Chariot to Heaven
© Jaromir Malek 2011
A foreboding of tragedy
The worst of the mess had been cleaned up and the courtyard was almost back to normal by the time Ipi appeared in the morning. He was very excited when he learnt what had happened during the night and he was much interested in the mischievous spirit which had wreaked so much havoc in the household's supply of beer. When he asked Meryt whether she had caught a glimpse of it she said, inexplicably, that she thought there had been two spirits involved: one very small, with a coat of striped fur, and the other much larger and wearing a blue cloak. This left Ipi confused.
He knew that house spirits and demigods were very odd. The best known among them was Bes who protected women and children from accidents and illnesses. Bes looked grotesque but also very frightening. He was small and wore a crown of feathers. He had stunted arms and bandy legs, lion's ears and mane and a long tongue lolling out of his large mouth, and he often brandished a long knife. He was present in many houses - most of them kept their supply of water in a large jar with an image of Bes moulded on it. When Ipi asked why a benevolent creature should look so frightening his father said that fire had to be fought with fire and that it would do no good to try and defend oneself against some of the really beastly things with kind words. Ipi thought about this a great deal and did not entirely agree but could not, of course, say it openly. But he had never heard of a spirit, benevolent or mischievous, with a tabby fur or one wearing a blue cloak. A tabby fur and a blue cloak?
The sun was already high when Ipi and Meryt set off on the trip which they had secretely planned for some time. When Meryt's mother asked where they were going they said something about going to have a look at the newly arrived ship in the harbour. The ship came from the eastern land of Fenkhu with a huge cargo of wine and this was now being off-loaded. But they were really going somewhere quite different. The children walked in an approximately easterly direction through a maze of little squalid lanes and alleys formed by ramshackled houses. This was one of the poorest quarters of the city of Mennufer. They had to pick their way carefully over debris and some even more objectionable things littering their path. Several times they had to pause and then change their intended route abruptly when it looked as though they would run into a gang of unfriendly-looking dirty children clothed in rags.
The place which Ipi and Meryt wanted to investigate was the remains of the temple of the god Aten in the plain between the city and the river. Ipi knew that during the reign of Akhenaten, the present king's father, the temples of most of the gods had been closed throughout the whole of Egypt. Akhenaten's new god, the Aten, was shown in the form of a sun disc with human arms, and completely new temples were built in which the Aten was worshipped. Most of them were in Akhetaten, the new capital of the country, but one such temple was also at Mennufer. It had now lain abandoned and slowly deteriorating for nearly a decade, since the early years of King Tutankhamun. Ipi heard his father say that for some obscure legal reasons the temple still possessed some land from which the offerings once presented on its altars originally came. But the building itself was now ruined. Everybody avoided it for fear of being seen as a supporter of the old regime as well as because it was dangerous. There were rumours that strange people had been seen there and that those whose curiosity led them to investigate disappeared and never came back. 'I don't want you anywhere near that terrible building!' Meryt's mother said. 'Who knows what is going on there?'
Ipi's father explained to his son that because the Aten was really a sun god its temples were quite unlike those of the other gods. It was said that they had open courts exposed to the rays of the sun and the decoration carved on their walls was quite different from what you could see on the walls of other temples. But unless you were a priest you were not allowed inside Egyptian temples, at least not further than the first court.
When the children reached the eastern limit of the city, the large plain separating it from the river opened up in front of them. There were some dwellings scattered here although every year, when the flood arrived, they were transformed into little islands. Some of them had raised causeways connecting them to the higher ground but others could only be approached by boat for a couple of months every year. Most of the area had things growing on it. There were hundreds of small plots, many of them surrounded by walls and so they were really gardens rather than fields. You could get to these havens of tranquillity along narrow lanes from the city in the west as well as from the river to the east.
And in this peaceful rural setting, surrounded by tall date palms and ringed by a broad patch of land which nobody was prepared to cultivate, there was the ruined building of the temple of the Aten. The pavement of its courts was under water which formed large pools of stagnant water. Tall rushes grew in the corners of once splendid rooms. The top courses of masonry of some of the walls were missing. It was a strangely unwelcoming place, as if haunted by ghosts of the past which resented the presence of strangers. Even birds seemed to shun it.
As the children slowly approached it, they could really feel that something terrible was going to happen there. Meryt wanted to turn back but Ipi looked so determined that she did not want to say anything in case he thought that she was afraid. Ipi fervently hoped that Meryt would suggest that they abandon their plan and go back home but did not want to make the suggestion himself. And because neither of them wanted to look like a coward they continued walking towards the temple.
The heat was now such that you could almost hear it as a continuous high-pitched sound. The tall rushes which obscured parts of the temple gently swayed as if somebody concealed in them was beckoning them to come closer.