The Land of the Pyramids
At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. Three perfect, pure-white mountains, each with a shining star at its top. The sun’s binding rays reflected off the stars and the light beamed in unearthly lines across the pink and grey sands and the brilliantly contrasting deep green of the palm groves along the mighty river. As we floated closer on our barge, Temples held up by enormous, graceful columns of pink stone, carved with giant figures of gods and animals, and shapes I couldn’t identify, stupefied my mind. The river itself was as broad as a sea. Hundreds of reed boats, many with sails, vied for room with long, wooden ships whose raised prows echoed the shapes of the smaller reed boats but on a scale I had never seen. These ships could carry hundreds of people. Their sails were wide and painted with the symbols of the Gods, Dog and Hawk-faced Gods, Golden faced women and men and Gods wearing tall double crowns and bearing curved, striped scepters and golden belts.
The smells of incense, plowed earth, pungent beer, fragrant perfumes, and exotic foods mingled with the humid life-bearing musk of the river and the banks and assailed my nostrils. The sun rose higher in the eastern sky and set the gigantic pyramids ablaze, above the riverside temples and the wave-like dunes of the great sand sea. Our barge came into a lake, rimmed with reeds. Hundreds of shore birds stalked and floated in the shallow waters. The sound of drumming and singing, harps and shakers mingled with the cries of the birds and the snorting of oxen, the bleating of sheep the whinnying of donkeys.
Then I saw it.
It was a colossal statue of a giant reclining lion with a man’s head, wearing a wide headdress of painted stone, his beard long, narrow, curling beard below a noble face, eyes simple and calm, wise, and ancient. Behind him rose the tallest of the three great man-mountains, the pyramids. They were triangular, yet four sided. They rose smooth and straight to their shining peaks. Next to the Great Sphinx was a temple, or a group of temples that led on to another and another. The columns that held up the perfect rectangular roof blacks were sixty feet high and twelve feet around the base. On them were carved fantastic gods and men and animals and markings that may have been writing, but I couldn’t read it. It wasn’t the wedge-shaped script of the scribes of Sumer. These were pictures mixed with unknown lines and characters, fitted inside inscribed ovals and other shapes. Rising through the writings were monumental carvings. Pharaohs hunted birds with throwing sticks, common men, depicted one tenth the size of the pharaohs and gods, carried baskets on their heads, or harvested wheat, or bore tribute bowls of wine and beer. Women, long tressed, faces blacked around the eyes with dark face paint, played lyres and harps and drums. Priests made offerings; fish jumped from carved waters, birds flew across stone skies. Oxen drew plows across fields, wrestlers made sport, boats floated on water of stone. Much of the carving was brought to life with brilliant paints; red-faced men and white-faced gods, Blue, baboon-visaged gods, rainbow-colored Gods arched over to represent the sky. Hawk gods, Hippo gods, coiled and devious-looking snakes and strange, unknown beings with monstrous faces. All carved in the massive stone columns and mighty walls of the temples. People were swaying to the pulsing rhythms of shakers and harps. Women sang, drums kept a heart-like beat that impelled the marchers forward at a steady, devotional pace towards the causeway that led to the great Pyramid behind the Sphinx, who gazed equally on all, slave, prisoner, common man, prince, and Pharaoh thought of Lahalit and Sargon, and how ashamed they would be of their puny, painted mud-brick ziggurats compared to these true temples of the living gods of the Great River; The Nile.
Bands of musicians walked along the shore as our barge drew to the temple landing. Mtombe, Urartu and I, still bound, but almost forgotten by our guards in their fervor to worship before the symbols of their living Gods, the mighty Pharaoh himself, Pepys and his wife SeShseht. Thousands of pilgrims lined the banks of the mighty river, shouting the names of the good god pharaoh and his queen and drinking beer from tall jars. The flood had come and receded again, the Gods had favored the people of the river, the grateful servants of the living Gods. A grand procession was headed for the High-columned temple to the side of the Lion bodied God-man.
We, along with the other slaves, who seemingly came from many nations of the world – mostly Kannaanites, Hurrians and Hattusans from the north, blacks like Mtombe, and sunburned Bedu’, but there were even a few Achaeans and Karpathans, were marched out down the gangway to the bank. The river’s edge was thick with rich clay and new mud, the gift of the Nile flood each year. The planting would be good and the harvest would be good. The Upper and Lower kingdoms would be in plenty once more.
Mtombe had kept me informed as we journeyed into the fabled kingdom, pointing out the cities of the Pharaoh and the local chieftains and the temple precincts of the gods. They were dedicated to every kind of deity: Osiris, the great man-god, the one who would be reborn in a new age, along with all that worshipped him, and Isis, his wife, who was a cunning warrior herself. Others too many to describe, since I couldn’t ever follow all the gods of any place I went. There were Hawk-faced Horus, Harmachis, Evil Set- the usurper brother of Osiris, Anubis, Khnemu, and mightiest of all Amon-Ra, the sun and sky god, like Dyaus and Enlil and the other gods, even like Abrams’ nameless one. The Great Lion-God was called the Sphinx by the foreign slaves. I knew of sphinxes from the mountains of western Achaea. They were mysterious, secretive beings who guarded secrets and demanded riddles be answered upon pain of death before surrendering their hidden knowledge. It was said the sphinxes had existed long before men had come into being. I had spent my whole life until these last two years in those mountains and had never seen any evidence of sphinxes. But I had heard fearful tales around many a night –fire about were-wulfen, and blood-sucking men who didn’t die, and every other sort of nonsense. In Sumer, I had been told that the old Gods came out of the deeps of the sky on chariots of fire. I would hear the same here. Also, that earlier men had lived a thousand years; that this age was in decline; men only lived to be one hundred. Everywhere I had been, I had watched people wrap themselves in terror in the folds of the tales of the darkness. But I had found that darkness held only that which was there when the light returned each morning, except dread dreams of night.
As we trudged through the clay, and then into the deep, soft sand beyond the riverbank, bound together as we were, we moved beneath columns of carved stone taller than the tallest date palms, and twenty feet thick at the base. They held up gigantic roof-stones of a temple whose size I could only guess at, since we weren’t allowed in, but only saw through the front opening. It looked as if thousands of people could stand inside it. I did feel that I was looking at the oldest place of civilized people that I had ever seen. They said in Sumer that Uruk had been founded more than two thousand years ago. But this looked even older, beyond the very concept of years, though many of the great buildings were in perfect repair and shone like polished crystals in the pure sun. The tallest of the three great pyramids rose directly behind the Sphinx. The pyramid gleamed, its white stones and shining silver or crystal capstone almost too brilliant to be looked upon. The Sphinx itself was of rose-colored stone at its base, where the long legs of the Lion, carved from the living rock of the plateau whereon sat the monumental edifices , reached out like fortress walls, but its face and headdress were painted with gaudy colors and streaks of gold and ground lapis’. Hundreds of pilgrims crowded towards it and the processional way that led beyond it to the pyramids themselves. I longed to follow the people and see the Pharaoh and his Queen. Pepys the Second was his name, and though Mtombe told me he was not as great as the man-gods who had built the great pyramids, still I wanted to see the royal party to gauge it against that of Sargon. I had little doubt that it was more magnificent, based on the grandeur of the temples and orderly manner and clean dress of the people. They seemed to be aware of who they were, each class; the artisans, the merchants, the courtiers with their outrageous eye-shadows and square-cut wigs of black hair, the priests with their haughty and powerful demeanor, and even the slaves, who acted in respectful way towards their betters. The procession was at once festive and serious, as if life depended on it, and that its festivity was only a part of the requirement for the gaining of the God’s favor.
But we were led away, out into the sandy tracts to the south of the pyramids. I could still see the tops shining in the sun, and the faint sound of drums and tambourines and harps drifted across the dunes. They took us to a small town built just for slaves; tiny rectangular low huts laid out in orderly rows, each the same. Bowmen watched us, and pointed out our hut. We were cut loose, but Mtombe was told that the edge of the camp was entirely ringed with guards. There was no point in trying to escape.
This was a city of mud-brick buildings for us to live in. They were clean and didn’t smell too bad, with tiny windows high on the walls to keep out the strongest rays of the sun. There were mats of woven reeds to sleep on and plenty of food and bir. It seemed that barley bir was the only thing that anyone drank, except for the nobles, who drank wine all the time. The bread was excellent, if a little sandy from being ground in a desert. We had also cucumbers, figs, dates, mutton, and other foodstuffs. There was plenty for us to eat, which surprised me, as we were prisoners. But the other prisoners, some of whom spoke some common Achaean sea-tongue, told us that we might be prisoners of war, but that we would be treated much as everyone else. This is the land of milk and honey, they said.
And it seemed to be true. The next morning, we were awakened by a labor boss who called us to rise and wash and eat bread and rink bir! We did, in fairly large amounts. Fortified by this intoxicating breakfast, we were taken down the large boats called brakkas, just like our brakkas, and transported across the wide river to the eastern shore. The farmable land was only a strip a mile or so wide on each side of the river, beyond that was pure, empty desert of rock and sand. We were marched to a quarry area at the base of a cliff and set to cutting huge blocks of stone with stone hammers and chisels made of hardened copper. We would drive the chisels into the stone on pre-drawn lines laid out by the engineers along weak faults in the rocks. We’d make our cuts along the lines until the piece began to crack along line. Then we could strike deep and often the block would split, if the engineer had done the job of locating the natural weakness in that section of stone. I soon formed an eye for that and could discern the likely fault areas. It was spring and the work was all done be slaves, for the mass of people were planting the fields now that the waters of the yearly flood were receding until the fall, when the ordinary people would come and work on the building of the great temples and pyramids that were scattered everywhere the eye could see, except for the overseeing jobs and the engineering. That was done by seasoned workers, not all of them Egyptian. One engineer was an Achaean by the name of Ikaron, of Delos, an island in the sea east of Tirana, north of Karpatha. His dialect was understandable and his mind was keen. He showed us where to strike and how hard. The stone cutting was very precise. Each stone was measured with strings to an exact size and shape. The work was hard and long, but there were no beatings or whippings. The overseers were tough, but not sadists. There were slaves from all over, including many Achaeans and even more Kannaanites and Bedu’. We were given three breaks during the day to rest and eat and rink bir, which was of the weak variety and quenched or thirst in this hot land. For though it was a desert, the air of the river valley was humid enough. We worked naked and shoeless, there being no need for clothes, except for head-cloths, which we made of our loin cloths. The Egyptians dressed in loincloths of linen, a cloth made from a plant, and linen head-cloths. They had collars of the same stuff sewn with beads and other decorative items. These collars were wide, and kept the sun from their necks.
I spoke with Ikaron during a break on the third day.
“I came here on a tin-ship that had made the voyage to the end of the world, the northern island in the cold sea. It stopped at Delos on its way to Cyprus, where I had business in olive oil for my father. I stayed on the ship and ended up here, out of curiosity. When I saw the pyramids I knew I wanted to learn how they were built and why. That was five years ago. I am not bound here. I am a free man, though we all serve the Pharaoh. I find it to be a good place to live. We were often hungry and cold on Delos. Pirates and Sea-People raided us. Storms wrecked our olive groves and ships. Here, life is easy. The river comes up each fall and goes back down. People have been living here since before the beginning of time. “
“But don’t you miss your family?” I asked.
“I will go back before too long, to visit. I have married, in the custom of these people. I met a girl and she moved in with me. We have two children. I have slowly learned the language. It’s not like ours, but it can be learned. I have also learned the writing, which is a secret that few share. It makes me a valuable man here. Back on Delos I would be a fisherman or farmer. I’d rather be warm and safe!” he laughed
There were five strange men working in the quarry. They were pale-skinned and dark haired, except one who was red-haired, with a flame of a beard and shock of wild hair.
“Those are the Keltoi”, said Ikaron, “They came from a far island in the north sea. Tin land. They call it Sarum. They are rough and unlearned. They also want to leave here and return to their land, but there have been no ships for tin sent in long time. Pharaoh gets what tin he needs from Cyprus. “
He paused and made a line on a block of stone with a string dipped in a red powder. I held it where he showed me and he held the other end and snapped the string, leaving a trace of reddish powder across the surface. That would be our cutting line. I thought it was very ingenious.
“The Egyptians have long ago learned how to cut and move stones, “Ikaron said, “I remember moving rough rocks around with many men and some stout branches at home. But our walls were rough and weak. Any shaking by Pozdeon and they tumbled down.”
“ It is amazing,” I said, “ I thought I was a master wall builder in my little hill-town, but these buildings are another matter completely.” We set the sting again and made another line.
“But why have they made these pyramids? “
“They are tombs for the Pharaohs. The Egyptians believe that the soul will someday come back to the body, when Great Osiris returns and lives again as a man.”
I must have grimaced. More superstition.
“You may laugh, “he said. He leaned closer and spoke in low tones, “but the truth is that people need to believe. That is meaning of the temples and pyramids. It’s not so much for the Pharaohs, though most of them do believe this. It’s for the people.”
I said, “I have seen that people have beliefs. It’s just that I haven’t seen anything anywhere that leads me to share them. There a hundred Gods in each country. Yet, people still fall ill and die, suffer horribly. The gods, if they do exist, either don’t have much power or they have ill feelings towards men.”
Ikaron measured another block out, looking with studied intent at the grain of the stone, the size of the piece it was being quarried from. Work had started again after the break and the sounds of hammer on chisel and the grunts and orders of men echoed off the cliff walls. An overseer played a sista, a sharp sounding drum that beat out a time for the hammers. Dust rose in the hot air.
He said without looking up at me, “You and I are wanderers; we have seen this. But my Achaean friend, trust me; for leaders of men there is no other way. Without the gods, people would be lost, scared of the sun and moon and lightning and wind. They wouldn’t be able to go on! So let them believe they will live again, or go to some good place – or to a bad place if they’re bad. That stops the weak from committing crimes. We don’t have that much crime here anyway. People trust in the gods and they do their jobs without much complaint. Now, back to work!”
We loaded the blocks each one at a time, a sledges with hard, thick runners with upturned ends. There were harnesses of ropes and ten men hauled at once to slide the loaded sledges across the sand to the quay fro loading onto the barges. When the stone was put on the right place towards the back of the sledge, it slid without too much problem. We were strong men, and there were more behind, pushing the sledge. Two carried stout palm logs to use as levers when the sledge got stuck or needed to be lifted over a difficult patch of road. Two others went before with buckets, throwing loose sand under the runners where the road was bad. There loading dock stood out fro the bank, and the barges could be pulled so that the sledges with their stones could be slid right onto the deck They Egyptians had been doing this since the beginning of memory. No one could say how old the pyramids were. Some said a hundred years, others said a thousand, others said the oldest were made by gods. I could see how the less curious could believe this. They truly looked like they had been built be gods.
The night offered us food and drink. There were women about in the camp as well, though I stayed away from them. I eyed the brakkas on the river and plotted how to get free and steal one. It was a long way to the sea from here, though; I didn’t know the way through the marshes that led to the black ocean. I would have to wait. I made friends of a sort with the north-men from Sarum. They had picked up a few swear words in Achaean and Egyptian. They were funny, tough, and liked to drink and fight each other. The men bet on who would win. Rough and tumble, slave-camp. I had been a slave as much as I had been a free man, it seemed. I longed to be free again.
One night Mtombe got up from his cot in the middle of the night. I woke. I saw him at the door in the moonlight. He put his hand to his chest in salute, and then his finger to his lips. Then he was gone like a shadow. I thought that was the end of him. He was near enough to his own land now to try to escape. I wished him luck and rolled over and went back to sleep after a while.