Crumbling and dust. . . . Far around, on every side of these palaces and temples of the central artery—which are the best preserved and remain proudly upright—stretch great mournful spaces, on which the sun from morning till evening pours an implacable light. There, amongst the lank desert plants, lie blocks scattered at hazard—the remains of sanctuaries, of which neither the plan nor the form will ever be discovered. But on these stones, fragments of the history of the world are still to be read in clear-cut hieroglyphs.
To the west of the hypostyle hall there is a region strewn with discs, all equal and all alike. It might be a draught-board for Titans with draughts that would measure ten yards in circumference. They are the scattered fragments, slices, as it were, of a colonnade of the Ramses. Farther on the ground seems to have passed through fire. You walk over blackish scoriae encrusted with brazen bolts and particles of melted glass. It is the quarter burnt by the soldiers of Cambyses. They were great destroyers of the queen city, were these same Persian soldiers. To break up the obelisks and the colossal statues they conceived the plan of scorching them by lighting bonfires around them, and then, when they saw them burning hot, they deluged them with cold water. And the granites cracked from top to base.
It is well known, of course, that Thebes used to extend for a considerable distance both on this, the right, bank of the Nile, where the Pharaohs resided, and opposite, on the Libyan bank, given over to the preparers of mummies and to the mortuary temples. But to-day, except for the great palaces of the centre, it is little more than a litter of ruins, and the long avenues, lined with endless rows of sphinxes or rams, are lost, goodness knows where, buried beneath the sand.
At wide intervals, however, in the midst of these cemeteries of things, a temple here and there remains upright, preserving still its sanctified gloom beneath its cavernous carapace. One, where certain celebrated oracles used to be delivered, is even more prisonlike and sepulchral than the others in its eternal shadow. High up in a wall the black hole of a kind of grotto opens, to which a secret corridor coming from the depths used to lead. It was there that the face of the priest charged with the announcement of the sibylline words appeared—and the ceiling of his niche is all covered still with the smoke from the flame of his lamp, which was extinguished more than two thousand years ago!
What a number of ruins, scarcely emerging from the sand of the desert, are hereabout! And in the old dried-up soil, how many strange treasures remain hidden! When the sun lights thus the forlorn distances, when you perceive stretching away to the horizon these fields of death, you realise better what kind of a place this Thebes once was. Rebuilt as it were in the imagination it appears excessive, superabundant and multiple, like those flowers of the antediluvian world which the fossils reveal to us. Compared with it how our modern towns are dwarfed, and our hasty little palaces, our stuccoes and old iron!