Sketches, by Benjamin Disraeli

Egyptian Thebes

The characteristic of Egyptian architecture is Imagination; of Grecian architecture, Grace. When the Ptolemies assumed the sceptre of the Pharaohs, they blended the delicate taste of Ionia with the rich invention of the Nile; and they produced the most splendid creations of architectural power that can now be witnessed. Such is the refined Philoe — such the magnificent Dendera — such the sumptuous Edfou!

All the architectural remains of the most famous nations and the greatest empires — the amphitheatres, and arches, and columns of the Romans; the fanes of the Greeks; the temples of the Syrians and Sicilians; the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the courts of Baalbec, the pillars of Palmyra and Girgenti — sink into insignificance when compared with the structures that line the banks of an African river. The mind makes a leap amid their vastness, their variety, and their number. New combinations rise upon our limited invention and contract the taste — the pyramid, the propylon, the colossus, the catacomb, the obelisk, the sphinx.

Take the map; trace the windings of the mysterious stream, whose source baffles even this age of enterprise, and which remains unknown even when the Niger is discovered. It flows through a wilderness. On one side are the interminable wastes of Libya; on the other, a rocky desert, leading to the ocean: yet its banks are fertile as a garden; and within 150 miles of the sea it divides into two branches, which wind through an immense plain, once the granary of the world.

A Nubian passed me in a state of nudity, armed with a poisoned spear, and guarded by the skin of a hippopotamus, formed into a shield. In this country, the animal called man is fine, although his wants are few — some rice, a calabash of palm wine, and the fish he himself spears. Are his ancestors the creators of the adjoining temple, covered with beautiful sculptures, and supported by colossal figures fifty feet in height? It is well to ponder, by the roar of the cataracts of the Nile, over the perfectibility of man.

A light has at length broken into the darkness of Egyptian ages; and although we cannot discover the source of the Nile, we can at least decipher its hieroglyphics. Those who are ignorant of the study are incredulous as to its fruits; they disbelieve in the sun, because they are dazzled by its beams. A popular miscellany is not the place to enter into a history, or a vindication, of the phonetic system. I am desirous here only of conveying to the general reader, in an intelligible manner, some idea of the discoveries that are now unfolding themselves to the Egyptian antiquarian, and of wandering with him for a moment amid the marvellous creations of the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies, with a talisman which shall unfold for his instruction and amusement their mystical and romantic history.

I approach this mighty temple. A goose and globe, encircled in an oval, at once inform me that it was constructed by a ‘Son of the Sun,’ or a ‘Phrah,’ or ‘Pharaoh.’ It is remarkable that the Greeks never once mention this memorable title, simply because they have always translated it by their celebrated personification, ‘Sol,’ or ‘Apollo.’ In the obelisk of Hermapion, given by Ammianus Marcellinus, we should therefore read, in the third column, instead of ‘the powerful Apollo,’ ‘the powerful Phrah, the all-splendid Son of the Sun.’ Proceeding with the inscription, I also discover that the temple was constructed by Rameses the Second, a monarch of whom we have more to hear, and who also raised some of the most wonderful monuments of Thebes.

The first step of the Egyptian student should be to eradicate from his mind all recollection of ancient authors. When he has arrived at his own results, he may open Herodotus with interest, read Diodorus with suspicion; but, above all, he will then learn to estimate the value of the hitherto reviled Manetho, undoubtedly the fragments of the work of a genuine Egyptian writer. The history and theology of ancient Egypt must be studied on the sculptured walls of its palaces and temples, breathing with sacred mysteries and heroic warfare; its manners and customs in its catacombs and sepulchres, where the painter has celebrated the minutest traits of the social life and the domestic economy of the most ancient of nations.

Even in the time of Strabo, Egyptian Thebes was a city of enormous ruins, the origin of which no antiquary could penetrate. We now know by the inscriptions we decipher that these mighty monuments chiefly celebrate the achievements of a great conqueror — Rameses the Second, or the Great, whom the most rigid critic would be rash to place later than fifteen hundred years before Christ. These great creations, therefore, demonstrate the mature civilisation of Egypt far beyond three thousand years back. Rameses and his illustrious predecessors, the Thothmes and the Amunophs, are described as monarchs of the eighteenth dynasty. Thothmes the Fourth, one of these ancestors, cut the great Sphinx of the Pyramids; as for the Pyramids themselves, it is now undeniable that they were not raised at the comparatively late period ascribed to them by Herodotus and Diodorus. No monuments in Egypt can be compared in antiquity with these buildings; and the names of the predecessors of Rameses the Great are found in their vicinity, evidently sculptured at a much later epoch. ‘The Pyramids are at least ten thousand years old,’ said Champollion to a friend of mine in Egypt, rubbing his hands, with eyes sparkling with all the enthusiasm of triumphant research.

It is highly probable that Rameses the Great was the Sesostris of Herodotus. This name is entirely a Greek invention, and is found on no Egyptian monuments. The splendid tomb, first opened by Belzoni, in the Valley of the Kings, is of the grandfather of this monarch — Rameses the First. It is evident from the Theban sculptures and inscriptions, that Rameses and his predecessors were engaged in a long war with a most powerful enemy,’ and that that enemy was an Oriental people, a nation with fair countenances and flowing robes, dwelling in a hilly and well-wooded country. It is probable that this nation was the Assyrians, who, according to ancient writers, invaded Egypt under Ninus and Semiramis. Thothmes the Third and Fourth, Amunoph, and Rameses the First, carried on this war with uncertain success. The successor of Rameses the First, whose phonetic name is doubtful, was not unworthy of the son whom the gods accorded to him as a reward for his valour and magnificence. This anonymous sovereign led the war in person, and probably against degenerate princes. On the walls of Karnak — a sculptured scroll, more durable than those of his poets and historians — we find him in his triumphal chariot, leading a host of infantry and chariots, attacking fortified places, defended by lofty walls and surrounded by water. The enemy is seen clearing their country in advance, driving away their cattle, and felling forests to impede the progress of the invader’s chariots; but at length the victorious Pharaoh returns to his Nile with crowds of prisoners, bearing every variety of rich and fantastic tribute.

The son of this chieftain was Rameses the Second, or the Great. Following the example of his illustrious predecessor, he soon led a numerous and chosen army to extend the Oriental conquests of the Egyptians. He passed along the sea-coast of a country, which is, without doubt, Syria, since the name of Rameses the Second is still found on that shore, near the ancient Berytus and modern Beirut. He continued his march into the interior, where we at length find him opposed by a powerful force on the banks of a great river, probably the Euphrates. On the opposite bank of the river is a vast and strongly-fortified city. The battle is fought and won. The Orientals are defeated, and sue for peace. The city is not represented as taken, yet sieges are often sculptured on these walls, and the Egyptian army is always supplied with scaling-ladders and the testudo. And what was this city? Was it Babylon? Was it Nineveh? How wonderful is it at this remote period, to read for the first time, the Gazettes of the Pharaohs! It does not appear to have been the object of the Egyptians to make a permanent settlement in these conquered countries. They laid waste the land, they accumulated plunder, they secured peace by the dread of their arms, and, returning home with the same rapidity that they advanced, they enjoyed and commemorated their victories in the embellishment of their majestic cities. The remainder of the long reign of Rameses the Great was passed in the cultivation of the arts. A greater number of monuments, statues, and temples bear the name of this king than of any other who ruled in Egypt, and there are few remains of any city in that country where it is not met with. To him we are indebted alike for the rock temples of Nubia, and the inimitable obelisks of Luxor. He raised that splendid structure on the western side of Thebes, supported by colossal statues, which is foolishly styled the Memnonion; he made great additions to Karnak; he built the temple of Osiris at Abydus; he adorned the great temple of Memphis with colossal statues, for which he evidently had a passion; and, finally, amid a vast number of other temples, especially in Nubia, which it would be tedious to recount, and other remains, he cut the famous Monticoelian obelisk now at Rome. Whatever may have been the actions recorded of Sesostris, one thing is certain, that no Egyptian king ever surpassed or equalled the second Rameses. Let us then allow that history has painted in too glowing colours the actions of the former-too great for the limited power of Europe — and remain persuaded, that, so far from aiming at the conquest of the world, the utmost extent of his march was confined to the countries bordering on Assyria, Arabia, and part of Æthiopia, from which country he is represented as receiving tribute. The conquests of Rameses the Second secured a long peace to Egypt. The reigns of his two successors, however, are celebrated for the creation of the great avenue of sphinxes at Thebes, leading from Luxor to Karnak, a mile and a quarter in extent, a sumptuous evidence of the prosperity of Egypt and of the genius of the Pharaohs. War, however, broke out again under Rameses the Third, but certainly against another power, and it would appear a naval power. Returning victorious, the third Rameses added a temple to Karnak, and raised the temple and the palace of Medcenet Habu. Here closes the most interesting period of Egyptian history. A long succession of princes, many of whom bore the name of Rameses, followed, but, so far as we can observe, they were distinguished neither in architecture nor war. There are reasons which may induce us to believe that the Trojan war happened during the reign of the third Rameses. The poetical Memnon is not found in Egyptian records. The name is not Egyptian, although it may be a corruption. It is useless to criticise this invention of the lying Greeks, to whose blinded conceit and carelessness we are indebted for the almost total darkness in which the records of antiquity are enveloped. The famous musical statue of Memnon is still seated on its throne, dignified and serene, on the plain of Thebes. It is a colossus, fifty feet in height, and the base of the figure is covered with inscriptions of the Greek and Roman travellers, vouching that they had listened to the wild sunrise melody. The learned and ingenious Mr. Wilkinson, who has resided at Thebes upwards of ten years, studying the monuments of Egypt, appears to me to have solved the mystery of this music. He informed me that having ascended the statue, he discovered that some metallic substance had been inserted in its breast, which, when struck, emitted a very melodious sound. From the attitude of the statue, a priest might easily have ascended in the night, and remained completely concealed behind the mighty arms while he struck the breast; or, which is not improbable, there was probably some secret way to ascend, now blocked up; for this statue, with its remaining companion, although 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. Thanks to the phonetic system, we now know that this musical statue is one of Amunoph the Second, who lived many centuries before the Trojan war. The truth is, the Greeks, who have exercised almost as fatal an influence over modern knowledge as they have a beneficial one over modern taste, had no conception of anything more ancient than the Trojan war, except Chaos. Chaos is a poetic legend, and the Trojan war was the squabble of a few marauding clans.

‘Where are the records of the great Assyrian monarchy? Where are the books of the Medes and Persians? Where the learned annals of Pharaohs?

‘Fortunate Jordan! Fortunate Ilissus! I have waded through the sacred waters; with difficulty I traced the scanty windings of the classic stream. Alas! for the exuberant Tigris; alas! for the mighty Euphrates; alas! for the mysterious Nile!’

It is curious that no allusion whatever to the Jews has yet turned up on any Egyptian monuments. But upon the walls of Medoenet Habu I observed, more than once repeated, the Ark borne in triumph. This is not a fanciful resemblance. It responds in every particular.

I have noticed the history of Ancient Egypt, because some knowledge of it is necessary to illustrate Thebes. I quit a subject which, however curious, is probably of too confined an interest for the general reader, and I enter in his company the City of the Hundred Gates.

The Nile winds through the valley of Thebes — a valley formed by ranges of mountains, which on one side defend it from the great Lybian desert, and on the other from the rocky wilderness that leads to the Red Sea. On each side of the stream are two great quarters of ruins. On the side of the Red Sea are Luxor and Karnak, on the opposite bank the great temple called the Memnonion, and the various piles which, under the general title of Medoenet Habu, in all probability among other structures comprise the principal palace of the more ancient Pharaohs. On the Lybian side, also, are the cemeteries of the great city-the mummy caves of Gornou, two miles in extent; above them, excavated in the mountains, 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 the Hundred Gates now consists of a few Arab families, who form four villages of mud huts clustered round those gigantic columns and mighty obelisks, a single one of which is sought for by the greatest sovereigns of Europe for their palaces and museums as the rarest of curious treasures. 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, in number between three and four hundred, reside solely in the tombs.

I think that Luxor, from its situation, 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 specimen 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 Rameses the Great over the supposed Assyrians. 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, rise the two most perfect obelisks that remain, also of red granite, and each about eighty feet high. 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 the gates and obelisks and colossi first described, which last were perhaps added by Rameses, who commemorated his triumph by rendering a celebrated building still more famous.

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; and here I should observe that Egyptian sphinxes are either andro or crio sphinxes, the one formed by the union of the lion with the man, and the other of the lion with the ram. Their mystery is at length penetrated. They are male and never female. They are male and they are monarchs. This great avenue, extending from Luxor to Karnak, was raised by the two immediate successors of the great Rameses, and represents their long line of ancestry.

All the marvels of the world sink before the first entrance into Karnak. It may vie with the Alps and the Andes. The obelisks of Luxor may be unrivalled, the sculptures of Medcenet Habu more exquisite, the colossus of 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 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’s, and its height exceeds that of the Trajan column. It is entirely without sculptures, a rare omission, and doubtless intended, that the unity of the effect should not be broken. The great door in the centre is sixty-four feet in height.

Through this you pass into columned 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; there are an 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 glorious groups around the gigantic columns of this sublime structure. What feudal splendour, and what Gothic ceremonies, what tilts and tournaments, and what ecclesiastic festivals, could rival the vast, the beautiful, and solemn magnificence of the old Egyptians?

Crossing the river to Western Thebes, we arrive at the two seated colossi, one of which I have already noticed as the musical Memnon. These doubtless once guarded the entrance of some temple more ancient than any remaining, for they were raised by Amunoph the Second, a predecessor, by some generations, of the great Rameses. They were, doubtless, once seated on each side of a propylon, as at Luxor, and in all probability were flanked by obelisks. Whether the temple were destroyed for materials, for more recent structures, or whether it has sunk under the accumulations of the slimy soil, may be decided by the future excavator.

We arrive at the Memnonion. This temple was raised by Rameses the Great. In the colossal Caryatides we recognise the same 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 Rameses himself, 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. The statue 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 Medcenet Habu. Most of the buildings are of the time of Rameses the Third.

The sculptured walls of the great temples, covered with battles, chariots, captives, and slaves, have been worthily described by the vivid pen of Mr. Hamilton. They celebrate the victorious campaigns of the monarch. Here also the Third Rameses raised his palace. And it is curious, among other domestic subjects, that we find represented on the walls, in a very admirable style, Rameses playing chess with his Queen. Chess is, probably, a most ancient Oriental game. Rameses the Third lived before the Trojan war, to which the Greeks, as usual, ascribe the invention of chess.

The sepulchres of Thebes still remain to be described, a theme more fertile in interest and instruction than even its palaces and temples. The arts of the Egyptians must be studied in their tombs, and to learn how this remarkable people lived, we must even go where they were buried. To cite no other instances in a sketch which is already too long, it is from a painting in a tomb near Beni-hassan that we learn how the Egyptians procured from the distant quarries of Nubia those masses of stone and granite with which they raised the columns of Karnak and the obelisks of Luxor.

But we must conclude. We have touched a virgin subject rich with delightful knowledge, and if our readers be not wearied with wandering on the banks of the Nile, we may perhaps again introduce them to the company of the Pharaohs.

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