« PreviousContinue »
The ladies tripped unheedingly across the velvet sand; they knew that the Hall of the Columns of Karnak, the most wonderful of the ruins of ancient Egypt, lay behind the pylon on the other side, and they did not intend to be diverted from it.
The whole temple gains in romance at night. The crumbled pylon at the entrance of the Hall of the Columns looks as if the giants of Karnak had emptied a sugar-basin in their play, in which each cube, glistening in the moonlight, measures a yard or two along its edges. Egypt is more beautiful than Rome by moonlight, I could not have believed that the sights before my eyes were anything but a dream if it had not been for the unending barking of the dogs in the Arab villages. The moon was so straight overhead that there was hardly any shadow-only enough to round the columns.
It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of the Temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak ; and when one thinks of the Temple of Amon-Ra one thinks of its hall of columns. Many of them are eighty feet high and more than thirty feet round; they are covered to their tops with sculptures and paintings of the religion of Egypt; they have a clerestory above them, sculptured and painted like the rest of this mighty pile. Here are the brightest tints of all; here is the grated window, which gave the eastern part of Thebes its name of Karnak. The whole temple is carpeted with sand, deliciously soft and fine and clean : not even our footsteps could be heard in it: the guardians of the temple moved about like ghosts in their white robes. Whichever way we looked the awe struck into our souls. If we let our eyes wander up the fretted columns they ended in the starry vault of the Egyptian heaven, which the ceiling of the temple must have counterfeited when it was put up in the days of Moses. If we looked back, we saw through the opening the glorious column of King Shishak's court; if we looked forward we saw the two great obelisks of Queen Hatasu and King Thothmes pointing at the moon. The stars shone between those giant, unconquerable columns. The same statues which are the primmest of all images made by human hands in the daylight, are the most human at night; and there are hundreds of them peopling the shrines of Karnak.
From the shadowy hall we stepped out past fresh piles of ruin turned to goblin silver by the moon; pacing in the soft sand through courts innumerable, halting to look now at the score of giant pylons rising half-ruined from the groves of palms to show where the twin temple of Mut lies under an unbroken spell; now at the reedy lake, where the golden ships once sailed on days of high festival, and the ancient Nilometer, which is so far from the Nile, but registers by sympathy every inch that the great river may rise or fall.
Here there was so much to see. We had exhausted our exclamations over an exquisite little oratory of the finest granite, delicately carved and painted, built for Philip Arrhidæus, the shadowy brother of Alexander the Great. But before we had gone many yards farther we needed them twice told, for we suddenly came upon the most beautiful object in all Karnak-the head of a god or king of divine proportions, which has the beauty of the handiwork of Praxiteles and Polycletus, and the profound expression which was the hallmark of Egyptian genius. The face is pensive, full-lidded, sensuously mouthed, a face to haunt you with its beauty and its meaning. And a few yards from it were those two slender columns, the Column of the Lotus and the Column of the Papyrus—the column of Upper Egypt and the column of Lower Egypt-inspirations of slenderness and simplicity.
Far away at the back of all things rose the vast wall of crude brick like the Great Wall of China, with which some king of the twenty-second dynasty made a circuit a mile and a half long, of Karnak's temples.
It was shrouded from our eyes by the banqueting-hall of the great King Thothmes III., the greatest of all the Pharaohs, very mysterious, very perfect, with faintly frescoed Christian saints gazing down in mild surprise from its multitudinous columns. This was our hall of minor tragedies, for women are headstrong, and between those lotus and papyrus columns and the banqueting hall was a great court crossed by paths of velvet sand, but guarded by camel-thorns, which stabbed and tore among silk stockings and lace skirts. Behind the banqueting-hall is one of the most beautiful little temples in Karnak, with delightful sculpture; but the camel-thorn had done its work, and I had to gaze alone on those beautiful Osirids, which so few people know.
The only other adventure that the ladies would face after this was the little Temple of Ptah by the northern wall, to which there is an open and well-beaten track. This was fortunate, for we saw on the right night one of the astronomical devices in which the priests of ancient Egypt delighted.
The avenue of graceful little pylons was exquisite in the moonlight. We passed gaily down it and entered the temple. Every one started back as we crossed the threshold of the third sanctuary, for there was a blaze of light, as vivid as the electric light which plays upon the figure of the Pharaoh of the Exodus in the Tombs of the Kings, playing upon the evil figure of Sekhet, the lion-headed goddess, which has never left this spot since it was placed here by the Pharaoh. It owed its immunity to the hatred and dread and loathing the modern Arab has for this goddess and her congener, the cat-headed goddess, Pasht. To the fellah of to-day they are child-eating ogres, who bring misfortune on all who touch them. Its immunity had another origin. In making its restorations the brilliant Frenchman in charge of the antiquities of Karnak detected that this was one of the cases in which the moon when it was at its height fell through the hole in the roof on the image, and successfully preserved that feature in the restoration. But the purely natural phenomenon was quite startling when you came on it as we did.
I was glad that we visited that temple for other reasons. For, peeping through the adjacent gateway of the wall surrounding the temple, one saw the ruined city of Rameses the Great, transfigured by the moonlight; and as we made our way back to the great temple of Amon-Ra we got a fresh view of the mountainous pile of the Hall of the Columns and the noble obelisk of Queen Hatasu, which pierces the heart of the ruins.
THE TEMPLE OF PTAH AT KARNAK, WHERE THE MOON SHINES ON THE IMAGE OF THE GODDESS SEKKET.
This is the image which the fellahin think is an ogre who devours children.