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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Entry of Pharaoh into Thebes

By Théophile Gautier (1811–1872)

From ‘The Romance of a Mummy’: Translation of M. Young

AT length their chariot reached the manœuvring-ground, an immense inclosure, carefully leveled, used for splendid military displays. Terraces, one above the other, which must have employed for years the thirty nations led away into slavery, formed a frame en relief for the gigantic parallelogram; sloping walls built of crude bricks lined these terraces; their tops were covered, several rows deep, by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, whose white or brightly colored costumes blazed in the sun with that perpetually restless movement which characterizes a multitude, even when it appears motionless; behind this line of spectators the cars, chariots, and litters, with their drivers, grooms, and slaves, looked like the encampment of an emigrating nation, such was their immense number; for Thebes, the marvel of the ancient world, counted more inhabitants than did some kingdoms.

The fine, even sand of the vast arena, bordered with a million heads, gleamed like mica dust beneath the light, falling from a sky as blue as the enamel on the statuettes of Osiris. On the south side of the field the terraces were broken, making way for a road which stretched towards Upper Ethiopia, the whole length of the Libyan chain. In the corresponding corner, the opening in the massive brick walls prolonged the roads to the Rhamses-Maïamoun palace….

A frightful uproar, rumbling, deep, and mighty as that of an approaching sea, arose in the distance and drowned the thousand murmurs of the crowd, like the roar of the lion which hushes the barking of the jackals. Soon the noise of instruments of music could be distinguished amidst this terrestrial thunder, produced by the chariot wheels and the rhythmic pace of the foot-soldiers. A sort of reddish cloud, like that raised by the desert blasts, filled the sky in that direction, yet the wind had gone down; there was not a breath of air, and the smallest branches of the palm-trees hung motionless, as if they had been carved on a granite capital; not a hair moved on the women’s moist foreheads, and the fluted streamers of their head-dresses hung loosely down their backs. This powdery fog was caused by the marching army, and hung over it like a fallow cloud.

The tumult increases; the whirlwinds of dust opened, and the first files of musicians entered the immense arena, to the great satisfaction of the multitude, who in spite of its respect for his Majesty were beginning to tire of waiting beneath a sun which would have melted any other skulls than those of the Egyptians.

The advance guard of musicians halted for several instants; colleges of priests, deputations of the principal inhabitants of Thebes, crossed the manœuvring-ground to meet the Pharaoh, and arranged themselves in a row in postures of the most profound respect, in such manner as to give free passage to the procession.

The band, which alone was a small army, consisted of drums, tabors, trumpets, and sistras.

The first squad passed, blowing a deafening blast upon their short clarions of polished brass, which shone like gold. Each of these trumpeters carried a second horn under his arm, as if the instrument might grow weary sooner than the man. The costume of these men consisted of a short tunic, fastened by a sash with ends falling in front; a small band, in which were stuck two ostrich feathers hanging over on either side, bound their thick hair. These plumes, so worn, recalled to mind the antennæ of scarabæi, and gave the wearers an odd look of being insects.

The drummers, clothed in a simple gathered skirt, and naked to the waist, beat the onagra-skin heads of their rounded drums with sycamore-wood drumsticks, their instruments suspended by leathern shoulder-belts, and observed the time which a drum-major marked for them by repeatedly turning towards them and clapping his hands.

After the drummers came the sistra-players, who shook their instruments by a quick, abrupt motion, and made at measured intervals the metal links ring on the four bronze bars.

The tabor-players carried their oblong instruments crosswise, held up by a scarf passed around the neck, and struck the lightly stretched parchment with both hands.

Each company of musicians numbered at least two hundred men; but the hurricane of noise produced by trumpets, drums, tabors, and sistras, and which would have drawn blood from the ears inside a palace, was none too loud or too unbearable beneath the vast cupola of heaven, in the midst of this immense open space, amongst this buzzing crowd, at the head of this army which would baffle nomenclators, and which was now advancing with a roar as of great waters.

And was it too much to have eight hundred musicians preceding a Pharaoh who was the best loved of Ammon-Ra, represented by colossal statues of basalt and granite sixty cubits high, whose name was written in cartouches on imperishable monuments, and his history painted and sculptured and painted on the walls of the hypostyle chambers, on the sides of pylons, in interminable bas-reliefs, in frescoes without end? Was it indeed too much for a king who could raise a hundred conquered races by the hair of their heads, and from his high throne corrected the nations with his whip; for a living sun burning their dazzled eyes; for a god, almost eternal?

After the musicians came the barbarian captives, strangely formed, with brutish faces, black skins, woolly hair, resembling apes as much as men, and dressed in the costume of their country, a short skirt above the hips, held by a single brace, embroidered in different colors.

An ingenious and whimsical cruelty had suggested the way in which the prisoners were chained. Some were bound with their elbows drawn behind their backs; others with their hands lifted above their heads, in a still more painful position; one had his wrists fastened in wooden cangs (instruments of torture, still used in China); another was half strangled in a sort of pillory; or a chain of them were linked together by the same rope, each victim having a knot round his neck. It seemed as if those who had bound these unfortunates had found a pleasure in forcing them into unnatural positions; and they advanced before their conqueror with awkward and tottering gait, rolling their large eyes and contorted with pain.

Guards walked beside them, regulating their step by beating them with staves.

Tawny women, with long flowing hair, carrying their children in ragged strips of cloth bound about their foreheads, came behind them; bent, covered with shame, exhibiting their naked squalor and deformity: a wretched company, devoted to the most degrading uses.

Others, young and beautiful, with lighter skin, their arms encircled by broad ivory bracelets, their ears pulled down by large metal discs, were enveloped in long tunics with wide sleeves, an embroidered hem around the neck, and falling in small flat folds to their ankles, upon which anklets rattled. Poor girls, torn from country, family, perhaps lovers, smiling through their tears! For the power of beauty is boundless; strangeness gives rise to caprice; and perhaps the royal favor awaited one of these barbarian captives in the depths of the gynæceum.

They were accompanied by soldiers who kept away the crowd.

The standard-bearers came next, lifting high the gilded staves of their flags, representing mystic baris, sacred hawks, heads of Hathor crowned with ostrich plumes, winged ibexes, inscriptions embellished with the King’s name, crocodiles, and other religious or warlike emblems. Long white streamers, spotted with black, were tied to these standards, and floated gracefully with every motion. At sight of the standards announcing the appearance of Pharaoh, the deputations of priests and notables raised towards him their supplicating hands, or let them hang, palm outwards, against their knees. Some even prostrated themselves, with elbows pressed to their sides, their faces in the dust, in attitudes of absolute submission and profound adoration. The spectators waved their large palm-leaves in every direction.

A herald, or reader, holding in one hand a roll covered with hieroglyphics, came forward quite alone between the standard-bearers and the incense-bearers who preceded the King’s litter.

He proclaimed in a loud voice, resounding as a brass trumpet, the victories of the Pharaoh; he recounted the results of the different battles, the number of captives and war chariots taken from the enemy, the amount of plunder, the measures of gold dust, and the elephant’s tusks, the ostrich feathers, the masses of fragrant gum, the giraffes, lions, panthers, and other rare animals; he mentioned the names of the barbarian chiefs killed by the javelins or the arrows of his Majesty, Aroëris, the all-powerful, the loved of the gods.

At each announcement the people sent up an immense cry, and from the top of the slopes strewed the conqueror’s path with long green palm-branches they held in their hands.

At last the Pharaoh appeared!

Priests, turning towards him at regular intervals, stretched out their amschiras to him, first throwing incense on the coals blazing in the little bronze cup, holding them by a handle formed like a sceptre, with the head of some sacred animal at the other end; they walked backwards respectfully, while the fragrant blue smoke ascended to the nostrils of the triumpher, apparently as indifferent to these honors as a divinity of bronze or basalt.

Twelve oëris, or military chiefs, their heads covered by a light helmet surrounded by ostrich feathers, naked to the waist, their loins enveloped in a narrow skirt with stiff folds, their targes suspended from the front of their belts, supported a sort of huge shield, on which rested the Pharaoh’s throne. It was a chair, with arms and legs in the form of a lion, high-backed, with large full cushion, adorned on the sides with a kind of trellis-work of pink and blue flowers; the arms, legs, moldings of the seat were gilded, and the parts which were not, flamed with bright colors.

On either side of the litter, four fan-bearers waved enormous semicircular fans, fixed to gilded staves; two priests held aloft a large richly decorated horn of plenty, from which fell bunches of enormous lotus blooms. The Pharaoh wore a mitre-like helmet, cut out to make room for the ear, and brought down over the back of the neck to protect it. On the blue ground of the helmet scintillated a quantity of dots like the eyes of birds, made of three circles, black, white, and red; a scarlet and yellow border ran along the edge, and the symbolic viper, twisting its golden coils at the back, stood erect above the royal forehead; two long curled feathers, purple in color, floated over his shoulders, and completed his majestically elegant head-dress.

A wide gorget, with seven rows of enamels, precious stones, and golden beads, fell over the Pharaoh’s chest and gleamed brightly in the sunlight. His upper garment was a sort of loose shirt, with pink and black squares; the ends, lengthening into narrow slips, were wound several times about his bust and bound it closely; the sleeves, cut short near the shoulder, and bordered with intersecting lines of gold, red, and blue, exposed his round, strong arms, the left furnished with a large metal wristband, meant to lessen the vibration of the string when he discharged an arrow from his triangular bow; and the right, ornamented by a bracelet in the form of a serpent in several coils, held a long gold sceptre with a lotus bud at the end. The rest of his body was wrapped in drapery of the finest linen, minutely plaited, bound about the waist by a belt inlaid with small enamel and gold plates. Between the band and the belt his torso appeared, shining and polished like pink granite shaped by a cunning workman. Sandals with returned toes, like skates, shod his long narrow feet, placed together like those of the gods on the temple walls.

His smooth beardless face, with large clearly cut features, which it seemed beyond any human power to disturb, and which the blood of common life did not color, with its death-like pallor, sealed lips, enormous eyes enlarged with black lines, the lids no more lowered than those of the sacred hawk, inspired by its very immobility a feeling of respectful fear. One might have thought that these fixed eyes were searching for eternity and the Infinite; they never seemed to rest on surrounding objects. The satiety of pleasures, the surfeit of wishes satisfied as soon as expressed, the isolation of a demigod who has no equal among mortals, the disgust for perpetual adoration, and as it were the weariness of continual triumph, had forever frozen this face, implacably gentle and of granite serenity. Osiris judging the souls could not have had a more majestic and calm expression.

A large tame lion, lying by his side, stretched out its enormous paws like a sphinx on its pedestal, and blinked its yellow eyes.

A rope, attached to the litter, bound the war chariots of the vanquished chiefs to the Pharaoh. He dragged them behind him like animals in leash. These men, with fierce despairing faces, their elbows drawn together by a strap and forming an ungraceful angle, tottered awkwardly at every motion of the chariots, driven by Egyptians.

Next came the chariots of the young princes royal, drawn by thoroughbred horses, elegantly and nobly formed, with slender legs, sinewy houghs, their manes cut short like a brush, harnessed by twos, tossing their red-plumed heads, with metal-bossed headstalls and frontlets. A curved pole, upheld on their withers, covered with scarlet panels, two collars surmounted by balls of polished brass, bound together by a light yoke bent like a bow with upturned ends; a bellyband and breastband elaborately stitched and embroidered, and rich housings with red or blue stripes and fringed with tassels, completed this strong, graceful, and light harness.

The body of the chariot, painted red and white, ornamented with bronze plaques and half-spheres, something like the umbo of the shields, was flanked with two large quivers placed diagonally opposite each other, one filled with arrows and the other with javelins. On the front of each, a carved, gilded lion, with set paws, and muzzle wrinkled into a frightful grin, seemed ready to spring with a roar upon the enemy.

The young princes had their hair bound with a narrow band, in which the royal viper was twisted; their only garment was a tunic gaudily embroidered at the neck and sleeves, and held in at the waist by a belt of black leather, clasped with a metal plate engraved with hieroglyphics. In this belt was a long dagger, with triangular brass blade, the handle channeled crosswise, terminated by a hawk’s head.

In the chariot, by the side of each prince, stood the charioteer, who drove it in battle, and the groom, whose business it was to ward off with the shield the blows aimed at the combatant, while the latter discharged the arrows or threw the javelins which he took from the quivers on either side of the car.

In the wake of the princes followed the chariots, the Egyptian cavalry, twenty thousand in number, each drawn by two horses and holding three men. They advanced ten in a line, the axletrees perilously near together, but never coming in contact with each other, so great was the address of the drivers.

Several lighter chariots, used for skirmishing and reconnoitring, marched at the head and carried one warrior only, who in order to leave his hands free for fighting wound the reins around his body: by bending to the right or the left, or backwards, he guided or stopped his horses; and it was really wonderful to see the noble animals, apparently left to themselves, but governed by imperceptible movements, keep up an undisturbedly regular pace….

The stamping of the horses, held in with difficulty, the thundering of the bronze-covered wheels, the metallic clash of weapons, gave to this line something formidable and imposing enough to raise terror in the most intrepid bosoms. The helmets, plumes, and breastplates dotted with red, green, and yellow, the gilded bows and brass swords, glittered and blazed terribly in the light of the sun, open in the sky, above the Libyan chain, like a great Osirian eye; and it was felt that the onslaught of such an army must sweep away the nations like a whirlwind which drives a light straw before it.

Beneath these innumerable wheels the earth resounded and trembled, as if it had been moved by some convulsion of nature.

To the chariots succeeded the battalions of infantry, marching in order, their shields on the left arm; in the right hand the lance, curved club, bow, sling, or axe, according as they were armed; the heads of these soldiers were covered with helmets, adorned with two horsehair tails, their bodies girded with a cuirass belt of crocodile skin. Their impassible look, the perfect regularity of their movements, their reddish copper complexions, deepened by a recent expedition to the burning regions of Upper Ethiopia, their clothing powdered with the desert sand, they awoke admiration by their discipline and courage. With soldiers like these, Egypt could conquer the world. After them came the allied troops, recognizable from the outlandish form of their head-pieces, which looked like truncated mitres, or were surmounted by crescents spitted on sharp points. Their wide-bladed swords and jagged axes must have produced wounds which could not be healed.

Slaves carried on their shoulders or on barrows the spoils enumerated by the herald, and wild-beast tamers dragged behind them leashed panthers, cheetahs, crouching down as if trying to hide themselves, ostriches fluttering their wings, giraffes which overtopped the crowd by the entire length of their necks, and even brown bears,—taken, they said, in the Mountains of the Moon.

The procession was still passing, long after the King had entered his palace.