“Karnak has no distinctive personality. Built under many kings, its ruins are as complex as were probably once its completed temples, with their shrines, their towers, their courts, their hypo-style halls”
From “The Spell of Egypt”
Buildings have personalities. Some fascinate as beautiful women fascinate; some charm as a child may charm, naively, simply, but irresistibly. Some, like conquerors, men of blood and iron, without bowels of mercy, pitiless and determined, strike awe to the soul, mingled with the almost gasping admiration that power wakes in man. Some bring a sense of heavenly peace to the heart. Some, like certain temples of the Greeks, by their immense dignity, speak to the nature almost as music speaks, and change anxiety to trust. Some tug at the hidden chords of romance and rouse a trembling response. Some seem to be mingling their tears with the tears of the dead; some their laughter with the laughter of the living.
The traveller, sailing up the Nile, holds intercourse with many of these different personalities. He is sad, perhaps, as I was with Denderah; dreams in the sun with Abydos; muses with Luxor beneath the little tapering minaret whence the call to prayer drops down to be answered by the angelus bell; falls into a reverie in the “thinking place” of Rameses II., near to the giant that was once the mightiest of all Egyptian statues; eagerly wakes to the fascination of record at Deir-el-Bahari; worships in Edfu; by Philae is carried into a realm of delicate magic, where engineers are not. Each prompts him to a different mood, each wakes in his nature a different response. And at Karnak what is he? What mood enfolds him there? Is he sad, thoughtful, awed, or gay?
An old lady in a helmet, and other things considered no doubt by her as suited to Egypt rather than to herself, remarked in my hearing, with a Scotch accent and an air of summing up, that Karnak was “very nice indeed.” There she was wrong–Scotch and wrong. Karnak is not nice. No temple that I have seen upon the banks of the Nile is nice. And Karnak cannot be summed up in a phrase or in many phrases; cannot even be adequately described in few or many words.
Long ago I saw it lighted up with colored fires one night for the Khedive, its ravaged magnificence tinted with rose and livid green and blue, its pylons glittering with artificial gold, its population of statues, its obelisks, and columns, changing from things of dreams to things of day, from twilight marvels to shadowy specters, and from these to hard and piercing realities at the cruel will of pigmies crouching by its walls. Now, after many years, I saw it first quietly by moonlight after watching the sunset from the summit of the great pylon. That was a pageant worth more than the Khedive’s.
I was in the air; had something of the released feeling I have often known upon the tower of Biskra, looking out toward evening to the Sahara spaces. But here I was not confronted with an immensity of nature, but with a gleaming river and an immensity of man. Beneath me was the native village, in the heart of daylight dusty and unkempt, but now becoming charged with velvety beauty, with the soft and heavy mystery that at evening is born among great palm-trees. Along the path that led from it, coming toward the avenue of sphinxes with ram’s-heads that watch for ever before the temple door, a great white camel stepped, its rider a tiny child with a close, white cap upon his head. The child was singing to the glory of the sunset, or was it to the glory of Amun, “the hidden one,” once the local god of Thebes, to whom the grandest temple in the world was dedicated? I listen to the childish, quavering voice, twittering almost like a bird, and one word alone came up to me—the word one hears in Egypt from all the lips that speak and sing: from the Nubians round their fires at night, from the little boatmen of the lower reaches of the Nile, from the Bedouins of the desert, and the donkey boys of the villages, from the sheikh who reads one’s future in water spilt on a plate, and the Bisharin with buttered curls who runs to sell one beads from his tent among the sand-dunes.
“Allah!” the child was singing as he passed upon his way.
Pigeons circled above their pretty towers. The bats came out, as if they knew how precious is their black at evening against the ethereal lemon color, the orange and the red. The little obelisk beyond the last sphinx on the left began to change, as in Egypt all things change at sunset–pylon and dusty bush, colossus and baked earth hovel, sycamore, and tamarisk, statue and trotting donkey. It looked like a mysterious finger pointed in warning toward the sky. The Nile began to gleam. Upon its steel and silver torches of amber flame were lighted. The Libyan mountains became spectral beyond the tombs of the kings. The tiny, rough cupolas that mark a grave close to the sphinxes, in daytime dingy and poor, now seemed made of some splendid material worthy to roof the mummy of a king. Far off a pool of the Nile, that from here looked like a little palm-fringed lake, turned ruby-red. The flags from the standard of Luxor, among the minarets, flew out straight against a sky that was pale as a primrose almost cold in its amazing delicacy.
I turned, and behind me the moon was risen. Already its silver rays fell upon the ruins of Karnak; upon the thickets of lotus columns; upon solitary gateways that now give entrance to no courts; upon the sacred lake, with its reeds, where the black water-fowl were asleep; upon sloping walls, shored up by enormous stanchions, like ribs of some prehistoric leviathan; upon small chambers; upon fallen blocks of masonry, fragments of architrave and pavement, of capital and cornice; and upon the people of Karnak–those fascinating people who still cling to their habitation in the ruins, faithful through misfortune, affectionate with a steadfastness that defies the cruelty of Time; upon the little, lonely white sphinx with the woman’s face and the downward-sloping eyes full of sleepy seduction; upon Rameses II., with the face of a kindly child, not of a king; upon the Sphinx, bereft of its companion, which crouches before the kiosk of Taharga, the King of Ethiopia; upon those two who stand together as if devoted, yet by their attitudes seem to express characters diametrically opposed, grey men and vivid, the one with folded arms calling to Peace, the other with arms stretched down in a gesture of crude determination, summoning War, as if from the underworld; upon the granite foot and ankle in the temple of Rameses III., which in their perfection, like the headless Victory in Paris, and the Niobide Chiaramonti in the Vatican, suggest a great personality that once met with is not to be forgotten: upon these and their companions, who would not forsake the halls and courts where once they dwelt with splendor, where now they dwell with ruin that attracts the gaping world.
The moon was risen, but the west was still full of color and light. It faded. There was a pause. Only a bar of dull red, holding a hint of brown, by where the sun had sunk. And minutes passed–minutes for me full of silent expectation, while the moonlight grew a little stronger, a few more silver rays slipped down upon the ruins. I turned toward the east. And then came that curious crescendo of color and of light which, in Egypt, succeeds the diminuendo of color and of light that is the prelude to the pause before the afterglow. Everything seemed to be in subtle movement, heaving as a breast heaves with the breath; swelling slightly, as if in an effort to be more, to attract attention, to gain in significance. Pale things became livid, holding apparently some under-brightness which partly penetrated its envelope, but a brightness that was white and almost frightful. Black things seemed to glow with blackness. The air quivered. Its silence surely thrilled with sound–with sound that grew ever louder.
In the east I saw an effect. To the west I turned for the cause. The sunset light was returning. Horus would not permit Tum to reign even for a few brief moments, and Khuns, the sacred god of the moon, would be witness of a conflict in that lovely western region of the ocean of the sky where the bark of the sun had floated away beneath the mountain rim upon the red-and-orange tides.
The afterglow was like an exquisite spasm, is always like an exquisite spasm, a beautiful, almost desperate effort ending in the quiet darkness of defeat. And through that spasmodic effort a world lived for some minutes with a life that seemed unreal, startling, magical. Color returned to the sky–color ethereal, trembling as if it knew it ought not to return. Yet it stayed for a while and even glowed, though it looked always strangely purified, and full of a crystal coldness. The birds that flew against it were no longer birds, but dark, moving ornaments, devised surely by a supreme artist to heighten here and there the beauty of the sky. Everything that moved against the afterglow–man, woman, child, camel and donkey, dog and goat, languishing buffalo, and plunging horse–became at once an ornament, invented, I fancied, by a genius to emphasize, by relieving it, the color in which the sky was drowned. And Khuns watched serenely, as if he knew the end. And almost suddenly the miraculous effort failed.
Things again revealed their truth, whether commonplace or not. That pool of the Nile was no more a red jewel set in a feathery pattern of strange design, but only water fading from my sight beyond a group of palms. And that below me was only a camel going homeward, and that a child leading a bronze-colored sheep with a curly coat, and that a dusty, flat-roofed hovel, not the fairy home of jinn, or the abode of some magician working marvels with the sun-rays he had gathered in his net. The air was no longer thrilling with music. The breast that had heaved with a divine breath was still as the breast of a corpse. And Khuns reigned quietly over the plains of Karnak.
Karnak has no distinctive personality. Built under many kings, its ruins are as complex as were probably once its completed temples, with their shrines, their towers, their courts, their hypo-style halls. As I looked down that evening in the moonlight I saw, softened and made more touching than in day-time, those alluring complexities, brought by the night and Khuns into a unity that was both tender and superb. Masses of masonry lay jumbled in shadow and in silver; gigantic walls cast sharply defined gloom; obelisks pointed significantly to the sky, seeming, as they always do, to be murmuring a message; huge doorways stood up like giants unafraid of their loneliness and yet pathetic in it; here was a watching statue, there one that seemed to sleep, seen from afar.
Yonder Queen Hatshepsu, who wrought wonders at Deir-el-Bahari, and who is more familiar perhaps as Hatasu, had left there traces, and nearer, to the right, Rameses III. had made a temple, surely for the birds, so fond they are of it, so pertinaciously they haunt it. Rameses II., mutilated and immense, stood on guard before the terrific hall of Seti I.; and between him and my platform in the air rose the solitary lotus column that prepares you for the wonder of Seti’s hall, which otherwise might almost overwhelm you–unless you are a Scotch lady in a helmet.
And Khuns had his temple here by the Sphinx of the twelfth Rameses, and Ptah, who created “the sun egg and the moon egg,” and who was said—only said, alas!–to have established on earth the “everlasting justice,” had his, and still their stones receive the silver moon-rays and wake the wonder of men. Thothmes III., Thothmes I., Shishak, who smote the kneeling prisoners and vanquished Jeroboam, Medamut and Mut, AmenhotepI., and Amenhotep II.–all have left their records or been celebrated at Karnak. Purposely I mingled them in my mind–did not attempt to put them
in their proper order, or even to disentangle gods and goddesses from conquerors and kings. In the warm and seductive night Khuns whispered to me: “As long ago at Bekhten I exorcised the demon from the suffering Princess, so now I exorcise from these ruins all spirits but my own.
To-night these ruins shall suggest nothing but majesty, tranquillity, and beauty. Their records are for Ra, and must be studied by his rays. In mine they shall speak not to the intellectual, but only to the emotions and the soul.”
And presently I went down, and yielding a complete and happy obedience to Khuns, I wandered along through the stupendous vestiges of past eras, dead ambitions, vanished glory, and long-outworn belief, and I ignored eras, ambitions, glory, and belief, and thought only of form, and height, of the miracle of blackness against silver, and of the pathos of statues whose ever-open eyes at night, when one is near them, suggest the working of some evil spell, perpetual watchfulness, combined with eternal inactivity, the unslumbering mind caged in the body that is paralysed.
There is a temple at Karnak that I love, and I scarcely know why I care for it so much. It is on the right of the solitary lotus column before you come to the terrific hall of Seti. Some people pass it by, having but little time, and being hypnotized, it seems, by the more astounding ruin that lies beyond it. And perhaps it would be well, on a first visit, to enter it last; to let its influence be the final one to rest upon your spirit. This is the temple of Rameses III., a brown place of calm and retirement, an ineffable place of peace. Yes, though the birds love it and fill it often with their voices, it is a sanctuary of peace. Upon the floor the soft sand lies, placing silence beneath your footsteps. The pale brown of walls and columns, almost yellow in the sunshine, is delicate and soothing, and inclines the heart to calm. Delicious, suggestive of a beautiful tapestry, rich and ornate, yet always quiet, are the brown reliefs upon the stone. What are they? Does it matter? They soften the walls, make them more personal, more tender.
That surely is their mission. This temple holds for me a spell. As soon as I enter it, I feel the touch of the lotus, as if an invisible and kindly hand swept a blossom lightly across my face and downward to my heart. This courtyard, these small chambers beyond it, that last doorway framing a lovely darkness, soothe me even more than the terra-cotta hermitages of the Certosa of Pavia. And all the statues here are calm with an irrevocable calmness, faithful through passing years with a very sober faithfulness to the temple they adorn. In no other place, one feels it, could they be thus at peace, with hands crossed for ever upon their breasts, which are torn by no anxieties, thrilled by no joys. As one stands among them or sitting on the base of a column in the chamber that lies beyond them, looks on them from a little distance, their attitude is like a summons to men to contend no more, to be still, to enter into rest.
Come to this temple when you leave the hall of Seti. There you are in a place of triumph. Scarlet, some say, is the color of a great note sounded on a bugle. This hall is like a bugle-call of the past, thrilling even now down all the ages with a triumph that is surely greater than any other triumphs. It suggests blaze–blaze of scarlet, blaze of bugle, blaze of glory, blaze of life and time, of ambition and achievement. In these columns, in the putting up of them, dead men sought to climb to sun and stars, limitless in desire, limitless in industry, limitless in will. And at the tops of the columns blooms the lotus, the symbol of rising. What a triumph in stone this hall was once, what a triumph in stone its ruin is to-day! Perhaps, among temples, it is the most wondrous thing in all Egypt, as it was, no doubt, the most wondrous temple in the world; among temples I say, for the Sphinx is of all the marvels of Egypt by far the most marvellous. The grandeur of this hall almost moves one to tears, like the marching past of conquerors, stirs the heart with leaping thrills at the capacities of men.
Through the thicket of columns, tall as forest trees, the intense blue of the African sky stares down, and their great shadows lie along the warm and sunlit ground. Listen! There are voices chanting. Men are working here–working as men worked how many thousands of years ago. But these are calling upon the Mohammedan’s god as they slowly drag to the appointed places the mighty blocks of stone. And it is to-day a Frenchman who oversees them.
“Help! Help! Allah give us help!
Help! Help! Allah give us help!”
The dust flies up about their naked feet. Triumph and work; work succeeded by the triumph all can see. I like to hear the workmen’s voices within the hall of Seti. I like to see the dust stirred by their tramping feet.
And then I like to go once more to the little temple, to enter through its defaced gateway, to stand alone in its silence between the rows of statues with their arms folded upon their quiet breasts, to gaze into the tender darkness beyond–the darkness that looks consecrated–to feel that peace is more wonderful than triumph, that the end of things is peace.
Triumph and deathless peace, the bugle-call and silence–these are the notes of Karnak.