And it came to pass in those days, when Moses
was grown, that he went out unto his
brethren, and looked on their burdens.
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?”