Page images

American expedition in front. This was Kharga, properly so-called. Soon rising from the palms we could see the broken pylon of Darius's temple. The train stopped short to enable us to see the Roman necropolis, called by the natives, El-Baguat. It is simply wonderful, the most beautiful Roman necropolis I have ever seen. It is a photographer's paradise ; there are streets of tombs-there are two hundred or more of them, all with Moorish-looking arched fronts. They are built of unburnt brick, and were evidently once covered with plaster, for the builders' contrivances to hold the plaster to the brick are still left. As Mr. Beadnell says, it looks more like a deserted city than a graveyard--the tombs present such a high degree of architectural decoration. The larger ones, ornamented with columns, pilasters, and arches, are thought to have served as chapels. The smaller ones are rectangular, roofed with a dome, and provided with niches in each of the sides, except that which is occupied by the doorway. In the centre of the floor, under the dome, there is generally a short, square shaft, from which lateral chambers probably open. These tombs are at present being excavated by mission of archæologists for one of the great American universities, who, however, are more concerned with hunting for papyri than with laying bare the architectural beauties of the place. It would be well for them to remember this theory of Mr. Beadnell's, which is certainly borne out by the third. or fourth-century tombs at Girgenti in Sicily, where a family would start using a bottle-shaped subterranean cistern for a tomb, and, as their requirements increased, drove galleries off it into the rock in every direction. The interiors are plastered and whitewashed, and many of them have paintings in the rude style, with which the house of a hadji, who has been to Mecca, is decorated in modern Cairo. They are also covered with Arab scrawls.

A far-reaching question is opened up by the constant use of the Egyptian ankh, the sign of life, instead of the cross. Was it introduced merely to gratify converts from the old religion, which may have lingered long in such an isolated

place as the oasis, or does the cross owe a great deal of its modern significance to the fact that it is an adaptation of the Egyptian ankh, to serve as an emblem of the crucifixion? Generally in a case like this both things are true. The symbol is adopted for more than one reason, and the borderline becomes indefinite.

The most famous tomb in the Necropolis is that known as the Adam-and-Eve tomb, which has frescoes round its dome, and four figures on round shields at the angles below. It has the usual flat lunettes, with an arched niche in each, occupying its sides. When I saw it, it was half sanded up. There are also considerable traces of frescoing in the tomb they call The Cathedral, which has a nave and aisles and a sort of transept at the end like a friars' church, with a kaleidoscopically painted cupola over the centre. The American mission is searching the graves chiefly for papyri of the Scriptures, and of the lost Epistles of early saints. For as this necropolis dates probably from the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and may be assumed to contain the tombs of Nestorian notables who followed their bishop Nestorius into exile here in A.D. 434, and their descendants, the chance of finding valuable Christian papyri is unusually good.

The excavations have established one thing at any rate : that the mummifying of the dead lasted well on into Christian times, for a large number of mummies have been disinterred by this mission; and there are mummy cloths lying about everywhere. These mummies have no cases : they were simply embalmed and wrapped in cloths and laid in the mummy pits of the arched tombs, or in horizontal graves opening to the sky, about three feet deep, like the graves of the poor Greeks of ancient Sicily. The American archæologists, when they had opened the grave and rifled it of papyri and any other objects of interest, stuck the mummy back into it anyhow. It gave the oddest effect to see the mummies lying with their eyeless faces looking at the sky, or left with their heads out of their graves, as if they were sitting up. In one of the more important tombs,

the graves of Apollonius and Apollonia, which are the commonest names here, are not cut in the rock in the Greek way, but mere baths a yard deep scooped out of the mud

In another, when they opened the mummy pit they found two saucers, one of charcoal and one of fine white ash, in front of the body. They brought them up, and placed them inside the tomb. A lady who was with us, but not of our party, deliberately raked with the tip of her parasol the contents of one of these saucers, which had remained undisturbed for fifteen hundred years as an offering beside the dead. She did it so clumsily that she knocked the saucer over. She thought absolutely nothing of the contretemps. But one of the other ladies had the grace to gather the contents together as well as she could and restore them to the saucera pious fraud.

The explorers had a tame gazelle, which used to relieve its monotony by eating the mummy bandages scattered about. The first time they discovered a

papyrus it attacked it with joy, as being so much nearer to its ordinary food. It was paralysed with astonishment when it was kicked off its unnatural feast.

There were other tombs near the Necropolis cut out of the rock, which Mr. Beadnell regards as the burial-places of the poorer members of the Christian community, but which may be pagan tombs of a much earlier date. The Americans have turned one of them into a kitchen and another into a museum. They can have all the buildings they require of this kind by fixing iron doors to them. They themselves were living in white military tents, which made quite a picturesque feature in the landscape.

I shall not readily forget that Roman necropolis of the Great Oasis, with its streets of temples of the antique world, as they appeared, divided by broad ways of golden sand, and silhouetted against the sky on their hillsides. That is the aspect which I prefer to remember, though the legitimate antiquary, following after, may fill a whole book with the early Coptic pictures which are gradually being disclosed.

I could not take seriously the picture of a comic Pharaoh chasing Israelites in Suffragette colours, or the wood, like the trees made of curled splinters in a child's toy farm, through which the Israelites were flying from Pharaoh's cavalry. It would be impossible to know what most of the pictures meant if they had not the names written over them. The most distinct was a saint called Thekla on a funeral pyre. I had never heard of her: I always thought of Theklas in connection with Russian novels. The picture of a shadaf proved to be a representation of Rebecca at the well. Some of the pictures are very realistic, especially that of Isaiah being sawn across between two planks, and Susannah eating grapes in her bath-sour grapes for the elders. The favourite symbols were ankhs and grape-vines. The paintings are, at any rate, numerous, and belong to a period not much represented, which is more than the guide-books lead one to hope.

From the Necropolis we made our way across to the Kasrain Mustafa Kashef, a monastic ruin of large size, not quite a mile away. It is built in a most curious position over the face of a precipitous hill. You enter it from the top of the hill, and inside it goes down almost to the bottom. I suppose it was scooped as much as built. It is about sixty feet square, and its walls are still nearly forty feet high. It is filled with a débris of small arched chambers, and a German explorer is sure that he has found the church by the existence of certain niches, and further declares that this is the only ruin in the whole oasis which has this proof of its being a monastery. There are tiers upon tiers of cells only about six by five by seven feet. But Egyptian monks in the age of hermits had not an exalted scale of comfort. The height of the rooms would not signify, as they doubtless sat on the floor ; anything that kept the sun out would do.

The view from the top of this monastery is so fine that the site may fall a victim to the hotel builder. Let us hope that he will have the decency to spare the ruins and build the hotel alongside of them. The chief danger is that the hangers-on would use the ruins.

From these wind-swept heights one could see for miles

over the oasis. But our eyes rested chiefly on the gaunt Roman fort called the Temple of Nadura, where Nestorius spent the days of his exile, and the airy arches of the Necropolis, and, above all, on the great temple of the two Dariuses rising over the palm groves, which make the oasis worthy of its name.

“Wind-swept heights” is no façon de parler. Egypt is the windiest place I ever was in, and the oasis seems to make a speciality of it. That desert ship of the manager would have taken us from the monastery back to the Necropolis in about a minute. The petticoated members of the party had a most unfair advantage in returning down hill, but they had to stop and unwind every few minutes while they were going up it in the face of the wind.

Before we reached the temple we had lunch in another rest-house, a charmingly pretty little place, with yellow African thatch beetling over its broad verandahs. Mohammed rather excelled himself, except that he had not the nous to serve the butter as melted, which, in point of fact, it was. I was surprised at his not having an appropriate lie readyit was rather a shock, but I did not trouble much about lunch. I was occupied with the complete Roman house lying about a hundred yards away, which I hoped to get over, because, though it was inhabited by a fellah, the natives said that no women were there. He apparently used the bedrooms for barns, but he could not be found.

Soon we were pursuing our way to the Temple of Hibis, which was the Egyptian name of the principal town in the oasis.

Compared to the temples of Karnak and Thebes, it is small, but in interest it yields to none but the most perfect temples, for it is the only surviving building erected by the Persian conquerors, though we have some tombs in the bowels of the earth at Sakkara. It was begun by Darius I., the Darius of the Battle of Marathon, and completed by Darius II., who came to the throne about a hundred years later. The main building is over 130 feet long, and nearly 60 feet broad. The forecourt is about 30 feet wide, but its length cannot be made

« PreviousContinue »