can hear the beating of my heart. Not a
sound, not even the buzzing of a fly. Everything is silent, everything
is ghostly; and in spite of the persistent warmth of the stones the air
grows colder and colder, and one gets the impression that everything
here is frozen--definitely--as in the coldness of death.

A vast silence reigns, a silence that has subsisted for centuries, on
this same spot, where formerly for three or four thousand years rose
such an uproar of living men. To think of the clamorous multitudes who
once assembled here, of their cries of triumph and anguish, of their
dying agonies. First of all the pantings of those thousands of harnessed
workers, exhausting themselves generation after generation, under the
burning sun, in dragging and placing one above the other these stones,
whose enormity now amazes us. And the prodigious feasts, the music of
the long harps, the blares of the brazen trumpets; the slaughters and
battles when Thebes was the great and unique capital of the world,
an object of fear and envy to the kings of the barbarian peoples who
commenced to awake in neighbouring lands; the symphonies of siege and
pillage, in days when men bellowed with the throats of beasts. To think
of all this, here on this ground, on a night so calm and blue! And these
same walls of granite from Syene, on which my puny hands now rest, to
think of the beings who have touched them in passing, who have fallen by
their side in last sanguinary conflicts, without rubbing even the polish
from their changeless surfaces!


I now arrive at the hypostyle of the temple of Amen, and a sensation of
fear makes me hesitate at first on the threshold. To find himself in the
dead of night before such a place might well make a man falter. It
seems like some hall for Titans, a remnant of fabulous ages, which
has maintained itself, during its long duration, by force of its very
massiveness, like the mountains. Nothing human is so vast. Nowhere on
earth have men conceived such dwellings. Columns after columns, higher
and more massive than towers, follow one another so closely, in
an excess of accumulation, that they produce a feeling almost of
suffocation. They mount into the clear sky and sustain there traverses
of stone which you scarcely dare to contemplate. One hesitates to
advance; a feeling comes over you that you are become infinitesimally
small and as easy to crush as an insect. The silence grows
preternaturally solemn. The stars through all the gaps in the fearful
ceilings seem to send their scintillations to you in an abyss. It is
cold and clear and blue.

The central bay of this hypostyle is in the same line as the road I
have been following since I left the hall of Thothmes. It prolongs and
magnifies as in an apotheosis that same long avenue, for the gods and
kings, which was the glory of Thebes, and which in the succession of the
ages nothing has contrived to equal. The columns which border it are
so gigantic[*] that their tops, formed of mysterious full-blown petals,
high up above the ground on which we crawl, are completely bathed in the
diffuse clearness of the sky. And enclosing this kind of nave on either
side, like a terrible forest, is another mass of columns--monster
columns, of an earlier style, of which the capitals close instead of
opening, imitating the buds of some flower which will never blossom.
Sixty to the right, sixty to the left, too close together for their
size, they grow thick like a forest of baobabs that wanted space: they
induce a feeling of oppression without possible deliverance, of massive
and mournful eternity.

     [*] About 30 feet in circumference and 75 feet in height
     including the capital.

And this, forsooth, was the place that I had wished to traverse alone,
without even the Bedouin guard, who at night believes it his duty to
follow the visitors. But now it grows lighter and lighter. Too light
even, for a blue phosphorescence, coming from the eastern horizon,
begins to filter through the opacity of the colonnades on the right,
outlines the monstrous shafts, and details them by vague glimmerings on
their edges. The full moon is risen, alas! and my hours of solitude are
nearly over.


The moon! Suddenly the stones of the summit, the copings, the formidable
friezes, are lighted by rays of clear light, and here and there, on the
bas-reliefs encircling the pillars, appear luminous trails which reveal
the gods and goddesses engraved in the stone. They were watching in
myriads around me, as I knew well,--coifed, all of them, in discs or
great horns. They stare at one another with their arms raised, spreading
out their long fingers in an eager attempt at conversation. They are
numberless, these eternally gesticulating gods. Wherever you look their
forms are multiplied with a stupefying repetition. They seem to have
some mysterious secret to convey to one another, but have perforce to
remain silent, and for all the expressiveness of their attitudes their
hands do not move. And hieroglyphs, too, repeated to infinity, envelop
you on all sides like a multiple woof of mystery.


Minute by minute now, everything amongst these rigid dead things grows
more precise. Cold, hard rays penetrate through the immense ruin,
separating with a sharp incisiveness the light from the shadows.
The feeling that these stones, wearied as they were with their long
duration, might still be thoughtful, still mindful of their past, grows
less--less than it was a few moments before, far less than during the
preceding blue phantasmagoria. Under this clear, pale light, as in
the daytime, under the fire of the sun, Thebes has lost for the moment
whatever remained to it of soul; it has receded farther into the
backward of time, and appears now nothing more than a vast gigantic
fossil that excites only our wonder and our fear.


But the tourists will soon be here, attracted by the moon. A league
away, in the hotels of Luxor, I can fancy how they have hurried away
from the tables, for fear of missing the celebrated spectacle. For me,
therefore, it is time to beat a retreat, and, by the great avenue again,
I direct my steps towards the pylons of the Ptolemies, where the night
guards are waiting.

They are busy already, these Bedouins, in opening the gates for some
tourists, who have shown their permits, and who carry Kodaks, magnesium
to light up the temples--quite an outfit in short.

Farther on, when I have taken the road to Luxor, it is not long before I
meet, under the palm-trees and on the sands, the crowd, the main body
of the arrivals--some in carriages, some on horseback, some on donkeys.
There is a noise of voices speaking all sorts of non-Egyptian languages.
One is tempted to ask: “What is happening? A ball, a holiday, a grand
marriage?” No. The moon is full to-night at Thebes, upon the ruins. That
is all.



It is two o’clock in the afternoon. A white angry fire pours from the
sky, which is pale from excess of light. A sun inimical to the men of
our climate scorches the enormous fossil which, crumbling in places, is
all that remains of Thebes and which lies there like the carcass of a
gigantic beast that has been dead for thousands of years, but is too
massive ever to be annihilated.

In the hypostyle there is a little blue shade behind the monstrous
pillars, but even that shade is dusty and hot. The columns too are hot,
and so are all the blocks--and yet it is winter and the nights are cold,
even to the point of frost. Heat and dust; a reddish dust, which hangs
like an eternal cloud over these ruins of Upper Egypt, exhaling an odour
of spices and mummy.

The great heat seems to augment the retrospective sensation of fatigue
which seizes you as you regard these stones--too heavy for human
strength--which are massed here in mountains. One almost seems to
participate in the efforts, the exhaustions and the sweating toils of
that people, with their muscles of brand new steel, who in the carrying
and piling of such masses had to bear the yoke for thirty centuries.

Even the stones themselves tell of fatigue--the fatigue of being crushed
by one another’s weight for thousands of years; the suffering that comes
of having been too exactly carved, and too nicely placed one above the
other, so that they seem to be riveted together by the force of their
mere weight. Oh! the poor stones of the base that bear the weight of
these awful pilings!

And the ardent colour of these things surprises you. It has persisted.
On the red sandstone of the hypostyle, the paintings of more than three
thousand years ago are still to be seen; especially above the central
chamber, almost in the sky, the capitals, in the form of great flowers,
have kept the lapis blues, the greens and yellows with which their
strange petals were long ago bespeckled.

Decrepitude and crumbling and dust. In broad daylight, under the
magnificent splendour of the life-giving sun, one realises clearly that
all here is dead, and dead since days which the imagination is scarcely
able to conceive. And the ruin appears utterly irreparable. Here and
there are a few impotent and almost infantine attempts at reparation,
undertaken in the ancient epochs of history by the Greeks and Romans.
Columns have been put together, holes have been filled with cement. But
the great blocks lie in confusion, and one feels, even to the point of
despair, how impossible it is ever to restore to order such a chaos of
crushing, overthrown things--even with the help of legions of workers
and machines, and with centuries before you in which to complete the

And then, what surprises and oppresses you is the want of clear space,
the little room that remained for the multitudes in these halls
which are nevertheless immense. The whole space between the walls was
encumbered with pillars. The temples were half filled with colossal
forests of stone. The men who built Thebes lived in the beginning of
time, and had not yet discovered the thing which to us to-day seems so
simple--namely, the vault. And yet they were marvellous pioneers, these
architects. They had already succeeded in evolving out of the dark, as
it were, a number of conceptions which, from the beginning no doubt,
slumbered in mysterious germ in the human brain--the idea of rectitude,
the straight line, the right angle, the vertical line, of which Nature
furnishes no example, even symmetry, which, if you consider it well, is
less explicable still. They employed symmetry with a consummate mastery,
understanding as well as we do all the effect that is to be obtained by
the repetition of like objects placed _en pendant_ on either side of a
portico or an avenue. But they did not invent the vault. And therefore,
since there was a limit to the size of the stones which they were able
to place flat like beams, they had recourse to this profusion of columns
to support their stupendous ceilings. And thus it is that there seems
to be a want of air, that one seems to stifle in the middle of their
temples, dominated and obstructed as they are by the rigid presence
of so many stones. And yet to-day you can see quite clearly in these
temples, for, since the suspended rocks which served for roof have
fallen, floods of light descend from all parts. But formerly, when a
kind of half night reigned in the deep halls, beneath the immovable
carapaces of sandstone or granite, how oppressive and sepulchral it must
all have been--how final and pitiless, like a gigantic palace of Death!
On one day, however, in each year, here at Thebes, a light as of
a conflagration used to penetrate from one end to the other of
the sanctuaries of Amen; for the middle artery is open towards the
north-west, and is aligned in such a fashion that, once a year, one
solitary time, on the evening of the summer solstice, the sun as it sets
is able to plunge its reddened rays straight into the sanctuaries. At
the moment when it enlarges its blood-coloured disc before descending
behind the desolation of the Libyan mountains, it arrives in the very
axis of this avenue, of this suite of aisles, which measures more
than 800 yards in length. Formerly, then, on these evenings it shone
horizontally beneath the terrible ceilings--between these rows of
pillars which are as high as our Colonne Vendome--and threw, for some
seconds, its colours of molten copper into the obscurity of the holy
of holies. And then the whole temple would resound with the clashing of
music, and the glory of the god of Thebes was celebrated in the depths
of the forbidden halls.


Like a cloud, like a veil, the continual red-coloured dust floats
everywhere above the ruins, and, athwart it, here and there, the sun
traces long, white beams, But at one point of the avenue, behind the
obelisks, it seems to rise in clouds, this dust of Egypt, as if it were
smoke. For the workers of bronze are assembled there to-day and, hour by
hour, without ceasing, they dig in the sacred soil. Ridiculously small
and almost negligible by the side of the great monoliths they dig and
dig. Patiently they clear the ruins, and the earth goes away in little
parcels in rows of baskets carried by children in the form of a chain.
The periodical deposits of the Nile, and the sand carried by the wind of
the desert, had raised the soil by about six yards since the time when
Thebes ceased to live. But now men are endeavouring to restore the
ancient level. At first sight the task seemed impossible, but they
will achieve it in the end, even with their simple means, these fellah
toilers, who sing as they labour at their incessant work of ants. Soon
the grand hypostyle will be freed from rubbish, and its columns, which
even before seemed so tremendous, uncovered now to the base, have added
another twenty feet to their height. A number of colossal statues, which
lay asleep beneath this shroud of earth and sand, have been brought
back to the light, set upright again and have resumed their watch in the
intimidating thoroughfares for a new period of quasi-eternity. Year
by year the town-mummy is being slowly exhumed by dint of prodigious
effort; and is repeopled again by gods and kings who had been hidden for
thousands of years![*] Year in, year out, the digging continues--deeper
and deeper. It is scarcely known to what depth the debris and the ruins
descend. Thebes had endured for so many centuries, the earth here is so
penetrated with human past, that it is averred that, under the oldest of
the known temples there are still others, older still and more massive,
of which there was no suspicion, and whose age must exceed eight
thousand years.

     [*] As is generally known, the maintenance of the ancient
     monuments of Egypt and their restoration, so far as that may
     be possible, has been entrusted to the French. M. Maspero
     has delegated to Thebes an artist and a scholar, M. Legrain
     by name, who is devoting his life passionately to the work.

In spite of the burning sun, and of the clouds of dust raised by
the blows of the pickaxes, one might linger for hours amongst the
dust-stained, meagre fellahs, watching the excavations in this unique
soil--where everything that is revealed is by way of being a surprise
and a lucky find, where the least carved stone had a past of glory,
formed part of the first architectural splendours, was _a stone of
Thebes_. Scarcely a moment passes but, at the bottom of the trenches, as
the digging proceeds, some new thing gleams. Perhaps it is the polished
flank of a colossus, fashioned out of granite from Syene, or a little
copper Osiris, the debris of a vase, a golden trinket beyond price,
or even a simple blue pearl that has fallen from the necklace of some
waiting-maid of a queen.

This activity of the excavators, which alone reanimates certain quarters
during the day, ends at sunset. Every evening the lean fellahs receive
the daily wage of their labour, and take themselves off to sleep in the
silent neighbourhood in their huts of mud; and the iron gates are shut
behind them. At night, except for the guards at the entrance, no one
inhabits the ruins.


Crumbling and dust. . . . Far around, on every side of these palaces and
temples of the central artery--which are the best preserved and remain
proudly upright--stretch great mournful spaces, on which the sun from
morning till evening pours an implacable light. There, amongst the
lank desert plants, lie blocks scattered at hazard--the remains of
sanctuaries, of which neither the plan nor the form will ever be
discovered. But on these stones, fragments of the history of the world
are still to be read in clear-cut hieroglyphs.

To the west of the hypostyle hall there is a region strewn with discs,
all equal and all alike. It might be a draught-board for Titans with
draughts that would measure ten yards in circumference. They are the
scattered fragments, slices, as it were, of a colonnade of the Ramses.
Farther on the ground seems to have passed through fire. You walk over
blackish scoriae encrusted with brazen bolts and particles of melted
glass. It is the quarter burnt by the soldiers of Cambyses. They were
great destroyers of the queen city, were these same Persian soldiers. To
break up the obelisks and the colossal statues they conceived the plan
of scorching them by lighting bonfires around them, and then, when
they saw them burning hot, they deluged them with cold water. And the
granites cracked from top to base.

It is well known, of course, that Thebes used to extend for a
considerable distance both on this, the right, bank of the Nile, where
the Pharaohs resided, and opposite, on the Libyan bank, given over to
the preparers of mummies and to the mortuary temples. But to-day, except
for the great palaces of the centre, it is little more than a litter
of ruins, and the long avenues, lined with endless rows of sphinxes or
rams, are lost, goodness knows where, buried beneath the sand.

At wide intervals, however, in the midst of these cemeteries of things,
a temple here and there remains upright, preserving still its sanctified
gloom beneath its cavernous carapace. One, where certain celebrated
oracles used to be delivered, is even more prisonlike and sepulchral
than the others in its eternal shadow. High up in a wall the black hole
of a kind of grotto opens, to which a secret corridor coming from the
depths used to lead. It was there that the face of the priest charged
with the announcement of the sibylline words appeared--and the ceiling
of his niche is all covered still with the smoke from the flame of his
lamp, which was extinguished more than two thousand years ago!


What a number of ruins, scarcely emerging from the sand of the desert,
are hereabout! And in the old dried-up soil, how many strange treasures
remain hidden! When the sun lights thus the forlorn distances, when
you perceive stretching away to the horizon these fields of death, you
realise better what kind of a place this Thebes once was. Rebuilt as
it were in the imagination it appears excessive, superabundant and
multiple, like those flowers of the antediluvian world which the fossils
reveal to us. Compared with it how our modern towns are dwarfed, and our
hasty little palaces, our stuccoes and old iron!

And it is so mystical, this town of Thebes, with its dark sanctuaries,
once inhabited by gods and symbols. All the sublime, fresh-minded
striving of the human soul after the Unknowable is as it were petrified
in these ruins, in forms diverse and immeasurably grand. And subsisting
thus down to our day it puts us to shame. Compared with this people, who
thought only of eternity, we are a lot of pitiful dotards, who soon will
be past caring about the wherefore of life, or thought, or death. Such
beginnings presaged, surely, something greater than our humanity of the
present day, given over to despair, to alcohol and to explosives!


Crumbling and dust! This same sun of Thebes is in its place each day,
parching, exhausting, cracking and pulverising.

On the ground where once stood so much magnificence there are fields
of corn, spread out like green carpets, which tell of the return of the
humble life of tillage. Above all, there is the sand, encroaching now
upon the very threshold of the Pharaohs; there is the yellow desert;
there is the world of reflections and of silence, which approaches like
a slow submerging tide. In the distance, where the mirage trembles from
morning till evening, the burying is already almost achieved. The few
poor stones which still appear, barely emerging from the advancing
dunes, are the remains of what men, in their superb revolts against
death, had contrived to make the most massively indestructible.

And this sun, this eternal sun, which parades over Thebes the irony of
its duration--for us so impossible to calculate or to conceive! Nowhere
so much as here does one suffer from the dismay of knowing that all
our miserable little human effervescence is only a sort of fermentation
round an atom emanated from that sinister ball of fire, and that that
fire itself, the wonderful sun, is no more than an ephemeral meteor,
a furtive spark, thrown off during one of the innumerable cosmic
transformations, in the course of times without end and without



King Amenophis II. has resumed his receptions, which he found himself
obliged to suspend for three thousand, three hundred and some odd years,
by reason of his decease. They are very well attended; court dress
is not insisted upon, and the Grand Master of ceremonies is not above
taking a tip. He holds them every morning in the winter from eight
o’clock, in the bowels of a mountain in the desert of Libya; and if he
rests himself during the remainder of the day it is only because, as
soon as midday sounds, they turn off the electric light.

Happy Amenophis! Out of so many kings who tried so hard to hide for ever
their mummies in the depths of impenetrable caverns he is the only one
who has been left in his tomb. And he “makes the most of it” every time
he opens his funeral salons.


It is important to arrive before midday at the dwelling of this Pharaoh,
and at eight o’clock sharp, therefore, on a clear February morning,
I set out from Luxor, where for many days my dahabiya had slumbered
against the bank of the Nile. It is necessary first of all to cross the
river, for the Theban kings of the Middle Empire all established their
eternal habitations on the opposite bank--far beyond the plains of the
river shore, right away in those mountains which bound the horizon
as with a wall of adorable rose-colour. Other canoes, which are
also crossing, glide by the side of mine on the tranquil water. The
passengers seem to belong to that variety of Anglo-Saxons which is
equipped by Thomas Cook & Sons (Egypt Ltd.), and like me, no doubt, they
are bound for the royal presence.

We land on the sand of the opposite bank, which to-day is almost
deserted. Formerly there stretched here a regular suburb of
Thebes--that, namely, of the preparers of mummies, with thousands of
ovens wherein to heat the natron and the oils, which preserved the
bodies from corruption. In this Thebes, where for some fifty centuries,
everything that died, whether man or beast, was minutely prepared and
swathed in bandages, it will readily be understood what importance this
quarter of the embalmers came to assume. And it was to the neighbouring
mountains that the products of so many careful wrappings were borne for
burial, while the Nile carried away the blood from the bodies and the
filth of their entrails. That chain of living rocks that rises before
us, coloured each morning with the same rose, as of a tender flower, is
literally stuffed with dead bodies.

We have to cross a wide plain before reaching the mountains, and on
our way cornfields alternate with stretches of sand already desertlike.
Behind us extends the old Nile and the opposite bank which we have
lately quitted--the bank of Luxor, whose gigantic Pharaonic colonnades
are as it were lengthened below by their own reflection in the mirror of
the river. And in this radiant morning, in this pure light, it would be
admirable, this eternal temple, with its image reversed in the depth of
the blue water, were it not that at its sides, and to twice its height,
rises the impudent Winter Palace, that monster hotel built last year
for the fastidious tourists. And yet, who knows? The jackanapes who
deposited this abomination on the sacred soil of Egypt perhaps imagines
that he equals the merit of the artist who is now restoring the
sanctuaries of Thebes, or even the glory of the Pharaohs who built them.

As we draw nearer to the chain of Libya, where this king awaits us, we
traverse fields still green with growing corn--and sparrows and larks
sing around us in the impetuous spring of this land of Thebes.

And now beyond two menhirs, as it were, become gradually distinct. Of
the same height and shape, alike indeed in every respect, they rise side
by side in the clear distance in the midst of these green plains, which
recall so well our fields of France. They wear the headgear of the
Sphinx, and are gigantic human forms seated on thrones--the colossal
statues of Memnon. We recognise them at once, for the picture-makers
of succeeding ages have popularised their aspect, as in the case of the
pyramids. What is strange is that they should stand there so simply in
the midst of these fields of growing corn, which reach to their very
feet, and be surrounded by these humble birds we know so well, who sing
without ceremony on their shoulders.

They do not seem to be scandalised even at seeing now, passing quite
close to them, the trucks of a playful little railway belonging to a
local industry, that are laden with sugar-canes and gourds.

The chain of Libya, during the last hour, has been growing gradually
larger against the profound and excessively blue sky. And now that it
rises up quite near to us, overheated, and as it were incandescent,
under this ten o’clock sun, we begin to see on all sides, in front
of the first rocky spurs of the mountains, the debris of palaces,
colonnades, staircases and pylons. Headless giants, swathed like dead
Pharaohs, stand upright, with hands crossed beneath their shroud of
sandstone. They are the temples and statues for the manes of numberless
kings and queens, who during three or four thousand years had their
mummies buried hard by in the heart of the mountains, in the deepest of
the walled and secret galleries.

And now the cornfields have ceased; there is no longer any
herbage--nothing. We have crossed the desolate threshold, we are in the
desert, and tread suddenly upon a disquieting funereal soil, half sand,
half ashes, that is pitted on all sides with gaping holes. It looks like
some region that had long been undermined by burrowing beasts. But it is
men who, for more than fifty centuries, have vexed this ground, first
to hide the mummies in it, and afterwards, and until our day, to exhume
them. Each of these holes has enclosed its corpse, and if you peer
within you may see yellow-coloured rags still trailing there; and
bandages, or legs and vertebrae of thousands of years ago. Some lean
Bedouins, who exercise the office of excavators, and sleep hard by in
holes like jackals, advance to sell us scarabaei, blue-glass trinkets
that are half fossilised, and feet or hands of the dead.

And now farewell to the fresh morning. Every minute the heat becomes
more oppressive. The pathway that is marked only by a row of stones
turns at last and leads into the depths of the mountain by a tragical
passage. We enter now into that “Valley of the Kings” which was the
place of the last rendezvous of the most august mummies. The breaths of
air that reach us between these rocks are become suddenly burning, and
the site seems to belong no longer to earth but to some calcined planet
which had for ever lost its clouds and atmosphere. This Libyan chain,
in the distance so delicately rose, is positively frightful now that
it overhangs us. It looks what it is--an enormous and fantastic tomb, a
natural necropolis, whose vastness and horror nothing human could
equal, an ideal stove for corpses that wanted to endure for ever.
The limestone, on which for that matter no rain ever falls from the
changeless sky, looks to be in one single piece from summit to base, and
betrays no crack or crevice by which anything might penetrate into the
sepulchres within. The dead could sleep, therefore, in the heart of
these monstrous blocks as sheltered as under vaults of lead. And of what
there is of magnificence the centuries have taken care. The continual
passage of winds laden with dust has scaled and worn away the face of
the rocks, so as to leave only the denser veins of stone, and thus
have reappeared strange architectural fantasies such as Matter, in the
beginning, might have dimly conceived. Subsequently the sun of Egypt has
lavished on the whole its ardent reddish patines. And now the mountains
imitate in places great organ-pipes, badigeoned with yellow and carmine,
and elsewhere huge bloodstained skeletons and masses of dead flesh.

Outlined upon the excessive blue of the sky, the summits, illumined
to the point of dazzling, rise up in the light--like red cinders of a
glowing fire, splendours of living coal, against the pure indigo that
turns almost to darkness. We seem to be walking in some valley of the
Apocalypse with flaming walls. Silence and death, beneath a transcendent
clearness, in the constant radiance of a kind of mournful apotheosis--it
was such surroundings as these that the Egyptians chose for their

The pathway plunges deeper and deeper in the stifling defiles, and
at the end of this “Valley of the Kings,” under the sun now nearly
meridian, which grows each minute more mournful and terrible, we
expected to come upon a dread silence. But what is this?

At a turning, beyond there, at the bottom of a sinister-looking recess,
what does this crowd of people, what does this uproar mean? Is it a
meeting, a fair? Under awnings to protect them from the sun stand some
fifty donkeys, saddled in the English fashion. In a corner an electrical
workshop, built of new bricks, shoots forth the black smoke, and all
about, between the high blood-coloured walls, coming and going, making a
great stir and gabbling to their hearts’ content, are a number of Cook’s
tourists of both sexes, and some even who verily seem to have no sex
at all. They are come for the royal audience; some on asses, some in
jaunting cars, and some, the stout ladies who are grown short of wind,
in chairs carried by the Bedouins. From the four points of Europe they
have assembled in this desert ravine to see an old dried-up corpse at
the bottom of a hole.

Here and there the hidden palaces reveal their dark, square-shaped
entrances, hewn in the massive rock, and over each a board indicates the
name of a kingly mummy--Ramses IV., Seti I., Thothmes III., Ramses IX.,
etc. Although all these kings, except Amenophis II., have recently been
removed and carried away to Lower Egypt, to people the glass cases of
the museum of Cairo, their last dwellings have not ceased to attract
crowds. From each underground habitation are emerging now a number of
perspiring Cooks and Cookesses. And from that of Amenophis, especially,
they issue rapidly. Suppose that we have come too late and that the
audience is over!

And to think that these entrances had been walled up, had been masked
with so much care, and lost for centuries! And of all the perseverance
that was needed to discover them, the observation, the gropings, the
soundings and random discoveries!

But now they are being closed. We loitered too long around the colossi
of Memnon and the palaces of the plain. It is nearly noon, a noon
consuming and mournful, which falls perpendicularly upon the red
summits, and is burning to its deepest recesses the valley of stone.

At the door of Amenophis we have to cajole, beseech. By the help of a
gratuity the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies allows himself to be
persuaded. We are to descend with him, but quickly, quickly, for the
electric light will soon be extinguished. It will be a short audience,
but at least it will be a private one. We shall be alone with the king.

In the darkness, where at first, after so much sunlight, the little
electric lamps seem to us scarcely more than glow-worms, we expected a
certain amount of chilliness as in the undergrounds of our climate. But
here there is only a more oppressive heat, stifling and withering, and
we long to return to the open air, which was burning indeed, but was at
least the air of life.

Hastily we descend: by steep staircases, by passages which slope so
rapidly that they hurry us along of themselves, like slides; and it
seems that we shall never ascend again, any more than the great mummy
who passed here so long ago on his way to his eternal chamber. All this
brings us, first of all, to a deep well--dug there to swallow up the
desecrators in their passage--and it is on one of the sides of this
oubliette, behind a casual stone carefully sealed, that the continuation
of these funeral galleries was discovered. Then, when we have passed
the well, by a narrow bridge that has been thrown across it, the stairs
begin again, and the steep passages that almost make you run; but
now, by a sharp bend, they have changed their direction. And still we
descend, descend. Heavens! how deep down this king dwells! And at each
step of our descent we feel more and more imprisoned under the sovereign
mass of stone, in the centre of all this compact and silent thickness.


The little electric globes, placed apart like a garland, suffice now for
our eyes which have forgotten the sun. And we can distinguish around us
myriad figures inviting us to solemnity and silence. They are inscribed
everywhere on the smooth, spotless walls of the colour of old ivory.
They follow one another in regular order, repeating themselves
obstinately in parallel rows, as if the better to impose upon our
spirit, with gestures and symbols that are eternally the same. The gods
and demons, the representatives of Anubis, with his black jackal’s head
and his long erect ears, seem to make signs to us with their long
arms and long fingers: “No noise! Look, there are mummies here!” The
wonderful preservation of all this, the vivid colours, the clearness of
the outlines, begin to cause a kind of stupor and bewilderment. Verily
you would think that the painter of these figures of the shades had only
just quitted the hypogeum. All this past seems to draw you to itself
like an abyss to which you have approached too closely. It surrounds
you, and little by little masters you. It is so much at home here that
it has _remained the present_. Over and above the mere descent into the
secret bowels of the rock there has been a kind of seizure with vertigo,
which we had not anticipated and which has whirled us far away into the
depths of the ages.

These interminable, oppressive passages, by which we have crawled to the
innermost depths of the mountain, lead at length to something vast, the
walls divide, the vault expands and we are in the great funeral hall,
of which the blue ceiling, all bestrewn with stars like the sky, is
supported by six pillars hewn in the rock itself. On either side open
other chambers into which the electricity permits us to see quite
clearly, and opposite, at the end of the hall, a large crypt is
revealed, which one divines instinctively must be the resting-place of
the Pharaoh. What a prodigious labour must have been entailed by this
perforation of the living rock! And this hypogeum is not unique. All
along the “Valley of the Kings” little insignificant doors--which to
the initiated reveal the “Sign of the Shadow,” inscribed on their
lintels--lead to other subterranean places, just as sumptuous and
perfidiously profound, with their snares, their hidden wells, their
oubliettes and the bewildering multiplicity of their mural figures. And
all these tombs this morning were full of people, and, if we had not
had the good fortune to arrive after the usual hour, we should have
met here, even in this dwelling of Amenophis, a battalion equipped by
Messrs. Cook.

In this hall, with its blue ceiling, the frescoes multiply their
riddles: scenes from the book of Hades, all the funeral ritual
translated into pictures. On the pillars and walls crowd the different
demons that an Egyptian soul was likely to meet in its passage through
the country of shadows, and underneath the passwords which were to be
given to each of them are recapitulated so as not to be forgotten.

For the soul used to depart simultaneously under the two forms of a
flame[*] and a falcon[+] respectively. And this country of shadows,
called also the west, to which it had to render itself, was that where
the moon sinks and where each evening the sun goes down; a country to
which the living were never able to attain, because it fled before them,
however fast they might travel across the sands or over the waters. On
its arrival there, the scared soul had to parley successively with the
fearsome demons who lay in wait for it along its route. If at last
it was judged worthy to approach Osiris, the great Dead Sun, it was
subsumed in him and reappeared, shining over the world the next morning
and on all succeeding mornings until the consummation of time--a vague
survival in the solar splendour, a continuation without personality, of
which one is scarcely able to say whether or not it was more desirable
than eternal non-existence.

[*] The Khou, which never returned to our world.

[+] The Bai, which might, at its will, revisit the tomb.

And, moreover, it was necessary to preserve the body at whatever cost,
for a certain _double_ of the dead man continued to dwell in the dry
flesh, and retained a kind of half life, barely conscious. Lying at the
bottom of the sarcophagus it was able to see, by virtue of those two
eyes, which were painted on the lid, always in the same axis as the
empty eyes of the mummy. Sometimes, too, this _double_, escaping from
the mummy and its box, used to wander like a phantom about the hypogeum.
And, in order that at such times it might be able to obtain nourishment,
a mass of mummified viands wrapped in bandages were amongst the thousand
and one things buried at its side. Even natron and oils were left,
so that it might re-embalm itself, if the worms came to life in its

Oh! the persistence of this _double_, sealed there in the tomb, a prey
to anxiety, lest corruption should take hold of it; which had to serve
its long duration in suffocating darkness, in absolute silence, without
anything to mark the days and nights, or the seasons or the centuries,
or the tens of centuries without end! It was with such a terrible
conception of death as this that each one in those days was absorbed in
the preparation of his eternal chamber.

And for Amenophis II. this more or less is what happened to his
_double_. Unaccustomed to any kind of noise, after three or four hundred
years passed in the company of certain familiars, lulled in the same
heavy slumber as himself, he heard the sound of muffled blows in the
distance, by the side of the hidden well. The secret entrance was
discovered: men were breaking through its walls! Living beings were
about to appear, pillagers of tombs, no doubt, come to unswathe them
all! But no! Only some priests of Osiris, advancing with fear in a
funeral procession. They brought nine great coffins containing the
mummies of nine kings, his sons, grandsons and other unknown successors,
down to that King Setnakht, who governed Egypt two and a half centuries
after him. It was simply to hide them better that they brought them
hither, and placed them all together in a chamber that was immediately
walled up. Then they departed. The stones of the door were sealed
afresh, and everything fell again into the old mournful and burning

Slowly the centuries rolled on--perhaps ten, perhaps twenty--in a
silence no longer even disturbed by the scratchings of the worms, long
since dead. And a day came when, at the side of the entrance, the same
blows were heard again. . . . And this time it was the robbers. Carrying
torches in their hands, they rushed headlong in, with shouts and cries
and, except in the safe hiding-place of the nine coffins, everything was
plundered, the bandages torn off, the golden trinkets snatched from
the necks of the mummies. Then, when they had sorted their booty,
they walled up the entrance as before, and went their way, leaving an
inextricable confusion of shrouds, of human bodies, of entrails issuing
from shattered vases, of broken gods and emblems.

Afterwards, for long centuries, there was silence again, and finally,
in our days, the _double_, then in its last weakness and almost
non-existent, perceived the same noise of stones being unsealed by blows
of pickaxes. The third time, the living men who entered were of a race
never seen before. At first they seemed respectful and pious, only
touching things gently. But they came to plunder everything, even the
nine coffins in their still inviolate hiding-place. They gathered the
smallest fragments with a solicitude almost religious. That they might
lose nothing they even sifted the rubbish and the dust. But, as for
Amenophis, who was already nothing more than a lamentable mummy, without
jewels or bandages, they left him at the bottom of his sarcophagus of
sandstone. And since that day, doomed to receive each morning numerous
people of a strange aspect, he dwells alone in his hypogeum, where there
is now neither a being nor a thing belonging to his time.

But yes, there is! We had not looked all round. There in one of the
lateral chambers some bodies are lying, dead bodies--three corpses
(unswathed at the time of the pillage), side by side on their rags.
First, a woman, the queen probably, with loosened hair. Her profile has
preserved its exquisite lines. How beautiful she still is! And then a
young boy with the little greyish face of a doll. His head is shaved,
except for that long curl at the right side, which denotes a prince of
the royal blood. And the third a man. Ugh! How terrible he is--looking
as if he found death a thing irresistibly comical. He even writhes with
laughter, and eats a corner of his shroud as if to prevent himself from
bursting into a too unseemly mirth.

And then, suddenly, black night! And we stand as if congealed in our
place. The electric light has gone out--everywhere at once. Above, on
the earth, midday must have sounded--for those who still have cognisance
of the sun and the hours.

The guard who has brought us hither shouts in his Bedouin falsetto, in
order to get the light switched on again, but the infinite thickness of
the walls, instead of prolonging the vibrations, seems to deaden them;
and besides, who could hear us, in the depths where we now are? Then,
groping in the absolute darkness, he makes his way up the sloping
passage. The hurried patter of his sandals and the flapping of his
burnous grow faint in the distance, and the cries that he continues to
utter sound so smothered to us soon that we might ourselves be buried.
And meanwhile we do not move. But how comes it that it is so hot amongst
these mummies? It seems as if there were fires burning in some oven
close by. And above all there is a want of air. Perhaps the corridors,
after our passage, have contracted, as happens sometimes in the anguish
of dreams. Perhaps the long fissure by which we have crawled hither,
perhaps it has closed in upon us.

But at length the cries of alarm are heard and the light is turned on
again. The three corpses have not profited by the unguarded moments to
attempt any aggressive movement. Their positions, their expressions have
not changed: the queen calm and beautiful as ever; the man eating
still the corner of his rags to stifle the mad laughter of thirty-three

The Bedouin is now returned, breathless from his journey. He urges us
to come to see the king before the electric light is again extinguished,
and this time for good and all. Behold us now at the end of the hall, on
the edge of a dark crypt, leaning over and peering within. It is a place
oval in form, with a vault of a funereal black, relieved by frescoes,
either white or of the colour of ashes. They represent, these frescoes,
a whole new register of gods and demons, some slim and sheathed narrowly
like mummies, others with big heads and big bellies like hippopotami.
Placed on the ground and watched from above by all these figures is an
enormous sarcophagus of stone, wide open; and in it we can distinguish
vaguely the outline of a human body: the Pharaoh!

At least we should have liked to see him better. The necessary light is
forthcoming at once: the Bedouin Grand Master of Ceremonies touches an
electric button and a powerful lamp illumines the face of Amenophis,
detailing with a clearness that almost frightens you the closed
eyes, the grimacing countenance, and the whole of the sad mummy. This
theatrical effect took us by surprise; we were not prepared for it.

He was buried in magnificence, but the pillagers have stripped him of
everything, even of his beautiful breastplate of tortoiseshell, which
came to him from a far-off Oriental country, and for many centuries
now he has slept half naked on his rags. But his poor bouquet is there
still--of mimosa, recognisable even now, and who will ever tell what
pious or perhaps amorous hand it was that gathered these flowers for him
more than three thousand years ago.

The heat is suffocating. The whole crushing mass of this mountain, of
this block of limestone, into which we have crawled through relatively
imperceptible holes, like white ants or larvae, seems to weigh upon our
chest. And these figures too, inscribed on every side, and this mystery
of the hieroglyphs and the symbols, cause a growing uneasiness. You are
too near them, they seem too much the masters of the exits, these gods
with their heads of falcon, ibis and jackal, who, on the walls, converse
in a continual exalted pantomime. And then the feeling comes over
you, that you are guilty of sacrilege standing there, before this open
coffin, in this unwonted insolent light. The dolorous, blackish face,
half eaten away, seems to ask for mercy: “Yes, yes, my sepulchre has
been violated and I am returning to dust. But now that you have seen me,
leave me, turn out that light, have pity on my nothingness.”

In sooth, what a mockery! To have taken so many pains, to have adopted
so many stratagems to hide his corpse; to have exhausted thousands of
men in the hewing of this underground labyrinth, and to end thus, with
his head in the glare of an electric lamp, to amuse whoever passes.

And out of pity--I think it was the poor bouquet of mimosa that awakened
it--I say to the Bedouin: “Yes, put out the light, put it out--that is

And then the darkness returns above the royal countenance, which is
suddenly effaced in the sarcophagus. The phantom of the Pharaoh is
vanished, as if replunged into the unfathomable past. The audience is

And we, who are able to escape from the horror of the hypogeum, reascend
rapidly towards the sunshine of the living, we go to breathe the air
again, the air to which we have still a right--for some few days longer.



This evening, in the vast chaos of ruins--at the hour in which the
light of the sun begins to turn to rose--I make my way along one of the
magnificent roads of the town-mummy, that, in fact, which goes off at a
right angle to the line of the temples of Amen, and, losing itself more
or less in the sands, leads at length to a sacred lake on the border of
which certain cat-headed goddesses are seated in state watching the
dead water and the expanse of the desert. This particular road was
begun three thousand four hundred years ago by a beautiful queen called
Makeri,[*] and in the following centuries a number of kings
continued its construction. It was ornamented with pylons of a superb
massiveness--pylons are monumental walls, in the form of a trapezium
with a wide base, covered entirely with hieroglyphs, which the Egyptians
used to place at either side of their porticoes and long avenues--as
well as by colossal statues and interminable rows of rams, larger than
buffaloes, crouched on pedestals.

[*] To-day the mummy with the baby in the museum at Cairo.

At the first pylons I have to make a detour. They are so ruinous that
their blocks, fallen down on all sides, have closed the passage. Here
used to watch, on right and left, two upright giants of red granite from
Syene. Long ago in times no longer precisely known, they were broken
off, both of them, at the height of the loins. But their muscular legs
have kept their proud, marching attitude, and each in one of the armless
hands, which reach to the end of the cloth that girds their loins,
clenches passionately the emblem of eternal life. And this Syenite
granite is so hard that time has not altered it in the least; in the
midst of the confusion of stones the thighs of these mutilated giants
gleam as if they had been polished yesterday.

Farther on we come upon the second pylons, foundered also, before which
stands a row of Pharaohs.

On every side the overthrown blocks display their utter confusion of
gigantic things in the midst of the sand which continues patiently
to bury them. And here now are the third pylons, flanked by their two
marching giants, who have neither head nor shoulders. And the road,
marked majestically still by the debris, continues to lead towards the

And then the fourth and last pylons, which seem at first sight to mark
the extremity of the ruins, the beginning of the desert nothingness.
Time-worn and uncrowned, but stiff and upright still, they seem to be
set there so solidly that nothing could ever overthrow them. The two
colossal statues which guard them on the right and left are seated on
thrones. One, that on the eastern side, has almost disappeared. But the
other stands out entire and white, with the whiteness of marble, against
the brown-coloured background of the enormous stretch of wall covered
with hieroglyphs. His face alone has been mutilated; and he preserves
still his imperious chin, his ears, his Sphinx’s headgear, one might
almost say his meditative expression, before this deployment of the vast
solitude which seems to begin at his very feet.

Here however was only the boundary of the quarters of the God Amen. The
boundary of Thebes was much farther on, and the avenue which will lead
me directly to the home of the cat-headed goddesses extends farther
still to the old gates of the town; albeit you can scarcely distinguish
it between the double row of Krio-sphinxes all broken and well-nigh

The day falls, and the dust of Egypt, in accordance with its invariable
practice every evening, begins to resemble in the distance a powder of
gold. I look behind me from time to time at the giant who watches me,
seated at the foot of his pylon on which the history of a Pharaoh is
carved in one immense picture. Above him and above his wall, which grows
each minute more rose-coloured, I see, gradually mounting in proportion
as I move away from it, the great mass of the palaces of the centre,
the hypostyle hall, the halls of Thothmes and the obelisks, all the
entangled cluster of those things at once so grand and so dead, which
have never been equalled on earth.

And as I continue to gaze upon the ruins, resplendent now in the rosy
apotheosis of the evening, they come to look like the crumbling remains
of a gigantic skeleton. They seem to be begging for a merciful surcease,
as if they were tired of this endless gala colouring at each setting of
the sun, which mocks them with its eternity.

All this is now a long way behind me; but the air is so limpid, the
outlines remain so clear that the illusion is rather that the temples
and the pylons grow smaller, lower themselves and sink into the earth.
The white giant who follows me always with his sightless stare is now
reduced to the proportions of a simple human dreamer. His attitude
moreover has not the rigid hieratic aspect of the other Theban statues.
With his hands upon his knees he looks like a mere ordinary mortal who
had stopped to reflect.[*] I have known him for many days--for many days
and many nights, for, what with his whiteness and the transparency of
these Egyptian nights, I have seen him often outlined in the distance
under the dim light of the stars--a great phantom in his contemplative
pose. And I feel myself obsessed now by the continuance of his attitude
at this entrance of the ruins--I who shall pass without a morrow from
Thebes and even from the earth--even as we all pass. Before conscious
life was vouchsafed to me he was there, had been there since times
which make you shudder to think upon. For three and thirty centuries, or
thereabouts, the eyes of myriads of unknown men and women, who have gone
before me, saw him just as I see him now, tranquil and white, in this
same place, seated before this same threshold, with his head a little
bent, and his pervading air of thought.

[*] Statue of Amenophis III.

I make my way without hastening, having always a tendency to stop
and look behind me, to watch the silent heap of palaces and the white
dreamer, which now are all illumined with a last Bengal fire in the
daily setting of the sun.

And the hour is already twilight when I reach the goddesses.

Their domain is so destroyed that the sands had succeeded in covering
and hiding it for centuries. But it has lately been exhumed.

There remain of it now only some fragments of columns, aligned in
multiple rows in a vast extent of desert. Broken and fallen stones and
debris.[*] I walk on without stopping, and at length reach the sacred
lake on the margin of which the great cats are seated in eternal
council, each one on her throne. The lake, dug by order of the Pharaohs,
is in the form of an arc, like a kind of crescent. Some marsh birds,
that are about to retire for the night, now traverse its mournful,
sleeping water. Its borders, which have known the utmost of
magnificence, are become mere heaps of ruins on which nothing grows. And
what one sees beyond, what the attentive goddesses themselves regard, is
the empty desolate plain, on which some few poor fields of corn mingle
in this twilight hour with the sad infinitude of the sands. And
the whole is bounded on the horizon by the chain, still a little
rose-coloured, of the limestones of Arabia.

[*] The temple of the Goddess Mut.

They are there, the cats, or, to speak more exactly, the lionesses, for
cats would not have those short ears, or those cruel chins, thickened
by tufts of beard. All of black granite, images of Sekhet (who was the
Goddess of War, and in her hours the Goddess of Lust), they have the
slender body of a woman, which makes more terrible the great feline head
surmounted by its high bonnet. Eight or ten, or perhaps more, they are
more disquieting in that they are so numerous and so alike. They are
not gigantic, as one might have expected, but of ordinary human
stature--easy therefore to carry away, or to destroy, and that again, if
one reflects, augments the singular impression they cause. When so many
colossal figures lie in pieces on the ground, how comes it that they,
little people seated so tranquilly on their chairs, have contrived to
remain intact, during the passing of the three and thirty centuries of
the world’s history?

The passage of the march birds, which for a moment disturbed the clear
mirror of the lake, has ceased. Around the goddesses nothing moves and
the customary infinite silence envelops them as at the fall of every
night. They dwell indeed in such a forlorn corner of the ruins! Who, to
be sure, even in broad daylight, would think of visiting them?

Down there in the west a trailing cloud of dust indicates the departure
of the tourists, who had flocked to the temple of Amen, and now hasten
back to Luxor, to dine at the various _tables d’hote_. The ground here
is so felted with sand that in the distance we cannot hear the rolling
of their carriages. But the knowledge that they are gone renders more
intimate the interview with these numerous and identical goddesses,
who little by little have been draped in shadow. Their seats turn their
backs to the palaces of Thebes, which now begin to be bathed in
violet waves and seem to sink towards the horizon, to lose each minute
something of their importance before the sovereignty of the night.

And the black goddesses, with their lioness’ heads and tall
headgear--seated there with their hands upon their knees, with eyes
fixed since the beginning of the ages, and a disturbing smile on their
thick lips, like those of a wild beast--continue to regard--beyond the
little dead lake--that desert, which now is only a confused immensity,
of a bluish ashy-grey. And the fancy seizes you that they are possessed
of a kind of life, which has come to them after long waiting, by virtue
of that _expression_ which they have worn on their faces so long, oh! so


Beyond, at the other extremity of the ruins, there is a sister of these
goddesses, taller than they, a great Sekhet, whom in these parts men
call the Ogress, and who dwells alone and upright, ambushed in a narrow
temple. Amongst the fellahs and the Bedouins of the neighbourhood she
enjoys a very bad reputation, it being her custom of nights to issue
from her temple, and devour men; and none of them would willingly
venture near her dwelling at this late hour. But instead of returning to
Luxor, like the good people whose carriages have just departed, I rather
choose to pay her a visit.

Her dwelling is some distance away, and I shall not reach it till the
dead of night.

First of all I have to retrace my steps, to return along the whole
avenue of rams, to pass again by the feet of the white giant, who has
already assumed his phantomlike appearance, while the violet waves that
bathed the town-mummy thicken and turn to a greyish-blue. And then,
leaving behind me the pylons guarded by the broken giants, I thread my
way among the palaces of the centre.

It is among these palaces that I encounter for good and all the night,
with the first cries of the owls and ospreys. It is still warm there, on
account of the heat stored by the stones during the day, but one feels
nevertheless that the air is freezing.

At a crossing a tall human figure looms up, draped in black and armed
with a baton. It is a roving Bedouin, one of the guards, and this more
or less is the dialogue exchanged between us (freely and succinctly

“Your permit, sir.”

“Here it is.”

(Here we combine our efforts to illuminate the said permit by the light
of a match.)

“Good, I will go with you.”

“No. I beg of you.”

“Yes; I had better. Where are you going?”

“Beyond, to the temple of that lady--you know, who is great and powerful
and has a face like a lioness.”

“Ah! . . . Yes, I think I understand that you would prefer to go alone.”
 (Here the intonation becomes infantine.) “But you are a kind gentleman
and will not forget the poor Bedouin all the same.”

He goes on his way. On leaving the palaces I have still to traverse an
extent of uncultivated country, where a veritable cold seizes me. Above
my head no longer the heavy suspended stones, but the far-off expanse of
the blue night sky--where are shining now myriads upon myriads of stars.
For the Thebans of old this beautiful vault, scintillating always with
its powder of diamonds, shed no doubt only serenity upon their souls.
But for us, _who knows, alas!_ it is on the contrary the field of the
great fear, which, out of pity, it would have been better if we had
never been able to see; the incommensurable black void, where the worlds
in their frenzied whirling precipitate themselves like rain, crash into
and annihilate one another, only to be renewed for fresh eternities.

All this is seen too vividly, the horror of it becomes intolerable, on a
clear night like this, in a place so silent and littered so with ruins.
More and more the cold penetrates you--the mournful cold of the sidereal
spheres from which nothing now seems to protect you, so rarefied--almost
non-existent--does the limpid atmosphere appear. And the gravel, the
poor dried herbs, that crackle under foot, give the illusion of the
crunching noise we know at home on winter nights when the frost is on
the ground.

I approach at length the temple of the Ogress. These stones which now
appear, whitish in the night, this secret-looking dwelling near the
boundary wall of Thebes, proclaim the spot, and verily at such an hour
as this it has an evil aspect. Ptolemaic columns, little vestibules,
little courtyards where a dim blue light enables you to find your way.
Nothing moves; not even the flight of a night bird: an absolute
silence, magnified awfully by the presence of the desert which you feel
encompasses you beyond these walls. And beyond, at the bottom, three
chambers made of massive stone, each with its separate entrance. I know
that the first two are empty. It is in the third that the Ogress dwells,
unless, indeed, she has already set out upon her nocturnal hunt for
human flesh. Pitch darkness reigns within and I have to grope my way.
Quickly I light a match. Yes, there she is indeed, alone and upright,
almost part of the end wall, on which my little light makes the horrible
shadow of her head dance. The match goes out--irreverently I light many
more under her chin, under that heavy, man-eating jaw. In very sooth,
she is terrifying. Of black granite--like her sisters, seated on the
margin of the mournful lake--but much taller than they, from six to
eight feet in height, she has a woman’s body, exquisitely slim and
young, with the breasts of a virgin. Very chaste in attitude, she
holds in her hand a long-stemmed lotus flower, but by a contrast
that nonplusses and paralyses you the delicate shoulders support the
monstrosity of a huge lioness’ head. The lappets of her bonnet fall on
either side of her ears almost down to her breast, and surmounting the
bonnet, by way of addition to the mysterious pomp, is a large moon disc.
Her dead stare gives to the ferocity of her visage something unreasoning
and fatal; an irresponsible ogress, without pity as without pleasure,
devouring after the manner of Nature and of Time. And it was so
perhaps that she was understood by the initiated of ancient Egypt, who
symbolised everything for the people in the figures of gods.

In the dark retreat, enclosed with defaced stones, in the little temple
where she stands, alone, upright and grand, with her enormous head and
thrust-out chin and tall goddess’ headdress--one is necessarily quite
close to her. In touching her, at night, you are astonished to find that
she is less cold than the air; she becomes somebody, and the intolerable
dead stare seems to weigh you down.

During the _tete-a-tete_, one thinks involuntarily of the surroundings,
of these ruins in the desert, of the prevailing nothingness, of the cold
beneath the stars. And, now, that summation of doubt and despair
and terror, which such an assemblage of things inspires in you, is
confirmed, if one may say so, by the meeting with this divinity-symbol,
which awaits you at the end of the journey, to receive ironically all
human prayer; a rigid horror of granite, with an implacable smile and a
devouring jaw.



Eight years and a line of railway have sufficed to accomplish its
metamorphosis. Once in Upper Egypt, on the borders of Nubia, there was
a little humble town, rarely visited, and wanting, it must be owned, in
elegance and even in comfort.

Not that it was without picturesqueness and historical interest. Quite
the contrary. The Nile, charged with the waters of equatorial Africa,
flung itself close by from the height of a mass of black granite, in
a majestic cataract; and then, before the little Arab houses, became
suddenly calm again, and flowed between islets of fresh verdure where
clusters of palm-trees swayed their plumes in the wind.

And around were a number of temples, of hypogea, of Roman ruins, of
ruins of churches dating from the first centuries of Christianity. The
ground was full of souvenirs of the great primitive civilisations. For
the place, abandoned for ages and lulled in the folds of Islam under
the guardianship of its white mosque, was once one of the centres of the
life of the world.

And, moreover, in the adjoining desert, some three or four thousand
years ago, the ancient history of the world had been written by the
Pharaohs in immortal hieroglyphics--well-nigh everywhere, on the
polished sides of the strange blocks of blue and red granite that lie
scattered about the sands and look now like the forms of antediluvian


Yes, but it was necessary that all this should be co-ordinated, focused
as it were, and above all rendered accessible to the delicate travellers
of the Agencies. And to-day we have the pleasure of announcing that,
from December to March, Assouan (for that is the name of the fortunate
locality) has a “season” as fashionable as those of Ostend or Spa.

In approaching it, the huge hotels erected on all sides--even on the
islets of the old river--charm the eye of the traveller, greeting him
with their welcoming signs, which can be seen a league away. True, they
have been somewhat hastily constructed, of mud and plaster, but they
recall none the less those gracious palaces with which the Compagnie des
Wagon-Lits has dowered the world. And how negligible now, how dwarfed
by the height of their facades, is the poor little town of olden times,
with its little houses, whitened with chalk, and its baby minaret.

The cataract, on the other hand, has disappeared from Assouan. The
tutelary Albion wisely considered that it would be better to sacrifice
that futile spectacle and, in order to increase the yield of the soil,
to dam the waters of the Nile by an artificial barrage: a work of solid
masonry which (in the words of the Programme of Pleasure Trips) “affords
an interest of a very different nature and degree” (sic).

But nevertheless Cook & Son--a business concern glossed with poetry, as
all the world knows--have endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of the
cataract by giving its name to a hotel of 500 rooms, which as a result
of their labours has been established opposite to those rocks--now
reduced to silence--over which the old Nile used to seethe for so many
centuries. “Cataract Hotel!”--that gives the illusion still, does it
not?--and looks remarkably well at the head of a sheet of notepaper.

Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.) have even gone so far as to conceive the idea
that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain
_cachet_ of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces (in imitation, of
course--but then you must not expect the impossible) the interior of
one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour it is one of the
prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola,
all the little tables crowded with Cook’s tourists of both sexes, the
while a concealed orchestra strikes up the “Mattchiche.”

The dam, it is true, in suppressing the cataract has raised some
thirty feet or so the level of the water upstream, and by so doing has
submerged a certain Isle of Philae, which passed, absurdly enough, for
one of the marvels of the world by reason of its great temple of Isis,
surrounded by palm-trees. But between ourselves, one may say that the
beautiful goddess was a little old-fashioned for our times. She and her
mysteries had had their day. Besides, if there should be any chagrined
soul who might regret the disappearance of the island, care has been
taken to perpetuate the memory of it, in the same way as that of the
cataract. Charming coloured postcards, taken before the submerging of
the island and the sanctuary, are on sale in all the bookshops along the

Oh! this quay of Assouan, already so British in its orderliness, its
method! Nothing better cared for, nothing more altogether charming could
be conceived. First of all there is the railway, which, passing between
balustrades painted a grass-green, gives out its fascinating noise and
joyous smoke. On one side is a row of hotels and shops, all European in
character--hairdressers, perfumers, and numerous dark rooms for the use
of the many amateur photographers, who make a point of taking away
with them photographs of their travelling companions grouped tastefully
before some celebrated hypogeum.

And then numerous cafes, where the whisky is of excellent quality. And,
I ought to add, in justice to the result of the _Entente Cordiale_, you
may see there, too, aligned in considerable quantities on the shelves,
the products of those great French philanthropists, to whom indeed our
generation does not render sufficient homage for all the good they have
done to its stomach and its head. The reader will guess that I have
named Pernod, Picon and Cusenier.

It may be indeed that the honest fellahs and Nubians of the
neighbourhood, so sober a little while ago, are apt to abuse these
tonics a little. But that is the effect of novelty, and will pass. And
anyhow, amongst us Europeans, there is no need to conceal the fact--for
we do not all make use of it involuntarily?--that alcoholism is a
powerful auxiliary in the propagation of our ideas, and that the dealer
in wines and spirits constitutes a valuable vanguard pioneer for our
Western civilisation. Races, insensibly depressed by the abuse of our
“appetisers,” become more supple, more easy to lead in the true path of
progress and liberty.

On this quay of Assouan, so carefully levelled, defiles briskly a
continual stream of fair travellers ravishingly dressed as only those
know how who have made a tour with Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.). And along
the Nile, in the shade of the young trees, planted with the utmost
nicety and precision, the flower-beds and straight-cut turf are
protected efficaciously by means of wire-netting against certain acts of
forgetfulness to which dogs, alas, are only too much addicted.

Here, too, everything is ticketed, everything has its number: the
donkeys, the donkey-drivers, the stations even where they are allowed to
stand--“Stand for six donkeys, stand for ten, etc.” Some very handsome
camels, fitted with riding saddles, wait also in their respective places
and a number of Cook ladies, meticulous on the point of local colour,
even when it is merely a question of making some purchases in the town,
readily mount for some moments one or other of these “ships of the

And at every fifty yards a policeman, still Egyptian in his countenance,
but quite English in his bearing and costume, keeps a vigilant eye on
everything--would never suffer, for example, that an eleventh donkey
should dare to take a place in a stand for ten, which was already full.

Certain people, inclined to be critical, might consider, perhaps,
that these policemen were a little too ready to chide their
fellow-countrymen; whereas on the contrary they showed themselves very
respectful and obliging whenever they were addressed by a traveler in
a cork helmet. But that is in virtue of an equitable and logical
principle, derived by them from the high places of the new
administration--namely, that the Egypt of to-day belongs far less to the
Egyptians than to the noble foreigners who have come to brandish there
the torch of civilisation.

In the evening, after dark, the really respectable travellers do not
quit the brilliant dining saloons of the hotels, and the quay is left
quite solitary beneath the stars. It is at such a time that one is able
to realise how extremely hospitable certain of the natives are become.
If, in an hour of melancholy, you walk alone on the bank of the Nile,
smoking a cigarette, you will not fail to be accosted by one of these
good people, who misunderstanding the cause of the unrest in your soul,
offers eagerly, and with a touching frankness, to introduce you to the
gayest of the young ladies of the country.

In the other towns, which still remain purely Egyptian, the people would
never practise such an excess of affability and good manners, which have
been learnt, beyond all question from our beneficent contact.

Assouan possesses also its little Oriental bazaar--a little improvised,
a little new perhaps; but then one, at least, was needed, and that
as quickly as possible, in order that nothing might be wanting to the

The shopkeepers have contrived to provision themselves (in the leading
shops, under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli) with as much tact as good
taste, and the Cook ladies have the innocent illusion of making bargains
every day. One may even buy there, hung up by the tail, stuffed with
straw and looking extremely real, the last crocodiles of Egypt, which,
particularly at the end of the season, may be had at very advantageous

Even the old Nile has allowed itself to be fretted and brought up to
date in the progress of evolution.

First, the women, draped in black veils, who come daily to draw the
precious water, have forsaken the fragile amphorae of baked earth,
which had come to them from barbarous times--and which the Orientalists
grossly abused in their picture; and in their stead have taken to
old tin oil-cans, placed at their disposal by the kindness of the
big hotels. But they carry them in the same easy graceful manner as
erstwhile the discarded pottery, and without losing in the least the
gracious tanagrine outline.

And then there are the great tourist boats of the Agencies, which are
here in abundance, for Assouan has the privilege of being the terminus
of the line; and their whistlings, their revolving motors, their
electric dynamos maintain from morning till night a captivating
symphony. It might be urged perhaps against these structures that
they resemble a little the washhouses on the Seine; but the Agencies,
desirous of restoring to them a certain local colour, have given them
names so notoriously Egyptian that one is reduced to silence. They are
called Sesostris, Amenophis or Ramses the Great.

And finally there are the rowing boats, which carry passengers
incessantly backwards and forwards between the river-banks. So long
as the season remains at its height they are bedecked with a number of
little flags of red cotton-cloth, or even of simple paper. The rowers,
moreover, have been instructed to sing all the time the native songs
which are accompanied by a derboucca player seated in the prow. Nay,
they have even learnt to utter that rousing, stimulating cry which
Anglo-Saxons use to express their enthusiasm or their joy: “Hip! Hip!
Hurrah!” and you cannot conceive how well it sounds, coming between the
Arab songs, which otherwise might be apt to grow monotonous.


But the triumph of Assouan is its desert. It begins at once without
transition as soon as you pass the close-cropped turf of the last
square. A desert which, except for the railroad and the telegraph poles,
has all the charm of the real thing: the sand, the chaos of overthrown
stones, the empty horizons--everything, in short, save the immensity
and infinite solitude, the horror, in a word which formerly made it so
little desirable. It is a little astonishing, it must be owned, to find,
on arriving there, that the rocks have been carefully numbered in white
paint, and in some cases marked with a large cross “which catches the
eye from a greater distance still” (sic). But I agree that the effect of
the whole has lost nothing.

In the morning before the sun gets too hot, between breakfast and
luncheon to be precise, all the good ladies in cork helmets and blue
spectacles (dark-coloured spectacles are recommended on account of the
glare) spread themselves over these solitudes, domesticated as it were
to their use, with as much security as in Trafalgar Square or Kensington
Gardens. Not seldom even you may see one of them making her way alone,
book in hand, towards one of the picturesque rocks--No. 363, for
example, or No. 364, if you like it better--which seems to be
making signs to her with its white ticket, in a manner which, to the
uninitiated observer, might seem even a little improper.

But what a sense of safety families may feel here, to be sure! In spite
of the huge numbers, which at first sight look a little equivocal,
nothing in the least degree reprehensible can happen among these
granites; which are, moreover, in a single piece, without the least
crack or hole into which the straggler could contrive to crawl. No. The
figures and the crosses denote simple blocks of stones, covered with
hieroglyphics, and correspond to a chaste catalogue where each Pharaonic
inscription may be found translated in the most becoming language.

This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the
initiative of an English Egyptologist.



Leaving Assouan--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 colour. 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 travelling 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

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--that is the name of the Arab village, on the riverside, where
you take the boat for Philae. 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-coloured 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. To-day, 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--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.

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!

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

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

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.

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.


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

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. . . .

And 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.

_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. . . .

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ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.