Stuff from (Not So) Way Back #12: Toasting the Devil – The Tusculum Papacy

When it comes to less than decorous behavior by the Papacy, the Renaissance immediately comes to mind, but in fact the most embarrassing age for the Church came much earlier, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. These years mark the absolute rock bottom for the institution and are to some degree a reflection of the abysmal state of European society in general. The earlier part of this period, roughly the first half of the tenth century, is so wretched that it has been given a formal name, the saeculum obscurum – the dark (or ignoble) age, and has also been referred to as the Pornocracy and the Rule of the Harlots.

The saeculum began with the elevation of Sergius III (904-911) and ended with the deposition of John XII (955-964), who was in fact the grandson of Sergius’ alleged lover, Marozia. There were twelve Popes during this time, all of them either members of or dominated by the powerful Theophylacti family of Tusculum (hence the Tusculum Papacy 904-1058), and particularly active were Theodora, wife of Theophylactus I, and her daughter Marozia. John X (914-928) was the alleged lover of Theodora and was supposedly killed by an outraged Marozia, whose son, allegedly by Sergius, became John XI (931-935) and whose grandson became John XII. The half century after the last of the Pornocracy Popes was dominated by another Roman family, the Crescenti, but the Theophylacti were back with Benedict VIII (1012-1024), formally known as Theophylactus II. He was succeeded by his brother, who as a lay person had to be ordained a bishop before becoming John XIX (1024-1032) and who may have been murdered by the Roman mob. He was followed by his nephew, who was elevated as Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048).

Benedict IX is a truly memorable Pope, having had the unique experience of holding the office three times. Installed in 1032, he was driven out of Rome in 1044 by his enemies, who put Sylvester III (1044-1045) on the throne of St. Peter. He returned in 1045, but was convinced to sell the Papacy, only to change his mind and seize the office again in 1047 and be deposed and excommunicated a year later. In an age of dissolute Popes he nevertheless managed to stand out; he was believed to hold orgies in the Lateran Palace and was the first Pope thought to be homosexual. On the other hand, John XII, who was Benedict’s granduncle, had set the bar very high. He was accused, among other things, of turning the Lateran into a brothel, murdering his confessor, calling upon demons when gambling and toasting the health of the devil at the altar.

The current Vatican scandals – pedophilia, homosexual prostitutes for priests, political infighting, a corrupt bank – would hardly be noticed during the Tusculum Papacy, but salvation was at hand for the Church. The Tusculum Papacy came to an end in 1058 with the accession of Nicholas II, one of whose supporters was the reformer Hildebrand of Sovana. In 1073 Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and began an age of reform, freeing the Papacy from the Roman nobility by empowering the College of Cardinals as the electors of the Pope and beginning the long struggle to free the Church from the interference of the German Emperor and the French King.


The Silly Superpower

America certainly engages in a fair amount of behavior that most enlightened people would find stupid, but then most voters and almost all American politicians are not enlightened. This is a pity because when America does stupid stuff, like invading Iraq or providing totally unqualified support to Israel, it often involves death and destruction. Unfortunately, the most serious stupid behavior generally falls under the purview of national security, which means it will be well supported, certainly by all politicians, who do not want to look weak on defense, even if the behavior is harmful to our national interests. There are, however, some practices that are so silly that one suspects even many, perhaps most Americans would question them. Here are my favorites.
It now costs two cents to produce a penny, which means counting mint overhead the government wasted about $58,000,000 producing pennies in 2012. That may be a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget, but for the average American it is a hell of a lot of money and in any case it was just thrown away. The cost in lost time for businesses in transactions involving pennies is much harder to estimate, but it is almost certainly exceeds the money wasted producing them. The penny is simply a coin whose monetary value has become too low for it to be practical. And the market value of the zinc and copper in the penny makes it almost profitable to melt them down. In fact, the market value of the zinc and nickel in the nickel, which costs ten cents to produce, does make it profitable to melt them down, compelling the government to pass stronger laws prohibiting such.
So, why do we still have pennies? Tradition has something to do with it, of course; politicians are always reluctant to change a national practice that has been going on for a century or more. The sole argument for keeping them is that prices would go up if the penny disappeared. Well, in most cases that would be by one cent. The real reason for retaining this useless coin: the zinc lobby. Whenever you see any stupid measure supported by the government, look for the lobby.
Liquor Ads
Liquor ads were banned from network TV presumably because there is as belief that showing the product will cause people to buy it. This is presumably true or business would not be spending billions on television advertising, but that marketing is intended to sway the consumer to buy a specific brand. It is not clear to me how the absence of liquor ads will cut down drinking. Will people forget that booze exists? Or conversely, are there people who upon seeing an ad for whiskey will rush out and buy a bottle? Yes, cigarette consumption has declined, but I suspect that has far more to do with price, the absence of any place to light up and better awareness of the health risks.
The ban seems to be one of those ineffective feel-good, look-we’re-dealing-with the-problem measures, but grant for the moment that it works. Why then are beer and wine exempted? Because it takes longer to get drunk with a fermented beverage? In fact, beer and wine play a much bigger role in drunkenness and drunk driving, especially for young people. Real reason? The powerful beer and broadcasting lobbies, which can play upon the popular illusion that fermented drinks are somehow safer.
And how about this for extreme silliness? You can show people with beer in any situation and suggest that all normal people drink at parties and especially sporting events, but you cannot show anybody actually drinking the stuff. I suppose the idea is that some extremely stupid persons will have no idea that you actually put the stuff in your mouth.
And what about those don’t drink and drive signs on highways? Are there actually people who are not aware of the problems associated with drunk driving? Or are the signs a reminder: Oh, that’s right! I forgot!

Drinking Age
Presumably the motivation for the federal government to impose upon the states a legal drinking age of 21 was to cut down on drunk driving and teenage drinking. If so, it has been a complete failure. Three countries, including Canada, have the limit at 19, five at 20 and eight, including the US, at 21 (it varies from 18-21 in the Indian states). In every other country on the planet the age is 18 or less (if allowed at all). And consider the other countries that require one to be 21: Tajikistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, Kazakhstan, the UAE and Sri Lanka. See a pattern? Most of the civilized world except America says you can drink at 18.
It is silly enough to do this inasmuch as nothing has been changed by raising the age to 21, but the utter silliness becomes apparent when you consider what you can do at (or by) 18: vote, hold most political offices, serve in the military, buy any kind of firearm except handguns, own and drive a car and marry. The message is clear and seriously stupid: at 18 you are wise enough to vote, to kill and be killed for your country, to carry firearms and generally do everything associated with adulthood, but you are not smart enough to drink for another three years. I guess Europe and most of the rest of the world produce more clever citizens than we do.
Why the hell do we vote on Tuesdays? It is hard enough to get Americans to vote – understandable given the quality of the candidates – and we make it even harder by doing it on a workday. Whose idea was that? Do it on a Saturday or Sunday and entire families can make an occasion of it. Oh, that’s right – more lower income voters would show up. Well, economics should impact this outmoded tradition since snail mail and electronic voting are immensely cheaper. The electoral college is of course another obsolete tradition, but changing that would require messing with the Constitution and no thinking person wants the bozos in Congress and state legislatures to get anywhere near that document.
Censorship is repellent and pernicious, but most censorship on television is also silly. When it comes to the human body, America is perhaps the most uptight country outside the Muslim world, and probably not much can be done about that since it is so ingrained in this society that some parts of the body must always be hidden. Yet sex sells and is consequently everywhere, leading to as fair amount of silliness. On network television you can show all the sex you want in all its varieties so long as you never show a breast or genitals. OK, you can show the breasts of women in primitive tribes. A woman nursing a baby is apparently offensive and disgusting but little animations depicting the use of feminine hygiene products are not.
The height of censorship silliness: pixilating the finger of anyone flipping a bird on film. Everyone above the age of five knows exactly what is being done, yet somehow an extended middle finger is acceptable if it is pixilated. This is akin to bleeping expletives. Everyone, including most children, knows what is being said and automatically thinks of the censored word. So what is the point?
All of this underscores the proposition that in politics appearance is far more important than reality.

Stuff from Way Back #11: Exactly Why the Greeks Were Great

(I have no more completed Moses chapters; there were enough “likes” that I will persevere.  My apologies for posting the ancient Olympics piece twice.  If you like the following, read my Greek history Dare To Struggle, Dare To Win.)


It has been a traditional proposition in the West, one to which most intelligent people will pay immediate lip service, that ancient Greece was great and vitally important to the history of the human race. But why? Few, including many in classical studies, it seems, can provide any sort of substantial answer to this question. Vaguely gesturing towards the Parthenon and mentioning such things as democracy and Euripides and Plato, as most would do, barely hints at the reason for the greatness of Greece. Other cultures have after all created beauty and nurtured great intellects. Other peoples have exercised far more power over far wider areas than the Greeks. In terms of extent and longevity Roman society, which ultimately captured Greece, must certainly be deemed greater. What is it about the Greeks?
What makes the Greeks great, and uniquely so, is the discovery of the basic concepts utterly necessary to a mature society, whatever its cultural character. They are: constitutionalism, the notion that law is at the foundation of the social organization and that the people, not kings and gods, are the source of authority; rationalism, the will to doubt and to examine the universe according to logic and evidence, rather than faith and fantasy; and humanism, the conviction that man, rather than god, is at the center of things, that he is what is most important in our world. And with humanism comes a fourth idea, that of the individual, this curious notion that the individual human being has a value and a dignity quite apart from the group and the gods.
Constitutionalism has to do with the nature of authority in the community. In the pre-Greek societies of the ancient Near East the operative idea behind the kingship – and thus behind the whole concept of authority in the state – was that the power exercised by the king came from above, from the gods. With this notion, a society will never get beyond monarchy in its political development, and the kingship will likely have theocratic overtones, as is most obvious in the case of the Egyptian god-king.  What the Greeks entertained was precisely the opposite notion, that the power first wielded by their petty kings came from below, from the community, upon whose behalf, at least in theory, they ruled. This is the root idea of constitutionalism: the authority exercised by the state, whatever form the state takes, derives from the people. This concept simply did not exist in any of the oriental societies, where authority derived from heaven.
Now, this idea is hardly unique to the Greeks or to the Indo-European linguistic family to which they belong. Rather, it appears to be common to primitive and especially hunting-gathering tribal societies, in which the hunter-warrior host creates a sort of elective kingship in order to enhance its efficiency and that informal kingship tends to become hereditary, though insecurely so. The idea just seems to get lost as those societies settle and develop agriculture, and in only two places does it survive and mature to the point of influencing other societies: Greece and Italy.
The first Greek speakers certainly brought the idea with them when they entered the Balkan peninsula around 2000 BC, part of the great migration of Indo-European peoples from the north, but it could not survive in an Aegean world already dominated by the high culture of Minoan Crete. Mycenaean Greece (c. 1600 – 1200 BC) is consequently little different in its ideas and institutions from its oriental predecessors. But all this was swept away in the late thirteenth and twelfth centuries by a new Indo-European invasion, which obliterated the Hittite empire in Anatolia, tipped New Kingdom Egypt into a nose dive towards oblivion and sent another wave of Greeks, the Dorians, into the Balkans, where they vaporized Mycenaean civilization.
Greece was plunged into the Dark Age (c. 1200 – 750), but the new arrivals were free to develop their society without foreign influence. From the evidence of Homer, the later Macedonian kingship and the German tribes observed by the Romans, that society was initially made up of crude, isolated agricultural communities, each typically ruled by a chief or petty king, whose rule is based upon his control of a warrior host and is hereditary only to the extent that he who inherits can rule. The warrior aristocracy retain their tradition of assembling to hear and advise the king and most important, they understand themselves to be the source of his authority. Because of the unsettled conditions and warrior values, land has been temporarily replaced by herds and flocks and movable goods as the primary form of wealth.
As conditions stabilized and these communities grew, pressure on the king mounted, while the warrior aristocracy began to lose its heroic ideals and melt into agriculture. Land was meanwhile reemerging as the primary form of wealth, and the most important families were creating a new aristocracy, one whose power base was more familiar, the ownership of land. While the warrior aristocracy disappeared, however, their tradition of gathering to advise the king did not, and their informal assembly increasingly became a gathering of ordinary citizens.
Finally, in the close environment of the proto-polis (city-state) the new landed nobility rapidly developed a consciousness of their own power, and the poor obsolete warrior leaders began to disappear. Remember, the Greek kingship was not protected by the gods and their officials on earth, as in the Near Eastern societies, where abolishing monarchy would literally mean assaulting the natural order of things in the universe. Nor was there any strong institution or long tradition behind these rulers, as there was behind the kings of Babylon or Egypt. It appears the process was generally peaceful, as the monarchs were gradually stripped of their powers, until the office was no more than a limited tenure magistracy or disappeared altogether. At the same time, the need for the aristocrats to formulate rules for the sharing of the deposed king’s power led to more precise definitions of law and thus the development of the one-time warrior assembly into an actual legislative body.
By the middle of the eighth century the kingship has generally disappeared from Greece, which is already a tremendous achievement, since from the birth of civilization some two thousand years earlier monarchy had been the inevitable rule. Now, in the Balkan peninsula we find hundreds of little republics, possessing the basic machinery of constitutional government: each was governed by elected, limited term magistrates, and each had a citizen assembly that was the source of political authority and actually passed the laws. Of course, this political apparatus was oppressively controlled by the landed aristocracies of birth, but the fact is, it was there. And embedded in the very fabric of the young polis were the ideas that would form the essentials of constitutionalism and distinguish the matured polis.
Most important is the concept of the individual in society as “citizen” rather than “subject,” that is, the notion that the authority exercised by the state comes from below, from the people. One aspect of this bedrock concept is the universality of law, the idea that all members of the community, including the rulers, are equally subject to the law, because the community is the authority behind the law, regardless of who actually makes it. Egypt, for example, produces no law codes because it needs none; all regulations will come from heaven, through the mouth of Pharaoh. Another obvious derivative is the basic democratic idea: those in authority are in some manner responsive to the will of the citizen body, because it is from that citizen body that they derive their authority. And being incubated within the idea of man as “citizen” is the notion of man the individual.
Constitutionalism found its maturity in the Archaic Age (c. 750 – 500 BC), as the rapid growth of commerce and manufacture produced growing pressure on the old aristocracies by creating in Greek society centers of economic power that were outside their circles. At the same time the arrival of a middling class allowed the emergence of citizen armies of heavy infantry, which led almost immediately to the toppling of the birth aristocracies, as ambitious individuals rode the social discontent and new hoplite armies to power in the seventh and sixth centuries. The Age of Tyrants was over by the end of the sixth century, but it accelerated the process of moving from access to political power based on birth to access based on wealth, and thereafter the standard for the polis was one of matured constitutional government, in the form of oligarchies of wealth and democracies of various sorts.
The Archaic Age also witnessed the other world class breakthroughs, the discovery of rationalism and humanism, and it is during these centuries that the individual first walks the earth. To a great degree these towering discoveries in sixth century Ionia (the Aegean coast of Anatolia) were a matter of the right combination of things coming together in the right place at the right time. Certainly, the most important factor was the nature of the inherited Olympic religion, which the Ionian scientists ultimately spurned. The key fact here was the absence of a church, of an institutionalized religion with an ideology and a priest class to defend that ideology. This had already played an important role in Greek constitutional development, since it allowed the polis to avoid the invariable pattern found in the Near Eastern societies: the fusion or at least mutual support of the secular and religious authorities in defense of the political and intellectual status quo.
The tenets of Greek polytheism were very fluid and permitted almost complete intellectual freedom. There were no holy books or stultifying dogma and no powerful organization to enforce beliefs and threaten the thinker with the stake. “Amateurs,” like the late eighth century poet Hesiod, were consequently free to speculate on questions, such as the origins of the universe, that were normally reserved for the “professionals” of the priesthood. Organized religions have invariably slowed intellectual progress, for god requires belief without doubt, and doubt is vital to the discovery of truth.
Further, in contrast to the religions of the Near East the Greeks held that the Olympic gods did not create the universe, that men and gods were both subordinate to the fact of its existence. This permitted – and perhaps encouraged – speculation about its origins in terms other than divinities and personalities, which constitute the causative coin of mythopoeism. The world view of the Near Eastern societies was mythopoeic, or “myth-making,” a belief system in which the universe is completely animate and every natural phenomenon is the manifestation of a will or personality. Mythic thinking eschews generalization, is unconcerned with logic and consistency and cannot understand natural causation, since inanimate matter and impersonal forces simply do not exist. Like everyone else the Greeks first viewed the world mythically, but with their belief that the universe preceded the gods they had a leg up in the process of breaking free of the restraining bonds of mythic thought. And non-mythic propositions about the nature of the universe invite further examination and question because they are not protected by the sacred inviolability of myth.
A second important factor was the simple existence of the Greek cities in Ionia, where they formed a kind of east-west interface with the older oriental cultures. This not only brought access to the accumulated ideas and data of the eastern societies, but more important it also provided obvious and unavoidable cultural contrasts. You did not have to walk many miles inland from Miletus before you came upon communities that were definitely not Greek and that had far different customs, values and social organization. Fortunately, there are some who do not immediately assume these strangers must be wrong but face such a challenge by questioning the absolute validity of their own institutions, by wondering if perhaps such things are all relative after all. And thus some men were led to the first stages of skepticism, which is absolutely fundamental to scientific inquiry, for if you are content and do not doubt, there is no spur to intellectual progress. The Egyptians provide the perfect example: because of their benign and isolated environment, they immediately developed a self-satisfying, all-encompassing view of a positive and unchanging universe, in which everything was understood, and the price paid for the psychological contentment engendered by this was fifteen hundred years without progress of any kind.
Like the Egyptians and most people everywhere, the Greeks of course assumed that their ways were best, and the development of their society was accompanied by a growing conviction that Greek culture was simply better than anything the rest of the world had to offer. But one important component of this culture was the Ionian tradition of skepticism and examination, which made the Greeks, and subsequent western civilization, generally more receptive to outside ideas and less xenophobic than most. Again, in virtual cultural isolation for a millennium and a half, Egypt was so unreceptive to non-Egyptian ideas that they shattered the confidence and hope of the society when new ideas poured in as a result of the Hyksos occupation and New Kingdom imperialism.
Also because of the east-west interface, which put them on the cutting edge of the Archaic Age economic boom, the Ionian cities rapidly achieved a high level of material prosperity, which freed more men for purely intellectual pursuits. The existence of a leisure class is of course not a sufficient condition for the birth of rationalism; every civilization since Sumer had possessed a leisure class of some size, but none had produced rationalism. It is, however, a necessary condition, since men who do not have time just to think will not think new thoughts.
A final and extremely important factor was the material progress being achieved by the Greeks, especially in the sixth century. Archaic Age Greece was one of those very rare moments before the modern world when real change was apparent in a man’s lifetime, as the Greeks began to make great advances in the arts and engineering and in general mastery over the environment. Especially important in these developments were the new political hardballers, the tyrants, who could provide far more efficient government than the aristocrats ever could and who were everywhere inclined to feats of engineering.
Because of these achievements, because of the inescapable fact that life and society were not just discernibly changing, but also generally improving, the Greeks were becoming infected with a totally new idea – that of progress. For the first time in the history of the planet men were looking forward, rather than back to some golden heroic age. Every other society in the ancient Mediterranean had believed that if things were changing at all, they were only getting worse, and the Egyptians did not even have a real concept of non-periodic change and the passage of time. True, the Hebrews looked forward, but only to the arrival of a messiah; they had no concept of progress. The Greeks too had a vision of an earlier golden age, but that was now giving way to the astounding notion that things were getting better.
And these achievements were the accomplishments of men, not gods. Men were taking pride in human accomplishment and discovering that man, not god, was the most proper object of human attention, that human society and the individual human being had their own intrinsic dignity and worth. Indeed, the fact that the Olympic gods were so perfectly anthropomorphic, differing from men only in their immortality and immense power, made them completely unsuitable role models, compelling the Greeks to look to themselves for their moral values. Humanism was being born. In the mid-sixth century the Ionian scientist Xenophanes summed it all up in a single statement, one that would have been utterly impossible in any of the societies that preceded the Greeks: “The gods did not reveal to men all things from the beginning, but men, through their own search, find in the course of time that which is better.”
The result of all these factors was the birth of Greek rationalism and the real genesis of science and philosophy. The Ionian philosopher-scientists asked “why” concerning the world and its phenomena and sought to make consistent and logical generalizations about nature. And unlike any before them they did so from simple curiosity, from the plain desire to understand. The Near Eastern societies had developed a considerable body of scientific knowledge, but they had done so in the service of religion or practical needs and in a context of mythic thought. The engineering skills of the Egyptians, for example, followed upon the desire to build more elaborate temples and tombs, and the astronomical data of the Babylonians were collected in order better to read the will of the gods. And whatever the motives, the mythopoeism of these societies prevented them from turning their accumulation of data into true science. Now, for the first time in any significant numbers men were studying the world around them simply to understand it and were realizing that through such understanding the human condition could be improved.
The new skepticism was particularly focused on the religious traditions, and Ionian scientists were breaking the last mythic bonds by concentrating their attention on impersonal forces and natural causation in their examination of the cosmos. Hecataeus proclaimed the inherited Greek myths to be absurd, and Xenophanes made the astounding declaration that the gods were mere inflations of the mortal image, something most humans still cannot accept. Perhaps the most profound change was in the concept of man himself. In the religions of all the pre-classical societies man was a special creation of the gods, fashioned essentially to serve them and their designs. The Greeks now dared suggest that man was part of the animal kingdom, evolved, according to Anaximander, from lower creatures, but at the same time they boldly asserted that he did indeed occupy a special place, not because of any particular relationship with god, but because of his mind.
Constitutionalism, rationalism, humanism, the individual, these are the gifts the Greeks bear. Other societies have caught glimpses of these vital ideas, but nowhere else are they so confidently pursued and nowhere else do they have such an extensive influence beyond the society that discovered them, making classical Greece the most important society that has existed. Among the most precious, and dangerous, treasures of the human race, these ideas are the greatness of Greece

Hear, O Israel: IV

(I am running out of already written chapters.  Should I continue this or keep my day job?)





And they made their lives bitter with hard

bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all

manner of service in the field.

Exodus 1:14




Ahmose could hear the commotion well before he reached the brickyard.  From the shouted words he was able to catch through the mid-day hum of insects he guessed it was another fight.  Business as usual, he thought and quickened his pace, sidestepping a brick carrier heading towards the granary.

The brick pits were barely a half hour’s walk west of the construction, not an unusual circumstance in the clay-rich delta, but a blessing for Ahmose nevertheless.  Not only could the brick be carried directly to the site, saving the time and effort of loading and unloading barges, but the immediacy of the pits also gave him direct control over his brick supply.  Since most of the construction was of sun-dried brick, this was a great advantage.  The project would be desperately far behind schedule were the steady stream of bricks interrupted by the same delays and problems that were plaguing the delivery of his stone.

Watching the line of carriers passing in the opposite direction, loads bobbing at either end of their carrying poles, Ahmose could only wish for the same sort of control over the other facets of the construction.  It was enough to frustrate a god.  He had just enough authority to clothe him with overall responsibility, but not overall control, leaving the project at the mercy of the fools in Heliopolis and Pi-Ramessu.  And leaving himself vulnerable, Ahmose well understood.  Any failures and he would be at the center of a ring of accusing fingers, while success would have to be shared with officials and priests who had never set foot in Tjou.  At least Pharaoh and the Overseer of Granaries recognized his contribution, despite the lies he was now sure were being carried from the temple of Atum to the capital.

These thoughts gave way to more immediate concerns as the acacias, sycamores and scattered palms gave way to the marshy clearing containing the brickyard.  At the far side of the clearing men with mattocks pulled the dark gray alluvial mud from a shallow excavation and passed it to the hod carriers, who transported it the short distance to the mixing pits.  There it was kneaded and stirred with water brought up from the canal and sand hauled in from the Red Land just to the north.  Ahmose’s careful search before the construction got under way had provided him with a clay source that was both close to the construction site and rich enough to require only sand as a binder in the bricks, eliminating the need for a constant supply of reeds or straw.  The only straw on the site was used by the actual brickmakers, who kept their hands powdered with straw dust in order to keep the finished mixture from sticking to them.

The pits were worked by quarter sections, an innovation introduced by Ahmose.  When the clay master determined the mixture in one section was ready, work by the pit men ceased in that quarter and carriers began moving the ready mud to the brick tables.  Mixing continued meanwhile in the other sections, which were arranged so that the next batch would be ready when the previous load had been consumed at the brick tables.  There, almost as quickly as it arrived, the brickmakers packed it into rectangular wooden molds, dipped in water and sand to prevent sticking, and struck off the excess with a flat strip of wood.  The mold was then removed, leaving the brick on a board by which it was carried to the leveled drying area and dumped off.  After three days in the sun the bricks were dry enough to be stacked and transported; after eight they were ready for use.

This set-up insured an unbroken stream of clay to the brickmakers and eliminated the need for a dump of clay at the brick tables.  Ahmose had organized the whole process around his estimated daily brick requirements: this determined the number of brickmakers constantly at work, which in turn determined the output of the mixing pits.  Producing too few bricks could bring construction to an expensive halt, while producing too many wasted labor.

At the moment the whole operation was threatening to stagger to a halt.  A fight had indeed broken out in one of the two mixing pits, providing all the workers with an entertaining diversion from the tedium of brickmaking.  The half dozen overseers of the yard, all of them Egyptians, were running about yelling in Egyptian and gutter Canaanite, arms rising and falling as they punctuated their commands with strokes of their steer hide whips.  It was immediately clear to Ahmose they were engaged in a losing struggle.  There was temporary order and the appearance of work around each overseer, but as soon as he passed the workers returned their attention to the fight, cheering on the combatants.

Despite the crack of the lash the affair had a festival air, centered as it was around a fight between two clay men that was more comic than damaging.  Ahmose took this as evidence of his sound management, the disturbance sparking a burst of seemingly good-natured exuberance rather than an angry explosion.  But he also knew how easily this situation could get out of hand.  These were after all sixty odd men, many of them former desert warriors, who nurtured a deeply rooted anger and resentment towards Egyptians and countless petty, but nevertheless earnest disputes among themselves.  At any moment high spirits could easily lead to the unthinkable act of striking an overseer and turn the impromptu party into a deadly riot resulting in Egyptian deaths and massive reprisals against his labor force.  This was definitely not the sort of thing that advanced one’s career.

As he entered the clearing Ahmose noticed that the two spearmen from the fort had apparently made the same analysis.  Normally lounging in any convenient shade, the two soldiers were on their feet and alert, ready to flee if a mob should begin to take shape from the crowd of workers.  Their presence was far more a deterring reminder of Egyptian authority than any real guarantee against serious trouble.  Their faces said as much to Ahmose when he appeared: This is your job, not ours.

Ahmose strode quickly towards the mixing pit, ignoring the greetings and jests from the workers he passed.  The problem was instantly clear.  The fight could not be broken up without entering the clay, and it was no surprise that none of his overseers had done so.  One was at the edge of the pit, screaming and lashing at several men he had apparently ordered in to stop the fight, to no avail.  The men were making little effort to reach the two flailing at each other in the center of the pit and had instead begun pelting each other with clay, laughing despite the occasional sting of the lash.  As Ahmose approached, one of them slipped and crashed through a supporting pole, dumping a corner of the palm frond sunscreen into the pit and stirring an approving roar of laughter.

Once Ahmose reached the pit, the crowd quieted, eager to see how the farce would be resolved.  No one was working now, including the overseers, and brick carriers returning from the building site for another load were lingering in the clearing.  The only real activity in the yard was the fight, which for all its comic aspect, Ahmose concluded, was deadly serious, so oblivious were the contestants to what was happening around them.

The overseer at the pit edge, reduced by anger and frustration to screaming curses in Egyptian, was completely unaware of his boss’s approach and started when Ahmose put a hand on his shoulder.  He whirled suddenly, his whip hand instinctively coming up to deliver a cut to his attacker.  Prepared for such a reaction, Ahmose stepped back quickly and felt a rush of air as the leather thongs whistled past his bare chest.  The overseer’s eyes went wide when he recognized his target, but before he could get his mouth working Ahmose had stepped forward again and clamped his shoulders in powerful hands.

“You idiot,” he said quietly to the now frightened Egyptian, who had suddenly realized that the angry man effortlessly pinning him to this spot had the mob of workers on his side.

Without loosening his grip Ahmose looked up at the other overseers, who had collected near the pit.  “Is this job too difficult for you?  Four of you can’t figure out how to stop a simple fight?  It’s easy, but first you have to get near the fighters.”  He shoved the overseer into the pit, where he immediately lost his balance and flopped into the clay.  An enthusiastic cheer went up from the workers.

“Quiet!” bellowed Ahmose in pidgin Egyptian, looking around the yard, which went completely silent.  “It seems you all chose to take your midday break early.  Well, it’s over now, and any man who is not back at work at once will receive special consideration.  And for stopping work without permission you’ve all lost a ten day’s beer ration.”

There was a murmur as the older hands translated for their fellows, though Ahmose’s tone carried a meaning clear enough to all.  Men began returning slowly to their tasks, but attention was still focused on the scene at the mixing pit, where the surprise battle of the overseers promised unusual entertainment.  The original fight appeared to be coming to an end anyway.  One of the two men, the clay on his face and chest stained red from a smashed nose, had managed to get a grip on the other despite the slippery clay and was proceeding to throttle him.

The overseer Ahmose had dumped into the clay quickly regained his feet, but made no move towards the impending homicide in the center of the pit.  Instead, he climbed out and stood glaring at Ahmose, the muscles of his face working and the whip trembling in his hand.  After the barest moment, the internal struggle resolved and dangerous courses of action rejected, he spoke, rage threatening to swamp the carefully measured words.

“It doesn’t end here, Habiru.”  Throwing his whip at Ahmose’s feet, he turned and stamped out of the yard, accompanied by the odd snigger.

Ahmose did not watch him go.  The Egyptian overseers were hired labor, and his control over them went only as far as their desire to keep the job.  Which meant not very far, given Egyptian resentment towards subordination of any kind to a non-Egyptian, especially one of his particular blood.  Ahmose had tried overseers elevated from the ranks of his conscript labor, but they had no credibility.  No matter how he supported them, they lacked that authority that was automatically accorded freeborn Egyptians by the scum that made up his work force.  And Habiru overseers played favorites, punishing and rewarding according to tribal politics and personal whim rather than the justice of the moment.  The Egyptians on the other hand were quite impartial; they treated all the conscript labor, including the few Egyptians, as shit.

Stripping off and tossing his linen kilt to one of the overseers, Ahmose stepped carefully into the pit and despite the knee-deep mud reached the struggling men in three strides.  Actually, the struggle had come to an end.  Eyes bulging and rolled back, the man being choked hung almost completely limp in the other’s grasp, clearly only moments from his journey to the west.  The victor was like some mud-spawned executioner from the realm of Apophis.  Wild eyes stared out of a face hastily molded from clay, and the blood smeared mouth and chest prompted the image of a predator already begun to feed on its victim.

Yelling at him to let go, Ahmose grabbed the man’s wrists and attempted to pull the hands from their death grip.  He might as well have tried to rearrange the limbs of a statue cut from granite.  The clay man gave him absolutely no notice.  Ahmose stepped back slightly and sent his right fist crashing into the already ruined nose, dappling himself with spots of red and gray and sending a message of pain up his arm.  To his surprise the blow did not drive the man back or even cause him to cry out, but it did get his attention.  Dropping his victim, whose semi-conscious body immediately began gasping for air, he turned towards Ahmose, rapid and shallow breaths hissing through clenched teeth, eyes glazed and unrecognizing.

Oh shit, thought Ahmose.  Have I just picked a fight with something more than human?  Gods did often walk the Two Lands, but Ahmose could think of no reason why one should appear in this situation.  He had been careful to sacrifice to all the appropriate deities at each stage of the project and before setting up the brickyard had in particular honored Hapi for the use of his water and mud.  In any case he could not flee – if indeed one could run away from a god – since that would seriously undermine his authority with his workers.  Besides, was he not under the protection of Thoth?

Egyptian hostility towards easterners was not limited to adults, and growing up in the streets of Pi-Ramessu Ahmose had learned early on how to take care of himself, usually against odds.  Bending slightly, he scooped up a handful of clay and flung it hard into the eyes of his opponent.  Temporarily blinded, the man paused and naturally brought his hands up to clear the mud away.  At that moment Ahmose, taking careful balance, kicked him solidly in the crotch, and he promptly doubled over and went to his knees, retching uncontrollably.

Not a god.  Just a poor wretch in a blood fury.  Thanks be to Thoth.  He climbed out of the pit and surveyed the yard, hands on hips.  He suspected he cut something of a comic figure: dark gray from the knees down and speckled gray and pink above.  And to the Bedouin a man out in only a loincloth was both ridiculous and indecent.  He could in fact easily identify the newest arrivals in the work force – they wore shifts and even heavy robes rather than the virtually indestructible slit leather loincloths favored by the veterans.  Daylong toil under the delta sun would overcome desert habits and modesty soon enough.

Comic or not, no one was laughing, though he was surrounded by smiling faces.  The whole incident had turned in his favor.  The Lord Moses – he’s one of us, they would say – humiliated the Egyptians and took charge of the situation.  The story would spread and be exaggerated and gain Ahmose enhanced respect and authority, at least among his workers.  Unfortunately, it would do him no good at all with his Egyptians, who could only see it as further proof that this uppity Habiru had completely forgotten his place in the scheme of things.  But then, most of them would feel that way no matter what he did.

“See to those two men,” he ordered the overseers.  “When they recover, give them both ten solid lashes for fighting.  Then give the bloody one another ten for attacking me.”  It bothered Ahmose to punish a possibly innocent man, who was only defending himself, but he could not spend the time attempting to investigate and judge every case.  There were few innocents among his workers anyway, and most likely one of the two fighters would be dead in a couple of days, his throat cut in the night.  Among the Bedouin honor was far more dear than life.

“These men” – he glared at the four clay-covered workers standing sheepishly in a corner of the pit – “apparently enjoy playing in the mud.  Fine.  Pharaoh likes happy workers.  You will enjoy a two month shift in the mixing pits.”

The men’s faces fell, though they could hardly have expected less; Ahmose had little choice but to shore up the authority of his overseers.  He could never quite understand why most of his workers feared the pits so much.  True, the labor was very hard on the legs until the muscles became accustomed to lifting against the suction of the clay, but the pits were shaded and the mud was cool from the constant addition of water.  He supposed it was the utter tedium of the job, especially so for the restless men from the desert, that put it at the bottom of the hierarchy of conscript labor jobs.

His right hand was now beginning to ache.  He would be paying for his crowd-pleasing performance in the pit.  Flexing the fingers of the sore hand a few times, he retrieved his kilt and surveyed the yard.  The operation was quickly returning to normal.  Once more the dominant sounds in the yard were the reassuring plop-squirt of legs kneading the mud and the splat of clay being slapped into molds.  Ahmose concentrated for a moment on the splats, timing them against the blood throbbing at his wrist.  Allowing for a quickened pulse, he estimated the brick flow was already back to normal – normal for his brickyards, that is.  He made a mental note to hire another overseer and to make an additional offering to Hapi for the bounty of his mud.  And perhaps to Thoth for guiding him through yet another difficulty, minor though it had been.

Before heading out of the yard he intercepted one of the water carriers before the man reached the mixing pits.  While the worker stood holding his kilt and grinning hugely – he had evidently seen the fight – Ahmose dumped the contents of the water jar over himself, washing away the crust of clay and blood.  The water on his skin evaporated quickly, providing a refreshing coolness.  He felt ready to face another problem.

“Like father Jacob at the Jabbok,” the water carrier said suddenly as he traded back the kilt for his jar.

“What was that?” replied Ahmose, taken by surprise.

“The Lord Moses in the pit reminded me of the hero Jacob, beloved of Baal-Hanam, when he fought the demon at the Jabbok river.”

“The Jabbok river?  Where’s that?”  Baal-Hanam was obviously a Canaanite god, one of the dozens of lesser deities who looked after the miserable towns of Canaan, and Jacob was presumably a local hero.

“It flows from the east into the river Jordan, straight by my city of Succoth.”  Realizing that he had an unexpected and exalted audience, the worker quickly launched into his tale.  “In olden days Jacob, father of Succoth, was stopped from crossing the Jabbok by a mighty demon.  All night they wrestled until at dawn the demon sought to escape the light, but Jacob, who had the strength of three normal men, held him fast.  Only when the demon blessed him did he then free him, naming the river Jabbok, which means ‘wrestled,’ and founding nearby the holy place of Penuel.”

Ahmose nodded at the story, which had poured out of the man in a smooth, memorized stream of eastern accented Canaanite.  He had heard of none of the places named, but if the Jabbok was a tributary of the Jordan, it could hardly be more than an insignificant stream.  And Succoth, he guessed, would probably make Tjou seem a major metropolis.  Still, any man born in a building rather than a tent could be counted as one of his more civilized workers.

“Interesting,” he said, fastening the kilt about his waist.  “The world is filled with the wonders of the gods, isn’t it?”

The man beamed, and as he turned to leave the yard, Ahmose wished it were that easy to lift the morale of all his men.  But tell most Habiru their stories were interesting and you would only increase their suspicions.  Only natural perhaps for men who were so universally despised.

After surveying the yard a final time to insure the operation was running smoothly again, he headed back through the trees to the construction site, falling in with the line of loaded brick carriers.  He noticed absently that those within sight picked up their pace to match his, something he could have easily predicted.  That in fact was the primary reason he spent so much time wandering, sometimes randomly, about the work sites; that and the need to be present to deal with unexpected problems.  He often wished he could make copies of himself.  He had spies of course, but they were good only for a constant stream of low-level, though sometimes useful information.  Spies provoked resentment, but his workers would assume he had them whether he did or not.  What he really needed were better subordinates and overseers, a tough problem given the special resentment he himself provoked among Egyptians.

He glanced up at the sun winking through the leaves and fronds passing overhead.  It was close to the zenith.  The crews on site would shortly be taking their midday meal, and Ahmose preferred if at all possible to be present for the architect’s inspection that took place during the break.  Also, Merab had promised to come by around noon to discuss his problems with the Heliopolis priesthood, and he knew the busy little man would not wait long.  He quickened his pace a bit.

From the relative quiet and absence of returning brick carriers Ahmose could guess well before he actually reached the site that the workers had already downed tools.  This was confirmed when the path emerged from the last copse of trees and the low bushes gave way to ragged alfa grass and the bare sandy soil of the construction area.  Most of the workers had already received their ration of bread and beer and had retired to shaded spots around the periphery of the site to eat.

The midday break and meal were not inevitable among the conscript labor gangs.  In their brutal contempt for their workers and their desperation to keep to schedule many construction overseers pushed their people straight through the day, and few were willing to budget money for the extra meal.  Less food for each worker means more workers went the simple equation of many managers, and Ahmose could not understand why they could not see the shortsighted fallacy of this belief.  Well-nourished and rested workers produced far more than exhausted skeletons, not simply because of their better physical condition, but even more so because of higher morale, a concept that seemed totally beyond the average Egyptian overseer.

Ahmose headed southeast past small stockpiles of bricks and other materials towards the actual buildings, which were situated just north of the road and canal.  The town of Tjou, such as it was, lay immediately to the east of the temple-granary.  A number of poor huts had in fact been demolished in the original clearing of the site, but new mud and reed dwellings were already springing up all around.  Ahmose allowed his workers free use of damaged bricks, and many had built simple shelters near the site.  Some, the poorest, had even built substantial houses and brought in their families, though most left wives and children elsewhere to tend their flocks and gardens.  When the job was completed, Tjou might actually grow enough to become a noticeable town, as priests and granary officials moved in.

Ahmose passed through the east gate in the brick enclosure wall, cursing the temple of Atum at Heliopolis.  The wall itself, nine cubits high and two thick at the base, was complete on this side, waiting only to be plastered and painted, but the gate was unfinished.  Missing were the massive stones that would form the uprights and lintel of the doorway and of course the gates themselves.  The gates would normally be hung only in the last stage of construction, but the actual gateway should have already been in place and receiving the attention of the stonecutters.  Instead there were no gateways because the stone remained undelivered, and the skilled and expensive stonecutters were sitting about idle rather than carving bas-reliefs as originally scheduled.

Inside the enclosure Ahmose found Setnakht, the project architect, in front of the temple of Atum and Seth, which occupied the central part of the sacred precinct.  The temple was of very modest size, roughly fifty cubits by twenty cubits.  The massive pylon or entrance wall gave way to a small open court, which led in turn past a single row of four stone columns into the three small rooms that made up the sanctuary.  Unlike that of most of the large temples along the Nile, the long axis of this one lay not approximately, but exactly along an east-west line, so that with the gates of the enclosure open Re, rising above the eastern horizon, would send his rays directly into the sanctuary.

Behind the temple, occupying most of the western half of the enclosure, were the living quarters of the priests and the four granaries, their beehive domes rising well above the top of the precinct wall.  Made solely from brick, these structures were complete, but like the gates the temple was behind schedule.  At the moment the pylon rose to only half its planned twelve cubit height, the upper courses unfinished because the stone had yet to arrive.  This meant that the stonecutters and artists who should at this moment be covering the pylon with painted bas-reliefs of Atum, Seth and Ramses were instead sitting about drinking beer with their colleagues unable to work on the gate, all of them nevertheless still drawing salaries.

Setnakht, despite the heat dressed in an expensive wig and immaculate white pleated linen skirt, was watching two of his assistants reach the top of the pylon scaffolding.  The stones used in the upper levels of the pylon were small enough to be hoisted directly, sparing the need for the large earthen ramp used in the larger projects.  For this Ahmose was thankful, the wooden scaffolding being far easier to set up and remove than the thousands of hekats of earth necessary for a ramp sufficiently high to reach the top of the pylon in its final stages of construction.  Whenever he glimpsed the great pyramids of Khufu and Kephren on his occasional journey south to Memphis, he inevitably considered the mammoth labor involved in just building the ramps needed to lift the great blocks.

By the time he reached Setnakht the assistants were already repacking their cords and water pans, having quickly completed the routine check of the topmost course of stone.  Rolling up the sheets of papyrus he had been studying, the architect slipped them into a leather case and turned to Ahmose.

“Well, that’s it.  As far as we go until the rest of the stone shows up,” he said to a point just over Ahmose’s left shoulder.

Ahmose wondered if he was that predictable in his site inspections; Setnakht always seemed to know it was he before actually seeing him.  He looked directly into the pinched face of the old Egyptian.

“You know I’ve done what I can.  If the Third Divine of Thebes can’t help, who can?  Pi-Ramessu won’t respond.  They have never even really agreed there is a problem.  You have important friends at court, don’t you?  Perhaps if you sent…”

“Arranging for the delivery of building materials is hardly my concern,” interrupted Setnakht, indignation supplementing the annoyance that seemed always to be in his voice when he spoke to Ahmose.

“And seeing the project completed is also not your concern?” goaded Ahmose.

“I am the architect.  Seeing to it that the work gets done is the responsibility of the labor overseer.  You.”  He continued to look anywhere but at Ahmose.

Ahmose had had plenty of time to get used to the arrogant architect and his silly game of refusing to look at him directly.  A bent old reed of a man, he was competent enough, at least for an unambitious construction such as this, and Ahmose had years of experience in dealing with contempt.  At the moment, however, his growing frustration with the supply problems and the dull pain in his hand were conspiring to undermine his patience with such pettiness.  He looked up at the assistants climbing down the scaffolding and then back at Setnakht.

“Is the pylon stonework still true?” he asked innocently.

For the briefest moment the architect’s eyes flicked into contact with Ahmose’s and then darted away again.  His words came evenly, but clearly wrapped in anger.

“Of course the stonework is true!  Any apprentice could build this little pylon.”  He hesitated, apparently realizing the implication of his statement.  The pitch of his voice increased noticeably, and his face began to redden.  He now glared directly at Ahmose.

“I have done my job!  Now I waste my time because you haven’t done yours.  My career is threatened because you can’t control your thieving friends.  I suffer because somebody in Pi-Ramessu was bought.”

He turned abruptly and threw the cylindrical papyrus case at the two assistants, who were listening intently, expressions of studied indifference on their faces.  Taken by surprise, they instinctively ducked, and the case landed under the scaffolding, where one of the men retrieved it.  Setnakht was meanwhile already on his way to the gate, and gathering up their instruments, the assistants hurried after him.

Ahmose watched the party storm out, suddenly alone in the precinct.  Prodding Setnakht into a rage was hardly a challenge, but he did feel at least a momentary satisfaction.  He wondered if the old geezer really did worry about his career, when he so obviously already had one foot in the boat to the west.  He shrugged and headed out of the complex towards his house.

His residence was a short distance northeast of the temple precinct, close enough to the site to double as an office, but away from the squalor of Tjou.  The mud brick house, which had been built by his workers as the ground for the temple-granary was being cleared, consisted of a tiny courtyard and a building of only three rooms.  Though immense compared to the huts of most of his conscripts, it would be thought inadequate by the average Egyptian workingman, especially since Ahmose had not bothered to plaster and whitewash the exterior walls.  It made little difference to him; he considered the dwelling temporary, like the project itself.

Two men, household slaves by their look, lounged in the shade of the ancient acacia that stood before the house.  As he drew nearer, Ahmose recognized them as Merab’s.  The absence of any animals suddenly struck him.  Merab must be traveling by boat, which meant in turn that he had walked up from the canal.  He could easily imagine the round little man puffing and sweating as he performed this feat, walking a distance routinely covered by the country folk a hundred times in a day.

Ignoring the slaves, he went directly to the wooden entrance door, upon which he himself had painted the ankh and the winged eye of Horus as wards against evil spirits.  Still discernible above the door as a darker patch on the dun bricks was the smear of lamb’s blood, dabbed there by one of his Habiru workers back in the spring, when the house was built.  It was the blood of the first-born, a powerful barrier, Ahmose knew, to night-roving demons.  He understood and respected the potent magic found in the life fluid, but to him the blood rituals that were the heart of Bedouin worship only reflected the bloody nature of their warrior society.  According to his grandfather, the blood of captives and even infants sometimes stained the crude rock altars of the Habiru, a practice denied those living under Egyptian rule.  It was all too barbaric for a civilized man, but Ahmose left the mark as a concession to his workers and for its efficacy.  You never knew when dealing with the powers of the dark.

The door opened directly into the courtyard, where he found Merab hovering about the tiny kitchen set in one of the corners away from the house, which formed the rear of the court.  Dressed in only a linen kilt, a cup in his hand, he was issuing instructions to Heditkush, who was hidden in the coffin-sized building and from the smell of roasting meat, preparing the midday meal.  Ahmose doubted that the Nubian was paying any attention whatsoever to Merab’s words.

“I see you managed to find the wine,” he said, stepping into the yard.

“Ah, Ahmose.  Yes, it’s been a long hot journey.”  He waved his wine cup in the direction of the kitchen.  “Your man took care of me, though I must say he’s been very uncooperative over the details of lunch.”

The subject of the conversation emerged from the kitchen and handed Ahmose a cup of wine.  He wiped the sweat from his face with an exaggerated gesture.  “Eat soon.  Very hot, cooking.”

“Yes, very hot,” said Ahmose.  “A cup of beer would probably cool things down considerably.”

At the sound of the word “beer” Heditkush was already on his way towards the large covered jar standing next to the kitchen.  Ahmose turned back to Merab, who was staring into his now empty cup.

“Heditkush!  Bring wine to the house,” he called after the slave.  “And we’ll take the meal on the roof.”  He started across the yard, Merab following.

“Sorry I couldn’t get by sooner, but there’s been a press of business in Tjeku.  I’m on my way to Pi-Ramessu, and this seemed a good time to talk with you about your problems.  Ahmose, how the hell can you live like this?”

They had entered the main room of the house, an area hardly larger than the anteroom of the nomarch’s villa.  Reed mats covered the mud plaster and gypsum floor, and the whitewashed walls were painted with prayers to Thoth and other gods.  Pushed up against the walls were several large ceramic pots and low wooden chests, one supporting an alabaster statue of the ibis-headed Thoth.  A sketch of the completed temple-granary was tacked to one of the walls, and everywhere across the floor were neat piles of papyrus.  Sunlight from the door and a row of small windows set high in the walls illuminated the scene.

Ignoring Merab’s question, Ahmose threaded his way through the stacks to one of the chests, from which he took a sheaf of documents.  He sat cross-legged on the floor and began spreading the papyrus sheets out in front him.  More ponderously, Merab sank down opposite, groaning as he did so.

“Those who aren’t poor or trained as scribes are definitely not used to this.  Now I remember why I insist that you visit me rather than the other way around.”  He looked around at the prayer-lined walls.  “Min’s prick, Ahmose.  This is like living in a tomb.”

Before Ahmose, who had heard all this before, could reply, Heditkush arrived with the jug of wine, which he set down between the men.  Ahmose refilled their cups and handed one to Merab.

“I had another important dream.”

Merab rolled his eyes, but Ahmose continued.

“Come on, Merab.  You know how important this stuff is, especially since Thoth has spoken to me directly.”

“I thought he only nodded.”

“You know what I mean.  Listen, in the dream I climbed a tall cedar and began sawing off its branches.  You see!  You hardly need a Dream Book to interpret this, the meaning is so clear.  All my enemies and ills will be destroyed.”

“Or it could mean that you’ll end up a slave pruning trees for some rich man.  Or reduced to stealing firewood.”

“This is serious, Merab,” replied Ahmose, exasperation replacing the excitement in his voice.

“And I’m serious too.”  His voice had lost its playful tone.  “Now, you listen to me.  If you value your career so much, you will stop pressing this affair with Heliopolis.  You know full well that I have much more expertise in such things than you could ever hope to have, and I tell you that you are beginning to annoy some powerful figures.  Figures who aren’t all that enamored of an upstart Habiru in the first place.  The surest way to put the lie to your dreams and visions is to continue this foolish crusade.  Keep bothering these people, Ahmose, and instead of directing Pharaoh’s gangs you’ll find yourself in one of them, at the mercy of some overseer who remembers that you’re the uppity sand rambler.”

“But I have clear evidence of theft!”  He held up two sheets of papyrus.  “Look at these invoices.  Here, this one shows that thirty-two limestone blocks left the Tura quarry, but I received only twenty-six, together with this manifest from Heliopolis listing only twenty-six.  The priests clearly stole six blocks from the shipment.  That’s the only way to understand this.”

Suddenly interested, Merab examined the two documents.  “Do you have any more like these?”

“No,” answered Ahmose as he selected more sheets.  “Invoices from the suppliers go directly to Heliopolis.  The gods delivered this one to me – it was stuck to the temple manifest.  But look at these.  My copy of an order for six granite slabs from Elephantine and the manifest of the actual delivery.  It contains only five.  And this: my order for thirty jars of beer, but only twenty-seven were received and sent on to me according to Heliopolis.  And so on and so on.  More than half of all shipments of all materials are short by a tenth or more.  The temple claims that’s what was sent, but they won’t show me the invoices.”

“And the suppliers bounce your inquiries back to Heliopolis, right?”  Merab asked, unfolding one of his legs and pouring himself more wine.

“Yes.  I don’t have the authority and the temple is not about to give it to me.  They of course won’t show me anything, and my complaints to the Overseer of the Granaries get no response, despite evidence of major corruption.  What is wrong in Pi-Ramessu?”

“Nothing but business as usual in the Beloved Land.  First of all, Ahmose, keep your perspective straight: nothing connected with this little project could be considered “major.”  Second, apart from this one shipment” – he waved the two sheets – “all your evidence is circumstantial.”

“The teeth of the Eater, Merab!  It’s as obvious as the river!  The only materials that haven’t turned up short are the bricks, which I control completely.  And the damn fools suggest it’s my workers who are doing the stealing!”

He suddenly pounded the mat with his fist, startling Merab.  “It’s an outrage to Pharaoh and to ma’at, and no one seems to be concerned.  How can Ramses permit this?”

“Get serious, Ahmose.  Do you really think Pharaoh is aware of every little building project in Egypt?”

“The Overseer of Granaries told…”

“You are a constant wonder to me, Ahmose.  How did you manage to survive to adulthood?”  He tucked his leg back under him and leaned forward slightly.  “Look.  Pharaoh is the guarantor of the balance in the Two Lands, but you know as well as I do that evil exists and sometimes it goes unpunished.  Maybe even the gods have limits.  Or maybe we just can’t comprehend what they do.  Whatever the reason, the fact is ma’at does not lie perfectly upon the land.”

“Then it is even more our obligation to work to see that it does.  Remember the teachings of Ptahhotep: ‘Ma’at is good and its worth is lasting, and it hath not been disturbed since the day of its creator, whereas he that transgresseth its ordinances is punished.’”

“And how effective an instrument of ma’at do you suppose you’ll be as a quarry slave?  The advice of Anii is more appropriate here: ‘Speak not much, be silent, that thou mayest be happy.’”

Surprised, Ahmose hesitated a moment.  Merab seemed hardly the type to be studying the wisdom literature.  There were apparently aspects of the man he was unaware of.

“Anii the scribe did not mean for the good man to remain silent in the face of injustice,” he countered.  “But that the wise man speaks only when he has something to say.  This is clear from Ptahhotep: ‘Be silent – this is better than flowers.  Speak only if thou knowest that thou canst unravel the difficulty.’  Well, this man, wise or not, certainly has something important to say.  This corruption eats away at the Beloved Land.  It is an outrage to me and to Pharaoh and to the balance of Creation itself.”

“Really, Ahmose.  Keep your grip on the world.  This sort of thing goes on all the time.  If anything, it’s part of Creation.  The gods created men the way they are, and more often than not there’s just nothing you can do about it.  You don’t have to fight every battle.  Osiris will know the ones you do fight, and your heart will witness your devotion to ma’at.

“So the priests of Heliopolis and others are making a little money on the side.  Don’t you believe they’ll pay when they stand in the hall of judgment?  Meanwhile, how do they hurt you?  Judged by average standards, your project is way ahead of schedule, despite the shortages.  Which, incidentally, are always blamed on the people at the site.  Your reputation is established.  Don’t undermine it by causing trouble.”

He looked around into the glare of the door.  “Where’s that lunch?  I can’t wait here all day.”

“They do hurt me,” asserted Ahmose, ignoring the question, voice growing louder.  “They hurt me and they hurt you and they hurt Pharaoh and everyone else with their violation of ma’at.  There is nothing I can do about incompetence in Pi-Ramessu or empty-headed officials like the nomarch.  Maybe there’s nothing I can do about the corruption in Heliopolis.  But this is my project, and I’m damn well going to cause trouble!”

It was Merab’s turn to be surprised.  Rarely had he seen such overt anger expressed by his friend.  Ahmose seemed to realize this as well, and he paused a moment, eyes closed and lips moving in a silent prayer.  Composed, he continued in a lower tone.

“Merab, I know you think it’s self-destructive, but I have to pursue this.  It isn’t the insult to me or even so much the delays to the construction.  It’s just the outrage of it.  It’s the arrogance, the assumption that no one will complain while Pharaoh’s wealth is stolen almost openly.  It just isn’t right.”

He began gathering up the papyrus sheets.  “I’m taking this stuff to Pi-Ramessu.  They can hardly ignore me if I’m banging on their doors.  It’s only a question of getting Pharaoh’s attention.”

“You wouldn’t even get into the palace, Ahmose.  How much time do you think Pharaoh has to visit with his subjects?  Do you suppose his task of insuring the presence of ma’at in Egypt runs to listening to complaints about petty corruption?  What do you plan to say to the wall of officials around him?  ‘I’m here to see the Horus; Thoth sent me’?”

Ahmose looked up, cold eyes locking onto Merab.

“I’m sorry, Ahmose.  That was an unfair punch.  It’s just that you drive me up the wall sometimes.  Look, I’m your friend and I know you, and you can still annoy the hell out of me with your righteousness.  So how do you think the pompous fools in Pi-Ramessu will react when you rush in with accusations aimed at their friends in Heliopolis?

“The world is filled with people who are bad and even more with people who are stupid.  Surely you know that from running your gangs.  Why is it so hard to accept that this is true for the people at the top too?  Can’t you see that Pharaoh may be as ill served by his people as you often are by your overseers?  Face it, Ahmose.  Apparently even a god-king can’t hope to control all his servants.”

Merab’s words were interrupted by a sudden yell from outside, which he took to be the long-awaited announcement of lunch.  Rising quickly, he grimaced and began stepping from one foot to the other, driving life back into his rubbery legs.

“But I know you lack the patience and the wisdom of a god-king,” he continued before Ahmose could object.  “And I know you’re going to stick your hand in the crocodile’s mouth no matter what I say.  So let’s see if we can limit just how much gets bitten off.  Let me have the rest of those documents.”

Ahmose was caught by the sudden collapse of Merab’s resistance, but was not that surprised.  One of the things he admired in the older man was his decisiveness in abandoning an untenable position and seizing upon a new course of action.  Handing him the stack of papyrus, he rose and fetched a leather document case from one of the chests.  Merab took the case and rolled up and inserted the sheaf of documents.

“I’ll see that these get into the hands of sympathetic people in Pi-Ramessu, but I can’t promise anything, Ahmose.  The temples are very powerful, especially Amon-Re, and the court is very complex.  And very dangerous.  I have other information pertaining to Heliopolis…”  He caught the look on Ahmose’s face.  “No, I’m not going to tell you anything.  The priests are angry enough, and the last thing you need now is the suspicion that you’re prying into things beyond your own project.  Leave this to me, all right?”

“So this isn’t just ‘business as usual’ then?” exclaimed Ahmose, a note of minor triumph in his voice.

“Unfortunately, it is,” Merab sighed.  “And you’re going to have to learn to live with it if you want to continue building.  Your sense of justice is a fine thing, Ahmose, but the world doesn’t much appreciate fine sensibilities.”  He threw his arm around the younger man’s shoulders.  “Forget about Heliopolis and finish your temple.  Everybody who matters knows how things work, and if you can just avoid branding yourself a troublemaker, they’ll see your talent.  Maybe reluctantly, because of your background and because you are so damn good at what you do, but they’ll see it.  But you have to play the game.”

Allowing Ahmose no chance to reply, he steered him out the door.  “Enough of this.  Let’s get on to something important.  I expect the meal will live up to the promise of the smell.  Darkies tend to be unruly, but they sure seem to have a way with food, don’t you think?”

Ahmose was hardly in a mind to think about the culinary talents of Nubians, but he knew Merab well enough to understand the serious discussion was over.  He could only let matters run the course Merab had determined, exasperating though that might be.  At least the burden was off his back and he could indeed concentrate on completing the project.  In fact, he felt a surprising sense of relief begin to slide over him.  Before he could put any of this into words, however, he was jerked to a halt just short of the stairway.

“Wait,” said Merab, looking up towards the tree-shaded roof.  “Is the roof of this flimsy hovel going to hold us?”

The image of his ample friend plunging through the plaster and timber brought a smile to Ahmose’s face.  He pulled himself up straighter and puffed out his chest.

“I am Ahmose the Master Builder, remember?  The man with so damn much talent nobody could fail to notice.”  He bowed and swept an arm towards the stairs.  “After you, Secretary to the Great Head.”