How long ago is it since the work of the great river began? There is something fearful in the thought. During the 5000 years of which we have any knowledge the incessant deposit of mud has scarcely widened this strip of inhabited Egypt, which at the most ancient period of history was almost as it is to-day. And as for the granite blocks on the plains of Nubia, how many thousands of years did it need to roll them and to polish them thus? In the times of the Pharaohs they already had their present rounded forms, worn smooth by the friction of the water, and the hieroglyphic inscriptions on their surfaces are not perceptibly effaced, though they have suffered the periodical inundation of the summer for some forty or fifty centuries!
It was an exceptional country, this valley of the Nile; marvellous and unique; fertile without rain, watered according to its need by the great river, without the help of any cloud. It knew not the dull days and the humidity under which we suffer, but kept always the changeless sky of the immense surrounding deserts, which exhaled no vapour that might dim the horizon. It was this eternal splendour of its light, no doubt, and this easiness of life, which brought forth here the first fruits of human thought. This same Nile, after having so patiently created the soil of Egypt, became also the father of that people, which led the way for all others—like those early branches that one sees in spring, which shoot first from the stem, and sometimes die before the summer. It nursed that people, whose least vestiges we discover to-day with surprise and wonder; a people who, in the very dawn, in the midst of the original barbarity, conceived magnificently the infinite and the divine; who placed with such certainty and grandeur the first architectural lines, from which afterwards our architecture was to be derived; who laid the bases of art, of science, and of all knowledge.
Later on, when this beautiful flower of humanity was faded, the Nile, flowing always in the midst of its deserts, seems to have had for mission, during nearly two thousand years, the maintenance on its banks of a kind of immobility and desuetude, which was in a way a homage of respect for these stupendous relics. While the sand was burying the ruins of the temples and the battered faces of the colossi, nothing changed under this sky of changeless blue. The same cultivation proceeded on the banks as in the oldest ages; the same boats, with the same sails, went up and down the thread of water; the same songs kept time to the eternal human toil. The race of fellahs, the unconscious guardian of a prodigious past, slept on without desire of change, and almost without suffering. And time passed for Egypt in a great peace of sunlight and of death.