Sketches, by Benjamin Disraeli

The Valley of Thebes

Upper Egypt is a river flowing through a desert; the banks on each side affording a narrow margin of extreme fertility. Rocks of granite and hills of sand form, at slight intervals, through a course of sev-earl hundred miles, a chain of valleys, reaching from the rapids of the Nile to the vicinity of Cairo. In one of these valleys, the broadest and the most picturesque, about half-way between the cataracts and the modern capital, we find the most ancient, the most considerable, and the most celebrated of architectural remains. For indeed no Greek, or Sicilian, or Latin city — Athens, or Agrigentum, or Rome; nor the platforms of Persepolis, nor the columns of Palmyra, can vie for a moment in extent, variety, and sublime dimensions, with the ruins of ancient Thebes.

These remains may be classed, generally, in four considerable divisions: two of these great quarters of ruins being situated on each side of the river Nile — Karnak and Luxor towards the Red Sea; the Memnonion and Medcenet Habu towards the great Libyan Desert. On this side, also, are the cemeteries of the great city — the mummy-caves of Gornou, two miles in extent; above them, excavated in the mountains, are the tombs of the queens; and in the adjacent valley of Beban-el-Maluk, the famous tombs of the kings.

The population of the city of a hundred gates now consists of a few Arab families, who form four villages of mud huts, clustered round those gigantic columns and those mighty obelisks, a single one of which is sought for by the greatest sovereigns of Europe for their palaces and museums. Often, indeed, have I seen a whole Arab village rising from the roof of a single Egyptian temple. Dendera is an instance. The population of Gornou, numbering between three and four hundred, resides solely in the tombs.

I think that Luxor, from its situation, usually first attracts the notice of the traveller. It is close on the river, and is built on a lofty platform. Its enormous columns are the first specimens of that colossal genius of the Pharaohs, which the Ptolemies never attempted to rival. The entrance to this temple is through a magnificent propylon;-that is, a portal flanked by massy pyramidal moles. It is two hundred feet in breadth, and rises nearly sixty feet above the soil. This gate is entirely covered with sculpture, commemorating the triumph of a conquering monarch.

On each side of the portal are two colossal statues of red granite, buried in the sand up to their shoulders, but measuring thence, to the top of their crowns, upwards of twenty feet. On each side of them, a little in advance, at the time of my visit, were the two most perfect obelisks remaining. One of them is now at Paris; — that famous obelisk of Luxor, of which we have heard so much. From the propylon, you pass into a peristyle court — about two hundred and thirty feet long, by one hundred and seventy — the roof of which was once supported by double rows of columns, many of which now remain: and so on through other pyramidal gates, and courts, and porticoes, and chambers, which are, in all probability, of a more ancient date than those first described.

From Luxor you proceed to Karnak, the other great division on this side of the river, through an avenue of sphinxes, considerably above a mile in extent, though much broken. All the marvels of the world sink before the first entrance into Karnak. It is the Alps-the Andes — of architecture. The obelisks of Luxor may be unrivalled; the sculptures of Medoenet Habu more exquisite; the colossus of the Memnonion more gigantic; the paintings of the royal tombs more curious and instructive: but criticism ceases before the multifarious wonders of the halls and courts of Karnak, and the mind is open only to one general impression of colossal variety.

I well remember the morning when I stood before the propylon, or chief entrance of Karnak. The silver stars were still shining in the cold blue heaven, that afforded a beautiful relief to the mighty structure, built of a light yellow stone, and quite unstained by the winds of three thousand years. The front of this colossal entrance is very much broader than the front of our cathedral of St. Paul, and its height exceeds that of the Trajan column. It is entirely without sculpture — a rare omission, and doubtless intended that the unity of effect should not be broken. The great door in the centre is sixty-four feet in height.

Through this you pass into colonnaded courts, which in any other place would command undivided attention, until you at length arrive in front of a second propylon. Ascending a flight of steps, you enter the great hall of Karnak. The area of this hall is nearly fifty-eight thousand square feet, and it has recently been calculated that four such churches as our St. Martin’s-inthe-Fields might stand side by side in this unrivalled chamber without occupying the whole space. The roof, formed of single stones — compared with which the masses at Stonehenge would appear almost bricks — has fallen in; but the one hundred and thirty-four colossal columns which supported it, and which are considerably above thirty feet in circumference, still remain, and with the walls and propyla are completely covered with sculptured forms.

I shall not attempt to describe any other part of Karnak;-the memory aches with the effort. There are many buildings attached to it, larger than most temples; and infinite number of gates and obelisks, and colossi; but the imagination cannot refrain from calling up some sacred or heroic procession, moving from Luxor to Karnak, in melodious pomp, through the great avenue of sphinxes, and ranging themselves in groups around the gigantic columns of this sublime structure. What feudal splendour, and what Gothic ceremonies; what tilts and tournaments, and what ecclesiastical festivals, could rival the vast, the beautiful, and the solemn magnificence of the old Egyptians?

Crossing the river to Western Thebes, we arrive at two seated colossi, one of which is the famous musical statue of Memnon. It is fine to see him still seated on his throne, dignified and serene, on the plain of Thebes. This colossus is fifty feet in height; and its base is covered with inscriptions of Greek and Roman travellers, vouching that they had listened to the wild sunrise melody. This statue and its remaining companion, though now isolated in their situation, were once part of an enormous temple, the ruins of which yet remain, and the plan of which may yet be traced.

The Memnonion itself is now near at hand. In the colossal Caryatides we recognise the vast genius that excavated the rocks of Ipsambul, and supported a cavern temple upon the heads of giants. From the Memnonion came the statue that is now in the British Museum. But this figure, though a fine specimen of Egyptian sculpture, sinks, so far as magnitude is concerned, into insignificance, when compared with the statue of the supposed Sesostris, which, broken off at the waist, now lies prostrate in the precincts of the sanctuary. This is, probably, the most huge colossus that the Egyptians ever constructed. The fragment is of red granite, and of admirable workmanship. Unfortunately, the face is entirely obliterated. It lies upon its back, and in its fall has destroyed all the temple within reach. It measures more than sixty feet round the shoulders, the breadth of the instep is nearly seven feet, and the hieroglyphical figures engraven on the arm are large enough for a man to walk in.

Perhaps the most interesting group of ruins at Thebes is the quarter of Medoenet Habu, for here, among other vast remains, is that of a palace; and it is curious, among other domestic subjects, that we find represented on the walls, in a very admirable style, a Pharaoh playing chess with his queen. It is these domestic details that render also the sepulchres of Thebes so interesting. The arts of the Egyptians must be studied in their tombs; and to learn how this remarkable people lived, we must frequent their burial-places. A curious instance of this is, that, in a tomb near Beni-hassan, we learn by what process the Egyptians procured from the distant quarries of Nubia those masses of granite with which they raised the columns of Karnak and the obelisks of Luxor.

If I were called upon to describe in a word the principal and primary characteristic of Egyptian architecture, I should at once say Imagination, as Grace is the characteristic of the architecture of the Greeks. Thus, when the Ptolemies assumed the sceptre of the Pharaohs, they blended the delicate taste of Ionia t with the rich invention of the Nile, and produced Philoe, Dendera, and Edfou. It is from the Pharaohs, however, that you must seek for the vast and the gigantic: the pyramid, the propylon, the colossus, the catacomb, the obelisk, and the sphinx.

It was in the early part of the year of the invasion of Syria by the Egyptians, some eight years gone, that I first visited Thebes. My barque was stowed against the bank of the river, near the Memnonion; the last beam of the sun, before it sunk behind the Libyan hills, quivered on the columns of Luxor; the Nubian crew, after their long and laborious voyage, were dispersed on shore; and I was myself reposing in the shade, almost unattended, when a Turk, well mounted, and followed by his pipe-bearer, and the retinue that accompanies an Oriental of condition, descended from the hills which contain the tombs of the queens, and approached the boat. I was surprised, on advancing to welcome him, to be hailed in my native tongue; and pleased, at such a moment and in such a place, to find a countryman. While we smoked the pipe of salutation, he told me that he had lived at Thebes for nearly ten years, studying the antiquities, the history, and the manners of its ancient inhabitants. I availed myself of his invitation to his residence, and, accompanying him, I found that I was a visitor in a tomb, and yet by no means a gloomy dwelling-place. A platform, carved in the mountain, was surrounded by a mud wall and tower, to protect it from hostile Arabs. A couple of gazelles played in this front court, while we, reposing on a divan, arranged round the first chamber of the tomb, were favoured with a most commanding view of the valley outspread beneath. There were several inner chambers, separated from each other by hangings of scarlet cloth. Many apartments in the Albany have I seen not half as pleasant and convenient. I found a library, and instruments of art and science; a companion full of knowledge, profound in Oriental manners, and thoroughly master of the subject which naturally then most interested me. Our repast was strictly Eastern, but the unusual convenience of forks was not wanting, and my host told me that they were the very ones that he had used at Exeter College. I shall never forget that first day at Thebes, and this my first interview with one then unknown to fame, but whom the world has since recognised — the learned, the ingenious, and amiable Mr. Wilkinson.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19