The Spell of Egypt
Robert Hichens

Part 2 out of 2

superb, like a grand skeleton; of Medinet-Abu, distant, very pale gold
in the morning sunlight; of little Deir-al-Medinet, the pretty child
of the Ptolemies, with the heads of the seven Hathors. And from Kurna
the Colossi are exceptionally grand and exceptionally personal, so
personal that one imagines one sees the expressions of the faces that
they no longer possess.

Even if you do not go into the tombs--but you will go--you must ride
to the tombs of the kings; and you must, if you care for the finesse
of impressions, ride on a blazing day and toward the hour of noon.
Then the ravine is itself, like the great act that demonstrates a
temperament. It is the narrow home of fire, hemmed in by brilliant
colors, nearly all--perhaps quite all--of which could be found in a
glowing furnace. Every shade of yellow is there--lemon yellow, sulphur
yellow, the yellow of amber, the yellow of orange with its tendency
toward red, the yellow of gold, sand color, sun color. Cannot all
these yellows be found in a fire? And there are the reds--pink of the
carnation, pink of the coral, red of the little rose that grows in
certain places of sands, red of the bright flame's heart. And all
these colors are mingled in complete sterility. And all are fused into
a fierce brotherhood by the sun. and like a flood, they seem flowing
to the red and the yellow mountains, like a flood that is flowing to
its sea. You are taken by them toward the mountains, on and on, till
the world is closing in, and you know the way must come to an end. And
it comes to an end--in a tomb.

You go to a door in the rock, and a guardian lets you in, and wants to
follow you in. Prevent him if you can. Pay him. Go in alone. For this
is the tomb of Amenhotep II.; and he himself is here, far down, at
rest under the mountain, this king who lived and reigned more than
fourteen hundred years before the birth of Christ. The ravine-valley
leads to him, and you should go to him alone. He lies in the heart of
the living rock, in the dull heat of the earth's bowels, which is like
no other heat. You descend by stairs and corridors, you pass over a
well by a bridge, you pass through a naked chamber; and the king is
not there. And you go on down another staircase, and along another
corridor, and you come into a pillared chamber, with paintings on its
walls, and on its pillars, paintings of the king in the presence of
the gods of the underworld, under stars in a soft blue sky. And below
you, shut in on the farther side by the solid mountain in whose breast
you have all this time been walking, there is a crypt. And you turn
away from the bright paintings, and down there you see the king.

Many years ago in London I went to the private view of the Royal
Academy at Burlington House. I went in the afternoon, when the
galleries were crowded with politicians and artists, with dealers,
gossips, quidnuncs, and /flaneurs/; with authors, fashionable lawyers,
and doctors; with men and women of the world; with young dandies and
actresses /en vogue/. A roar of voices went up to the roof. Every one
was talking, smiling, laughing, commenting, and criticizing. It was a
little picture of the very worldly world that loves the things of
to-day and the chime of the passing hours. And suddenly some people
near me were silent, and some turned their heads to stare with a
strangely fixed attention. And I saw coming toward me an emaciated
figure, rather bent, much drawn together, walking slowly on legs like
sticks. It was clad in black, with a gleam of color. Above it was a
face so intensely thin that it was like the face of death. And in this
face shone two eyes that seemed full of--the other world. And, like a
breath from the other world passing, this man went by me and was
hidden from me by the throng. It was Cardinal Manning in the last days
of his life.

The face of the king is like his, but it has an even deeper pathos as
it looks upward to the rock. And the king's silence bids you be
silent, and his immobility bids you be still. And his sad, and
unutterable resignation sifts awe, as by the desert wind the sand is
sifted into the temples, into the temple of your heart. And you feel
the touch of time, but the touch of eternity, too. And as, in that
rock-hewn sanctuary, you whisper "/Pax vobiscum/," you say it for all
the world.



Prayer pervades the East. Far off across the sands, when one is
traveling in the desert, one sees thin minarets rising toward the sky.
A desert city is there. It signals its presence by this mute appeal to
Allah. And where there are no minarets--in the great wastes of the
dunes, in the eternal silence, the lifelessness that is not broken
even by any lonely, wandering bird--the camels are stopped at the
appointed hours, the poor, and often ragged, robes are laid down, the
brown pilgrims prostrate themselves in prayer. And the rich man
spreads his carpet, and prays. And the half-naked nomad spreads
nothing; but he prays, too. The East is full of lust and full of
money-getting, and full of bartering, and full of violence; but it is
full of worship--of worship that disdains concealment, that recks not
of ridicule or comment, that believes too utterly to care if others
disbelieve. There are in the East many men who do not pray. They do
not laugh at the man who does, like the unpraying Christian. There is
nothing ludicrous to them in prayer. In Egypt your Nubian sailor prays
in the stern of your dahabiyeh; and your Egyptian boatman prays by the
rudder of your boat; and your black donkey-boy prays behind a red rock
in the sand; and your camel-man prays when you are resting in the
noontide, watching the far-off quivering mirage, lost in some wayward

And must you not pray, too, when you enter certain temples where once
strange gods were worshipped in whom no man now believes?

There is one temple on the Nile which seems to embrace in its arms all
the worship of the past; to be full of prayers and solemn praises; to
be the holder, the noble keeper, of the sacred longings, of the
unearthly desires and aspirations, of the dead. It is the temple of
Edfu. From all the other temples it stands apart. It is the temple of
inward flame, of the secret soul of man; of that mystery within us
that is exquisitely sensitive, and exquisitely alive; that has
longings it cannot tell, and sorrows it dare not whisper, and loves it
can only love.

To Horus it was dedicated--hawk-headed Horus--the son of Isis and
Osiris, who was crowned with many crowns, who was the young Apollo of
the old Egyptian world. But though I know this, I am never able to
associate Edfu with Horus, that child wearing the side-lock--when he
is not hawk-headed in his solar aspect--that boy with his finger in
his mouth, that youth who fought against Set, murderer of his father.

Edfu, in its solemn beauty, in its perfection of form, seems to me to
pass into a region altogether beyond identification with the worship
of any special deity, with particular attributes, perhaps with
particular limitations; one who can be graven upon walls, and upon
architraves and pillars painted in brilliant colors; one who can
personally pursue a criminal, like some policeman in the street; even
one who can rise upon the world in the visible glory of the sun. To
me, Edfu must always represent the world-worship of "the Hidden One";
not Amun, god of the dead, fused with Ra, with Amsu, or with Khnum:
but that other "Hidden One," who is God of the happy hunting-ground of
savages, with whom the Buddhist strives to merge his strange serenity
of soul; who is adored in the "Holy Places" by the Moslem, and lifted
mystically above the heads of kneeling Catholics in cathedrals dim
with incense, and merrily praised with the banjo and the trumpet in
the streets of black English cities; who is asked for children by
longing women, and for new dolls by lisping babes; whom the atheist
denies in the day, and fears in the darkness of night; who is on the
lips alike of priest and blasphemer, and in the soul of all human

Edfu stands alone, not near any other temple. It is not pagan; it is
not Christian: it is a place in which to worship according to the
dictates of your heart.

Edfu stands alone on the bank of the Nile between Luxor and Assuan. It
is not very far from El-Kab, once the capital of Upper Egypt, and it
is about two thousand years old. The building of it took over one
hundred and eighty years, and it is the most perfectly preserved
temple to-day of all the antique world. It is huge and it is splendid.
It has towers one hundred and twelve feet high, a propylon two hundred
and fifty-two feet broad, and walls four hundred and fifty feet long.
Begun in the reign of Ptolemy III., it was completed only fifty-seven
years before the birth of Christ.

You know these facts about it, and you forget them, or at least you do
not think of them. What does it all matter when you are alone in Edfu?
Let the antiquarian go with his anxious nose almost touching the
stone; let the Egyptologist peer through his glasses at hieroglyphs
and puzzle out the meaning of cartouches: but let us wander at ease,
and worship and regard the exquisite form, and drink in the mystical
spirit, of this very wonderful temple.

Do you care about form? Here you will find it in absolute perfection.
Edfu is the consecration of form. In proportion it is supreme above
all other Egyptian temples. Its beauty of form is like the chiselled
loveliness of a perfect sonnet. While the world lasts, no architect
can arise to create a building more satisfying, more calm with the
calm of faultlessness, more serene with a just serenity. Or so it
seems to me. I think of the most lovely buildings I know in Europe--of
the Alhambra at Granada, of the Cappella Palatina in the palace at
Palermo. And Edfu I place with them--Edfu utterly different from them,
more different, perhaps, even than they are from each other, but akin
to them, as all great beauty is mysteriously akin. I have spent
morning after morning in the Alhambra, and many and many an hour in
the Cappella Palatina; and never have I been weary of either, or
longed to go away. And this same sweet desire to stay came over me in
Edfu. The /Loulia/ was tied up by the high bank of the Nile. The
sailors were glad to rest. There was no steamer sounding its hideous
siren to call me to its crowded deck. So I yielded to my desire, and
for long I stayed in Edfu. And when at last I left it I said to
myself, "This is a supreme thing," and I knew that within me had
suddenly developed the curious passion for buildings that some people
never feel, and that others feel ever growing and growing.

Yes, Edfu is supreme. No alteration could improve it. Any change made
in it, however slight, could only be harmful to it. Pure and perfect
is its design--broad propylon, great open courtyard with pillared
galleries, halls, chambers, sanctuary. Its dignity and its sobriety
are matchless. I know they must be, because they touched me so
strangely, with a kind of reticent enchantment, and I am not by nature
enamored of sobriety, of reticence and calm, but am inclined to
delight in almost violent force, in brilliance, and, especially, in
combinations of color. In the Alhambra one finds both force and
fairylike lightness, delicious proportions, delicate fantasy, a spell
as of subtle magicians; in the Cappella Palatina, a jeweled splendor,
combined with a small perfection of form which simply captivates the
whole spirit and leads it to adoration. In Edfu you are face to face
with hugeness and with grandeur; but soon you are scarcely aware of
either--in the sense, at least, that connects these qualities with a
certain overwhelming, almost striking down, of the spirit and the
faculties. What you are aware of is your own immense and beautiful
calm of utter satisfaction--a calm which has quietly inundated you,
like a waveless tide of the sea. How rare it is to feel this absolute
satisfaction, this praising serenity! The critical spirit goes, like a
bird from an opened window. The excited, laudatory, voluble spirit
goes. And this splendid calm is left. If you stay here, you, as this
temple has been, will be molded into a beautiful sobriety. From the
top of the pylon you have received this still and glorious impression
from the matchless design of the whole building, which you see best
from there. When you descend the shallow staircase, when you stand in
the great court, when you go into the shadowy halls, then it is that
the utter satisfaction within you deepens. Then it is that you feel
the need to worship in this place created for worship.

The ancient Egyptians made most of their temples in conformity with a
single type. The sanctuary was at the heart, the core, of each temple
--the sanctuary surrounded by the chambers in which were laid up the
precious objects connected with ceremonies and sacrifices. Leading to
this core of the temple, which was sometimes called "the divine
house," were various halls the roofs of which were supported by
columns--those hypostyle halls which one sees perpetually in Egypt.
Before the first of these halls was a courtyard surrounded by a
colonnade. In the courtyard the priests of the temple assembled. The
people were allowed to enter the colonnade. A gateway with towers gave
entrance to the courtyard. If one visits many of the Egyptian temples,
one soon becomes aware of the subtlety, combined with a sort of high
simplicity and sense of mystery and poetry, of these builders of the
past. As a great writer leads one on, with a concealed but beautiful
art, from the first words to which all the other words are ministering
servants; as the great musician--Wagner in his "Meistersinger," for
instance--leads one from the first notes of his score to those final
notes which magnificently reveal to the listeners the real meaning of
those first notes, and of all the notes which follow them: so the
Egyptian builders lead the spirit gently, mysteriously forward from
the gateway between the towers to the distant house divine. When one
enters the outer court, one feels the far-off sanctuary. Almost
unconsciously one is aware that for that sanctuary all the rest of the
temple was created; that to that sanctuary everything tends. And in
spirit one is drawn softly onward to that very holy place. Slowly,
perhaps, the body moves from courtyard to hypostyle hall, and from one
hall to another. Hieroglyphs are examined, cartouches puzzled out,
paintings of processions, or bas-reliefs of pastimes and of
sacrifices, looked at with care and interest; but all the time one has
the sense of waiting, of a want unsatisfied. And only when one at last
reaches the sanctuary is one perfectly at rest. For then the spirit
feels: "This is the meaning of it all."

One of the means which the Egyptian architects used to create this
sense of approach is very simple, but perfectly effective. It
consisted only in making each hall on a very slightly higher level
than the one preceding it, and the sanctuary, which is narrow and
mysteriously dark on the highest level of all. Each time one takes an
upward step, or walks up a little incline of stone, the body seems to
convey to the soul a deeper message of reverence and awe. In no other
temple is this sense of approach to the heart of a thing so acute as
it is when one walks in Edfu. In no other temple, when the sanctuary
is reached, has one such a strong consciousness of being indeed within
a sacred heart.

The color of Edfu is a pale and delicate brown, warm in the strong
sunshine, but seldom glowing. Its first doorway is extraordinarily
high, and is narrow, but very deep, with a roof showing traces of that
delicious clear blue-green which is like a thin cry of joy rising up
in the solemn temples of Egypt. A small sphinx keeps watch on the
right, just where the guardian stands; this guardian, the gift of the
past, squat, even fat, with a very perfect face of a determined and
handsome man. In the court, upon a pedestal, stands a big bird, and
near it is another bird, or rather half of a bird, leaning forward,
and very much defaced. And in this great courtyard there are swarms of
living birds, twittering in the sunshine. Through the doorway between
the towers one sees a glimpse of a native village with the cupolas of
a mosque.

I stood and looked at the cupolas for a moment. Then I turned, and
forgot for a time the life of the world without--that men, perhaps,
were praying beneath those cupolas, or praising the Moslem's God. For
when I turned, I felt, as I have said, as if all the worship of the
world must be concentrated here. Standing far down the open court, in
the full sunshine, I could see into the first hypostyle hall, but
beyond only a darkness--a darkness which led me on, in which the
further chambers of the house divine were hidden. As I went on slowly,
the perfection of the plan of the dead architects was gradually
revealed to me, when the darkness gave up its secrets; when I saw not
clearly, but dimly, the long way between the columns, the noble
columns themselves, the gradual, slight upward slope--graduated by
genius; there is no other word--which led to the sanctuary, seen at
last as a little darkness, in which all the mystery of worship, and of
the silent desires of men, was surely concentrated, and kept by the
stone for ever. Even the succession of the darknesses, like shadows
growing deeper and deeper, seemed planned by some great artist in the
management of light, and so of shadow effects. The perfection of form
is in Edfu, impossible to describe, impossible not to feel. The
tremendous effect it has--an effect upon the soul--is created by a
combination of shapes, of proportions, of different levels, of
different heights, by consummate graduation. And these shapes,
proportions, different levels, and heights, are seen in dimness. Not
that jewelled dimness one loves in Gothic cathedrals, but the heavy
dimness of windowless, mighty chambers lighted only by a rebuked
daylight ever trying to steal in. One is captured by no ornament,
seduced by no lovely colors. Better than any ornament, greater than
any radiant glory of color, is this massive austerity. It is like the
ultimate in an art. Everything has been tried, every strangeness
/bizarrerie/, absurdity, every wild scheme of hues, every preposterous
subject--to take an extreme instance, a camel, wearing a top-hat, and
lighted up by fire-works, which I saw recently in a picture-gallery of
Munich. And at the end a genius paints a portrait of a wrinkled old
woman's face, and the world regards and worships. Or all discords have
been flung together pell-mell, resolution of them has been deferred
perpetually, perhaps even denied altogether, chord of B major has been
struck with C major, works have closed upon the leading note or the
dominant seventh, symphonies have been composed to be played in the
dark, or to be accompanied by a magic-lantern's efforts, operas been
produced which are merely carnage and a row--and at the end a genius
writes a little song, and the world gives the tribute of its
breathless silence and its tears. And it knows that though other
things may be done, better things can never be done. For no perfection
can exceed any other perfection.

And so in Edfu I feel that this untinted austerity is perfect; that
whatever may be done in architecture during future ages of the world,
Edfu, while it lasts, will remain a thing supreme--supreme in form
and, because of this supremacy, supreme in the spell which it casts
upon the soul.

The sanctuary is just a small, beautifully proportioned, inmost
chamber, with a black roof, containing a sort of altar of granite, and
a great polished granite shrine which no doubt once contained the god
Horus. I am glad he is not there now. How far more impressive it is to
stand in an empty sanctuary in the house divine of "the Hidden One,"
whom the nations of the world worship, whether they spread their robes
on the sand and turn their faces to Mecca, or beat the tambourine and
sing "glory hymns" of salvation, or flagellate themselves in the night
before the patron saint of the Passionists, or only gaze at the snow-
white plume that floats from the snows of Etna under the rose of dawn,
and feel the soul behind Nature. Among the temples of Egypt, Edfu is
the house divine of "the Hidden One," the perfect temple of worship.



Some people talk of the "sameness" of the Nile; and there is a lovely
sameness of golden light, of delicious air, of people, and of scenery.
For Egypt is, after all, mainly a great river with strips on each side
of cultivated land, flat, green, not very varied. River, green plains,
yellow plains, pink, brown, steel-grey, or pale-yellow mountains, wail
of shadoof, wail of sakieh. Yes, I suppose there is a sameness, a sort
of golden monotony, in this land pervaded with light and pervaded with
sound. Always there is light around you, and you are bathing in it,
and nearly always, if you are living, as I was, on the water, there is
a multitude of mingling sounds floating, floating to your ears. As
there are two lines of green land, two lines of mountains, following
the course of the Nile; so are there two lines of voices that cease
their calling and their singing only as you draw near to Nubia. For
then, with the green land, they fade away, these miles upon miles of
calling and singing brown men; and amber and ruddy sands creep
downward to the Nile. And the air seems subtly changing, and the light
perhaps growing a little harder. And you are aware of other regions
unlike those you are leaving, more African, more savage, less suave,
less like a dreaming. And especially the silence makes a great
impression on you. But before you enter this silence, between the
amber and ruddy walls that will lead you on to Nubia, and to the land
of the crocodile, you have a visit to pay. For here, high up on a
terrace, looking over a great bend of the river is Kom Ombos. And Kom
Ombos is the temple of the crocodile god.

Sebek was one of the oldest and one of the most evil of the Egyptian
gods. In the Fayum he was worshipped, as well as at Kom Ombos, and
there, in the holy lake of his temple, were numbers of holy
crocodiles, which Strabo tells us were decorated with jewels like
pretty women. He did not get on with the other gods, and was sometimes
confused with Set, who personified natural darkness, and who also was
worshipped by the people about Kom Ombos.

I have spoken of the golden sameness of the Nile, but this sameness is
broken by the variety of the temples. Here you have a striking
instance of this variety. Edfu, only forty miles from Kom Ombos, the
next temple which you visit, is the most perfect temple in Egypt. Kom
Ombos is one of the most imperfect. Edfu is a divine house of "the
Hidden One," full of a sacred atmosphere. Kom Ombos is the house of
crocodiles. In ancient days the inhabitants of Edfu abhorred, above
everything, crocodiles and their worshippers. And here at Kom Ombos
the crocodile was adored. You are in a different atmosphere.

As soon as you land, you are greeted with crocodiles, though
fortunately not by them. A heap of their black mummies is shown to you
reposing in a sort of tomb or shrine open at one end to the air. By
these mummies the new note is loudly struck. The crocodiles have
carried you in an instant from that which is pervadingly general to
that which is narrowly particular; from the purely noble, which seems
to belong to all time, to the entirely barbaric, which belongs only to
times outworn. It is difficult to feel as if one had anything in
common with men who seriously worshipped crocodiles, had priests to
feed them, and decorated their scaly necks with jewels.

Yet the crocodile god had a noble temple at Kom Ombos, a temple which
dates from the times of the Ptolemies, though there was a temple in
earlier days which has now disappeared. Its situation is splendid. It
stands high above the Nile, and close to the river, on a terrace which
has recently been constructed to save it from the encroachments of the
water. And it looks down upon a view which is exquisite in the clear
light of early morning. On the right, and far off, is a delicious pink
bareness of distant flats and hills. Opposite there is a flood of
verdure and of trees going to mountains, a spit of sand where is an
inlet of the river, with a crowd of native boats, perhaps waiting for
a wind. On the left is the big bend of the Nile, singularly beautiful,
almost voluptuous in form, and girdled with a radiant green of crops,
with palm-trees, and again the distant hills. Sebek was well advised
to have his temples here and in the glorious Fayum, that land flowing
with milk and honey, where the air is full of the voices of the flocks
and herds, and alive with the wild pigeons; where the sweet sugar-cane
towers up in fairy forests, the beloved home of the jackal; where the
green corn waves to the horizon, and the runlets of water make a maze
of silver threads carrying life and its happy murmur through all the
vast oasis.

At the guardian's gate by which you go in there sits not a watch dog,
nor yet a crocodile, but a watch cat, small, but very determined, and
very attentive to its duties, and neatly carved in stone. You try to
look like a crocodile-worshipper. It is deceived, and lets you pass.
And you are alone with the growing morning and Kom Ombos.

I was never taken, caught up into an atmosphere, in Kom Ombos. I
examined it with interest, but I did not feel a spell. Its grandeur is
great, but it did not affect me as did the grandeur of Karnak. Its
nobility cannot be questioned, but I did not stilly rejoice in it, as
in the nobility of Luxor, or the free splendor of the Ramesseum.

The oldest thing at Kom Ombos is a gateway of sandstone placed there
by Thothmes III. as a tribute to Sebek. The great temple is of a warm-
brown color, a very rich and particularly beautiful brown, that
soothes and almost comforts the eyes that have been for many days
boldly assaulted by the sun. Upon the terrace platform above the river
you face a low and ruined wall, on which there are some lively
reliefs, beyond which is a large, open court containing a quantity of
stunted, once big columns standing on big bases. Immediately before
you the temple towers up, very gigantic, very majestic, with a stone
pavement, walls on which still remain some traces of paintings, and
really grand columns, enormous in size and in good formation. There
are fine architraves, and some bits of roofing, but the greater part
is open to the air. Through a doorway is a second hall containing
columns much less noble, and beyond this one walks in ruin, among
crumbled or partly destroyed chambers, broken statues, become mere
slabs of granite and fallen blocks of stone. At the end is a wall,
with a pavement bordering it, and a row of chambers that look like
monkish cells, closed by small doors. At Kom Ombos there are two
sanctuaries, one dedicated to Sebek, the other to Heru-ur, or
Haroeris, a form of Horus in Egyptian called "the Elder," which was
worshipped with Sebek here by the admirers of crocodiles. Each of them
contains a pedestal of granite upon which once rested a sacred bark
bearing an image of the deity.

There are some fine reliefs scattered through these mighty ruins,
showing Sebek with the head of a crocodile, Heru-ur with the head of a
hawk so characteristic of Horus, and one strange animal which has no
fewer than four heads, apparently meant for the heads of lions. One
relief which I specially noticed for its life, its charming vivacity,
and its almost amusing fidelity to details unchanged to-day, depicts a
number of ducks in full flight near a mass of lotus-flowers. I
remembered it one day in the Fayum, so intimately associated with
Sebek, when I rode twenty miles out from camp on a dromedary to the
end of the great lake of Kurun, where the sand wastes of the Libyan
desert stretch to the pale and waveless waters which, that day, looked
curiously desolate and even sinister under a low, grey sky. Beyond the
wiry tamarisk-bushes, which grow far out from the shore, thousands
upon thousands of wild duck were floating as far as the eyes could
see. We took a strange native boat, manned by two half-naked
fishermen, and were rowed with big, broad-bladed oars out upon the
silent flood that the silent desert surrounded. But the duck were too
wary ever to let us get within range of them. As we drew gently near,
they rose in black throngs, and skimmed low into the distance of the
wintry landscape, trailing their legs behind them, like the duck on
the wall of Kom Ombos. There was no duck for dinner in camp that
night, and the cook was inconsolable. But I had seen a relief come to
life, and surmounted my disappointment.

Kom Ombos and Edfu, the two houses of the lovers and haters of
crocodiles, or at least of the lovers and the haters of their worship,
I shall always think of them together, because I drifted on the
/Loulia/ from one to the other, and saw no interesting temple between
them and because their personalities are as opposed as were, centuries
ago, the tenets of those who adored within them. The Egyptians of old
were devoted to the hunting of crocodiles, which once abounded in the
reaches of the Nile between Assuan and Luxor, and also much lower
down. But I believe that no reliefs, or paintings, of this sport are
to be found upon the walls of the temples and the tombs. The fear of
Sebek, perhaps, prevailed even over the dwellers about the temple of
Edfu. Yet how could fear of any crocodile god infect the souls of
those who were privileged to worship in such a temple, or even
reverently to stand under the colonnade within the door? As well,
perhaps, one might ask how men could be inspired to raise such a
perfect building to a deity with the face of a hawk? But Horus was not
the god of crocodiles, but a god of the sun. And his power to inspire
men must have been vast; for the greatest concentration in stone in
Egypt, and, I suppose, in the whole world, the Sphinx, as De Rouge
proved by an inscription at Edfu, was a representation of Horus
transformed to conquer Typhon. The Sphinx and Edfu! For such marvels
we ought to bless the hawk-headed god. And if we forget the hawk,
which one meets so perpetually upon the walls of tombs and temples,
and identify Horus rather with the Greek Apollo, the yellow-haired god
of the sun, driving "westerly all day in his flaming chariot," and
shooting his golden arrows at the happy world beneath, we can be at
peace with those dead Egyptians. For every pilgrim who goes to Edfu
to-day is surely a worshipper of the solar aspect of Horus. As long as
the world lasts there will be sun-worshippers. Every brown man upon
the Nile is one, and every good American who crosses the ocean and
comes at last into the sombre wonder of Edfu, and I was one upon the
deck of the /Loulia/.

And we all worship as yet in the dark, as in the exquisite dark, like
faith, of the Holy of Holies of Horus.



As I drew slowly nearer and nearer to the home of "the great
Enchantress," or, as Isis was also called in bygone days, "the Lady of
Philae," the land began to change in character, to be full of a new
and barbaric meaning. In recent years I have paid many visits to
northern Africa, but only to Tunisia and Algeria, countries that are
wilder looking, and much wilder seeming than Egypt. Now, as I
approached Assuan, I seemed at last to be also approaching the real,
the intense Africa that I had known in the Sahara, the enigmatic
siren, savage and strange and wonderful, whom the typical Ouled Nail,
crowned with gold, and tufted with ostrich plumes, painted with kohl,
tattooed, and perfumed, hung with golden coins and amulets, and framed
in plaits of coarse, false hair, represents indifferently to the eyes
of the travelling stranger. For at last I saw the sands that I love
creeping down to the banks of the Nile. And they brought with them
that wonderful air which belongs only to them--the air that dwells
among the dunes in the solitary places, that is like the cool touch of
Liberty upon the face of a man, that makes the brown child of the
nomad as lithe, tireless, and fierce-spirited as a young panther, and
sets flame in the eyes of the Arab horse, and gives speed of the wind
to the Sloughi. The true lover of the desert can never rid his soul of
its passion for the sands, and now my heart leaped as I stole into
their pure embraces, as I saw to right and left amber curves and
sheeny recesses, shining ridges and bloomy clefts. The clean delicacy
of those sands that, in long and glowing hills, stretched out from
Nubia to meet me, who could ever describe them? Who could ever
describe their soft and enticing shapes, their exquisite gradations of
color, the little shadows in their hollows, the fiery beauty of their
crests, the patterns the cool winds make upon them? It is an enchanted
/royaume/ of the sands through which one approaches Isis.

Isis and engineers! We English people have effected that curious
introduction, and we greatly pride ourselves upon it. We have
presented Sir William Garstin, and Mr. John Blue, and Mr. Fitz
Maurice, and other clever, hard-working men to the fabled Lady of
Philae, and they have given her a gift: a dam two thousand yards in
length, upon which tourists go smiling on trolleys. Isis has her
expensive tribute--it cost about a million and a half pounds--and no
doubt she ought to be gratified.

Yet I think Isis mourns on altered Philae, as she mourns with her
sister, Nepthys, at the heads of so many mummies of Osirians upon the
walls of Egyptian tombs. And though the fellaheen very rightly
rejoice, there are some unpractical sentimentalists who form a company
about her, and make their plaint with hers--their plaint for the peace
that is gone, for the lost calm, the departed poetry, that once hung,
like a delicious, like an inimitable, atmosphere, about the palms of
the "Holy Island."

I confess that I dreaded to revisit Philae. I had sweet memories of
the island that had been with me for many years--memories of still
mornings under the palm-trees, watching the gliding waters of the
river, or gazing across them to the long sweep of the empty sands;
memories of drowsy, golden noons, when the bright world seemed softly
sleeping, and the almost daffodil-colored temple dreamed under the
quivering canopy of blue; memories of evenings when a benediction from
the lifted hands of Romance surely fell upon the temple and the island
and the river; memories of moonlit nights, when the spirits of the old
gods to whom the temples were reared surely held converse with the
spirits of the desert, with Mirage and her pale and evading sisters of
the great spaces, under the brilliant stars. I was afraid, because I
could not believe the asservations of certain practical persons, full
of the hard and almost angry desire of "Progress," that no harm had
been done by the creation of the reservoir, but that, on the contrary,
it had benefited the temple. The action of the water upon the stone,
they said with vehement voices, instead of loosening it and causing it
to crumble untimely away, had tended to harden and consolidate it.
Here I should like to lie, but I resist the temptation. Monsieur
Naville has stated that possibly the English engineers have helped to
prolong the lives of the buildings of Philae, and Monsieur Maspero has
declared that "the state of the temple of Philae becomes continually
more satisfactory." So be it! Longevity has been, by a happy chance,
secured. But what of beauty? What of the beauty of the past, and what
of the schemes for the future? Is Philae even to be left as it is, or
are the waters of the Nile to be artificially raised still higher,
until Philae ceases to be? Soon, no doubt, an answer will be given.

Meanwhile, instead of the little island that I knew, and thought a
little paradise breathing out enchantment in the midst of titanic
sterility, I found a something diseased. Philae now, when out of the
water, as it was all the time when I was last in Egypt, looks like a
thing stricken with some creeping malady--one of those maladies which
begin in the lower members of a body, and work their way gradually but
inexorably upward to the trunk, until they attain the heart.

I came to it by the desert, and descended to Shellal--Shellal with its
railway-station, its workmen's buildings, its tents, its dozens of
screens to protect the hewers of stone from the burning rays of the
sun, its bustle of people, of overseers, engineers, and workmen,
Egyptian, Nubian, Italian, and Greek. The silence I had known was
gone, though the desert lay all around--the great sands, the great
masses of granite that look as if patiently waiting to be fashioned
into obelisks, and sarcophagi, and statues. But away there across the
bend of the river, dominating the ugly rummage of this intrusive
beehive of human bees, sheer grace overcoming strength both of nature
and human nature, rose the fabled "Pharaoh's Bed"; gracious, tender,
from Shellal most delicately perfect, and glowing with pale gold
against the grim background of the hills on the western shore. It
seemed to plead for mercy, like something feminine threatened with
outrage, to protest through its mere beauty, as a woman might protest
by an attitude, against further desecration.

And in the distance the Nile roared through the many gates of the dam,
making answer to the protest.

What irony was in this scene! In the old days of Egypt Philae was
sacred ground, was the Nile-protected home of sacerdotal mysteries,
was a veritable Mecca to the believers in Osiris, to which it was
forbidden even to draw near without permission. The ancient Egyptians
swore solemnly "By him who sleeps in Philae." Now they sometimes swear
angrily at him who wakes in, or at least by, Philae, and keeps them
steadily going at their appointed tasks. And instead of it being
forbidden to draw near to a sacred spot, needy men from foreign
countries flock thither in eager crowds, not to worship in beauty, but
to earn a living wage.

And "Pharaoh's Bed" looks out over the water and seems to wonder what
will be the end.

I was glad to escape from Shellal, pursued by the shriek of an engine
announcing its departure from the station, glad to be on the quiet
water, to put it between me and that crowd of busy workers. Before me
I saw a vast lake, not unlovely, where once the Nile flowed swiftly,
far off a grey smudge--the very damnable dam. All around me was a grim
and cruel world of rocks, and of hills that look almost like heaps of
rubbish, some of them grey, some of them in color so dark that they
resemble the lava torrents petrified near Catania, or the "Black
Country" in England through which one rushes on one's way to the
north. Just here and there, sweetly almost as the pink blossoms of the
wild oleander, which I have seen from Sicilian seas lifting their
heads from the crevices of sea rocks, the amber and rosy sands of
Nubia smiled down over grit, stone, and granite.

The setting of Philae is severe. Even in bright sunshine it has an
iron look. On a grey or stormy day it would be forbidding or even
terrible. In the old winters and springs one loved Philae the more
because of the contrast of its setting with its own lyrical beauty,
its curious tenderness of charm--a charm in which the isle itself was
mingled with its buildings. But now, and before my boat had touched
the quay, I saw that the island must be ignored--if possible.

The water with which it is entirely covered during a great part of the
year seems to have cast a blight upon it. The very few palms have a
drooping and tragic air. The ground has a gangrened appearance, and
much of it shows a crawling mass of unwholesome-looking plants, which
seem crouching down as if ashamed of their brutal exposure by the
receded river, and of harsh and yellow-green grass, unattractive to
the eyes. As I stepped on shore I felt as if I were stepping on
disease. But at least there were the buildings undisturbed by any
outrage. Again I turned toward "Pharaoh's Bed," toward the temple
standing apart from it, which already I had seen from the desert, near
Shellal, gleaming with its gracious sand-yellow, lifting its series of
straight lines of masonry above the river and the rocks, looking, from
a distance, very simple, with a simplicity like that of clear water,
but as enticing as the light on the first real day of spring.

I went first to "Pharaoh's Bed."

Imagine a woman with a perfectly lovely face, with features as
exquisitely proportioned as those, say, of Praxiteles's statue of the
Cnidian Aphrodite, for which King Nicomedes was willing to remit the
entire national debt of Cnidus, and with a warmly white rose-leaf
complexion--one of those complexions one sometimes sees in Italian
women, colorless, yet suggestive almost of glow, of purity, with the
flame of passion behind it. Imagine that woman attacked by a malady
which leaves her features exactly as they were, but which changes the
color of her face--from the throat upward to just beneath the nose--
from the warm white to a mottled, greyish hue. Imagine the line that
would seem to be traced between the two complexions--the mottled grey
below the warm white still glowing above. Imagine this, and you have
"Pharaoh's Bed" and the temple of Philae as they are to-day.



"Pharaoh's Bed," which stands alone close to the Nile on the eastern
side of the island, is not one of those rugged, majestic buildings,
full of grandeur and splendor, which can bear, can "carry off," as it
were, a cruelly imposed ugliness without being affected as a whole. It
is, on the contrary, a small, almost an airy, and a femininely perfect
thing, in which a singular loveliness of form was combined with a
singular loveliness of color. The spell it threw over you was not so
much a spell woven of details as a spell woven of divine uniformity.
To put it in very practical language, "Pharaoh's Bed" was "all of a
piece." The form was married to the color. The color seemed to melt
into the form. It was indeed a bed in which the soul that worships
beauty could rest happily entranced. Nothing jarred. Antiquaries say
that apparently this building was left unfinished. That may be so. But
for all that it was one of the most finished things in Egypt,
essentially a thing to inspire within one the "perfect calm that is
Greek." The blighting touch of the Nile, which has changed the
beautiful pale yellow of the stone of the lower part of the building
to a hideous and dreary grey--which made me think of a steel knife on
which liquid has been spilt and allowed to run--has destroyed the
uniformity, the balance, the faultless melody lifted up by form and
color. And so it is with the temple. It is, as it were, cut in two by
the intrusion into it of this hideous, mottled complexion left by the
receded water. Everywhere one sees disease on the walls and columns,
almost blotting out bas-reliefs, giving to their active figures a
morbid, a sickly look. The effect is specially distressing in the open
court that precedes the temple dedicated to the Lady of Philae. In
this court, which is at the southern end of the island, the Nile at
certain seasons is now forced to rise very nearly as high as the
capitals of many of the columns. The consequence of this is that here
the disease seems making rapid strides. One feels it is drawing near
to the heart, and that the poor, doomed invalid may collapse at any

Yes, there is much to make one sad at Philae. But how much of pure
beauty there is left--of beauty that merely protests against any
further outrage!

As there is something epic in the grandeur of the Lotus Hall at
Karnak, so there is something lyrical in the soft charm of the Philae
temple. Certain things or places, certain things in certain places,
always suggest to my mind certain people in whose genius I take
delight--who have won me, and moved me by their art. Whenever I go to
Philae, the name of Shelley comes to me. I scarcely could tell why. I
have no special reason to connect Shelley with Philae. But when I see
that almost airy loveliness of stone, so simply elegant, so, somehow,
spring-like in its pale-colored beauty, its happy, daffodil charm,
with its touch of the Greek--the sensitive hand from Attica stretched
out over Nubia--I always think of Shelley. I think of Shelley the
youth who dived down into the pool so deep that it seemed he was lost
for ever to the sun. I think of Shelley the poet, full of a lyric
ecstasy, who was himself like an embodied

"Longing for something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow."

Lyrical Philae is like a temple of dreams, and of all poets Shelley
might have dreamed the dream and have told it to the world in a song.

For all its solidity, there are a strange lightness and grace in the
temple of Philae; there is an elegance you will not find in the other
temples of Egypt. But it is an elegance quite undefiled by weakness,
by any sentimentality. (Even a building, like a love-lorn maid, can be
sentimental.) Edward FitzGerald once defined taste as the feminine of
genius. Taste prevails in Philae, a certain delicious femininity that
seduces the eyes and the heart of man. Shall we call it the spirit of

I have heard a clever critic and antiquarian declare that he is not
very fond of Philae; that he feels a certain "spuriousness" in the
temple due to the mingling of Greek with Egyptian influences. He may
be right. I am no antiquarian, and, as a mere lover of beauty, I do
not feel this "spuriousness." I can see neither two quarrelling
strengths nor any weakness caused by division. I suppose I see only
the beauty, as I might see only the beauty of a women bred of a
handsome father and mother of different races, and who, not typical of
either, combined in her features and figure distinguishing merits of
both. It is true that there is a particular pleasure which is roused
in us only by the absolutely typical--the completely thoroughbred
person or thing. It may be a pleasure not caused by beauty, and it may
be very keen, nevertheless. When it is combined with the joy roused in
us by all beauty, it is a very pure emotion of exceptional delight.
Philae does not, perhaps, give this emotion. But it certainly has a
lovableness that attaches the heart in a quite singular degree. The
Philae-lover is the most faithful of lovers. The hold of his mistress
upon him, once it has been felt, is never relaxed. And in his
affection for Philae there is, I think, nearly always a rainbow strain
of romance.

When we love anything, we love to be able to say of the object of our
devotion, "There is nothing like it." Now, in all Egypt, and I suppose
in all the world there is nothing just like Philae. There are temples,
yes; but where else is there a bouquet of gracious buildings such as
these gathered in such a holder as this tiny, raft-like isle? And
where else are just such delicate and, as I have said, light and
almost feminine elegance and charm set in the midst of such severe
sterility? Once, beyond Philae, the great Cataract roared down from
the wastes of Nubia into the green fertility of Upper Egypt. It roars
no longer. But still the masses of the rocks, and still the amber and
the yellow sands, and still the iron-colored hills, keep guard round
Philae. And still, despite the vulgar desecration that has turned
Shellal into a workmen's suburb and dowered it with a railway-station,
there is a mystery in Philae, and the sense of isolation that only an
island gives. Even now one can forget in Philae--forget, after a
while, and in certain parts of its buildings, the presence of the grey
disease; forget the threatening of the altruists, who desire to
benefit humanity by clearing as much beauty out of humanity's abiding-
place as possible; forget the fact of the railway, except when the
shriek of the engine floats over the water to one's ears; forget
economic problems, and the destruction that their solving brings upon
the silent world of things whose "use," denied, unrecognized, or
laughed at, to man is in their holy beauty, whose mission lies not
upon the broad highways where tramps the hungry body, but upon the
secret, shadowy byways where glides the hungry soul.

Yes, one can forget even now in the hall of the temple of Isis, where
the capricious graces of color, where, like old and delicious music in
the golden strings of a harp, dwells a something--what is it? A
murmur, or a perfume, or a breathing?--of old and vanished years when
forsaken gods were worshipped. And one can forget in the chapel of
Hathor, on whose wall little Horus is born, and in the grey hounds'
chapel beside it. One can forget, for one walks in beauty.

Lovely are the doorways in Philae, enticing are the shallow steps that
lead one onward and upward; gracious the yellow towers that seem to
smile a quiet welcome. And there is one chamber that is simply a place
of magic--the hall of the flowers.

It is this chamber which always makes me think of Philae as a lovely
temple of dreams, this silent, retired chamber, where some fabled
princess might well have been touched to a long, long sleep of
enchantment, and lain for years upon years among the magical flowers--
the lotus, and the palm, and the papyrus.

In my youth it made upon me an indelible impression. Through
intervening years, filled with many new impressions, many wanderings,
many visions of beauty in other lands, that retired, painted chamber
had not faded from my mind--or shall I say from my heart? There had
seemed to me within it something that was ineffable, as in a lyric of
Shelley's there is something that is ineffable, or in certain pictures
of Boecklin, such as "The Villa by the Sea." And when at last, almost
afraid and hesitating, I came into it once more, I found in it again
the strange spell of old enchantment.

It seems as if this chamber had been imagined by a poet, who had set
it in the centre of the temple of his dreams. It is such a spontaneous
chamber that one can scarcely imagine it more than a day and a night
in the building. Yet in detail it is lovely; it is finished and
strangely mighty; it is a lyric in stone, the most poetical chamber,
perhaps, in the whole of Egypt. For Philae I count in Egypt, though
really it is in Nubia.

One who has not seen Philae may perhaps wonder how a tall chamber of
solid stone, containing heavy and soaring columns, can be like a lyric
of Shelley's, can be exquisitely spontaneous, and yet hold a something
of mystery that makes one tread softly in it, and fear to disturb
within it some lovely sleeper of Nubia, some Princess of the Nile. He
must continue to wonder. To describe this chamber calmly, as I might,
for instance, describe the temple of Derr, would be simply to destroy
it. For things ineffable cannot be fully explained, or not be fully
felt by those the twilight of whose dreams is fitted to mingle with
their twilight. They who are meant to love with ardor /se passionnent
pour la passion/. And they who are meant to take and to keep the
spirit of a dream, whether it be hidden in a poem, or held in the cup
of a flower, or enfolded in arms of stone, will surely never miss it,
even though they can hear roaring loudly above its elfin voice the cry
of directed waters rushing down to Upper Egypt.

How can one disentangle from their tapestry web the different threads
of a spell? And even if one could, if one could hold them up, and
explain, "The cause of the spell is that this comes in contact with
this, and that this, which I show you, blends with, fades into, this,"
how could it advantage any one? Nothing could be made clearer, nothing
be really explained. The ineffable is, and must ever remain, something
remote and mysterious.

And so one may say many things of this painted chamber of Philae, and
yet never convey, perhaps never really know, the innermost cause of
its charm. In it there is obvious beauty of form, and a seizing beauty
of color, beauty of sunlight and shadow, of antique association. This
turquoise blue is enchanting, and Isis was worshipped here. What has
the one to do with the other? Nothing; and yet how much! For is not
each of these facts a thread in the tapestry web of the spell? The
eyes see the rapture of this very perfect blue. The imagination hears,
as if very far off, the solemn chanting of priests and smells the
smoke of strange perfumes, and sees the long, aquiline nose and the
thin, haughty lips of the goddess. And the color becomes strange to
the eyes as well as very lovely, because, perhaps, it was there--it
almost certainly was there--when from Constantinople went forth the
decree that all Egypt should be Christian; when the priests of the
sacred brotherhood of Isis were driven from their temple.

Isis nursing Horus gave way to the Virgin and the Child. But the
cycles spin away down "the ringing grooves of change." From Egypt has
passed away that decreed Christianity. Now from the minaret the
muezzin cries, and in palm-shaded villages I hear the loud hymns of
earnest pilgrims starting on the journey to Mecca. And ever this
painted chamber shelters its mystery of poetry, its mystery of charm.
And still its marvellous colors are fresh as in the far-off pagan
days, and the opening lotus-flowers, and the closed lotus-buds, and
the palm and the papyrus, are on the perfect columns. And their
intrinsic loveliness, and their freshness, and their age, and the
mysteries they have looked on--all these facts are part of the spell
that governs us to-day. In Edfu one is enclosed in a wonderful
austerity. And one can only worship. In Philae one is wrapped in a
radiance of color and one can only dream. For there is coral-pink, and
there a wonderful green, "like the green light that lingers in the
west," and there is a blue as deep as the blue of a tropical sea; and
there are green-blue and lustrous, ardent red. And the odd fantasy in
the coloring, is not that like the fantasy in the temple of a dream?
For those who painted these capitals for the greater glory of Isis did
not fear to depart from nature, and to their patient worship a blue
palm perhaps seemed a rarely sacred thing. And that palm is part of
the spell, and the reliefs upon the walls and even the Coptic crosses
that are cut into the stone.

But at the end, one can only say that this place is indescribable, and
not because it is complex or terrifically grand, like Karnak. Go to it
on a sunlit morning, or stand in it in late afternoon, and perhaps you
will feel that it "suggests" you, and that it carries you away, out of
familiar regions into a land of dreams, where among hidden ways the
soul is lost in magic. Yes, you are gone.

To the right--for one, alas! cannot live in a dream for ever--is a
lovely doorway through which one sees the river. Facing it is another
doorway, showing a fragment of the poor, vivisected island, some
ruined walls, and still another doorway in which, again, is framed the
Nile. Many people have cut their names upon the walls of Philae. Once,
as I sat alone there, I felt strongly attracted to look upward to a
wall, as if some personality, enshrined within the stone, were
watching me, or calling. I looked, and saw written "Balzac."

Philae is the last temple that one visits before he gives himself to
the wildness of the solitudes of Nubia. It stands at the very
frontier. As one goes up the Nile, it is like a smiling adieu from the
Egypt one is leaving. As one comes down, it is like a smiling welcome.
In its delicate charm I feel something of the charm of the Egyptian
character. There are moments, indeed, when I identify Egypt with
Philae. For in Philae one must dream; and on the Nile, too, one must
dream. And always the dream is happy, and shot through with radiant
light--light that is as radiant as the colors in Philae's temple. The
pylons of Ptolemy smile at you as you go up or come down the river.
And the people of Egypt smile as they enter into your dream. A
suavity, too, is theirs. I think of them often as artists, who know
their parts in the dream-play, who know exactly their function, and
how to fulfil it rightly. They sing, while you are dreaming, but it is
an under-song, like the murmur of an Eastern river far off from any
sea. It never disturbs, this music, but it helps you in your dream.
And they are softly gay. And in their eyes there is often the gleam of
sunshine, for they are the children--but not grown men--of the sun.
That, indeed, is one of the many strange things in Egypt--the
youthfulness of its age, the childlikeness of its almost terrible
antiquity. One goes there to look at the oldest things in the world
and to feel perpetually young--young as Philae is young, as a lyric of
Shelley's is young, as all of our day-dreams are young, as the people
of Egypt are young.

Oh, that Egypt could be kept as it is, even as it is now; that Philae
could be preserved even as it is now! The spoilers are there, those
blithe modern spirits, so frightfully clever and capable, so
industrious, so determined, so unsparing of themselves and--of others!
Already they are at work "benefiting Egypt." Tall chimneys begin to
vomit smoke along the Nile. A damnable tram-line for little trolleys
leads one toward the wonderful colossi of Memnon. Close to Kom Ombos
some soul imbued with romance has had the inspiration to set up--a
factory! And Philae--is it to go?

Is beauty then of no value in the world? Is it always to be the prey
of modern progress? Is nothing to be considered sacred; nothing to be
left untouched, unsmirched by the grimy fingers of improvement? I
suppose nothing.

Then let those who still care to dream go now to Philae's painted
chamber by the long reaches of the Nile; go on, if they will, to the
giant forms of Abu-Simbel among the Nubian sands. And perhaps they
will think with me, that in some dreams there is a value greater than
the value that is entered in any bank-book, and they will say, with
me, however uselessly:

"Leave to the world some dreams, some places in which to dream; for if
it needs dams to make the grain grow in the stretches of land that
were barren, and railways and tram-lines, and factory chimneys that
vomit black smoke in the face of the sun, surely it needs also painted
chambers of Philae and the silence that comes down from Isis."



By Old Cairo I do not mean only /le vieux Caire/ of the guide-book,
the little, desolate village containing the famous Coptic church of
Abu Sergius, in the crypt of which the Virgin Mary and Christ are said
to have stayed when they fled to the land of Egypt to escape the fury
of King Herod; but the Cairo that is not new, that is not dedicated
wholly to officialdom and tourists, that, in the midst of changes and
the advance of civilisation--civilisation that does so much harm as
well as so much good, that showers benefits with one hand and defaces
beauty with the other--preserves its immemorial calm or immemorial
turmult; that stands aloof, as stands aloof ever the Eastern from the
Western man, even in the midst of what seems, perhaps, like intimacy;
Eastern to the soul, though the fantasies, the passions, the
vulgarities, the brilliant ineptitudes of the West beat about it like
waves about some unyielding wall of the sea.

When I went back to Egypt, after a lapse of many years, I fled at once
from Cairo, and upon the long reaches of the Nile, in the great spaces
of the Libyan Desert, in the luxuriant palm-grooves of the Fayyum,
among the tamarisk-bushes and on the pale waters of Kurun, I forgot
the changes which, in my brief glimpse of the city and its environs,
had moved me to despondency. But one cannot live in the solitudes for
ever. And at last from Madi-nat-al-Fayyum, with the first pilgrims
starting for Mecca, I returned to the great city, determined to seek
in it once more for the fascinations it used to hold, and perhaps
still held in the hidden ways where modern feet, nearly always in a
hurry, had seldom time to penetrate.

A mist hung over the land. Out of it, with a sort of stern energy,
there came to my ears loud hymns sung by the pilgrim voices--hymns in
which, mingled with the enthusiasm of devotees en route for the
holiest shrine of their faith, there seemed to sound the resolution of
men strung up to confront the fatigues and the dangers of a great
journey through a wild and unknown country. Those hymns led my feet to
the venerable mosques of Cairo, the city of mosques, guided me on my
lesser pilgrimage among the cupolas and the colonnades, where grave
men dream in the silence near marble fountains, or bend muttering
their prayers beneath domes that are dimmed by the ruthless fingers of
Time. In the buildings consecrated to prayer and to meditation I first
sought for the magic that still lurks in the teeming bosom of Cairo.

Long as I had sought it elsewhere, in the brilliant bazaars by day,
and by night in the winding alleys, where the dark-eyed Jews looked
stealthily forth from the low-browed doorways; where the Circassian
girls promenade, gleaming with golden coins and barbaric jewels; where
the air is alive with music that is feverish and antique, and in
strangely lighted interiors one sees forms clad in brilliant
draperies, or severely draped in the simplest pale-blue garments,
moving in languid dances, fluttering painted figures, bending,
swaying, dropping down, like the forms that people a dream.

In the bazaars is the passion for gain, in the alleys of music and
light is the passion for pleasure, in the mosques is the passion for
prayer that connects the souls of men with the unseen but strongly
felt world. Each of these passions is old, each of these passions in
the heart of Islam is fierce. On my return to Cairo I sought for the
hidden fire that is magic in the dusky places of prayer.

A mist lay over the city as I stood in a narrow byway, and gazed up at
a heavy lattice, of which the decayed and blackened wood seemed on
guard before some tragic or weary secret. Before me was the entrance
to the mosque of Ibn-Tulun, older than any mosque in Cairo save only
the mosque of Amru. It is approached by a flight of steps, on each
side of which stand old, impenetrable houses. Above my head, strung
across from one house to the other, were many little red and yellow
flags ornamented with gold lozenges. These were to bear witness that
in a couple of days' time, from the great open place beneath the
citadel of Cairo, the Sacred Carpet was to set out on its long journey
to Mecca. My guide struck on a door and uttered a fierce cry. A small
shutter in the blackened lattice was opened, and a young girl, with
kohl-tinted eyelids, and a brilliant yellow handkerchief tied over her
coarse black hair, leaned out, held a short parley, and vanished,
drawing the shutter to behind her. The mist crept about the tawdry
flags, a heavy door creaked, whined on its hinges, and from the house
of the girl there came an old, fat man bearing a mighty key. In a
moment I was free of the mosque of Ibn-Tulun.

I ascended the steps, passed through a doorway, and found myself on a
piece of waste ground, flanked on the right by an old, mysterious
wall, and on the left by the long wall of the mosque, from which close
to me rose a grey, unornamented minaret, full of the plain dignity of
unpretending age. Upon its summit was perched a large and weary-
looking bird with draggled feathers, which remained so still that it
seemed to be a sad ornament set there above the city, and watching it
for ever with eyes that could not see. At right angles, touching the
mosque, was such a house as one can see only in the East--
fantastically old, fantastically decayed, bleared, discolored, filthy,
melancholy, showing hideous windows, like windows in the slum of a
town set above coal-pits in a colliery district, a degraded house, and
yet a house which roused the imagination and drove it to its work. In
this building once dwelt the High Priest of the mosque. This dwelling,
the ancient wall, the grey minaret with its motionless bird, the
lamentable waste ground at my feet, prepared me rightly to appreciate
the bit of old Cairo I had come to see.

People who are bored by Gothic churches would not love the mosque of
Ibn-Tulun. No longer is it used for worship. It contains no praying
life. Abandoned, bare, and devoid of all lovely ornament, it stands
like some hoary patriarch, naked and calm, waiting its destined end
without impatience and without fear. It is a fatalistic mosque, and is
impressive, like a fatalistic man. The great court of it, three
hundred feet square, with pointed arches supported by piers, double,
and on the side looking toward Mecca quintuple arcades, has a great
dignity of sombre simplicity. Not grace, not a light elegance of
soaring beauty, but massiveness and heavy strength are distinguishing
features of this mosque. Even the octagonal basin and its protecting
cupola that stands in the middle of the court lack the charm that
belongs to so many of the fountains of Cairo. There are two minarets,
the minaret of the bird, and a larger one, approached by a big
stairway up which, so my dragoman told me, a Sultan whose name I have
forgotten loved to ride his favorite horse. Upon the summit of this
minaret I stood for a long time, looking down over the city.

Grey it was that morning, almost as London is grey; but the sounds
that came up softly to my ears out of the mist were not the sounds of
London. Those many minarets, almost like columns of fog rising above
the cupolas, spoke to me of the East even upon this sad and sunless
morning. Once from where I was standing at the time appointed went
forth the call to prayer, and in the barren court beneath me there
were crowds of ardent worshippers. Stern men paced upon the huge
terrace just at my feet fingering their heads, and under that heavy
cupola were made the long ablutions of the faithful. But now no man
comes to this old place, no murmur to God disturbs the heavy silence.
And the silence, and the emptiness, and the greyness under the long
arcades, all seem to make a tremulous proclamation; all seem to
whisper, "I am very old, I am useless, I cumber the earth." Even the
mosque of Amru, which stands also on ground that looks gone to waste,
near dingy and squat houses built with grey bricks, seems less old
than this mosque of Ibn-Tulun. For its long fašade is striped with
white and apricot, and there are lebbek-trees growing in its court
near the two columns between which if you can pass you are assured of
heaven. But the mosque of Ibn-Tulun, seen upon a sad day, makes a
powerful impression, and from the summit of its minaret you are
summoned by the many minarets of Cairo to make the pilgrimage of the
mosques, to pass from the "broken arches" of these Saracenic cloisters
to the "Blue Mosque," the "Red Mosque," the mosques of Mohammed Ali,
of Sultan Hassan, of Kait Bey, of El-Azhar, and so on to the Coptic
church that is the silent centre of "old Cairo." It is said that there
are over four hundred mosques in Cairo. As I looked down from the
minaret of Ibn-Tulun, they called me through the mist that blotted
completely out all the surrounding country, as if it would concentrate
my attention upon the places of prayer during these holy days when the
pilgrims were crowding in to depart with the Holy Carpet. And I went
down by the staircase of the house, and in the mist I made my

As every one who visits Rome goes to St. Peter's, so every one who
visits Cairo goes to the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the citadel, a
gorgeous building in a magnificent situation, the interior of which
always makes me think of Court functions, and of the pomp of life,
rather than of prayer and self-denial. More attractive to me is the
"Blue Mosque," to which I returned again and again, enticed almost as
by the fascination of the living blue of a summer day.

This mosque, which is the mosque of Ibrahim Aga, but which is
familiarly known to its lovers as the "Blue Mosque," lies to the left
of a ramshackle street, and from the outside does not look specially
inviting. Even when I passed through its door, and stood in the court
beyond, at first I felt not its charm. All looked old and rough,
unkempt and in confusion. The red and white stripes of the walls and
the arches of the arcade, the mean little place for ablution--a pipe
and a row of brass taps--led the mind from a Neapolitan ice to a
second-rate school, and for a moment I thought of abruptly retiring
and seeking more splendid precincts. And then I looked across the
court to the arcade that lay beyond, and I saw the exquisite "love-
color" of the marvellous tiles that gives this mosque its name.

The huge pillars of this arcade are striped and ugly, but between them
shone, with an ineffable lustre, a wall of purple and blue, of purple
and blue so strong and yet so delicate that it held the eyes and drew
the body forward. If ever color calls, it calls in the blue mosque of
Ibrahim Aga. And when I had crossed the court, when I stood beside the
pulpit, with its delicious, wooden folding-doors, and studied the
tiles of which this wonderful wall is composed, I found them as lovely
near as they are lovely far off. From a distance they resemble a
Nature effect, are almost like a bit of Southern sea or of sky, a
fragment of gleaming Mediterranean seen through the pillars of a
loggia, or of Sicilian blue watching over Etna in the long summer
days. When one is close to them, they are a miracle of art. The
background of them is a milky white upon which is an elaborate pattern
of purple and blue, generally conventional and representative of no
known object, but occasionally showing tall trees somewhat resembling
cypresses. But it is impossible in words adequately to describe the
effect of these tiles, and of the tiles that line to the very roof the
tomb-house on the right of the court. They are like a cry of ecstasy
going up in this otherwise not very beautiful mosque; they make it
unforgettable, they draw you back to it again and yet again. On the
darkest day of winter they set something of summer there. In the
saddest moment they proclaim the fact that there is joy in the world,
that there was joy in the hearts of creative artists years upon years
ago. If you are ever in Cairo, and sink into depression, go to the
"Blue Mosque" and see if it does not have upon you an uplifting moral
effect. And then, if you like go on from it to the Gamia El Movayad,
sometimes called El Ahmar, "The Red," where you will find greater
glories, though no greater fascination; for the tiles hold their own
among all the wonders of Cairo.

Outside the "Red Mosque," by its imposing and lofty wall, there is
always an assemblage of people, for prayers go up in this mosque,
ablutions are made there, and the floor of the arcade is often covered
with men studying the Koran, calmly meditating, or prostrating
themselves in prayer. And so there is a great coming and going up the
outside stairs and through the wonderful doorway: beggars crouch under
the wall of the terrace; the sellers of cakes, of syrups and lemon-
water, and of the big and luscious watermelons that are so popular in
Cairo, display their wares beneath awnings of orange-colored
sackcloth, or in the full glare of the sun, and, their prayers
comfortably completed or perhaps not yet begun, the worshippers stand
to gossip, or sit to smoke their pipes, before going on their way into
the city or the mosque. There are noise and perpetual movement here.
Stand for a while to gain an impression from them before you mount the
steps and pass into the spacious peace beyond.

Orientals must surely revel in contrasts. There is no tumult like the
tumult in certain of their market-places. There is no peace like the
peace in certain of their mosques. Even without the slippers carefully
tied over your boots you would walk softly, gingerly, in the mosque of
El Movayad, the mosque of the columns and the garden. For once within
the door you have taken wings and flown from the city, you are in a
haven where the most delicious calm seems floating like an atmosphere.
Through a lofty colonnade you come into the mosque, and find yourself
beneath a magnificently ornamental wooden roof, the general effect of
which is of deep brown and gold, though there are deftly introduced
many touches of very fine red and strong, luminous blue. The walls are
covered with gold and superb marbles, and there are many quotations
from the Koran in Arab lettering heavy with gold. The great doors are
of chiseled bronze and of wood. In the distance is a sultan's tomb,
surmounted by a high and beautiful cupola, and pierced with windows of
jeweled glass. But the attraction of this place of prayer comes less
from its magnificence, from the shining of its gold, and the gleaming
of its many-colored marbles, than from its spaciousness, its airiness,
its still seclusion, and its garden. Mohammedans love fountains and
shady places, as can surely love them only those who carry in their
minds a remembrance of the desert. They love to have flowers blowing
beside them while they pray. And with the immensely high and
crenelated walls of this mosque long ago they set a fountain of pure
white marble, covered it with a shelter of limestone, and planted
trees and flowers about it. There beneath palms and tall eucalyptus-
trees even on this misty day of the winter, roses were blooming, pinks
scented the air, and great red flowers, that looked like emblems of
passion, stared upward almost fiercely, as if searching for the sun.
As I stood there among the worshippers in the wide colonnade, near the
exquisitely carved pulpit in the shadow of which an old man who looked
like Abraham was swaying to and fro and whispering his prayers, I
thought of Omar Khayyam and how he would have loved this garden. But
instead of water from the white marble fountain, he would have desired
a cup of wine to drink beneath the boughs of the sheltering trees. And
he could not have joined without doubt or fear in the fervent
devotions of the undoubting men, who came here to steep their wills in
the great will that flowed about them like the ocean about little
islets of the sea.

From the "Red Mosque" I went to the great mosque of El-Azhar, to the
wonderful mosque of Sultan Hassan, which unfortunately was being
repaired and could not be properly seen, though the examination of the
old portal covered with silver, gold, and brass, the general color-
effect of which is a delicious dull green, repaid me for my visit, and
to the exquisitely graceful tomb-mosque of Kait Bey, which is beyond
the city walls. But though I visited these, and many other mosques and
tombs, including the tombs of the Khalifas, and the extremely smart
modern tombs of the family of the present Khedive of Egypt, no
building dedicated to worship, or to the cult of the dead, left a more
lasting impression upon my mind than the Coptic church of Abu Sergius,
or Abu Sargah, which stands in the desolate and strangely antique
quarter called "Old Cairo." Old indeed it seems, almost terribly old.
Silent and desolate is it, untouched by the vivid life of the rich and
prosperous Egypt of to-day, a place of sad dreams, a place of ghosts,
a place of living spectres. I went to it alone. Any companion, however
dreary, would have tarnished the perfection of the impression Old
Cairo and its Coptic church can give to the lonely traveller.

I descended to a gigantic door of palm-wood which was set in an old
brick arch. This door upon the outside was sheeted with iron. When it
opened, I left behind me the world I knew, the world that belongs to
us of to-day, with its animation, its impetus, its flashing changes,
its sweeping hurry and "go." I stepped at once into, surely, some
moldering century long hidden in the dark womb of the forgotten past.
The door of palm-wood closed, and I found myself in a sort of deserted
town, of narrow, empty streets, beetling archways, tall houses built
of grey bricks, which looked as if they had turned gradually grey, as
hair does on an aged head. Very, very tall were these houses. They all
appeared horribly, almost indecently, old. As I stood and stared at
them, I remembered a story of a Russian friend of mine, a landed
proprietor, on whose country estate dwelt a peasant woman who lived to
be over a hundred. Each year when he came from Petersburg, this old
woman arrived to salute him. At last she was a hundred and four, and,
when he left his estate for the winter, she bade him good-bye for
ever. For ever! But, lo! the next year there she still was--one
hundred and five years old, deeply ashamed and full of apologies for
being still alive. "I cannot help it," she said. "I ought no longer to
be here, but it seems I do not know anything. I do not know even how
to die!" The grey, tall houses of Old Cairo do not know how to die. So
there they stand, showing their haggard facades, which are broken by
protruding, worm-eaten, wooden lattices not unlike the shaggy,
protuberant eyebrows which sometimes sprout above bleared eyes that
have seen too much. No one looked out from these lattices. Was there,
could there be, any life behind them? Did they conceal harems of
centenarian women with wrinkled faces, and corrugated necks and hands?
Here and there drooped down a string terminating in a lamp covered
with minute dust, that wavered in the wintry wind which stole
tremulously between the houses. And the houses seemed to be leaning
forward, as if they were fain to touch each other and leave no place
for the wind, as if they would blot out the exiguous alleys so that no
life should ever venture to stir through them again. Did the eyes of
the Virgin Mary, did the baby eyes of the Christ Child, ever gaze upon
these buildings? One could almost believe it. One could almost believe
that already these buildings were there when, fleeing from the wrath
of Herod, Mother and Child sought the shelter of the crypt of Abu

I went on, walking with precaution, and presently I saw a man. He was
sitting collapsed beneath an archway, and he looked older than the
world. He was clad in what seemed like a sort of cataract of multi-
colored rags. An enormous white beard flowed down over his shrunken
breast. His face was a mass of yellow wrinkles. His eyes were closed.
His yellow fingers were twined about a wooden staff. Above his head
was drawn a patched hood. Was he alive or dead? I could not tell, and
I passed him on tiptoe. And going always with precaution between the
tall, grey houses and beneath the lowering arches, I came at last to
the Coptic church.

Near it, in the street, were several Copts--large, fat, yellow-
skinned, apparently sleeping, in attitudes that made them look like
bundles. I woke one up, and asked to see the church. He stared,
changed slowly from a bundle to a standing man, went away and
presently, returning with a key and a pale, intelligent-looking youth,
admitted me into one of the strangest buildings it was ever my lot to

The average Coptic church is far less fascinating than the average
mosque, but the church of Abu Sargah is like no other church that I
visited in Egypt. Its aspect of hoary age makes it strangely, almost
thrillingly impressive. Now and then, in going about the world, one
comes across a human being, like the white-bearded man beneath the
arch, who might be a thousand years old, two thousand, anything, whose
appearance suggests that he or she, perhaps, was of the company which
was driven out of Eden, but that the expulsion was not recorded. And
now and then one happens upon a building that creates the same
impression. Such a building is this church. It is known and recorded
that more than a thousand years ago it had a patriarch whose name was
Shenuti; but it is supposed to have been built long before that time,
and parts of it look as if they had been set up at the very beginning
of things. The walls are dingy and whitewashed. The wooden roof is
peaked, with many cross-beams. High up on the walls are several small
square lattices of wood. The floor is of discolored stone. Everywhere
one sees wood wrought into lattices, crumbling carpets that look
almost as frail and brittle and fatigued as wrappings of mummies, and
worn-out matting that would surely become as the dust if one set his
feet hard upon it. The structure of the building is basilican, and it
contains some strange carvings of the Last Supper, the Nativity, and
St. Demetrius. Around the nave there are monolithic columns of white
marble, and one column of the red and shining granite that is found in
such quantities at Assuan. There are three altars in three chapels
facing toward the East. Coptic monks and nuns are renowned for their
austerity of life, and their almost fierce zeal in fasting and in
prayer, and in Coptic churches the services are sometimes so long that
the worshippers, who are almost perpetually standing, use crutches for
their support. In their churches there always seems to me to be a cold
and austere atmosphere, far different from the atmosphere of the
mosques or of any Roman Catholic church. It sometimes rather repels
me, and generally make me feel either dull or sad. But in this
immensely old church of Abu Sargah the atmosphere of melancholy aids
the imagination.

In Coptic churches there is generally a great deal of woodwork made
into lattices, and into the screens which mark the divisions, usually
four, but occasionally five, which each church contains, and, which
are set apart for the altar, for the priests, singers, and
ministrants, for the male portion of the congregation, and for the
women, who sit by themselves. These divisions, so different from the
wide spaciousness and airiness of the mosques, where only pillars and
columns partly break up the perspective, give to Coptic buildings an
air of secrecy and of mystery, which, however, is often rather
repellent than alluring. In the high wooden lattices there are narrow
doors, and in the division which contains the altar the door is
concealed by a curtain embroidered with a large cross. The Mohammedans
who created the mosques showed marvellous taste. Copts are often
lacking in taste, as they have proved here and there in Abu Sargah.
Above one curious and unlatticed screen, near to a matted dais, droops
a hideous banner, red, purple, and yellow, with a white cross. Peeping
in, through an oblong aperture, one sees a sort of minute circus, in
the form of a half-moon, containing a table with an ugly red-and-white
striped cloth. There the Eucharist, which must be preceded by
confession, is celebrated. The pulpit is of rosewood, inlaid with
ivory and ebony, and in what is called the "haikal-screen" there are
some fine specimens of carved ebony.

As I wandered about over the tattered carpets and the crumbling
matting, under the peaked roof, as I looked up at the flat-roofed
galleries, or examined the sculpture and ivory mosaics that, bleared
by the passing of centuries, seemed to be fading away under my very
eyes, as upon every side I was confronted by the hoary wooden lattices
in which the dust found a home and rested undisturbed, and as I
thought of the narrow alleys of grey and silent dwellings through
which I had come to this strange and melancholy "Temple of the
Father," I seemed to feel upon my breast the weight of the years that
had passed since pious hands erected this home of prayer in which now
no one was praying. But I had yet to receive another and a deeper
impression of solemnity and heavy silence. By a staircase I descended
to the crypt, which lies beneath the choir of the church, and there,
surrounded by columns of venerable marble, beside an altar, I stood on
the very spot where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary soothed
the Christ Child to sleep in the dark night. And, as I stood there, I
felt that the tradition was a true one, and that there indeed had
stayed the wondrous Child and the Holy Mother long, how long ago.

The pale, intelligent Coptic youth, who had followed me everywhere,
and who now stood like a statue gazing upon me with his lustrous eyes,
murmured in English, "This is a very good place; this most interestin'
place in Cairo."

Certainly it is a place one can never forget. For it holds in its
dusty arms--what? Something impalpable, something ineffable, something
strange as death, spectral, cold, yet exciting, something that seems
to creep into it out of the distant past and to whisper: "I am here. I
am not utterly dead. Still I have a voice and can murmur to you, eyes
and can regard you, a soul and can, if only for a moment, be your
companion in this sad, yet sacred, place."

Contrast is the salt, the pepper, too, of life, and one of the great
joys of travel is that at will one can command contrast. From silence
one can plunge into noise, from stillness one can hasten to movement,
from the strangeness and the wonder of the antique past one can step
into the brilliance, the gaiety, the vivid animation of the present.
From Babylon one can go to Bulak; and on to Bab Zouweleh, with its
crying children, its veiled women, its cake-sellers, its fruiterers,
its turbaned Ethiopians, its black Nubians, and almost fair Egyptians;
one can visit the bazaars, or on a market morning spend an hour at
Shareh-el-Gamaleyeh, watching the disdainful camels pass, soft-footed,
along the shadowy streets, and the flat-nosed African negroes, with
their almost purple-black skins, their bulging eyes, in which yellow
lights are caught, and their huge hands with turned-back thumbs, count
their gains, or yell their disappointment over a bargain from which
they have come out not victors, but vanquished. If in Cairo there are
melancholy, and silence, and antiquity, in Cairo may be found also
places of intense animation, of almost frantic bustle, of uproar that
cries to heaven. To Bulak still come the high-prowed boats of the
Nile, with striped sails bellying before a fair wind, to unload their
merchandise. From the Delta they bring thousands of panniers of fruit,
and from Upper Egypt and from Nubia all manner of strange and precious
things which are absorbed into the great bazaars of the city, and are
sold to many a traveller at prices which, to put it mildly, bring to
the sellers a good return. For in Egypt if one leave his heart, he
leaves also not seldom his skin. The goblin men of the great goblin
market of Cairo take all, and remain unsatisfied and calling for more.
I said, in a former chapter, that no fierce demands for money fell
upon my ears. But I confess, when I said it, that I had forgotten
certain bazaars of Cairo.

But what matters it? He who has drunk Nile waters must return. The
golden country calls him; the mosques with their marble columns, their
blue tiles, their stern-faced worshippers; the narrow streets with
their tall houses, their latticed windows, their peeping eyes looking
down on the life that flows beneath and can never be truly tasted; the
Pyramids with their bases in the sand and their pointed summits
somewhere near the stars; the Sphinx with its face that is like the
enigma of human life; the great river that flows by the tombs and the
temples; the great desert that girdles it with a golden girdle.

Egypt calls--even across the space of the world; and across the space
of the world he who knows it is ready to come, obedient to its
summons, because in thrall to the eternal fascination of the "land of
sand, and ruins, and gold"; the land of the charmed serpent, the land
of the afterglow, that may fade away from the sky above the mountains
of Libya, but that fades never from the memory of one who has seen it
from the base of some great column, or the top of some mighty pylon;
the land that has a spell--wonderful, beautiful Egypt.


Back to Full Books