He squinted at Knox, as though he suspected himself the...
Assiut Railway Station, Middle Egypt
Gaille Bonnard was beginning to regret coming inside the station to meet Charles Stafford and his party. She usually enjoyed crowds, the clamour and camaraderie, especially here in Middle Egypt, with its effusively friendly people, not yet soured by overexposure to tourists. But tensions had grown palpably over recent weeks. A protest march was even taking place that afternoon elsewhere in the city, which presumably explained why she could see only three men from the Central Security Forces on the platform, as opposed to the usual flood of uniforms. To make matters worse, an earlier train had broken down, so twice the usual number of passengers were waiting to board, all girding themselves for the inevitable squabbles over seats.
The tracks started to rattle. Vermin scurried. People manoeuvred for position. The ancient train rolled in, windows already being lowered, doors crashing open, passengers spilling out, laden with belongings, fighting through the scrum. Hawkers walked along the line of windows offering translucent bags of baladi bread, paper cones packed with seeds, sesame bars, sweets and drinks.
Away down the platform, a strikingly good-looking thirty-something man emerged from the first-class carriage. Charles Stafford. Despite his two-day stubble, she recognized him at once from the jacket photographs on the books Fatima had lent her the night before. Sheâ€™d skimmed through them out of courtesy, though they were the kind of populist history she deplored â€“ wild speculation backed by outrageously selective wild speuse of the evidence. Conspiracies everywhere, secret societies, lost treasures waiting beneath every mound; and never a dissenting voice to be heard, unless it could be ridiculed and dismissed.
Stafford paused to put on a pair of mirror shades, then hoisted a black leather laptop case to his shoulder and descended onto the platform. A stumpy young woman in a navy-blue suit came after him, tucking wilful strands of bright-red hair back beneath her floral headscarf. And an Egyptian porter followed behind, struggling beneath mounds of matching brown-leather luggage.
An elderly woman stumbled against Stafford as he pushed his way through the crowd. His laptop swung and clipped a young boy around the ear. The boy saw instantly how wealthy Stafford looked and promptly started bawling. A man in dirty-brown robes said something curt to Stafford, who waved him arrogantly away. The boy bawled even more loudly. Stafford sighed heavily and glanced around at the redhead, evidently expecting her to sort it out. She stooped, examined the boyâ€™s ear, clucked sympathetically, slipped him a banknote. He couldnâ€™t suppress his grin as he danced off. But the man in the brown robes was still feeling stung from Staffordâ€™s dismissal, and the transaction only irritated him further. He declared loudly that foreigners evidently now thought they could batter Egyptian children at will, then pay their way out of it.
The redhead gave an uncertain smile and tried to back away, but the manâ€™s words struck a chord with the crowd, and a cordon formed, trapping them inside, the atmosphere turning ugly. Stafford tried to barge his way out, but someone jolted him hard enough that his shades came off. He grabbed for them but they fell to the ground. A moment later Gaille heard the crunch of glass as they went underfoot. A scornful laugh rang out.
Gaille glanced anxiously over at the three CSF men, but they were walking away into the ticket hall, heads ducked, wanting nothing to do with this. Fear flared hot in her chest as she debated what to do. This wasnâ€™t her problem. No one even knew she was here. Her 4x4 was parked directly outside. She hesitated just a moment longer, then turned and hurried out.
â€˜But itâ€™s just a lid,â€™ protested Omar, as he hurried down the SCAâ€™s front steps after Knox. â€˜There must have been thousands like it. How can you be so certain it came from Qumran?â€™
Knox unlocked his Jeep, climbed in. â€˜Because itâ€™s the only place Dead Sea Scroll jars have ever been found,â€™ he told Omar. â€˜At least, there was one other found in Jericho, just a few miles north, and maybe another at Masada, also close by. Other than that â€¦â€™
â€˜But it looked perfectly ordinary.â€™
â€˜It may have looked it,â€™ replied Knox, waiting for a van to pass before pulling out. â€˜But you have to understand something. Two thousand years ago, jars were used either for transporting goods or for storing them. Transportation jars were typically amphorae, with big handles to make them easier to heft about, and robust, because they had to withstand a lot of knocks, and cylindrical, because that made them more efficient to stack.â€™ He turned right at the end of the street, then sharp left. â€˜But once the goods reached their final destination, they were decanted into storage jars with rounded bottoms that bedded into sandy floors and were easy to tip whenever people needed to pour out their contents. They also had long necks and narrow mouths so that they could be corked and their contents kept fresh. But the Dead Sea Scroll jars werenâ€™t like that. They had flat bottoms and stubby necks t likeby and fat mouths, and there was a very good reason for that.â€™
His brakes sang as he slowed for a tram clanking across the junction ahead. â€˜How much do you know about Qumran?â€™ he asked.
â€˜It was occupied by the Essenes, wasnâ€™t it?â€™ said Omar. â€˜That Jewish sect. Though havenâ€™t I heard people claim that it was a villa or a fort or something?â€™
â€˜Theyâ€™ve suggested it,â€™ agreed Knox, whoâ€™d been fascinated by the place since a family holiday there as a child. â€˜I think theyâ€™re wrong, though. I mean, Pliny said that the Essenes lived on the northwest of the Dead Sea. If not Qumran itself, then very close to it, and no one has found a convincing alternative. One expert put it very succinctly: Either Qumran and the scrolls were both Essene, or we have a quite astonishing coincidence: Two major religious communities living almost on top of each other, sharing similar views and rituals, one of which was described by ancient authors yet left no physical traces; while the other was somehow ignored by all our sources but left extensive ruins and documents.â€™
â€˜So Qumran was occupied by the Essenes,â€™ agreed Omar. â€˜That doesnâ€™t explain why their jars are unique.â€™
â€˜The Essenes were fanatical about ritual purity,â€™ said Knox. â€˜The slightest thing could render a pure receptacle impure. A drop of rain, a tumbling insect, an inappropriate spillage. And if it did, it was a major headache. I mean, if a receptacle became tainted, then obviously anything in it was immediately tainted too, and had to be chucked. But that wasnâ€™t the worst of it. Liquids and grain are poured in a stream, you see, so the real issue was whether the impurity climbed back up that stream and infected the storage jar too. The Pharisees and other Jewish sects took a relaxed view, but the Essenes believed that everything would be contaminated, so they couldnâ€™t risk pouring out contents in a stream. Instead, theyâ€™d lift the lid a little, dip in a measuring cup and transfer it that way. And because they no longer had to tip their storage jars, they could have flat bottoms, which made them much more stable; and short necks and fat mouths, too, to make them easier to dip into.â€™
â€˜And jars with fat mouths need bowls for lids,â€™ grinned Omar.
â€˜Exactly,â€™ nodded Knox. They were nearing the Desert Road Junction. He hunkered down in his seat to scan the road-signs. A quick review of the records in Omarâ€™s office had shown just four foreign-run sites in the vicinity of Lake Mariut, but there was nothing currently happening at Philoxinite, Taposiris Magna or Abu Mina; which left only one worthwhile candidate: a group called the Texas Society of Biblical Archaeology excavating out near Borg el-Arab.
â€˜So what would the lid be doing here?â€™ asked Omar, once Knox had navigated them onto the right road.
â€˜It may well have come centuries ago,â€™ shrugged Knox. â€˜The Dead Sea Scrolls were known about in antiquity. We have reports from the second, third and fourth centuries of texts being found in Qumran caves. Origen even used them to write his Hexapla.â€™
â€˜The Bible written out six times in parallel columns. The first in Hebrew, the second in Greek, and then a series of edited versions. It helped other scholars compare and contrast the various versions. But the point is, he relied heavily on Dead Sea Scrolls.â€™
â€˜And you think they might have been brought here in this jau thinn tr of yours?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s got to be a possibility.â€™
Omar swallowed audibly. â€˜You donâ€™t think we might actually find â€¦ scrolls, do you?â€™
Knox laughed. â€˜Donâ€™t get your hopes up. One of the scrolls was inscribed on copper â€“ a treasure map, would you believe? But all the rest were on parchment or papyrus. Alexandriaâ€™s climate would have chewed those up centuries ago. Besides, thereâ€™s another explanation. A more intriguing one. To me, at least.â€™
â€˜Weâ€™re pretty sure the Essenes didnâ€™t live only in Qumran,â€™ said Knox. â€˜Josephus mentions an Essene Gate in Jerusalem, for example, and several scrolls laid down rules for how Essenes should live outside Qumran. Besides, we know there were several thousand Essenes, whereas Qumran could only hold a few hundred. So obviously there were other communities.â€™
â€˜You mean here? In Alexandria?â€™
Knox grinned. â€˜Have you ever heard of the Therapeutae?â€™ he asked.
The Reverend Ernest Peterson surreptitiously dabbed his brow. He didnâ€™t like being seen to sweat. He didnâ€™t like showing any sign of weakness. Fifty-two years old, ramrod straight, grizzled hair, fierce eyes, a hawkâ€™s nose. Never without his copy of the King James Version. Never without his preacherâ€™s livery. A man proud to show through his own unyielding purpose a faint glimmer of the irresistible strength of God. Yet the sweat kept coming. It wasnâ€™t just the humidity in this cramped, dark underground labyrinth. It was the vertiginous sense of what he was on the verge of achieving.
Thirty-odd years before, Peterson had been a punk â€“ a petty thief, always in trouble with the law. Under arrest one night, dozing on a police bench, glancing up at a Heinrich Hofmann print of Christ hanging high up on the wall, his heart suddenly starting to race crazily, like the most violent panic attack, but which suddenly dissolved into the most intense and serene vision of his life, a blinding white light, an epiphany. Heâ€™d stumbled from the bench after it was done, searching for a reflective surface in which to see what imprint it had left upon him: bleached hair, charred skin, albino irises. To his astonishment, thereâ€™d been no physical change whatsoever. Yet it had changed him, all right. It had transformed him from within. For no man could look upon the face of Christ and remain untouched.
He dabbed his forehead once more, turned to Griffin. â€˜Ready?â€™ he asked.
â€˜Then do it.â€™
He stood back as Griffin and Michael heaved a first block of stone from the false wall to reveal the open space behind that had been indicated by their probes. Griffin reached in his torch, twisted it this way and that, illuminating a large chamber that flickered with shadow and colour, provoking murmurs and gasps from his young students. But Peterson only nodded at Nathan and Michael to continue dismantling the wall.
It said in the Good Book: The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh upon outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. The Lord had looked upon his heart that night in custody. The Lord had seen something in him that even he hadnâ€™t realized was there.
A sufficient gap had been created for Griffin to step through, but Peterson p createteut a hand on his shoulder. â€˜No,â€™ he said. â€˜Iâ€™m going first.â€™
â€˜It should be an archaeologist.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m going first,â€™ repeated Peterson. He rested his palm on the rough crumbled mortar, stepped through into the new chamber.
Heâ€™d not merely been transformed that night; heâ€™d been given purpose. Of all Godâ€™s gifts, perhaps the greatest. It hadnâ€™t been easy. Heâ€™d wasted years on the medieval make-believe of the Turin Shroud and the Veil of Veronica. Yet heâ€™d never once doubted or contemplated giving in. The Lord didnâ€™t hand out such missions on a whim. And finally heâ€™d found the right lead, had followed it relentlessly, was now within touching distance. He felt it. He knew it. The time of the light was coming, certain as sunrise.
He shone his torch around the chamber. Thirty paces long, ten wide. Everything covered in dust. A deep bath embedded in the floor, a wide flight of steps leading down into it, divided by a low stone wall, so that community members could descend unclean down one side and emerge purified from the other. Walls plastered and painted in antiquity; pigments dulled by neglect, cobwebs, dirt and wormcasts. He brushed an area with his hand, shone his torch obliquely at the revealed scene. A woman in blue with a child on her lap. He had to blink away tears.
He glanced around to see Marcia shining her torch up at the domed ceiling, painted to represent the sky, a glowing orange sun near its apex, constellations of yellow stars, a creamy full moon, red coals of planets. Day and night together. Joy effervesced in his heart as Peterson stared up. He fell to his knees in gratitude and adoration. â€˜Let us give thanks,â€™ he said. He gazed around until all his young students had fallen to their knees. And then even Griffin had to follow, compelled by the power of the group.
â€˜I know that my redeemer liveth,â€™ cried Peterson, his voice reverberating loudly around the chamber. â€˜And that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.â€™
Yes, he exulted. In my flesh shall I see God.
Naguib Hussein was on his way back to the Mallawi police station to make his report when he decided it might be as well to make a detour to Amarna, ask the people there if theyâ€™d heard anything about a missing young girl, if only to take the opportunity of introducing himself.
A tourist policeman was fooling around on his motorbike, gunning his engine, braking sharply, spraying huge arcs of dust and sand with his back wheel: entertainment for his officer and two comrades drinking chai on wooden benches beneath a makeshift sunshade. Naguib braced himself. Relations between the services were strained around here, each looking down on the other. He waited for the officer to acknowledge his arrival, but he continued to ignore him until Naguibâ€™s cheeks grew warm. He scowled and walked across the officerâ€™s line of sight, giving him no choice but to notice him, though he still didnâ€™t get up. â€˜Yes?â€™ he asked.
Naguib nodded at the eastern crescent of hills. â€˜Iâ€™ve just come from the desert,â€™ he said.
â€˜If theyâ€™ll pay you for it.â€™
â€˜One of the guides took some tourists out last night. They found a girl.â€™
â€˜A girl?â€™ frowned t widthfrohe officer. â€˜How do you mean?â€™
â€˜I mean they found her body. Wrapped in tarpaulin.â€™
The officer set down his glass, stood up. A tall man, beautifully presented, razor-cut hair, manicured nails, a silken moustache, making the most of his uniform. â€˜I hadnâ€™t heard,â€™ he said, suddenly earnest, offering his hand. â€˜Captain Khaled Osman, at your service.â€™
â€˜Inspector Naguib Hussein.â€™
â€˜Are you new here, Inspector? I donâ€™t recall seeing you before.â€™
â€˜Six weeks,â€™ admitted Naguib. â€˜I was in Minya before.â€™
â€˜You must have done something pretty bad to get posted here.â€™
Naguib gave a wry grunt. Heâ€™d been investigating military equipment on the black market, hadnâ€™t dropped it even when the trail had led him to the top, not even after heâ€™d been warned off. He hated Egyptâ€™s culture of corruption. â€˜They told me it was a promotion,â€™ he said.
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Khaled. â€˜They told me that, too.â€™ He glanced around. â€˜Youâ€™ll join us for some chai?â€™
Naguib shook his head. â€˜I need to get back to the station. I just thought Iâ€™d ask if youâ€™d heard anything.â€™
Khaled shook his head. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™ll ask around, if you like. Keep an ear to the ground.â€™
â€˜Thank you,â€™ said Naguib. â€˜Iâ€™d be most grateful.â€™...
Gaille unlocked the Discovery and climbed inside. She sat there for a moment, breathing hard, studying herself in the rear-view. Her tan, headscarf and local clothes gave her anonymity if she wanted it. She could drive away and no one would ever know. Only that wasnâ€™t quite true. Sheâ€™d know.
She grabbed her camera from the glove compartment, hurried out and back through the ticket hall where the police were still hiding, her heart pounding, chills fluttering across her skin. Stafford and his companions were still hemmed in on the platform, wrestling for their luggage with two youths. She stepped up onto a bench, wielded her camera like a weapon. â€˜CNN!â€™ she cried out. â€˜Al Jazeera!â€™ Attention shifted instantly to her, a wave of hostility, quickly replaced by fear, people instinctively ducking their faces, not wanting to be captured on film. She panned around to the men from the Central Security Forces. The officer scowled and snapped out orders. His men hurried out, opened a precarious corridor with their batons that Stafford, the redhead and Gaille all hurried down, out to the Discovery.
â€˜What are you waiting for?â€™ yelled Stafford, slamming the passenger door behind him. â€˜Get us out of here.â€™
â€˜What about your porter?â€™
â€˜Fuck him,â€™ snapped Stafford. â€˜Just get us out of here, will you?â€™
â€˜Heâ€™s one of them, isnâ€™t he? He can look after himself.â€™
The CSF men were waving them away, as though they couldnâ€™t guarere wavinantee them protection much longer. Gaille thrust the Discovery into gear, surged away. Traffic was gridlocked the way she wanted to go; she turned left instead. The streets quickly narrowed, aged, turned into a bazaar, forcing her to slow right down, wend her way between irritated shoppers. With all the twists and turns, she quickly became disoriented. She leaned forwards in her seat, scanning the skyline for a familiar landmark by which to navigate.
Captain Khaled Osman kept his smile fixed to his lips as he waved off the police inspector. But it vanished when he turned to his men. â€˜Time for a patrol, I think,â€™ he said. â€˜Faisal. Nasser. Abdullah. Come with me, please.â€™
Khaled sat stiffly in the passenger seat as Nasser drove and Abdullah and Faisal cowered in the back. There was silence apart from the blast of the engine. The silence of anger. The silence of fear. They reached the Northern Tombs. Khaled climbed out; his men followed, forming a desultory line, sagging like sacks of rice. Heâ€™d done his best to instil some pride of uniform in these men since being forcibly transferred into the tourist police out of the army, but it was futile, they were worthless, all they cared about was gouging baksheesh from the tourists. He walked back and forth in front of them, their heads bowed in shame like the miserable pups they were. â€˜One job I give you!â€™ he spat. â€˜One damned job! And you canâ€™t even do that!â€™
â€˜But we did exactly what youâ€”â€™
Khaled slapped Faisal across the cheek, the crack echoing off the cliff walls behind. â€˜How could you have done?â€™ he yelled, saliva spraying over Faisalâ€™s face. â€˜They found her, didnâ€™t they?â€™
A smile tweaked Abdullahâ€™s lips, evidently relieved that Faisal was taking the brunt. Khaled grabbed his collar and clutched it so tightly that his face turned red and he started struggling for breath. â€˜If this goes wrong â€¦â€™ vowed Khaled. â€˜If this goes wrong â€¦â€™
â€˜We never wanted any part of this, sir,â€™ protested Faisal. â€˜It was all your idea. Now look!â€™
â€˜Shut up!â€™ snarled Khaled, letting go of Abdullah, who gasped for breath, massaged his raw throat. â€˜You want to spend your whole life poor? Is that what you want? This is our chance to be rich.â€™
â€˜Rich!â€™ scoffed Faisal.
â€˜Thereâ€™s nothing there, sir! Havenâ€™t you realized that yet?â€™
â€˜Youâ€™re wrong,â€™ insisted Khaled. â€˜Itâ€™s in there. I can smell it. One more week and itâ€™ll be ours.â€™ He wagged a finger at them. â€˜But no more mistakes. Understand? No more mistakes.â€™
Knox drove west out along the new Desert Road into a palette of extraordinary colours, the ice-packs of the salt farms dazzling white to his right, the chemical sheen of Lake Mariut glowing almost purple to his left, and, up above, the wisps of late-afternoon cloud making for a Jackson Pollock sky.
â€˜The Therapeutae?â€™ frowned Omar. â€˜Werenâ€™t they early Christians?â€™
Knox shook his head. â€˜They had Christian attitudes and practices, and they were claimed as Christians by certain early church fathers, and itâ€™s even possible they became Christians. But they canâ€™t have started out as Christians, not least because they were living in and around Alexnot leounandria before Christ started preaching. No, they were Jews, all right. Philo admired them so much he almost joined them, after all, and he was certainly Jewish. Whatâ€™s more, he implied a very strong connection between them and the Essenes. The Therapeutae were his ideal of the contemplative life, the Essenes of the active life. But their beliefs and practices were otherwise virtually indistinguishable.â€™
â€˜In what ways?â€™
â€˜Both were extremely ascetic,â€™ said Knox, scratching the resinous scab of a mosquito bite on his forearm. â€˜Itâ€™s commonplace now, but no one used to think there was much virtue in poverty before the Essenes. Their initiates had to hand over most of their worldly belongings when they joined, as did new Therapeutae. Both rejected slavery and considered it an honour to serve others. Both held their elders in great esteem. Both were vegetarian and disapproved of animal sacrifice, perhaps because both believed in reincarnation. Both dressed in white linen. Both were renowned for their medical skill. Some argue that the words Essene and Therapeutae actually derived from Aramaic and Greek for healers, though itâ€™s more probable they both meant â€œservants of Godâ€�.â€™ He turned south onto the low causeway across Lake Mariut, where a few fishermen were idling away their day on the rocky verges. â€˜Purification rituals mattered hugely to both. Both were largely or completely celibate, sustaining their numbers through recruitment rather than procreation. Both sang antiphonal chants. In fact, some Passover hymns found at Qumran might well have been composed by the Therapeutae. Both used a solar calendar, as opposed to the usual Jewish lunar calendar. And both had a ritual three hundred and sixty four days to their year, even though they knew the real figure.â€™
They arrived south of the lake, a barren landscape of Bedouin farms, vast industrial complexes, expensive verdant villas and large stretches of rocky waste-ground that no one had yet found a use for. Knox pulled into the side to consult their map. A grey heron looked quizzically at him from a reed-bed. He winked at it and it flapped leisurely away.
â€˜The Essenes and the Therapeutae,â€™ prompted Omar.
â€˜Yes,â€™ nodded Knox, pulling away again, turning west, the map open on his lap, keeping as close to the lake as the roads allowed. â€˜Both were keenly interested in the hidden meanings of the scriptures. Both knew secrets they couldnâ€™t divulge to outsiders, such as the names of angels. Geometry, numerology, anagrams and word-plays held special meaning to both, as did jubilees. The Therapeutae held a feast every seven days, a more important one every fifty days. Fifty was a very special number, you see, because it was the sum of three squared plus four squared plus five squared; and any triangle with the lengths of its sides in the ratio of three, four, five is a right-angled triangle, which they held to be the building-block of the universe.â€™
â€˜Right-angled triangles? Isnâ€™t that more Greek than Jewish?â€™
â€˜Absolutely,â€™ agreed Knox, turning left down a narrow lane, flat tilled fields to their right, bare limestone bedrock to their left. â€˜They had an amazing amount in common with the Pythagoreans. Diet, calendar, rituals, beliefs. All the things I just mentioned. And clear traces of sun-worship too. Ancient Alexandrians actually claimed that Pythagoras derived all his knowledge from Moses, that his religion was essentially Egyptian. He did spend twenty years here, after all. So maybe he got it all from the same place as the Therapeutae.â€™
An irrigation canal ran along the left-hand side of the road, its banks grazed by goats. This whole area whe roale as a lattice of channels distributing fresh water from the Nile. By his reckoning, the excavation should be somewhere the other side. He kept going until he saw an earthen bridge ahead, guarded by two men in uniform playing backgammon on a wooden trestle table. He turned left over the bridge, pulled to a stop beside them. â€˜Is this the Texas Society dig?â€™ he asked.
â€˜What do you want?â€™ asked the elder of the guards.
â€˜To talk to the chief archaeologist.â€™
â€˜You mean Mister Griffin?â€™
â€˜If thatâ€™s his name.â€™
â€˜You have an appointment?â€™
â€˜This is Mr Tawfiq,â€™ said Knox, nodding at Omar. â€˜Heâ€™s head of the Supreme Council in Alexandria, and he wants to speak to the chief archaeologist. I suggest you let him know weâ€™re here.â€™
The guard held Knoxâ€™s eye, but when Knox didnâ€™t look away, he stood, turned his back, held a muttered conversation on his walkie-talkie. â€˜Very well,â€™ he said gruffly, once he was done. â€˜Follow this track to the end. Wait by the cabin. Mister Griffin will meet you there.â€™
â€˜So?â€™ asked Omar. â€˜Do we know where these Therapeutae of yours lived?â€™
â€˜Not exactly,â€™ admitted Knox. â€˜Philo did give us some clues, though. For example, he said that their settlement was on a slightly raised plain within reach of the sea breezes. And that they were close enough together to defend each other from attack, yet far enough apart to be alone with their thoughts. Oh, yes, and he told us one other thing.â€™