In my continuing series of examining archeological documents from the Past, here is a piece which I acquired from the antiquities dealer, Ploni Ibn-Almoni, in the shuq-marketplace of the Old City of Jerusalem during my year abroad many decades ago. Almoni swore that he had secured it from a reliable source: one Dr. Tennessee Smith (1889-1948), an explorer and archeologist who claimed to have located the tomb of Seti I (reigned 1291-1278 BCE), thought to have been the Pharaoh during the viziership of Joseph the Hebrew. It is supposedly a diary-fragment written by one Djerby, a prison guard during that time, and was found in a clay jar in the southeastern corner of the Valley of the Kings. Dr. Smith translated it from the original hieroglyphics and sold it to the antiquities dealer, prior to his death in a plane crash, while flying a surplus Czech ME-109 fighter plane to join the nascent Israeli Air Force in 1948.
I, Djerby, Chief Prison Warden to the Benevolent-Pharaoh-Seti, He-Who-Manifests-Amun-Re, and who have served faithfully and without fault to my god-and-father the Pharaoh for five full rain-seasons, do state wholeheartedly that I am tired. Tired of the whole business of watching after these imprisoned court officers, these piddling lickspittles who somehow manage to run afoul of His Majesty’s pleasure, and wind up in the Royal Egyptian pokey. When these high-toned, demanding Royal Courtiers come into the prison—MY prison—do they think to lower themselves, to comport themselves as prisoners? No, no indeed.
Instead, all they want is Executive Prison Service, which really doesn’t exist. It’s a PRISON, Osiris help me! We don’t offer a 5-Star menu, or deluxe mattresses, lined with fine Egyptian cotton, stuffed with goosedown, if you please. That’s what the Royal Cupbearer, Herihor, requested, his first night in our Royal Egyptian Prison.
“Surely you’re joking, Lord Cupbearer,” I said to him.
“Why, where and how do you expect me to sleep?” he asked me, looking down that long nose of his. I wanted to swat him—just once!—with my ring of keys; that would have given me much pleasure.
Who dares complain in a prison? And yet, these noble nabobs keep me and my prison guards running to and fro, fetching them wine, fresh fruit, and other treats.
Well, I’ve had enough; I’m sick of it. Or I was, at least, until Potiphar brought in his young, former chief-of-staff, a head-of-household Hebrew, some kid who had apparently run afoul of his wife—what’s her name?—Zuleika? Well, everyone knows what sort of cheap sort SHE is, always throwing herself at—well, I’d rather not say. I’m a rough sort, but I have my standards of conduct, too.
“Leave this boy—named Joseph, you say?—leave him with me,” I told Potiphar, “I’m sure I can find a place for him.”
“Not in a dungeon, please, Djerby,” said Potiphar, “I beg you. He’s a delicate sort. And he’s bright—give him a job where he can use his mind. He’s a quick study. Trust me.”
Well, what could I do? Potiphar’s a friend. And he was right: right, indeed. This Joseph was smart: in just two weeks, he had the prison running like a water clock, all humming along. He knew exactly how much fresh straw to order for the royal prisoners’ cells; knew when to get the fresh water so that they could have their baths—yes, believe me; they insist on bathing, not like your common, scrummy, marketplace thieves; that’s why we have the special wing for “Deposed Court Officers.”
It’s all Pharaoh’s fault, you see: he’s a changeable sort—ever since he got that terrific bump on his head when hit by a slingshot in that battle with the Hurrians. Hasn’t been the same since, they say. You never know when some well-meaning court officer is going to get His Royalness into a tizzy by putting the wrong number of poppyseeds into a cookie, or give him his beer in a mug adorned with lapis instead of mother-of-pearl. He’s that changeable, I can tell you. I hear rumors….
There was that business with the Cup-bearer and the Baker—they had dreams, I recall. Dreams of danger, mystery, and portent. No one could interpret them. Myself, I’m a realist; I don’t put too much stock in dreams. Just live your life, and Amun-Re will look after you; he will, or, perhaps, Osiris. Don’t put too much faith in one god; that’s why there are several. But these two—Herihor, the Cup-Bearer, and Smedjem, the Baker—they were obsessed. So I sent them Joseph; if anyone could cheer them up, it was he. And I was right. In just one week—Herihor, was back in the Pharaoh’s court, whispering advice into Seti’s ear.
As for Baker Smedjem, poor fellow—well, I really shouldn’t say; speaking of the dead is bad luck. He was hanged, you know. Terrible; such a friendly, talkative fellow, but a really, really, bad baker: always burning the bread; his cake, just hard, like a miller’s stone. Don’t understand how he got the job in the first place. Must have known somebody. One time, he even ruined the Pharaoh’s third Royal Daughter’s Birthday Cake. The crème frosting supposedly tasted like soap. Tsk, tsk.
Well, poor Baker’s dead now; just flesh for the birds. Ah, well. Doesn’t matter now, really.
And now? Joseph just sits and waits. Moony-eyed fellow: eyes like big, brown pools. Wrinkled brow, though he can’t be but nineteen at most. Old before his time. Sad story, no doubt, though I’ve no time for it. Everyone in this cage has a tale to tell. Sorry, no time to listen: I have a prison to run. Still—
“What’s the matter, my Joey?” I asked him, just today.
“The Cup-Bearer, Master Warden Djerby,” he said to me, smiling, though there were tears in his eyes, “I am in jail for false reasons. Mistress Zuleika—she lied about me. And now, the Cupbearer has not remembered, but has forgotten me.”
“Well, don’t fret,” I said, and patted his back, “Amun-Re will watch out for you.”
“Yes,” he said, “My God will look out for me.”
Which god is that, I wonder?
(Here ends the fragment)