Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
Architects in the leading group directed by Hemiunu worked overtime. The plan seemed ever more complex to them, and each of them imagined that, when he finally managed to comprehend it in its entirety, his brain would burst from the pressure. What contributed above all to the mental torture was that everything hung together, A minor correction to the height or the base dimension led to an infinite number of other changes. Items that were apparently distinct from the overall plan—the decoy galleries, the air vents, the sliding doors that gave onto nothing, the secret entrances that unfortunately led to blank walls, the false escape routes, the pressure on the gallery that led to the funereal chamber, the gradient, the sinkholes, the axis, the number of stones, the horror of the center, not one of these things could be conceived in isolation. The famous phrase of the father of the pyramids, Imhotep, “The Pyramid is One” (Hemiunu had reminded them of it at their first meeting), remained lodged in their minds like a driven wedge.
Each time they recalled it, Imhotep’s pronouncement seemed ever more appropriate, but instead of feeling relief, they were ever more dejected. It was a truth that bared itself progressively day by day, revealing itself, in all its blinding obviousness, as a curse falling upon them.
The pyramid could only be what it was, that is to say, total. If one corner were imperfect, it would crack or begin to subside somewhere else. So, whether in suffering or in joy, you could only dwell in it by becoming part of the whole.
They now felt that the pyramid had broken free of their calculations. When they first heard it described as “divine,” they had difficulty in hiding their smiles. However, they were now convinced that it concealed some other mystery. They were obsessed with the worry that the mystery might be “the secret of the center,” they lost sleep over it, they wore a gloomy countenance, but, in their heart of hearts, they took pride in the extreme complication of their fate, until, one day, something unheard of occurred: though the pyramid only existed on papyrus and not a single stone had been cut for it nor even the quarries selected, yet the Theban whip factories, without waiting for orders from the State, had already doubled their rate of production!
As chariots heavily laden with their heaps of whips slowly approached the gates of Memphis, people expected the factory owners to be punished for spreading panic. But not a bit: as people soon learned, the owners received not a punishment but a letter from the highest authorities congratulating them on their foresight and their understanding of current needs.
The architects in the leading group grew even more downcast. The idea that the pyramid could have been conceived outside of their circle, and even before their drawings were complete, was a terrible blow.
Meanwhile, foreign ambassadors, feigning indifference, had communicated the news to their capitals, each in his own way. They changed their ciphers each season, so that the spies disguised as customs officials found it hard to discern whether the vases full of garlic, the stuffed sparrow hawks, or the singlets embroidered with forks and tridents that the Phoenician ambassador was allegedly sending to his mistress in Byblos were effectively vases, garlic bulbs, and women’s underwear, or just the puzzle pieces of some coded report.
Only one of the ambassadors, the emissary from the land of the Canaanites, continued to send his messages in the ancient manner, in signs carved on stone tablets. The others, and especially those from Crete and Libya, and more recently the Trojan ambassador, used ever more diabolical devices. The envoys from the Greek and Illyrian peoples who had just settled in large numbers in the Pelasgian lands were still too backward to have a clear idea of what a report, not to mention a secret report, should be; they found all these devices bewildering, had a permanent headache from them, and sighed. What misfortune it is to be so ignorant!
The one most hated by the secret police was, as always, the Sumerian ambassador Suppiluliuma. Not long before, a system of evil signs had been discovered in his country that was called “writing.” Almost indistinguishable lines and dots were traced on clay tablets, looking like the marks of crows’ feet; apparently these lines and dots had the power to mummify the thoughts of men, just as bodies could be embalmed, And as if that were not quite enough, these tablets were baked in ovens and then sent from one to another as messages. You can imagine what happens in their capital, the Egyptian ambassador gloated when home on leave. All day long chariots full of clay tablets trundle around from one office to another. A letter or a report takes two or three chariots. Street porters unload them, and when perchance a tablet is broken, then there’s a riot! Then other men carry the message to the minister’s office. A whole half-day of unloading in dust and muddle. Upon my word, the country is off its rockers!
The things that could be heard said in the Foreign Ministry reached such a pitch that Cheops himself had to rebuke his officials. Instead of grinning at their neighbors, they would be better employed deciphering the meanings of these signs.
From that day on a policeman was on duty outside the Sumerian embassy. Barely did the spy see wisps of smoke rising above the building than he ran to give the alarm: A report! Among the secret policemen there was no doubt that the message had something to do with the pyramid; but when they thought that these devilish signs had nothing to do with sacrosanct Egyptian hieroglyphs, then their exasperation stuck in their gullets. The Canaanite ambassador, on the other hand, deserved to be kissed on the forehead. He was a bit of a plodder, to be sure, like all those desert people,, but he did not lower himself to such madness. He hammered on stone, bang-bang, like an idiot, all week long, he could be heard as far away as the Foreign Ministry, but he did not demean himself with garlic, women’s panties, or oven-baked clay.
It was henceforth obvious that news of the pyramid’s construction had spread faster than could easily be imagined, not only throughout the two Egypts but also in neighboring lands. The event was judged to be of universal importance, and the first reports from Egyptian plenipotentiaries revealed that the information had everywhere caused great excitement, Cheops himself read and reread these messages many times over. What had surprised him at first, namely the approval of the pyramid plan by Egypt’s very enemies, now seemed, after the explanations given him by Hemiunu and especially by Djedi the magician, perfectly logical. To be sure, Egypt was disliked, and the weakening of the State would be welcomed; nonetheless, an Egypt without pyramids, an
kingdom (as Egypt’s enemies called it among themselves) would have struck them, at all events, as even more redoubtable. They feared that a slackening of the State, possibly followed by a rebellion might have repercussions for them, as had occurred seventy years earlier, when, before they could rejoice at the weakening of the Pharaoh, the hurricane that had swept their neighbor away had almost carried them off as well.
The magician was of the view that, instead of subscribing to the arguments of the senile functionaries in the Foreign Ministry, Cheops should cease to disparage the canals of Mesopotamia, Despite being made of water and not at all imposing, he insisted, they were of the same essence as Egyptian stone. Digging them required no less suffering than the building of solid monuments. The exhaustion and stupor that they engendered were of the same order.
Other reports revealed that everywhere in Egypt people were talking only of the pyramid and that each individual and each event was systematically thought of in its relation to the great work. Some women remained indifferent to these rumors, believing they were not concerned, until one fine morning they discovered that their husband, their lover, or all their children of school age bar none had to leave for the Abusir quarries—and then you heard tears, or shouts of joy.
It was becoming ever clearer that the claim that it would take a good ten years to build the roads needed for the construction of the pyramid had a double meaning. In fact, the construction of the access routes, above and beyond the actual work, also involved preparing people for the great work, eliminating all their uncertainties, and, above all, bringing them to renounce their previous way of life. And it would be just as hard to arouse enthusiasm and to overcome lassitude, slander, and sabotage.
All were now quite convinced that despite the absence of any trace of the dust that normally accompanies building work, the pyramid had germinated and already grown strong roots. As elusive as a chimera, its premature ghost stalked the land and weighed on the spirit as oppressively as any block of masonry. The pyramid had sent its ghost as a sign, as did all great events, and there were many who impatiently awaited the start of the works in order to escape from this nightmarish apparition.
The leading group of architects now knew that thousands of people who had never drawn the merest sketch were thinking of the pyramid in the same feverish state as they were. After supper, at friends’ houses, they no longer felt quite so proud, nor were they as much the center of everyone’s attention as they had been, “What’s the pressure of masonry you keep on about?” a young painter asked one day of one of the architects, at a little birthday reception, “If you knew what pressure I feel in my stomach . . . A thousand times harder to bear than the one you alluded to . . .” “But it’s the same one!” someone else interjected, “Don’t you understand? It’s the same weight!”
As if to trace out the pyramid’s invisible plumb lines, inspectors had set off for the four corners of Egypt, Quarries had to be selected before routes could be laid down for the stone to reach the construction site. Fast horse-drawn coaches left Memphis before dawn. Some traveled toward the old seams of Saqqara and Abusir, others to the Sinai desert, where basalt and malachite were to be found. But most of them hastened toward the south, where the most famous quarries were situated. They stopped at Illak and El Bersheh, carried on along the royal road toward Harnoub and Karnak, branched east in the direction of Thebes and Hermonthis, wheeled back toward the west to get to Luxor, then went on down like the wind, skirting Aswan, and, white with dust, rushed headlong, as if’ they were seeking the world’s end, far, far away, to Gebel Barkal, and farther still, toward the banks of the fifth cataract, to the hamlet that was reputed to be the gateway of hell.
Cheops’s orders were categorical: nothing was to be spared for his pyramid, and the stones and basalt were to be brought, if necessary, from the farthest regions.
Day by day the quarry map acquired a great variety of new symbols. All quarries were marked on it: old ones sung by poets in hymns comparing them to mothers, but now barren; disused ones that could be reopened; undug ones that still aroused the inspectors’ imagination. In conversation, and sometimes in their notes and on their maps, they designated these different sites with words and expressions of a feminine kind. As their tours of duty lengthened, so their longing for the body of a woman and the intensity of their desires increased. It was sometimes even reflected in their reports: a quarry would be described as fertile, chubby, well-rounded—or, on the contrary, as sterile, or as having aborted twice already. To such an extent that, had they not first been corrected by the eunuch Toutou, Cheops might have concluded that the reports came to him not from a squad of inspectors but direct from the fleshpots of Luxor.
Cheops kept a close eye on the progress of the operation. Once a week he would visit the room in the palace that had been set aside for the main architects. On the walls there were dozens of papyri bearing all sorts of signs, arrows, and calculations that Hemiunu explained to him in a whisper. The Pharaoh did not breathe a word; everyone had the impression that he was in a hurry for one thing only: to leave.
On one occasion, however, on the day when the model was first exhibited, he did stay a little longer. His eyes filled with a cold gleam. This smooth object of soft limestone presented its white silhouette, while the pyramid itself was still scattered and disseminated throughout Egypt. It was yet but a breath, a ghost, a black haze that would expand to infinite size like the death-rattle of a djinn. Would they manage to contain it, or would it, like a vapor, escape their grasp?
Cheops had a headache. He was worried. Something kept on slipping his mind, returning, then evaporating once more. He could not grasp the exact relationship of that stubby piece of chalk to the pyramid that only existed in anyone’s mind in the state of a vapor, and especially with the third pyramid, the real one, the one that remained to be built. Sometimes the first seemed to him to be sliding between the other two, sometimes it seemed to be darting around in front and behind them like a dybbuk.
Hemiunu went on talking to him. He explained why he had chosen a slope of fifty-two degrees rather than one of forty-five. He invoked the legendary name of Imhotep, the first pyramid builder, provided information about the new pyramid’s orientation, which had been fixed by the position of the stars, but Cheops’s mind was elsewhere. He got a better grip on himself when the High Priest used a piece of a plank to show on the model how the stones would be raised. “That’s just what I wanted to ask,” said Cheops. “At such heights ...” “No problem, Majesty,” the architect replied. “You see this wooden scaffolding? We shall build four like that, one for each slope. The stones and the granite blocks that serve to obstruct the entrances will all be hauled up the ramp by means of ropes.”
He propped the piece of wood against the model It would lean on the pyramid, like that, there you are. On the lower steps the gradient of the ramp would be very gentle. Then as the height increased the slope would get steeper, which would make it harder to raise the stones. To keep it manageable, in other words to keep the angle of slope at less than twelve degrees, the ramp would be progressively extended in length. That’s how, like this ...
The architect removed the first ramp and put a second, longer one in place. “You see. Majesty, this one reaches the pyramid at mid-height, but the gradient is just about the same.” Cheops nodded his head to indicate that he had understood, “And so we shall go on, to the summit,” the architect continued, moving into place a third and much longer piece of wood. “Now the pyramid looks like a comet,” Cheops said, and for the first time he smiled.