Chariot to Heaven

Chapter 5:

The sand cat

The building site at Haremhab's tomb resembled a beehive full of very agitated bees. Boys hardly older than Ipi were toiling under yokes with large water jars which they emptied into even larger pottery vessels arranged in a row along one side of a large open forecourt. Sun-dried mud bricks were being brought from somewhere in the valley on sleds pulled by cattle along a specially prepared path. Heaps of such bricks could be seen at the western side of the site. Several scribes were huddled over a large sheet of papyrus with details of the tomb s plan and its decoration. A group of stonemasons were hammering away near the entrance to the tomb and several rows of neatly stacked up limestone blocks bore witness to their efforts.

All this was enough to make Ipi and Meryt forget the dramatic events of only an hour or so earlier. As a matter of fact, they were beginning to wonder whether the incident with the strange bowman could have happened at all. Would anyone really try to kill the Pharaoh? The whole of Egypt depended on the Pharaoh's well-being; without him, the world would collapse - the stars would not appear in the evening, the sun would not rise in the morning, the inundation would not arrive on the pre-determined day, the gods would be very angry.

Nakht led them along the northern side of the tomb, as yet marked only by a low wall with several gaping openings. His gang was working on the reliefs of the open court at the western end of the tomb. The arrival of the foreman and his visitors was noticed well before they reached the court and they were greeted with enthusiasm. They were all there - Paraemhab with his hands covered with paint from handling the string with which he drew the grid-lines on the walls, and Panehesy, the outline draughtsmen, whose firm handshake left large red stains on Ipi s hands. And Ptahemhat still clutched his bronze chisel and wooden mallet. There were others whom Ipi did not know. One of them, an old man with a wizened face, called Raya, was used to treating injuries sustained by men during the construction work.

At Nakht's request, he examined the wound on Ipi's forearm and said that it was only superficial and that it would heal in a couple of days. "You were very lucky", he said. "An arrow can do terrible damage if you happen to be in the way."

Ipi would have liked to stay with there for the rest of the day and watch them at work. It was, after all, what he most wanted, to become the foreman of a building gang when he grew up, just like his father.

Meryt had turned to Nakht and, blushing, was about to say something when the big man smiled and nodded. Alright, Meryt, don't worry, I have not forgotten. Silhouetted against the northern horizon, there was an astonishing monument which citizens of Mennufer and pilgrims from all over Egypt came to see, particularly on festival days. The step pyramid of King Djoser shone golden in the midday sun and looked like a staircase leading to the sun. Those who were able to see it at various times of day and night said that it never was the same, no matter how often you might have seen it before. The pyramid was built by Djoser s architect called Imhotep who, so the story went, invented the art of building in stone. Meryt tried to imagine what the world would be like without stone buildings, but it was difficult - true, the houses in Mennufer were built of mud bricks, but what about the temples, pyramids and tombs? So the previous week Meryt had asked Ipi's father whether he would take them to see Djoser's pyramid which, she knew, was not that far from the tomb of General Haremhab.

Their shadows pointed almost directly towards the Step Pyramid as they crossed a large sandy plain away from the tomb of General Haremhab towards it. Only occasionally a half-buried stretch of masonry or a broken pottery jar betrayed the presence of earlier burials in the area. Then the pyramid was in front of them, dilapidated and with its sides partly covered in debris and loose stones which detached themselves from the layers of blocks above, but still majestic and awe-inspiring. It was surrounded by what looked like one of the dikes which protected the city of Mennufer against high floods. But Ipi's father said that it was a wall, now completely covered in sand, which encircled the pyramid on all sides.

The small party marched steadily towards the south-eastern side of the pyramid where one could see the remains of some very unusual buildings. Most of the visitors approached the pyramid this way and many of them wrote their names, sometimes accompanied by short prayers, on the still partly visible walls. Meryt was now beginning to feel very tired and so she suggested that she was going to look at some of the inscriptions left by earlier visitors and wait there while Ipi and his father inspected the pyramid more closely.

She watched them pass from the blinding brightness of the sand into the deep shadow which was now beginning to form near the eastern face of the Step Pyramid. All was peaceful and quiet, nothing stirred. But then her eye caught a movement half way up the pyramid and she was suddenly alert and apprehensive. There it was again! A small sand-coloured creature was moving stealthily along the edge of one of the steps. A wild cat! Meryt had a pet cat called Nedjmet at home, a small tabby with striped fur and a ringed tail. The animal high up on the pyramid was obviously stalking some prey, perhaps a lizard or a small bird and Meryt followed its progress with interest.

Then she froze with horror. Not very far from the where she spotted the cat she could saw a tall bearded figure wearing a long blue garment. It was the same man whom they had seen outside the ruined huts on the way to General Haremhab's tomb. Now he was leaning against a large stone boulder and watched Nakht and Ipi who were now quite close to the pyramid s face and quite unaware of the stranger s presence. Meryt shrieked at the top of her voice and when they turned round she waived her arms wildly and tried to alert them to the danger overhead by pointing at the pyramid. But the distance was too great and they just waived back and continued walking closer and closer to the monument. Only the cat seemed to have understood the danger perfectly and, abandoning its hunt, bolted and disappeared among the accumulated rubble. Nakht and Ipi were now almost directly below the stranger.

It required little more than a push to start the large stone block rolling down the pyramid s side. As it was gathering speed, it brought down an avalanche of smaller stones, and the whole mass was now rushing inexorably towards the two figures, one large, the other small, below ...

The photograph shows a pet cat under a chair, from Theban tomb TT 219, of Nebenmaet, who lived around 1250 BC. Schott photo. 8996. © Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Ancient Egypt briefing

The Step Pyramid of King Djoser
The cat

On to Chapter 6.