Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Word from Pharaoh Ramesses II; or, The Passover Exodus, Revisited

Scene: 1256 BCE. Abu Simbel, the majestic display of colossal statues in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. The elderly Pharaoh Ramesses II, aged 91, sits in a wheelchair in the Ramesseum, gazing at a brand-new portrait of himself in his royal chariot, single-handedly turning back a Hittite invasion.

            It is warm here, as the setting sun warms the sandstone, and good for an old man’s chilled bones. I have asked them to leave me here a while. They think me a god, and, truly, I wish I were one, but my closest servants, those who have waited on me for all these years, know the fits and starts this aged flesh is heir to. I’m almost 92 suns old, and have reigned longer than any other Pharaoh—one wonders what the gods have in store for me, as yet….
            (Aloud:) Leave me here a bit, Royal Artist Nefer-ke. I will gaze upon your battle portrait of me. You have done good work. Seti? See he is richly rewarded. Good, good. (Claps his hands, weakly) Now, go, all of you. I will call you when I am done looking upon it. (Sighs)
            There, there I stand, alone, in my chariot—I understand the painter’s style, why he made me so enormous, off to the left of the painting, my enemies tiny before me—imagine! (chuckling to himself) In my youth, I was, apparently, able to both drive two spirited horses, reins tucked into my belt, and fire arrow upon arrow at the Hittites, all alone? And see, there! There! The puny, clambering Hittites fall from the battlements, like ants boiling from an anthill in the desert wastes, when one pours a pot of boiling water over it—what a fantastic imagination that Nefer-ke must have—hee! Hee! He makes an old man laugh….
            Let me remember—it was a hot day; astonishingly hot, even beneath the flapping sheets of my royal pavilion—I wore kohl on my godly brows, I recall, and was so nervous that the sweat was making the infernal stuff melt and run into my eyes, and sting: who in Osiris’s name wears kohl into battle? That was my dear Nefertari’s idea, dear Nefertari—she had wanted to come to the battle with me, as if it were a picnic—dear, silly girl; ah, how we made those pavilion walls flap and dance, all the night long….
            But the Hittite King Muwatallis, that fox, had laid his troops in ambush, and was waiting for me—luckily, I had my four divisions, all named after gods, just so: Amon, Re, Ptah, and Set. Never hurts to have the gods on one’s side. And my lieutenant—what was his name? Takelot? No: Nimlot? Never trust an old man’s memory—had captured those two Hittite spies, and was busy torturing them—they told us some information, but not much; they were plants, and we were fools; we believed we were invincible, so we were—we had no idea that the Hittite Army was so much larger than ours—perhaps that was a good thing, in the end.
For, when they struck—nearly 40,000 men and 2,500 chariots, horse and foot, more than double our force, we blew apart like feathers before a hamseen—I myself might have been killed or captured, but for the valor of my Pharaoh’s Own Guard, bless ‘em all, poor dead boys, and Menna, my shield-bearer. And Re was with me that day, too: my Pharaoh’s Guard came up a different route, and flanked the Hittites, striking them to the core. Ha! Old Muwatallis retreated, and we kept the field that night.
(Yawns) What’s that, Captain? Slow down. Speak up. Who? Oh, Moses—that Hebrew, again? Something about—the cattle dying, over in Goshen? Well, what is it the Hebrews want, blast their lazy hides? (Listens) Well, if they leave, do we have ample workers to take their place? What of the Amorite prisoners of war? Hm. Did I not say to let the Hebrews go? You say I did, but Merneptah my son—
(Thinks) Now, here’s a how-de-do: I say I’m Pharaoh, but Merneptah, that scamp—how old is he, now? Sixty-something? Old enough, you’d think, to take command, and leave me be to do some—some—art-gazing, here, but no—
What’s that? Someone’s sick? My grandson, Seti, Merneptah’s boy? Oh, that is too bad. (But then, I’ve got so many grandkids; eight wives, I think, and other haremites will do that sort of thing.) His boy is dead? Merneptah wants to let them go? So let them go.

Come, Seti; wheel me out. The light’s too dark to see the walls, and I am tired. Did I ever tell you about the time how we hung the fleeing Prince of Aleppo upside down? He was running away from us, and had fallen into the Orontes River, y’see, and we fished him out, near drowned; it’s quite a story….

Peter Clayton, "Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers & Dynasties of Ancient Egypt," London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.