Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Egypt by James Baikie
Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Egypt by  James Baikie

A Day in Thebes (continued)

HAVING seen the settlement of the masons' strike, we wander up into the heart of the town. The streets are generally narrow and winding, and here and there the houses actually meet overhead, so that we pass out of the blinding sunlight into a sort of dark tunnel. Some of the houses are large and high; but even the largest make no display towards the street. They will be fine enough inside, with bright courts surrounded with trees, in the midst of which lies a cool pond of water, and with fine rooms decorated with gay hangings; but their outer walls are almost absolutely blank, with nothing but a heavy door breaking the dead line. We pass by some quarters where there is nothing but a crowd of mud huts, packed so closely together that there is only room for a single foot-passenger to thread his way through the narrow alleys between them. These are the workmen's quarters, and the heat and smell in them are so overpowering that one wonders how people can live in such places.

By-and-by we come out into a more open space—one of the bazaars of the city—where business is in full swing. The shops are little shallow booths quite open to the front; and all the goods are spread out round the shopkeeper, who squats cross-legged in the middle of his property, ready to serve his customers, and invites the attention of the passers-by by loud explanations of the goodness and cheapness of his wares. All sorts of people are coming and going, for a Theban crowd holds representatives of nearly every nation known. Here are the townsfolk, men and women, out to buy supplies for their houses, or to exchange the news of the day; peasants from the villages round about, bringing in vegetables and cattle to barter for the goods which can only be got in the town; fine ladies and gentlemen, dressed elaborately in the latest Court fashion, with carefully curled wigs, long pleated robes of fine transparent linen, and dainty, brightly-coloured sandals turned up at the toes. At one moment you rub shoulders with a Hittite from Kadesh, a conspicuous figure, with his high-peaked cap, pale complexion, and heavy, pointed boots. He looks round him curiously, as if thinking that Thebes would be a splendid town to plunder. Then a priest of high rank goes by, with shaven head, a panther skin slung across his shoulder over his white robe, and a roll of papyrus in his hand. A Sardinian of the bodyguard swaggers along behind him, the ball and horns on his helmet flashing in the sunlight, his big sword swinging in its sheath as he walks; and a Libyan bowman, with two bright feathers in his leather skull-cap, looks disdainfully at him as he shoulders his way through the crowd.

All around us people are buying and selling. Money, as we know it, has not yet been invented, and nearly all the trade is done by means of exchange. When it comes to be a question of how many fish have to be given for a bed, or whether a load of onions is good value for a chair, you can imagine that there has to be a good deal of argument. Besides, the Egyptian dearly loves bargaining for the mere excitement of the thing, and so the clatter of tongues is deafening. Here and there one or two traders have advanced a little beyond the old-fashioned way of barter, and offer, instead of goods, so many rings of copper, silver, or gold wire. A peasant who has brought in a bullock to sell is offered 90 copper "uten" (as the rings are called) for it; but he loudly protests that this is robbery, and after a long argument he screws the merchant up to 111 "uten," with 8 more as a luck-penny, and the bargain is clinched. Even then the rings have still to be weighed that he may be sure he is not being cheated. So a big pair of balances is brought out; the "uten" are heaped into one scale, and in the other are piled weights in the shape of bulls' heads. Finally, he is satisfied, and picks up his bag of rings; but the wily merchant is not done with him yet. He spreads out various tempting bargains before the eyes of the countryman, and, before the latter leaves the shop, most of the copper rings have found their way back again to the merchant's sack.

A little farther on, the Tyrian traders, to whom the cargo of our galley is consigned, have their shop. Screens, made of woven grass, shelter it from the sun, and under their shade all sorts of gorgeous stuffs are displayed, glowing with the deep rich colours, of which the Tyrians alone have the secret since the sack of Knossos destroyed the trade of Crete. Beyond the Tyrian booth, a goldsmith is busily employed in his shop. Necklets and bracelets of gold and silver, beautifully inlaid with all kinds of rich colours, hang round him; and he is hard at work, with his little furnace and blowpipe, putting the last touches to the welding of a bracelet, for which a lady is patiently waiting.

In one corner of the bazaar stands a house which makes no display of wares, but, nevertheless, seems to secure a constant stream of customers. Workmen slink in at the door, as though half ashamed of themselves, and reappear, after a little, wiping their mouths, and not quite steady in their gait. A young man, with pale and haggard face, swaggers past and goes in, and, as he enters the door, one bystander nudges another and remarks: "Pentuere is going to have a good day again; he will come to a bad end, that young man."

By-and-by the door opens again, and Pentuere comes out staggering. He looks vacantly round, and tries to walk away; but his legs refuse to carry him, and, after a stumble or two, he falls in a heap and lies in the road, a pitiful sight. The passers-by jeer and laugh at him as he lies helpless; but one decent-looking man points him out to his young son, and says: "See this fellow, my son, and learn not to drink beer to excess. Thou dost fall and break thy limbs, and bespatter thyself with mud, like a crocodile, and no one reaches out a hand to thee. Thy comrades go on drinking, and say, 'Away with this fellow, who is drunk.' If anyone should seek thee on business, thou art found lying in the dust like a little child."

But in spite of much wise advice, the Egyptian, though generally temperate, is only too fond of making "a good day," as he calls it, at the beerhouse. Even fine ladies sometimes drink too much at their great parties, and have to be carried away very sick and miserable. Worst of all, the very judges of the High Court have been known to take a day off during the hearing of a long case, in order to have a revel with the criminals whom they were trying; and it is not so long since two of them had their noses cut off, as a warning to the rest against such shameful conduct.

Sauntering onwards, we gradually get near to the sacred quarter of the town, and can see the towering gateways and obelisks of the great temples over the roofs of the houses. Soon a great crowd comes towards us, and the sounds of trumpets and flutes are heard coming from the midst of it. Inquiring what is the meaning of the bustle, we are told that one of the images of Amen, the great god of Thebes, is being carried in procession as a preliminary to an important service which is to take place in the afternoon, and at which the King is going to preside. Stepping back under the doorway of a house, we watch the procession go past. After a group of musicians and singers, and a number of women who are dancing as they go, and shaking curious metal rattles, there comes a group of six men, who form the centre of the whole crowd, and on whom the eyes of all are fixed.

They are tall, spare, keen-looking men, their heads clean shaven, their bodies wrapped in pure white robes of the beautiful Egyptian linen. On their shoulders they carry, by means of two long poles, a model of a Nile boat, in the midst of which rises a little shrine. The shrine is carefully draped round with a veil, so as to hide the god from curious eyes. But just in front of the doorway where we are standing a small stone pillar rises from the roadway, and when the bearers come to this point, the bark of the god is rested on the top of the pillar. Two censer-bearers come forward, and swing their censers, wafting clouds of incense round the shrine; a priest lifts up his voice, loudly intoning a hymn of praise to the great god who creates and sustains all things; and a few of the by-standers lay before the bark offerings of flowers, fruit, and eatables of various kinds. Then comes the solemn moment. Amid breathless silence, the veil of the shrine is slowly drawn aside, and the faithful can see a little wooden image, about 18 inches high, adorned with tall plumes, carefully dressed, and painted with green and black. The revelation of this little doll, to a Theban crowd the most sacred object in all the world, is hailed with shouts of wonder and reverence. Then the veil is drawn again, the procession passes on, and the streets are left quiet for awhile.

We are reminded that, if we wish to get a meal before starting out to see Pharaoh passing in procession to the temple, we had better lose no time, and so we turn our faces riverwards again, and wander down through the endless maze of streets to where our galley is moored at the quay.

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