The city of Mennufer awakens
In spite of the early hour, the city of Mennufer was already busy. The sacred baboons of the god Djehuti in the temple precinct in the southern suburbs started their usual early morning racket right on time and their shrieks alone were enough to rouse even the heaviest sleeper. Gentle murmurs and mysterious clanking noises could be heard from the temple of the god Ptah "south of his wall", the largest in the city, suggesting that preparations for the morning ritual were well under way. Although obscured by the early morning mist and the choking smoke of night fires, the eastern harbour was teeming with activities. Merchandise from several ships which had arrived the previous day was being unloaded and transported to the city on donkeys. Their braying and the shouts and coarse jokes of their drovers filled the air.
But the noisiest area was the squalid part of the city to the south of the temple of the god Ptah. Observed from a distance, it hummed like a beehive full of agitated bees. Thousands of small cramped dwellings filled the area between the steeply rising escarpment of the desert plateau in the west and the river bank in the east. The temple was completely surrounded by houses but its high enclosure walls kept humanity at bay and ensured the god's privacy. The dwellings were built of sun-dried mud bricks. Some of them were two-storied, with flat roofs, and were separated by narrow streets into which the sun penetrated only for a few hours every day. Rubbish was strewn everywhere and the surface of the streets was uneven. Inside the houses, the rooms were small and dark and their windows were intended more for ventilation than light. The main living area was the courtyard separated from the street outside by a thick wall. This was the place where food was prepared and eaten, where children played and the elderly rested, where a few goats and sheep were kept in their pens, and where adults sat on mud-brick benches and talked when the sun set in the west. Some even slept there, but the flat roof was the preferred place, especially on the nights when the overpowering stench of the crowded city was blown away by the sweet northerly breeze.
Wrapped up snugly in a thick piece of cloth against the early morning chill, Ipi tried to pretend that he did not hear the noises of the city. From his elevated position on the roof of the house, he could observe priests walking in a file and entering the temple of Ptah through a small side gate in the southern wall which enclosed the temple precinct. The rays of the sun first gently touched and then alighted on their shaven heads, as if a procession of full-moons was retiring after a night on duty, and their shuffling gait gave them the air of supplicants approaching a wealthy patron. The part of the temple which was their goal was the magnificent, although now rather dilapidated, structure built by king Amenhotep, the grandfather of the present king, and in order to reach it they had to skirt an even older temple of king Djehutimose which was famous for its statue showing the king in the act of slaying a captured enemy.
Ipi shuddered when he contemplated how it must have felt waiting for the blow of a stone mace which would smash the brains out of one's head, and quickly forced himself to forget about it. In any case, he himself had never seen the statue because no ordinary mortal was ever allowed beyond the temple's first court. No twelve-year old boy is an ordinary mortal and it is not easy to keep him out of places where other people are not allowed. Ipi had on several occasions tried to catch a glimpse of the statue when the massive wooden electrum-covered gate was momentarily left open, but even his hawk eyes could not penetrate the darkness of the shrine at the far end of the temple.
Suddenly a soft whistle could be heard from the street below. Ipi looked over the low parapet of the roof and saw Meryt standing there and cheerfully waving to him. That is the trouble with girls, they take everything so literally, he muttered to himself. We agreed to set out early in the morning, but not that early! He had heard his father complain about his mother in the same way, yet Ipi knew that it was his mum who kept the household going while father was away at work. Ipi's father Nakht was a stonemason, and a very good one at that. He was the foreman of the "western gang" of stonemasons and artists working on the huge tomb which was being built for General Haremhab in the cemetery to the west of Mennufer. The workmen had small huts built near the tomb and stayed overnight on the site while on duty, and they returned home to their families only once a week. Ipi had for a long time asked whether he could visit the tomb which was the talking point of the whole city. But it was only last week that his father at last gave in and agreed that Ipi and his friend Meryt could come on the last day of the following week, so that they could then all walk back home together. Meryt lived in the house next door and was Ipi's best friend although, because she was a girl, he had to take some stick from other boys from time to time. But there was no point being cross because Meryt was so early. Going back to sleep was out of the question in any case, so he waved to her and got up.
The photograph shows a statuette of the god Ptah, found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. H. Burton photograph 1935, © Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
On to Chapter 2.