Cartouche of Psamtik


In the spring of a year some thirty centuries ago an Egyptian official set out from Thebes on a long and tedious business trip. His destination was Byblos, his mission the acquisition of cedar wood for the divine boat of Amon-Re. The name of Amon’s messenger was Wenamon, and his adventures are told in one of the most famous papyri of ancient Egypt. The story may be the ancestor of all historical novels, a felicitous blending of fact and fiction. True or not, it is a wonderful tale, a tragicomedy of adventure and misadventure; and it incidentally tells us a great deal about the state of affairs in and around Egypt in the twelfth century before Christ.

The nominal king of Egypt was the last of the Ramses, number eleven, but as we have seen he exercised very little power. Wenamon’s overlord was the high priest of Amon, Herihor, who was master of Upper Egypt. When Wenamon left Thebes he soon entered the territory of another man who was to claim royal status—Nesubanebded, known to Manetho as Smendes, of Tanis in the Delta. His approval was necessary before Wenamon could continue his journey. This was easily done, for Smendes and Herihor had an “understanding”; but this divided authority is one of the symptoms of the breakdown which the story illustrates.

Wenamon took passage on a ship leaving for Palestine—another bad sign, for an emissary sent on such a mission by the god in better days would have had his own fleet. By the time the boat reached Dor in Palestine, Wenamon’s store of money—not too great at best—had been stolen by a member of the crew. Raging, Wenamon made his way into the presence of the prince of Dor and demanded justice or restitution, preferably the latter. The prince met his unreasonable demand with remarkable forbearance; indeed, he appears much more urbane than the Egyptian. We can almost see his eyebrows lifting as he inquires coolly, “Are you serious, or are you inventing? Indeed, I know nothing of this tale which you have told me.” The prince pointed out that the thief was not one of his own subjects; if this had been the case he would have replaced the money—an offer that diminishes the amount to a bagatelle unbefitting an Egyptian envoy of Amon. But since the thief belonged to Wenamon’s own ship, the prince felt that he had no obligation. He did offer to institute a search. When this proved fruitless, poor Wenamon went on his way, his heart despairing and his eyes wide open.

Shortly after he reached Byblos, Wenamon had made good part of his loss. Although he is understandably vague about details, we are led to understand that he had “liberated” thirty deben of silver from certain subjects of the prince of Dor, blandly informing the victims that he was taking their money in compensation for that which was stolen by their fellow countrymen. This specious argument, if it can be called an argument, was accepted by the victims with surprising meekness, which leads the reader to wonder whether Wenamon waited around the scene of the crime long enough to discuss the problem.

So Wenamon sat down by the shore in the harbor of Byblos and congratulated himself. His rejoicing was premature. For reasons which Wenamon does not mention, the prince of that city had taken a dislike to him. “I spent twenty-nine days in his harbor, and he sent to me daily, saying ‘Get yourself out of my harbor!’” Wenamon remarks morosely.

After twenty-nine days of this, Wenamon took the hint. He was looking for a ship back to Egypt when a strange incident occurred. We would call it luck, or coincidence—or, if we wish to be cynical, maybe Wenamon had enough money left for a bribe. During a ceremony in the temple, one of the prince’s attendants was “seized by the god” and cried out, “Bring up the god, bring up the messenger who is carry ing him; it is Amon who sent him!”

It happened that Wenamon, in lieu of cash, had brought along a portable statue of his god, which was called “Amon of the Ways.” The frenzied youth’s reference was too exact to be ignored. The prince of Byblos sent for Wenamon.

“I found him sitting in his upper room with his back to a window, so that the waves of the great Syrian sea broke behind his head,” says Wenamon poetically. The two men got down to business, and with every word Wenamon was deeper in trouble. The prince spared the humiliated Egyptian no embarrassment. He admitted that Amon was supreme, that Egypt had once been the hub of the world, and that his own land owed much to the skill and learning it had acquired from Egypt. But this was in the past. Where was Wenamon’s ship? the prince asked sarcastically—for surely a man on so important a mission would have been given an official vessel for his journey? Where were his credentials? Most important of all—where was his money? Byblos was not subject to the ruler of Egypt. Even in the past, when a king of that land ordered a shipment of the fine cedar wood, he had paid for it, and paid well. The prince brought out his account books to prove it.

Wenamon “was silent in that great moment.” There really wasn’t much he could say. But he hit on the one argument he did have, and hit it hard—the power and might of Amon and the spiritual benefits he could bestow, benefits beside which mere gold and silver were trivial. His speech was masterful, fully worthy of the man who could talk his way out of a robbery, and it had its effect. The prince of Byblos let him send back to Tanis for goods with which to trade. Smendes and his queen Tentamon came through, and the prince began to load the cedar.

Wenamon’s troubles were not over. Just as he was finally about to set sail for Egypt with the hard-won cedar, he saw ships speeding into port. The ships belonged to the prince of Dor, who was in hot pursuit of the money Wenamon had liberated. Wenamon knew, as soon as he identified the ships, that he was in for it. Stiff upper lips and Anglo-Saxon phlegm were unknown to the ancients; when they suffered, they wanted everybody to know about it. Wenamon suffered all over the beach of Byblos, in a tone of voice that was clearly audible up at the palace.

One can only marvel at Wenamon’s oratorical talents. His character or personal habits apparently induced instant hatred in the people who met him, but when he started talking he had the situation under control. The prince of Byblos was as responsive as a hypnotized rabbit to the Egyptian’s rhetoric. Although Wenamon’s loud laments—before the boats had even landed!—were an open confession of guilt, the prince stood by him. He sent the woebegone Egyptian a message telling him not to worry, and reinforced the advice with gifts of food and drink and the temporary loan of an Egyptian singing girl. The following day he got Wenamon on a ship and out of Byblos—with, no doubt, a hearty sigh of relief. The Egyptian ended up in Cyprus, and the inhabitants met him with curses and threats; this seems to have been the instant reaction of most of the people Wenamon encountered. He forced his way through the enraged throng and appealed to the queen of Cyprus for protection. The papyrus unhappily breaks off at this point, but no doubt the eloquence of Wenamon once again saved his life. He got back to Egypt to tell his tale.

The most important historical fact about this picaresque story is what it tells us of Egyptian prestige in the areas that had once been controlled by swaggering Egyptian troops. The breakdown at home was reflected by the contempt in which the once powerful nation was held abroad.

We may as well stop for a minute and get the terminology straight. Egyptologists like to break history up into periods. The Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties are sometimes referred to as the Ramesside Period. The Twenty-first through Twenty-sixth (Saite) Dynasties now constitute the Third Intermediate Period. (I can’t quarrel with the logic of that term, since for almost the entire time Egypt consisted of separate states and kingdoms, just as it had during the first two intermediate periods. I just think there are getting to be too many “periods.”) That leaves us with the Late Period, from the Twenty-seventh Dynasty, depending on which authority you happen to be reading, through the Persians, down to Alexander the Great. Oh, I almost forgot about the “Renaissance.” It didn’t last long, only for about ten years at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty; it overlapped the last years of Ramses XI and was—let me be fair about this—named by Egyptians, not Egyptologists.

The capital of the northern kingdom was at the city of Tanis. The kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty had moved their political center northward, from Memphis to Tanis in the Delta, but had always returned to Thebes in death, to be buried in the holy cemetery on the west bank of the Nile. The Twenty-first Dynasty gave up Thebes entirely. The royal tombs of this period were found by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet, who worked at Tanis during the 1920s and 1930s. He had the good fortune to run into one of the gilded caches which now and then reward the efforts of archaeologists. The tomb of Smendes’s successor, Psusennes I, somehow managed to escape the notice of the industrious tomb robbers. The king himself still rested in it, richly adorned, and in side chambers of the tomb were the mummies of two members of his court, one of whom wore a distinctive and rather handsome gold mask. Montet found seven tombs and half a dozen kings, plus a few favored commoners. The Tanis burials are not as impressive as the unique collection of Tutankhamon, but if the latter had not been known (and if, in 1939, the world had not been preoccupied with grimmer news), the discovery would have made a sensation: the vases and bowls of precious metals, the elegant jewelry, the solid silver hawk-headed coffin and the other treasures of the tombs. The evidences of decline are there, however, not only in the quantity but in some cases the quality of the objects. Some of the best had been recycled. Psusennes’s very sarcophagus was stolen from Merneptah of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

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