Here to return to
DISCOVERIES AT ABOU SIMBEL.
WE came back to find a fleet of dahabeeyahs ranged along the shore at Abou Simbel, and no less than three sketching tents in occupation of the ground. One of these, which happened to be pitched on the precise spot vacated by our painter, was courteously shifted to make way for the original tenant; and in the course of a couple of hours, we were all as much at home as if we had not been away for half-a-day.
Here, meanwhile, was our old acquaintance – the Fostât, with her party of gentlemen; yonder the Zenobia, all ladies; the little Alice, with Sir J. C----- and Mr. W----- on board; the Sirena flying the stars and stripes; the Mansoorah, bound presently for the Fayûm. To these were next day added the Ebers, with a couple of German savants; and the Bagstones, welcome back from Wady Halfeh.
What with arrivals and departures, exchange of visits, exhibitions of sketches, and sociabilities of various kinds, we had now quite a gay time. The Philæ gave a dinner-party and fantasia under the very noses of the colossi, and every evening there was drumming and howling enough among the assembled crews to raise the ghosts of Rameses and all his Queens. This was pleasant enough while it lasted; but when the strangers dropped off one by one, and at the end of three days we were once more alone, I think we were not sorry. The place was, somehow, too solemn for
“Singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.”
It was by comparing our watches with those of the travellers whom we met at Abou Simbel, that we now found out how hopelessly our timekeepers and theirs had gone astray.
We had been altering ours continually ever since leaving Cairo; but the sun was as continually putting them wrong again, so that we had lost all count of the true time. The first words with which we now greeted a newcomer were – “Do you know what o’clock it is?” To which the stranger as invariably replied that it was the very question he was himself about to ask. The confusion became at last so great that, finding that we had about eleven hours of day to thirteen of night, we decided to establish an arbitrary canon; so we called it seven when the sun rose, and six when it set, which answered every purpose.
It was between two and four o’clock, according to this time of ours, that the Southern Cross was now visible every morning. It is undoubtedly best seen at Abou Simbel. The river is here very wide, and just where the constellation rises there is an opening in the mountains on the eastern bank, so that these four fine stars, though still low in the heavens, are seen in a free space of sky. If they make, even so, a less magnificent appearance than one has been led to expect, it is probably because we see them from too low a point of view. To say that a constellation is foreshortened sounds absurd; yet that is just what is the matter with the Southern Cross at Abou Simbel. Viewed at an angle of about 30°, it necessarily looks distort and dim. If seen burning in the zenith, it would no doubt come up to the level of its reputation.
It was now the fifth day after our return from Wady Halfeh, when an event occurred that roused us to an unwonted pitch of excitement, and kept us at high pressure throughout the rest of our time.
The day was Sunday; the date February 16th, 1874; the time, according to Philæ reckoning, about eleven A.M., when the painter, enjoying his seventh day’s holiday after his own fashion, went strolling about among the rocks. He happened to turn his steps southwards, and passing the front of the great temple, climbed to the top of a little shapeless mound of fallen cliff, and sand, and crude-brick wall, just against the corner where the mountain slopes down to the river. Immediately round this corner, looking almost due south, and approachable by only a narrow ledge of rock, are two votive tablets sculptured and painted, both of the thirty-eighth year of Rameses II. We had seen these from the river as we came back from Wady Halfeh, and had remarked how fine the view must be from that point. Beyond the fact that they are coloured, and that the colour upon them is still bright, there is nothing remarkable about these inscriptions. There are many such at Abou Simbel. Our painter did not, therefore, come here to examine the tablets; he was attracted solely by the view.
Turning back presently, his attention was arrested by some much mutilated sculptures on the face of the rock, a few yards nearer the south buttress of the temple. He had seen these sculptures before – so, indeed, had I, when wandering about that first day in search of a point of view – without especially remarking them. The relief was low, the execution slight; and the surface so broken away that only a few confused outlines remained.
The thing that now caught the painter’s eye, however, was a long crack running transversely down the face of the rock. It was such a crack as might have been caused, one would say, by blasting.
He stooped – cleared the sand away a little with his hand – observed that the crack widened – poked in the point of his stick; and found that it penetrated to a depth of two or three feet. Even then, it seemed to him to stop, not because it encountered any obstacle, but because the crack was not wide enough to admit the thick end of the stick.
This surprised him. No mere fault in the natural rock, he thought, would go so deep. He scooped away a little more sand; and still the cleft widened. He introduced the stick a second time. It was a long palm-stick like an alpenstock, and it measured about five feet in length. When he probed the cleft with it this second time, it went in freely up to where he held it in his hand – that is to say, to a depth of quite four feet.
Convinced now that there was some hidden cavity in the rock, he carefully examined the surface. There were yet visible a few hieroglyphic characters and part of two cartouches, as well as some battered outlines of what had once been figures. The heads of these figures were gone (the face of the rock, with whatever may have been sculptured upon it, having come away bodily at this point), while from the waist downwards they were hidden under the sand. Only some hands and arms, in short, could be made out.
They were the hands and arms, apparently, of four figures; two in the centre of the composition, and two at the extremities. The two centre ones, which seemed to be back to back, probably represented gods; the outer ones, worshippers.
All at once, it flashed upon the painter that he had seen this kind of group many a time before – and generally over a doorway.
Feeling sure now that he was on the brink of a discovery, he came back; fetched away Salame and Mehemet Ali; and without saying a syllable to any one, set to work with these two to scrape away the sand at the spot where the crack widened.
Meanwhile, the luncheon bell having rung thrice, we concluded that the painter had rambled off somewhere into the desert; and so sat down without him. Towards the close of the meal, however, came a pencilled note, the contents of which ran as follows:
“Pray come immediately – I have found the entrance to a tomb. Please send some sandwiches – A. M’C.”
To follow the messenger at once to the scene of action was the general impulse. In less than ten minutes we were there, asking breathless questions, peeping in through the fast-widening aperture, and helping to clear away the sand.
All that Sunday afternoon, heedless of possible sunstroke, unconscious of fatigue, we toiled upon our hands and knees, as for bare life, under the burning sun. We had all the crew up, working like tigers. Every one helped; even the dragoman and the two maids. More than once, when we paused for a moment’s breathing space, we said to each other: “If those at home could see us, what would they say!”
And now, more than ever, we felt the need of implements. With a spade or two and a wheelbarrow, we could have done wonders; but with only one small fire-shovel, a birch broom, a couple of charcoal baskets, and about twenty pairs of hands, we were poor indeed. What was wanted in means, however, was made up in method. Some scraped away the sand; some gathered it into baskets; some carried the baskets to the edge of the cliff, and emptied them into the river. The idle man distinguished himself by scooping out a channel where the slope was steepest; which greatly facilitated the work. Emptied down this shoot and kept continually going, the sand poured off in a steady stream like water.
Meanwhile the opening grew rapidly larger. When we first came up – that is, when the painter and the two sailors had been working on it for about an hour – we found a hole scarcely as large as one’s hand, through which it was just possible to catch a dim glimpse of painted walls within. By sunset, the top of the doorway was laid bare, and where the crack ended in a large triangular fracture, there was an aperture about a foot and a half square, into which Mehemet Ali was the first to squeeze his way. We passed him in a candle and a box of matches; but he came out again directly, saying that it was a most beautiful Birbeh, and quite light within.
The writer wriggled in next. She found herself looking down from the top of a sandslope into a small square chamber. This sand-drift, which here rose to within a foot and a half of the top of the doorway, was heaped to the ceiling in the corner behind the door, and thence sloped steeply down, completely covering the floor. There was light enough to see every detail distinctly – the painted frieze running round just under the ceiling; the bas-relief sculptures on the walls, gorgeous with unfaded colour; the smooth sand, pitted near the top, where Mehemet Ali had trodden, but undisturbed elsewhere by human foot; the great gap in the middle of the ceiling, where the rock had given way; the fallen fragments on the floor, now almost buried in sand.
Satisfied that the place was absolutely fresh and untouched, the writer crawled out, and the others, one by one, crawled in. When each had seen it in turn, the opening was barricaded for the night; the sailors being forbidden to enter it, lest they should injure the decorations.
That evening was held a solemn council, whereat it was decided that Talhamy and Reïs Hassan should go to-morrow to the nearest village, there to engage the services of fifty able-bodied natives. With such help, we calculated that the place might easily be cleared in two days. If it was a tomb, we hoped to discover the entrance to the mummy pit below; if but a small chapel, or speos, like those at Ibrim, we should at least have the satisfaction of seeing all that it contained in the way of sculptures and inscriptions.
This was accordingly done; but we worked again next morning just the same, til mid-day. Our native contingent, numbering about forty men, then made their appearance in a rickety old boat, the bottom of which was half full of water.
They had been told to bring implements; and they did bring such as they had – two broken oars to dig with, some baskets, and a number of little slips of planking which, being tied between two pieces of rope and drawn along the surface, acted as scrapers, and were useful as far as they went. Squatting in double file from the entrance of the speos to the edge of the cliff, and to the burden of a rude chant propelling these improvised scrapers, the men began by clearing a path to the doorway. This gave them work enough for the afternoon. At sunset, when they dispersed, the path was scooped out to a depth of four feet, like a miniature railway cutting betweeen embankments of sand.
Next morning came the sheik in person, with his two sons and a following of a hundred men. This was so many more than we had bargained for, that we at once foresaw a scheme to extort money. The sheik, however, proved to be that same Rashwan Ebn Hassan el Kashef, by whom the happy couple had been so hospitably entertained about a fortnight before; we therefore received him with honour, invited him to luncheon, and, hoping to get the work done, quickly set the men on in gangs under the superintendence of Reïs Hassan and the head sailor.
By noon, the door was cleared down to the threshold, and the whole south and west walls were laid bare to the floor.
We now found that the débris which blocked the north wall and the centre of the floor was not, as we had at first supposed, a pile of fallen fragments, but one solid boulder which had come down bodily from above. To remove this was impossible. We had no tools to cut or break it, and it was both wider and higher than the doorway. Even to clear away the sand which rose behind it to the ceiling would have taken a long time, and have caused the inevitable injury to the paintings around. Already the brilliancy of the colour was marred where the men had leaned their backs, all wet with perspiration, against the walls.
therefore, that three-fourths of the decorations were now
uncovered, and that behind the fallen block there appeared to be no
great size and importance, we made up our minds to carry the work no
Meanwhile, we had great fun at luncheon with our Nubian sheik – a tall, well-featured man with much natural dignity of manner. He was well dressed, too, and wore a white turban most symmetrically folded; a white vest buttoned to the throat; a long loose robe of black serge; an outer robe of fine black cloth with hanging sleeves and a hood; and on his feet, white stockings and scarlet morocco shoes. When brought face to face with a knife and fork, his embarrassment was great. He was, it seemed, too grand a personage to feed himself. He must have a “feeder;” as the great man of the Middle Ages had a “taster.” Talhamy accordingly, being promoted to this office, picked out choice bits of mutton and chicken with his fingers, dipped pieces of bread in gravy, and put every morsel into our guest’s august mouth, as if the said guest were a baby.
The sweets being served, the little lady, L.-----, and the writer took him in hand, and fed him with all kinds of jams and preserved fruits. Enchanted with these attentions, the poor man ate till he could eat no longer; then laid his hand pathetically over the region next his heart, and cried for mercy. After luncheon, he smoked his chibouque, and coffee was served. Our coffee did not please him. He tasted it, but immediately returned the cup, telling the waiter with a grimace, that the berries were burned and the coffee weak. When, however, we apologised for it, he protested with Oriental insincerity that it was excellent.
To amuse him was easy, for he was interested in everything; in L.-----’s field-glass, in the painter’s accordion, in the piano, and the lever corkscrew. With some eau-de-Cologne he was also greatly charmed, rubbing it on his beard and inhaling it with closed eyes, in a kind of rapture. To make talk was, as usual, the great difficulty. When he had told us that his eldest son was Governor of Derr; that his youngest was five years of age; that the dates of Derr were better than the dates of Wady Halfeh; and that the Nubian people were very poor, he was at the end of his topics. Finally, he requested us to convey a letter from him to Lord D—, who had entertained him on board his dahabeeyah the year before. Being asked if he had brought his letter with him, he shook his head, saying:– “Your dragoman shall write it.”
So paper and a reed-pen were produced, and Talhamy wrote to dictation as follows:–“God have care of you. I hope you are well. I am sorry not to have had a letter from you since you were here. Your brother and friend,
RASHWAN EBN HASSAN EL KASHEF.”
A model letter this; brief, and to the point.
Our urbane and gentlemanly sheik was, however, not quite so charming when it came to settling time. We had sent at first for fifty men, and the price agreed upon was five piastres, or about a shilling English, for each man per day. In answer to this call, there first came forty men for half a day; then a hundred men for a whole day, or what was called a whole day; so making a total of six pounds due for wages. But the descendant of the Kashefs would hear of nothing so commonplace as the simple fulfilment of a straightforward contract. He demanded full pay for a hundred men for two whole days, a gun for himself, and a liberal bakshîsh in cash. Finding he had asked more than he had any chance of getting, he conceded the question of wages, but stood out for a game-bag and a pair of pistols. Finally, he was obliged to be content with the six pounds for his men, and for himself two pots of jam, two boxes of sardines, a bottle of eau-de-Cologne, a box of pills, and half-a-sovereign.
By four o’clock he and his followers were gone, and we once more had the place to ourselves. So long as they were there it was impossible to do anything, but now, for the first time, we fairly entered into possession of our newly found treasure.
All the rest of that day, and all the next day, we spent at work in and about the speos. L.----- and the little lady took their books and knitting there, and made a little drawing-room of it. The writer copied paintings and inscriptions. The mdle Man and the painter took measurements and surveyed the ground round about, especially endeavouring to make out the plan of certain fragments of wall, the foundations of which were yet traceable.
A careful examination of these ruins, and a little clearing of the sand here and there, led to further discoveries. They found that the speos had been approached by a large outer hall built of sun-dried brick, with one principal entrance facing the Nile, and two side-entrances facing northwards. The floor was buried deep in sand and débris, but enough of the walls remained above the surface to show that the ceiling had been vaulted and the side-entrances arched.
The southern boundary wall of this hall, when the surface sand was removed, appeared to be no less than 20 feet in thickness. This was not in itself so wonderful, there being instances of ancient Egyptian crude-brick walls which measure 80 feet in thickness;1 but it was astounding as compared with the north, east, and west walls, which measured only 3 feet. Deeming it impossible that this mass could be solid throughout, the idle man set to work with a couple of sailors to probe the centre part of it, and it soon became evident that there was a hollow space about three feet in width running due east and west down not quite exactly the middle of the structure.
All at once the idle man thrust his fingers into a skull!
This was such an amazing and unexpected incident, that for the moment he said nothing, but went on quietly displacing the sand and feeling his way under the surface. The next instant his hand came in contact with the edge of a clay bowl, which he carefully withdrew. It measured about four inches in diameter, was hand-moulded, and full of caked sand. He now proclaimed his discoveries, and all ran to help in the work. Soon a second and smaller skull was turned up, then another bowl, and then, just under the place from which the bowls were taken, the bones of two skeletons all detached, perfectly desiccated, and apparently complete. The remains were those of a child and a small grown person – probably a woman. The teeth were sound; the bones wonderfully delicate and brittle. As for the little skull (which had fallen apart at the sutures), it was pure and fragile in texture as the cup of a water-lily.
We laid the bones aside as we found them, examining every handful of sand, in the hope of discovering something that might throw light upon the burial. But in vain. We found not a shred of clothing, not a bead, not a coin, not the smallest vestige of anything that might help one to judge whether the interment had taken place a hundred years ago or a thousand.
We now called up all the crew, and went on excavating downwards into what seemed to be a long and narrow vault measuring some fifteen feet by three.
After-reflection convinced us that we had stumbled upon a chance Nubian grave, and that the bowls (which at first we absurdly dignified with the name of cinerary urns) were but the usual water-bowls placed at the heads of the dead. But we were in no mood for reflection at the time. We made sure that the speos was a mortuary chapel; that the vault was a vertical pit leading to a sepulchral chamber; and that at the bottom of it we should find . . . . who could tell what? Mummies, perhaps, and sarcophagi, and funerary statuettes, and jewels, and papyri, and wonders without end! That these uncared-for bones should be laid in the mouth of such a pit scarcely occurred to us as an incongruity. Supposing them to be Nubian remains, what then? If a modern Nubian at the top, why not an ancient Egyptian at the bottom?
As the work of excavation went on, however, the vault was found to be entered by a steep inclined plane. Then the inclined plane turned out to be a flight of much worn and very shallow stairs. These led down to a small square landing, some twelve feet below the surface, from which landing an arched doorway2 and passage opened into the fore-court of the speos. Our sailors had great difficulty in excavating this part, in consequence of the weight of superincumbent sand and débris on the side next the speos. By shoring up the ground, however, they were enabled completely to clear the landing, which was curiously paved with cones of rude pottery like the bottoms of amphoræ. These cones, of which we took out some twenty-eight or thirty, were not in the least like the celebrated funerary cones found so abundantly at Thebes. They bore no stamp, and were much shorter and more lumpy in shape. Finally, the cones being all removed, we came to a compact and solid floor of baked clay.
The painter, meanwhile, had also been at work. Having traced the circuit and drawn out a ground-plan, he came to the conclusion that the whole mass adjoining the southern wall of the speos was in fact composed of the ruins of a pylon, the walls of which were seven feet in thickness, built in regular string-courses of moulded brick, and finished at the angles with the usual torus, or round moulding. The superstructure, with its chambers, passages, and top cornice, was gone; and this part with which we were now concerned was merely the basement, and included the bottom of the staircase.
The painter’s ground-plan demolished all our hopes at one fell swoop. The vault was a vault no longer. The staircase led to no sepulchral chamber. The brick floor hid no secret entrance. Our mummies melted into thin air, and we were left with no excuse for carrying on the excavations. We were mortally disappointed. In vain we told ourselves that the discovery of a large brick pylon, the existence of which had been unsuspected by preceding travellers, was an event of greater importance than the finding of a tomb. We had set our hearts on the tomb; and I am afraid we cared less than we ought for the pylon.
Having traced thus far the course of the excavations and the way in which one discovery led step by step to another, I must now return to the speos, and, as accurately as I can, describe it, not only from my notes made on the spot, but by the light of such observations as I afterwards made among structures of the same style and period. I must, however, premise that, not being able to go inside while the excavators were in occupation, and remaining but one whole day at Abou Simbel after the work was ended, I had but short time at my disposal. I would gladly have made coloured copies of all the wall-paintings, but this was impossible. I therefore was obliged to be content with transcribing the inscriptions and sketching a few of the more important subjects.
The rock-cut chamber which I have hitherto described as a speos, and which we at first believed to be a tomb, was in fact neither the one nor the other. It was the adytum of a partly built, partly excavated monument coeval in date with the great temple. In certain points of design this monument resembles the contemporary speos of Bayt-el-Welly. It is evident, for instance, that the outer halls of both were originally vaulted; and the much mutilated sculptures over the doorway of the excavated chamber at Abou Simbel are almost identical in subject and treatment with those over the entrance to the excavated parts of Bayt-el-Welly. As regards general conception, the Abou Simbel monument comes under the same head with the contemporary temples of Derr, Gerf Hossayn, and Wady Sabooah; being in a mixed style which combines excavation with construction. This style seems to have been peculiarly in favour during the reign of Rameses II.
Situate at the south-eastern angle of the rock, a little way beyond the façade of the great temple, this rock-cut adytum and hall of entrance face south-east by east, and command much the same view that is commanded higher up by the Temple of Hathor. The adytum, or excavated speos, measures 21 feet 2 1/2 inches in breadth by 14 feet 8 inches in length. The height from floor to ceiling is about 12 feet. The doorway measures 4 feet 3 1/2 inches in width; and the outer recess for the door-frame, 5 feet. Two large circular holes, one in the threshold and the other in the lintel, mark the place of the pivot on which the door once swung.
It is not very easy to measure the outer hall in its present ruined and encumbered state; but as nearly as we could judge its dimensions are as follows: – Length, 25 feet; width, 22 1/2 feet; width of principal entrance facing the Nile, 6 feet; width of two side entrances 4 feet and 6 feet respectively; thickness of crude-brick walls, 3 feet. Engaged in the brickwork on either side of the principal entrance to this hall are two stone door-jambs; and some six or eight feet in front of these, there originally stood two stone hawks on hieroglyphed pedestals. One of these hawks we found in situ, the other lay some little distance off, and the painter (suspecting nothing of these after-revelations) had used it as a post to which to tie one of the main ropes of his sketching tent. A large hieroglyphed slab, which I take to have formed part of the door, lay overturned against the side of the pylon some few yards nearer the river.
As far as
the adytum and outer hall are concerned, the accompanying
ground-plan – which is in part founded on my own measurements,
and in part
borrowed from the ground-plan drawn out by the painter – may be
tolerably correct. But with regard to the pylon, I can only say with
that the central staircase is three feet in width, and that the walls
side of it are seven feet in thickness. So buried is it in
débris and sand, that
even to indicate where the building ends and the rubbish begins at the
the Nile, is impossible. This part is therefore left indefinite in the
So far as we could see, there was no stone revêtement upon the inner side of the walls of the pronaos. If anything of the kind ever existed, some remains of it would probably be found by thoroughly clearing the area; an interesting enterprise for any who may have leisure to undertake it.
I have now to speak of the decorations of the adytum, the walls of which, from immediately under the ceiling to within three feet of the floor, are covered with religious subjects elaborately sculptured in bas-relief, coated as usual with a thin film of stucco, and coloured with a richness for which I know no parallel, except in the tomb of Seti I3 at Thebes. Above the level of the drifted sand, this colour was as brilliant in tone and as fresh in surface as on the day when it was transferred to those walls from the palette of the painter. All below that level, however, was dimmed and damaged.
The ceiling is surrounded by a frieze of cartouches supported by sacred asps; each cartouche, with its supporters, being divided from the next by a small sitting figure. These figures, in other respects uniform, wear the symbolic heads of various gods – the cow-head of Hathor, the ibis-head of Thoth, the hawk-head of Horus, the jackal-head of Anubis, etc. etc. The cartouches contain the ordinary style and title of Rameses II (Ra-user-ma Sotep-en-Ra Rameses Mer-Amen), and are surmounted by a row of sun-disks. Under each sitting god is depicted the phonetic hieroglyph signifying Mer, or Beloved. By means of this device, the whole frieze assumes the character of a connected legend, and describes the king not only as beloved of Amen, but as Rameses beloved of Hathor, of Thoth, of Horus – in short, of each god depicted in the series.
These gods excepted, the frieze is almost identical in design with the frieze in the first hall of the great temple.
To the left of the Horus ensign, seated back-to-back with Ra upon a similar throne, sits Amen-Ra – of all Egyptian gods the most terrible to look upon – with his blue-black complexion, his corselet of golden chain-armour, and his head-dress of towering plumes.7 Here the wonderful preservation of the surface enabled one to see by what means the ancient artists were wont to produce this singular blue-black effect of colour. It was evident that the flesh of the god had first been laid in with dead black, and then coloured over with a dry, powdery cobalt-blue, through which the black remained partially visible. He carries in one hand the ankh, and in the other the greyhound-headed sceptre.
The subjects represented on this wall are as follows:–
1. Rameses, life-size, presiding over a table of offerings. The king wears upon his head the klaft, or head-cloth, striped gold and white, and decorated with the uræus. The table is piled in the usual way with flesh, fowl, and flowers. The surface being here quite perfect, the details of these objects are seen to be rendered with suprising minuteness. Even the tiny black feather-stumps of the plucked geese are given with the fidelity of Chinese art; while a red gash in the breast of each shows in what way it was slain for the sacrifice. The loaves are shaped precisely like the so-called “cottage-loaves” of to-day, and have the same little depression in the top, made by the baker’s finger. Lotus and papyrus blossoms in elaborate bouquet-holders crown the pile.
2. Two tripods of light and elegant design, containing flowers.
3. The Bari, or sacred boat, painted gold-colour, with the usual veil half-drawn across the naos, or shrine; the prow of the boat being richly carved, decorated with the Uta9 or symbolic eye, and preceded by a large fan of ostrich feathers. The boat is peopled with small black figures, one of which kneels at the stern; while a sphinx couchant, with black body and human head, keeps watch at the prow. The sphinx symbolises the king.
On this wall, in a space between the sacred boat and the figure of Rameses, occurs the following inscription, sculptured in high relief and elaborately coloured:–
Said by Thoth, the Lord of Sesennu10 [residing] in Amenheri,11 – I give to thee an everlasting sovereignty over the Two Countries, O Son of [my] body, Beloved, Ra-user-ma Sotep-en-Ra, acting as propitiator of thy Ka. I give to thee myriads of festivals of Rameses beloved of Amen, Ra-user-ma Sotep-en-Ra, as prince of every place where the sun-disk revolves. The beautiful living god, maker of beautiful things for [his] father Thoth Lord of Sesennu [residing] in Amenheri. He made mighty and beautiful monuments for ever facing the eastern horizon of heaven.
The meaning of which is that Thoth, addressing Rameses II, then living and reigning, promises him a long life and many anniversaries of his jubilee,12 in return for the works made in his (Thoth’s) honour at Abou Simbel and elsewhere.
At the upper end of this wall is depicted a life-sized female figure wearing an elaborate blue head-dress surmounted by a disk and two ostrich feathers. She holds in her right hand the ankh, and in her left the jackal-headed sceptre. This not being the sceptre of a goddess, and the head-dress resembling that of the Queen as represented on the façade of the temple of Hathor, I conclude we have here a portrait of Nefertari corresponding to the portrait of Rameses on the opposite wall. Near her stands a table of offerings, on which, among other objects, are placed four vases of a rich blue colour traversed by bands of yellow. They perhaps represent the kind of glass known as the false murrhine.13 Each of these vases contains an object like a pine, the ground-colour of which is deep yellow, patterned over with scale-like subdivisions in vermilion. We took them to represent grains of maize pyramidally piled.
Lastly, a pendant to that on the opposite wall, comes the sacred Bari. It is, however, turned the reverse way, with its prow towards the east; and it rests upon an altar, in the centre of which are the cartouches of Rameses II and a small hieroglyphic inscription signifying: “Beloved by Amen-Ra, King of the gods resident in the Land of Kenus.”14
Beyond this point, at the end nearest the north-east corner of the chamber, the piled sand conceals whatever else the wall may contain in the way of decoration.
If the east wall is decorated like the others (which may be taken for granted), its tableaux and inscriptions are hidden behind the sand which here rises to the ceiling. The doorway also occurs in this wall, occupying a space 4 feet 3 1/2 inches in width on the inner side.
One of the most interesting incidents connected with the excavation of this little adytum remains yet to be told.
I have described the female figure at the upper end of the north wall, and how she holds in her right hand the ankh and in her left the jackal-headed sceptre. The hand that holds the ankh hangs by her side; the hand that holds the sceptre is half raised. Close under this upraised hand, at a height of between three and four feet from the actual level of the floor, there were visible upon the uncoloured surface of the original stucco several lines of free-hand writing. This writing was laid on, apparently, with the brush, and the ink, if ever it had been black, had now become brown. Five long lines and three shorter lines were uninjured. Below these were traces of other fragmentary lines, almost obliterated by the sand.
We knew at once that this quaint faint writing must be in either the hieratic or demotic hand. We could distinguish, or thought we could distinguish, in its vague outlines of forms already familiar to us in the hieroglyphs – abstracts, as it were, of birds and snakes and boats. There could be no doubt, at all events, that the thing was curious; and we set it down in our own minds as the writing of either the architect or decorator of the place.
Anxious to make, if possible, an exact facsimile of this inscription, the Writer copied it three times. The last and best of these copies is here reproduced in photolithography, with a translation from the pen of the late Dr. Birch. We all know how difficult it is to copy correctly in a language of which one is ignorant; and the tiniest curve or dot omitted is fatal to the sense of these ancient characters. In the present instance, notwithstanding the care with which the transcript was made, there must still have been errors; for it has been found undecipherable in places; and in these places there occur inevitable lacunæ.
Enough, however, remains to show that the lines were written, not as we had supposed by the artist, but by a distinguished visitor, whose name unfortunately is illegible. This visitor was a son of the Prince of Kush, or as it is literally written, the Royal Son of Kush; that being the official title of the Governor of Ethiopia.19 As there were certainly eight governors of Ethiopia during the reign of Rameses II (and perhaps more, whose names have not reached us), it is impossible even to hazard a guess at the parentage of our visitor. We gather, however, that he was sent hither to construct a road; also that he built transport boats; and that he exercised priestly functions in that part of the temple which was inaccessible to all but dignitaries of the sacerdotal order.
Site, inscriptions, and decorations taken into account, there yet remains this question to be answered:–
What was the nature and character of the monument just described?
It adjoined a pylon, and, as we have seen, consisted of a vaulted pronaos in crude brick, and an adytum excavated in the rock. On the walls of this adytum are depicted various gods with their attributes, votive offerings, and portraits of the king performing acts of adoration. The Bari, or ark, is also represented upon the north and south walls of the adytum. These are unquestionably the ordinary features of a temple, or chapel.
On the other hand, there must be noted certain objections to these premises. It seemed to us that the pylon was built first, and that the south boundary wall of the pronaos, being a subsequent erection, was supported against the slope of the pylon as far as where the spring of the vaulting began. Besides which, the pylon would have been a disproportionately large adjunct to a little monument the entire length of which, from the doorway of the pronaos to the west wall of the adytum, was less than 47 feet. We therefore concluded that the pylon belonged to the large temple, and was erected at the side, instead of in front of the façade, on account of the very narrow space between the mountain and the river.20
The pylon at Kom Ombo is, probably for the same reason, placed at the side of the temple and on a lower level. To those who might object that a brick pylon would hardly be attached to a temple of the first class, I would observe that the remains of a similar pylon are still to be seen at the top of what was once the landing-place leading to the great temple at Wady Halfeh. It may, therefore, be assumed that this little monument, although connected with the pylon by means of a doorway and staircase, was an excrescence of later date.
Being an excrescence, however, was it, in the strict sense of the word, a temple?
Even this seems to be doubtful. In the adytum there is no trace of any altar – no fragment of stone dais or sculptured image – no granite shrine, as at Philæ – no sacred recess, as at Denderah. The standard of Horus Aroëris, engraven on page 340, occupies the centre place upon the wall facing the entrance, and occupies it, not as a tutelary divinity, but as a decorative device to separate the two large subjects already described. Again, the gods represented in these subjects are Ra and Amen-Ra, the tutelary gods of the great temple; but if we turn to the dedicatory inscription on page 344 we find that Thoth, whose image never occurs at all upon the walls21 (unless as one of the little gods in the cornice), is really the presiding deity of the place. It is he who welcomes Rameses and his offerings; who acknowledges the “glory” given to him by his beloved son; and who, in return for the great and good monuments erected in his honour, promises the king that he shall be given an “everlasting sovereignty over the Two Countries.”
Now Thoth was, par excellence, the god of Letters. He is styled the Lord of Divine Words; the Lord of the Sacred Writings; the Spouse of Truth. He personifies the Divine Intelligence. He is the patron of art and science; and he is credited with the invention of the alphabet. In one of the most interesting of Champollion’s letters from Thebes,22 he relates how, in the fragmentary ruins of the western extremity of the Ramesseum, he found a doorway adorned with the figures of Thoth and Safek; Thoth as the god of Literature, and Safek inscribed with the title of Lady President of the Hall of Books. At Denderah, there is a chamber especially set apart for the sacred writings, and its walls are sculptured all over with a catalogue raisonnée of the manuscript treasures of the Temple. At Edfu, a kind of closet built up between two pillars of the Hall of Assembly was reserved for the same purpose. Every Temple, in short, had its library; and as the Egyptian books – being written on papyrus or leather, rolled up, and stored in coffers – occupied but little space, the rooms appropriated to this purpose were generally small.
It was Dr. Birch’s opinion that our little monument may have been the library of the Great Temple of Abou Simbel. This being the case, the absence of an altar, and the presence of Ra and Amen-Ra in the two principal tableaux, are sufficiently accounted for. The tutelary deity of the Great Temple and the patron deity of Rameses II would naturally occupy, in this subsidiary structure, the same places that they occupy in the principal one; while the library, though in one sense the domain of Thoth, is still under the protection of the gods of the Temple to which it is an adjunct.
I do not believe we once asked ourselves how it came to pass that the place had remained hidden all these ages long; yet its very freshness proved how early it must have been abandoned. If it had been open in the time of the successors of Rameses II, they would probably, as elsewhere, have interpolated inscriptions and cartouches, or have substituted their own cartouches for those of the founder. If it had been open in the time of the Ptolemies and Cæsars, travelling Greeks and learned Romans, and strangers from Byzantium and the cities of Asia Minor, would have cut their names on the door-jambs and scribbled ex-votos on the walls. If it had been open in the days of Nubian Christianity, the sculptures would have been coated with mud, and washed with lime, and daubed with pious caricatures of St. George and the Holy Family. But we found it intact – as perfectly preserved as a tomb that had lain hidden under the rocky bed of the desert. For these reasons I am inclined to think that it became inaccessible shortly after it was completed. There can be little doubt that a wave of earthquake passed, during the reign of Rameses II, along the left bank of the Nile, beginning possibly above Wady Halfeh, and extending at least as far north as Gerf Hossayn. Such a shock might have wrecked the temple at Wady Halfeh, as it dislocated the pylon of Wady Sabooah, and shook the built-out porticoes of Derr and Gerf Hossayn; which last four temples, as they do not, I believe, show signs of having been added to by later Pharaohs, may be supposed to have been abandoned in consequence of the ruin which had befallen them. Here, at all events, it shook the mountain of the great temple, cracked one of the Osiride columns of the First Hall,23 shattered one of the four great Colossi, more or less injured the other three, flung down the great brick pylon, reduced the pronaos of the library to a heap of ruin, and not only brought down part of the ceiling of the excavated adytum, but rent open a vertical fissure in the rock, some 20 or 25 feet in length.
With so much irreparable damage done to the great temple, and with so much that was reparable calling for immediate attention, it is no wonder that these brick buildings were left to their fate. The priests would have rescued the sacred books from among the ruins, and then the place would have been abandoned.
So much by way of conjecture. As hypothesis, a sufficient reason is perhaps suggested for the wonderful state of preservation in which the little chamber had been handed down to the present time. A rational explanation is also offered for the absence of later cartouches, of Greek and Latin ex-votos, of Christian emblems, and of subsequent mutilation of every kind. For, save that one contemporary visitor – the son of the Royal Son of Kush – the place contained, when we opened it, no record of any passing traveller, no defacing autograph of tourist, archæologist, or scientific explorer. Neither Belzoni nor Champollion had found it out. Even Lepsius had passed it by.
It happens sometimes that hidden things, which in themselves are easy to find, escape detection because no one thinks of looking for them. But such was not the case in this present instance. Search had been made here again and again; and even quite recently.
It seems that when the Khedive24 entertains distinguished guests and sends them in gorgeous dahabeeyahs up the Nile, he grants them a virgin mound, or so many square feet of a famous necropolis; lets them dig as deep as they please; and allows them to keep whatever they may find. Sometimes he sends out scouts to beat the ground; and then a tomb is found and left unopened, and the illustrious visitor is allowed to discover it. When the scouts are unlucky, it may even sometimes happen that an old tomb is re-stocked; carefully closed up; and then, with all the charm of unpremeditation, re-opened a day or two after.
Now Sheykh Rashwan Ebn Hassan el Kashef told us that in 1869, when the Empress of the French was at Abou Simbel, and again when the Prince and Princess of Wales came up in 1872, after the Prince’s illness, he received strict orders to find some hitherto undiscovered tomb,25 in order that the Khedive’s guests might have the satisfaction of opening it. But, he added, although he left no likely place untried among the rocks and valleys on both sides of the river, he could find nothing. To have unearthed such a Birbeh as this, would have done him good service with the Government, and have ensured him a splendid bakhshîsh from Prince or Empress. As it was, he was reprimanded for want of diligence, and he believed himself to have been out of favour ever since.
I may here mention – in order to have done with this subject – that besides being buried outside to a depth of about eight feet, the adytum had been partially filled inside by a gradual infiltration of sand from above. This can only have accumulated at the time when the old sand-drift was at its highest. That drift, sweeping in one unbroken line across the front of the great temple, must at one time have risen here to a height of twenty feet above the present level. From thence the sand had found its way down the perpendicular fissure already mentioned. In the corner behind the door, the sand-pile rose to the ceiling, in shape just like the deposit at the bottom of an hour-glass. I am informed by the Painter that when the top of the doorway was found and an opening first effected, the sand poured out from within, like water escaping from an opened sluice.
Here, then, is positive proof (if proof were needed) that we were first to enter the place, at all events since the time when the great sand-drift rose as high as the top of the fissure.
The Painter wrote his name and ours, with the date (February 16th, 1874), on a space of blank wall over the inside of the doorway; and this was the only occasion upon which any of us left our names upon an Egyptian monument. On arriving at Korosko, where there is a post-office, he also despatched a letter to the “Times,” briefly recording the facts here related. That letter, which appeared on the 18th of March following, is reprinted in the Appendix at the end of this book.
I am told that our names are partially effaced, and that the wall-paintings which we had the happiness of admiring in all their beauty and freshness, are already much injured. Such is the fate of every Egyptian monument, great or small. The tourist carves it all over with names and dates, and in some instances with caricatures. The student of Egyptology, by taking wet paper “squeezes,” sponges away every vestige of the original colour. The “collector” buys and carries off everything of value that he can get; and the Arab steals for him. The work of destruction, meanwhile, goes on apace. There is no one to prevent it; there is no one to discourage it. Every day, more insciptions are mutilated – more tombs are rifled – more paintings and sculptures are defaced. The Louvre contains a full-length portrait of Seti I, cut out bodily from the walls of his sepulchre in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. The Museums of Berlin, of Turin, of Florence, are rich in spoils which tell their own lamentable tale. When science leads the way, is it wonderful that ignorance should follow?_______________________
1 The enclosure-wall of the great temple of Tanis is 80 feet thick. See "Tanis," Part I, by W. M. F. Petrie; published by the Committee of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1885. [Note to second edition.]
2 It was long believed that the Egyptians were ignorant of the principle of the arch. This, however, was not the case. There are brick arches of the time of Rameses II behind the Ramesseum at Thebes, and elsewhere. Still, arches are rare in Egypt. We filled in and covered the arch again, and the greater part of the staircase, in order to preserve the former.
3 Commonly known as Belzoni’s Tomb.
4 I write of these walls, for convenience, as north, south, east, and west, as one is so accustomed to regard the position of buildings parallel with the river; but the present monument, as it is turned slightly southward round the angle of the rock, really stands southeast by east, instead of east and west like the large temple.
5 Horus Aroëris. – “Celui-ci, qui semble avoir été frère d’Osiris, porte une tête d’épervier coiffée du pschent. Il est presque complètement identifié avec le soleil dans la plupart des lieux où il était adoré, et il en est de même très souvent pour Horus, fils d’Isis.” – "Notice Sommaire des Monuments du Louvre," 1873. De Rougé. In the present instance, this god seems to have been identified with Ra.
6 “Le sceptre à tête de lévrier, nommé à tort sceptre à tête de coucoupha, était porté par les dieux.” – "Dic. d’Arch. Egyptienne:" P. Pierret; Paris, 1875.
7 Amen of the blue complexion is the most ancient type of this god. He here represents divine royalty, in which character his title is: “Lord of the Heaven, of the Earth, of the Waters, and of the Mountains.” “Dans ce rôle de roi du monde, Amon a les chairs peintes en bleu pour indiquer sa nature céleste; et lorsqu’il porte le titre de Seigneur des Trônes, il est représenté assis, la couronne en tête: d’ordinaire il est debout.” – "Étude des Monuments de Karnak." De Rougé. "Mélanges d’Archeologie," vol. i. 1873.
There were almost as many varieties of Amen in Egypt as there are varieties of the Madonna in Italy or Spain. There was an Amen of Thebes, an Amen of Elephantine, an Amen of Coptos, an Amen of Chemmis (Panopolis), an Amen of the Resurrection, Amen of the Dew, Amen of the Sun (Amen-Ra), Amen Self-created, etc. etc. Amen and Khem were doubtless identical. It is an interesting fact that our English words, chemical, chemist, chemistry, etc., which the dictionaries derive from the Arabic al-kimia, may be traced back a step farther to the Panopolitan name of this most ancient god of the Egyptians, Khem (Gr. Pan; Latin, Priapus), the deity of plants and herbs and of the creative principle. A cultivated Egyptian would, doubtless, have regarded all these Amens as merely local or symbolical types of a single deity.
8 The material of this blue helmet, so frequently depicted on the monuments, may have been the Homeric Kuanos, about which so much doubt and conjecture have gathered, and which Mr. Gladstone supposes to have been a metal. – (See "Juventus Mundi," chap. xv. p. 532.) A paragraph in The Academy (June 8, 1876) gives the following particulars of certain perforated lamps of a “blue metallic substance,” discovered at Hissarlik by Dr. Schliemann, and there found lying under the copper shields to which they had probably been attached. “An analytical examination by Landerer (Berg. Hüttenm. Zeitung, xxxix. 430) has shown them to be sulphide of copper. The art of colouring the metal was known to the coppersmiths of Corinth, who plunged the heated copper into the fountain of Peirene. It appears not impossible that this was a sulphur spring, and that the blue colour may have been given to the metal by plunging it in a heated state into the water and converting the surface into copper sulphide.”
It is to be observed that the Pharaohs are almost always represented wearing this blue helmet in the battle-pieces, and that it is frequently studded with gold rings. It must therefore have been of metal. If not of sulphuretted copper, it may have been made of steel, which, in the well-known instance of the butcher’s sharpener, as well as in representations of certain weapons, is always painted blue upon the monuments.
9 “This eye, called uta, was extensively used by the Egyptians both as an ornament and amulet during life, and as a Sepulchral amulet. They are found in the form of right eyes and left eyes, and they symbolise the eyes of Horus, as he looks to the north and south horizons in his passage from east to west, i.e. from sunrise to sunset.”
M. Grebaut, in his translation of a hymn to Amen-Ra, observes: “Le soleil marchant d’Orient en Occident éclaire de ses deux yeux les deux régions du Nord et du Midi.” – "Révue Arch." vol. xxv. 1873; p. 387.
10 Sesennu – Eshmoon or Hermopolis.
11 Amenheri – Gebel Addeh.
12 These jubilees, or festivals of thirty years, were religious jubilees in celebration of each thirtieth anniversary of the accession of the reigning Pharaoh.
13 There are, in the British Museum, some bottles and vases of this description, dating from the eighteenth dynasty; see Case E, Second Egyptian Room. They are of dark blue translucent glass, veined with waving lines of opaque white and yellow.
14 Kenus – Nubia.
15 i.e. Ammon Ra, the sun god, in conjunction or identification with Har-em-aχu, of Horus-on-the-Horizon, another solar deity.
16 The primæval god.
17 Inner place, or sanctuary.
19 Governors of Ethiopia bore this title, even though they did not themselves belong to the family of the Pharaoh.
It is a curious fact that one of the Governors of Ethiopia during the reign of Rameses II was called Mes, or Messou, signifying son, or child – which is in fact Moses. Now the Moses of the Bible was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, “became to her as a son,” was instructed in the wisdom of the Egyptians, and married a Kushite woman, black but comely. It would perhaps be too much to speculate on the possibility of his having held the office of Governor, or Royal Son of Kush.
20 At about an equal distance to the north of the great temple, on the verge of the bank, is a shapeless block of brick ruin, which might possibly, if investigated, turn out to be the remains of a second pylon corresponding to this which we partially uncovered to the south.
21 He may, however, be represented on the north wall, where it is covered by the sand-heap.
22 Letter XIV. p. 235. "Nouvelle Ed.," Paris, 1868.
23 That this shock of earthquake occurred during the lifetime of Rameses II seems to be proven by the fact that, where the Osiride column is cracked across, a wall has been built up to support the two last pillars to the left at the upper end of the great hall, on which wall is a large stela covered with an elaborate hieroglyphic inscription, dating from the thirty-fifth year, and the 13th day of the month of Tybi, of the reign of Rameses II. The right arm of the external colossus, to the right of the great doorway, has also been suported by the introduction of an arm to his throne, built up of square blocks; this being the only arm to any of the thrones. Miss Martineau detected a restoration of part of the lower jaw of the northernmost colossus, and also a part of the dress of one of the Osiride statues in the great hall. I have in my possession a photograph taken at a time when the sand was several feet lower than at present, which shows that the right leg of the northernmost colossus is also a restoration on a gigantic scale, being built up, like the throne-arm, in great blocks, and finished, most probably, afterwards.
24 This refers to the Ex-Khedive, Ismail Pasha, who ruled Egypt at the time when this book was written and published. [Note to second edition.]
25 There are tombs in some of the ravines behind the temples, which, however, we did not see.