Isis - The Temple of Isis at Philae
A Thousand Miles Up the Nile
By Amelia Edwards
Having been for so many days within easy reach of Philæ, it is not to be supposed that we were content till now with only an occasional glimpse of its towers in the distance. On the contrary, we had found our way thither towards the close of almost every day's excursion. We had approached it by land from the desert ; by water in the felucca ; from Mahatta by way of the path between the cliffs and the river. When I add that we moored here for a night and the best part of two days on our way up the river, and again for a week when we came down, it will be seen that we had time to learn the lovely island by heart.
The approach by water is quite the most beautiful. Seen from the level of a small boat, the island, with its palms, its colonnades, its pylons, seems to rise out of the river like a mirage. Piled rocks frame it in on either side, and purple mountains close up the distance. As the boat glides nearer between glistening boulders, those sculptured towers rise higher and ever higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or of age. All looks solid, stately, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air – if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God, were to come sweeping round between the palms and the pylons – we should not think it strange.
Most travellers land at the end nearest the Cataract ; so coming upon the principal temple from behind, and seeing it in reverse order. We, however, bid our Arabs row round to the southern end, where was once a stately landing-place with steps down to the river. We skirt the steep banks, and pass close under the beautiful little roofless Temple commonly known as Pharaoh's Bed – that Temple which has been so often painted, so often photographed, that every stone of it, and the platform on which it stands, and the tufted palms that cluster about it, have been since childhood as familiar to our mind's eye as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. It is larger, but not one jot less beautiful than we had expected. And it is exactly like the photographs. Still, one is conscious of perceiving a shade of difference too subtle for analysis ; like the difference between a familiar face and the reflection of it in a looking-glass. Anyhow, one feels that the real Pharoah's Bed will henceforth displace the photographs in that obscure mental pigeon-hole where till now one has been wont to store the well-known image ; and that even the photographs have undergone some kind of change.
And now the corner is rounded ; and the river widens away southwards between mountains and palm-groves ; and the prow touches the débris of a ruined quay. The bank is steep here. We climb ; and a wonderful scene opens before our eyes. We are standing at the lower end of a courtyard leading up to the propylons of the great Temple. The courtyard is irregular in shape, and enclosed on either side by covered colonnades. The colonnades are of unequal lengths and set at different angles. One is simply a covered walk ; the other opens upon a row of small chambers, like a monastic cloister opening upon a row of cells. The roofing-stones of these colonnades are in part displaced, while here and there a pillar or a capital is missing ; but the twin towers of the propylon, standing out in sharp unbroken lines against the sky and covered with colossal sculptures, are as perfect, or very nearly as perfect, as in the days of the Ptolemies who built them.
The broad area between the colonnades is honeycombed with crude-brick foundations ; vestiges of a Coptic village of early Christian time. Among these we thread our way to the foot of the principal propylon, the entire width of which is 120 feet. The towers measure 60 feet from base to parapet. These dimensions are insignificant for Egypt ; yet the propylon, which would look small at Luxor or Karnak, does not look small at Philæ. The key-note here is not magnitude, but beauty. The island is small – that is to say it covers an area about equal to the summit of the Acropolis at Athens ; and the scale of the buildings has been determined by the size of the island. As at Athens, the ground is occupied by one principal Temple of moderate size, and several subordinate Chapels. Perfect grace, exquisite proportion, most varied and capricious grouping, here take the place of massiveness ; so lending to Egyptian forms an irregularity of treatment that is almost Gothic, and a lightness that is almost Greek.
And now we catch glimpses of an inner court, of a second propylon, of a pillared portico beyond ; while, looking up to the colossal bas-reliefs above our heads, we see the usual mystic forms of kings and deities, crowned, enthroned, worshipping and worshipped. These sculptures, which at first sight looked not less perfect than the towers, prove to be as laboriously mutilated as those of Denderah. The hawk-head of Horus and the cow-head of Hathor have here and there escaped destruction ; but the human-faced deities are literally "sans eyes, sans nose, sans ears, sans everything."
We enter the inner court – an irregular quadrangle enclosed on the east by an open colonnade, on the west by a chapel fronted with Hathor-headed columns, and on the north and south sides by the second and first propylons. In this quadrangle a cloistral silence reigns. The blue sky burns above – the shadows sleep below – a tender twilight lies about our feet. Inside the chapel there sleeps perpetual gloom. It was built by Ptolemy Euergetes II, and is one of that order to which Champollion gave the name of Mammisi. It is a most curious place, dedicated to Hathor and commemorative of the nurture of Horus. On the blackened walls within, dimly visible by the faint light which struggles through screen and doorway, we see Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, giving birth to Horus. On the screen panels outside we trace the story of his infancy, education, and growth. As a babe at the breast, he is nursed in the lap of Hathor, the divine foster-mother. As a young child, he stands at his mother's knee and listens to the playing of a female harpist (we saw a bare-footed boy the other day in Cairo thrumming upon a harp of just the same shape, and with precisely as many strings) ; as a youth, he sows grain in honour of Isis, and offers a jewelled collar to Hathor. This Isis, with her long aquiline nose, thin lips, and haughty aspect, looks like one of the complimentary portraits so often introduced among the temple sculptures of Egypt. It may represent one of the two Cleopatras wedded to Ptolemy Physcon.
Two greyhounds with collars round their necks are sculptured on the outer wall of another small chapel adjoining. These also look like portraits. Perhaps they were the favourite dogs of some high priest of Philæ.
Close against the greyhounds and upon the same wall-space, is engraven that famous copy of the inscription of the Rosetta Stone first observed here by Lepsius in A.D. 1843. It neither stands so high nor looks so illegible as Ampère (with all the jealousy of a Champollionist and a Frenchman) is at such pains to make out. One would have said that it was in a state of more than ordinarily good preservation.
As a reproduction of the Rosetta decree, however, the Philæ version is incomplete. The Rosetta text, after setting forth with official pomposity the victories and munificence of the King, Ptolemy V, the Ever-living, the Avenger of Egypt, concludes by ordaining that the record thereof shall be engraven in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek characters, and set up in all temples of the first, second, and third class throughout the Empire. Broken and battered as it is, the precious black basalt1 of the British Museum fulfils these conditions. The three writings are there. But at Philæ, though the original hieroglyphic and demotic texts are reproduced almost verbatim, the priceless Greek transcript is wanting. It is provided for, as upon the Rosetta Stone, in the preamble. Space has been left for it at the bottom of the tablet. We even fancied we could here and there distinguish traces of red ink where the lines should come. But not one word of it has ever been cut into the surface of the stone.
Taken by itself, there is nothing strange in this omission ; but taken in connection with a precisely similar omission in another inscription a few yards distant, it becomes something more than a coincidence.
This second inscription is cut upon the face of a block of living rock which forms part of the foundation of the easternmost tower of the second propylon. Having enumerated certain grants of land made to the Temple by the VIth and VIIth Ptolemies, it concludes, like the first, by decreeing that this record of the royal bounty shall be engraven in the hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek : that is to say, in the ancient sacred writing of the priests, the ordinary script of the people, and the language of the Court. But here again the sculptor has left his work unfinished. Here again the inscription breaks off at the end of the demotic, leaving a blank space for the third transcript. This second omission suggests intentional neglect ; and the motive for such neglect would not be far to seek. The tongue of the dominant race is likely enough to have been unpopular among the old noble and sacerdotal families ; and it may well be that the priesthood of Philæ, secure in their distant, solitary isle, could with impunity evade a clause which their brethren of the Delta were obliged to obey.
It does not follow that the Greek rule was equally unpopular. We have reason to believe quite otherwise. The conqueror of the Persian invader was in truth the deliverer of Egypt. Alexander restored peace to the country, and the Ptolemies identified themselves with the interests of the people. A dynasty which not only lightened the burdens of the poor but respected the privileges of the rich ; which honoured the priesthood, endowed the Temples, and compelled the Tigris to restore the spoils of the Nile, could scarcely fail to win the suffrages of all classes. The priests of Philæ might despise the language of Homer while honouring the descendants of Philip of Macedon. They could naturalise the King. They could disguise his name in hieroglyphic spelling. They could depict him in the traditional dress of the Pharaohs. They could crown him with the double crown, and represent him in the act of worshipping the gods of his adopted country. But they could neither naturalise nor disguise his language. Spoken or written, it was an alien thing. Carven in high places, it stood for a badge of servitude. What could a conservative hierarchy do but abhor, and, when possible, ignore it?
There are other sculptures in this quadrangle which one would like to linger over ; as, for instance, the capitals of the eastern colonnade, no two of which are alike, and the grotesque bas-reliefs of the frieze of the Mammisi. Of these, a quasi-heraldic group, representing the sacred hawk sitting in the centre of a fan-shaped persea tree between two supporters, is one of the most curious ; the supporters being on the one side a maniacal lion, and on the other a Typhonian hippopotamus, each grasping a pair of shears.
Passing now through the doorway of the second propylon, we find ourselves facing the portico – the famous painted portico of which we had seen so many sketches that we fancied we knew it already. That second-hand knowledge goes for nothing, however, in presence of the reality ; and we are as much taken by surprise as if we were the first travellers to set foot within these enchanted precincts.
For here is a place in which time seems to have stood as still as in that immortal palace where everything went to sleep for a hundred years. The bas-reliefs on the walls, the intricate paintings on the ceilings, the colours upon the capitals, are incredibly fresh and perfect. These exquisite capitals have long been the wonder and delight of travellers in Egypt. They are all studied from natural forms – from the lotus in bud and blossom, the papyrus, and the palm. Conventionalised with consummate skill, they are at the same time so justly proportioned to the height and girth of the columns as to give an air of wonderful lightness to the whole structure. But above all, it is with the colour – colour conceived in the tender and pathetic minor of Watteau and Lancret and Greuze – that one is most fascinated. Of those delicate half-tones, the facsimile in the "Grammar of Ornament" conveys not the remotest idea. Every tint is softened, intermixed, degraded. The pinks are coralline ; the greens are tempered with verditer; the blues are of a greenish turquoise, like the western half of an autumnal evening sky.
Later on, when we returned to Philæ from the Second Cataract, the Writer devoted the best part of three days to making a careful study of a corner of this portico ; patiently matching those subtle variations of tint, and endeavouring to master the secret of their combination. The annexed woodcut can do no more than reproduce the forms.
Architecturally, this court is unlike any we have yet seen, being quite small, and open to the sky in the centre, like the atrium of a Roman house. The light thus admitted glows overhead, lies in a square patch on the ground below, and is reflected upon the pictured recesses of the ceiling. At the upper end, where the pillars stand two deep, there was originally an intercolumnar screen. The rough sides of the columns show where the connecting blocks have been torn away. The pavement, too, has been pulled up by treasure-seekers, and the ground is strewn with broken slabs and fragments of shattered cornice.
These are the only signs of ruin – signs traced not by the finger of Time, but by the hand of the spoiler. So fresh, so fair is all the rest, that we are fain to cheat ourselves for a moment into the belief that what we see is work not marred, but arrested. Those columns, depend on it, are yet unfinished. That pavement is about to be relaid. It would not surprise us to find the masons here to-morrow morning, or the sculptor, with mallet and chisel, carrying on that band of lotus buds and bees. Far more difficult is it to believe that they all struck work for ever some two-and-twenty centuries ago.
Here and there, where the foundations have been disturbed, one sees that the columns are constructed of sculptured blocks, the fragments of some earlier Temple ; while, at a height of about six feet from the ground, a Greek cross cut deep into the side of the shaft stamps upon each pillar the seal of Christian worship.
For the Copts who choked the colonnades and courtyards with their hovels seized also on the Temples. Some they pulled down for building material ; others they appropriated. We can never know how much they destroyed ; but two large convents on the eastern bank a little higher up the river, and a small basilica at the north end of the island, would seem to have been built with the magnificent masonry of the southern quay, as well as with blocks taken from a structure which once occupied the south-eastern corner of the great colonnade. As for this beautiful painted portico, they turned it into a chapel. A little rough-hewn niche in the east wall, and an overturned credence-table fashioned from a single block of limestone, mark the sight of the chancel. The Arabs, taking this last for a gravestone, have pulled it up, according to their usual practice, in search of treasure buried with the dead. On the front of the credence-table, and over the niche which some unskilled but pious hand has decorated with rude Byzantine carvings, the Greek cross is again conspicuous.
The religious history of Philæ is so curious that it is a pity it should not find an historian. It shared with Abydos and some other places the reputation of being the burial-place of Osiris. It was called "The Holy Island." Its very soil was sacred. None might land upon its shores, or even approach them too nearly, without permission. To obtain that permission and perform the pilgrimage to the tomb of the God, was to the pious Egyptian what the Mecca pilgrimage is to the pious Mussulman of to-day. The most solemn oath to which he could give utterance was "By Him who sleeps in Philæ."
When and how the island first came to be regarded as the resting-place of the most beloved of the Gods does not appear ; but its reputation for sanctity seems to have been of comparatively modern date. It probably rose into importance as Abydos declined. Herodotus, who is supposed to have gone as far as Elephantine, made minute enquiry concerning the river above that point ; and he relates that the Cataract was in the occupation of "Ethiopian nomads." He, however, makes no mention of Philæ or its Temples. This omission on the part of one who, wherever he went, sought the society of the priests and paid particular attention to the religious observances of the country, shows that either Herodotus never got so far, or that the island had not yet become the home of the Osirian mysteries. Four hundred years later, Diodorus Siculus describes it as the holiest of holy places ; while Strabo, writing about the same time, relates that Abydos had then dwindled to a mere village. It seems possible, therefore, that at some period subsequent to the time of Herodotus and prior to that of Diodorus or Strabo, the priests of Isis may have migrated from Abydos to Philæ ; in which case there would have been a formal transfer not only of the relics of Osiris, but of the sanctity which had attached for ages to their original resting-place. Nor is the motive for such an exodus wanting. The ashes of the God were no longer safe at Abydos. Situate in the midst of a rich corn country on the high road to Thebes, no city south of Memphis lay more exposed to the hazards of war. Cambyses had already passed that way. Other invaders might follow. To seek beyond the frontier that security which might no longer be found in Egypt, would seem therefore to be the obvious course of a priestly guild devoted to its trust. This, of course, is mere conjecture, to be taken for what it may be worth. The decadence of Abydos coincides, at all events, with the growth of Philæ ; and it is only by help of some such assumption that one can understand how a new site should have suddenly arisen to such a height of holiness.
The earliest Temple here, of which only a small propylon remains, would seem to have been built by the last of the native Pharaohs (Nectanebo II, B.C. 361) ; but the high and palmy days of Philæ belong to the period of Greek and Roman rule. It was in the time of the Ptolemies that the Holy Island became the seat of a Sacred College and the stronghold of a powerful hierarchy. Visitors from all parts of Egypt, travellers from distant lands, court functionaries from Alexandria charged with royal gifts, came annually in crowds to offer their vows at the tomb of the God. They have cut their names by hundreds all over the principal Temple, just like tourists of to-day. Some of these antique autographs are written upon and across those of preceding visitors ; while others – palimpsests upon stone, so to say – having been scratched on the yet unsculptured surface of doorway and pylon, are seen to be older than the hieroglyphic texts which were afterwards carved over them. These inscriptions cover a period of several centuries, during which time successive Ptolemies and Cæsars continued to endow the island. Rich in lands, in temples, in the localisation of a great national myth, the Sacred College was yet strong enough in A.D. 379 to oppose a practical resistance to the Edict of Theodosius. At a word from Constantinople, the whole land of Egypt was forcibly Christianised. Priests were forbidden under pain of death to perform the sacred rites. Hundreds of temples were plundered. Forty thousand statues of divinities were destroyed at one fell swoop. Meanwhile, the brotherhood of Philæ, entrenched behind the Cataract and the desert, survived the degradation of their order and the ruin of their immemorial faith. It is not known with certainty for how long they continued to transmit their hereditary privileges ; but two of the above-mentioned votive inscriptions show that so late as A.D. 453 the priestly families were still in occupation of the island, and still celebrating the mysteries of Osiris and Isis. There even seems reason for believing that the ancient worship continued to hold its own till the end of the sixth century, at which time, according to an inscription at Kalabsheh, of which I shall have more to say hereafter, Silco, "King of all the Ethiopians," himself apparently a Christian, twice invaded Lower Nubia, where God, he says gave him the victory, and the vanquished swore to him "by their idols" to observe the terms of peace.
There is nothing in this record to show that the invaders went beyond Tafa, the ancient Taphis, which is twenty-seven miles above Philæ ; but it seems reasonable to conclude that so long as the old gods yet reigned in any part of Nubia, the island sacred to Osiris would maintain its traditional sanctity.
At length, however, there must have come a day when for the last time the tomb of the God was crowned with flowers, and the "Lamentations of Isis" were recited on the threshold of the sanctuary. And there must have come another day when the cross was carried in triumph up those painted colonnades, and the first Christian mass was chanted in the precincts of the heathen. One would like to know how these changes were brought about ; whether the old faith died out for want of worshippers, or was expelled with clamour and violence. But upon this point, history is vague and the graffiti of the time are silent. We only know for certain that the old went out, and the new came in ; and that where the resurrected Osiris was wont to be worshipped according to the most sacred mysteries of the Egyptian ritual, the resurrected Christ was now adored after the simple fashion of the primitive Coptic Church.
And now the Holy Island, near which it was believed no fish had power to swim or bird to fly, and upon whose soil no pilgrim might set foot without permission, became all at once the common property of a populous community. Courts, colonnades, even terraced roofs, were overrun with little crude-brick dwellings. A small basilica was built at the lower end of the island. The portico of the Great Temple was converted into a Chapel, and dedicated to Saint Stephen. "This good work," says a Greek inscription traced there by some monkish hand of the period, "was done by the well-beloved of God, the Abbot-Bishop Theodore." Of this same Theodore, whom another inscription styles "the very holy father," we know nothing but his name.
The walls hereabout are full of these fugitive records. "The cross has conquered, and will ever conquer," writes one anonymous scribe. Others have left simple signatures ; as, for instance – "I, Joseph," in one place, and "I, Theodosius of Nubia," in another. Here and there an added word or two give a more human interest to the autograph. So, in the pathetic scrawl of one who writes himself "Johannes, a slave," we seem to read the story of a life in a single line. These Coptic signatures are all followed by the sign of the cross.
The foundations of the little basilica, with its apse towards the east and its two doorways to the west, are still traceable. We set a couple of our sailors one day to clear away the rubbish at the lower end of the nave, and found the font – a rough stone basin at the foot of a broken column.
It is not difficult to guess what Philæ must have been like in the days of Abbot Theodore and his flock. The little basilica, we may be sure, had a cluster of mud domes upon the roof ; and I fancy, somehow, that the Abbot and his monks installed themselves in that row of cells on the east side of the great colonnade, where the priests of Isis dwelt before them. As for the village, it must have been just like Luxor – swarming with dusky life ; noisy with the babble of children, the cackling of poultry, and the barking of dogs ; sending up thin pillars of blue smoke at noon ; echoing to the measured chime of the prayer-bell at morn and even ; and sleeping at night as soundly as if no ghost-like, mutilated Gods were looking on mournfully in the moonlight.
The Gods are avenged now. The creed which dethroned them is dethroned. Abbot Theodore and his successors, and the religion they taught, and the simple folk that listened to their teaching, are gone and forgotten. For the church of Christ, which still languishes in Egypt, is extinct in Nubia. It lingered long ; though doubtless in some such degraded and barbaric form as it wears in Abyssinia to this day. But it was absorbed by Islamism at last ; and only a ruined convent perched here and there upon some solitary height, or a few crosses rudely carved on the walls of a Ptolemaic Temple, remain to show that Christianity once passed that way.
The mediæval history of Philæ is almost a blank. The Arabs, having invaded Egypt towards the middle of the seventh century, were long in the land before they began to cultivate literature ; and for more than three hundred years history is silent. It is not till the tenth century that we once again catch a fleeting glimpse of Philæ. The frontier is now removed to the head of the Cataract. The Holy Island has ceased to be Christian ; ceased to be Nubian ; contains a mosque and garrison, and is the last fortified outpost of the Moslems. It still retains, and apparently continues to retain for some centuries longer, its ancient Egyptian name. That is to say (P being as usual converted into B) the Pilak of the hieroglyphic inscriptions becomes in Arabic Belak ; which is much more like the original than the Philæ of the Greeks.
The native Christians, meanwhile, would seem to have relapsed into a state of semi-barbarism. They make perpetual inroads upon the Arab frontier, and suffer perpetual defeat. Battles are fought ; tribute is exacted ; treaties are made and broken. Towards the close of the thirteenth century, their king being slain and their churches plundered, they lose one-fourth of their territory, including all that part which borders uppon Assûan. Those who remain Christians are also condemned to pay an annual capitation tax, in addition to the usual tribute of dates, cotton, slaves, and camels. After this we may conclude that they accepted Islamism from the Arabs, as they had accepted Osiris from the Egyptians and Christ from the Romans. As Christians, at all events, we hear of them no more ; for Christianity in Nubia perished root and branch, and not a Copt, it is said, may now be found above the frontier.
Philæ was still inhabited in A.D. 1799, when a detachment of Desaix's army under General Beliard took possession of the island, and left an inscription on the soffit of the doorway of the great pylon to commemorate the passage of the Cataract. Denon, describing the scene with his usual vivacity, relates how the natives first defied and then fled from the French ; flinging themselves into the river, drowning such of their children as were too young to swim, and escaping into the desert. They appear at this time to have been mere savages – the women ugly and sullen ; the men naked, agile, quarrelsome, and armed not only with swords and spears, but with matchlock guns, which they used to keep up "a brisk and well-directed fire."
Their abandonment of the island probably dates from this time ; for when Burckhardt went up in A.D. 1813, he found it, as we found it to this day, deserted and solitary. One poor old man – if indeed he still lives – is now the one inhabitant of Philæ ; and I suspect he only crosses over from Biggeh in the tourist-season. He calls himself, with or without authority, the guardian of the island ; sleeps in a nest of rags and straw in a sheltered corner behind the great Temple ; and is so wonderfully wizened and bent and knotted up, that nothing of him seems quite alive except his eyes. We gave him fifty copper paras for a parting present when on our way back to Egypt ; and he was so oppressed by the consciousness of wealth, that he immediately buried his treasure and implored us to tell no one what we had given him.
With the French siege and the flight of the native population closes the last chapter of the local history of Philæ. The Holy Island has done henceforth with wars of creeds or kings. It disappears from the domain of history, and enters the domain of science. To have contributed to the discovery of the hieroglyphic alphabet is a high distinction ; and in no sketch of Philæ, however slight, should the obelisk that furnished Champollion with the name of Cleopatra be allowed to pass unnoticed. This monument, second only to the Rosetta Stone in point of philological interest, was carried off by Mr. W. Bankes, the discoverer of the first Tablet of Abydos, and is now in Dorsetshire. Its empty socket and its fellow obelisk, mutilated and solitary, remain in situ at the southern extremity of the island.
And now – for we have lingered over long in the portico – it is time we glanced at the interior of the Temple. So we go in at the central door, beyond which open some nine or ten halls and side-chambers leading, as usual, to the sanctuary. Here all is dark, earthy, oppressive. In rooms unlighted by the faintest gleam from without, we find smoke-blackened walls covered with elaborate bas-reliefs. Mysterious passages, pitch-dark, thread the thickness of the walls and communicate by means of trap-like openings with vaults below. In the sanctuary lies an overthrown altar ; while in the corner behind it stands the very niche in which Strabo must have seen that poor sacred hawk of Ethiopia which he describes as "sick, and nearly dead."
But in this Temple dedicated not only to Isis, but to the memory of Osiris and the worship of Horus their son, there is one chamber which we may be quite sure was shown neither to Strabo nor Diodorus, nor to any stranger of alien faith, be his repute or station what it might ; a chamber holy above all others ; holier even than the sanctuary; – the chamber sacred to Osiris. We, however, unrestricted, unforbidden, are free to go where we list ; and our books tell us that this mysterious chamber is somewhere overhead. So, emerging once again into the daylight, we go up a well-worn staircase leading out upon the roof.
This roof is an intricate, up-and-down place ; and the room is not easy to find. It lies at the bottom of a little flight of steps – a small stone cell some twelve feet square, lighted only from the doorway. The walls are covered with sculptures representing the shrines, the mummification, and the resurrection of Osiris. These shrines, containing each some part of his body, are variously fashioned.
His head, for instance, rests on a Nilometer ; his arm, surmounted by a head, is sculptured on a stela, in shape resembling a high-shouldered bottle, surmounted by one of the head-dresses peculiar to the God ; his legs and feet lie at full length in a pylon-shaped mausoleum.
Upon another shrine stands the mitre-shaped crown which he wears as Judge of the Lower World. Isis and Nephthys keep guard over each shrine. In a lower frieze we see the mummy of the god laid upon a bier, with the four so-called canopic jars ranged underneath. A little farther on, he lies in state, surrounded by lotus buds on tall stems, figurative of growth, or returning life. Finally, he is depicted lying on a couch ; his limbs reunited ; his head, left hand, and left foot upraised, as in the act of returning to consciousness. Nephthys, in the guise of a winged genius, fans him with the breath of life. Isis, with outstretched arms, stands at his feet and seems to be calling him back to her embraces. The scene represents, in fact, that supreme moment when Isis pours forth her passionate invocations, and Osiris is resuscitated by virtue of the songs of the divine sisters.
Ill-modelled and ill-cut as they are, there is a clownish naturalness about these little sculptures which lifts them above the conventional dead level of ordinary Ptolemaic work. The figures tell their tale intelligibly. Osiris seems really struggling to rise, and the action of Isis expresses clearly enough the intention of the artist. Although a few heads have been mutilated and the surface of the stone is somewhat degraded, the subjects are by no means in a bad state of preservation. In the accompanying sketches, nothing has been done to improve the defective drawing or repair the broken outlines of the originals. Osiris in one has lost his foot, and in another his face ; the hands of Isis are as shapeless as those of a bran doll ; and the naiveté of the treatment verges throughout upon caricature. But the interest attaching to them is altogether apart from the way in which they are executed.
And now, returning to the roof, it is pleasant to breathe the fresher air that comes with sunset – to see the island, in shape like an ancient Egyptian shield, lying mapped out beneath one's feet. From here, we look back upon the way we have come, and forward to the way we are going. Northward lies the Cataract – a network of islets with flashes of river between. Southward, the broad current comes on in one smooth, glassy sheet, unbroken by a single rapid. How eagerly we turn our eyes that way ; for yonder lie Abou Simbel and all the mysterious lands beyond the Cataracts! But we cannot see far, for the river curves away grandly to the right, and vanishes behind a range of granite hills. A similar chain hems in the opposite bank ; while high above the palm-groves fringing the edge of the shore stand two ruined convents on two rocky prominences, like a couple of castles on the Rhine. On the east bank opposite, a few mud houses and a group of superb carob trees mark the site of a village, the greater part of which lies hidden among palms. Behind this village opens a vast sand valley, like an arm of the sea from which the waters have retreated. The old channel along which we rode the other day went ploughing that way straight across from Philæ. Last of all, forming the western side of this fourfold view, we have the island of Biggeh – rugged, mountainous, and divided from Philæ by so narrow a channel that every sound from the native village on the opposite steep is as audible as though it came from the courtyard at our feet. That village is built in and about the ruins of a tiny Ptolemaic Temple, of which only a screen and doorway and part of a small propylon remain. We can see a woman pounding coffee on the threshold of one of the huts, and some children scrambling about the rocks in pursuit of a wandering turkey. Catching sight of us up here on the roof of the temple, they come whooping and scampering down to the water-side, and with shrill cries importune us for bakhshîsh. Unless the stream is wider than it looks, one might almost pitch a piastre into their outstretched hands.
Mr. Hay, it is said, discovered a secret passage of solid masonry tunnelled under the river from island to island. The entrance on this side was from a shaft in the Temple of Isis. We are not told how far Mr. Hay was able to penetrate in the direction of Biggeh ; but the passage would lead up, most probably, to the little Temple opposite.
Perhaps the most entirely curious and unaccustomed features in all this scene are the mountains. They are like none that any of us have seen in our diverse wanderings. Other mountains are homogeneous, and thrust themselves up from below in masses suggestive of primitive disruption and upheaval. These seem to lie upon the surface foundationless ; rock loosely piled on rock, boulder on boulder ; like stupendous cairns, the work of demigods and giants. Here and there, on shelf or summit, a huge rounded mass, many tons in weight, hangs poised capriciously. Most of these blocks, I am persuaded, would "log," if put to the test.
But for a specimen stone, commend me to yonder amazing monolith down by the water's edge opposite, near the carob trees and the ferry. Though but a single block of orange-red granite, it looks like three ; and the Arabs, seeing in it some fancied resemblance to an arm-chair, call it Pharaoh's throne. Rounded and polished by primæval floods, and emblazoned with royal cartouches of extraordinary size, it seems to have attracted the attention of pilgrims of all ages. Kings, conquerors, priests, travellers, have covered it with records of victories, of religious festivals, of prayers, and offerings, and acts of adoration. Some of these are older by a thousand years and more than the temples on the island opposite.
Such, roughly summed up, are the fourfold surroundings of Philæ – the cataract, the river, the desert, the environing mountains. The Holy Island – beautiful, lifeless, a thing of the far past, with all its wealth of sculpture, painting, history, poetry, tradition – sleeps, or seems to sleep, in the midst.
It is one of the world's famous landscapes, and it deserves its fame. Every sketcher sketches it ; every traveller describes it. Yet it is just one of those places of which the objective and subjective features are so equally balanced that it bears putting neither into words nor colours. The sketcher must perforce leave out the atmosphere of association which informs his subject ; and the writer's description is at best no better than a catalogue raisonnée.
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