Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XIX

The Pyramids

I went to see and to explore the Pyramids.

Familiar to one from the days of early childhood are the forms of the Egyptian Pyramids, and now, as I approached them from the banks of the Nile, I had no print, no picture before me, and yet the old shapes were there; there was no change; they were just as I had always known them. I straightened myself in my stirrups, and strived to persuade my understanding that this was real Egypt, and that those angles which stood up between me and the West were of harder stuff, and more ancient than the paper pyramids of the green portfolio. Yet it was not till I came to the base of the great Pyramid that reality began to weigh upon my mind. Strange to say, the bigness of the distinct blocks of stones was the first sign by which I attained to feel the immensity of the whole pile. When I came, and trod, and touched with my hands, and climbed, in order that by climbing I might come to the top of one single stone, then, and almost suddenly, a cold sense and understanding of the Pyramid’s enormity came down, overcasting my brain.

Now try to endure this homely, sick-nursish illustration of the effect produced upon one’s mind by the mere vastness of the great Pyramid. When I was very young (between the ages, I believe, of three and five years old), being then of delicate health, I was often in time of night the victim of a strange kind of mental oppression. I lay in my bed perfectly conscious, and with open eyes, but without power to speak or to move, and all the while my brain was oppressed to distraction by the presence of a single and abstract idea, the idea of solid immensity. It seemed to me in my agonies that the horror of this visitation arose from its coming upon me without form or shape, that the close presence of the direst monster ever bred in hell would have been a thousand times more tolerable than that simple idea of solid size. My aching mind was fixed and riveted down upon the mere quality of vastness, vastness, vastness, and was not permitted to invest with it any particular object. If I could have done so, the torment would have ceased. When at last I was roused from this state of suffering, I could not of course in those days (knowing no verbal metaphysics, and no metaphysics at all, except by the dreadful experience of an abstract idea) — I could not of course find words to describe the nature of my sensations, and even now I cannot explain why it is that the forced contemplation of a mere quality, distinct from matter, should be so terrible. Well, now my eyes saw and knew, and my hands and my feet informed my understanding that there was nothing at all abstract about the great Pyramid — it was a big triangle, sufficiently concrete, easy to see, and rough to the touch; it could not, of course, affect me with the peculiar sensation which I have been talking of, but yet there was something akin to that old nightmare agony in the terrible completeness with which a mere mass of masonry could fill and load my mind.

And Time too; the remoteness of its origin, no less than the enormity of its proportions, screens an Egyptian Pyramid from the easy and familiar contact of our modern minds; at its base the common earth ends, and all above is a world — one not created of God, not seeming to be made by men’s hands, but rather the sheer giant-work of some old dismal age weighing down this younger planet.

Fine sayings! but the truth seems to be after all, that the Pyramids are quite of this world; that they were piled up into the air for the realisation of some kingly crotchets about immortality, some priestly longing for burial fees; and that as for the building, they were built like coral rocks by swarms of insects — by swarms of poor Egyptians, who were not only the abject tools and slaves of power, but who also ate onions for the reward of their immortal labours! 37 The Pyramids are quite of this world.

I of course ascended to the summit of the great Pyramid, and also explored its chambers, but these I need not describe. The first time that I went to the Pyramids of Ghizeh there were a number of Arabs hanging about in its neighbourhood, and wanting to receive presents on various pretences; their Sheik was with them. There was also present an ill-looking fellow in soldier’s uniform. This man on my departure claimed a reward, on the ground that he had maintained order and decorum amongst the Arabs. His claim was not considered valid by my dragoman, and was rejected accordingly. My donkey-boys afterwards said they had overhead this fellow propose to the Sheik to put me to death whilst I was in the interior of the great Pyramid, and to share with him the booty. Fancy a struggle for life in one of those burial chambers, with acres and acres of solid masonry between one’s self and the daylight! I felt exceedingly glad that I had not made the rascal a present.

I visited the very ancient Pyramids of Aboukir and Sakkara. There are many of these, and of various shapes and sizes, and it struck me that, taken together, they might be considered as showing the progress and perfection (such as it is) of pyramidical architecture. One of the Pyramids at Sakkara is almost a rival for the full-grown monster at Ghizeh; others are scarcely more than vast heaps of brick and stone: these last suggested to me the idea that after all the Pyramid is nothing more nor less than a variety of the sepulchral mound so common in most countries (including, I believe, Hindustan, from whence the Egyptians are supposed to have come). Men accustomed to raise these structures for their dead kings or conquerors would carry the usage with them in their migrations, but arriving in Egypt, and seeing the impossibility of finding earth sufficiently tenacious for a mound, they would approximate as nearly as might be to their ancient custom by raising up a round heap of stones — in short, conical pyramids. Of these there are several at Sakkara, and the materials of some are thrown together without any order or regularity. The transition from this simple form to that of the square angular pyramid was easy and natural, and it seemed to me that the gradations through which the style passed from infancy up to its mature enormity could plainly be traced at Sakkara.

37 Herodotus, in an after age, stood by with his note-book, and got, as he thought, the exact returns of all the rations served out.

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