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Luxor, the City of the Lotus-eater
UXOR is the city of the lotus-eater. Here the scenery
and climate of the Nile reach perfection. It is the place to dream away the rest of your life.
But the British residents are no dreamers, though they may have dreams--imaginings like those which come in subconsciousness to sleepers. For Luxor is the headquarters of excavation, He who wishes to disturb the dead, to make them tell how they lived, goes to Luxor as his base, and from it descends upon Thebes or Abydos.
Luxor is the chief centre of the conspicuous ruins of ancient Thebes. It has itself the finest temple actually on the banks of the Nile, and away in the palm groves of Karnak, and across the broad waters at Thebes, are the most splendid groups of temples in all Egypt. The effect would be much greater if ancient Thebes was not divided under three names now. In ancient days Thebes was Western Thebes, and Luxor and Karnak were Eastern Thebes. If the whole place were now called Thebes, visitors would be thunderstruck with its vastness.
Luxor is an unimaginably beautiful place. There are houses in Luxor with exquisite riverside gardens, from which you look down upon Luxor's mighty temple, aggrandised by Egypt's rulers from Rameses the Great to Alexander the Great, and across the river at all the temples of Thebes, with the rim of the Sahara behind them.
Those riverside gardens of Luxor! I know of nothing quite so beautiful in their way. Take the garden of the Savoy Hotel, for instance. Green lawns and flowering shrubs of tropical luxuriance are divided from the river by a high terrace to guard them from the annual inundation. Along this terrace runs a snow-white pergola, roofed from the sun, and with its white columns curtained by a crimson bougainvillea. On the other side broad steps lead down from the terrace to the Nile, running many feet below. Across the water is Thebes, spread out for the eye. At the foot of the steps lie two or three Nile galleys, as classical in outline as if they had belonged to the ancient city, with their white-robed crews lazily executing Nubian dances, or plaiting fantastic fly-switches of palm-leaves, to lure piastres from the pockets of the visitors, till some one wishes to cross to Thebes or go for a sail on the Nile.
But it is hard to leave that terrace. I could sit all day long, all the winter through, at the openings of that pergola, watching the fishermen plying their primitive craft and the huge gyassas which carry on the trade of the Nile drifting down the swift current or running before the strong north wind, with their cargoes of golden grain or piled-up pitchers of white clay.
Once in a way one of Cook's tourist steamers comes merrily up from Cairo—a thing of beauty, with its gleaming white hull and its decks as gay as a garden-party, with men in light flannels and women in summer splendour.
The soft air and golden light of the Egyptian winter make everything seem like a dream; and the dragomans in their fine Arab robes, and the statuesque donkey-boys, and the swaying camels complete the picture. Luxor is ancient Egypt redivivus, and it is not without its illusions of the Middle Ages, for it has a very ancient mosque imprisoned in its temple, and a wonderful school built out of Pharaonic stones.
But never go south of the temple unless it is to hurry through to the cool halls and classical terraces of the Winter Palace Hotel, for the plage of Luxor, where the principal shops are situated, is the Egyptian Margate. There is hardly a shop but has its tout entreating you to have kodaks developed or buy films and postcards and
souvenir jewellery and ostrich-feather fans. You can hardly
your attention must be transfered to him ; he interrupts you all the time that you are doing anything else, till you hire him or his donkey, or buy his sham antiquities, or insult him, or damn him, or push him away. The only way in which you can protect yourself is to give an unlicensed guide a shilling for the morning or afternoon, if he does not speak till he is spoken to, and does not let any other Egyptian come near you. It is a form of blackmail; but he can carry your camera, and is probably as good a dragoman as any but the best, though he is not allowed to call himself one.
I shall not easily forget our first hour in Luxor. Our steamer ran alongside just as the last rose of sunset was flushing the marvellous procession of lotus-headed columns reflected in the Nile. At such a moment the great temple of Luxor looks almost unearthly in its splendour and its long array of giant columns.
When the business of landing was over, we found ourselves in that contest of afterglow and darkness which in Egypt passes for dusk, walking past the temple, and a little hill which had a temple underneath, and a mosque on the top of it, and blatant antiquity dealers, along the lofty shore to the cool dark palm groves which envelop Karnak. As we returned from the mysteriousness of seeing that wilderness of ruins for the first time, in the deepening dusk, we compared it with our vision of Thebes--a wide plain, with the Temple of Der-el-Bahari cut in the bulwarks of the Sahara, which we had seen beyond the Nile canopied by the green-and-golden
afterglow on which our eyes had been fixed for the first ten minutes of our walk. Which was to hold our heartsKarnak, or Thebes, or Luxor?
We came back a different way, threading the winding bazar of Luxor, with its poor little curio shops lit by a single feeble lamp, and its garish Greek groceries. We had barely time to dress for dinner, and promised ourselves an early retirement to rest from our labours, for we were to rise at dawn to begin a long day at Thebes. But when we stepped ashore after our coffee to make merry over the banalities of the shops, which followed various trades, but all lived by selling postcards, we found night almost turned into day by the southern moon. In Egypt one acts upon impulse, as there is no rain to make one reflect. In a few minutes half the passengers--the men in evening dress, the ladies in décollete dresses and delicate slippers—were galloping on donkeys towards Karnak. The most anybody did in the way of preparation was to spread a dust cloak over the donkey and his saddle to keep off the dirt.
The effect of the flying white dresses in the moonlight was charming, especially as we neared Karnak, and rode into the palm groves with the soft sand of the road glittering like snow wherever the moon could reach it through the trees,
As the cavalcade rode up to Karnak there were more fairytale effects than ever. Little black dogs ran along the dark walls of the village on the left, and barked defiance. Over the wall rose the fantastic outlines of the houses and their mosque. Sometimes at the end of a street was a little group of white-robed men and black-shrouded women. Once a belated camel came swaying past; and more than once an old sheikh, almost veiled in white, ambled past on a gaily caparisoned ass.
Then the Sphinxes of the avenue, at first looking like gnawed bones, and then like wild animals pretending to be asleep, made their appearance, and then the gay pylon of the Ptolemies, a square-headed, richly figured arch, with the sealed temple of Khonsu behind it, burst upon We made no attempt to enter Khonsu's temple, but whipped up our donkeys past it, on to the great square of Karnak to see the moon strike the heaven-pointing finger of Queen Hatasu's obelisk and the mountainous temple of Amon-Ra.
We took this in as we rode across the square to the pleasant Eastern bungalow of the curator of the temples, the learned and affable Legrain. Here the night struck a different note. For the lights of a human dwelling gleamed out of the odorous masses of tropical creepers, and the loggia on the roof was delicately outlined against the moonlit sky; while our white asses, as we dismounted, went and stood in the shadows under the dark lebbeks, where it was their wont to shelter from the fierceness of the Egyptian day.
We soon forgot both, for right before us were the perfect Sphinxes of the avenue, which led from the Temple of Amon-Ra to the quay, now far from the river, where the Pharaohs took galley for Thebes. The polished granite of these monsters, as perfect as the lions in Trafalgar Square, gleamed like silver. They looked with great benevolence on the dainty women with the trains of their evening dresses over their left arms, who paused to look into their faces and parade a pretty ignorance.
The great gate of Amon-Ra seemed to reach the sky as the tall Arab watchman, with his head muffled, opened the wicket. He was too idle to look at monument tickets at that hour. And the omission was a hint for tips.
No one lingered in the vast courtyard of King Shishak, the oppressor of the Israelites, except to look at the single column which has survived one of the noblest in Egypt. It stood up like the great column taken from the basilica of Constantine to stand on the top of the Esquiline before Santa Maria Maggiore. It looked simply glorious in the moonlight. No one would have noticed the beautiful little temple of the third Rameses if it had not been for the mysterious, half-lit Colossi standing at its entrance, called back to life by the moonlight, as Egyptian statues always