The Egyptian Pyramids And The Sphinx
( Originally Published early 20th century )
Upon the chaotic desert that tumbles eastward from an infinite horizon, jagged in sandy billows that seem to be falling back upon themselves, rose the pyramids — dumb, inexplicable forms ; dimmest and farthest of all, the great pyramids of Gizeh, looming in the faint haze of noon, like the relics of foreworld art, defying curiosity and speculation.
We slipped down to Gizeh and early the next morning donkeyed quietly to the pyramids. Except for the sake of the sphinx the howadji would advise the visit only to the scientific and curious, and is the more willing to say so because he knows that every traveler would not fail to go. But the pyramids were built for the distant eye, and their poetic grandeur and charm belong to distance. When your eye first strikes them, as you come up from Alexandria to Cairo, they stand out, vague, rosy, and distant, and are at once and entirely the Egypt of your dreams. The river winds and winds, and they seem to shift their places, to be now here, now there, now on the western shore, now on the eastern, until Egypt becomes, to your only too glowing fancy, a bright day and a pyramid.
Walk out beyond the village of Gizeh at twilight, then, and see them, not nearer than the breadth of the plain. They will seem to gather up the whole world into silence, and you will feel a pathos in their dumbness quite below your tears. They have out-lived speech, and are no more intelligible. Yet the freshness of youth still flushes in the sunset along their sides, and even these severe and awful forms have a beautiful bloom, as of Hesperidian fruit, in your memory and imagination.
But as you approach they shrink and shrink, and when you stand at their bases and cast your eye to the apex, they are but vast mountains of masonry, sloping upward to the sky. Bedouins, importunate for endless baksheesh, will pull you, breathless and angry, to the summit, and promise to run up and over all possible pyramids and, for aught you know, throw you across to the peaks of their Sakkara cousins. Only threats most terrible and entirely impossible of performance can restore the necessary silence. Express distinctly your determination to plunge every Bedouin down the pyramid, when they have you, dizzy and breathless and gasping, on the sides, as you go up from layer to layer, like stairs ; swear in your gasping and rage that you will only begin by throwing them down, but will conclude by annihilating the whole tribe who haunt the pyramids — and you work a miracle, for the Bedouins become as placidly silent as if your threats were feasible, and only mutter mildly, " Baksheesh, howadji, like retiring and innocent thunder.
There are those who explore the pyramids—who, from poetic or other motives, go into an utterly dark, hot, and noisome interior, see a broken sarcophagus, feel that they are incased in solid masonry, hear the howls of Bedouins, and return faint, exhausted, smoke-blackened, with their pockets picked and their nerves direfully disturbed. To such the exploration of the pyramids may be as it was to Nero — a grand and memorable epoch in his life, for he said that he felt the greatness of old Egypt more profoundly in the pyramids than anywhere else.
Yet you must seek the pyramids, else you would miss the sphinx, and the memory of that omission would more sadly haunt you afterwards than her riddle haunted the old victims of her spells.
The desert is enamored of his grotesque darling, and gradually gathers around it and draws it back again to his bosom. It well seems the child of desert inspiration. It lies on the very edge. of the desert, which recoils above the plain as at Sakkara. The sand has covered it, and only head, neck, and back are above its level. In vain Caviglia strove to stay the desert. More than half of the sand that he daily excavated blew back again at night.
The sphinx, with raised head, gazes expectantly toward the east, nor dropped its eyes when Cambyses or Napoleon came. The nose is gone and the lips are gradually going ; the constant attrition of sand grains wears them away. The back is a mass of rock, and the temple between the forepaws is buried forever. " Still unread is my riddle," it seems to say, and looks untiring for him who shall solve it.
Its beauty is more Nubian than Egyptian, or is rather a blending of both. Its bland gaze is serious and sweet. Yet unwinking, unbending, in the yellow oonlight silence of those desert sands, will it breathe mysteries more magical, and rarer romances of the Mountains of the Moon and the Nile sources than ever Arabian imagination dreamed. Be glad that the sphinx was your last wonder upon the Nile, for it seems to contain and express the rest. And from its thinned and thinning lips, as you move back to the river with all Egypt behind you, trails a voice inaudible, like a serpent gorgeously folding about your memory — " Egypt and mystery, 0 sphinx ! "