A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XVI: Abou Simbel." by Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892)
Publication: Edwards, Amelia B. A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. London: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, 1891. pp. 284-310.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



WE came to Abou Simbel on the night of the 31st of January, and we left at sunset on the 18th of February. Of these eighteen clear days, we spent fourteen at the foot of the rock of the Great Temple, called in the old Egyptian tongue the Rock of Abshek. The remaining four (taken at the end of the first week and the beginning of the second) were passed in the excursion to Wady-Halfeh and back. By thus dividing the time, our long sojourn was made less monotonous for those who had no especial work to do.

Meanwhile, it was wonderful to wake every morning close under the steep bank, and, without lifting one's head from the pillow, to see that row of giant faces so close against the sky. They showed unearthly enough by moonlight ; but not half so unearthly as in the grey of dawn. At that hour, the most solemn of the twenty-four, they wore a fixed and fatal look that was little less than appalling. As the sky warmed, this awful look was succeeded by a flush that mounted and deepened like the rising flush of life. For a moment they seemed to glow – to smile – to be transfigured. Then came a flash, as of thought itself. It was the first instantaneous flash of the risen sun. It lasted less than a second. It was gone almost before one could say that it was there. The next moment, mountain, river, and sky were distinct in the steady light of day ; and the colossi – mere colossi now – sat serene and stony in the open sunshine.

Every morning I waked in time to witness that daily miracle. Every morning I saw those awful brethren pass from death to life, from life to sculptured stone. I brought myself almost to believe at last that there must sooner or later come some one sunrise when the ancient charm would snap asunder, and the giants must arise and speak.

Stupendous as they are, nothing is more difficult than to see the colossi properly. Standing between the rock and the river, one is too near ; stationed on the island opposite, one is too far off ; while from the sand-slope only a side-view is obtainable. Hence, for want of a fitting standpoint, many travellers have seen nothing but deformity in the most perfect face handed down to us by Egyptian art. One recognises in it the negro, and one the Mongolian type ;1 while another admires the fidelity with which "the Nubian characteristics" have been seized.

Yet, in truth, the head of the young Augustus is not cast in a loftier mould. These statues are portraits – portraits of the same man four times repeated ; and that man is Rameses the Great.

Now, Rameses the Great, if he was as much like his portraits as his portraits are like each other, must have been one of the handsomest men, not only of his day, but of all history. Wheresoever we meet with him, whether in the fallen colossus at Memphis, or in the syenite torso of the British Museum, or among the innumerable bas-reliefs of Thebes, Abydos, Gournah, and Bayt-el-Welly, his features (though bearing in some instances the impress of youth and in others of maturity) are always the same. The face is oval ; the eyes are long, prominent, and heavy-lidded ; the nose is slightly aquiline and characteristically depressed at the tip ; the nostrils are open and sensitive ; the under lip projects ; the chin is short and square.


Here, for instance, is an outline from a bas-relief at Bayt-el-Welly. The subject is commemorative of the King's first campaign. A beardless youth fired with the rage of battle, he clutches a captive by the hair and lifts his mace to slay. In this delicate and Dantesque face which lacks as yet the fulness and repose of the later portraits, we recognise all the distinctive traits of the older Rameses.


Here, again, is a sketch from Abydos, in which the king, although he has not yet ceased to wear the side-lock of youth, is seen with a boyish beard, and looks some three or four years older than in the previous portrait.


It is interesting to compare these heads with the accompanying profile of one of the carytid colossi inside the great Temple of Abou Simbel ; and all three with one of the giant portraits of the façade. This last, whether regarded as a marvel of size or of portraiture, is the chef-d'œuvre of Egyptian sculpture. We here see the great king in his prime. His features are identical with those of the head at Bayt-el-Welly ; but the countours are more amply filled in, and the expression is altogether changed. The man is full fifteen or twenty years older. He has outlived that rage of early youth. He is no longer impulsive, but implacable. A godlike serenity, an almost superhuman pride, an immutable will, breathe from the sculptured stone. He has learned to believe his prowess irresistible, and himself almost divine. If he now raised his arm to slay, it would be with the stern placidity of a destroying angel.

The annexed woodcut gives the profile of the southernmost colossus, which is the only perfect, or very nearly perfect, one of the four. The original can be correctly seen from but one point of view ; and that point is where the sandslope meets the northern buttress of the façade, at a level just parallel with the beards of the statues. It was thence that the present outline was taken. The sandslope is steep, and loose, and hot to the feet. More disagreeable climbing it would be hard to find even in Nubia ; but no traveller who refuses to encounter this small hardship need believe that he has seen the faces of the colossi.

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(From the Southernmost Colossus ; Abou Simbel.)

Viewed from below, this beautiful portrait is foreshortened out of all proportion. It looks unduly wide from ear to ear, while the lips and lower part of the nose show relatively larger than the rest of the features. The same may be said of the great cast in the British Museum. Cooped up at the end of a narrow corridor and lifted not more than fifteen feet above the ground, it is carefully placed so as to be wrong from every point of view and shown to the greatest possible disadvantage.

The artists who wrought the original statues were, however, embarrassed by no difficulties of focus, daunted by no difficulties of scale. Giants themselves, they summoned these giants from out the solid rock, and endowed them with superhuman strength and beauty. They sought no quarried blocks of syenite or granite for their work. They fashioned no models of clay. They took a mountain, and fell upon it like Titans, and hollowed and carved it as though it were a cherry-stone, and left it for the feebler men of after-ages to marvel at forever. One great hall and fifteen spacious chambers they hewed out from the heart of it ; then smoothed the rugged precipice towards the river, and cut four huge statues with their faces to the sunrise, two to the right and two to the left of the doorway, there to keep watch to the end of time.


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These tremendous warders sit sixty-six feet high, without the platform under their feet. They measure across the chest 25 feet and 4 inches ; from the shoulder to the elbow, 15 feet and 6 inches ; from the inner side of the elbow joint to the tip of the middle finger, 15 feet ; and so on, in relative proportion. If they stood up, they would tower to a height of at least 83 feet, from the soles of their feet to the tops of their enormous double-crowns.

Nothing in Egyptian sculpture is perhaps quite so wonderful as the way in which these Abou Simbel artists dealt with the thousands of tons of material to which they here gave human form. Consummate masters of effect, they knew precisely what to do, and what to leave undone. These were portrait statues ; therefore they finished the heads up to the highest point consistent with their size. But the trunk and the lower limbs they regarded from a decorative rather than a statuesque point of view. As decoration, it was necessary that they should give size and dignity to the façade. Everything, consequently, was here subordinated to the general effect of breadth, of massiveness, of repose. Considered thus, the colossi are a triumph of treatment. Side by side they sit, placid and majestic, their feet a little apart, their hands resting on their knees. Shapely though they are, those huge legs look scarcely inferior in girth to the great columns of Karnak. The articulations of the knee-joint, the swell of the calf, the outline of the peroneus longus are indicated rather than developed. The toe-nails and toe-joints are given in the same bold and general way ; but the fingers, because only the tips of them could be seen from below, are treated en bloc.

Their faces show the same largeness of style. The little dimple which gives such sweetness to the corners of the mouth, and the tiny depression in the lobe of the ear, are in fact circular cavities as large as saucers.

How far this treatment is consistent with the most perfect delicacy and even finesse of execution, may be gathered from the sketch. The nose there shown in profile is 3 feet and a half in length ; the mouth so delicately curved is about the same in width ; even the sensitive nostril, which looks ready to expand with the breath of life, exceeds 8 inches in length. The ear (which is placed high, and is well detached from the head) measures 3 feet and 5 inches from top to tip.

A recent writer,2 who brings sound practical knowledge to bear upon the subject, is of opinion that the Egyptian sculptors did not even "point" their work beforehand. If so, then the marvel is only so much the greater. The men who, working in so coarse and friable a material, could not only give beauty and finish to heads of this size, but could with barbaric tools hew them out ab initio from the natural rock, were the Michael Angelos of their age.

It has already been said that the last Rameses to the southward is the best preserved. His left arm and hand are injured, and the head of the uræus sculptured on the front of the pschent is gone ; but with these exceptions the figure is as whole, as fresh in surface, as sharp in detail, as on the day it was completed. The next is shattered to the waist. His head lies at his feet, half buried in sand. The third is nearly as perfect as the first ; while the fourth has lost not only the whole beard and the greater part of the uræus, but has both arms broken away, and a big, cavernous hole in the front of the body. From the double-crowns of the two last, the top ornament is also missing. It looks a mere knob ; but it measures eight feet in height.

Such an effect does the size of these four figures produce on the mind of the spectator, that he scarcely observes the fractures they have sustained. I do not remember to have even missed the head and body of the shattered one, although nothing is left of it above the knees. Those huge legs and feet covered with ancient inscriptions,3 some of Greek, some of Phœnician origin, tower so high above the heads of those who look at them from below, that one scarcely thinks of looking higher still.

The figures are naked to the waist, and clothed in the usual striped tunic. On their heads they wear the double-crown, and on their necks rich collars of cabochon drops cut in very low relief. The feet are bare of sandals, and the arms of bracelets ; but in the front of the body, just where the customary belt and buckle would come, are deep holes in the stone, such as might have been made to receive rivets, supposing the belts to have been made of bronze or gold. On the breast, just below the necklace, and on the upper part of each arm, are cut in magnificent ovals, between four and five feet in length, the ordinary cartouches of the king. These were probably tattooed upon his person in the flesh.

Some have supposed that these statues were originally coloured, and that the colour may have been effaced by the ceaseless shifting and blowing of the sand. Yet the drift was probably at its highest when Burckhardt discovered the place in 1813 ; and on the two heads that were still above the surface, he seems to have observed no traces of colour. Neither can the keenest eye detect any vestige of that delicate film of stucco with which the Egyptians invariably prepared their surfaces for painting. Perhaps the architects were for once content with the natural colour of the sandstone, which is here very rich and varied. It happens also that the colossi come in a light-coloured vein of the rock, and so sit relieved against a darker background. Towards noon, when the level of the façade has just passed into shade and the sunlight still strikes upon the statues, the effect is quite startling. The whole thing, which is then best seen from the island, looks like a huge onyx-cameo cut in high relief.

A statue of Ra,4 to whom the temple is dedicated, stands some twenty feet high in a niche over the doorway, and is supported on either side by a bas-relief portrait of the king in an attitude of worship. Next above these comes a superb hieroglyphic inscription reaching across the whole front ; above the inscription, a band of royal cartouches ; above the cartouches, a frieze of sitting apes ; above the apes, last and highest, some fragments of a cornice. The height of the whole may have been somewhat over a hundred feet. Wherever it has been possible to introduce them as decoration, we see the ovals of the king. Under those sculptured on the platforms and over the door, I observed the hieroglyphic character    (),    which, in conjunction with the sign known as the determinative of metals, signifies gold (Nub) ; but when represented, as here, without the determinative, stands for Nubia, the Land of Gold. This addition, which I do not remember to have seen elsewhere in connection with the cartouches of Rameses II,5 is here used in an heraldic sense, as signifying the sovereignty of Nubia.

The relative position of the two Temples of Abou Simbel has been already described – how they are excavated in two adjacent mountains and divided by a cataract of sand. The front of the small Temple lies parallel to the course of the Nile, here flowing in a north-easterly direction. The façade of the Great Temple is cut in the flank of the mountain, and faces due east. Thus the colossi, towering above the shoulder of the sand-drift, catch, as it were, a side view of the small Temple and confront vessels coming up the river. As for the sand-drift, it curiously resembles the glacier of the Rhone. In size, in shape, in position, in all but colour and substance, it is the same. Pent in between the rocks at top, it opens out like a fan at bottom. In this its inevitable course, it slants downward across the façade of the Great Temple. For ever descending, drifting, accumulating, it wages the old stealthy war ; and, unhasting, unresting, labours grain by grain to fill the hollowed chambers, and bury the great statues, and wrap the whole Temple in a winding-sheet of golden sand, so that the place thereof shall know it no more.

It had very nearly come to this when Burckhardt went up (A.D. 1813). The top of the doorway was then thirty feet below the surface. Whether the sand will ever reach that height again, must depend on the energy with which it is combated. It can only be cleared as it accumulates. To avert it is impossible. Backed by the illimitable wastes of the Libyan desert, the supply from above is inexhaustible. Come it must ; and come it will, to the end of time.

The drift rose to the lap of the northernmost colossus and half-way up the legs of the next, when the Philæ lay at Abou Simbel. The doorway was clear, however, almost to the threshold, and the sand inside was not more than two feet deep in the first hall. The whole façade, we were told, had been laid bare, and the interior swept and garnished, when the Empress of the French, after opening the Suez Canal in 1869, went up the Nile as far as the Second Cataract. By this time, most likely, that yellow carpet lies thick and soft in every chamber, and is fast silting up the doorway again.

How well I remember the restless excitement of our first day at Abou Simbel! While the morning was yet cool, the Painter and the Writer wandered to and fro, comparing and selecting points of view, and superintending the pitching of their tents. The Painter planted his on the very brink of the bank, face to face with the colossi and the open doorway. The Writer perched some forty feet higher on the pitch of the sandslope ; so getting a side-view of the façade, and a peep of distance looking up the river.6 To fix the tent up there was no easy matter. It was only by sinking the tent-pole in a hole filled with stones, that it could be trusted to stand against the steady push of the north wind, which at this season is almost always blowing.

Meanwhile the travellers from the other dahabeeyahs were tramping backwards and forwards between the two Temples ; filling the air with laughter, and waking strange echoes in the hollow mountains. As the day wore on, however, they returned to their boats, which one by one spread their sails and bore away for Wady Halfeh.

When they were fairly gone and we had the marvellous place all to ourselves, we went to see the Temples.

The smaller one, though it comes first in the order of sailing, is generally seen last ; and seen therefore to disadvantage. To eyes fresh from the "Abode of Ra," the "Abode of Hathor" looks less than its actual size ; which is in fact but little inferior to that of the Temple at Derr. A first hall, measuring some 40 feet in length by 21 in width, leads to a transverse corridor, two side-chambers, and a sanctuary 7 feet square, at the upper end of which are the shattered remains of a cow-headed statue of Hathor. Six square pillars, as at Derr, support what, for want of a better word, one must call the ceiling of the hall ; though the ceiling is in truth the superincumbent mountain.

In this arrangement, as in the general character of the bas-relief sculptures which cover the walls and pillars, there is much simplicity, much grace, but nothing particularly new. The façade, on the contrary, is a daring innovation. To those who have not seen the place the annexed illustration is worth pages of description ; and to describe it in words only would be difficult. Here the whole front is but a frame for six recesses, from each of which a colossal statue, erect and life-like, seems to be walking straight out from the heart of the mountain. These statues, three to the right and three to the left of the doorway, stand thirty feet high, and represent Rameses II and Nefertari, his queen. Mutilated as they are, the male figures are full of spirit, and the female figures full of grace. The Queen wears on her head the plumes and disk of Hathor. The king is crowned with the pschent, and with a fantastic helmet adorned with plumes and horns. They have their children with them ; the Queen her daughters, the King his sons – infants of ten feet high, whose heads just reach to the parental knee.

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The walls of these six recesses, as they follow the slope of the mountain, form massive buttresses, the effect of which is wonderfully bold in light and shadow. The doorway gives the only instance of a porch that we saw in either Egypt or Nubia. The superb hieroglyphs which cover the faces of these buttresses and the front of this porch are cut half-a-foot deep into the rock, and are so large that they can be read from the island in the middle of the river. The tale they tell – a tale retold, in many varied turns of old Egyptian style upon the architraves within – is singular and interesting.

"Rameses, the Strong in Truth, the Beloved of Amen," says the outer legend, "made this divine Abode7 for his royal wife, Nefertari, whom he loves."

The legend within, after enumerating the titles of the King, records that "his royal wife who loves him, Nefertari the Beloved of Maut, constructed for him this Abode in the mountain of the Pure Waters."

On every pillar, in every act of worship pictured on the walls, even in the sanctuary, we find the names of Rameses and Nefertari "coupled and inseparable." In this double dedication, and in the unwonted tenderness of the style, one seems to detect traces of some event, perhaps of some anniversary, the particulars of which are lost for ever. It may have been a meeting ; it may have been a parting ; it may have been a prayer answered, or a vow fulfilled. We see, at all events, that Rameses and Nefertari desired to leave behind them an imperishable record of the affection which united them on earth, and which they hoped would reunite them in Amenti. What more do we need to know? We see that the Queen was fair ; 8 that the King was in his prime. We divine the rest ; and the poetry of the place at all events is ours. Even in these barren solitudes there is wafted to us a breath from the shores of old romance. We feel that Love once passed this way, and that the ground is still hallowed where he trod.

We hurried on to the Great Temple, without waiting to examine the lesser one in detail. A solemn twilight reigned in the first hall, beyond which all was dark. Eight colossi, four to the right and four to the left, stand ranged down the centre, bearing the mountain on their heads. Their height is twenty-five feet. With hands crossed on their breasts, they clasp the flail and crook ; emblems of majesty and dominion. It is the attitude of Osiris, but the face is the face of Rameses II. Seen by this dim light, shadowy, mournful, majestic, they look as if they remembered the past.

Beyond the first hall lies a second hall supported on four square pillars ; beyond this again, a transverse chamber, the walls of which are covered with coloured bas-reliefs of various Gods ; last of all, the sanctuary. Here, side by side, sit four figures larger than life – Ptah, Amen-Ra, Ra, and Rameses deified. Before them stands an altar, in shape a truncated pyramid, cut from the solid rock. Traces of colour yet linger on the garments of the statues ; while in the walls on either side are holes and grooves such as might have been made to receive a screen of metal-work.

The air in the sanctuary was heavy with an acrid smoke, as if the priests had been burning some strange incense and were only just gone. For this illusion we were indebted to the visitors who had been there before us. They had lit the place with magnesian wire ; the vapour of which lingers long in these unventilated vaults.

To settle down then and there to a steady investigation of the wall-sculptures was impossible. We did not attempt it. Wandering from hall to hall, from chamber to chamber ; now trusting to the faint gleams that straggled in from without, now stumbling along by the light of a bunch of candles tied to the end of a stick, we preferred to receive those first impressions of vastness, of mystery, of gloomy magnificence, which are the more profound for being somewhat vague and general.

Scenes of war, of triumph, of worship, passed before our eyes like the incidents of a panorama. Here the King, borne along at full gallop by plumed steeds gorgeously caparisoned, draws his mighty bow and attacks a battlemented fortress. The besieged, some of whom are transfixed by his tremendous arrows, supplicate for mercy. They are a Syrian people, and are by some identified with the Northern Hittites. Their skin is yellow ; and they wear the long hair and beard, the fillet, the rich robe, fringed cape, and embroidered baldric with which we are familiar in the Nineveh sculptures. A man driving off cattle in the foreground looks as if he had stepped out of one of the tablets in the British Museum. Rameses meanwhile towers, swift and godlike, above the crowd. His coursers are of such immortal strain as were the coursers of Achilles. His sons, his whole army, chariot and horse, follow headlong at his heels. All is movement and the splendour of battle.

Farther on, we see the King returning in state, preceded by his prisoners of war. Tied together in gangs, they stagger as they go, with heads thrown back and hands uplifted. These, however, are not Assyrians, but Abyssinians and Nubians, so true to the type, so thick-lipped, flat-nosed, and woolly-headed, that only the pathos of the expression saves them from being ludicrous. It is naturalness pushed to the verge of caricature.

A little farther still, and we find Rameses leading a string of these captives into the presence of Amen-Ra, Maut, and Khons – Amen-Ra weird and unearthly, with his blue complexion and towering plumes ; Maut wearing the crown of Upper Egypt ; Khons by a subtle touch of flattery depicted with the features of the King. Again, to right and left of the entrance, Rameses, thrice the size of life, slays a group of captives of various nations. To the left Amen-Ra, to the right Ra Harmachis,9 approve and accept the sacrifice. In the second hall we see, as usual, the procession of the sacred bark. Ptah, Khem, and Bast, gorgeous in many-coloured garments, gleam dimly, like figures in faded tapestry, from the walls of the transverse corridor.

But the wonder of Abou Simbel is the huge subject on the north side of the Great Hall. This is a monster battle-piece which covers an area of 57 feet and 7 inches in length, by 25 feet 4 inches in height, and contains over 1100 figures. Even the heraldic cornice of cartouches and asps which runs round the rest of the ceiling is omitted on this side, so that the wall is literally filled with the picture from top to bottom.

Fully to describe this huge design would take many pages. It is a picture-gallery in itself. It represents not a single action but a whole campaign. It sets before us, with Homeric simplicity, the pomp and circumstance of war, the incidents of camp life, and the accidents of the open field. We see the enemy's city with its battlemented towers and triple moat ; the besiegers' camp and the pavilion of the king ; the march of infantry ; the shock of chariots ; the hand-to-hand melée ; the flight of the vanquished ; the triumph of Pharaoh ; the bringing in of the prisoners ; the counting of the hands of the slain. A great river winds through the picture from end to end, and almost surrounds the invested city. The king in his chariot pursues a crowd of fugitives along the bank. Some are crushed under his wheels ; some plunge into the water and are drowned.10 Behind him, a moving wall of shields and spears, advances with rhythmic step the serried phalanx ; while yonder, where the fight is thickest, we see chariots overturned, men dead and dying, and riderless horses making for the open. Meanwhile the besieged send out mounted scouts, and the country folk drive their cattle to the hills.

A grand frieze of chariots charging at full gallop divides the subject lengthwise, and separates the Egyptian camp from the field of battle. The camp is square, and enclosed, apparently, in a palisade of shields. It occupies less than one sixth part of the picture, and contains about a hundred figures. Within this narrow space the artist has brought together an astonishing variety of incidents. The horses feed in rows from a common manger, or wait their turn and impatiently paw the ground. Some are lying down. One, just unharnessed, scampers round the enclosure. Another, making off with the empty chariot at his heels, is intercepted by a couple of grooms. Other grooms bring buckets of water slung from the shoulders on wooden yokes. A wounded officer sits apart, his head resting on his hand ; and an orderly comes in haste to bring him news of the battle. Another, hurt apparently in the foot, is having the wound dressed by a surgeon. Two detachments of infantry, marching out to reinforce their comrades in action, are met at the entrance to the camp by the royal chariot returning from the field. Rameses drives before him some fugitives, who are trampled down, seized, and despatched upon the spot. In one corner stands a row of objects that look like joints of meat ; and near them are a small altar and a tripod brazier. Elsewhere, a couple of soldiers, with a big bowl between them, sit on their heels and dip their fingers in the mess, precisely as every Fellah does to this day. Meanwhile it is clear that Egyptian discipline was strict, and that the soldier who transgressed was as abjectly subject to the rule of stick as his modern descendant. In no less than three places do we see this time-honoured institution in full operation, the superior officer energetically flourishing his staff ; the private taking his punishment with characteristic disrelish. In the middle of the camp, watched over by his keeper, lies Rameses' tame lion ; while close against the royal pavilion a hostile spy is surprised and stabbed by the officer on guard. The pavilion itself is very curious. It is evidently not a tent but a building, and was probably an extemporaneous construction of crude brick. It has four arched doorways, and contains in one corner an object like a cabinet, which two sacred hawks for supporters. This object, which is in fact almost identical with the hieroglyphic emblem used to express a royal panegyry or festival, stands, no doubt, for the private oratory of the King. Five figures kneel before it in adoration.

To enumerate all or half the points of interest in this amazing picture would ask altogether too much space. Even to see it, with time at command and all the help that candles and magnesian torches can give, is far from easy. The relief is unusually low, and the surface, having originally been covered with stucco, is purposely roughened all over with tiny chisel-marks, which painfully confuse the details. Nor is this all. Owing to some kind of saline ooze in that part of the rock, the stucco has not only peeled off, but the actual surface is injured. It seems to have been eaten away, just as iron is eaten by rust. A few patches adhere, however, in places, and retain the original colouring. The river is still covered with blue and white zigzags, to represent water ; some of the fighting groups are yet perfect ; and two very beautiful royal chariots, one of which is surmounted by a richly ornamented parasol-canopy, are as fresh and brilliant as ever.

The horses throughout are excellent. The chariot frieze is almost Panathenaic in its effect of multitudinous movement ; while the horses in the camp of Rameses, for naturalness and variety of treatment, are perhaps the best that Egyptian art has to show. It is worth noting also that a horsemen, that rara avis, occurs some four or five times in different parts of the picture.

The scene of the campaign is laid in Syria. The river of blue and white zigzags is the Orontes ;11 the city of the besieged is Kadesh or Kades ;12 the enemy are the Kheta. The whole is, in fact, a grand picture-epic of the events immortalised in the poem of Pentaur – that poem which M. de Rougé has described as "a sort of Egyptian Iliad." The comparison would, however, apply to the picture with greater force than it applies to the poem. Pentaur, who was in the first place a courtier and in the second place a poet, has sacrificed everything to the prominence of his central figure. He is intent upon the glorification of the King ; and his poem, which is a mere pæan of praise, begins and ends with the prowess of Rameses Mer-Amen. If, then, it is to be called an Iliad, it is an Iliad from which everything that does not immediately concern Achilles is left out. The picture, on the contrary, though it shows the hero in combat and in triumph, and always of colossal proportions, yet has space for a host of minor characters. The episodes in which these characters appear are essentially Homeric. The spy is surprised and slain, as Dolon was slain by Ulysses. The men feast, and fight, and are wounded, just like the long-haired sons of Achaia ; while their horses, loosed from the yoke, eat white barley and oats

"Hard by their chariots, waiting for the dawn."

Like Homer, too, the artist of the battle-piece is careful to point out the distinguishing traits of the various combatants. The Kheta go three in a chariot ; the Egyptians only two. The Kheta wear a moustache and scalplock ; the Egyptians pride themselves on "a clean shave," and cover their bare heads with ponderous wigs. The Sardinian contingent cultivate their own thick hair, whiskers, and mustachios ; and their features are distinctly European. They also wear the curious helmet, surmounted by a ball and two spikes, by which they may always be recognised in the sculptures. These Sardinians appear only in the border-frieze, next the floor. The sand had drifted up just at that point, and only the top of one fantastic helmet was visible above the surface. Not knowing in the least to what this might belong, we set the men to scrape away the sand ; and so, quite by accident, uncovered the most curious and interesting group in the whole picture. The Sardinians13 (in Egyptian Shardana) seem to have been naturalised prisoners of war drafted into the ranks of the Egyptian army ; and are the first European people whose name appears on the monuments.

There is but one hour in the twenty-four at which it is possible to form any idea of the general effect of this vast subject ; and that is at sunrise. Then only does the pure day stream in through the doorway, and temper the gloom of the side-aisles with light reflected from the sunlit floor. The broad divisions of the picture and the distribution of the masses may then be dimly seen. The details, however, require candle-light, and can only be studied a few inches at a time. Even so, it is difficult to make out the upper groups without the help of a ladder. Salame, mounted on a chair and provided with two long sticks lashed together, could barely hold his little torch high enough to enable the Writer to copy the inscription on the middle tower of the fortress of Kadesh.

It is fine to see the sunrise on the front of the Great Temple ; but something still finer takes place on certain mornings of the year, in the very heart of the mountain. As the sun comes up above the eastern hill-tops, one long, level beam strikes through the doorway, pierces the inner darkness like an arrow, penetrates to the sanctuary, and falls like fire from heaven upon the altar at the feet of the Gods.

No one who has watched for the coming of that shaft of sunlight can doubt that it was a calculated effect, and that the excavation was directed at one especial angle in order to produce it. In this way Ra, to whom the temple was dedicated, may be said to have entered in daily, and by a direct manifestation of his presence to have approved the sacrifices of his worshippers.

I need scarcely say that we did not see half the wall-sculptures or even half the chambers, that first afternoon at Abou Simbel. We rambled to and fro, lost in wonder, and content to wonder, like rustics at a fair. We had, however, ample time to come again and again, and learn it all by heart. The Writer went in constantly, and at all hours ; but most frequently at the end of the day's sketching, when the rest were walking or boating in the cool of the late afternoon.

It is a wonderful place to be alone in – a place in which the very darkness and silence are old, and in which Time himself seems to have fallen asleep. Wandering to and fro among these sculptured halls, like a shade among shadows, one seems to have left the world behind ; to have done with the teachings of the present ; to belong one's self to the past. The very Gods assert their ancient influence over those who question them in solitude. Seen in the fast-deepening gloom of evening, they look instinct with supernatural life. There were times when I should scarcely have been surprised to hear them speak – to see them rise from their painted thrones and come down from the walls. There were times when I felt I believed in them.

There was something so weird and awful about the place, and it became so much more weird and awful the farther one went in, that I rarely ventured beyond the first hall when quite alone. One afternoon, however, when it was a little earlier, and therefore a little lighter, than usual, I went to the very end, and sat at the feet of the Gods in the sanctuary. All at once (I cannot tell why, for my thoughts just then were far away) it flashed upon me that a whole mountain hung – ready, perhaps, to cave in – above my head. Seized by a sudden panic such as one feels in dreams, I tried to run ; but my feet dragged, and the floor seemed to sink under them. I felt I could not have called for help, though it had been to save my life. It is unnecessary, perhaps, to add that the mountain did not cave in, and that I had my fright for nothing. It would have been a grand way of dying, all the same ; and a still grander way of being buried.

My visits to the Great Temple were not always so dramatic. I sometimes took Salame, who smoked cigarettes when not on active duty, or held a candle while I sketched patterns of cornices, head-dresses of Kings and Gods, designs of necklaces and bracelets, heads of captives, and the like. Sometimes we explored the side-chambers. Of these there are eight ; pitch-dark, and excavated at all kinds of angles. Two or three are surrounded by stone benches cut in the rock ; and in one the hieroglyphic inscriptions are part cut, part sketched in black and left unfinished. As this temple is entirely the work of Rameses II, and betrays no sign of having been added to by any of his successors, these evidences of incompleteness would seem to show that the King died before the work was ended.

I was always under the impression that there were secret places yet undiscovered in these dark chambers, and Salame and I were always looking for them. At Denderah, at Edfû, at Medinet Habu, at Philæ,14 there have been found crypts in the thickness of the walls and recesses under the pavements, for the safe-keeping of treasure in time of danger. The rock-cut temples must also have had their hiding-places ; and those would doubtless take the form of concealed cells in the walls, or under the floors, of the side-chambers.

To come out from these black holes into the twilight of the Great Hall and see the landscape set, as it were, in the ebon frame of the doorway, was alone worth the journey to Abou Simbel. The sun being at such times in the west, the river, the yellow sand-island, the palms and tamarisks opposite, and the mountains of the eastern desert, were all flooded with a glory of light and colour to which no pen or pencil could possibly do justice. Not even the mountains of Moab in Holman Hunt's "Scapegoat" were so warm with rose and gold.

Thus our days passed at Abou Simbel ; the workers working ; the idlers idling ; the strangers from the outer world now and then coming and going. The heat on shore was great, especially in the sketching-tents ; but the north breeze blew steadily every day from about an hour after sunrise till an hour before sunset, and on board the dahabeeyah it was always cool.

The Happy Couple took advantage of this good wind to do a good deal of boating, and by judiciously timing their excursions, contrived to use the tail of the day's breeze for their trip out, and the strong arms of four good rowers to bring them back again. In this way they managed to see the little rock-cut Temple of Ferayg, which the rest of us unfortunately missed. On another occasion they paid a visit to a certain Sheykh who lived at a village about two miles south of Abou Simbel. He was a great man, as Nubian magnates go. His name was Hassan Ebn Rashwan el Kashef, and he was a grandson of that same old Hassan Kashef who was vice-regent of Nubia in the days of Burckhardt and Belzoni. He received our Happy Couple with distinguished hospitality, killed a sheep in their honour, and entertained them for more than three hours. The meal consisted of an endless succession of dishes, all of which, like that bugbear of our childhood, the hated Air with Variations, went on repeating the same theme under a multitude of disguises ; and, whether roast, boiled, stewed or minced, served on skewers, smothered in rice, or drowned in sour milk, were always mutton au fond.

We now despaired of ever seeing a crocodile ; and but for a trail that our men discovered on the island opposite, we should almost have ceased to believe that there were crocodiles in Egypt. The marks were quite fresh when we went to look at them. The creature had been basking high and dry in the sun, and this was the point at which he had gone down again to the river. The damp sand at the water's edge had taken the mould of his huge fleshy paws, and even of the jointed armour of his tail, though this last impression was somewhat blurred by the final rush with which he had taken to the water. I doubt if Robinson Crusoe, when he saw the famous footprint on the shore, was more excited than we of the Philæ at sight of this genuine and undeniable trail.

As for the Idle Man, he flew at once to arms and made ready for the fray. He caused a shallow grave to be dug for himself a few yards from the spot ; then went and lay in it for hours together, morning after morning, under the full blaze of the sun, – flat, patient, alert, – with his gun ready cocked, and a Pall Mall Budget up his back. It was not his fault if he narrowly escaped sunstroke, and had his labour for his reward. That crocodile was too clever for him, and took good care never to come back.

Our sailors, meanwhile, though well pleased with an occasional holiday, began to find About Simbel monotonous. As long as the Bagstones stayed, the two crews met every evening to smoke, and dance, and sing their quaint roundelays together. But when rumours came of wonderful things already done this winter above Wady Halfeh – rumours that represented the Second Cataract as a populous solitude of crocodiles – then our faithful consort slipped away one morning before sunrise, and the Philæ was left companionless.

At this juncture, seeing that the men's time hung heavy on their hands, our Painter conceived the idea of setting them to clean the face of the northernmost Colossus, still disfigured by the plaster left on it when the great cast15 was taken by Mr. Hay more than half a century before. This happy thought was promptly carried into effect. A scaffolding of spars and oars was at once improvised, and the men, delighted as children at play, were soon swarming all over the huge head, just as the carvers may have swarmed over it in the days when Rameses was king.



All they had to do was to remove any small lumps that might yet adhere to the surface, and then tint the white patches with coffee. This they did with bits of sponge tied to the ends of sticks ; but Reïs Hassan, as a mark of dignity, had one of the Painter's old brushes, of which he was immensely proud.

It took them three afternoons to complete the job ; and we were all sorry when it came to an end. To see Reïs Hassan artistically touching up a gigantic nose almost as long as himself ; Riskalli and the cook-boy staggering to and fro with relays of coffee, brewed "thick and slab" for the purpose ; Salame perched cross-legged, like some complacent imp, on the towering rim of the great pschent overhead ; the rest chattering and skipping about the scaffolding like monkeys, was, I will venture to say, a sight more comic than has ever been seen at Abou Simbel before or since.

Rameses' appetite for coffee was prodigious. He consumed I know not how many gallons a day. Our cook stood aghast at the demand made upon his stores. Never before had he been called upon to provide for a guest whose mouth measured three feet and a half in width.

Still, the result justified the expenditure. The coffee proved a capital match for the sandstone ; and though it was not possible wholly to restore the uniformity of the original surface, we at least succeeded in obliterating those ghastly splotches, which for so many years have marred this beautiful face as with the unsightliness of leprosy.

What with boating, fishing, lying in wait for crocodiles, cleaning the colossus, and filling reams of thin letter paper to friends at home, we got through the first week quickly enough – the Painter and the Writer working hard, meanwhile, in their respective ways ; the Painter on his big canvas in front of the Temple ; the Writer shifting her little tent as she listed.

Now, although the most delightful occupation in life is undoubtedly sketching, it must be admitted that the sketcher at Abou Simbel works under difficulties. Foremost among these comes the difficulty of position. The great Temple stands within about twenty-five yards of the brink of the bank, and the lesser Temple within as many feet ; so that to get far enough from one's subject is simply impossible. The present Writer sketched the small Temple from the deck of the dahabeeyah ; there being no point of view obtainable on shore.

Next comes the difficulty of colour. Everything, except the sky and the river, is yellow – yellow, that is to say, "with a difference ; " yellow ranging through every gradation of orange, maize, apricot, gold, and buff. The mountains are sandstone ; the Temples are sandstone ; the sandslope is powdered sandstone from the sandstone desert. In all these objects, the scale of colour is necessarily the same. Even the shadows, glowing with reflected light, give back tempered repetitions of the dominant hue. Hence it follows that he who strives, however humbly, to reproduce the facts of the scene before him, is compelled, bon gré, mal gré, to execute what some our young painters would now-a-days call a Symphony in Yellow.

Lastly, there are the minor inconveniences of sun, sand, wind, and flies. The whole place radiates heat, and seems almost to radiate light. The glare from above and the glare from below are alike intolerable. Dazzled, blinded, unable to even look at his subject without the aid of smoke-coloured glasses, the sketcher whose tent is pitched upon the sandslope over against the great Temple enjoys a foretaste of cremation.

When the wind blows from the north (which at this time of the year is almost always) the heat is perhaps less distressing, but the sand is maddening. It fills your hair, your eyes, your water-bottles ; silts up your colour-box ; dries into your skies ; and reduces your Chinese white to a gritty paste the colour of salad-dressing. As for the flies, they have a morbid appetite for water-colours. They follow your wet brush along the paper, leave their legs in the yellow ochre, and plunge with avidity into every little pool of cobalt as it is mixed ready for use. Nothing disagrees with them ; nothing poisons them – not even olive-green.

It was a delightful time, however – delightful alike for those who worked and those who rested – and these small troubles counted for nothing in the scale. Yet it was pleasant, all the same, to break away for a day or two, and be off to Wady Halfeh.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


[Page 285]

1 The late Vicomte E. de Rougé, in a letter to M. Guigniaut on the discoveries at Tanis, believes that he detects the Semitic type in the portraits of Rameses II and Seti I ; and even conjectures that the Pharaohs of the XIXth Dynasty may have descended from Hyksos ancestors : "L'origine de la famille des Ramsés nous est jusqu' ici complétement inconnue : sa prédilection pour le dieu Set ou Sutech, qui éclate dès l'abord par le nom de Séti Iere (Sethos), ainsi que d'autres indices, pouvaient déjà engager à la reporter vers la Basse Egypte. Nous savions même que Ramsés II avait épousé une fille du prince de Khet, quand le traité de l'an 22 eut ramené la paix entre les deux pays. Le profil très-décidément sémitique de Séti et de Ramsés se distinguait nettement des figures ordinaires de nos Pharaons Thébains." (See Revue Archéologique, vol. ix. A.D. 1864.) In the course of the same letter, M. de Rougé adverts to the magnificent restoration of the temple of Sutech at Tanis (Sān) by Rameses II, and to the curious fact that the God is there represented with the peculiar head-dress worn elsewhere by the Prince of Kheta.

It is to be remembered, however, that the patron deity of Rameses II was Amen-Ra. His homage of Sutech (which might possibly have been a concession to his Khetan wife) seems to have been confined almost exclusively to Tanis, where Ma-at-iri-neferu-Ra may be supposed to have resided.

[Pages 289-290]

2 "L'absence de points fouillés, la simplification voulue, la restriction des détails et des ornements à quelques sillons plus ou moins hardis, l'engorgement de toutes les parties délicates, démontrent que les Egyptiens étaient loin d'avoir des procédés et des facilités inconnus." – La Sculpture Egyptienne, par EMILE SOLDI, p. 48.

"Un fait qui nous parait avoir dû entraver les progrès de la sculpture, c'est l'habitude probable des sculpteurs ou entrepreneurs égyptiens d'entreprendre le travail à même sur la pierre, sans avoir préalablement cherché le modèle en terre glaise, comme on le fait de nos jours. Une fois le modèle fini, on le moule et on le reproduit mathematiquement définitive. Ce procédé a toujours été employé dans les grandes époques de l'art ; et il ne nous a pas semblé qu'il ait jamais été en usage en Egypte." – Ibid. p. 82.

M. Soldi is also of opinion that the Egyptian sculptors were ignorant of many of the most useful tools known to the Greek, Roman, and modern sculptors, such as the emery-tube, the diamond-point, etc. etc.

[Page 290-91]

3 On the left leg of this colossus is the famous Greek inscription discovered by Messrs. Bankes and Salt. It dates from the reign of Psammetichus I, and purports to have been cut by a certain Damearchon, one of the 240,000 Egyptian troops of whom it is related by Herodotus (Book ii. chaps. 29, 30) that they deserted because they were kept in garrison at Syene for three years without being relieved. The inscription, as translated by Colonel Leake, is thus given in Rawlinson's Herodotus (vol. ii. p. 37) : "King Psamatichus having come to Elephantine, those who were with Psamatichus, the son of Theocles wrote this. They sailed, and came to above Kerkis, to where the river rises . . . the Egyptian Amasis. . . . The writer is Damearchon the son of Amœbichus, and Pelephus (Pelekos), the son of Udamus." The king Psamatichus here named has been identified with the Psamtik I of the inscriptions. It was in his reign, and not as it has sometimes been supposed, in the reign of Psammetichus II, that the great military defection took place.

[Page 292]

4 Ra, the principal solar divinity, generally represented with the head of a hawk, and the sun-disk on his head. "Ra veut dire faire, disposer ; c'est, en effet, le dieu Ra qui a disposé, organisé le monde, dont la matière lui a été donnée par Ptah." – P. PIERRET : Dictionnaire d'Archéologie Egyptienne.

"Ra est une autre des intelligences démiurgiques. Ptah avait créé le soleil ; le soleil, a son tour, est le créateur des êtres, animaux et hommes. Il est à l'hémisphère supérieure ce qu'Osiris est à l'hémisphère inférieure. Ra s'incarne à Héliopolis." – A. MARIETTE : Notice des Monuments à Boulak, p. 123.

[Page 292]

5 An instance occurs, however, in a small inscription sculptured on the rocks of the Island of Sehayl in the First Cataract, which records the second panegyry of the reign of Rameses II. – See Récueil des Monuments, etc. : BRUGSCH, vol. ii., Planche lxxxii., Inscription No. 6.

[Page 295]

6 See the Frontispiece.

[Page 296]

7 Though dedicated by Rameses to Nefertari, and by Nefertari to Rameses, this Temple was placed, primarily, under the patronage of Hathor, the supreme type of divine maternity. She is represented by Queen Nefertari, who appears on the façade as the mother of six children, and adorned with the attributes of the goddess. A Temple to Hathor would also be, from a religious point of view, the fitting pendant to a Temple of Ra. M. Mariette, in his Notice des Monuments à Boulak, remarks of Hathor that her functions are still but imperfectly known to us. "Peutêtre était-elle à Ra ce que Maut est à Ammon, le récipient où le dieu s'engendre lui-même pour l'éternité."

[Page 297]

8 It is not often that one can say of a female head in an Egyptian wall-painting that it is beautiful ; but in these portraits of the Queen, many times repeated upon the walls of the first Hall of the Temple of Hathor, there is, if not positive beauty according to our western notions, much sweetness and much grace. The name of Nefertari means Perfect, Good, or Beautiful Companion. That the word "Nefer" should mean both Good and Beautiful – in fact, that Beauty and Goodness should be synonymous terms – is not merely interesting as it indicates a lofty philosophical standpoint, but as it reveals, perhaps, the latent germ of that doctrine which was hereafter to be taught with such brilliant results in the Alexandrian Schools. It is remarkable that the word for Truth and Justice (Ma) was also one and the same.

There is often a quaint significance about Egyptian proper names which reminds one of the names that came into favour in England under the Commonwealth. Take for instance Bak-en-Khonsu, Servant-of-Khons ; Pa-ta-amen, the Gift of Ammon ; Renpitnefer, Good-year ; Nub-en Tekh, Worth-her-Weight-in-Gold (both women's names) ; and Hor-mes-out'-a-Shu, Horus-son-of-the-Eye-of-Shu – which last, as a tolerably long compound, may claim relationship with Praise-God Barebones, Hew-Agag-in Pieces-before-the-Lord, etc. etc.

[Page 299]

9 Ra Harmachis, in Egyptian Har-em-Khou-ti, personifies the sun rising upon the eastern horizon.

[Page 300]

10See chap. viii, pp. 139-140 ; also chap. xxi, p. 420.

[Page 301]

11 In Egyptian, Aaranatu.

[Page 302]

12 In Egyptian, Kateshu. "Aujourdhui encore il existe une ville de Kades près d'une courbe de l'Oronte dans le voisinage de Homs." Leçons de M. de Rougé, Professées au Collége de France. See MÉLANGES D'ARCHEOLOGIE, Egyp. and Assyr., vol. ii. p 269. Also a valuable paper, entitled "The Campaign of Rameses II against Kadesh," by the Rev. G. H. Tomkins, Trans. of the Soc. of Bib. Arch. vol. viii. part 3, 1882. The bend of the river is actually given in the bas-reliefs.

[Page 303]

13 "La légion S'ardana de l'armée de Ramsés II provenait d'une première descente de ces peuples en Egypte. 'Les S'ardaina qui étaient des prisonniers de sa majesté,' dit expressément le texte de Karnak, au commencement du poëme de Pentaur. Les archéologues ont remarqué la richesse de leur costume et de leurs armures. Les principales pièces de leur vêtements semblent couvertes de broderies. Leur bouchier est une rondache : ils portent une longue et large épée de forme ordinaire, mais on remarque aussi dans leurs mains une épée d'une longueur démesurée. Le casque des S'ardana est très caracterisque ; sa forme est arrondie, mais il est surmonté d'une tige qui supporte une boule de métal. Cet ornament est accompagné de deux cornes en forme de croissant. . . . Les S'ardana de l'armée Egyptienne ont seulement des favoris et des moustaches coupés très courts." – Memoire sur les Attaques Dirigées contre l'Egypte, etc. etc. E. DE ROUGÉ. Revue Archéologique, vol. xvi. pp. 90, 91.

[Page 305]

14 A rich treasure of gold and silver rings was found by Ferlini, in 1834, immured in the wall of one of the pyramids of Meröe, in Upper Nubia. See Lepsius's Letters, translated by L. and J. HORNER, Bohn, 1853, p. 151.

[Pages 307-308]

15 This cast, the property of the British Museum, is placed over a door leading to the library at the end of the northern Vestibule, opposite the staircase. I was informed by the late Mr. Bonomi that the mould was made by Mr. Hay, who had with him an Italian assistant picked up in Cairo. They took with them some barrels of plaster and a couple of ladders, and contrived, with such spars and poles as belonged to the dahabeeyah, to erect a scaffolding and a matted shelter for the plasterman. The Colossus was at this time buried up to its chin in sand, which made their task so much the easier. When the mould of the head was brought to England, it was sent to Mr. Bonomi's studio, together with a mould of the head of the Colossus at Mitrahenny, a mould of the apex of the fallen obelisk at Karnak, and moulds of the wall-sculptures at Bayt-el-Welly. Mr. Bonomi superintended the casting and placing of all these in the Museum about three years after the moulds were made. This was at the time when Mr. Hawkins held the post of Keeper of Antiquities. I mention these details, not simply because they have a special interest for all who are acquainted with Abou Simbel, but because a good deal of misapprehension has prevailed on the subject, some travellers attributing the disfigurement of the head to Lepsius, others to the Crystal Palace Company, and so forth. Even so careful a writer as the late Miss Martineau ascribes it, on hearsay, to Champollion.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom