But what a sense of safety families may feel here, to be sure! In spite of the huge numbers, which at first sight look a little equivocal, nothing in the least degree reprehensible can happen among these granites; which are, moreover, in a single piece, without the least crack or hole into which the straggler could contrive to crawl. No. The figures and the crosses denote simple blocks of stones, covered with hieroglyphics, and correspond to a chaste catalogue where each Pharaonic inscription may be found translated in the most becoming language.
This ingenious ticketing of the stones of the desert is due to the initiative of an English Egyptologist.
THE PASSING OF PHILAE
Leaving Assouan—as soon as we have passed the last house—we come at once upon the desert. And now the night is falling, a cold February night, under a strange, copper-coloured sky.
Incontestably it is the desert, with its chaos of granite and sand, its warm tones and reddish colour. But there are telegraph poles and the lines of a railroad, which traverse it in company, and disappear in the empty horizon. And then too how paradoxical and ridiculous it seems to be travelling here on full security and in a carriage! (The most commonplace of hackney-carriages, which I hired by the hour on the quay of Assouan.) A desert indeed which preserves still its aspects of reality, but has become domesticated and tamed for the use of the tourists and the ladies.
First, immense cemeteries surrounded by sand at the beginning of these quasi-solitudes. Such old cemeteries of every epoch of history. The thousand little cupolas of saints of Islam are crumbling side by side with the Christian obelisks of the first centuries; and, underneath, the Pharaonic hypogea. In the twilight, all these ruins of the dead, all the scattered blocks of granite are mingled in mournful groupings, outlined in fantastic silhouette against the pale copper of the sky; broken arches, tilted domes, and rocks that rise up like tall phantoms.
Farther on, when we have left behind this region of tombs, the granites alone litter the expanse of sand, granites to which the usury of centuries has given the form of huge round beasts. In places they have been thrown one upon the other and make great heaps of monsters. Elsewhere they lie alone among the sands, as if lost in the midst of the infinitude of some dead sea-shore. The rails and the telegraph poles have disappeared; by the magic of twilight everything is become grand again, beneath one of those evening skies of Egypt which, in winter, resemble cold cupolas of metal. And now it is that you feel yourself verily on the threshold of the profound desolations of Arabia, from which no barrier, after all separates you. Were it not for the lack of verisimilitude in the carriage that has brought us hither, we should be able now to take this desert quite seriously—for in fact it has no limits.