Excerpts from THE RIVER THROUGH

Egypt 1470 bc

Remis is an expert on the written word, employed in the planning department in the Great Temple at Karnak. Bored, he thinks his knowledge is wasted checking the accuracy of hieroglyphs on new design projects.

Hatsepsut is the queen regent behind the pharaoh, Thutmose III, age 14 and she makes the most of her temporary power with daring plans to re-write foreign policy and extend the borders of Egypt southwards into Nubia, among other things. She also has some creative building plans to extend the Temple of Amun.

The high priest, Piank, thinks that her role as regent is to serve, not to take over and he takes pleasure in stirring up the priesthood to be as uncooperative as possible. He also has a master plan involving a Sumerian named Atuk but his ingrained distrust of foreigners makes him hesitant. He sends an envoy to meet him in his ship in Memphis for an assessment to be made on his credibility (and sanity) but the envoy dies before he gets there, bitten by a cobra.

Remis requests a transfer to the library where his skills would be put to better use and as he’s about to put his case to Piank, he’s offered the job as replacement envoy. Overwhelmed by the opportunity for higher rank, he jumps at it, only to regret it afterwards when he considers his ineptness for the job.

No details of the purpose of the meeting are given – only instructions to maintain absolute secrecy, listen to what Atuk has to say and report back with the details. 

It’s the time of the Royal Tide, the pharaoh’s pilgrimage  to the holy of holies in Memphis at new year – the beginning of the season of the rising of the Nile………….

THE RIVER THROUGH

dreamstime_l_6758498Memphis

Thoughts of Qespa still lingered but as the journey was coming to an end he started worrying again about his role as envoy.  The boatman steered towards a landing and as they approached there was enough light to see the temple of Ptah in the background, dominating the skyline of Memphis. Older than the temple in Karnak it was ancient with several additions from different times all joined together over a large area. This was the first time Remis had been this far north and he knew of some early spelling written in the oldest parts.  He was hoping to investigate if he got the chance.

It was a comfortable thought and a return to the familiar world of Karnak to keep back his foreboding.

Too dark to see clearly, the jetty was decked out ready for the Royal Tide  in the morning. A priest hurried over as they came alongside to tell them the area was out of bounds.

‘I have urgent business with the high priest.’ Remis held on to a mooring post to hold the boat steady and showed his seal before tying up. A novice was called to escort him to the palace so he grabbed his small parcel of things and followed him up the steps after thanking the boatman. They walked through dark gardens  so he stayed close to his guide so he didn’t lose him. Lamps were lit in the great hypostyle halls but shadow obscured most of the other architecture.

Soon a smell of incense permeated the air as the sound of many voices came closer and the lighting was improved by rows of flaming torches either side of an avenue leading to the palace.

Steps ascended from the ground to an elevated terrace with gardens that led to the crowded Audience Area with parapets open to views of the city and the Nile. Remis could see the temple stretching to a great distance.

A banquet was under way attended by priests and nobility and after a quick look round, his guide stood on tiptoes looking over the heads of the crowd seeking the high priest, KaThoth.

‘Stay here and I’ll see if I can find him.’

‘Explain that I’m Piank’s envoy. He’s expecting me.’

Remis, now alone in the company of strangers  drew some curiosity from the people around him. He asked a servant for wine and struck an important pose to hide his nervousness and the apprehension he was feeling.

‘I detect a priest from Karnak. Am I right?’

A well presented man with a friendly look stood beside him.

‘Piank’s envoy, here with information for the high priest about tomorrow.’

‘Ah, welcome to Memphis. Will you be attending at the Mansion of the Phoenix?’

‘No. I’ll be meeting Piank here tomorrow evening and probably return to Karnak when it’s all over if I can find a boat to take me back.’

‘The mason’s are conveying an obelisk to Karnak. I know because I am the architect for a construction project on the southern end of the processional way. You could travel with them. I’ll mention it to KaThoth’s scribe as a possibility if you like?’

Remis  had no travel plan to return because he hadn’t thought that far ahead but now he gave it some attention—it could be a good idea. A long journey in another uncomfortable vessel made him think twice and he hesitated. A Sumerian with a woman by his side was listening, apparently in the company of the architect who switched his attention to introduce them.

‘Two other recent arrivals to Memphis. This is Atuk, a merchant from Ur and his companion, Zoeshi.’

Remis was undone for a moment as he did some quick thinking, wondering what to do now that he’d found his target so unexpectedly. ‘I’m pleased to meet you. I am Remis.’

Atuk had a thick accent but his grasp of Egyptian was sufficient to be understood. He nodded respectfully. ‘I am expecting to meet with a priest called Ahmose to discuss a matter of interest to Piank. Did I hear you say that you’ve seen him recently?’

Challenged to come clean, Remis needed privacy to talk openly. ‘Ahmose was bitten by a cobra and died recently. Perhaps I can be of some assistance if we can find somewhere to talk.’ He glanced about, searching.

Turning to the architect he said he’d be grateful if he would arrange his passage in the mason’s barge and then excused himself to lead Atuk and Zoeshi to a corner with a table piled with fruit.  Two priests talking together were the only other people in  the vicinity and after inspecting the selection on offer, they took some grapes and wandered off.

‘I am here as a replacement for Ahmose to hear what you have to say and report back to Piank tomorrow. He impressed on me the need for secrecy and I’m waiting to meet the high priest to arrange some privacy.’

‘We’ll undoubtedly be listened in on if that happens so I suggest my vessel which is anchored over there.’ He pointed to the only foreign ship in the harbour on the opposite bank.

Undecided, Remis had his doubts about abandoning the arrangement with KaThoth who would be looking for him some time soon.

‘It’s the wisest course for discretion Remis.’ Said Zoeshi who he assumed, hadn’t been following the conversation because she didn’t understand the language. Her accent was almost non-existent and she gazed at him as he turned the idea over. He liked her instantly, recognizing a familiar something that brought Qespa to mind.

She solved his dilemma. ‘I’ll remain here and explain that you’ve departed to the temple grounds with Atuk to talk privately. I won’t mention that you’ve gone to our ship.’

Remis was almost affronted by the very idea of a deception designed to trick the high priest, as well as making a judgement on his snooping intentions but he realized she was right. When he considered the outcome, he knew without a doubt that Piank would approve.

Atuk led him through the talkative crowd to another exit and from there down wide steps to a stable-yard where the horses of the guests were tethered. The grooms were close by under a large canopy enjoying their own feast with less noise than the upstairs crowd.

Atuk seemed to know his way so Remis followed him round a sacred lake and through the gardens. Very few people were about as they took the road to the river where one of Atuk’s crew was waiting in a boat. A soldier patrolling the area demanded that they account for themselves and Remis was surprised to see Atuk show Piank’s seal.

‘What is your purpose in Egypt?’

‘I am a merchant from the ship over there carrying incense and cedar from Phoenicia for the great temple in Karnak.’ He pointed it out.

Suspicious, the soldier inspected the seal after walking closer to a brazier for the light—a foreigner with a seal of high office was not a common thing and he was dubious until Remis showed his seal and they were waved on.

They sailed across the river, catching the light wind that took them to a high sided vessel with three masts. A rope ladder was dangling and Atuk held it steady so Remis could go first. This was not an easy thing because it kept twisting until he got the hang of the balance required to stop the spin, uncomfortably aware of Atuk looking up his kilt.

When he reached the deck on hands and knees, two crew members helped him up, trying to restrain their laughter, so it wasn’t the ideal arrival for an envoy on his first mission.

Atuk joined him with more grace and led him down a companionway to the lower deck, waving Remis ahead to a cabin where a young lad was opening a large shutter or hatchway to give some air and a view across the water. Remis stooped to look out and saw the temple standing weightless in the mist on the opposite bank and caught the sound of slow water slapping against the hull a few feet down. He was filled with a voluptuous sense of moment. His new life was one of infinite possibilities, stepping from one unique experience to the next.

The cabin was a comfortable space, smelling strongly of cedar and stacked with interesting objects of merchandise jammed tightly between the bulkheads. Goblets and a jug were laid on a table with dates, bread and olives. A lamp burning animal fat with the flame sending up a thin line of black smoke was the only light, casting an exotic glow. Atuk poured wine and handed him an ornate copper goblet.

‘And so Remis? Do you have news for me from Piank?’

‘No messages if that’s what you mean. My task is to hear what you have to say and convey the details to him when we meet again tomorrow.’

Atuk sprawled on a makeshift couch of cushions and animal skins and indicated to his guest to sit on the chair by the open shutter. ‘Be careful of Sumerian wine. It’s stronger than Egyptian.’

The way he said it inferred that it was also superior but after a mouthful Remis had another view. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’

Atuk ran his eyes over him for some time as they drank, saying nothing.

Uncomfortable with the unfriendly approach and the silence, Remis took the plunge.

‘I am curious to hear what you have to say.’

‘Straight to the point—I like that in a priest. Your shipwrights do not know how to build an ocean-going vessel capable of voyaging the high seas. What do you know about ships Remis? This one was built in Tyre (Phoenicia) as an improvement on the galley craft you might be more familiar with. It has three sails so one tier of oarsmen is sufficient, rather than the usual two. This means more space for cargo and greater speed—a fine ship built by experts.’

Remis knew nothing about ships but if Atuk and his Sumer crew had sailed it to Memphis, what happened to the Phoenicians?

‘How did you come by it?’

‘The Hyksos attacked it and took command when it docked in Atlanka to replenish its water and food supplies. They sailed to Qampla and tried to sell the cargo to a Sumer merchant but I and some brave men were on hand to wrest it from them and bring it here where it was originally headed.’

‘Why not return it to the Phoenicians?’

‘It’s an opportunity given by the Gods Remis. I have brought four shipwrights from Ur, highly skilled in keel construction. If Piank is in agreement, this ship can be hidden somewhere and carefully inspected for its construction details, then my ship builders will show your shipwrights how to build a copy. Of course you give yours Egyptian features. When you’ve made your drawings and understand the theory, the ship can be returned to its rightful owners.’

‘I wonder what the Phoenicians would think about that!’

‘They wouldn’t be pleased so it’s important to act before the harbour fills up again with foreign traders who might tell tales.’

‘There’d be serious consequences if they found out.’

‘So let’s make sure they don’t by acting quickly. Your shipwrights can learn the secrets of the finest fleet on the high seas and that will be a great coup for your master. One that will put him in favour with your people.’

‘But why would Egypt want an ocean-going vessel—we use the river.’

‘Your queen has designs to trade independently with Punt, to sidestep the current trading arrangements and the high tariffs levied by merchants.’

Myrrh came from Kush—a precious commodity in Egypt and very expensive. A direct line to the supplier would have enormous benefits. The Red Sea would be the starting point for the voyage but there was 150 miles of desert to cross to get to it.

Remis heard talk in the planning department about recent attempts to build sea-going ships for long journeys but it hadn’t come to much. The Nile galleys lacked something that was beyond the understanding of the boat builders. It was a joke with the masons who liked to poke fun at their ineptness but this daring plan could bring them up to date and change everything. Hatsepsut had some creative plans for Egypt and he felt a glow of pride to be assisting. Remis could see the advantages of extending the reach of Egypt to the ocean—not that he would want to undertake such a voyage away from his sacred land. Who would want to die somewhere abroad, away from the only route to the afterlife with no resting place for their human remains?

Unlike other powerful nations, Egypt did not venture into the sea with a navy—they were happy where they were and regarded the other inhabitants of the known world as barbaric.

Atuk was watching him turn it over in that arrogant way of his before he clouded over again.

‘I and my men are out on a limb here and if I detect the slightest inclination for deceit or betrayal I will dice you and your master into small pieces and feed you to the crocodiles.’

He unsheathed his dagger to stab an olive that went into his mouth followed by a large gulp of wine. Malevolent eye contact added certainty to the value of the threat.

Remis had an urgent desire to urinate and very nearly made a dash for the upper deck. Instead, he held his gaze and waited, bringing his fear under control. Outrage took hold of him next and he stood up.

‘I will not be talked to so disrespectfully Atuk. I came here in good faith and you treat me like a common thief. If you intend to prosper in Egypt I suggest you strike a friendlier tone.’

‘Good for you priest.’

‘And don’t call me priest. My name is Remis, envoy and your link to a successful outcome for your idea.’

‘Your high priest is instrumental in this idea and he will be eager to hear of an even greater success than he expected or are you here to introduce a new clause?’ His eyes were glittering with menace and his voice was raised.

Stoked up now, Remis matched him on volume. ‘No clauses—my understanding of this arrangement was none existent until now—my role is only as a link. Piank gave me no details so everything I’ve heard from you is unexpected. I can tell you this though: Piank is unlikely to agree to piracy by proxy, but I could be wrong.

In his anger, Atuk had exaggerated his complicity with Piank and he realized in time that it was futile stirring up the messenger. Truthfulness was a better option so he calmed himself and lowered his voice.

‘When I said instrumental I meant that he knew I was bringing a proposal about ship building but he didn’t know I’d be arriving with a captured vessel. An opportunity presented itself and I made a spontaneous decision to act on it because it has excellent possibilities for him.’

‘Ah—so he’ll be as surprised as I am. He might also share my view that this is a dangerous undertaking and one that could undermine our relationship with Phoenicia.’

Remis had a problem on his hands and no experience to fall back on but a decision was required and quick about it.

Both were thoughtful during a period of silence.

When Atuk sailed into Memphis he was jubilant. Capturing this ship was a masterly stroke but the unexpected resistance from Remis had undermined his confidence. Had he miscalculated?

Without an agreement from the high priest he was an embarrassment, likely to have his head lopped off in a show of solidarity with the Phoenicians.

Remis searched for a wise decision that would meet with Piank’s approval as Atuk looked on, groping for a more persuasive approach. He instinctively gripped the handle of his dagger as a response to his fear of failure—an act that wasn’t missed by the envoy who took a few paces back.

‘Forgive me Remis and accept my apologies—I have difficulty with the unfamiliar communication techniques of Egypt. Shouting at each other will solve nothing so we shall calm down and be friends. Piank will appreciate what’s on offer I’m sure. It is a golden opportunity but it does need you to explain it to him in a positive light. I am a stranger here but I am a nobleman like yourself and I would like to learn about Egypt, I know nothing of it.’ He encouraged Remis to drink up before he refilled his goblet and sat down with a grin.

Disarmed by the complete turnaround but still wary, Remis sat down again to lean with his elbow against the sill of the hatchway and gave a nervous laugh.

‘You lead an adventurous life Atuk. Tell me how Zoeshi manages the rope ladder.’

‘We lower her on a gantry in a chair. The very one that you are sitting on now. You could make use of  it when we return if you like?’

Ignoring the manly poke, Remis shrugged and adjusted to the fact that he was dealing with a foreigner. ‘She seems an unlikely passenger for what must have been a gruelling journey from Ur.’

‘She speaks Egyptian fluently and will act as interpreter for the shipwrights. My Egyptian is limited as you can tell’

‘What about the galley slaves, the oarsmen?’

‘All Sumerian replacements for obvious reasons. We couldn’t have the original gang observing our activities in Egypt could we?’

Remis nodded but ignored Atuk’s intent look that was demanding a positive response and drank his wine quietly, observing the temple again.

‘Can you think of anything else Piank needs to know?’

‘Haste is the message. Kindly impress this on him as the first priority—there’s no time to waste. This ship is one of many Phoenician vessels that trade with you on a regular basis so the secret is safe for the moment. Make sure you keep it that way  so you can get to work stealing their design.’

Remis nodded, still resistant to the idea. ‘I’ll communicate all this to Piank tomorrow and give you his decision afterwards.

Satisfied that he had a good understanding of the arrangement, he gave a short tour of Egypt and its principles, some of its Gods and the changing shape of the river through the seasons of the year. The travelogue was dotted with occasional questions from Atuk along with more topping up.

The wine eased the tension and when they returned to the deck Remis had an alcoholic glaze that bolstered his courage but didn’t help his technique with the rope ladder. The laughter from the crew was unrestrained as he lay flat on the deck so he could wriggle back to locate the rungs. Atuk quietened them abruptly with a command and took his arm to help him.

In the boat Remis noticed that Atuk was in a sombre mood and realized it was probably his fault so he tried to cheer him up.

‘You’re not a merchant or a shipwright. Am I right in thinking you’re a military man Atuk?’

‘No Remis—the ship was taken from the Hyksos by surprise at night when they were ashore, most of them drunk. The men who took the ship were an armed escort for the caravan I  travelled with as part of my journey to Egypt with shipwrights – as arranged with Piank.

There was a greater depth to this and an ultimate purpose far beyond ship building and Atuk wished that he had stuck to the original plan and not listened to Kahook (the mystic merchant who led the caravan) whose love for gold outweighed his wisdom. The cargo and the ship was a rich bonus only if it met with approval from the high priest but his intermediary hadn’t displayed any enthusiasm at all.

‘Piank might think it’s a wonderful plan and he did tell me not to make any judgements so please ignore my doubtful comments.’ Remis switched back to tourism.

‘There will be a great feast tomorrow as part of the celebrations. Drunkenness will be rife but it’s an opportunity for you to find out more about Egypt. There’ll be entertainment and a festive spirit throughout the city.’

‘What are they celebrating?’

‘The beginning of our year when the river floods. This one is just right but some years it’s too low and others flood us out so it’s a time to give thanks. There is a place of pillars lining the entrance to The Mansion of the Phoenix not far from here, where our holy of holies, the Benben is housed. This  Bja-Kam (iron meteorite) was sent from heaven as a sign in the beginning. Venerated by Amun it served as the primal mound for the Bennu bird who perched apon it and called to all the things that live and breathe, to be.’

Remis could have gone on, it was a piece of scripture he was very fond of but in the company of this barbarian he’d said enough.

Hatsepsut as the regent of the boy king would form a link with Amun by prostrating herself before the Benben to give thanks after making sacrifice.

‘The Egyptian people spend much time with their gods I hear.’

‘We do and we make no apologies for it.’

Remis had the feeling Atuk wanted more of his company but the high priest could be grieved about him slipping away, so his primary objective now was to soothe him. In the morning he was hoping to see Qespa again as she passed by in her barge but he’d get no opportunity to meet up—she’d be too involved in the Mansion and the royal feast afterwards. The next day he’d be travelling in the opposite direction unless Piank had other plans for him.

The audience area was quieter than it had been—the throng were mostly seated and engaged in relaxed conversation. It took some time to find Zoeshi who was talking to a priest by a brazier about the festival of drunkenness, soon to convene in the temple of Mut in Karnak. Zoeshi was pressing for more details when they found her.

‘Was she flirting with him?’ Thought Remis as Zoeshi saw them and drew her hand down the priest’s arm in a familiar caress. He stood when they approached and she introduced him as the high priest’s messenger, waiting for their return.

‘KaThoth would like to see you Remis. Please follow me to his chambers?’

Atuk and Zoeshi murmured their goodbyes knowing that he was in for a grilling.

He felt light hearted now it was over and he was getting the hang of it and congratulated himself on a job well done. The experience with Atuk was well managed if difficult but he came through with the information he came for.

He followed the priest, knowing that the higher authority was Piank and Remis had followed his instructions.

Text Copyright © Garth Meaney 27 August 2015

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