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Volume 29, Number 5September/October 1978

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A Hidden Beauty

Written by Ilene Beatty McNulty
Photographed by John Feeney

To the discerning eye, there is a special beauty in the magnificent monuments of ancient Egypt. It is not immediately apparent. It is, indeed, almost hidden. But, paradoxically it is also impossible to ignore as, beneath the sun, the temples, pylons, obelisks and colossi begin to glow against the soft green of the Nile's narrow valley It is the muted color of the stone itself.

To most visitors, and to me at first, the sheer size and the raw strength of the monuments are what arrest the eye. But then, particularly in the apricot light of winter, the subtle colors gradually appear: the delicate shades of white and pink, the bold blacks and the striking reds.

You notice the white tints first. Because the Nile Valley in upper Egypt, cuts through a limestone plateau, you suddenly notice not without surprise the light and cheerful shades of limestone on the precipices which wall the valley: snow white, eggshell, cream, beige and buff. But then, with shock, you realize that the Great Pyramid of Giza is also built of limestone and that, beneath the patina of the millennia, are hidden the same shades of white.

Covering nearly 13 acres, the Great Pyramid is solidly built of layers of squared limestone blocks, each layer rising and receding above the other in tremendously long, steep courses that climb to a peak almost 500 feet in the air. When first completed, the steps were covered with a casing of white limestone brought from the quarries of Tura in the Moqattam Hills on the east side of the valley near Cairo. Cut in triangles and fitted into the stair-step sides of the Great Pyramid, the casing blocks made of each face a vast, smooth, snow-white plane that, polished to perfect smoothness, must have been dazzling in the sunlight.

Limestone varies greatly in both texture and tone, but the finest texture, I think, is found in the temple of Seti I, further up the Nile at Abydos, the sacred burial site of the ancient god Osiris. Built about 1300 B.C., the Temple of Seti, by the greatest good fortune, was buried under the shifting sands and thus preserved for centuries. Rediscovered and excavated about 100 years ago, and recently restored by the Egyptian Antiquities Department, the temple is a masterpiece of fine-grained white limestone walls, covered with delicate hieroglyphs At Abydos too there is the Temple of Ramses II, with large reliefs painted in brilliant blues, blood-reds, delicate greens, golden yellows and rich red-browns, all startlingly clear against the fine white background. The limestone itself, compact, opaque and as fine as marble, lends to the temple a serenity perfectly in tune with the blue sky and the rich light outside.

Further south the white tints of the limestone turn fresh and pink at sunrise, peach-colored at noon and rosy at sunset as the cliffs, which extend for hundreds of miles, wind toward Luxor. And then, as the desert plateau closes in, the limestone gives way to another stone that, in some light, has the look of a sunburn. Just as the valley in the north of Egypt cuts between the limestone palisades, in the south it cuts between sandstone cliffs whose richer, warmer tan glistens with a million pinpoints of light.

At first, I admit, I disliked sandstone; because it consists largely of particles of quartz sand cemented with silica - the particles that give it strength - sandstone seemed too grainy to be beautiful. But then, looking closely in morning sunlight, I began to detect its hidden but brilliant colors: purple, topaz and red, with blue shadows between.

In Egypt sandstone was widely used for important temples: the huge Temple of Horus at Edfu, for example, the most perfectly preserved of all Egyptian temples, or the famous Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, a mile from Luxor. And of course the famous Colossi of Memnon, that pair of giant statues of Amenophis III, 60 feet tall and yellow-brown against a flat, green field of lentils, and, in the Valley of the Kings, the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamen in yellowish sandstone, beautifully carved and polished, still resting there with King Tut's body inside it (see Aramco World, May-June 1977).

Of all the stone in Egypt, however, granite, a stone that by its very nature commands respect, is the "great" stone. Granite was used for everything - from entire temples to green scarabs - yet was never common, never ordinary. Everything made of granite, large or small, was special, and represented not only incredible labor but art of a high order. Granite indeed represents the life and times of ancient Egypt as marble represents Greece.

Granite, a hard, strong stone which takes a high, lasting polish, is often thought of as dour and gray, but in fact occurs in many colors: pink rose, red, gray green, "dark" "parti-colored" and black. Much of it was quarried at Aswan, up on the Nubian border, where ridges of ancient volcanic rocks - granite, gneiss, and diorite - push up through the sandstone plateau.

Because granite is particularly hard, the ancient workmen had to have a plentiful supply of abrasive for cutting and dressing the stone, and, conveniently this was also found in almost limitless quantities near Aswan: fine quartz sand. Exceptionally hard, quartz sand, as an abrasive, can even cut quartz itself - the hardest stone the Egyptians used - just as a diamond is abraded by its own dust. This is particularly true of some sand at Aswan, which is said to contain as much as 15 per cent emery next in hardness to the diamond.

Among the outstanding uses of granite in Egypt are the Valley Temple, standing beside the Sphinx at Cairo, the doorframes of Ramses II's limestone temple at Abydos and the Serapheum at Saqqara, a tunnel mausoleum a quarter of a mile long; it contains mammoth sarcophagi, each cut from a solid block of red or black granite, which weigh some 65 tons each and average 13 feet in length, seven feet in width and 11 feet in height. But it is in the obelisks, and in the statues of the ancient kings and gods, that granite is most striking.

Obelisks today of course, can be seen in many capitals of the western world. Imposing and lively their pyramidal tops often sheathed in gold or electrum - an alloy of gold and silver - the obelisks of Egypt were so prized by the western nations that many were transported at enormous cost to cities like Paris, Rome, London and New York - where obelisks called Cleopatra's Needles stand today (see Aramco World, July-August 1975).

But there are still obelisks in Egypt. One, possibly the oldest of all, is the red granite obelisk of Senwosret I of the XII Dynasty erected in 1950 B.C. It still stands in its original position at Old Heliopolis, about 20 minutes by bus out of Cairo. And another, uncompleted, still lies flat on its side in the quarry at Aswan, near the First Cataract.

Granite was also used widely for statues of ancient kings and gods; there are perhaps as many statues of granite in the Cairo Museum as of all other stones combined, and great numbers still remain in their original positions at the temples.

Some of these are colossi, like the one of Ramses II in pink granite at his mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, also west of Luxor near the Valley of the Kings. Seated, the figure was 57 feet high and weighed 1,000 tons. It was overthrown, surely by nothing less than an earthquake, and now lies with its six-foot-broad face buried in the dirt. Across the chest from shoulder to shoulder it measures 23 feet.

Even this was not the largest. Ramses II had a still larger statue of himself - in red granite - erected at Tanis in the Delta, the Biblical Zoan, "built seven years before Hebron." It weighed 1,200 tons and, including its pedestal, stood 125 feet high.

Grandeur, however, was but one characteristic of the ancient granite sculpture. For the countless statues are not merely ornamental blocks, vaguely roughed out; they are often fine portraits carved with careful attention to facial likenesses and to such detail as the delicate pleatings of a king's costume - or even his toenails. The details, in fact are so fine that visitors can often recognize the kings and come to know a few of them almost as well as they know the face of Abraham Lincoln. Ikhnaton, for example, with his wry neck, thick sneering lips, longjaw and pot belly could never be mistaken for the urbane, soldierly King Thothmes III.

In studying both the grandeur and the delicacy of these great granite masterpieces, I was also astonished by the numbers of magnificent works that are relatively unknown, at least to me. Once, for example, on a windy spring day I sought shelter in the Temple of Mut at the far end of Karnak's 140 acres and, walking down the long avenue of ram sphinxes to the Temple, ducked into the first walled court - where I stopped in surprise. Completely surrounding me, and staring grimly at me from all four sides of the enclosure, were 40 black granite figures with women's bodies and lions' heads, taller, even seated, than I. Statues of the lion-goddess Sekmet, they sat there in poses ladylike as well as regal, knees together; feet evenly placed, backs straight and heads erect, looking down their noses with a cold and almost menacing hauteur.

Another lovely stone, although more rarely used, is alabaster - actually in Egypt, calcite and therefore not true alabaster. Translucent, sometimes even transparent, alabaster ranges from white to the color of rainwater and, when polished and old, looks soft enough to be dented with the finger. In ancient times the best came from the quarries of Hatnub near Amarna in Middle Egypt, but today can still be found in small quantities elsewhere. One Sunday in the mountains above the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, for example, I met two men coming down, their donkey loaded with baskets of alabaster chunks; I found later that they had simply broken the stone out of an outcropping. Because of the difficulty in finding blocks of sufficient size, the Egyptians rarely carved statues or sarcophagi of alabaster; it was more often used for small articles: canopic jars, vases and dishes.

And there are many other quite lovely stones in Egypt too: beautiful quartzite; menacing obsidian; porphyry fine, hard and shockingly purple, brought from the ancient mountains toward the Red Sea. There is also basalt, black and durable, which was used for the Rosetta Stone on which, 150 years ago, scholars found a key to the hieroglyphic alphabet and almost miraculously recovered the long-lost history of ancient Egypt. All those stones have, each in a special way a hidden beauty quite apart from the monuments themselves.

llene McNulty participated in archeological research and digs in Luxor and Jerusalem, studied at the University of California in Berkeley, and is the author of The Jordan Water Problem and The Land of Canaan.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the September/October 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1978 images.