CHAPTER XVII. AN AUDIENCE OF AMENOPHIS II.
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.
Happy Amenophis! Out of so many kings who tried so hard to hide for ever their mummies in the depths of impenetrable caverns he is the only one who has been left in his tomb. And he "makes the most of it" every time he opens his funeral salons.
It is important to arrive before midday at the dwelling of this Pharaoh, and at eight o'clock sharp, therefore, on a clear February morning, I set out from Luxor, where for many days my dahabiya had slumbered against the bank of the Nile. It is necessary first of all to cross the river, for the Theban kings of the Middle Empire all established their eternal habitations on the opposite bank - far beyond the plains of the river shore, right away in those mountains which bound the horizon as with a wall of adorable rose-colour. Other canoes, which are also crossing, glide by the side of mine on the tranquil water. The passengers seem to belong to that variety of Anglo-Saxons which is equipped by Thomas Cook Sons (Egypt Ltd.), and like me, no doubt, they are bound for the royal presence.
We land on the sand of the opposite bank, which to-day is almost deserted. Formerly there stretched here a regular suburb of Thebes - that, namely, of the preparers of mummies, with thousands of ovens wherein to heat the natron and the oils, which preserved the bodies from corruption. In this Thebes, where for some fifty centuries, everything that died, whether man or beast, was minutely prepared and swathed in bandages, it will readily be understood what importance this quarter of the embalmers came to assume. And it was to the neighbouring mountains that the products of so many careful wrappings were borne for burial, while the Nile carried away the blood from the bodies and the filth of their entrails. That chain of living rocks that rises before us, coloured each morning with the same rose, as of a tender flower, is literally stuffed with dead bodies.
We have to cross a wide plain before reaching the mountains, and on our way cornfields alternate with stretches of sand already desertlike. Behind us extends the old Nile and the opposite bank which we have lately quitted - the bank of Luxor, whose gigantic Pharaonic colonnades are as it were lengthened below by their own reflection in the mirror of the river. And in this radiant morning, in this pure light, it would be admirable, this eternal temple, with its image reversed in the depth of the blue water, were it not that at its sides, and to twice its height, rises the impudent Winter Palace, that monster hotel built last year for the fastidious tourists. And yet, who knows? The jackanapes who deposited this abomination on the sacred soil of Egypt perhaps imagines that he equals the merit of the artist who is now restoring the sanctuaries of Thebes, or even the glory of the Pharaohs who built them.
As we draw nearer to the chain of Libya, where this king awaits us, we traverse fields still green with growing corn - and sparrows and larks sing around us in the impetuous spring of this land of Thebes.
And now beyond two menhirs, as it were, become gradually distinct. Of the same height and shape, alike indeed in every respect, they rise side by side in the clear distance in the midst of these green plains, which recall so well our fields of France. They wear the headgear of the Sphinx, and are gigantic human forms seated on thrones - the colossal statues of Memnon. We recognise them at once, for the picture-makers of succeeding ages have popularised their aspect, as in the case of the pyramids. What is strange is that they should stand there so simply in the midst of these fields of growing corn, which reach to their very feet, and be surrounded by these humble birds we know so well, who sing without ceremony on their shoulders.
They do not seem to be scandalised even at seeing now, passing quite close to them, the trucks of a playful little railway belonging to a local industry, that are laden with sugar-canes and gourds.
The chain of Libya, during the last hour, has been growing gradually larger against the profound and excessively blue sky. And now that it rises up quite near to us, overheated, and as it were incandescent, under this ten o'clock sun, we begin to see on all sides, in front of the first rocky spurs of the mountains, the debris of palaces, colonnades, staircases and pylons. Headless giants, swathed like dead Pharaohs, stand upright, with hands crossed beneath their shroud of sandstone. They are the temples and statues for the manes of numberless kings and queens, who during three or four thousand years had their mummies buried hard by in the heart of the mountains, in the deepest of the walled and secret galleries.