Karnak, February 1850
“On the wall of the propylon is Seti, kneeling, and offering himself in the form of a little figure which is eagerly bending forward on its knees. Immediately beyond this, as if in answer to this devoting of himself, the Good and evil spirit are pouring over him life – as if to say, Give me thyself, my son, and thou shalt learn to draw life out of evil as well as good—out of all experience—“all things work together for good to them that love God”. The Agathodaemon or Trinity hovers overhead, not as usual with wings outspread, but a little depressed, as if to “cover him with its feathers”. The whole conception is beautiful.
This head is the most wonderful ideal of sublime serenity and childlike trust and confidence I ever saw. S went back to look at it, that last day, again and again. I tried to compare it with Guido’s Speranza but it is too different from the Christian ideal. Though one can hardly tell in what—there is a purity in these heathen (?) expressions which is not in the Christian—it is the returning spirit. There is that absence of the doctrine of repentance which has struck me so much in these records of a nation’s religion. The Christian ideal has sinned and suffered – there has been struggle, asceticism, the cheek is pale with vigils, the eye stained with tears – it is resignation, not serenity – meekness, not trust, composure rather than happiness – the spirit has weaned itself after long effort and weary suffering from the love of sin and earth, and placed its joy alone in the beyond, in the far away, in the future.
The heathen ideal is quite different. It is purity, in opposition to repentance. There is always something of the Magdalen in Christian representations, there is always something of the Virgin in the heathen. It is the sinless soul which has never left the bosom of its God, which finds him, the Omnipresent, as near in one spot of his creation as another, which does not wait for another world to enjoy His presence. The Christian looks for comfort in His society hereafter – the Egyptian for happiness in it here. There is no asceticism in the Egyptian ideal – all the gifts of its Father it will accept from the Father’s hand – there is no struggle, the soul has never loved anything better than its God – there is no hope, it is all trust, trust that the present is as much its Father’s blessing, its Father’s gift, as the future can be – there is no resignation, for where evil is to give life as well as good it is absurd to talk of resigning oneself to a benefit. Then it is love, not resignation.”
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I first came across Florence Nightingale’s letters from Egypt – in a wonderful illustrated edition by Anthony Sattin – in the famous bookshop of Gaddis & Sons in Luxor on my first visit in early 2008. Of course, like most people, my knowledge of Nightingale was limited to her humanitarian work, especially during the Crimean War, and as the founder of modern nursing. Without any wish to detract from such noble accomplishments, the picture that comes down the years of “The Lady with the Lamp” is of a dutiful, if somewhat dull, public servant. The Florence Nightingale I discovered when I read the letters on my return from Egypt was – to me at least – a far more interesting person.
In particular I was struck by how different she was from many of the other early travellers to Egypt who were content to register what they had seen, enlivened occasionally with some snippets of history or some telling statistics. But what comes across in these letters is a person whose response to the religious art of a particular period is a contemplation not just of what it might have meant to people of that time but of the meaning of religious, spiritual and philosophical ideas across all time. It is difficult to over-estimate how original the twenty-nine-year-old Florence was in this regard. Doubtless it had much to do with her Unitarian upbringing, the rigorous, questioning, education she received from her father and her growing interest in contemporary mysticism and the Theosophical movement. And much to do also with the fact that she had just turned down a proposal of marriage from an eligible suitor against her parents’ wishes, and had gone to Egypt partly to escape the immediate consequences of this and to grapple with the meaning of the apparent callings from God that she had received since her teens.
Whatever the underlying reasons, the result is a woman whose writings reveal her to be one of the first visitors to Egypt to approach a true understanding of the nature of ancient Egyptian religion and to attempt to fit it into a framework of human responses to the ineffable across time. Incidentally, her writing prompted my own desire to learn more about the ways in which women travellers to Egypt in the Victorian period responded both to the exotic surroundings in which they found themselves and to the relative freedom from the restrictions imposed on them as women back home.
Incidentally also, Nightingale’s contemplation quoted above started with her close observation of one of the remarkable carvings of King Seti in the hypostyle hall at Karnak such as the one in my photograph. This is one of three or four images I have taken of this subject on separate visits to the temple over a four-year period. I have taken them because like her, I am drawn to a timeless beauty as well as to the extraordinary skill of the artist who, among a number of minute details, shows the flared nostrils of the king as he breathes in the scent of the sacred lotuses he is presenting to the god Amun, along with the very breath of life given back to him by the god in return. I like to think that my photo conveys something of the sense of the reality of religious experience to a man who lived three thousand years ago. The insight of a writer such as Florence Nightingale does so much more.