"Chapter XX: Silsilis and Edfû." 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. 390-408.
GOING, it cost us four days to struggle up from Assûan to Mahatta ; returning, we slid down – thanks to our old friend the Sheykh of the Cataract – in one short, sensational half hour. He came – flat-faced, fishy-eyed, fatuous as ever – with his head tied up in the same old yellow handkerchief, and with the same chibouque in his mouth. He brought with him a following of fifty stalwart Shellalees ; and under his arm he carried a tattered red flag. This flag, on which were embroidered the crescent and star, he hoisted with much solemnity at the prow.
Consigned thus to the protection of the Prophet ; windows and tambooshy1 shuttered ; doors closed ; breakables removed to a place of safety, and everything made snug, as if for a storm at sea, we put off from Mahatta at seven A.M. on a lovely morning in the middle of March. The Philæ, instead of threading her way back through the old channels, strikes across to the Libyan side, making straight for the Big Bab – that formidable rapid which as yet we have not seen. All last night we heard its voice in the distance ; now, at every stroke of the oars, that rushing sound draws nearer.
The Sheykh of the Cataract is our captain, and his men are our sailors to-day ; Reïs Hassan and the crew having only to sit still and look on. The Shellalees, meanwhile, row swiftly and steadily. Already the river seems to be running faster than usual ; already the current feels stronger under our keel. And now, suddenly, there is sparkle and foam on the surface yonder – there are rocks ahead ; rocks to right and left ; eddies everywhere. The Sheykh lays down his pipe, kicks off his shoes, and goes himself to the prow. His second in command is stationed at the top of the stairs leading to the upper deck. Six men take the tiller. The rowers are reinforced, and sit two to each side.
In the midst of these preparations, when everybody looks grave, and even the Arabs are silent, we all at once find ourselves at the mouth of a long and narrow strait – a kind of ravine between two walls of rock – through which, at a steep incline, there rushes a roaring mass of waters. The whole Nile, in fact, seems to be thundering in wild waves down that terrible channel.
It seems, at first sight, impossible that any dahabeeyah should venture that way and not be dashed to pieces. The Sheykh, however, gives the word – his second echoes it – the men at the helm obey. They put the dahabeeyah straight at that monster mill-race. For one breathless second we seem to tremble on the edge of the fall. Then the Philæ plunges in headlong!
We see the whole boat slope down bodily under our feet. We feel the leap – the dead fall – the staggering rush forward. Instantly the waves are foaming and boiling up on deck with spray. The men ship their oars, leaving all to helm and current ; and, despite the hoarse tumult, we distinctly hear those oars scrape the rocks on either side.
Now the Sheykh, looking for the moment quite majestic, stands motionless with uplifted arm ; for at the end of this pass there is a sharp turn to the right – as sharp as a street corner in a narrow London thoroughfare. Can the Philæ, measuring 100 feet from stem to stern, ever round that angle in safety? Suddenly the uplifted arm is waved – the Sheykh thunders "Daffet!" (helm) – the men, steady and prompt, put the helm about – the boat, answering splendidly to the word of command, begins to turn before we are out of the rocks ; then, shooting round the corner at exactly the right moment, comes out safe and sound, with only an oar broken!
Great is the rejoicing. Reïs Hassan, in the joy of his heart, runs to shake hands all round ; the Arabs burst into a chorus of "Taibs" and "Salames ;" and Talhamy, coming up all smiles, is set upon by half-a-dozen playful Shellalees, who snatch his keffîyeh from his head, and carry it off as a trophy. The only one unmoved is the Sheykh of the Cataract. His momentary flash of energy over, he slouches back with the old stolid face ; slips on his shoes ; drops on his heels ; lights his pipe ; and looks more like an owl than ever.
We had fancied till now that the Cataract Arabs for their own profit, and travellers for their own glory, had grossly exaggerated the dangers of the Big Bab. But such is not the case. The Big Bab is in truth a serious undertaking ; so serious that I doubt whether any English boatmen would venture to take such a boat down such a rapid, and between such rocks, as the Shellalee Arabs took the Philæ that day.
All dahabeeyahs, however, are not so lucky. Of thirty-four that shot the fall this season, several had been slightly damaged, and one was so disabled that she had to lie up at Assûan for a fortnight to be mended. Of actual shipwreck, or injury to life and limb, I do not suppose there is any real danger. The Shellalees are wonderfully cool and skilful, and have abundant practice. Our Painter, it is true, preferred rolling up his canvases and carrying them round on dry land by way of the desert ; but this was a precaution that neither he nor any of us would have dreamed of taking on account of our own personal safety. There is, in fact, little, if anything, to fear ; and the traveller who forgoes the descent of the Cataract, forgoes a very curious sight, and a very exciting adventure.
At Assûan we bade farewell to Nubia and the blameless Ethiopians, and found ourselves once more traversing the Nile of Egypt. If instead of five miles of Cataract we had crossed five hundred miles of sea or desert, the change could not have been more complete. We left behind us a dreamy river, a silent shore, an ever-present desert. Returning, we plunged back at once into the midst of a fertile and populous region. All day long, now, we see boats on the river ; villages on the banks ; birds on the wing ; husbandmen on the land ; men and women, horses, camels and asses, passing perpetually to and fro on the towing-path. There is always someting moving, something doing. The Nile is running low, and the shâdûfs – three deep, now – are in full swing from morning till night. Again the smoke goes up from clusters of unseen huts at close of day. Again we hear the dogs barking from hamlet to hamlet in the still hours of the night. Again, towards sunset, we see troops of girls coming down to the river-side with their water-jars on their heads. Those Arab maidens, when they stand with garments tightly tucked up and just their feet in the water, dipping the goollah at arm's length in the fresher gush of the current, almost tempt one's pencil into the forbidden paths of caricature.
Kom Ombo is a magnificent torso. It was as large once as Denderah – perhaps larger ; for, being on the same grand scale, it was a double Temple and dedicated to two Gods, Horus and Sebek ;2 the Hawk and the Crocodile. Now there remain only a few giant columns buried to within eight or ten feet of their gorgeous capitals ; a superb fragment of architrave ; one broken wave of sculptured cornice, and some fallen blocks graven with the names of Ptolemies and Cleopatras.
A great double doorway, a hall of columns, and a double sanctuary, are said to be yet perfect, though no longer accessible. The roofing blocks of three halls, one behind the other, and a few capitals, are yet visible behind the portico. What more may lie buried below the surface, none can tell. We only know that an ancient city and a mediæval hamlet have been slowly engulfed ; and that an early Temple, contemporary with the Temple of Amada, once stood within the sacred enclosure. The sand here has been accumulating for 2000 years. It lies forty feet deep, and has never been excavated. It will never be excavated now ; for the Nile is gradually sapping the bank, and carrying away piecemeal from below what the desert has buried from above. Half of one noble pylon – a cataract of sculptured blocks – strews the steep slope from top to bottom. The other half hangs suspended on the brink of the precipice. It cannot hang so much longer. A day must soon come when it will collapse with a crash, and thunder down like its fellow.
TEMPLE OF KOM OMBO, UPPER EGYPT.
Between Kom Ombo and Silsilis, we lost our Painter. Not that he either strayed or was stolen ; but that, having accomplished the main object of his journey, he was glad to seize the first opportunity of getting back quickly to Cairo. That opportunity – represented by a noble Duke honeymooning with a steam-tug – happened half-way between Kom Ombo and Silsilis. Painter and Duke being acquaintances of old, the matter was soon settled. In less than a quarter of an hour, the big picture and all the paraphernalia of the studio were transported from the stern-cabin of the Philæ to the stern-cabin of the steam-tug ; and our Painter – fitted out with an extempore canteen, a cook-boy, a waiter, and his fair share of the necessaries of life – was soon disappearing gaily in the distance at the rate of twenty miles an hour. If the Happy Couple, so weary of head-winds, so satiated with Temples, followed that vanishing steam-tug with eyes of melancholy longing, the Writer at least asked nothing better than to drift on with the Philæ.
Still, the Nile is long, and life is short ; and the tale told by our logbook was certainly not encouraging. When we reached Silsilis on the morning of the 17th of March, the north wind had been blowing with only one day's intermission since the 1st of February.
At Silsilis, one looks in vain for traces of that great barrier which once blocked the Nile at this point. The stream is narrow here, and the sandstone cliffs come down on both sides to the water's edge. In some places there is space for a footpath ; in others, none. There are also some sunken rocks in the bed of the river – upon one of which, by the way, a Cook's steamer had struck two days before. But of such a mass as could have dammed the Nile, and by its disruption not only have caused the river to desert its bed at Philæ,3 but have changed the whole physical and climatic conditions of Lower Nubia, there is no sign whatever.
The Arabs here show a rock fantastically quarried in the shape of a gigantic umbrella, to which they pretend some king of old attached one end of a chain with which he barred the Nile. It may be that in this apocryphal legend there survives some memory of the ancient barrier.
The cliffs of the western bank are rich in memorial niches, votive shrines, tombs, historical stelæ, and inscriptions. These last date from the VIth to the XXIInd Dynasties. Some of the tombs and alcoves are very curious. Ranged side by side in a long row close above the river, and revealing glimpses of seated figures and gaudy decorations within, they look like private boxes with their occupants. In most of these we found mutilated triads of Gods,4 sculptured and painted ; and in one larger than the rest were three niches, each containing three deities.
The great Speos of Horemheb, the last Pharaoh of the XVIIIth Dynasty, lies farthest north, and the memorial shrines of the Rameses family lie farthest south of the series. The first is a long gallery, like a cloister supported on four square columns ; and is excavated parallel with the river. The walls inside and out are covered with delicately executed sculptures in low relief, some of which yet retain traces of colour. The triumph of Horemheb returning from conquest in the land of Kush, and the famous subject on the south wall described by Mariette5 as one of the few really lovely things in Egyptian art, have been too often engraved to need description. The votive shrines of the Rameses family are grouped all together in a picturesque nook green with bushes to the water's edge. There are three, the work of Seti I, Rameses II, and Menepthah – lofty alcoves, each like a little proscenium, with painted cornices and side pillars, and groups of Kings and Gods still bright with colour. In most of the votive sculptures of Silsilis there figure two deities but rarely seen elsewhere ; namely Sebek, the Crocodile God, and Hapi-mu, the lotus-crowned God of the Nile. This last was the tutelary deity of the spot, and was worshipped at Silsilis with special rites. Hymns in his honour are found carved here and there upon the rocks.6 Most curious of all, however, is a Goddess named Ta-ur-t,7 represented in one of the side subjects of the shrine of Rameses II. This charming person, who has the body of a hippopotamus and the face of a woman, wears a tie-wig and a robe of state with five capes, and looks like a cross between a Lord Chancellor and a Coachman. Behind her stand Thoth and Nut ; all three receiving the homage of Queen Nefertari, who advances with an offering of two sistrums. As a hippopotamus crowned with the disk and plumes, we had met with this Goddess before. She is not uncommon as an amulet ; and the Writer had already sketched her at Philæ, where she occupies a prominent place in the façade of the Mammisi. But the grotesque elegance of her attire at Silsilis, is, I imagine, quite unique.
The interest of the western bank centres in its sculptures and inscriptions ; the interest of the eastern bank, in its quarries. We rowed over to a point nearly opposite the shrines of the Ramessides, and, climbing a steep verge of débris, came to the mouth of a narrow cutting between walls of solid rock, from forty to fifty feet in height. These walls are smooth, clean-cut, and faultlessly perpendicular. The colour of the sandstone is rich amber. The passage is about ten feet in width and perhaps four hundred in length. Seen at a little after mid-day, with one side in shadow, the other in sunlight, and a narrow ribbon of blue sky overhead, it is like nothing else in the world ; unless, perhaps, the entrance to Petra.
Following this passage, we came presently to an immense area, at least as large as Belgrave Square ; beyond which, separated by a thin partition of rock, opened a second and somewhat smaller area. On the walls of these huge amphitheatres, the chisel-marks and wedge-holes were as fresh as if the last blocks had been taken hence but yesterday ; yet it is some 2000 years since the place last rang to the blows of the mallet, and echoed back the voices of the workmen. From the days of the Theban Pharaohs to the days of the Ptolemies and Cæsars, those echoes can never have been silent. The Temples of Karnak and Luxor, of Gournah, of Medinet Habu, of Esneh and Edfu and Hermonthis, all came from here, and from the quarries on the opposite side of the river.8
Returning, we climbed long hills of chips ; looked down into valleys of débris ; and came back at last to the river-side by way of an ancient inclined plane, along which the blocks were slid down to the transport boats below. But the most wonderful thing about Silsilis is the way in which the quarrying has been done. In all these halls and passages and amphitheatres, the sandstone has been sliced out smooth and straight, like hay from a hayrick. Everywhere the blocks have been taken out square ; and everywhere the best of the stone has been extracted, and the worst left. When it was fine in grain and even in colour, it has been cut with the nicest economy. Where it was whitish, or brownish, or traversed by veins of violet, it has been left standing. Here and there, we saw places where the lower part had been removed and the upper part left projecting, like the overhanging storeys of our old mediæval timber houses. Compared with this puissant and perfect quarrying, our rough-and-ready blasting looks like the work of savages.
Struggling hard against the wind, we left Silsilis that same afternoon. The wrecked steamer was now more than half under water. She had broken her back and begun filling immediately, with all Cook's party on board. Being rowed ashore with what necessaries they could gather together, these unfortunates had been obliged to encamp in tents borrowed from the Mudîr of the district. Luckily for them, a couple of homeward-bound dahabeeyahs came by next morning, and took off as many as they could accommodate. The Duke's steam-tug received the rest. The tents were still there, and a gang of natives, under the superintendence of the Mudîr, were busy getting off all that could be saved from the wreck.
As evening drew on, our head-wind became a hurricane ; and that hurricane lasted, day and night, for thirty-six hours. All this time the Nile was driving up against the current in great rollers, like rollers on the Cornish coast when tide and wind set together from the west. To hear them roaring past in the darkness of the night – to feel the Philæ rocking, shivering, straining at her mooring-ropes, and bumping perpetually against the bank, was far from pleasant. By day, the scene was extraordinary. There were no clouds ; but the air was thick with sand, through which the sun glimmered feebly. Some palms, looking grey and ghost-like on the bank above, bent as if they must break before the blast. The Nile was yeasty, and flecked with brown foam, large lumps of which came swirling every now and then against our cabin windows. The opposite bank was simply nowhere. Judging only by what was visible from the deck, one would have vowed that the dahabeeyah was moored against an open coast, with an angry sea coming in.
The wind fell about five A.M. the second day ; when the men at once took to their oars, and by breakfast-time brought us to Edfu. Nothing now could be more delicious than the weather. It was a cool, silvery, misty morning – such a morning as one never knows in Nubia, where the sun is no sooner up than one is plunged at once into the full blaze and stress of day. There were donkeys waiting for us on the bank, and our way lay for about a mile through barley flats and cotton plantations. The country looked rich ; the people smiling and well-conditioned. We met a troop of them going down to the dahabeeyah with sheep, pigeons, poultry, and a young ox for sale. Crossing a back-water bridged by a few rickety palm-trunks, we now approached the village, which is perched, as usual, on the mounds of the ancient city. Meanwhile the great pylons – seeming to grow larger every moment – rose, creamy in light, against a soft blue sky.
Riding through lanes of huts, we came presently to an open space and a long flight of roughly built steps in front of the Temple. At the top of these steps we were standing on the level of the modern village. At the bottom we saw the massive pavement that marked the level of the ancient city. From that level rose the pylons which even from afar off had looked so large. We now found that those stupendous towers not only soared to a height of about seventy-five feet above our heads, but plunged down to a depth of at least forty more beneath our feet.
Ten years ago, nothing was visible of the great Temple of Edfu save the tops of these pylons. The rest of the building was as much lost to sight as if the earth had opened and swallowed it. Its courtyards were choked with foul débris. Its sculptured chambers were buried under forty feet of soil. Its terraced roof was a maze of closely packed huts, swarming with human beings, poultry, dogs, kine, asses, and vermin. Thanks to the indefatigable energy of Mariette, these Augæan stables were cleansed some thirty years ago. Writing himself of this trememdous task, he says : – "I caused to be demolished the sixty-four houses which encumbered the roof, as well as twenty-eight more which approached too near the outer wall of the Temple. When the whole shall be isolated from its present surroundings by a massive wall, the work of restoration at Edfu will be accomplished."9
That wall has not yet been built ; but the encroaching mound has been cut clean away all round the building, now standing free in a deep open space, the sides of which are in some places as perpendicular as the quarried cliffs of Silsilis. In the midst of this pit, like a risen God issuing from the grave, the huge building stands before us in the sunshine, erect and perfect. The effect at first sight is overwhelming.
Through the great doorway, fifty feet in height, we catch glimpses of a grand courtyard, and of a vista of doorways, one behind another. Going slowly down, we see farther into those dark and distant halls at every step. At the same time the pylons, covered with gigantic sculptures, tower higher and higher, and seem to shut out the sky. The custode – a pigmy of six foot two, in semi-European dress – looks up grinning, expectant of bakhshîsh. For there is actually a custode here, and, which is more to the purpose, a good strong gate, through which neither pilfering visitors nor pilfering Arabs can pass unnoticed.
Who enters that gate crosses the threshold of the past, and leaves two thousand years behind him. In these vast courts and storied halls all is unchanged. Every pavement, every column, every stair, is in its place. The roof, but for a few roofing-stones missing just over the sanctuary, is not only uninjured, but in good repair. The hieroglyphic inscriptions are as sharp and legible as the day they were cut. If here and there a capital, or the face of a human-headed deity, has been mutilated, these are blemishes which at first one scarcely observes, and which in no wise mar the wonderful effect of the whole. We cross that great courtyard in the full blaze of the morning sunlight. In the colonnades on either side there is shade, and in the pillared portico beyond, a darkness as of night ; save where a patch of deep blue sky burns through a square opening in the roof, and is matched by a corresponding patch of blinding light on the pavement below. Hence we pass on through a hall of columns, two transverse corridors, a side chapel, a series of pitch-dark side chambers, and a sanctuary. Outside all these, surrounding the actual Temple on three sides, runs an external corridor open to the sky, and bounded by a superb wall full forty feet in height. When I have said that the entrance-front, with its twin pylons and central doorway, measures 250 feet in width by 125 feet in height ; that the first courtyard measures more than 160 feet in length by 140 in width ; that the entire length of the building is 450 feet, and that it covers an area of 80,000 square feet, I have stated facts of a kind which convey no more than a general idea of largeness to the ordinary reader. Of the harmony of the proportions, of the amazing size and strength of the individual parts, of the perfect workmanship, of the fine grain and creamy amber of the stone, no description can do more than suggest an indefinite notion.
Edfu and Denderah may almost be called twin Temples. They belong to the same period. They are built very nearly after the same plan.10 They are even allied in a religious sense ; for the myths of Horus11 and Hathor12 are interdependent ; the one being the complement of the other. Thus in the inscriptions of Edfu we find perpetual allusion to the cultus of Denderah, and vice versa. Both Edfu and Denderah are rich in inscriptions ; but as the extent of wall-space is greater at Edfu, so is the literary wealth of this Temple greater than the literary wealth of Denderah. It also seemed to me that the surface was more closely filled in at Edfu than at Denderah. Every wall, every ceiling, every pillar, every architrave, every passage and side-chamber however dark, every staircase, every doorway, the outer wall of the Temple, the inner side of the great wall of circuit, the huge pylons from top to bottom, are not only covered, but crowded, with figures and hieroglyphs. Among these we find no enormous battle-subjects as at Abou Simbel – no heroic recitals, like the poem of Pentaur. Those went out with the Pharaohs, and were succeeded by tableaux of religious rites and dialogues of gods and kings. Such are the stock subjects of Ptolemaic edifices. They abound at Denderah and Esneh, as well as at Edfu. But at Edfu there are more inscriptions of a miscellaneous character than in any Temple of Egypt ; and it is precisely this secular information which is so priceless. Here are geographical lists of Nubian and Egyptian nomes, with their principal cities, their products, and their tutelary gods ; lists of tributary provinces and princes ; lists of temples, and of the lands pertaining thereunto ; lists of canals, of ports, of lakes ; kalendars of feasts and fasts ; astronomical tables ; genealogies and chronicles of the gods ; lists of the priests and priestesses of both Edfu and Denderah, with their names ; lists also of singers and assistant functionaries ; lists of offerings, hymns, invocations ; and such a profusion of religious legends as make the walls of Edfu alone a complete text-book of Egyptian mythology.13
No great collection of these inscriptions, like the "Denderah" of Mariette, has yet been published ; but every now and then some enterprising Egyptologist such as M. Naville or M. Jacques de Rougé, plunges for a while into the depths of the Edfu mine and brings back as much precious ore as he can carry. Some most singular and interesting details have thus been brought to light. One inscription, for instance, records exactly in what month, and on what day and at what hour, Isis gave birth to Horus. Another tells all about the sacred boats. We know now that Edfu possessed at least two ; and that one was called Hor-Hāt, or The First Horus, and the other Āa-Māfek, or Great of Turquoise. These boats, it would appear, were not merely for carrying in procession, but for actual use upon the water. Another text – one of the most curious – informs us that Hathor of Denderah paid an annual visit to Horus (or Hor-Hāt) of Edfu, and spent some days with him in his Temple. The whole ceremonial of this fantastic trip is given in detail. The Goddess travelled in her boat called Neb-Mer-t, or Lady of the Lake. Horus, like a polite host, went out in his boat Hor-Hāt, to meet her. The two deities with their attendants then formed one procession, and so came to Edfu, where the Goddess was entertained with a successions of festivals.14
One would like to know whether Horus duly returned all these visits ; and if the Gods, like modern Emperors, had a gay time among themselves.
Other questions inevitably suggest themselves, sometimes painfully, sometimes ludicrously, as one paces chamber after chamber, corridor after corridor, sculptured all over with strange forms and stranger legends. What about these Gods whose genealogies are so intricate ; whose mutual relations are so complicated ; who wedded and became parents ; who exchanged visits, and who even travelled15 at times to distant countries? What about those who served them in the Temples ; who robed and unrobed them ; who celebrated their birthdays, and paraded them in stately processions, and consumed the lives of millions in erecting these mountains of masonry and sculpture to their honour? We know now with what elaborate rites the Gods were adored ; what jewels they wore ; what hymns were sung in their praise. We know from what a subtle and philosophical core of solar myths their curious personal adventures were evolved. We may also be quite sure that the hidden meaning of these legends was almost wholly lost sight of in the later days of the religion,16 and that the Gods were accepted for what they seemed to be, and not for what they symbolised. What, then, of their worshippers? Did they really believe all these things, or were any among them tormented with doubts of the Gods? Were there sceptics in those days, who wondered how two hierogrammates could look each other in the face without laughing?
The custode told us that there were 242 steps to the top of each tower of the propylon. We counted 224, and dispensed willingly with the remainder. It was a long pull ; but had the steps been four times as many, the sight from the top would have been worth the climb. The chambers in the pylons are on a grand scale, with wide bevelled windows like the mouths of monster letter-boxes, placed at regular intervals all the way up. Through these windows the great flagstaffs and pennons were regulated from within. The two pylons communicate by a terrace over the central doorway. The parapet of this terrace and the parapets of the pylons above, are plentifully scrawled with names, many of which were left there by the French soldiers of 1799.
The cornices of these two magnificent towers are unfortunately gone ; but the total height without them is 125 feet. From the top, as from the minaret of the great mosque at Damascus, one looks down into the heart of the town. Hundreds of mud-huts thatched with palm-leaves, hundreds of little courtyards, lie mapped out beneath one's feet ; and as the Fellâh lives in his yard by day, using his hut merely as a sleeping place at night, one looks down, like the Diable Boiteux, upon the domestic doings of a roofless world. We see people moving to and fro, unconscious of strange eyes watching them from above – men lounging, smoking, sleeping in shady corners – children playing – infants crawling on all fours – women cooking at clay ovens in the open air – cows and sheep feeding – poultry scratching and pecking – dogs basking in the sun. The huts look more like the lairs of prairie-dogs than the dwellings of human beings. The little mosque with its one dome and stunted minaret, so small, so far below, looks like a clay toy. Beyond the village, which reaches far and wide, lie barley fields, and cotton patches, and palm-groves, bounded on one side by the river, and on the other by the desert. A broad road, dotted over with moving specks of men and cattle, cleaves its way straight through the cultivated land and out across the sandy plain beyond. We can trace its course for miles where it is only a trodden track in the desert. It goes, they tell us, direct to Cairo. On the opposite bank glares a hideous white sugar-factory, and, bowered in greenery, a country villa of the Khedive. The broad Nile flows between. The sweet Theban hills gleam through a pearly haze on the horizon.
All at once, a fitful breeze springs up, blowing in little gusts and swirling the dust in circles round our feet. At the same moment, like a beautiful spectre, there rises from the desert close by an undulating semi-transparent stalk of yellow sand, which grows higher every moment, and begins moving northward across the plain. Almost at the same instant, another appears a long way off towards the south, and a third comes gliding mysteriously along the opposite bank. While we are watching the third, the first begins throwing off a wonderful kind of plume, which follows it, waving and melting in the air. And now the stranger from the south comes up at a smooth, tremendous pace, towering at least 500 feet above the desert, till, meeting some cross-current, it is snapped suddenly in twain. The lower half instantly collapses ; the upper, after hanging suspended for a moment, spreads and floats slowly, like a cloud. In the meanwhile, other and smaller columns form here and there – stalk a little way – waver – disperse – form again – and again drop away in dust. Then the breeze falls, and puts an abrupt end to this extraordinary spectacle. In less than two minutes there is not a sand-column left. As they came, they vanish – suddenly.
Such is the landscape that frames the Temple ; and the Temple, after all, is the sight that one comes up here to see. There it lies far below our feet, the courtyard with its almost perfect pavement ; the flat roof compact of gigantic monoliths ; the wall of circuit with its panoramic sculptures ; the portico, with its screen and pillars distinct in brilliant light against inner depths of dark ; each pillar a shaft of ivory, each square of dark a block of ebony. So perfect, so solid so splendid is the whole structure ; so simple in unity of plan ; so complex in ornament ; so majestic in completeness, that one feels as if it solved the whole problem of religious architecture.
Take it for what it is – a Ptolemaic structure preserved in all its integrity of strength and finish – it is certainly the finest extant Temple in Egypt. It brings before us, with even more completeness than Denderah, the purposes of its various parts, and the kind of ceremonial for which it was designed. Every corridor and chamber tells its own story. Even the names of the different chambers are graven upon them in such wise than nothing17 would be easier than to reconstruct the ground-plan of the whole building in hieroglyphic nomenclature. That neither the Ptolemaic building nor the Ptolemaic mythus can be accepted as strictly representative of either pure Egyptian art or pure Egyptian thought, must of course be conceded. Both are modified by Greek influences, and have so far departed from the Pharaonic model. But then we have no equally perfect specimen of the Pharaonic model. The Ramesseum is but a grand fragment. Karnak and Medinet Habu are aggregates of many Temples and many styles. Abydos is still half-buried. Amid so much that is fragmentary, amid so much that is ruined, the one absolutely perfect structure – Ptolemaic though it be – is of incalculable interest, and equally incalculable value.
While we are dreaming over these things, trying to fancy how it all looked when the sacred flotilla came sweeping up the river yonder and the procession of Hor-Hāt issued forth to meet the Goddess-guest – while we are half-expecting to see the whole brilliant concourse pour out, priests in their robes of panther-skin, priestesses with the tinkling sistrum, singers and harpists, and bearers of gifts and emblems, and high functionaries rearing aloft the sacred boat of the God – in this moment a turbaned Muëddin comes out upon the rickety wooden gallery of the little minaret below, and intones the call to mid-day prayer. That plaintive cry has hardly died away before we see men here and there among the huts turning towards the east, and assuming the first postures of devotion. The women go on cooking and nursing their babies. I have seen Moslem women at prayer in the mosques of Constantinople, but never in Egypt.
Meanwhile, some children catch sight of us, and, notwithstanding that we are one hundred and twenty-five feet above their heads, burst into a frantic chorus of "Bakhshîsh!"
And now, with a last long look at the Temple and the wide landscape beyond, we come down again, and go to see a dismal little Mammesi three-parts buried among a wilderness of mounds close by. These mounds, which consist almost entirely of crude-brick débris with imbedded fragments of stone and pottery, are built up like coral-reefs, and represent the dwellings of some sixty generations. When they are cut straight through, as here round about the Great Temple, the substance of them looks like rich plum-cake.
1 Ar. Tambooshy – i.e. saloon sky-light.
2 "Sebek est un dieu solaire. Dans un papyrus de Boulak, il est appelé fils d'Isis, et il combat les ennemis d'Osiris ; c'est une assimilation complète à Horus, et c'est à ce titre qu'il était adoré à Ombos." – Dic. Arch. P. PIERRET. Paris, 1875.
3 See chap. xi. p. 203.
4 "Le point de départ de la mythologie egyptienne est une Triade." CHAMPOLLION, Lettres d'Egypte, etc., XIe Lettre. Paris, 1868. These Triads are best studied at Gerf Hossayn and Kalabsheh.
5 "L'un (paroi du sud) représente une déesse nourissant de son lait divin le roi Horus, encore enfant. L'Egypte n'a jamais, comme la Grèce, atteint l'idéal du beau . . . mais en tant qu'art Egyptien, le bas-relief du Spéos de Gebel-Silsileh est une des plus belles œuvres que l'on puisse voir. Nulle part, en effet, la ligne n'est plus pure, et il règne dans ce tableau une certaine douceur tranquille qui charme et étonne à la fois." – Itinéraire de la Haut Egypte. A. MARIETTE : 1872, p. 246.
6 See Sallier Papyrus No. 2. HYMN TO THE NILE – translation by C. MASPERO. 4to Paris, 1868.
7 Ta-ur-t, or Apet the Great. "Cettes Déesse à corps d'hippopotame debout et à mamelles pendantes, paraît être une sorte de déesse nourrice. Elle semble, dans le bas temps, je ne dirai pas se substituer à Maut, mais compléter le rôle de cette déesse. Elle est nommée la grande nourrice ; et présidait aux chambres où étaient représentées les naissances des jeunes divinités." – Dict. Arch. P. PIERRET. Paris, 1875.
"In the heavens, this Goddess personified the constellation Ursa Major, or the Great Bear." – Guide to the First and Second Egyptian Rooms. S. BIRCH. London, 1874.
8 For a highly interesting account of the rock-cut inscriptions, graffiti, and quarry-marks at Silsilis, in the desert between Assûan and Philæ, and in the valley called Soba Rigolah, see Mr. W. M. F. Petrie's recent volume entitled A Season's Work in Egypt, 1877.
9 Letter of M. Mariette to Vte E. DE ROUGÉ : Révue Archéologique, vol. ii. p. 33, 1860.
10 Edfu is the older Temple ; Denderah the copy. Where the architect of Denderah has departed from his model, it has invariably been for the worse.
11 Horus : – "Dieu adoré dans plusieurs nomes de la basse Egypte. Le personnage d'Horus se rattache sous des noms différents, à deux generations divines. Sous le nom de Haroëris il est né de Seb et Nout, et par consequent frère d'Osiris, dont il est le fils sous un autre nom. . . . Horus, armé d'un dard avec lequel il transperce les ennemis d'Osiris, est appelé Horus le Justicier." – Dict. Arch. P. PIERRET, article "Horus."
12 Hathor : – "Elle est, comme Neith, Muat, et Nout, la personnification de l'espace dans lequel se meut le soleil, dont Horus symbolise le lever ; aussi son nom, Hat-hor, signifie-t-il litteralement, l'habitation d'Horus." – Ibid. article "Hathor."
13 Rapport sur une Mission en Egypte. VICOMTE E. DE ROUGÉ. See Révue Arch. Nouvelle Série, vol. x. p. 63.
14 Textes Géographiques du Temple d'Edfou, by M. J. DE ROUGÉ. Révue Arch. vol. xii. p. 209.
15 See Professor Revillout's Seconde Mémoire sure les Blemmyes, 1888, for an account of how the statues of Isis and other deities were taken once a year from the Temples of Philæ for a trip into Ethiopia.
16 See APPENDIX III, Religious Belief of the Ancient Egyptians.
17 Not only the names of the chambers, but their dimensions in cubits and subdivisions of cubits are given. See Itinéraire de la Haute Egypte. A. MARIETTE BEY. 1872, p. 241.