Read Sphinx Online

Authors: Robin Cook


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.




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Robin Cook

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Electronic edition: May, 2002

Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy descriptions.



Emeni thrust his copper chisel through the closely packed limestone chips directly ahead of him and felt it hit against solid masonry. He did it again, just to be sure. Without doubt he had reached the inner door. Beyond lay treasure the likes of which he could hardly fathom; beyond was the house of eternity of the young pharaoh, Tutankhamen, buried fifty-one years previously.

With renewed enthusiasm he dug into the densely packed rubble. The dust made breathing difficult. Sweat dripped from his angular face in a steady stream. He was on his stomach in a pitch-black tunnel barely wide enough even for his thin, sinewy body. Cupping his hand, he raked the loosened limestone under him until he could get it past his foot. Then like a burrowing insect he pushed the chips behind him, where they were gathered into a reed basket by the water carrier Kemese. Emeni did not feel any pain as his abraded hand groped
in the blackness for the plastered wall ahead. His fingertips traced the seal of Tutankhamen on the blocked door, undisturbed since the young pharaoh had been interred.

Resting his head on his left arm, Emeni let his whole body go limp. Pain spread through his shoulders, and behind him he could hear Kemese's labored breathing as he dropped the gravel into the basket.

“We have reached the inner door,” Emeni said with a mixture of fear and excitement. More than anything else, Emeni wanted this night to be over. He was not a thief. But there he was, tunneling into the eternal sanctuary of the hapless Tutankhamen. “Have Iramen fetch my mallet.” Emeni noticed that his voice had a strange warbling quality within the narrow confines of the tunnel. Kemese squealed delight at the news and scrambled backward out of the tunnel, dragging his reed basket.

Then there was silence. Emeni felt the walls of the tunnel press in upon him. He struggled against his claustrophobic fear, remembering how his grandfather Amenemheb had supervised the digging of this small tomb. Emeni wondered if Amenemheb had touched the surface directly above him. Rolling over, he put his palms against the solid rock, and it reassured him. The plans of Tutankhamen's tomb that Amenemheb had given to his son Per Nefer, Emeni's father, who had, in turn, given them to Emeni, were accurate. Emeni had tunneled exactly twelve cubits from the outer door and had hit the inner door. Beyond lay the antechamber. It had taken two nights of backbreaking labor, but by morning it would be over. Emeni planned to remove only four golden statues, whose location was also pinpointed in the plans. One statue for himself and one for each of his co-conspirators. Then he would reseal the tomb. Emeni hoped the gods would understand. He would not steal for himself. The single golden statue was needed to pay for the complete embalming and funerary preparation of his parents.

Kemese reentered the tunnel, pushing ahead of him his reed basket containing the mallet and an oil lamp. It also contained a bronze dagger with an ox-bone handle.
Kemese was a real thief, with no scruples to limit his appetite for gold.

With the mallet and the copper chisel, Emeni's experienced hands made quick work of the mortar holding the stone blocks in front of him. He marveled at the insignificance of Tutankhamen's tomb when compared with the cavernous tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, on which he was currently employed. But the insignificance of Tutankhamen's was a blessing in disguise, for otherwise Emeni would never have been in a position to enter the tomb. Pharaoh Horemheb's formal edict to erase the memory of Tutankhamen had removed the Ka-priests of Amen from standing watch, and Emeni had only to bribe the night watchman of the workers' huts with two measures of grain and beer. Even that was probably unnecessary, since Emeni had planned to enter Tutankhamen's house of eternity during the great feast of Ope. The entire staff of the necropolis, including most of the population of Emeni's own village, the Place of Truth, were all rejoicing in Thebes proper on the east side of the great Nile. Yet, despite the precautions, Emeni was still more anxious than he'd ever been in his entire life, and this anxiety drove him on to frenzied exertion with the mallet and chisel. The block in front of him grated forward, then thudded onto the floor of the chamber beyond.

Emeni's heart stopped as he half-expected to be set upon by demons of the underworld. Instead, his nostrils picked out the aromatic smell of cedar and incense and his ears recorded the solitude of eternity. With a sense of awe he worked his way forward and entered the tomb headfirst. The silence was deafening, the blackness impenetrable. Looking back into the tunnel, he glimpsed faint, attenuated moonlight as Kemese worked his way forward. Groping like a blind man, he sought to give Emeni the oil lamp.

“Can I enter?” asked Kemese to the darkness after handing over the lamp and the tinder.

“Not yet,” answered Emeni, busy with the light. “Go back and tell Iramen and Amasis that it'll be about a half-hour before we start refilling the tunnel.”

Kemese grumbled and, like a crab, worked his way backward through the tunnel.

A lone spark leaped from the wheel and caught the tinder. Deftly Emeni applied it to the wick of the oil lamp. Light sprang up and pierced the darkness like sudden warmth entering a cold room.

Emeni froze, his legs almost buckling. In the flickering half-light he could make out the face of a god, Amnut, devourer of the dead. The oil lamp shook in his trembling hands, and he stumbled back against the wall. But the god did not advance. Then, as the light played over its golden head, revealing its ivory teeth and its slender, stylized body, Emeni realized he was looking at a funerary bed. There were two others, one with the head of a cow, the other a lion. To the right, against the wall, were two life-size statues of the boy king Tutankhamen, guarding the entrance to the burial chamber. Emeni had already seen similar gilded statues of Seti I being carved in the house of the sculptors.

Emeni carefully avoided a garland of dried flowers dropped on the threshold. He moved quickly, isolating two gilded shrines. With reverence he unlatched the doors and lifted the golden statues from their pedestals. One was an exquisite statue of Nekhbet, a vulture goddess of upper Egypt; the other, Isis. Neither had the name of Tutankhamen. That was important.

Taking the mallet and chisel, Emeni moved under the Amnut funerary bed and quickly made an opening into the side chamber. According to the plans of Amenemheb, the other two statues Emeni wanted were in a coffer in this smaller room. Ignoring a strong sense of foreboding, Emeni entered the room, holding the oil lamp in front of him. To his relief, there were no terrifying objects. The walls were rough-hewn rock. Emeni recognized the chest he wanted from the beautiful image on the top. There, carved in relief, was a young queen offering the pharaoh Tutankhamen bouquets of lotus, papyrus, and poppies. But there was a problem. The lid was locked in some clever way and would not open. Emeni carefully set down the oil lamp on a reddish-brown cedar cabinet
and examined the coffer more closely. He was unaware of the activity in the tunnel behind him.

Kemese had already reached its lip, with Iramen right behind him. Amasis, an enormous Nubian, having great difficulty pushing his bulk through the narrow passage, was farther back, but the other two could already see Emeni's shadow dancing grotesquely on the floor and wall of the antechamber. Kemese gripped the bronze dagger in his rotting teeth and oozed headfirst from the tunnel onto the floor of the tomb. Silently he helped Iramen to a standing position beside him. The two waited, scarcely daring to breathe until, with a minor clatter of loose gravel, Amasis finally entered the chamber. Fear quickly metamorphosed to wild-eyed greed as the three peasants eyed the unbelievable treasure spread around them. Never in their lives had they ever seen such marvelous objects, and it was all there for the taking. Like a pack of starved Russian wolves the three launched themselves into the carefully arranged objects. Densely packed coffers were ripped open and dumped. Gold attached to furniture and chariots was ripped off.

Emeni heard the first crash and his heart leaped in his chest. His first thought was that he was caught. Then he heard his companions' cries of excitement and realized what was happening. It was like a nightmare.

“No, no!” he shouted, snatching up the oil lamp and pushing himself through the opening into the antechamber. “Stop, in the names of all the gods, stop!” The sound reverberated in the small room, momentarily startling the three thieves into inaction. Then Kemese snatched up his ox-bone-handled dagger. Seeing the movement, Amasis smiled. It was a cruel smile, the light from the oil lamp reflecting from the surface of his huge teeth.

Emeni had no idea how long he was unconscious, but when the blackness receded, the nightmare returned in a tidal wave. At first all he heard were muffled voices. A small amount of gilded light issued from a break in the wall, and turning his head slowly to ease the pain, he stared into the burial chamber. Squatting down between
bituminized statues of Tutankhamen, Emeni could make out Kemese's silhouette. The peasants were violating the sacred sanctuary, the Holy of Holies.

Silently Emeni moved each of his limbs. His left arm and hand were numb from being twisted underneath him, but otherwise he felt all right. He had to find help. He gauged the distance to the tunnel opening. It was close, but it would be difficult to enter it quietly. Bringing his feet up underneath him, Emeni crouched, waiting for the throbbing in his head to abate. Suddenly Kemese turned, holding up a small golden statue of Horus. He saw Emeni and for a moment he was frozen. Then with a roar he leaped into the center of the anteroom toward the dazed stonecutter.

Ignoring the pain, Emeni dived into the tunnel, scraping his chest and abdomen on the plastered edge. But Kemese moved swiftly and managed to grab an ankle. Bracing himself, he shouted for Amasis. Emeni rolled over onto his back within the tunnel and kicked viciously with his free foot, catching Kemese on his cheekbone. The grip loosened and Emeni was able to scramble forward through the tunnel, mindless of innumerable cuts from the limestone chips. He reached the dry night air and ran toward the necropolis guard station on the road to Thebes.

Behind, in Tutankhamen's tomb, panic ensued. The three thieves knew that their only chance for escape was to leave immediately, even though they had entered only one of the gilded burial shrines. Amasis reluctantly staggered from the burial chamber with a heavy armload of golden statues. Kemese tied a group of solid gold rings in a rag, only to drop the bundle inadvertently on the debris-strewn floor. Feverishly they dumped their spoils into reed baskets. Iramen put down the oil lamp and pushed his basket into the tunnel, climbing in after it. Kemese and Amasis followed, dropping a lotiform alabaster cup on the threshold. Once they were out of the tomb, they began to climb south away from the necropolis guard station. Amasis was overloaded with booty. To free his right hand, he stashed a blue faience cup under
a rock, then caught up to the others. They passed the route to Hatshepsut's temple, heading instead for the village of the necropolis workers. Once out of the valley, they turned to the west and entered the vast reaches of the Libyan desert. They were free, and they were rich; very rich.


Emeni had never known torture, although on occasion he had fantasized whether he could bear it. He couldn't. The pain ascended, with surprising rapidity, from being tolerable to unbearable. He had been told that he was to be examined with the stick. He had had no idea what that meant until four stout guards of the necropolis forced him down on a low table, holding each of his extremities. A fifth began to beat Emeni unmercifully on the soles of his feet.

“Stop, I will tell all,” gasped Emeni. But he had already told everything, fifty times. He wished he could pass out, but he could not. He felt as if his feet were in a fire, pressed against white-hot glowing coals. The agony was intensified by the burning noonday sun. Emeni shrieked like a butchered dog. He tried to bite the arm holding his right wrist, but someone pulled him back by his hair.

When Emeni finally was certain of going crazy, Prince Maya, chief of police of the necropolis, casually waved his manicured hand, indicating the beating should stop. The guard with the club hit Emeni once more before quitting. Prince Maya, enjoying the scent from his customary lotus blossom, turned to his guests: Nebmarenahkt, mayor of Western Thebes; and Nenephta, overseer and chief architect for his majesty Pharaoh Seti I. No one spoke, so Maya turned to Emeni, who had been released and who was now lying on his back, still feeling the fire in his feet.

“Tell me again, stonecutter, how you knew the way into Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb.”

Emeni was yanked into a sitting position, the image of the three noblemen swimming before him. Gradually his
vision cleared. He recognized the exalted architect Nenephta.

“My grandfather,” said Emeni with difficulty. “He gave the plans of the tomb to my father, who gave them to me.”

“Your grandfather was a stonecutter for Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb?”

“Yes,” said Emeni. He went on to explain again that he had wanted only enough money to embalm his parents. He pleaded for mercy, emphasizing that he had given himself up when he saw his companions desecrating the tomb.

Nenephta watched a distant falcon effortlessly spiral in the sapphire sky. His mind wandered from the interrogation. He was troubled by this tomb robber. It was a shock to realize how easily all his efforts to secure his majesty Seti I's house of eternity could be thwarted. Suddenly he interrupted Emeni.

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