Hieroglyphs in the Sun – Chapter 6

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 23/05/2024

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The Nile

The Nile! How much she had heard about this river and how much she had read! Sophia remembered Seferis’ poem “An Old Man on the Riverside,” and scattered verses began to echo in her mind. Verses that came to life as their riverboat glided along:

the great river that emerges from the great lakes deep in Africa

and was once a god and then became a road and a giver and a judge and a delta;

which is never the same, as the old scholars taught,

and yet remains always the same body, the same bed, and the same point,

the same orientation.

And further down:

this meaning that moves among herbs and grasses

and living creatures that graze and quench their thirst and people who sow and reap

and even large tombs and small dwellings of the dead.

Words that once moved her with the rhythm and meanings they conveyed, but now they were images before her, a living poem strolling along the riverbanks before her.

The waters were clear, cows grazed on the banks, and farmers cultivated the land. Here and there she saw ancient tombs carved into the hills, perhaps not of Pharaohs but of people who, in one way or another, contributed to the great civilization of this country.

Sophia saw other riverboats with tourists traveling ahead, behind them, parallel to them, and saw the feluccas, those local boats with triangular sails, adding an authentic touch of timelessness to the landscape. She watched, and her heart filled with images.

Small green islands in the middle of the river, blue waters, and the tranquility of another era. Civilization was far away, the wretched high-rises of Cairo were forgotten, and Sophia couldn’t get enough of breathing in beauty and filling herself with energy.

Life on the riverboat was wonderful. She had never experienced anything like this and was happy. Besides the natural beauty of the landscape, there was also the care and abundance of goods that she enjoyed daily. Rich meals, afternoon tea, daily cleaning of the cabin, luxuries she did not have in her life. No one had ever prepared anything for her. Even when she was sick, Kyriakos reluctantly made her a cup of tea. She didn’t know if it was something she would want forever, but for now, she enjoyed it.

On the riverboat, besides their group, there was a group from the United States and a group from Turkey. She was very impressed and surprised that Hans was socializing with their American fellow travelers. Although he had hardly spoken to anyone in their group, Sophia noticed that every evening after dinner, Hans stayed in the lounge and chatted with the Americans.

-Perhaps they have more common interests, she thought.

She herself had begun to make friends with other members of their group. They were all very pleasant, and she found she had a lot in common with Maria, who had also been a teacher. They talked about their lives at school, their love for children, and commented on what they saw daily at the archaeological sites they visited.

At the archaeological sites, where they came into contact with the locals, the hearts of the two former teachers broke. Children, who should be in school at that time, chased tourists to sell them beads and bracelets to make some pocket money. And when they asked them:


-No school, they answered.

To their credit, these children did not accept charity. Some people from their group offered them money, not wanting to buy anything, and these children chased them to give them at least a bracelet.

Their guide had told them when they asked him about it, that the children only take exams at school and have private lessons in the afternoon.

  • Doubtful method, Sophia and Maria discussed, even if it is true.

As teachers, they knew the value of classroom learning and attending lessons. They also knew that no nation could progress if its citizens were not educated.

They sometimes discussed whether their presence as Western tourists with their full wallets was a provocation in the eyes of these poor people. On the other hand, they understood that the more tourists come and the more they spend, the sooner the citizens of this country will stand on their own two feet.

One afternoon, while they were on the deck of the riverboat enjoying their afternoon tea, they heard someone shouting:

-Hello, hello!

To her great surprise, Sophia realized that five rowboats, all painted in a bright sky-blue color, had approached them, each carrying one or two locals. Her surprise grew when she understood that their purpose was to sell their wares, which were like the items found outside the archaeological sites, such as tablecloths, shawls, bags, and generally woven items that wouldn’t break.

They threw them with force, and the items landed on the ship’s deck. The buyers examined them and if they didn’t like them, they threw them back. Of course, there was always the risk that these items would fall into the water, which did happen, but the skillful Egyptians would grab them before they sank. All the items had a fixed price of 10 euros. The payment method was equally acrobatic. They threw a small bag with a weight inside, and you would put the ten euros in and throw it back, always with the chance it might fall into the water. You also had to aim for the correct boat to avoid paying a different seller. This complicated task was undertaken by a gentleman from their group because it was very difficult for the ladies to send the bag with the 10 euros to the correct seller, from a height of about 10 meters!

Sophia didn’t need anything from the items the locals were selling, but she found the method of selling so unique and the effort and risks the sellers faced so admirable that she bought a tablecloth to remember this day. It wasn’t even the color she would have preferred, but it was too much trouble to throw it back and have them send another one.

Some American women who saw them returning to their cabins with their purchases became interested in this strange way of shopping. When she saw them later, they too were loaded with a lot of products they bought from the floating sellers. A unique experience!

One noon, they were provided with lunch on the deck. They sat under the awnings set up there, and the staff prepared a barbecue, along with a variety of other side dishes, salads, pilaf, moussaka, dolmades, all exceptionally delicious. The riverboat gently flowed on the waters of the Nile, and on its banks, one could see cows, farmers cultivating the land, and feluccas with locals traveling. Sophia felt like she was living a dream.

That day, after lunch, Hans went to meet his friends, the Americans. It was then that she saw Nepheli showing her displeasure with his behavior. Sophia noticed that she moved away from their group and began to speak with him intensely, albeit quietly. The entire conversation was in German, and she couldn’t understand what they were saying, but somehow she was puzzled by her friend’s behavior.

-Instead of being happy that the child found company, she gets angry? she thought. Something strange is going on with those two, I’m now certain. But what?

One evening, an Egyptian night was organized on the riverboat, and the passengers could wear galabiyas and other Arab-style garments. Sophia didn’t have anything to wear, nor would she dare to change her conservative attire. So, she wore her simple clothes to appear at dinner.

That night, Nepheli made a grand entrance. She wore a long white galabiya with gold embroidery and a white shawl on her head like a turban. She was beautiful, but that wasn’t what left everyone speechless.

-You are the spitting image of Nefertiti! exclaimed a gentleman from the group.

-My God, what a resemblance, the ladies began to comment.

Indeed, as her slender neck was highlighted, and her almond-shaped eyes were emphasized, with the turban on her head resembling Nefertiti’s crown, she surely reminded them of the beautiful queen.

-Where did you find this galabiya?” the ladies asked. “It doesn’t look at all like the ones we bought from the street vendors.

-Oh my god, it’s pure silk! observed Anna.

-You are right, Nepheli replied, laughing. “My husband, Otto, brought me this galabiya on a trip to Egypt years ago. It’s made from the finest silk and embroidered with gold thread. Yes, you are right, I do look like Nefertiti. Otto, in our tender moments, used to call me ‘my Nefertiti.’

-That’s why, Sophia thought, the first day I saw her at the airport, I thought I knew her from somewhere. She looks so much like the bust of Nefertiti that is now in Berlin!

Their fellow travelers hadn’t yet recovered from the surprise when Hans entered the lounge. He too wore a green turban on his head, and once again, Sophia saw the green glow in the depths of his eyes.

-He has an exotic beauty, she thought. His eyes are almond-shaped, and his features are symmetrical. If he didn’t have that problem with his leg, he would be a very handsome man.

She hadn’t finished her thought when she heard their fellow travelers commenting loudly again:

-My God, he looks like Tutankhamun! What’s going on with you two?

-You got us, Nepheli said, laughing. There’s nothing going on with us. It just so happens that we bear some resemblance, and with the right clothing, this resemblance is enhanced and highlighted. You hadn’t noticed it before we dressed like this.

The whole discussion raised other questions among several members of the group who wanted to know more about Nefertiti and Tutankhamun, what their relationship was, and so on.

-After dinner, everyone comes to the lounge, and I will tell you what I know, Nepheli told them. My husband, Otto, was an Egyptologist, and I know quite a bit about these two and their relationship.

When dinner was over, everyone in the group, except Hans, settled in the lounge, eagerly awaiting Nepheli’s story. She sat on a chair in the middle of the group, with her head held high and her body upright, like an Egyptian queen, and began to speak.

-Nefertiti, whose name means ‘a beautiful woman has come,’ was the wife of Akhenaten, the heretic Pharaoh of Egypt, and lived between 1370 and 1330 BC, approximately. Her origins are unknown; there are several theories, but it’s not worth delving into them. Akhenaten, initially named Amenhotep IV, changed his name when he decided to build a new capital and distance himself from the religious and political center of Thebes and the traditional worship of Amun and many other deities. In doing so, he founded the world’s first monotheistic religion, in which the sun disk Aten was worshiped as the sole god, and the royal couple, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, were also venerated.

-From the surviving wall paintings, it seems that the Pharaoh had Nefertiti by his side as co-regent Pharaoh, and they ruled together. After his death, Nefertiti ruled Egypt for a few years because Tutankhamun was very young to rule.

-Now, let’s talk about Tutankhamun. Who was Tutankhamun? I think everyone has heard of him. Not because he was such a great Pharaoh but because his is the only pharaoh’s tomb found intact to date. It was discovered by Carter in 1922, and inside were more than 5,500 items, most of them gold. Tutankhamun died at the age of 19. Although there are various theories about the cause of his death, nothing is certain.

-Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, but not Nefertiti’s son, according to the prevailing view. Today, as you might know, science conducts DNA tests on mummies to determine the relationships between various kings. Very often, they discover that there is incest because they married brothers with sisters, cousins with cousins, to maintain the family line on the throne. They didn’t know, of course, that this caused diseases, which they realized later. Perhaps the disability Tutankhamun had in his legs came from incest.

-Many times, archaeologists discovered mummies whose identities were unknown, and for years they remained anonymous, like a mummy discovered in 1898 along with two others, an older woman, and a boy, in the Valley of the Kings. This mummy was named ‘the younger woman’ in comparison with the other two. Recent DNA tests determined that this mummy belonged to Tutankhamun’s mother and the older mummy to his grandmother, Tiy, who was the wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.

-The ‘younger woman’ appears to have had a violent death and died relatively young. Here, archaeologists are divided. Some say this mummy belongs to Nefertiti, whose tomb has never been found, making her Tutankhamun’s mother. Others, however, disagree and insist that another wife of Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s mother, and that Nefertiti was his stepmother.

-Wow, what a mess, said Anna. The whole story sounds like a Hollywood soap opera. I can imagine the movie title: ‘Who Was the Mother?’

-Don’t joke about it!” Maria commented. The famous always provoke interesting topics for discussion. And back then, the famous were the Pharaohs.

-Yes, Nepheli replied. And we are discussing them 3,500 years later. Will anyone remember Hollywood stars 3,500 years from now? Probably not.

At that moment, music started playing, and the passengers began to dance to oriental rhythms. At one point, Nepheli got up and asked something from the music manager. Soon, a different rhythm, more mystical than oriental, was heard, and Nepheli began to dance. Her dance was not sensual but more like a ritual, as one might imagine ancient priestesses swaying in a temple.

Everyone sat and watched in awe as her body moved slowly, her galabiya fluttering like a breeze, and her hands tracing shapes in the air like snakes. It was an exquisite sight; unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

When she finished, everyone applauded enthusiastically, and the questions came pouring in:

-Where did you learn to dance like that? What dance is this? What does it symbolize? and many more.

-I have learned to dance in Germany at a school that taught ancient mystical dances, Nepheli replied. “It could be Egyptian; it could be ancient Greek. But it fits so well with the atmosphere here! That’s why I danced it for you.

That night, Sophia lay in bed with many questions swirling in her mind. So many that she couldn’t put them in order.

-Why did Nepheli provoke the interest of their fellow travelers with her outfit and dance, when until now she tried to remain unnoticed? Why did Hans seem irritated by his mother’s behavior? What was the secret these two were hiding? Was it their resemblance to Nefertiti and Tutankhamun? But if so, why expose it in public? No, it’s something else, she concluded. For now, she couldn’t understand what. She would wait…


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