CHAPTER XV. THEBES BY NIGHT
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.
The place is, moreover, so singular and so terrible that its mere name would at once cast a spell upon the spirit, even if one were ignorant of the place itself. The hypostyle of the temple of the God Amen - that could be no other thing but one. For this hall is unique in the world, in the same way as the Grotto of Fingal and the Himalayas are unique.
To wander absolutely alone at night in Thebes requires during the winter a certain amount of stratagem and a knowledge of the routine of the tourists. It is necessary, first of all, to choose a night on which the moon rises late and then, having entered before the close of the day, to escape the notice of the Bedouin guards who shut the gates at nightfall. Thus have I waited with the patience of a stone Osiris, till the grand transformation scene of the setting of the sun was played out once more upon the ruins. Thebes, which, during the day, is almost animate by reason of the presence of the visitors and the gangs of fellahs who, singing the while, are busy at the diggings and the clearing away of the rubbish, has emptied itself little by little, while the blue shadows were mounting from the base of the monstrous sanctuaries. I watched the people moving in a long row, like a trail of ants, towards the western gate between the pylons of the Ptolemies, and the last of them had disappeared before the rosy light died away on the topmost points of the obelisks.
It seemed as if the silence and the night arrived together from beyond the Arabian desert, advanced together across the plain, spreading out like a rapid oil-stain; then gained the town from east to west, and rose rapidly from the ground to the very summits of the temples. And this march of the darkness was infinitely solemn.
For the first few moments, indeed, you might imagine that it was going to be an ordinary night such as we know in our climate, and a sense of uneasiness takes hold of you in the midst of this confusion of enormous stones, which in the darkness would become a quite inextricable maze. Oh! the horror of being lost in those ruins of Thebes and not being able to see! But in the event the air preserved its transparency to such a degree, and the stars began soon to scintillate so brightly that the surrounding things could be distinguished almost as well as in the daytime.
Indeed, now that the time of transition between the day and night has passed, the eyes grow accustomed to the strange, blue, persistent clearness so that you seem suddenly to have acquired the pupils of a cat; and the ultimate effect is merely as if you saw through a smoked glass which changed all the various shades of this reddish-coloured country into one uniform tint of blue.
Behold me then, for some two or three hours, alone among the temples of the Pharaohs. The tourists, whom the carriages and donkeys are at this moment taking back to the hotels of Luxor, will not return till very late, when the full moon will have risen and be shedding its clear light upon the ruins. My post, while I waited, was high up among the ruins on the margin of the sacred Lake of Osiris, the still and enclosed water of which is astonishing in that it has remained there for so many centuries. It still conceals, no doubt, numberless treasures confided to it in the days of slaughters and pillages, when the armies of the Persian and Nubian kings forced the thick, surrounding walls.
In a few minutes, thousands of stars appear at the bottom of this water, reflecting symmetrically the veritable ones which now scintillate everywhere in the heavens. A sudden cold spreads over the town-mummy, whose stones, still warm from their exposure to the sun, cool very rapidly in this nocturnal blue which envelops them as in a shroud. I am free to wander where I please without risk of meeting anyone, and I begin to descend by the steps made by the falling of the granite blocks, which have formed on all sides staircases as if for giants. On the overturned surfaces, my hands encounter the deep, clear-cut hollows of the hieroglyphs, and sometimes of those inevitable people, carved in profile, who raise their arms, all of them, and make signs to one another. On arriving at the bottom I am received by a row of statues with battered faces, seated on thrones, and without hindrance of any kind, and recognising everything in the blue transparency which takes the place of day, I come to the great avenue of the palaces of Amen.