“And then I looked farther, beyond the pallid line of the sands, and I saw a Pyramid of gold, the wonder Khufu had built.”
From “The Spell of Egypt” – 1911
Why do you come to Egypt? Do you come to gain a dream, or to regain lost dreams of old; to gild your life with the drowsy gold of romance, to lose a creeping sorrow, to forget that too many of your hours are sullen, grey, bereft? What do you wish of Egypt?
The Sphinx will not ask you, will not care. The Pyramids, lifting their unnumbered stones to the clear and wonderful skies, have held, still hold, their secrets; but they do not seek for yours.
The terrific temples, the hot, mysterious tombs, odorous of the dead desires of men, crouching in and under the immeasurable sands, will muck you with their brooding silence, with their dim and sombre repose.
The brown children of the Nile, the toilers who sing their antique songs by the shadoof and the sakieh, the dragomans, the smiling goblin merchants, the Bedouins who lead your camel into the pale recesses of the dunes–these will not trouble themselves about your deep desires, your perhaps yearning hunger of the heart and the imagination.
Yet Egypt is not unresponsive.
I came back to her with dread, after fourteen years of absence—years filled for me with the rumors of her changes. And on the very day of my arrival she calmly reassured me. She told me in her supremely magical way that all was well with her.
She taught me once more a lesson I had not quite forgotten, but that I was glad to learn again–the lesson that Egypt owes her most subtle, most inner beauty to Kheper, although she owes her marvels to men; that when he created the sun which shines upon her, he gave her the lustre of her life, and that those who come to her must be sun-worshippers if they would truly and intimately understand the treasure or romance that lies heaped within her bosom.
Thoth, says the old legend, travelled in the Boat of the Sun. If you would love Egypt rightly, you, too, must be a traveler in that bark.
You must not fear to steep yourself in the mystery of gold, in the mystery of heat, in the mystery of silence that seems softly showered out of the sun. The sacred white lotus must be your emblem, and Horus, the hawk-headed, merged in Ra, your special deity.
Scarcely had I set foot once more in Egypt before Thoth lifted me into the Boat of the sun and soothed my fears to sleep.
I arrived in Cairo. I saw new and vast hotels; I saw crowded streets; brilliant shops; English officials driving importantly in victorias, surely to pay dreadful calls of ceremony; women in gigantic hats, with
Niagaras of veil, waving white gloves as they talked of–I guess—the latest Cairene scandal.
I perceived on the right hand and on the left waiters created in Switzerland, hall porters made in Germany, Levantine touts, determined Jews holding false antiquities in their lean fingers, an English Baptist minister, in a white helmet, drinking chocolate on a terrace, with a guide-book in one fist, a ticket to visit monuments in the other.
I heard Scottish soldiers playing, “I’ll be in Scotland before ye!” and something within me, a lurking hope, I suppose, seemed to founder and collapse–but only for a moment. It was after four in the afternoon. Soon day would be declining. And I seemed to remember that the decline of day in Egypt had moved me long ago–moved me as few, rare things have ever done.
Within half an hour I was alone, far up the long road–Ismail’s road–that leads from the suburbs of Cairo to the Pyramids. And then Egypt took me like a child by the hand and reassured me.
It was the first week of November, high Nile had not subsided, and all the land here, between the river and the sand where the Sphinx keeps watch, was hidden beneath the vast and tranquil waters of what seemed a tideless sea–a sea fringed with dense masses of date-palms, girdled in the far distance by palm-trees that kept the white and the brown houses in their feathery embrace.
Above these isolated houses pigeons circled. In the distance the lateen sails of boats glided, sometimes behind the palms, coming into view, vanishing and mysteriously reappearing among their narrow trunks. Here and there a living thing moved slowly, wading homeward through this sea: a camel from the sands of Ghizeh, a buffalo, two donkeys, followed by boys who held with brown hands their dark blue skirts near their faces, a Bedouin leaning forward upon the neck of his quickly stepping horse.
At one moment I seemed to look upon the lagoons of Venice, a watery vision full of a glassy calm. Then the palm-trees in the water, and growing to its edge, the pale sands that, far as the eyes could see, from Ghizeh to Sakkara and beyond, fringed it toward the west, made me think of the Pacific, of palmy islands, of a paradise where men grow drowsy in well-being, and dream away the years.
And then I looked farther, beyond the pallid line of the sands, and I saw a Pyramid of gold, the wonder Khufu had built. As a golden wonder it saluted me after all my years of absence. Later I was to see it grey as grey sands, sulphur color in the afternoon from very near at hand, black as a monument draped in funereal velvet for a mourning under the stars at night, white as a monstrous marble tomb soon after dawn from the sand-dunes between it and Sakkara. But as a golden thing it greeted me, as a golden miracle I shall remember it.
Slowly the sun went down. The second Pyramid seemed also made of gold. Drowsily splendid it and its greater brother looked set on the golden sands beneath the golden sky. And now the gold came traveling down from the desert to the water, turning it surely to a wine like the wine of gold that flowed down Midas’s throat; then, as the magic grew, to a Pactolus, and at last to a great surface that resembled golden ice, hard, glittering, unbroken by any ruffling wave.
The islands rising from this golden ice were jet black, the houses black, the palms and their shadows that fell upon the marvel black. Black were the birds that flew low from roof to roof, black the wading camels, black the meeting leaves of the tall lebbek-trees that formed a tunnel from where I stood to Mena House.
And presently a huge black Pyramid lay supine on the gold, and near it a shadowy brother seemed more humble than it, but scarcely less mysterious. The gold deepened, glowed more fiercely. In the sky above the Pyramids hung tiny cloud wreaths of rose red, delicate and airy as the gossamers of Tunis.
As I turned, far off in Cairo I saw the first lights glittering across the fields of doura, silvery white, like diamonds. But the silver did not call me. My imagination was held captive by the gold. I was summoned by the gold, and I went on, under the black lebbek-trees, on Ismail’s road, toward it. And I dwelt in it many days.
The wonders of Egypt man has made seem to increase in stature before the spirits’ eyes as man learns to know them better, to tower up ever higher till the imagination is almost stricken by their looming greatness.
Climb the great Pyramid, spend a day with Abdou on its summit, come down, penetrate into its recesses, stand in the king’s chamber, listen to the silence there, feel it with your hands–is it not tangible in this hot fastness of incorruptible death?–creep, like the surreptitious midget you feel yourself to be, up those long and steep inclines of polished stone, watching the gloomy darkness of the narrow walls, the far-off pinpoint of light borne by the Bedouin who guides you, hear the twitter of the bats that have their dwelling in this monstrous gloom that man has made to shelter the thing whose ambition could never be embalmed, though that, of all qualities, should have been given here, in the land it dowered, a life perpetual.
Now you know the Great Pyramid. You know that you can climb it, that you can enter it. You have seen it from all sides, under all aspects. It is familiar to you.
No, it can never be that. With its more wonderful comrade, the Sphinx, it has the power peculiar, so it seems to me, to certain of the rock and stone monuments of Egypt, of holding itself ever aloof, almost like the soul of man which can retreat at will, like the Bedouin retreating from you into the blackness of the Pyramid, far up, or far down, where the pursuing stranger, unaided, cannot follow.