A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards: Chapter VII


by Amelia Edwards


Next Previous Contents Home


WE started from Sit with a couple of tons of new brown bread on board, which, being cut into slices and laid to dry in the sun, was speedily converted into rusks and stored away in two huge lockers on the upper deck. The sparrows and water-wagtails had a good time while the drying went on ; but no one seemed to grudge the toll they levied.

We often had a "big wind" now ; though it seldom began to blow before ten or eleven A.M., and generally fell at sunset. Now and then, when it chanced to keep up, and the river was known to be free from shallows, we went on sailing through the night ; but this seldom happened, and when it did happen, it made sleep impossible--so that nothing but the certainty of doing a great many miles between bed-time and breakfast could induce us to put up with it.

We had now been long enough afloat to find out that we had almost always one man on the sick list, and were therefore habitually short of a hand for the navigation of the boat. There never were such fellows for knocking themselves to pieces as our sailors. They were always bruising their feet, wounding their hands, getting sunstrokes, and whiltlows, and sprains, and disabling themselves in some way. L., with her little medicine chest and her roll of lint and bandages, soon had a small but steady practice, and might have been seen about the lower deck most mornings after breakfast, repairing these damaged Alis and Hassans. It was well for them that we carried "an experienced surgeon," for they were entirely helpless and despondent when hurt, and ignorant of the commonest remedies. Nor is this helplessness confirmed to natives of the sailor and fellh class. The provincial proprietors and officials are to the full as ignorant, not only of the uses of such simple things as poultices or wet compresses, but of the most elementary laws of health. Doctors there are none south of Cairo ; and such is the general mistrust of State medicine, that when, as in the case of any widely spread epidemic, a medical officer is sent up the river by order of the Government, half the people are said to conceal their sick, while the other half reject the remedies prescribed for them. Their trust in the skill of the passing European is, on the other hand, unbounded. Appeals for advice and medicine were constantly being made to us by both rich and poor ; and there was something very pathetic in the simple faith with which they accepted any little help we were able to give them. Meanwhile L.'s medical reputation, being confirmed by a few simple cures, rose high among the crew. They called her the Hakm Sitt (the Doctor-lady) ; obeyed her directions and swallowed her medicines as reverently as if she were the College of Surgeons personified ; and showed their gratitude in all kinds of pretty, child-like ways--singing her favorite Arab song as they ran beside her donkey--searching for sculptured fragments whenever there were ruins to be visited--and constantly bringing her little gifts of pebbles and wild flowers.

Above Sit, the picturesqueness of the river is confined for the most part to the eastern bank. We have almost always a near range of mountains on the Arabian side, and a more distant chain on the Libyan horizon. Gebel Sheykh el Raineh succeeds to Gebel Abufayda, and is followed in close succession by the cliffs of Gow, of Gebel Sheykh el Hereedee, of Gebel Asyerat and Gebel Tkh--all alike rigid in strongly marked beds of level limestone strata ; flat-topped and even, like lines of giant ramparts ; and more or less pierced with orifices which we know to be tombs, but which look like loopholes from a distance.

Flying before the wind with both sails set, we see the rapid panorama unfold itself day after day, mile after mile, hour after hour. Villages, palm-groves, rock-cut sepulchres, flit past and are left behind. To-day we enter the region of the dm palm. To-morrow we pass the map-drawn limit of the crocodile. The cliffs advance, recede, open away into desolate-looking valleys, and show faint traces of paths leading to excavated tombs on distant heights. The headland that looked shadowy in the distance a couple of hours ago, is reached and passsed. The cargo-boat on which we have been gaining all the morning is outstripped and dwindling in the rear. Now we pass a bold bluff sheltering a sheykh's tomb and a solitary dm palm--now an ancient quarry from which the stone has been cut out in smooth masses, leaving great halls, and corridors, and stages in the mountain side. At Gow,1 the scene of an insurrection headed by a crazy dervish some ten years ago, we see, in place of a large and populous village, only a tract of fertile corn-ground, a few ruined huts, and a group of decapitated palms. We are now skirting Gebel Sheykh el Hereedee ; here bordered by a rich margin of cultivated flat ; yonder leaving space for scarce a strip of roadway between the precipice and the river. Then comes Raineh, a large village of square mud towers, lofty and battlemented, with string-courses of pots for the pigeons--and later on, Girgeh, once the capital town of Middle Egypt, where we put in for half an hour to post and inquire for letters. Here the Nile is fast eating away the bank and carrying the town by storm. A ruined mosque with pointed arches, roofless cloisters, and a leaning column that must surely have come to the ground by this time, stands just above the landing-place. A hundred years ago, it lay a quarter of a mile from the river ; ten years ago it was yet perfect ; after a few more inundations it will be swept away. Till that time comes, however, it helps to make Girgeh one of the most picturesque towns in Egypt.

At Farsht we see the sugar-works in active operation--smoke pouring from the tall chimneys ; steam issuing from the traps in the basement ; cargo-boats unlading fresh sugar-cane against the bank ; heavily burdened Arabs transporting it to the factory ; bullock-trucks laden with cane-leaf for firing. A little higher up, at Sahl Bajra on the opposite side of the river, we find the bank strewn for full a quarter of a mile with sugar-cane en masse. Hundreds of camels are either arriving laden with it, or going back for more--dozens of cargo-boats are drawn up to receive it--swarms of brown fellheen are stacking it on board for unshipment again at Farsht. The camels snort and growl ; the men shout ; the overseers in blue-fringed robes and white turbans, stalk to and fro, and keep the work going. The mountains here recede so far as to be almost out of sight, and a plain rich in sugar-cane and date-palms widens out between them and the river.

And now the banks are lovely with an unwonted wealth of verdure. The young corn clothes the plain like a carpet, while the yellow-tasselled mimosa, the feathery tamarisk, the dm and date palm, and the spreading sycamore-fig, border the towing-path like garden trees beside a garden walk.

Farther on still, when all this greenery is left behind and the banks have again become flat and bare, we see to our exceeding surprise what seems to be a very large grizzled ape perched on the top of a dust-heap on the western bank. The creature is evidently quite tame, and sits on his haunches in just that chilly, melancholy posture that the chimpanzee is wont to assume in his cage at the Zological Gardens. Some six or eight Arabs, one of whom has dismounted from his camel for the purpose, are standing round and staring at him, much as the British public stands round and stares at the specimen in the Regent's Park. Meanwhile a strange excitement breaks out among our crew. They crowd to the side ; they shout ; they gesticulate ; the captain salaams ; the steersman waves his hand ; all eyes are turned towards the shore.

"Do you see Sheykh Selm?" cries Talhamy breathlessly, rushing up from below. "There he is! Look at him! That is Sheykh Selm!"

And so we find out that it is not a monkey but a man--and not only a man, but a saint. Holiest of the holy, dirtiest of the dirty, white-pated, white-bearded, withered, bent, and knotted up, is the renowned Sheykh Selm--he who, naked and unwashed, has sat on that same spot every day through summer heat and winter cold for the last fifty years ; never providing himself with food or water ; never even lifting his hand to his mouth ; depending on charity not only for his food but for his feeding! He is not nice to look at, even by this dim light, and at this distance ; but the sailors think him quite beautiful, and call aloud to him for his blessing as we go by.

"It is not by our own will that we sail past, O father!" they cry. "Fain would we kiss thy hand ; but the wind blows and the mrkeb (boat) goes and we have no power to stay!"

But Sheykh Selm neither lifts his head nor shows any sign of hearing, and in a few minutes the mound on which he sits is left behind in the gloaming.



At How, where the new town is partly built on the mounds of the old (Diospolis Parva), we next morning saw the natives transporting small boat-loads of ancient brick-rubbish to the opposite side of the river, for the purpose of manuring those fields from which the early dura crop had just been gathered in. Thus, curiously enough, the mud left by some inundation of two or three thousand years ago comes at last to the use from which it was then diverted, and is found to be more fertilising than the new deposit. At Kasr es Syad, a little farther on, we came to one of the well-known "bad bits"--a place where the bed of the river is full of sunken rocks, and sailing is impossible. Here the men were half the day punting the dahabeeyah over the dangerous part, while we grubbed among the mounds of what was once the ancient city of Chenoboscion. These remains, which cover a large superficial area and consist entirely of crude brick foundations, are very interesting, and in good preservation. We traced the ground-plans of several houses ; followed the passages by which they were separated ; and observed many small arches which seemed built on too small a scale for doors or windows, but for which it was difficult to account in any other way. Brambles and weeds were growing in these deserted enclosures ; while rubbish-heaps, excavated pits, and piles of broken pottery divided the ruins and made the work of exploration difficult. We looked in vain for the dilapidated quay and sculptured blocks mentioned in Wilkinson's General View of Egypt ; but if the foundation stones of the sugar-factory close against the mooring-place could speak, they would no doubt explain the mystery. We saw nothing, indeed, to show that Chenoboscion had contained any stone structures whatever, save the broken shaft of one small granite column.

The village of Kasr es Syad consists of a cluster of mud huts and a sugar factory ; but the factory was idle that day, and the village seemed half deserted. The view here is particularly fine. About a couple of miles to the southward, the mountains, in magnificent procession, came down again at right angles to the river, and thence reach away in long ranges of precipitous headlands. The plain, terminating abruptly against the foot of this gigantic barrier, opens back eastward to the remotest horizon--an undulating sea of glistening sand, bordered by a chaotic middle distance of mounded ruins. Nearest of all, a narrow foreground of cultivated soil, green with young crops and watered by frequent shdfs, extends along the river-side to the foot of the mountains. A sheykh's tomb shaded by a single dm palm is conspicuous on the bank ; while far away, planted amid the solitary sands, we see a large Coptic convent with many cupolas ; a cemetery full of Christian graves ; and a little oasis of date palms indicating the presence of a spring.

The chief interest of this scene, however, centres in the ruins ; and these--looked upon from a little distance, blackened, desolate, half-buried, obscured every now and then, when the wind swept over them, by swirling clouds of dust--reminded us of the villages we had seen not two years before, half-overwhelmed and yet smoking in the midst of a lava-torrent below Vesuvius.



We now have the full moon again, making night more beautiful than day. Sitting on deck for hours after the sun had gone down, when the boat glided gently on with half-filled sail and the force of the wind was spent, we used to wonder if in all the world there was another climate in which the effect of moonlight was so magical. To say that every object far or near was visible as distinctly as by day, yet more tenderly, is to say nothing. It was not only form that was defined ; it was not only light and shadow that were vivid--it was colour that was present. Colour neither deadened or changed ; but softened, glowing, spiritualised. The amber sheen of the sand-island in the middle of the river, the sober green of the palm-grove, the Little Lady's turquoise-coloured hood, were clear to the sight and relatively true in tone. The oranges showed through the bars of the crate like nuggets of pure gold. L's crimson shawl glowed with a warmer dye than it ever wore by day. The mountains were flushed as if in the light of sunset. Of all the natural phenomena that we beheld in the course of the journey, I remember none that surprised us more than this. We could scarcely believe at first that it was not some effect of afterglow, or some miraculous aurora of the East. But the sun had nothing to do with that flush upon the mountains. The glow was in the stone, and the moonlight but revealed the local colour.

For some days before they came in sight, we had been eagerly looking for the Theban hills ; and now, after a night of rapid sailing, we woke one morning to find the sun rising on the wrong side of the boat, the favourable wind dead against us, and a picturesque chain of broken peaks upon our starboard bow. By these signs we knew that we must have come to the great bend in the river between How and Keneh, and that these new mountains, so much more varied in form than those of Middle Egypt, must be the mountains behind Denderah. They seemed to lie upon the eastern bank, but that was an illusion which the map disproved, and which lasted only till the great corner was fairly turned. To turn that corner, however, in the teeth of wind and current, was no easy task, and cost us two long days of hard tracking.

At a point about ten miles below Denderah, we saw some thousands of fellheen at work amid clouds of sand upon the embankments of a new canal. They swarmed over the mounds like ants, and the continuous murmur of their voices came to us across the river like the humming of innumerable bees. Others, following the path along the bank, were pouring towards the spot in an unbroken stream. The Nile must here be nearly half a mile in breadth ; but the engineers in European dress, and the overseers with long sticks in their hands, were plainly distinguishable by the help of a glass. The tents in which these officials were camping out during the progress of the work gleamed white among the palms by the river-side. Such scenes must have been common enough in the old days when a conquering Pharaoh, returning from Libya or the land of Kush, set his captives to raise a dyke, or excavate a lake, or quarry a mountain. The Israelites building the massive walls of Pithom and Rameses with bricks of their own making, must have presented exactly such a spectacle.

That we were witnessing a case of forced labour, could not be doubted. Those thousands yonder had most certainly been drafted off in gangs from hundreds of distant villages, and were but little better off, for the time being, than the captives of the ancient Empire. In all cases of forced labour under the present rgime, however, it seems that the labourer is paid, though very insufficiently, for his unwilling toil ; and that his captivity only lasts so long as the work for which he has been pressed remains in progress. In some cases the term of service is limited to three or four months, at the end of which time the men are supposed to be returned in barges towed by Government steam-tugs. It too often happens, nevertheless, that the poor souls are left to get back how they can ; and thus many a husband and father either perishes by the way, or is driven to take service in some village far from home. Meanwhile his wife and children, being scantily supported by the Sheykh el Beled, fall into a condition of semi-serfdom ; and his little patch of ground, left untilled through seed-time and harvest, passes after the next inundation into the hands of a stranger.

But there is another side to this question of forced labour. Water must be had in Egypt, no matter at what cost. If the land is not sufficiently irrigated the crops fail and the nation starves. Now, the frequent construction of canals has from immemorial time been reckoned among the first duties of an Egyptian ruler ; but it is a duty which cannot be performed without the willing or unwilling co-operation of several thousand workmen. Those who are best acquainted with the character and temper of the fellh maintain the hopelessness of looking to him for voluntary labour of this description. Frugal, patient, easily contented as he is, no promise of wages, however high, would tempt him from his native village. What to him are the needs of a district six or seven hundred miles away? His own shdf is enough for his own patch, and so long as he can raise his three little crops a year, neither he nor his family will starve. How, then, are these necessary public works to be carried out, unless by means of the corve? M. About has put an ingenious summary of this "other-side" argument into the mouth of his ideal fellh. "It is not the Emperor," says Ahmed to the Frenchman, "who causes the rain to descend upon your lands ; it is the west wind--and the benefit thus conferred upon you exacts no penalty of manual labour. But in Egypt, where the rain from heaven falls scarcely three times in the year, it is the prince who supplies its place to us by distributing the waters of the Nile. This can only be done by the work of men's hands ; and it is therefore to the interest of all that the hands of all should be at his disposal."

We regarded it, I think, as an especial piece of good fortune, when we found ourselves becalmed next day within three or four miles of Denderah. Abydos comes first in order according to the map ; but then the Temples lie seven or eight miles from the river, and as we happened just thereabouts to be making some ten miles an hour, we put off the excursion till our return. Here, however, the ruins lay comparatively near at hand, and in such a position that we could approach them from below and rejoin our dahabeeyah a few miles higher up the river. So, leaving Res Hassan to track against the current, we landed at the first convenient point, and finding neither donkeys nor guides at hand, took an escort of three or four sailors, and set off on foot.

The way was long, the day was hot, and we had only the map to go by. Having climbed the steep bank and skirted an extensive palm-grove, we found ourselves in a country without paths or roads of any kind. The soil, squared off as usual like a gigantic chess-board, was traversed by hundreds of tiny water-channels, between which we had to steer our course as best as we could. Presently the last belt of palms was passed--the plain, green with young corn and level as a lake, widened out to the front of the mountains--and the Temple, islanded in that sea of rippling emerald, rose up before us upon its platform of blackened mounds.

It was still full two miles away ; but it looked enormous--showing from this distance as a massive, low-browed, sharply defined mass of dead-white masonry. The walls sloped in slightly towards the top ; and the faade appeared to be supported on eight square piers, with a large doorway in the centre. If sculptured ornament, or cornice, or pictured legend enriched those walls, we were too far off to distinguish them. All looked strangely naked and solemn--more like a tomb than a temple.

Nor was the surrounding scene less deathlike in its solitude. Not a tree, not a hut, not a living form broke the green monotony of the plain. Behind the Temple, but divided from it by a farther space of mounded ruins, rose the mountains--pinky, arial, with sheeny sand-drifts heaped in the hollows of their bare buttresses, and spaces of soft blue shadow in their misty chasms. Where the range receded, a long vista of glittering desert opened to the Libyan horizon.



Then as we drew nearer, coming by and by to a raised causeway which apparently connected the mounds with some point down by the river, the details of the Temple gradually emerged into distinctness. We could now see the curve and under-shadow of the cornice ; and a small object in front of the faade which looked at first sight like a monolithic altar, resolved itself into a massive gateway of the kind known as a single pylon. Nearer still, among some low outlying mounds, we came upon fragments of sculptured capitals and mutilated statues half-buried in rank grass--upon a series of stagnant nitre-tanks and deserted workshops--upon the telegraph poles and wires which here come striding along the edge of the desert and vanish southward with messages for Nubia and the Soudan.

Egypt is the land of nitre. It is found wherever a crude-brick mound is disturbed or an antique stone structure demolished. The Nile mud is strongly impregnated with it ; and in Nubia we used to find it lying in thick talc-like flakes upon the surface of rocks far above the present level of the inundation. These tanks at Denderah had been sunk, we were told, when the great Temple was excavated by Abbas Pasha more than twenty years ago. The nitre then found was utilised out of hand ; washed and crystallised in the tanks ; and converted into gunpowder in the adjacent workshops. The telegraph wires are more recent intruders, and the work of the Khedive ; but one longed to put them out of sight, to pull down the gunpowder sheds, and to fill up the tanks with dbris. For what had the arts of modern warfare or the wonders of modern science to do with Hathor, the Lady of Beauty and the Western Shades, the Nurse of Horus, the Egyptian Aphrodite, to whom yonder mountain of wrought stone and all those wastes were sacred?

We were by this time near enough to see that the square piers of the faade were neither square nor piers, but huge round columns with human-headed capitals ; and that the walls, instead of being plain and tomb-like, were covered with an infinite multitude of sculptured figures. The pylon--rich with inscriptions and bas-reliefs, but disfigured by myriads of tiny wasps' nests, like clustered mud-bubbles--now towered high above our heads, and led to a walled avenue cut direct through the mounds, and sloping downwards to the main entrance of the Temple.

Not, however, till we stood immediately under those ponderous columns, looking down upon the paved floor below and up to the huge cornice that projected overhead like the crest of an impending wave, did we realise the immense proportions of the building. Lofty as it looked form a distance, we now found that it was only the interior that had been excavated, and that not more than two-thirds of its actual height were visible above the mounds. The level of the avenue was, indeed, at its lowest part full twenty feet above that of the first great hall ; and we had still a steep temporary staircase to go down before reaching the original pavement.

The effect of the portico as one stands at the top of the staircase is one of overwhelming majesty. Its breadth, its height, the massiveness of its parts, exceed in grandeur all that one has been anticipating throughout the long two miles of approach. The immense girth of the columns, the huge screens which connect them, the ponderous cornice jutting overhead, confuse the imagination, and in the absence of given measurements2 appear, perhaps, even more enormous than they are. Looking up to the architrave, we see a kind of Egyptian Panathenaic procession of carven priests and warriors, some with standards and some with musical instruments. The winged globe, depicted upon a gigantic scale in the curve of the cornice, seems to hover above the central doorway. Hieroglyphs, emblems, strange forms of Kings and Gods, cover every foot of wall-space, frieze, and pillar. Nor does this wealth of surface-sculpture tend in any way to diminish the general effect of size. It would seem, on the contrary, as if complex decorations were in this instance the natural complement to simplicity of form. Every group, every inscription, appears to be necessary and in its place ; an essential part of the building it helps to adorn. Most of these details are as perfect as on the day when the last workman went his way, and the architect saw his design completed. Time has neither marred the surface of the stone nor blunted the work of the chisel. Such injury as they have sustained is from the hand of man ; and in no country has the hand of man achieved more and destroyed more than in Egypt. The Persians overthrew the masterpieces of the Pharaohs ; the Copts mutilated the temples of the Ptolemies and Csars ; the Arabs stripped the pyramids and carried Memphis away piecemeal. Here at Denderah we have an example of Grco-Egyptian work and early Christian fanaticism. Begun by Ptolemy XI,3 and bearing upon its latest ovals the name and style of Nero, the present building was still comparatively new when, in A.D. 379, the ancient religion was abolished by the edict of Theodosius. It was then the most gorgeous as well as the most recent of all those larger temples built during the prosperous foreign rule of the last seven hundred years. It stood, surrounded by groves of palm and acacia, within the precincts of a vast enclosure, the walls of which, 1000 feet in length, 35 feet in height, and 15 feet thick, are still traceable. A dromos, now buried under twenty feet of dbris, led from the pylon to the portico. The pylon is there still, a partial ruin ; but the Temple, with its roof, its staircases, and its secret treasure-crypts, is in all essential respects as perfect as on the day when its splendour was given over to the spoilers. One can easily imagine how these spoilers sacked and ravaged all before them ; how they desecrated the sacred places, and cast down the statues of the Goddess, and divided the treasures of the sanctuary. They did not, it is true, commit such wholesale destruction as the Persian invaders of nine hundred years before ; but they were merciless iconoclasts, and hacked away the face of every figure within easy reach both inside and outside the building.



Among those which escaped, however, is the famous external bas-relief of Cleopatra on the back of the Temple. This curious sculpture is now banked up with rubbish for its better preservation, and can no longer be seen by travellers. It was, however, admirably photographed some years ago by Signor Beati ; which photograph is faithfully reproduced in the annexed engraving. Cleopatra is here represented with a headdress combining the attributes of three goddesses ; namely the Vulture of Maut (the head of which is modelled in a masterly way), the horned disc of Hathor, and the throne of Isis. The falling mass below the headdress is intended to represent hair dressed according to the Egyptian fashin, in an infinite number of small plaits, each finished off with an ornamental tag. The women of Egypt and Nubia wear their hair so to this day, and unplait it, I am sorry to say, not oftener than once in every eight or ten weeks. The Nubian girls fasten each separate tail with a lump of Nile mud daubed over with yellow ochre ; but Queen Cleopatra's silken tresses were probably tipped with gilded wax or gum.

It is difficult to know where decorative sculpture ends and portraiture begins in a work of this epoch. We cannot even be certain that a portrait was intended ; though the introduction of the royal oval in which the name of Cleopatra (Klaupatra) is spelt with its vowel sounds in full, would seem to point that way. If it is a portrait, then large allowance must be made for conventional treatment. The fleshiness of the features and the intolerable simper are common to every head of the Ptolemaic period. The ear, too, is pattern work, and the drawing of the figure is ludicrous. Mannerism apart, however, the face wants for neither individuality nor beauty. Cover the mouth, and you have an almost faultless profile. The chin and throat are also quite lovely ; while the whole face, suggestive of cruelty, subtlety, and voluptuousness, carries with it an indefinable impression not only of portraiture, but of likeness.

It is not without something like a shock that one first sees the unsightly havoc wrought upon the Hathor-headed columns of the faade at Denderah. The massive folds of headgear are there ; the ears, erect and pointed like those of a heifer, are there ; but of the benignant face of the Goddess not a feature remains. Ampre, describing these columns in one of his earliest letters from Egypt, speaks of them as being still "brilliant with colours that time had had no power to efface." Time, however, must have been unusually busy during the thirty years that have gone by since then ; for though we presently found several instances of painted bas-reliefs in the small inner chambers, I do not remember to have observed any remains of colour (save here and there a faint trace of yellow ochre) on the external decorations.

Without, all was sunshine and splendour ; within, all was silence and mystery. A heavy, death-like smell, as of long-imprisoned gases, met us on the threshold. By the half-light that strayed in through the portico, we could see vague outlines of a forest of giant columns rising out of the gloom below and vanishing into the gloom above. Beyond these again appeared shadowy vistas of successive halls leading away into depths of impenetrable darkness. It required no great courage to go down those stairs and explore those depths with a party of fellow-travellers ; but it would have been a gruesome place to venture into alone.

Seen from within, the portico shows as a vast hall, fifty feet in height and supported on twenty-four Hathor-headed columns. Six of these, being engaged in the screen, form part of the faade, and are the same upon which we have been looking from without. By degrees, as our eyes become used to the twilight, we see here and there a capital which still preserves the vague likeness of a gigantic female face ; while, dimly visible on every wall, pillar, and doorway, a multitude of fantastic forms--hawk-headed, ibis-headed, cow-headed, mitred, plumed, holding aloft strange emblems, seated on thrones, performing mysterious rites--seem to emerge from their places, like things of life. Looking up to the ceiling, now smoke-blackened and defaced, we discover elaborate paintings of scarabi, winged globes, and zodiacal emblems divided by borders of intricate Greek patterns, the prevailing colours of which are verditer and chocolate. Bands of hieroglyphic inscriptions, of royal ovals, of Hathor heads, of mitred hawks, of lion-headed chimeras, of divinities and kings in bas-relief, cover the shafts of the great columns from top to bottom ; and even here, every accessible face, however small, has been laboriously mutilated.

Bewildered at first sight of these profuse and mysterious decorations, we wander round and round ; going on from the first hall to the second, from the second to the third ; and plunging into deeper darkness at every step. We have been reading about these gods and emblems for weeks past--we have studied the plan of the Temple beforehand ; yet now that we are actually here, our book knowledge goes for nothing, and we feel as hopelessly ignorant as if we had been suddenly landed in a new world. Not till we have got over this first feeling of confusion--not till, resting awhile on the base of one of the columns, we again open out the plan of the building, do we begin to realise the purport of the sculptures by which we are surrounded.

The ceremonial of Egyptian worship was essentially processional. Herein we have the central idea of every Temple, and the key to its construction. It was bound to contain store-chambers in which were kept vestments, instruments, divine emblems, and the like ; laboratories for the preparation of perfumes and unguents ; treasuries for the safe custody of holy vessels and precious offerings ; chambers for the reception and purification of tribute in kind ; halls for the assembling and marshalling of priests and functionaries ; and, for processional purposes, corridors, staircases, courtyards, cloisters, and vast enclosures planted with avenues of trees and surrounded by walls which hedged in with inviolable secrecy the solemn rites of the priesthood.

In this plan, it will be seen, there is no provision made for anything in the form of public worship ; but then an Egyptian Temple was not a place for public worship. It was a treasure-house, a sacristy, a royal oratory, a place of preparation, of consecration, of sacerdotal privacy. There, in costly shrines, dwelt the divine images. There they were robed and unrobed ; perfumed with incense ; visited and worshipped by the King. On certain great days of the kalendar, as on the occasion of the festival of the new year, or the panegyrics of the local gods, these images were brought out, paraded along the corridors of the temple, carried round the roof, and borne with waving of banners, and chanting of hymns, and burning of incense, through the sacred groves of the enclosure. Probably none were admitted to these ceremonies save persons of royal or priestly birth. To the rest of the community, all that took place within those massy walls was enveloped in mystery. It may be questioned, indeed, whether the great mass of people had any kind of personal religion. They may not have been rigidly excluded from the temple-precincts, but they seem to have been allowed no participation in the worship of the Gods. If now and then, on high festival days, they beheld the sacred bark of the deity carried in procession round the temenos, or caught a glimpse of moving figures and glittering ensigns in the pillared dusk of the Hypostyle Hall, it was all they ever beheld of the solemn services of their church.

The Temple of Denderah consists of a portico ; a hall of entrance ; a hall of assembly ; a third hall, which may be called the hall of the sacred boats ; one small ground floor chapel ; and upwards of twenty side chambers of various sizes, most of which are totally dark. Each one of these halls and chambers bears the sculptured record of its use. Hundreds of tableaux in bas-relief, thousands of elaborate hieroglyphic inscriptions, cover every foot of available space on wall and ceiling and soffit, on doorway and column, and on the lining-slabs of passages and staircases. These precious texts contain, amid much that is mystical and tedious, an extraordinary wealth of indirect history. Here we find programmes of ceremonial observances ; numberless legends of the Gods ; chronologies of Kings with their various titles ; registers of weights and measures ; catalogues of offerings ; recipes for the preparation of oils and essences ; records of repairs and restorations done to the Temple ; geographical lists of cities and provinces ; inventories of treasure, and the like. The hall of assembly contains a kalendar of festivals, and sets forth with studied precision the rites to be performed on each recurring anniversary. On the ceiling of the portico we find an astronomical zodiac ; on the walls of a small temple on the rood, the whole history of the resurrection of Osiris, together with the order of prayer for the twelve hours of the night, and a kalendar of the festivals of Osiris in all the principal cities of Upper and Lower Egypt. Seventy years ago, these inscriptions were the puzzle and despair of the learned ; but since modern science has plucked out the heart of its mystery, the whole Temple lies before us an open volume filled to overflowing with strange and quaint and heterogeneous matter--a Talmud in sculptured stone.4

Given such help as Mariette's handbook affords, one can trace out most of these curious things, and identify the uses of every hall and chamber throughout the building. The King, in the double character of Pharaoh and high priest, is the hero of every sculptured scene. Wearing sometimes the truncated crown of Lower Egypt, sometimes the helmet-crown of Upper Egypt, and sometimes the pschent, which is a combination of both, he figures in every tableau and heads every procession. Beginning with the sculptures of the portico, we see him arrive, preceded by his five royal standards. He wears his long robe ; his sandals are on his feet ; he carries his staff in his hand. Two goddesses receive him at the door and conduct him into the presence of Thoth, the ibis-headed, and Horus, the hawk-headed, who pour upon him a double stream of the waters of life. Thus purified, he is crowned by the Goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, and by them consigned to the local deities of Thebes and Heliopolis, who usher him into the supreme presence of Hathor. He then presents various offerings and recites certain prayers ; whereupon the goddess promises him length of days, everlasting renown, and other good things. We next see him, always with the same smile and always in the same attitude, doing homage to Osiris, to Horus and other divinities. He presents them with flowers, wine, bread, incense ; while they in return promise him life, joy, abundant harvests, victory, and the love of his people. These pretty speeches--chefs-d'oeuvre of diplomatic style and models of elegant flattery--are repeated over and over again in scores of hieroglyphic groups. Mariette, however, sees in them something more than the language of the court grafted upon the language of the hierarchy ; he detects the language of the schools, and discovers in the utterances here ascribed to the King and the Gods a reflection of that contemporary worship of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True, which characterised the teaching of the Alexandrian Museum.5

Passing on from the portico to the Hall of Assembly, we enter a region of still dimmer twilight, beyond which all is dark. In the side-chambers, where the heat is intense and the atmosphere stifling, we can see only by the help of lighted candles. These rooms are about twenty feet in length ; separate, like prison cells ; and perfectly dark. The sculptures which cover the walls are, however, as numerous as those in the outer halls, and indicate in each instance the purpose for which the room was designed. Thus in the laboratories we find bas-reliefs of flasks and vases, and figures carrying perfume-bottles of the familiar aryballos form ; in the tribute-chambers, offerings of lotus-lilies, wheat sheaves, maize, grapes, and pomegranates ; in the oratories of Isis, Amen, and Sekhet, representations of these divinities enthroned, and receiving the homage of the King ; while in the treasury, both King and Queen appear laden with precious gifts of caskets, necklaces, pectoral ornaments, sistrums, and the like. It would seem that the image-breakers had no time to spare for these dark cells ; for here the faces and figures are unmutilated, and in some places even the original colouring remains in excellent preservation. The complexion of the goddesses, for instance, is painted of a light buff ; the King's skin is dark-red ; that of Amen, blue. Isis wears a rich robe of the well-known Indian pine-pattern ; Sekhet figures in a many-coloured garment curiously diapered ; Amen is clad in red and green chain armour. The skirts of the goddesses are inconceivably scant ; but they are rich in jewellery, and their headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets are full of minute and interesting detail. In one of the four oratories dedicated to Sekhet, the King is depicted in the act of offering a pectoral ornament of so rich and elegant a design that, had there been time and daylight, the Writer would fain have copied it.

In the centre room at the extreme end of the Temple, exactly opposite the main entrance, lies the oratory of Hathor. This dark chamber, into which no ray of daylight has ever penetrated, contains the sacred niche, the Holy of Holies, in which was kept the great Golden Sistrum of the Goddess. The King alone was privilieged to take out that mysterious emblem. Having done so, he enclosed it in a costly shrine, covered it with a thick veil, and placed it in one of the sacred boats of which we find elaborate representations sculptured on the walls of the hall in which they were kept. These boats, which were constructed of cedar-wood, gold, and silver, were intended to be hoisted on wrought poles, and so carried in procession on the shoulders of the priests. The niche is still there--a mere hole in the wall, some three feet square and about eight feet from the ground.

Thus, candle in hand, we make the circuit of these outer chambers. In each doorway, besides the place cut out for the bolt, we find a circular hole drilled above and a quadrant-shaped hollow below, where once upon a time the pivot of the door turned in its socket. The paved floors, torn up by treasure-seekers, are full of treacherous holes and blocks of broken stone. The ceilings are very lofty. In the corridors a dim twilight reigns ; but all is pitch-dark beyond these gloomy thresholds. Hurrying along by the light of a few flaring candles, one cannot but feel oppressed by the strangeness and awfulness of the place. We speak with bated breath, and even our chattering Arabs for once are silent. The very air tastes as if it had been imprisoned here for centuries.

Finally, we take the staircase on the northern side of the Temple, in order to go up to the roof. Nothing that we have yet seen surprises and delights us so much, I think, as this staircase.

We had hitherto been tracing in their order all the preparations for a great religious ceremony. We have seen the King enter the Temple ; undergo the symbolical purification ; receive the twofold crown ; and say his prayers to each divinity in turn. We have followed him into the laboratories, the oratories, and the Holy of Holies. All that he has yet done, however, is preliminary. The procession is yet to come, and here we have it. Here, sculptured on the walls of this dark staircase, the crowning ceremony of Egyptian worship is brought before our eyes in all its details. Here, one by one, we have the standard-bearers, the hierophants with the offerings, the priests, the whole long, wonderful procession, with the King marching at its head. Fresh and uninjured as if they had but just left the hand of the sculptor, these figures--each in his habit as he lived, each with his foot upon the step--mount with us as we mount, and go beside us all the way. Their attitudes are so natural, their forms so roundly cut, that one could almost fancy them in motion as the lights flicker by. Surely there must be some one weird night in the year when they step out from their places, and take up the next verse of their chanted hymn, and, to the sound of instruments long mute and songs long silent, pace the moonlit roof in ghostly order!

The sun is already down and the crimson light has faded, when at length we emerge upon that vast terrace. The roofing-stones are gigantic. Striding to and fro over some of the biggest, our Idle Man finds several that measure seven paces in length by four in breadth. In yonder distant corner, like a little sone lodge in a vast courtyard, stands a small temple supported on Hather-headed columns ; while at the eastern end, forming a second and loftier stage, rises the roof of the portico.

Meanwhile the afterglow is fading. The mountains are yet clothed in an atmosphere of tender half-light ; but mysterious shadows are fast creeping over the plain, and the mounds of the ancient city lie at our feet, confused and tumbled, like the waves of a dark sea. How high it is here--how lonely--how silent! Hark that thin plaintive cry! It is the wail of a night-wandering jackal. See how dark it is yonder, in the direction of the river! Quick, quick! We have lingered too long. We must be gone at once ; for we are already benighted.

We ought to have gone down by way of the opposite staircase (which is lined with sculptures of the descending procession) and out through the Temple ; but there is no time to do anything but scramble down by a breach in the wall at a point where the mounds yet lie heaped against the south side of the building. And now the dusk steals on so rapidly that before we reach the bottom we can hardly see where to tread. The huge side-wall of the portico seems to tower above us to the very heavens. We catch a glimpse of two colossal figures, one lion-headed and the other headless, sitting outside with their backs to the Temple. Then, making with all speed for the open plain, we clamber over scattered blocks and among shapeless mounds. Presently night overtakes us. The mountains disappear ; the Temple is blotted out ; and we have only the faint starlight to guide us. We stumble on, however, keeping all close together ; firing a gun every now and then, in the hope of being heard by those in the boats ; and as thoroughly and undeniably lost as the Babes in the Wood.



At last, just as some are beginning to knock up and all to despair, Talhamy fires his last cartridge. An answering shot replies from near by ; a wandering light appears in the distance ; and presently a whole bevy of dancing lanterns and friendly brown faces comes gleaming out from among a plantation of sugar-canes, to welcome and guide us home. Dear, sturdy, faithful little Res Hassan, honest Khalfeh, laughing Salame, gentle Mehemet Ali, and Msa "black but comely"--they were all there. What a shaking of hands there was--what a gleaming of white teeth--what a shower of mutually unintelligible congratulations! For my own part, I may say with truth that I was never much more rejoiced at a meeting in my life.

Next Previous Top Contents

1 According to the account given in her letters by Lady Duff Gordon, this dervish, who had acquired a reputation for unusual sanctity by repeating the name of Allah 3000 times every night for three years, believed that he had by these means rendered himself invulnerable ; and so, proclaiming himself the appointed Slayer of Antichrist, he stirred up a revolt among the villages bordering Gebel Sheykh Hereedee, instigated an attack on an English dahabeeyah, and brought down upon himself and all that country-side the swift and summary vengeance of the Government. Steamers with troops commanded by Fadl Pasha were despatched up the river ; rebels were shot ; villages sacked ; crops and cattle confiscated. The women and children of the place were then distributed among the neighbouring hamlets ; and Gow, which was as large a village as Luxor, ceased to exist. The dervish's fate remained uncertain. He was shot, according to some ; and by others it was said that he had escaped into the desert under the protection of a tribe of Bedouin.

2 Sir G. Wilkinson states the total length of the Temple to be 93 paces, or 220 feet ; and the width of the portico 50 paces. Murray gives no measurements ; neither does Mariette Bey in his delightful little "Itineraire ;" neither does Fergusson, nor Champollion, nor any other writer to whose works I have had access.

3 The names of Augustus, Caligula, Tiberius, Domitian, Claudius, and Nero are found in the royal ovals ; the oldest being those of Ptolemy XI, the founder of the present edifice, which was, however, rebuilt upon the site of a succession of older buildings, of which the most ancient dated back as far as the reign of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid. This fact, and the still more interesting fact that the oldest structure of all was believed to belong to the inconceivably remote period of the Horshesu, or "followers of Horus" (i.e. the petty chiefs, or princes, who ruled in Egypt before the foundation of the first monarchy), is recorded in the following remarkable inscription discovered by Mariette in one of the crypts constructed in the thickness of the walls of the present temple. The first text relates to certain festivals to be celebrated in honour of Hathor, and states that all the ordained ceremonies had been performed by King Thothmes III (XVIIIth dynasty) "in memory of his mother, Hathor of Denderah. And they found the great fundamental rules of Denderah in ancient writing, written on goat-skin in the time of the Followers of Horus. This was found in the inside of a brick wall during the reign of King Pepi (VIth dynasty)." In the same crypt, another and a more brief inscriptions runs thus : --"Great fundamental rule of Denderah. Restorations done by Thothmes III, according to what was found in ancient writing of the time of King Khufu." Hereupon Mariette remarks--"The temple of Denderah is not, then, one of the most modern in Egypt, except in so far as it was constructed by one of the later Lagid. Its origin is literally lost in the night of time." See Dendrah, Description Gnrale, chap. i. pp.55, 56.

4 See Mariette's Denderah, which contains the whole of these multitudinous inscriptions in 166 plates ; also a selection of some of the most interesting in Brugsch and Dmichen's Recueil de Monuments Egyptiens and Geographische Inschriften, 1862-3-5-6.

5 Hathor (or more correctly Hat-hor, i.e. the abode of Horus) is not merely the Aphrodite of ancient Egypt : she is the pupil of the eye of the Sun : she is the goddess of that beneficent planet whose rising heralds the waters of the inundation ; she represents the eternal youth of nature, and is the direct personification of the Beautiful. She is also Goddess of Truth. "I offer the Truth to thee, O Goddess of Denderah!" says the King, in one of the inscriptions of the sanctuary of the Sistrum ; "for truth is they work, and thou thyself art Truth." Lastly, her emblem is the Sistrum, and the sound of the Sistrum, according to Plutarch, was supposed to terrify and expel Typhon (the evil principle) ; just as in medival times the ringing of church-bells was supposed to scare Beelzebub and his crew. From this point of view, the Sistrum becomes typical of the triumph of Good over Evil. Mariette, in his analysis of the decorations and inscriptions of this temple, points out how the builders were influenced by the prevailing philosophy of the age, and how they veiled the Platonism of Alexandria beneath the symbolism of the ancient religion. The Hat-hor of Denderah was in fact worshipped in a sense unknown to the Egyptians of pre-Ptolemaic times.

Last Updated: June 21st, 2011