Fragrance in Travel Literature-Spell of Egypt, by Robert Hichens

Spell of Egypt, by Robert Hichens

Place for Queen Hatshepsu! Surely she comes to a sound of flutes, a merry noise of thin, bright music, backed by a clashing of barbaric cymbals, along the corridors of the past; this queen who is shown upon Egyptian walls dressed as a man, who is said to have worn a beard, and who sent to the land of Punt the famous expedition which covered her with glory and brought gold to the god Amun. To me most feminine she seemed when I saw her temple at Deir-el-Bahari, with its brightness and its suavity; its pretty shallowness and sunshine; its white, and blue, and yellow, and red, and green and orange; all very trim and fanciful, all very smart and delicate; full of finesse and laughter, and breathing out to me of the twentieth century the coquetry of a woman in 1500 B.C. After the terrific masculinity of Medinet-Abu, after the great freedom of the Ramesseum, and the grandeur of its colossus, the manhood of all the ages concentrated in granite, the temple at Deir-el-Bahari came upon me like a delicate woman, perfumed and arranged, clothed in a creation of white and blue and orange, standing—ever so knowingly—against a background of orange and pink, of red and of brown-red, a smiling coquette of the mountain, a gay and sweet enchantress who knew her pretty powers and meant to exercise them.

When I was at Deir-el-Bahari I thought of it and wished that it still stood there near the Colonnades of Thebes under the tiger-colored precipices. And then I thought of Hatshepsu. Surely she would not brook a rival to-day near the temple which she made—a rival long lost and long forgotten. Is not her influence still there upon the terraced platforms, among the apricot and the white columns, near the paintings of the land of Punt? Did it not whisper to the antiquaries, even to the soldiers from Cairo, who guarded the Vache-Hathor in the night, to make haste to take her away far from the hills of Thebes and from the Nile's long southern reaches, that the great queen might once more reign alone? They obeyed. Hatshepsu was appeased. And, like a delicate woman, perfumed and arranged, clothed in a creation of white and blue and orange, standing ever so knowingly against a background of orange and pink, of red and of brown-red, she rules at Deir-el-Bahari.

As I drew slowly nearer and nearer to the home of "the great Enchantress," or, as Isis was also called in bygone days, "the Lady of Philae," the land began to change in character, to be full of a new and barbaric meaning. In recent years I have paid many visits to northern Africa, but only to Tunisia and Algeria, countries that are wilder looking, and much wilder seeming than Egypt. Now, as I approached Assuan, I seemed at last to be also approaching the real, the intense Africa that I had known in the Sahara, the enigmatic siren, savage and strange and wonderful, whom the typical Ouled Nail, crowned with gold, and tufted with ostrich plumes, painted with kohl, tattooed, and perfumed, hung with golden coins and amulets, and framed in plaits of coarse, false hair, represents indifferently to the eyes of the travelling stranger. For at last I saw the sands that I love creeping down to the banks of the Nile. And they brought with them that wonderful air which belongs only to them—the air that dwells among the dunes in the solitary places, that is like the cool touch of Liberty upon the face of a man, that makes the brown child of the nomad as lithe, tireless, and fierce-spirited as a young panther, and sets flame in the eyes of the Arab horse, and gives speed of the wind to the Sloughi. The true lover of the desert can never rid his soul of its passion for the sands, and now my heart leaped as I stole into their pure embraces, as I saw to right and left amber curves and sheeny recesses, shining ridges and bloomy clefts. The clean delicacy of those sands that, in long and glowing hills, stretched out from Nubia to meet me, who could ever describe them? Who could ever describe their soft and enticing shapes, their exquisite gradations of color, the little shadows in their hollows, the fiery beauty of their crests, the patterns the cool winds make upon them? It is an enchanted royaume of the sands through which one approaches Isis.

Yes, one can forget even now in the hall of the temple of Isis, where the capricious graces of color, where, like old and delicious music in the golden strings of a harp, dwells a something—what is it? A murmur, or a perfume, or a breathing?—of old and vanished years when forsaken gods were worshipped. And one can forget in the chapel of Hathor, on whose wall little Horus is born, and in the grey hounds' chapel beside it. One can forget, for one walks in beauty.
Lovely are the doorways in Philae, enticing are the shallow steps that lead one onward and upward; gracious the yellow towers that seem to smile a quiet welcome. And there is one chamber that is simply a place of magic—the hall of the flowers.

And so one may say many things of this painted chamber of Philae, and yet never convey, perhaps never really know, the innermost cause of its charm. In it there is obvious beauty of form, and a seizing beauty of color, beauty of sunlight and shadow, of antique association. This turquoise blue is enchanting, and Isis was worshipped here. What has the one to do with the other? Nothing; and yet how much! For is not each of these facts a thread in the tapestry web of the spell? The eyes see the rapture of this very perfect blue. The imagination hears, as if very far off, the solemn chanting of priests and smells the smoke of strange perfumes, and sees the long, aquiline nose and the thin, haughty lips of the goddess. And the color becomes strange to the eyes as well as very lovely, because, perhaps, it was there—it almost certainly was there—when from Constantinople went forth the decree that all Egypt should be Christian; when the priests of the sacred brotherhood of Isis were driven from their temple.

Here you may see, brilliant as yesterday's picture anywhere, fascinatingly decorative trees growing bravely in little pots, red people offering incense which is piled up on mounds like mountains, Ptah-Seket, Osiris receiving a royal gift of wine, the queen in the company of various divinities, and the terrible ordeal of the cows. The cows are being weighed in scales. There are three of them. One is a philosopher, and reposes with an air that says, "Even this last indignity of being weighed against my will cannot perturb my soaring spirit." But the other two sitting up, look as apprehensive as old ladies in a rocking express, expectant of an accident. The vividness of the colors in this temple is quite wonderful. And much of its great attraction comes rather from its position, and from them, than essentially from itself. At Deir-el-Bahari, what the long shell contains—its happy murmur of life—is more fascinating than the shell. There, instead of being uplifted or overawed by form, we are rejoiced by color, by the high vivacity of arrested movement, by the story that color and movement tell. And over all there is the bright, blue, painted sky, studded, almost distractedly studded, with a plethora of the yellow stars the Egyptians made like starfish.

Edfu, in its solemn beauty, in its perfection of form, seems to me to pass into a region altogether beyond identification with the worship of any special deity, with particular attributes, perhaps with particular limitations; one who can be graven upon walls, and upon architraves and pillars painted in brilliant colors; one who can personally pursue a criminal, like some policeman in the street; even one who can rise upon the world in the visible glory of the sun. To me, Edfu must always represent the world-worship of "the Hidden One"; not Amun, god of the dead, fused with Ra, with Amsu, or with Khnum: but that other "Hidden One," who is God of the happy hunting-ground of savages, with whom the Buddhist strives to merge his strange serenity of soul; who is adored in the "Holy Places" by the Moslem, and lifted mystically above the heads of kneeling Catholics in cathedrals dim with incense, and merrily praised with the banjo and the trumpet in the streets of black English cities; who is asked for children by longing women, and for new dolls by lisping babes; whom the atheist denies in the day, and fears in the darkness of night; who is on the lips alike of priest and blasphemer, and in the soul of all human life.

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.

Orientals must surely revel in contrasts. There is no tumult like the tumult in certain of their market-places. There is no peace like the peace in certain of their mosques. Even without the slippers carefully tied over your boots you would walk softly, gingerly, in the mosque of El Movayad, the mosque of the columns and the garden. For once within the door you have taken wings and flown from the city, you are in a haven where the most delicious calm seems floating like an atmosphere. Through a lofty colonnade you come into the mosque, and find yourself beneath a magnificently ornamental wooden roof, the general effect of which is of deep brown and gold, though there are deftly introduced many touches of very fine red and strong, luminous blue. The walls are covered with gold and superb marbles, and there are many quotations from the Koran in Arab lettering heavy with gold. The great doors are of chiseled bronze and of wood. In the distance is a sultan's tomb, surmounted by a high and beautiful cupola, and pierced with windows of jeweled glass. But the attraction of this place of prayer comes less from its magnificence, from the shining of its gold, and the gleaming of its many-colored marbles, than from its spaciousness, its airiness, its still seclusion, and its garden. Mohammedans love fountains and shady places, as can surely love them only those who carry in their minds a remembrance of the desert. They love to have flowers blowing beside them while they pray. And with the immensely high and crenelated walls of this mosque long ago they set a fountain of pure white marble, covered it with a shelter of limestone, and planted trees and flowers about it. There beneath palms and tall eucalyptus-trees even on this misty day of the winter, roses were blooming, pinks scented the air, and great red flowers, that looked like emblems of passion, stared upward almost fiercely, as if searching for the sun. As I stood there among the worshippers in the wide colonnade, near the exquisitely carved pulpit in the shadow of which an old man who looked like Abraham was swaying to and fro and whispering his prayers, I thought of Omar Khayyam and how he would have loved this garden. But instead of water from the white marble fountain, he would have desired a cup of wine to drink beneath the boughs of the sheltering trees. And he could not have joined without doubt or fear in the fervent devotions of the undoubting men, who came here to steep their wills in the great will that flowed about them like the ocean about little islets of the sea.

In Egypt one feels very safe. Smiling policemen in clothes of spotless white—emblematic, surely, of their innocence!—seem to be everywhere, standing calmly in the sun. Very gentle, very tender, although perhaps not very true, are the Bedouins at the Pyramids. Up the Nile the fellaheen smile as kindly as the policemen, smile protectingly upon you, as if they would say, "Allah has placed us here to take care of the confiding stranger." No ferocious demands for money fall upon my ears; only an occasional suggestion is subtly conveyed to me that even the poor must live and that I am immensely rich. An amiable, an almost enticing seductiveness seems emanating from the fertile soil, shining in the golden air, gleaming softly in the amber sands, dimpling in the brown, the mauve, the silver eddies of the Nile. It steals upon one. It ripples over one. It laps one as if with warm and scented waves. A sort of lustrous languor overtakes one. In physical well-being one sinks down, and with wide eyes one gazes and listens and enjoys, and thinks not of the morrow.

From afar one feels their minds, their strange, unearthly temperaments commanding this pastoral. When you are beside them, this feeling disappears. Their features are gone, and though in their attitudes there is power, and there is something that awakens awe, they are more wonderful as a far-off feature of the plain. They gain in grandeur from the night in strangeness from the moonrise, perhaps specially when the Nile comes to their feet. More than three thousand years old, they look less eternal than the Sphinx. Like them, the Sphinx is waiting, but with a greater purpose. The Sphinx reduces man really to nothingness. The Colossi leave him some remnants of individuality. One can conceive of Strabo and AElius Gallus, of Hadrian and Sabina, of others who came over the sunlit land to hear the unearthly song in the dawn, being of some—not much, but still of some—importance here. Before the Sphinx no one is important. But in the distance of the plain the Colossi shed a real magic of calm and solemn personality, and subtly seem to mingle their spirit with the flat, green world, so wide, so still, so fecund, and so peaceful; with the soft airs that are surely scented with an eternal springtime, and with the light that the morning rains down on wheat and clover, on Indian corn and barley, and on brown men laboring, who, perhaps, from the patience of the Colossi in repose have drawn a patience in labor that has in it something not less sublime.

The Sphinx will not ask you, will not care. The Pyramids, lifting their unnumbered stones to the clear and wonderful skies, have held, still hold, their secrets; but they do not seek for yours. The terrific temples, the hot, mysterious tombs, odorous of the dead desires of men, crouching in and under the immeasurable sands, will muck you with their brooding silence, with their dim and sombre repose. The brown children of the Nile, the toilers who sing their antique songs by the shadoof and the sakieh, the dragomans, the smiling goblin merchants, the Bedouins who lead your camel into the pale recesses of the dunes—these will not trouble themselves about your deep desires, your perhaps yearning hunger of the heart and the imagination.

Into this tomb of white, vivacious figures, gay almost, though never wholly frivolous—for these men were full of purpose, full of an ardor that seduces even where it seems grotesque—I took with me a child of ten called Ali, from the village of Kafiah; and as I looked from him to the walls around us, rather than the passing away of the races, I realized the persistence of type. For everywhere I saw the face of little Ali, with every feature exactly reproduced. Here he was bending over a sacrifice, leading a sacred bull, feeding geese from a cup, roasting a chicken, pulling a boat, carpentering, polishing, conducting a monkey for a walk, or merely sitting bolt upright and sneering. There were lines of little Alis with their hands held to their breasts, their faces in profile, their knees rigid, in the happy tomb of Thi; but he glanced at them unheeding, did not recognize his ancestors. And he did not care to penetrate into the tombs of Mera and Meri-Ra-ankh, into the Serapeum and the Mestaba of Ptah-hotep. Perhaps he was right. The Serapeum is grand in its vastness, with its long and high galleries and its mighty vaults containing the huge granite sarcophagi of the sacred bulls of Apis; Mera, red and white, welcomes you from an elevated niche benignly; Ptah-hotep, priest of the fifth dynasty, receives you, seated at a table that resembles a rake with long, yellow teeth standing on its handle, and drinking stiffly a cup of wine. You see upon the wall near by, with sympathy, a patient being plied by a naked and evidently an unyielding physician with medicine from a jar that might have been visited by Morgiana, a musician playing upon an instrument like a huge and stringless harp. But it is the happy tomb of Thi that lingers in your memory. In that tomb one sees proclaimed with a marvellous ingenuity and expressiveness the joy and the activity of life. Thi must have loved life; loved prayer and sacrifice, loved sport and war, loved feasting and gaiety, labor of the hands and of the head, loved the arts, the music of flute and harp, singing by the lingering and plaintive voices which seem to express the essence of the east, loved sweet odors, loved sweet women—do we not see him sitting to receive offerings with his wife beside him?—loved the clear nights and the radiant days that in Egypt make glad the heart of man. He must have loved the splendid gift of life, and used it completely. And so little Ali had very right to make his sole obeisance at Thi's delicious tomb, from which death itself seems banished by the soft and embracing radiance of the almost living walls.