The Spell of Egypt

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Author: Robert Smythe Hichens

VIII Luxor

Upon the wall of the great court of Amenhotep III. in the temple of Luxor there is a delicious dancing procession in honor of Rameses II. It is very funny and very happy; full of the joy of life—a sort of radiant cake-walk of old Egyptian days. How supple are these dancers! They seem to have no bones. One after another they come in line upon the mighty wall, and each one bends backward to the knees of the one who follows. As I stood and looked at them for the first time, almost I heard the twitter of flutes, the rustic wail of the African hautboy, the monotonous boom of the derabukkeh, cries of a far-off gaiety such as one often hears from the Nile by night. But these cries came down the long avenues of the centuries; this gaiety was distant in the vasty halls of the long-dead years. Never can I think of Luxor without thinking of those happy dancers, without thinking of the life that goes in the sun on dancing feet.

There are a few places in the world that one associates with happiness, that one remembers always with a smile, a little thrill at the heart that whispers "There joy is." Of these few places Luxor is one—Luxor the home of sunshine, the suave abode of light, of warmth, of the sweet days of gold and sheeny, golden sunsets, of silver, shimmering nights through which the songs of the boatmen of the Nile go floating to the courts and the tombs of Thebes. The roses bloom in Luxor under the mighty palms. Always surely beneath the palms there are the roses. And the lateen-sails come up the Nile, looking like white-winged promises of future golden days. And at dawn one wakes with hope and hears the songs of the dawn; and at noon one dreams of the happiness to come; and at sunset one is swept away on the gold into the heart of the golden world; and at night one looks at the stars, and each star is a twinkling hope. Soft are the airs of Luxor; there is no harshness in the wind that stirs the leaves of the palms. And the land is steeped in light. From Luxor one goes with regret. One returns to it with joy on dancing feet.

One day I sat in the temple, in the huge court with the great double row of columns that stands on the banks of the Nile and looks so splendid from it. The pale brown of the stone became almost yellow in the sunshine. From the river, hidden from me stole up the songs of the boatmen. Nearer at hand I heard pigeons cooing, cooing in the sun, as if almost too glad, and seeking to manifest their gladness. Behind me, through the columns, peeped some houses of the village: the white home of Ibrahim Ayyad, the perfect dragoman, grandson of Mustapha Aga, who entertained me years ago, and whose house stood actually within the precincts of the temple; houses of other fortunate dwellers in Luxor whose names I do not know. For the village of Luxor crowds boldly about the temple, and the children play in the dust almost at the foot of the obelisks and statues. High on a brown hump of earth a buffalo stood alone, languishing serenely in the sun, gazing at me through the columns with light eyes that were full of a sort of folly of contentment. Some goats tripped by, brown against the brown stone—the dark brown earth of the native houses. Intimate life was here, striking the note of coziness of Luxor. Here was none of the sadness and the majesty of Denderah. Grand are the ruins of Luxor, noble is the line of columns that boldly fronts the Nile, but Time has given them naked to the air and to the sun, to children and to animals. Instead of bats, the pigeons fly about them. There is no dreadful darkness in their sanctuaries. Before them the life of the river, behind them the life of the village flows and stirs. Upon them looks down the Minaret of Abu Haggag; and as I sat in the sunshine, the warmth of which began to lessen, I saw upon its lofty circular balcony the figure of the muezzin. He leaned over, bending toward the temple and the statues of Rameses II. and the happy dancers on the wall. He opened his lips and cried to them:

"God is great. God is great . . . I bear witness that there is no god but God. . . . I bear witness that Mohammed is the Apostle of God. . . . Come to prayer! Come to prayer! . . . God is great. God is great. There is no god but God."

He circled round the minaret. He cried to the Nile. He cried to the Colossi sitting in their plain, and to the yellow precipices of the mountains of Libya. He cried to Egypt:

"Come to prayer! Come to prayer! There is no god but God. There is no god but God."

The days of the gods were dead, and their ruined temple echoed with the proclamation of the one god of the Moslem world. "Come to prayer! Come to prayer!" The sun began to sink.

"Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me."

The voice of the muezzin died away. There was a silence; and then, as if in answer to the cry from the minaret, I heard the chime of the angelus bell from the Catholic church of Luxor.

"Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark."

I sat very still. The light was fading; all the yellow was fading, too, from the columns and the temple walls. I stayed till it was dark; and with the dark the old gods seemed to resume their interrupted sway. And surely they, too, called to prayer. For do not these ruins of old Egypt, like the muezzin upon the minaret, like the angelus bell in the church tower, call one to prayer in the night? So wonderful are they under stars and moon that they stir the fleshly and the worldly desires that lie like drifted leaves about the reverence and the aspiration that are the hidden core of the heart. And it is released from its burden; and it awakes and prays.

Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khuns, the king of the gods, his wife, mother of gods, and the moon god, were the Theban triad to whom the holy buildings of Thebes on the two banks of the Nile were dedicated; and this temple of Luxor, the "House of Amun in the Southern Apt," was built fifteen hundred years before Christ by Amenhotep III. Rameses II., that vehement builder, added to it immensely. One walks among his traces when one walks in Luxor. And here, as at Denderah, Christians have let loose the fury that should have had no place in their religion. Churches for their worship they made in different parts of the temple, and when they were not praying, they broke in pieces statues, defaced bas-reliefs, and smashed up shrines with a vigor quite as great as that displayed in preservation by Christians of to-day. Now time has called a truce. Safe are the statues that are left. And day by day two great religions, almost as if in happy brotherly love, send forth their summons by the temple walls. And just beyond those walls, upon the hill, there is a Coptic church. Peace reigns in happy Luxor. The lion lies down with the lamb, and the child, if it will, may harmlessly put its hand into the cockatrice’s den.

Perhaps because it is so surrounded, so haunted by life and familiar things, because the pigeons fly about it, the buffalo stares into it, the goats stir up the dust beside its columns, the twittering voices of women make a music near its courts, many people pay little heed to this great temple, gain but a small impression from it. It decorates the bank of the Nile. You can see it from the dahabiyehs. For many that is enough. Yet the temple is a noble one, and, for me, it gains a definite attraction all its own from the busy life about it, the cheerful hum and stir. And if you want fully to realize its dignity, you can always visit it by night. Then the cries from the village are hushed. The houses show no lights. Only the voices from the Nile steal up to the obelisk of Rameses, to the pylon from which the flags of Thebes once flew on festal days, to the shrine of Alexander the Great, with its vultures and its stars, and to the red granite statues of Rameses and his wives.

These last are as expressive as and of course more definite than my dancers. They are full of character. They seem to breathe out the essence of a vanished domesticity. Colossal are the statues of the king, solid, powerful, and tremendous, boldly facing the world with the calm of one who was thought, and possibly thought himself, to be not much less than a deity. And upon each pedestal, shrinking delicately back, was once a little wife. Some little wives are left. They are delicious in their modesty. Each stands away from the king, shyly, respectfully. Each is so small as to be below his downstretched arm. Each, with a surely furtive gesture, reaches out her right hand, and attains the swelling calf of her noble husband’s leg. Plump are their little faces, but not bad-looking. One cannot pity the king. Nor does one pity them. For these were not "Les desenchantees," the restless, sad-hearted women of an Eastern world that knows too much. Their longings surely cannot have been very great. Their world was probably bounded by the calf of Rameses’s leg. That was "the far horizon" of the little plump-faced wives.

The happy dancers and the humble wives, they always come before me with the temple of Luxor—joy and discretion side by side. And with them, to my ears, the two voices seem to come, muezzin and angelus bell, mingling not in war, but peace. When I think of this temple, I think of its joy and peace far less than of its majesty.

And yet it is majestic. Look at it, as I have often done, toward sunset from the western bank of the Nile, or climb the mound beyond its northern end, where stands the grand entrance, and you realize at once its nobility and solemn splendor. From the /Loulia’s/ deck it was a procession of great columns; that was all. But the decorative effect of these columns, soaring above the river and its vivid life, is fine.

By day all is turmoil on the river-bank. Barges are unloading, steamers are arriving, and throngs of donkey-boys and dragomans go down in haste to meet them. Servants run to and fro on errands from the many dahabiyehs. Bathers leap into the brown waters. The native craft pass by with their enormous sails outspread to catch the wind, bearing serried mobs of men, and black-robed women, and laughing, singing children. The boatmen of the hotels sing monotonously as they lounge in the big, white boats waiting for travellers to Medinet-Abu, to the Ramesseum, to Kurna, and the tombs. And just above them rise the long lines of columns, ancient, tranquil, and remote—infinitely remote, for all their nearness, casting down upon the sunlit gaiety the long shadow of the past.

From the edge of the mound where stands the native village the effect of the temple is much less decorative, but its detailed grandeur can be better grasped from there; for from there one sees the great towers of the propylon, two rows of mighty columns, the red granite Obelisk of Rameses the great, and the black granite statues of the king. On the right of the entrance a giant stands, on the left one is seated, and a little farther away a third emerges from the ground, which reaches to its mighty breast.

And there the children play perpetually. And there the Egyptians sing their serenades, making the pipes wail and striking the derabukkeh; and there the women gossip and twitter like the birds. And the buffalo comes to take his sun-bath; and the goats and the curly, brown sheep pass in sprightly and calm processions. The obelisk there, like its brother in Paris, presides over a cheerfulness of life; but it is a life that seems akin to it, not alien from it. And the king watches the simplicity of this keen existence of Egypt of to-day far up the Nile with a calm that one does not fear may be broken by unsympathetic outrage, or by any vision of too perpetual foreign life. For the tourists each year are but an episode in Upper Egypt. Still the shadoof-man sings his ancient song, violent and pathetic, bold as the burning sun-rays. Still the fellaheen plough with the camel yoked with the ox. Still the women are covered with protective amulets and hold their black draperies in their mouths. The intimate life of the Nile remains the same. And that life obelisk and king have known for how many, many years!

And so I love to think of this intimacy of life about the temple of the happy dancers and the humble little wives, and it seems to me to strike the keynote of the golden coziness of Luxor.

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Chicago: Robert Smythe Hichens, "VIII Luxor," The Spell of Egypt, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. Oliver Elton in The Spell of Egypt (New York: The Century Co., 1911), Original Sources, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYHM5T5U4PIUA9A.

MLA: Hichens, Robert Smythe. "VIII Luxor." The Spell of Egypt, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by Oliver Elton, in The Spell of Egypt, New York, The Century Co., 1911, Original Sources. 23 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYHM5T5U4PIUA9A.

Harvard: Hichens, RS, 'VIII Luxor' in The Spell of Egypt, ed. and trans. . cited in 1911, The Spell of Egypt, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CYHM5T5U4PIUA9A.