CHAPTER XII. IN THE TEMPLE OF THE GODDESS OF LOVE AND JOY
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. Our way lies over a fertile soil, saturated with vital substances - some paradise for beasts no doubt, for they swarm on every side: flocks of goats with a thousand bleating kids; she-asses with their frisking young; cows and cow-buffaloes feeding their calves; all turned loose among the crops, to browse at their leisure, as if there were here a superabundance of the riches of the soil.
What country is this that shows no sign of human habitation, that knows no village, nor any distant spire? The crops are like ours at home - wheat, lucerne, and the flowering bean that perfumes the air with its white blossoms. But there is an excess of light in the sky and, in the distance, an extraordinary clearness. And then these fertile plains, that might be those of some "Promised Land," seem to be bounded far away, on left and right, by two parallel stone walls, two chains of rose-coloured mountains, whose aspect is obviously desertlike. Besides, amongst the numerous animals that are familiar, there are camels, feeding their strange nurslings that look like four- legged ostriches. And finally some peasants appear beyond in the cornfields; they are veiled in long black draperies. It is the East then, an African land, or some oasis of Arabia?
The sun at this moment is hidden from us by a band of clouds, that stretches, right above our head, from one end of the sky to the other, like a long skein of white wool. It is alone in the blue void, and seems to make more peaceful, and even a little mysterious, the wonderful light of the fields we traverse - these fields intoxicated with life and vibrant with the music of birds; while, by contrast, the distant landscape, unshaded by clouds, is resplendent with a more incisive clearness and the desert beyond seems deluged with rays.
The pathway that we have been following, ill defined as it is in the grassy fields, leads us at length under a large ruinous portico - a relic of goodness knows what olden days - which still rises here, quite isolated, altogether strange and unexpected, in the midst of the green expanse of pasture and tillage. We had seen it from a great distance, so pure and clear is the air; and in approaching it we perceive that it is colossal, and in relief on its lintel is designed a globe with two long wings outspread symmetrically.
It behoves us now to make obeisance with almost religious reverence, for this winged disc is a symbol which gives at length an indication of the place immediate and absolute. It is Egypt, the country - Egypt, our ancient mother. And there before us must once have stood a temple reverenced of the people, or some great vanished town; its fragments of columns and sculptured capitals are strewn about in the fields of lucerne. How inexplicable it seems that this land of ancient splendours, which never ceased indeed to be nutritive and prodigiously fertile, should have returned, for some hundreds of years now, to the humble pastoral life of the peasants.
Through the green crops and the assembled herds our pathway seems to lead to a kind of hill rising alone in the midst of the plains - a hill which is neither of the same colour nor the same nature as the mountains of the surrounding deserts. Behind us the portico recedes little by little in the distance; its tall imposing silhouette, as mournful and solitary, throws an infinite sadness on this sea of meadows, which spread their peace where once was a centre of magnificence.
The wind now rises in sharp, lashing gusts - the wind of Egypt that never seems to fall, and is bitter and wintry for all the burning of the sun. The growing corn bends before it, showing the gloss of its young quivering leaves, and the herded beasts move close to one another and turn their backs to the squall.
As we draw nearer to this singular hill it is revealed as a mass of ruins. And the ruins are all of a kind, of a brownish-red. They are the remains of the colonial towns of the Romans, which subsisted here for some two or three hundred years (an almost negligible moment of time in the long history of Egypt), and then fell to pieces, to become in time mere shapeless mounds on the fertile margins of the Nile and sometimes even in the submerging sands.
A heap of little reddish bricks that once were fashioned into houses; a heap of broken jars or amphorae - myriads of them - that served to carry the water from the old nourishing river; and the remains of walls, repaired at diverse epochs, where stones inscribed with hieroglyphs lie upside down against fragments of Grecian obelisks or Coptic sculptures or Roman capitals. In our countries, where the past is of yesterday, we have nothing resembling such a chaos of dead things.
Nowadays the sanctuary is reached through a large cutting in this hill of ruins; incredible heaps of bricks and broken pottery enclose it on all sides like a jealous rampart. Until recently indeed they covered it almost to its roof. From the very first its appearance is disconcerting: it is so grand, so austere and gloomy. A strange dwelling, to be sure, for the Goddess of Love and Joy. It seems more fit to be the home of the Prince of Darkness and of Death. A severe doorway, built of gigantic stones and surmounted by a winged disc, opens on to an asylum of religious mystery, on to depths where massive columns disappear in the darkness of deep night.