By Peter Collins
It was still early in the morning, but already the heat was oppressive. The canvas awning that shaded us sat limp in the still air, and the rough linen shift I was wearing was already stained with sweat. For my construction workers out in the open sun it would be ten times worse. I watched with pride as they hauled the huge stones towards the top of the tomb. It was backbreaking work, and they managed it with amazing skill and precision. But the man at my side had no interest in their workmanship.
‘Your men are slow, Adom. You should use the whip more.’
I clenched my fist and counted to ten before I replied.
‘They are skilled workers, my Lord Seti. They are not to be treated like slaves.’
Lord Seti, Chief Advisor to King Ramses, turned towards me. He was an imposing figure; a head taller than most men, his dark skin glistened with a mixture of sweat and oil. His hair was also oiled so that it fell back from his forehead revealing a haughty nose and those piercing black eyes. He moved quickly to stand directly in front of me.
‘Don’t cross me, Adom,’ he hissed. ‘Just get it done, and quickly. The Pharaoh has barely days to live. He will be in his tomb within the week.’
Ignoring my look of astonishment, he turned on his heel and left, a small entourage of High Priests and other dignitaries trailing in his wake. Only Dennu, one of the High Priests remained. He was incredibly old, almost forty summers, but he still had the sharpest mind of anyone in Thebes.
‘A dangerous man to anger, is Seti,’ he murmured. ‘He has great influence now, but he will be even more powerful after the Pharaoh is gone.’
‘But how can the King be entombed so quickly after his death?’ I asked, puzzled. As Pharaoh, Ramses’ body would need to be purified, dried and embalmed in accordance with Egyptian ritual. It would be a long time before the King could be interred in his tomb along with the weapons and treasures he would take with him to meet Osiris.
Dennu sniffed derisively. ‘Seti has persuaded the King to be buried immediately after his death, without the wait for the ritual.’
‘Remember that day in the palace when the Pharaoh promised Seti even greater power. You heard what the Pharaoh said. His exact words, remember?’
I cast my mind back. The weak and ailing King had sat up and spoken so softly we could barely hear him. ‘Seti is my most precious possession, my greatest treasure. When I am buried in my tomb he shall have wealth and power above all men.’
I thought for a moment, and then, of course, it became clear. Seti would achieve his new status not on the death of the King but on the day he was buried. Seti was arranging the whole thing to have the Pharaoh entombed as soon as possible.
Dennu looked around as if afraid of being overheard. He turned back to me.
‘The High Priests are against it but they are fearful and they lack a leader. The King’s son will ascend to the throne when he is of age, but he is young and weak and no match for Seti. If the Pharaoh really has demanded that he be buried quickly, then it is unlikely that many would argue against it.’
He paused and looked again at the throng of workers sweating in the sun.
‘You’ve already made it very clear that you have no time for Seti, Adom. He’s a bad man to cross. As Thebe’s Chief Architect and head of the construction workers, he needs you for now. But when the tomb is finished…’
He let his sentence trail off as he turned to go. Despite the sun’s warmth, I felt a cold sweat on my back.
The next few days were hellish. I worked round the clock supervising the building team and setting out the instructions for the most crucial remaining item, the mechanism which would seal the Pharaoh in his tomb. We had barely finished when Dennu sent word that the Pharaoh was nearing the end of his days.
Quite brazenly, Seti had arranged for the King to be transported to the tomb even before he died. The High Priests and the nobility were summoned to be at his side. As the builder of his final resting place on this earth, I was also invited. The High Priests were still mumbling about the change in the death rites. If there were to be a way to bring Seti down now, then enough of them would band together to oppose him. But they were hesitant and leaderless and the omens did not look good.
We gathered in the Pharaoh’s death chamber. Seti stood by the King’s bed accompanied by the physicians as the last blessings of the gods were called for. One High Priest stood up and for a final time tried to persuade Ramses to ignore Seti’s advice. The Pharaoh was barely conscious, but he must have sensed that somebody was criticising Seti, for he sat up in his bed and began to repeat his famous declaration about Seti’s future. His voice was weak, but it carried to all there in the small stone chamber,
‘Seti is my most precious possession, my greatest treasure. When I am buried…’, but his voice trailed off amid a fit of coughing. He fought for breath for a few moments and then his body had a spasm and lay still. The physicians fussed and moved about him and then pronounced him dead.
Seti stepped forward into the room.
‘You all here heard the words of the Pharaoh. He is to be buried now, this hour, and his tomb shall be sealed for ever. Does anybody dare to disagree with the final words of the God on Earth?’
He ran his eyes around the room and his guards made their presence clearly known. There were murmurs but nobody spoke. I saw my chance and I knew I must take it.
‘Seti is right,’ I said loudly. I saw many people stare at me, for our animosity was well known. ‘Our Lord Pharaoh has asked for his burial to happen quickly to speed his passage to the afterlife. We must thank Seti for his guidance.’
Seti was looking at me with undisguised contempt. Dennu was looking at me too. There was puzzlement in his eyes.
‘Seti is indeed right,’ I continued. ‘All present here heard the last words of our King. I ask again the question Seti posed. Does anybody dare to disagree with the exact words of the God on Earth?’
I looked desperately at Dennu and I thought I could see the first faint dawning of understanding in his face. Then he spoke, and I knew he understood.
‘Adom is right,’ he said. ‘The King’s wishes were to be buried immediately with his most precious possessions and his treasures.’ He nodded towards me.
‘And we shall obey his final words,’ I said.
I picked up the Pharaoh’s staff and pointed it at Seti. I cleared my throat and spoke loudly. ‘We all heard the King. “Seti is my most precious possession, my greatest treasure.” And as such, Seti will have the honour of being buried here with the other treasures of his King!’
There was chaos in the chamber. Seti began to protest, but the crowd spoke as one in their support for what had happened. Had they not all heard the King himself order it so? Seti’s guards hesitated but they were wary of challenging the High Priests and finally did nothing. Dennu quickly organised the High Priests and they came forward to hold Seti and declare that Ramses’ wishes be followed. Seti was tied to the foot of the king’s bed, still shouting and protesting as the chamber was emptied of people.
I was last out, as being the builder of the pyramid I had the knowledge of the secret lever that would enclose the tomb for all eternity.
‘Farewell, my Lord Seti,’ I called at the door. ‘Enjoy your trip to the Other World.’
I pulled hard on the hidden lever. For one moment, I thought nothing was going to happen, but then the vault of sand underneath the tomb gave way and the huge closing stone began to fall slowly into position. Seti just stared at me with those piercing black eyes. Though he spoke no words, I knew what he was saying. ‘I will wait, Adom. I will wait for an eternity of time, but the day will come when I will have my revenge.’
The sands ran out and the final stone closed with a precision that my men would have been proud of. I shrugged to myself. Seti could wait for as long as he wanted. I turned and headed home.