IV. ABYDOS

Through a long and golden noontide, and on into an afternoon whose opulence of warmth and light it seemed could never wane, I sat alone, or wandered gently quite alone, in the Temple of Seti I. at Abydos. Here again I was in a place of the dead. In Egypt one ever seeks the dead in the sunshine, black vaults in the land of the gold. But here in Abydos I was accompanied by whiteness. The general effect of Seti's mighty temple is that it is a white temple when seen in full sunshine and beneath a sky of blinding blue. In an arid place it stands, just beyond an Egyptian village that is a maze of dust, of children, of animals, and flies. The last blind houses of the village, brown as brown paper, confront it on a mound, and as I came toward it a girl- child swathed in purple with ear-rings, and a twist of orange handkerchief above her eyes, full of cloud and fire, leaned from a roof, sinuously as a young snake, to watch me. On each side, descending, were white, ruined walls, stretched out like defaced white arms of the temple to receive me. I stood still for a moment and looked at the narrow, severely simple doorway, at the twelve broken columns advanced on either side, white and greyish white with their right angles, their once painted figures now almost wholly colorless.

Here lay the Osirians, those blessed dead of the land of Egypt, who worshipped the Judge of the Dead, the Lord of the Underworld, and who hoped for immortality through him - Osiris, husband of Isis, Osiris, receiver of prayers. Osiris the sun who will not be conquered by night, but eternally rises again, and so is the symbol of the resurrection of the soul. It is said that Set, the power of Evil, tore the body of Osiris into fourteen fragments and scattered them over the land. But multitudes of worshippers of Osiris believed him buried near Abydos and, like those who loved the sweet songs of Hafiz, they desired to be buried near him whom they adored; and so this place became a place of the dead, a place of many prayers, a white place of many longings.

I was glad to be alone there. The guardian left me in perfect peace. I happily forgot him. I sat down in the shadow of a column upon its mighty projecting base. The sky was blinding blue. Great bees hummed, like bourdons, through the silence, deepening the almost heavy calm. These columns, architraves, doorways, how mighty, how grandly strong they were! And yet soon I began to be aware that even here, where surely one should read only the Book of the Dead, or bend down to the hot ground to listen if perchance one might hear the dead themselves murmuring over the chapters of Beatification far down in their hidden tombs, there was a likeness, a gentle gaiety of life, as in the tomb of Thi. The effect of solidity was immense. These columns bulged, almost like great fruits swollen out by their heady strength of blood. They towered up in crowds. The heavy roof, broken in places most mercifully to show squares and oblongs of that perfect, calling blue, was like a frowning brow. And yet I was with grace, with gentleness, with lightness, because in the place of the dead I was again with the happy, living walls. Above me, on the roof, there was a gleam of palest blue, like the blue I have sometimes seen at morning on the Ionian sea just where it meets the shore. The double rows of gigantic columns stretched away, tall almost as forest trees, to right of me and to left, and were shut in by massive walls, strong as the walls of a fortress. And on these columns, and on these walls, dead painters and gravers had breathed the sweet breath of life. Here in the sun, for me alone, as it seemed, a population followed their occupations. Men walked, and kneeled, and stood, some white and clothed, some nude, some red as the red man's child that leaped beyond the sea. And here was the lotus-flower held in reverent hands, not the rose-lotus, but the blossom that typified the rising again of the sun, and that, worn as an amulet, signified the gift of eternal youth. And here was hawk- faced Horus, and here a priest offering sacrifice to a god, belief in whom has long since passed away. A king revealed himself to me, adoring Ptah, "Father of the beginnings," who established upon earth, my figures thought, the everlasting justice, and again at the knees of Amen burning incense in his honor. Isis and Osiris stood together, and sacrifice was made before their sacred bark. And Seti worshipped them, and Seshta, goddess of learning, wrote in the book of eternity the name of the king.

The great bees hummed, moving slowly in the golden air among the mighty columns, passing slowly among these records of lives long over, but which seemed still to be. And I looked at the lotus-flowers which the little grotesque hands were holding, had been holding for how many years - the flowers that typified the rising again of the sun and the divine gift of eternal youth. And I thought of the bird and the Sphinx, the thing that was whimsical wooing the thing that was mighty. And I gazed at the immense columns and at the light and little figures all about me. Bird and Sphinx, delicate whimsicality, calm and terrific power! In Egypt the dead men have combined them, and the combination has an irresistible fascination, weaves a spell that entrances you in the sunshine and beneath the blinding blue. At Abydos I knew it. And I loved the columns that seemed blown out with exuberant strength, and I loved the delicate white walls that, like the lotus-flower, give to the world a youth that seems eternal - a youth that is never frivolous, but that is full of the divine, and yet pathetic, animation of happy life.

The great bees hummed more drowsily. I sat quite still in the sun. And then presently, moved by some prompting instinct, I turned my head, and, far off, through the narrow portal of the temple, I saw the girl- child swathed in purple still lying, sinuously as a young snake, upon the palm-wood roof above the brown earth wall to watch me with her eyes of cloud and fire.

And upon me, like cloud and fire - cloud of the tombs and the great temple columns, fire of the brilliant life painted and engraved upon them - there stole the spell of Egypt.