In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, men already marvelled at this temple, as at a relic of the most distant and nebulous past. The geographer Strabo wrote in those days: “It is an admirable palace built in the fashion of the Labyrinth save that it has fewer galleries.” There are galleries enough however, and one can readily lose oneself in its mazy turnings. Seven chapels, consecrated to Osiris and to different gods and goddesses of his suite; seven vaulted chambers; seven doors for the processions of kings and multitudes; and, at the sides, numberless halls, corridors, secondary chapels, dark chambers and hidden doorways. That very primitive column, suggestive of reeds, which is called in architecture the “plant column” and resembles a monstrous stem of papyrus, rises here in a thick forest, to support the stones of the blue ceilings, which are strewn with stars, in the likeness of the sky of this country. In many cases these stones are missing and leave large openings on to the real sky above. Their massiveness, which one might have thought would secure them an endless duration, has availed them nothing; the sun of so many centuries has cracked them, and their own weight, then, has brought them headlong to the ground. And floods of light now enter through the gaps, into the very chapels where the men of old had thought to ensure a holy gloom.
Despite the disaster which has overtaken the ceilings, this is nevertheless one of the most perfect of the sanctuaries of ancient Egypt. The sands, those gentle sextons, have here succeeded miraculously in their work of preservation. They might have been carved yesterday, these innumerable people, who, everywhere—on the walls, on this forest of columns—gesticulate and, with their arms and long hands, continue with animation their eternal mute conversation. The whole temple, with the openings which give it light, is more beautiful perhaps than in the time of the Pharaohs. In place of the old-time darkness, a transparent gloom now alternates with shafts of sunlight. Here and there the subjects of the bas-reliefs, so long buried in the darkness, are deluged with burning rays which detail their attitudes, their muscles, their scarcely altered colours, and endow them again with life and youth. There is no part of the wall, in this immense place, but is covered with divinities, with hieroglyphs and emblems. Osiris in high coiffure, the beautiful Isis in the helmet of a bird, jackal-headed Anubis, falcon-headed Horus, and ibis-headed Thoth are repeated a thousand times, welcoming with strange gestures the kings and priests who are rendering them homage.
The bodies, almost nude, with broad shoulders and slim waist, have a slenderness, a grace, infinitely chaste, and the features of the faces are of an exquisite purity. The artists who carved these charming heads, with their long eyes, full of the ancient dream, were already skilled in their art; but through a deficiency, which puzzles us, they were only able to draw them in profile. All the legs, all the feet are in profile too, although the bodies, on the other hand, face us fully. Men needed yet some centuries of study before they understood perspective—which to us now seems so simple—and the foreshortening of figures, and were able to render the impression of them on a plane surface.