May 15, 2012

To Philae after the Dam, 1908 | Walking Through Egypt

To Philae after the Dam, 1908
Sir Gaston Maspero

Philae Temple

We must take half an hour’s journey by train, first through one of the native suburbs of Assouan, then in sight of a horde of Bicharis encamped on the outskirts of the suburb so as to give the tourists an impression of life in the desert, and lastly along a monotonous slope of rocks and reddish sand. The train is a real Paris suburban train, with its carriages too old for the service of the long-distance lines, with an old-fashioned locomotive, a great boiler stuck on wheels, which will resolutely do its fifteen miles an hour if the driver will let it. It goes painfully panting over the slope until at last straight in front of it, above the line of sandstone that just now bounded the horizon, there slowly come into view mounds of blackish granite and a blue-grey plain flooded with light in which the currents thread their way and cross each other. Groups of dying palms or withered acacias are set in the water in front of the embankment itself, marking the outline of the ancient banks, and a mass of submerged buildings of different heights seem as if fallen into the middle of the basin pylons, colonnades, kiosks, tops of temples exactly what is to be seen of Philae between December 15th of one year and May 15th of the following year. We get out of the train and embark, and coast successively the sanctuary of Isis, the propylaea of Hadrian, the Quay Wall on the east, and doubling at the spot where the obelisk of Nectanebo formerly marked the landing-stage of the ancient place of disembarkation, we arrive between the two porticoes of Augustus and Tiberius. We go through the monumental door, almost at the level of the inscription engraved by the French soldiers of Desaix, and passing through the courtyard reach the top step of the grand staircase. The water flows noisily from the house of the priests of Isis to the chapel of Hathor, then it runs to the right of the pronaos through the postern that opened on to the propylaea of Trajan and Hadrian. We seem to be transported unawares into one of the fantastic havens bordered with watch-towers and palaces that the Romans of the Imperial epoch were fond of painting on the walls.

Tourists may still go dryshod over the place of disembarkation, the hypostyle, the Holy of Holies, the courtyard and Chamber of the New Year, the portions of buildings grouped in front or on the sides of the naos, and the corridors that form communications between them. At least the Nile only wets them exceptionally when the north wind, stirring the water, raises waves which flow through the halls. But if the water only seldom flows over the pavements, its presence is felt everywhere in the veinings and under the outer layer of the stone. Without possibility of preventing its progress, it has silently filtered through from bottom to top, by rills as fine as hairs, and between two inundations has impregnated the entire fabric. The walls look damp to the eye and are damp to the fingers if they are touched. The sandstone has shed the grey granulated covering, the dryness of which had clothed it for centuries, and it slowly resumes the yellowish colour it had in the quarry. The faded and dirty colours which here and there clothe the figures of the gods or the architectural ornaments are strengthened and revived by the damp. Even the celebrated capitals of the pronaos have less dry and inharmonious tones than formerly. The reds, blues, yellows, and greens have insensibly run into each other at the edges under the persistent influence of the dampness acting behind them in the stone: and while this interior work softens and shades them, the reflections of the ever-moving water which light them from below through the bay of the pylon make the colours vibrate delightfully.

Their beauty should be enjoyed while it remains entire, for work is still going on at the barrage on that side. The granite causeway is being enlarged, since it no longer offers a sufficiently firm base for new courses of masonry, and the rocks of the Cataract, blasted every day, provide the material which will allow the engineers to raise the present plan of the reservoir six or seven yards. And in five or six years nearly all that was spared in 1902 will be delivered up to the flood. It will flow over the threshold of the doors, it will invade without hindrance the parts provisionally guarded from it, it will deliberately attack the walls, and will not desist until it has reached the prescribed level. The figures of divinities and kings who meet or pursue one another from the plinth to the frieze, presenting and accepting the offering, prostrated, bowed, ranged in ceremonious rows, will be gradually drowned the feet one day, then the knees, the loins, the bust, the head so that nothing of them more will be seen, and the mystery of the worship of Isis will be for ever hidden. A sort of rectangular balustrade will mark the site of the kiosk of Traj an.

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