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"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thais of Athens preview - Chapter XVI - The Queen of Memphis

Ptolemy declares Thais the Queen of Memphis in order to maintain royal presence in the ancient capitol of Egypt, while he runs the country from the new capitol - Alexandria. After the initial enjoyment of her elevated post wears off, Thais finds herself restless and alone, save for her horse, her beloved friend Eris and a new teacher she finds at the Neit temple.

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After two years passed with no news of Nearchus, Thais decided that no matter how big Arabia was, the sailors had to have reached their goal and sent word. She had heard about the trips by Egyptians to Punt across the Eritrean Sea in the days when Hellas did not exist. So, she began looking for knowledgeable people. It turned out to be a very short search. The high priest of the Neit temple had access to secret archives, where records and map of the voyages to the distant east shore of Libya were kept. Egyptians went there for gold, ivory, incense, slaves and rare animals two thousand years prior.

Thais’s most vivid memory was of visiting the archive, somewhere in the ancient temple underground, near the small pyramid. Four attendants or priests with emaciated faces of fanatic ascetics, dressed head to toe into the green robes of Distant Land Scholars, accompanied the queen and the Neit priest, who served as an interpreter from the ancient sacred language. The green ascetics either knew no other language or did not wish to speak any other way.

Fragile sheets of brown vellum covered with mysterious lines, hieroglyphs and markings shaped like flying birds were unrolled before Thais.

“You said that shortly before the death of the great Alexander, Nearchus arrived to Babylon with new discoveries, did you not?” – The Neit priest asked.

“His assistant Archias confirmed that the sea from the Euphrates delta was but a gulf between India and Arabia,” – Thais said, “And Gireon stated that southern coast of Arabia stretched infinitely far south-west.”

The Neit priest translated to the archive keepers and their eyes flashed. One said something in a low voice and knocked the largest sheet unrolled on a stone tile with his knuckles.

“We do not know about the gulf,” – Thais’s companion translated, “but here is the shore of Arabia, going to the west and south-west. Here it ends in a kind of angle, turning north-west through the narrow gates of the sea you call Eritrean. That sea has been traveled by our seamen back and forth; its length has been measured to be five hundred schens or parsangs, from the Gates to the Neho canal – two months of sailing, gods willing.”

“Then Nearchus should have been in Egypt a long time ago?” – Thais asked, “All ninety ships of his fleet could not have perished.”

“Queen, Your Majesty judges correctly.”

“What could have happened then?”

The Neit priest translated her question. The archive keepers mumbled words, as mysterious as chants, poked their dark thin fingers into various spots on the dusty map and had finally reached agreement.

“The land scholars say that the fleet leader did not make it into the Eritrean Sea!” – The Neit priest said with authority.

“That could not have happened to Nearchus, the most skilled of sailors! He has the best navigators from Finikia, Egypt and Cypress.”

“It could happen in that area. Let Your Majesty look here. This is the southern shore of Arabia, stretching in the direction of India to the east and north for several hundred schens. From the sound it is opposed by the huge cape of Nubia, or Libya as you call it – the Cape of Fragrances , which protrudes into the Great Ocean like a great horn. Our sailors traveled around it with great dangers on their way to Punt. It reaches halfway across the edge of Arabia… Then look here, Queen! Nearchus’s fleet was sailing along the shore to the south-west. Terrible storms often take place there. They bring sand and dust from the deserts of Arabia, obscuring the sea for many schens. Nearchus could have gotten caught in such a storm, when his fleet was across from the Cape of Fragrances. The shore of Arabia curves to the south near the round bay with the Cape of Pearls. Right across from that spot, the Horn of Nubia approaches as closely as eighty schens. Imagine now, that a strong sand storm carried the fleet to the south. The ships may have accidentally crossed the gap between Arabia and Nubia. Further, from the east side of the Horn, the shore travels south, curving more and more to the west. What would a fleet leader do, who was initially traveling south-west along Arabia?”

“He would continue sailing along the shore of Libya, thinking he is sailing by Arabia!” – Thais replied without hesitation.

“Indeed! See, the shore to the south from the Cape of Fragrances goes south-west to the Punt for five hundred schens. Further along, it turns south-east, and that is where the fleet leader would discover his mistake.”

“And then what?”

“I cannot tell you that, for I do not know Nearchus. He may turn back. If he is strong and brave, he would go forward and around, as Finikians have done when ordered by the great Neho.”

“The Cretan is very stubborn and strong,” – Thais said sadly, “Besides, Alexander himself dreamed of sending ships around Libya, having heard nothing of Neho.”

“Then expect the fleet in three years, as it happens with the Finikians,” – the priest replied, “Two years have already passed…”

Five more years passed, and it became obvious that Nearchus’s fleet had vanished without trace in the vastness of the sea. Along with him, the Daughter of the Snake had gone forever from Thais’s life. Eris was all that was left to her.

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“Tell me, father, why did they show me the secret drawings of land and sea, but did not do it for Alexander or even for Nearchus?”

“We were not asked, and knowledge only goes to those who seek it. You are one of us, you are harmless and not powerful, because you do not seek power. A great genius, an army leader, or a ruler, regardless of his origins, has yet to bring happiness to people! The greater he is, the greater the trouble. People usually follow laws that are thousands of years old, having grown from the healthy experience of generations. They are connected by the necessity of life, faith and service to gods and power. A great man places himself above all things commonly human, destroying the foundations of existence, and making the eternal mistake, reducing his deeds to nothing and plunging him into the abyss of Darkness. God-like people only bring happiness when they have no power: philosophers, healers, poets or artists.”

“Do you believe that Alexander only brought suffering and misfortune?”

“His deeds have yet to be weighted on the scales of time, and gods of destiny have yet to count the black and white sides of his life. My mind is too small to comprehend the enormity of his accomplishments. Initially, he was given beauty and physical strength, a brave heart and a clear all-encompassing mind, and then knowledge. Then he obtained military strength: tough hearts and tempered bodies of Macedonian and Helenian soldiers. He wanted to multiply his knowledge, but multiplied his wealth instead, having taken at once that, which was stored over the centuries by a large people in a large country. Due to his youth, he gave away the treasures thoughtlessly, being neither greedy nor wasteful himself. He gave it into hands that were as unworthy as before. Except, the prior owners kept it in their own country, and the new ones, having received it easily, spent it on trifles across strange countries, having enriched greedy and calculating merchants and sold for pennies the ancient works of art and tens of thousands of enslaved people. And so, Alexander’s forces fractured and lost any sense of purpose. The natural resistance of the people, fighting against the invention into their native lands, brought forth savagery, cruel and bloody use violence, the killing of the innocents that was offensive to the gods. Instead of studying the land and establishing peace, learning the common traits among the customs, beliefs and goals that unite all people of the world, endless circles of future power struggle emerged, along with intrigue and misfortune. And here we are today, several years after the split of the empire, and there is still bloodshed, and war going on in Hellas, Ionia, Mesopotamia and on the islands of the Green Sea.”

“Then why did it happen that way and not differently, father?” – Thais asked.

“It could not have been different, if he who has Power, Gold, and Will to alter fates of countries and people, does not understand that each part of his might has a reverse side, which fate will inevitable present him with, unless he is careful. For Gold they are humiliation, envy, and struggle for wealth in the name of wealth; for Power – cruelty, violence, murder; for Will – persistence in the use of Power and Gold and blindness.”

“What can protect us from these evil forces?”

“Love, my daughter. All three of these powerful levers must be used with love and in the name of love toward people.”

“Does not Love have a reverse side?”

“Alas, but on a different, more personal level. Relationships between people can bring forth desire to humiliate others, torture and drown them in mud. Light-filled hearts do not have this, but a member of the mob, who has been beaten and humiliated either personally or through his ancestors and relations, can be subject to this.”

“You did not tell me how to guard against this, father.”

“Always keep to the middle and keep an eye on the edges.”

“Oh, I know. My teacher told me the same thing. Apparently, wisdom universally arrives to the same conclusion.”

“Have you read the inscription at the front of our temple, this one?”

“I cannot read the sacred language and ancient writings of Egypt!”

“Meden agan – nothing superfluous. Moderation is the noblest thing. Ubris (obnoxious arrogance) is the worst. Know the depth of your heart!”

“The same is inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi.”

“That confirms what you said about universal wisdom!”

“Then the face of higher wisdom turns toward people always and everywhere, by-passing the gods?”

“That is so, but be careful speaking such truths to the faithful of all kinds – both the childishly na├»ve ones and the fierce fanatics! Truth and kindness shine like torches, lighting the way for those lost in the dark. But one carrying a torch can stumble into a shed of oil that goes up in flames from the slightest spark!”
Thais looked at the old priest and suddenly asked, “Tell me, are you not surprised that the Queen of Egypt does not read Egyptian?”

“No. Or do you think that many queens knew the sacred language? You are mistaken! You have surpassed many not just in beauty but also in the knowledge of different faiths. Faith is the soul of the people, it gives origin to customs, laws and people’s behavior! You sing at the ceremony of the Mirror of Isis like a true Egyptian, dance the sacred Scarf Dance like a Finikian, ride a horse like a Libyan, and swim like a Nereid of the Green Sea. This draws to you everyone who inhabits the Black Land.”

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