Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
and dreams, now appeared a forbidden fruit, (Thereafter for a long period the supervisors, when whipping prisoners, would gloat: “So, you thought we’d gone back to the days of ninety-five and ninety-six? So take that! and that!”) Upon which, the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-seventh stone was delivered: heavy, unyielding, identical to the thousands and thousands of other stones that had been placed at the foot of the pyramid, this stone was the symbol of order restored, and caused a sigh of relief among the supervisors and foremen. The hours and the days merged into the hours and the days of yore, and the deaths, the scorpion stings, the outbreaks of dementia or sunstroke, and even the names of the victims were almost indistinguishable. The eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-eighth stone, from the Saqqara quarry, caused more or less the same number of deaths and mutilations as the previous stone. The day before it was hauled up into place, a snake coiled up in a ball had slept on it, but no one could say whether that should be considered a good or bad omen, since no one had any kind of perspective any more. Like its predecessors the stone was maneuvered into its place while a cloud of sand on the horizon foretold the arrival of another stone, the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-ninth, and then came more, and so on, without relief, unto the end of the ages, O heaven!
was taking longer than expected, A monstrous cloud of dust hung over the huge plateau where, day after day, several hundred thousand men scurried about like ants. It could be seen tens of miles away. In far-lung villages people who turned their heads unthinkingly toward it every morning would not have been at all surprised if they had been told that the site was partly situated in the sky.
Pyramids had been built in the past, but there was no memory of any having created such stupor and weariness. Exhaustion, the terror of execution and the fear of being sent to the quarries were not the sole causes of despair, An ill wind blew over the whole land. Everything was awry, and good could no longer be told from evil. Some people said that Egypt was under a curse. What was more, the pyramid that was supposed to ennoble mankind had made Egyptians worse than they had ever been before.
A very few held the pyramid responsible for its own ills, A tomb of such outlandish proportions in the very middle of the country was bound to attract misfortune, they whispered, Furthermore it was an insane burial place, the grave was not at the bottom, like in any other tomb, but in the air—in a word, it was an upside-down tomb. No use at all To be sure. Re had put up with the mastabas and the previous pyramids as much as he could, in the hope that the Egyptians would eventually put a halt to their lunatic habit and bury their dead in the ground, like all other folk, but he had finally come to the conclusion that, far from giving up their tradition, they were forever increasing the height of their graves, and so had decided to intervene.
This last feature, the height of the funerary monument, was precisely what was considered to be the root of all misfortunes by some of those who still wished the building of the pyramid to continue.
Its height was truly fearsome: three times greater than the average pyramid. Even when it was only halfway up it made people dizzy just to look at it. Imagine what they felt later on! Some people insisted that when it got to three hundred cubits, and even more, when it reached its final height of four hundred and fifty, you might well wonder what would happen!
In the temples priests tried to calm people’s spirits. Their imposing voices boomed through the smoke rising from the sacrifices: “Do not heed foolish and mischievous chatter! The pyramid will make us stronger and happier! It will help heaven and earth to reach a better understanding!”
Foreign missions headed by ambassadors took turns to visit the site. They were all struck dumb as they got out of their carriages; some knelt on the ground. The whole world’s eyes were on Egypt, for what that country was achieving was the greatest wonder on earth. That was more or less the gist of the comments they made.
A delegation of Greeks from Crete, backward as they were, were the only ones who could make no sense of the building’s proportions. At first sight they took the unfinished construction for a labyrinth, since their brains were unable to encompass a tomb so tall and so convoluted. It was later said that an Egyptian delegation summoned by them had paid them back in like coin, declaring that their labyrinth was no more than a disoriented pyramid.
Meanwhile some of the foreigners who were particularly well known for their devotion to Egypt were taken to temples to make speeches. They spoke of the glory of the country and of the balancing role of the pyramids, Egyptians would do well to visit their neighbors, so as to appreciate the peace and harmony that reigned at home. In these other lands it was cold, people were sad, and it never stopped raining. Moreover, earth and heaven never stopped arguing with each other. The weather was always bad, and a heavy vapor that was called fog seeped in from the other world, making you think that each dawn was the last of your life.
People came out of the temples feeling relieved. How lucky we are, they said, to have our pyramid! Otherwise the devil only knows what might become of us. The sky might suddenly get angry and flick its fire-whip at us. Not to mention that other most terrible calamity whose very name spreads panic, when the firmament plunges into deepest misery and flock, like clumps of beggar’s hair, falls continuously from it, covering the land in white and making it as cold as a corpse.
This flood of flattery from foreigners did not stop diplomats from expressing rather different views in their secret reports. It had been suspected for a long time, of course, but it became quite transparent when the Sumerian ambassador’s report was finally intercepted. His prolix style—for which he had been reproached more than once by his superiors, moreover—served indirectly to set the trap he fell into, While the two overloaded wagons of the diplomatic courier were conveying his message (it weighed about the same as the side of a house—despite the diplomat’s efforts to have thinner tablets made, he had been unable to reduce their weight any further), the Egyptian secret service had had a hidden trench dug across the highway, and so easily got the carts to tip over. In the ensuing confusion and while the injured couriers were receiving first aid, purloining a few of the tablets scattered over the road was hardly a problem, The fragments were quite enough to prove how bitter Sumer’s venom was.
It was at an official dinner over a week after deciphering had been completed that Cheops made his celebrated pronouncement: “Our enemies are exasperated at the idea of our pyramid, but the more they speak ill of it, the higher we shall raise it toward heaven!”
Those present found it difficult to hide their trembling hands. The Pharaoh grew more sullen by the day. People mentioned that a new plot had been uncovered, but nothing precise was known about it yet.
The whole week long people expected the main team of architects to be arrested. They were visited in the end, not by the police, but by a palace messenger bringing an order to appear before Cheops, bringing the model with them, Rahotep, the architect-in-chief, was as white as a sheet and had to make an effort to stand up straight in front of Cheops, whose eyes ran over every detail of the object before sinking beneath it, as if he were looking for something underground. The rod he held in his hand was twitching. “I am buried too deeply, there,” he blurted out at last, pointing his rod to an invisible point beneath the miniature pyramid.
The terrified architects were at first unable to make out what he was referring to, but understood in the end all the same. He meant the funeral chamber. They had often thought about it. They knew full well that Cheops had reservations about the builders’ idea of placing his body underground. In fact he seemed principally concerned not to be laid to rest outside of the actual substance of the pyramid. Maybe he feared solitude. But the old archives and even the personal notes of the genius Imhotep offered no other solution.
“Don’t give me any nonsense about technical problems,” Cheops said. “I don’t want to know about the weight of the masonry. A lot of rubbish! I want to be raised higher up inside the pyramid itself. Got that?”
“Very well, your Majesty,” Imhotep replied in a voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave.
The architects departed silently with their model. Back in their studio they held their tongues for a long moment. Their minds were alternately paralyzed and convulsively agitated. Apparently that is how you begin to go mad.
They had conceived the funeral chamber as a kind of gateway through which the pyramid would communicate with the lower depths. It was the pyramid’s root, the anchor that moored it to the earth.
And now he wanted them to abandon the gateway, to raise the chamber. To stick it in between two lumps of masonry! It would be horrible. Eventually the weight of the stone would crack such a funeral chamber like an egg, and crush the sarcophagus and the mummy with it!
The architects were at a loss. As for Rahotep, he thought he had already gone mad. And it was probably that belief that saved him, and the others too. For days and nights at a stretch he thought himself into the masonry. He strove to imagine the torture and despair of being held motionless in the dark. Sometimes he felt as if he had become aware of a new kind of distress in such irrevocable solitude. For instance, he imagined a stone shattered by the weight of surrounding masonry but, despite being in smithereens, unable to fall: it would stay where it was, unseen, its unhappy fate unknown, for all eternity.
When Imhotep came to the studio one day in a jolly mood, the other architects reckoned he really had gone mad. They were probably jealous of him, and began to hope that they too would follow him into insanity.
Rahotep had brought a number of drawings with him, The others pretended to pay attention to what he said, the way adults do with children, so as not to upset them. But suddenly in the midst of his prattle they heard him come out with something amazing. In order to reduce the weight of masonry on the funeral chamber, he said, you could construct a layered set of cavities above it, so that the pressure would bear only on the walls, and the relative distance between the funeral chamber and the vertex could be reduced by an equivalent amount.
The architects could hardly believe their ears. It was most certainly an idea of genius. Privately they blamed themselves for not having thought of it earlier. They looked on their boss with a mixture of wonderment and affection, without quite grasping what had just happened.
The next day they requested an audience with the Pharaoh. He listened to them glumly.
“Now, Majesty, you will be placed here,” said Rahotep, pointing on the model to the level where the funeral chamber would be situated.
Cheops sighed deeply, which was unusual.
“Higher!” he said in a stifled voice. “I am still too low!”
“I understand, Majesty,” replied the architect-in-chief.
“I want to be in the middle,” Cheops declared.
“I understand. Majesty.”
The whites of the Pharaoh’s eyes seemed to be wrinkled with immense weariness.
The half-suspected plot was not revealed during construction of the thirteenth or the twelfth step down, after the minister Menenre had slit his wrists. But with the eleventh, you heard people say almost everywhere, it could not fail to come to light. That is to say, if there really was a plot.
During the tenth step down some squabbling broke out between the foremen on site and the inspectors who came down from the capital to check the numbering system. The foremen maintained that they had indeed got to the tenth row down, while the visitors would not budge from the view that they were only at the twelfth, if it was not still the thirteenth. (Since counting from the base, that is to say from ground level, had been stopped by order of the new architect-in-chief and replaced by top-down numbering from the vertex, such muddles were only to be expected. How can you start counting from something that isn’t there? grumbled most of the builders. It’s like trying to cast an anchor in the clouds!)
Numbering the masonry rows in reverse, counting downward as the pyramid went up, made everyone feel somewhat uneasy, gave them a disorienting sensation of void and vertigo. People went off the wrong way, bumped into things that they had only imagined, or else failed to notice obstacles that were really there. It had all become so intolerable that most of the master builders had gone back to counting in the old way until the architect-in-chief issued a categorical orders although the final row of the pyramid had yet to be determined, henceforth all numbering must be done top down; any other way of reckoning would be taken as a sign of rebellion. A circular intended to make things crystal clear stated that the pyramid was in its present phase increasingly drawn toward the sky so that the enhancement of its heavenly progress was an imperious necessity that would already have been met had it not been hampered by outdated ideas.