Saturday 3 October 2020

Chapter 3 - London, Saturday July 7, 1990

I awoke without difficulty that morning, eager to rise and experience whatever would happen.  I suppose looking back on it now I should have been surprised that one curious chance meeting should have changed me so much, so suddenly.  But was it chance?  Omar seemed to hint otherwise, and yet....

I also found that I was much more observant on the way out to the pyramids.  I have never really looked at things in this way - not so as I would remember them afterwards as noteworthy.  It is perhaps almost unbelievable, but I have almost no memories of my childhood.  It is as if I had been born at the age of 18, at the moment you walked in through the door of that bookshop I used to work in.  No, that is too melodramatic.  But it is true that I remember so little of my schooldays, of what I did as a girl.  I suppose I went to school, sat through lessons, came home, read books, and then went to bed.  I had few really close friends at school - but never really felt the lack of them either, so I was not deprived in that sense.  If I have any one sensation of my first 18 years or so it is of things happening to me - not in a bad sense, just neutral.  It was if I had just stood there and watched things - people, life - come up to me.  But I woke up that morning with a strange feeling that I was beginning to be me.

This is unfair on you, I know.  I know you tried hard to 'draw me out' as you put it, and I did appreciate it.  But in the end I found it very hard to focus on anything.  You probably thought I was stupid: I don't feel stupid, at least not any more.  Perhaps you came to regret marrying me so quickly: I hope not.  It's just that I couldn't hold on to things as they went by.

Anyway, I'm sure you'd rather hear whether Omar turned up again, and what happened at the pyramids.

On the way out to Saqqarah, after we had crossed the Nile and driven alongside it for while, out beyond the outskirts of Cairo, I was very struck by how lush and green the landscape became.  It was as if it had sprung up overnight - I mean I was so unprepared for it after Cairo which is, as you pointed out earlier, such a big urban sort of place.  But suddenly it was like passing through a time-warp.  There were waving palm trees, little blindfolded donkeys circling water-pumps endlessly, camels, horses, bikes and motorbikes everywhere.  And the towns and villages we passed through were filled with so many people, so many laughing, wide-eyed children.  Beautiful colours too, neat mounds of oranges and other fruit for sale at roadside stalls.

I must confess I was a bit disappointed when we got to Saqqarah.  The step pyramid as you called it looked a bit shabby, what with bits missing and sand covering parts of it.  I suppose I was expecting something, well, grander.  You would no doubt say that it was my failure of imagination or of intellect.  Perhaps.  And I wasn't very taken with the small pyramid with the hieroglyphs either, which is why I didn't stay long, and left you in there with the others.  I thought I'd sit outside and enjoy the lovely sun which was shining.

"Might I offer you some help?," a subtly accented and familiar voice said as I stepped up into the blinding light.

I blinked at the form holding out his hand; it was him, of course, dressed slightly differently - his trousers were khaki, his blazer replaced by a light jacket with various pockets down the front - but just as immaculately.  He also had a small rucksack with him.

"How are you today?" he asked solicitously as I took his hand and he helped me out.

"I'm fine, thank you Omar, though a little surprised to see you here."  Pleasantly surprised, though.

"But Janet, did I not say we would be meeting soon?  And what better place than here, at the start of one of the most glorious episodes of our nation's history?"  It was hard for me to argue with that, and before I could gather my thoughts, Omar was gently moving me on.  "Come," he said, I have some things to show you."

"But the others - " I said weakly.

"They will be some time, there is much to see with old king Unas - just as there is much to see down here.  For example," - we had reached the edge of the great court by now - "do see those curious stones between us and the great pyramid?"

"What, half buried in the sand, there?"

"That is correct.  Insignificant now, they once spelt life and death for the king - and for the nation.  These are only copies of course - the originals were once in Memphis, before that city's sad recent decline - but they will help you visualise the scene."  As we walked towards them, Omar continued to explain.  "Many years ago, before even these monuments, before the hieroglyphs, the king was chosen as the gods' representative on earth for only thirty years.  At the end of that thirty years he had to prove he was still king, or face death.  For you must know that an old and weak king will lead to an old and weak people just as a young and powerful king makes a nation mighty: the people draw their strength from the king as the king draws his from the gods.  

Thus, at the end of the thirty-year term the king came to a place - very like this one - with the priests and high officials, the sacred trumpets shrieking, the gongs ringing and the cymbals clashing.  The king's task was to run from one altar to the other, and back again, thirty times.  As he ran, purified sand fell from a tiny hole made in a large holy vessel kept by the start.  If the king succeeded in completing his run before the sand had finished, he was king for another year; if not, instant death, for he was no fit king for the people.  Nor was his course simple: along the way there were tests: wild beasts were tethered between the markers - lions, crocodiles, wolves; elsewhere there were beautiful naked maidens, chosen from the king's harem, covered in only the thinnest of gauzes, begging him to stop by them - for they would win great honour and treasures if they could divert from his course; and there were other attendants with choice foods and drinks bidding him stop and partake - the king had fasted for a day and an hour before this test, and was both hungry and thirsty."

"And did kings fail this test?  Were they killed?" I asked almost in disbelief.

"In the earliest days they were, because the laws were harsh and implacable.  But one day, only a few centuries before this pyramid was built, there was a wise old king who was to run the race again.  He knew that he could never finish the course in time with his old legs, and with his broken wind, and his weak constitution made yet weaker by fasting.  So the day came when he was to be tested.  All the appointed officials were there, the musicians played as usual.  The bung was removed from the great jar, the sand began to fall.  The king began slowly and painfully to hobble round the course.  

A great silence fell over the priests and high officers as they beheld this painful sight.  As time passed, the naked concubines in their gauzes no longer sought to distract him with their beauty: they knew his hour had come.  The attendants forbore from offering him food and drink.  Now, the sand was running out, only a fistful lay in the bottom of the jar.  The king still had six circuits to complete; it was impossible.

Then, he did a strange thing.  He went up to one of the attendants who held a goblet of the finest wine, and took the goblet.  The crowd gasped: was this then to be his end, was this his last act as a man on this earth?  Instead of drinking it, he continued walking round the course until he came to the start, and to the jar.  He went up to the jar as if to inspect how much sand, how much life, he had left.  And then, calmly, and with a truly royal grace, he poured the thick wine into the jar of sand.

The crowd was amazed, the priests confounded.  The damp, sticky sand stopped flowing.  With a confident ease the king proceeded to walk calmly and slowly round the course six more times.  From that day on, no more kings were killed, and the course was completed just as that wise old king had completed it, at ease, and without danger."

"But is this true, Omar?, or just some story to entertain a silly female tourist?"

"It is all true, dear Janet, by all the gods, it is true.  But it is also a story - how else would I know it and be able to tell it to you?" he said earnestly, without a hint of mockery that I could detect.

I was about to ask him to explain, when I noticed the rest of our party coming up.  Omar had noticed too and had silently moved off, peering intently at the Step Pyramid like any other tourist.  I felt dissatisfied with what he had said.  This was not the meeting I had expected; I felt that he had been playing with my gullibility.

But what, you may well ask, John, did I expect?  Often it is easier to say when things are not as we want rather than to say what we do want.  I just felt that what had happened was in some sense not right.  Perhaps things will become clearer later on, when I recount my next meeting with him.

This occurred after we had trooped in to admire the graffiti in the temple - though quite why we should find someone else's scribblings of interest escapes me.  If I wrote my name there, would tourists one day come to look at it?  Yes, after three thousand years, you would probably say.  So we are looking at the time that has elapsed rather than the graffiti themselves?  I suppose you would say that we are looking at the fact that people, actual living people were here, and these marks are the proof.  In which case I can see why graffiti have a certain poignancy.  But personally, I prefer living people now, not three thousand years ago.

Anyway, as we started trooping out towards the underground house - the mastaba with the beautiful reliefs - I got sand and stone in my shoe - I said I'd catch you up.  Again, you probably didn't think it was worth noting in your journal - but then frankly I'm a bit surprised at some of the things you have noted - I mean, what's so special about padlocks being made in China?  But sorry, I'm being unfair again: you never asked anyone to publish your intimate thoughts in this way, it was me who hijacked them.  OK, I promise not to make any more such comments, not to abuse my power over you in this way.

So back to my shoe - which is relevant, as you will see.  I leant against the wall of the Stepped Pyramid to steady myself.  - And felt to my horror my wrist being grabbed by someone.  I was about to scream when I heard Omar say "Janet, - it's only me.  Come, follow me."  And so saying he pulled me gently but firmly inside the pyramid.

Yes, that is what I said, inside the Stepped Pyramid.  As I passed through I saw a stone swing shut behind me - I suppose part of the outer wall was hinged here in some way.  Unlike the other pyramid we went in, the air was beautifully cool and fresh.  It was also dark here.  "Omar!" I said with growing concern.  What on earth was I doing here?  You must be calling me a fool for allowing myself to be placed in this situation.  After all, anything could have happened - rape, murder, anything.

But then Omar switched on a torch he had brought with him.  "Do not be afraid," he said.  "I will show you a wonder."  And taking my hand gently he turned and began to pass deeper into the pyramid.

The stone floor was quite smooth, with hardly any sand - almost as if someone had kept it swept.  The passage widened into a small chamber with beautiful paintings on the walls - we moved through quickly, so I only had time to note a king and a queen on their thrones, with fan-bearers around them, food and drink being offered, and people doing homage.  The colours were incredibly vivid - far more so than those in the other pyramid.

The other side of the chamber the passage continued, sloping upwards now.  There were no steps, just smooth stone.  I wanted to ask Omar where we were going, but it seemed a stupid question - it was clear where we going, but not so clear what we were doing there.  I also felt intimidated by the silence, and the growing sense of tons - millions of tons? - of stone about us.

After climbing for about 30 feet, there was another small chamber.  The stones seemed to change here judging by the walls.  There were more paintings, showing what looked like various gods.  One had the body of a man and the head of a jackal.  Once more we passed through this into another passage, this time much narrower, steeper and only about 4 feet high.  It was quite awkward climbing this in the dark, with only Omar's torch casting its small patch of light.  My sandals were slipping on the rock too.  Omar steadied me as we rose.  My thigh muscles were soon killing me.

Eventually we reached the top of this passage, where there was a very small ante-chamber.  A tiny hole - only about 3 feet high led away from it.  "What?  Through there?" I asked in disbelief.

"We are nearly there, the passage is very short," Omar replied.

Fortunately he was right.  We emerged in a spacious chamber, about twenty feet square, and fifteen feet high.  There was natural light in here, emerging from cavities cut in the walls which narrowed down to slits like those you see in medieval castles, except that these were horizontal, not vertical.  There was a beautiful fresh breeze, too.  In between the cavities the walls were covered with hieroglyphs, in fact with those cartouches, row upon row of them, all in their neat ovals.  Some looked much older than others, some quite recent - well, comparatively.

"Behold the Room of the Heart, for it lies at the very heart and top of the pyramid."

"I don't remember reading about this in any of John's guidebooks," I said.  

Omar smiled.

"I should hope not.  No tourist has ever seen this place, indeed no westerner until this moment.  It is one of the many secrets this site - like so many others in Egypt - has yet to give up.  Nor will it ever be given up: those, like myself, who do know of it, will ensure that its secret remains forever.  For the heart of Egypt, which this spot is, must remain hidden."

"How do you know about it, then?  - Or is that a secret too?"  I was finding all this mystification a bit annoying - why couldn't he just say what he meant, what he wanted?

"I know, let me first show you something, and all will be made clear.  Do you see these cartouches - you know the significance of them, yes? Good - these cartouches which start on the east wall and work round the south to the west?  These are the cartouches of the pharaohs of all Egypt from the first - Menes, also known as Narmer - through Zozer, the same who built this pyramid, through Khufu, known perhaps as Cheops to you, through to the greatest of them all, Ramses II, and beyond to some of the lesser pharaohs who let their grip loosen over the land."

"So, what, this is a list of kings up until when - weren't the Ptolemies the last rulers of Egypt?"

"Almost correct, my Janet.  The Ptolemies - degenerates that they were - were indeed the last public rulers of Egypt, before the country fell to the Roman barbarians, but see here: this is the last Ptolemy..."

"But the list goes on for 70 or 80 more: who are they all?"

"They, like the others are the pharaohs of Egypt."

"But you said - "

"I said that the Ptolemies were the last public rulers.  It is true, they lost their manifest power, but they did not disappear.  The desert is the perfect place for concealment: where a city has a thousand ears and eyes and tongues, the desert has only the all-seeing but silent sun."

"So," I said, trying make sense of all this, "you're saying that the Egyptian royal dynasty lived on, in hiding, for hundreds of years.  After the conquest by the Roman Empire."

"Hidden, dear Janet, not in hiding.  Kings do not hide, but they may chose not to show themselves - until the time is right."

"So whose was the last cartouche?"

"Look, Janet - ah!, if only you could read the signs, you would see a form similar to that found the length and breadth of the country.  See here - beneath the sedge and the bee, beneath the words 'son of Re': Usermare Rameses."

"But I thought Ramses lived three thousand years ago?"

"So he did, Janet, Ramses II.  But this is the sign of the sixteenth Ramses."

He looked at me expectantly.  

"I'm sorry, I don't see what you're getting at.  Could you...?"

"But is it not clear?  The name Usermare, worn down by time, became Usmare, then Umar, then..."  He paused again, as if unwilling to spoil the effect he was seeking.

"Oh, you mean Omar is the same name as Usermare?"

"More than that.  Ah! Janet, I see this is harder to grasp than I thought.  I have said that the kings live on, that the line has not ended, that we will rise up one day - soon - and claim back what we lost so long ago."

I finally understood.

"So you mean you - the Copts - are the descendants - that - surely not, Omar?  Are you seriously saying that you are - "

"Janet, you have understood, say no more.  You are right, this is unbelievable.  But how did I know how to enter where no one else does?"

"Well, you said yourself that others also know - "

"True.  Yes, I owe you more proof - especially before I reveal the one last thing to you.  Very well, we must in any case be getting back before your party misses you.  Fear not, I will speak to you again, and allay your fears.  Come, let us descend."

I was still trying to grasp everything Omar had said to me as he led me back to the bottom, and out through the swinging stone to the sunlight.  Was he mad?  Was there some crazy ulterior motive?  Was he just playing me along for the hell of it?  And yet his fervour, the fire in eyes - and it is true, he did know of the secret entrance....  I felt frustrated that every time he seemed near to explaining everything I had to rush off back to you and the others.  I was beginning to resent the restrictions your itinerary was imposing on me.  I had to find out what Omar meant - and who exactly he was.

Since I did not expect to see him again that day, I tried hard to concentrate on the sights you were showing us.  I too was very moved by the reliefs in Ptah's tomb.  They were so vivid, he felt like an old friend of the family.  I wanted to talk to him, ask him how his wife and children were, almost.  And that rabbit coming out of his burrow with a grasshopper in his mouth - the tiny details everywhere.

I certainly preferred it to that ghastly bull-place.  I don't like the dark at the best of times, but this was positively spooky.  And as you said, it looked very unsafe too.  The deeper we walked into this huge morgue, the more I was conscious of the desert above me.  What would have happened if the roof had caved in?  And those huge, stupid coffins for bulls.  'Why?' I wanted to shout.  All that effort, the hundreds, thousands of people who worked for no reason.  It's just such a typically male thing to do, worshipping bulls, burying them like gods.  I just wanted to get out of the place.

I was about to go when suddenly I saw Omar at the back of the chamber where the last huge coffin was kept.  He motioned to me to come over.  But as I did so you called out for me to 'come along'.  I didn't want to be left in there, even with Omar, and I certainly didn't want you coming to get me and finding Omar there - you'd already seen him with me once, in the cafe at the Egyptian Museum.  Even you would have got suspicious by then.

So I quickly went up to Omar.

"I'm sorry, I must go"

"But Janet - " he seemed really pained " - I must show you something here, I must prove to you that my words were not false, that I am no - for I know the thought must have occurred to you - not mad or dangerous to know.  You must let me show you."  He was almost pleading.

"Not now, Omar, it is just not possible."

"Tomorrow, then, promise me."

"How can I come here without John knowing?"

"At night, we must meet in Cairo, and then come out here."

"But Omar - "

"Promise me Janet, I beg of you."

John, I'm sorry, but I had to do it.  I had to know.

"Very well, Omar."  This was madness, but mine, not his.

"Tonight, then"

"No - not tonight.  We are rising very early to go along to the Giza pyramids - the night will be short."

"The next then."

I breathed in slowly and deeply.

"Very well, then."

"At midnight, outside your hotel, I will meet you...."

You called again, John.

"Janet," Omar said as I turned to go, "you will come, you will keep your word?"

"I will keep my word."  And then I left.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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