Standing on University Embankment on the right bank of the Great Neva river, among some of the oldest buildings of Saint Petersburg, tourists, particularly those passing on the river in boats, are often surprised to encounter two large Egyptian sphinxes.
Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign at the turn of the Nineteenth century stimulated an interest in all things Egyptian in Europe, from which the Romanov Emperors were not immune. The sphinxes from Thebes were originally acquired from the Egyptian Government by the French, but the revolution of 1830 put paid to the deal, and in 1832 the colossal structures were purchased by Nicholas the First. They were erected on the riverside spot adjacent to the Royal Academy in 1834, and they remain there to this day.
I was reminded of the statues when I recently rediscovered a poem by the symbolist poet, philosopher and writer, Vacheslav Ivanov. I have made an attempt at a translation:
Sphinxes on the Neva
Was it the magic of the white nights that lured you,
a mirage, into the bondage of arctic wonders?
Two marvelous creatures from hundred-gated Thebes.
Did pale Isis take you prisoner?
What secret turned you to stone
Spoken through the laughing lips of a cruel mouth?
Does the never darkening expanse of midnight waves
Delight you more than the stars of the holy Nile?
At the hour when twilight torments us,
And, whispering with its rays, weaves spells,
and changes the heavens to amber –
So like two crescent moons, uplifting two tiaras,
You, virgins or tsars, gaze into one another’s eyes,
Smiling and ardent.