CHAPTER XIII. MODERN LUXOR
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."
And the gentle night descended upon us in this spot which did not seem to differ at all from so any others where, for a month past now, we had moored our boat at hazard to await the daybreak. On the banks were dark confused masses of foliage, above which here and there a high date-palm outlined its black plumes. The air was filled with the multitudinous chirpings of the crickets of Upper Egypt, which make their music here almost throughout the year in the odorous warmth of the grass. And, presently, in the midst of the silence, rose the cries of the night birds, like the mournful mewings of cats. And that was all - save for the infinite calm of the desert that is always present, dominating everything, although scarcely noticed and, as it were, latent.
And this morning, at the rising of the sun, is pure and splendid as all other mornings. A tint of rosy coral comes gradually to life on the summit of the Libyan mountains, standing out from the gridelin shadows which, in the heavens, were the rearguard of the night.
But my eyes, grown accustomed during the last few weeks to this glorious spectacle of the dawn, turn themselves, as if by force of some attraction, towards a strange and quite unusual thing, which, less than a mile away along the river, on the Arabian bank, rises upright in the midst of the mournful plains. At first it looks like a mass of towering rocks, which in this hour of twilight magic have taken on a pale violet colour, and seem almost transparent. And the sun, scarcely emerged from the desert, lights them in a curious gradation, and orders their contours with a fringe of fresh rose- colour. And they are not rocks, in fact, for as we look more closely, they show us lines symmetrical and straight. Not rocks, but architectural masses, tremendous and superhuman, placed there in attitudes of quasi-eternal stability. And out of them rise the points of two obelisks, sharp as the blade of a lance. And then, at once, I understand - Thebes!
Thebes! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it was so near. But Thebes assuredly it is, for nothing else in the world could produce such an apparition. And I salute with a kind of shudder of respect this unique and sovereign ruin, which had haunted me for many years, but which until now life had not left me time to visit.
And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of the royal town, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous palace which the rising sun has just disclosed to us.
And while my equipage of bronze - intoning that song, as old as Egypt and everlastingly the same, which seems to help the men in their arduous work - is busy unfastening the chain which binds us to the bank, I continue to watch the distant apparition. It emerges gradually from the light morning mists which, perhaps, made it seem even larger than it is. The clear light of the ascending sun shows it now in detail; and reveals it as all battered, broken and ruinous in the midst of a silent plain, on the yellow carpet of the desert. And how this sun, rising in its clear splendour, seems to crush it with its youth and stupendous duration. This same sun had attained to its present round form, had acquired the clear precision of its disc, and begun its daily promenade over the country of the sands, countless centuries of centuries, before it saw, as it might be yesterday, this town of Thebes arise; an attempt at magnificence which seemed to promise for the human pygmies a sufficiently interesting future, but which, in the event, we have not been able even to equal. And it proved, too, a thing quite puny and derisory, since here it is laid low, after having subsisted barely four negligible thousands of years.
An hour later we arrive at Luxor, and what a surprise awaits us there!
The thing which dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six miles away, is the Winter Palace, a hasty modern production which has grown on the border of the Nile during the past year: a colossal hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the admirable Pharaonic Temple, its impudent facade rises there, painted a dirty yellow. One such thing, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns admire themselves in vain in the waters of the river. It is the end of Luxor.
And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the opposite bank seems so absolutely desertlike, with its stretches of golden sand and, on the horizon, its mountains of the colour of glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.
Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats, a sort of two or three storeyed barracks, which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo to the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos make an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my dahabiya, where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to disturb me?
We can now see nothing of the palaces of Thebes, whither I am to repair in the evening. We are farther from them than we were last night. The apparition during our morning's journey had slowly receded in the plains flooded by sunlight. And then the Winter Palace and the new boats shut out the view.