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.



Hear, O Israel!

(I am considering shelving my current project, a scholarly book on Marathon; the twenty years of missed bibliography are overwhelming me and I am having doubts about humanity’s need for another classical tome.  I contemplate returning to a novel of Moses I began over twenty years ago, abandoned because an academic work appeared more important and because of the mounting evidence against the historicity of the Exodus itself.  Well, it is fiction and most people will certainly not rush to abandon a story so important to all the Abramic religions, so what the hell.  But writing fiction is not the same as writing history [well, usually not] and this could all be crap.  So, I will post some of what I have written and invite you to let me know if it works.  This week I offer the Preface [I just can not get away from being an historian] and the Prologue.)


This novel is historical fiction, but only in the sense that it takes place far in the past.  The society and environment of thirteenth century Egypt depicted in it are real, but except for the Pharaohs all the characters and events are fictional, including Moses and the Exodus itself.

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 an oral and written tradition that constantly revised stories handed down through perhaps thirty generations.  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, 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 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.

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.  All the major figures of the Patriarchal period, such as Abraham, were almost certainly 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.

Much more fundamental, the historicity of the Exodus and the Conquest are now seriously doubted.  There is absolutely no non-Biblical evidence, textual or archaeological, for the Exodus, and the last forty years of excavations in Palestine have produced no evidence whatsoever of an outside conquest of the area in the later second millennium.  Rather, the archaeological remains are constantly at odds with the Biblical stories, especially regarding towns, many of which simply did not exist during the periods to which they are assigned by the Bible.  The evidence instead strongly supports the proposition that the people who became the Hebrews were ultimately indigenous to the area and came west from the Transjordan at the end of the end of the thirteenth century.  Less certain, but still more credible and better supported by the evidence than the Biblical account, is the suggestion that the traditions of a flight from Egypt and a violent conquest of Canaan, as well as much of the Biblical history of Israel and Judah, were in fact assembled for political reasons in the late seventh century under King Josiah of Judah.

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, and as an historical source such a work must be approached very cautiously.  Certainly, the details found in the Biblical account of the Exodus cannot bear the weight of the conclusions that have been laid upon them.  Using, for example, clues in the text to locate Mt. Sinai is an utterly futile exercise, since all those clues date from a later age that itself had not the vaguest idea where Sinai was, and the very existence of the mountain is in fact 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 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. DeMille

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many scholars still entertain some notion of an escape from Egypt, arguing that the Bondage is too unlikely and the Exodus too compelling and central to the Hebrew tradition to be pure inventions.  They consequently accept from the sweeping narrative of the Pentateuch the bare fact that sometime during the history of New Kingdom Egypt, possible in the thirteenth century BC, a group of west Semites left the Nile delta.  Rejected, however, are all the Biblical details and scale of the event, which after all went completely unnoticed by one of the most meticulous record-keeping civilizations in history.  Since names are very persistent in oral tradition, the group may well have been led by a man named Moses, but if so, it is nevertheless impossible to know anything about him and what role, if any, he played in bringing the god Yahweh to these people.

There is a problem on the Egyptian side as well.  While Egyptian history and society, especially during the New Kingdom, are well documented and we have a good appreciation of the nature of that society and its beliefs, we can never truly understand what went on in the heart and mind of the average Egyptian.  Like all the other pre-Greek inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean world, including the early Hebrews, the Egyptians were mythopoeic, seeing life and will in all the phenomena of nature.  Egyptian, Sumero-Babylonian and Assyrian religious texts allow us to construct an intellectual approximation of this mythic universe, but we do not know exactly what this meant in the life of an individual.  It is clear that in their daily lives the ancient Egyptians, who were after all human beings living in an agriculturally-based urban society, had a great deal in common with us, but it is also clear that they viewed the world around them in a way that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to comprehend fully.

The dangers, then, for a novelist seeking to produce a historically credible Exodus are manifold, not the least of which is that the Exodus itself is not historically credible.  And even assuming the event took place, not only do we know absolutely nothing about it and the man who may or may not have inspired it, but also any attempt to create characters a modern reader can understand and relate to emotionally risks distorting the seriously alien nature of pre-classical society.  Moreover, we know that the evolution of Yahweh from a petty desert god to the universal deity of mature Judaism took more than a millennium, suggesting that one should be careful of placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of a single man, which of course is exactly what the Biblical tradition does to Moses.  On the other hand, religion is also an area of human endeavor where it is quite clear that a single individual in a single lifetime can have a tremendous historical impact, and it is perhaps possible that Moses, if indeed he existed, may have played such a role.

This novel presumes that there was an Exodus and offers a possible Moses, one who fits what we know about the historical development of the Hebrew religion and the practices of the time.  The tale may lose the sweep and majesty of the Pentateuch and its cinematic realization in The Ten Commandments, but what remains is something closer to historical possibility.

* * * * * * * * * *

Transliterated from hieroglyphics into Latin characters, Egyptian names come in a wide variety of spellings; I have attempted to use the most common versions.  Place names can be even more confusing, since a site will have an Egyptian name, an Arabic name, often a Greek name and sometimes a Biblical name.  The ancient Egyptian town of Iunu, for example, was known to the Greeks as Heliopolis, to the Bible as On and is today Tell Hisn.  In dealing with this I have followed a policy of enlightened inconsistency, generally employing the Egyptian name, except where the Greek is more familiar (e.g., Memphis rather than Mennufer).

The Egyptian cubit was composed of seven palms and equaled approximately .523 meters; 20,000 cubits equaled an atour, about 10.46 kilometers.  Ten kite equaled one deben, which was about 91 grams.

Richard M. Berthold

Albuquerque, New Mexico



(The chronology of Moses’ life is conjectural.

All dates are B.C.)


c. 1450 Hebrew tribes at Kadesh and in northern Canaan

1427-1401 AMENHOTEP II

1401-1391 THUTMOSE IV

c. 1400 Hebrew tribes active in central Canaan



c. 1345 Yanhamu (Joseph) into Egypt

1336-1334 SMENKHKARE


c. 1335 Hebrew elements enter Egypt

1325-1321 AY

1321-1292 HAREMHAB

1292-1290 RAMSES I

1290-1279 SETI I

1279-1213 RAMSES II                

1265 Moses born

1237 Moses leaves Egypt

1228 Moses returns to Egypt

1227 Exodus; arrival in Kadesh

1213-1203 MERNEPTAH               

1203-1199 AMENMESSE?

1199 Moses dies

1199-1193 SETI II                    




And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set

thee over all the land of Egypt.

Genesis 41:41

The sun hung low over the western desert as Yanhamu emerged onto the broad roof of his house, a tall, almost spectral figure draped in a robe of fine white linen.  Curly hair gone gray and a swarthy face seamed with lines betrayed long years, but the gaunt body was unbent, the narrow head held steady.  Sharp eyes scanned the surrounding world.

The valley and the river were already in shadows, but the parched hills rising from the east bank were momentarily afire, bathed in oranges and pinks by the departing sun.  To the northwest the great man-made mountains of Khufu and Khefren were barely visible in the evening haze, but through the date palms that lined the walls of his estate Yanhamu could easily make out a half dozen pyramids to the south.  His location in the far northern suburbs of Memphis, on high ground hard up against the margin of the Red Land, actually placed him slightly to the west of the tombs that lined the western escarpment for as far south as he could see.  From this vantage point the pyramids were temporary beacons marking the boundary between desert and cultivated field, as the white limestone casing blocks of their western faces blazed with the last rays of the setting sun.

Though he had lived in Egypt for over four decades, Yanhamu was still awed and still a little mystified by these monuments to long dead kings and the Egyptian mania for the next life.  According to the priests, the pyramids were already ancient when the kings of Ur ruled the eastern lands.  And apparently already emptied by robbers of the treasure and bodies they were meant to protect through eternity, an irony that delighted Yanhamu.  Tens of thousands had labored for years to erect these immense piles, yet the body of the poor peasant, lying with a simple clay pot or favorite utensil in an unmarked desert grave and preserved by the dry sands, long outlasted those royal corpses.  The Pharaohs of Egypt were perhaps more cautious now; they were hiding their sarcophagi away in rock-cut tombs, especially in the high cliffs opposite distant Thebes.  But they still filled those tombs with staggering amounts of wealth, guaranteeing, in Yanhamu’s opinion, that their owners would rest undisturbed not for eternity, but only until authority broke down in the next time of troubles.

Of course, thought Yanhamu as he watched the sun slip below the horizon, extinguishing the royal tombs, most Egyptians simply refuse to believe that Pharaoh’s authority could break down, despite the evidence of the recent past.  The trouble that followed the death of Akhenaton some thirty years ago is already being forgotten, swallowed by the timelessness that pervades this land.

From his study of temple records he knew that the land had in fact suffered great upsets in the past, times when the god-king had been unable to insure that ma’at – justice and right – lay upon the kingdom of the Two Lands.  Egypt had even endured the humiliation of foreign rule under the Hyksos.  But few outside a small circle of priests were aware of Egypt’s history or that Egypt even had a history.  History implied change, and the Egyptian resolutely refused to recognize that there had been any significant change since the Creation.  Even death was only a sort of transition to another world where life would go on exactly as it had here.  And so the tremendous urge to preserve the body, to keep it as unchanging as the desert, river and sky that constituted the universe of the average Egyptian.  The very human fear that things would not be as they had always been, perhaps that was the real meaning of the vast necropolis that covered the western plateau from the delta to Thebes and beyond.

Soon enough I will be taking up residence in that silent city, mused Yanhamu, trying in vain to locate in the darkening desert the site of his own modest tomb.  And there I will wait with kings for the robbers, who to their surprise will find in the tomb of Yanhamu son of Sabtah nothing more than his body.

As usual this thought brought a smile to his face, and as usual he wondered if his wife and sons would actually keep their promise to inter him in an empty tomb.  For all their years of marriage and his distinctly un-Egyptian influence on her, Asenatis remained at heart an Egyptian, and the tomb was mostly a concession to her sensibilities.  What happened to the empty shell that had carried his life mattered little to Yanhamu, an attitude that set him apart from not only his wife, but virtually everyone he met.

And it was not just this, he knew.  His whole approach to the world about him was different.  He did not look at things in the way most men did, be they Egyptians or Canaanites or Hittites or Nubians.  They saw life and consciousness in everything in nature, in the weather, the rivers, the plants and animals, even the rocks of the earth.  Each and every thing in the universe possessed a unique personality that must be dealt with, just as one dealt with fellow humans.  Yanhamu did not for a moment doubt the existence of the gods, of powers that directed the great natural forces, and he believed that his spirit would survive the death of his body.  But from earliest adolescence he had been unable to accept the seemingly universal notion that the reeds in the river or the stones in his garden or the salt in his cupboard were companion beings, little different from the boatman or the gardener or his wife.

Addressing the inanimate could only strike Yanhamu as foolish, but such was the belief of virtually every person he met.  Even Haremhab, a hard-bitten military man and his close friend, had defended this world view, amazed that Yanhamu should question such an obvious fact of nature.  In his younger days Yanhamu had often wondered about the soundness of his own mind, so pervasive was this belief he could not share, but he had come to realize that whether he or the rest of mankind was right, it made little difference to his ability to get through life successfully.  It left an unbridgeable gulf between him and his fellow man, but as a Canaanite living in Egypt he would in any case have found a divide between himself and most he met, the native Egyptians.  His alienation from the common understanding of the nature of the world was more profound, relegating him to a universe in which conscious life was the oddity rather than the common denominator, but like the inbred Egyptian contempt for outsiders there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

He rubbed his hands together.  The joints were swollen and painful again and the salve the physician had given him seemed to be losing its effectiveness.  Relegating the pain to the back of his mind, something he had learned in the hard days of his youth, he crossed to the eastern parapet of the roof.  Spread out below was the estate’s formal garden, which Yanhamu counted as Egypt’s greatest gift to civilization.  The arrangement was traditional: a rectangular pool filled with fish and lotus, surrounded by orderly rows of oleanders, chrysanthemums, jasmine and other flowers.  Further out, hiding the wall and the outside world, were sycamores, tamarisks, pomegranates, acacias and an unbroken line of palms.  Paths of crushed rock meandered about the garden, and all was in perfect order, maintained by an overseer who ruled over this tiny kingdom with as iron a hand as any Pharaoh.

Savoring the smells of the spring blossoms below, Yanhamu looked out towards the river, now at almost its lowest point.  In little more than two months akhit, the Season of Inundation, and the summer flood would begin, and once more the fields would return to the river, turning the villages and estates into little islands.  This was the blessing of Egypt, the annual flood that renewed the farmland with a thick carpet of silt and made this desert country perhaps the most bountiful in the world.  It was hardly surprising that Pharaoh spent so much time in ceremonies connected with the well-being of the river.

Yanhamu hoped that this akhit would not bring a “red” Nile.  There was the occasional year when the flood carried an extra burden of reddish-brown silt, providing the fields with an added measure of renewed fertility.  The peasants welcomed this “blood of Hapi,” a gift of the Nile god who in his cave far to the south poured out the life-giving waters, but like most not intimately involved with agriculture Yanhamu greeted the phenomenon with far less enthusiasm.  For whatever reason, a “red” Nile almost always heralded the imminent arrival of armies of frogs and clouds of insects.  The frogs he could live with, even though their irresistible invasion of every corner of the household meant doing exactly that.  But the flies!  The buzzing, biting, inescapable swarms of tiny flying creatures had more than once brought him to the desperate consideration of the existence of malevolent deities whose attention was focused on him alone.

For the moment, however, it was a scene of complete tranquility that confronted Yanhamu.  The land was soft in the twilight and the haze created by thousands of cooking fires, and the cool stillness of the evening was broken only by the barking of dogs and the occasional quacking of the ducks found on every estate.  Work in the fields, the endless toil of bringing water to the crops, had mostly ceased, and even Memphis, the bustling northern capital, was shutting down for the night.  This was the peace that Yanhamu – and every other old man in the world, he suspected – relished.  The revolutionary years of Akhenaton’s reign had been filled with excitement and were an experience he would not have missed, but that was for eager young men.  Old bones found comfort in traditional Egypt, quiet and unexciting, undisturbed in its dream of eternal sameness.

General Haremhab had done his job well, restoring ma’at to a land that had reached the brink of civil war.  Actually, it was Pharaoh Haremhab now, and his old friend’s elevation to the throne confirmed for Yanhamu the nonsense of dynastic succession.  Haremhab was an old army man, lacking even the vaguest connection with the royal family, and yet his performance as the most recent incarnation of the god Horus was magnificent compared to that of his pathetic royal predecessors.  The official line emanating from the temple of Amon-Re was even now styling him the first legitimate king since Amenhotep III.  So much for bloodlines.

Both he and Haremhab had gotten their start under the “heretic” Akhenaton.  Yanhamu had followed the example of generations of his Canaanite countrymen and fled local trouble and family problems by migrating to Egypt.  Rather than sinking like most into the food-producing masses, however, he parlayed his contacts in Canaan into a minor government job, where a talent for economic administration quickly appeared.  He was also fortunate enough to enter Egypt during Akhenaton’s revolution, a time when the traditional rigid patterns and xenophobia of Egyptian society were temporarily shelved, at least among the court circles.  Learning to speak and read Egyptian, he had rapidly advanced in power and by the time of Akhenaton’s death was virtually managing the national economy.

Those had been heady days of freedom indeed, as Akhenaton turned Egypt on its head with his religious revolution.  His aim of course was not the shattering of the tight molds of Egyptian culture; that was incidental to his real purpose.  Those close to the king knew him to be purely and simply a religious fanatic, consumed with the cause of his new god, the Aton.  Changing his name from Amenhotep, “Amon-Is-Content,” to Akhenaton, “It-Goes-Well-with-the-Aton,” he moved the court out of Thebes and built a new capital, Akhetaton, halfway down the river to Memphis.  From there he directed a campaign against the other gods of Egypt, especially the powerful Amon-Re, dispatching stonecutters to chisel the name of the “Hidden One” off monuments and walls.  Henceforth only two gods would matter in the Two Lands: the Aton and his incarnate son, Akhenaton.

Ironically, the Aton had reminded Yanhamu of the traditional gods of the desert dwellers.  Ironically, because one could hardly find a people more culturally distant from the Egyptian king than the nomadic herdsmen and sometime farmers of southern and eastern Canaan.  Yet, Akhenaton’s understanding of divinity was in many ways similar to that of the tribes wandering the fringes of the desert.  Each of the clans had a single, often nameless god with whom its members had made a sort of contract: you specifically watch over us and we will ignore other gods and worship only you.  These were family gods for people whose widest political horizon was the family, and their appellations revealed that fact: the god of Noath, the god of Cabor or simply the God.  And Akhenaton’s sun god was like that, a sort of family deity with whom the Pharaoh had an exclusive relationship.  Like the desert clans the king did not deny the existence of other gods, but only attempted to elevate the Aton as the sole important god of Egypt besides Pharaoh.

Yanhamu smiled.  Only?  Only demoting gods that had been with the Egyptians for thousands of years, a task not even a god-king might hope to accomplish.  Akhenaton’s misfortune had in fact been that he was not some desert clan chief, but Pharaoh, and his family numbered not in the hundreds, but in the millions, all of them following their own notions of heaven.  Nor was Akhenaton acting only against the religious convictions of his people.  Amon-Re, chief among the old gods, had powerful earthly defenders, and his temple, with its immense financial resources, was already a challenge to the government and army long before Akhenaton was born.  The priesthood of Amon-Re were not about to surrender their god, and more importantly their wealth and power, without a fight.

There, Yanhamu knew, was the real struggle.  The army and parts of the government initially supported the Pharaoh, but not because they were transported by his religious vision.  For the hard headed men who dealt with Egypt’s concerns here on earth Akhenaton’s revolution was the opportunity to check the swelling power of the temple of Amon and reassert the independence of the throne.  The Pharaoh must have been at least vaguely aware of this more mundane conflict, but if so, he never showed the slightest interest.  Instead, he remained shut away in Akhetaton, surrounded by the converted and seemingly converted, directing his war against the name of Amon-Re and dreaming of the triumph of the Aton.

It was only a dream. Akhenaton’s ideas were too radical, his assault on Egyptian tradition too blatant.  The priesthood of Amon held the support of the people and had little trouble depicting the Pharaoh as a heretic and perverter of ma’at and discrediting all those who followed his cause.  The sensible and the ambitious among the king’s supporters soon saw the inevitable outcome of the struggle and were deserting him even before his early death.  His short-lived successors, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamon and Ay, though members of his family, were all tools of the temple, and now Haremhab, ever the realist, was working diligently to restore order to the land and power and glory to the name of Amon-Re.  The Aton was forgotten, vanished from the consciousness of Egypt, as the walls of Akhenaton’s abandoned city were now vanishing beneath the desert sand.

Yanhamu was startled out of his reverie by sounds behind him.  He turned and saw the cleanly shaved head of his household steward, Kasa, emerge from the stairwell.  With painful slowness a thin and stooped body followed.

Here is something else that was already old when the kings of Ur ruled, thought Yanhamu, watching the ancient servant creep across the roof towards him.

“Your evening drink, Master,” announced Kasa in a reedy voice.  He held out a blue faience goblet decorated with scenes of Pharaoh smashing the enemies of Egypt.

“Thank you, Kasa, but you know it isn’t necessary for you to climb those stairs.  Next time get one of the house boys to do it.”

The bent back straightened slightly.  “It is my duty to attend the Master of the house.”

Receiving the expected solemn pronouncement, Yanhamu shrugged and took the drink.  As ever, his sense of mischief was tweaked by Kasa’s seriousness.

“Tell me, Kasa, what do you remember of Akhenaton?”

The old servant’s eyes went wide and darted to either side, searching for any temple agents who might be hiding on the roof.

“I do not recognize the name, Master,” he said in almost a whisper.

“Is your memory failing so rapidly, Kasa, that you forget our younger days, when you joined this house?  Who was it who then ruled over the Two Lands?”

“Pharaoh has always watched over the land, and Amon has always been his strength.”

The almost whisper had changed to an almost shout, and Yanhamu could imagine his neighbors on their rooftops looking up in surprise at this sudden pious proclamation shattering the evening quiet.  He had no doubt that his servant’s mind was as sharp as ever, but he also knew that like most Egyptians Kasa was careful and conservative when it came to political affairs.  And there were matters cautious people simply did not discuss these days, especially people in the household of a foreigner who had found his fortune in the service of the heretic king.

“Quite true, Kasa, quite true.  You may go.”

A perceptibly relieved chief servant bowed slightly and turned to face the long trek to the ground floor, moving a bit more spryly in his eagerness to escape the Master’s dangerous games.  He was utterly loyal to the man who had provided so well for him and his family all these years, but he was no closer now to understanding him than he had been when he entered the household back in the bad days.  The Master only underlined Kasa’s convictions about foreigners: this one had spent his life in Egypt in service to the kingdom, but still remained alien.  The constant questioning of everything, so typical of outsiders, was bearable, but this open disrespect for the gods was an invitation to trouble.  The Master was a good man, but how great was divine tolerance?  Kasa was convinced that only his frequent prayers and offerings stood between the house and disaster.  He had best head directly for the shrine in the alcove of the great room.

Yanhamu watched the retreating back for a moment.  No doubt off to beseech Amon-Re not to send a plague upon the household of the impious one.

He sighed and turned back to the view over the valley.  Details were disappearing rapidly in the deepening dark, and the now dim panorama would soon be replaced with isolated and more intimate images created by the odd lamp and exposed fire.

Why do we need to take ourselves so seriously, he wondered, his fingers idly tracing the carved figures on the goblet.  Is it fear that if we did not act with complete seriousness others might not believe us important?  Or perhaps that we might have trouble believing it ourselves?  Priests were easily the worst of the serious lot, no doubt because what they did was on the face of it pretty absurd when compared to other occupations.  Of course they portrayed it as the proper attitude of respect and awe when dealing with the gods, but Yanhamu suspected it had more to do with convincing themselves and their congregations that activities normally associated with children and the feeble-minded were indeed of the utmost importance.  Otherwise who would listen to grown men who spoke to statuary?  More than most, this society was steeped in religion, but the Egyptian also had a strong sense of humor, and any departure from the utter solemnity maintained by the priests might cause the temples to echo with laughter.

He sipped the beer, cool from evaporation and pleasantly bitter on the tongue.  A fine beverage, which in sufficient quantity could undermine the demeanor of the most solemn priest, something he expected happened often enough when the faithful were not present.  He certainly remembered witnessing drunken priests of Aton during his frequent visits to the court at Akhetaton, though never in the presence of Pharaoh, who was very serious about his god.  Ironically, the revolutionary nature of Akhenaton’s fanaticism created a freer, less serious atmosphere in the royal city, one that encouraged openness and experimentation.  Artists, given the opportunity to break free of thousand-year-old canons, had flocked to Akhetaton to produce works that were almost shocking, at least to the average Egyptian.  Far from following the traditional rigid forms, their depictions of the king actually played upon the abnormalities of his strange, androgynous body, emphasizing the elongated head, narrow shoulders and wide hips.  Many of these creations had struck Yanhamu as grotesque, but the unconventional approaches could also lead to objects of exquisite beauty.  Much to the dismay of Kasa, Yanhamu kept a copy of one of these works, a painted head of Queen Nefertiti, in his sleeping chamber.  He wondered briefly what had happened to the original.  If not destroyed by some servant of Amon, it was probably now sitting in a tomb somewhere.  How typically Egyptian to create beauty and then bury it away.

Setting the goblet down on the parapet, he stretched until the joints in his arms cracked.  As he began massaging his hands again, his ear caught the sound of music and voices in the distance, and he could see off to the left that the gardens of Senmut’s house were a bright island in the darkness.  The walls of the estate hid the party itself, but Yanhamu could imagine the pompous bureaucrat strutting about, constantly reminding his fawning guests of just how important he was to Pharaoh and the government of the land.

Haremhab, my poor friend, he thought.  Sparring with the temple and facing Egypt’s enemies must be a pleasure compared to dealing with puffed-up fools like Senmut.  Is it impossible to form a government that does not immediately fill up with inefficient little men who take themselves too seriously?  The governments of both Akhenaton, the detached fanatic, and Haremhab, the man of action, rested, he knew, on identical foundations of Senmuts, all striving to inflate the importance of their positions by creating unnecessary work and growing piles of reports.  These people seemed to be part of the nature of things, a burden that even an incarnate god could not lift from the kingdom.

On the other hand, he considered, picking up his drink, the Senmuts of the world are the heart of every large organization, and the High Priest of Amon must be as hampered and frustrated as Pharaoh in his efforts to get things done.  Perhaps I underrate you, Senmut.  Perhaps I should see you as another manifestation of the balance the gods have built into the universe.  In that case I salute you and your fellow papyrus eaters.  Kings and priests will come and go, but you will be with us always.  He drained the goblet, only half filled by a servant concerned for his master’s health, and let loose an immensely satisfying belch.

“But fortunately I don’t have to be with you always, or even briefly,” he said aloud.  Being an ex-minister of the better-to-be-forgotten Pharaoh meant being anathema to career officials, despite his lingering friendship with the man who was now Pharaoh, and Yanhamu expected and received few invitations to social gatherings.  Besides, even had he not been tainted by his association with Akhenaton, he would still be shunned by good society because of his origins.  All his years in Egypt and all his love for the land did not make him an Egyptian; he was and ever would be in their eyes an Asiatic.  Worse, he was from Canaan, a place that Egyptians felt especially demonstrated the innate superiority of their civilization.  And worse still, he came from one of the poor, semi-nomadic tribes of the region, which branded him as Habiru, in Egyptian estimation at best a tramp or migrant worker, at worst a bandit.  As far as class-conscious little men like Senmut were concerned, no amount of wealth or degree of success could overcome that disability.

Asiatics, and in particular the Habiru, Yanhamu certainly knew, had always been treated with contempt, but the situation had worsened considerably in the wake of Akhenaton’s reign.  Lost in his religious vision, the eccentric king had completely neglected Egypt’s foreign affairs, a factor that contributed to the ultimate desertion of the military to the side of Amon.  Lacking any attention from Egypt, the petty princes of Syria began falling away from Pharaoh’s control, aided from the north by the powerful empire of the Hittites.  Emboldened by the realization that Egypt was doing nothing to preserve her empire, the Hittites themselves were soon on the move and easily swallowed Syria and the Phoenician cities.  Disaffection had meanwhile spread throughout Palestine, and one by one the Egyptian garrisons were overwhelmed, their desperate pleas for more troops unanswered.  The surviving forces were finally withdrawn, and the land was abandoned to local rebels and adventurers, like the notorious Yashuia, leading large bands of Habiru.  Overnight the Egyptian empire had vanished, a casualty of Akhenaton’s devotion to the Aton.

Among those creating havoc in Palestine were many tribes known to Yanhamu from his youth, including his own.  While it seemed to him that they spent most of their time in bloody conflict with one another, he also remembered well his father’s hatred and envy of their settled neighbors.  If anything could unite the desert clans, it was their distrust of the town dweller, and any breakdown in the settled power structure was a signal for an assault on the cultivated lands.  Tribes in northern Canaan and around Kadesh in Sinai, he knew, were already stirring up trouble in central Palestine when he forsook his homeland for Egypt.  With the violence escalating in the face of Egyptian indifference, before long he was followed by a growing stream of refugees, many of them Habiru, who settled in the Nile delta, particularly the eastern fringes.  Egypt had been long accustomed to migration from Palestine, but not in such numbers, and the efforts of frontier officials to control the influx were thwarted by Akhenaton’s lax administration.

As he thought of the Habiru immigrants, Yanhamu found himself unconsciously staring off to the northeast, towards the settlements hidden in the distance and darkness.  Living there were many families from his own tribe, as well as large numbers of Simeonites, who had fled to Egypt after their failure to hold the city of Shechem.  Other tribes were represented, but he was not sure of their identities.  It took a desert mind to remember all the names and complex relationships of the Habiru clans; after a half century of dealing with documents Yanhamu no longer had the sharp memory of the illiterate.

Nor the interest, he thought.  These are not my people, whatever the blood connection.  Years before he had visited a Habiru encampment near Tjeku on the frontier and had been surprised and amused to discover that many of the families considered themselves to be of the “tribe of Yanhamu.”  It was pleasant to speak his mother tongue again, but he quickly realized that beyond the language he had little in common with these squabbling herdsmen and their petty tribal affairs.  He could not help comparing them to the hardworking Egyptian farmers and craftsmen.  Egypt had many shortcomings, but it was bringing ideas and beauty into the world.  The warlike Habiru had yet to leave any more sign of their passing than looted towns and animal droppings.

No, Egypt was his home, and if it never fully accepted him, it would accept his children.  They had inherited their mother’s features and language and despite their father’s origins thought of themselves as Egyptians.  Yanhamu had told them as much as he could remember of the tribal traditions he had learned from his father, but the boys had easily sensed the contempt in his words and dismissed them.  He had as little time for the desert gods of the Habiru as he did for their Egyptian counterparts, and apart from a healthy dose of skepticism his sons had consequently received an orthodox Egyptian religious education at the hands of Asenatis and the ardent Kasa.  Both had taken Egyptian wives, and their children were as distant from the Habiru and their culture as any full-blooded Egyptian.

Which is just as well, thought Yanhamu.  It hardly takes a professional fortuneteller to see that the future of the Habiru in the Two Lands is filled with trouble.  Egypt is back on course, and life is going to get hard for strangers.  Especially for strangers being blamed for all the trouble in Palestine and Syria. 

He knew, and Haremhab and the temple of Amon knew, that Egypt’s imperial problems were Akhenaton’s responsibility.  But when did any country willingly blame itself for its failures when there were convenient outsiders at whom to point the finger?  With order returning to the Nile valley popular feeling against the Habiru was growing, supported by the official attitude of the government and temple.  And the reconquest of Palestine could not be that far off, which meant a further increase in hostility towards Canaanites.  Yanhamu himself had no fears; he enjoyed the protection of Pharaoh, and in any case he was an old man.  With his family secure what happened in the next generation was a matter of interest, but not concern to him.

He yawned and stretched again, trying to ease the lower back pain that had come with standing too long.  The evening chill, carried on the rising north wind, was beginning to penetrate his thin gown, and a sudden shudder caught his body.

Time to retire, perhaps for another losing game of Senit with Asenatis, he told himself.  That or suffer Kasa’s reproaches.

Yanhamu looked a final time towards the northeast, then turned towards the stairs.