The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…
The throne of Egypt has passed to Khaba, an old man who seeks only to secure his family’s position. Construction of a pyramid tomb is a secondary consideration, and the fortunes of those who desire to build them languish as he refuses further innovations. It is left to his grandson and heir, Huni, to dream of greater architectural glories.
Architect Den has achieved love, but at the cost of ambition. He and his burgeoning family struggle to survive, his relatives seeking out love of their own even as they look for opportunities to further their careers. The promise of a return to fulfilment is offered, but will they be able to grasp it?
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“Can I trust you? That is the question uppermost in my mind.”
Imhotep looked around the formal throne room of the palace in Inebu-hedj, at the man who had assumed the regency of the kingdoms, at his grandson who commanded the armed men who held the city hostage, and at the soldiers who stood close by, watching him carefully.
“Lord Khaba, I only want what is best for Kemet.”
“I am what is best for Kemet,” Khaba said. He stared hard at the previous king’s Tjaty, as if striving to discern the man’s thoughts. “Do you dispute that?”
“You promised to uphold Sennenkhet’s claim to the throne, taking for yourself only the role of regent,” Imhotep reminded him.
“Sennenkhet is a child.”
“He was a child yesterday when you made the promise. Are you going back on your word, Lord Khaba?”
“I am a man of my word,” the regent said stiffly. “I rule Kemet in Sennenkhet’s name, as agreed by you, Imhotep.”
“Yet here we are in the throne room with you sitting on the throne as if you were king. Sennenkhet should be sitting there, not you.”
“Have a care, Imhotep,” Huni rasped. “You should show more respect to my grandfather. He effectively is the king until the boy is of age.”
“And you should show more respect to the person of Sennenkhet,” Imhotep retorted. “He is not ‘the boy’ or any other derogatory term, but the legitimate heir to King Hor-Sekhemkhet.”
“Enough of this bickering,” Khaba said. “My grandson meant no disrespect. Sennenkhet is the king, and I am his regent as agreed. If I sit upon the throne of Kemet, it is because I represent him.”
Imhotep shook his head. “As Tjaty, I represented Netjerikhet and Sekhemkhet on many occasions, yet I would never dare take for myself the rights of kingship. When I stood in place for the king I did so from my own chair, not the throne.”
Khaba’s jaw clenched but he held his anger in check. “A regent is not the same as a Tjaty.”
“So it would seem.”
“That is why I ask again, can I trust you? Are you going to oppose me as I rule Kemet…for Sennenkhet?” Khaba asked.
“As long as you do not presume to rule in your own name, I will continue in my duties as Tjaty of the kingdoms, striving to keep the peace and maintain the ma’at.”
Khaba grimaced. “What need is there for a Tjaty when there is a regent?”
Imhotep stared. “Only the king can remove me from my post.”
“Or you can resign,” Huni murmured.
Imhotep glanced at the young man briefly before returning his regard to the regent. “I am not resigning,” he said. “The king needs my services more than ever. Until Sennenkhet tells me to step down, I remain as Tjaty.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Khaba said with a sigh. “Sennenkhet does not need a Tjaty when he has a regent, and I do not need one either.”
Shock flickered in Imhotep’s eyes, swiftly covered over. “Then what are your intentions, Lord Khaba?”
The regent had noted Imhotep’s reaction and smiled. “Do not fear, Imhotep, I will not put you to death. Such an action would be counterproductive…and wasteful. However, I cannot have you publicly disagreeing with my decisions, so I must protect the king.”
“Protect yourself, you mean.”
Khaba shrugged. “It comes to the same thing.”
“It would be safer to have him executed, grandfather,” Huni said. “Dead men cannot disagree with your policies.”
“I have told you before, Huni, Imhotep is a good man and an excellent official. I will not willingly waste such talent. When he sees that I honour Sennenkhet as Kemet’s king, he will agree to serve king and regent in whatever capacity we see fit.”
“But you cannot just trust him,” Huni said. “I urge you to execute him. There are other men of ability you can raise up.”
“Not like Imhotep.”
“But you cannot trust him.”
Khaba looked thoughtful. “If I was a private citizen, I would trust him implicitly,” he said. “However, as the king’s regent, I must put aside my personal feelings and do what I perceive to be in the best interests of the kingdoms. Imhotep, you will be held in custody until the kingdoms are stable and at peace. When that happens, we will welcome you back to the service of the king.”
Huni grinned in satisfaction. “Take him away,” he told the guards.
Imhotep was swiftly restrained by the soldiers, but he bowed to Khaba before being led away. After the door closed behind him, Khaba relaxed and got up from the throne.
“I did as you asked, grandfather,” Huni said, “but I really do think it would be safer to do away with him.”
“And as I said to you before, killing Imhotep would be a waste. No, you did well suggesting it, so now he will ruminate on the possibility of death. I will allow him to see his family and they will persuade him that life is preferable. He will come to see that service to the king is his path in life.”
“Even when you are the king, grandfather?”
“Even then,” Khaba said with a smile.
The problem of Imhotep was, in reality, the least of Khaba’s problems. Imhotep was inherently loyal to the throne and though he may have been disturbed by the regent’s actions, he would not further destabilise the kingdoms by inciting insurrection. The same could not be said of others within Inebu-hedj. Unrest had been growing in the populace for months before Sekhemkhet’s death, but had been contained by a reluctance to speak out against the king.
Disease had broken out in the city, and though there was disagreement as to the exact cause, there could be no argument that the water supplies were tainted. Increasingly, water drawn from the river stank of ordure and flecks of faecal material were often found. This was traced back upriver to the nearby outfall of faeces from the Sekera building site. Thousands of workers, over many years, dumped their waste into the river only a few thousand paces upriver from the city. Nobody associated this waste with disease, but the smell and taste of the water sickened the senses.
As long as Sekhemkhet was having his tomb constructed at Sekera, nobody publicly complained, but now that the king had died, muttering grew into loud complaint. Khaba effectively ruled the city but his control was not absolute. He trod cautiously, careful not to upset people, and did not interfere with the continuing construction of the tomb. In the absence of direction to the contrary, Den kept the labourers working, striving to complete the underground galleries and burial chamber, raise the mer to its next level, and hurried the construction of the enclosure wall and concomitant structures.
“How much more will we have to build?” Scribe Khawy asked his father. “The king is dead, after all.”
“He will still need his House of Eternity,” Den pointed out. “Until we are told otherwise, we continue the work–accelerate it even–so that it will be fit to take his body.”
Imhotep might have told them to finish things off and start no new work, but he was in no position to do so from his prison cell, and Khaba gave the matter no thought. He was more concerned with limiting the power of those who openly supported Sennenkhet, and staving off any thoughts of rebellion.
The Tjaty had reached an agreement to hand over the regency to Khaba, but that action was not supported by others within the court hierarchy. Ayah, mother of the heir, desired the regency for herself, and as Khaba’s grip tightened on the city, found that many others flocked to her standard. Khemtet, mother of Sekhemkhet, naturally supported her son’s son, and was deeply suspicious of Khaba. Though she had no great liking for Ayah, she recognised that the concubine held a position of power.
“My son Sennenkhet is undoubtedly king of Kemet,” Ayah declared. “He was made Sekhemkhet’s heir while the king still lived, and there are no other male descendants to dispute his rights.”
“I am in full agreement,” Khemtet said.
Ayah regarded the king’s mother thoughtfully. “Despite your words, I discern a certain reluctance to commit fully.”
Khemtet hesitated before answering. “For your son and my grandson, I am fully committed.”
“Then where lies your hesitation.”
“Forgive my harsh words, mother of the king, but I doubt your ability to govern in your son’s name.”
“You would rather that northern general did so?”
“By no means, but…” Khemtet shrugged delicately. To say more would be rude, but the occasion called for more than just a circumlocution. “Your lack of…of experience, I suppose.”
“What woman in the palace could possibly have experience of government?” Ayah asked. “You know as well as I that government belongs to men. I can advise my son, though, and…”
“Hetephernebti has more experience than any other woman,” Khemtet said. “I do not particularly like her, but I recognise her position as sister to Sekhemkhet gave her access to more knowledge than others.”
“Are you suggesting she should be regent?”
“No, but I am suggesting it would help to have her on our side,” Khemtet said.
“I was not aware there was an ‘our’ side,” Ayah said coldly. “Sennenkhet is my son, and I mean to be his regent.”
Khemtet shrugged. “Of course, but he is also my grandson and I want what is best for him. I suggest that what is best for him is for us to work together, with Hetephernebti if necessary, to oust Khaba.”
“Very well…as long as you recognise my pre-eminence in these matters.”
Khemtet nodded, not wanting to admit to any such thing. “How will you become regent?”
Ayah grimaced, faced with having to show her ignorance. “Khaba’s position is strong,” she said, “but not unassailable. If enough people demand he step aside, he will do so.”
Khemtet was appalled to think that Ayah was that naïve, but decided not to take her to task. At the moment, the concubine was the only alternative to Khaba, and it was just possible that others would rally to Ayah’s side.
“What people?” she asked.
“There are many who enjoyed favour under Sekhemkhet,” Ayah said. “They will support me.”
“Unless they see a greater advantage in supporting Khaba,” Khemtet said. “He has an army to back him up.”
Khaba’s northern army, reinforced by men from his estate and surrounding land, had taken possession of the city, leaving the king’s army sitting impotently on the eastern side of the river. The new regent had sent his personal retainers home, but the trained soldiers of the northern army that remained were enough to hold the city in thrall. Patrols roamed the streets, which a strong force guarded the palace and the person of the regent.
“I need the king’s army across the river,” Ayah said. “With them, I could remove Khaba, or at least get him to step aside.”
Khemtet agreed that such a course was the best available, but that there was still one obstacle to overcome.
“You must send someone to the commander of the king’s army and tell him of your plight,” Khemtet said. “Of course, you still have to bring the army across and fight the enemy.”
“I have someone I can send,” Ayah said, “an officer of the palace guard dismissed by Khaba. He will carry a message for me.”
Ayah lacked sufficient learning to construct and write a coherent letter, so had to rely on a scribe for that duty. Khemtet recommended one, but neither woman could read the message after it was written and could only hope that it said what they intended. The scribe, however, was cognisant of where the power lay in the new regime, and made another copy of the letter from his rough copy, sending this one to Khaba. In this way, Ayah was betrayed almost before she started. Khaba sent officers to arrest Ayah and Khemtet, but then, to make as little fuss as possible, went to see them in the Women’s Quarters.
“I am disappointed,” Khaba said. “Is this how you repay me for taking on the task of being regent for Sennenkhet? You are planning an armed uprising against me.”
Ayah and Khemtet tried to deny it at first, but Khaba produced the copy of the letter and then the scribe, and they were forced to admit their action.
“I am Sennenkhet’s mother,” Ayah said. “Do you blame me for wanting to protect him?”
“No, but against me? I am the duly designated regent and it is in my interests to keep your son safe. I have no position without him.”
“I should be the regent. As his mother…”
“As his mother you have other duties and responsibilities,” Khaba said. “The duties of a regent are to rule the kingdoms in the name of the king. Have you had experience in such matters?”
“Have you?” Ayah shot back.
“I have ruled men in my capacity as General of the Northern Army. I rule my estate in Per-Bast, and I can command men.” Khaba softened his tone. “Ayah, I appreciate your concerns, but believe me when I say I am the best person to rule Kemet in your son’s name.”
“But I am his mother. I know what is best for my son.”
“And I for my grandson,” Khemtet added.
Khaba sighed. “Sennenkhet is more than just a son and a grandson. He is also a king, and a king needs a strong, capable minister to act for him. I am such a man.”
“What about Imhotep?” Khemtet asked. “He was Tjaty for Sekhemkhet, why can’t he act for Sennenkhet?”
“Imhotep must prove his loyalty before he can be considered for such a position. Besides, being a Tjaty is not the same as being regent. He knows that, which is why he agreed to make me regent.” Khaba grimaced but nodded confidingly. “Ladies, when all things have been considered I, like anyone else in Kemet, must answer to the king. When he attains his majority, I want to be able to hand over the government to him in the knowledge that I have done my very best for him and the kingdoms. I need for the kingdoms to be at peace, without discord, and I need you to openly be in support of my rule.”
Ayah looked at Khemtet for a few moments. “I don’t know that I can do that,” she told Khaba. “You are asking me to give everything, to let you control every aspect of my son’s life, but I need to know that I have some say in my son’s upbringing.”
Khemtet nodded. “I support Ayah in this, and would argue for my own involvement.”
“There is a way,” Khaba said, “and I ask you to consider it seriously. I lack a wife, and though at my age I am content to live without a woman, I put this forward as a way in which Sennenkhet may benefit. Marry me, Ayah…you too, Khemtet. As my wife…or wives…you will have greater access to Sennenkhet, and can advise me on matters pertaining to his upbringing.” He saw the frowns on the faces of the royal women and held up a hand to forestall any objections. “You would be wives in name only. You need have no fear that I would force you to lie with me. I offer this freely so that we might be in accord as regards the young king, not for any ulterior motive.”
“I…I will need to think about this,” Ayah said.
“And I,” Khemtet murmured, though the look on her face spoke of her interest.
“Take what time you need,” Khaba said. He bowed to the two women and left the Women’s Quarters, withdrawing the guards who had arrested them.
Ayah stared at Khemtet after the regent had left. “You are considering his offer of marriage, aren’t you? I can see it in your face.”
“I would be a fool not to at least consider it,” Khemtet said. “I do not want to be excluded from my grandson’s presence. Who knows what poisonous thoughts Khaba will drip in his ears in our absence? You must see the advantages it offers us.”
“Why then does he offer them, in that case?” Ayah asked.
Khemtet shrugged. “He is an old man, and though he denies wanting a woman, I think he does.”
“I have no desire for such a thing,” Ayah said.
“You are still young and can easily remember what it was like to be ploughed by a virile young man. It has been many years since I welcomed a man between my legs and I would do so again, even if the man were old. Khaba swears he will not touch us…” Khemtet smiled, “…but I think I could change his mind. Once he has changed his mind on that, he can change it for other things. You know as well as I that the way to power in a man’s world lies between our legs.”
“I do not desire him,” Ayah said again. “The very thought makes me shudder.”
“Then leave me to manage his lusts,” Khemtet said. “You concentrate on rearing Sennenkhet in the way you want. Khaba cannot live much longer, and once he has gone, nothing stands in our way.”
“Why not just wait for him to die then?”
“What will he do in the meantime? How can you protect Sennenkhet if he denies you access? He has said we can share in his upbringing if we agree to this.”
Ayah scowled, but gave the matter some thought. At length, she nodded. “I do not like it, but I can see that our best opportunity lies in marriage. I will agree for my son’s sake.”
Huni was incensed when he heard of his grandfather’s offer. He bit back the bitter retort that sprang to his lips, maintaining a semblance of manners.
“Why would you consider such a course?” he asked. “They were quite plainly in open rebellion against you, treating with the commanders across the river. You could have had them swiftly tried and executed, but instead you offer to marry them. I do not understand you, grandfather.”
“Plainly. Well, let me set it out for you. Their act was not open rebellion, as the letter to the army commanders was never sent. Only the two women, the scribe who wrote it, and I, was even aware of its existence. If it had reached its intended recipient, and if they had somehow brought the army over the river to contend against me, then other discontented parties would have flocked to their banners. I would have faced a major battle, which I could not be sure of winning. Instead, I have turned the women aside by the promise of marriage; the rebellion has been pulled up by the roots, and I have the opportunity of finding out who might have supported them.”
“It would have been easier to identify them if they took up arms against us,” Huni grumbled. “A lot less trouble to strike them down, too.”
“The issue would have been in doubt,” Khaba said. “I am not yet strong enough to do as I please. Until such time, I must placate those who object to my regency, bargain with those who oppose me, and remove those I can one at a time.”
“He is one, yes. Ayah and Khemtet are others, as are the older royal women like Hetephernebti. There are some nobles too, court officials and army commanders.”
“So why not simply imprison the concubine and the wife? Why marry them?”
“You really should study people more,” Khaba observed. “You have a lot to learn. Look, Sennenkhet is the son of Ayah and the grandson of Khemtet. As mother and grandmother, they would do anything to preserve and protect the new king. If I threw them in prison, people would say I was acting unnaturally, against the family, but by marrying them I give them the illusion of protecting him and I show everyone else I have his interests at heart. Opposition declines and the natural ma’at of the kingdoms is restored.”
“No, of course not, but it is a start. My position is strong as long as my army resides in the city, but that cannot last forever. Eventually, I must disband them, and then I will need the willing support of the nobles and commoners. If they see me as the father of the king and husband of his mother, they will think of me as less of a threat to the succession.”
Huni considered his grandfather’s words. “You could remove your enemies altogether by killing Sennenkhet and his relatives. Sweep clean the writing in the sand and found your own family dynasty. With none of Sekhemkhet’s family alive, you would be the logical choice.”
“Civil war would erupt and the kingdoms would be back in the days before King Khasekhemwy restored order. I have no desire to see those days return.” Khaba regarded his grandson patiently. “Young men desire things to change swiftly, but you will see that my way is better.”
Huni scowled. “Sometimes the best path is the most direct, but…” he held up a hand as Khaba frowned, “…I will seek patience, grandfather.”
“But marriage? Could you not have taken them as mere concubines and achieved the same ends? What if you have a son by one of them? Will you favour him over me?”
Khaba laughed. “Neither woman attracts me, so I am scarcely likely to lie with either one apart from the obligatory consummation. They must believe I am committed to the king’s continued welfare.”
Huni cocked his head to one side. “But you are not?”
“We have been over this, Huni. Sennenkhet is king only as long as it takes me to consolidate my position.”