“THIS IS FAR ENOUGH! Stop right here.”
More than five hundred prisoners halted their march toward Thebes in a great field situated two miles from the city. A contingent of the palace guard watched over them in the sweltering midday sun. Not that it was necessary. The emaciated prisoners’ feet were bound with leather cord that was just long enough for them to frog walk; they could not run.
And even if they had tried to escape, their arms were tied behind their backs at the wrist and elbow.
They wouldn’t get far, and the punishment would be swift and brutal.
Ineni, the well-regarded royal architect, watched over the sad scene. He knew these men well. They had just spent five years in a remote valley, excavating a new burial place for Tuthmosis I.
By day they had endured withering summer heat and surprisingly frigid blasts of desert cold that sometimes strafed the valley.
At night they had slept under a sky shot through with stars.
It had been more than a thousand years since Cheops had built his great pyramid up the Nile in Giza. As grand and awe-inspiring as they were, pyramids turned out to be beacons of temptation for every local thief and blasphemous tomb robber. There wasn’t a single one that hadn’t been looted. Not one.
But the ingenious Ineni believed he had the solution to the pyramid problem. Using the slave labor provided by these prisoners, he had carved a secret burial chamber for Tuthmosis I. The aging pharaoh was sick and near death, so the timing of the tomb’s completion was perfect. Not merely a makeshift cave, the tomb contained several tunnels, hallways, and a half dozen rooms. The pharaoh’s stone sarcophagus would reside precisely in the center, in the largest, most luxurious room.
True, Ineni thought, brushing a bead of sweat from his eyebrow, such an underground tomb was hardly as grand as a soaring pyramid. But in many ways it was better. The walls were smooth to the touch and painted with vivid scenes from the pharaoh’s life—both the one he had just lived and the glorious one yet to come.
Most important, the pharaoh would be undisturbed. Hopefully, for all eternity. At least that was what most Egyptians believed happened when a pharaoh was put to rest.
Ineni liked the design so much that he was already working on a similar tomb for himself. “I superintended the excavations of the cliff tomb of His Majesty,” Ineni had written on the walls of his own burial chamber—it was the architect’s way of bragging to those in the afterworld—“Alone, no one seeing, no one hearing.”
Of course, he hadn’t been totally alone. The prisoners had done their part. He had gotten to know the Nubians. He’d heard about their wives and children and knew that the men cherished their families with the same passion that he loved his. Some of the prisoners had become his friends.
After the tomb for Tuthmosis I was sealed and the entry concealed with stone, he had marched the men away from the area—a place that one day would simply be known as the Valley of the Kings, because so many other pharaohs would choose Ineni’s architectural contrivance as a means of hiding their final resting places.
Ineni scanned the faces of the prisoners. They knew the location of the pharaoh’s secret tomb, and that was unacceptable. The architect turned away from the men, then signaled to the guards.
“Do what must be done. Be merciful. Do it quickly. These are good men.”
And so the bloody slaughter of the prisoners began. Their screams rose to the heavens, and Ineni hoped that the many gods of Egypt approved of his difficult but necessary decision.