The two men topped a small rise. A wooden cabin with a...
Lily Auster stared bleakly out the window of the Discovery as Gaille drove them slowly through the narrow wending alleys of the Assiut bazaar. Two days into her first proper overseas assignment, already a train wreck. She clenched her fist until her nails dug pale crescents in her palm. Get a grip, girl, she told herself. A setback, thatâ€™s all. It was her job to deal with setbacks and then move on. If she couldnâ€™t deal with such things, she should find a new career. She forced a smile first onto her lips and then up into her eyes and leaned forwards between the front seats. â€˜So youâ€™re Gaille Bonnard, yes?â€™ she asked with all the brightness she could muster.
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Gaille.
â€˜I rang Fatima while we were on the train,â€™ nodded Lily. â€˜She said youâ€™d be meeting us. Thanks so much for helping out back there. I thought we were toast.â€™
â€˜Forget it,â€™ said Gaille.
â€˜Iâ€™m Lily, by the way. Lily Auster. And of course you recognize our star, Charles Stafford.â€™
â€˜Of course,â€™ agreed Gaille. â€˜Pleased to meet you both.â€™
â€˜Bloody maniacs!â€™ muttered Stafford. â€˜What was wrong with thoscs!â€™ mue people?â€™
â€˜Things are very tense around here at the moment. Two young girls have been raped and murdered. And they were both Copts. Egyptian Christians, that is.â€™
â€˜I know what a Copt is, thank you,â€™ said Stafford.
â€˜Those poor girls,â€™ said Lily, checking herself in the rear-view mirror, her eyes flicking instinctively to her cheek. The laser treatments had done exactly what the brochure had promised, reducing her vivid port-wine birthmark to a reddish-brown glow that people barely even noticed any more. But sheâ€™d discovered an unwelcome truth about disfigurement: suffer it long enough, and it became a part of who you were, your personality. She still felt ugly, no matter what the mirror tried to tell her. â€˜But why is it significant they were Copts?â€™
â€˜The last time anything like this happened â€“ a murder â€“ the police simply rounded up hundreds of other Copts. It caused an awful lot of friction with the West. People assumed it was religious discrimination, you see â€“ Muslim on Christian; though it wasnâ€™t, really. Itâ€™s just how the police investigate around here. They grab all the nearest people and beat them until one of them talks. But this time, instead of rounding up Copts, theyâ€™ve used it as an excuse to grab all the local Islamic firebrands and beat them instead. And their friends and families blame people like us. Thereâ€™s a big march on through the city this afternoon.â€™
â€˜Charming,â€™ nodded Stafford, his interest fading fast. He turned to Lily. â€˜What luggage did we lose?â€™
â€˜Just clothes, I think,â€™ said Lily. â€˜I saved our equipment.â€™
â€˜My clothes, I suppose.â€™
â€˜Both our clothes.â€™
â€˜What the hell am I supposed to wear on camera?â€™
â€˜Weâ€™ll find you something. Donâ€™t worry.â€™ Her smile had become strained these past few days. Working for Stafford would do that to you, particularly if your colleagues had jumped ship, as hers had. Last night over dinner heâ€™d gone on about his recent trip to Delphi. Gnothi Seauton, the Oracle had advised. Know thyself. Stafford had sat back in his chair and claimed it as his prescription for a fulfilled life. Her unintentional snort had sprayed atomized droplets of white wine across the tablecloth. Sheâ€™d never met a man with such little self-awareness, yet heâ€™d done absurdly well, was both successful and happy. Oh, to be a narcissist, with unshakeable faith in your own beauty and wonderfulness. And to have people admire you for it too! Because they did: people were such fools, they took others at their own estimate. She turned back to Gaille. â€˜Fatima said youâ€™d come with us tomorrow. Thatâ€™s so kind of you.â€™
â€˜Tomorrow?â€™ frowned Gaille. â€˜How do you mean?â€™
â€˜Didnâ€™t she mention it?â€™
â€˜No,â€™ said Gaille. â€˜She didnâ€™t. Why? Whatâ€™s happening?â€™
â€˜Weâ€™re filming in Amarna. Our guide went AWOL.â€™
â€˜Good riddance to him,â€™ muttered Stafford. â€˜Man had an attitude.â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s why we had to take the train,â€™ said Lily. â€˜Your professor said sheâ€™d come with us. But now apparently somethingâ€™s come up. So weâ€™re really stuck. Itâ€™s not just that we need an expert to talk to camera, though that would be great. Itâ€™s that neither of us speak Arabic. I mean, our documentationâ€™s in order and everything, but I dour doc bunâ€™t know how things work around here. Every country has its own ways, you know?â€™
â€˜Iâ€™ll have a word with Fatima when we get back,â€™ sighed Gaille. â€˜Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll be able to sort something out.â€™
â€˜Thanks,â€™ said Lily, squeezing Gailleâ€™s shoulder. â€˜Thatâ€™s brilliant of you.â€™ A pang of shame, quickly suppressed. It was one of the hidden penalties of ugliness that no one ever volunteered their help; you had to find other ways to get what you needed: flattery, bargaining, bribery, throwing yourself on their mercy.
They drifted to a halt. Lily glanced through the windscreen. The way ahead was blocked by metal barricades, ranks of riot police in black uniforms and helmets, the protest march passing the other side, fervent young men in robes, the perfect oval faces of the women in their hijab, others completely veiled by their niqab. A sweet stab of longing low in Lilyâ€™s stomach. As a girl, how envious sheâ€™d been of Muslim women, able to hide behind the sanctuary of burkha. â€˜I hate to ask,â€™ she murmured, â€˜but are you sure this is the right way?â€™
Knox and Omar leaned against the Jeep as they waited for Griffin. â€˜Maha said these were bullet-holes from that Alexander business,â€™ said Omar, fingering the patched-up bodywork. â€˜Theyâ€™re not really, are they?â€™
Omar laughed. â€˜You do live, Daniel.â€™
â€˜Only just.â€™ He stooped to check the ground. The site was on a gentle hummock of limestone, almost completely bare of soil, useless for farming and untouched by industrialization or property development. If people had lived here in ancient times, there was a fair chance traces of them would have survived. He looked up at the scuff of footsteps. Two middle-aged men emerged from behind the cabin, their clothes and hair grey with dust and cobwebs. â€˜Mister Tawfiq,â€™ said the first, thrusting out his right hand, revealing a dark crescent of sweat beneath his armpit. â€˜I understand youâ€™re the new head of the SCA in Alexandria. Congratulations.â€™
â€˜Oh,â€™ said Omar. â€˜Iâ€™m only interim head, you know.â€™
â€˜I met your predecessor, of course. A terrible tragedy to lose such a good man so young.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Omar. He turned to Knox. â€˜And this is my friend, Mister Daniel Knox.â€™
â€˜Daniel Knox?â€™ asked the man. â€˜Of Alexanderâ€™s tomb fame?â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ acknowledged Knox.
â€˜We are honoured,â€™ he said, shaking his hand. â€˜Iâ€™m Mortimer Griffin. Chief archaeologist of this excavation.â€™ He turned to his companion. â€˜And this is the Reverend Ernest Peterson.â€™
â€˜An excavation with its own chaplain?â€™ asked Knox.
â€˜Weâ€™re really a training dig,â€™ explained Griffin. â€˜Most of our crew are very young, you know. Away from home for the first time, a lot of them. Their parents feel better knowing they have moral guidance.â€™
â€˜Of course,â€™ said Knox. He offered to shake Petersonâ€™s hand, but Peterson just stood there, his arms folded, staring back with a granite smile.
â€˜So what can we do for you gentlemen?â€™ asked Griffin, pretending nothing had just happened. â€˜All this way without an appointment. It must be important.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Knox. â€˜Iâ€™m beginning to think it might be.â€™
Stafford sighed loudly as Gaille pulled to a stop by the barriers. â€˜Donâ€™t tell me weâ€™re lost!â€™
â€˜I had to get us away from the station,â€™ said Gaille defensively. She leaned forwards. Late afternoon sun blurred like a headache on her dusty windscreen. There was no indication of when the march might end and the barricades be removed. Nothing for it: she pulled an awkward five-point turn in the narrow street, headed back through the bazaar and emerged onto the square outside the crowded train station, the traffic and emerging passengers forcing her to slow almost to walking pace as she worked her way through the crowd.
Two men were laughing good-naturedly as they tussled over a straw hat. â€˜Thatâ€™s mine!â€™ scowled Stafford. He lowered his window, grabbed for his hat. The two men danced off yelling cheerful insults, bringing the Discovery to general attention. People walked in front, forcing Gaille to a stop. â€˜What are you doing?â€™ protested Stafford, raising his window back up.
â€˜I thought you wanted your hat.â€™
â€˜Get us out of here.â€™
Gaille pressed her palm on her horn, revved her engine...
â€˜Well?â€™ said Griffin. â€˜Wonâ€™t you tell us why youâ€™re here?â€™
â€˜I was offered an artefact in Alexandria this morning,â€™ replied Knox. â€˜The seller said it was from an excavation south of Mariut.â€™
â€˜You shouldnâ€™t believe what those people tell you. Anything for a sale.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Knox.
Griffinâ€™s eyes narrowed. â€˜What kind of artefact exactly?â€™
â€˜A storage-jar lid.â€™
â€˜A storage-jar lid? You came all this way for a storage-jar lid?â€™
â€˜We came all this way because we think antiquities theft is a serious matter,â€™ said Omar.
â€˜Yes, of course,â€™ nodded Griffin, suitably chastened. â€˜But you musâ€™ noddet realize there used to be a substantial pottery industry out here. They made jars to transport grain and wine all around the Mediterranean, you know. Good wine, too. Strabo commended it highly. So did Horace and Virgil. They even found some amphorae of it off Marseilles, would you believe? Walk along the old lake-front here, youâ€™ll find great heaps of ancient pottery fragments. Anyone could have picked up your lid from one of them. It didnâ€™t have to come from an excavation.â€™
â€˜This lid wasnâ€™t broken,â€™ said Knox. â€˜Besides, it was â€¦ unusual.â€™
â€˜Unusual?â€™ said Griffin, shading his eyes from the sun. â€˜In what way?â€™
â€˜What exactly is this site?â€™ asked Omar.
â€˜An old farm. Of no great interest, believe me.â€™
â€˜Really?â€™ frowned Knox. â€˜Then why excavate here?â€™
â€˜This is primarily a training excavation. It gives our students the chance to experience life on a real dig.â€™
â€˜What did they farm here?â€™
â€˜All kinds of things. Grain. Vines. Beans. Madder. Papyrus. You know.â€™
â€˜On limestone bedrock?â€™
â€˜This is where they lived. Their fields were on all sides.â€™
â€˜And the people?â€™
Griffin scratched beneath his collar, beginning to feel the pressure. â€˜Like I say. This was an old farm. They were old farmers.â€™
Griffin glanced at Peterson, but found no help. â€˜Weâ€™ve found artefacts from the Nineteenth Dynasty on. But mostly Graeco-Roman. Nothing later than the early fifth century AD. A couple of coins from 413 or 414, something like that. There seems to have been a fire around that time. Luckily for us.â€™
Knox nodded. A good blaze would put a carbonized shell over a site, protecting it from the worst ravages of time and weather. â€˜The Christian riots?â€™ he suggested.
â€˜Why would Christians burn down a farm?â€™
â€˜Why indeed?â€™ agreed Knox.
â€˜Perhaps you could give us the tour,â€™ suggested Omar into the ensuing silence. â€˜Show us what youâ€™ve been finding.â€™
â€˜Of course. Of course. Any time. Just make an appointment with Claire.â€™
â€˜Our administrator. She speaks Arabic, you know.â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s good,â€™ said Omar. â€˜Because I can barely speak a word of English myself.â€™
Griffin had the grace to blush. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. I didnâ€™t mean it that way. It was just if you had one of your people make the appointment for you.â€™
â€˜Canâ€™t we speak to her now?â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m afraid sheâ€™s not on site. And this season may not be easy. Rush of work. So much to do. So little time.â€™ He waved vaguely at the desert behind him, as though they could see for themselves. But of course they could see nothing.
â€˜We wouldnâ€™t get in your way,â€™ said Knox.
â€˜I think Iâ€™m the best judge of that, donâ€™t you?â€™
Iâ€™m the best judge.â€™
â€˜We report to Cairo, not you,â€™ said Peterson, speaking for the first time. â€˜Iâ€™m not quite clear what your jurisdiction here is.â€™
â€˜Do you have an SCA representative here?â€™ asked Omar.
â€˜Of course,â€™ nodded Griffin. â€˜Abdel Lateef.â€™
â€˜May I speak with him?â€™
â€˜Ah. Heâ€™s in Cairo today.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m not sure when heâ€™ll be back.â€™
Knox and Omar shared a glance. The SCA representative was supposed to be on site full time. â€˜You have an Egyptian crew, I assume. May I speak with your reis?â€™
â€˜By all means,â€™ said Peterson. â€˜Just show us your authorization.â€™ He waited a moment for Omar to produce it, then shook his head in theatrical disappointment. â€˜No? Well do come back when you have it.â€™
â€˜But Iâ€™m head of the Supreme Council in Alexandria,â€™ protested Omar.
â€˜Interim head,â€™ retorted Peterson. â€˜Drive safely, now.â€™ And he turned his back on them and strode away, leaving Griffin to hurry after him.
Gaille was waved to a stop at a checkpoint a couple of kilometres north of Assiut, assigned two police cars for the return journey north. It was like that round here. In her headscarf, driving alone, Gaille was effectively invisible; but once she had such obvious Westerners as Stafford and Lily for passengers, there was little chance of avoiding an escort. Gaille hated driving in convoy like this; the police here drove at breakneck pace, wending wildly through traffic, forcing her to drive frighteningly fast just to keep up. But they reached the end of the police jurisdiction without incident and the two cars vanished as quickly as theyâ€™d appeared.
â€˜So whatâ€™s your programme about, then?â€™ asked Gaille, slowing with relief to a more comfortable speed.
â€˜Iâ€™ve a copy of the synopsis for this segment, if youâ€™d like,â€™ said Lily from the back, unzipping her bag.
â€˜Thatâ€™s confidential,â€™ snapped Stafford.
â€˜Weâ€™re asking Gaille to help,â€™ observed Lily. â€˜How can she if she doesnâ€™t know what weâ€™re working on?â€™
â€˜Very well,â€™ sighed Stafford. He took the synopsis from Lily, glanced through it to make sure it contained no state secrets, then rested it on his knee and cleared his throat. â€˜In 1714,â€™ he began sonorously, as if for a voice-over, â€˜Claude Sicard, a French Jesuit scholar, came across an inscription cut into the cliffs at a desolate site near the Nile in the heart of Egypt. It turned out to be a boundary marker for one of the most remarkable cities of the ancient world, the capital city of a previously unknown pharaoh, a pharaoh whoâ€™d inspired the birth of a new philosophy, a new style of art, and â€“ most of all â€“ of bold new ideas about the nature of God that had shattered the status quo and irreversibly altered the history of the world.â€™
As opposed to reversibly altering it, you mean? thought Gaille, struggling not to smile.
Stafford squinted at her. â€˜Did you say something?â€™
He pursed his lips, but then let it go, picked up where heâ€™d left off. â€˜The new ways had proved too much for the Egyptian establishment, however. Extraordinarily, it would transpire, this city hadnâ€™t just been abandoned, it had been deliberately dismantled, brick by brick, to remove any evidence of its existence. And all across Egypt, every mention of this man and his reign had been meticulously erased so that the seas of time closed over his head without a trace. Who was he, this heretic pharaoh? What crime had he committed that was so monstrous, it had had to be expunged from history? In his latest groundbreaking book and companion documentary, iconoclastic historian Charles Stafford explores the astonishing multiple mysteries of the Amarna era, and puts forward a revolutionary new theory that not only shatters the way we think about Akhenaten, but will also rewrite our notions of the history of the ancient Near East.â€™ He folded the sheet back up, tucked it away in his inside jacket pocket, looking rather pleased with himself.
A donkey was standing in the middle of the road ahead, its front legs hobbled so that it could move only in feeble bunny-hops. Gaille put her foot on the brakes, slowing right down, trying to give it time to reach the verge, but it didnâ€™t move, it just stood there, terrified and bewildered, so that she had to cut into the other lane to drive around it, provoking angry bursts of horn from other traffic. â€˜Your programmeâ€™s really going to do all that?â€™ she asked, checking anxiously in her rear-view until the donkey had vanished from sight.
â€˜And more. Much more.â€™
â€˜Heâ€™s suggesting Akhenaten had a disease,â€™ volunteered Lily from the back.
â€˜Oh,â€™ said Gaille, disappointed, as she turned left off the main Nile road onto a narrow country lane. The grotesque images of Akhenaten and his family were one of the most fiercely debated aspects of the Amarna era. He himself had often been portrayed with a swollen skull, protruding jaw, slanted eyes, fleshy lips, narrow shoulders, wide hips, pronounced breasts, a potbelly, fat thighs and spindly calves. Hardly the heroic picture of manhood that most pharaohs had aspired to. His daughters, too, were typically shown with almond skulls, elongated limbs, spidery fingers and toes. Some believed that this had simply been the prevailing artistic style. But others, like Stafford it seemed, argued that it portrayed the ravages of some vicious disease. â€˜Which are you going with?â€™ she asked. â€˜Marfanâ€™s Syndrome? Frohlichâ€™s?â€™
â€˜Scarcely Frohlichâ€™s,â€™ sniffed Stafford. â€˜It causes sterility. And Akhenaten had six daughters, you know.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ said Gaille, whoâ€™d worked on her fatherâ€™s excavation in Amarna for two seasons while still a teenager, and whoâ€™d studied the Eighteenth Dynasty for three years at the Sorbonne. â€˜I did.â€™ Even so, there was only so much of the relentless â€˜child of his loins, his alone, no one elseâ€™s, just hisâ€™ inscriptions that you could read before wondering whether someone wasnâ€™t protesting a mite too much.
â€˜We spoke to a specialist before coming out,â€™ said Lily. â€˜He reckoned Marfanâ€™s Syndrome was the most likely candidate. But he did suggest others too. Ehlerâ€™s-Danlos. Klinefelterâ€™s.â€™
â€˜It was Marfanâ€™s,â€™ asserted Stafford. â€˜Itâ€™s autosomal dominant, you see. Thatâ€™s to say, if a child inherits the relevant gene from either parent, theyâ€™ll inherit the syndrome, too. Look at the daughters; all portrayed with classic Marfanâ€™s symptoms. The odds against that happening unless nâ€™s g uthe condition was autosomal dominant are enormous.â€™
â€˜What do you think, Gaille?â€™ asked Lily.
She slowed to bump her way across a thick carpet of sugar-cane husks laid out to dry in the sun, fuel for the furnaces of the black-honey factories, their thick black smoke still visible despite the growing late-afternoon gloom. â€˜Itâ€™s certainly plausible,â€™ she agreed. â€˜But itâ€™s not exactly new.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ smiled Stafford. â€˜But then you havenâ€™t heard the groundbreaking bit yet.â€™
â€˜This is bad,â€™ muttered Griffin, whey-faced, hurrying after Peterson. â€˜This is a disaster.â€™
â€˜Cleave ye unto the Lord thy God, Brother Griffin,â€™ said Peterson. â€˜No man will be able to resist you.â€™ The visit of Knox and Tawfiq had, in truth, exhilarated him. For was not Daniel Knox a one-time protÃ©gÃ© of that shameless abominator Richard Mitchell? Which made him an abominator himself, a servant of the Devil. And if the Devil was sending his emissaries on such missions, it could only mean he was worried. Which in turn was proof that Peterson was close to fulfilling his purpose.
â€˜What if they come back?â€™ protested Griffin. â€˜What if they bring the police?â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s what we pay your friends in Cairo for, isnâ€™t it?â€™
â€˜Weâ€™ll need to hide the shaft,â€™ said Griffin, holding his belly as if he had a stomach ache. â€˜And the magazine! Good grief. If they find those artefacts â€¦â€™
â€˜Stop panicking, will you?â€™
â€˜How can you be so calm?â€™
â€˜Because we have the Lord on our side, Brother Griffin. Thatâ€™s how.â€™
â€˜But donâ€™t you realizeâ€”?â€™
â€˜Listen,â€™ said Peterson. â€˜Do as I tell you and everything will be fine. First, go and talk to our Egyptian crew. One of them stole that lid. Demand his colleagues give him up.â€™
â€˜They never will.â€™
â€˜Of course not. But use it as an excuse to send them all home until your investigation is complete. We need them off the site.â€™
â€˜Oh. Good thinking.â€™
â€˜Then call Cairo. Let your friends know our situation, that we need their support. Remind them that if thereâ€™s any kind of enquiry, we might not be able to prevent their names from coming up. Then move anything that could cause us a problem out of the magazine and back underground. Store it in the catacombs for the moment.â€™
â€˜And you? What are you going to do?â€™
â€˜The Lordâ€™s work, Brother Griffin. The Lordâ€™s work.â€™
Griffin paled. â€˜Youâ€™re not seriously planning to go on with this?â€™
â€˜Have you forgotten why weâ€™re here, Brother Griffin?â€™
â€˜Then what are you waiting for?â€™ Peterson watched disdainfully as Griffin slouched away. A man of terrible weak faith; but you had to use the tools to hand when you did the Lordâ€™s work. He strode up a hummock of rock, relishing the tightness in his hams and calves, the burnish of the setting sun upon his nape, the long sharp shadow he cut in the sand. He his n saâ€™d never for one moment imagined heâ€™d feel such affinity for Egypt, away from his church and flock and home. Yet there was a quality to the light here, as though it too had suffered in the flames and been purified.
He breathed in deeply, filling his lungs. The earliest Christian monks had chosen this place to answer Godâ€™s call. Peterson had always imagined that an accident of history and geography; but heâ€™d soon realized that there was more to it than that. This was a profoundly spiritual place, all the more so the further you ventured into the desert. You felt it in the blazing sun, in the sweat and ache of labour, in the way water splashed gloriously over your parched skin and lips. You glimpsed it in the voluptuous golden lines of the dunes and the shimmering blue skies. You heard it in the silence.