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THEBES AND KARNAK.
COMING on deck the third morning after leaving Denderah, we found the dahabeeyah decorated with palm-branches, our sailors in their holiday turbans, and Reïs Hassan en grande tenue; that is to say in shoes and stockings, which he only wore on very great occasions.
“Nehârak-sa’ïd – good morning – Luxor!” said he, all in one breath.
It was a hot, hazy morning, with dim ghosts of mountains glowing through the mist, and a warm wind blowing.
We ran to the side; looked out eagerly; but could see nothing. Still the captain smiled and nodded; and the sailors ran hither and thither, sweeping and garnishing; and Egendi, to whom his worst enemy could not have imputed the charge of bashfulness, said “Luxor – kharûf 1 – all right!” every time he came near us.
We had read and dreamed so much about Thebes, and it had always seemed so far away, that but for this delicate allusion to the promised sheep, we could hardly have believed we were really drawing nigh unto those famous shores. About ten, however, the mist was lifted away like a curtain, and we saw to the left a rich plain studded with palm-groves; to the right a broad margin of cultivated lands bounded by a bold range of limestone mountains; and on the farthest horizon another range, all grey and shadowy.
“Karnak – Gournah – Luxor!” says Reïs Hassan triumphantly, pointing in every direction at once. Talhamy tries to show us Medinet Habu and the Memnonium. The painter vows he can see the heads of the sitting Colossi and the entrance to the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings.
We, meanwhile, stare bewildered, incredulous; seeing none of these things; finding it difficult, indeed, to believe that any one else sees them. The river widens away before us; the flats are green on either side; the mountains are pierced with terraces of rock-cut tombs; while far away inland, apparently on the verge of the desert, we see here a clump of sycamores – yonder a dark hillock – midway between both a confused heap of something that may be either fallen rock or fallen masonry; but nothing that looks like a temple, nothing to indicate that we are already within recognisable distance of the grandest ruins in the world.
Presently, however, as the boat goes on, a massive, windowless structure which looks (Heaven preserve us!) just like a brand-new fort or prison, towers up above the palm-groves to the left. This, we are told, is one of the propylons of Karnak; while a few whitewashed huts and a little crowd of masts now coming into sight a mile or so higher up, mark the position of Luxor. Then up capers Egendi with his never-failing “Luxor – kharûf – all right!” to fetch down the tar and darabukkeh. The captain claps his hands. A circle is formed on the lower deck. The men, all smiles, strike up their liveliest chorus, and so, with barbaric music and well-filled sails, and flags flying, and green boughs waving overhead, we make our triumphal entry into Luxor.
The top of another pylon; the slender peak of an obelisk; a colonnade of giant pillars half-buried in the soil; the white houses of the English, American, and Prussian Consuls, each with its flagstaff and ensign; a steep slope of sandy shore; a background of mud walls and pigeon-towers; a foreground of native boats and gaily-painted dahabeeyahs lying at anchor – such, as we sweep by, is our first panoramic view of this famous village. A group of turbaned officials sitting in the shade of an arched doorway rise and salute us as we pass. The assembled dahabeeyahs dozing with folded sails, like sea-birds asleep, are roused to spasmodic activity. Flags are lowered; guns are fired; all Luxor is startled from its midday siesta. Then, before the smoke has had time to clear off, up comes the Bagstones in gallant form; whereupon the dahabeeyahs blaze away again as before.
And now there is a rush of donkeys and donkey-boys, beggars, guides, and antiquity-dealers, to the shore – the children screaming for bakhshîsh; the dealers exhibiting strings of imitation scrabs; the donkey-boys vociferating the names and praises of their beasts; all alike regarding us as their lawful prey.
“Hi, lady! Yankee-Doodle donkey; try Yankee-Doodle!” cries one.
“Far-away Moses!” yells another. “Good donkey – fast donkey – best donkey in Luxor!”
“This Prince of Wales’s donkey!” shouts a third, hauling forward a decrepit little weak-kneed, moth-eaten looking animal, about as good to ride on as a towel-horse. “First-rate donkey! splendid donkey! God save the Queen! Hurrah!”
But neither donkeys nor scarabs are of any importance in our eyes just now, compared with the letters we hope to find awaiting us on shore. No sooner, therefore, are the boats made fast than we are all off, some to the British Consulate and some to the Poste Restante, from both of which we return rich and happy.
Meanwhile we proposed to spend only twenty-four hours in Luxor. We were to ride round Karnak this first afternoon; to cross to Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum 2 to-morrow morning; and to sail again as soon after midday as possible. We hope thus to get a general idea of the topography of Thebes, and to carry away a superficial impression of the architectural style of the Pharaohs. It would be but a glimpse; yet that glimpse was essential. For Thebes represents the great central period of Egyptian art. The earlier styles lead up to that point; the later depart from it; and neither the earlier nor the later are intelligible without it. At the same time, however, travellers bound for the Second Cataract do well to put off everything like a detailed study of Thebes till the time of coming back. For the present, a rapid survey of the three principal groups of ruins is enough. It supplies the necessary link. It helps one to a right understanding of Edfu, of Philæ, of Abu Simbel. In a word, it enables one to put things in their right places; and this, after all, is a mental process which every traveller must perform for himself.
Thebes, I need scarcely say, was built like London on both sides of the river. Its original extent must have been very great; but its public buildings, its quays, its thousands of private dwellings, are gone and have left few traces. The secular city, which was built of crude brick, is represented by a few insignificant mounds; while of the sacred edifices, five large groups of limestone ruins – three on the western bank and two on the eastern, together with the remains of several small temples and a vast multitude of tombs – are all that remain in permanent evidence of its ancient splendour. Luxor is a modern Arab village occupying the site of one of the oldest of these five ruins. It stands on the eastern bank, close against the river, about two miles south of Karnak and nearly opposite the famous sitting Colossi of the Western plain. On the opposite bank lie Gournah, the Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu. A glance at the map will do more than pages of explanation to show the relative position of these ruins. The Temple of Gournah, it will be seen, is almost vis-à-vis of Karnak. The Ramesseum faces about half-way between Karnak and Luxor. Medinet Habu is placed farther to the south than any building on the eastern side of the river. Behind these three western groups, reaching far and wide along the edge of the Libyan range, lies the great Theban Necropolis; while farther back still, in the radiating valleys on the other side of the mountains, are found the tombs of the kings. The distance between Karnak and Luxor is a little less than two miles; while from Medinet Habu to the Temple of Gournah may be roughly guessed at something under four. We have here, therefore, some indication of the extent, though not of the limits, of the ancient city.
Luxor is a large village inhabited by a mixed population of Copts and Arabs, and doing a smart trade in antiquities. The temple has here formed the nucleus of the village, the older part of which has grown up in and about the ruins. The grand entrance faces north, looking down towards Karnak. The twin towers of the great propylon, dilapidated as they are, stripped of their cornices, encumbered with débris, are magnificent still. In front of them, one on each side of the central gateway, sit two helmeted colossi, battered, and featureless, and buried to the chin, like two of the proud in the doleful fifth circle. A few yards in front of these again stands a solitary obelisk, also half-buried. The colossi are of black granite; the obelisk is of red, highly polished, and covered on all four sides with superb hieroglyphs in three vertical columns. These hieroglyphs are engraved with the precision of the finest gem. They are cut to a depth of about two inches in the outer columns, and five inches in the central column of the inscription. The true height of this wonderful monolith is over seventy feet, between thirty and forty of which are hidden under the accumulated soil of many centuries. Its companion obelisk, already scaling away by imperceptible degrees under the skyey influences of an alien climate, looks down with melancholy indifference upon the petty revolutions and counter-revolutions of the Place de la Concorde. On a line with the two black colossi, but some fifty feet or so farther to the west, rises a third and somewhat smaller head of chert or limestone, the fellow to which is doubtless hidden among the huts that encroach half-way across the face of the eastern tower. The whole outer surface of these towers is covered with elaborate sculptures of gods and men, horses and chariots, the pageantry of triumph and the carnage of war. The king in his chariot draws his terrible bow, or slays his enemies on foot, or sits enthroned, receiving the homage of his court. Whole regiments armed with lance and shield march across the scene. The foe flies in disorder. The King, attended by his fan-bearers, returns in state, and the priests burn incense before him.
This king is Rameses the Second, called Sesostris and Osymandias by ancient writers, and best known to history as Rameses the Great. His actual names and titles as they stand upon the monuments are Ra-user-ma Sotp-en-Ra Ra-messu Mer-Amen; that is to say, “Ra strong in truth, approved of Ra, son of Ra, beloved of Amen.”
The battle-scenes here represented relate to that memorable campaign against the Kheta which forms the subject of the famous "Third Sallier Papyrus,"3 and is commemorated upon the walls of almost every temple built by this monarch. Separated from his army and surrounded by the enemy, the king, attended only by his chariot-driver, is said to have six times charged the foe – to have hewn them down with his sword of might – to have trampled them like straw beneath his horse’s feet – to have dispersed them single-handed, like a god. Two thousand five hundred chariots were there, and he overthrew them; one hundred thousand warriors, and he scattered them. Those that he slew not with his hand, he chased unto the water’s edge, causing them to leap to destruction as leaps the crocodile. Such was the immortal feat of Rameses, and such the chronicle written by the royal scribe, Pentaur.
Setting aside the strain of Homeric exaggeration which runs through this narrative, there can be no doubt that it records some brilliant deed of arms actually performed by the king within sight, though not within reach, of his army; and the hieroglyphic texts interspersed among these tableaux state that the events depicted took place on the fifth day of the month Epiphi, in the fifth year of his reign. By this we must understand the fifth year of his sole reign, which would be five years after the death of his father, Seti I, with whom he had, from an early age, been associated on the throne. He was a man in the prime of life at the time of this famous engagement, which was fought under the walls of Kadesh on the Orontes; and the bas-relief sculptures show him to have been acompanied by several of his sons, who, though evidently very young, are represented in their war-chariots fully armed and taking part in the battle.4
The mutilated colossi are portrait statues of the conqueror. The obelisk, in the pompous style of Egyptian dedications, proclaims that “The Lord of the World, Guardian-Sun of Truth, approved of Ra, has built this edifice in honour of his Father Amen-Ra, and has erected to him these two great obelisks of stone in face of the house of Rameses in the City of Ammon.”
So stately was the approach made by Rameses the Great to the temple founded about a hundred and fifty years before his time by Amenhotep III. He also built the courtyard upon which this pylon opened, joining it to the older part of the building in such wise that the original first court became now the second court, while next in order came the portico, the hall of assembly, and the sanctuary. By and by, when the long line of Rameses had passed away, other and later kings put their hands to the work. The names of Shabaka (Sabaco), of Ptolemy Philopater, and of Alexander the Younger, appear among the later inscriptions; while those of Amenhotep IV (Khu-en-Aten), Horemheb, and Seti, the father of Rameses the Great, are found in the earlier parts of the building. It was in this way that an Egyptian temple grew from age to age, owing a colonnade to this king and a pylon to that, till it came in time to represent the styles of many periods. Hence, too, that frequent irregularity of plan, which, unless it could be ascribed to the caprices of successive builders, would form so unaccountable a feature in Egyptian architecture. In the present instance, the pylon and courtyard of Rameses II are set at an angle of five degrees to the courtyard and sanctuary of Amenhotep III. This has evidently been done to bring the Temple of Luxor into a line with the Temple of Karnak, in order that the two might be connected by means of that stupendous avenue of sphinxes, the scattered remains of which yet strew the course of the ancient roadway.
As I have already said, these half-buried pylons, this solitary obelisk, those giant heads rising in ghastly resurrection before the gates of the Temple, were magnificent still. But it was as the magnificence of a splendid prologue to a poem of which only garbled fragments remain. Beyond that entrance lay a smoky, filthy, intricate labyrinth of lanes and passages. Mud hovels, mud pigeon-towers, mud yards, and a mud mosque, clustered like wasps’ nests in and about the ruins. Architraves sculptured with royal titles supported the roofs of squalid cabins. Stately capitals peeped out from the midst of sheds in which buffaloes, camels, donkeys, dogs, and human beings were seen herding together in unsavoury fellowship. Cocks crew, hens cackled, pigeons cooed, turkeys gobbled, children swarmed, women were baking and gossiping, and all the sordid routine of Arab life was going on, amid winding alleys that masked the colonnades and defaced the inscriptions of the Pharaohs. To trace the plan of this part of the building was then impossible.
All communication being cut off between the courts and the portico, we had to go round outside and through a door at the farther end of the Temple, in order to reach the sanctuary and the adjoining chambers. The Arab who kept the key provided an inch or two of candle. For it was very dark in there; the roof being still perfect, with a large, rambling, modern house built on top of it – so that if this part of the Temple was ever partially lighted, as at Denderah and elsewhere, by small wedge-like openings in the roof, even those faint gleams were excluded.
The sanctuary, which was rebuilt in the reign of Alexander Ægus; some small side chambers; and a large hall, which was perhaps the hall of assembly, were all that remained under cover of the original roofing-stones. Some half-buried and broken columns on the side next the river showed, however, that this end was formerly surrounded by a colonnade. The sanctuary – an oblong granite chamber with its own separate roof – stands enclosed in a larger hall, like a box within a box, and is covered inside and outside with bas-reliefs. These sculptures (among which I observed a kneeling figure of the king, offering a kneeling image to Amen Ra) are executed in the mediocre style of the Ptolemies. That is to say, the forms are more natural but less refined than those of the Pharaonic period. The limbs are fleshy, the joints large, the features insignificant. Of actual portraiture one cannot detect a trace; while every face wears the same objectionable smirk which disfigures the Cleopatra of Denderah.
In the large hall, which I have called the hall of assembly, one is carried back to the time of the founder. Between Amenhotep III and Alexander Ægus there lies a great gulf of 1200 years; and their styles are as widely separated as their reigns. The merest novice could not possibly mistake the one for the other. Nothing is, of course, more common than to find Egyptian and Græco-Egyptian work side by side in the same temple; but nowhere are the distinctive characteristics of each brought into stronger contrast than in these dark chambers of Luxor. In the sculptures that line the hall of Amenhotep we find the pure lines, the severe and slender forms, the characteristic heads, of a period when the art, having as yet neither gained nor lost by foreign influences, was entirely Egyptian. The subjects relate chiefly to the infancy of the king; but it is difficult to see anything properly by the light of a candle tied to the end of a stick; and here, where the bas-relief is so low and the walls are so high, it is almost impossible to distinguish the details of the upper tableaux.
I could make out, however, that Amen, Maut, and their son Khonsu, the three personages of the Theban triad, are the presiding deities of these scenes; and that they are in some way identified with the fortunes of Thothmes IV, his queen, and their son, Amenhotep III. Amenhotep is born, apparently, under the especial protection of Maut, the divine mother; brought up with the youthful god Khonsu; and received by Amen as the brother and equal of his own divine son. I think it was in this hall that I observed a singular group representing Amen and Maut in an attitude symbolical perhaps of troth-plight or marriage. They sit face to face, the goddess holding in her right hand the left hand of the god, while in her left hand she supports his right elbow. Their thrones, meanwhile, rest on the heads, and their feet are upheld on the hands of two female genii. It is significant that Rameses III and one of the ladies of his so-called hareem are depicted in the same attitude in one of the famous domestic subjects sculptured on the upper stories of the pavilion at Medinet Habu.
We saw this interesting Temple much too cursorily; yet we gave more time to it than the majority of those who year after year anchor for days together close under its majestic columns. If the whole building could be transported bodily to some point between Memphis and Siût where the river is bare of ruins, it would be enthusiastically visited. Here it is eclipsed by the wonders of Karnak and the western bank, and is undeservedly neglected. Those parts of the original building which yet remain are, indeed, peculiarly precious; for Amenhotep, or Amunoph, the Third, was one of the great builder-kings of Egypt, and we have here one of the few extant specimens of his architectural work.5
The Coptic quarter of Luxor lies north of the great pylon, and partly skirts the river. It is cleaner, wider, more airy than that of the Arabs. The Prussian Consul is a Copt; the polite postmaster is a Copt; and in a modest lodging built half beside and half over the Coptic church, lives the Coptic Bishop. The postmaster (an ungainly youth in a European suit so many sizes too small that his arms and legs appeared to be sprouting out at the ends of his garments) was profuse in his offers of service. He undertook to forward letters to us at Assûan, Korosko, and Wady Halfah, where post-offices had lately been established. And he kept his promise, I am bound to say, with perfect punctuality; – always adding some queer little complimentary message on the outer wrapper, such as “I hope you well my compliments;” or “Wishes you good news pleasant voyage.” As a specimen of his literary style I copied the following notice, of which it was evident that he was justly proud:
On the commandation. We have ordered the post stations in lower Egypt
Assiut to Cartoom. Belonging to the Post Kedevy Egyptian in a good
to pay for letters in lower Egypt is as in upper Egypt twice. Means
letters which goes from here far than Asiut; must pay for it two
ten grs. Also that which goes far than Cartoom. The letters which goes
Asiut and Cartoom; must pay only one piastre per ten grs. This and that
buy stamps from the Post and put it upon the letter. Also if somebody
send letters insuranced, must two piastres more for any letter. There
orderation in the Post to receive the letters which goes to Europe,
Asia, as England France, Italy Germany, Syria, Constantinople etc. Also
newspapers patterns and other things.
"L’Ispettore," M. ADDA.
Luxor the 1st January 1874.
This young man begged for a little stationery and a penknife at parting. We had, of course, much pleasure in presenting him with such a modest testimonial. We afterwards learned that he levied the same little tribute on every dahabeeyah that came up the river; so I conclude that he must by this time have quite an interesting collection of small cutlery.
From the point where the railroad ends, the Egyptian and Nubian mails are carried by runners stationed at distances of four miles all along the route. Each man rus his four miles, and at the end thereof finds the next man ready to snatch up his bag and start off at full speed immediately. The next man transfers it in like manner to the next; and so it goes by day and night without a break, till it reaches the first railway station. Each runner is supposed to do his four miles in half-an-hour, and the mail which goes out every morning from Luxor reaches Cairo in six days. Considering that Cairo was 450 miles away, that 268 miles of this distance had to be done on foot, and that the trains went only once a day, we thought this a very creditable speed.
In the afternoon we took donkeys, and rode out to Karnak. Our way lay through the bazaar, which was the poorest we had yet seen. It consisted of only a few open sheds, in one of which, seated on a mud-built divan, cross-legged and turbanless like a row of tumbler mandarins, we saw five of our sailors under the hands of the Luxor barber. He had just lathered all five heads, and was complacently surveying the effect of his work, much as an artistic cook might survey a dish of particularly successful méringues à la crême. The méringues looked very sheepish when we laughed and passed by.
Next came the straggling suburb where the dancing girls most do congregate. These damsels, in gaudy garments of emerald green, bright rose, and flaming yellow, were squatting outside their cabins or lounging unveiled about the thresholds of two or three dismal dens of cafés in the market-place. They showed their teeth, and laughed familiarly in our faces. Their eyebrows were painted to meet on the bridge of the nose; their eyes were blackened round with kohl; their cheeks were extravagantly rouged; their hair was gummed, and greased, and festooned upon their foreheads, and plaited all over in innumerable tails. Never before had we seen anything in female form so hideous. One of these houris was black; and she looked quite beautiful in her blackness, compared with the painting and plastering of her companions.
We now left the village behind, and rode out across a wide plain, barren and hillocky in some parts; overgrown in others with coarse halfeh grass; and dotted here and there with clumps of palms. The Nile lay low and out of sight, so that the valley seemed to stretch away uninterruptedly to the mountains on both sides. Now leaving to the left a Sheykh’s tomb, topped by a little cupola and shaded by a group of tamarisks; now following the bed of a dry watercourse; now skirting shapeless mounds that indicated the site of ruins unexplored, the road, uneven but direct, led straight to Karnak. At every rise in the ground we saw the huge propylons towering higher above the palms. Once, but for only a few moments, there came into sight a confused and wide-spread mass of ruins, as extensive, apparently, as the ruins of a large town. Then our way dipped into a sandy groove bordered by mud-walls and plantations of dwarf-palms. All at once this groove widened, became a stately avenue guarded by a double file of shattered sphinxes, and led towards a lofty pylon standing up alone against the sky.
Close beside this grand gateway, as if growing there on purpose, rose a thicket of sycamores and palms; while beyond it were seen the twin pylons of a temple. The sphinxes were colossal, and measured about ten feet in length. One or two were ram-headed. Of the rest – some forty or fifty in number – all were headless, some split asunder, some overturned, others so mutilated that they looked like torrent-worn boulders. This avenue once reached from Luxor to Karnak. Taking into account the distance (which is just two miles from temple to temple) and the short intervals at which the sphinxes are placed, there cannot originally have been fewer than five hundred of them; that is to say two hundred and fifty on each side of the road.
Dismounting for a few minutes, we went into the temple; glanced round the open courtyard with its colonnade of pillars; peeped hurriedly into some ruinous side-chambers; and then rode on. Our books told us that we had seen the small temple of Rameses the Third. It would have been called large anywhere but at Karnak.
I seem to remember the rest as if it had all happened in a dream. Leaving the small temple, we turned towards the river, skirted the mud-walls of the native village, and approached the great temple by way of its main entrance. Here we entered upon what had once been another great avanue of sphinxes, ram-headed, couchant on plinths deep cut with hieroglyphic legends, and leading up from some grand landing-place beside the Nile.
And now the towers that we had first seen as we sailed by in the morning rose straight before us, magnificent in ruin, glittering to the sun, and relieved in creamy light against blue depths of sky. One was nearly perfect; the other, shattered as if by the shock of an earthquake, was still so lofty that an Arab clambering from block to block midway of its vast height looked no bigger than a squirrel.
On the threshold of this tremendous portal we again dismounted. Shapeless crude-brick mounds, marking the limits of the ancient wall of circuit, reached far away on either side. An immense perspective of pillars and pylons leading up to a very distant obelisk opened out before us. We went in, the great walls towering up like cliffs above our heads, and entered the first court. Here, in the midst of a large quadrangle open to the sky stands a solitary column, the last of a central avenue of twelve, some of which, disjointed by the shock, lie just as they fell, like skeletons of vertebrate monsters left stranded by the flood.
Crossing this court in the glowing sunlight, we came to a mighty doorway between two more propylons – the doorway splendid with coloured bas-reliefs; the propylons mere cataracts of fallen blocks piled up to right and left in grand confusion. The cornice of the doorway is gone. Only a jutting fragment of the lintel stone remains. That stone, when perfect, measured forty feet and ten inches across. The doorway must have been full a hundred feet in height.
We went on. Leaving to the right a mutilated colossus engraven on arm and breast with the cartouche of Rameses II, we crossed the shade upon the threshold, and passed into the famous Hypostyle Hall of Seti the First.
It is a place that has been much written about and often painted; but of which no writing and no art can convey more than a dwarfed and pallid impression. To describe it, in the sense of building up a recognisable image by means of words, is impossible. The scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one’s own dumbness, and littleness, and incapacity, too complete and crushing. It is a place that strikes you into silence; that empties you, as it were, not only of words but of ideas. Nor is this a first effect only. Later in the year, when we came back down the river and moored close by, and spent long days among the ruins, I found I never had a word to say in the great hall. Others might measure the girth of those tremendous columns; others might climb hither and thither, and find out points of view, and test the accuracy of Wilkinson and Mariette; but I could only look, and be silent.
Yet to look is something, if one can but succeed in remembering; and the great hall of Karnak is photographed in some dark corner of my brain for as long as I have memory. I shut my eyes, and see it as if I were there – not all at once, as in a picture; but bit by bit, as the eye takes note of large objects and travels over an extended field of vision. I stand once more among those mighty columns, which radiate into avenues from whatever point one takes them. I see them swathed in coiled shadows and broad bands of light. I see them sculptured and painted with shapes of gods and kings, with blazonings of royal names, with sacrificial altars, and forms of sacred beasts, and emblems of wisdom and truth. The shafts of these columns are enormous. I stand at the foot of one – or of what seems to be the foot; for the original pavement lies buried seven feet below. Six men standing with extended arms, finger-tip to finger-tip, could barely span it round. It casts a shadow twelve feet in breadth – such a shadow as might be cast by a tower. The capital that juts out so high above my head looks as if it might have been placed there to support the heavens. It is carved in the semblance of a full-blown lotus, and glows with undying colours – colours that are still fresh, though laid on by hands that have been dust these three thousand years and more. It would take not six men, but a dozen to measure round the curved lip of that stupendous lily.
Such are the twelve central columns. The rest (one hundred and twenty-two in number) are gigantic too; but smaller. Of the roof they once supported, only the beams remain. Those beams are stones – huge monoliths6 carved and painted, bridging the space from pillar to pillar, and patterning the trodden soil with bands of shadow.
Looking up and down the central avenue, we see at the one end a flame-like obelisk; at the other, a solitary palm against a background of glowing mountain. To right, to left, showing transversely through long files of columns, we catch glimpses of colossal bas-reliefs lining the roofless walls in every direction. The king, as usual, figures in every group, and performs the customary acts of worship. The gods receive and approve him. Half in light, half in shadow, these slender, fantastic forms stand out sharp, and clear, and colourless; each figure some eighteen or twenty feet in height. They could scarcely have looked more weird when the great roof was in its place and perpetual twilight reigned. But it is difficult to imagine the roof on, and the sky shut out. It all looks right as it is; and one feels, somehow, that such columns should have nothing between them and the infinite blue depths of heaven.
The great central avenue was, however, sufficiently lighted by means of a double row of clerestory windows, some of which are yet standing. Certain writers have suggested that they may have been glazed; but this seems improbable for two reasons. Firstly, because one or two of these huge window-frames yet contain the solid stone gratings which in the present instance seem to have done duty for a translucent material; and, secondly, because we have no evidence to show that the early Egyptians, though familiar since the days of Cheops with the use of the blow-pipe, ever made glass in sheets, or introduced it in this way into their buildings.
How often has it been written, and how often must it be repeated, that the Great Hall at Karnak is the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands? One writer tells us that it covers four times the area occupied by the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame in Paris. Another measures it against St. Peter’s. All admit their inability to describe it; yet all attempt the description. To convey a concrete image of the place to one who has not seen it, is, however, as I have already said, impossible. If it could be likened to this place or that, the task would not be so difficult; but there is, in truth, no building in the wide world to compare with it. The pyramids are more stupendous. The Colosseum covers more ground. The Parthenon is more beautiful. Yet in nobility of conception, in vastness of detail, in majesty of the highest order, the hall of pillars exceeds them every one. This doorway, these columns, are the wonder of the world. How was that lintel-stone raised? How were these capitals lifted? Entering among those mighty pillars, says a recent observer, “you feel that you have shrunk to the dimensions and feebleness of a fly.” But I think you feel more than that. You are stupefied by the thought of the mighty men who made them. You say to yourself: “There were indeed giants in those days.”
It may be that the traveller who finds himself for the first time in the midst of a grove of Wellingtonia gigantea feels something of the same overwhelming sense of awe and wonder; but the great trees, though they have taken three thousand years to grow, lack the pathos and the mystery that comes of human labour. They do not strike their roots through six thousand years of history. They have not been watered with the blood and tears of millions.7 Their leaves know no sounds less musical than the singing of birds, or the moaning of the night-wind as it sweeps over the highlands of Calaveros. But every breath that wanders down the painted aisles of Karnak seems to echo back the sighs of those who perished in the quarry, at the oar, and under the chariot-wheels of the conqueror.
The Hypostyle Hall, though built by Seti, the father of Rameses II, is supposed by some Egyptologists to have been planned, if not begun, by that same Amenhotep III who founded the Temple of Luxor and set up the famous Colossi of the Plain. However this may be, the cartouches so lavishly sculptured on pillar and architrave contain no names but those of Seti, who undoubtedly executed the work en bloc, and of Rameses, who completed it.
And now, would it not be strange if we knew the name and history of the architect who superintended the building of this wondrous Hall, and planned the huge doorway by which it was entered, and the mighty pylons which lie shattered on either side? Would it not be interesting to look upon his portrait, and see what manner of man he was? Well, the Egyptian room in the Glyptothek Museum at Munich contains a statue found some seventy years ago at Thebes, which almost certainly represents that man, and is inscribed with his history. His name was Bak-en-Khonsu (servant of Khonsu). He sits upon the ground, bearded and robed, in an attitude of meditation. That he was a man of unusual ability is shown by the inscriptions engraved upon the back of the statue. These inscriptions record his promotion step by step to the highest grade of the hierarchy. Having attained the dignity of High Priest, and First Prophet of Amen during the reign of Seti the First, he became Chief Architect of the Thebaid under Rameses II, and received a royal commission to superintend the embellishment of the Temples. When Rameses II “erected a monument to his Divine Father Amen Ra,” the building thereof was executed under the direction of Bak-en-Khonsu. Here the inscription, as translated by M. Deveria, goes on to say that “he made the sacred edifice in the upper gate of the Abode of Amen.8 He erected obelisks of granite. He made golden flagstaffs. He added very, very great colonnades.”
M. Deveria suggests that the Temple of Gournah may here be indicated; but to this it might be objected that Gournah is situated in the lower and not the upper part of Thebes; that at Gournah there are no great colonnades and no obelisks; and that, moreover, for some reason at present unknown to us, the erection of obelisks seems to have been almost wholly confined to the eastern bank of the Nile. It is, however, possible that the works here enumerated may not all have been executed for one and the same Temple. The “sacred edifice in the upper gate of the Abode of Amen” might be the Temple of Luxor, which Rameses did in fact adorn with the only obelisks we know to be his in Thebes; the monument erected by him to his Divine Father Amen (evidently a new structure) would scarcely be any other than the Ramesseum; while the “very, very great colonnades,” which are expressly specified as additions, would seem as if they could only belong to the Hypostyle Hall of Karnak. The question is at all events interesting; and it is pleasant to believe that in the Munich statue we have not only a portrait of one who at Karnak played the part of Michael Angelo to some foregone and forgotten Bramante, but who was also the Ictinus of the Ramesseum. For the Ramesseum is the Parthenon of Thebes.
The sun was sinking and the shadows were lengthening when, having made the round of the principal ruins, we at length mounted our donkeys and turned towards Luxor. To describe all that we saw after leaving the great hall would fill a chapter. Huge obelisks of shining granite – some yet erect, some shattered and prostrate; vast lengths of sculptured walls covered with wondrous battle subjects, sacerdotal processions, and elaborate chronicles of the deeds of kings; ruined courtyards surrounded by files of headless statues; a sanctuary built all of polished granite, and engraven like a gem; a second Hall of Pillars dating back to the early days of Thothmes the Third; labyrinths of roofless chambers; mutilated colossi, shattered pylons, fallen columns, unintelligible foundations and hieroglyphic inscriptions without end, were glanced at, passed by, and succeeded by fresh wonders. I dare not say how many small outlying temples we saw in the course of that rapid survey. In one place we came upon an undulating tract of coarse halfeh grass, in the midst of which, battered, defaced, forlorn, sat a weird company of green granite sphinxes and lioness-headed basts. In another, we saw a magnificent colossal hawk upright on his pedestal in the midst of a bergfall of ruins. More avenues of sphinxes, more pylons, more colossi, were passed before the road we took in returning brought us round to that by which we had come. By the time we reached the sheik’s tomb, it was nearly dusk. We rode back across the plain, silent and bewildered. Have I not said that it was like a dream?____________________________
1 Arabic, “kharûf,” pronounced “haroof” – English, sheep.
2 This famous building is supposed by some to be identical both with the Memnonium of Strabo and the Tomb of Osymandias as described by Diodorus Siculus. Champollion, however, following the sense of the hieroglyphed legends, in which it is styled “The House of Rameses” (II), has given to it the more appropriate name of the Ramesseum.
3 Translated into French by the late Vicomte de Rougé under the title of "Le Poëme de Pentaour," 1856; into English by Mr. Goodwin, 1858; and again by Professor Lushington in 1874. See "Records of the Past," vol. ii.
4 According to the great inscription of Abydos translated by Professor Maspero, Rameses II would seem to have been in some sense King from his birth, as if the throne of Egypt came to him through his mother, and as if his father, Seti I, had reigned for him during his infancy as King-Regent. Some inscriptions, indeed, show him to have received homage even before his birth.
5 The ruins of the great Temple of Luxor have undergone a complete transformation since the above description was written; Professor Maspero, during the two last years of his official rule as successor to the late Mariette-Pasha, having done for this magnificent relic of Pharaonic times what his predecessor did for the more recent Temple of Edfoo. The difficulties of carrying out this great undertaking were so great as to appear at first sight almost insurmountable. The fellaheen refused at first to sell their houses; Mustapha Aga asked the exorbitant price of £3000 for his Consular residence, built as it was between the columns of Horemheb facing the river; and for no pecuniary consideration whatever was it possible to purchase the right of pulling down the mosque in the first great courtyard of the Temple. After twelve months of negotiation, the fellaheen were at last bought out on fair terms, each proprietor receiving a stated price for his dwelling and a piece of land elsewhere, upon which to build another. Some thirty families were thus got rid of, about eight or ten only refusing to leave at any price. The work of demolition was begun in 1885. In 1886, the few families yet lingering in the ruins followed the example of the rest; and in the course of that season the Temple was cleared from end to end, only the little native mosque being left standing within the precincts, and Mustapha Aga’s house on the side next the landing-place. Professor Maspero’s resignation followed in 1887, since when the work has been carried on by his successor, M. Grébaut, with the result that in place of a crowded, sordid, unintelligible labyrinth of mud-huts, yards, stables, alleys, and dung-heaps, a noble Temple, second only to that of Karnak for grandeur of design and beauty of proportion, now marshals its avenues of columns and uplifts its sculptured architraves along the crest of the ridge which here rises above the eastern bank of the Nile. Some of those columns, now that they are cleared down to the level of the original pavement, measure 57 feet in the shaft; and in the great courtyard built by Rameses II, which measures 190 feet by 170, a series of beautiful colossal statues of that Pharaoh in highly polished red granite have been discovered, some yet standing in situ, having been built into the walls of mud structures and imbedded (for who shall say how many centuries?) in a sepulchre of ignoble clay. Last of all, Mustapha Aga, the kindly and popular old British Consul, whose hospitality will long be remembered by English travellers, died about twelve months since, and the house in which he entertained so many English visitors, and upon which he set so high a value, is even now in course of demolition.
6 The size of these stones not being given in any of our books, I paced the length of one of the shadows, and (allowing for so much more at each end as would be needed to reach to the centres of the two capitals on which it rested) found the block above must measure at least 25 feet in length. The measurements of the Great Hall are, in plain figures, 170 feet in length by 329 in breadth. It contains 134 columns, of which the central twelve stand 62 feet high in the shaft (or about 70 with the plinth and abacus), and measure 34 feet 6 inches in circumference. The smaller columns stand 42 feet 5 inches in the shaft, and measure 28 feet in circumference. All are buried to a depth of between six or seven feet in the alluvial deposits of between three and four thousand annual inundations.
7 It has been calculated that every stone of these huge Pharaonic temples cost at least one human life.
8 i.e. Per Amen, or Pa-Amen; one of the ancient names of Thebes, which was the city especially dedicated to Amen. Also Apt, or Abot, or Apetou, by some ascribed to an Indo-Germanic root signifying Abode. Another name for Thebes, and probably the one most in use, was Uas.