THE SPELL OF EGYPT


THE return of Tut-ankh-Amen into the sunshine after 3,000 years in stifling darkness has a drama both majestic and pathetic. There is a poignant contrast in it. After thirty centuries of peace and silence, he re-enters a world that, apparently, has little changed so far as human nature is concerned. The bickerings about precedence and pecuniary values, about the ownership of the treasures, the commercial exploitation generally, he would find, in principle, similar to the squabbles he was familiar with in his own day. That kingly figure, blind, deaf, unfeeling, is fortunately unaware of the violent contrast his resurrection emphasizes: the strident chorus of modern voices—his own silence.

It is an eloquent silence. He emerges from his ancient tomb with dignity, with grandeur, bringing with him into our practical twentieth century a sense of mystery, of star-like leisure, of wonder; something of awe, and a strange, forgotten beauty too. There is about him almost an unearthly touch, not dissimilar, perhaps, to the emotion wakened in Kinglake by the Sphinx, his fellow-splendour, so briefly and so adequately described in "Eothen": "Comely the creature is, but with a comeliness not of this earth"—a pregnant sentence that lays upon the mind again, with Tut-ankh-Amen, that singular Egyptian glamour, which is, indeed, a mysterious, almost an unearthly spell.

A considerable amount of nonsense has been written about it. Cheapened by exaggeration, vulgarized by familiarity, it has become for many a picture-post card spell, pinned before the mind like the posters at a railway terminus. The moment Alexandria is reached, this huge post card hangs across the heavens, composed of temples, pyramids, palm-trees by a shining Nile, and the inevitable Sphinx. And the monstrosity of it paralyzes the mind. Memory escapes with difficulty from the insistent, gross advertisement. It deafens imagination. Behind it, however, there hides a potent yet a nameless thing, not acknowledged by all, perhaps, because it is so curiously elusive, yet surely felt by all, because it is so true. An effect that does not pass away is wrought subtly upon the mind, an effect that not being properly comprehensible, is nameless. Having once "gone down into Egypt," one is never quite the same again; having drunk of the water of the Nile, there is a yearning to drink of it again. Moreover, it is the casual visitor, unburdened by antiquarian and archæological knowledge, who may best estimate this power: the tourist who knows merely what he has gleaned, say, from Baedeker's general synopsis, is more freshly sensitive to it than the excavator or official who has lived long in the country. He becomes aware, too, that it is all the more enchanting because he is unable to define and analyze it.

All countries, of course, colour thought and memory, stirring imagination in any but the hopelessly inanimate—whence the educational value of travel-psychology—but, whereas from Greece, Japan, India, the traveller returns with reports he can evoke at will and label, he returns from Egypt with a marvellous blur that defies detailed description. Saturated, maybe, with overmuch, the mind recalls with definiteness nothing coherent. There comes to its summons a colossal medley that half stupefies: immense stretches of tawny sand drenched in a stinging sunlight; dim, solemn aisles of granite silence; stupendous monoliths that stare unblinking at the sun; a shining river licking its slow way across a murderous desert; an enormous night-sky drowned in brilliant stars. A score of temples merge into a single monster; great pyramids float across the sky, like clouds; palms rustle in mid-air; and from subterranean gloom there issue muffled voices that seem to utter the hieroglyphics of a long-forgotten tongue.

The mental horizon, oddly lifted, brims with this procession of gigantic things, then empties again without a word of explanation, leaving behind a mere litter of big adjectives—changing, formidable, amazing, and the like; while the coherent single memory that should link all these together hides too deep for articulate recovery. The Acropolis, the wonders of Japan, of India, the mind can grasp; but this composite enormity of Ramesseum, Serapeum, Karnak, Cheops, Sphinx, with a hundred temples and a thousand miles of sand, seem to have bludgeoned it into temporary silence. That dreadful post card, moreover, rises like a wall. Yet, behind the post card, behind the adjectives, and sure to emerge for full recognition in due course, the mind remains aware of some huge, alluring thing, alive with a pageantry of ages, strangely brilliant in blue and gold, magnificent, appealing almost to tears—something that drifts past like a ghostly full-rigged ship with crowded decks and painted sails, too vastly scaled for sight to take it in. The spell, that is, has become operative.

I remember asking myself what I had gained, and I remember the fruitless result. Nothing came but that abominable, shouting post card, endlessly extended. Its very endlessness, however, was a clue. Egypt is endless and inexhaustible; some hint of eternity lies there, an awareness of immortality almost. To-day, after a doze of four or five thousand years, subterranean Egypt peeps up again at the sun. The vast Memphian cemetery tint stretches from Sakkhâra to the Mena House has begun to whisper in the daylight. The Theban worship of the sun is being reconstructed. There is a sense of deathlessness about the ancient Nile, about the grim Sphinx and Pyramids, on the very colonnades of Karnak, whose pylons now once more stand upright after a sleep of forty centuries on their backs; above all, in the strength of the floating, rustling sand something that defies time and repudiates change in death. Out of that flat, undifferentiated landscape which is Egypt, still stand the unconquerable finger-posts of stone, pointing, like symbols of eternity, to the equally unchanging skies. The spell is laid upon you once you have looked into the battered visages of those Memnon terrors, which reveal, yet hide, far better than the Sphinx. They have neither eyes nor lips nor nose; their features, as their message, inscrutable. Yet they tell this nameless thing plainly because they have no words. Out of the green fields of millet they stand like portions of the Theban Mountains that have slid down into the plain, then stopped for a few more centuries to stare across the Nile and watch the sunrise. From them, as partly from the opened tombs of priest and Pharaoh, comes some ingredient of this singular Egyptian spell.

Unguessed at first, because sought for in some crude, tangible form it never assumes, it flames up unexpectedly—perhaps in a London street when fog shrouds the chimneys; perhaps at a concert; perhaps in a tea-room among perfumed, gossiping women; in church, at the club, even in bed when falling asleep just after a commonplace evening at a commonplace play. A sound recalls the street cries of the Arabs, with its haunting sing-song melody; a breath of air brings back the heated sand, the rustle of the curtain whispers as the palms and acacia whisper—and the truth is realised. Up steals the immense Egyptian glamour. It pours, it rushes up. It is over you in a moment. All this time it has lain coiled in deep recesses of the inner being—recesses, where there is silence because they are inaccessible amid the clamour of daily life. There is awe in it, a hint of cold eternity, a glimpse of something unchanging and terrific, yet, at the same time, soft and very tender too. . . . The pictures unroll and spread. You feel again the untold melancholy of the Nile. The grandeur of a hundred battered temples beats upon the heart. There is a sense of unutterable beauty. Something in you bows to the procession that includes great figures of non-human lineage. Up sweeps the electric desert air, the alive wind, the wild and delicate perfume of the sand; the luminous grey shadows brush you; you feel the enormous scale of naked desolation which yet brims with strange vitality. An Arab on his donkey flits in colour across the mind, melting off into tiny perspective. A string of camels stands against the sky, swaying forward the same moment as though it never ceased. A dozen pyramids cleave the air with monstrous wedges, pointing holes in space. In peace and silence, belonging to a loneliness of ages, rise heads and shoulders of towering gods of stone, little jackals silhouetted, perhaps, an instant against deific thighs half buried in sand. Great winds, great blazing spaces, great days and nights of shining wonder float past from the pavement or the theatre stall, and London, dim-lit England, the whole of modern life indeed, are reduced sharply to a minature of trifling ugliness that seems the unreality. Egypt rolls through the heart for a second and is gone. . . . Conventions drive you . . . there are letters to be answered, appointments to be kept, calls to be paid, and a new umbrella to be bought. . . . But out there the days swam past in a flood of golden light, and, caught in a procession of ancient splendours, changeless as the leisured Nile, majestic as the desert, and fresh still with the wonder that first created them, you moved with the tide as of some unconditioned world. Egypt steals out and whispers to you in your dreams. Once more you float in an atmosphere of passionate marriage. . . .

Egypt with a power of seduction almost uncanny, has robbed the mind of a faculty best described perhaps as the faculty of measurement. Its scale has stupefied the ability to measure, appraise, estimate; and this balance, once destroyed, wonder and awe capture the heart, going what pace they please. Size works half the miracle, for it is size including a quality of terror—monstrous; and, but for the noble beauty that thunders through it, this sheer size might easily work a very different spell—dismay. The modern mind, no longer terrified by speed, to which it has grown contemptuously accustomed, yet shrinks a little before this display of titanic and bewildering size. Egypt makes it realize that it has no handy standard of measurement. It listens to words that are meaningless. The vast proportions uplift, then stupefy. The girth of the Pyramids, the height of the Colossi, the cubic content of the granite columns and the visage of the Sphinx expressed in yards—these convey as little truth as the numbered leagues of the frightening desert or the length of that weary and interminable Nile. You draw a deep breath of astonishment—then give up the vain attempt to grapple with a thing you cannot readily assimilate. A dizziness of star-distances steals over you; there is a breathlessness of astronomical scale in it that exhilarates while it stuns. What mind can gain by the information that our sun, with all its retinue of planets, sweeps daily 1,000,000 miles nearer to Hercules, yet that Hercules looks no closer than it did thousands of years ago, when Tut-ankh-Amen was laid to rest? Such distances lie beyond comprehension. Similarly, in Egypt, there is something that for ever evades capture in the monstrous details of sheer size, beautiful with majesty, that tower above the shrinking reason. The land exhales a steam of enchantment that lulls the senses. You move through this almost visible glamour. All about you is a high, transparent screen, built by the centuries, and left standing; modern life, cast like a cinema-picture upon this screen, becomes the unreality. Herein lies one letter at least, of the spell of Egypt—the mind is for ever aware of something that haunts from the further side of experience.

For some, a rather dominant impression is undoubtedly "the monstrous." A splendour of awful dream, yet never quite of nightmare, stalks everywhere, suggesting an atmosphere of Khubla Khan. There is nothing lyrical. Even the silvery river, the slender palms, the fields of clover and barley and the acres of flashing poppies convey no lyrical sweetness, as elsewhere they might. All moves to a statelier measure. Stern issues of life and death are in the air, and in the grandeur of the tombs and temples there is a solemnity of genuine awe that makes the blood run slow a little. Those Theban hills, where the kings and queens lay buried, are forbidding to the point of discomfort almost. The listening silence in the grim Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, the intolerable glare of sunshine on the stones, the naked absence of any sign of animal or vegetable life, the slow approach to the secret hiding-place where the mummy of a once powerful monarch lies ghastly now beneath the glitter of an electric light, the implacable desert, deadly with heat and distance on every side—this picture, once seen, rather colours one's memory of the rest of Egypt with its sombre and funereal character. And with the great deific monoliths the effect is similar. Proportions and sheer size strike blow after blow upon the mind. Stupendous figures, shrouded to the eyes, shoulder their way slowly though the shifting sands, deathless themselves and half-appalling. Their attitudes and gestures express the hieroglyphic drawings come to life. Their towering heads, coiffed with zodiacal signs, or grotesque with animal or bird, bend down to watch you everywhere. There is no hurry in them; they move with the leisure of the moon, with the stateliness of the sun, with the slow silence of the constellations. But they move. There is, between you and them, this effect of a screen, erected by the ages, yet that any moment may turn thin and let them through upon you. A hand of shadow, but with granite grip, may steal forth and draw you away into some region where they dwell among changeless symbols like themselves, a region vast, ancient and undifferentiated as the desert that has produced them. Their effect in the end is weird, difficult to describe, but real. Talk with a mind that has been steeped for years in their atmosphere and presence, and you will appreciate this odd reality. The spell of Egypt is an other-worldly spell. Its vagueness, its elusiveness, its undeniable reality are ingredients, at any rate, in a total result whose detailed analysis lies hidden in mystery and silence inscrutable.



THE END