Authors: Gill Harvey
For my mum
There is an ancient site in Egypt called Deir el Medina: the âMonastery of the Town'. It is nestled in an eerie desert valley, surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs. Few tourists venture here. There are much more attractive sites on offer, only a donkey ride away â the mysterious tomb of Tutankhamun, the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut, the paintings of the stunning Nefertari. Deir el Medina's tombs are small, and the site is mostly a network of broken mud-brick walls, with a neglected temple at one end â¦ so why bother visiting?
But if you go to Deir el Medina in the evening, when the sun is slanting on the golden limestone rocks and there are only a few bored and lonely guards to stare at you suspiciously, you might discover something else. Listen for the wail of a Muslim muezzin in the distance, calling the faithful to prayer. As his voice echoes against the rocks, stay very still. Listen.
There are other voices here. Voices of children. Voices of women calling across the narrow, crowded streets. Voices of water-bringers, and the shrill, squeaking bray of
donkeys. And some of the time, there are voices of men, back from their work on the precious pharaohs' tombs.
Where do these voices come from?
From the time when Deir el Medina was called âSet Maat', the Place of Truth. When scores of families were crammed into its tiny houses. When pharaohs ruled this life and the afterlife, surrounded by a multitude of gods.
When life was short, scorched by the merciless sun.
In the cool shade of the courtyard, Senmut the plasterer was reasoning with his niece. She sat cross-legged and listened, but her slender shoulders were hunched in defiance.
âRamose is a good man,' he was saying. âHe will care for you and provide well for your children. He is a respected stonecutter on the gang. You are lucky to have received an offer from someone like him.'
âI know this, Uncle,' said Meryt-Re quietly. âBut I have no desire to be his wife. Doesn't that count for anything?'
Senmut frowned. âYou are insolent, Meryt,' he commented, his voice rising slightly with anger. âAs you ask, the answer is yes â it does count for something. I can't force you to marry him. But it doesn't count for as much as you think.' He stood up and smoothed his linen kilt with his fingers, then stared at Meryt, batting away a fly.
Meryt-Re lowered her gaze and waited. There was more to come, she could tell. She steeled herself to hear it.
Senmut paced around the courtyard, then came to stand in front of her. âYou're thirteen,' he said. âYou'll soon be fourteen. I know you are still young, but my mother had given birth to me by your age. Until you marry, I'm responsible for you, and with another child on the way I have other things to worry about. Ramose will treat you well. You would be foolish to refuse. What makes you so ungrateful?'
âUncle! I am not ungrateful, believe me,' protested Meryt-Re. âI understand how much you have done for me. But â¦' she trailed off, unable to find the words to justify how she felt.
Senmut crouched down again, nearer to Meryt-Re this time, and lowered his voice. âYou know what they say about you, Meryt, don't you?'
Meryt shook her head, even though she knew what he was going to say. Her uncle continued. âThey say you are under the power of Sekhmet. You see death before it happens. They say no good will ever come of you.'
It was exactly what she expected to hear, but Meryt's heart sank nevertheless. âSekhmet is not only the goddess of pestilence and destruction. She also brings healing,' she said in a low voice. âIt would not be so terrible to be under her power â if it were true, that is.'
âThat is foolish talk, Meryt,' said Senmut. âYou know what such a rumour can achieve. If it spreads, the likes of Ramose will have no wish to marry you. You will be feared and shunned. Is that the life you wish for?'
Meryt-Re shook her head again. âNo, Uncle, that's
not what I want at all, believe me,' she said. She looked up. âPlease give me time. I will think about Ramose, I promise.'
Senmut was silent. Meryt was suddenly filled with fear, and clutched the amulet that she wore about her neck.
âYou don't believe what people say, do you?' she asked him. âI have only foreseen a death once. People exaggerate. You know that I wish no one any harm.'
âI know what you wish, Meryt,' said Senmut, his voice strained. âBut the gods may be stronger than a young woman's wishes.'
He rose and left the courtyard. Meryt-Re watched him go and fingered her amulet, one of the few items left to her by her father. It was in the shape of a scarab beetle, the creature that was born from a sphere of dung just as the great sun god Re rose as a sphere every morning. Meryt-Re believed it offered her the protection of the gods. In particular, she felt it imparted the warm touch of the sun god, for her name itself meant âBeloved of Re'.
Even so, her position in Set Maat was precarious. She was dependent on her uncle's goodwill. With no parents of her own, the government made no provision for her. The village existed to house the craftsmen who built the royal tombs; they alone received a wage, which took the form of grain and other foodstuffs. With this they cared for unfortunate relatives as well as their immediate families; so, along with Senmut's children, wife and mother,
Meryt lived off his income. It was adequate â many families in the village were larger and lived on the same. But she knew her uncle well. He was fair, but not greatly generous, and the truth was that he had taken Meryt under his wing only because Tia, his wife, had insisted on it. He would be only too happy to pass her on to a husband. So, as far as he was concerned, Ramose's proposal was an opportunity to be grasped with both hands.
And as for the stories â¦ Did her uncle really believe them? Or was he simply prepared to use them as a lever against her? The thought made her shiver. She felt very alone.
She glanced up and saw Baki, peering down on to the courtyard from the roof. When Meryt caught his gaze, he gave a gleeful grin, and disappeared back over the edge. Meryt was furious. He had been listening! She knew Baki all too well.
âBaki!' she shouted, jumping to her feet. She leapt up the stairs from the courtyard and chased after her cousin, who was on the verge of leaping on to the roof of their neighbours' house. She caught him by his side-lock of hair just in time.
âRamose! Ramose! You're going to marry Ramose!' he sang, then gave an enraged yell as Meryt-Re yanked on his hair.
say that,' cried Meryt. She pulled his side-lock harder, so that Baki had to peer up at her sideways. âNot here, not anywhere. If you say one word to
âYou'll cast a spell on me?' taunted Baki. He cackled and wriggled around, out of Meryt's grasp. She pounced on him again and they wrestled, falling to the surface of the roof and rolling around in the dust.
Meryt grabbed Baki by the side-lock again, but Baki grasped both her wrists with all his strength and twisted his hands around, burning her skin. Breathless and determined, they clung on to each other. They had always been rivals, from the day that Meryt had entered the household at the age of two. Baki had been only one year old, but even then, his resentment of the new child had been clear.
Things were no better now. In fact, for Meryt they were worse. Although he was a year younger, Baki was getting stronger, and she was finding it difficult to hold her own in their fights. More importantly, as the oldest son, Baki would soon become his father's apprentice in the Great Place, where the kings' magnificent tombs were hewn deep in the limestone cliffs. It was going to his head. As the day of his manhood approached, he became more and more full of himself. And Meryt had nothing to balance against it, because she wasn't even Senmut's own daughter. She was a nobody, and she hated it.
âYes!' she hissed in Baki's ear. âI'll find a special curse just for you, if you breathe
Baki gave her wrists a vicious twist. Meryt yelped in pain, and tugged at his hair. They rolled around on the floor again, then Baki broke free and headed for the stairway.
âWait till I tell Father!' he whooped, as he disappeared down the steps. âYou'll be in for it, Meryt!'
Meryt sat down on the roof, breathing hard. Sometimes she hated Baki with a passion that frightened her. She was often tempted to summon the wrath of the gods against him, but she held them in too much respect. Baki was his father's son, and that was no fault of his. She would do better to beg for an answer to her own predicament.