W.H. Bartlett : Autoportrait (Wikimedia commons - source du document)Architecte de formation, grand voyageur (Europe, Amérique du Nord, Moyen-Orient), l'artiste-écrivain anglais William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854) fut l'un des plus grands illustrateurs paysagistes de sa génération.
Dans The Nile boat or glimpses of the land of Egypt, 1849, dont on trouvera des extraits ci-dessous, il reconnaît qu'il serait présomptueux de sa part d'ajouter un ouvrage de plus aux écrits de "l'armée des savants érudits" qui se sont engagés dans l'étude des vestiges archéologiques. Il estime par contre appartenir aux voltigeurs ou éclaireurs de pointe, dotés d'armes légères et pouvant se déplacer facilement sur le terrain des opérations, à la recherches des "aspects pittoresques", dans le but de donner des "lively impressions of actual sights" et d'inciter le lecteur à aller plus loin dans ses recherches.
Un reportage "en live", dirait-on aujourd'hui, des impressions sur le vif... L'auteur n'en prend pas moins le temps d'assimiler calmement les bases d'une véritable découverte du pays visité, à commencer ici par le passé prestigieux de l'Égypte pharaonique. D'où la description, somme toute très classique, qu'il donne des pyramides, à la lumière, précise-t-il, des écrits "indispensables" de Sir Gardner Wilkinson.
Dans un premier temps, W.H. Bartlett manifeste ses réticences et sa perplexité, au risque d'être irrévérencieux à l'égard des "learned authorities", face à la théorie selon laquelle la taille des pyramides dépendait de la durée de règne des souverains auxquels elles étaient rattachées. Une telle théorie, ajoute-t-il, est particulièrement "inconsistante" dès lors qu'il s'agit de la Grande Pyramide, avec ses couloirs intérieurs et ses chambres : il est impossible de la concevoir sans un "regular design", sans un projet en bonne et due forme pour la construction de l'ensemble du monument. Avis d'architecte, évidemment !
Quelques points méritent, me semble-t-il, d'être relevés à la lecture des extraits que j'ai choisis :
- les blocs brisés (par les Arabes à la recherche d'un trésor) de la niche dans la Chambre de la Reine : observation et avis sur l'emplacement de la dépouille du roi ;
- le puits menant vers la chambre souterraine ;
- le sarcophage de la Chambre du Roi, dont l'emplacement, selon Mrs Poole (*), marque l'existence d'une cavité (puits) ;
- autre observation : les entailles (notches) au-dessus de la Chambre du Roi, où des morceaux de bois ont été autrefois introduits ;
- la "maçonnerie" (ou technique de construction) plus ancienne et plus grossière de la seconde pyramide ;
- conjectures sur la période (ou les périodes) où les pyramides ont été violées ;
- W.H. Bartlett met sérieusement en doute ce qu'écrivait Hérodote, qui n'était que "partiellement informé", concernant la "tyrannie arbitraire" des pharaons bâtisseurs : leurs pyramides témoignent d'une civilisation autrement plus raffinée.
, being commenced with the delving of a tomb in the rock for him at his accession, over which a fresh layer of stones was added every year until his decease, when the monument was finished and closed up. Taking the number of these Memphite sovereigns and the average length of their reigns, the gradual construction of the pyramids would therefore, it is presumed, extend over a period, in round numbers, of some sixteen hundred years ! Imagination is left to conceive the antecedent period required for the slow formation of the alluvial valley of the Nile until it became fit for human habitation, whether it was first peopled by an indigenous race, or by an Asiatic immigration, already bringing with them from their Asiatic birth-place the elements of civilization, or whether they grew up on the spot, and the long, long ages that might have elapsed, and the progress that must have been made, before monuments so wonderful could have been erected.
Such is the latest theory, we believe, of the construction and import of the pyramids. At the risk, however, of irreverence towards the learned authorities by whom it is propounded, we would remark that it appears inconsistent with the construction of the great pyramid of Cheops, since the existence of a series of interior passages and chambers, and even of air passages communicating with the exterior, seems to argue a regular design for the construction of the entire monument. We are utterly at a loss to conceive how their interior passages and chambers could have been formed gradually, as upon this theory they must have been, during the accumulation of a mass of masonry, the ultimate extent of which depended on the contingency of the monarch's life. And if this objection be fatal to the theory, what becomes of the very pretty system of chronology erected upon it ?
(…) Climbing by a few steps into the second passage, you ascend to the entrance of the great gallery. From this point a horizontal passage leads into what is called the Queen's Chamber, which is small and roofed by long blocks, resting against each other and forming an angle: its height to this point is about twenty feet. There is a niche in the east end, where the Arabs have broken the stones in search for treasure ; and Sir G. Wilkinson thinks, that "if the pit where the king's body was deposited does exist in any of these rooms, it should be looked for beneath this niche." He remarks, besides, that this chamber stands under the apex of the pyramid.
At the base of the great gallery, to which we now return, is the mouth of what is called the well, a narrow funnel-shaped passage, leading down to the chamber at the base of the edifice, hollowed in the rock, and if the theory of Dr. Lepsius is correct, originally containing the body of the founder. The long ascending slope of the great gallery, six feet wide, is formed by successive courses of masonry overlying each other, and thus narrowing the passage towards the top.
Advancing 158 feet up this impressive avenue, we come to a horizontal passage, where four granite portcullises, descending through grooves, once opposed additional obstacles to the rash curiosity or avarice which might tempt any to invade the eternal silence of the sepulchral chamber, which they besides concealed ; but the cunning of the spoiler has been there of old, the device was vain, and you are now enabled to enter this, the principal apartment in the pyramid, and called the King's Chamber, entirely constructed of red granite, as is also the sarcophagus, the lid and contents of which had been removed. This is entirely plain, and without hieroglyphics, the more singular, as it seems to be ascertained that they were then in use. The sarcophagus rests upon an enormous granite block, which may, as suggested by Mrs. Poole, in her minute account of the interior, have been placed to mark the entrance to a deep vault or pit beneath. There are some small holes in the walls of the chamber, the purpose of which was for ventilation, as at length discovered by Colonel Howard Vyse.
Above the King's Chamber, and only to be reached by a narrow passage, ascending at the south-east corner of the great gallery, having notches in which pieces of wood were formerly inserted, and from the top of that, along another passage, is the small chamber discovered by Mr. Davison; its height is only three feet six inches; above it are four other similar niches, discovered by Colonel Howard Vyse, the topmost of which is angular. Wilkinson supposes that the sole purpose of these chambers is to relieve the pressure on the King's Chamber, and here was discovered the cartouche, containing the name of the founder, Suphis, identical with that found upon the tablets in Wady Maghara in the desert of Mount Sinai.
The second pyramid, generally attributed, though without hieroglyphical confirmation, to Cephrenes, is more ancient and ruder in its masonry than that of Cheops. Standing on higher ground, it has from some points an appearance of greater height than that of the great pyramid, and its dimensions are hardly less stupendous. It is distinguished by having a portion of the smooth casing yet remaining, with which all the pyramids were once covered, and it is a great feat to climb up this dangerous slippery surface to the summit. (…) Its interior arrangements differ from those of the great pyramid, in that in accordance with Lepsius's theory, the sarcophagus of the builder is sunk in the floor, and not placed in the centre of the edifice. The glory of re-opening this pyramid is due to the enterprising Belzoni.
The third pyramid is of much smaller dimensions than the two others, but beautifully constructed. It was the work, as is proved by the discovery of his name, of Mycerinus or Mencheres, whose wooden coffin in the British Museum, very simple and unornamented, as well as the desiccated body supposed to be that of the monarch himself, has probably attracted the notice of our readers. This pyramid is double, i. e. cased over with a distinct covering. (…)
is uncertain. Some are inclined to attribute their original desecration to the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings, and that, owing to this circumstance, the Egyptian monarchs afterwards preferred to hide their sepulchres in the solitary recesses of the Theban hills, though they could hardly have hoped to escape the penetrating scrutiny of a rapacious conqueror. Be this as it may, it is evident from the inscription of their names found on the pyramids, that the Arabian caliphs opened the whole of them in the vain quest of treasure, as Wilkinson supposes, in 820, A. D. They were then found to have been previously rifled, and, singularly enough, to have been closed up again with the greatest care.
That a people who could erect such monuments as the pyramids must have arrived at a high degree of civilization and refinement, is a natural inference, and one fully corroborated by the remarkable discoveries among the numerous surrounding tombs. (…) These mysterious pyramids, which have excited the conjectures and baffled the scrutiny of ages, even the empty tombs that were abandoned to the bats and jackals, seem now, by the Prometheus wand of hieroglyphical discovery, to reveal a world of curious information as to minutest details of a civilization existing some four thousand years ago.
The erection of the pyramids has been generally attributed to the arbitrary tyranny of the dynasty, as some have thought, of foreign origin, who then ruled over Egypt. Herodotus tells us that Cheops was detested by the Egyptians, whose temples he had closed, and that he employed them forcibly in the exhausting labour of building the great pyramid. Great doubts seem to rest over this and other statements of the partially informed Greek historian, and it has latterly been maintained that these stupendous monuments were, on the contrary, erected by gradual and easy degrees, by paid labour, and at government expense ; serving, in fact, the most useful and beneficent design of giving employment to the poorer classes of a vast agricultural population, confined by nature on a mere strip of alluvial soil, when thrown idle three months in the year by the inundation of the Nile.
(*) cet auteur fera ici l'objet d'une prochaine note.
Illustrations extraites de l'ouvrage de Bartlett