Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Nine — Egypt
i was back in England, as I wished. Why? To be a poet - to write poetry. And I wrote a little always, filling notebooks with short poems and occasional longer ones; but they were slight, nearly all marginal. I was not able to write from the centre of myself. What I took for impulse may have been largely habit, because now I habitually responded to part of what I saw and felt and did by writing about it. In spite of such impulse or habit I was to find, through groping and frustration, that I had nothing I must say, no subject of my own to write about; though I doubt if I ever saw the matter so clearly, or admitted it to myself. As it turned out, I was not to find a subject, or be chosen by one, for nearly eight years longer. But I was stubborn. The sense or conviction that I was, that I had to be, a poet, and must persist and hold out until other people recognized it too, had taken possession of me and was not to be shaken. If I was not one, then I had no real existence, and no reason beyond habit for going on living.
It may have been a waste of time to write so much bad verse, but I think it increased my facility, even in stricter rhymed forms which I was seldom to find easy. From time to time I sent a poem or two back to New Zealand to be published; I failed to get a single poem published in England. For a while I remember feeling distinctly inhibited by T. S. Eliot, because his work had been set up — so it seemed — as a model for poets writing today; people I knew at Oxford accepted it as such, but I did not yet understand it. I bought Yeats's new collections as they came out, The Tower in 1928, The Winding Stair in 1933, the small Cuala Press editions too, elegantly plain in their beautiful hand-printing on rag paper; Yeats was soon to be, page 191for me, the one great living poet, whose work I drank in and made part of myself, although I did not yet grasp his later poems fully.
It was probably in 1928 too, that I bought a copy of Rilke's selected poems in the Insel Verlag pocket edition; the Insel Bücherei, books in small format, seven by four and threequarter inches, well-printed and bound in charmingly decorative paper covers on cardboard. Two years later, on the way from Cologne to Trier, I bought in the same edition his Briefe an einen Jungen Dichter (yes, they were addressed to me!), a few passages from which I translated — stiffly, with my halting German — for the second number of Phoenix. And when I returned from New Zealand I found at Bumpus's (then still occupying an old building in Oxford Street, wonderfully roomy, on several floors, and stocked with fine old collected editions as well as everything new — there has not been such a bookshop in London since) a copy of the Duino Elegies, in fact a first edition of 1923.
I was slow to read even Rilke, because of my poor German, but I read him fairly steadily and was preoccupied with him throughout the thirties and indeed longer. I was captivated first by the exquisite rhythms and verbal music of his earlier work. And by his attitudes, which rhythm and language expressed so well, deeply poetical, touchingly, romantically melancholy; in 'Ernste Stunde', in the arresting 'Pont du Carrousel', in 'Herbst-tag' and 'Lied vom Meer'; in the haunting half-light scenes and cadences of Corner; in 'Der Nachbar' with its Und warum trifft es immer mich?,* a line which has remained with me for life, a question I was to put to myself time and again, in bitterness or resignation. In those years, Rilke spoke for me intimately and some of his work, including the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, when I came to know them, seemed as close to me as Shelley and Wordsworth and Yeats. I must have written many poems which in a blurred watery way closely reflected his, as earlier I had reflected Shelley and was soon to reflect, no less weakly, Yeats, and Auden, and Eliot too.
* 'And why does it always come back to me?' [C.B.]
I found a room in St George's Square, Pimlico, near the river, and lived there quietly for a few months, trying to write, reading, going to concerts, visiting friends and relations. In the summer I moved, living for a while in West Kensington near my cousin Erik, then in Albany Street near the Zoo and Primrose Hill; I spent some weeks in Oxford, then finally settled in Primrose Hill Road, in a room looking onto the rounded slopes of the hill with their grass and plane trees.
Colin Roberts, after taking his expected first in Greats and winning the Craven Fellowship, had been appointed to a university lectureship in papyrology. There was I think no good papyrologist in Oxford at the time and his tutor Hugh Last had proposed that Colin take up the subject, which bore on two of his chief interests, the classics, and the origins of Christianity. Papyrology is a very exacting study, which requires not only wide and meticulous learning, but thorough technical training; it entails much painstakingly detailed and necessarily dull work, and imposes heavy strain on the eyes. His uncle Ellis was strongly opposed to Colin's taking it up, because it was likely to engross all his energies for years to come, and because he thought highly of Colin's literary judgement and gift of expression and wanted him to have time to write, as he would have in becoming a classics don without so demanding a specialization. That now became impossible; Ellis was right. Colin had to work both in Oxford and at the British Museum. Then he put himself to school with the eminent German papyrologist Wilhelm Schubart, page 193going to live in Berlin; which meant working hard at German also. At the end of the year he was to test his learning and skill in the field, joining an American expedition which was excavating a Græco-Roman town on the edge of the Fayûm, where it had found or expected to find papyri.
Egypt? I was totally ignorant of the country and its history, but the power of that ancient name loomed in my mind. One day when Colin and Dora de Beer were talking about excavation, it occurred to me that I might go to Egypt too. Colin undertook to sound Hugh Last, who was on the committee of the Egypt Exploration Society. Last obliged, although I had done St John's no credit, so that he had little reason to think well of me. He spoke to the leader of the Society's expedition to Tell el Amarna, John Pendlebury, who invited me to lunch, and about a week later it was settled. I was to go, informally, as a kind of unpaid cadet, to learn and to make myself useful. I must find my own way to Egypt, but I would be kept at Tell el Amarna by the expedition. Colin and I agreed to travel to Cairo together.
Tell el Amarna and the Pharaoh Akhenaten who had made it his capital were vague names to me, no more. I barely remembered hearing about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, with its hoard of treasure — I may have seen pictures and read reports in the Illustrated London News, which Grandfather took; Tutankhamen had grown up at Tell el Amarna as a younger brother of Akhenaten. Now I found that this was one of the strangest and most puzzling episodes in the long history of Egypt; and that Akhenaten was one of the few Pharaohs who emerged from its shadows as a man; he exalted one god and tried to suppress the multitude of other Egyptian gods; in his reign a very personal naturalistic style of art suddenly made its appearance.
For the next few weeks I divided my time between ancient Egypt and colloquial Egyptian Arabic, because it was necessary to be able to talk the language of the country. I took classes at the School of Oriental Studies, swotting as I travelled by bus and underground between Primrose Hill, the School, and the Egypt Exploration Society's rooms at 2 Hinde Street, Manchester Square. There I read Egyptian history, and reports of the excavations at Tell el Amarna published in the Journal of page 194Egyptian Archaeology. In the middle of October 1932 Colin and I set off for Egypt. We crossed from Folkestone to Boulogne, changed trains in Paris and went through to Venice. After a couple of days there we took a Lloyd Triestino ship which called briefly at Brindisi, Piraeus, Rhodes and in a little over four days landed us at Alexandria. We were met by the leader of Colin's expedition, E. E. Peterson, who showed us round the town until it was time to catch the evening train to Cairo. After a week sightseeing there and getting to know people at the Museum, and a few days with Colin, Peterson and his party at Kom Aushim, I took the day train to Luxor and settled down for three weeks to see the temples of Luxor and Karnak and the East Bank, and the West Bank which the Greeks called Thebes — Der el Bahri, Medinet Habu, the Colossi of Memnon,* the painted tombs of the nobles, the Valley of the Kings.
It was a whole world to take in. Egypt was and is a world to itself, physically and historically — that of the Nile valley. It is a world of immense age and great stability, a setting unusually secure for human life, which until last century was unusually dependent on chance. In its epic course, the Nile runs from Lake Victoria on the Equator across the vast tablelands of Central Africa, taking its three great draughts of the mountain rains of Ethiopia, and then pours through the deep trench it has cut for itself in the sandstone plateau of the Sudan and Nubia and the limestone of Egypt. From the Suez Canal to the Straits of Gibraltar it is the only African river that reaches the Mediterranean, except for the short torrents draining the Atlas Mountains. The ancient Egyptians did not know its source; they called the Nile god 'the hidden one'; a hymn to him says that he is not sculptured in stone, and that there is no habitation large enough to contain him. Since almost no rain falls in their country they were dependent on the river for life.
* See poem 'The Colossi of Memnon' in Disputed Ground
But in Egypt south of the Delta, which is indeed a different country, you see nothing and can imagine nothing that is not Egypt. Your horizon is the rough-broken line of cliffs enclosing the valley, which is in most parts between two and six miles wide and nowhere more than thirteen. Climb the cliffs and you see nothing except endless desert hills, utterly barren. The sky overhead is always the same blue clear sky of Egypt. The river, higher or lower, is the one everlasting Nile. It seems that this is the whole world, that nothing else exists.
At Tell el Amarna, about halfway between Cairo and Luxor, the valley reaches one of its widest points. The river to south and north of the Amarna plain runs close beneath the cliffs of the eastern valley wall, while the rich fields, the towns, railway and road all lie on the west bank. Tell el Amarna is, loosely, the white sandy and pebbly amphitheatre between the Nile and the pale ochre cliffs. The plain was virgin ground, without even a cultivated strip along the river, when Akhenaten chose it for the site of a new capital of Egypt and the pure state cult of the Aten, his sole god, about the year 1375 b.c. He set up inscriptions defining the limits of the city and declaring the nature of the Aten on boundary stelae carved from the cliffs enclosing the plain, and also on the cliffs of the west bank. A large city quickly grew up round the court and the administration; its remains extend for some five miles from north to south, and a quarter of a mile from west to east; but its life was very short. Soon after Akhenaten's death about 1358 his second successor, the young page 196Tutankhamen, was taken back to the former capital at Luxor and before long Amarna had been — it seems — totally abandoned.
The site apparently was never inhabited again until in the eighteenth century a.d. a tribe of nomad Beduin settled there; their descendants today live in four villages and cultivate the fields they have formed along the river. The ruins of Akhenaten's city must always have been evident from end to end of the plain, house walls standing sometimes four to five feet high out of the sand, and a wilderness of potsherds; but the temples had been dismantled and their stone taken away to be used elsewhere. In 1888 a peasant discovered in the ruins a horde of clay tablets which for years he tried in vain to sell; those that survived hawking about in a sack eventually reached the British Museum and other museums and proved to be correspondence, inscribed in cuneiform, between the kings of Egypt, Babylon and other states and between the Egyptian king and his vassals in Syria and Palestine. In 1891 and 1892 Flinders Petrie made a number of trial digs on the site and with his astonishing flair hit upon several of the most important buildings in the city. In 1912 the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft of Berlin leased the site and began to excavate systematically.
After the first world war the Egypt Exploration Society took over the lease and had been excavating each year since. Its expeditions had been led by several well-known people, among them Leonard Woolley, famous a little later for his excavation of Ur, and Henri Frankfort. John Pendlebury had worked with Frankfort before taking over the leadership himself; this was his third season in charge.
we were a party of six, set down in a world as strange as I could conceive on mother earth. The approach to Amarna marked its isolation and strangeness. No road ran on the east bank of the Nile, only a track for donkeys and camels. The train brought us on the west bank to Mellawi, an ordinary squalid Egyptian town of about twenty thousand people. When the trains stopped at Mellawi their engine driver and fireman were said to visit the prostitutes who lived along the street opposite the station, page 197brazen women sitting bare-headed on the doorsteps of their steep narrow houses in capacious robes of purple or red with heavily painted faces and big gold ear-rings; ordinarily in small towns and villages women wore black and went hooded. One of the household staff generally met us at the train; we walked through the fields or took a taxi to the Nile, about two miles away, where a filuka or a heavier boat hired at Amarna was waiting for us with one or two other staff or retainers; luggage and supplies were piled on board and we settled down on the rough decking for a usually slow journey upstream, the men rowing if there was no wind.
The majestic Nile is a dirty river, dumping ground of a thousand towns and villages for thousands of years, always awash with every kind of refuse — rotten vegetables, logs and tins, dead bodies of animals and sometimes of men; it does not stink only because its waters flow steadily all the year round. It was alive with craft, lovely to watch, especially the graceful sails of the filukas, low triangles with very broad base and two long points, like the wings of swallows, and seeming to sway over the water as delicately balanced as swallows. Swallows themselves were everywhere in Egypt, winter migrants from the north that seemed as much at home as the goats and donkeys and people. They set off the immovable gravity of the great temples as they flitted round them with such breathtaking speed; plump little missiles with glossy blue-black wings and red-brown breast; they skimmed the Nile and the canals, darting round our fluka, soaring overhead, streaking down, flashing back and forth in diamond turns, in check and reverse and lightning pirouette — I laughed in amazement trying to follow them.
On board, those of the party who spoke Arabic — Pendlebury, Fairman the Egyptologist, and the engineer Sherman — caught up with the year's news, local events and gossip, reports and rumours about other excavations in Egypt. The voyage four or five miles upstream to Amarna took from an hour to two and a half hours or more, according to the wind. We were landed on the east bank, on the muddy untidy shore, very narrow there close to the white cliffs of Sheikh Said, and walked through the intense green of the strip of cultivation, date palms, fields of rich lucerne, beans, onions, sugar cane, Indian corn. Walking page 198alone, one had to keep an eye out for snakes, although they were not very often seen in winter. The short path brought us to the remains of a ceremonial gate in the ancient city wall. Beyond it stood the North House, our headquarters.
Work on the dig started at dawn. At least two of us had to be present all the time. We took turns on early morning duty; I began by doing so every third day. One of the house servants woke us in the dark at 5.30 with a cup of tea; luckily I was always wide awake at once, and scrambled quickly into my clothes. November mornings were sometimes mild, sometimes chilly; from about mid-December until the end of January or later night and morning were usually bitterly cold; outside, water often froze. The two of us set off in the dark, starlit or misty with cold river fog, walking as fast as we could to keep warm and to be on time.
The villagers assembled reluctantly in those cold dawns. We employed as many as two hundred at a time when there was heavy digging to be done, men to dig, two boys or girls to each man to carry away the sand in light wicker baskets made of palm fronds. They walked bent, huddled into their thin gowns and white cotton turbans or dark hoods, throats muffled and faces just showing. They were poor villagers, who worked the fields usually owned by local or more distant landlords, living very sparely; they flocked to us for work when we could offer it because the ten piastres or one shilling a day we paid the men (less for children) was better money than they earned in the fields.
It grew light enough to work about 6 o'clock; in early December the sun rose a little before seven. The men greeted the rising sun with a song. When working together, especially when they could dig rhythmically, they sang often and with gusto, everyone joining in; there were fine voices among them. The song at sunrise, first of the day, was always a hymn to God beginning 'Ya Fathah, ya 'Allim', 'O Opener, O teacher'. The sun indeed came as a blessing on still foggy mornings when the damp cold pierced to the bone, and the men sang in relief and gratitude. In all their songs the first word of the verse coincided with the last word of the chorus, even if they were on different notes; page 199but not vice versa; it was the soloist who took the whole initiative. I got to know several of the regular songs, but have forgotten them now. Occasionally the younger men made up topical songs to some well-known tune, satirizing local events, and one another, and us too; these would be sung by one man, and were greeted with gales of laughter, the girls hiding their faces in their head-cloths at the bawdry.
The primary work of excavation at Tell el Amarna consists of digging the mixed sand and rubble out of buildings and carrying it away. Where to dispose of it is often tricky to decide; dumps must be as near at hand as possible, but must not be on ground still unexcavated nor in buildings that it is useful to keep for display. Dumps grew into small mountains when buildings were deeply buried and we had a large number of men working. At all times, but especially towards the floor level of buildings, we had to watch closely for finds. Potsherds litter the whole site of the city, just as broken shell, stone, bone, obsidian flakes, used to mark Maori camp sites on Otago beaches. Amarna pottery, like most Egyptian pottery after the pre-dynastic age, is coarse and very poor and usually unpainted, its decoration mostly rough; but inscribed potsherds may be of great value. Wine jars were inscribed on the shoulder with the year of the vintage and the name of the master of the vineyard, such as the 'Wine of the Western desert, year 12', meaning the twelfth year of Akhenaten's reign, whose lees we found once at the bottom of a jar so inscribed; each jar was capped with a cone-shaped mud seal stamped with the source of the wine and sometimes a description — 'Good wine of the Southern Pool'. These were valuable for dating. Pieces of broken pottery were used for writing on, since pottery was cheap and plentiful and papyrus (none survived at Amarna) probably too valuable for common use; jottings, notes, even letters, turned up on sherds.
There were many hours and whole days of monotony when routine digging went on and virtually nothing of interest turned up; bitter early morning melted away to become the clear, still, burning-glass heat of noon, which then softened as the sun swam calmly westward, and the air thinned, and mauve and brown page 200haze gathered from nowhere, and the day's work ended. We walked up and down or lent on our walking sticks, talking idly, thinking our thoughts, exchanging remarks with villagers and Quftis, as we watched the digging; foremen shouted admonitions and curses at the children with their baskets of spoil — Son of a dog! May the house of the father of thy mother fall down! May a wall sleep on you!, and flicked them now and then with their long whips, which falling on full gowns and baggy trousers rarely caused hurt.
To be alive in the freedom of the open air under that great sky was good; I drank in the scene day after day — our party of workmen, small and hardly noticeable in the middle of the long plain once you were a little way off; the ring of cliffs with their strongly marked whitish strata, steeper to the north, half hidden by the mountainous sand-waves that led up to them in the east and south, broken there by clefts and wadis, and all so pale under the strong light of middle day that they were colourless, indistinct as if under glass, and swam before our eyes molten and liquefying. On a clear day, the rim of the south cliffs trembled as if a colourless flame was racing in waves along it.
We made little attempt at Amarna to come close to the reality of Egyptian life in general or that of Akhenaten's reign in particular. How could we have done so, a group of healthy comfortable unreflective young Englishmen tightly bound within the conventions of their upbringing and education and brief experience of the world? For my part I wanted to be at home with these new companions, and accepted them from the start almost without question, their way of living, their ideas and attitudes.
John Pendlebury was the son of a Harley Street surgeon, a young man with plenty of money who worked, indeed, but did not have to work for his living. In a good public school education he had done well at classics and gone on to read classical archaeology at Cambridge. After working for a few years in Greece and Crete he succeeded Sir Arthur Evans as Curator of the Palace at Knossos, an honorary position which I suppose only a man of means could afford; he now spent a few months of each year in Crete.
He joined the Egypt Exploration Society's expeditions to page 201Tell el Amarna to learn the techniques of excavation in Egypt from Frankfort and others, becoming a capable field archaeologist, without claiming to be an Egyptian scholar; he had not dug elsewhere in Egypt. He worked hard, he had ability and determination, ample self-assurance, fairness of mind, and pleasant manners; in other circumstances he might have made a good type of Indian civil servant, approachable, just, without too much imagination. Egyptologists and other archaeologists were inclined to look down on him as an amateur and dilettante; after short enough field experience in classical archaeology (they said) he had turned to Egypt and risen to the top quickly and effortlessly, chiefly because he was well-off. No one could doubt John's ability as the organizer and leader of an expedition; his annual reports of the work at Amarna, published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, were thoroughly professional; his dealings with the Society, with the British and American museums which supported the dig, with the Cairo Museum and with Egyptian officials, were correct and scrupulous; we of his team liked and trusted him, as I believe did the Quftis and the Amarna people whom we employed.
colin roberts visited us at Amarna, but not before I had visited him more than once at Kôm Aushîm. To get there from Cairo you drove past the pyramids of Giza on to a road which crossed the easternmost bay of the Libyan desert, following far to your left for nearly forty miles against the sky the succession of greater and lesser pyramids, Abusîr, Sakkara with the Step Pyramid, the steep blunted pyramid of Dahshur, Lisht, Medûm, Il-Lahûn, that rise out of the featureless ocean of the past claiming to be remembered, commanding attention; I could never pass them without falling silent in thought. By day they showed grey or pale buff or dark, as sunlight and cloud fell on them, at sunset their powerful wedges were lit by an orange glow or burned dark smoky red.
The site of Kom Aushim, the Græco-Egyptian Karanis, formed a large mount as the desert began to fall away to the green flat basin of the Fayûm, about two miles off. From the page 202mound you saw the tawny desert and its stone ridges and escarpments sloping in towards the north-east edge of the plain, at whose nearest point lay a small sand-coloured village, and then the dense green of fields enfolding villages and towns and stretching away indistinguishably, and the narrow lighter green line of Birket Qarûn, the shallow remains of the great Lake Moeris which once filled the whole basin. Looking over that basin, the small packed teeming fertility of the Fayûm, Kôm Aushîm from its dry clear eminence seemed to offer a singular view, at once detached and involved, in which present and past made one moment and one life. The Birket Qarûn, much larger then, was said to cover the pit which swallowed up Korah and his followers when they rebelled against Moses and Aaron the servants of God in the book of Numbers.
It was in hope of finding papyrus, above all, that the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor had undertaken the systematic excavation of the mound of Karanis, Kôm Aushîm. Excavation had been going on there for several years, and the camp buildings and camp life were as settled as if permanent. Standing just clear of the ancient town, the buildings enclosed a square courtyard, in one corner of which Enoch Peterson watched fondly over a small garden of tobacco plants, zinnias, gladioli, thyme and other herbs. Each room had mosquito-proof doors and windows. There were work-rooms with all the equipment needed for the preservation and restoration of objects found. Colin had ample space to work on papyri, of which the smallest fragment might give useful information or help to establish the text of Homer or a lyric poet or the Bible. To make a sheet of paper, the Egyptians cut strips of papyrus reed vertically, laid some lengthwise and others across them at right angles, pressed the strips together and dried them in the sun; sheets were not bound in a book, but glued edge to edge to form a roll; in the first century a.d. a standard roll was made of twenty sheets. The Greeks adopted this practice; and it was on papyrus rolls that Greek literature was transmitted until the second or third century a.d. Colin's tools to deal with torn and crumpled papyrus were sheets of glass, so that both sides of the papyrus could be seen, once straightened and flattened; clean blotting paper, sometimes moistened to soften twisted or bent strands or whole sheets of page 203papyrus before they could be straightened, because when dry they were brittle and breakable; tweezers to hold the papyrus and manipulate folded or twisted parts; a magnifying glass. I watched him at work many times, there and in Oxford. He was not otherwise adept with his fingers, but had learned to handle papyrus with great sureness. To read it presupposed a thorough knowledge of classical and later Greek, literary and popular, and of official, legal and commercial language; and of every variety of Greek hand-writing.
Since the camp stood close beside the ancient town, there was no separating and reuniting of the party, which gave such a decided shape to our days at Amarna; no walk to and fro with its opportunity for seeing the world and for reflecting. Colin moved easily from duty on the dig to work at papyri, and back again; Peterson and his deputy, Rolf Haadvedt, between the dig and their administrative and other work. Having stood about for hours but not walked during the day, Colin liked to take a stroll before dusk and we roamed the slopes near the camp, talking of everything under heaven. Our friendship, uppermost then of my few close relationships, was the dearest thing to me in the world.
As we returned from walking one evening I heard a sound whose utter strangeness brought me abruptly to a halt, a quiet reedy pipe note, low and tenderly monotonous and infinitely nostalgic, as if it called up and opened before us ages of time long closed and forgotten; a persistent, lingering, clinging note, clear, thin, a trickle of water, which seemed not to belong to this age at all but to a mode both musical and temperamental so old that it might have expressed the life of the nomads who wandered the Sahara steppes before they dried up and turned to sand, whose descendants first ventured down with their flocks into the forbidding forested ravine of the Nile valley, and by whom in turn it was passed on unchanged through thousands of years to their unknown remote descendants here today. We saw in a few minutes that the sound came from a simple bone or wooden pipe blown by a boy of about ten in a long shapeless soiled gown, walking about to call his straying goats back to the village for the night. He passed round the walls of the camp, skirted the bare walls and sand mounds of the town, and page 204then his piping slowly faded down the slope, lost in deepening dusk.
It was from the ancient morass of superstition and piety that Akhenaten's new-old religion broke away and offered release. He saw the old gods, we may suppose, as usurping and claiming for themselves the single universal power of the one god represented by the life-giving sun, the only real power. Akhenaten's was a religion of sunlight and open air. The altars of the Aten temples at Amarna stood not in dark shrines, but in open courts, beneath the bright sun. The Aten was the sun's disk with its life-giving rays, identified with no lesser god, no animal and no man, a beneficient and universal power. The Aten disk is shown directing its rays upon Akhenaten and his family, who enjoy a special relationship with their god, yet it shines for all men, foreigners as well as Egyptians. The extraordinary closeness of the wording of Akhenaten's hymn to the Aten and the 104th Psalm has not been accounted for and probably cannot be, except in romantic theories such as that which someone at Amarna proposed: that after Akhenaten's death the high priest at Amarna retired to Heliopolis, to that temple of the sun in which the very ancient cult of the Aten was chiefly observed, and that there the young Moses came to sit at his feet. No earlier Egyptian religious writing insists as Akhenaten's hymn does on the universality and the uniqueness of the power of the sun, the Aten: 'You sole god, no other is like you, you alone created the earth according to your will'; 'you set every man in his place … their speech is different, their forms too, and their complexions, for you have distinguished country from country.' No other insists with such evident delight on the goodness and joy of the life which the sun creates: 'You arise beautiful in the horizon of heaven, O living Aten, you with whom life began when you shone out in the eastern horizon and filled every land with your beauty. … The Two Lands rejoice and awake and stand on their feet, because you have raised them up. Men wash and dress and lift their hands to praise you. …'
The hymn also speaks of night, when the sun has set, and refers to death: 'When you set in the western horizon, earth page 205grows dark with the darkness of death', and this recalls a phrase from the story of Wen-Amen, which we read one summer with Glanville at University College. Wen-Amen travels to Beirut during the Twentieth Dynasty, about 1100 B.C., to buy cedar wood for the boat of Amen-Re at Thebes, he is shipwrecked, and thinking his end has come declares: 'depet mwt nun', this is the taste of death; it remains for me the most vivid phrase I came across in hieroglyphic.*
If Egyptology as practised and studied at Amarna was a disappointing subject, rather second-rate, that was true of Egyptology altogether; nearly all the books were disappointing, even general ones that ought to have been as exciting as the grand sweep of their subject, for example H. R. Hall's Ancient History of the Near East, a useful standard work, but heavy. The only general work I came across that showed the distinction of a really good mind was Eduard Meyer's Geschichte des Altertums. But Freud's Moses and Monotheism, a little later, dwarfed everything else I had read about Egypt and Israel; a book whose imaginative quality will keep it fresh for a long time to come. No matter that Freud was wrong about so many things, because he did not know enough or had not kept abreast of the archaeological and historical work being done — all that was irrelevant: his book was a work of genius. Otherwise, Egypt was failing to attract minds that its grandeur and its rich art deserved; sound scholars, yes, but not men of imagination able to convey what they knew and bring it to life in words.
* See poem 'Envoy's Report' in The Land and the People
Best of the games was stick-fighting, as formal as fencing, in which two opponents hit and parry with thick staves nearly a man's length held in one hand only; you catch a descending or swiping blow on your staff, or duck or swerve aside; you leap in the air, as Ali Sherraif did with surprising grace and vehemence, to catch your opponent apparently off-guard; there is much supple wrist-play, as well as great strength in the management of the long heavy pole. The force of a blow is somehow arrested at the last moment, so that no one gets hurt; it is a game of skill. One visiting notable, Haj Mahdi from El Bersha, a village on the plain north of Sheikh Saîd, would give a display sitting on his handsome white Arab stallion Abu Nigma (father of a star), who carried a decorated dark red saddle-bag and was hung with a collar of crimson tassels. The Haj sat on this patient mount or stood in the stirrups wielding a long curved sword while a man on foot engaged him with a staff. Abu Nigma was the expected pride of the day, an evident thoroughbred, unlike his heavy villainous-looking master who wore a black gallibiya and long black shawl over his white turban and the ragged scarf round his throat.
There were races for men, sack-races for boys, three-legged races, all organized by the Quftis, and lastly a distribution of sweets meant for the children but soon becoming a free-for-all; we of course were patrons and spectators who did not take part. Music and dancing followed in the evening. We sat on stools or deck-chairs against the walls of the outer courtyard; someone tended a fire in a brazier; there were torches, a hurricane lamp, starlight, perhaps moonlight in the cold still night. A drum was beating quietly; its low rhythm, monotonous, changing, both satisfied and made me expectant; my blood pulsed to it; it was the rhythm of the night. The darabukka is a wooden or pottery drum with skin stretched across it, laid on the drummer's knees as he sits on the ground; with the palm of one hand he steadies page 207the drum, playing with the fingers of the same hand or with his other hand or both. He may beat a steady simple beat, relaxed or insistent, or quick complex rhythms whose rich monotony lulls one at the same time as its excitement arouses all one's senses. That deceptive monotony is due as much to subtlety of tone as to repeated rhythm; for the division of tones which is the mark of Arabic as of Indian music is notable even in the sounds made on the drum. It is much clearer in those of the reed pipe; at Amarna we heard pipe and drum, sometimes a flute or nai, and very occasionally a simple stringed instrument, a rebab. The pipe, a zamr or zammar, gave a thin watery treble note, melancholy and surprisingly penetrating. It was the usual accompaniment to singing. The singer, generally a young man, laid one finger along the side of his nose, head on one side as if listening to the pipe, and sang in a strange high falsetto; this was completely different from the full-throated singing which we heard on the dig, and from boatmen on the Nile, and sometimes in the fields. For dancers, both pipe and drum played.
I forget why Haj Mahdi honoured us each Christmas with his presence; perhaps he found it expedient to show the flag from time to time as a neighbouring potentate. Our most important relationship was a local and quite different one, with the Omda or mayor of Et Till - but mayor or headman is a travesty, squire would convey the dignity better, because this Omda was simply the chief landlord, who may have owned the whole village and all the cultivated land surrounding it. He owned more than Et Till, indeed; his other properties lay on the west bank, from which very rarely he crossed to pay us a state visit. What chiefly intrigued us about him was not his magnificence - he was quite undistinguished to look at, rode on a donkey or ass like anyone else, bringing only a few retainers, and dressed in a conventional English dark suit, double-breasted, with a red tarbush (it was only a wealthy man, by Egyptian standards, who could afford European dress); but that he, the Omda of Et Till, was a Balliol man. We understood that he had read Agriculture, a respectable school; whether he deigned to take a degree did not emerge.
We ourselves paid very occasional visits to petty chieftains here and there, when we were given seats in deck-chairs of page 208honour outside their establishments and offered strong black Turkish coffee, one-third grounds, either very bitter or sickly-sweet (no half measures) in tiny white cups, while politenesses were exchanged to punctuate the pervading dignified silence or to prepare the way for some matter of business, John answering for us all as our host questioned — How are you? How is your health? Thank God! God preserve you! And your friends? (indicating us). Il hamdu lillâh! God be praised! we would murmur, and he patting his chest with every remark would echo feelingly, II hamdu lillâh! And your wife? God be praised! And your son? May God bless him! Please drink. Thank you — may God enrich you. Take (to us). May God enrich you. Insh'allâh, if God wills. An exchange that was often prolonged, as we observed when two people met on a country road, with astonishing variety of phrase and little enough repetition except the ritual Il hamdu lillâh and Insh' allâh.
I learned the Arabic script and worked half-way through a grammar of classical Arabic; it was a dreadful waste not to have continued, which I put down to my general lack of application, a kind of frivolity, and on top of that to the variety of matters always competing for my attention. I could easily have taken lessons in the weeks I spent each year in Cairo, where I wasted opportunities too.
To begin with I hated Cairo for the shallow cosmopolitanism which visitors see first and which may be all they see of it, the monuments apart. But with familiarity I came to like it, the European quarter that was not so very different from the newer parts of other Mediterranean cities, as well as the old town. What drew me there were the citadel and the two great mosques of Sultan Hasan and Ibn Tulûn. The citadel, begun by Saladin shortly before the Third Crusade, dominates the old town from a spur of the Moqattam Hills and is itself dominated by the Mosque of Mohamed Ali with its very tall slender minarets. The Mohamed Ali is a picturesque nineteenth-century folly copying a mosque in Constantinople; what one goes for is the view from outside it. The huge packed city lies humming and creaking at one's feet, dust-yellow as if strewn with the ash of time, crowded with minarets and domes rising out of a sea of flat roofs; beyond are the whiter, more open modern quarters, page 209laced with green gardens, and the Nile, and other white and green suburbs on its far bank; in the distance, on their desert ridge, squat the pyramids of Giza, pointing steeply into the sunset. The world on that side was alive with sound, a never-sleeping hive. But eastward the red rocks of Gebel Moqattam looked down in silence: the city gates opened on desert. And overhead hung those sterile desert birds that prey on the refuse of cities, the vultures and buzzards, hungrily circling.