L'écrivain et journaliste britannique James Augustus St. John (1795-1875) fut un grand voyageur. En 1832, il se rendit ainsi en Égypte où il se déplaçait la plupart du temps à pied.
Son périple dans la vallée du Nil lui inspira plusieurs ouvrages : Egypt and Mohammed Ali, or Travels in the Valley of the Nile (2 vols., 1834), Egypt and Nubia (1844), Isis, an Egyptian Pilgrimage (2 vols., 1853).
Le texte que j'ai retenu de cet auteur est extrait de Egypt and Nubia. Pour en agrémenter la lecture, j'y ai inséré quelques intertitres.
"The traveller's sojourn at Cairo is usually diversified by a number of excursions each, to borrow a phrase from the Arabian Nights, more interesting than the other. (…) But none of these enjoyments was perhaps so replete with pleasure as our visit to the great pyramids of Ghizeh. To most persons those structures have now been rendered familiar by description. Thousands of travellers have beheld them, hundreds have delineated their forms, and repeated their dimensions. But this consideration does not in the slightest degree diminish the delight with which the European who arrives for the first time at Cairo undertakes his little expedition across the Nile. (…)
Les pyramides de Guizeh font partie des merveilles du monde... et ce n'est que justice !
The rocky eminence upon which Cheops and his successors erected their vast pyramidal temples to Venus, rises about one hundred feet above the level of the Egyptian plain, and has now been covered, by the action of the west wind, with sandy mounds, various in form and height, which cause it to exhibit a ruggedness of aspect altogether congruous with our ideas of the Libyan waste. When we had gained the summit of this height, and cleared the hillocks which at first obstructed our view, all the sublimity of the Pyramids burst at once upon us. The tallest among our companions, standing at their feet, were scarcely so high as a single layer of stones ; and when I drew near and beheld the mighty basis, the vast breadth, the prodigious solidity, the steep acclivity of the sides, misleading the eye, which appears to discover the summit among the clouds, whilst the kite and the eagle, wheeling round and round, far, far aloft, were yet not so high as the apex, I secretly acknowledged the justice of the popular opinion which enumerates those majestic structures among the wonders of the world. (…)
Loin d'être inutiles, les pyramides sont une expression de l'Art
Men, ambitious of the reputation of philosophers, have declaimed in all ages about the inutility of the Pyramids. But can anything be called useless by which the mind is elevated and aggrandised ? which rouses and fires the imagination with ideas of diuturnity and grandeur and power ? What are we, divested of the pleasures furnished by the imagination ? Why has Art in all ages mimicked the creative energy of Nature ? Is it not that we may remove from ourselves that sense of insignificance which is inspired by the feebleness of our physical power, by the exertion of another power, in which it would appear from many of the works of men that we are not deficient ! However this may be, I thanked Cheops, Cephrenes, and Mycerinus for creating a marvel in the regions of art, and thus, whatever may be pretended to the contrary, adding to the sum of permanent enjoyment. If in the execution of their designs they oppressed their subjects, the fact is to be lamented ; but too many modern princes, with equal recklessness of what they inflict upon the people, wantonly engage in wars which still more lavishly and uselessly exhaust their treasures, without producing anything for the instruction or gratification of posterity. (…)
"The majority, if not the whole of the Pyramids, are merely small natural hills faced with masonry"
On drawing near the Pyramid [of Illahoon], we observed a striking peculiarity in its appearance : between the dark unburned bricks, with which it seems to be constructed, we could perceive, on every side, immense blocks of stone projecting through the casing. This circumstance leading me to reflect more maturely on the subject, I was convinced by the observations I afterwards made, that the majority, if not the whole of the Pyramids, are merely small natural hills faced with masonry. To a certain extent, we know this to be the case with that of Cheops, in which the living rock is visible in the interior. At Sakkarah, likewise, the same advantage has been taken of a large rocky nucleus furnished by nature ; so that, in the erection of these vast temples of Venus, the Egyptians would appear to have done nothing more than build round a number of those conical hillocks of stone, which are so numerous in this part of the Libyan Desert, adding to their bulk and height, and fashioning them so as to represent on all sides the mystic Delta, in whose honour they were constructed.
We may thus also account for the seemingly fortuitous manner in which the Pyramids are scattered over the face of the waste, and for their remarkable proximity to each other, in the case of those at Ghizeh.
Herodotus relates that Asychis, desirous of surpassing his predecessors, not by the grandeur or magnificence of his public works, but by the difficulties which he knew how to overcome, erected a pyramid of bricks made with mud drawn up by poles from the bottom of the lake ; and that he commemorated his silly achievement on a stone in the face of the Pyramid. If the lake intended in this passage was that of Moeris, or the Bahr Yusuf- which seems to have been not unfrequently confounded with the lake - then the Pyramid of Asychis may be that of Illahoon, or of Hawara ; though the inscription nowhere appears. By compelling the people to labour, however, on works of this kind, to the neglect of agriculture and commerce, Asychis reduced his subjects to great poverty and misery ; so that, in order to raise money for their subsistence, they were, in many cases, compelled to pawn the dead bodies of their parents. Like the Haram-el-Kedâb, the Pyramid of Illahoon springs up almost perpendicularly from a conical base, and having attained a certain elevation, slopes rapidly to a point. Originally, therefore, it was not possible to ascend to its summit ; but by the industry of the Arabs, a path has been formed on its southern face, leading in a zig-zag direction to the top. Denon considers this the most dilapidated of all the Pyramids of Egypt ; but it is, perhaps, less ruinous than that of Hawara ; and in the Desert near Dashour and Sakkarah, there are several structures of this kind already reduced to the shape and appearance of barrows.
No attempt seems to have been made to open a passage into the interior, though it probably contains chambers, like the other Pyramids ; but on the sand, all around its base, we observed the tracks of numerous wheeled carriages, which we found, upon examination, had been employed in carrying away stones cut from the north-east corner of the hill, on which it has been erected ; so that in all probability it will shortly be undermined and totally overthrown. The stones thus obtained would appear to be used in the public buildings and sluices on the Bahr Yusuf. (…)
La "fausse pyramide" de Meïdoum
From Boosh we proceeded northward to the village of Maydoon, where, instead of pursuing the ordinary route, wo turned to the left towards the false Pyramid, which had been long visible, sometimes presenting the appearance of a prodigious tent on the edge of the verdant horizon ; sometimes dwindling, from the undulation of the ground, to an insignificant cone, or disappearing entirely behind the larger eminences. Occasionally we were conducted, by a bend in the road, into its immediate vicinity ; but pursuing the sinuosities of the path, winding hither and thither, according to the position of the different hamlets, it again receded, seeming to fly our approach, like the unreal waters of the desert : and from this circumstance it may have been denominated by the Arabs, the false or delusive Pyramid, though others derive the name from its being only in part of the pyramidal form. (...) Its appearance from a short distance is so red, that, like the other religious structures, it appears to have been painted ; but the ruddy tint is in the stone, which, when broken by the hammer, discloses numerous rubiginous strata. This Pyramid differs in construction from those of Memphis, consisting of a series of square inclined towers, erected upon each other, successively diminishing in size to the summit, and originally terminating, I imagine, in a point. Each tower, however, was built completely, from the foundation to the apex, before that which encloses it like a sheath was commenced, so that the Egyptians here exhibited the utmost prodigality of expense and labour ; for the masonry of this prodigious structure is so admirable, the stones are so truly squared and so exquisitely fitted in the parts intended to be concealed, no less than in those which present themselves to the eye, that it would be impossible to insert the point of a penknife between them. Midway up the third tower, reckoning from the base, a band of unfinished masonry, about eight feet broad, extends along each of its four faces, while all above and below is finely polished. Though the Egyptians appear always to have planed and made even their walls after they were erected, beginning in most cases from the top, and working downwards, this rough band cannot be supposed to have been accidentally left unfinished, being everywhere of the same depth, and studded with greater inequalities than would have been found on a surface intended to be smoothed. It is, therefore, probable, that it was originally covered with a fine stucco, ornamented with bas-reliefs or intaglios, and painted in the most gorgeous style observable in the temples.
Thus adorned, it would be difficult to conceive a more striking object than this vast barbaric pile, towering aloft in a transparent atmosphere, and overlooking, like a mighty fortress, the whole extent of the sacred valley. In fact, the false pyramid greatly resembles the idea which the descriptions of the ancients convey of the Tower of Belus, except that no flight of steps, running along the face of the edifice, conducts to the summit ; though it may be conjectured that the central turret contains a staircase, approached by some subterranean entrance now unknown. Grand, however, as this structure is, its magnificence has not sufficed to protect it from the barbarism of the Turks, who, to obtain materials for the construction of cotton mills or barracks, have commenced the demolition of the exterior towers. An attempt has likewise been made, high in the northern face, to discover a passage into the interior ; but, after considerably defacing the beauty of the Pyramid, the barbarian, who most probably was in search of treasure, relinquished his hopeless undertaking. Heaps of stones and rubbish, the spoils of the edifice, encumber the ground, and beyond these are the sand-hills of the desert, and constantly advancing their shifting bases towards the cultivated country. (…)
Les pyramides de Dahchour
Pushing on rapidly towards Dashour, we visited and examined its several pyramids, which have nothing very peculiar in their construction, except that the largest having been commenced on a grand scale, with the evident intention of being carried to an immense height, contracts suddenly, and terminates in a blunt point. Its entrance, as usual, is found in the northern face, about twenty-five feet from the ground. Of the other pyramids, built in the same style as those of Sakkarah, there is one which has been so completely uncovered that the hillock of earth forming the original nucleus of the structure alone remains. Leading from the valley are several causeways, the existence of which has given rise to various conjectures ; for if they are admitted to have been the work of the ancient Egyptians, it will follow that the desert has not greatly encroached on the cultivated country, and that the pyramids must have been originally erected on rocks in the midst of sand-hills. But, supposing them of modern date, constructed for the convenience of removing stones and bricks to be used elsewhere, the presumption would ensue that the Pyramids were built in the valley considerably in advance of the desert. Appearances are favourable to the latter hypothesis ; for the immense masses of stone which have been displaced are no longer to be seen, though the sands have not risen so high as to conceal them, did they still exist upon the spot. Without laborious and extensive operations it would, however, be impossible accurately to determine to what extent the sands of the Libyan waste have advanced eastward ; but it is probable that the loss of land here sustained exceeds what has been acquired by the enlargement of the Delta. (…)
Attended by all these followers, not one of whom, perhaps, ever before acted as a guide, we proceeded towards the largest of the Pyramids [of Sakkarah], the entrance of which they strenuously insisted had not hitherto been discovered. Arriving at the spot, however, we discovered the adit at the bottom of a deep pit, partly filled with sand and stones. Externally, this structure resembles the Haram-el-Kedab, consisting of a series of square inclined towers, built upon each other, and terminating in a point. (...)
We now descended into the pit with the guides ; who, after clearing a portion of the sand away with the hands, threw themselves on their faces, and proceeding feet foremost, forced their way with much difficulty beneath the superincumbent rock. We did the same, and found ourselves in a low horizontal passage, leading directly towards the centre of the pyramid. Here the lamp and palm-branches were kindled, and we commenced the exploring of the subterranean galleries, a part of the Arabs preceding, others following us. For a short distance the passage continued so low, that it was necessary to stoop ; but becoming higher by degrees, we were enabled to proceed with greater facility, until at length it branched off, on either hand, into numerous smaller corridors, leading in different directions, like those intricate excavations which extend beneath the foundations of Persepolis. Evidently unacquainted with the topography of the place, the guides here seemed in doubt respecting the track they ought to follow ; but after a moment's pause, selected a passage conducting, by an abrupt descent, to a lower level. All these galleries and corridors are excavated in the solid rock, which appears to constitute the whole interior of the pyramid, and probably lead to as many different suites of apartments ; though to ascertain this it would be necessary, in some cases, to clear away numerous blocks of stone, which have detached themselves from the roof, and closed the passages. Arriving at length at a small fissure in the rock, the guide, who moved in front of me with the flaming palm-branches in his hand, descended through this opening, disappeared with his light, and it was some time before he returned, having, I imagine, hurried forward, in the hope of discovering whither it led. As soon as the light appeared, we also went down, and proceeding through narrow galleries and corridors, winding, mounting, descending, and crossing each other - at length arrived at a hall of immense height, excavated in the solid rock. A pistol was here fired, but the report, though loud, was succeeded by none of those extraordinary echoes distinguishable in the Pyramid of Cheops. From this chamber another series of passages, the entrance to which is now closed with stones and rubbish, seems formerly to have descended to inferior suites of apartments hitherto unexplored. The light yielded by the lamp and palm-branches was insufficient to discover the roof, or the exact form of several openings, resembling balconies or galleries, where, perhaps, during the celebration of the mysteries, the initiated may have sat observing the movements of the hierophants. Numerous lateral galleries, diverging from this point, appear to extend on all sides beneath the foundations of the Pyramid ; but in attempting to explore them, our progress was generally obstructed by heaps of stone or sand. At length, however, after pursuing for some time the windings of a low corridor, we arrived suddenly at the mouth of a chasm of unknown depth, whose dimensions were concealed by the shadows of the projecting rocks. Deceived at first by the dimness of the light, I was about to step forward, when a loud and sudden exclamation from my terrified companion, who perceived the danger I was in, arrested my progress, and saved me from being precipitated into the abyss. On further examination it appeared that we were standing in one of the balconies overlooking the great hall. Retracing our footsteps from this perilous gallery, and finding nothing further in the Pyramid to detain us, we returned towards the entrance, and emerging into the desert found all our baggage and garments wetted by the rain."