The great vizier Hemiun, overseer of all the king’s works, favored of the Horus Khufu, was slumbering peacefully one morning when a rude interruption ended his repose. An agitated messenger, pale with alarm and stammering in his haste and terror, dared to intrude himself into the presence of the vizier, greatest in the land under the king. But Hemiun’s outrage was forgotten when he heard the news; it was news to make the bravest cower. The sacred tomb of the queen Hetepheres, wife of Snefru and mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt himself, had been entered by thieves and robbed of all its treasures. Hemiun omitted the usual morning ceremonies. Within an hour he was in his litter, on his way to the scene of the crime.

The two mighty pyramids of Dahshur soared above the golden sand like young mountains, their smooth slopes glorious in the sun. Hemiun had no eye for their splendor, or for the gallant show of the painted temples before them. His proud face remained impassive (a nobleman does not bare his heart to peasants and other low persons), but his heart must have sunk down to the soles of his sandaled patrician feet. This was worse than he had feared; this was catastrophe. Not only had the queen’s fabulous jewels been stolen, but the queen herself was gone. A frenzied search of the surrounding sand produced no royal mummy—not even bones, which at this point Hemiun would have accepted for want of anything better.

The vizier had descended from his litter by this time. He was an imposing figure of a man even without the jeweled collar that half covered his broad chest. The years had added a roll of fat to his middle, but his aquiline features held pride so great and so habitual that it was as much a part of his face as were the bones of his skull. It was pride alone that held him erect; dignity alone that kept him from flinging himself down on the hot sand and howling like a beaten slave. His distress was not solely due to piety. It was caused chiefly by reflections on what was going to happen to him, Hemiun, when the Lord of the Two Lands found out that his mother’s holy remains had provided entertainment, if not much nourishment, for the jackals of the desert. As vizier, Hemiun was responsible for the royal tombs, among a hundred other matters. It was no use telling Khufu that he couldn’t keep track of everything; if a vizier couldn’t keep track of everything, he had no business being vizier. It would have been dangerous enough to face the god-king with the fact that the tomb had been robbed. When Khufu found out that his mother’s bones were missing, he would see to it that Hemiun the vizier went to make his peace with the royal lady’s spirit.

Hemiun did not feel the hot sun scorching his bare head; he was too busy thinking. He came from an illustrious family, one that was related to the royal house itself, but he had not held the highest appointed post in the land for so many years by virture of birth alone. He was a shrewd, capable man, and it did not take him long to see the only way out of his peril. Absently he brushed a few grains of sand from the spotless white linen of his kilt and ordered his litter to be fetched. More or less in passing he also ordered the execution of the guards whose negligence had led to the disaster.

As vizier, Hemiun had immediate access to the king. He made no attempt to conceal his agitation when he was admitted to the royal presence; who would not be distressed at discovering that thieves had tried to enter the tomb of the king’s mother? It was lucky for Khufu, his vizier insinuated, that his officials were so alert to their duties; not only had the thieves been foiled, but he, Hemiun, had conceived a clever plan to prevent future danger. With His Majesty’s concurrence, he would arrange for the queen’s reburial in a new and hidden spot, a spot so secret that no one would ever find it (in this he was not far wrong). Naturally, the move must be made at once; the longer the delay, the greater the danger of a repetition of the “attempt.” Yes, he knew the king had a hard day ahead of him—reports on a new canal in the Delta, visits from the treasurers, a rebellion in Nubia—he would take care of the whole thing. When the new tomb was ready to be sealed (he recommended that this take place at night, for reasons of security), he would himself notify the king, that he might pay his filial respects. On his way out of the presence chamber Hemiun paused to answer a question. The thieves? Oh, naturally, they were already on their way to the West. He had known that the king would not wish to defile his eyes with the sight of such vileness….

A number of sweating workmen had cause to curse the tomb robbers as they hauled the queen’s remaining funerary equipment to the new tomb. Hemiun had chosen a good spot, right beside the passage leading from the king’s funerary temple to the still unfinished pyramid at Giza. In months to come the hidden entrance would be trampled over by hundreds of feet.

So, late one night, the king was summoned to approve the vigilance and wisdom of his vizier. Borne high in a gold-inlaid litter upon the brawny arms of slaves, Khufu was carried along the road from Memphis up to the plateau on which his pyramid was being built. By the flickering light of torches he saw the shaft going down into the heart of the rock. If he had entertained any pious hopes of laying a funeral wreath on the maternal bier, he dismissed them at that moment. “How far down does this go?” he demanded. Hemiun did not conceal his pride. A hundred feet below the surface lay the tomb chamber—infinitely more secure than the old tomb, and all accomplished in so short a time!

Khufu nodded gravely. Darkness welled up in the shaft only a few feet below the surface. He could not see the glitter of the golden hieroglyphs upon the stately chair and bed, the gift of his father, Snefru, to Hetepheres, nor could he catch so much as a glimmer of the white sarcophagus. But he knew they were there; it never entered his head that they were not. Again he nodded, pleased and impressed. He must plan a suitable reward for his enterprising vizier.

The king watched as the shaft was filled with stone, and plaster tinted to match the rock of the plateau was spread over the opening. When all was done the king went home to bed; a group of slaves went to the mines of Sinai, or to a farther place; and the vizier probably betook himself to a quiet corner of his villa where he could collapse and get drunk.

The Egyptians did get drunk. They brewed more kinds of beer than anyone up to, if not including, the Bavarians, and when time and finances permitted the excess they drank more of it than was good for them. It is, of course, a flight of fancy to imply that Hemiun celebrated the success of his colossal trick in this fashion, though we would not blame him if he did. However, Hemiun’s fine portrait statue is not that of a man who yielded to weakness very often; gazing at the imperious, rather ugly, face, we find ourselves thinking that if any man could have carried off such a risk, this one could have. The stately vizier succeeded beyond his fondest hopes, for the tomb of Queen Hetepheres survived the centuries in safety. Not until A.D. 1925 did any living man dream that such a tomb existed.

The Giza expedition of Harvard University had been working at that site for some years when the leg of a photographer’s tripod chipped the plaster covering the tomb and told the excavators that the seemingly solid rock was not what it looked to be. When the shaft was uncovered and the big stone blocks that filled it were seen to be undisturbed, the hopes of the staff of the expedition began to rise. At last the shaft was cleared and the men could descend, rather perilously, to the burial chamber. The sarcophagus was there, its massive lid still in place. This was a significant point, for when tomb robbers went to the trouble of removing one of these lids, whose weight is calculated in tons, they did not bother to put it back when they were through.

At this high moment of anticipation the shaft had to be refilled, for George Reisner, the head of the expedition, was in the United States. Reisner was one of America’s finest archaeologists. The accuracy and detail of his excavation reports set new standards for the profession; his work at Giza and in the Sudan produced definitive information on large areas of Egyptian history and archaeology. Much of Reisner’s later work was carried on under the threat of eventual blindness. Several operations for cataracts proved unsuccessful, but Reisner never stopped working on his magnum opus, a study of the architectural development of the Egyptian tomb, which is now a basic reference book. With limited sight and increasingly feeble health he continued digging throughout World War II, diving into a tomb when an enemy plane appeared over the pyramids.

He died during the war, still in harness; neither blindness nor worldwide conflict kept him from his work.

But in 1925 the shadow of tragedy was still in the future, and Reisner was at the height of his powers. He needed them; for when he hurried back to Giza after receiving a rapturous cablegram from his staff, he found a really meaty problem of excavation awaiting him. The tantalizing, closed sarcophagus was the pièce de résistance, but it was not the only thing in the chamber. The tomb was filled with the tattered remnants of what had once been an elaborate set of mortuary equipment.

Seeing a photograph of the original condition of the tomb chamber, one wonders why the excavators did not simply remove the debris with a shovel. This emergency burial chamber was too small to begin with. A bed canopy, in pieces, and the box that held its curtains had been laid atop the sarcophagus for lack of floor space. Next to it was a chest filled with objects, and a carry ing chair on top of a low bed. There were also two large armchairs, boxes, baskets, jars, and so on.

The furniture had been made of wood covered with thin sheets of gold or inlaid with ebony. The wood decayed with the years, crumbling quite literally into dust and allowing the inlay and the gold leaf to collapse to the floor. A number of stone jars, heavy things made of alabaster, had been placed on wooden shelves; when the shelves collapsed, the jars fell into the piles of broken inlay, making confusion complete.

Today the bed, carry ing chair, and other furniture of the queen adorn the Cairo Museum, looking just as they looked in the days when the royal lady stood among them. They are often ignored by the modern visitor because of their proximity to the showier and more costly tomb furnishings of Tutankhamon, but by some standards they are as beautiful as anything that notorious king ever owned. The designs, in their austere simplicity, are striking in themselves, and the details are exquisite. The titles of the queen and her husband were inlaid in gold hieroglyphs upon an ebony background. Each hieroglyph is less than an inch high, and is carved in low relief so fine that every feather of the tiny birds and every scale of the little serpents is clearly distinct. They are the most beautiful hieroglyphs ever carved or painted, whether you look at them individually or study the overall decorative effect. The reconstruction of this furniture is a brilliant example of archaeological skill and patience at its best. (The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston possesses superb copies of the objects; don’t overlook them if you visit that excellent institution.)

The work of clearing Hetepheres’s tomb chamber took months. The position of every tiny fragment had to be recorded, since the way in which it had fallen might provide a clue to the original design. At last the slow, agonizing task was completed and the chamber was empty of everything except the sarcophagus. Two years after Reisner got back from the United States, distinguished visitors and high government officials were lowered down the shaft in basket chairs and crammed themselves into the little room. The great moment had arrived. The heavy sarcophagus lid was prized up. In a hush of anticipation Reisner stooped to peer inside. Then he straightened and faced the distinguished audience.

“Gentlemen,” he said wryly, “I regret Queen Hetepheres is not receiving.”

Egyptologists become philosophical about such disappointments; Tutankhamon was only too unique. What puzzled Reisner was why the elaborate care and secrecy had been expended on the burial of an empty sarcophagus. It had been used for a burial; certain discolorations on the bottom proved that much, to Reisner’s satisfaction. After much cogitation he came up with the story I have related.

This theory has always bothered me, although I appreciate it for its dramatic qualities as much as for its ingenuity. Late at night I worry about Hetepheres, after I have finished worrying about burglars and why the cat hasn’t come in. What disturbs me is the fact that there have been other sarcophagi found in place, unopened—and empty. Two of them date to the Third Dynasty, not so distant in time from the heyday of Hetepheres. The cases are not exactly parallel, but yet there remains the incontestable and bewildering common feature of the empty sarcophagi. In recent years several scholars have suggested other explanations for Hetepheres’s unusual situation. Most of them are pretty boring, frankly. One at least supports a statement I made some years ago, to the effect that there may have been an unknown magical or cult practice involved; according to this theory, the empty coffins are the ka burials of the individuals. (The ka was an exact duplicate of the person, brought into existence by the gods at his or her birth, and surviving his death. Since it was insubstantial, it wouldn’t show up in a coffin.) I don’t insist on this theory, though. It is likely that the true stories of the death and subsequent adventures of the lady Hetepheres have yet to be told. Certainly no one would regret more than I the discovery that Reisner’s brilliant and picturesque reconstruction is not the correct one.

Khufu, the first king to build a pyramid at Giza, also began the private cemeteries there. Wishing to ensure his numerous progeny and friends a good life in the next world, he laid out a real City of the Dead, close to his pyramid so that his relatives might profit from his superior presence. The houses of the City were huge stone mastabas laid out in neat rows like city blocks. They must have looked attractive when first built, with their glistening sugar white walls and painted offering tablets. Later hoi polloi, ambitious for eternity, spoiled the symmetry by building smaller brick tombs around and between and atop the older mastabas. There were sixty-four tombs near Khufu’s pyramid to begin with; one of the largest was built for our old friend, the vizier Hemiun, whose postulated shenanigans with the royal mother’s sarcophagus had obviously gone undetected.

One can wander for hours among these tombs, reflecting with gentle melancholy upon the various philosophical considerations that cemeteries should induce. The impression we get of Giza today is not one of neatness but of a bewildering honeycomb of holes and pits and tomb entrances. We can walk into one of these tombs, stand where the family of the dead man stood to pay him the last rites, and see his face and figure on the funeral stela. Here we may sense how other people in other times sought immortality—not the common people, for their lot was a hole in the sand of the desert, where they had, indeed, a better chance of bodily survival than did their wealthier contemporaries. The greatest enemy of the dead in Egypt was not time, nor the natural processes of decay, but the tomb robber, who would not bother with a peasant’s grave. Almost all the mastaba tombs were robbed in antiquity, some within a few months of the funeral ser vice and by the very stoneworkers who had built the tomb. The massive pyramids fared no better; the devices used to foil prospective thieves posed no problem to the ingenuity of the ancient crooks. Even the heavy stone portcullises, which were lowered after the burial to block the entrance passages, were not serious obstacles; disdaining subterfuge, the tomb robbers cut through or around them. It was toilsome work, but it paid better than any other profession the robbers could have taken up.

Similar family cemeteries surrounded other royal tombs of the Old Kingdom, at Giza, Dahshur, and elsewhere. And what a family it was. From the inscriptions in these tombs scholars have learned a great deal about the sons and daughters and sisters and cousins and aunts of the Fourth Dynasty rulers. Complex genealogies have been constructed. They read like the outline for a soap opera. An uncle marrying his niece, a queen married to three kings in turn, younger sons succeeding to the throne, hints of dynastic feuds and marital disagreements. Unfortunately, that’s all they are—outlines. We will probably never know why Khufu’s eldest son did not succeed him (he might have died a natural death) or why his son Djedefre moved his pyramid ten kilometers away (there was plenty of room at Giza) or what happened to Djedefre’s eldest son, Baka. What’s really confusing is the tendency of royal females to be named after Mum or Grandma. There are three Meresankhs, and at least two Hetephereses.

Speaking of Djedefre, whose pyramid at Abu Roash is a right mess, he may have picked a different site for religious reasons. That’s always a safe theory.

Despite a thousand generations of tomb robbers, some precious objects from the Old Kingdom have survived—because they were not precious to the robbers. These are the works of art with which the tombs were furnished: offering tablets and statues and, in later tombs, painted wall reliefs. To the Egyptian, beauty was not its own excuse for being; his art had a very practical purpose, for it served the vital business of survival. Painted and carved reliefs supplied the dead man, magically, with all the objects he might require in the future life, and pictured the activities he hoped to enjoy. The full-length statues and busts were emergency equipment, in case the carefully preserved body did not survive.

Still, an artist may serve a pragmatic aim without losing sight of the beautiful. The Egyptian style of painting looks strange to someone who is accustomed to our notions of perspective; the human form, for instance, is always shown with the head in profile, eyes and shoulders in front view, and the rest of the body in profile again. The Egyptians did not work in this way because they could not draw a face in front view; behind their technique was a concept of the universe that made visual impressions unimportant. They did not care what something looked like, but what it was like, and they worked out a way of expressing the essential qualities of objects that satisfied them so thoroughly that they continued to use it for three thousand years. The rules governing painting and sculpture were set early in the game, probably by the end of the Third Dynasty, and are so strict that archaeologists refer to them as the Canon. They were never written out, but they were exemplified in every major work of art the Egyptian artist produced, as the Greek Polyclitus exemplified his own canon in the magnificent male figure called “The Doryphorus.”

For a nonspecialist, Egyptian sculpture is easier to enjoy than is Egyptian painting, since it was subjected to none of the radical distortions of two-dimensional art. The sculpture of the Old Kingdom is often quite stunning. Like the architecture, it is dignified, austere, and stately; like the architecture, it creates an unforgettable impression. It was equaled in later periods but never really surpassed; in fact, it was never surpassed in any time or any nation until Phidias of Athens took chisel in hand and showed his pupils how to make the white marble move and breathe.

It is hard to photograph statuary properly, and few of the photographs of Egyptian sculptures do them justice. One must see them to appreciate them fully. A number of museums in various countries managed to acquire magnificent examples during the period before the Egyptian government clamped down on exporting antiquities—the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, to mention only a few. Naturally the greatest collection is in the Cairo Museum. Here sits Khafre, enthroned, with the protective wings of the divine falcon enfolding his head, facing eternity with inhuman calm and confidence; nowhere else, perhaps, has the notion of divine kingship been expressed so concisely in a human face. Here too are such lesser folks as the noble Rahotep, with his neat little Clark Gable mustache, and his buxom wife Nefret. These last two statues are life-size and vividly painted; the eyes are inlaid with obsidian and rock crystal, and are so alive that the fellahin who first discovered them ran shrieking from the tomb when sunlight first illuminated the interested stare of the vizier and his lady.

Egyptologists sometimes play a game called “Pick Your Period.” Of the three broadly defined major periods of Egyptian history, some prefer the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties for their luxury, cosmopolitanism, and sophistication. Others vote for the Middle Kingdom because of its social advances; Egypt then showed the nearest approach to our favorite ideals of democracy and social welfare. But a good-size school of thought vaunts the triumphs of the Old Kingdom. At this time, they say, the real bases of Egyptian culture were laid. Later periods used them, altering them only slightly and not always for the better. Old Kingdom sculpture appeals to the classicist and the purist; and in architecture, what form could be more simple and more satisfying than the pyramid? We have already considered the achievements of medical science, and medicine was not the only profession that had been developed at this early time. Here is an excerpt from a mortuary document of a Fourth Dynasty official who was establishing the endowment of his tomb in the proper legal form:

Whatsoever mortuary priest of the endowment shall institute legal proceedings against his fellow, and he shall make a writ of his claim against the mortuary priest, by which he forfeits the portion in his possession; the lands, people and everything shall be taken from him which I gave to him for making mortuary offerings to me therewith. It shall be conveyed back to him because of not instituting proceedings before the officials concerning the lands, people and everything which I conveyed to the mortuary priests.

I don’t know what a lawyer might think of this document, but to me it has all the sophistication and legalistic detail that we could expect to find in a modern will. In its way, it testifies to the complexity of the society of which it was a product just as vividly, if less beautifully, than does the wonderful Fourth Dynasty sculpture.

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