Ancient History & Civilisation

2. Upstream

Memphis—The masterpiece of Queen Hatshepsut—The “Colossi of Memnon”—Luxor and Karnak—The grandeur of Egyptian civilization

From Cairo a little steamer moves up the river—i.e., southward—through six leisurely days to Karnak and Luxor. Twenty miles below Cairo it passes Memphis, the most ancient of Egypt’s capitals. Here, where the great Third and Fourth Dynasties lived, in a city of two million souls, nothing now greets the eye but a row of small pyramids and a grove of palms; for the rest there is only desert, infinite, villainous sand, slipping under the feet, stinging the eyes, filling the pores, covering everything, stretching from Morocco across Sinai, Arabia, Turkestan, Tibet to Mongolia: along that sandy belt across two continents civilization once built its seats and now is gone, driven away, as the ice receded, by increasing heat and decreasing rain. By the Nile, for a dozen miles on either side, runs a ribbon of fertile soil; from the Mediterranean to Nubia there is only this strip redeemed from the desert. This is the thread upon which hung the life of Egypt. And yet how brief seems the life-span of Greece, or the millennium of Rome, beside the long record from Menes to Cleopatra!

A week later the steamer is at Luxor. On this site, now covered with Arab hamlets or drifting sand, once stood the greatest of Egypt’s capitals, the richest city of the very ancient world, known to the Greeks as Thebes, and to its own people as Wesi and Ne. On the eastern slope of the Nile is the famous Winter Palace of Luxor, aflame with bougainvillea; across the river the sun is setting over the Tombs of the Kings into a sea of sand, and the sky is flaked with gaudy tints of purple and gold. Far in the west the pillars of Queen Hatshepsut’s noble temple gleam, looking for all the world like some classic colonnade.

In the morning lazy sailboats ferry the seeker across a river so quiet and unpretentious that no one would suspect that it had been flowing here for uncounted centuries. Then over mile after mile of desert, through dusty mountain passes and by historic graves, until the masterpiece of the great Queen rises still and white in the trembling heat. Here the artist decided to transform nature and her hills into a beauty greater than her own: into the very face of the granite cliff he built these columns, as stately as those that Ictinus made for Pericles; it is impossible, seeing these, to doubt that Greece took her architecture, perhaps through Crete, from this initiative race. And on the walls vast bas-reliefs, alive with motion and thought, tell the story of the first great woman in history, and not the least of queens.

On the road back sit two giants in stone, representing the most luxurious of Egypt’s monarchs, Amenhotep III, but mistakenly called the “Colossi of Memnon” by the Baedekers of Greece. Each is seventy feet high, weighs seven hundred tons, and is carved out of a single rock. On the base of one of them are the inscriptions left by Greek tourists who visited these ruins two thousand years ago; again the centuries fall out of reckoning, and those Greeks seem strangely contemporary with us in the presence of these ancient things. A mile to the north lie the stone remains of Rameses II, one of the most fascinating figures in history, beside whom Alexander is an immature trifle; alive for ninety-nine years, emperor for sixty-seven, father of one hundred and fifty children; here he is a statue, once fifty-six feet high, now fifty-six feet long, prostrate and ridiculous in the sand. Napoleon’s savants measured him zealously; they found his ear three and a half feet long, his foot five feet wide, his weight a thousand tons; for him Bonaparte should have used his later salutation of Goethe: “Voilà un homme!—behold a man!”

All around now, on the west bank of the Nile, is the City of the Dead. At every turn some burrowing Egyptologist has unearthed a royal tomb. The grave of Tutenkhamon is closed, locked even in the faces of those who thought that gold would open anything; but the tomb of Seti I is open, and there in the cool earth one may gaze at decorated ceilings and passages, and marvel at the wealth and skill that could build such sarcophagi and surround them with such art. In one of these tombs the excavators saw, on the sand, the footprints of the slaves who had carried the mummy to its place three thousand years before.6

But the best remains adorn the eastern side of the river. Here at Luxor the lordly Amenhotep III, with the spoils of Thutmose Ill’s victories, began to build his most pretentious edifice; death came upon him as he built; then, after the work had been neglected for a century, Rameses II finished it in regal style. At once the quality of Egyptian architecture floods the spirit: here are scope and power, not beauty merely, but a masculine sublimity. A wide court, now waste with sand, paved of old with marble; on three sides majestic colonnades matched by Karnak alone; on every hand carved stone in bas-relief, and royal statues proud even in desolation. Imagine eight long stems of the papyrus plant—nurse of letters and here the form of art; at the base of the fresh unopened flowers bind the stems with five firm bands that will give beauty strength; then picture the whole stately stalk in stone: this is the papyriform column of Luxor. Fancy a court of such columns, upholding massive entablatures and shade-giving porticoes; see the whole as the ravages of thirty centuries have left it; then estimate the men who, in what we once thought the childhood of civilization, could conceive and execute such monuments.

Through ancient ruins and modern squalor a rough footpath leads to what Egypt keeps as its final offering—the temples of Karnak. Half a hundred Pharaohs took part in building them, from the last dynasties of the Old Kingdom to the days of the Ptolemies; generation by generation the structures grew, until sixty acres were covered with the lordliest offerings that architecture ever made to the gods. An “Avenue of Sphinxes” leads to the place where Champollion, founder of Egyptology, stood in 1828 and wrote:

I went at last to the palace, or rather to the city of monuments—to Karnak. There all the magnificence of the Pharaohs appeared to me, all that men have imagined and executed on the grandest scale. . . . No people, ancient or modern, has conceived the art of architecture on a scale so sublime, so great, so grandiose, as the ancient Egyptians. They conceived like men a hundred feet high.7

To understand it would require maps and plans, and all an architect’s learning. A spacious enclosure of many courts one-third of a mile on each side; a population of once 86,000 statues;8 a main group of buildings, constituting the Temple of Amon, one thousand by three hundred feet; great pylons or gates between one court and the next; the perfect “Heraldic Pillars” of Thutmose III, broken off rudely at the top, but still of astonishingly delicate carving and design; the Festival Hall of the same formidable monarch, its fluted shafts here and there anticipating all the power of the Doric column in Greece; the little Temple of Ptah, with graceful pillars rivaling the living palms beside them; the Promenade, again the work of Thutmose’s builders, with bare and massive colonnades, symbol of Egypt’s Napoleon; above all, the Hypostyle Hall,* a very forest of one hundred and forty gigantic columns, crowded close to keep out the exhausting sun, flowering out at their tops into spreading palms of stone, and holding up, with impressive strength, a roof of mammoth slabs stretched in solid granite from capital to capital. Nearby two slender obelisks, monoliths complete in symmetry and grace, rise like pillars of light amid the ruins of statues and temples, and announce in their inscriptions the proud message of Queen Hatshepsut to the world. These obelisks, the carving says,

are of hard granite from the quarries of the South; their tops are of fine gold chosen from the best in all foreign lands. They can be seen from afar on the river; the splendor of their radiance fills the Two Lands, and when the solar disc appears between them it is truly as if he rose up into the horizon of the sky. . . . You who after long years shall see these monuments, who shall speak of what I have done, you will say, “We do not know, we do not know how they can have made a whole mountain of gold.” . . . To guild them I have given gold measured by the bushel, as though it were sacks of grain, . . . for I knew that Karnak is the celestial horizon of the earth.9

What a queen, and what kings! Perhaps this first great civilization was the finest of all, and we have but begun to uncover its glory? Near the Sacred Lake at Karnak men are digging, carrying away the soil patiently in little paired baskets slung over the shoulder on a pole; an Egyptologist is bending absorbed over hieroglyphics on two stones just rescued from the earth; he is one of a thousand such men, Carters and Breasteds and Masperos, Petries and Caparts and Weigalls, living simply here in the heat and dust, trying to read for us the riddle of the Sphinx, to snatch from the secretive soil the art and literature, the history and wisdom of Egypt. Every day the earth and the elements fight against them; superstition curses and hampers them; moisture and corrosion attack the very monuments they have exhumed; and the same Nile that gives food to Egypt creeps in its overflow into the ruins of Karnak, loosens the pillars, tumbles them down,* and leaves upon them, when it subsides, a deposit of saltpetre that eats like a leprosy into the stone.

Let us contemplate the glory of Egypt once more, in her history and her civilization, before her last monuments crumble into the sand.

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