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Authors: Ismail Kadare

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BOOK: The Pyramid
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They had never previously been obliged to engage in such mental effort, and it gave them headaches. However, although the aim of their quest forever eluded them, they ended up finding its outline. If not the thing itself, then at least its shadow.

They debated at length on all that referred to it and, to their great surprise, realized that they were already perfectly aware of what they had been looking for. They had always been privy to the main point, the first principle, of the pyramid’s raison d’etre, except that it had lain in their minds in a preverbal, indeed in an unthinking state. The papyri of the archives had only draped it in words and in meaning. Insofar as a shadow can be draped.

“All that is perfectly clear,” said the High Priest during their last caucus meeting before their audience with the Pharaoh. “We already know what’s at the bottom of the problem, or else we would not have been so horrified when the sovereign uttered those words that I do not wish to recall ever again.”

Two days later, looking grave and exhausted by insomnia, they were received by Cheops. The Pharaoh was no less somber than they were. For a brief instant a breath of doubt made them wonder if the sovereign might have forgotten the whole business and if they were about to blow on embers to no purpose. But when the High Priest had uttered the words, “We have come to discuss with you the remark that you made concerning the construction of your pyramid,” Cheops showed neither amazement nor surprise, and did not even interject: “You mean to say?”

All he did was to sketch a nod of his head that meant: “I am listening!” So they then began to speak, the High Priest first, the others following in turn.

They gave a lengthy, laborious account of all that they had learned from their reading of the papyri, ceaselessly tortured by the idea that they might say more, or less, than was prudent. They spoke of the first pyramid erected by the Pharaoh Zoser, which was only twenty-five cubits high, then of the anger of Pharaoh Sekhemkhet, who had his architect horsewhipped when the plans were laid out, since his pyramid seemed too low for his liking. Then they gave details of the changes made to later plans, in particular by the architect Imhotep, and spoke of the galleries, the burial chamber, the secret passages, and the granite blocks obstructing their entrances, of the three pyramids that Seneferu had had built, one of which had an arris almost five hundred cubits long and a height of three hundred, which you could call truly breathtaking.

Each figure they quoted made them expect to be interrupted—what do such details matter to me!—and they were counting on it so much that, seeing that no interruption came, the High Priest added hoarsely: “Perhaps you are wondering. What have all these facts got to do with me? And you would be right... Perhaps they are indeed superfluous for you, but they were only by way of introduction to the heart of the matter.”

Encouraged by the sovereign’s silence, they expatiated at greater length than they had foreseen on the fundamental aspect of the question. Without making any slip at all, they explained that, according to their research, and although pyramids were indeed magnificent burial places, the idea of building them had, to begin with, no connection with tombs or with death. It had sprung up on its own, that is to say independently of these two notions, and its association with them had been a matter of the merest chance.

For the first time a twitch in Cheops’s face gave a sign of life. To their great joy he nodded and mumbled: “Strange!”

“Indeed,” the High Priest emphasized. “Many of the things we shall tell you will seem strange to you.”

He took such a deep breath that his bloodless old lungs hurt.

“The idea of the pyramids, your Majesty, was born in a period of crisis.”

The High Priest was aware of the importance of pausing between sentences. Pauses give greater weight and elevation to thoughts, just as the shade on women’s eyelids intensifies the mystery of their glance.

“So it was in a period of crisis,” he continued after a moment. “Pharaonic power, as the chronicles record, had been weakened. It was probably not a new phenomenon. The old papyri are full of such turns of fate. What was new at that time was something quite different. The cause of the crisis was unheard of, strange, indeed quite baffling. An unprecedented, perfidious cause: the crisis had not been provoked by poverty, by late flooding of the Nile, or by pestilence, as had always been the case previously, but, on the contrary, by abundance.”

“By abundance,” Hemiunu repeated. “In other words, by prosperity.”

Cheops raised his eyebrows. An angle of twelve degrees, noted the architect-in-chief. Fifteen . . . May heaven help us!

“To begin with, it had proved extremely difficult to get a grip on this cause,” he continued. “Many enlightened minds, many men trusted by the Pharaoh, who had been the first to explain it, were rewarded for their discovery by death or deportation. But the explanation they had given for the crisis— that prosperity, by making people more independent and freer in their minds, also made them more resistant to authority in general and to the power of the Pharaoh in particular—slowly overcame all the objections that had been raised at the start and gradually imposed itself. Day by day, everyone came to share the view that this crisis was more serious than any of those that had preceded it. A single question remained to be answered: How would the solution be found?

“The Pharaoh sent the astrologer-magician Sobekhotep into the Sahara to meditate on the problem in total solitude. Forty days later he returned disfigured, as happened in fact to most people who went to commune with the desert so as to bring back its message. It was more fearful than might have been expected: what had to be done was to eliminate prosperity.

“The Pharaoh, and in his wake the whole palace, plunged into deep thought. Destroy prosperity? But how? Floods, earthquakes, a temporary drying-up of the Nile, such ideas crossed all their minds, but not one of them was within their power. War? That was a double-edged weapon, and could rebound, especially given the circumstances they found themselves in. So what could be done? To do nothing at all in the face of a threat of that kind was simply not possible. One way or another they would have to listen to the voice of the desert, or else they risked falling headlong into disaster.

“Rumor had it that it was Reneferef, the guardian of the harem, who bizarrely suggested looking for some mechanism that would sterilize part of Egypt’s riches. Ambassadors serving in the lands of the Orient reported huge waterworks in Mesopotamia, on a scale out of all proportion, people said, to their economic product. If that was so, and it probably was so, then Egypt also needed to find some means of consuming the excess energy of its population. To launch works colossal beyond imagining, the better to debilitate its inhabitants, to suck them dry. In a word, something exhausting, something that would destroy body and soul, and without any possible utility. Or to put it more precisely, a project as useless to its subjects as it would be indispensable to the State.

“The Pharaoh’s ministers came up with many different ideas at that time: a bottomless pit to be dug in the earth, toward the gates of hell; a rampart around the whole of Egypt; an artificial waterfall... But though they were all inspired by elevated, patriotic, or mystical ideas, they were all rejected by the Pharaoh. The wall would come to an end one day or another, and the hole in the ground, because it was bottomless, would exasperate the people. What had to be found was something else, something that would keep folk busy night and day so that they became oblivious. But it had to be a project that could in principle be completed, without ever reaching completion. In a nutshell, a permanently self-renewing project. And one that would be really visible.

“That is how the sovereign and his ministers, as the papyri attest, slowly came to the idea of a great funerary monument. A master tomb.

“The Pharaoh was fascinated by the idea. Egypt’s main edifice would thus not be a temple or a royal palace, but a tomb. Progressively Egypt would identify itself with it, and it would become identified with Egypt.

“Geometers submitted various sketches of different shapes before finally fixing on the pyramid.

“A pyramid had all the required features. It was based on an utterly sublime idea: the Pharaoh and death, or more precisely his rise to heaven. It was visible, indeed could be seen from far away. The third and conclusive argument in its favor: it was by its nature both finite and infinite. Each Pharaoh would have his own pyramid, so that even before a generation had recovered from the fatigue and stupor of construction, a new Pharaoh, with his own pyramid to build, would subjugate the people afresh. And so on, inexorably, to the end of time ...”

The High Priest Hemiunu paused at greater length than before.

“And so, my Pharaoh,” he began again, “a pyramid, before serving the afterworld, has a function in this world. In other words, before being conceived for the soul, it is conceived for the body.”

He fell silent again, then drew breath before speaking at a slower pace.

“In the first place, Majesty, a pyramid is power. It is repression force, and wealth. But it is just as much domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste, O my Pharaoh, it is your most reliable guardian. Your secret police. Your army, Your fleet. Your harem. The higher it is, the tinier your subjects will seem. And the smaller your subjects, the more you rise, O Majesty, to your full height,”

Hemiunu spoke ever more softly, but such was his inner conviction that as his voice fell his words grew more distinct and threatening.

“The pyramid is the pillar that holds power aloft. If it wavers, everything collapses.”

He made a mysterious gesture with his hands, and his eyes went blank as if they really had looked upon a field of ruins.

“So do not think, my Pharaoh, of changing tradition ... You would fall and drag us down with you.”

Hemiunu made a different gesture and closed his eyes in such a way as to indicate that he had finished speaking.

The others said much the same thing in the same funereal tone. One of them again mentioned the canals of Mesopotamia, without which the Akkado-Sumerian kingdom would long since have fallen into tatters. Another added that the pyramid was also the country’s long-term memory. One day, with time, everything else would fade away. Papyri and everyday things would age, wars, famines, epidemics, the late flooding of the Nile, alliances, decrees, palace scandals, would all be forgotten, and the haughty pyramid alone, the pyramid that no force, no length of time could ever bury, or damage, or decompose, would rise up in the desert, like unto itself, until the end of time, “It has been thus. Majesty, and so it must always be thus. Nor is its shape an arbitrary one. It is a divine shape inspired in ancient geometers by Providence herself. You are in it in all its parts, at the vertex, the summit, the peak, but also in every one of the nameless blocks of stone supporting you, stuck fast against each other, shoulder to shoulder, O Majesty.”

Every time that they mentioned the visible form of the work, they alluded once again to the possibility of a general collapse. Cheops then recalled the autumn morning when he had believed that his courtiers’ consternation over this pyramid business had been only a symptom of their servility. Now he saw the extent of his mistake. Their distress had been quite genuine. He was henceforth convinced that the pyramid would not just be his own, but equally, if not more, theirs.

He raised his right hand to let them know that he wished to bring the audience to an end.

With their hearts in their mouths, they listened for the Pharaoh’s brief, dry, and sober judgment.

“Let the pyramid be built. The highest of all. The most majestic.”

II
Start of Works
Quite Unlike the Preparations
for Any Other Building Site

N
EWS
of the pyramid’s construction spread with amazing speed, for which two explanations were offered: the people’s joy after long waiting for such tidings; or, on the contrary, the dismay felt when a much-feared misfortune that people hoped never to see happen finally rises over the horizon.

Ahead of its announcement by public criers, the news had already reached the thirty-eight different provinces of the kingdom, had spread everywhere, like sand blown by yesterday’s wind of disquiet.

“The Pharaoh Cheops, our sun, has decided to grant the people of Egypt a grandiose and sacred mission, the most majestic of all buildings and the most sacred of all tasks, the construction of his pyramid.”

The drum rolls echoed from village to village, and even before the voices of the heralds had died away, provincial dignitaries put their heads together to deliberate on steps to be taken on their own initiative before instructions reached them from the capital Their faces seemed lit with joy as they left the square for their homes, repeating, At last, as we had foreseen, the great day has come! From that day on there was something new in their stride, in their gestures, in the way they held their heads. A kind of hidden exultation tended to contract their muscles and to tighten their fists, The pyramid entered their existence so readily that in barely a few days they began to mutter. How the devil did we manage without it up to now?

Meanwhile, without waiting for the arrival of directives from the center, they acted as their predecessors had acted for all previous pyramids: they stifled the voices of the malcontents. The mere idea that thousands of people, instead of rejoicing at the news, could wail despairingly, “Woe! Another round!

put them beside themselves with anger.

“Did you think you were going get away with it? Did you believe that everything had changed, that there would be no more pyramids and that you could live as you liked? Well now, you see how things are! So bow your heads, and grouse to your heart’s content!”

In the capital the situation had become perceptibly more tense. Not only the mien and bearing of the functionaries but the buildings themselves seemed to have grown stiffen Coaches shuttled between the White House, as the Finance Building was called, and the Pharaoh’s palace, between the palace and the building that was said to house the secret service, and even to unknown destinations, toward the desert.

BOOK: The Pyramid
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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