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

IF any foreigner were wanting to get an idea of our country, and to see how our people live, I suppose the first place that he would go to would be London, because it is the capital of the whole country, and its greatest city; and so, if we want to learn something about Egypt, and how people lived there in those far-off days, we must try to get to the capital of the country, and see what is to be seen there.

Suppose, then, that we are no longer living in Britain in the twentieth century, but that somehow or other we have got away back into the past, far beyond the days of Jesus Christ, beyond even the times of Moses, and are living about 1,300 years before Christ. We have come from Tyre in a Phoenician galley, laden with costly bales of cloth dyed with Tyrian purple, and beautiful vessels wrought in bronze and copper, to sell in the markets of Thebes, the greatest city in Egypt. We have coasted along past Carmel and Joppa, and, after narrowly escaping being driven in a storm on the dangerous quicksand called the Syrtis, we have entered one of the mouths of the Nile. We have taken up an Egyptian pilot at the river mouth, and he stands on a little platform at the bow of the galley, and shouts his directions to the steersmen, who work the two big rudders, one on either side of the ship's stern. The north wind is blowing strongly and driving us swiftly upstream, in spite of the current of the great river; so our weary oarsmen have shipped their oars, and we drive steadily southwards under our one big swelling sail.

At first we sail along through a broad flat plain, partly cultivated, and partly covered with marsh and marsh plants. By-and-by the green plain begins to grow narrower; we are coming to the end of the Delta, and entering upon the real valley of Egypt. Soon we pass a great city, its temples standing out clear against the deep blue sky, with their towering gateways, gay flags floating from tall flagstaves in front of them, and great obelisks pointing to the sky; and our pilot says that this is Memphis, one of the oldest towns in the country, and for long its capital. Not far from Memphis, three great pyramid-shaped masses of stone rise up on the river-bank, looking almost like mountains; and the pilot tells us that these are the tombs of some of the great Kings of long past days, and that all around them lie smaller pyramids and other tombs of Kings and great men.

But we are bound for a city greater even than Memphis, and so we never stop, but hasten always southward. Several days of steady sailing carry us past many towns that cluster near the river, past one ruined city, falling into mere heaps of stone and brick, which our pilot tells us was once the capital of a wicked King who tried to cast down all the old gods of Egypt, and to set up a new god of his own; and at last we see, far ahead of us, a huge cluster of buildings on both sides of the river, which marks a city greater than we have ever seen.

As we sweep up the river we see that there are really two cities. On the east bank lies the city of the living, with its strong walls and towers, its enormous temples, and an endless crowd of houses of all sorts and sizes, from the gay palaces of the nobles to the mud huts of the poor people. On the west bank lies the city of the dead. It has neither streets nor palaces, and no hum of busy life goes up from it; but it is almost more striking than its neighbour across the river. The hills and cliffs are honeycombed with long rows of black openings, the doorways of the tombs where the dead of Thebes for centuries back are sleeping. Out on the plain, between the cliffs and the river, temple rises after temple in seemingly endless succession. Some of these temples are small and partly ruined, but some are very great and splendid; and, as the sunlight strikes upon them, it sends back flashes of gold and crimson and blue that dazzle the eyes.

But now our galley is drawing in towards the quay on the east side of the river, and in a few minutes the great sail comes thundering down, and, as the ship drifts slowly up to the quay, the mooring-ropes are thrown and made fast, and our long voyage is at an end. The Egyptian Custom-house officers come on board to examine the cargo, and collect the dues that have to be paid on it; and we watch them with interest, for they are quite different in appearance from our own hook-nosed, bearded sailors, with their thick many-coloured cloaks. These Egyptians are all clean shaven; some of them wear wigs, and some have their hair cut straight across their brows, while it falls thickly behind upon their necks in a multitude of little curls, which must have taken them no small trouble to get into order. Most wear nothing but a kilt of white linen; but the chief officer has a fine white cloak thrown over his shoulders; his linen kilt is stiffly starched, so that it stands out almost like a board where it folds over in front, and he wears a gilded girdle with fringed ends which hang down nearly to his knees. In his right hand he carries a long stick, which he is not slow to lay over the shoulders of his men when they do not obey his orders fast enough.

After a good deal of hot argument, the amount of the tax is settled and paid, and we are free to go up into the great town. We have not gone far before we find that life in Thebes can be quite exciting. A great noise is heard from one of the narrow riverside streets, and a crowd of men comes rushing up with shouts and oaths. Ahead of them runs a single figure, whose writing-case, stuck in his girdle, marks him out as a scribe. He is almost at his last gasp, for he is stout and not accustomed to running; and he is evidently fleeing for his life, for the men behind him—rough, half-naked, ill-fed creatures of the working class—are chasing him with cries of anger, and a good deal of stone-throwing. Bruised and bleeding, he darts up to the gate of a handsome house whose garden-wall faces the street. He gasps out a word to the porter, and is quickly passed into the garden. The gate is slammed and bolted in the faces of his pursuers, who form a ring round it, shouting and shaking their fists.

In a little while the gate is cautiously unbarred, and a fine-looking man, very richly dressed, and followed by half a dozen well-armed negro guards, steps forward, and asks the workmen why they are here, making such a noise, and why they have chased and beaten his secretary. He is Prince Paser, who has charge of the Works Department of the Theban Government, and the workmen are masons employed on a large job in the cemetery of Thebes. They all shout at once in answer to the Prince's question; but by-and-by they push forward a spokesman, and he begins, rather sheepishly at first, but warming up as he goes along, to make their complaint to the great man.

He and his mates, he says, have been working for weeks. They have had no wages; they have not even had the corn and oil which ought to be issued as rations to Government workmen. So they have struck work, and now they have come to their lord the Prince to entreat him either to give command that the rations be issued, or, if his stores are exhausted, to appeal to Pharaoh. "We have been driven here by hunger and thirst; we have no clothes, we have no oil, we have no food. Write to our lord the Pharaoh, that he may give us something for our sustenance." When the spokesman has finished his complaint, the whole crowd volubly assents to what he has said, and sways to and fro in a very threatening manner.

Prince Paser, however, is an old hand at dealing with such complaints. With a smiling face he promises that fifty sacks of corn shall be sent to the cemetery immediately, with oil to correspond. Only the workmen must go back to their work at once, and there must be no more chasing of poor Secretary Amen-nachtu. Otherwise, he can do nothing. The workmen grumble a little. They have been put off with promises before, and have got little good of them. But they have no leader bold enough to start a riot, and they have no weapons, and the spears and bows of the Prince's Nubians look dangerous. Finally they turn, and disappear, grumbling, down the street from which they came; and Prince Paser, with a shrug of his shoulders, goes indoors again. Whether the fifty sacks of corn are ever sent or not, is another matter. Strikes, you see, were not unknown, even so long ago as this.

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