As the crow flies, it began fifteen hundred kilometers away from Thebes and the tombs that lay in the Valley of Kings. It began with the annual rains, as it had always begun, for thousands of years, time unending.
The sun was setting behind the blue mountains when the rain began to fall on Eden. As dusk fell, the rain fell too, lightly at first, just a soft drizzle, but by nightfall the rain was pouring out of the sky, an endless torrent of water that only an angry god could deliver. Drenching the trees, running off onto the ground below. Far too fast for dripping, the water gurgled as it ran off the branches and leaves. Falling on an earth that had been broiled hard and dry by months of blazing sun, the water could not be absorbed. Rivulets quickly formed and began to flow across the cracked soil. The rivulets joined, rapidly becoming streams. Within minutes the streams had carved shallow channels into the earth. Mud started to form as the water began to penetrate the sun baked earth and the channels deepened swiftly. Moving only a few tiny pebbles at first, the torrents were soon gouging small stones out of the ground. The topsoil was swept up and carried along by the flow of the water. Tumbling down the hillside, the streams surged, racing towards the rapidly swelling river that led to the heart of the valley.
By the end of the first day the river was dark brown, thick with muddy run-off. Where it entered the sapphire blue lake cradled in the valley the waters quickly turned a deep coffee brown. The stain spread across the lake, driving the fish down into the depths to escape the debris. Spreading over the surface, the muddy water moved across the lake, pushed steadily towards the only outlet, a waterfall to the southeast, the one the locals called 'Smoke of the Fire', where it cascaded down into the rocky gorges below.
Within mere days of the beginning of the rain, the gorges below Eden were a cataclysm of turbulent water, spray, mud and moving stone. Boulders bigger than a man were tossed down the gorge, smashing into the rock walls, tearing out huge chunks of rock and earth, hammering and pounding as the waters tore their way down river. The spray rose high into the air, and from far off it could easily be mistaken for a plume of smoke, perhaps heralding the end of the world. The rains fell. This year they would continue to fall for a long, long time. The lands far below lay exposed, at the mercy of the onrushing deluge. The legends say the gods had once condemned the world to death by water. It seemed that they had decided to repeat the punishment.
And the rains fell.
At the end of the disaster at Marseille I retreated (more like fled) back to Canada, to lay low and lick my wounds. After almost a year of hiding out from a threat that never actually materialized, I finally realized that the Marseille scrolls had disappeared into a black hole. My world showed no signs whatsoever of coming to an end. The church I'd feared seemed quite happy to ignore me completely, much like a giant ignoring a mosquito. Along with that realization I knew that I had to get back into the world and carry on. It needed to be sooner rather than later, because I was rapidly running out of money. Perhaps my paranoia would settle for the occasional look over my shoulder.
During my self imposed exile, I'd continued my archeological and language studies, more to keep myself occupied than anything else. There's really not much to do when you're living the quiet life in a cabin buried away in the Canadian backwoods. Even over an incredibly slow 14.4 dial-up link, the Internet proved to be my sole lifeline, all that stood between me and a world class case of cabin fever.
I’ve always been good with languages. Born in Quebec, to French Canadian parents, I spoke French at home and English at school. Being Catholic, as most French Canadians were then, the church services always had some sections in Latin, and by the time I was eight I spoke Latin fairly well, certainly better than most of the priests.
I went to high school in a suburb of Montreal called Chomedey, where probably two thirds of the population was Jewish. My high-school was great. Officially an English Protestant school, it took all the standard Christian holidays. However, on Jewish holidays, three quarters of the student body took off to observe the Jewish rituals, so most of us non-Jews took the day off too, as classes were basically nothing more than barely monitored study sessions. Most of my friends were Jewish and it really annoyed me the way they dropped into Hebrew when they wanted to keep a secret from me. By fifteen I was fluent in Hebrew, though it was a year or more after that before my friends finally caught on to the fact. Drove them nuts that a Quebecois kid could keep up with them!
College was Dawson CEGEP, in downtown Montreal. Still lots of Jewish kids, but added to that was a good sprinkling of Arabs and Italians. By the time I completed my two year diploma I had them all down pat, plus a bit of Swahili and German. I found that once I developed ‘the knack’, a weird little ability to flip a mental switch somewhere in my head, I could switch languages in mid-sentence. It seemed the more languages I learned the easier it became to learn another.
While I was hiding in the backwoods I discovered Egyptian. How do you learn to speak a language which has been dead for more than two thousand years? When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, he made Greek the official language. Five hundred years later the Egyptian language was completely dead and forgotten. The last written record we have is a nearly meaningless hieroglyphic inscription on the walls of the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, dated 192 AD.
To make matters worse, both the written language of hieroglyphs and the more script-like hieratics are like Hebrew and Arabic. When written, vowels are never used, only consonants. The word for beauty is ‘nfr’. How it was actually pronounced we’ll probably never know. There are a few hints though. Coptic is a bastard language, verbal Egyptian written down using the Greek alphabet. Greek does use vowels, so some words can be said using a pronunciation rooted in ancient Greek. Trouble is, Coptic is to ancient Egyptian what modern English is to the English spoken by the Angles and Saxons of 500 AD. Languages constantly evolve and change over time, and across a thousand years can become unintelligible to the original tongue.
By general agreement, linguists have decided to insert an ‘e’ as the vowel where it seemed to make sense, so ‘nfr’ became ‘nefer’. It could just as easily have been pronounced ‘nafor’ or 'nofar’. Did I tell you you’re beautiful, or did I just call you a goat? Who really knows?
To make things even worse, a vowel isn't just a single sound. In modern English we have only five vowels, 'a, e, i, o, u'. Simple, right? Five vowels, so five vowel sounds. Wrong! In British English there are over twenty vowel sounds, based on accent and inflections. Add another twenty or so for American English, especially accents coming from the deep south. Add some more for Canadian English, Australian, etc. You can see where this goes. While it's doubtful Egypt ever had so many regional variations in accent, intonation and inflection, they definitely would have had a few. So even if the word was truly spelled 'nofar', there could still have been several different ways of pronouncing it. Coptic Egyptian simply doesn't provide enough reliable clues.
It gave me the best challenge I’d had with a language in years, and in some respects learning Egyptian made my exile pass a lot faster than it would have otherwise. Learning to read hieroglyphs was only the first half of the battle. An Egyptian scribe of the New Kingdoms of Egypt, around 1550 to 1077 BC, was among the most educated of the population, and very well respected. His education started as a child. First he’d have to memorize at least two hundred hieroglyphs, which are basically unique symbols which each had a specific meaning. A junior apprentice would know four hundred and fifty to five hundred symbols, while a senior would know around seven hundred and fifty. A reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the language requires you to know over three thousand symbols. Not only that, but in order to write in Egyptian you had to be half linguist and half artist, as many of the hieroglyphs were fairly detailed pictures. To read aloud I’d have to have half my head in Egyptian, with the other half in Greek or Coptic while my mouth ran in English doing simultaneous two or three-way translations to check that what I was saying actually made sense.
To top it off, Egyptian can be written from left to right, right to left or top to bottom. When carved onto temple walls, hieroglyphs became art, so scribes would sometimes modify a symbol or the direction it should be read to enhance the visual beauty of the carving. Doorways and arches are great, because the same text is often used on both sides, but in mirror image form to enhance the visual beauty.
Once I figured out hieroglyphs I started in on the second half of the battle, hieratics. They're a more script-like and less artistic version of hieroglyphs which are faster to write and use less space on a scroll. It was great, two variations of a long dead language, neither of which anyone knows how to pronounce properly, written in a manner where almost anything goes. I loved it!
By the end of my year in exile, reasonably sure by then that the Church really had absolutely no interest in pursuing or harassing me, I started re-connecting with friends and associates in the real world. It was a friend from University who mentioned a new project starting in Egypt. They were looking for a good linguist and translator, and after a short exchange of emails, a resume and one very long video conference call, I was offered the job. To be honest, I took it because I was, by then, flat broke and needed a job, any job. The challenge of the Egyptian language held my enthusiasm, but the thought of spending months inside a tomb in the desert didn't exactly excite me. My idea of heaven was still southern France. The idea of spending twelve to eighteen months in Egypt, working in the desert at one hundred degrees Fahrenheit or more failed to thrill. Still, I was fascinated with the Egyptian hieroglyphic language, it was a job, and it did sound kind of interesting.
The main problem with a lot of Egyptian history and art is that it’s in Egypt, and while millions of tourists do indeed make the pilgrimage to see the pyramids, they only see a very small sliver of the incredible history that is Egypt. Many more millions never make the trip, especially since the democratic uprising of 2011, the one they called the Arab Spring, with the resulting years of turmoil and violence. For most, their only view of Egypt is from National Geographic TV specials and perhaps the occasional local museum display. So, some bright lad came up with the idea of creating a virtual tomb, and then taking the entire tomb on tour. In creating the virtual tomb, the project directors had decided to have a completely fresh translation made of all the hieroglyphs found inside the tomb, which is where I came in. They seemed to have money, as the salary was very good and the plane ticket they sent me, Montreal to Luxor, was first class all the way. I packed my bags and headed east, and so walked blindly and innocently into a nightmare beyond my wildest imaginings.
The Middle East in general, and Egypt specifically, probably has the oldest continuous recorded history on the planet. The oldest is probably the civilization of Sumeria, which existed in Mesopotamia, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as long ago as 5300 BC. Archeologists have recently found even older ruins in Turkey, dating to somewhere between 9000 and 10000 BC, called Gobekli Tepe, but so far, no sign of writing has been found there. Sumeria on the other hand possessed a written language which they carved into clay tablets. They had gods and goddesses, heroes and legends and they recorded their tales in clay. They built great ziggurats, which are essentially step pyramids, to their gods. Detailed accounts of both their history and their legendary tales have been found, and, miraculously, translated. The mythical tales are so similar to those of the Bible and other holy books, including Adam and Eve, Eden, the flood and others, that I suspect that the later cultures, including the Hebrew priests, simply lifted the tales from Sumeria and claimed them as their own. The biblical tale of Noah is indistinguishable from the Sumerian tale of Utnapishtim, the only difference being that Utnapishtim sailed around 4000 BC, two thousand years before the best guesstimates for Noah's flood.
However, the Sumerian civilization has left only minor traces behind, as have most of the other ancient cultures. Gobekli Tepe left a few huge stone constructions, but only a few pictorial images, providing no written record. No libraries, no writings, no history. Egypt, on the other hand, has left thousands of monuments, temples, tombs and pyramids, almost all of them covered in detailed writings, all undeniable proof of their existence, power and magnificence. Only one small problem exists. Egypt was, for thousands of years, her own worst enemy. No sooner was a pharaoh committed to his or her tomb, surrounded by their magnificent burial offerings, than Egyptian tomb robbers appeared, eager to relieve the dead of all their treasures.
For thousands of years, Egyptians built tombs for their pharaohs and their rich elites, ranging from simple mastabas to massive, million ton pyramids, and everything in between. And for thousands of years, tomb robbers helped themselves to the burial gifts.
A mastaba is basically a two story house of two to three rooms, dug down into the bedrock and covered with a low square building. The dead were placed in the burial chamber below, and descendents could make offerings to their ancestors in a shine room in the building above. A ladder and a lack of fear of the dead was all the robbers required.
As time passed, the mastabas got bigger, culminating around 2650 BC with Djoser’s Step Pyramid. His head vizier, Imhotep, designed it, making it both deeper and taller than a regular mastaba. The burial chamber was dug deeper than ever before and the upper building constructed higher and grander than ever before. Instead of a single square building above, Imhotep created a series of layers, each sitting atop the one below, going up in steps like a wedding cake. Thus the very first pyramid, called Djoser's Step Pyramid, was built. No-one knows if it provided any greater deterrent to robbers, but subsequent Pharaohs, each seeking to outdo his predecessor, built ever bigger and grander than the one before.
The downside was that all the tomb robbers now had these huge sign-posts stating ‘here there be treasure, come and get it’. All they had to do was solve the maze of the pyramid to reach the treasure rooms. In spite of horrific punishments if caught, most tombs were pillaged within a few years of being sealed. In many cases it was the tomb builders themselves who did the pillaging, as the artisans were by no means rich.
Finally the pharaohs wised up and started to hide their tombs, thus creating the Valley of Kings, a rocky valley filled with tunnels hand carved deep into solid bedrock, accessible from only a single small entrance. Sadly, even this failed to stop the tomb-robbers, as often the workers hired to dig the tombs simply came back later to collect the funeral treasures. These thefts became such a problem that at one point a high priest collected up many of the royal mummies and secretly reburied them in a tomb which had already been stripped clean. The treasures were gone but at least the eternal bodies of the pharaohs were safe.
So, for thousands of years, Egypt spent incredible amounts of time, effort and money, interring their greatest treasures, and then digging them up again. Happily for archeologists, not all the treasures were portable. The temples and tombs were themselves works of art and literature. In most cases the tomb walls were covered in pictures, texts, statues and carvings. Sarcophaguses and coffins were hand carved with scenes of the life to come in all its glory. Mona Lisa’s by the score, buried in buildings of stone and rock. For the most part, the buildings themselves were not touched by the ancient grave robbers. After all, how would you steal a 20 ton statue, and who could you sell it to? So for thousands of years, Egypt’s art works lay beneath the blowing sands, where the heat, dryness and sand served to protect them. That is, until the 19th century, when Europeans discovered ancient Egypt and went collectively mad. With all that rattling around my mind I stepped off the plane and into a solid wall of early morning heat and humidity.
Dr. Hamilton Mendes was waiting just across from the customs desk. A handsome older man, mid fifties perhaps, with thinning salt and pepper hair. He stood with a military posture, but the smile on his tanned faced was friendly and welcoming.
"Welcome to Egypt, Ms. DeNord. I'm Hamilton, the project team leader. Let's collect your bags and I'll take you over to your hotel. We can drop the bags there and then, if you're up to it today, I'll take you out to the worksite."
"Hi, Hamilton, I'm Jeanne and I'm definitely up to stretching my legs. I've been sitting in planes and boarding lounges for far too long."
And with that my new project began.