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Egypt (La Mort De Philae)
by Pierre Loti
Translated from the French by
W. P. BAINES
A WINTER MIDNIGHT BEFORE THE GREAT SPHINX
A night wondrously clear and of a colour unknown to our climate; a place of dreamlike aspect, fraught with mystery. The moon of a bright silver, which dazzles by its shining, illumines a world which surely is no longer ours; for it resembles in nothing what may be seen in other lands. A world in which everything is suffused with rosy color beneath the stars of midnight, and where granite symbols rise up, ghostlike and motionless.
Is that a hill of sand that rises yonder? One can scarcely tell, for it has as it were no shape, no outline; rather it seems like a great rosy cloud, or some huge, trembling billow, which once perhaps raised itself there, forthwith to become motionless for ever. . . . And from out this kind of mummified wave a colossal human effigy emerges, rose- coloured too, a nameless, elusive rose; emerges, and stares with fixed eyes and smiles. It is so huge it seems unreal, as if it were a reflection cast by some mirror hidden in the moon. . . . And behind this monster face, far away in the rear, on the top of those undefined and gently undulating sandhills, three apocalyptic signs rise up against the sky, those rose-coloured triangles, regular as the figures of geometry, but so vast in the distance that they inspire you with fear. They seem to be luminous of themselves, so vividly do they stand out in their clear rose against the deep blue of the star-spangled vault. And this apparent radiation from within, by its lack of likelihood, makes them seem more awful.
And all around is the desert; a corner of the mournful kingdom of sand. Nothing else is to be seen anywhere save those three awful things that stand there upright and still--the human likeness magnified beyond all measurement, and the three geometric mountains; things at first sight like exhalations, visionary things, with nevertheless here and there, and most of all in the features of the vast mute face, subtleties of shadow which show that /it/ at least exists, rigid and immovable, fashioned out of imperishable stone.
Even had we not known, we must soon have guessed, for these things are unique in the world, and pictures of every age have made the knowledge of them commonplace: the Sphinx and the Pyramids! But what is strange is that they should be so disquieting. . . . And this pervading colour of rose, whence comes it, seeing that usually the moon tints with blue the things it illumines? One would not expect this colour either, which, nevertheless, is that of all the sands and all the granites of Egypt and Arabia. And then too, the eyes of the statue, how often have we not seen them? And did we not know that they were capable only of their one fixed stare? Why is it then that their motionless regard surprises and chills us, even while we are obsessed by the smile of the sealed lips that seem to hold back the answer to the supreme enigma? . . .
It is cold, but cold as in our country are the fine nights of January, and a wintry mist rises low down in the little valleys of the sand. And that again we were not expecting; beyond question the latest invaders of this country, by changing the course of the old Nile, so as to water the earth and make it more productive, have brought hither the humidity of their own misty isle. And this strange cold, this mist, light as it still is, seem to presage the end of ages, give an added remoteness and finality to all this dead past, which lies here beneath us in subterranean labyrinths haunted by a thousand mummies.
And the mist, which, as the night advances, thickens in the valleys, hesitates to mount to the great daunting face of the Sphinx; and covers it with the merest and most transparent gauze; and, like everything else here to-night, this gauze, too, is rose-colored. And meanwhile the Sphinx, which has seen the unrolling of all the history of the world, attends impassively the change in Egypt's climate, plunged in profound and mystic contemplation of the moon, its friend for the last 5000 years.
Here and there on the soft pathway of the sandhills are pigmy figures of men that move about or sit squatting as if on the watch; and small as they are, low down in the hollows and far away, this wonderful silver moon reveals even their slightest gestures; for their white robes and black cloaks stand sharply out against the monotonous rose of the desert. At times they call to one another in a harsh, aspirate tongue, and then go off at a run, noiselessly, barefooted, with burnous flying, like moths in the night. They lie in wait for the parties of tourists who arrive from time to time. For the great symbols, during the hundreds and thousands of years that have elapsed since men ceased to venerate them, have nevertheless scarcely ever been alone, especially on nights with a full moon. Men of all races, of all times, have come to wander round them, vaguely attracted by their immensity and mystery. In the days of the Romans they had already become symbols of a lost significance, legacies of a fabulous antiquity, but people came curiously to contemplate them, and tourists in toga and in peplus carved their names on the granite of their bases for the sake of remembrance.
The tourists who have come to-night, and upon whom have pounced the black-cloaked Bedouin guides, wear cap and ulster or furred greatcoat; their intrusion here seems almost an offence; but, alas, such visitors become more numerous in each succeeding year. The great town hard by-- which sweats gold now that men have started to buy from it its dignity and its soul--is become a place of rendezvous and holiday for the idlers and upstarts of the whole world. The modern spirit encompasses the old desert of the Sphinx on every side. It is true that up to the present no one has dared to profane it by building in the immediate neighbourhood of the great statue. Its fixity and calm disdain still hold some sway, perhaps. But little more than a mile away there ends a road travelled by hackney carriages and tramway cars, and noisy with the delectable hootings of smart motor cars; and behind the pyramid of Cheops squats a vast hotel to which swarm men and women of fashion, the latter absurdly feathered, like Redskins at a scalp dance; and sick people, in search of purer air; and consumptive English maidens; and ancient English dames, a little the worse for wear, who bring their rheumatisms for the treatment of the dry winds.
Passing on our way hither, we had seen this road and this hotel and these people in the glare of the electric lights, and from an orchestra that was playing there we caught the trivial air of a popular refrain of the music halls; but when in a dip of the ground all this had disappeared, what a sense of deliverance possessed us, how far off this turmoil seemed! As soon as we commenced to tread upon the sand of centuries, where all at once our footsteps made no sound, nothing seemed to have existence, save only the great calm and the religious awe of this world into which we were come, of this world with its so crushing commentary upon our own, where all seemed silent, undefined, gigantic and suffused with rose-colour.
And first there is the pyramid of Cheops, whose immutable base we had to skirt on our way hither. In the moonlight we could see the separate blocks, so enormous, so regular, so even in their layers, which lie one above the other to infinity, getting ever smaller and smaller, and mounting, mounting in diminishing perspective, until at last high up they form the apex of this giddy triangle. And the pyramid seemed to be illumined by some sad dawn of the end of the world, a dawn which made ruddy only the sands and the granites of earth, and left the heavens, pricked with their myriad stars, more awful in their darkness. How impossible it is for us to conceive the mental attitude of that king who, during some half-century, spent the lives of thousands and thousands of his slaves in the construction of this tomb, in the fond and foolish hope of prolonging to infinity the existence of his mummy.
The pyramid once passed there was still a short way to go before we confronted the Sphinx, in the middle of what our contemporaries have left him of his desert. We had to descend the slope of that sandhill which looked like a cloud, and seemed as if covered with felt, in order to preserve in such a place a more complete silence. And here and there we passed a gaping black hole--an airhole, as it seemed, of the profound and inextricable kingdom of mummies, very populous still, in spite of the zeal of the exhumers.
As we descended the sandy pathway we were not slow to perceive the Sphinx itself, half hill, half couchant beast, turning its back upon us in the attitude of a gigantic dog, that thought to bay the moon; its head stood out in dark silhouette, like a screen before the light it seemed to be regarding, and the lappets of its headgear showed like downhanging ears. And then gradually, as we walked on, we saw it in profile, shorn of its nose--flat-nosed like a death's head--but having already an expression even when seen afar off and from the side; already disdainful with thrust-out chin and baffling, mysterious smile. And when at length we arrived before the colossal visage, face to face with it--without however encountering its gaze, which passed high above our heads--there came over us at once the sentiment of all the secret thought which these men of old contrived to incorporate and make eternal behind this mutilated mask.
But in full daylight their great Sphinx is no more. It has ceased as it were to exist. It is so scarred by time, and by the hands of iconoclasts; so dilapidated, broken and diminished, that it is as inexpressive as the crumbling mummies found in the sarcophagi, which no longer even ape humanity. But after the manner of all phantoms it comes to life again at night, beneath the enchantments of the moon.
For the men of its time whom did it represent? King Amenemhat? The Sun God? Who can rightly tell? Of all hieroglyphic images it remains the one least understood. The unfathomable thinkers of Egypt symbolised everything for the benefit of the uninitiated under the form of awe- inspiring figures of the gods; and it may be, perhaps, that, after having meditated so deeply in the shadow of their temples, and sought so long the everlasting wherefore of life and death, they wished simply to sum up in the smile of these closed lips the vanity of the most profound of our human speculations. . . . It is said that the Sphinx was once of striking beauty, when harmonious contour and colouring animated the face, and it was enthroned at its full height on a kind of esplanade paved with long slabs of stone. But was it then more sovereign than it is to-night in its last decrepitude? Almost buried beneath the sand of the Libyan desert, which now quite hides its base, it rises at this hour like a phantom which nothing solid sustains in the air.
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