Page images
PDF
EPUB

people could see would be the processions on the temple tops. It may be for this reason that the flat roofs of Egyptian temples were so obviously built for use. The dual purpose of the Egyptian priest would be served by this. He did not wish the common people to have any real acquaintance with his rites, while he wished to impress them with a sense of his magical and mysterious importance and power. There have been only two modern instances of a priesthood so successfully rapacious of power as the Egyptians. They actually seized the throne of Egypt on the death of Rameses XII. It was at Denderah that I first grasped the power and magnificence of the hierarchy of ancient Egypt. We landed in the early morning, and rode along the high bank of the Nile for half an hour. We could see almost immediately, away on our left, a building rising above the fields, which in the distance looked like a cricket pavilion. Nor did we see any native life in the fields to tell us where we were, until a sharp turn to the left took us down to the modest pylon which seems to have so little connection with the temple. There, in front of us, was our pavilion, which had changed into a heavy, low-browed façade in the ancient Egyptian style, with its columns half taken up by gigantic capitals formed out of the heads of Hathor, the goddess of Denderah. It is easiest to describe Hathor as the Egyptian Venus, but the definition is not exact. She was in a way the Goddess of Love and Beauty, but she was much more; she shared many features of Isis ; she had one attribute of Juno. But she did personify the feminine principle, and the practical Egyptian identified her with, and generally represented her in the shape of the cow. Greek influences were strong at Denderah; so Hathor here is allowed to wear her woman's form divine; it was at Der-el-Bahari that she was emphasised as a cow. I did not think particularly of Egyptian mythology as I made my awe-struck entrance into the great temple of Denderah; it was more religion in the abstract; more the spirit of antiquity which obsessed me. The moment I had passed through that mighty portico I found myself in a hall of immense size, whose massive and lofty columns were covered with sculptures and paintings of the gods, and religious rites. It was as dark as the dusk, for Denderah still has its roof on, with the same rich sculpture and painting as the columns and walls, though darkened in places by the fires of the Arab when it was filled with sand almost to the top. The pictures, however debased, had a human interest here which is denied to most temple-pictures, for their subjects were scenes from the life of Nero, when he was masquerading as a Pharaoh and a High Priest of the religion of Egypt. But there were also, high up on the walls, some mythological groups of great beauty like that of the Trinity of Bubastis—Isis, Osiris, and Horus. I confess that I did not look at the pictures minutely. I was enjoying the impression of size, architectural splendour, and colour and mysteriousness. The last was heightened by the huge bats which flew about squealing and stinking: it is impossible to think of an Egyptian temple, which retains its roof, without these bats. Even the winged sun, the emblem of Horus, has wings shaped like a bat, though feathered like a bird's— for no reason which I could tell. This Hall of Columns at Denderah, one of the great hypostyle halls of Egypt, though inferior in size to Karnak's and in art to that of Abydos, has a special interest, for it was finished while our Lord was at Jerusalem, though the Nero pictures were added afterwards. And we therefore see the world in one of its most important centres of religion and civilisation as it was, when He came to convert it. Our dragoman prated of the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the cartouches of kings, and the duel between Horus and the power of darkness, who had slain his father, Osiris; and especially about the Greek intrusions in the Egyptian signs of the Zodiac on the ceiling (if the Zodiac was Egyptian at all). But I was more interested when he began to explain the plan of the temple from the vestibule to the sanctuary of the goddess. When we left that gigantic and solemn vestibule, we found ourselves in the Hall of the Appearance, where, between six great columns, the processions were formed and passed inwards through the Hall of the Altar and the Hall of the Cycle of the Gods to the Sanctuary of the Golden Hathor, where they kept the four sacred boats which formed the principal feature of these processions. Each boat contained a temple with the image of a god on it. In the centre of the sanctuary was a veil like the veil of the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem. Its fittings still remain. All round the Hall of the Appearance were the chambers used for the service and storing of the temple—the asit, where they made the perfumed oils and essences used in anointing ; the sahit, where the offerings of the fruits of the earth were collected and consecrated ; the passages through which the offerings of Upper and Lower Egypt were brought in ; the silver house, where the plate of the temple was kept, still adorned with pictures of the Pharaoh offering gold and silver vessels to the goddess; the wardrobe, where they kept the sacred vestments of king and priest; the six small chambers and the special temple on the terrace, used in connection with the great procession of the New Year at Denderah, which was as elaborate as the Panathenaea at Athens ; the corridors, emblazoned with pictures of the King in his relations to the gods, which divided the sanctuary from the dozen little chapels dedicated to the Resurrection of Osiris, and to Isis being brought to bed of Horus, and to Osiris overcoming the crocodiles, and to Hathor giving fresh life to the sun, and so on ; the most sacred of all being the Dwelling of Hathor, right behind the sanctuary, which contained the inner chamber, only to be entered by the King himself, where the golden sistrum of Hathor was kept. The interest of Denderah does not end here. There are chambers above and below, and in the thickness of the walls, all decorated in the same lavish way with paintings and sculptures, and secret chambers in the walls, whose proper entrances have never been discovered, used as refuges and treasuries. These are not decorated. On the north side is a winding staircase and on the south a staircase with a slope so gradual that it runs for half the length of the temple in the thickness of the wall. These two staircases are as good as a book. Following the Egyptian precedent, they present upon their walls the entire New Year's procession, which passed up one and down the other. The splendid flat roof built of stone, and commanding the great view up and down the river, has two minor temples built upon it—one dedicated to the death and resurrection of Osiris, with three chambers for the various forms under which he was worshipped in Upper Egypt, and three for the various forms under which he was worshipped in Lower Egypt; the other a dear little hypaethral temple in the Greek style. Not less interesting are the vaults of the temple, which contain some of its best sculptures and paintings. Here, as in the Dwelling of Hathor, King Pepi I. of the sixth dynasty, who lived three thousand years before the Ptolemies, and was one of the most munificent patrons of Denderah, is kneeling before Hathor, and here he is offering a golden image, which indicates that the treasures presented by him to the temple were kept in these vaults which, even in December, have a temperature of about 100° Fahrenheit; I thought that they might more appropriately have been decorated with scenes from the lower regions. Such is the interior of the first Egyptian temple I saw, a congeries of noble halls and little shrines and vaults and passages, all with their paintings and sculptures comparatively uninjured—even the roofs were decorated with the signs of the Zodiac, and the heavenly goddess Nut, with her elongated body folded square round the whole sky. The painting has faded from the exterior, but it is still covered with sculptures—inside and out. Five Roman emperors contributed to its decoration : Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, and Hadrian added a pylon. But the most interesting decoration of the exterior is on its back face, in the Ptolemaic style, for here the famous Cleopatra—Cleopatra VI. of Egyptian history—caused the images of herself and Caesarion, her son by the immortal Julius Caesar, to be carved. The witch of Egypt has little beauty of face or figure in this conventionalised carving, but the Temple of Denderah is more closely connected with her than any existing building. Within the lofty wall of crude bricks which surround the temple proper are subsidiary temples, the chief of which are the temples dedicated to Isis, and the Mammisi or birth-house of Horus; and all round the temples are remains of the houses and tombs of ancient Tentyris. One of the temples of the group was long used as a Coptic church: the crosses may still be distinguished. The Temple of Denderah may be of only Ptolemaic antiquity—it may have no gigantic pylon, no dromos of sphinxes, no colonnaded court, but it is so unusually perfect and so brilliantly decorated that visitors are always impressed by it apart from its connection with Cleopatra.

« PreviousContinue »