Where Are the Assyrians When You Need Them?

In its efforts to redefine barbarism ISIS has bulldozed the remains of the millennia old Assyrian city of Nimrud and has now begun demolishing the Greek/Parthian city of Hatra, crimes against humanity that for an ancient historian surpass their slaughter of innocents.  The destruction of Hatra is a particularly great loss, inasmuch as it is – or was – the finest surviving example of a Parthian city, with standing walls surrounding well preserved temples and statuary.  For these acts every member of this disgusting organization should be exterminated and refused burial; those who are captured should be handed over to the families of their victims.  Seriously.







There is, however, a certain irony in the assault on Nimrud, one doubtless unappreciated by the thugs and sociopaths of the “Caliphate.”  The Assyrians, who figure largely in the Old Testament because of their destruction of Israel and subjugation of Judah, are chiefly remembered for their extraordinary cruelty, and the Assyrian Empire may well be the first state in history to recognize that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun time (though the Assyrians never practiced genocide, as the Israelites did against the Amalekites).  In this regard Assyria might be seen as the spiritual precursor of ISIS, setting a standard of cruelty that even the Caliphate has not matched; it has apparently not yet occurred to them to decorate trees with severed heads or flay captives alive, standard Assyrian practice.  On the other hand, the centuries of Assyrian civilization produced a body of art, architecture and literature, while it appears the Caliphate will leave nothing more than promotional videos.

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyria had a long history.  The Assyrian heartland was what is now northern Iraq, and the city of Assur on the northern Tigris River dates back to the 26th century BC, though it was only a Sumerian (southern Iraq) administrative outpost and not actually Assyrian.  The Assyrians, speaking an east-Semitic language, appeared in perhaps the 24th century, but until the mid-21th century Assyria, then known as Subartu, was dominated first by the Akkadian Empire, centered south of Baghdad, and then by the Neo-Sumerian Empire of 3rd Dynasty Ur, located far to the south.  With the collapse of the Empire of Ur in c. 2000 BC Assyria seems for the first time to have become an actual urban kingdom rather than a collection of tribes.

The new kingdom enjoyed independence until the 1750s, when it fell to the Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi.  After his death in 1750 it was independent again until the 15th century, when it was conquered by the Mitanni immediately to the west.  The Mittanni were destroyed in c. 1350 by a coalition including Assyria under King Ashur-uballit I, who established the Middle Assyrian Empire, expanding west into former Mitanni territory and briefly controlling Babylon.  It was during this period, in the reign of Shalmaneser I (1274-1245), that Nimrud was built.  This all came to an end in the 11th century because of internal problems and the great Catastrophe, a movement of Indo-European peoples south and east through the Balkans and Anatolia that fractured the entire power structure of the Near East.  From 1077 to 911 the Assyrian state was weak and occupied with domestic disturbances, but remained intact amidst the general collapse.

From 911 to 824 Assyria was an imperial state again, the King’s armies campaigning almost every year.  During this period Assyria was the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling territory from the Persian Gulf through Syria almost to the frontier of Egypt.  Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) moved the capital from Assur to Nimrud but also began extensive building in Nineveh, which then became the capital and heart of Assyria, as subsequent kings, especially Sennacherib (704-681), lavished their attention on it.  By the seventh century BC Nineveh was possibly the largest city in the world, encompassing some 1900 acres behind its seven and half miles of walls and supporting a population of more than 100,000.

Nineveh - restored gate

Nineveh – restored gate

Neo-Assyria Empires

Neo-Assyria Empires

From 824-744 Assyria stagnated, but then Tiglathpileser III (744-727), establishing a new ruling dynasty, initiated phase two of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, during which it became easily the largest empire the Near East had yet seen, stretching from the Gulf to Armenia and from the Zagros Mountains of Iran west through Syria and Palestine and south to Nubia.  It was also the most modern.  Tiglathpileser reformed the administration of the state, achieving the internal stability that had eluded the Assyrians for centuries, and created what appears to be the first professional standing army in history.  He also replaced, where possible, the subject states with a system of provinces governed by Assyrian officials, and woe to those who revolted.

Tiglathpileser III

Tiglathpileser III

The Assyrians terrorized (and stabilized) the Near Eastern world for more than a century, but maintaining the Empire consumed vast amounts of wealth and manpower, and by the last quarter of the seventh century the state was exhausted.  And surrounded by enemies.  In 625 Babylonia broke free under the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians), and the Assyrians were unable to recover this valuable territory.  In 615 Assyria was invaded by a new group, the Medes, an Indo-European people who had established themselves in northwestern Iran, and they were soon joined by the Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians.  Nineveh finally fell in 612, and Assyria simply ceased to exist as a state, although the last Assyrian king, the usurper Ashur-uballit II, did not disappear until 610.

The world rejoiced.  “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?  Whence shall I seek comforters for thee?” said the Hebrew prophet Nahum.  Nineveh was never again occupied, and today its ruins stand on the Tigris River in Mosul, now occupied by ISIS, which has already destroyed stretches of the original city wall.  Two and a half millennia later Nineveh is being laid waste again.

The Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire absorbed Assyria and much of its empire, but its days were also numbered.  In 539 Babylon was captured by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great (559-550), who had defeated the Medes in c. 550 and united the Iranian people under his rule.  Cyrus then proceeded to conquer just about everything from the Aegean to the Indus River; his son Cambyses II (530-522) added Egypt.  The Achaemenid Persian Empire made that of Assyria seem small (though much of the eastern provinces were junk territory), and it was a far different operation.  Fear of the Persian military of course helped secure the Empire, but Persian policy emphasized respect for local populations and cultures, presaging the greatest political structure of antiquity, the Roman Empire.

The Persian Empire ended in 330 with the assassination of its last king, Darius III, whose throne passed to Alexander the Great.  After the Macedonian’s death in 323 the Asiatic part of the Empire, including Assyria, fell to his general Seleucus, whose descendants would rule the area for the next century and a half.  During the period of Seleucid rule the Empire continually shrank, as a new force, the Parthians, a former subject people in northeastern Iran, expanded westwards and ran up against the frontiers of Roman power in Anatolia and Syria-Palestine by the end of the millennium.  Parthia and Rome would duke it out for the next couple of centuries, when in AD 227 the Arsacid Parthian dynasty gave way to the Sassanid Persians, who would rule the area until the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.  Throughout this period the wealthy fortress city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, played a key role in the constant wars.  And now it is being razed by a group that makes the Mongols look polite.

Parthian Empire

Parthian Empire

To identify the ISIS barbarians with the Assyrians would be an insult to the Assyrians, for all that they were known for their cruelty.  Assyria was a state that existed for the better part of two millennia, playing a crucial role in the history of the ancient Near East and producing a wealth of art and architecture.  ISIS is nothing.  That the Iranians are now playing a serious role in the fight against the Caliphate scum may be a good omen: after all, it was Iranians – the Medes – who initiated the destruction of the Assyrian terrorists.

Of course the presence of the Iranians concerns the US, especially the with-us-or-against-us conservatives, who have trouble understanding the complexities of foreign affairs.  (One is reminded of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.)  America has conveniently forgotten that the Iranians certainly have reason to be pissed off at us, inasmuch in 1953 the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and subsequently supported the increasingly oppressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.  Pity, the Iranians strike me as natural allies, despite their whacko government.  Not only is the Shia the more cultured segment of Islam, but the Iranians, at least the urban populations, are secular, certainly when contrasted with our 7th century friends in the Gulf.

Shah Mohammad Pahlavi

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Mosaddegh

Mohammad Mosaddegh




Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.


And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.



The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world





The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.


Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.


So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.






And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

A Lost Poem by Lord Byron

(This may be an early draft of the famous “Destruction of Sennacherib.”  If it is, Byron was certainly prescient.)



The Destruction of Obama



The American came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were loaded with silver and gold;

And the sheen of their guns was like stars in the sky,

When the Hellfires roll nightly to kill on the fly.



Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

That host with their weapons in Kabul were seen:

Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

That host in a decade lay scattered and strown.



For the fighters of God spread their creed with a blast,

And shot at the face of the foe as he passed;

And the hopes of the soldiers waned deadly and chill,

As their friends tread the mines and forever grew still!



And there lay the Humvee, just blown on its side,

With the gas spilling out and the bodies inside;

And the blood of the wounded lay red on the ground,

And the dead and the dying made hardly a sound.



And there lay the soldier all mangled and torn,

With comrades and sweethearts now ready to mourn:

And the barracks were silent, the colors alone,

The rifles unlifted, the trumpet unblown.



And the women now widows are loud in their wail,

And policy lies broke in the Afghani pale;

And the force of the US, almighty before,

Hath melted like snow in the Taliban’s war.

King Obama

King Obama

King Sennacherib

King Sennacherib

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

Stuff from Way Back #16: Moses and the Exodus (screenplay by King Josiah)

(The Preface of my novel mentioned that the Exodus is now in serious doubt.  Here is a fuller presentation of the arguments.)

Nothing is known about the historical Moses, and even his existence is now seriously doubted.  The stories about him found in Philo, Jospehus and the Midrash and Talmud have long been recognized as secondary and unhistorical, and our sole “primary” source for the leader of the Exodus is the Old Testament, which is itself derivative.  The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch or Torah, are manifestly not historical documents, but rather the final version of a tradition that constantly revised stories handed down through perhaps thirty generations.  Like Homer’s Iliad, most of the Old Testament is oral history that was subsequently written down, though unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose texts were thus frozen, the books of the Bible continued to be revised and edited.

Biblical scholars have discerned four major “authors” or strands interwoven in the text of the Pentateuch: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist; and these sources were themselves assembled and edited into the finished product by a group of compilers, collectively known as the Redactor.  The oldest of these sources, the Yahwist, is dated to the tenth century BC, already two to three centuries after the putative date of the Exodus, and the editing of the texts continued into the sixth and fifth centuries BC and later; even as late as the time of Jesus there still existed no accepted canon for the Hebrew texts that made up the Biblical tradition.  And to this day the tiny Jewish community of Samaritans, the survivors of the northern Jewish state of Israel, possesses a Torah different from that of mainstream Judaism, the product of the southern state of Judah.

The books of the Pentateuch, once ascribed to Moses himself, almost certainly contain no real history.  They comprise instead collections of folk tales, wisdom and cultural information gradually assembled over the centuries into the often incoherent and inconsistent narrative that has come to be accepted as the early history of Israel.   Oral tradition is notoriously unreliable as a mechanism for preserving an historical narrative, since whatever the accuracy of the original account that account will inevitably be modified with each subsequent telling, as old material is forgotten or reshaped by the bard’s own environment.  As such, the facts and history were very malleable.  All the major figures of the Patriarchal period, such as Abraham, were most probably local heroes or cult figures, whose stories were modified and woven into the developing tapestry of a Hebrew national history as those localities came under the control of the west Semitic tribes that had accepted Yahweh.  A few, like Joseph, might be vague reflections of actual historical characters, but none of the exploits attributed to these figures can be accepted as historical fact.  Further, these stories were constantly revised by later editors, who reworked them according to the ideas, institutions and events contemporary to their own environments.  The figure of Moses’ brother, Aaron, for example, was added to the Exodus story much later by the Priestly source to emphasize the dignity and importance of the priesthood, which was frequently at odds with the prophets, who traced their line back to Moses.

A prominent problem with oral history is that the fish will always get bigger with each retelling.  Exodus and Numbers, for example, record that there were 600,000 men following Moses; that would make the Hebrew force more than half the estimated population of New Kingdom Egypt.  But the exaggerations and physical impossibilities recorded in the Biblical narrative are, ironically, not that serious a problem.  The supernatural will naturally and obviously permeate an account of an ancient people redefining their relationship with their deity, and the Bible is after all considered by believers to be divinely inspired.  This has led many to examine the miracles, such as the plagues sent by Yahweh, in terms of natural phenomenon that have been exaggerated and distorted by oral transmission.  This approach has worked well in many instances – the Nile did occasionally turn red and did produce plagues of frogs – and not so well in others – the death of the Egyptian first born can hardly be explained in rational terms.  But this can all be discarded by the non-believer, who need not buy into the alleged miracles.

Obvious mythic stories may also be identified without undermining the basic fact of the flight from Egypt.  For example, the tale of the important infant being set adrift in a basket on a river and then rescued to fulfill his destiny was a common one in antiquity: Romulus and Remus were floated on the Tiber and Sargon of Akkad on the Euphrates.  The same may be said of passages that conflict with the nature of Egyptian society.  The Pharaoh, as an example, was a god incarnate, and even the more humanized god king of the New Kingdom was not about to give audiences to the unimportant, especially not despised Bedouins.  The foreigners erecting Pharaoh’s buildings is the Delta were for the most part not chattel slaves but conscript labor, and there is little reason to believe that the Egyptians, who built border forts in the east to keep not just invading armies but also Canaanite migrants out of the Delta, would dispatch an army after a clutch of them leaving Egypt.  And it is even harder to understand – without divine intervention – how they were able to escape Pharaoh’s professional troops.

None of these contradictions and exaggerations, typical of oral tradition, need injure the historicity of some sort of Exodus, any more than the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid negate the fact that Troy actually was sacked by Greeks.  That there is an Exodus story in fact suggests a real event, since such epic tales were rarely, if ever, made from whole cloth, and partly for this reason Biblical scholars who have otherwise dismissed the Torah as ahistorical accept the Exodus, despite a complete lack of non-Biblical evidence.  (There is the victory stele of Merneptah, erected in 1207 BC, which in a list of enemies smashed in Canaan names “Israel,” using glyphs that generally indicate a nomadic people rather than a place.  This is the earliest appearance of the term Israel in an historical context, but exactly who these people are is completely unclear, and in any case nothing is said of their origins.)

The lack of any mention of the Exodus by one of the most serious record-keeping societies in pre-modern history might of course be attributed to the vagaries of time and destruction or to its insignificance in the affairs of Egypt.  But the archaeological record – or the lack of it – is more difficult to explain away, especially when the remains support an alternate history.  For the Exodus itself there are two archaeological difficulties.  First, while there are indeed royal granaries in Tjeku, almost universally accepted as the site of the Biblical Pithom, they date to a period later than the thirteenth century BC.  This problem might be dealt with, though unconvincingly, by pushing the date of the Exodus forward or assuming another location for Pithom, but the second difficulty admits to no apparent solution.  According to the Bible, before moving into Canaan the Hebrews sojourned at Kadesh (or Kadesh-barnea or Enmishpat), which is now identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, a substantial oasis in northern Sinai, on the Egyptian side of the frontier with modern Israel.  There are pottery remains from the Middle Bronze Age, far too early for dating the Exodus, and there are a series of forts, erected by the united Monarchy and Judah and dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BC.  There are no remains from the centuries in which the Exodus might be dated and no signs of a substantial group of people settling in the oasis.

The real Moses?

The real Moses?

More compelling, however, are the results of four decades of excavation in the West Bank, the heart of ancient Judah and Samaria.  Scholars have long considered the Biblical account of the Conquest inadequate: how could a ragged group of refugees with their families in tow so easily conquer central Palestine and establish a strong and viable state and the dominance of Yahwism in less than a generation?   There were also already suspicions about the towns allegedly conquered by Joshua and company, and it is now accepted that most of them were later insertions in the narrative.  Many, like Jericho, simply did not exist at the time of the Conquest, and many places supposedly destroyed by the newcomers in fact fell during the Catastrophe, which changed the face of the eastern Mediterranean a century later.  More ominous, the towns given to the tribe of Judah by Joshua are identical to the frontier towns of seventh century BC Judah, and indeed, the campaigns of Joshua make more sense in the later environment, specifically the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BC) of Judah, than five hundred years earlier.

What the modern archaeological surveys have revealed is the essential lack of any evidence for the historical narrative presented in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and the earlier parts of Kings.  Instead, the pattern of the settlements in the highlands of Judea and Samaria show three successive waves of settlement from the east: first in the period 3500-2200 BC, then 2000-1550 BC and finally 1150-900 BC.  The intervals between these periods witnessed dramatic collapses of population with most of the settlement sites being deserted.  The material cultures of these settlements are roughly similar and, hardly surprising, on a much smaller and cruder scale than depicted in the Bible or actually found in the Canaanite towns in the western lowlands.  Even the largest villages contained only a few hundred people and had no public buildings of any sort and virtually no luxury items.  Little evidence of serious record keeping and even cult activities has been found and certainly no evidence of Yahwism.

The most likely understanding of this archaeological landscape makes the Hebrews indigenous to the region, a conclusion that dovetails with the absence of any evidence for the Exodus account.  The settlers appear to be primarily pastoralists from the Jordan valley and beyond, and in fact the earliest remains of each incursion are in the eastern fringes of the highlands and reveal dwellings arranged in oval patterns, certainly reflections of the oval arrangement of tents in a Bedouin encampment.  While local climate change during these two and half millennia may have played some small role, the real impetus behind the changes in population was the condition of the cities and villages in the coastal plain.  Pure animal husbandry requires some contact with farming villages in order to acquire certain goods, such as metal tools, and grain to supplement the meat and dairy diet.  If this is not available from traditional farmers, the pastoralists themselves must become more seriously involved in agriculture, which will ultimately lead to more sedentary communities and permanent settlements.  Once the grain surpluses and trading networks revive, old nomadic traditions and the agriculturally unrewarding nature of the highlands drive the populations back to pastoralism, and settlements begin to vanish.  This sort of relationship between farmer and Bedouin has been documented from antiquity to the present.

The settlement and de-settlement patterns in Judea and Samaria do indeed appear to match the history of the higher cultures to the west.  The second interval of settled population collapse (1550-1150 BC) occurred during the period of Egyptian rule, when agriculture flourished and the surpluses allowed highland settlements to be abandoned in favor of pastoralism.  When that stability and security, and consequently the trading network, vanished in the Catastrophe of the twelfth century BC, a final wave of settlement building resulted, producing some 250 sites.  Because the Catastrophe had vaporized the Hittite Empire to the north and turned Egypt into a weakling, until the approach of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century BC there was no imperial power looming over Palestine, and tiny communities in the central highlands were able to develop and coalesce into an actual state – Israel.  Or perhaps two states – Israel and Judah – since the Biblical account of a single state fracturing into two cannot be trusted.

Thus, the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to Palestine; they were in fact Canaanites.  So, from where comes the story of the Exodus and the Conquest?  Given the identity between the towns associated with Joshua and those with King Josiah and the recognition that Judges is part of what is called the Deuteronomist History, compiled in the time of Josiah, one can surmise that the epic tales of early Israel were fabricated in the late seventh century BC to support and in a sense sanctify the policies of Josiah, who might be identified as a latter day Joshua.  This was also the time of the Twenty-sixth (Saite) Dynasty, the last gasp of Egyptian power, when for a final time the Pharaohs nosed into Palestine.  This resurgent Egypt, a reminder of the glorious days of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, put the Two Lands back into the big picture being assembled in Jerusalem, allowing old tales of desert wanderings, forgotten conflicts and migrations in and out of the Delta to be woven into a new narrative of Hebrew origins useful to Josiah and his associates in their plans to “recreate” a unified and purified Israel.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

Details found in the Torah in fact fit the seventh century BC far better than the thirteenth.  The kings of the Saite Dynasty were indeed erecting new buildings in the Delta, including Pithom, the Egyptian names in the Joseph story were more popular at this time and in Exodus the unnamed (!) Pharaoh seems to see Palestine as a threat rather than part of the Egyptian empire.  To the east, Kadesh, so prominent in the Exodus, is now the site of a Judean fort, and Edom, whose king refuses the Hebrews passage, only became a state in the seventh century.  It may be that these late details cover an ancient story of departure from Egypt, but they certainly show that the material was being rewritten and do add to the evidence for a seventh century origin for the Exodus and Conquest.

That the Old Testament is a sacred text for millions of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims ought not to obscure this historical reality of its composition and nature.  The early books of the Bible are clearly not history, and the details in them simply cannot bear the weight of the conclusions that have been laid upon them.  Trying, for example, to locate Mt. Sinai is an utterly futile exercise, since all the textual clues date from a later age that itself had not the vaguest idea where Sinai was, and the very existence of the mountain is now doubted by most scholars.  Most important, the god portrayed in the Pentateuch is a historical mishmash, revealing elements of the primitive henotheistic tribal deity of the age of Moses, the institutionalized national god of the states of Israel and Judah and the more perfectly monotheistic universal lord of the later prophets.  From this hodgepodge of stories and images of god the believers, ancient and modern, (and Hollywood) have taken what they will, inevitably creating a Moses and an Exodus that reflect the society and values of the interpreter, rather than what might conceivably have actually existed some three thousand years ago.  Moses and his god are a work in progress, constantly being reinvented, from the time of King Josiah to that of Cecil B. De Mille.

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.”




Hear, O Israel: III





And it came to pass in those days, when Moses

was grown, that he went out unto his

brethren, and looked on their burdens.

Exodus 2:11


The steady, regular rocking of the donkey had just about pulled Ahmose into real sleep, when the chariot went clattering by.  Startled out of a peaceful twilight of semi-consciousness, he opened his eyes and mouth exactly in time to have both filled with dust as the cloud billowing up behind the chariot car rolled over him.

“You inconsiderate asshole,” he yelled at the receding plume.  From behind him came a stream of Nubian, some of which Ahmose recognized as references to various parts of the chariot driver’s anatomy.

Ahmose turned and glared at the slave, dusted now to a slight gray.  Invocations of barbarian gods abruptly ceased, and Heditkush made a job of dusting off his bundle and shifting it to his other shoulder.  Nubians made the most loyal slaves in Ahmose’s opinion, but they were prone to forget their place occasionally.

He turned back to the dust cloud racing into the distance.  He had not seen the driver, but it could only be a wealthy Egyptian, probably on his way to the same party.  Great!  Not only do I have to spend half the afternoon getting to Tjeku on this lethargic creature, but now I get to play the humble peasant, eating the dust of some do-nothing aristocrat who rides the road in a two-horse chariot.  Ah, one of these days.

He shrugged and kicked the donkey, whose forward progress had given way to edging towards the grass growing along the bank of the canal.  With relief he saw that he was nearing the outskirts of the town and end of this seemingly interminable ride.  The effort of the journey didn’t bother him; it was spending several hours doing nothing just to get to a place where he could waste an evening talking to bunches of fatheads.  But Rekhmire was the local nomarch, the Great Head of the nome of Harpoon Occidental, and Ahmose would not risk insulting him by refusing the invitation, even if he had a good excuse, which he did not.  Actually, the invitation had come as a surprise, since bigwigs like Rekhmire usually did not have time for field manager types, especially ones tainted with foreign blood.  He could only assume it was in recognition of his growing reputation, a piece with the praise from Pharaoh and the vision of Thoth he had received a ten-day earlier.  It was all part of the nonsense that you had to put up with if you wanted to do great things.

The shadow leading the donkey was very long, and Ahmose calculated that he would barely reach Merab’s house before it was completely dark.  A collapsed scaffold at the site had delayed his departure until late afternoon, which meant that instead of spending a few refreshing hours in conversation he and Merab would be heading straight for the party.  On the other hand, he could easily have been making the final part of the journey after dark, an undertaking not without some risk in this part of the delta.  He resisted the temptation to goad the donkey into a trot.  The animal would not keep that pace without constant encouragement, and anyway the bouncing would present Ahmose in a most undignified manner.

Directly ahead loomed the enclosure walls of the temple-granary of Atum that gave the town its unofficial name, Pi-Toum.  This was fitting, since in terms of substantial buildings the sacred precinct comprised most of the town.  There was a police post next to the temple and not much more besides a miserable collection of poor mud brick and reed dwellings, huddled like frightened animals up against the enclosure walls.  The villa of the nomarch and substantial houses of other local officials formed virtually a separate town a short distance east of the temple.  A quarter-hour walk across the canal to the south squatted one of the chain of border fortresses that guarded the eastern approaches to the Two Lands.  As if to advertise that fact, the wide area of marginal pasturage around the fort was dotted with the black rectangles of Bedouin tents.

As the donkey approached the first hovels, Ahmose realized that the town of Tjeku, or at least its poorer inhabitants, was waiting for him.  Unconsciously, he sat up straighter, but the people along the roadside were already turning away and going about their business.  Any workers from his gangs were not likely to recognize the Lord Moses under the traveling wig, and a loin-clothed Egyptian on a donkey followed by a single slave was hardly cause for excitement after the chariots, litters and troops of servants that must have rolled through the town earlier.  Ahmose kept his shoulders square, but his spirit sagged a bit.  He reminded himself that before long he would be scattering villagers and animals before his own chariot, and the processions of officials and flatterers would be converging on his villa.

But for the moment he was just another Egyptian, which nevertheless meant of higher status than the trash in Tjeku, whose population was a refuse heap of the poorest Egyptians, Habiru and sundry half-breeds.  Much of Ahmose’s labor force came from this town, which existed mostly because of building projects such as the one in Tjou and the temple here, raised a few years ago.  Tjeku also absorbed the lowest of the low, the cast-offs of the Habiru tribes, the criminals unwanted even by those already considered criminal.  Most of these rejects, like that filthy beggar being shoved away from his donkey by Heditkush, would soon enough end up minus at least their noses and probably also their lives.

Yet even here, at the very bottom, there is a hierarchy, thought Ahmose, as he passed through the thickest part of the settlement.  Even the most wretched Egyptian could always feel superior to foreigners, and he escaped some of the failure of his life through his contempt for the desert dwellers come to roost in Tjeku.  The heavy-robed men from the encampments around Tjeku were too proud and for the despised Egyptians who lived here too dangerous to be easy targets of abuse.  The occasional Egyptian corpse, arousing little interest on the part of the local police, bore witness to the Bedouin understanding of just what low status this particular group of Egyptians enjoyed.  But the settled Habiru and their often half-breed descendants, not Egyptian and not Bedouin, the tribeless remnants of a tribal society, they were everyone’s prey.

In their desperation they were also Ahmose’s better workers, missing the surliness and utter unreliability of their more recently arrived cousins, desert pride ground away in this dumping ground.  For them Tjeku was the absolute end of the road that had led out of the desert, and the labor gangs were the last barrier against starvation.  Watching their poor huts slide past, Ahmose almost pitied them, so destitute that they welcomed the corvée for the extra food it brought.  He could not smother the inevitable reflection that his own way could easily have terminated here, had it not been for a father of relentless ambition and cleverness.  As always, this thought was quickly followed by a muttered prayer of thanks to the Great Ennead.

The sun finally slipped below the horizon for its nightly journey beneath the earth as Ahmose left Tjeku and the great House of Atum behind.  Ahead, lights were appearing among the cluster of villas to the north of the road and at the governor’s private dock on the canal, where the crews of some of the visiting pleasure craft were preparing an evening meal.  One canopied barge was immense, crewed, Ahmose estimated, by at least two dozen rowers.  He strained to catch the faint snatches of music that drifted towards him from the nomarch’s residence and almost fell off the donkey in surprise when a knot of people suddenly went trotting by.  Recovering, he guessed they were the servants of the chariot driver, hustling to catch up with a waiting and probably angry master.  He shook his head and glanced back at the trailing Heditkush, who flashed him a toothy smile.  Good labor management always meant fair treatment, whether in reward or punishment.

Merab was waiting at the front gate to his house, which was a short walk from the much larger residence of the governor.  The round little official was already dressed in his finery and looking anxious.

“Min’s prick, Ahmose, where have you been?  We are going to be dreadfully late,” he said, scurrying out to meet the donkey.

“And warm greetings to you, Merab,” answered Ahmose as he got off the animal and handed the reins to one of Merab’s servants.  Another took Heditkush’s bundle, and the Nubian followed the donkey off to the rear of the house.

Merab looked contrite and clasped Ahmose’s forearms.  “Sorry, my friend.  I am delighted to see you, whatever the hour.”  The anxious expression returned, and he began leading Ahmose towards the gate.  “But we must hurry.  The banquet began hours ago and the governor could hardly have failed to notice my absence.  It won’t do either of us good for your first social encounter with the nomarch to be an insult.”

“Calm down, Merab.  I had to attend to a minor emergency on the job site.  I expect the governor will understand that.  The project is in his nome, after all, and I can’t imagine he wants the building delayed in any way.”

Merab suddenly halted and looked back at him.  “You still don’t know what’s important and what’s not, do you?  That’s what comes from spending all your time with your workers and those dirty Bedouin, when you should…”

“Wait,” interrupted Ahmose.  “It’s my job to spend time with those people.  I manage the labor force, remember?  Besides, what could be more important to the nomarch than seeing Pharaoh’s temple finished on schedule?”

“Pharaoh’s temple?  The priests of Atum and Seth might have something to say about that.  You haven’t noticed, Ahmose, what a proprietary interest some of Pharaoh’s servants take in his buildings?  And don’t give me that how-can-you-say-such-a-thing look.  How can someone who is so good at getting a job done be so oblivious to the way the world works?”  He lifted his arms and turned his face towards the now dark heavens.  “O mighty Thoth, protect thy ever helpless servant, Ahmose, that he may continue to serve thee.”

“It’s not good to joke about such things, Merab,” said a suddenly stern Ahmose.

“Relax, my friend.  Your background is showing.  The universe is not nearly so serious as you and the dune dwellers would have it, thank the gods.”  He thrust his arm through Ahmose’s and started for the house again.  “But come.  We really must hurry.  Tell me what’s been happening in your life, apart from your work, that is.”

Half an hour later the pair was on their way to the governor’s residence, accompanied by several servants bearing torches.  Refreshed by a bath, conversation with Merab and a cup of excellent delta vintage, Ahmose was ready to see the banquet in a new light.  The invitation was after all a sign of his rising position in the world, so why not enjoy the occasion?  Now that he thought about it, he could not remember the last time he entertained the attentions of a female who was not enveloped in dirty wool and the “perfume of the desert.”

He paused and stooped to work a pebble free from between his sandal and sole.  The plaited papyrus footgear felt stiff and unnatural, and his scalp was already beginning to itch under the large curled wig, all of which reminded him why he did not particularly relish formal gatherings.  But comfortable or not, he knew he cut a fine figure of an Egyptian in the pleated linen robe.  Better than most, he thought, unable to resist a sidelong glance at Merab, whose ample belly billowed over the knotted sash straining to hold his robe together.

Ahmose considered his friend.  Only a half dozen years older than himself, Merab was nevertheless already the image of a well-established official – fat, self-assured and exuding an aura of wealth.  At the moment that aura was very tangible, and his arms and neck glinted with reflected torchlight.  Unconsciously fingering his own necklace of faience beads, Ahmose calculated that the carnelian and lapis lazuli collar that covered Merab’s shoulders and chest might easily represent several months’ income for a lowly labor director.  As secretary to the governor of the nome Merab obviously saw many “gifts” come his way, a practice that Ahmose grudgingly accepted as part of doing business with government officials.  He certainly did not begrudge his old friend the presents, since he knew him to be a tireless servant of Pharaoh, whose intercession with the nomarch had often enough smoothed the way for his own project.  He imagined that this dedication to the Two Lands would easily balance the scales of Osiris when Merab’s character was counted up in the Hall of the Dead.  Such would not be the case for all those bloated officials who betrayed the trust of the Incarnate Horus and swallowed a river of bribes.  Thoth would take account as their hearts cried out against them and their violation of ma’at, and they would be given over to the Eater of the Dead.

The buzz of music and voices grew louder as they approached the entrance to Rekhmire’s house.  The enclosure gates stood open and were flanked by a pair of spearmen, who came more stiffly to attention as they passed into the garden.  Ahmose recognized them as regular troops, presumably from the fort, and wondered about the propriety, or the legality for that matter, of the governor using them as decoration at a social function.

Merab emitted an exclamation of delight at the sight of Rekhmire’s extensive formal garden, and even Ahmose had to admit that the clever placement of torches and lamps in trees and bushes had created a magical effect.  Egyptians did not usually entertain after dark, and Rekhmire’s household staff had taken good advantage of the odd circumstances.  Knots of guests were scattered about the grounds, some of them pairs of shadowy figures in the darker recesses, an observation that immediately caused Ahmose’s attention to wander from shrubbery to the women present.  This new interest was stirred further by the serving girl that Merab had already flagged down.  Painted eyes smiled up at him as he accepted a goblet of spiced wine, and his own eyes drifted over the young woman’s body, clearly visible beneath her virtually transparent robe.

“Come on, Ahmose,” interrupted Merab, seizing his arm and almost dragging him towards the house.  “Rekhmire is no longer greeting guests at the gate.  That means everybody important has already arrived.  Which is hardly surprising considering the banquet started hours ago.  We need to go inside.”

Allowing himself to be pulled along, Ahmose cast a wistful glance at the girl, who smiled and arched her back just enough so that her nipples stood out against the thin gown.  “Later, my friend, later,” said Merab, sudden humor replacing the agitation in his voice.  “You are going to get nowhere in this world if you come to parties like this only to sneak off at the first opportunity to hump some serving girl.”  He chuckled and patted his crotch.  “We can save it for later, heh?  Right now there are important people in there just waiting to bore us to death.”

Ahmose had some difficulty imagining his well-fed friend sharing a bed with a woman, but what was hard to picture was easy to understand.  Though Merab was not even close to being at the level of the truly great in the Two Lands, from the vantage of the average Egyptian he was very wealthy.  To women of small means Merab could speak with a golden tongue, and in Egypt as elsewhere there were many willing to listen.  Ahmose never had any trouble finding partners, but he often envied the ease with which Merab dealt with women – and with everybody for that matter.

Light and music spilled out between the two painted papyriform columns that flanked the open door as they walked up the steps of the portico.  In the vestibule a servant affixed to the tops of their wigs small cones of perfumed fat, which would slowly melt and spread their scent.  Accustomed to the stink of the gangs and the Bedouin, Ahmose found this custom a little pointless, but he knew that any resistance would be met by a quick lecture on etiquette from Merab.  It would do no good to point out that the perfume simply added another element to the rich blend of beer, roast meat and sweat that his nose was already catching.

Ahmose was impressed as they entered the hall.  From the exterior bulk of the house, he had expected it to be large, but this was a surprise.  The private apartments must have been disproportionately small.  He estimated the room to be larger than his entire house, perhaps as much as forty by twenty cubits, more like a hypostyle temple than a private house.  A double row of papyriform columns ran the length of the hall and supported the main roof, from which rose a clerestory lined with windows.  Looking up at the painted ceiling, he could not help thinking of the job the servants would face tomorrow when they had to clean off the soot deposited by the hundreds of oil lamps that illuminated the hall.

It was immediately apparent from the look and sound of the room that the party had been going on for some time.  Despite the constant attentions of the servants to their clothes and wigs, most of the guests had a disheveled air about them.  The room itself had a disheveled look, which seemed to resist the efforts of the servants running about cleaning up spilled drink and dropped food.  Clearly, many people had already left, unaccustomed to the late hour, and several were asleep or passed out, sitting up in chairs around the periphery of the hall.  In the center the three female dancers had long since left the slow and decorous patterns and were flinging themselves about in leaps and flips, the melody of the harps and reed pipes lost amid the frantic tempo of the tambourine and sistrum.  And barely perceptible as a drone behind the music and the slap of the dancers’ bare feet was the babble of dozens of conversations, a loud word or laugh occasionally breaching into clarity.

At the far end of the hall, seated on a slightly raised platform and an obvious focal point of attention, were a couple that Ahmose took to be the nomarch and his wife.  Merab was in fact already heading in that direction, exchanging words of greeting with almost everyone he passed as he cut through the tangle of guests.  Ahmose followed in his wake, a few of the greetings spilling over to him, as an adjunct to Merab rather than as an identifiable individual.  Some, including the few whose faces were even vaguely familiar, pointedly ignored him, something that came as no surprise to Ahmose, who was in any case not overly concerned about being snubbed by a bunch of perfumed airheads.

He rapped his knuckles on one of the columns as he passed it.  Not a veneer, but solid wood.  Very impressive.  Single pieces the size of these columns would have to be cedar, and he had a pretty good idea of what it cost to import cedar logs, even only as far as the delta.  The governor was a wealthy man, another hardly surprising fact.

The governor, Ahmose immediately discerned when they reached the other end of the hall, was also a comfortably drunk man.  In his never-ending battle to keep his workers sober, Ahmose had developed a sharp eye, and the Great Head of Harpoon Occidental was loaded.  The careful, steady movements and measured words were every bit as revealing as the slurred and overly loud speech of his more obviously inebriated wife.  Such control hinted at a lifetime of serious drinking, a hypothesis supported by the ravaged cheeks and nose that showed red even through the flush that covered his entire face.

Rekhmire’s head very deliberately swiveled in their direction, as Merab began intoning the expected litany of compliments.  Ahmose, who had now consumed two cups of wine on an empty belly, stared, fascinated, at the gaunt visage, a mummy with open eyes and rouged cheeks.  There was no flesh, only hollows, and the thin ibis neck seemed ready to snap under the weight of the huge, gold-decorated wig.  Was that why he moved so slowly and carefully?  One sudden, quick move and crack! his head is rolling among the legs of his guests?  Would they be expected, he wondered, to follow the usual etiquette?  Good evening, Governor.  There never was a Great Head like you.

With a start Ahmose realized that Merab had stopped talking and was glaring at him with an expression of exasperation.  Rekhmire, his head still tenuously attached to his body, was also staring at him, or at least through the place where he was standing.  It was his turn to praise the host and all he could think of was that mummy head perched precariously atop that insubstantial column…

“Your cedar columns are exquisite!” he blurted out.  Merab’s eyes rolled up towards the ceiling, but a faint smile broke through the death mask facing him.  Past the moment of confusion, Ahmose realized he had stumbled onto something that apparently excited – if that was not too strong a word – the old man; not many would notice the expensive columns.  He plunged forward with the customary exaggerations:  “Only a man of the most refined taste would undertake the effort and expense necessary to bring such beauty into his house.  Never in the Lebanon did these trees achieve the beauty they do here, rooted in this magnificent hall.  No king ever possessed better, though he had a grand palace and a hall a thousand times bigger.  They proclaim the achievement of Rekhmire and create a setting…”  His eye fell on the governor’s wife, engaged in a separate conversation and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “…a setting befitting the beauty of his consort.”

The life that had begun to appear in the mummy’s eyes with the praise of the columns immediately faded at the mention of his spouse.  The head began to rotate away, dismissing Ahmose and returning him to the category of nonentities.  But he had attracted the attention of Rekhmire’s wife, who had abandoned her giggling conversation with a drunken fat man and was now examining him with unconcealed interest.  Feeling suddenly like a slave on the block, Ahmose smiled at the pudgy middle-aged woman and wondered into what sort of difficult situation all this would now lead.

“We haven’t seen your face here before, surely,” she said, pronouncing the words carefully, but a bit too loudly.  She sat up straighter, and a young girl hovering behind her chair immediately came forward and attended to the mistress’s wig and garments, practiced hands quickly restoring acceptable order.

Before he could reply, Ahmose felt a grip on his arm and heard Merab’s voice.  “My Lady Baketamon, I present one of our most promising young construction overseers, Ahmose…son of Amram.”  The hesitation was just barely perceptible, as was the lifting of Baketamon’s eyebrows at the name Amram.

“Promising, indeed.  But your cup is empty, Ahmose.”  A servant materialized and poured wine into Ahmose’s goblet.  He hardly noticed, astounded by the open invitation in the woman’s voice and eyes.

“You must excuse us, Lady.  We’ve arrived late and haven’t yet had a chance to sample the delicacies, and I am anxious to introduce Ahmose to the bounty of your famous kitchen.”  He patted his belly and grinned.  “And you wouldn’t want your guests weak from hunger.”

Baketamon swayed slightly in her seat, but her eyes never left Ahmose.  “No, of course not.  I am delighted that we could meet, Ahmose.  We will talk later, after you have dined.”  She ran the tip of her tongue around lips reddened with ochre.  “And restored your strength.”

Speechless, Ahmose was practically knocked off his feet as Merab hauled him away from the governor and his consort.  They were a quarter of the way across the hall before he regained his composure.

“Can you believe that woman?!  Thoth!  A poor whore with an empty belly could hardly have been more blatant with her invitation.  Right in front of her husband.”

“She is a horny bitch, isn’t she?  But you got a good look at the nomarch.”  He dropped into one of the chairs that lined the walls and ordered a passing servant to bring a selection of whatever food remained.  “They call her Tamit – ‘she-cat’.  Normally she’s a bit more subtle about it, but normally she’s not so stewed.  Or perhaps she simply couldn’t control herself when face to face with the famous Lord Moses, celebrated across the eastern delta for his prowess.”

“I fail to see the humor in this.  Her husband, whatever his failings in that capacity, is still the governor, which makes him somewhat more dangerous than your average angry spouse.”

“Lighten up, Ahmose.  The world is hardly ever as serious as you believe.  Old Rekhmire knows perfectly well what his wife is about and is not likely to miss a drink because of it.  Anyway, she’s probably forgotten you already.  Just stay out of her way.  Unless of course you want a roll with her.  I expect she’s quite accomplished, if practice means anything.”

“No thanks.  I’m afraid my tastes run a little younger.”  He glanced back across the room at Baketamon, who was again in animated conversation with the fat man.  Her laugh carried across the room easily.

Ahmose took a seat beside Merab.  “And what’s with this ‘famous Lord Moses’ stuff?  Your exaggerations of my abilities apart, I don’t have the time for even half the, ah, activity you imagine.”

“That’s because you work too hard for your own good.  And in any case, my kitchen girl has never been the same since you last stayed with me.”

The servant returned with a tray, which he set on a stool between the two men.  Merab was already popping things into his mouth while Ahmose was still considering the selection.

“Why haven’t you married?” he said through a mouthful of beef.  “Some nice cutie to warm your bed on a regular basis and get to work on those little Ahmoses.  A wife could protect you from this sort of thing” – he waved a hard-boiled egg in the direction of Baketamon – “if it disturbs you so much.”

“Come on, Merab.  How can I possibly find…”

“Don’t give me that old whine, Ahmose.  We’re not talking about a daughter of Pharaoh.  Your rising status is enough to allow you to find a wife from a decent, if not spectacular, family.  A good Egyptian wife would be an added guarantee against that background that worries you so much.”

“You know I need to preserve flexibility.  The Bedouin chiefs…”

“Screw the Bedouin chiefs!  They’re not going to hold back workers just because the Lord Moses is no longer available as a husband for one of their unwashed little girls.”  He jabbed at Ahmose with a section of grilled duck wing.  “Pack a tomb with that crap.  You just don’t want a wife cramping your style, which is to say you don’t want an Egyptian wife.  One of those obliging desert flowers, never talking back, happy to do all the work, a bride like that would be fine, wouldn’t she?  But an Egyptian woman?  An equal partner in life?  Hardly.  Be honest with yourself, Ahmose.  You can’t completely escape being your mother’s son.”

Ahmose felt his temper climbing, his control undermined by drink.  “Now look, Merab.  I don’t pry into your personal affairs, and since your wife died I have…”

“Slow down, my friend.  You know I personally couldn’t care if you married a donkey, be it Habiru or Egyptian.  I am only suggesting that an Egyptian wife, especially one with a brain in her head, could be a valuable asset, certainly for someone trying his damnedest to be perfectly Egyptian.”

He rinsed his fingers in a silver bowl of scented water, glanced about for a towel and then wiped them on his robe.  Nodding a greeting to a passing couple, he leaned closer and gripped Ahmose’s shoulder.

“You have to do what suits you, Ahmose.  But you can’t lie to yourself.  Get into the habit of doing that and you’ll end up like these fools.  You know that’s true, and what’s more important, so do I.  And working for a governor who is in a permanent stupor, I can’t afford to see my most efficient construction manager turn into yet another zero official.”

He stood up, brushing crumbs and bits of food from his gown.  “Had enough to eat?  I see the one person here that you absolutely must meet.”

Ahmose figured that Merab had consumed more than three quarters of the food on the tray, but that was nothing new.  In any case the edge was gone from his hunger and he felt nowhere near as light-headed as earlier.  He stood and looked in the direction of Merab’s gaze.

Near the entrance to the hall was a knot of about a dozen people, and even from a distance Ahmose could easily see that one of them was Important.  The man was shorter than average and obscured by those surrounding him, but a glimpse of leopard skin immediately identified him as a priest, one of some prominence, judging from the attention being paid him by the others.

“Amenemhat, Third Divine Servant of the Great Temple of Amon at Thebes,” proclaimed Merab with a mock solemnity that sailed right past a suddenly awestruck Ahmose.  Noting the expression on his friend’s face, he moved around into his line of sight and momentarily went up on his toes so that Ahmose was staring directly at him.

“Yes, third in the high priesthood of Amon-Re and thus a most powerful man.  But try to stay calm, will you, Ahmose?  He squats to shit just like the rest of us.  Try not to come off like some hick farmer come to Thebes for the first time, mouth agape and begging to be fleeced.  I made sure that he already knows about you, but the impression is certainly going to be spoiled if you’re drooling all over his sandals.”

He waved his empty goblet in the air, and a girl came by to fill it.  He leaned closer to Ahmose, who looked around him towards the priest.

“The guy is impressed with people who get things done, something of an oddity among high officials, I would think.  On the other hand, he’s still a high priest and sees himself as far better than most mortals, especially those who are not Egyptian.  So, step lightly, Ahmose.”

“I’m not a child, who needs to be instructed in how to act before the guests.”

Smiling broadly, Merab clapped him on the back.  “Believe me, my impatient friend, in some areas you are.  Come.  We don’t want to miss him.”

He started moving off, then stopped suddenly and turned to Ahmose.  “And for Imhotep’s sake don’t mention your vision by the canal.  The temple does not take kindly to unofficial communications with the gods.  In fact, avoid mentioning anything but your work.”

Ahmose followed along, making no further protest.  He did not agree completely with Merab, but he had learned it was better to defer to him in such matters.  As they crossed the hall, he attempted surreptitiously to scratch his head under the wig and was rewarded with fingers covered with sweet-smelling wax.

Partially surrounded by a semi-circle of guests, Amenemhat was listening, expression completely blank, to a man wearing too many gold bracelets ramble on about his family connections.  Behind and towering over him stood two burly lesser priests, impassively eyeing the crowd, their purpose obvious.

To Ahmose the bodyguards seemed superfluous.  The high priest was a small man and well past his prime, but the authority of the god flowed from him.  There was a self-assurance, a power born of commands never questioned, utterly absent from the pickled corpse at the other end of the hall.  In place of the usual elaborate gown and jewelry he wore a simple long skirt of pleated linen, his upper body bare except for the leopard skin draped about his shoulders.  To Ahmose’s envy he wore no wig or scented cone, and though he was an administrator and not a “pure one,” his head and face were nevertheless completely hairless.  His only adornment was a small neck pendant of gold depicting two crowned Horus-hawks flanking a royal cartouche, which even from a distance Ahmose immediately recognized as that of Ramses.  Such could only have been a gift from the king himself.  This was clearly a priest unlike most Ahmose had encountered.

Noticing their approach, Amenemhat coolly dismissed the talker at a pause in his monologue and turned his attention to Merab.

“Ah, the Scribe of the Great Head.  You are well this evening?  Our host has provided a splendid entertainment, has he not?”  The words were almost without inflection, betraying no interest in the questions they framed.

As if silently commanded, the throng parted to allow the pair access, and heads turned to see who was so favored.  Merab stepped forward and bowed his head slightly.

“The evening is honored by your presence, Divine Servant.”  Ahmose was surprised by the sincerity in his friend’s voice.  His estimation of Amenemhat climbed higher.

The priest’s gaze switched to Ahmose.  “And this is our capable young builder.  We have heard in Thebes of your accomplishments and the efficiency of your gangs.”

Ahmose’s heart soared, even though he suspected that it was because of Merab, rather than reputation that he was known to the high priest.  He struggled for an appropriate reply.

“Ahmose works far better with men and bricks than words, sir,” interjected Merab.

Ahmose thought this was something of an insult to a disciple of Thoth and certainly did not care for the grins that appeared on several of the nearby faces.  But he recognized Merab’s ability in the mysterious terrain of social intercourse and put on his own smile.

“What is your secret, Overseer?  How is it that you command the best labor gangs in the Two Lands?  Have you found some magic with which to bewitch the peasants?”  A couple of people, including Merab, chuckled.

“No, sir, there is no magic,” answered Ahmose, finding it odd the priest should ask such a question.  “Just good sense and fairness.”

“And a strong touch of the lash, eh?”

“Within reason, sir.  Punishment alone is inefficient.  Fear is needed to maintain discipline, but hope of reward and good treatment are far stronger inducements for men to work.  The more stripes you see on the backs of a gang, the less efficient that gang must be.”

Amenemhat looked at him sharply.  His eyes seemed to Ahmose small and hard, despite the outlining makeup of malachite kohl.

“Perhaps.  Perhaps this is the case with Egyptians, even with the dregs found in these parts.  But aren’t most of your workers sand ramblers?  Surely kindness will not work with bandits and murderers?  And how can they be taught anything but the simplest tasks?  They are hardly more intelligent than the animals they smell like.”

He looked thoughtful for a moment and smiled slightly.  “I remember the story of the Habiru chief when he saw the great pyramid of Khufu for the first time.  When asked his impression, he replied that it was useless, since no man could have enough women and donkeys to pack such a tent.”

The throng around the priest broke into laughter, most of it genuine.  Ahmose added his own forced laugh, though he could not really see the humor.  No Bedouin would ever mistake the great tombs for their houses of hair.

“They are not all criminals, sir,” Ahmose replied when the laughter had faded.  “And it hardly takes much intelligence to make bricks or drag blocks of stone.”

“Perhaps, Overseer, you have some advantage in dealing with these vermin, something our other overseers lack?”  The hard eyes were riveted on him.

Ahmose was starting to get annoyed.  The slurs on the Habiru hardly concerned him, though he wondered that Amenemhat should repeat such commonplace and ignorant exaggerations.  But why was the high priest badgering him, questioning his methods and his workers?  Who cared, so long as he got the job done, and Ahmose by the man’s own admission got the job done.  People were a mystery sometimes.  Drawing on his experience with haughty Bedouin chiefs, he shoved the annoyance into a mental corner.

“My knowledge of the Habiru tongue and ways is an obvious asset, but I believe, sir, that my success is due to fair treatment of the workers, rather than any personal connection.  My Egyptians after all work just as hard, and for them my Bedouin associations could only be a liability, a source of resentment.”  As they apparently are for you.

“Well, the Egyptians you can recruit in these parts are little better than the Habiru,” Amenemhat replied with a laugh.  “But I suppose I must recognize and praise your methods, Overseer Ahmose.  From the worst refuse you create the most efficient workers.  What could you achieve, I wonder, with the proper material, with a purely Egyptian labor force?”

Ahmose’s heart quickened.  Annoyance vanished, replaced with visions of Thebes and temples of granite and limestone.

“Much more of course, my lord.  The Egyptian is naturally a better worker than the desert dweller, who is not accustomed to regular and sustained labor.”

“That is certainly an understatement!”  Heads bobbed in agreement.  “You have an interesting way of putting it, Overseer: ‘not accustomed to regular and sustained labor.’  Few are so charitable in their views of these criminals.  But I suppose you must work with what you have and make the best of a bad situation.”

Ahmose was finding it difficult to let the subject go, despite the warning signs he recognized in Merab’s growing restlessness.  The Habiru were unquestionably contemptible, but the high priest was grossly wrong in his assessment of these people, which bothered Ahmose.  It served Pharaoh ill for an official as important as Amenemhat to express such ignorance or even worse, act upon it.  And in any case, it was an outrage to ma’at.  He ignored Merab’s signals.

“The situation isn’t all that bad.  Things would be easier if I had an Egyptian work force, but the Bedouin can be acceptable workers if they are handled properly.  The efficiency of my gangs should be a demonstration of this.  It is the habits of the desert that make them an offense to civilization and to ma’at.  Remove those habits and they become manageable.  Treat them as criminals and they will continue to act as criminals.  Deal with them firmly, but fairly, as you would with children, and they will respond.  Besides, such is demanded by ma’at.”

Amenemhat’s painted-on eyebrows lifted.  “And what has ma’at to do with the sand ramblers?”

“Amon has breathed life into even these wretched people, and we are all subject to the balances of ma’at,” answered Ahmose, surprised that the priest should ask something so obvious.

“The Overseer is also an expert in theology,” said Amenemhat without a trace of humor.  “But are these not reminiscent of the mistaken ideas of the Heretic King?  In truth the Hidden One watches over the Beloved Land, and Pharaoh is the instrument of ma’at.  The desert dwellers have their own miserable gods to attend to their miserable lives.”

The knot of listeners froze at the reference to Akhenaton, and all eyes were fixed on Ahmose, who was stunned by the priest’s reply.  Noises of the party washed over the group.

Merab jumped into the silence, throwing an arm about Ahmose’s shoulders and flashing a big smile.  “My young friend is a very religious man, Divine Servant, but he sometimes lets his enthusiasm get the better of him.  What he knows is building, and you should not take his religious comments too seriously.”

“He should perhaps find instruction in the temple,” said Amenemhat.  His voice was still cold, but the tone had changed and the clear threat of his earlier words was gone.

Ahmose was seething.  That this asshole should suggest that he seek instruction from temple flunkies who droned out litanies they hardly understood!  How many true epiphanies had been granted to this pompous idiot?  Did this character even know how to read?  Ahmose was ready to quote text after ancient text about the nature of the Hidden One to this fathead.  Any fool who troubled to study the old records would know that many of the universalist ideas of Atonism could be found buried in the traditional wisdom surrounding Amon-Re.

But he swallowed the arguments and his anger, mentally repeating a prayer to Thoth in order to calm himself.  He hardly needed the obvious warning of Merab’s interruption to remind him that for all his apparent stupidity in certain areas Amenemhat was a person of great importance and influence, especially where a young and ambitious construction manager was concerned.  He was willing to let the matter slide, as much to show Merab that he did understand these things as to protect his career.

“…almost within schedule and budget, and you of course know what a triumph that is,” continued Merab, smoothly guiding the conversation away from theological pitfalls.

“Yes, I do,” answered the priest.  He looked at Ahmose, the brief altercation forgotten or at least filed away.  “Yes, very impressive, particularly in view of the disadvantages associated with the site.  I salute your skill, Overseer.”

Ahmose bowed slightly, earlier annoyance rapidly retreating before the praise.  “Thank you, Divine Servant.  I only do my duty as a loyal Egyptian and a servant of Pharaoh and ma’at.  But in all candor I must tell you that the work could be proceeding at a much faster pace and we could be well ahead of schedule by now.  But the project is constantly delayed by minor officials who don’t seem to have any purpose beyond constantly demanding reports and tying up the delivery of my materials.  Much of my time – and Pharaoh’s time – is wasted dealing with these papyrus eaters.”

Amenemhat smiled and spread his hands.  “The way of the world, Overseer, the way of the world.  Men such as you have complained about men such as those since the days of Menes, when the Horus first descended to insure that ma’at ruled the Two Lands.  The divine Imhotep was no doubt frustrated by the same delays.  I myself am not free of the scourge, and the temples of the Hidden One are ridden with this pest.”

“But surely Pharaoh…”

“They are as much a part of things as the god-king,” interrupted the priest, “and we can only accept them as such.  You must learn not to waste your strength struggling against the irresistible, Overseer.  As Amon-Re created the universe, so it is now and so it will ever be.  You, who are so mindful of ma’at, know this.”

Ahmose found it difficult to think of petty officials in the same terms as the river or the desert, but the Divine Servant was clearly a man whose opinions were not to be challenged lightly.  In any case he had a more pressing problem than the inefficiencies of officialdom, one that this chance meeting with the high priest might well solve.

“I would not think to dispute your wisdom, my lord, though it is maddening that we can tame Nubia and break great hosts in Syria, but we can not stay an army of fat little men armed only with the stylus.”

Amenemhat laughed.  “An amusing image.  Unfortunately no army of men carrying spear and sword can be gathered without the stylus-armed first assaulting their own fortresses of papyrus.”

“Nor can a temple-granary be built, I can assure you.”  Ahmose’s tone became completely serious.  “Divine Servant, I must take this opportunity to request a favor from you, not for my benefit of course, but in aid of my work for Pharaoh.”

The priest nodded slightly, and Merab suddenly looked nervous.  Ahmose forged ahead.

“Naturally, I’m used to the ordinary delays, but I seem to be getting an unusual amount of obstruction from the temple of Re-Atum at Heliopolis.  The office of the Overseer of Granaries of course has ultimate direction of the project, but much of the immediate control is in the hands of Heliopolis.  Perhaps, if you have the time and opportunity, sir, you could look into this problem?”

“Of course, Overseer.  It is my responsibility as a servant of Pharaoh.”  His smile broadened.  “Besides, it’s a pleasure to find someone seeking my influence on behalf of the Beloved Land rather than himself.  I will certainly do what I can.”

“I am most grateful, my lord.  The situation seems to be more serious than the usual bureaucratic tangles.  I’m losing significant amounts of materials.  Shipments are regularly short, and occasionally entire deliveries turn up missing.  Pi-Ramessu tells me to complain to the contractors and to Heliopolis.  Of course, the contractors claim the shipments are intact when dispatched by them, and the temple does nothing but respond with outrage and indignation that I should even suggest the problem is at their end.”

“Well they might,” said Amenemhat, the smile gone again.  “The problem obviously lies with your labor force: Habiru is synonymous with thievery.  Everyone knows that.”

Once again Ahmose was surprised by the high priest’s sudden change in attitude.  How could someone intelligent and competent enough to warrant Merab’s praise accept such a simplistic explanation?

“Of course the Habiru are inveterate thieves, but this is not the normal pilferage.  What use do the Bedouin have for heavy building materials?  In any case I have watchmen posted at the site, and most of the losses are in transit.  No, I suspect there are temple agents who are enriching themselves at Pharaoh’s expense.  I don’t know about the suppliers, but there is certainly evidence pointing towards the Heliopolis priesthood.  I was about to send a request to the Overseer of Granaries for an official investigation, but you know as well as I how slowly they will move in Pi-Ramessu.  Perhaps with your help we…”

“Impossible,” snapped Amenemhat, anger leaking through the reserve.  “Has your good sense deserted you, Overseer?  Of course there are corrupt priests, just as there are corrupt officials at Pharaoh’s court and corrupt overseers at Pharaoh’s building sites.  But to suggest such a criminal conspiracy in the temple of Re-Atum would be an outrage even if the real culprits were not as obvious as the nose on a Habiru face.”

He settled his leopard skin badge of office more securely about his shoulders and continued, the control reestablished.

“You’re a clever young man, Ahmose son of Amram, and you have the potential for great things in the Two Lands.  Don’t ruin that potential by being too clever for your own good.  Punish the Habiru responsible for the thefts and get on with your excellent work.”

He turned to Merab, who had remained unnaturally silent during this last exchange.  The smile reemerged.

“It was a pleasure to see you again, Merab.  I will be in Pi-Ramessu for a month before returning south.  I hope that your business will take you there so that we might dine together and converse in circumstances somewhat less distracting than these.  Meanwhile, keep an eye on your young friend here.  His talent and dedication are refreshing, but he obviously has much to learn.”

“Of course.  That is plain,” agreed Merab.  “But don’t judge him too harshly, Divine Servant.  It is only his zeal to serve Pharaoh that…stirs his imagination and leads him astray.  I have no doubt that in time he will make his mark upon the Two Lands.  And I will of course look forward to our meeting in Pi-Ramessu.  Ahmose and I are grateful for your time and wish you a comfortable journey.”

Amenemhat looked once more at Ahmose, who was too confused to think of anything more profound to say than “A safe journey, Divine Servant,” and swept out of the hall, his bulky escorts clearing a path through the cluster of departing guests at the door.  With the priest gone Ahmose and Merab were quickly left alone, the others in the group seemingly swirled away in the turbulence created by the departure of the Important Person.

“Were I granted the wisdom of Ptahhotep,” said Merab, turning to Ahmose, “I would still fail to understand how you managed to achieve even the position of labor overseer.  Your talent for managing workers is matched, no, surpassed by your talent for offending people, especially those most important to you.  I guess you know how to deal with the Bedouin chiefs, since you haven’t yet turned up with a new smile cut below your chin.  But really, Ahmose, arguing religion with a high priest and then accusing a major temple of corruption!”

“Now, hold it, Merab.  I didn’t begin any argument.  You know damn well that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to divinity.  So you also know what an insult I swallowed from that little jerk.”

Merab held up his hands.  “All right, all right.  I grant you that, but you see my point.  These characters are very touchy about their turf, and people as powerful as Amenemhat can enjoy the luxury of being wrong.  You can’t.  Anyway, that’s unimportant.  What is utterly unbelievable is that you can calmly ask the Third Divine Servant of Amon-Re to investigate a criminal conspiracy in the temple of Re-Atum.  Min’s holy prick, how did you expect he’d react to a charge of corruption in his own house?  Especially one coming from an unknown labor overseer of dubious ancestry?”

“But Heliopolis isn’t ‘his house,’ as you put it,” retorted Ahmose, bewildered and increasingly bothered that Merab should be chiding him.  “And in any case didn’t you describe him as someone who wanted things to get done?  An oddity among high officials, I think you said.  How does that square with his refusal to deal with the truth?  Or his
rather selective approach to ma’at and Pharaoh’s concerns?  Despite what you say, Amenemhat impresses me as having qualities that are sadly common rather than rare among high officials.”

With an exaggerated sigh Merab took Ahmose by the arm.  “Enough.  Let’s talk about this later.  Right now, this old man is tired, thirsty and interested in capping his evening with something more diverting than an argument over the virtues of the Third Divine Servant of Amon.  In a couple of days I’ll come by the site, and you can show me what you’ve got.  Don’t do anything before then.  Don’t even talk about this to anyone.  Do you understand?”

Ahmose did not completely understand, but he knew the subject was temporarily closed.  He nodded.

“Good.”  Merab looked once around the nearly empty hall and began towing Ahmose towards the entrance.  “Now, let’s find that delicious morsel we encountered in the garden earlier.  I expect she has a friend.”

At the door he suddenly pulled Ahmose to a momentary halt.  “By the way, let’s watch those comments about ‘fat little men,’ shall we?”



Hear, O Israel: II





Therefore they did set over them taskmasters

to afflict them with their burdens.

 Exodus 1:11


Certainly it was a fine day.  How could it be otherwise?  This was the third to last day of the third month of akhit, the moment when Horus and Seth had ceased their cosmic battle and peace had descended upon the world, forever marking this as a day of good fortune.  And for one named Ahmose, “The-Moon-Is-Born,” it was doubly so this particular year, for that evening a new moon would indeed be born.  Following the pattern set at Creation, Thoth, vizier to Re, would reopen the silver eye, affirming once more and in yet another way the order of things and the presence of ma’at in the land.  The heavenly scribe would again be manifest in the night sky, an auspicious sign for Ahmose and all those who shared the secret of writing and honored Thoth above other gods.

The day had already begun well enough for Ahmose, despite the persistent problem with the priesthood at Heliopolis and despite a bone-deep fatigue brought on by too much work and too little rest.  Just before he left Tjou that morning, a messenger arrived from Pi-Ramessu with letters from the crowd of royal officials involved in the construction of the temple-granary.  Such correspondence was of course not normally associated with divine favor, since there were at least seven Overseers of Works with a hand in this project, and so far as Ahmose knew, not one had ever actually overseen any work.  Instead they were content to remain in the glittering capital, a hardly surprising preference, and subject the local director to a steady papyrus-borne onslaught of complaints.  Which was in fact fine with the local director, who was consequently left to manage the labor force and basic construction free of the interfering buzz of some overly perfumed fly from the fringes of the court.  Ahmose knew that shirkers were to be found wherever there was work to be done, but he could never really fathom why Pharaoh tolerated such dead weight in his own House.

But was Pharaoh not the instrument of ma’at and was Ahmose not favored by Thoth?  Hidden among the usual complaints and demands delivered this morning was a letter from no less a figure than the Overseer of the Granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt, who praised Ahmose for his handling of the project, especially the labor force.  Pharaoh was pleased with the progress of the construction, the letter said.

Pharaoh was pleased!  When he read those lines, Ahmose had allowed himself a wordless exclamation of joy, startling his assistants not so much with the unexpected noise as with the break in their boss’s reserve.  Ahmose was not normally given to spontaneous displays of exuberance, which he associated with a lack of self-control, but this was an occasion.  After the better part of a year on this project his work was finally being noticed by the mighty in Pi-Ramessu, by the god-king himself.

Ahmose had trudged this road to Pi-Sopdu a hundred times before, searching among the scattered encampments for the latest Habiru chieftain who had not met his quota of laborers.  Never before had it seemed anything more than it was: a dusty path following the Ithi canal through one of the poorest districts in the delta.  But today it seemed he walked a grand way leading directly to Pi-Ramessu and Memphis and distant Thebes.  Today he was on a highway that would carry him away from obscurity and unruly foreigners.

Yes, it was a fine day indeed.  A close observer might even have detected the faintest smile about the tired eyes of Ahmose son of Amram.

Pausing in the shade of a group of palms, he took a pull from the flask of wine he carried slung from his shoulder and ran a hand over his closely cropped hair.  He was seriously tired, no question about that.  The boost of energy he had received from the morning’s good news could no longer compensate for two nights of very little sleep.  Gurgling noises from his belly reminded him that he had also not eaten enough during the last three days of almost non-stop work.  From experience he knew the lack of hunger was deceptive and was actually a warning, along with the touch of light-headedness he was feeling.  He rubbed his eyes and resolved to head directly home after finishing business with the Habiru Jahleel.  He ought to have done so this morning, but as usual there was no one else who could do the job.  If he was true to the pattern, Jahleel would pay absolutely no attention to any Habiru messenger, and Ahmose knew from painful experience that an Egyptian emissary, even if he were able to find Jahleel’s camp, could be counted on to make matters worse by delivering some unforgivable insult.  No, if he did not attend to these problems immediately and personally, he would cease to have the most efficient conscript labor battalions in the delta.

He yawned and stretched his arms wide.  Even through the barely stirring fronds the midday sun continued to assert itself, dappling him with a shifting pattern of light and dark.  He was scarcely conscious of the heat, a fact of life in the Two Lands, but he was acutely aware of the white linen robe that was already sticking to his body in places.  Any sensible person, like that fisherman in the reed boat in the canal immediately south of the road, would be wearing only a loincloth.  But most Habiru were strangely uncomfortable about exposing their bodies, and Ahmose, who preferred persuasion to the force he might command, tried to avoid needless offense when dealing with the Bedouin chiefs.

For that same reason the only amulet he carried – a small jade figure of the ibis-headed Thoth – was hidden away in his belt pouch.  These desert types could be touchy, even fanatic, about their family gods, something Ahmose knew well enough from his own mother.  His family background was an advantage in dealing with the Habiru, but because of it they expected more from him and he had to be careful.

Those family roots were only lightly sketched in Ahmose’s features.  His complexion was no darker than that of the average Egyptian, and his nose, though prominent, was not the dominating beak that Egyptians assumed to be the birthright of every Canaanite.  His mouth was large and set in a straight jaw, and the forehead was high and at twenty-eight years already etched with lines.  His face gave the impression of severity and sharp angles and hinted at origins outside Egypt, despite the absence of the facial hair almost universal among the west Semites.  And confusing the whole picture were his eyes.  They were set wide apart and they were gray, something most rare and compelling.  Or so at least Ahmose had concluded from the number of women apparently attracted by his otherwise harsh features.

He turned those eyes, bloodshot at the moment, to survey the canal.  With the flood at its peak the waterway could be navigated by the ocean-going kebenit, and Ahmose could see one of the Byblos craft working its way west, broad rectangular sail furled and crew straining at oars.  These sturdy ships, whose elegant rounded contours and high forward-curving sterns recalled the simple papyrus boats from which they had evolved, regularly carried goods from the Syrian ports to cities in the delta.  During the Season of Inundation they could then load Egyptian wares and follow the Canal of the Two Seas east past Tjeku to the Lake of Crocodiles and then south through the Bitter Lakes to the southern Great Green and the long journey to Punt.

An expedition to the Terraces of Incense, thought Ahmose, absentmindedly returning a wave from the helmsman up in the stern.  Now, that would be a proper project to direct.  Staring at the ship, shimmering and insubstantial through the heat, he felt himself begin to drift along with it.  The rhythmic plopping of the oars pushed the other sounds of the day out of his consciousness and dimpled the canal’s smooth surface, smearing the reflected images and unfocusing his mind.  He imagined himself in a spacious office in Pi-Ramessu, organizing the resources of grand expeditions to exotic Punt and other distant lands.  Ahmose, Chief Overseer of the King’s Ships, awing the court with strange and wondrous wares brought back by his fleets.  Ahmose, Chief  Overseer of All the King’s Works, conferring with Pharaoh about his latest…

Ahmose suddenly stiffened.  The kebenit was no longer there!  In its place, but floating just above the water’s surface was the solar bark, shining so brightly that he almost turned his eyes away from the miraculous sight.  The vessel, which appeared to be fashioned of gold, was sleeker than the disappeared kebenit and carried neither mast nor oarsmen.  On board were four figures, whose features Ahmose could make out in perfect clarity, despite the blinding glow that obscured the canal and surrounding landscape.  Seated on a high throne towards the center of the boat was the hawk-headed Re-Harakhty, the blazing sun-disk carried on his head, the sacred crook and flail in his crossed arms.  Waiting in attendance behind him were Thoth and Horus, while in the prow stood Seth, holding aloft the spear with which he slew every dawn the serpent of darkness, Apophis.  Not a sound or movement came from the cosmic bark as it glided smoothly along, gradually rising higher and higher above the surface of the canal.

Eyes squinted against the growing brilliance, Ahmose watched the spectacle in ecstatic silence, the beautiful and terrible vision gripping his senses and blocking out the world.  The boat was increasingly obscured by its own blazing glory, but the faces of the gods remained perfectly distinct, commanding islands of clarity in the golden haze.  So immediately and irresistibly did those divine countenances seize Ahmose’s attention and reveal their every detail that he momentarily felt he had been pulled physically across the canal to a face to face confrontation with divinity.

Time froze as he looked upon perfection that ought to crush him and make him feel hopelessly disabled, an ugly blemish upon the exquisite universe inhabited by beings such as these.  But Ahmose knew that he, like every living creature, shared the same cosmic fabric as the gods.  He understood that all life, from the gnat to the Pharaoh, was of a common essence and subject to the same harmonious regulations of ma’at.  For all his mortal imperfection he was one with these perfect powers who determined the land’s destinies, and without reservation his humble spirit, his ka, drank in the beauty of it all.  He would have been content to do so for all eternity, when suddenly Thoth turned his head to face him.  The long, curving beak dipped slightly, as the god seemed to acknowledge his presence, and the ibis head then shifted back into profile.  The golden vessel began to accelerate, shrinking rapidly, but glowing ever more brightly, as it hurried upwards towards the zenith.

Helpless to do otherwise, Ahmose followed its ascent until his eyes could no longer tolerate the intense light and he was compelled, much against his desire, to turn away.  With that the spell was broken, and the normal sounds of a delta afternoon returned to his ears.  But the blinding glow remained, and Ahmose rubbed his eyes furiously, pressing the heels of his palms into the sockets.  When he opened them again, a bright circle of light, like Re’s sun-disk, floated in the center of his vision.  He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, but the disc remained.  He began to fear that he had been blinded for daring to look upon gods, but reopening his eyes, he could see the details of his surroundings emerging into clarity as the disc gradually faded.

The kebenit was already well past him, and he could see figures going about their business on the far side of the canal.  The vision had apparently been his alone.  He felt cold, despite the heat of the day, and realized that his body was covered with a film of rapidly evaporating sweat.  His heart was racing, and with a distant amusement he noticed also that he now sported an erection that would do the god Min proud.

A brief shudder swept him as he considered the awful magnitude of what had just taken place, but his dominant emotion was elation.  Signs and omens were of course an everyday occurrence, and even direct contact from the gods was barely cause for comment.  Mostly they communicated through dreams, but everyone had heard the voice in the temple or caught the fleeting vision in the desert.  Could it be any other way?  Men and gods were all part of the same universe, a fact so obvious that even a Habiru could not fail to grasp it.

Such was certainly Ahmose’s experience for as long as he could remember; not a month ago in fact Thoth had spoken to him in his temple at Bah in the northern delta.  But that was the commonplace, as different from this vision as a peasant’s mud hut was from the royal palace at Pi-Ramessu.  Never had the gods revealed themselves to Ahmose so completely and dramatically outside the dream world.  This was no bare glimpse of godhood, hurried and uncertain, but a true epiphany, as was granted to few outside the highest ranks of the priesthoods.  That such had come to Ahmose, that the humble servant of Pharaoh should be privileged to look upon the solar bark, was an irrefutable confirmation of divine favor.  The fat nobility, for all their costly offerings and bribes to the temple, could not buy celestial attention of this sort.

Something important was about to happen in his life, that much was clear to Ahmose.  Thoth had uttered no word, had granted him no sign other than the nod, but coming on the heels of the letter of commendation, the extraordinary vision could mean only one thing: he would soon depart this vile place!  Yes, that must be it.  Anyone could see that clever Ahmose, skilled organizer that he was, was destined for things greater than the construction of granaries.  And now mighty Thoth, patron and benefactor of the clever, had given undeniable confirmation of that fact.

Ahmose turned to the west and lifted his arms, palms facing forward.  Extraordinary tears of happiness squeezed out of his eyes, as he squinted towards the sun.  His voice was hoarse, and the words cracked with emotion.

“Come to me, Thoth, thou lordly ibis, thou god for whom yearneth Bah.  Letter-writer of the Nine Gods, great one in Unu.

“Come to me, that thou mayest lead me, that thou mayest make me cunning in thy calling.  Fairer is thy calling than all callings, it maketh men great.

“Come to me and care for me.  I am a servant of thine house.  Let me tell of thy mighty works in whatsoever land I be.

“So will the multitude of men say: Great things are they that Thoth hath done.  So will they come with their children in order to brand them for thine office.

“A goodly calling, O strong deliverer, and happy is he that followeth it.”

His arms were visibly shaking by the end of the hymn, and he let them drop.  The elation of the whole experience was still with him, but its energizing effect had passed and his exhausted body slumped.  His ka was ready to sail heavenward, to wheel and dance like a gull in the wake of the sun boat, but his body was a great stone, pinning him to the earth and dragging his reluctant mind back to the more immediate reality of the delta.

He was suddenly pulled back into full awareness by the sound of wheezing behind him.  Annoyed by this mundane intrusion, he turned to confront a small knot of spectators, who were already losing interest and returning to their peasant routines.  The wheezing emanated from a withered Habiru in filthy rags, who thrust a claw at him.

“Family hungry, Sire.  You give alms?”  The creature’s barely comprehensible Egyptian was further obscured by the fit of coughing that erupted as soon as it began to speak.

Lingering images of divine perfection fled from the disgusting sight.  Ahmose was about to walk away from the wretch, but suddenly caught himself and instead fished a qite of copper from his pouch and displayed it over the outstretched hand.

“Bring me to the tent of Jahleel son of Abinoam, chief of the tribe of Simeon,” he commanded in the Canaanite dialect of the Habiru.

The beggar’s rheumy eyes narrowed.  An Egyptian who not only spoke his own language, but did so flawlessly, was new to his experience.  He was certainly a strange one, staring wide-eyed and rigid at the sun.  But a lot of smooth-heads were strange, and the copper would buy him a little food and a lot of drink.  In any case this Egyptian, stupid as he might be, seemed a dangerous candidate for the knife he grasped under his robe in his other hand.  He was taller than average and lean and well-muscled, unlike most wealthy toads in this fat land, and next to that tempting purse rode an expensive-looking dagger.  Anyway, this road was too public.  Perhaps an opportunity would present itself.

“Yes, Sire,” he hissed and grabbed for the copper, which immediately disappeared inside Ahmose’s clenched fist.

“The tent of Jahleel son of Abinoam.”

The beggar turned away, muttering and coughing, and moved off at a pace at odds with his general appearance of ill health.  Ahmose followed at a distance sufficient to escape the worst of his guide’s odor and the occasional spray of spittle coughed into the air.  He was almost asleep on his feet and hardly inclined after the vision to deal with sordid matters like missing Habiru laborers, but he was determined to finish the business today.  The theophany was filed away in the back of his mind, to be savored later.  Meanwhile, a section of sweet melon, bought from a roadside peddler, perked him up a bit.

After perhaps a quarter hour the beggar turned north off the main road and led Ahmose into a maze of small cultivated plots, irrigation ditches and stands of palms, acacias and sycamores sheltering mud and reed huts.  The local farmers, mostly poor Egyptians, looked up from their barley and beans to stare at this odd pair threading their way along the small paths and dikes.  A few recognized the construction director from Tjou, but most wondered what business a well-dressed Egyptian could have here, especially in the company of the criminal element.

The cool green of the trees and densely cultivated area quickly gave way to an open expanse of grass, salt marsh and sand, which extended north for perhaps a kilometer before disappearing into the Red Land.  This was the northern fringe of the great wadi that stretched east from Pi-Sopdu, a fifty kilometer tentacle of green flung out across the desert from the delta to the eastern lakes.

The isolated garden plots Ahmose was now passing were more poorly tended and less productive than those near the canal.  The land here was mean and unrewarding, at least by Egyptian standards, and the desert herdsman was at best an indifferent farmer.  He was quick to plant any small bit of arable land in order to supplement the produce of his flocks, but in Ahmose’s opinion he was too lazy and too contemptuous of the farmer to do a good job of it.  The real care and wealth of the Habiru were the sheep and goats that were scattered everywhere, tended by women and children.  There were few men to be seen.  Most were away, part of Ahmose’s labor force at Tjou, and the rest, he knew, would be found in the black tents that dotted the landscape.

They were now headed directly toward a cluster of those tents.  One was considerably larger and marginally less threadbare than the others, and before it stood a crude stone altar, black with old blood.  Ahmose guessed this to be the tent of Jahleel, and as if to confirm his thoughts, his guide suddenly halted and pointed.  Ahmose nodded and flipped him the copper, which was snatched from the air and sequestered inside the rags in a blur of movement.

While the beggar hung about, clearly consumed with curiosity about this strange Egyptian, Ahmose slowly approached the tent.  It was of inevitable Habiru design.  A large rectangle of worsted wool and goat hair, dark with age and dirt, was supported by staves and pinned to the earth by staked cords running off the corners and long sides.  From this roof were hung the tent-curtains that formed the exterior walls and the interior partition that separated the household side from the men’s guest area.  The latter half was normally left completely open on one or two sides that those within might take advantage of any breeze.

The tent of Jahleel was open on the north, and walking around to that side, Ahmose could discern several figures sitting in the dim interior.  He stopped about ten paces from the opening and waited, conscious of the beggar still lingering in the vicinity.  He was kept waiting a brief moment, just long enough for Jahleel to satisfy his dignity as chieftain, and then a man emerged to greet him.

Garbed in a dark heavy robe and with a mass of unkempt hair framing his face, the fellow could hardly be mistaken for anything but a desert dweller.  Immediately the gray-shot beard that constituted most of his features split into a huge grin.

“The God be with you, Lord Moses.  Please.  The tent of Jahleel is open to you.”  He gestured with a hand.

By now Ahmose was accustomed to the Habiru insistence upon using the diminutive form of his name.  He supposed this refusal to speak his actual Egyptian name to be a kind of symbolic rejection of his Egyptianness, a reminder that whatever his ways the blood that ran in his veins was far more Habiru than Egyptian.  It was of no concern to Ahmose.  If it helped smooth his relations with the people who made up the bulk of his labor force, then they might call him anything they pleased.

Ahmose acknowledged the greeting with a nod and glanced back at his erstwhile guide.  The beggar’s red eyes were wide with astonishment and his mouth worked silently.  Even the most recent arrival from the desert had heard of the Lord Moses, protector of the Habiru in Egypt.  But surely this smooth-faced Egyptian could not be Moses!  Why should some arrogant Egyptian care a whit about poor Habiru?  It made no sense.

Leaving the little man to be shooed out of the camp by the gray-beard, Ahmose ducked under the low eve formed by the sloping tent-roof.  There were three men seated on the carpets inside, all of them seemingly past their prime, though it was hard to be sure with the bearded and deeply lined desert faces.  The tent smelled of goats and smoke and bodies only rarely washed, a combined odor distinctive enough to be called “the perfume of the desert” by Egyptians familiar with the Bedouins.

The black-robed man sitting at what was at the moment the rear of the tent and thus the position of honor smiled at Ahmose and indicated a place beside himself.  From the evidence of his face and hands he carried a lean body, as the desert folk always did, and his beard and shoulder-length hair were still fully black, despite the age obvious in his face.  His left eye was fixed into a permanent squint by a scar that ran across it from forehead to cheek.  His demeanor and his place in the tent instantly revealed him to be the leader, and Ahmose henceforth gave no attention to the others.

“Jahleel son of Abinoam, chief of the Simeonites welcomes the Lord Moses in the name of the God of our fathers.”

Ahmose did not miss the slight emphasis given the word “our.”  Seating himself cross-legged, he replied, “Ahmose son of Amram accepts the hospitality of Jahleel and prays the favor of the God of Joseph be upon his house.”

The glances that darted among Jahleel and his cronies, rejoined now by the first man, confirmed for Ahmose the correctness of his greeting.  No one could possibly keep track of the roundabout names each tribe used to refer to its particular nameless deity, but the Simeonites were numerous enough in the delta for Ahmose to have gathered some information about their particular traditions.

Clapping his hands once, Jahleel said,  “We will share bread.”

Almost immediately a girl appeared from behind the curtain to the women’s quarters, carrying one of the disks of unleavened bread favored by the Bedouin.  She knelt beside Jahleel and handed him the flat cake, egg-great eyes stealing quick looks at Ahmose.  She had been hastily dressed in her finery, such as it was, and Ahmose had little trouble guessing what would come next.  This was becoming almost as much a part of his meeting ritual with these Habiru leaders as the bread breaking.

The girl disappeared back behind the curtain, and Jahleel began tearing the bread in pieces.  Ahmose accepted the first chunk and began to chew.  No serious business could be conducted until he had a token of Jahleel’s hospitality within his belly.

Custom did not, however, stop Jahleel from pursuing what was so obviously on his mind.

“My youngest daughter,” he said around a mouthful of bread.  “A delicate blossom, you would agree?  And not yet married.”

“She is certainly a rare flower of the desert,” replied Ahmose.  He gulped down the chewed bread, which fell towards his stomach like a stone.  “The man who takes her to wife would be most fortunate.”  And most fortunate the Habiru chief who has the Lord Moses as his son-in-law!

Jahleel grinned and clapped his hands again.  The girl returned with a set of tiny bronze cups and an earthenware jug, which she placed before her father.  Ahmose judged her to be no more than fourteen and had to admit that she was in fact attractive.  That beauty would be quickly ground away by the harsh Bedouin life, but for the moment she would certainly be a pleasant night’s diversion.  After a bath of course.

Ahmose realized with a start that he was staring at the girl, who had begun to giggle under his obvious scrutiny.  Jahleel, who had missed none of this, sent her off with a small motion of his hand and proceeded to pour the wine, smiling even more broadly now.  He passed the first cup to Ahmose and opened his mouth to speak, only to be forestalled by his guest.

“Yes,” said Ahmose quickly, “a beauty indeed.  I might almost wish that I were not already pledged to my lovely Ahouri.”

Ahouri was in fact a convenient fabrication, an invented fiancée, who allowed Ahmose to deal with just these situations without risking any offense to the ever touchy Bedouin chiefs.  Ahmose had once even had a female friend from Pi-Ramessu visit him at the building site in order to give more substance to his shadowy bride-to-be.  It was of course a lie, but better a small lie, a tiny tweaking of ma’at, than possibly creating more difficulties with Jahleel.  Osiris the Judge understood such things.  And it was not as if the Habiru were themselves the world’s greatest truth tellers.

Jahleel looked crestfallen, and Ahmose hurried on to a new subject.  Draining the cup of vinegary wine that was no doubt his host’s best beverage, he unslung the flask he had carried from Tjou.  Small grunts of anticipated pleasure followed his arm as he filled the extended cups.  The impoverished Habiru rarely tasted any strong drink other than the cheap beer made and consumed in vast quantities by Egyptian farmers.  The fine delta vintage would be wasted on coarse Bedouin tongues, but the gesture would not go unnoticed.

“My gift to you,” he said, setting the wine down before Jahleel.

“I am not worthy of the honor the Lord Moses does me,” replied Jahleel without the slightest trace of humility in his voice.

“Can the hospitality and friendship of the chief of all the Simeonites be measured by one such small token?”

Jahleel spread his hands and nodded his head, accepting the flattery.  Ahmose was aware of at least two others in the eastern delta who claimed leadership of the Simeonites, but he knew well that nothing was so important to the Habiru as their tribal politics, which in practice seemed to mean little more than constant feuding.  It was in all probability a Habiru weapon that had left its mark on his host’s face.

Jahleel sipped his wine and smiled at Ahmose.  The formalities were concluded, but he waited a moment before inviting his guest to serious conversation.  It was not often that he had the chance to keep an Egyptian waiting, even a phony Egyptian like Moses.

“What business brings the Lord Moses to this poor encampment?” he asked innocently.

“I had heard,” replied Ahmose dryly, “that little happens in Goshen that does not reach the ears of Jahleel.”  He used the Habiru name for the area from Pi-Sopdu to Tjeku.

Jahleel shrugged.  “‘Honor the God and keep watch on the horizon.’  But is a poor desert chief to know all the affairs of the mighty Egyptians?”

“A chief who wishes to protect his people from the wrath of those mighty Egyptians will know of this particular affair.”

Ignoring the other men, Jahleel refilled his guest’s cup and then his own, deliberately drawing the operation out into a lengthy ritual.  He leaned back and smiled at Ahmose, dark eyes meeting gray with no hesitation.

“How could the mighty Egyptians be concerned about the trivial affairs of the tribe of Simeon?  Are not all desert folk beneath their notice?”  The smile was a grin.  He was clearly enjoying the exchange.

Ahmose was not.  His capacity for this verbal game playing was limited at best, and at this particular time he was certainly not at his best.  He was alert enough, but a headache was beginning to take shape out of his fatigue and the close atmosphere in the tent.  The old man knew exactly why he was here, but Bedouin custom dictated a preliminary bout of rhetorical sparring, a certain indirect approach to the issue.  That he was being subtly insulted, he knew, but such hardly bothered him anymore.  It was the damn waste of time that was maddening.  With his patience ebbing he called silently upon Thoth to shore up his self-control.

“Pharaoh watches over all that lives in the Two Lands, both the great and the completely insignificant.”  Two can play at this, my friend.

“Who can doubt that the king commands all his creatures?”  Jahleel immediately shot back.

“Indeed.  Those that fly in the skies, those that swim in the river and even those that crawl in the desert.”

Jahleel gave a barely perceptible nod, still smiling.  Brushing a fly from before his face, Ahmose continued.

“The son of Re speaks and the land listens, for it is he who brings order and righteousness.”  The Canaanite tongue had no single word for ma’at.  “He is the life of the Two Lands, the father by whose dealings all men live…and labor.”

“Some, it seems, must labor more than others for this son of Re,” replied Jahleel, his tone sitting ill with his smile.

“All who live in Egypt work for Pharaoh, whether they farm his land or sculpt his image or build his granaries.  Do you think only Habiru dwell in the delta or even in Goshen?  Is it only Canaanite hands that set brick upon brick in Tjou?  Does the tribe of Simeon alone sweat while others watch?”

“Does the tribe of Simeon choose to build royal granaries?  Has the God of our fathers commanded us to labor for Pharaoh?  Are we Egyptians?”  His eyes were flashing over the frozen smile.

Ahmose ignored the insult.  He had heard this argument before from every lazy Habiru seeking to justify his idleness.

“The gods grant it to few men to choose their labor.  The Nine Gods mark out the paths of all in the Two Lands.  We have little choice in determining.”

“You have little choice.  We have none.”  The slightest anger was now slipping through Jahleel’s composure.  “The Lord Moses does well by the Egyptians, but do the purses of my people jingle with payment for their labor?  Does the tribe of Simeon wear linen and drink only wine?  But perhaps we do not understand.  Is the granary we build to be ours to use when it is complete?”

“You understand well enough.  The men who work at Tjou are fed well, sparing you the produce of your flocks and gardens.  Those who come from a distance are given shelter.  And what of this?”  Ahmose waved an arm towards the open front of the tent.  “Pharaoh has granted the Habiru tribes this land for their houses of hair and their animals.  Have the Simeonites encountered such hospitality elsewhere in their wanderings?”

“Hospitality?!” replied Jahleel with a single barking laugh.  “We are held captive in a foreign land, forced to labor at the whim of a foreign king and his foreign gods.  We are nothing more than slaves of the Pharaoh you regard so well.”

“Perhaps the tribe of Simeon does not understand exactly how the life of a slave differs from the life of a free man?” said Ahmose coolly.

Jahleel took the hint.  After a moment he said calmly “Goshen is a hard place, despised by even the poorest Egyptians.  It is not our home.”

“The desert is an even harder place, if that is your home.  And I suppose it must be, because I have not heard of any in the farmlands and cities of Canaan who welcome the Habiru and call them brothers.”

Jahleel sat up straighter, and Ahmose instantly regretted his mention of the desert, as the chieftain launched into a familiar litany.

“But the desert is pure, the home of our God.  We are cleansed by its harshness, and its hot winds are the breath of the God, which blows away the stink and corruption of the cities.  No wall crosses the sands, and no official puts his hand upon your purse.  There a man is free.”

Ahmose had heard dozens of versions of this Bedouin hymn to the desert.  He remembered as a child listening to his own grandfather drone on about the purity and beauty of the sandy wastes, unforgiving of a son who had sacrificed his freedom to settle as a merchant in Pi-Ramessu.  Ahmose had first sided with the old warrior, fascinated by his endless store of tales of battle and adventure, but once grown and educated he thanked the gods his father had rescued him from a life of ignorance and aimlessness.  True, he often enough recalled his grandfather and his songs of the desert, especially when the stacks of papyrus were threatening to bury him and yapping bureaucrats were nipping at his legs.  It was then he perhaps heard the faint call of his Habiru ancestors and for a moment looked with a small envy at the simple herdsman wandering the fringes of the Red Land.

But the feeling always quickly evaporated, as intellect easily overcame blood.  The Bedouin life was mean and unproductive and more often than not meant suffering for their settled neighbors.  And Ahmose knew well that the constant praise of the purity and freedom of the desert was a demonstration of an inevitable human inclination – make a virtue of what you have.  The Habiru possessed little more than the desert, and so the desert was their inspiration and source of goodness, the home of their anonymous gods.

“The desert has its attractions, I agree,” said Ahmose.  “But it would seem the Habiru are attracted also to the city, for all its stink and corruption.”  He fixed Jahleel with a gray stare.  “Listen, chief of the Simeonites.  Your people came to this place freely, during hard times.  Here you find water and pasture and even arable land.  That your sons should in return help in building Pharaoh’s monuments does not seem particularly unjust.  In truth, Jahleel, would you find such a reception anywhere in Canaan?”

“How others would receive us is not the question,” replied Jahleel, anger spilling around his words.  “Here is where we are forced to labor that ill suits our men and keeps them from their flocks.  Here is where we are beaten and treated no better than dung underfoot.”

“Do not play with me, Jahleel.”  Ahmose’s voice was low.  “Your animals are cared for by your women, whether you be in Goshen or the desert.  And you know none in my gangs is beaten unless it is deserved.  Do you claim the Simeonites have not been treated fairly by me?”

“No one can deny the Lord Moses protects his people, as well as he might.  But we do not wish to be here.”

“You came here in the first place, did you not?”

“And now we want only to leave.  Surely the Lord Moses can understand.  We can not survive without freedom.”  Voice rising, he swept his arm in an arc.  “This land imprisons us.  It dulls us and corrupts us.  Our men go whoring after perverse pleasures and forget the ways that sustain us.  Our face is turned from the God, who is the protection of the tribe of Simeon.  Give us our freedom.”

Ahmose fought to keep his own voice from rising.  His head was pounding, and the composure he usually had little trouble maintaining during these endless arguments was crumbling fast.  The solar bark was a barely remembered dream.

“Freedom?  Yes, I understand well how the Habiru require freedom.  The freedom to raid caravans in Sinai.  The freedom to attack settlements in the oases and steal from the towns in Canaan.  You destroy and create chaos and call that freedom.  Your freedom rests on the misery of others.”

“You accuse us falsely, Lord Moses,” protested Jahleel.  “Other tribes commit these crimes.  Everyone knows the Danites and the Calabites are bandits and…”

“No doubt,” interrupted Ahmose sharply, cutting off another familiar litany.  “But that is not our concern.  Those who assault the right way of things will feel Pharaoh’s anger.  Our concern…rather, your concern is the labor quota of the Simeonites.  In the past ten-day you have consistently fallen short by at least twenty workers and in the previous by a dozen.  This can not be allowed to continue.”

Jahleel looked offended.  “We are not to blame.  Our tribe is small and the quota is too high.  Many of our men have been injured performing these unfamiliar tasks, and many are now sick and unfit.  We are not accustomed to the corruption of these settled lands and weaken easily.”

Sighing inwardly, Ahmose reminded himself how essential lying was to the desert culture.  He had come to realize that his grandfather could no more tell the undistorted truth than he could read.  It was like breathing to these people, it came so naturally.  Whether or not they actually wanted to hide something seemed to make little difference.  Even in honest dealing the Bedouin approach to communication was circuitous and ornate; a direct and unadorned statement was as rare as a bearded Egyptian.  Ahmose wondered if it was a reaction to the desert itself, whose truth was often fatal in its directness.  Perhaps rhetorical subtlety was a response to a life and environment that were brutal in their lack of subtlety.

Or perhaps the gods just made them all born liars, considered Ahmose.  In any case he had had enough.  Leaning forward slightly, he spoke in an almost casual tone.  “Do you wish your sons to work shifts in the brick pits?”

Jahleel showed no response, but Ahmose knew the threat had registered.  He leaned back on his hands.  “Then cease these games.  In the past month two of your men have received minor injury.  Is this what Jahleel considers ‘many’?”

He looked from Jahleel to the others, who had remained silent through the exchange.  “Have you perhaps forgotten life in the labor gangs in the old days, under Egyptian overseers?”

“We praise the God,” answered Jahleel quickly, “for sending one of our own to watch over us.  As He is our strength in this bondage, so is the Lord Moses our shield.  All the Simeonites know this.  But we are few, and the demands of the Egyptians are great.  Too great.”

“Do not take me for a smooth-head,  Jahleel.  I know exactly the number of fit workers in your tribe, and that number includes the men who have spent their days drunk in Tjeku.”

The old man’s eyebrows lifted ever so slightly.  Got you there, you old bandit.

Ahmose allowed himself a thin smile.  “Yes, all Habiru look alike to the Egyptians.  But am I an Egyptian?”

“Are you?” asked Jahleel quietly.

It was Ahmose’s turn to raise his eyebrows.  The smile disappeared and his voice went completely cold.  “It is fortunate for the Simeonites that by birth at least I am not.  An Egyptian overseer would have had those men in Tjeku beaten and sent to the construction site in chains.  And you, Jahleel, would have been arrested and your tribe faced with a higher quota of workers.  You have been in Goshen longer than I and can hardly have failed to learn these things.  Egyptian patience with the Habiru is limited severely by their contempt, while mine is expanded by my interest in completing my work in the most efficient manner.  But I warn you, do not presume to take advantage of that patience or my family background.  I have been harsh and will be again.”

For all that the afternoon sun was beating down on the black cloth, the atmosphere in the tent was suddenly chill.  The men were motionless, figures in a tomb painting, it seemed to Ahmose, and the rustles and whispers coming from behind the partition ceased, as if the women too understood the seriousness of the situation.  The bleating of a goat tethered just outside the tent assumed a central role in an abruptly quiet world.

I’m in worse shape than I realized, thought Ahmose, massaging a forehead hammering with pain.  I’m letting this little turd goad me into acting like some Egyptian overseer and making blatant threats.

He knew well enough that the circuitous Bedouin way could be made only so straight and the direct path of overt intimidation led to the inefficient, lash driven gangs found at other sites.  But the fatigue and headache were clouding his judgment and undermining his control.  His desire to be done with this business and quit this sweltering coffin of a tent was fast becoming a need.  The sweet joy of the vision by the canal was completely gone now, and that only increased his impatience with these slippery barbarians.

He looked into his wine cup and forced a smile onto his face.  A trickle of sweat crept out of his left armpit and began an excruciatingly slow journey down his side.

“We understand each other, Jahleel.  I know you will do what is best for your people, for such is your leadership, praised by all the Simeonites.  From me you may expect fair treatment and the respect due the chief of the Simeonites.  Can you deny I have always treated thus with you?”

Frustrated, but cowed by the reality of Ahmose’s power over his tribe and himself, Jahleel silently shook his head.

“Then swear me an oath that you will meet your quotas, and this entire matter will be forgotten.”

Jahleel looked up and immediately began a solemn intonation.  “Jahleel, son of Abinoam, chief of all the Simeonites, swears that he will…”

Ahmose stopped him with an upraised hand.  “I said swear me an oath, not make vague promises,” he said, the hard edge slipping back into his voice.

Ahmose rose to his feet, a little too quickly.  For a moment he swooned, but the relentless pain behind his eyes anchored him in consciousness.  Steadying himself, he lifted the front of his shift to his knees.

“Swear me an oath.”

Anger and pride were strong in Jahleel’s eyes, but as he stood, his body and his movement conveyed some of the resignation hidden behind the bearded mask of his face.  He faced Ahmose squarely and stared directly into his eyes, saying nothing.  After the briefest hesitation he reached quickly under the shift with his right hand and grabbed the other’s genitals.

Ahmose had received and in fact given this powerful Bedouin oath before, but the strangeness of it still caught him.  He was acutely aware of the pressure of Jahleel’s fingers, grasping him through the thin linen of his loincloth.  It was a man’s hand; he could sense the strength of it.  Yet the sensation was not unpleasant.  Nor was it pleasant.  It was just odd and very vaguely erotic.

There was nothing erotic in the cold stare that grasped him as tightly as the hand between his legs.  Unintimidated, Ahmose stared back and waited, for all the tension of the moment unable to avoid thinking what a comic sight the two of them must have presented.  He was almost taken by surprise when Jahleel finally spoke, quickly spitting out the words as if they were bits of food gone rotten.

“Jahleel, son of Abinoam, chief of all the Simeonites, swears by the Lord God of the Simeonites that he will meet the requirements imposed upon his people by the Lord Moses.”

He immediately snatched his hand away, but his eyes maintained their defiant grip.  Ahmose nodded slightly and broke the eye contact first, willing to grant Jahleel that little victory.  Because he was outside the tribe and thus formally beyond the rules and honor operating among its members, the oath was not completely binding, but Jahleel would observe the pledge, at least for a time.  Not only was the oath, sworn in the name of his god and upon the seat of male potency, compelling, even in dealing with outsiders, but also the old warrior was no fool.  He knew from long experience in Goshen the power Ahmose could command and exactly how far he could push before that power was invoked.

He sank back down on the carpet, inevitably defeated in this skirmish with civilization, but with his dignity and defiance untouched.  Frustration and anger were usefully channeled into hate, and Ahmose felt Jahleel would at this moment gladly kill him were the circumstances different.  A young buck just out of the desert would in fact have already drawn a blade, but Jahleel was too full of years.  He was seething now, the proud Bedouin forced to acknowledge his subordination, but it would pass.  Bred to an accommodation with the unforgiving desert, Jahleel had over the years worked out an accommodation with the Egyptian delta.

Jahleel’s anger was of absolutely no concern to Ahmose.  His task was accomplished, and he wanted only to be out of this tomb of a tent and away from these barbarians.  He felt like gasping for air, and it seemed only the incessant hammering in his head stood between himself and unconsciousness.  Calling silently on Thoth, he forced his mind back into rough focus.

“Jahleel is indeed chief of the Simeonites, who must prosper under his leadership,” he said with even, deliberate words, which nevertheless sounded as hollow as they actually were.

The old Bedouin straightened and looked up at Ahmose, assaulting him with the anger in his eyes.  “As must those under the protection of the Lord Moses.”

And bugger you too, Jahleel.  “May the god of your fathers look after your house.”  He turned away before Jahleel could loose another shot and strode out of the tent.

Normally an irresistible goad to find shadow, the afternoon sun was almost refreshing to Ahmose, who sucked in the hot air like a pearl diver breaking the surface.  He headed immediately back along the path to the canal, pausing outside the camp only long enough to strip off the damp shift and bundle it on his head as a sun shade.  His legs felt boneless, but they functioned, even carrying him at a brisk pace.  Trivial discomforts like heat and exhaustion were obscured by the raging pain inside his skull.

But that too was more bearable, away from the damned Habiru.  And meanwhile this unpleasant business was done with, and he was on his way home to the blissful sleep that would soon smother the headache.  In time he would have to repeat this routine, either with Jahleel or some other chieftain, different from Jahleel only in name, but for the moment he was free.  He could think of no reason why his assistants could not survive the next day without him.

Besides, I have been praised by Pharaoh himself, he thought, suddenly recalling the auspicious beginning to the day.  But before he could savor that memory it was shoved aside by the one that came tumbling through the pain right behind it.  And specially marked by the gods!

The thought was a tonic.  Ahmose’s eyes brightened as he played back the vision by the canal, and the exhaustion and pain in his head withdrew to a further corner of his consciousness, passing annoyances.  What more could they be, when there might well be no more Jahleels in his life?  No more meaningless conversations and feigned politeness with petty bandit chieftains.  No more stinking Habiru!  It was a fine day indeed!

Once again that day an observer might have caught, just barely, a smile on the face of Ahmose son of Amram.