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Khufu's Wisdomby Naguib Mahfouz
The Possessor of Divine Grandeur and Lordly Awe, Khufu, son of Khnum, reclined on his gilded couch, on the balcony of the antechamber overlooking his lush and far-ung palace garden. This paradise was immortal Memphis herself, the City of the White Walls. Around him was a band of his sons and his closest friends. His silken cloak with its golden trim glistened in the rays of the sun, which had begun its journey to the western horizon. He sat calmly and serenely, his back resting on cushions stuffed with ostrich feathers, his elbow embedded in a pillow whose silk cover was striped with gold. The mark of his majesty showed in his lofty brow and elevated gaze, while his overwhelming power was displayed by his broad chest, bulging forearms, and his proud, aquiline nose. He bore all the dignity of his two-score years, and the glorious aura of Pharaoh.
His piercing eyes ran back and forth between his sons and his companions, before shifting leisurely forward, where the sun was setting behind the tops of the date palms. Or they would turn toward the right, where they beheld in the distance that eternal plateau whose eastern side fell under the watchful gaze of the Great Sphinx, and in whose center reposed the mortal remains of his forebears. The plateau's surface was covered with hundreds and thousands of human forms. They were leveling its sand dunes and splitting up its rocks, digging out the mighty base for Pharaoh's pyramid-which he wanted to make a wonder in the eyes of humankind that would endure for all the ages.
Pharaoh cherished these family gatherings, which refreshed him from his weighty of
cial duties, and lifted from his back the burden of habitual obligations. In them he became a companionable father and affectionate friend, as he and those closest to him took refuge in gossip and casual conversation. They discussed subjects both trivial and important, trading humorous stories, settling sundry affairs, and determining people's destinies.
On that distant day, long enclosed in the folds of time-that the gods have decreed to be the start of our tale-the talk began with the subject of the pyramid that Khufu wanted to make his eternal abode, the resting place for his esh and bones. Mirabu, the ingenious architect who had heaped the greatest honors on Egypt through his dazzling artistry, was explaining this stupendous project to his lord the king. He expounded at length on the vast dimensions desired for this timeless enterprise, whose planning and construction he oversaw. Listening for a while to his friend, Pharaoh remembered that ten years had passed since the start of this undertaking. Not hiding his irritation, he reminded the revered craftsman, "Aye, dear Mirabu, I do believe in your immense ingenuity. Yet how long will you keep me waiting? You never tire of telling me of this pyramid's awesomeness. Still, we have yet to see one layer of it actually built-though an entire decade has passed since I marshaled great masses of strong men to assist you, assembling for your bene
nest technical resources of my great people. And for all of that, I have not seen a single trace on the face of the earth of the pyramid you promised me. To me it seems these mastaba tombs in which their owners still lie-and which cost them not a hundredth of what we have spent so far-are mocking the great effort we have expended, ridiculing as mere child's play our colossal project."
Apprehension rumpled Mirabu's dusky brown face, wrinkles of embarrassment etching themselves across his broad brow. With his smooth, high-pitched voice, he replied, "My lord! May the gods forbid that I ever spend time wantonly or waste good work on a mere distraction. Indeed, I was fated to take up this responsibility. I have borne it faithfully since making it my covenant to create Pharaoh's perpetual place of burial-and to make it such a masterpiece that people will never forget the fabulous and miraculous things found in Egypt. We have not thrown these ten years away in play. Instead, during that time, we have accomplished things that giants and devils could not have done. Out of the bedrock we have hewn a watercourse that connects the Nile to the plateau upon which we are building the pyramid. Out of the mountains we have sheared towering blocks of stone, each one the size of a hillock, and made them like the most pliable putty, transporting them from the farthest south and north of the country. Look, my lord-behold the ships: how they travel up and down the river carrying the most enormous rocks, as though there were tall mountains moving along it, propelled by the spells of a monstrous magician. And look at the men all absorbed in their work: see how they proceed so slowly over the ground of the plateau, as though it were opening to reveal those it has embraced for thousands of years gone by!"
The king smiled ironically. "How amazing!" he said. "We commanded you to build a pyramid-and you have dug for us a river, instead! Do you think of your lord and master as a sovereign of
Pharaoh laughed, and so did his companions-all but Prince Khafra, the heir apparent. He took the matter very seriously. Despite his youth, he was a stern tyrant, intensely cruel, who had inherited his father's sense of authority, but not his graciousness or amiability.
"The truth is that I am astounded by all those years that you have spent on simply preparing the site," he berated the architect, "for I have learned that the sacred pyramid erected by King Sneferu took much less time than the eons you have wasted till now."
Mirabu clasped his hand to his forehead, then answered with dejected courtesy, "Herein, Your Royal Highness, dwells an amazing mind, tireless in its turnings, ever leaning toward perfection. It is the fashioner of the ideal, and-after monumental effort-a gigantic imagination was created for me whose workings I expend my very soul in bringing to physical reality. So please be patient, Your Majesty, and bear with me also, Your Royal Highness!"
There was a moment of silence. Suddenly the air was
lled with the music of the Great House Guards, which preceded the troops as they retired to their barracks from the place where they had been standing watch. Pharaoh was thinking about what Mirabu had said, and-as the sounds of the music melted away-he looked at his vizier Hemiunu, high priest of the temple of Ptah, supreme god of Memphis. He asked with the sublime smile that never left his lips, "Is patience among a king's qualities, Hemiunu?"
Tugging at his beard, the man answered quietly, "My lord, our immortal philosopher Kagemni, vizier to King Huni, says that patience is man's refuge in times of despair, and his armor against misfortunes."
"That is what says Kagemni, vizier to King Huni," said Pharaoh, chuckling. "But I want to know what Hemiunu, vizier to King Khufu, has to say."
The formidable minister's cogitation was obvious as he prepared his riposte. But Prince Khafra was not one to ponder too cautiously before he spoke. With all the passion of a twenty-year-old born to royal privilege, he declared, "My lord, patience is a virtue, as the sage Kagemni has said. But it is a virtue unbecoming of kings. Patience allows ministers and obedient subjects to bear great tribulations-but the greatness of kings is in overcoming calamities, not enduring them. For this reason, the gods have compensated them for their want of patience with an abundance of power."
Pharaoh tensed in his seat, his eyes glinting with an obscure luminescence that-were it not for the smile drawn upon his lips-would have meant the end for Mirabu. He sat for a while recalling his past, regarding it in the light of this particular trait. Then he spoke with an ardent fervor that, despite his forty years, was like that of a youth of twenty.
"How beautiful is your speech, my son-how happy it makes me!" he said. "Truly, power is a virtue not only for kings, but for all people, if only they knew it. Once I was but a little prince ruling over a single province-then I was made King of Kings of Egypt. And what brought me from being a prince into possession of the throne and of kingship was nothing but power. The covetous, the rebellious, and the resentful never ceased searching for domains to wrest away from me, nor in preparing to dispatch me to my fate. And what cut out their tongues, and what chopped off their hands, and what took their wind away from them was nothing but power. Once the Nubians snapped the stick of obedience when ignorance, rebellion, and impudence put foolish ideas into their heads. And what cracked their bravura to compel their submission, if not power? And what raised me up to my divine status? And what made my word the law of the land, and what taught me the wisdom of the gods, and made it a sacred duty to obey me? Was it not power that did all this?"
The artist Mirabu hastened to interrupt, as though completing the king's thought, "And divinity, my lord."
Pharaoh shook his head scornfully. "And what is divinity, Mirabu?" he asked. "'Tis nothing if not power."
But the architect said, in a trusting, con
dent tone, "And mercy and affection, sire."
Pointing at the architect, the king replied, "This is how you artists are! You tame the intractable stones-and yet your hearts are more pliant than the morning breeze. But rather than argue with you, I'd like to throw you a question whose answer will end our meeting today. Mirabu, for ten years you have been mingling with those armies of muscular laborers. By now you must truly have penetrated their innermost secrets and learned what they talk about among themselves. So what do you think makes them obey me and withstand the terrors of this arduous work? Tell me the honest truth, Mirabu."
The architect paused to consider for a moment, summoning his memories. All eyes were
xed upon him with extreme interest. Then, with deliberate slowness, speaking in his natural manner-which was
lled with passion and self-possession-he answered, "The workers, my lord, are divided into two camps. The
rst of these consists of the prisoners of war and the foreign settlers. These know not what they are about: they go and they come without any higher feelings, just as the bull pushes around the water wheel without reection. If it weren't for the harshness of the rod and the vigilance of our soldiers, we would have no effect on them.
"As for those workers who are in fact Egyptians, most of them are from the southern part of the country. These are people with self-respect, pride, steadfastness, and faith. They are able to bear terri
c torment, and to patiently tolerate overwhelming tragedies. Unlike those aliens, they are aware of what they are doing. They believe in their hearts that the hard labor to which they devote their lives is a splendid religious obligation, a duty to the deity to whom they pray, and a form of obedience owed to the title of him who sits upon the throne. Their afiction-for them-is adoration, their agony, rapture. Their huge sacri
ces are a sign of their subservience to the will of the divine man that imposes itself over time everlasting. My lord, do you not see them in the blazing heat of noon, under the burning rays of the sun, striking at the rocks with arms like thunderbolts, and with a determination like the Fates themselves, as they sing their rhythmic songs, and chant their poems?"
The listeners were delighted, their blood gladdened in a swoon of gaiety and glory, and contentment glowed on Pharaoh's strong, manly features. As he rose from his couch, his movement sent all those in attendance to their feet. In measured steps, he processed with dignity down the broad balcony until he reached its southern edge. Contemplating its magni
cent view, he peered into the remote expanse at that deathless plateau of the dead on whose holy terrain were traced the long lines of toilers. What augustness, and what grandeur! And what suffering and struggle in their pursuit! Was it right for so many worthy souls to be expended for the sake of his personal exaltation? Was it proper for him to rule over so noble a people, who had only one goal-his own happiness?
This inner whispering was the only disturbance that beat from time to time in that breast
lled with courage and belief. To him it appeared like a bit of wandering cloud in heavens of pure blue, and, when it came, it would torment him: his chest would tighten, his very serenity and bliss would seem loathsome to him. The pain worsened, so he gave the pyramids plateau his back-then wheeled angrily upon his friends, catching them off guard. He put to them this question: "Who should give up their life for the bene
t of the other: the people for Pharaoh, or Pharaoh for the people?"
They were all struck speechless, until the commander, Arbu, broke through them excitedly, calling out in his stentorian voice, "All of us together-people, commanders, and priests-would give our lives for Pharaoh!"
Prince Horsadef, one of the king's sons, said with intense passion, "And the princes, too!"
The king smiled vaguely, the anxiety easing on his sublime face, as his vizier Hemiunu said, "My lord, Your Divine Majesty! Why differentiate your lofty self from the people of Egypt, as one would the head from the heart or the soul from the body? You are, my lord, the token of their honor, the mark of their eminence, the citadel of their strength, and the inspiration for their power. You have endowed them with life, glory, might, and happiness. In their affection there is neither humiliation nor enslavement; but rather, a beautiful loyalty and venerable love for you, and for the homeland."
The king beamed with satisfaction, returning with long strides to his golden divan. As he sat down, so did the rest. But Prince Khafra, the heir apparent, was still not relieved of his father's earlier misgivings.
"Why do you disturb your peace of mind with these baseless doubts?" he said. "You rule according to the wish of the gods, not by the will of men. It is up to you to govern the people as you desire, not to ask yourself what you should do when they ask you!"
"O Prince, no matter how other kings may exalt themselves-your father need only say, 'I am Pharaoh of Egypt,'" Khufu rejoined.
He then seemed to swell up as he said with a booming voice-yet as though speaking to himself, "Khafra's speech would be appropriate if it were directed toward a weak ruler-but not toward Khufu, the omnipotent-Khufu, Pharaoh of Egypt. And what is Egypt but a great work that would not have been undertaken if not for the sacri
ces of individuals? And of what value is the life of an individual? It equals not a single dry tear to one who looks to the far future and the grand plan. For this I would be cruel without any qualms. I would strike with an iron hand, and drive hundreds of thousands through hardships-not from stupidity of character or despotic egotism. Rather, it's as if my eyes were able to pierce the veil of the horizons to glimpse the glory of this awaited homeland. More than once, the queen has accused me of harshness and oppression. No-for what is Khufu but a wise man of far-seeing vision, wearing the skin of the preying panther, while in his breast there beats the heart of an openhanded angel?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2005 by Naguib Mahfouz
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