Chapter XIX, where Nil hears a lot of things he finds hard to believe
In the daylight the Temple looked even more impressive than in the night. The high walls, made of yellowish, almost white, limestone, were interrupted with the massive towers of the gate. In the first court a junior priest told Nil to wash his hands and face in a large stone bowl on a high stand, and his feet in a special basin built into the court’s pavement. Then, still barefooted, they proceeded straight ahead into the main internal gates.
The priest led Nil and Simaat into a wide covered passageway going up from the valley into the Upper Temple built on an artificial mound dominating the city. There were no windows in the walls so only the oil lamps were giving a murky light to the way. Dark niches and alcoves were opening on the right and on the left, but it was hard to see whether they were occupied with anything or were empty. The strong smell of incense was filling the air.
“It’s a great honor, Roman,” Simaat said quietly. “You will be allowed to attend the service. Wait until it ends, and the Great Seer may be inclined to tell you much more than you would get otherwise.”
Nil just nodded back. He had already come to the same conclusion, and was ready to waste an hour watching the ceremony. Egyptian priests were famous for their closeness and for keeping their secrets. A little leverage like that would certainly be beneficial, Nil decided, if not now, sometime later. Still, there was an uncomfortable feeling. How did this ceremony go and what is his role in it, Nil wondered and some second thoughts popped up in his mind.
“I hope I will be able to hear what he says afterward,” Nil asked Simaat quietly.
“No matter what you’ve heard, Roman, we don’t sacrifice humans,” Simaat answered giving Nil a haughty glance. “We don’t even sacrifice bulls.”
Nil looked at him, trying to figure if he could trust these words.
“Anyway, you left your sandals at the entrance, not your sword,” Simaat shrugged his shoulders. “What are you afraid of?”
He is right, Nil decided, none of Egyptians had a weapon on them and, anyway, it was unlikely they would risk harming a Roman official.
The light at the end of the passageway grew larger and larger until they entered the internal court of the Upper Temple. Evening light flooded the place and looked especially bright after the darkness of the passageway. A rectangular base, about ten feet tall, with doors in it, occupied the center of the yard. A gold-plated pyramid-shaped benben stone was shining bright in the light of the setting sun on top of the high pedestal. The pedestal was in the shape of a narrow truncated pyramid or a very wide – many paces in diameter – stele located on the top of the base.
The High Priest was standing at the altar in front of the pedestal facing the sun. His hands were raised high and he was chanting something loudly in Egyptian. The junior priest led Nil to a group of priests standing in the yard, watching the High Priest and the sun, mostly silent, occasionally repeating separate words of the Great Seer. Nil stood behind them, observing the ceremony.
The sun was setting. Soon the shadows covered the yard, the priest, the basement, and started to climb the pedestal. Up, up, and now only the golden benben stone was shining from above. The chanting become louder, and all the other priests joined the Great Seer in the prayer. They probably wish a victory to their god, Nil thought unable to understand the words of the alien language. While investigating in Alexandria and here, in Heliopolis, Nil heard some Egyptian legends including one about the Sun-god fighting the evil snake to ensure that the next day comes.
Anyway, the last ray of sun went out, the chanting stopped, and the crowd of priests dispersed, each of them busy with other affairs. The High Priest turned to them. He was dressed for the ceremony in simple sandals, a blue kilt embroidered with white, yellow and red multi-cornered stars; a belt with multi-colored gems going around his waist; wide flat collar around his neck made of white, red and blue gems and covering his shoulders and uppermost part of his breast and back; and a striped white and red headcloth covering his shaved head.
“You can go now. Wait in the inn,” he said to Simaat, and dismissed the guide with a simple gesture. After they left, he turned to Nil.
“Let’s take a walk on the wall,” he said and pointed to a narrow stairway going up on the side of the Temple wall to the very top. On the way he said something in Egyptian to a junior priest passing by, who went off and brought a lighted torch in less than a minute.
“He does not speak Latin or Greek, so we can talk freely,” the Great Seer said and started to climb the stairs. Nil and the junior priest followed.
The wall on the top was about fifty feet wide. It was wider than many of the streets of Heliopolis, which laid outside of the walls in the soft light of the dusk. The priest leaned his elbow on a stone parapet looking over the city into the river and the surrounding marshlands.
“So, tell me, why did you come here to find your criminals?” he asked.
“I thought that you were the only people who could really do such a thing,” Nil said. “Burning a huge city without taking it over – I don’t know anybody else who can do that.”
“In other words, you thought that you knew something about this land, and based on that, you decided that we are the only ones who can do that, right?”
“Yes, that’s what I said,” Nil agreed.
“Actually, you are wrong on both accounts,” the priest said.
“Yes, anybody can burn Rome and you don’t know anything about this land.”
“Yes, you already told me so yesterday,” Nil said. “Only I have trouble believing you. How can anybody do that?”
“Easily,” the priest said. “Take twenty people you trust. You are centurion, right? That’s one fifth of your people. Dress them as traders from different provinces and lands. Send them to Rome different ways, apart from each other. When in Rome, they should rent a dwelling in the same district. Choose the district with the most crumbled space and more wooden houses. Then, on a fixed day at a fixed time each of them must spill some oil around their rooms, start the fire, and quietly leave. When the fire grabs many houses, let them run on the streets and cry that they lost their houses, or just make them leave Rome at once. Twenty fires started in the same district will make it impossible for vigils to put them all out. When the whole district is on fire, nobody will be able to stop it from spreading to the other districts. Can you do anything against such a plan?”
So simple, Nil thought, and so efficient. So deadly efficient. I was right, only these people could do that.
“Notice,” the priest said, like he was hearing Nil’s thoughts, “that almost anybody can do it. You don’t need an Egyptian for that. Greek, Jew, Roman – does not matter. In fact, you can do it.”
“Then why did nobody think of it before?” Nil asked. “Rome has plenty of enemies. Parthians would pay gold for such a plan.”
“Because,” the priest said slowly and clearly, “most people don’t think at all.”
“I think,” Nil said.
“Did you think of this plan?”
“Most people don’t think,” the priest repeated. “When you think, you have a purpose, you ask the right questions, and you get the right answers. What most of the people do is not thinking, it’s daydreaming. What’s happening in their minds has no clear purpose, they ask wrong questions, and they get wrong answers, sometimes not even related to the wrong questions they just asked themselves.”
“Then we get back to the Egyptians, right?” Nil asked. “You say that people don’t think, and you need to know how to do something before you actually do it, right? Who else?”
“Thank you for your faith in my people,” the priest said with an ironic tone. “However, we are not the only people capable of thinking. Some Greeks think,” the priest paused, then added, “occasionally. And some Romans are not hopeless either. When Plato studied with one of my predecessors, it was not so bad. Not a star student, of course, but not bad at all.”
“Then who may think of that, to help the Christians?” Nil asked.
“Why do you think that Christians are involved at all?”
“They hate Rome and they prophesy its destruction, right?” Nil said.
“That’s bullshit, young man,” the priest said. “Religious fanatics may want to do something, but they are rarely capable of really doing it. Their minds are blurred with an artificial world they create for themselves.”
“‘Bullshit’?” Nil smiled. “I thought, bulls are holy here in Egypt.”
“That’s another bullshit, young man,” the priest said indifferently. “But let’s talk about it later. You see, your problem is that you are doing it the wrong way. Remember, purpose-question-answer. You are trying to start with an answer, which is a completely top down way. Do you know what your purpose is?”
“To prevent the fire from happening, I assume; to save Rome,” Nil said.
“So, to prevent or to save? These are different purposes,” the priest said.
“To save,” Nil said after a momentarily delay.
“Good,” the priest said thoughtfully and paused. “You are worth spending some time on. Anyway, tell me, if your purpose is to save Rome, why do you care about the fire?”
“Isn’t that what threatens Rome?” Nil asked. “Besides, that’s what my current assignment is.”
“No, it’s not what threatens Rome,” the priest said. “You Romans own the world, you will rebuild Rome even better than it is now. The empire will only get stronger after that. A fire cannot do much harm to Rome itself. And I have some second thoughts about your assignment as well.”
“But it will harm Romans,” Nil said. “Some will die in the fire, some will starve.”
The priest crossed his arms on his chest, then propped up his chin with his left fist, looking at Nil, puzzled. “You may be really worth the effort.”
“So, assuming we want to prevent the fire, what would be the right question?” Nil asked.
“You know the right question,” the priest said. “You Romans made it a principle in your judicial system. Qui bono? Who profits? Imagine that the fire already happened. Dismiss religious fanatics, victims of unshared love, fools craving for great deeds. They may be involved, but they are all just pawns. At the heart of conspiracy are always people who want two things – power and money. In Rome it may actually be the other way around, though… but it does not matter. Power and money, money and power. Who will get more power and more money? They are the people you are looking for.”
Nil stood dumbfounded and not knowing what to say.
“You are really worth the effort, Nil,” the priest said with a smile. “A fool in your place would already start shouting that I am wrong. Shocked?”
“I should be,” Nil said, slowly picking the words. “And I don’t like what I’ve heard. But you are right. In fact, that’s how I do most of my investigations.”
“Good,” the priest said and nodded. “Why not do that now?”
“If you are right, that means…” Nil said and looked at the priest.
“That means that your arsonists are in Rome,” concluded the priest for Nil with a slight nod.
“Oh, shit!” It was the only thing Nil could say.
“I cannot agree more,” the priest shrugged his shoulders, waiting for Nil to come to his senses. “That’s why I had doubts about your assignment.”
Nil recalled his meeting with the prefect. He said, “It’s strange that the enemies can do such a great service for the Empire…” He also said, “For the real loyalty.”
“Oh, shit!” Nil said again.
“You are repeating yourself,” the priest noted.
Nil looked to the darkness outside – the dusk was almost already gone and the moon had not risen yet. They kept silent for a few minutes.
“Then I need to go back to Rome and make the prefect stop with this plan, right?” Nil said at last.
“You are starting with the answers again,” the priest noticed dispassionately.
Nil looked back to the darkness behind the wall. You start to think before speaking or acting, Nil recalled Simaat’s words from yesterday’s conversation. Maybe that’s what he needs to do. To think.
“So how can I prevent that?” Nil asked.
“That’s a question,” the priest said. “It’s better than starting with an answer, but it’s still a wrong way.”
“How do I find the purpose?” Nil asked.
“That’s a much better question,” the priest said with a smile. “Most people never go so far. And we will talk about that today.”
Nil turned again to the darkness outside.
“So, no gods, just men,” he said at last.
“No gods,” the priest agreed. “May I ask, what do you need gods for?”
“To help, to protect,” Nil said. “Well, actually, you don’t as much need gods, they just are.”
“No, they are not,” the priest said.
“You don’t believe in gods?” Nil asked. “I would not expect that from an Egyptian.”
“It’s not about what I believe in,” the priest said patiently. “It’s about what exists and what does not. There are no gods. There is God, the one and the only.”
“You sound like a Jew,” Nil said.
“Oh, those exiles,” the priest said.
“According to them, they put up quite a fight to get out,” Nil said remembering his conversations with some Jews when he just started to investigate Christians.
“Of course they say that.” The priest shrugged his shoulders. “If you need to know, it was a very long time ago. They were very odd people. Their holy people did not shave and did not wash their bodies much either. It was like a condition of holiness, can you imagine anything as stupid? Our priests shave their bodies and fast on water for several days before entering the holiest of holy of our temples. These people saw it differently. So the rest of them did not fancy shaving their heads either. And if you live in a hot swamp – that’s where On is – and don’t shave, you are getting a lot of nasty stuff in your hair. Their quarter was an abomination to this city. Swarms of flies multiplied in the remains of animals that they used to slaughter and eat. Their sewage polluted the river and it was not safe to drink water down the stream from them. During one of their celebrations, the water became red with the blood of the stock they slaughtered, and the frogs were jumping out of the river, unable to live in such water. Then, naturally, they got some sickness, and it spread around the city. It was especially bad on children. We had to exile them.”
He stood up, sighed, and started to pace slowly along the parapet. Nil and the priest with the torch followed him.
“I feel pity for them. Can you imagine leaving everything you have, being forced to go? People of On gave them some money, gold and gems for the road, to buy food on the way – you know, as any good neighbor would do – but I doubt it helped them much. Our priest from this temple, Osarsiph, promised to take them to a good place to live, where there is enough land and food for them and their animals. He left, leading them North and keeping their hopes up. They called him Moses. I understand he became their prophet. On the way he taught them how important it is to be clean, cleanness is the cornerstone of their beliefs now. He also taught them the same thing I just told you. There are no gods, there is only one true God. And after that, it looks like he really fulfilled his promise. I’d say they found their place now, and the whole thing was very good for them.”
“How do you know all of this?” Nil asked.
“We have some records from those times,” the priest said. “Not much survived after the Persian invasions, but still we have some. And there are things that I heard from my predecessor and older priests when I was younger.”
“Yes, heard. When an older priest teaches an apprentice the geography and what’s around, and they come to Judea, this is what the apprentice learns. And if you are asking me how reliable this information is, understand that it was very long ago, and Jews never were a special point of interest to us.”
“I thought that of all people, you would know for sure,” Nil said. “After all, you were around when it all happened.”
“And you were around traveling here from Alexandria merely days ago,” the priest said. “What if you sit down now and describe your way on a papyrus? Would it be reliable?”
“Yes,” Nil said. “Unless I’d have a reason to lie.”
“But nobody who reads it will know if you had such a reason or not. And that’s not all. Say, who did you travel with?”
“Simaat, priest from Alexandria and the head of their temple police, a legionnaire from the Thebes garrison–” Nil started.
“No, you traveled with the second prophet of the Temple of Isis, also called the First Priest,” the old man interrupted him. “You see, even when an author doesn’t have any reasons to lie, you still don’t know if he is telling the truth. That’s what history is about, taking the knowledge a droplet after a droplet, carefully comparing it, trying to make sense. That’s the only way you can hope to find the truth about the past. After all, you are an investigator, you should know that.”
He paused again, continuing his slow pace.
“Anyway, it’s not me talking like a Jew, it’s them talking like us,” the priest returned to the topic. “They took it all from here.”
“They would disagree with you,” Nil said.
“Of course, they will,” the priest said. “Don’t be stupid. Just watch and compare. I take it you never read their sacred texts?”
“I didn’t,” Nil admitted.
“Then ask them, when you have a chance, how many people came to Egypt and how many left it,” the priest said. “And to save the time, I’ll tell you what their own sacred texts tell. Here came less than a hundred people – a single family. They emerged from here as a people in the hundreds of thousands. So, where did they become a people, not a mere family?”
“I see your point,” Nil said.
The priest parted his hands. “Do you want to hear more? Ask them about the Ark of the Covenant, as they call it. It’s a box with handles which should be in the holiest of holy of their Temple. Similar arks are almost in every temple in this land; they are supposed to be the residence of their ‘gods’. Of course, you will not find one in this temple, the true God cannot live in a box, that’s ridiculous, but as a matter of fact, Jews copied it.”
“They may say that you copied it.”
“No offense to your friends, but that would be hard to believe,” the priest said with a smile. “You see, they were here at the time that we call a ‘New Kingdom’. ‘New’ stands here for a reason. We are a little older than that.”
“‘A little’? Then it could be true.”
“What a naïve mind,” the priest said and laughed shortly. “It’s beautiful. Let me explain that. Romulus and Remus were saved by a wolf about seven or eight centuries ago. No offense, you Romans are quite good kids… very promising. It’s just that you are really young. Jews built their first temple about ten or eleven centuries ago. Now about this land. We were here for about fifty centuries, and our first king ruled this land about thirty centuries ago.”
The priest paused, looking at Nil. “Got the idea?”
“Yes,” Nil said grasping the joke. “Your ‘little’ is rather large.”
“Precisely. Another example,” the priest said, “I take it you met their High Priest while you were in Jerusalem?”
“Yes, I did,” Nil said.
“Did you notice a large square thing with multi-colored gems fixed to his breast?”
“Yes,” Nil said. “I remember I wondered why he needs one.”
“He does not,” the priest said. “It’s just a reflection, a memory. This belt,” he pointed out to his belt with gems going around his waist, “was only permitted to the kings and High Priests. They made it larger and positioned it so that everybody could see it.”
“But they have just one god,” Nil said. “And Egyptians have a lot of temples to different ones.”
“Temples, yes,” the priest agreed. “Do you remember what was the temple, where a priest sent you to On?”
“Amon-Ra in Alexandria,” Nil said.
“I take it, they don’t worship Amon there in Jerusalem, right?” the priest asked.
“No, they recognize only one god.”
“Now tell me, how do they end their prayers?” the priest asked. “Or how do Christians end their prayers, it’s the same word, and you should have heard it many times.”
“Amen?” Nil said.
“Amon, amen…” the priest twisted his palm one way then another in an uncertain gesture. “Anyway, as I said, Osarsiph taught them well and it serves them well to follow the main secret of this temple and be faithful to the true God.”
“One and the only god is the main secret of this temple?” Nil asked. “Then why have you told me?”
“Because you’ve asked,” the priest said. “I will not tell it to the crowd the way I told it to you, of course. You came the long way, you came to me and asked. You deserve to hear your answer.”
“What if I start to tell everybody your secret?” Nil said.
“Go ahead,” the priest shrugged his shoulders. “Who would believe you? Jews were doing that for a millennium, are there many people listening?”
“And what if I refer to you?”
“Had anybody ever heard me recognizing any god but the true and the only one?” the priest asked. “People listen, but they don’t hear. You see, true temple secrets are guarded differently than little people secrets. Whoever should not know the secret, he just cannot comprehend it. That’s it. Unless people are ready, you can preach in a wilderness as well.”
“Your secrets are guarded well,” Nil said, slowly trying to digest what he heard.
“They are,” the priest agreed. “Isn’t it sad?”
“You also seem to know a lot about Jews.”
“Yes, I fancied them when I was an apprentice. I had an affair with a Jewish girl, so I looked for pieces of knowledge about her people. Seems like I collected a lot. In a sense, I am somewhat proud of them, at what they achieved. Jews may be pesky and annoying, but they are our people, they are part of us. They may even outlive this land. Who knows, in a time they could be the last people of Kemet around.”
“I did not expect to hear anything like that from you, or from any Egyptian for that matter,” Nil said, rubbing his cheek pensively.
“Of course you did not. You don’t have a clue about what this land is,” the priest said. “Tell me, what made you think that you would get your answers here in the first place?”
“Well, Egypt is old and mysterious, as well as the Nile that feeds you,” Nil said. “You are different from the rest of us. Your gods help you, and Egyptian priests know how to talk to them. You possess many powers that nobody else has. Your kings were gods too—”
The priest raised his hand, and Nil stopped.
“The only correct thing you said, is that we are mysterious to you,” the priest said. “Let see, first of all: the name of this land is not Egypt, it’s Kemet, ‘the Black Land’. ‘Aegyptus’ is the Greek word. They probably distorted something from our language but nobody, including them, can recognize what it was. Actually, Greeks gave up guessing and invented a myth about a king with such name that ruled this land. Completely fictional king, of course. We are still a mystery to them. Anyway, this land is called Kemet, ‘The Black Land’ as an opposed to ‘the Red Land’, the dry, hot and dead Deshret that surrounds Kemet. Kemet is the land of black soil that is made fruitful by Iteru, the River. ‘Nile’ is another Greek name, meaning ‘river valley’. About powers – how do you think it happened that we are ruled by Rome? So much for the power. No offense, you, Romans, are good kids, but you just need the time to grow and learn.”
“You are referring to Romans as kids the second time,” Nil said. “Why?”
“Because you are kids,” the priest said. “Our kids. Of our empire, of Kemet.”
“I find it hard to believe, Egyptian,” Nil said screwing up his eyes.
“It’s not the first thing you found hard to believe today, is it?” the priest said. “You said that we revere our kings as gods. Does ‘Divine Augustus’ ring a bell? Did it strike you that Rome got it’s first emperor after the future emperor married our queen and had a child from her?”
“But this child did not become an emperor!”
“Your loss,” the priest noticed. He walked to the internal side of the wall and leveled a thin layer of sand on the parapet with his hand. “Draw me the first letter of your alphabet here,” he said.
Nil draw the capital letter ‘A’ on the sand with his finger.
The priest nodded, and then waived his hand toward the obelisk with benben stone. “Looks familiar?”
Nil looked at the obelisk. Now, in the light of raising moon with only its silhouette visible, it was really similar to a very large and narrow letter ‘A’.
The priest added a little circle on top of the letter, making it ‘Å’. “You, probably, are more accustomed to seeing this symbol around here; it’s just a variation, a pyramid, the benben stone meeting the first ray of rising Sun. Another interpretation is an eye on top of the pyramid meeting the first ray of the rising sun. Who knows what religious artifacts of the future will fancy it?”
He kept a silence for a moment.
“Want more? Your Roman eagle is our falcon Horus. Here is the purpur of your emperors,” he said and pointed out to the red stripe on his headcloth. “And here, the white robes of your priests,” he said pointing to a white stripe. “And only God knows how many future empires are here,” he pointed to his kilt with three, four, five, and six-corner stars. “Kemet is a crib of the civilization, and the mother of civilizations. It’s a light in the darkness, and we witnessed how this light gave reflections first, then sparks, and then the sparks became new lands and new people.”
He took the torch from the junior priest and dismissed him. Then he walked to the outer side of the wall and raised the hand with the torch high. Orange glimpses reflected in the water of the channel down below.
“You see, even this minuscule light makes reflections in the river,” the priest said. “And what if the light is really bright? You cannot be bright and have no reflections, no progeny.”
He threw out the torch high up into the air. It threw a ball of sparks, reflected in the water like a silent fire, and then disappeared below in the darkness.
“It went off,” Nil said.
“Yes, it did,” the priest said. “And so will we some day. But not every spark is dead. One fell on the dry land of Judea. Another on the dry grass on Palatine Hill. Who knows where the others landed. I only can say that some time in the future the world will be full of our reflections, our children fighting each other like the ‘gods’, the children of Re of our legends.”
“You seem very confident about all this,” Nil said.
“Yes, I am,” the priest answered. “It’s actually very simple. You Romans can deny your heritage and continue to be young and stupid. Or you can be proud of it, and count your history for fifty centuries. It’s your choice.”
He turned to Nil, rested upon the parapet, almost sat on it, and crossed his arms on his breast.
“Look,” Nil said, slowly picking the words. “You may be right, but what I cannot accept is that we are mere reflections. We brought something to the world too. In fact, we brought a lot.”
“Of course, you did,” the priest agreed. “Any good child brings more to the world than he gets from the parents. Although you may be unaware of the greatest thing you brought.”
“What is it?” Nil asked, surprised with the change of the tone.
“Mass entertainment, your games,” the priest said. “Nobody before managed to do something like that. We had religious celebrations but that’s different, too mandatory. Greeks had their Olympic games but they were rare. And their theatre… it’s a rather elitist thing. You are the first to consume the masses with such a mind-numbing experience. Your plebs just sleep, eat, work, and whatever time is left is consumed by the entertainment, effectively taking them out of the political equation. That’s a wonderful invention. The only thing that beats it would be to bring the entertainment directly into each of their huts, making working people disappear from the streets altogether. Sleep, work, eat, entertain, sleep, work, eat, entertain, a perfect cycle for human animals. You Romans are unsurpassed in this achievement. Of course, other children had their contributions as well.”
“Yes,” the priest said. “Let’s see. Jews invented a jealous God. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful invention. For forty centuries we could not make everybody believe in the one and only God, and they did it. A janitor, a tailor, a brick maker, even a toilet cleaner, they all believe in one God. It’s a pity this will not work in an empire – too many people, too different.”
“So, this one is lost,” Nil said. “Right?”
“Absolutely not,” the priest said and solemnly shook the head. “Their offshoot, these Christians, they brought another wonderful invention – the loving God, son of the jealous God, still the same God. I don’t know who can beat that. Nobody. Think about it: God, who sacrificed his own son to ensure forgiveness and eternal life for every human. God, who loves every man, woman, and child in the world. God, who grieves over every quarry worker, every widow, every hungry infant. In fact, you may be right, Rome will face the fire. Not just Rome, the whole world around us. Those Christians, they are going to take the world like fire. All this thanks to the resurrected loving God.”
“I see,” Nil said. “Resurrection is their new idea, right?”
“Not exactly,” the priest said. “Osiris resurrected to rule the underworld and to care for the afterlife of our people. Re is traveling underworld every night and raising up every morning alive and well. Resurrection is an old idea. An omnipotent God who is human and loving – that’s really new and all powerful. I only don’t understand why you don’t like them.”
“Whom?” Nil asked. “Christians?”
“Yes,” the priest said. “They are perfect for you. A loving caring God who is conveniently where the God should be, in the heavens. And who represents him on Earth?”
Nil did not say a thing expecting the priest to continue his monologue.
“The emperor!” the priest said. “It’s even better than a divine emperor, because if you are divine, you should show some miracles. In fact, that’s part of the reason behind building those pyramids. And if you are just a human appointed by the God? Nothing. You don’t possess any powers and, still, you are entitled to a complete and unconditional obedience. Your God is omnipotent, he would not allow him to be a ruler if he did not want that. And if the ruler is bad, well, apparently he is sent to you in punishment, it still does not change a thing. It’s a perfect religion for an empire.”
“But how do you call them your children? Both Jews and Christians despise Egypt,” Nil said.
“Just like many other children do to their parents when they grow up. So what?” the priest said. “For reference, the founder of Christians was brought here,” he pointed his finger down, “to this city as a newly born infant. He was grown here until the king in Judea died and they could return.” He smiled at his thoughts and then laughed light-heartedly. “Jews are slaughtering bulls in their temple to show how different they are from us. And those Mithraist Persians, they built their whole mythology around the sacrifice of a bull. How cute – the bravery of the young. Actually, they are very good kids too.”
“I thought you worship bulls,” Nil said. “I know, I know, that’s a bullshit, still I don’t understand.”
“No, we don’t worship bulls,” the priest said. “Commoners do. Commoners worship bulls, gods, sky, sea. Everything that may bring harm, they fear, and everything they fear they worship. That’s how our kings became ‘gods’. That’s why the jealous God does not work in an empire. If you have a small country, all your people are of the same origin, and if somebody wants to worship something strange, what do you do? You can despise them, cut them from the trade and other people, or even kill them. In a small country, you can solve this problem. And what if you rule an Empire? Too bad, too many of your subjects believe in odd things and are ready to die for them. You despise them and they revolt. You kill them, and you have nobody to rule.”
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Nil said. “You fared very well for a while, and so do we. Anyway, who cares about commoners?”
“That’s what we do here. In this land we have consecrates, who know the truth, and commoners, who are free to worship whatever they fancy. And through the state and commoners’ cults, the consecrates rule them and keep their behavior socially acceptable. Those Zoroaster Persians do the same. Jews don’t have an empire on their hands, neither do Greeks. But, you see, you have to care for commoners. Because sometimes, really smart and strong people are born between them. And if you treat them as commoners, they become leaders. And then your commoners revolt, and that’s nasty. You need to get these strong and smart commoners into consecrates. Here, in this land, a commoner who is smart and moral and insistent may become a consecrate. Unfortunately, most of them are neither smart, nor moral. And it’s not easy if the truth is a secret, and they are raised to believe in false gods.”
“Did I become a consecrate?” Nil asked. “I don’t remember that, but you tell me all this stuff.”
“Not yet,” the priest said. “It’s like in those Christians stories, death cleans, forgives, rebirth gives another chance. Crucifixion-resurrection, death-rebirth, sunset-sunrise. That’s why I wanted you to be at the sunset ceremony. You were cleaned, and now it only depends on you who will see the rising sun tomorrow with your eyes.”
“But why me?” Nil asked. “I came here on an odd mission, asked some pretty stupid questions, and now, all of the sudden, you are initiating me into your secrets?”
“Because you are very promising,” the priest said. “I tested you, Nil. I watched your reactions, and listened to your words, even if it did not look so. You are smart. And you are not just doing your job, you serve. And, I believe, you don’t serve the emperor, you serve the Empire. And that’s the next best thing after serving God, the real God. In fact, sometimes, it’s the same.”
“Empires are not about emperors, they are about people. You sow the seeds, you wait until they grow. Then savages come from Deshret and rob you. How do you protect yourself? By pulling together with other people. If savages are numerous, you have to be numerous too. If the year is bad and you don’t have crops, what do you do? You die. Unless, of course, somebody saved some grain from the last year, and now gives it to you. Who pulls the army to defend from savages? Who saves the grain to survive a bad year? The state, the Empire. Empire serves people. Serve the Empire, and you serve the people.”
“A lot of people don’t live under Rome, and they’re doing seemingly well,” Nil argued.
“Not every land is Kemet, not every land is Rome. There are places where you can have crops year after the year, no hassle, no worries. You just stick a dry cane into the ground and it sprouts with fruits. And your enemies are the neighbor family, as small and weak as yours. Then you don’t need an empire, and you live in your small families, like they do in Canaan, or in small cities, like Greeks. Only its not for long. Sooner or later strong and numerous savages still come to your land, and if you are not ready, greedy barbarians rule you one after another, robbing you of your fruits, and usually much more than that. That’s what was going on in the northern land between Tigris and Euphrates for millennia. If you are lucky enough, an empire comes and defends you against the barbarians. If you are smart like the Greeks, you embrace it and benefit from it.”
“The land between Tigris and Euphrates is ruled by Parthia, right?”
“And before that, Persia. And before that, Babylon. And before that, Assyria. But they are not empires. There are only two principles of the state in the world – the state for the people, and the people for the state. When a single ruler exists, the first is called monarchy, the second is tyranny. The state for the people creates empires. They are long-lasting because the state and the people support each other, becoming stronger and stronger. The second type is not an empire, it’s just savages who conquered enough land to rob. Their states die as soon as they rob the people of everything the people have. Then there is nothing to rob anymore and the whole point of their state disappears.”
“Still, how is it the same as serving God?”
“Look at the false gods of this land,” the priest said. “Most of them are supposed to be the children of one main god, right? They are actually individual sides of God, like his might, his strength, his love, but only consecrates understand that. For commoners they are just children of God. That’s the only reason they are worshipped at all. And people are the children of the real God. So serving the people, you serve the children of God. The only difference from the crowd is that you serve the real children of the real God.”
“That’s all fascinating,” Nil said. “But I still don’t see how it relates to me.”
“Two reasons,” the priest said. “First, you asked for that. You understood something about this particular situation you have on your hands now. You need to decide what to do. Don’t you feel it touches some important springs and gears making the Roman Empire work? If so, you need to understand these springs and gears, right?”
“Possibly,” Nil said. “What’s the second reason?”
“Purpose-questions-answers, remember?” the priest asked. He was not dispassionate anymore. He looked Nil straight in the eyes with a tenacious, alert expression. “You looked for a mission. I may have one for you.”
Nil did not say anything, not knowing what to say.
“Look, you’ve got quite enough for one day,” the priest said. “I suspect your head is spinning right now and you need to understand a thing or two. Go home now. Sleep. Sleep well. In the morning, don’t go interrogating the local priests, it’s a waste of time. Explain to Simaat that I told you to do so. Go to a tavern, have some wine. We make great wine here in Kemet. Think. You may talk to Simaat, if you want. He is a high ranking priest; he knows a lot. Think for a day. Have a good night sleep again. Go to the tavern and think again. And if you still feel like coming back, come here one hour before sunset. And we will talk again.”
They went down the stairway. A junior priest was waiting for them.
“Accompany our guest to the inn,” the Great Seer ordered.
“I don’t need a guard,” Nil said.
“Of course,” the Great Seer smiled. “But you need a torch and somebody who knows the city.” He waived his hand to Nil and went out.
It was almost the middle of the night when Nil got to the inn. The Great Seer was right, Nil's head was spinning and it was hard to make much sense from the mess that filled his mind now. Simaat was soundly asleep, so without further conversations, Nil took off his armor and laid down on the floor with his cloak as a bed sheet. Egyptians did not fancy couches or any other risen places except the benches around the wall, at least not in this inn. And then he went to sleep, leaving the gladius nearby, just in case.
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