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OLD REAL ESTATE
The road southwest from Cairo was not paved. Dr. William Hickox, his hands tightly gripping the wheel, handled the jeep as if it were in open rebellion against him while his passenger clung to the dashboard with his eyes fixed firmly on the speedometer. A person of his particular mass ejected from a moving vehicle traveling at that particular velocity would strike the ground with a force of... Emery Ellenbogen was not a nervous man and took great delight in amusement parks, but as a science writer he was all too aware of the frangibility of human bone. F=ma, he thought. Thank you, Sir Isaac, for telling us all about it.
The seemingly infinite aspect of the Egyptian desert continued to bounce past the jeep and its two occupants, one of whom was becoming aware of a growing sympathy for milkshakes. Emery wondered idly, between jolts, just how much of the yellowness of the desert was due to its natural colour and how much to the brilliant morning sunlight that streamed downwards from somewhere over his left shoulder.
Not that he was in any real position to appreciate it. Barely into his thirties, he had weak eyes and tended to go blind in bright sunlight. He accordingly wore prescription sunglasses for the occasion in place of his usual wire-frames, and a portable patch of shade was provided by a leather cowboy hat. He had nonetheless managed quite against his will to acquire a tan, which only made the blond sideburns visible beneath the hat look more pale.
Nor was he too ecstatic about the heat he had spent part of his childhood in Montreal and had come to prefer a more wintry clime. But he was willing to put up withEgypt on a temporary basis because of what lay ahead.
Hickox, on the other hand, was in his element. At this early hour, he wore no hat at all; when the sun became hotter, he would avail himself of a baseball cap that at present was folded in the back pocket of his khakis. His white hair was matched by a grizzled and shockingly unkempt beard that made him look more like a down-and-out prospector in search of a mule than the respected archeologist he was. It was an affectation of his to grow a similar monstrosity whenever he was on a dig; even when the dig, like this one, was close enough to civilization to allow him to spend his nights in a Cairo hotel.
But he, no less than Emery, was awed at the thought of what might await them that day as the ageless desert swallowed them. If it were only so! Kings in splendour and majesty had trodden this sand where now the two men bumped along in an alien vehicle, and it was the hope of kings that drew them onwards. Each yard they traversed was a year, each mile a century, as distance and the past became one in their minds. Ahead of them lay Sakkara, and at Sakkara lay a tomb. And within that tomb there was a wall...
Several days later, when against all expectation a king had come forth, Emery was asked both as a participant in the event and a writer on such topics to relate in a special supplement to the New York Times (to which he was a semi-regular contributor) exactly how he had come to be there on that day of days. In his own words, he told of the chain of circumstances, ancient and modern, that led him unwittingly into the presence of the king.
"For the last few days, science reporters all over the world have been describing the find. Within these pages the task has fallen to yours truly, who happened to be in Egypt at the time of the discovery. This happy circumstance was due to my having gotten wind of Dr. William Hickox's latest researches.
"To understand my interest, we must back up about five thousand years to the beginning of Egyptian history. Egypt started out as two separate kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. The king who first united the two halves into one country was a fellow by the name of Menes. Now Menes had the misfortune to live at a time when hieroglyphic writing was not yet fully developed, and so records of that time are scarce. Picture-writing did not come into full bloom until a couple of centuries later.
"In fact archeologists are not even sure who Menes was. There are a number of lists of kings made by Egyptian historians one or two thousand years later, but these tend to disagree with each other and also with what had been written on tombs and monuments in the early days. The situation is not helped by the fact that Egyptian kings tended to use four or five different names. Thus the name 'Menes' does not appear on any artifacts of early Egypt; he only turns up on the later king-lists. On monuments and such-like erected in the early days the first king seems to be somebody named Narmer. It is usually supposed that Menes and Narmer are two names for the same person.
"At any rate, Menes or Narmer was the first of a line of eight or ten kings that are known collectively as the First Dynasty. But the lists made later disagree considerably on what the names of these kings were, and even how many there were. If it were possible to read the records left over from those early times, knowledge of these first kings would be considerably improved.
"This is where Dr. Hickox comes in. He has spent most of his life studying hieroglyphic writing. Now it is often assumed by the public that these specialists can read the picture-writing as easily as a gourmand can read a French menu, but this is not the case. While it is true that an expert can do fairly well with later Egyptian writings, the early writing of the First Dynasty is primitive and presents special problems. But Dr. Hickox, building on previous work in this area, felt that he was managing to crack these early inscriptions. He accordingly went to Egypt on a grant from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to study the early tomb-writings.
"The tombs in which he was interested are located at Sakkara, about fifteen miles southwest of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. They are part of an ancient necropolis that contains, among other things, the earliest pyramid ever built in Egypt. It was here at Sakkara, apparently, that the First Dynasty kings were also buried. Their tombs are nothing like the elaborate temples and pyramids of the later kings; they are little more than caves chiseled into the rock. The entrance to each of these early tombs was once covered by a low temple known as a mastaba, which looks like a small pyramid with the top cut off. For no particular reason, the tomb Dr. Hickox chose to study first had once belonged to a fellow named Andjyeb, who of course is the chap about whom all the fuss is now being made.
"I myself had gone to Cairo to interview Dr. Hickox for a book I am writing on the history of the alphabet. He was most kind, and even offered to show me what he had accomplished so far. This was in early February; he had been in and out of the tomb for about five weeks. I went out there with him two days after I arrived.
"The drive from Cairo took about half an hour. I found the work area to consist of a small area where sand had been cleared away to form a trench with a door-sized hole in one side of it. The mastaba that formerly covered the entrance had long ago vanished although its foundations have been excavated. The site is now marked by the tent used by Hickox and his team, which consists of archeologists Chris Norman and John Hastings from the Metropolitan Museum, and Hamid Atef and Saif al-Zawahiri from the Cairo Museum.
"Dr. Hickox led me into the tomb itself. We proceeded down a flight of steps cut into the stone. Electric bulbs that had been hung along one wall lighted the way. The stairs led to a corridor that extended straight ahead. A short distance along we came to an intersection with another corridor leading off to the left and right. I was told that the left-hand turning led to an empty treasure-chamber, and the right-hand to a shrine, where Dr. Hickox was currently working.
"I noticed that the walls seemed to be covered with soot. Dr. Hickox explained that all the tombs of the First and Second Dynasties had been burnt out at some time in the remote past. This is just one more of those things that plague archeologists.
"So far my description sounds like a country stroll. This is because I am by trade a science writer and not a poet, and I naturally fall into a rather objective style. But I must here abandon my usual literary tools and try to convey the extreme sense of time that I felt as I walked through the tomb. It was as if I were carrying a knapsack of centuries on my back. If each year weighed a pound, then my load was two and half tons of sheer time. That's a small elephant. I could simply put out my hand and touch a wall that had been chiseled out of unyielding rock at a time when my own ancestors were still running around painting themselves blue, and centuries before they thought of heaving up some stone slabs to make Stonehenge, which itself wears time like a majestic cloak. In my mind was a vision of an immense procession of golden kings, each more radiant than the last, stretching out endlessly across the desert and vanishing into a desolate future.
"But enough of that-you can see why I stick to science. Dr. Hickox led me down the right-hand corridor into the shrine, where most of the writing was. This room too was empty. Since it becomes important later on, I will mention that there was still a layer of sand on the floor that had seeped in over the centuries.
"Well, I won't ramble on about the hieroglyphs we discussed. That material will be found in my book. After a very interesting day, I returned to Cairo and spent the next week and a half sight-seeing up and down the Nile.
"When I returned to Cairo, I decided to look up Dr. Hickox once more and say good-bye. But when I met him he said, 'I may have found something interesting. You might want to stick around for a while."
"It seems that he had decided to clear away the sand that had accumulated in the shrine as it was obscuring the lower few inches of writing on the wall. When he did so, he noticed a narrow gap between the bottom of the wall and the floor. This was not unusual; the gap had been noticed by earlier investigators. It was known that the writing was on a wall-sized slab of stone that had been fitted over the actual wall of the tomb. This slab was too large and heavy to be thought worth removing. But when the sand had been cleared away, a snake crawled out from the gap. After disposing of this intruder, Dr. Hickox realized that the snake must have come from somewhere behind the wall, and he immediately suspected that the slab might be concealing a doorway. It was at least worth a look.
Copyright © 2006 L. P. Stanley.