Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
A Thousand Miles Up The Nile
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo



HAVING arrived at Bedreshayn after dark, and there moored for the night, we were roused early next morning by the furious squabbling and chattering of some fifty or sixty men and boys who, with a score or two of little rough-coated, depressed-looking donkeys, were assembled on the high bank above. Seen thus against the sky, their tattered garments fluttering in the wind, their brown arms and legs in frantic movement, they looked like a troop of mad monkeys let loose. Every moment the uproar grew shriller. Every moment more men, more boys, more donkeys, appeared upon the scene. It was as if some new Cadmus had been sowing boys and donkeys broadcast, and they had all come up at once for our benefit.

Then it appeared that Talhamy, knowing how eight donkeys would be wanted for our united forces, had sent up to the village for twenty-five, intending, with perhaps more wisdom than justice, to select the best and dismiss the others. The result was overwhelming. Misled by the magnitude of the order and concluding that Cook’s party had arrived, every man, boy, and donkey in Bedreshayn and the neighbouring village of Mîtrahîneh had turned out in hot haste and rushed down to the river; so that by the time breakfast was over there were steeds enough in readiness for all the English in Cairo. I pass over the tumult that ensued when our party at last mounted the eight likeliest beasts and rode away, leaving the indignant multitude to disperse at leisure.

And now our way lies over a dusty flat, across the railway line, past the long straggling village, and through the famous plantations known as the Palms of Memphis. There is a crowd of patient-looking fellaheen at the little whitewashed station, waiting for the train, and the usual rabble of clamorous water, bread, and fruit-sellers. Bedreshayn, though a collection of mere mud hovels, looks pretty, nestling in the midst of stately date-palms. Square pigeon-towers, embedded round the top with layers of wide-mouthed pots and stuck with rows of leafless acacia-boughs like ragged banner-poles, stand up at intervals among the huts. The pigeons go in and out of the pots, or sit preening their feathers on the branches. The dogs dash out and bark madly at us, as we go by. The little brown children pursue us with cries of “Bakhshîsh!” The potter, laying out rows of soft, grey, freshly-moulded clay bowls and kullehs1 to bake in the sun, stops open-mouthed, and stares as if he had never seen a European till this moment. His young wife snatches up her baby and pulls her veil more closely over her face, fearing the evil eye.

The village being left behind, we ride on through one long palm grove after another; now skirting the borders of a large sheet of tranquil back-water; now catching a glimpse of the far-off pyramids of Ghîzeh, now passing between the huge irregular mounds of crumbled clay which mark the site of Memphis. Next beyond these we come out upon a high embanked road some twenty feet above the plain, which here spreads out like a wide lake and spends its last dark-brown alluvial wave against the yellow rocks which define the edge of the desert. High on this barren plateau, seen for the first time in one unbroken panoramic line, there stands a solemn company of pyramids; those of Sakkârah straight before us, those of Dahshûr to the left, those of Abusîr to the right, and the great pyramids of Ghîzeh always in the remotest distance.

It might be thought there would be some monotony in such a scene, and but little beauty. On the contrary, however, there is beauty of a most subtle and exquisite kind – transcendent beauty of colour, and atmosphere, and sentiment; and no monotony either in the landscape or in the forms of the pyramids. One of these which we are now approaching is built in a succession of platforms gradually decreasing towards the top. Another down yonder at Dahshûr curves outward at the angles, half dome, half pyramid, like the roof of the Palais de Justice in Paris. No two are of precisely the same size, or built at precisely the same angle; and each cluster differs somehow in the grouping.

Then again the colouring! – colouring not to be matched with any pigments yet invented. The Libyan rocks, like rusty gold – the paler hue of the driven sand-slopes – the warm maize of the nearer pyramids which, seen from this distance, takes a tender tint of rose, like the red bloom on an apricot – the delicate tone of these objects against the sky – the infinite gradation of that sky, soft and pearly towards the horizon, blue and burning towards the zenith – the opalescent shadows, pale blue, and violet, and greenish-grey, that nestle in the hollows of the rock and the curves of the sand-drifts – all this is beautiful in a way impossible to describe, and alas! impossible to copy. Nor does the lake-like plain with its palm-groves and corn-flats form too tame a foreground. It is exactly what is wanted to relieve that glowing distance.

And now, as we follow the zig-zag of the road, the new pyramids grow gradually larger; the sun mounts higher; the heat increases. We meet a train of camels, buffaloes, shabby grown sheep, men, women, and children of all ages. The camels are laden with bedding, rugs, mats, and crates of poultry, and carry, besides, two women with babies and one very old man. The younger men drive the tired beasts. The rest follow behind. The dust rises after them in a cloud. It is evidently the migration of a family of three, if not four generations. One cannot help being struck by the patriarchal simplicity of the incident. Just thus, with flocks and herds and all his clan, went Abraham into the land of Canaan close upon four thousand years ago; and one at least of these Sakkârah pyramids was even then the oldest building in the world.

It is a touching and picturesque procession – much more picturesque than ours, and much more numerous; notwithstanding that our united forces, including donkey-boys, porters, and miscellaneous hangers-on, number nearer thirty than twenty persons. For there are the M. B.s and their nephew, and L.----- and the writer, and L.-----’s maid, and Talhamy, all on donkeys; and then there are the owners of the donkeys, also on donkeys; and then every donkey has a boy; and every boy has a donkey; and every donkey-boy’s donkey has an inferior boy in attendance. Our style of dress, too, however convenient, is not exactly in harmony with the surrounding scenery; and one cannot but feel, as these draped and dusty pilgrims pass us on the road, that we cut a sorry figure with our hideous palm-leaf hats, green veils, and white umbrellas.

But the most amazing and incongruous personage in our whole procession is unquestionably George. Now George is an English north-country groom whom the M. B.s have brought out from the wilds of Lancashire, partly because he is a good shot and may be useful to “Master Alfred” after birds and crocodiles; and partly from a well-founded belief in his general abilities. And George, who is a fellow of infinite jest and infinite resource, takes to Eastern life as a duckling to the water. He picks up Arabic as if it were his mother tongue. He skins birds like a practised taxidermist. He can even wash and iron on occasion. He is, in short, groom, footman, housemaid, laundry-maid, stroke oar, game-keeper, and general factotum all in one. And besides all this, he is gifted with a comic gravity of countenance that no surprises and no disasters can upset for a moment. To see this worthy anachronism cantering along in his groom’s coat and gaiters, livery-buttons, spotted neckcloth, tall hat, and all the rest of it; his long legs dangling within an inch of the ground on either side of the most diminuitive of donkeys; his double-barrelled fowling-piece under his arm, and that imperturbable look in his face, one would have sworn that he and Egypt were friends of old, and that he had been brought up on pyramids from his earliest childhood.

It is a long and shelterless ride from the palms to the desert; but we come to the end of it at last, mounting just such another sand-slope as that which leads up from the Ghîzeh road to the foot of the great pyramid. The edge of the plateau here rises abruptly from the plain in one long range of low perpendicular cliffs pierced with dark mouths of rock-cut sepulchres, while the sand-slope by which we are climbing pours down through a breach in the rock, as an Alpine snow-drift flows through a mountain gap from the ice-level above.

And now, having dismounted through compassion for our unfortunate little donkeys, the first thing we observe is the curious mixture of débris underfoot. At Ghîzeh one treads only sand and pebbles; but here at Sakkârah the whole plateau is thickly strewn with scraps of broken pottery, limestone, marble, and alabaster; flakes of green and blue glaze; bleached bones; shreds of yellow linen; and lumps of some odd-looking dark brown substance, like dried-up sponge. Presently some one picks up a little noseless head of one of the common blue-water funereal statuettes, and immediately we all fall to work, grubbing for treasure – a pure waste of precious time; for though the sand is full of débris, it has been sifted so often and so carefully by the Arabs that it no longer contains anything worth looking for. Meanwhile, one finds a fragment of iridescent glass – another, a morsel of shattered vase – a third, an opaque bead of some kind of yellow paste. And then, with a shock which the present writer, at all events, will not soon forget, we suddenly discover that these scattered bones are human – that those linen shreds are shreds of cerement cloths – that yonder odd-looking brown lumps are rent fragments of what once was living flesh! And now for the first time we realize that every inch of this ground on which we are standing, and all these hillocks and hollows and pits in the sand, are violated graves.

“Ce n’est que le premier pas que coûte.” We soon became quite hardened to such sights, and learned to rummage among dusty sepulchres with no more compunction than would have befitted a gang of professional body-snatchers. These are experiences upon which one looks back afterwards with wonder, and something like remorse; but so infectious is the universal callousness, and so overmastering is the passion for relic-hunting, that I do not doubt we should again do the same things under the same circumstances. Most Egyptian travellers, if questioned, would have to make a similar confession. Shocked at first, they denounce with horror the whole system of sepulchral excavation, legal as well as predatory; acquiring, however, a taste for scarabs and funerary statuettes, they soon begin to buy with eagerness the spoils of the dead; finally they forget all their former scruples, and ask no better fortune than to discover and confiscate a tomb for themselves.

Notwithstanding that I had first seen the pyramids of Ghîzeh, the size of the Sakkârah group – especially of the pyramid in platforms – took me by surprise. They are all smaller than the pyramids of Khufu and Khafra, and would no doubt look sufficiently insignificant if seen with them in close juxtaposition; but taken by themselves they are quite vast enough for grandeur. As for the pyramid in platforms (which is the largest at Sakkârah, and next largest to the pyramid of Khafra) its position is so fine, its architectural style so exceptional, its age so immense, that one altogether loses sight of these questions of relative magnitude. If Egyptologists are right in ascribing the royal title hieroglyphed on the inner door of this pyramid to Ouenephes, the fourth king of the First Dynasty, then it is the most ancient building in the world. It had been standing from five to seven hundred years when King Khufu began his great pyramid at Ghîzeh. It was over two thousand years old when Abraham was born. It is now about six thousand eight hundred years old according to Manetho and Mariette, or about four thousand eight hundred according to the computation of Bunsen. One’s imagination recoils upon the brink of such a gulf of time.

The door of this pyramid was carried off, with other precious spoils, by Lepsius, and is now in the museum at Berlin. The evidence that identifies the inscription is tolerably direct. According to Manetho, an Egyptian historian who wrote in Greek and lived in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, King Ouenephes built for himself a pyramid at a place called Kokhome. Now a tablet discovered in the Serapeum by Mariette gives the name of Ka-kem to the necropolis of Sakkârah; and as the pyramid in stages is not only the largest on this platform, but is also the only one in which a royal cartouche has been found, the conclusion seems obvious.

When a building has already stood five or six thousand years in a climate where mosses and lichens, and all those natural signs of age to which we are accustomed in Europe are unknown, it is not to be supposed that a few centuries more or less can tell upon its outward appearance; yet to my thinking the pyramid of Ouenephes looks older than those of Ghîzeh. If this be only fancy, it gives one, at all events, the impression of belonging structurally to a ruder architectural period. The idea of a monument composed of diminishing platforms is in its nature more primitive than that of a smooth four-sided pyramid. We remarked that the masonry on one side – I think on the side facing eastwards – was in a much more perfect condition than on either of the others.

Wilkinson describes the interior as “a hollow dome supported here and there by wooden rafters,” and states that the sepulchral chamber was lined with blue porcelain tiles.2 We would have liked to go inside, but this is no longer possible, the entrance being blocked by a recent fall of masonry.

Making up now for lost time, we rode on as far as the house built in 1850 for Mariette’s accomodation during the excavation of the Serapeum – a labour which extended over a period of more than four years.

The Serapeum, it need hardly be said, is the famous and long-lost sepulchral temple of the sacred bulls. These bulls (honoured by the Egyptians as successive incarnations of Osiris) inhabited the temple of Apis at Memphis while they lived; and being mummied after death, were buried in catacombs prepared for them in the desert. In 1850, Mariette, travelling in the interests of the French Government, discovered both the temple and the catacombs, being, according to his own narrative, indebted for the clue to a certain passage in Strabo, which describes the Temple of Serapis as being situate in a district where the sand was so drifted by the wind that the approach to it was in danger of being overwhelmed; while the sphinxes on either side of the great avenue were already more or less buried, some having only their heads above the surface. “If Strabo had not written this passage,” says Mariette, “it is probable that the Serapeum would still be lost under the sands of the necropolis of Sakkârah. One day, however (in 1850), being attracted to Sakkârah by my Egyptological studies, I perceived the head of a sphinx showing above the surface. It evidently occupied its original position. Close by lay a libation-table on which was engraved a hieroglyphic inscription to Apis-Osiris. Then that passage in Strabo came to my memory, and I knew that beneath my feet lay the avenue leading to the long and vainly sought Serapeum. Without saying a word to any one, I got some workmen together and we began excavating. The beginning was difficult; but soon the lions, the peacocks, the Greek statues of the Dromos, the inscribed tablets of the Temple of Nectanebo3 rose up from the sands. Thus was the Serapeum discovered.”

The house – a slight, one-story building on a space of rocky platform – looks down upon a sandy hollow which now presents much the same appearance that it must have presented when Mariette was first reminded of the fortunate passage in Strabo. One or two heads of sphinxes peep up here and there in a ghastly way above the sand, and mark the line of the great avenue. The upper half of a boy riding on a peacock, apparently of rude execution, is also visible. The rest is already as completely overwhelmed as if it had never been uncovered. One can scarcely believe that only twenty years ago, the whole place was entirely cleared at so vast an expenditure of time and labour. The work, as I have already mentioned, took four years to complete. This avenue alone was six hundred feet in length and bordered by an army of sphinxes, one hundred and forty-one of which were found in situ. As the excavation neared the end of the avenue, the causeway, which followed a gradual descent between massive walls, lay seventy feet below the surface. The labour was immense, and the difficulties were innumerable. The ground had to be contested inch by inch. “In certain places,” says Mariette, “the sand was fluid, so to speak, and baffled us like water continually driven back and seeking to regain its level.”4

If, however, the toil was great, so also was the reward. A main avenue terminated by a semicircular platform, around which stood statues of famous Greek philosophers and poets; a second avenue at right angles to the first; the remains of the great temple of the Serapeum; three smaller temples; and three distinct groups of Apis catacombs, were brought to light. A descending passage opening from a chamber in the great Temple led to the catacombs – vast labyrinths of vaults and passages hewn out of the solid rock on which the Temples were built. These three groups of excavations represent three epochs of Egyptian history. The first and most ancient series consists of isolated vaults dating from the eighteenth to the twenty-second dynasty; that is to say, from about B.C. 1703 to B.C. 980. The second group, which dates from the reign of Sheshonk I (twenty-second dynasty, B.C. 980) to that of Tirhakah, the last king of the twenty-fifth dynasty, is more systematically planned, and consists of one long tunnel bordered on each side by a row of funereal chambers. The third belongs to the Greek period, beginning with Psammetichus I (twenty-sixth dynasty, B.C. 665) and ending with the latest Ptolemies. Of these, the first are again choked with sand; the second are considered unsafe; and the third only is accessible to travellers.

After a short but toilsome walk, and some delay outside a prison-like door at the bottom of a steep descent, we were admitted by the guardian – a gaunt old Arab with a lantern in his hand. It was not an inviting looking place within. The outer daylight fell upon a rough step or two, beyond which all was dark. We went in. A hot, heavy atmosphere met us on the threshold; the door fell to with a dull clang, the echoes of which went wandering away as if into the central recesses of the earth; the Arab chattered and gesticulated. He was telling us that we were now in the great vestibule, and that it measured ever so many feet in this and that direction; but we could see nothing – neither the vaulted roof overhead, nor the walls on any side, nor even the ground beneath our feet. It was like the darkness of infinite space.

A lighted candle was then given to each person, and the Arab led the way. He went dreadfully fast, and it seemed at every step as if one were on the brink of some frightful chasm. Gradually, however, our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and we found that we had passed out of the vestibule into the first great corridor. All was vague, mysterious, shadowy. A dim perspective loomed out of the darkness. The lights twinkled and flitted, like wandering sparks of stars. The Arab held his lantern to the walls here and there, and showed us some votive tablets inscribed with records of pious visits paid by devout Egyptians to the sacred tombs. Of these they found five hundred when the catacombs were first opened; but Mariette sent nearly all to the Louvre.

A few steps farther, and we came to the tombs – a succession of great vaulted chambers hewn out at irregular distances along both sides of the central corridor, and sunk some six or eight feet below the surface. In the middle of each chamber stood an enormous sarcophagus of polished granite. The Arab, flitting on ahead like a black ghost, paused a moment before each cavernous opening, flashed the light of his lantern on the sarcophagus, and sped away again, leaving us to follow as we could.

So we went on, going every moment deeper into the solid rock, and farther from the open air and the sunshine. Thinking it would be cold underground, we had brought warm wraps in plenty; but the heat, on the contrary, was intense, and the atmosphere stifling. We had not calculated on the dryness of the place, nor had we remembered that ordinary mines and tunnels are cold because they are damp. But here for incalculable ages – for thousands of years probably before the Nile had even cut its path through the rocks of Silsilis – a cloudless African sun had been pouring its daily floods of light and heat upon the dewless desert overhead. The place might well be unendurable. It was like a great oven stored with the slowly accumulated heat of cycles so remote, and so many, that the earliest periods of Egyptian history seem, when compared with them, to belong to yesterday.

Having gone on thus for a distance of nearly two hundred yards, we came to a chamber containing the first hieroglyphed sarcophagus we had yet seen; all the rest being polished, but plain. Here the Arab paused; and finding access provided by means of a flight of wooden steps, we peeped inside by the help of a ladder, and examined the hieroglyphs with which it is covered. Enormous as they look from above, one can form no idea of the bulk of these huge monolithic masses except from the level on which they stand. This sarcophagus, which dates from the reign of Amasis, of the twenty-sixth dynasty, measured fourteen feet in length by eleven in height, and consisted of a single block of highly-wrought black granite. Four persons might sit in it round a small card-table, and play a rubber comfortably.

From this point the corridor branches off for another two hundred yards or so, leading always to more chambers and more sarcophagi, of which last there are altogether twenty-four. Three only are inscribed; none measure less than from thirteen to fourteen feet in length; and all are empty. The lids in every instance have been pushed back a little way, and some are fractured; but the spoilers have been unable wholly to remove them. According to Mariette, the place was pillaged by the early Christians, who, besides carrying off whatever they could find in the way of gold and jewels, seem to have destroyed the mummies of the bulls, and razed the great temple nearly to the ground. Fortunately, however, they either overlooked, or left as worthless, some hundreds of exquisite bronzes and the five hundred votive tables before mentioned, which, as they record not only the name and rank of the visitor, but also, with few exceptions, the name and year of the reigning Pharaoh, afford invaluable historical data, and are likely to do more than any previously discovered documents towards clearing up disputed points of Egyptian chronology.

It is a curious fact that one out of the three inscribed sarcophagi should bear the oval of Cambyses – that Cambyses of whom it is related that, having desired the priests of Memphis to bring before him the god Apis, he drew his dagger in a transport of rage and contempt, and stabbed the animal in the thigh. According to Plutarch, he slew the beast and cast out its body to the dogs; according to Herodotus, “Apis lay some time pining in the temple, but at last died of his wound, and the priests buried him secretly;” but according to one of these previous Serapeum tablets the wounded bull did not die till the fourth year of the reign of Darius. So wonderfully does modern discovery correct and illustrate tradition.

And now comes the sequel to this ancient story in the shape of an anecdote related by M. About, who tells how Mariette, being recalled suddenly to Paris some months after the opening of the Serapeum, found himself without the means of carrying away all his newly excavated antiquities, and so buried fourteen cases in the desert, there to await his return. One of these cases contained an Apis mummy which had escaped discovery by the early Christians; and this mummy was that of the identical Apis stabbed by Cambyses. That the creature had actually survived his wound was proved by the condition of one of the thigh-bones, which showed unmistakable signs of both injury and healing.

Nor does the story end here. Mariette being gone, and having taken with him all that was most portable among his treasures, there came to Memphis one whom M. About indicates as “a young and august stranger” travelling in Egypt for his pleasure. The Arabs, tempted perhaps by a princely bakhshish, revealed the secret of the hidden cases; whereupon the Archduke swept off the whole fourteen, despatched them to Alexandria, and immediately shipped them for Trieste.5 “Quant au coupable,” says M. About who professes to have had the story direct from Mariette, “il a fini si tragiquement dans un autre hemisphère que, tout bien pesé, je renonce à publier son nom.” But through so transparent a disguise it is not difficult to identify the unfortunate hero of this curious anecdote.

The sarcophagus in which the Apis was found remains in the vaults of the Serapeum; but we did not see it. Having come more than two hundred yards already, and being by this time well-nigh suffocated, we did not care to put two hundred yards more between ourselves and the light of day. So we turned back at the half distance – having, however, first burned a pan of magnesian powder, which flared up wildly for a few seconds; lit the huge gallery and all its cavernous recesses and the wondering faces of the Arabs; and then went out with a plunge, leaving the darkness denser than before.

From hence, across a farther space of sand, we went in all the blaze of noon to the tomb of one Ti, a priest and commoner of the Fifth Dynasty, who married with a lady named Nefer-hotep-s, the granddaughter of a Pharaoh, and here built himself a magnificent tomb in the desert.

Of the façade of this tomb, which must originally have looked like a little temple, only two large pillars remain. Next comes a square courtyard surrounded by a roofless colonnade, from one corner of which a covered passage leads to two chambers. In the centre of the courtyard yawns an open pit some twenty-five feet in depth, with a shattered sarcophagus just visible in the gloom of the vault below. All here is limestone – walls, pillars, pavements, even the excavated débris with which the pit had been filled in when the vault was closed for ever. The quality of this limestone is close and fine like marble, and so white that, although the walls and columns of the courtyard are covered with sculptures of most exquisite execution and of the greatest interest, the reflected light is so intolerable, that we find it impossible to examine them with the interest they deserve. In the passage, however, where there is shade, and in the large chamber, where it is so dark that we can see only by the help of lighted candles, we find a succession of bas-reliefs so numerous and so closely packed that it would take half a day to see them properly. Ranged in horizontal parallel lines about a foot and a half in depth, these extraordinary pictures, row above row, cover every inch of wall-space from floor to ceiling. The relief is singularly low. I should doubt if it anywhere exceeds a quarter of an inch. The surface, which is covered with a thin film of very fine cement, has a quality and polish like ivory. The figures measure an average height of about twelve inches, and all are coloured.

Here, as in an open book, we have the biography of Ti. His whole life, his pleasures, his business, his domestic relations, are brought before us with just that faithful simplicity which makes the charm of Montaigne and Pepys. A child might read the pictured chronicles which illuminate these walls, and take as keen a pleasure in them as the wisest of archæologists.

Ti was a wealthy man, and his wealth was of the agricultural sort. He owned flocks and herds and vassals in plenty. He kept many kinds of birds and beasts – geese, ducks, pigeons, cranes, oxen, goats, asses, antelopes, and gazelles. He was fond of fishing and fowling, and used sometimes to go after crocodiles and hippopotamuses, which came down as low as Memphis in his time. He was a kind husband too, and a good father, and loved to share his pleasures with his family. Here we see him sitting in state with his wife and children, while professional singers and dancers perform before them. Yonder they walk out together and look on while the farm-servants are at work, and watch the coming in of the boats that bring home the produce of Ti’s more distant lands. Here the geese are being driven home; the cows are crossing a ford; the oxen are ploughing; the sower is scattering his seed; the reaper plies his sickle; the oxen tread the grain; the corn is stored in the granary. There are evidently no independent tradesfolk in these early days of the world. Ti has his own artificers on his own estate, and all his goods and chattels are home-made. Here the carpenters are fashioning new furniture for the house; the shipwrights are busy on new boats; the potters mould pots; the metal-workers smelt ingots of red gold. It is plain to see that Ti lived like a king within his own boundaries. He makes an imposing figure, too, in all these scenes, and, being represented about eight times as large as his servants, sits and stands a giant among pigmies. His wife (we must not forget that she was of the blood royal) is as big as himself; and the children are depicted about half the size of their parents. Curiously enough, Egyptian art never outgrew this early naïveté. The great man remained a big man to the last days of the Ptolemies, and the fellah was always a dwarf.6

Apart from these and one or two other mannerisms, nothing can be more natural than the drawing, or more spirited than the action, of all these men and animals. The most difficult and transitory movements are expressed with masterly certitude. The donkey kicks up his heels and brays – the crocodile plunges – the wild duck rises on the wing; and the fleeting action is caught in each instance with a truthfulness that no Landseer could distance. The forms, which have none of the conventional stiffness of later Egyptian work, are modelled roundly and boldly, yet finished with exquisite precision and delicacy. The colouring, however, is purely decorative; and being laid on in single tints, with no attempt at gradation or shading, conceals rather than enhances the beauty of the sculptures. These, indeed, are best seen where the colour is entirely rubbed off. The tints are yet quite brilliant in parts of the larger chamber; but in the passage and courtyard, which have been excavated only a few years and are with difficulty kept clear from day to day, there is not a vestige of colour left. This is the work of the sand – that patient labourer whose office it is not only to preserve but to destroy. The sand secretes and preserves the work of the sculptor, but it effaces the work of the painter. In sheltered places where it accumulates passively like a snow-drift, it brings away only the surface-detail, leaving the under colours rubbed and dim. But nothing, as I had occasion constantly to remark in the course of the journey, removes colour so effectually as sand which is exposed to the shifting action of the wind.

This tomb, as we have seen, consists of a portico, a courtyard, two chambers, and a sepulchral vault; but it also contains a secret passage of the kind known as a “serdab.” These “serdabs,” which are constructed in the thickness of the walls and have no entrances, seem to be peculiar to the tombs of the Ancient Empire (i.e. the period of the pyramid kings); and they contain statues of the deceased of all sizes, in wood, limestone, and granite. Twenty statues of Ti were here found immured in the serdab of his tomb, all broken save one – a spirited figure in limestone, standing about seven feet high, and now in the museum at Boulak. This statue represents a fine young man in a white tunic, and is evidently a portrait. The features are regular; the expression is good-natured; the whole tournure of the head is more Greek than Egyptian. The flesh is painted of a yellowish brick tint, and the figure stands in the usual hieratic attitude, with the left leg advanced, the hands clenched, and the arms straightened close to the sides. One seems to know Ti so well after seeing the wonderful pictures in his tomb, that this charming statue interests one like the portrait of a familiar friend.7


How pleasant it was, after being suffocated in the Serapeum and broiled in the tomb of Ti, to return to Mariette’s deserted house, and eat our luncheon on the cool stone terrace that looks northward over the desert! Some wooden tables and benches are hospitably left here for the accomodation of travellers, and fresh water in ice-cold kullehs is provided by the old Arab guardian. The yards and offices at the back are full of broken statues and fragments of inscriptions in red and black granite. Two sphinxes from the famous avenue adorn the terrace, and look down upon their half-buried companions in the sand-hollow below. The yellow desert, barren and undulating, with a line of purple peaks on the horizon, reaches away into the far distance. To the right, under a jutting ridge of rocky plateau not two hundred yards from the house, yawns an open-mouthed black-looking cavern shored up with heavy beams and approached by a slope of débris. This is the forced entrance to the earlier vaults of the Serapeum, in one of which was found a mummy described by Mariette as that of an Apis, but pronounced by Brugsch to be the body of Prince Kha-em-uas, governor of Memphis and the favourite son of Rameses the Great.

This remarkable mummy, which looked as much like a bull as a man, was found covered with jewels and gold chains and precious amulets engraved with the name of Kha-em-uas, and had on its face a golden mask; all which treasures are now to be seen in the Louvre. If it was the mummy of an Apis, then the jewels with which it was adorned were probably the offering of the prince at that time ruling in Memphis. If, on the contrary, it was the mummy of a man, then, in order to be buried in a place of peculiar sanctity, he probably usurped one of the vaults prepared for the god. The question is a curious one, and remains unsolved to this day; but it could no doubt be settled at a glance by Professor Owen.8

Far more startling, however, than the discovery of either Apis or jewels, was a sight beheld by Mariette on first entering that long-closed sepulchral chamber. The mine being sprung and the opening cleared, he went in alone; and there, on the thin layer of sand that covered the floor, he found the footprints of the workmen who, 3700 years9 before, had laid this shapeless mummy in its tomb and closed the doors upon it, as they believed, for ever.

And now – for this afternoon is already waning fast – the donkeys are brought round, and we are told that it is time to move on. We have the site of Memphis and the famous prostrate colossus yet to see, and the long road lies all before us. So back we ride across the desolate sands; and with a last, long, wistful glance at the pyramid in platforms, go down the territory of the dead into the land of the living.

There is a wonderful fascination about this pyramid. One is never weary of looking at it – of repeating to one’s self that it is indeed the oldest building on the face of the whole earth. The king who erected it came to the throne, according to Manetho, about eighty years after the death of Mena, the founder of the Egyptian monarchy. All we have of him is his pyramid; all we know of him is his name. And these belong, as it were, to the infancy of the human race. In dealing with Egyptian dates, one is apt to think lightly of periods that count only by centuries; but it is a habit of mind which leads to error, and it should be combated. The present writer found it useful to be constantly comparing relative chronological eras; as, for instance, in realizing the immense antiquity of the Sakkârah pyramid, it is some help to remember that from the time when it was built by King Ouenephes to the time when King Khufu erected the great pyramid of Ghîzeh, there probably lies a space of years equivalent to that which, in the history of England, extends from the date of the Conquest to the accession of George the Second.10 And yet Khufu himself – the Cheops of the Greek historians – is but a shadowy figure hovering upon the threshold of Egyptian history.

And now the desert is left behind, and we are nearing the palms that lead to Memphis. We have of course been dipping into Herodotus – every one takes Herodotus up the Nile – and our heads are full of the ancient glories of this famous city. We know that Mena turned the course of the river in order to build it on the very spot, and that all the most illustrious Pharaohs adorned it with temples, palaces, pylons, and precious sculptures. We had read of the great Temple of Ptah that Rameses the Great enriched with colossi of himself; and of the sanctuary where Apis lived in state, taking his exercise in a pillared courtyard where every column was a statue; and of the artificial lake, and the sacred groves, and the obelisks, and all the wonders of a city which even in its later days was one of the most populous in Egypt.

Thinking over these things by the way, we agree that it is well to have left Memphis till the last. We shall appreciate it the better for having first seen that other city on the edge of the desert to which, for nearly six thousand years, all Memphis was quietly migrating, generation after generation. We know now how poor folk laboured, and how great gentlemen amused themselves, in those early days when there were hundreds of country gentlemen like Ti, with townhouses at Memphis and villas by the Nile. From the Serapeum, too, buried and ruined as it is, one cannot but come away with a profound impression of the splendour and power of a religion which could command for its myths such faith, such homage, and such public works.

And now we are once more in the midst of the palm-woods, threading our way among the same mounds that we passed in the morning. Presently those in front strike away from the beaten road across a grassy flat to the right; and the next moment we are all gathered round the brink of a muddy pool in the midst of which lies a shapeless block of blackened and corroded limestone. This, it seems, is the famous prostrate colossus of Rameses the Great, which belongs to the British nation, but which the British Government is too economical to remove.11 So here it lies, face downward; drowned once a year by the Nile; visible only when the pools left by the inundation have evaporated, and all the muddy hollows are dried up. It is one of two which stood at the entrance to the great temple of Ptah; and by those who have gone down into the hollow and seen it from below in the dry season, it is reported of as a noble and very beautiful specimen of one of the best periods of Egyptian art.

Where, however, is the companion colossus? Where is the temple itself? Where are the pylons, the obelisks, the avenues of sphinxes? Where, in short, is Memphis?

The dragoman shrugs his shoulders and points to the barren mounds among the palms.

They look like gigantic dust-heaps, and stand from thirty to forty feet above the plain. Nothing grows upon them, save here and there a tuft of stunted palm; and their substance seems to consist chiefly of crumbled brick, broken potsherds, and fragments of limestone. Some few traces of brick foundations and an occasional block or two of shaped stone are to be seen in places low down against the foot of one or two of the mounds; but one looks in vain for any sign which might indicate the outline of a boundary wall, or the position of a great public building.

And is this all?

No – not quite all. There are some mud-huts yonder, in among the trees; and in front of one of these we find a number of sculptured fragments – battered sphinxes, torsos without legs, sitting figures without heads – in green, black, and red granite. Ranged in an irregular semicircle on the sward, they seem to sit in forlorn conclave, half solemn, half ludicrous, with the goats browsing round, and the little Arab children hiding behind them.

Near this, in another pool, lies another red granite colossus – not the fellow to that which we saw first, but a smaller one – also face downwards.

And this is all that remains of Memphis, eldest of cities – a few huge rubbish-heaps, a dozen or so of broken statues, and a name! One looks round, and tries in vain to realise the lost splendours of the place. Where is the Memphis that King Mena came from Thinis to found – the Memphis of Ouenephes, and Khufu, and Khafra, and all the early kings who built their pyramid-tombs in the adjacent dessert? Where is the Memphis of Herodotus, of Strabo, of ‘Abd-el-Latîf? Where are those stately ruins which, even in the middle ages, extended over a space estimated at “half a day’s journey in every direction”? One can hardly believe that a great city ever flourished on this spot, or understand how it should have been effaced so utterly. Yet here it stood – here where the grass is green, and the palms are growing, and the Arabs build their hovels on the verge of the inundation. The great colossus marks the site of the main entrance to the Temple of Ptah. It lies where it fell, and no man has moved it. That tranquil sheet of palm-fringed back-water, beyond which we see the village of Mitrâhîneh and catch a distant glimpse of the pyramids of Ghîzeh, occupies the basin of a vast artificial lake excavated by Mena. The very name of Memphis survives in the dialect of the fellah, who calls the place of the mounds Tell Monf12 – just as Sakkârah fossilises the name of Sokari, one of the special denominations of the Memphite Osiris.

No capital in the world dates so far back as this, or kept its place in history so long. Founded four thousand years before our era, it beheld the rise and fall of thirty-one dynasties; it survived the rule of the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman; it was, even in its decadence, second only to Alexandria in population and extent; and it continued to be inhabited up to the time of the Arab invasion. It then became the quarry from which Fostât was built; and as the new city rose on the eastern bank, the people of Memphis quickly abandoned their ancient capital to desolation and decay.

Still a vast field of ruins remained. Abd-el-Latîf, writing at the commencement of the thirteenth century, speaks with enthusiasm of the colossal statues and lions, the enormous pedestals, the archways formed of only three stones, the bas-reliefs and other wonders that were yet to be seen upon the spot. Marco Polo, if his wandering tastes had led him to the Nile, might have found some of the palaces and temples of Memphis still standing; and Sandys, who in A.D. 1610 went at least as far south of Cairo as Kafr el Iyat, says that “up the River for twenty miles space there was nothing but ruines.” Since then, however, the very “ruines” have vanished; the palms have had time to grow; and modern Cairo has doubtless absorbed all the building material that remained from the middle ages.

Memphis is a place to read about, and think about, and remember; but it is a disappointing thing to see. To miss it, however, would be to miss the first link in the whole chain of monumental history which unites the Egypt of antiquity with the world of to-day. Those melancholy mounds and that heron-haunted lake must be seen, if only that they may take their due place in the picture-gallery of one’s memory.

It had been a long day’s work, but it came to an end at last; and as we trotted our donkeys back towards the river, a gorgeous sunset was crimsoning the palms and pigeon-towers of Bedreshayn. Everything seemed now to be at rest. A buffalo, contemplatively chewing the cud, lay close against the path and looked at us without moving. The children and pigeons were gone to bed. The pots had baked in the sun and been taken in long since. A tiny column of smoke went up here and there from amid the clustered huts; but there was scarcely a moving creature to be seen. Presently we passed a tall, beautiful fellah woman standing grandly by the wayside, with her veil thrown back and falling in long folds to her feet. She smiled, put out her hand, and murmured “Bakhshîsh!” Her fingers were covered with rings, and her arms with silver braclets. She begged because to beg is honourable, and customary, and a matter of inveterate habit; but she evidently neither expected nor needed the bakhshîsh she condescended to ask for.

A few moments more and the sunset has faded, the village is left behind, the last half-mile of plain is trotted over. And now – hungry, thirsty, dusty, worn out with new knowledge, new impressions, new ideas – we are once more at home and at rest. 


1 The goolah, or kulleh, is a porous water-jar of sun-dried Nile mud. These jars are made of all sizes and in a variety of remarkably graceful forms, and cost from about one farthing to twopence apiece.

2 Some of these tiles are to be seen in the Egyptian department of the British Museum. They are not blue, but of a bluish green. For a view of the sepulchral chamber, see Maspero’s "Archæologie Egyptienne," Fig. 230, p. 256. [Note to the second edition.]

3 Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II were the last native Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, and flourished between B.C. 378 and B.C. 340. An earlier temple must have preceded the Serapeum built by Nectanebo I.

4 For an excellent and exact account of the Serapeum and the monuments there discovered, see M. Arthur Rhoné’s "L’Egypte en Petites Journées," of which a new edition is now in the press. [Note to second edition.]

5 These objects, known as “The Miramar Collection,” and catalogued by Professor Reinisch, are now removed to Vienna. [Note to second edition.]

6 A more exhaustive study of the funerary texts has of late revolutionised our interpretation of these, and similar sepulchral tableaux. The scenes they represent are not, as was supposed when this book was first written, mere episodes in the daily life of the deceased; but are links in the elaborate story of his burial and his ghostly existence after death. The corn is sown, reaped, and gathered in order that it may be ground and made into funerary cakes; the oxen, goats, gazelles, geese, and other live stock are destined for sacrificial offerings; the pots, and furniture, and household goods are for burying with the mummy in his tomb; and it is his “Ka,” or ghostly double, that takes part in these various scenes, and not the living man. [Note to second edition.]

7 These statues were not mere portrait-statues; but were designed as bodily habitations for the incorporeal ghost, or “Ka,” which it was supposed needed a body, food, and drink, and must perish everlastingly if not duly supplied with these necessaries. Hence the whole system of burying food-offerings, furniture, stuffs, etc., in ancient Egyptian sepulchres. [Note to second edition.]

8 The actual tomb of Prince Kha-em-uas has been found at Memphis by M. Maspero, within the last three or four years. [Note to second edition.]

9 The date is Mariette’s.

10 There was no worship of Apis in the days of King Ouenephes, nor, indeed, until the reign of Kaiechos, more than one hundred and twenty years after this time. But at some subsequent period of the Ancient Empire, his pyramid was appropriated by the priests of Memphis for the mummies of the Sacred Bulls. This, of course, was done before any of the known Apis-catacombs were excavated. There are doubtless many more of these catacombs yet undiscovered, nothing prior to the eighteenth dynasty having yet been found.

11 This colossus is now raised upon a brick pedestal. [Note to second edition.]

12 Tell: Arabic for mound. Many of these mounds preserve the ancient names of the cities they entomb; as Tell Basta (Bubastis); Kóm Ombo (Ombos); etc. etc. Tell and Kóm are synonymous terms.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.