The Sphinx


“I think, one of the most astounding facts in the history of man that a man was able to contain within his mind, to conceive, the conception of the Sphinx.”

By Robert Hichens

From “The Spell of Egypt”

Great Sphinx at the early 1900s

One day at sunset I saw a bird trying to play with the Sphinx–a bird like a swallow, but with a ruddy brown on its breast, a gleam of blue somewhere on its wings. When I came to the edge of the sand basin where perhaps Khufu saw it lying nearly four thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sphinx and the bird were quite alone.

The bird flew near the Sphinx, whimsically turning this way and that, flying now low, now high, but ever returning to the magnet which drew it, which held it, from which it surely longed to extract some sign of recognition. It twittered, it posed itself in the golden air, with its bright eyes fixed upon those eyes of stone which gazed beyond it, beyond the land of Egypt, beyond the world of men, beyond the centre of the sun to the last verges of eternity.

And presently it alighted on the head of the Sphinx, then on its ear, then on its breast; and over the breast it tripped jerkily, with tiny, elastic steps, looking upward, its whole body quivering apparently with a desire for comprehension–a desire for some manifestation of friendship. Then suddenly it spread its wings, and, straight as an arrow, it flew away over the sands and the waters toward the doura-fields and Cairo.

And the sunset waned, and the afterglow flamed and faded, and the clear, soft African night fell. The pilgrims who day by day visit the Sphinx, like the bird, had gone back to Cairo. They had come, as the bird had come; as those who have conquered Egypt came; as the Greeks came, Alexander of Macedon, and the Ptolemies; as the Romans came; as the Mamelukes, the Turks, the French, the English came.

They had come–and gone. And that enormous face, with the stains of stormy red still adhering to its cheeks, grew dark as the darkness closed in, turned brown as a fellah’s face, as the face of that fellah who whispered his secret in the sphinx’s ear, but learnt no secret in return; turned black almost as a Nubian’s face. The night accentuated its appearance of terrible repose, of super-human indifference to whatever might befall.

In the night I seemed to hear the footsteps of the dead–of all the dead warriors and the steeds they rode, defiling over the sand before the unconquerable thing they perhaps thought that they had conquered.

At last the footsteps died away. There was a silence. Then, coming down from the Great Pyramid, surely I heard the light patter of a donkey’s feet. They went to the Sphinx and ceased. The silence was profound.

And I remembered the legend that Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Child once halted here on their long journey, and that Mary laid the tired Christ between the paws of the Sphinx to sleep. Yet even of the Christ the soul within that body could take no heed at all.

It is, I think, one of the most astounding facts in the history of man that a man was able to contain within his mind, to conceive, the conception of the Sphinx. That he could carry it out in the stone is amazing. But how much more amazing it is that before there was the Sphinx he was able to see it with his imagination!

One may criticize the Sphinx. One may say impertinent things that are true about it: that seen from behind at a distance its head looks like an enormous mushroom growing in the sand, that its cheeks are swelled inordinately, that its thick-lipped mouth is legal, that from certain places it bears a resemblance to a prize bull-dog.

All this does not matter at all. What does matter is that into the conception and execution of the Sphinx has been poured a supreme imaginative power. He who created it looked beyond Egypt, beyond the life of man. He grasped the conception of Eternity, and realized the nothingness of Time, and he rendered it in stone.

I can imagine the most determined atheist looking at the Sphinx and, in a flash, not merely believing, but feeling that he had before him proof of the life of the soul beyond the grave, of the life of the soul of Khufu beyond the tomb of his Pyramid.

Always as you return to the Sphinx you wonder at it more, you adore more strangely its repose, you steep yourself more intimately in the aloof peace that seems to emanate from it as light emanates from the sun. And as you look on it at last perhaps you understand the infinite; you understand where is the bourne to which the finite flows with all its greatness, as the great Nile flows from beyond Victoria Nyanza to the sea.

And as the wonder of the Sphinx takes possession of you gradually, so gradually do you learn to feel the majesty of the Pyramids of Ghizeh.

Unlike the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, which, even when one is near it, looks like a small mountain, part of the land on which it rests, the Pyramids of Ghizeh look what they are–artificial excrescences, invented and carried out by man, expressions of man’s greatness.

Exquisite as they are as features of the drowsy golden landscape at the setting of the sun, I think they look most wonderful at night, when they are black beneath the stars.

On many nights I have sat in the sand at a distance and looked at them, and always, and increasingly, they have stirred my imagination. Their profound calm, their classical simplicity, are greatly emphasized when no detail can be seen, when they are but black shapes towering to the stars.

They seem to aspire then like prayers prayed by one who has said, “God does not need any prayers, but I need them.” In their simplicity they suggest a crowd of thoughts and of desires.

Guy de Maupassant has said that of all the arts architecture is perhaps the most aesthetic, the most mysterious, and the most nourished by ideas. How true this is you feel as you look at the Great Pyramid by night. It seems to breathe out mystery. The immense base recalls to you the labyrinth within; the long descent from the tiny slit that gives you entrance, your uncertain steps in its hot, eternal night, your falls on the ice-like surfaces of its polished blocks of stone, the crushing weight that seemed to lie on your heart as you stole uncertainly on, summoned almost as by the desert; your sensation of being forever imprisoned, taken and hidden by a monster from Egypt’s wonderful light, as you stood in the central chamber, and realized the stone ocean into whose depths, like some intrepid diver, you had dared deliberately to come.

And then your eyes travel up the slowly shrinking walls till they reach the dark point which is the top. There you stood with Abou, who spends half his life on the highest stone, hostages of the sun, bathed in light and air that perhaps came to you from the Gold Coast.

And you saw men and camels like flies, and Cairo like a grey blur, and the Mokattam hills almost as a higher ridge of the sands. The mosque of Mohammed Ali was like a cup turned over. Far below slept the dead in that graveyard of the Sphinx, with its pale stones, its sand, its palm, its “Sycamores of the South,” once worshipped and regarded as Hathor’s living body.

And beyond them on one side were the sleeping waters, with islands small, surely, as delicate Egyptian hands, and on the other the great desert that stretches, so the Bedouins say, on and on “for a march of a thousand days.”

That base and that summit–what suggestion and what mystery in their contrast! What sober, eternal beauty in the dark line which unites them, now sharply, yet softly, defined against the night, which is purple as the one garment of the fellah! That line leads the soul irresistibly from earth to the stars.

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