CHAPTER XIV. A TWENTIETH-CENTURY EVENING AT THEBES
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.
This setting sun illumines with splendour a silent chaos of granite, which is not that of the slipping of mountains, but that of ruins. And of such ruins as, to our eyes unaccustomed hereditarily to proportions so gigantic, seem superhuman. In places, huge masses of carven stone - pylons - still stand upright, rising like hills. Others are crumbling in all directions in bewildering cataracts of stone. It is difficult to conceive how these things, so massive that they might have seemed eternal, could come to suffer such an utter ruin. Fragments of columns, fragments of obelisks, broken by downfalls of which the mere imagination is awful, heads and head-dresses of giant divinities, all lie higgledy-piggledy in a disorder beyond possible redress. Nowhere surely on our earth does the sun in his daily revolution cast his light on such debris as this, on such a litter of vanished palaces and dead colossi.
It was even here, seven or eight thousand years ago, under this pure crystal sky, that the first awakening of human thought began. Our Europe then was still sleeping, wrapped in the mantle of its damp forests; sleeping that sleep which still had thousands of years to run. Here, a precocious humanity, only recently emerged from the Age of Stone, that earliest form of all, an infant humanity, which saw massively on its issue from the massiveness of the original matter, conceived and built terrible sanctuaries for gods, at first dreadful and vague, such as its nascent reason allowed it to conceive them. Then the first megalithic blocks were erected; then began that mad heaping up and up, which was to last nearly fifty centuries; and temples were built above temples, palaces over palaces, each generation striving to outdo its predecessor by a more titanic grandeur.
Afterwards, four thousand years ago, Thebes was in the height of her glory, encumbered with gods and with magnificence, the focus of the light of the world in the most ancient historic periods; while our Occident was still asleep and Greece and Assyria were scarcely awakened. Only in the extreme East, a humanity of a different race, the yellow people, called to follow in totally different ways, was fixing, so that they remain even to our day, the oblique lines of its angular roofs and the rictus of its monsters.
The men of Thebes, if they still saw too massively and too vastly, at least saw straight; they saw calmly, at the same time as they saw forever. Their conceptions, which had begun to inspire those of Greece, were afterwards in some measure to inspire our own. In religion, in art, in beauty under all its aspects, they were as much our ancestors as were the Aryans.
Later again, sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, in one of the apogees of the town which, in the course of its interminable duration, experienced so many fluctuations, some ostentatious kings thought fit to build on this ground, already covered with temples, that which still remains the most arresting marvel of the ruins: the hypostyle hall, dedicated to the God Amen, with its forest of columns, as monstrous as the trunk of the baobab and as high as towers, compared with which the pillars of our cathedrals are utterly insignificant. In those days the same gods reigned at Thebes as three thousand years before, but in the interval they had been transformed little by little in accordance with the progressive development of human thought, and Amen, the host of this prodigious hall, asserted himself more and more as the sovereign master of life and eternity. Pharaonic Egypt was really tending, in spite of some revolts, towards the notion of a divine unity; even, one might say, to the notion of a supreme pity, for she already had her Apis, emanating from the All- Powerful, born of a virgin mother, and come humbly to the earth in order to make acquaintance with suffering.
After Seti I. and the Ramses had built, in honour of Amen, this temple, which, beyond all doubt, is the grandest and most durable in the world, men still continued for another fifteen centuries to heap up in its neighbourhood those blocks of granite and marble and sandstone, whose enormity now amazes us. Even for the invaders of Egypt, the Greeks and Romans, this old ancestral town of towns remained imposing and unique. They repaired its ruins, and built here temple after temple, in a style which hardly ever changes. Even in the ages of decadence everything that raised itself from the old, sacred soil, seemed to be impregnated a little with the ancient grandeur.
And it was only when the early Christians ruled here, and after them the Moslem iconoclasts, that the destruction became final. To these new believers, who, in their simplicity, imagined themselves to be possessed of the ultimate religious formula and to know by His right name the great Unknowable, Thebes became the haunt of "false gods," the abomination of abominations, which it behoved them to destroy.