Set in Egypt of the 14th century B.C.E. and piecing together a mosaic of the reigns of the five Amarnan kings, threaded through by the memories of princess Beketaten-Scarab, a tapestry unfolds of the royal figures lost in the mists of antiquity.
Scarab and her brother Smenkhkare are in exile in Nubia but are gathering an army to wrest control of Egypt from the boy king Tutankhamen and his controlling uncle, Ay. Meanwhile, the kingdoms are beset by internal troubles while the Amorites are pressing hard against the northern borders. Generals Horemheb and Paramessu must fight a war on two fronts while deciding where their loyalties lie–with the former king Smenkhkare or with the new young king in Thebes.
Smenkhkare and Scarab march on Thebes with their native army to meet the legions of Tutankhamen on the plains outside the city gates. As two brothers battle for supremacy and the throne of the Two Kingdoms, the fate of Egypt and the 18th dynasty hangs in the balance.
ISBN: 978-1-921636-60-8 ASIN:B0060M6RWM Word Count: 177,776
Under-Minister Ahmed Bashir of the Syrian Ministry of National History pushed aside the flap of his tent and stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness. A guard, huddled against the chill of the night, forced himself to a semblance of alertness and sketched a clumsy salute. Bashir waved the man away impatiently and looked up at the vague outline of the sandstone cliffs dimly visible against the night sky. He took out a silver cigarette case from an inside pocket of his jacket and extracted a cheroot, tapping it on the case before putting it between his thin lips and lighting it. Drawing deeply, Bashir held the smoke in his lungs, the first prickle of nicotine intoxication clearing away the cobwebs of the night. He exhaled, the smoke warmed by his breath white in the chill dawn air.
“Possibilities, Ahmed, possibilities,” Bashir murmured. He started walking along the rutted and muddy road toward the track leading to the archaeological dig. After the bright glow of the lights around and in his tent, the darkness felt soothing and he scanned the night sky with its sprinkling of stars. The first faint flush of daylight stained the eastern horizon, heralding the start of a new day and the time for prayers. The minister flicked the half-finished cheroot into the darkness, hearing the faint hiss as the glow was extinguished in a puddle, and turned back toward his tent. Prayers first, he thought, then a cup of coffee and we‘ll see how willing the foreigners are to cooperate.
The yellow sandstone of the cliffs shone golden in the morning light when Bashir stepped out of his tent again. He called one of his guards over and gave him his instructions before returning to his tent for a leisurely cup of coffee. That pleasant task finished, he sauntered over to the expedition’s main tent and allowed one of the armed guards to lift the flap for him. Inside the large marquee-style tent sat eight men and women around a long wooden trestle table. The remnants of a hurried breakfast and cooling cups of tea and coffee littered the table top. Murmurs of conversation died away and heads turned as Bashir entered. He nodded pleasantly at the group and greeted his secretary Nazim, who sat a few feet away making notes in a large ring binder.
“Good morning, Dr Hanser,” Bashir said. “I trust you slept well and have thoroughly considered my proposal?”
Dr Danielle Hanser, a tall slim woman in her thirties, stood and rested her hands on the table, her auburn shoulder-length hair swinging forward as she stared back at the Under-Minister. “I slept as well as could be expected with armed guards outside my tent, Minister Bashir. As for your proposal–do we have a choice?”
Bashir smiled with his lips only. “My dear Dr Hanser, of course you have a choice. I am not such a barbarian as to force you to do something you do not wish to do.”
“No, just the threat should be enough, eh boyo?” A dark haired individual at the other end of the table lit up a rolled cigarette and flicked the match onto the ground. “Of course, if the threats don’t work, you will no doubt get around to a bit of gentle persuasion.”
“Dr Rhys-Williams.” All trace of pleasantness disappeared from Bashir’s voice as he turned to look at the Welshman. “I do not need your cooperation. I can bring my own experts in within days and you can enjoy a stay in a Damascus prison for a few years. I cannot guarantee the accommodation or the cuisine, I’m afraid, but, well…the choice is yours.”
“Just what the fuck is going on here? Are we under arrest, or what? And what’s this proposal thing you’re talking about?”
“Cool it, Al,” a heavily bearded young man growled. “All the same, I think we’d like to know what is going on.”
Bashir inclined his head in agreement. “An excellent idea. Dr Hanser, perhaps you would like to introduce me to your team first, and then I can inform everyone as to the part I expect them to play over the next days and weeks.”
“This is Under-Minister Ahmed Bashir, the signatory to our permit to dig here.” Dani walked down the length of the table, gesturing at the seated people as she spoke. “Dr Rhys-Williams you already know. Next to him is Allan Bryce, a PhD student, across from him is Doris Smith and Angela Devereux, both Honours students…”
“Ah, Miss Devereux,” Bashir murmured, eyeing the tall, buxom blonde with interest. “I hope you have not been too upset by this business.”
“…Along from them is Will Morrison, Bob Burrows, and here on this side,” Dani’s hand lingered a moment on the shoulder of the bearded young man, “Dr Marc Andrews.”
“Thank you, Dr Hanser.” Bashir nodded his thanks. “Now, as to why you are here…”
“Who’s the little creep over there?” Al snarled, pointing at Nazim.
Bashir frowned, his eyes glacial. “That is my secretary, Nazim. He will be taking down what is said today. Now, as to why you are here–you can appreciate that the Minister and I have oversight of a great many projects within Syria. This particular dig falls under my aegis, though it had only a low interest rating as it dealt with a speculative exploration of a possible Neanderthal migration route. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter a week ago addressed to a Robert Burrows at the ‘Egyptian Dig’, care of the Ministry. Naturally, I had to open it to find out where it was supposed to go, and I was first astounded, then angered by the news. A foreign expedition, under the auspices of the Ministry of National History, was concealing a major find from the proper authorities.”
Bashir stopped and looked carefully at each face at the table, seeing varied expressions of shock, anger and fear. “This is a very serious matter as thieves of National Treasures are liable for large fines and lengthy terms in prison. I came up here to see for myself and I find that essentially it is true. You have found an Egyptian tomb and concealed its existence from the Ministry.”
“We were going to report it,” Bob said, his face stricken with anguish. “We just wanted to see what was here first.”
“Yes, unfortunately, pleas of good intentions are never quite believable after you have been found out.”
“Get on with it,” Al growled. “What do you intend doing?”
“He has a proposal for us,” Daffyd said quietly. “I suggest you listen carefully to what he says.”
“Thank you, Dr Rhys-Williams,” Bashir said. “What I propose is quite simple. I will keep quiet about your criminal actions and monitor your investigations myself. You will be allowed to continue essentially as before.”
“Bullshit,” Al muttered.
“Very generous, Minister,” Marc cut in. “But why would you do such a thing?”
“Yeah, what’s in it for you?” Angela added.
“Call it intellectual curiosity, if you will. I read through the notes on your finds last night and I am quite amazed at the revelations. I would consider it a privilege to be present for the rest of the investigation.”
Marc leaned forward, staring at Bashir. “And you would not bring in other experts? You’d allow us to do the work?”
Bashir nodded. “Indeed. It seems hardly fair to deprive you now.”
“What about publication?” Daffyd asked, blowing a cloud of smoke down the table. “You’d allow us to publish our findings?”
“Ah, the prime concern of the scientist.” Bashir smiled thinly. “We can discuss that later. For now, though, do you accept my offer? Dr Hanser?”
Dani frowned and played with a pencil, tapping it on the table. “This is pretty much what we discussed last night, Under-Minister, but you did not clarify the conditions, or what happens to us after the dig is finished. Perhaps you would do that now.”
“The conditions are very simple, Dr Hanser. No more than six people will be in the chamber at once. You and Dr Rhys-Williams, I and Nazim, and you may choose two others in rotation. The others will remain in camp, under guard, as a surety for your good behavior. That is all.”
“And at the end? When we have found everything?”
Bashir smiled again. “Do not concern yourself with that. If I have full cooperation from all your team, you will not see the inside of our prisons.”
“Shot more like it,” Al snapped. “Why are we even listening to this prat?”
“Come, Mr Bryce, we are not savages. Play fair with me and I’ll play fair with you.” Bashir shrugged. “If my terms are unacceptable, say so, and I will have you back in Damascus today.”
“Your terms are acceptable, Under-Minister,” Dani replied. “But the investigation is likely to go slowly if you keep going back to the Ministry. Perhaps we could continue in your absences?”
“No need. I have a month’s leave so we shall see what we can reveal in that time.”
“You mean the Ministry does not know you are here?”
“They know I am here, but think I am indulging my hobby. I love history, Dr Hanser. What better way to spend my holidays?”
Minister Bashir led his small group of researchers up to the cave a little later. Dani selected Marc and Doris for the first shift. “You’ll all have a turn,” she told them. “I promise you.”
Soldiers stood at the cave portal and also within the tent that housed the shattered doorway into the first chamber. Bashir ordered the generator started up and they waited while the motor coughed and spluttered. It settled into a deep-throated roar and the flickering lights steadied. While the Under-Minister talked to the guards, obviously issuing instructions, Marc took advantage of the noise to turn his back on Bashir and address Dani.
“What the hell are we going to do?”
Dani’s shoulders gave a ghost of a shrug, her eyes fixed on the Syrian soldiers. “I don’t know.”
“Not much we can do, boyo,” Daffyd murmured. “Play along for now and see what happens.”
“But what’s he after?” Doris whispered. “I can’t believe the man’s really interested in history.”
“Gold, Doris, gold. You were there last night. Remember Smenkhkare’s treasure? That’s what he’s after.”
“Shit! We’re going to give it to him?” Marc started to look angry.
“Dr Hanser!” Ahmed Bashir stared at the huddle of men and women suspiciously. “What are you talking about?”
Dani turned and smiled. “Doris was expressing a concern about loo breaks. I told her…”
“Loo? What is this loo?”
“Bathroom breaks, old boy,” Daffyd chipped in. “I know you have bathrooms in Syria, I’ve used them myself from time to time. I assume we will be allowed to use them as needed.”
“Of course. You will be escorted when the need arises. Now,” Bashir indicated the entrance to the first chamber. “If you are ready?” He stood to one side and ushered Dani ahead of him.
The lighting in the first chamber had been changed since the previous day. Spotlights lit up the magnificent mural at the far end of the chamber and one pointed straight up at the great golden disc of the sun painted on the vaulted roof. The rest of the cavernous space was lost in shadow, the serried columns of fine hieroglyphics no more than shadowed stacks of symbols. Pictures broke up the lines of writing, an enigmatic face of a king here, a duck taking flight there. Every line, every feather, every colour of the pictures reflected life and movement.
“Magnificent,” Bashir breathed. He pivoted on one heel and scanned the chamber slowly, staring up at the roof for a time before tracing the sun’s rays down the walls to where they ended in little hands bestowing a blessing on each picture. “So unlike Egyptian art. You are certain this is truly Egyptian, Dr Hanser?”
“Yes. It shows definite similarities to Amarnan art of the late eighteenth dynasty, but is more refined if anything. I believe it is what that art might have become, had it been allowed to flourish.”
“Amarnan art, Dr Hanser? I do not think I know the term.”
“They discovered Akhenaten’s city of Akhet-Aten at a place called Tell el-Amarna in 1824. The art on the ruins was rather like this–totally different from anything that had come before, and totally different from anything that came after. It has more in common with Late Minoan than contemporary Egyptian.”
“Fascinating. I can see we are going to have some interesting discussions.” Bashir walked over to the back wall and positioned himself so that his shadow, cast by the spotlight, did not obscure the painting. “What a pity you had to mar this perfection by opening up that hole. Still, you would not have found the second chamber otherwise.” He looked up at the semi-circle of nine figures facing the young woman on her knees before them. “A pity we cannot see her face…but this is also Scarab, is it not?” He pointed at a small painting of a woman’s face among the hieroglyphs. Leaning forward, Bashir stared intently at the portrait. “Incredible. The similarity is incredible, right down to the colour of the hair. That is you, Dr Hanser.” He turned to face Dani, and motioned her forward into the light. “What is an Englishwoman’s face doing in an ancient Egyptian painting?”
“That’s not me. You’re looking at similarities like the colour of my hair and ignoring the rest.”
“Not just the hair, Dr Hanser…or may I call you Dani? You may call me Ahmed. It seems foolish to be so formal when we are becoming such good friends, no? Good, that is settled. Now, everyone, look at the cheekbones, the shape of the eyes, the ears, how she holds herself. Tell me that picture is not our Dr…Dani.”
“I’ve always said she looked like you, Dani,” Marc said, nodding. Doris said nothing, just nodded her agreement.
Daffyd grinned and tossed back his wavy black hair. “I seem to remember you telling us last year that you have an Egyptian grandmother. Perhaps the blood runs more strongly in you than you know.”
Dani shook her head, the bright light glinting off her hair, making it glow redly. “My mother was French-Egyptian and my father was English. That makes me only quarter Egyptian and there must be close on a hundred generations between Scarab and me. Use your brains, guys. Even if we were related, there would be so few genes in common by now, we wouldn’t look anything alike. It’s just plain coincidence.”
“What about that trick you did with the scarab…”
Daffyd clapped Marc hard on the shoulder, cutting him off. “Stop beating a dead horse, boyo. If the good Doctor says she’s not related, she’s not. Let’s get on into the next chamber; I’m dying to see what happens next.”
“What trick with what scarab, Dr Andrews?” Ahmed Bashir’s good humour evaporated and he eyed the bearded young man with suspicion. “Be so good as to enlighten me.”
Marc looked from Daffyd to Dani in consternation, aware he had committed some gaffe but not knowing exactly what. “I…er, I…”
Daffyd frowned, his eyes looking down at his hands as he rolled himself a cigarette. “Well, you know how the Egyptians worshiped the scarab…?”
“It was nothing,” Dani cut in. “A…a party trick, nothing more.”
“I told him about a game my grandmother used to play with me when I was a child. A scarab beetle has six legs. You assign the day, month and year of a boy’s birthday to one side and the day, month and year of a girl to the other and add the two sides up. If the numbers are close together it means they will get married.” Dani shrugged and gave what she hoped was an embarrassed grin. “I did it for Marc and his girlfriend and it was a close match.”
“That is one of the most stupid things I’ve heard,” Bashir said.
“Well, I told you it was a party game. I was only six when my grandmother played it with me.”
Bashir shook his head and turned back to the mural. “Who are the nine figures?” he asked.
Dani coughed to cover an involuntary sigh of relief. “The Great Ennead of Heliopolis, the Nine Gods of Iunu.”
“What is their relevance?”
“We don’t know yet,” Dani said carefully. “They meant something to Scarab–Princess Beketaten–but we haven’t discovered exactly what.”
“Well, the gods of Egypt were all myths anyway. Even if this Scarab believed they were important, they probably weren’t. Shall we move through to the next chamber? Dani, will you lead the way?”
Dani ducked low and half crawled through the low access passage, followed by Doris and Bashir. The Minister’s secretary Nazim gestured for the others to precede him but Daffyd inhaled deeply on his cigarette and pointed to his feet.
“You go on, boyo. I have to tie my shoe.” Daffyd knelt and untied his shoelace. Nazim shrugged and ducked through into the next chamber leaving Marc and Daffyd alone.
“What the hell’s going on? What did I almost say?”
“Keep quiet about the golden scarab,” Daffyd whispered. “Bashir doesn’t know about it.”
“How could he not? She carries it with her all the time.”
“Yes, funny thing that. We had to turn out our pockets last night and he actually picked it up but didn’t recognise it as gold or as an artifact.”
“That’s impossible. He must be playing with you.”
Daffyd straightened and shrugged. “I don’t think so, but even if he is, keep quiet about it.” He took a last lungful of smoke and dropped the butt, grinding it underfoot.
“Dr Rhys-Williams, Dr Andrews, would you be so good as to join us in here?” Bashir’s voice echoed as it issued from the passage. “I’m starting to think you are up to no good out there.”
“Nothing sinister, Minister,” Daffyd called back. “I was tying my shoelace.” He crouched and inched his way into the short connecting passage.
“And you need Dr Andrews to assist you?”
Daffyd straightened and dusted the knees of his trousers before moving aside as Marc came through behind him. “He was holding my cigarette while I did it.” He smiled disarmingly at Bashir.
The Minister stared hard at the two men before grunting and turning away. He strode down the length of the second chamber to the back wall with its huge mural and stared up at it. “Is there another chamber behind this too?”
“God, I hope not,” Dani said. “It was terrible having to deface the other one. It would be a crime to destroy this.”
“Who are the figures?” Bashir snapped his fingers at his secretary. “Nazim, load a reel into the tape recorder. I want all this recorded.”
Dani watched the little man quickly loading the reel and plugging it into one of the long extension cords that spilled from the mouth of the connecting passage.
Nazim tightened the tape and switched it on; waiting a moment to make sure it was running smoothly. “Ready, Minister.”
“Alright, Dani, go ahead.”
Dani took a moment to scan the broad sweep of the mural, marveling anew at the vivid colours and the artistry of the figures caught in a moment of a battle to the death. “The one on the left, holding the spear is King Smenkhkare, and the one on the right, with the bow is King Tutankhamen…”
“King Tut? The one with the treasure tomb?” Bashir’s tongue lightly moistened his lips and his eyes sparkled brightly in the spotlight.
“Behind Smenkhkare is a woman, sister to both kings, the princess Beketaten or Scarab as she likes to be known. The other figure, the old man, is the Tjaty Ay–what we’d call the Vizier.”
“So this is just a picture representing the opposition of the two kings, or is it describing a real battle?”
Daffyd pointed to the background detail. “Those are figures of men back there, small as you’d expect from perspective but…damn, this is so bloody unreal boyo. Ancient Egyptians didn’t use perspective. If this was a conventional tomb painting, those soldiers would all be larger and stylised, cardboard cutouts, so to speak.” Daffyd went closer to the wall and ran his fingers gently over the plaster. “Look at them. Those figures are small but they’re individual. They’re in life-like poses too. I’d bet my career this is an actual battle and those soldiers are real people.”
“I read the account of the battle last night from your notes,” Bashir said slowly. “But I do not remember any confrontation between King Tut and this…this other king.”
“Smenkhkare,” Daffyd said. “And that’s because there wasn’t one–ever. Smenkhkare died after ruling maybe three years at most and Tutankhamen ten years later. When Smenkhkare died, Tutankhamen was only a kid of nine. There is no way they ever met in battle.”
“Yeah, well we already know that accepted history is wrong, don’t we?” Marc said with a wry grin. “Smenkhkare didn’t die, he survived the crocodile.”
“That’s right,” Dani added. “Then he led an attack on Waset, which also isn’t in the history books.”
“Er, excuse me.”
Five heads turned to look at Doris who was standing in the shadows behind the main spotlight. “What’s up, Dor?” Marc asked.
“Well,” Doris started hesitantly. “Aren’t we assuming this is all factual?” She waved her hand toward the columns of tiny hieroglyphs marching up and down the whitewashed walls. “I mean, how do we know this Scarab person is telling the truth? Maybe it’s all made up.”
“It’s true,” Dani said flatly. “It has the ring of truth…”
“Hang on Dani,” Marc cut in on the expedition leader. “Doris could be right. What if these writings are as biased as Shakespeare’s plays? I mean, he was an Elizabethan playwright and those were the Tudor monarchs who basically rewrote history to blacken Richard the Third’s name. Well, what if the same thing is happening here and Tjaty Ay is really a sweet old grand-dad, and Smenkhkare’s the bad guy?”
Dani paled and took a step back. “You’re calling Scarab a liar?”
“I think we are all getting a little carried away, boys and girls.” Daffyd took his tin of tobacco and cigarette papers from his jacket pocket and started rolling himself a smoke. “I know you feel a special affinity for the lass, Dani, I like her too, but Doris and Marc raise a good point. How can we be certain this account is factual? I’m talking evidence, not feelings.”
“What are you saying?” Bashir asked, his brows furrowed in suspicion and alarm. “If this is not true, then the reference to the king’s treasure…”
“…May be just so much hot air,” Daffyd finished. He put the tin and papers away and stuck the fat cigarette in his mouth. A match scraped and flared and he drew in and exhaled a cloud of pale smoke. “Well, there is a way to be sure.” He stood smoking with a smile on his face, looking from one person to another.
“What is your sure-fire way?” Dani asked after a few moments.
“Yes, tell us, Dr Rhys-Williams,” Bashir added.
“Find something in the text that is verifiable. Better still, lots of things.” Daffyd shrugged. “I know there’s not much known about the whole time period, but there must be something. Maybe that treasure you crave, Under-Minister.” Bashir glowered but said nothing. “If we were to find the treasure trove at a place described in the account, then that would lend support to its authenticity.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Let us start translating again and see what it tells us.”
“Actually, there might be something already,” Doris said slowly. “When I was reading the notes about Scarab in Zarw, she saw a magnificent pectoral that Khabiru jeweler had made. Didn’t Tutankhamen have something like that in his tomb?”
“Can’t recall it,” Marc said. “But you could be right. It’s the sort of thing a king would have. How do we find out?”
“Perhaps this is something the other members of the team can be doing while they sit around at the camp,” Nazim suggested quietly. “There are reference books back in Damascus and we have the notes from this tomb.”
“Bravo, Nazim,” Bashir said, his eyebrows rising as he examined his timid secretary in a new light. “They can look for other historical accuracies too.” He clapped his hands and smiled at his captive team. “Now, let us return to the translation. There are lots of things to find out.”
“Very well, Minister,” Dani said. “But I must make one thing clear. This is not a treasure hunt but an archaeological investigation. On site, I am in charge and we progress at my pace. Understood?”
Bashir stared at the tall woman, his face impassive, for several seconds. At last, he nodded curtly, then relented and smiled. “Of course, Dani. I bow to your superior knowledge.”
Nazim switched off the tape recorder and moved it closer to the position they had been at the previous evening, coiling the electrical cables neatly to one side. He then adjusted the spotlight to bathe the wall in a flood of light and set out six wooden folding chairs in a neat line, with one slightly apart and near the equipment. “This one is mine for I must attend to the recorder, but please, Minister, ladies, take a seat.” He waited until everyone except Dani was seated before turning to Bashir. “When you are ready, sir.”
The Minister nodded. “Be so good as to start your translation, Dani. I think an hour or two and we can have a break.”
Dani grimaced and turned toward the tiny, packed columns of pictographs that soared from above her head to floor level, marching along the walls in either direction until they faded into the shadow beyond the reach of the spotlight.
“Okay, where was I?” Her fingers traced the columns, searching for familiar phrases. “Ah, this looks about right…it says…”
“My brother Smenkhkare has changed in the year or more we have been apart. That is not surprising, looking at what he has been through. He fell from the highest position in the Kingdoms into death, only to be resurrected again. The story is not unlike that of Asar, whom Set killed and who resurrected into great Heru. All that is missing is the presence of Asar’s faithful wife Auset. In some ways I have been cast as Auset, one of the Nine of Iunu, yet I will not marry my brother, even for the sake of the gods. Another has claimed my heart and body and I will marry him as soon as the gods bring us together again, and we will spend the rest of our lives raising our son Set to be a soldier like his father.
I miss him so. The further south we travel the more my heart is ripped apart. I know my son is in good and loving hands, his grandparents will dote on him, and my all-but-husband Paramessu will raise him until I can be there. I pray to the gods it is soon.
My brother has an almost impossible task ahead of him. The armies of Kemet commanded by the best generals will surely contest his claim to the throne. Smenkhkare will need to find an army from somewhere. He believes Kush to be the answer, but that may be only because he once found help there. It was not enough then and I fear it will not be again, but what else is he to do? He is king–Ankhkheperure Djeserkheperu Smenkhkare, anointed Per-Aa of the Two Kingdoms, King of Tawi, Son of Re, Lord of Crowns–may he live forever. And I? I was once Princess Beketaten, daughter and sister of kings, but of what use is a princess now? I will be Scarab again, truly Scarab, Khepri, aspect of the Sun, and I will find a way to help my brother regain his throne, find a way to be reunited with my Paramessu, and find a way to love and care for my son.
We sailed past Ta-senet , Nekhen and Behdet, but news had already reached those towns of our status. The remnants of the population lined the river and sent volleys of arrows against us. They fell well short of course, as we had the whole river to use, but the fact that the common people turned against us hurt deeply. Not being able to put in at the towns, we were forced to scavenge for food and supplies in the farmlands near villages. Many of our wounded died in the days following the battle at Waset, despite the good efforts of Nebhotep and a handful of other physicians. Where we could, we buried them in the hot, dry sands of the desert edge where they stood a chance of immortality, their bodies drying before decay could set in, preserving the shell of the person for later spirit resurrection.
And so we came to Abu again, where we found the Governor Ka-Nakht prepared to defend the island and the city…”