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Hygiene, Egyptian style

(Karnak, Egypt, 1460 BC)

The first few days at the royal harem were filled with baths, inspections, more baths, lotions and a sundry assortment of perfumes. With only the two Saras for companions, Pharaoh’s staff segregated her from the main harem complex. Everyone was respectful and quick to try to explain whatever they were doing. Brenzel learned that, like a horse or chariot, she was now the property of Pharaoh. As close as she could figure out, a Pharaoh was the incarnation of a deity called ‘Amun,’ who was the god of the air, or “unseen god.” Though servants tried to explain what this god was, Bren lost them at, “Amun had sex with himself and that was how he was born.”

Sitting in a large, oval granite bath tub, a young servant girl scrubbed Bren’s back with a luf. As she scrubbed her with soap, the young woman said it was meant to make Brenzel’s skin soft and supple. Bren grimaced at the way the tube-like sponge grated on her back, wondering if there would be any skin left to be supple! Enduring the girl’s enthusiastic scrubbing for awhile, she finally said, “Enough for today little one, you did well.”

Two Saras

Brenzel liked the two Kushite twins very much, but found them truly confusing. Identical in every way, the young hunter quickly realized there was no distinguishing between them. Indeed, they even finished each other’s sentences, making it seem as though she was talking to one person in two bodies. The only slight difference was that one had a small scar on her right ankle that you could see, if you looked closely. Bren took to asking which Sara she was with, christening them Sara 1 and Sara 2. That way, if she needed to know specifically, she could keep track.

The steward of God’s wife, who was named Senenmut, kept them in a spacious set of rooms adorned with murals on the walls. The main room was painted in a lovely water scene which consisted of black and white birds by the Nile. It flowed with brilliant greens, soft blues, and depictions of water plants everywhere. Most of the preparations and purification took place in this room performed by a battery of female servants, each seemingly specializing in one particular ablution. Some young, some old, each took what they did very seriously, but were pleasant and professional. Remembering Elysia and the freedom from bodily shame there, Brenzel found Egyptian attitudes towards clothes quite similar. Often sheer to the point of see-through, people seem quite comfortable in and out of their garments.

No shame

Now, five days into her “purification,” Bren looked at an old woman approaching her with a razor. Raising her eyebrows and backing away, the tall blond remarked out loud, “You can’t be serious!”

Again, the old woman asked to perform her service. Shaking her head without thinking, Bren said, “No, I’m okay, thank you.”

One of the Saras, with a concerned look on her face, held her left arm, saying, “Mistress, it’s necessary,”

“Why?” Bren countered, trying hard to think of an excuse, any excuse.

“It is our custom,” the other Sara said as she held her right. The first Sara, leaning close to Bren’s ear said in a whisper, “People will think you’re… unclean.”

Buying time, she said, “You two first, then.”

“Of course, mistress,” the other Sara said, as she laid back on table decked with cushions. Clearly the old lady who held the razor was amused by the whole scene, but said nothing.

Later that evening, eating supper with the girls, her last vestige of modesty gone, Bren thought, This is what a sheep must feel like.

Cold moon rising

As a full moon rose over the Nile, Bren slid into a deep sleep among the cushions and dreamt vividly.

Standing, wrapped in a old shawl, the cold – a bitter cold she hadn’t felt for years – made her shiver uncontrollably. Snow covered the ground, wind blowing through her peasant’s dress, causing her skin to feel painful. Looking down, her feet were wrapped in rags. The trees around her, dark and shadowy in the moonlight, leered at her from every direction. A feeling of loss, incredible loss, racked her heart as she blew on her icy hands. Looking behind her, there were no footprints in the snow.

To her side, a small voice inquired, “Momma?”

“Iris!” she screamed, sitting bolt upright among the cushions, startling the two girls next to her as she shook violently.

Sweating, heart pounding, she rubbed her hands together as if they were still cold. Eyes welling up, Bren began to sob, head in hands, feeling the stabbing loss within. Both girls came near, saying, “Mistress, it’s alright, it was just a bad dream.” As they held her, Bren continued to cry, rocking back and forth, saying, “Iris, Iris…”

Hoop, Hoop, Hoop

In the morning, Brenzel awoke early to a “Hoop, hoop, hoop,” outside the window. Brenzel wiped the sleep from her eyes, last night’s tears leaving them crusty. The Saras, reminding her of Elysia, were still snuggled peacefully next to her. Bren carefully stood so as not to disturb them. Feeling the rays of the sun, she walked over to the window which looked out upon the royal harem’s inner court, locating the source of the sound in a nearby palm tree. The plumed head of a rust-colored Hoopoe darted this way, then that. “Hoop, hoop, hoop.” sang the small bird again. So strange, she mused, birds seem normal anywhere you go, like they’re the one constant in the world.

As her tummy rumbled, she thought, what I wouldn’t give for a warm scone! She could taste it in her mouth, remembering her favorite childhood treat. She’d bounce and skip with delight, a big one in her little hands, following her mother home from market. Why now? she pondered, as the dream about Iris lingered, supplanting her fond memory. Focusing hard on the bird, she gazed at it until it flew off.

Fit for a Pharaoh!

“Hold still, mistress, just one more… right…here.” Bren, looking like one of hieroglyphs on the walls, stood still as Sara added one last ornament to her hair later that morning. Heavy dark eye shadow caused her green eyes to look almond shaped. A subtle green shade was painted under her eyes, and golden gloss graced her lips. A beautiful fan-like neck piece hung over her breasts. Her hair, plaited in intricate weaves interlaced with various jewels, fell down around her shoulders and back.

Sheathed in a sheer dress of fine linen, pleated from the waist down, she stood in sandals. Standing back, admiring their handiwork, the two Saras said together, “Beautiful! You are sure to please Pharaoh!”

Besides the other preparations, Brenzel had been instructed endlessly about court etiquette. How to bow, how low, where to look, how to answer a question, never say too much or too little, etc. However, fortunately, Brenzel’s mind retained it all, as it always had with anything she heard or saw.

An eye for style

Emerging from her palanquin, the sheer scale of the palace took Brenzel’s breath away, as rows of enormous columns stood tall like a very ordered forest. Each decorated cylinder, perhaps 50 feet high and 8 to 9 feet across, was capped with stylized palm fronds. The massive pillars held up gigantic square stone rafters, supporting either wooden planks or large-colored tarps shading the crowds from the intense heat above. Everything, the columns, walls, doors, and roof were engraved with the same type of pictorial writing Bren had witnessed in the street, just better and brighter. People stood, either alking or waited silently, many wearing different types of clothes and hairstyles; mostly men, but also some women too.

A serious young man escorted Bren and her compatriots into the palace complex, as the press of people increased the deeper they went, all waiting to be heard at Pharaoh’s court.

Again, people stared at Brenzel as she passed, some exclaiming, “Hathor…”

Until I come for you

Their escort placed them to the right of Pharaoh’s throne, saying, “Please, wait here until I come for you.” Bren couldn’t see the throne, but did, with a start, note an enormous live lion, held on a golden chain by a large, muscled servant, barely 10 feet from her. Guards, stationed along the walls, stood silently as each person or group approached the raised platform slowly, bowing low in obeisance as they did. Though it was a large, high walled room, the press of human bodies made it uncomfortably warm in spite of the shade, causing Bren’s nose to wrinkle. Fortunately, one of the Saras produced a hand fan, which made it bearable.

For what seemed like hours, the endless procession of petitioners came before the throne of Pharaoh. Some implored for relief from taxes, while others requested restoration of lands, while still others asked for appointments to the priesthood or military service. Pharaoh never spoke directly to the supplicants, but communicated only through the official who stood to the right of the platform near the lion. At noonday, the proceedings halted for a hour or so, as food and drink were offered to all those present.

Pharaoh’s court

Finally, Pharaoh’s spokesman announced after lunch, “Pharaoh will now hear petitions.” After a moment, a man in chains was brought forward by two guards, falling to his knees, begging loudly for mercy. The court of Pharaoh grew silent.

The man at the right of the throne cried, “Silence!” as the desperate captive suddenly stopped talking. Reading from a papyrus, he stated, “For the crime of the theft of a donkey from a royal caravan and the illegal sale thereof, this man is condemned to death.”

Another man, older, came forward, falling on his knees next to him, begging, “Great, merciful, Pharaoh. I beg for my son’s life! He has wronged you and the gods by his unwise actions.”

Senenmut answered, “Why do you trouble Pharaoh with such trivial matters? Be gone from this place.”

Hearing Pharaoh behind him, the official turned and approached the throne, then coming back, asked the old man, “For what reason did your son steal royal property?”

Sensing a ray of hope, the father said, “Merciful Pharaoh, our family has fallen on hard times, our crops have failed due to locusts, and we are starving. His wife is with child. He works hard, but his employer pays little. My only son, foolishly, thought to ease our pain through this indiscretion.”

Son of a Jackal

The stern man again approached the throne and spoke with Pharaoh. Coming back, he said, “You have raised the son of a jackal who has taken what is not his. He is worthy of death – yet, Pharaoh, the wise and just ruler of all that Amun creates, decrees that he shall not die, lest he cause your hoary head, stricken with grief, to enter Duat (the afterlife) with him. Twenty lashes are decreed.”

And, without another moment’s hesitation, two guards brought a tall pole and slipped it into a slot in the floor. Hoisting up the prisoner, strong men fastened his chains to a iron latch at the top, as he hung with his feet barely touching the stone. One ripped the tunic off his back, exposing his brown skin. Another, looking like a high ranking military official, approached with a whip in his right hand, looking towards the throne. Receiving a signal, the man heaved back the whip and let it crack on the man’s flesh, leaving a long red whelp across his back. Bren winched as she watched. Another, then another. The man screamed in agony, flailing about as the lashes mounted. Five, then ten. . . blood oozing from the lacerations.

Bren, heart and stomach sickening, felt for they young man as the soldier meted out his punishment. Inhumane! Bren thought, it was only a donkey! Perhaps prison – but this! This is “barbaric!” She’d heard that term as a child in England, but never truly understood it until now. This is too cruel!

Pharaoh’s court

As the lashes mounted, many women looked away and cried as they prayed to their gods for the bloody spectacle to conclude. The father, weeping as he watched his son take his lashes, felt every one with him. Pharaoh’s spokesman counted out loud above the prisoner’s agony: Fifteen. . . sixteen. . . seventeen. . .then the screaming stopped, as the man’s body went limp, blood flowing down his back onto his slack legs. Eighteen. . . nineteen …twenty. Finally, the soldier left off cracking the whip. Senenmut finished, with, “The punishment is performed, the matter is closed.” The old soldier cleaned his whip with a rag as the others unhooked the man from the pole, dragging him away.

The father, stone faced, came forward, as guards removed the pole from the floor and servants cleaned up the blood, saying, “Thank you, most merciful Pharaoh, truly you are just and compassionate.” Then, receiving a signal to leave, turned, stumbled slightly, then caught himself, following after his son.

Pharaoh’s right hand man proclaimed, “Let it be known throughout Pharaoh’s domain that theft will be met with swift and severe punishment. Next!”

Summoned


“Is he alive?” Bren whispered.

“Shush!” both Saras said at once.

Just then their escort, eyes wide, came and said, “You are summoned by Pharaoh!”

Quickly, he led all three to the front of the long line, then motioned them to approach the throne. Bren, angry at the display of such cruel, punitive power – thinking back to how the English Crown had treated her so unfairly – stared at the floor, green eyes sparking with flashes of violet.

Senenmut, said, “Mighty Pharaoh, these are the three slaves you bought at the Karnak Market, the one named Brenzel being chief among them. They have been purified and cleansed according to the rituals of Hathor and brought here for you inspection.

Brenzel heard a woman’s voice say, “Bring the tall one near.”

What the. . .?

Bren approached the Egyptian monarch, eyes downward, led by her spokesman.

“Let’s see this…Brenzel,” the voice said with curiosity.

Raising her eyes slowly, trying hard to not show defiance, Brenzel’s expression turned to one of utter shock as she looked hard at ‘the Pharaoh.’

Incredulous

Bren stared, exclaiming within herself, No! it couldn’t be. . .

Pharaoh stood and walked towards her. The small, brown woman in regal attire, about 3 inches shorter than the tall blond, moved slowly around her, touching Bren’s skin and hair repeatedly, prodding here and there. Finally, coming back around to face her, she said, “Open your mouth” (which was half open already.) After lifting her lips and pulling out cheeks to examine Brenzel molars, she commanded, “Look into my eyes,” which Bren did, still incredulous. As she did, Bren’s heart swelled with love, causing Pharaoh to step back slightly.

Staring at her for a moment more in open wonder, Pharaoh turned abruptly, commanding Senenmut, “She’ll do, add her to the others.”

Afterwards, as the young man escorted the three ladies from Pharaoh’s court, Bren scarcely noticed her surroundings. It had to be her, but how could it be? she wondered. Remembering how the woman looked at her, she knew she was right, she felt it in her spirit. Looking up as she walked, Bren asked in her heart, Lord, is it her? The now familiar voice answered, “Yes.”

Coming to the palanquin and the eight bearers she turned back towards the palace, saying out loud, “Doc,” to the bewilderment of those present. The truth, Bren realized, was that beneath all that Egyptian finery was the very woman who held her at night in her small cot after her friend Sam was shot and killed in World War I – “Doc is Pharaoh!”

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