The Festival of the Nile
The first light of dawn peered over the eastern horizon that morning in the month of Bashans, more than four thousand years ago. The high priest of the temple of the god Sothis gazed at the vast expanse of sky with tired eyes, for he had not slept the whole night.
Finding the object of his surveillance, his eyes lit upon Sirius, the auspicious star, its light twinkling in the heart of the firmament. His face glowed with jubilation and his heart quivered with joy. He prostrated himself on the hallowed floor of the temple and gave thanks, crying out at the top of his voice that the image of the god Sothis had appeared in the heavens, announcing to the inhabitants of the valley the glad tidings of the sacred River Nile's inundation. It was a message from His merciful and compassionate hands. The beautiful voice of the high priest woke the sleeping populace and they rose joyfully from their beds. They turned their faces to the sky until their eyes fixed upon the sacred star, and they repeated the incantation of the priest, their hearts awash with gratitude and delight. They left their houses and hurried to the bank of the Nile to witness the first ripples, bearers of bounty and good fortune. The voice of the priest of Sothis resounded through Egypt's still air, announcing the good news to the South: "Come celebrate the holy festival of the Nile!" And they tied up their belongings and set off, great and humble alike, from Thebes and Memphis, Harmunet and Sout and Khamunu, all heading for the capital Abu, in chariots speeding down the valley and boats plowing the billows.
Abu was the capital of Egypt. Its lofty structures were set upon huge slabs of granite, and the sand dunes in between them, long since tamed by the wondrous silt of the Nile, were awash with greenness and fertility. Acacia and doum trees grew there, as well as date palms and mulberries, and the fields were planted with herbs and vegetables and clover. There were vines in abundance and pastures and gardens watered by bubbling streams where flocks grazed. Pigeons and doves circled in the sky. The scent of flowers drifted on the fresh breeze and the chirping of nightingales mingled harmoniously with the songs of myriad birds.
In only a few days, Abu and its two islands, Biga and Bilaq, were packed with visitors. Houses filled up with guests and tents crowded the public squares. Throngs of people moved through the streets and gathered around the conjurers, singers, and dancers. A multitude of traders hawked their wares in the markets and the fronts of houses were decorated with banners and olive branches. The people's eyes were dazzled by the groups of royal guards from the island of Bilaq with their ornate uniforms and long swords. Bands of pious believers hastened to the temples of Sothis and the Nile, making vows and giving offerings. The songs of the minstrels mixed with the drunken cries of the revelers as a mood of unbridled joy and raucous entertainment pervaded the normally composed atmosphere of Abu.
Finally the day of the festival arrived. Everyone made their way to one place, the long road stretching between Pharaoh's palace and the hill upon which stood the temple of the Nile. The air was hot from the excitement in their breath and the earth strained under their weight. Many despaired of ever finding a place on land and went down to the boats and set sail to the temple hill, singing Nile songs to the accompaniment of flutes and lyres, and dancing to the beat of drums.
Soldiers lined the edges of the great road lances at the ready. At equal distances apart, life-size statues of the kings of the Sixth Dynasty had been erected, Pharaoh's father and forefathers. Those nearest to the front could see the pharaohs: Userkara, Teti I, Pepi I, Mohtemsawef I, and Pepi II.
The clamor of voices filled the air, each one impossible to distinguish, like the waves on a raging ocean, leaving no trace except an awesome, all-encompassing uproar. Now and then, however, an especially powerful voice would stand out, crying: "Glory be to Sothis who has brought us glad tidings!" or "Glory be to the sacred Nile god who brings life and fertility to our land!" And here and there voices requested the wines of Maryut and the meads of Abu, calling for merriment and forgetfulness.
One group of spectators stood together, chatting earnestly among themselves, indications of affluence and nobility showing upon their faces. One of them raised his eyebrows in wonder and contemplation, and said, "How many pharaohs have looked down upon this multitude and beheld this great day? Then they all passed away as if they had never existed, and yet in their day, how those pharaohs filled the eyes and hearts of their people."
"Yes," said another. "They have gone, just as we all will go, and there they will rule a world more glorious than this one. Look at the position I hold. How many will hold it in future generations, and relive the hopes and joys that flutter in our breasts at this moment? I wonder if they will talk about us as we are talking about them?"
"Surely there must be more to us than a simple mention by future generations? If only there was no death."
"Could this valley ever be wide enough to accommodate all those generations that have passed away? Death is as natural as life. What is the value of eternity as long as we eat our fill after going hungry, grow old after being young, and know despair after joy?"
"How do you think they live in the world of Osiris?"
"Wait, and you will know soon enough."
Another one said, "This is the first time the gods have granted me the pleasure of seeing Pharaoh."
"I have seen him before," his friend remarked, "on the day of the great coronation, some months ago in this very spot."
"Look at the statues of his mighty ancestors."
"You'll see that he greatly resembles his grandfather Mohtemsawef I."
"How handsome he is!"
"Indeed, indeed. Pharaoh is a beautiful young man. There is none like him in his imposing height and his unmistakable comeliness."
"I wonder what legacy he will bequeath?" asked one of the group. "Will it be obelisks and temples, or memories of conquest in the north and south?"
"If my intuition serves me right I suspect it will be the latter."
"He is a most courageous young man."
The other shook his head cautiously: "It is said that his youth is headstrong, and that His Majesty is possessed of violent whims, is fond of romance, enjoys extravagance and luxury, and is as rash and impetuous as a raging storm."
The one listening laughed quietly and whispered, "And what is so surprising about that? Are not most Egyptians fond of romance and enjoy extravagance and luxury? Why should Pharaoh be any different?"
"Lower your voice, man. You know nothing about the matter. Did you not know that he clashed with the men of the priesthood from the first day he ascended to the throne? He wants money to spend on constructing palaces and planting gardens while the priests are demanding the allotted share of the gods and the temples in full. The young king's predecessors bestowed influence and wealth upon the priesthood, but he eyes it all greedily."
"It is truly regrettable that the king should begin his reign in confrontation."
"Indeed. And do not forget that Khnumhotep, the prime minister and high priest, is a man of iron will and most intractable. And then there is the high priest of Memphis, that illustrious city whose shining star has begun to wane under the rule of this glorious dynasty."
The man was alarmed at the news, which had not found his ears before, and he said, "Then let us pray that the gods will grant men wisdom, patience, and forethought."
"Amen, amen," said the others with heartfelt sincerity.
One of the spectators turned toward the Nile and prodded his companion in the elbow, saying, "Look at the river, my friend. Whose beautiful boat is that coming from the island of Biga? It is like the sun rising over the eastern horizon."
His friend craned his neck to see the river and saw a wonderful barge, not one of the large ones, but neither too small, green in color like a verdant island floating on the water. From a distance, its cabin seemed high, though it was not possible to make out who was inside. At the top of its mast was a huge billowing sail and the oars on either side moved in solemn harmony, pulled by hundreds of arms.
The man wondered for a moment, then said, "Perhaps it belongs to one of the wealthy men of Biga."
A man standing nearby was listening to their conversation, and looking at them, shook his head. "I would wager that you two gentlemen are guests here," he said.
The two men laughed and one of them said, "You would be right to do so, my dear sir. We are from Thebes. Two of the many thousands who have answered the call of the illustrious festival and hastened to the capital from all nations. Could that majestic barge belong to one of your notable citizens?"
The man smiled mysteriously and shook his finger at them in warning as he said, "Be in good spirits, my dear gentlemen. The boat does not belong to a man but rather to a woman. Indeed, it is the ship of a beautiful courtesan whom the people of Abu and its two islands Biga and Bilaq know well."
"And who, pray, is this beautiful woman?"
"Rhadopis, Rhadopis the enchantress and seductress, queen of all hearts and passions."
The man pointed to the island of Biga and continued: "She lives over there in her enchanting white palace. That is where her lovers and admirers head to compete for her affections and to stimulate the flow of her compassion. You may be lucky enough to see her, may the gods protect your hearts from harm."
The eyes of the two men, and many others in the crowd, turned once again toward the boat, their faces filled with curiosity, as the barge slowly neared the shore and the skiffs and fishing boats scrambled to make way for it. As the barge inched forward, it gradually disappeared behind the hill on which the temple of the Nile stood, the bow passing first out of sight, then the cabin. When at last it came to rest at the wharf, all that could be seen of it was the top of the mast and part of the billowing sail that surged in the breeze like a banner of love that offers shade to hearts and souls.
A brief moment passed and then four Nubians, coming from the shore, strode into view and proceeded to open a way through the heaving throng of people. Following close behind came four others carrying on their shoulders a sumptuous palanquin, the like of which only princes and nobles possess. In it was a young woman of ravishing beauty, reclining on pillows, her tender-skinned arm leaning upon a cushion. In her right hand she held a fan of ostrich feathers, and in her eyes, gazing proudly at the distant horizon, a sleepy, dreamlike look shimmered, fit to pierce all creatures to the quick.
The small procession edged slowly forward, eyes transfixed upon it from all quarters, until at length it reached the front row of spectators. There the woman leaned forward a little with a neck like a gazelle, and from her rosy lips sprang such words the like of which the soul desires. The slaves drew to a halt and stood motionless in their places like bronze statues. The woman resumed her former posture and was lost once again in her dreams as she waited for Pharaoh's procession which, without a doubt, she had come to see.
Only her top half could be seen. Those fortunate enough to be near her caught glimpses of her jet-black hair adorned with threads of shining silk as it fell about the radiant orb of her face and cascaded onto her shoulders in a halo of night, as though it were a divine crown. Her cheeks were like fresh roses and her delicate mouth was parted slightly to reveal teeth like jasmine petals in the sunlight set in a ring of cloves. Her dark, deep, heavy-lidded eyes had a glint in them that knew love as the creation knows its creator. Never before had a face been seen in which such beauty had chosen to take up lasting abode.
The sight of her had everyone enthralled and stirred the waning hearts of tired old men. Fiery looks rained down on her from all directions, so hot they would have melted slate had they encountered it on their way. Sparks of loathing flew from the women's eyes, and in whispers the discussion went from mouth to mouth among those standing around her: "What an enchanting and seductive woman she is."
"Rhadopis. They call her the mistress of the island."
"Her beauty is overpowering. No heart can resist it."
"It brings only despair to him who beholds it."
"You are right. No sooner had I set eyes upon her than an untameable stirring arose in my breast. I was weighed down by the burdens of an oppressive tyranny, and feeling a devilish rebellion, my heart turned and shunned what was before me, and I was overcome by disappointment and unending shame."
"That is most regrettable. For I see her as a paragon of joy well worthy of worship."
"She is a calamitous evil."
"We are too weak to handle such ravishing beauty."
"Lord have mercy on her lovers!"
"Do you not know that her lovers are the cream of the men of the kingdom?"
"To love her is an obligation upon the notables of the upper classes, as though it were a patriotic duty."
"Her white palace was built by the brilliant architect Heni."
"And Ani, governor of the island of Biga, furnished it with works of art from Memphis and Thebes."
"And Henfer, the master sculptor, carved its statues and adorned its walls."
"Indeed he did, and General Tahu, commander of Pharaoh's guard, gave some of his priceless pieces."
"If all of them are competing for her affections, then who is the lucky man she will choose for herself?"
"Do you think you'll find a lucky man in this unfortunate city?"
"I do not think that woman will ever fall in love."
"How do you know? Maybe she will fall in love with a slave or an animal."
"Never. The strength of her beauty is colossal, and what need does strength have of love?"
Copyright © 2005 by Naguib Mahfouz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.