Sampul and Ram, from The Middle Way by Mihangel

Chapter 6. On the Nile

If the water can not flow of its own accord, we have to lift it. This is done, if the source is much lower, by means of a bucket wheel or a so-called chain lift. But if it is only a little lower, it is done by means either of water screws or of water drums mounted side by side.

Hero of Alexandria, Dioptra

The Ammon was, at a guess, a hundred cubits long, proportionate in width, and very deep in the hull compared to our light and shallow Indian vessels. It was massively built, clearly quite new, and exuded a fragrant smell. When first he stepped on board, Ram, who knew his timbers, sniffed and said, “Cedar! Just like our deodars in Kaspiria!” Yes, replied Eudoxus who was welcoming us; not from Egypt, he added, which was virtually treeless, but from the hills of Syria overlooking the Middle Sea. The ship’s crew numbered about twenty, mostly Egyptians, subdued creatures who lived somewhere deep below deck and habitually worked naked. We passengers, in contrast, were palatially accommodated in a spacious deckhouse with a galley alongside and latrines projecting over the stern. Sharing it with us were Eudoxus and the captain, a wizened and weather-beaten little man named Hippalus whom Eudoxus described as the most experienced skipper in Egypt.

The voyage was long and monotonous but not too uncomfortable, and barely deserves chronicling. We learned that the Ammon was built not for speed but for strength, and for fifteen days it lumbered across the open sea before a moderate north-easterly, with nothing for us to look at and nothing to do beyond keeping out of the seamen’s way and improving Ram’s written Greek. These lessons kept us on our mental toes, but if they were drawn out too long both pupil and teachers began to wilt. I spent some of the enforced leisure thinking about Ram and myself.

Since our reconciliation I had had no more truck with bikkhu teachers. While I could not, these days, call myself a follower of the Buddha, I had long known, and in general approved, the outline of his teachings. For the most part, my way of life did not seem in the least to conflict with them. My travels with Ram, as I have said, had brought us closer than ever, not merely in bodily closeness but in spiritual harmony. We were working together: working for each other, working for Menander and the kingdom, working for Heliodorus. All of that was so eminently right that nowadays I rarely gave it a thought. Even more rarely did I try to meditate. Call me lazy if you wish, and perhaps you are correct. But, arrogant though it may sound, I felt no need. Only rarely, too, did I discuss it with Ram. There was equally no need. A practical man to his finger tips, he was still less into abstract thought than I was. He had his own outlook on life, and he would have followed the same course from his own good nature even if the Buddha had never lived and preached. We were at peace with ourselves, with each other, and with the world.

In all probability, I reflected, we were the only Indians now afloat in the middle of this huge ocean. Almost certainly we were the first Indians for a century to be heading for Egypt. To do so in the company of my lover and my son was not only high adventure but a delight. If, as a naive young Dion trudging wary and lonely out of Bactria, I had been told that I would come to this, never for a moment would I have believed it. From time to time I found myself smiling at Ram, and he understood and smiled back. Heliodorus, none of whose love affairs had yet been deep, could not understand, and he had to ask why we were always grinning at each other.

Once clear of the Indian coast we saw no land until a distant line appeared on the horizon to the right. A headland took shape, Hippalus gazed, and he was pleased. Syagros, he said, in Arabia. We continued parallel to the coast, now with a look-out at the mast-head keeping a watchful eye open for pirates who were far from unknown in these waters. In view of Eudoxus’ warning about unrest the three of us had brought short swords. I still had my own from Heliocles’ mission, I gave Datis’ to Ram, and purchased one for Heliodorus. None of us was in the least belligerent, and never in India, apart from the wilder regions of Kaspiria, did we wear arms because there was no need. So far there had been no need on the Ammon either, and the swords were stowed away in our baggage. Nor was there was need for them now, for no pirates put in an appearance. We stopped briefly at the little village of Adane for water, and next day turned north into the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. On either side lay the Spice Coasts, we were told, with which the Greeks, having long traded there for cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense, were well familiar; but we were much too far from the shore to make out any detail. The wind, though more fitful, remained favourable and for many more days pushed us slowly up the Gulf.

So at last we came to our first destination. Myos Hormos was a small place but a thriving port, one of the two which handled almost all the down-gulf trade. Here, as Eudoxus had warned, we came face to face with the bureaucracy and regulation, unknown in Gandhara, with which Egypt is rife. Eyebrows rose, and not for the last time, at the colour of our skins. We were questioned about why we had come, and how long we were staying, and if we had sufficient money to see us through. We were told to report to the police at every point where our itinerary changed course. Luckily all the officials spoke Greek, and luckily we had Eudoxus to ease us over these initial hurdles. He had also warned us that foreigners on arrival had to exchange their money for the Ptolemaic coinage which was the only legal tender. He had not warned us that the commission rate was an extortionate ten per cent. Our good Gandharan tetradrachms, on which the officials had never set eyes before, were taken from us to be melted into bullion, and in return we were given rather fewer Ptolemaic coins that made never a concession to the Egyptians who also used them, and were of mediocre workmanship into the bargain.

Eudoxus gave us a letter of introduction to his friend Theodorus, the superintendent in charge of the Moeris irrigation; and as we bade farewell he repeated that he would be sailing in early July whether we were there or not. The window of opportunity was short: leave too early and the wind was too strong, too late and it had died away. If we were not back on time we would be stranded in Egypt for another year.

We were now on our own. We hired camels for the six-day ride over the desert: another cruel desert, half-mountainous this time, although the January temperature was mercifully moderate and there were rest-houses. The most extraordinary thing about this leg of the journey was the camels, which had only one hump and were much more complicated to ride than ours, but just as bad-tempered. The road took us to the Nile at the river port of Koptos, the inland counterpart of Myos Hormos and even busier. Eudoxus had lectured us on the wondrous sights of Egypt, which we would much have liked to see. But we were here for a different purpose and dared waste no time now. For that reason we missed the great temples at Thebes, although it lay only a short distance up the river. Should time allow when we had finished at Moeris, we consoled ourselves, maybe we could continue northwards to see the Pyramids, or possibly further still to the vast metropolis of Alexandria-in-Egypt.

But even at Koptos there were strange sights for foreigners like us to goggle at. One of the strangest was people with black skins: not brown like ours, but deep black. They were Nubians, we were told, from far up the river. Their people were in alliance with Egypt, where fair numbers of them lived and worked. At Koptos too, as instructed, we reported to the police who noted our details. Keeping track of travellers seemed to be an obsession here. In Gandhara our only police were a few constables in the towns and maybe in major villages, whose sole function was to make sure that public order was preserved. There, you came and went as you willed, no questions asked.

After an overnight stay at a reasonably decent inn, we booked passage in one of the public packet boats with which the Nile seemed well provided. The wind was against us and there was only the current, gentle because it was not the flood season, to waft us downstream. Every night the boat moored at a village and the passengers ate and slept at an inn. Once again there was nothing to do but sit and watch the banks slide past. We passed an obvious tula, followed by more, which as far as we could tell were much the same as ours. Then we spotted a different kind of machine. We craned to see, but the river was too wide to make out detail. Then another, closer at hand because the boat was pulling in for the night, and beside it an ox was clearly on the move. We hastened ashore and went back along the bank.

Aaah!” cried Ram.

There in front of our eyes was the answer to one of the puzzles. Perched on the edge of the low cliff that formed the bank stood a rough overhead framework carrying a vertical axle. To a long bar projecting from the axle was yoked an ox which plodded a never-ending circular path. On the axle was a wooden wheel with crude and chunky pegs projecting radially. They intermeshed with similar pegs on another wheel mounted on a horizontal axle and thus at right angles to it, so that as the first wheel rotated it creakily turned the other. Over a frame on the second axle hung two endless loops of rope, like a rope ladder, with clay pots tied between them at close intervals. At the bottom the pots dipped into the river, and as they passed over the top they emptied into a wooden trough from which a channel led off to the fields. The water had been lifted by perhaps the height of three men. A very small boy sat on the ox and desultorily chivvied it on. A mindlessly tedious occupation both for beast and boy; but the flow of water was substantial, and it was continuous.

With three outlandish strangers staring at him, the boy was uneasy, and before he should start to bawl I led the way back to the inn. We had no time before the meal to follow the irrigation inland, and there would be plenty of later opportunities to inspect these machines down to the last nail. But over our meal Ram was kicking himself for not having thought of the principle. He called it a chain lift.

“Those cogged wheels!” he kept saying. “So simple! So easy to make! So effective! Far better than a tula. Much less bother to work than a baiga. But we still don’t know about the wheel turned by water and the inclined cylinder.”

We asked our fellow-passengers, but a few of them spoke no Greek and the rest were as ignorant and incurious as Eudoxus. A number, indeed, turned out to be tourists from Greece itself, with whom the country seemed to be crawling. The more local passengers could not make us out, and for a while they seemed suspicious of us and our skin colour. We all spoke Greek and I might just have passed as an Egyptian, but Ram and Heliodorus were darker than any native except, if one counted them, the Nubians. In time, however, we came to be accepted as harmless, and were filled in with the latest gossip, at which our minds boggled. Ptolemy Physcon, we heard, had ditched his first wife, who was both his own sister and his brother’s widow, and instead had married her daughter; who was thus not only his step-daughter but, twice over, his niece, and now his wife. A far cry from Menander’s more conventional morality.

That was the latest excitement, on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But some much staler news emerged which I found more deeply disturbing. One of the tourists mentioned the present plight of Greece. When I asked what he meant, he replied that nothing had been the same there since it was taken over by Rome.

“Rome?” I asked. “What’s that?”

They all stared as if I were a halfwit. I had to explain that in India, where we came from, we had heard nothing from the west for a century. That gave rise to a lively conversation as they clamoured to be told more of India, and revealed that they knew as little of us as we did of them. Were the reports true that Dionysus, the god of wine, had founded a city there? That gold was mined by ants? That there were people with their feet turned backwards? That wool grew on trees? All old wives’ tales, we replied; unless by that last one they meant cotton, which apparently is unknown around the Middle Sea.

It took time to steer them back to Greece. The Romans, they said, still amazed by my ignorance, were an ambitious and up-coming people of Italy, a country to the west, who seven years before had conquered not only Macedon in the north but much of the rest of Greece too, and into the bargain had sacked the proud city of Corinth. Rome had even played a part in Egyptian affairs, having helped Physcon on his way to the throne. What shook me was that Macedon, the once-mighty kingdom of Sikandar and my ancestral home, was now in servitude. It gave me food for gloomy thought, because even distant ancestry still keeps some hold, if only sentimental, on a man’s heart.

Heliodorus’ eighteenth birthday came and went, with little celebration possible. Otherwise the days passed in further tedium. The narrow flood plain might be intensively cultivated, but immediately beyond it, we knew, the desert began. Ox-powered water-lifters were frequent. Ram’s mind was fixated, these days, on how to manufacture them when we got home. He thought, too, that he had guessed how the water-turned wheels worked; but he refused to tell us in case he was wrong, and admitted that the inclined cylinders still eluded him. But there is a sameness about the banks of the Nile, and we all looked forward to the nightly stops. Yet Egyptian food is bland, with little beyond garlic to enliven it, the staples being bread — rice seems unknown — with beans, onions and fish, but very little meat. We were offered nothing but beer to drink. Evenings therefore passed tediously too. At least we had plenty of time to pick lice from each other’s hair and dust our bodies against fleas, the Egyptian versions of both being more pernicious by far than their Indian counterparts. Luckily Heliodorus, who was the most fastidious of the three, had insisted that we bring a good supply of tankana with us.

At long last, after thirty-five indistinguishable days, we reached Aphrodito, where with great sighs of relief we forsook the boat and hired horses for the final day’s ride to the west. Our road took us over endless fields intersected by frequent irrigation ditches which it crossed by bridges. The scale and complexity of the system were overwhelming. So too was the fertility. We saw wheat, barley, lentils, vegetables, dates, figs, grapes, and trees that I surmised were olives, which we do not have in India. Everything seemed to be thriving and, amazingly, some crops were already being harvested — we later heard that there were three harvests a year, whereas India has two at the best. And beside one bridge was the answer to Ram’s second question. His guess had been correct. A wooden wheel was turning by itself, without any power from animals but impelled by flat boards projecting from its rim and dipping into the gently flowing current. Alongside these paddles were fixed two dozen pots, filled as they passed through the water and emptying at the top into a trough exactly as on the chain lift. Once again, how simple and how effective. We called it the bucket wheel.

So we came to the town of Krokodilopolis, the capital of the Lake Moeris district, where we sought out Eudoxus’ friend Theodorus. Evening was coming on, he was at home, and on reading our letter of introduction he was voluble in his welcome. We had intended to rent accommodation or to find an inn, but with great generosity he insisted on us staying in his own substantial house. We might not be Greeks in the Egyptian sense but, perhaps because he employed much native labour, he took us in his stride more readily than the narrower-minded Eudoxus; and he was blatantly flattered that we had travelled so far to consult him. He was a lean and efficient-looking man in his forties, a widower with three sons, as we came to learn, and discreetly critical of his king and the present state of Egypt.

He summoned servants to organise baths and show us rooms, and Ram and I were relieved to be together again after the abstinence of communal dormitories. Then we assembled before dinner for cups of wine that were very pleasant after a month of beer. Heliodorus, looking for small-talk to break the ice, remarked that today was the beginning of Holi, our Indian celebration which marks the end of winter and the triumph of good, a festival for laughter and for cracking jokes. As he was saying it, a boy came into the room.

“This is my youngest son Zeno,” Theodorus introduced him. “And these are Dion and Ram and Dion’s son Heliodorus. They’re new friends who’ve just arrived and will be staying for a while.”

Zeno, who looked to be fifteen or sixteen, bowed generally and sat down next to Heliodorus. It was already growing dark, the lamps had not yet been lit, and he seemed not to notice our complexions. Ram was now telling Theodorus about our journey down the Nile, and I listened instead to the boys’ conversation.

“What’s this about a festival of jokes?” Zeno was asking. “I like jokes. Have you heard the one about the chap who sells a slave to a friend? One day the friend tells him the slave has died. ‘Oh dear!’ he says. ‘He never did that when I owned him’.”

Heliodorus laughed dutifully and entered into the spirit of the game. “Know about the idiot who hears that beans and onions cause wind? When he’s on a ship in a calm he hangs a sackful of them from the stern.”

“Nice one! And the man whose father dies, and he takes the body to be embalmed? When he comes back to collect it, the embalmer isn’t sure which is the right one and asks, ‘What distinguishing feature did he have?’ And the man says, ‘A hacking cough’.”

“And the son who’s fed up with his father. ‘I wish you hadn’t been born,’ he says, ‘Then I’d have inherited Grandpa’s money!’”

They were grinning at each other. “Is that all this festival’s about?” asked Zeno. “Telling bad jokes?”

“Oh, more than that. It’s basically about the return of spring, and fertility, and seed-time. So there’s usually plenty of … um … risqué stuff too.”

“Oho!” An unmistakably flirtatious look crossed Zeno’s face, and he recited a bit of poetry.

“And should he offer you a kiss, beware!
Evil his kiss, for poisoned are his lips.”

Heliodorus, I could see, had not missed the invitation. But he was puzzled. Upagupta had taught him well, and normally he was good at picking up ancient literary quotations; far better than I was.

“Where’s that from?” he asked.

“Moschus, of course. It’s all the rage. Runaway Love. You mean you haven’t read it? Where do you live? On the moon?”

“Not quite that far. In India.”

Zeno’s mouth fell open. But at that point I was summoned into the main conversation; which was a pity because I had never witnessed my son in this sort of situation. Theodorus was now talking about the Lake Moeris basin, and with all the authority of his position. He was a man of high standing, it turned out, with two deputies under him, scores of foremen, and thousands of Egyptian craftsmen and labourers. The reclamation, he told us, had begun in very ancient times, but was much extended about a century ago when, by diverting some of the water coming in from the Nile, the level of the lake was lowered. This released a great deal of land for cultivation but at the same time increased the area in need of irrigation. Like us, they had already had the tula — or the kelon as he called it — but it was then that all the other machines were devised by the technicians at the Museum at Alexandria. This was at much the same time as Bactria parted company from the west, which was presumably why we had never heard of them.

The menu at Theodorus’ dinner table was a great improvement on that at the inns, for the main course was doves, which apparently are offered only to honoured guests and had just been caught and slaughtered especially for us. Ram and I, being united by the dove of attachment, exchanged a private smile. But that was too complicated to explain to Egyptians who would never have heard of the Buddha, and the conversation remained on irrigation. We were less interested, we explained, in the administrative side because our land tenure was quite different from here, but the two things we did particularly want to learn more about were the construction and layout of the channels, and the technical details of the water-lifting machines. No difficulty, Theodorus replied. He would not offer to show us round himself because he was a busy man and his job was more administrative than technical, but he would gladly find guides for us.

Zeno instantly butted in. “Let me do it, Father. After all, I grew up here and know the ropes. And I know all the senior craftsmen. And I speak Egyptian.”

“All right then, since you’ve offered,” his father agreed. “With Zeno,” he assured us, “you’ll be in good hands. Get him to show you whatever you want.”

Ram and I spent a happy night in private and in a shared bed. Heliodorus spent a no doubt happy night in Zeno’s bed, or the other way round; and every subsequent night too. And next morning a couple of men brought four horses and two donkeys to the front door.

“Who are the donkeys for?” we asked.

“These slaves. I’m bringing them in case they’re needed,” said Zeno. We looked at each other. The men did not seem especially servile or downtrodden. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, only that we’ve never seen slaves before. Not as far as we know.”

It was Zeno’s turn for amazement. “You mean you don’t have slaves?”

“Not in Gandhara. There aren’t any. It’s against the law.”

“Not even foreign slaves?”

“No. None.”

“Oh!” He seemed to be thinking hard. “Well,” was all he eventually said, “we don’t mistreat ours like some people do. I’ve tried to talk Father into freeing them all. But he isn’t ready for that yet.”

On that note our introduction to Moeris began. It was an eye-opener, and it took a long time. Zeno set about it in an admirably methodical way. We began in the main office, where a great map was brought out which showed the whole system. There was virtually no rain here, and water was fed in from the Nile by the artificial canal known as the Tomis. But little of it reached the lake, which lay a hundred cubits below sea level, because it was diverted into branches across the basin. These branches in turn led to sub-branches and sub-sub-branches to which the water often had to be lifted to regain height. The whole complex system had taken centuries to devise and construct. No new works were currently afoot; only clearing existing channels of silt, and lining them with stone where they were eroded, and the never-ending maintenance of sluices and bridges and machines. Even with these routine jobs there were problems; to Theodorus’ chagrin, for example, one gang had recently downed tools when their demand for higher pay was refused. Next we looked at the channels themselves and their cross-sections and their linings and their bends designed to minimise erosion, and we asked questions galore. If we were talking to Egyptian foremen, Zeno translated; and Heliodorus took copious notes.

Then came the turn of the machines. Ram’s final mystery was solved: the inclined cylinders consisted of a wooden core round which was wrapped a built-up spiral, the whole thing being encased in a wooden shell on which were cleats to serve as grips for the feet. They were mounted at an angle and were turned by men walking them round underfoot while holding onto a fixed railing. A stream of water was thus wound up the sloping cylinder to discharge at the top, and because they could lift to only a modest height they were used essentially to feed sub-sub-branches. Their name was kochlias or snail. Wonderfully ingenious, was Ram’s verdict, but probably too sophisticated for our village craftsmen to make. But the other devices were winners. The ox-powered chain lift, whose proper name was the halysis, was for large lifts, as from the river. The tympanon or bucket wheel was for medium lifts and could be turned by water only where there was sufficient current; but by employing cogged wheels it could equally be powered by oxen just like the halysis. We watched a halysis and a tympanon being built, and once again Heliodiorus took copious notes.

Zeno was not only a good guide but a refreshing character. If he was uninhibited and impetuous, he also had a plentiful supply of intelligence and initiative, and his independence of thought — he was far more openly critical than his father of the way the country was run — was surely not typical of Egypt. He said outright that he welcomed the challenge of showing us round as a break in what he called his boring life; and he evidently welcomed it for another reason. It was becoming more and more obvious that he and Heliodorus were besotted with each other. Whenever we were not on business they were deep in private talk, and I was thinking that, when we came to leave, their parting would be hard. It was no great surprise when Zeno came to us with a proposal to postpone it.

“Heliodorus has been telling me,” he explained, “all about India. I’d love to visit a place where things are done properly. Please, could I go with you? That would give me two months to see something of Gandhara before Eudoxus’ ship comes back. I’ve asked Father, and he thinks a bit of foreign travel would be good for me.”

It did seem a very long journey for so short a stay, but that was his choice. We could see no other objection. We warned him to bring, like us, as little baggage as possible. A word with Theodorus confirmed that he was happy with the plan. And if, he added for Ram’s and my ears alone, Zeno wanted to stay another year in India, and if we were willing to have him, we should let him. It might be no bad thing to get the wanderlust out of his system.

After nearly two months we had seen all the irrigation that we needed, and Zeno next showed us the local sights which ordinary visitors came to see. There was the famed Labyrinth, a vast burial place for kings of old. There was the temple of Thoth the god of disputes where, it turned out, Theodorus’ striking workers had taken sanctuary and could negotiate safe from arrest. There was the temple of Petesoukhos, the crocodile god after whom Krokodilopolis was named, a deity with aggressively sexual behaviour — the Egyptians seem to have as many gods as the Brahmins, but we never got fully to grips with their functions. Indeed there were many such temples around Moeris, each with a live incarnation — as evil and unlovely as our own crocodiles — to be worshipped. Tourists could, for a fee, throw them food. And when these living gods died they were mummified.

Having exhausted the local sights, we still had time to spare. It was approaching the middle of May, and there were a few days before we had to start back for Myos Hormos. Zeno suggested a quick trip down-river to Memphis. We bade a grateful farewell to Theodorus, rode back to Aphrodito with Zeno’s baggage as well as ours, and took a boat for Memphis which lies a day to the north. At the hub of the Nile, just before the delta fans out, it is a large city of workshops, warehouses and wharves, and because it lies on the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt, tolls are levied here on river boats. It is a holy city too, the home of a vast and venerable precinct of temples, as well as the handiest starting-point for visiting the Pyramids. Here we booked in at an upmarket hotel and were allocated rooms.

Before taking our baggage up, Ram and I were lazily enjoying the relative cool of the evening, sitting beside the Nile and watching the boats, when Heliodorus and Zeno, who had gone off by themselves, came flying to us in a state approaching panic.

“We’ve got to clear out!” Zeno cried. “Now!

Bemused, but alarmed by his urgency, we picked up our baggage and obeyed. He led us at a run — or me at a limp — to the precinct of the temple of Ptah. Only when we were inside the great portal did he explain. The boys had gone to their room for a bit of fun, as he put it, when one of the hotel staff walked in on them, caught them in the act, and announced that he was calling the police.

“It’s all so stupid,” Zeno exploded, still panting. “Greeks can do what they like with Greeks, and Egyptians with Egyptians. Greeks can even enter” — he used a coarser word — “Egyptians. But if an Egyptian enters a Greek citizen it’s a crime. And that’s what this bastard saw — a dark-skinned man on top of a fair-skinned Greek. It doesn’t make any difference that Heliodorus isn’t Egyptian. With that skin colour, he can’t possibly count as a Greek, and that’s all the law bothers about. If they arrested you it’d be ages before it got to court, and we’d miss the ship, and pretty certainly you’d end up in gaol if not worse. Heliodorus anyway, if not Dion and Ram too. Isn’t it idiotic? Just because you aren’t Greek … Greek, Egyptian, Indian — what’s the difference? We’re all human beings.”

We squatted in a corner of the great courtyard to take stock. Nobody paid us any attention, and for the time being we were safe. The police were no doubt lurking outside the gate — they always were, Zeno said, because many took sanctuary here — and had let us in because word had not yet reached them that we were wanted. But they would never, he assured us, force their way inside. None the less they knew all about us three Indians. We had dutifully reported to the police at Koptos and Aphrodito and Krokodilopolis and now Memphis, and had registered our details at every inn. They would know exactly who we were, where we came from, how we had got here, and when we were intending to leave. They would know that the Ammon was the only way for us to get home. All they had to do was wait for us outside the precinct and, to be doubly sure, wait for us at the ship.

“They’ll expect you to go up the Nile,” said Zeno, “and over the desert to Myos Hormos, because that’s the obvious way, and the way you came in. If you did, you’d be bound to get caught. Even if you weren’t, you’d need an exit permit — and so would I — which we haven’t got. So we’ll have to go the other way.”

“What other way is there?”

“By boat along the Ptolemaios Potamos. It’s a canal from here to Klysma. Klysma,” he explained in reply to our questioning looks, “is at the very top end of the Arabian Gulf. It’s a much smaller port than Myos Hormos, so there’ll be less bureaucracy there, and they won’t be expecting us to go that way. Then we’ll have to find a ship down the Gulf. How we get aboard the Ammon at Myos Hormos without being seen I haven’t a clue. And our first problem is getting you out of the precinct. The mercy is that I’m a Greek citizen and can come and go as I like. The police here won’t know my name or where I live, and they’ll have only a vague description of me. So tomorrow I’ll ask around to get some ideas.”

I thought of reprimanding the boys for their carelessness, but it was more a case of sheer bad luck. It could just as easily have been Ram and me, though we would presumably both count as Egyptians.

“Well,” I said, “we’re in your hands. And another mercy is that we spent virtually nothing at Moeris, so we’ve still got plenty of money.”

Zeno slipped out, by a different gate to avoid arousing the watchers’ suspicions, and came back with food. Having eaten it we dossed down uncomfortably in a remote corner. Early next morning he was off again, this time for the whole day, while we wandered around the huge precinct. The Egyptians build bigger than the Brahmins, much bigger: solidly rather than floridly, as Heliodorus put it. Their statues are sometimes colossal and always formal, a far cry from the Greeks’ realism and from Menander’s image of the Buddha. Ptah, who presides here, is their god of creation, crafts and fertility. He is also associated with Apis the bull-god — we saw similarities with Shiva — and the current incarnation of Apis lives in a stable on the premises with a harem of cows. Tourists are allowed for a fee to peek through a little window and see him taking exercise in the yard. It might have been interesting had I not been biting my nails in anxiety. My journey from the frozen passes of the Imaus to the sweltering heat of the Nile had been a long one. Having escaped the clutches of one authoritarian regime, I had no desire to end up, alongside my son and my beloved, rotting in the gaol of another.

What gave me hope in my agonising was Datis’ amulet, which still I always wore round my neck. I pulled it out and looked at it. It brought back memories of that first night with the caravan, in our tent pitched between desert and mountain. ‘We should be active,’ Datis had said, ‘in striving to ensure happiness, in keeping the chaos of evil at bay, with good thoughts, with good words, with good deeds.’ That was drawn from the Zoroastrians’ creed, but it was just as applicable to Greeks and Brahmins and followers of the Buddha, and to those who had no belief at all. It was equally applicable here in distant Memphis. The same night in the tent had also been when Datis told me of his son’s inexcusable death. The boy with whom I shared a name had ultimately been avenged, as had my own family, when their murderer Eucratides met his richly-deserved end. And that outcome showed how justice could triumph, even if belatedly.

At last a euphoric Zeno came back to us, by way of yet another gate. He may have been careless in being caught in illicit practices, but now he made up for it with the thoroughness of his plans. He had called on a friend of his father’s who ran the largest of the many papyrus factories in Memphis; and this friend, though blissfully ignorant of the reason behind Zeno’s questions, had proved very helpful. Most of the problems, with luck, had already been solved. Firstly, next evening there was to be a big festival in the temple here which, because Ptah was the patron of craftsmen, would be attended by the papyrus-makers, many of whom were black-skinned Nubians. We would disguise ourselves and try to leave with them.

“I know you’ve got swords,” Zeno said. “But if you are arrested, don’t dream of using them. It would only make matters worse.”

Secondly, a large barge was about to depart from Memphis with a cargo of this friend’s papyrus rolls destined for the garrison at Berenike. It would go by the canal to Klysma and thence down the Gulf, passing Myos Hormos on the way. Zeno had taken the skipper, Menkhes by name, into his confidence, and Menkhes, being an Egyptian, was more than happy to help outwit the hated police; in return, of course, for a suitable reward. Because this was a local voyage wholly within Egypt, formalities at Klysma would be few, and Menkhes was well known to the authorities as a regular trader. The barge in question was called the Tyche, and we hoped it would live up to its name, which means Good Luck.

The risks were still considerable, but in the circumstances we could hardly expect better. Zeno had brought more food, and we spent another uncomfortable night. Next morning he was off again with enough of our money to pay Menkhes, and he returned with, of all things, a little bag of soot. We pared our baggage down to the absolute minimum of a change of clothes apiece, a few small gifts we had bought for the family, and our precious satchel of notes and sketches. The rest, including our swords, we abandoned. Votaries began to arrive for the festival, among them a score of jet-black Nubians who kept together in a group. Ram, Heliodorus and I blackened our faces with the soot and tucked our vestigial baggage under our clothes. When at last the proceedings ended in the fading light, Zeno had a quiet word with the knot of Nubians, and coins changed hands. Heads bent and hearts beating fast, we mingled with them and shuffled out in their midst.

It worked. There were men waiting outside, but no challenges. And fortunately the precinct is little more than a stone’s throw from the Nile. There, hidden behind the bank, was the Tyche. Peeling off from the group, we dropped quietly on board and hid in a space that Menkhes had created among the bales of papyrus. The crew poled the barge out into the river and, once off the Nile and into the canal, they moored for the night. Great was our relief.

The next ten days, however, were excruciating. The food was monotonous in the extreme. While Zeno could stay on deck, the rest of us dared not show our faces to anyone in a passing boat or on the bank — and even though we were in semi-desert there were usually several in sight. If the temperature outside was fierce, down below it was yet fiercer. We might, if Zeno gave the all-clear, poke our heads up for a quick breather, but no more. What made it especially agonising was our slow speed, propelled only by poles. It was well after halfway to Klysma that the canal swung towards the south and the sail could be spread to catch the north wind.

Klysma is little used as a port because here, at the innermost recess of the Gulf, the winds are unreliable. But before arriving we were buried deeper still among the bales and ordered not to make a sound. There was some delay as the officials checked the Tyche through, but they clearly had no notion that we might be leaving by this route, and made no search. Then, once past the sluice which allows passage from the inland canal to the tidal waters of the Gulf, we were away. When too far from land for our faces to be seen, we were free to come up. It had been a painful journey but necessary, and we had had much luck. After a time, however, it seemed as if the luck was deserting us. The wind was now fitful and progress again painfully slow. Days were rolling by and the Ammon’s departure was ever closer. What if we missed it? And even if we were in time, how were we to get aboard at Myos Hormos? We dare not set foot ashore, or even be seen. Play it by ear, was Zeno’s constant message.

Finally the wind picked up and stayed up, and the barge, being small for open-sea work, bucketed alarmingly. The day arrived when Myos Hormos came into sight. We stared and stared, knowing that with its great size the Ammon would stand out from all the other shipping in port. But the nearer we approached, the clearer it was that it had already sailed.