James Silk Buckingham
James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855) était un écrivain journaliste anglais. Grand voyageur, il s’installa en Inde, où il fonda le Calcutta Journal en 1818, puis en fut expulsé en 1823 pour avoir critiqué la East India Company. De retour en Angleterre, il créa en 1824 la Oriental Herald and Colonial Review, qui sera éditée jusqu’en 1829.
C’est du vol. XIII de cette publication (1827) que j’ai extrait un texte relatant la visite de l’auteur au site de Guizeh.
Cette relation sort de la banalité à laquelle nous ont habitués de nombreux récits de “voyageurs”. On y retrouve, certes, la mention de l’exploit que représentaient, à l’époque, la montée au sommet de la Grande Pyramide et la visite risquée de l’intérieur de ce même monument (on y pénétrait armé !). Mais plusieurs points du récit méritent une attention particulière :
- la “communication”, à des fins rituelles, entre le puits de la Grande Pyramide et le Sphinx ;
- les détails architecturaux de la Grande Galerie ;
- l’interrogation face à l’existence ou non de “nombreux autres sarcophages” à l’intérieur de la Grande Pyramide ;
- les “deux petites niches” de la Chambre du Roi, qui ne ressemblent pas plus à des ouvertures que la Grande Pyramide à un palace ;
- la non-ouverture de la seconde pyramide (Belzoni y interviendra l'année même de parution de l'ouvrage) ;
- l’allusion, moyennant des analyses chimiques préalables, à l’”art de fabriquer des pierres” (art of making stones of any magnitude from paste or plaster) ;
- la plus grande perfection de la seconde pyramide, comparativement à la Grande Pyramide ;
- la stupidité que représente le fait de voir dans les pyramides des temples ou des observatoires, et non des tombes.
James Silk Buckingham et son épouse Elizabeth (1825)
peinture de Henry William Pickersgillin (Wikimédia commons)“ The optical deception which the pyramidal form occasions is almost incredible. From the first view I caught of the pyramids, when sailing up the Rosetta branch of the Nile, they appeared like mountains ; the magnitude of which did not sensibly increase by a nearer approach of several leagues. At Cairo, from whence they do not seem more than three or four miles off, their appearance is nearly the same ; and, after advancing towards them for as many leagues more, they really seem to retire as one approaches, and even, at a hundred paces distant, had not that immensity of size which expectation attaches to them. But, seated actually at their base, and looking upward to their summits, they surpass in enormity the anticipation of the most sanguine minds. Instead of finding an edifice, such as one would imagine to have been the grandest production of human labour, the eye beholds a towering mountain built of rocks, the gigantic features of whose minutest parts fill the imagination with an awe and wonder that must be felt to be conceived. The space occupied by one of the stones which had been removed from the base formed a sort of cavern in which we breakfasted ; and as the exterior of the angles were much injured by time and forcible violations, smaller fragments of those masses were scattered round in every direction ; but, even amidst these, the straggling Arabs whom we saw, and the individuals of our party, looked rather like puppets than men, so diminutive were they in the scale of comparison. [Suit une description de l’ascension au sommet de la Grande Pyramide]
After breathing a thousand regrets at the necessity of quitting this eminence so soon, and gazing again upon the scene as though I wished to carry away with me an impression never to be erased, we came down by the north-eastern angle, which, though much more perfect than its opposite one, is still difficult to descend. Where the work was uninjured the closeness of the jointures was admirable ; these giants in art appeared to have united the greatest masses with much more skill and perfection than their degenerate descendants can now build up their cottage walls.
Précautions prises pour la visite de l’intérieur de la Grande Pyramide
After reposing for a few minutes from the fatigue of our descent, we assembled on the hill of sand that has accumulated about the base of the Great Pyramid, and, placing the Janissaries to guard the mouth of the first channel, we left our clothes at the entrance, and descended the sloping passages, wearing only a shirt, night-cap, and drawers, each with a pistol in one hand, and a lighted torch in the other, precautions which are all necessary, because the Bedouins have been known both to conceal themselves in the interior, and to enter after visitors, as well as to block up the passage in order to prevent their return, with a view to the robbery of their persons.
L’intérieur de la Pyramide
This entrance, now level with the sand, was, in the time of Strabo, about midway between the base and summit, so much has this moving soil gained upon the building. The passage itself is about five feet square, built of a yellowish marble, exquisitely joined and highly polished, inclining in a gentle angle towards its centre and base, but so filled with rubbish and sand, as to render it necessary literally to crawl on the hands and knees in several places. It extended for about a hundred feet in length, when we met with an immense block which seemed to close the entrance. On digging out the sand and stones, however, from underneath it, we worked ourselves through with great difficulty, like serpents, losing the skin in several places about the shoulders, knees, and elbows. Here we found ourselves in a sort of cavern, with a passage winding to the right, which had been cut through immense masses of granite, and at length discontinued.
Denon's plan, which I retained perfectly in my memory, taught me to search for the ascending gallery in another direction ; but I was so deceived by the immensity of the scale, that instead of finding mere blocks of granite, as I expected from his description, they were literally rocks and caves.
We climbed over these without much difficulty, and ascending the first gallery, came to the well which is on the right-hand of the landing-place as we entered. The depth of this has been much spoken of, and traditions prevail of persons having gone into it without ever returning, the truth of which it is now impossible to ascertain ; but on throwing down several stones it was easy to distinguish by their sounds that the passage was serpentine, and of great depth, as the noise of them did not suddenly cease, but diminished gradually by distance. Of all the conjectures which have been urged relative to the use of this channel, none appears to me so probable as that which assigns it to a communication with the Sphinx, by which the ancient Egyptian priests descended to inclose themselves in the body of that monster, and deliver their oracles to the admiring multitude. Who knows but that it was by some such stratagem as this that they acquired sufficient ascendancy over the minds of the people to induce their perseverance in this gigantic task, under the deceptive persuasion that this oracle repeated to their ears the commands of the Deity ?
Photo Edgar Brothers
La Chambre de la Reine, la Grande Galerie
Pursuing the horizontal gallery, we reached the apartment called the Queen's chamber, now nearly filled with rubbish, and the abode of bats. As it offered nothing curious beyond the massiveness and perfect unity of its construction, we returned by the same passage, and ascended the grand gallery which leads to the royal chamber of the Sarcophagus. It would be difficult to explain the nature of this gallery by a drawing, and still more so by a written description. The angle of its ascent is about 45°; its whole breadth from six to eight feet, and its height from twenty-five to thirty feet. Its chief peculiarity is that the walls close in toward the top in an inverted pyramidal form, the layers of stone, instead of retiring behind each other as they ascend, each projecting over the range below it, in the same proportion, and consequently rendering the passage an oblong pyramid of space, which is very imperfectly indicated by straight lines in all the plans I have seen.
La Chambre royale du Sarcophage
On each side of the entrance to the royal chamber, are flutings, cut perpendicularly in the granite, the only species of sculpture or ornament to be seen throughout the building ; and here the perfection of architecture, as it regards closeness of union and solidity, seems to have been displayed, in conformity to the rigorous inviolability which the ancients studied in their sepulchral retreats. This apartment is about thirty feet long, fifteen wide, and nearly the same height. The sarcophagus, which lies at the western end of it, is about the dimensions of a well grown man ; but I knew not what to think of the veracity of travellers, when I remembered that M. Maillet, who, according to Savary, visited it forty times with all the care imaginable, supposes (and hopes, too, that all persons of sense will approve his judgment) that this hall contained many other sarcophagi besides that of the king ; above all, of the persons who were shut up with him alive in this tomb, “pour leur tenir en quelque sorte compagnie” ; and all this, founded on the important discovery of two small niches, through which he supposes they received their supplies of air and food, but which have no more resemblance to apertures of that description than the pyramid itself to a palace. When I remembered this, with the host of other conjectures that were fresh in my memory, and contrasted it with the positive assertion of Volney, that this chamber is so obscure and narrow that it never can have contained more than one dead body ; I was more convinced than ever that it is as necessary to gee as to judge for one's self, and that books are in general but imperfect guides compared with actual observation.
Plans and dimensions of the interior of this pyramid had been so frequently taken, that I despaired of rendering any service to future visitors by repeating them ; and to convey an adequate idea of this colossal monument to the student in his closet, I candidly confess my perfect inability. Denon has said but little, yet that little has the merit of fidelity. Savary, joining his own observations to those of Maillet, has given a strange medley of fact and falsehood, certainty and conjecture ; while Volney has expressed a volume, when he simply says : “All travellers speak of them with enthusiasm, and enthusiasm they may well inspire.”
Plaisir et mélancolie
Recovering from the labyrinth of reflections into which my mind had wandered, as I sat within the sarcophagus, in which I had lain down with a view to ascertain its adaptation to the human form, and admiring the grandeur of the motive, detesting the tyranny of the means, envying the skill of the masters, despising the servility of the slaves, applauding the ambition of rivalling eternity, yet smiling at the secret justice of that destiny which had dispersed in air the scattered atoms of a heart (...), and made the destruction of its organic being still more complete than the monument which once entombed it was enormous, I quited this gloomy sanctuary with regret at the necessity of our departure, for there was a pleasure even in the melancholy it inspired, which I would willingly have prolonged. (...)
From this we went to observe the second Pyramid, situated at a very short distance only from the first. This, never having been opened, is more perfect in its exterior ; and the celebrated marble plaster, which originally filled up all the inequalities of the surface, and induced Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus to suppose them to be built of that stone, still remains about the summit, for one-eighth of the depth, presenting a smooth polished surface impossible to be surmounted. Whether time, or the hand of man, has destroyed the remainder, cannot now be ascertained ; but an analysis, by some skillful chemist, of this marble cement, as well as of the red granite plaster which lines the channels of the opened pyramid, would be likely to throw great light on a number of questions suggested by a view of Ancient architecture ; and if it led to the discovery of so important and useful an art as that of making stones of any magnitude from paste or plaster, one can imagine no research that would so certainly spread the fame of the discoverer, or be more favourable to architectural labours than this.
The second pyramid, though not quite so large as the first, is much more perfect in its proportions. Its angles are just, and the eye reposes with pleasure upon a uniformity of base and perpendicular ; while the excess of length, by which the ground line of the other exceeds the height, renders the angle too obtuse to please a taste of mathematical precision, or to combine lightness and beauty with massiveness and strength, characteristics by which the second pyramid is eminently distinguished. Taking the authority of Herodotus, than which we have none more generally accurate, that this was the tomb of Cephrenes, brother to his predecessor, Cheops, who had employed a hundred thousand men for twenty years in building the first of these colossal monuments, it is possible that the architects of the second, perceiving the defects adverted to, had avoided the errors of their model, and produced a more perfect work.
The third pyramid, sinking into insignificance by a comparison with the two neighbouring masses, is yet nearly three hundred feet square, and would, in any other situation than its present one, be regarded as a surprising effort of human labour ; but when we view it as the price of prostitution, exacted by a father for the violation of his child, it is even more repugnant to nature, more horrible in a parental eye, than the tyrannizing despotism which loaded a nation with chains, and forced from their groaning subjects these eternal monuments of pride and cruelty, of despotic power on the one hand, and abject slavery on the other.
Photo Jon Bodsworth
The Sphinx, which is situated a little to the southward of the first pyramid, was the next object of our attention ; and I was charmed with an inspection of it. How much did I regret the haste of the enthusiastic Denon's visit, and the impossibility of his making a perfect drawing of it on the spot, for, independently of his merit as an artist, he seems to have caught all the impressions requisite for such a task. (...)
Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful, the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil ; the character is African, but the mouth, the lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable ; it seems real life and flesh. Art must have been at a high pitch when this monument was executed ; for, if the head wants what is called style, that is to say, the straight and bold lines which give expression to the figures, under which the Greeks have designated their deities, yet sufficient justice has been rendered to the fine simplicity and character of nature which is displayed in this figure.
As far as we could trace it, the statue of the Sphinx is hewn out of one solid rock, the body being covered with the sand of the Desert, level with its back, on which we walked. Lines of rod paint are still visible about the hair, which, from the complicated, sculpture, appears to have been highly ornamented ; but the features are at this moment much mutilated, the superstition of the Mohammedans teaching them to despise all representations of animal life, and the Bedouins having a traditional hatred of Pharoah, whose tomb they believe the pyramid to have been, and this his image. The conjecture, that this union of the virgin's beauty and the lion's strength was hieroglyphically emblematic of the inundation of the Nile, at a certain astronomical period, appears extremely happy, and is borne out by the universality of that ornament on all their temples and public buildings. Without the Nile, Egypt would have been an uninhabitable desert ; but, watered by its prolific stream, it becomes a second Eden ; and if ever a superstition is pardonable, it is so when attaching divine virtues to that which is the source of life, fertility, and happiness, erecting statues to its honour, and lavishing the arts to record the gratitude of mankind.
I walked round the twenty or thirty fragments of pyramidical edifices, which are still found in the neighbourhood of the three great ones ; compared the quality of the stones with that of the Lybian rock on which they are built, examined the tomb excavated in the rock itself, the positions of those buildings, their distances, and a thousand other particulars, the result of all which made me feel the full force of Volney's reasoning, when he labours to prove, first, that the assertion of Herodotus as to the materials being brought from Upper Egypt, was more than plausible ; and secondly, that the idea of the pyramids having been temples or observatories, instead of tombs, was worse than stupid, and must have been suggested by a genius as dark as these chambers of the dead which they contain.”