May 10, 2012

Modern Life Overshadows the Past, 1910 | Walking Through Egypt

Modern Life Overshadows the Past, 1910
Pierre Loti


The thing that dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six miles away, is the Winter Palace, a hasty modern production which has grown on the border of the Nile over the last year: a colossal hotel, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud, on a framework of iron. Twice or three times as high as the Pharaonic temple, its impudent facade rises there, painted a dirty yellow. One such thing, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy Osiridean columns admire themselves in vain in the waters of the river. It is the end of Luxor. And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the opposite bank seems so absolutely desert like, with its stretches of golden sand and, on the horizon, its mountains of the colour of glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.

Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats, a sort of two or three storeyed barracks, which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo to the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos make an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my dahabiya, where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to disturb me?

We can now see nothing of the palaces of Thebes, whither I am to repair in the evening. We are farther from them than we were last night. The apparition during our morning’s journey had slowly receded in the plains flooded by sunlight. And then the Winter Palace and the new boats shut out the View. ... In a line with the Winter Palace a number of stalls follow one another. All those things with which our tourists are wont to array themselves are on sale there; fans, fly traps, helmets and blue spectacles. And, in thousands, photographs of the ruins. And there too are the toys, the souvenirs of the Soudan: old Negro knives, pan- ther-skins and gazelle horns. Numbers of Indians even are come to this improvised fair, bringing their stuffs from Rajputana and Cashmere. And, above all, there are dealers in mummies, offering for sale mysteriously shaped coffins, mummy-cloths, dead hands, gods, scarabs: and the thousand and one things that this old soil has yielded for centuries like an inexhaustible mine.

Along the stalls, keeping in the shade of the houses and the scattered palms, pass representatives of the plutocracy of the world. Dressed by the same costumiers, bedecked in the same plumes, and with faces reddened by the same sun, the millionaire daughters of the Chicago merchants elbow their sisters of the old nobility. Pressing amongst them impudent young Bedouins pester the fair travellers to mount their saddled donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a note of beauty, the battalions of Mr. Cook, of both sexes, and always in a hurry, pass by with long strides.

Beyond the shops, following the lines of the quay, there are other hotels. Less aggressive, all of them, than the Winter Palace, they have had the discretion not to raise themselves too high, and to cover their fronts with white chalk in the Arab fashion, even to conceal themselves in clusters of palm-trees.

And finally there is the colossal temple of Luxor, looking as out of place now as the poor obelisk which Egypt gave us as a present, and which stands today in the Place de la Concorde.

The site of Kamak Temple still overpowers and astounds today. It was once much more derelict, with columns fallen or broken and the dust of ages clogging up the ruins. Yet, even in that state, it vied with the Pyramids for its impact upon visitors. Vivant Denon and the French army halted here in 1798. Amelia Edwards stood in silent awe in the First Court, and her excerpt is wonderful to read in that very place. Howard Hopley tried to describe the parts of the temple and realized that it is the whole that overwhelms one. Princess Bibescu dined high in the propylon with a sense of magic.

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