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A Visit to Karnak

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


"But her choice sport was, in the hours of sleep,
To glide adown old Nilus, where he threads
Egypt and Ethiopia from the steep
Of utmost Axumé until he spreads, -
Like a calm flock of silver-fleecèd sheep,
His waters on the plain, and crested heads
Of cities and proud temples gleam amid,
And many a vapor-belted pyramid."

SHELLEY—"Witch of Atlas."

WE entered the vast open gate—one of the finest of those entrances to the temples which gave Thebes the epithet of the hundred-gated—but not city gates. There never was a wall to the city, and these hundred gates admitted to what we can even now see to have been the grandest chain of temples, the scene of man's highest achievement in religious architecture. Though the Egyptians had the arch both round and pointed, the horizontal line was the inevitable expression of their genius. What a huge block was that which made the top of this doorway. How high hung in air, and how far grander was it all than the low, clumsy triumphal arch of Rome at its best! One's spirit was lifted to enter by such a portal. And then everywhere that profusion of figures on the surface, infinite simplicity and infinite de-tail. The avenue of sphinxes made no impression; so close together were they; so, as it were, beneath our feet; so mutilated, we could not judge them—we did not even try to do it; but when later, on a wall, we saw cut the flowing lines and majestic human face of a sphinx, we knew what they must have been. Soon, breathless with surprise, we stood in the great hall of Karnak. We could not look; we could only feel. So unaccustomed were we to such grandeur that we did not essay to take in the pro-portions of the temple, but sat amid this wreck of the Titans, and dreamily looked on and on, past many a fallen, many a standing, column, till our eye rested upon the sunshine of another temple-gate, so far away it seemed to be impossible that it should be a gate of Karnak.

Though we visited Karnak twice, we did not possess it. The unaccustomed nobleness of style—our ignorance of what each hall or colonnade might mean, and the cruel overthrow of these astonishing masses, made it impossible for our minds to possess them. When we again could review our Lepsius, our Martineau, our Wilkinson, we could with learned accuracy find the names for what we have seen, but sitting there, all was fused in the sentiment of ruined grandeur. And soon to know yet more ruin; in the first hall, every column but one had fallen; some slipped from the first drum and others incredibly snapped across, only one majestic survivor showing what they have been. I noticed that Nature, even when destructive, feels a touch of pity, and leaves for us enough beauty, with imagination's help, to complete the rest. We looked down with anger upon our slippery flooring, and almost hated the Nile for doing all this. He it is that sends his annual flood, baleful with poisonous nitre, to sap these columns the ages had spared for us, and soon must they all lie in dreadful confusion, while the wicked wave shall tear the beauty of their priceless lines. A sea-wall of burnt brick costing little, would, perhaps, save for us the beauty of Karnak. Let Christendom give the paltry sum, and see that the Khedive protects what the ages have en-trusted to him. A certain picturesqueness, from the strange position of half-fallen columns, some standing inclined and golden against the blue sky, and some heavily resting upon the shoulders of their upright brothers, have an effect in utter contrast to the architect's intention.

After all, this architecture consists only of temples, with upright walls, or sometimes inclined, and colonnades of columns not lofty, their capitals but variations of the line of the bud and flower of the lotus and papyrus. In this rainless country they needed no steep roof, there-fore the towering Gothic aisle was impossible, and the columns had to be close together for the flat slab to reach across. Light was not needed; it is in excess; and the old windows, of which we saw several examples, had heavy stone upright bars, but none across, for they needed not glass. Oddly enough, one of the first things we saw at Luxor was a cross ; the meaning of it we did not know, but there it was, seeming to say—your cross is mine, for I planted the seed of the sublime ethics which, stolen and transplanted in Judea by Moses, in the fulness of time flowered into the loveliness of Christ. But the figures in the temples far surpassed in august beauty our expectations. They move before our eyes a procession of spirits stripped of materialism and fastuous color, friendly yet remote, half imparting and half hiding their secret. They all have the beauty of adolescents, and spring forward with an energy which is only suppressed. There is not a child or an old man among them; they are the ideal of human life—youthful manhood. The immortal life of the hereafter blooms calm and everlasting upon each face, and their sweet close smile is the smile of present happiness; the brow is full, the eyes wide apart and heavy-lidded, their nose a delicate aquiline, their chin small and short. The whole countenance breathes spiritual loveliness, and even their great conquerors, from their chariots slaughtering and trampling their enemies, bend their bows, or wave their falchions, as in celestial calm; no frown disfigures their brows, and the same sweet smile we know so well is on their lips. They re-minded me of the Apollo watching the flight of his arrows, only his grace is that of a phthisical dandy compared with these. And we saw the trains of captives, with the thongs about their wrists, made little, as men so situated feel, and at Medînet Haboo we saw those captive Jews who link this land with our Bible.

So, at last, saturated, overwhelmed, as if time had presented us with a goblet too heavy for our weak nerves, we returned, jaded and joyous, to our dahabeah. Groups of palms printed their feathery architecture against the sunset, to show us in this full Egypt how all Nature's hints had not been appropriated, while over the little lake at their feet, flights of silvery ibises circled mysteriously. It was the evening's and the Nile's hour of worship, and gladly from our divans we watched and shared it, continuing the new adoration we had found at Karnak. Al-mighty Amun Ra looked sweetly at us, and we became in soul Egyptians, and mystery floated to us from the far tomb of Medînet Haboo on the twilight, while glistening Nilus, darkening in his banks, counted his flocks of birds in chaplets, as beadsmen do their beads. And calm fell upon us out of Heaven, and we were at peace.

We divided our work into alternate days on either side of the river, and so the second day we visited the Colossi. We had to take donkeys twice, crossing a little arm of the Nile in a stupendous boat, consisting of irregular chunks of unpainted wood, and the oars crooked tree-boughs. And our ghostly, tattered oarsman might well have been the original Egyptian Charon taking us to the Elysian fields and the dead of old. It is still the constant custom here for the dead to cross the Nile and be buried at home, and the old Egyptians always carried a corpse over an artificial lake, called the Lake of the Dead; and through these legends Charon first came from Greece to Italy.

We saw one of these boats, just at our boat's bow, starting with its freight of death. As the camel who bore the corpse was unladen, he lamented as never did hired mourner. They always wail and moan at the sight of a load; their cry might be called the burden of the Desert, in the sense the word is used in Holy Writ. The scrambling of the donkeys out of the boat on the Theban side was as funny as their getting in. A few sprang over, but mostly went piecemeal, or were hoisted over like infants. Soon we were proudly careering over the level plain with our obbligato suite of Scarabee-Arabs and bright little girls who ran by our side carrying water-pitchers for our lunch, and showing their faultless teeth, made whiter by their eyes of darkness. Of all gifts of bone or ivory which we could carry from Egypt we would most gladly take these pearly teeth; even the very mummies have them; no hot bread and sugary messes have spoiled for the earlier or later Egyptians their beautiful enamel. And so we rode through the streets of lupin, whose inexpressible green and whose enchanting odor struck our senses with delight, watched by the guardians of the plain and of the mystic city behind them.

These great Twin Brethren are the only statues in Egypt whose situation is perfection. Others are lost in rubbish, or crowded against fallen column or propylon, but these sit secure in their solitude with the purple mountains behind them, and gazing with their sightless eyes at their brethren of Karnak. Shattered, defaced, featureless, they still look with a regal placidity through the disfigurement which somehow still keeps this expression. And they are just far enough apart; their seventy feet of height measures the space between them ; it gives them privacy in companionship. Their simplicity was utter, nor could rent or fissure destroy it. Eugenio and I both tried our hand at sketches. It was perhaps better than writing our names upon the base, and yet so we should have been in illustrious company. Famous kings and heroes, from the golden days of Greece and Rome down to the persistent snob of our own time, are there all inscribed.

The music of Memnon, it is almost certain, was caused by the disruption of particles in its sandstone as the sun acted on the moisture of the night. An Arab clambered up the statue's back, and struck it with a stone, when it resounded musically.

After the Colossi, Medînet Haboo. The remains of temples here, less oppressively sublime than those of Karnak, had fascinations of their own. They were of the good period, and their cuttings had that beautiful precision and netteté which Rome vainly attempted to rival. Among the most charming things here in the long corridors were the blue ceilings of starry sky, still retaining their colors. The stars were all five-pointed, with three points on one side. And I stood where I could compare the blue of this sky with the real one beyond; they were wonderfully the same ; the temple sky seemed a continuation of the one without.

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