Sun gods are popular in polytheistic cultures, for the solar orb is one of the most conspicuous of natural objects. Its effects are equally conspicuous and very important to primitive peoples; before the discovery of fire the sun furnished the sole source of both heat and light, and its dawning banished the dangers and demons of darkness. It could also wither crops and blast humans with deadly heat; obviously it was a power to be conciliated. The Egyptian sun god, most commonly known as Re, was always an important deity. But during the Fifth Dynasty something happened to give him even greater preeminence, so that he became Top God of Egypt.
Unfortunately we have only the scantiest scraps of evidence on which to base the theory that a religious coup d’état took place, and almost no knowledge of how it came about. We know that at this time the title “Son of Re” became a standard part of the royal titulary, and that the kings of the Fifth Dynasty erected huge sun temples more impressive than their tombs. And we have a popular tale that gives an allegorical version of the triumphs of Re. So let us consider the story of King Khufu and the Magicians.
Once upon a time it happened that the great king Khufu found himself suffering from a painful royal disease: boredom. So he summoned his sons and commanded that they entertain him, each with a tale of wonder or of magic. The first tale is lost; it dealt with events during the reign of Djoser of the early Third Dynasty.
The second story was told by Prince Khafre, who informed his father that the events he would narrate took place under Nebka, another Third Dynasty king. Khafre’s was a moral tale about an adulterous wife who was married to a magician—not the easiest type to deceive. When he found out about his wife’s duplicity, the magician fashioned a crocodile out of wax and threw it into the river as his wife’s lover came to bathe. Immediately it became a real crocodile and seized the lover. The magician went to the king and invited him to come down to the river to behold a marvel. He summoned the crocodile, which terrified king and courtiers with its ferocity. But when the magician took it in his hand, it turned back into a waxen image. Then the magician told the king the whole story, and the monarch ordered that the unfaithful wife be slain.
The next son related a wonder that had occurred under Snefru, Khufu’s father. One day Snefru too became bored with life; he wandered through all the palace in search of amusement and found none. So he sent for the priest and magician Djadjaemankh, and asked him to make a suggestion. Said the sage: “Let Your Majesty go to the royal lake: equip a boat with all the beautiful girls of the palace. The heart of Your Majesty will be entertained watching them row up and down.” The king liked the idea and refined it further by ordering that the young ladies be attired only in nets of mesh.
For a space the heart of His Majesty was happy as the maidens rowed up and down. But then the leader of the damsels dropped a pretty ornament into the water, and in her distress she stopped rowing. The king demanded the reason and the girl told him. “Give her another one,” said Snefru impatiently; but the girl refused, with a proverb—I want my pot down to its bottom—which meant, “I want my own ornament, not another like it.”
Faced with feminine stubbornness, the king threw up his hands and again summoned the magician. Djadjaemankh pronounced an incantation, which folded the lake back like a sandwich, half the water upon the other half. Upon the exposed bottom lay the ornament, which the magician returned to its owner. He then put the water back in its place and the rowing continued, to the plea sure of the king.
When it came to the turn of Prince Djedefhor to tell a story, he said: “We have been hearing tales of past times, in which it is hard to tell truth from fiction; but, sire, I must tell you that you have in your own kingdom a great magician who is the equal of all those you have heard about.”
In great excitement the king sent his son to fetch the venerable sage, whose name was Djedi. The meeting of prince and wise man is charmingly told; the sage greeted the royal youth with courteous words of praise, and the prince helped him to his feet and gave him his arm to assist him to the waiting boat, for Djedi was 110 years old.
When Djedi arrived at the palace, the king asked him to perform his famous trick of putting back a head that had been cut off. The sage was willing, but when the king ordered a prisoner to be brought out, Djedi protested: “No, not a man, O sovereign, my lord; for this is forbidden.” So the guards decapitated a goose, and Djedi repaired it, to the admiration of all beholders.
After these magical divertissements, the tale gets down to essentials. The king asked about a particular magical secret and Djedi informed him that it would be brought to him by the eldest of three children who were not yet born. The secret is only a device to introduce the children; for, Djedi tells the astounded king, all three of them would one day be kings of Egypt. “They are at this time in the womb of a wife of a priest of Re, but their father is none other than the sun god himself.”
The scene switches to the birth of the divine children, who are delivered by the great goddesses of Egypt disguised as dancer-musicians. As the children come forth, the goddesses address them with speeches involving puns on their names; this leaves no doubt that the kings in question are really Fifth Dynasty rulers.
Obviously this story was not composed during the reign of Khufu; it was a pretty piece of propaganda commissioned by a Fifth Dynasty king to give mystical sanction to his dynasty. Why the new dynasty should need such support is a mystery, for it seems to be distantly related to the royal family of the Fourth Dynasty. Perhaps the “religious coup d’état” was really a political usurpation, by a lesser branch of the Khufu-Khafre family. Speculation—but that’s the stuff of which much of Egyptian history is made.
But what a wealth of information we can infer from such sources as these regarding social customs, attitudes, and ethics! From the composite tale of Khufu and the Magicians we can begin to sense something that is almost impossible to get except by indirection—the moral attitudes of a long-dead culture. We are accustomed to state our views on ethical and spiritual matters in long tomes and in verbose speeches; we express them, and analyze them, and criticize them. The Egyptians did write books of wisdom literature, but for the most part these consist of advice to aspiring young men, and one is never certain that the smooth-tongued precepts are really sincere. It is in the actions, the daily responses, of human beings that we can see the ethical sense at work; and in the tales of Khufu there are several interesting points. The maiden who dropped her ornament was only a concubine, but when she spoiled the god-king’s plea sure, he did not order her thrown to the crocodiles; the patience with which he humored her unreasonable demands evidently did not strike the Egyptians as unusual, or worthy of comment. (It is interesting to note that the amiable monarch was none other than good King Snefru, whose reputation for benevolence may be well deserved.) The tale of the unfaithful wife reminds us of themes from Boccaccio and Chaucer, but there is no mockery of the cuckolded husband in Egypt. It is in the story of Djedi that the attractive qualities of the Egyptian conscience are most clearly demonstrated—the reverence paid the wise old man by king and prince, and, most significant of all, Djedi’s swift response to the king’s command that he use a criminal for his experiment—“Not a man, O sovereign, my lord!” Men were the cattle of the god, and not subject to the whims of even a king.
We are far from the subjects that are ordinarily thought of as the proper study of archaeologists—pottery and tombs, mummies and hieroglyphs. Yet material objects are only the naked bones of history; the ideas, and ideals, of a people are the flesh and blood of their culture, which animate the dry details and give them meaning. When we study the past we try to see the ethics, the doubts, and the hopes that moved men’s minds, as well as the products of their hands. And as we tend to identify ourselves just a bit with the people we study, we like to find signs that our remote ancestors cherished to some extent the same notions that we have accepted as universal moral values. One of the reasons why the ancient Egyptians have interested so many people is that they are a rather amiable set of human beings. We are seldom shocked by their activities, as we are by the cold-blooded ferocity of the Assyrians or the sickening brutality of the Aztecs. We sometimes think of the Egyptians as being preoccupied with death, yet actually the converse is true. They enjoyed life so much that they took every means possible to continue its pleasures after that change which men call dying.
The pyramids of the Fourth Dynasty represent the greatest effort ever made by any people to insure survival through material means. The kings of the Fifth Dynasty were less fortunate, or less prosperous; they lavished much of their substance on their imposing sun temples, which survive today, when they survive at all, only as crumbling foundations hidden in the sand. Several of them, known only by inscriptions in the private tombs of officials who served in them, are still missing. The end of the dynasty saw the end of the sun temples. Why? Speculation is still rife.
Fifth Dynasty pyramids were not built of stone throughout, but of rubble and sand held together by stone facings and covered with the usual handsome white limestone. Today these tombs no longer hold even the pyramid form; they are mounds of gravel that look like natural hills upon the great plateaus of Sakkara and of Abusir. The rubble of the superstructure of the pyramid of Unis, last king of the Fifth Dynasty, stands close by the towering steps of Djoser’s pyramid—the great beginning and the degeneration of a noble architectural form.
However, Unis’s tomb is visited by most tourists to Sakkara because it is the earliest known pyramid to be inscribed with the so-called Pyramid Texts. The white walls of the burial chamber and antechamber are completely covered with incised hieroglyphs painted a pale blue. The ceiling is star inlaid, and the total effect is quite lovely.
The Pyramid Texts are very ancient. The language is archaic, and the religious beliefs which are described are confused and contradictory, suggesting an accumulation of generations of changing dogma. The Egyptians were broad-minded, and the idea of logical exclusiveness never troubled them. In the same body of texts the dead king is described as occupying all of several Afterworlds. He may (rather beautifully) “become one with the imperishable stars,” the pole stars which, in this latitude, never set; he may become a ba, a human-headed bird that flits from tree to tomb; he might journey to the Land of the West or inhabit a lovely paradise called the Fields of Yaru, located in the northeastern heavens, where the grain grew taller than earthly grain and the dreadful ferryman “Turnface” waited to carry the souls of the just to their reward.
In later times these texts, and the magical protection they provided, were taken over, in altered form, by the humbler folk, who had them painted inside their wooden coffins. In this stage they are called the Coffin Texts. During the New Kingdom period the texts were written on papyrus scrolls and were changed even more. Today these later texts are often lumped together under the general name of The Book of the Dead, but in ancient times there were several different collections, such as The Book of Coming Forth by Day, referring to the emergence of the soul from the tomb.
The Pyramid Texts are often described as “religious” in nature, yet their primary function was not the affirmation of a faith or a belief. Like the pyramids, they were designed to serve the end of survival. The pyramid protected the body of the dead king, and the texts assured his soul of continued life—life as a god, as a ruler of gods, or even as a humble rower in the boat of the gods—but life, at any cost and in any role. In the strictest sense, the Pyramid Texts are magical rather than religious. “What I tell you three times is true,” said the Bellman; and, like much of Lewis Carroll, this is more than just a solemn absurdity. It is actually a good expression of one of the basic principles of magic (and those other manipulative activities, advertising and politics), in which the Word, spoken or written, can affect actuality. If saying a thing three times makes it true, then saying it more than three times makes it even truer—neither Madison Avenue nor the necromancer’s textbooks worries about comparative degrees of absolutes. Modern political campaigns have made deliberate, cynical use of this principle, whose success depends to some extent on the gullibility of the hearer.
Repetition is important, but the Word itself has great significance. Primitive peoples know the import of a man’s name, and they guard their own with care lest an enemy learn it and use it against its owner. Incantations and “spells” are elements of most magical formulae. The Egyptians, who were known to later ages as great magicians, used written words to produce the real thing in their mortuary activities. In case the regular offerings made to the dead by their posterity were neglected, lists of food and drink could make good the lack. There is a constant harping on the word living in all the funerary texts; the dead man lives, he is living, he lives forever and ever. By inscribing the texts that describe the future life, or lives, of the soul in the very chamber where the mummy lay, the magical significance of the Word was made stronger and the dead man had further assurance of immortality.
It was logical enough that, while considering other means of ensuring life everlasting, the Egyptians should have paid attention to the preservation of the body itself. The air and the soil of Egypt are in themselves excellent preservatives, and it may have been the sight of the naturally mummified bodies of the more ancient dead, baked into leather by the heated sand, that gave the early dynastic Egyptians the idea of helping the process along by artificial means. So we have the development of mummification, and the production of that typically Egyptian object, the mummy, which is inseparably connected with Egypt in the minds of most people, despite the fact that mummies are found in other areas and other periods. When I was studying Egyptology, some of my more distant acquaintances thought it the height of humor to chortle, “So, you’re studying to be a mummy”—a remark that failed to amuse me even at the first occurrence.
The best description of the process of mummification comes from those helpful Greeks, Herodotus and Diodorus. According to the former, there were three methods, which differed in elaboration and in price. In the cheapest type, the intestines were cleaned out by means of a purge and then the body was placed in natron, a compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. The application of natron was the penultimate process in all three types of embalming. In the second type the corpse was first given an oil of cedar enema; the oil dissolved the stomach and intestines. Modern authorities question the word cedar, claiming that the substance in question came from a juniper or other coniferous tree; and there is some doubt as to how this “oil” was employed.
The mummy and its equipment, and the ba
The fanciest, and most expensive, method of mummification employed during the New Kingdom involved the removal of the internal organs, except for the heart and kidneys. The brain was removed through the nostrils and the viscera through an incision made in the lower abdomen. The internal organs were cleaned and treated, and then placed in four containers called “canopic jars,” which were, in turn, placed in a square canopic box. The empty body cavity was cleaned and anointed, and then the corpse was covered with natron, as in the other two methods. The abdomen was filled with linen packing, or with sawdust. Once dehydration was complete, the body was washed and treated with oil or precious ointments, and, finally, the wrappings were applied.
The wrappings were of fine linen, torn into strips and wound around limbs and body; sometimes even the fingers and toes were separately wound. The cloth padded out the shriveled body, which had suffered from the desiccating procedures of embalmment. Occasionally, additional pads of linen were inserted to fill out sunken areas, or the external contours of the body, such as a woman’s breasts, might be modeled in plaster.
After the mummy was wrapped and placed in the coffin, another ceremony might be performed, consisting of the pouring of a liquid preparation of resin or pitch over the wrappings and coffin. This may have been a kind of anointing, or it may have been intended to preserve the body. Ironically enough, it had the reverse effect. In certain cases the pitch fused the tissues or produced a chemical reaction in which the flesh was consumed.
Yet the greatest threat to the dead man’s hope of immortality in the flesh was not putrefaction, but the tomb robber. Mummies were often destroyed by thieves in their search for the jeweled ornaments with which the bodies were adorned. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom developed a way of dealing with this terrible possibility: they carved statues of themselves, which were placed in the tomb and which could, if necessary, assume the vital functions. No man was entirely obliterated if anything of himself remained—his likeness, or even his name carved on stone.
The kings of the Fifth Dynasty were the first monarchs, so far as we know, to add the carved Pyramid Texts to their varied forms of insurance of life everlasting. This, and the rise of the cult of Re, are the most interesting features of the dynasty. The beautiful painting and sculpture of the preceding dynasty continued during the Fifth, and some of the private tombs of the period are handsomely designed and decorated. The most striking of these tombs is that of the great noble Ti, at Sakkara, which has two great columned halls, a large storechamber, and a portico fine enough for a villa. The interior has some stunning bas-reliefs, which show the daily activities of the nobility with grace and humor. Birds and animals are depicted with particular elegance; there is a scene of hippopotami wallowing around in the marsh, which is my special favorite. It is hard to imagine a hippopotamus as being charming, but these little animals are just that.
Hippopotami and crocodile
The Sixth Dynasty began with a king we know as Teti and gathered steam under his son, the competent and powerful Pepi I. Externally, the picture has the same unity and solidarity that we saw under the mighty monarchs of the Fourth Dynasty. Pepi’s officials paid him proper homage, carving his picture on the walls of their tombs and bragging about royal favors received. But there is a difference. The tombs of the nobles no longer huddled around the pyramid of their royal master; they were built in the capitals of the provinces, or nomes, which their owners eventually ruled as semi-independent princes. We might compare the situation, superficially, to the Feudal Age of Western culture. When a strong king held the throne of Egypt he could control his ambitious underlings. But when a weak monarch wore the Red and White Crowns—then woe to the throne of Horus!
The most interesting of the local princes were the lords of Elephantine, an island located at the region of modern Aswan. Here ended the land of Egypt and here began Nubia; here also was the first of six cataracts, which interrupted navigation to the south. The granite quarries at Aswan are now a tourist spectacle; they contain the skeleton form of what would have been the tallest obelisk ever erected, if the great spire had ever been cut from its rocky bed. Aswan granite was highly prized for statues and for building; it was brought by barge all the way downriver to Memphis.
The island of Elephantine is in the middle of the river, but the tombs of the men who ruled this frontier post were cut into the western desert cliffs. They look to the south, to Nubia, as the fortresses of the Lords of the Welsh Marches faced the direction from which danger would come. Nubia had long been a source of interest to the adventurous, or greedy, Egyptians. There were expeditions to the area as early as the First Dynasty. The A-group people disappeared during that period and were replaced in Lower Nubia (remember, that’s the northern part) by what may be signs of Egyptian settlement. These lasted no longer than the Fifth Dynasty, if they were there at all, and the next settlements in the area belonged to a culture called the C-group. What about the B-group? Nobody believes in it anymore. To put it in more pedantic terms, the scanty materials once assigned to this culture do not represent a “homogeneous phase.”
The C-group people (I do wish someone would give them a more descriptive name) were tough customers, but Egypt wanted gold, and Nubia had a lot of it; and Elephantine was the “Door of the South.” Beyond that door lay other countries which had even more to offer than did Nubia. From the farther Sudan came ebony, ivory, gold, ostrich feathers; somewhere to the south was the mysterious, half-legendary land of Punt, God’s Land, which supplied myrrh and spices and other precious things.
The first of the great barons of the Door of the South was named Uni, whose career began under Teti and continued under Pepi I and his son Mernere. One of Uni’s duties was to oversee the working of the granite quarries, but his primary function was to protect the southern boundaries and to keep the region peaceful so that trade could be carried on without hindrance. So well did he accomplish this that he was able to quarry the granite for the royal sarcophagus with “only one warship”! The boast speaks volumes about the dangers of working in that area.
When Uni passed on to his reward he was laid to rest in the tomb he had excavated high in the cliffs, where he left a biographical inscription that does his deeds only justice. He was succeeded by another man called Harkhuf, whose name is even better known. Harkhuf and his colleagues were the first African explorers; two of his associates died far from home, among strange and barbaric peoples, carry ing out the king’s commands. It is with obvious pride that each adds, after his conventional princely title, the words “Caravan Conductor, who brings the products of the countries to his lord.” After lives of danger and adventure, they came home to die—or were brought back from the distant lands where they had been murdered—and were buried in the tombs above Aswan.On the walls of their tombs these explorers inscribed the record of their deeds, and as we read them we have the feeling that they were not driven into the Unknown by duty alone. They went “because it was there,” in the words of a modern representative of the courageous fellowship of which the lords of Elephantine were such notable members.
Harkhuf began exploring when he was only a boy, accompanying his father on a trip to the distant land of Yam. On the second trip he commanded his own men. These trips took seven or eight months and were major expeditions. After Harkhuf ’s third trip, Mernere, the reigning king, died and was succeeded by his young half-brother, Pepi II, who was a child of only six or seven. Harkhuf was confirmed in his post by the little king and his advisers, and went again to the south. His next trip to Yam produced one of the most delightful documents that has come down to us from ancient times. Harkhuf was so proud of it that he had it copied on the walls of his tomb. The original, doubtless written on papyrus, was a letter from the king. Harkhuf had brought back all sorts of rich loot from the gold-bearing south, but it was not gold that produced the excited letter from the six-year-old ruler.
“You have said, in your report,” wrote Pepi, “that you have brought a dwarf from the land of the horizon dwellers…. Come northward at once to the Court! Hasten and bring with you this dwarf, alive, sound and well! When he comes down with you into the ship, appoint trustworthy people to be beside him on every side of the ship so that he won’t fall into the water. When he sleeps at night, appoint trustworthy people who shall sleep beside him in his tent. Inspect ten times a night! For my Majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the products of Sinai and Punt!”
This was the high point of Harkhuf ’s life, although we never learn exactly what royal reward was given him for the gift the king prized so highly.
Harkhuf was not the only noble to venture his life in inner Africa. Another governor of the south, named Sebni, tells of his trip upriver on a more tragic errand. His father had been killed by the wild tribes of the Second Cataract area. When Sebni got the news he gathered his men and marched south, on vengeance bound. He dealt with the killers, collected his father’s body, and brought it back to Elephantine. He was met at the border by messengers of the king, who had sent his own corps of embalmers, priests, and mourners, equipped with all the necessities for burial. When he had paid his last respects to his father, Sebni went north to thank the king—and to deliver the goods his father had collected. Personal sorrow had not made him forget his duty.
Other names deserve mention—Eneenkhet, the naval commander, slain by the Bedouin on the shores of the Red Sea; Pepinakht, the prince of Elephantine, who rescued the commander’s body and brought it back to Egypt. Men like Pepinakht did not risk their necks for the sake of a beau geste. If a man’s body was destroyed, if he was not laid to rest with the proper ceremonies and grave goods, he died a second and final time. Throughout Egyptian history those who served abroad, as soldiers or merchants or emissaries, came home to die when they could.
The adventures of Harkhuf bring to mind another of the varied subjects which are the concern of the Egyptologist. Remember the nebulous knowledge we have of the predynastic period; it would seem that at this point in history, with the aid of inscriptional material, we ought to be able to solve all our problems. We know a great deal about the lords of Elephantine—their names, their business, the products they sought, and even where they were going. To the land of Yam.
Therein lies the rub. Where on earth is the land of Yam? Or, more precisely, where was it? Some archaeologists like to play with words; they produce long articles about the derivations and meanings and pronunciation of Egyptian nouns. Others like numbers; from them we get thick volumes on such subjects as chronology or Egyptian science. Then there are the people who prefer maps. Most of us number map addicts among our acquaintances; they can pass an evening quite contentedly with no more vivacious volume than an atlas. If they were Egyptologists, they would probably be arguing about Yam.
The details of mileage and distance so dear to modern travelers did not interest Harkhuf and his friends, and there was no reason why they should specify the location of the countries they visited when everybody who would read their autobiographies knew quite well where they had been. The divine gods certainly knew, and it is likely that all the literate inhabitants of Elephantine did too. The only figure given by Harkhuf is the length of time a trip to and from Yam took—about seven months. Since we do not know how long he stayed there, nor how fast he traveled, nor even in what direction he went (except that it was generally “south”), this figure is obviously not much help. But do not delude yourselves. Egyptologists have tried to use it, as they use every scrap of evidence they can get their hands on. Harkhuf gives the Egyptian names of the areas through which he passed on his way to Yam; but since the location of these places is also uncertain, this piece of information is equally indecisive.
Most Egyptologists have assumed that Yam lies on the Nile, but Harkhuf never actually says so. One interesting omission in his story may provide a clue—Harkhuf does not mention the use of boats. Since the Nile is more or less navigable up to the Third Cataract, it is strange that he did not go at least part of the way by water.
If we study our map, we can see other reasons which make this location of Yam questionable. As early as the First Dynasty the kings of Egypt had made excursions into this very region. By the Sixth Dynasty the area must have been traversed many times by Egyptian troops and traders; a journey there could not have been the momentous and arduous enterprise that Harkhuf implies. Nor could it have taken seven months, unless he went by way of Timbuktu.
The most daring suggestion to date came from A. J. Arkell, an authority on the Sudan and its archaeology. He gives Harkhuf credit for real enterprise, for he would locate Yam in the region of modern Darfur, which is far to the west of the Nile at about the latitude of the Sixth Cataract. There is an old caravan route leading from the Nile, near Elephantine, to the Darfur region, which has been used at least since medieval times. Arkell thinks it was used much earlier, and that Harkhuf was one of the pioneers of the route. Today it is an agonizing journey through arid regions, which would appall most travelers. Yet it is still being made by camel and donkey caravans. Arkell pointed out that the region was less arid in ancient times, and added that even today the trip could be made with three hundred donkeys, a hundred carry ing goods for trade, a hundred carry ing forage, and a hundred carry ing water. Harkhuf had three hundred donkeys on at least one of his trips.
Arkell’s most ingenious bits of reasoning concern the names of the areas through which Harkhuf passed on his way to Yam. He has identified some of them with modern tribes who live between Darfur and the Nile, though he does not claim that these people are necessarily living today where they did in ancient times. Another point is that the ancient caravan route was probably the most famous route by which ivory came into Egypt from the south. And Harkhuf says, in one section, “I set forth upon the Ivory Road.”
Arkell’s theory is not accepted by most scholars, but I like it. Since the location of Yam is one of those subjects that worries me almost as much as the problem of Hetepheres, I had hoped, a few years back, that we might find some clues during the extensive survey of Nubia that accompanied the construction of the second Aswan Dam. The news of the dam prompted a flurry of activity in Lower Nubia, whose sites would be threatened by rising water. The temple of Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II, was the most publicized of the endangered temples; a truly monumental project cut it free of the rock in which it had been built and raised it high atop the cliffs, to a new position. But the publicity given Abu Simbel overshadowed a far more impressive accomplishment—the wholehearted, worldwide response to an appeal by UNESCO for aid in saving the less spectacular Nubian remains. Over twenty nations, from Argentina to Yugoslavia, sent teams to work in Nubia. There was a certain amount of bickering, naturally. But as an example of what can be accomplished when people turn their energies to preserving instead of destroying, the Nubian campaign was an inspiration. Many smaller temples were dismantled and moved, dozens of cemeteries, town sites, temples, and churches were excavated and recorded.
However, they didn’t really settle the location of Yam.
The little boy who wrote with such rapture about a dwarf to play with could not have been much of an administrator at first. The country was controlled by Pepi II’s mother and her brother Djau, prince of Thinis. But the fiction of divine rule was maintained; the bronzed explorer-counts of Elephantine, and the proud princes of other nomes, reported to their child-king and received his orders with becoming humility.
Prince Djau was not a wicked uncle. He administered the kingdom ably and cherished his small nephew with such care that Pepi II reached his majority and lived on…and on…and on! He ruled for over ninety years, the longest reign attributed to a king of Egypt. Hence he must have reached the century mark, or near it, before he died.
Pepi might have said, with far more truth than Louis XV, “After me, the deluge.” For when he died, the whole vigorous, complex, coherent structure of the united kingdom of Egypt fell in ruins, and a time of anarchy ensued. We have noted the beginning of the trend; a strong ruler cannot permit equally strong subordinates, and even at the beginning of Pepi’s reign his barons had taken unto themselves a degree of independence that contrasted ironically with the lip ser vice paid to the power of the god-king. During the years of Pepi’s young manhood, the central power was in good hands. But for the last thirty or forty years of his reign, the hands grew more and more palsied with age.
This is, of course, an oversimplification. Many other factors might have contributed to the decline of the dynasty—a series of low Niles, resulting in drought and famine, for example. The dire results of natural disasters are sometimes unrecorded and underestimated, but they have certainly played a role throughout history. Plagues such as the Black Death decimated Europe during the Middle Ages; it is likely that equivalent epidemics occurred in ancient times, although we seldom find them recorded.
The last kings of the Sixth Dynasty are little known. One of them was a woman; any man, including Manetho, could tell you that this was a bad sign. If it were not for a reference to this lady, whose Greek name was Nitokris, in the Turin Papyrus, I would be inclined to suspect her of being as apocryphal as are the stories the Greeks collected about her. “She was the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the Third Pyramid,” said Manetho romantically. Herodotus adds a melodramatic story, which tells how she avenged the murder of her brother by inviting the villains to a banquet and then flooding the dining room; she followed up her watery revenge by committing suicide.
Nitokris (Egyptian Neitkrety) was not the builder of the Third Pyramid; this particular monument at Giza was the tomb of Menkaure. However, there is another structure at the same site, which may have some bearing on the problem. It is a mastaba, but of such huge proportions that it is sometimes called the Fourth Pyramid; and it was built by a woman. Unfortunately for Manetho, this woman belongs to the Fourth Dynasty instead of the Sixth, and her name was Khentkaus. It would take a wild leap of the imagination to derive the Greek form Nitokris from this Egyptian name. One of Khentkaus’s titles is unique, not to mention confusing. “The mother of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt.” Did this mean she was the mother of two kings, or that she was a king and the mother of a king? Opinion leans toward the first interpretation, but the size of her mortuary monument indicates her importance.
We must also consider another Fourth Dynasty queen named Hetepheres II, granddaughter of the lady of the same name whose empty sarcophagus was found by Reisner. The second Hetepheres built a tomb for her daughter, in which the color of the original reliefs has been preserved to a remarkable degree; here Hetepheres II is shown with her hair painted yellow and crossed by fine red lines.
Egyptologists, who are just as imaginative as the next man, had a wonderful time with the redheaded queen Hetepheres. Since blondes are fairly uncommon in Egypt, they proposed that Hetepheres or one of her ancestors came from the Libyan people of north Africa, who lived not far from the Delta in the western desert. The legends of Nitokris might represent a composite from a lot of different sources: a real Sixth Dynasty queen of that name, the “pyramid-builder” Khentkaus of the Fourth Dynasty, and the redheaded Hetepheres, whose memory had survived in the “fair complexion” description of Manetho.
Nitokris may be a compound, but the Titian-haired queen is no longer fact. A friend of mine once mentioned the Hetepheres II story to an anthropologist acquaintance and was taken aback when the latter gentleman exploded. There were, he said, no fair-haired Libyans in north Africa. Yes, he knew that Egyptologists had been talking about them for years—everyone he met told him the story of Hetepheres, and he contradicted it every time; but a good story seemed to have better survival value than the truth. (There is some justice in this claim.) Of late, Egyptologists have had to discard the redhead for other reasons. Several Fourth Dynasty queens are depicted wearing headdresses of the same shape as the wig or hair of Hetepheres. The color has, in all the other cases, disappeared, but it seems more probable that what Hetepheres had on her head was a yellow wig or kerchief. The red lines? They are the practice lines of the artist, known from hundreds of other examples, which were never erased. So much for romance.