Egypt: through writers’ eyes


Egypt: through writers’ eyes


No land on earth has been so long observed as Egypt, which was attracting awestruck travellers back in the days of Herodotus and Julius Caesar. Then came pilgrims to Sinai, crusaders and Napoleon, followed by the Grand Tourists of the eighteenth century and those less grand with Thomas Cook in the nineteenth. The range of voices gathered here is dazzling: an ancient myth from a papyrus next to Naguib Mahfouz’s account of Alexandria, Florence Nightingale describing Abu Simbel side by side with Ahdaf Soueif ’s description of Sinai. The medieval Cairo of Ibn Jubayr walks hand in hand with the modern city of the blind Egyptian thinker, Taha Hussein. Lucie Duff Gordon sails up the Nile, Edward Lane crawls through a sand-filled temple and Alan Bennett takes tea on the terrace of the Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor.

Including: Ibn Battuta, Alan Bennett, William Dalrymple, E.M. Forster, Taha Hassein, Ibn Jubayr, Roger Lancelyn Green, Pierre Loti, Naguib Mahfouz, Amitav Ghosh, Florence Nightingale.

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Egypt: Through Writers’ Eyes
Collected, edited and annotated by: Deborah Manley and Professor Sahar Sobhi Abdel-Hakim
ISBN: 978-0055010-56-9
Format: 248pp demi pb
Place: Egypt

Extract from Ra and His Children

By Roger Lancelyn Green

Before the land of Egypt rose out of the waters at the beginning of the world, Ra the Shining One came into being. He was all-powerful, and the secret of his power lay in his Name which was hidden from all the world. Having this power, he had only to name a thing, and that thing too came into being.

 ‘I am Khepera at the dawn, and Ra at noon, and Tum in the evening,’ he said – and as he said it, behold, he was the sun rising in the east, passing across the sky and setting in the west. And this was the first day of the world.

 When he named Shu, the wind blew. The rain fell when he named Tefnut the spitter. After this he spoke the name of Geb, and the earth rose above the waters of the sea. He cried, ‘Nut!’ – and that goddess was the arch of the sky stretching over the earth with her feet on one horizon and her hands on the other. Then he named Hapi, and the sacred River Nile flowed through Egypt to make it fruitful.

 Then Ra went on to name all the things on earth, which grew into being at his words. Last of all he spoke the words for ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, and soon there were people dwelling throughout the land of Egypt.

 After this Ra himself took on the shape of a man and became the first Pharaoh of Egypt. For thousands of years he reigned over the land, and there was peace and plenty. The Nile rose each year and flooded the fields; then it sank back into its channel, leaving the rich coating of mud which made sure of fine crops as the cool spring turned into the baking summer. There were no lean years when the Nile did not rise high enough; nor were there any years when the floods rose too high or lasted too long. It was the golden age of the world, and ever afterwards the Egyptians spoke of the good things ‘which happened in the time of Ra’.

 At last, however, even Ra grew old: for it was decreed that no man should live for ever, and he had made himself a man to rule over Egypt. And when he was old and his bones were like silver, his flesh like gold and his hair like lapis lazuli, he could no longer rule well over the people of Egypt, nor fight against Apophis, the Dragon of Evil who had grown out of the evil vapours in the darkness of the night and sought ever to devour all that was good and bright and kissed by the sun.

 Presently the evil of Apophis entered into the souls of the people of Egypt and many of them rebelled against Ra and did evil in his sight, worshipping the Dragon of Darkness instead of the Eye of Day.

 Ra perceived these things and the plots which the evil among men were preparing against his divine majesty. Then he spoke to his attendants, saying, ‘Gather together the high gods who are my court. Summon Shu and Tefnut, bid Geb and Nut hasten to the council hall – send even for Nun, the spirit of the waters out of which I arose at the beginning of the world. Gather them secretly: let not the evil among men know that I am aware of their doings.’

 Then the gods came into the presence of Ra, bowing in turn before him and kissing the ground at his feet in token of loyalty.

 When all were gathered Nun spoke for them, saying, ‘Life, health, strength be to you, Ra, Pharaoh of Egypt, maker of all things! Speak to us so that we may hear your divine will.’

 Then Ra answered, ‘Nun, eldest of all things, and all ye gods whom I have called into being – look upon mankind, whom also I made at a glance of my all-seeing Eye, naming them in the beginning that they might appear upon the earth and multiply to be my servants in life and in death. See, they have plotted against me, they have done evil things—the wicked among them gather even now in Upper Egypt to work further ill in my sight. Tell me, shall I slay them all with a burning glance my Eye?’

 Nun answered, speaking for all the gods: ‘Ra, greater than I out of whom you came in the beginning; you who are mightier than all the gods you have created – if you send forth the burning glance of your Eye to slay mankind, it will turn all the land of Egypt into a desert. Therefore make a power that will smite men and women only; send out that which will burn the evil but not harm the good.’

 Then answered Ra, ‘I will not send forth the burning glance of my Eye. Instead I will send Sekhmet against mankind!’

 As he spoke the name, Sekhmet leapt into being, in form as a mighty lioness of gigantic size. Away she sped into Upper Egypt, and slaughtered and devoured mankind until the Nile ran red with blood and the earth beside it became a great red marsh.

 Before long the most wicked among men had been slain by Sekhmet, and the rest prayed to Ra for mercy. And Ra wished to spare them, for he had no desire to slay all of mankind and leave himself the ruler of a desolate earth with no human beings to serve him.

 But, having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not cease from her hunting. Day by day she stalked through the land of Egypt slaying all whom she met; and night by night she hid herself among the rocks on the edge of the desert, waiting for the sun to rise so that she might hunt once more.

 Then said Ra, ‘Sekhmet cannot be stayed except by a trick. If I can deceive her and save mankind from her sharp teeth and from her claws, I will give her greater power yet over them so that her heart shall rejoice and she shall not feel that honour has been taken from her.’

 So Ra summoned before him swift and speedy messengers and commanded them, saying, ‘Run like the shadow of a body – swifter and more silently than the body itself – to the island of Elephantinē that lies in the Nile below the First Cataract. Bring me the red ochre that is found there alone – bring it with speed.’

 Away sped the messengers through the darkness and returned to Heliopolis, the city of Ra, bearing loads of the red ochre of Elephantinē. There, by Ra's command, all the priestesses of the Temple of the Sun, and all the maidservants of the royal court were set to crushing barley and making beer. Seven thousand jars did they make and, by the command of Ra, they mingled the red ochre of Elephantinē with it so that it gleamed in the moonlight red as blood.

 ‘Now,’ said Ra, ‘carry this upstream to protect mankind. Carry it to where Sekhmet means to slaughter men when day returns, and pour it out upon the earth as a trap for her.’

 Day dawned and Sekhmet came out into the sunlight from her lair among the rocks and looked about her, seeking whom she might devour. She saw no living thing. But, in the place where yesterday she had slain many men, she saw that the fields were covered to the depth of three hands' breaths with what seemed to be blood.

 Sekhmet saw and laughed with a laugh like the roar of a hungry lioness. Thinking that it was the blood she had shed upon the previous day, she stooped and drank greedily. Again and again she drank, until the strength of the beer mounted to her brain and she could neither hunt nor kill.

 As the day drew to its close she came reeling down to Heliopolis where Ra awaited her – and when the sun touched the horizon she had not slain a single man or woman since the evening before.

 ‘You come in peace, sweet one,’ said Ra, ‘peace be with you and a new name. No longer are you Sekhmet the Slayer: you are Hathor the Lady of Love. Yet your power over mankind shall be greater even than it was – for the passion of love shall be stronger than the passion of hate, and all shall know love, and all shall be your victims. Moreover, in memory of this day, the priestesses of love shall drink the beer of Heliopolis made red with the ochre of Elephantinē on the first day of each year at a great festival in honour of Hathor.’

 So mankind was saved by Ra, and given both a new delight and a new pain. 

Ra and his Children Roger Lancelyn Green