Chariot to Heaven

Chapter 3:

A deadly encounter

The chariot was approaching at breakneck speed and it seemed that the young man driving it either liked living dangerously or had some difficulty controlling his team. The two beautiful grey horses, as if elated by the expanse of the desert which suddenly lay open before them, needed no further encouragement from his whip. Then another chariot, carrying two men, emerged on the desert plateau, and then a third.

Both of these chariots did their best to stay close to their young leader although their drivers must have found it a very unpleasant and hazardous task. Their faces, their gloved hands and their clothes were covered with dust raised by the wheels of the first vehicle and the hooves of its horses. The face of the poor trumpeter was purple, and he coughed and wheezed and appeared to be completely exhausted and not at all well. In the confined space of the desert valley the men in the second and third chariots could see so little of the track that it was left to the horses rather than their masters to decide which way to go. But now the drivers took advantage of the open desert and the chariots fanned out, as if performing a well-rehearsed manoeuvre. One of them veered to the left of the desert track, the other to the right.

The leading chariot was quite close to the spot where the children had been having their picnic. They stood with their mouth open, as if mesmerised by the magnificent sight. It was Meryt who first realized what was happening. She pushed Ipi deeper into the shade of the dilapidated hut and whispered in a strangely squeaky voice "the king! the king!" Only then it dawned on Ipi that the young man in the first chariot was king Tutankhamun going to hunt gazelle in the desert to the west of Mennufer. It was said that the best gazelle hunting ground was at some distance to the north of the city, near the three large pyramids and the huge human-headed lion statue of the god Haremakhet, but neither Ipi nor Meryt had ever been so far away from their homes. This, however, was hardly the best time to think about gazelle! It was not advisable to gawk at the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who was also a living god, and so both children crouched low and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible in their small stone shelter.

Then Ipi glanced towards the group of huts at the other side of the desert track and his mouth fell open once again. The distinguished stranger whom he had previously noticed hiding there was now transformed into an archer drawing his bow ready for action. His bow seemed to be covered with some white material which momentarily reflected a ray of sun and it must have been this which attracted Ipi's attention. But Tutankhamun's chariot was suddenly almost on top of them, and then it all happened at once. There was an unexpected high-pitched but soft noise, more like a sigh, followed by a sharp crack just above them, and then Ipi felt a twinge of pain in his forearm. Several wooden splinters landed around them. And then Tutankhamun's chariot went rushing past, neither its royal charioteer not his retinue apparently noticing anything unusual.

Quite involuntarily, Ipi got up to his feet and, looking after the chariot which was now disappearing into the distance, tried to comprehend what had happened. Meryt shouted something which he could not understand but it all became clear when he looked again across the desert track. The arrow had been aimed directly at the king, but had struck the wall just above the children. The stranger was gazing in their direction and his right hand was reaching for another arrow in an ornamental leather case at his feet. It was Ipi's turn to start yelling something, but Meryt understood their danger straight away. They both took off as fast as they could towards the nearest sand dune. They were over its top in no time at all, and ran at full speed in the direction in which they believed was the building site of General Haremhab's tomb.

The tall stranger abandoned his weapons, discarded his elegant cloak, and chased after them. The surface of the desert was uneven, pitted with small craters, and it varied between patches which were covered in stones and were reasonably firm underfoot and others which were sandy and which made running very difficult. The tall would-be assassin was gaining on them slowly but steadily. On several occasions Meryt stumbled and Ipi had to pull her up to her feet. Then, suddenly, their pursuer was no longer to be seen. This had them worried, although they knew that the General's tomb, and safety, could not have been far away. They rounded a small sand dune which obstructed their view. And that was when they ran straight into the arms of a man who appeared seemingly from nowhere.

The first illustration shows several bows found in the tomb of Tutankhamun: a self bow (top) and five composite bows. H. Burton photo. 484. © Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The second illustration shows Tutankhamun driving his chariot during a lion hunt. This is a detail of pl. iv in Tutankhamun's Painted Box, by Nina M. Davies and Alan H. Gardiner (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1962). © Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum Oxford. The box is in Cairo Museum, JE 61467.

Ancient Egypt briefing

The pyramids at Giza
The Sphinx at Giza
The composite bow
On to Chapter 4.