My ancestors came into Egypt from the south as the rainforests dwindled. We came to the people of the valley and traded with them. We established ourselves in the delta by marrying into the priestly families (we later palmed this off as a conquest to impress the neighbours). We sailed upriver to our old country and lorded it over the natives, who had the good grace to look impressed. We identified ourselves with the sun, which the Egyptians worshiped and credited with bringing the harvest on which they relied. With time, some of the peasants came to believe – or claimed to believe – this poetic tradition that gave us license to bully them.
My family divided up the villages of the two lands between themselves. The clans grew quite feisty and would often scuffle together, particularly as the role of king became a more lucrative one. The thing was that the old men couldn’t rid themselves of the local religion, on which they’d based their legitimacy, and the Egyptian shamans and soothsayers (or rather their mothers, who were the real power in the land) were bastards for diplomacy and backstabbing. At first they were wont to rebel against us and lead their poorly equipped people in swiftly-finished uprisings, but we couldn’t get rid of them.
At last, my wily old clansman Djoser did a deal with Imhotep, an uppity headman of the old Egyptian stock, that they would rule over Egypt together, church and state unified, so long as the priest respected the godhead of the king and used his magic in support of the state. So it was, and so it continued to be up until my day: the king would rule and look good, and the priest would justify the situation and enjoy his royal gifts of dancing-girls and bullion.
It was my father Sneferu who, as far as I know, started the practice of bumping kings off to replace them, almost certainly at the instigation of a priest. Old Huni was a genial sort, and I can picture the peeved look in his eye as the old man ran him through with a sickle, shouting some nonsense about Ra.
It was religion that really got to Sneferu. It was all very well for kings to exploit the beliefs of the natives, but with my Dad you could tell he almost believed in it himself. It was the priest Rahotep who put him up to it, incited him to kill Huni and take the throne in the name of the sun-god and slavery. He had a mania for priestly magic, my Dad, and he diverted much of the workforce into absurd building projects my family will likely never live down.
When I was a boy I was sitting on a rock minding my own business, when my brother comes up and offers to take me for a walk on the edge of the desert, and show me the place where the sun-god most likes to reside. Well, I wasn’t up to much, so I agreed, and we took some royal jackals with us and headed up into the hills in search of adventure. It was the brush country between the green Nile valley and the withering desert, and I could see what my brother meant about the sun-god’s favourite retreat, although it was also popular with dusty lizards and vultures.
I was ambling dreamily along the high road when an alarming sight struck me. My brother, having drawn a bronze dagger from his loincloth, was coming at me, his left hand reaching for my throat and waving the dagger in his right. I was the favoured son, by the by, and of course he had taken it into his head to wipe me out of the succession. I felt a gulp in my throat, and thought to myself: “well, Khufu, you’re for it now, and all because you bought that line about the sun-god’s favourite place – no more sunshine for you now,” but as this inanity streamed through my consciousness something else curious happened: my hand, which was hardly under my control for terror, grasped my brother by the wrist and my feet, hardly dextrous, managed to kick his own out from underneath him, and he collapsed, his grip on the dagger loosening. Seizing the opportunity, I took it from him and stabbed the traitor in his throat.
“Go tell the god of the underworld Khufu says hello,” I should have said, but didn’t, instead gurgling and trembling as my brother did much the same, exsanguinating upon the sand. I shook my head at the vultures, which were already descending, as the jackals licked up my brother’s blood, and turned back towards the valley.
Coming to the royal encampment, I went irately to see my father, but he was predisposed with the harem, and it took some time before I could get to him. Instead, I bothered the priest Rahotep, because I half-suspected that he might have had a hand in my brother’s scheming, but he came over very amicably with me – I was certainly the favoured son – and, putting his arm around me, promised to explain some of his mathematical secrets, effectively initiating me into the caste of priests.
Well, Egyptian kings are not usually given such privileges – they’re not usually interested in them – but I was mollified enough not to gut the old bastard on the spot. At last, I had an audience with my father. I told him what had happened, and that I was going to the village of my mother until somebody could convince me that I wasn’t on the top of the royal deathlist, and that if I saw any royal slave coming my way I would kill him or run a mile into the desert, whichever was easiest.
Sneferu narrowed his eyes at me, knowing well he could have me killed on the spot if he wanted to, but still wary of the bloodstained dagger in my hand. He sighed.
“My boy,” he said, in that phony-booming voice he was used to using, “you’re in no danger from me. When I have parked my barque at the landing stage of the next world, you shall be lord of Egypt after me. I swear this on my divinity.”
“I don’t put much store in that,” I said, and you could see him frowning – self-righteous imbecile, but I believed him. Nonetheless, I kept a weather-eye open from that day forth, as you can imagine.
Sneferu died. I had nothing to do with it, I promise: sometimes, kings just die – even in Egypt. I inherited the two lands. They were in disarray. Pyramids all over the place and the people exhausted from overwork. I could see there was much I would have to do to put the kingdom back together. I raided down south in the land of Kush: practically emptied the place. Some begged for leniency since they had the gall to remember I was from those parts ancestrally speaking, and I had their tongues cut out for mentioning it.
I took much the same attitude with my people whenever they tried any snidery. I wasn’t going to be henpecked by the Egyptians, whether I was their god or not – well, precisely because I was their god, I suppose. And, since they were now good for nothing else, I set them about building a pyramid, an enormous one that pleased Rahotep no end.
Yes, there was no getting rid of him. Say what you like but he was a handy man in a pinch, and all the other priests were under his spell, and the Nile never failed to flood, you can take that from me. For another thing, he had made sure that none of his underlings knew the half of what he did, and if he died then so did mathematics.
He let me know a curious thing once; that old Imhotep, from whom he or his information descended, had got most of his knowledge from the women of his tribe – that’s why I said the priests derived their power from their mothers, because without the science what power would they have had? Rahotep was drunk at the time on purple mead otherwise I doubt he’d have told me.
Anyway, you have to admit there’s something pleasing about a straight line, and the effect we achieved with my pyramid was a sight to behold. I got it into my head that I should like to be buried beneath it, and Rahotep agreed that it would likely speed up my resurrection, although I’m not sure he wasn’t laughing at me, the old crook. If you’re reading this now, I’m assuming it’s because you’ve managed to decipher Kushite hieratic buried under layers of mud, which I can only assume you chipped away with greedy fingernails as you robbed my tomb. May you enjoy the gold while you can and the curses for all eternity, soulless ones!
Well, I got on more and more friendly terms with Rahotep, until he conceded that he had told me more or less everything he knew, at which point I killed him and enslaved his tribe. I should have known nothing good would come of this – you don’t double cross a shaman when it’s possible that he sees it coming – but at least I was now the sole power in Egypt.