In All His Glory
Scroll One:The Vampire
There is a lot of prejudice against the Israelites in Egypt, but you learn to live with it.
Even when you don Egyptian clothes to go into the marketplace, people still point their fingers at you and jeer at your accent when you try to speak some of the words you have mastered during your year’s stay at Thebes.
Sometimes you feel so dispirited and homesick that you stay in your room for weeks at a time. You keep your back to the window to blot out the sight of the brown River Nile and the thin strip of green on each side of its muddy course. You put your fingers in your ears to smother the sound of the guttural shouts of the oarsmen on the prows and the jangling singsong chants of the slaves on the king’s galleys. You stop up your nose to blot out the smell of burning charcoal and fried frogs’ legs and cockroaches sizzling in rancid oil. You long for the sight of a tree and you miss the chirrup of the sparrows and the caw of the hoopoe and the long sigh-sigh of the turtledove.
You are a stranger in a strange land, an alien whose dreams are not the dreams of the people around you — whether they be the richly-clothed servants of Pharaoh; or the loin-clothed tillers along the thin strips of mud-caked fields; or the sinewy oarsmen at the helms of their boats; or the be-turbaned, striped-gowned traders in oils and spices; or the white-robed bakers of small-loafed crusty breads and fingered date cakes; or the sellers of rose-flavored, sweet-tasting water — peddlers in short brown tunics, with their trumpets slung over their shoulders. You have nothing in common with any of them or their customers. Their hopes are not your hopes, their dreams are not your dreams, their pleasures are not your pleasures, their land is not your land. Only in their sighs and in their sorrows is there a point where their lives touch yours, is there a thread along which a mutual sympathy can grow and flow and be nurtured for a minute, for a second until the thread is cut and all of us retreat into our own shells of existence.
So whether I gaze out of the window in my room, or stand with the jostling buyers in the marketplace, or elbow my way through the narrow, shaded streets, or sit at the long table in a crowded corner of the tavern, drinking my beer through a straw, I am reminded all the time that I have no friends, only scoffers and enemies. I am suffered to exist because Pharaoh has so ordained. But it was over a year ago that he welcomed me so indifferently. Now he has probably forgotten me completely. I am alone.
Often at night, just as the sun is sinking behind the hills across the Nile where there is a vast cemetery for kings and noblemen, I make my way up to the roof of the palace. It is very pleasant up here in the cool of the evening. A soft breeze sweeps across the hills where the illustrious dead lie buried in their “houses of eternity” and the dying rays of the sun lend a mystical, other-worldly air to that place of incorruptible skin and dead men’s bones. It is a place that we Jews would shun. But the Egyptians do not see it in that light. They spend half their lives building their own tombs. To them, even while they are still living, their own tomb is a place of refreshment and rest. They see it as a pleasant spot to take their family for a feast or picnic.
There are no clouds in the sky. The sun always sets the same way, day after day. Enough! I do not look across the waters to the west at the busy scenes along the wharves and hills of the Necropolis. Neither do I look to the north-west where the great temple-tomb-pyramid-shrine erected more than a thousand years ago by the Theban king Mentuhotep points its pyramidal cone to the sky — though it is the highest and handsomest building in all Thebes. I do not look to the east either, over the roof-tops of the city to the edge where a thin strip of green cultivated land is so quickly encroached upon by the drifting sands of the desert. Nor do I look to the south at the great temple of Ammon-Ra at Luxor. I look to the north at the even greater temple at Karnak. The red sandstone of its vast complex of buildings gleams even redder in the slantwise light. To me, Karnak symbolizes everything that is wrong with Egypt and the Egyptians. It is a place where hundreds of different gods of wood and stone, with hybrid animal heads and human bodies, are venerated and richly housed in palaces far greater than that afforded to the living — even Pharaoh himself — where even the dead become gods. It is a place where the priests wax fat and wealthy, thanks to the endowments of credulous supplicants and the rents and income from undeserved and unworked-for inheritances.
There is no day of rest in Egypt, no sabbath on which the gods are worshipped and work is laid aside. There are festival days coinciding with such things as the annual flooding of the Nile and the reaping of the harvest, and there are occasional festivals in honor of some victorious general or some special act of clemency or generosity on the part of Pharaoh. But in non-festival weeks, day follows day with monotonous sameness and regularity. Each day is as fine and sunny and hot as its predecessor. There is rarely a cloud in the sky, never a single drop of rain.
At first I tried to keep up the sabbath as my own private celebration, but in time it all seemed rather pointless and I let it slip. I would be an exile until the end of my days in this hot, burning and unpromising land.
So I had no idea what day it was when the guard entered my room. I had never seen him before. I had just finished my early morning meal — eating a meal before midday was one of the less onerous customs I had to get used to — when he came in. At first I took no notice. I thought it was a servant come to clear away. But when he seized me roughly by the arm and propelled me to my feet, I saw that he was armed and wore the uniform of one of the temple guards.
I started to protest, but the man took no notice of my halting Egyptian and walked me quickly along the corridor. I sang out to one of the servants to help me but the fool took no notice of my plea and went on about his business — he was carrying a jug of wine towards some inner chamber — as if I didn’t exist.
I was ushered down a flight of stairs at the foot of which I spied two of the palace guards. As we drew within earshot I called out to them, “Who is this man? Where is he taking me?” But they also took no notice whatsoever as I was hauled past them by the guard. I debated whether I could trip him up and make my escape, but to where would I flee? If Pharaoh wanted me dead, he would have had me killed long before this, instead of assigning me a room in his palace and having his servants tend to my meals. Besides this man was not a palace guard but wore the white and gold uniform of the temple. A human sacrifice? The gods of Egypt were not such as those in Canaan and Philistia.
The guard had a firm grip on my arm and he was powerfully built. Besides, despite the fear in my heart, the apprehension in my mind, I welcomed this interruption to my daily monotonous, dispiriting routine. I fell into a quick step beside the guard and smiling up at him — he was a Nubian at least a hand’s breadth taller than me — signaled to him to take his hand off my arm.
“Truly I will follow you,” I said. “If you will not tell me where we are going, I will follow you nonetheless.” I was proud of this little speech but the Nubian still took no notice — maybe his understanding of Egyptian was considerably less than my own — and continued to impel me along beside him with even greater haste than before.
As we left the palace behind and hurried through the narrow twisting streets, my fear returned. I noticed that one sight of the Nubian in his temple regalia was enough to induce the people to make way for us. No matter how closely pressed the crowd ahead, people parted ranks with celerity as soon as they saw us coming.
We passed by the marketplace — the hawkers of meat and the sellers of perfume both seemed to be doing an especially brisk trade this morning — and reached the outskirts of the town. There, just inside the gates, stood a magnificent chariot of silver and gold. Two chestnut stallions with white-feathered headdresses were impatiently pawing the ground on either side of the shaft. The Nubian motioned me into the chariot and then jumped in front of me, squeezing me over into the back corner. An attendant handed him the reins and we were off, bouncing along the unevenly paved stones at the city gates.
I had never been in a chariot like this before. The wheels were unusually large and came almost up to the rim of the carriage, close to the level of my hand where I was gripping the side of the chariot. I stared at the spinning wheel, fascinated by the speed at which it was turning. It seemed to brush past my hand but a finger’s breadth away. If I moved my hand just a fraction it would be caught and mangled in the spinning spokes of the wheel and my whole body catapulted over the side of the chariot. Wherever it was we were heading would no longer be a cause of concern. Where was I going? What was happening to my whole life? My youth was ebbing away just as uselessly and just as without purpose as these arid, useless, desert sands that neither supported life nor provided a purpose for life. Think of it! If I moved my hand but a sparrow’s breadth, for me the whole mystery of life and death would be solved.
As we came out of the gates of Thebes and raced along the perimeter of the cultivated lands, I was almost blinded by the stinging sand kicked up by the horses’ hooves in front and the spinning wheels at the side. The chariot bounced along the uneven road, swaying and jolting dangerously. But the Nubian did not slacken the horses’ pace. He didn’t even grip the rail but held the reins in both hands and balanced himself with his feet on the floor like a sailor on the shifting deck of a ship. As for me, I pressed my thighs as hard as I could against the back of the chariot and held on to the sides with both hands, taking shelter from the flying sand behind the broad back of the Nubian.
When we had gone about two leagues, the Nubian slackened pace and I saw with amazement that we were entering the main gates of the great temple of Ammon-Ra at Karnak. We raced swiftly down a stone courtyard flanked on each side by a series of identical ram-headed sphinxes carved in stone. We drew up at a small doorway. A servant darted forward. The Nubian jumped out of the chariot, pushing me before him. He threw the reins to the servant and quickly propelled me through the doorway. We were in the great hypostyle hall of massive, decorated columns. But I had little time to glance around as I was hurried down the main corridor and out into another courtyard, between two pylons — one decorated with lotus plants and the other with papyrus, commemorating the union of Upper and Lower Egypt — and then through a bewildering maze of corridors. If I was to be kept prisoner, I would have no chance of finding my way out of this place. Occasionally we passed a group of guards or priests, but most of the corridors were silent and deserted, our footsteps echoing hollowly on the stone floor. Finally we passed out of the maze of corridors into a small courtyard bordering an artificial lake. On my left towered the great pointed obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut, its golden spire glittering like the tip of a burnished arrow in the blinding sun.
The Nubian pointed to the lake. It was surprisingly empty. I would have thought that birds and waterfowl would have found its glistening surface an inviting refuge from the heat of the day. But there was nothing in the lake at all. It seemed to be about a man’s height deep, the water so clear you could see right to the bottom. Not even a silver flash or a ripple or a bubble rising to the surface, signaled the presence of fish. But right in the middle of the lake, four half-submerged logs skimmed the surface of the water.
A small parapet separated the lake from the courtyard and on this parapet the Nubian motioned me to sit. He then went away, disappearing through one of many doorways.
I looked around very carefully and very casually — but I might have saved myself the trouble. I was completely alone.