Orient

A monotonous chant on three notes, which must date from the first Pharaohs, may still be heard in our days on the banks of the Nile, from the Delta as far as Nubia. At different places along the river, half-made men, with torsos of bronze and voices all alike, intone it in the morning when they commence their endless labours and continue it throughout the day, until the evening brings repose.

Whoever has journeyed in a dahabiya up the old river will remember this song of the water-drawers, with its accompaniment, in slow cadence, of creakings of wet wood.

We are making our way through the fields of Abydos in the dazzling splendour of the forenoon, having come, like so many pilgrims of old, from the banks of the Nile to visit the sanctuaries of Osiris, which lie beyond the green plains, on the edge of the desert.

Some thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our geological period, when the continents had taken, in the last great upheaval, almost the forms by which we now know them, and when the rivers began to trace their hesitating courses, it happened that the rains of a whole watershed of Africa were precipitated in one formidable torrent across the uninhabitable region which stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and is called the region of the deserts.

It is the month of March, but as gay and splendid as in our June. Around us are fields of corn, of lucerne, and the flowering bean. And the air is full of restless birds, singing deliriously for very joy in the voluptuous business of their nests and coveys.

The waters of the Nile being already low my dahabiya - delayed by strandings - had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored ourselves, as the darkness began to fall, at a casual spot on the bank.

"We are quite near," the pilot had told me before departing to make his evening prayer; "in an hour, to-morrow, we shall be there."

An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud; a dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with gold, it leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of remote ages, of things destroyed; a dust that is here continually - of which the gold at this moment fades to green at the zenith, but flames and glistens in the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which marks the end of the day's decline, and the still burning globe of the sun, quite low down in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the conflagration of the evening.

The feeling, almost, that you have grown suddenly smaller by entering there, that you are dwarfed to less than human size - to such an extent do the proportions of these ruins seem to crush you - and the illusion, also, that the light, instead of being extinguished with the evening, has only changed its colour, and become blue: that is what one experiences on a clear Egyptian night, in walking between the colonnades of the great temple at Thebes.

It is two o'clock in the afternoon. A white angry fire pours from the sky, which is pale from excess of light. A sun inimical to the men of our climate scorches the enormous fossil which, crumbling in places, is all that remains of Thebes and which lies there like the carcass of a gigantic beast that has been dead for thousands of years, but is too massive ever to be annihilated.

by Pierre Loti

Translated from the French by W. P. Baines

 

King Amenophis II. has resumed his receptions, which he found himself obliged to suspend for three thousand, three hundred and some odd years, by reason of his decease. They are very well attended; court dress is not insisted upon, and the Grand Master of ceremonies is not above taking a tip. He holds them every morning in the winter from eight o'clock, in the bowels of a mountain in the desert of Libya; and if he rests himself during the remainder of the day it is only because, as soon as midday sounds, they turn off the electric light.

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