A cloud of dust in the desert
The unevenly rutted road which Ipi and Meryt took made a beeline for the desert, in an almost straight east-to-west direction, and they had the rising sun directly behind them. Houses, some of them little more than hovels made of mud and rushes, were packed closely into the areas next to the road, as if hugging it for safety. The road was well above the floor of the valley and every year, at the height of the flood season, it was transformed into a wide elevated causeway surrounded by the brownish-green waters. Other parts of the city became large islands.
But now it was the dry season and the gentle green expanse of fields on either side, beyond the houses, was dotted with figures of toiling farm-workers. The temple of the god Ptah was the largest land-owner in the area, its farms were immense, and its overseers were tough taskmasters.
The road was busy. There were small groups of workmen walking purposefully towards the western cemetery, and others returning in the opposite direction. Farmhands carrying hoes, mattocks and wicker baskets over their shoulders hurried to distant fields. A small unit of infantry was led by its officer to an unknown destination. Herds of goats, sheep and cattle were driven along the road to some new pastures, and only low mud-built walls on either side stopped the animals from straying into the carefully tended fields which they found so attractive. Corpulent petty officials rode by on donkeys and paid little attention to the pedestrians and animals, as if they did not exist. Children played noisily in the middle of the road, running here and there with no regard for anybody and anything, and it was little short of a miracle that no accident happened when occasionally a horse-drawn chariot driven at high speed rushed by. Women sweeping the dirt and rubbish from around the houses onto the road kept a watchful gaze on the goings-on, although Ipi and Meryt had a narrow escape when one of the women emptied a jar of disgustingly dirty water onto the road.
After an hour or so, they reached a steep slope above which loomed the low silhouette of a dilapidated pyramid, one of many in this part of the country. Ipi had heard his father say that it was this pyramid which gave the city of Mennufer its name, although he was not able to explain how this was possible - surely, the city had been here from the very beginnings of time! A well-trodden path diverged to the north, towards the large lake beyond which lay the citadel and the oldest part of the city, while another track led to the south, along the desert edge. But Ipi and Meryt took neither path. Instead, they followed a third route which led westward, into the desert. The River valley, with its rich black soil annually renewed by the flood, turned into the barren sand of the desert with surprising suddenness. Mennufer, the city of the living, gave way to the kingdom of the dead.
This was the beginning of the most difficult part of their journey. The crowded road out of Mennufer was at first replaced by an empty sandy desert track which followed a narrow rocky valley. It skirted the pyramid along its northern side, and then swung abruptly to the north and opened up into a broad shallow depression. The grey whiteness of the desert was blinding. There was something awe-inspiring and faintly menacing in the stillness of the desert and the visible shimmering of the air. This route was not without some danger, and Ipi's father had warned them to be especially watchful because there had been cases of travellers waylaid and robbed, and some murdered, by criminals who had escaped justice and lived in the desert.
Ipi and Meryt were now beginning to feel a little tired, so they stopped to rest in the shadow of the remains of an abandoned stone hut. It must have been put up by necropolis workmen at some time in the distant past - there were signs that old tombs, now almost completely sanded up, were located in the area. Only one corner of the hut, formed by two walls, was still standing. There was another small group of such huts, in a similar state of disrepair, on the opposite side of the desert track.
Meryt opened a small basket which she carried over her shoulder and produced a couple of small flat loaves of unleavened bread, two large onions, and a handful of dates, while Ipi removed the reed lid from the jar of water which he carried (and once or twice nearly dropped). They sat down, almost completely concealed by the dilapidated walls, to an improvised picnic. Neither said much; the drink and food made them drowsy, and Ipi, who had not yet got over the early awakening, closed his eyes for a while.
It seemed that it could not have been for more than a moment, but he woke up with a start to find Meryt tugging at his arm none too gently. She was pointing in the direction of the city, and Ipi could see a cloud of dust rising at the point where the Mennufer road turned into a desert track. A trumpet sounded faintly and the cloud of dust, as if alive, seemed to be making quick progress along the track towards them. Ipi got up in order to see better and then his heart almost missed a beat. In the shadow of one of the huts on the other side of the track a man appeared and, shielding his eyes against the glare of the sun, looked intently in the same direction. He was unusually tall and wore a long dark blue garment richly decorated in gold, a sign of a man of some standing. His furtive behaviour was, however, more like that of a desert bandit. What was he doing there, hiding in the abandoned huts? Fortunately, his preoccupation with the cloud of dust was such that he did not notice the children, frozen into stillness and unable to move. The shrill sound of the trumpet could be heard once again. Who was the stranger? And why was he hiding here?
The photograph shows one of the chariots of king Tutankhamun, found in his tomb and reconstructed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Harry Burton photograph 540B. © Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
On to Chapter 3.