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The Temple Of Karnak

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



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 sidechambers; 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 avenue 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 great 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 IL, 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 W ilkinson 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 blazon, ings 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 breadthsuch 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 stone - huge monoliths 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...

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. Their leaves know no sounds less musical than the singing of the 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.



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