Chariot to Heaven
© Jaromir Malek 2011
A night visit
The house in which Meryt's parents lived was not much different from the other small dwellings which made up most of the city of Mennufer. It was on the eastern edge of the city, separated from the river by a low-lying plain which was the first thing to disappear under water when the inundation arrived. From the roof of the house one could see boats anchored in Perunufer, the city's main harbour. They came loaded with goods from all over Egypt. Large sailing boats were brought here majestically by northerly winds from the Delta. Others, just as large but propelled swiftly and rhythmically downstream by many oarsmen, came from the cities in Upper Egypt and some from even further south, from the land of Kush. Meryt hoped that one day she would be able to visit all those wonderful places about which she had heard so much. How much she would like to visit the magic city of Swene, the home of the ram-headed god Khnum near the Nile cataract! Or Wese, the city of the god Amun, with its huge temples!
But all this was not much more than day-dreaming. How could she ever hope to go that far from home? Her father, Ptahemwia, worked as an ordinary scribe in the temple of the god Ptah built by King Amenhotep. But the temple was not doing well: its buildings suffered a great deal during the time when Egypt was ruled by Akhenaten, the father of the present king, and it had not yet recovered. Meryt's father did not say much about it, but from an occasional unguarded remark she gathered that King Akhenaten was not very popular in Mennufer. Meryt's father worked in the department which kept records of the temple's income. Much of it should have come from the temple's own land and workshops, but these had been taken away from it during Akhenaten's reign and only a few had been restored back to it by the new king. But today was a special day in the Ptahemwia household: it was a day when beer jars were being filled! Every adult in Mennufer drank beer, and it was not just because it tasted better than plain water. As a matter of fact, Meryt, who had tried beer on a few occasions, was not quite sure that it tasted better than fresh clean water. But that was the problem: fresh clean water. Water in Mennufer came from the river and sometimes it just was not very nice. And so beer was everybody's preferred alternative. Except for children of course, who had to be content with water, good or bad.
People like Ipi's father Nakht, or Meryt's father Ptahemwia, were paid at the end of the month. Their monthly wage consisted of grain, usually barley or wheat, but they also received a few loaves of unleavened bread and a few jars of beer. And occasionally there were other things, such as fish or vegetables. Bread, beer and fish were very quickly consumed by their families, so the most valuable part of the wage was grain. The families used it to bake their own bread and to brew their own beer. Anything which was left over was taken to the local market place and bartered for food, such as meat or fruit, or various necessities, such as sandals or cloth for making garments, but also for a few luxuries like cosmetics.
The brewing of beer began when some of the barley was put into large jars lying on their sides, soaked with water and allowed to germinate. When this happened, a few days later, the sprouting grain was milled on saddle querns. Water was then added and the mixture was heated. Sometimes it was blended with other liquid or semi-liquid substances such as mashed dates which gave beer a special flavour some people liked. Then it was sieved to remove chaff. And today the liquid which would eventually turn into beer was going to be poured into beer jars which were going to be sealed and stacked up in pot stands. And all that was then needed was to wait for another week or so for the bottled liquid to ferment inside the jars and turn itself into beer.
Meryt returned from the trip to the palace late in the afternoon. Once she and Ipi escaped from the storeroom where they had hidden, it was quite easy to slip out of the palace. The guards were checking everybody who tried to enter the palace but they were not so worried about others. When she got back, the last beer jars had been sealed. Because brewing was quite a complicated operation, several households usually got together and pooled their resources. She could see several of their neigbours, and also Ipi's mother, just as they were leaving and saying good-by to her mother.
The house of Meryt's parents had a large open courtyard from which a staircase led along the outside wall of the house to the flat roof where the whole family bedded on hot and sticky nights. The staircase was steep and narrow and one had to be careful when using it. There was nothing to prevent one from making a wrong step and fall over its edge down onto the floor of the courtyard below and possibly breaking one's neck. But everybody in the house knew the staircase so well that this just could not happen. Meryt often ran up or down the staircase two or three steps at a time, and sometimes in the dark. It was really quite simple: all you had to do was to trail your left hand against the wall of the house when running upstairs, and your right hand when you were coming down the steps, and that way you were quite safe. The beer jars were stacked up in special stands which were needed because at the bottom the jars were pointed rather than flat. This shape was ideal when the ground was soft and consisted of either sand or mud because you could then just push the jar firmly into the ground and it remained upright. But the floor of the courtyard was hard and bone dry, and so special stands were needed. Some of these were under the staircase but there was a whole row of them ranged along the outside wall of the house. The courtyard had a solid wall which separated it from the street so there was little danger that an uninvited guest would help himself to any of them.
Meryt was now lying on a mat on the flat roof of the house and contemplated the events of the day. Who was the tall stranger and who was his accomplice? And who was the "nasty old man" mentioned by them who had, apparently, hired them to do some unknown task during the festival? And did Meryt and Ipi really see the tall stranger try to shoot the king during his chariot outing? Or was it just a dream? But if it was a dream, why were they pursued on their way to Haremhab's tomb and then again in the palace? Was the man in blue just a courtier whose task was to protect the king and was the whole thing merely an accident? Nobody in the chariots seemed to have noticed anything. But then, would you have noticed that an arrow narrowly missed you when you were fighting a pair of spirited horses? Could it be that when the man saw the children again in the palace - after all, they shouldn't have been there in the first place - he just wanted to tell them off and escort them out of the palace? But the talk he had with the groom from the royal stables was odd and conducted in such a secretive way that it looked as though they did not want to be overheard. And what was it the man said he was going to do tonight in the city?
Meryt found all this very confusing. It was a busy day and her eyes were beginning to close. The night sky above her was extraordinarily beautiful and some of the stars appeared to twinkle at her in a conspiratorial way, as if they knew exactly what was going on and were about to whisper it gently into her ear. Gently ... Gently ...
Then Meryt was suddenly fully awake. The house was asleep yet she was sure that she heard an unfamiliar sound from down in the courtyard. And then again, as if somebody very slowly and rather tentativelly put a foot on the first step of the staircase, then on the second. Somebody was climbing the stairs, slowly and carefully but in a very determined fashion.