Erin and I were both Egyptophiles. We used to joke that we had been born too late, and in the wrong country. That we ought to have been born French, back in the Napoleonic era. So, it made perfect sense that, for our honeymoon, we should travel to Egypt, to tour the Antiquities. We were so foolish.
We flew into Cairo right after our wedding, and were immediately staggered by the heat – which we were so unused to given our temperate home climate and sheltered city-living. Luckily, we got into our hotel pretty quickly – we were staying the night there, and heading up-country come the morning. As you can understand, we were both eager for the next day, and got hardly a wink of sleep. Rather than spending the first night of our married lives as most couples, well, as they usually do, we re-read for the hundredth time our manuals, the memoirs of Champollion, the reports of Carter’s expedition, the somewhat off-the-wall musings of Freud. Suffice to say, we were whipped into a feverish pitch!
Instead of starting our explorations at Giza, we elected to travel to Thebes and work our way back down the Nile. The Valley of the Kings did not disappoint! While we could have, with our broad knowledge, conducted our own expedition, the newly opened tourist centre was an effective jumping-off point. We found another group of Americans there, much less learned than we, but still, it’s nice to have company and to be able to share your eagerness and enjoyment with others, isn’t it? Jim and Tara, their names were. We became fast friends. Things were off to a good start.
Hussein, our guide for the Royal Necropolis, began by explaining some of the basic elements of the Ancient Egyptian religious customs to Jim and Tara. I can only assume that he was new to the job, because he stated that the Ancient Egyptians were entirely polytheistic. When Erin called him on it, pointing out Akhenaten and the state shift to the worship of Aten, the man dug in heels. I guess, from his perspective, it makes sense – here he is, a native Egyptian, being told by a bunch of white Americans that he doesn’t know his own history! All the same, Erin didn’t let up, and, fortunately, we had on us a copy of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. That shut him up pretty quickly! Furthermore, we also had a new manuscript, by a professor friend of ours at the College, indicating by way of the archaeological record, that Akhenaten’s monotheism pre-dated, by a good few centuries, the advent of the Abrahamic faiths. Jim and Tara were quite impressed! Hussein spent the rest of the day in a rather sullen mood, only providing us the bare-minimum in commentary and guiding duties. Fortunately, we could have done without him anyways!
Following our rather abortive day at the Royal Necropolis, we elected to forego the guide services on hand for the remainder of our time in Thebes. Jim and Tara, impressed by our show of independent scholarship, decided to travel with the two of us, rather than rely on the demonstratedly shoddy services from the tourist centre. By a stroke of what we’d later know for ill-luck, Jim had a connection with the American embassy, and we were able to secure the use of a car and the clearances to travel the country-side ourselves. We set out in great eagerness, to hunt down the mysteries of yesteryear.
It was at this time, as you’ll no doubt recall, that the Lost Temple complex of Gar-Sutekh was said to have been rediscovered. It made international news, there’s no way you could have missed it if you were paying attention. At any rate, you can imagine our excitement – here we were, in Egypt, during a period of new discovery! It was our dream come true. No need to travel back to the 19th century – discovery was still possible in the 21st!
The location of the complex was, at that time, still being kept as a secret – academics wanted first crack at it, and it was a matter of some national security to set up the appropriate measures to handle the inevitable tourists. Jim got in touch with his contacts once again – I never did find out how it was that he so well-connected – and, glory of glories, we learned of the location!
Seemingly, the regulation of the Nile, since the building of the dam at Aswan back in the ‘60’s, has dried out the surrounding areas in ways that no-one anticipated. Much like Abu Simbel, also tied inextricably to the dam, the complex had been caught in the shifting sands, and, slowly, inch by inch, lost to history. The periodic floodings kept the sand wet enough to not blow off, but, after several decades of relative dryness, it had done just that, and the statuary, the temples, the pillars had been restored to the land of the living. No one alive at the time knew to save the complex from the shifting sands, and it was lost to us – until now.
You can, I assume, imagine the excitement which gripped Erin and myself – a newly re-discovered city, unexplored for at least several hundred years, if not more! We had to get there, no matter the barriers, no matter the impediments. Were we not the match of any University-funded Antiquarian? Were we not the equal, in learning, of any living Egyptologist? We certainly thought we were. And we set out to prove it.
Alongside the rental of the car came a GPS unit, a properly bulky affair, probably a decade old, but with enough kick to zero in on the location. Following a stint on the highway, it was off-road for a number of miles – to be expected. Thankfully, or so we thought at the time, Gar-Sutekh was seemingly abandoned. After driving some four hours to get from Luxor to the complex, the sun was setting.
Much like Abu Simbel, Gar-Sutekh was built into a cliff of sandstone. By the time we arrived, a gibbous moon was rising behind the escarpment, and, at our backs, the Sun was laying itself to sleep in desert sands. Its last rays painted the complex in ruddy, warm tones. Jim parked our Jeep on the periphery of the compound, and we busied ourselves with getting our flashlights and the like ready. By the time we were set, the scene had changed dramatically – the flushed, broad-strokes cast by the setting Sun had been replaced by austere, cool blues and whites of the Moon, now a hands breadth above the monolithic rock, black now against the backdrop of the night sky. The temperature began to drop precipitously, though the hot sand and worked stone still radiated.
I remember feeling a sense of reservation grow, an unexpected desire to pack up and head back to the city. So out of place – the whole trip, Erin and I had been, I’ll confess, near-giddy at the prospect of what awaited us. But, standing there, flashlight in hand, looking into the gathering chill, I could’ve given it all up. I was just about to say something when Tara made some off-hand comment about not bringing a jacket, not thinking it’d be so cold in the desert. That snapped me out of it – here we were, about to explore buildings that hadn’t been properly seen in millennia, and I wanted to just give it up over nothing? A niggling doubt? What would it look like to Jim and Tara, especially after the good show we had made at the Necropolis days before? I strode purposefully towards the ruins.
The complex itself was designed in a T-format, a central avenue that lead towards, and eventually inside of, the sandstone escarpment, while two others branched out before the front of the mound and lead each into secondary temples. Flanking the sides of the central avenue were, at regular intervals, statues of some 15 feet or so. The first two, though the head was missing off one, must have been Pharaoh Tjesh III and his prime consort, the reigning monarchs of the period, and those that must have ordered the building of the mighty compound. Or so say the scanty sources remaining.
Erin, shining her flashlight onto the oversize head of Pharaoh Tjesh, revealed a startling scene: his features had been chiseled away, clearly the work of human hands – no desert winds, no matter how rough, could have left such brutal gouges. The historic vandal had paid particular attention to the eyes of the Pharaoh, leaving the stony sockets deeply gashed.
“Oh!” exclaimed a startled Tara. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Well,” Erin said, sounding as surprised as I felt, “defacing the memorials of a person, their statues and,” she directed her light to the cartouche on the plinth of the statue, it too had been attacked, “their names, it was seen as a way of scrubbing them out of history. Of removing them from both this life and the next. It was only done to criminals, and then only rarely, for really heinous offences.”
“What’d he do, then, to get this?” Jim inquired. A puzzled Erin turned to me.
“I dunno,” she said. “The sources on Tjesh III have always been patchy. He’s rarely mentioned. I guess this is why. It’s also likely why Gar-Sutekh hasn’t ever really been looked for before.”
“Looks creepy,” Tara said, “eyes all gouged out like that.” She shivered, though it was still at least 70 degrees.
We carried on down the avenue, its paving stones fitted tightly in some places, swamped with desert sand in others. It made the going somewhat treacherous – you’d take a step and come down on hard stone at one point, and the next you’d be tripped up by an unseen dune, stumbling in the thick drift of it. Of course, we had our flashlights, but they were directed up to the statues for the most part.
“Who’s this guy, the one with the weird head?” Jim said, indicating another weather-beaten statue, which had a snake winding across the torso.
“From the looks of it, I’d say it’s the god Set,” I answered. “Set was meant to be god of storms and disorder, and later became an enemy of Osiris and his son, Ra, who were thought of as Pharoahs of the gods. I’m not sure what that snake is all about, though – Set was supposed to have fought Apophis, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, that’s what I recall,” answered Erin. To the other two, who were looking on confusedly: “Apophis was the embodiment of Chaos, and Set was said to have defeated it, working with Ra, to prevent the sun from being consumed by the snake. Look at that the way Set is shown holding Apophis here – doesn’t really look as if they’re in the grips of combat, does it?”
“If this is what it looks like, there was definitely something weird going on here,” I said. “It runs against hundreds of years of received mythos to have these two depicted as comrades. It’s an aberration as large as Akhenaten’s.”
“If this is so weird, this presentation of these gods,” asked Tara, “then why weren’t they attacked the way the Pharaoh was, y’know, with a defacing and stuff?”
“While many Pharaohs were considered to be gods after they passed into the next life, gods with the stature of Set were held to be ‘above’ them, sort of. It really wasn’t until the Old Kingdom that the Pharaohs were thought to be reincarnations of Horus. Until that point, they were just men, if kings. So, while Tjesh may have been punished for whatever sort of sins he committed, Set was still considered above the justice of mere mortals,” Erin responded.
The moon was well and truly above us when we had gotten to the end of the avenue, blanketing the area in a cold white light. As it had ascended, the temperature had fallen. Our breath puffed out in clouds as we exhaled. More of the strange statues of Set and Apophis had awaited us as we travelled towards the temple buildings, depicting the unusually close relationship between the two in various ways. Unlike the memorial to Pharaoh Tjesh, there had been no cartouche or any other hieroglyphs to dissipate the mystery.
I feel like I should stress, at this point, that we didn’t notice anything odd –well, beyond the bizarre and unsettling statuary, and the total absence of any other living person – when we went into that main temple. It’s true, it was getting colder, to the point where I regretted not having brought my coat, but the moon was still high and, aside from the glare of the flashlights, you could make out the surroundings pretty easily.
So, we went in, me first, followed by Erin and Tara, and Jim taking up the rear. The gate, whether of stone or something less permanent, had been lost at some point over the millennia, and the doorway, flanked by two more of the strange statues of Set, yawned open before us. Once inside, casting our flashlight beams about, we saw that this main room was the majority of the temple building that we could see from outside, at least above ground. A double line of pillars ran down the length of the hall towards the back of the room. Unlike the delicate pillars you’d find in and around Grecian temples, or even the more ornate, fluted variety that cropped up in later Egyptian works, these were bulky, and solid. Rather than a single piece of carved stone, or several pieces joined seamlessly, these were formed by broad cylinders, a good arm span in diameter, stacked one atop the other. The effect they granted the room was one of great gravity, as if this hall were located fathoms below ground, rather than at surface level.
Because the main doorway stood open to the elements, small drifts of sand accumulated every few feet for the first dozen yards. The room smelled dry, as if it were as much a part of the desert as the miles of trackless waste. That was the first thing that seemed a bit off – it was Tara that noticed it.
“It feels…I dunno, old in here,” she said. “Like, I get that it’s, y’know, old, that it’s ancient, but it feels really old.”
“Yeah,” Erin says from beside her, inspecting some of the hieroglyphs on the first set of pillars, “I get what you mean. But I don’t really know how to express it, either. It’s almost as if it feels older than it should be, if that makes any sense.”
“Are you able to read any of those?” Jim said, indicating the hieroglyphs. “Whadda they say about this place? Sure gives me the creeps.” He swept his flashlight about, scenes of bare rock and ossified brick appearing and fading in its arc, till it came to rest on another of the pillar.
“Well, the problem with this, of course,” started Erin, “is that we’ve never had a direct translation of hieroglyphs, and these, well, if I’m not mistaken, these are really quite ancient. You guys know about the Rosetta Stone, right? Well, that only got us a rough translation of the language, from the Greek to the Demotic, a sort of Egyptian in cursive form, and then to the more formal hieroglyphs,” she said, poring over the graven symbols. “When the French found it, only Ancient Greek was still known, so, at each stage of the translation, meaning was lost. It’s been the work of Egyptologists ever since to try and get the semantics back, the turns of phrase. It’s like trying to read Old English if modern English was your second language, reading this stuff.”
At this point, I noticed that my breathing had become labored – not as if there weren’t enough air, but rather as it had a heaviness to it, as if the gas had become syrupy, almost. Once I had realized what was going on, I looked over at the others and noticed that they too were having a tough time, every breath a subconscious struggle. I put my hand out, to steady myself against the nearest column. I could feel the rough-hewn symbols under my palm, their primordial edges still jagged to the touch.
And then, as suddenly as it had descended, it was gone. Letting out a breath of palpable relief, I asked the others, “Did anyone else feel that?” Though I had seen them struggling, they eyed me with a quizzical expression.
“Feel what?” asked Jim.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, got a bit light-headed for a moment, I guess,” I responded sheepishly.
Erin was still trying to read the initial pillar – she had always been better with the hieroglyphics than me – while Jim and Tara had fanned out deeper into the dark room.
“What’s that, down there?” Tara asked, indicating the back of the hall with her flashlight. The beam illuminated what looked to be a waist level bench, or altar. There was little else around, save for two squat pedestals, one on either side of the stone slab. Tara rushed forward.
“Hey, wait!” I cried, taking off after her.
“What, I just wanna take a look!” she said, once I had met her at the altar.
“You worried about curses of something? You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” Jim said presently. Of course, I did know better, but, well, I was still worried. This place was getting to me.
“Well, no, of course I’m not worried about any curse, but, the floor could have been damaged, or something,” I responded lamely. “This place hasn’t been checked out, like the other tourist spots, right?”
We turned our attention to the work table in front of us, we could see now that that is what it was.
“The Egyptians, they didn’t, y’know, they didn’t do human sacrifice or anything, did they?” Tara asked, looking at the depressions in the stone surface, quite reminiscent of the human form.
“No, not in any of the records we have. While the Egyptians venerated the dead, there’s no indication that they…helped anyone along. Not like that. If I’m not mistaken, this would have been a part of the materials used to create a mummy.”
“But where is everything else?” asked Erin, joining us. “And why is this here, of all places?”
“You’re right, there should be other equipment, proper beds for the submersion in naptha and the canopic jars for the organs,” I said, agreeing with her. “Really, mummification was done in a craftsman’s building, for all the respect they were accorded. To see something like this in a temple is…very strange.”
Erin, meanwhile, had been looking at the pedestals on either side of the table. From their design, they looked as if they had, at one point, acted as lamps. The flame that they gave off must have been quite impressive, given their own size. The angled faces of their pyramidal bodies were, much like the rows of columns, saturated with hieroglyphics.
“Huh,” said Erin, “I think, I think I can make this out…but that doesn’t make any sense!”
“What doesn’t make any sense?” asked Tara.
“Well, if I’m right in deciphering this, I think, I think they used this table to…to harvest the dead.” Erin responded, face grim. The heaviness of the air I had experienced before returned, and I could see from the looks on their faces that, this time, the others were aware of it as well.
“Let’s get out of here!” Tara said, gripping the sides of the macabre altar to stop from falling down. She got no argument from the rest of us, and we, feebly, slowly struggled our way out. Tara started leaning on Jim as he helped her to walk, and Erin and I, we supported one another down the main aisle between the cyclopian pillars. By the time the four of us had reached the end of that path, we were all of us on our hands and knees. We fell out of the temple under the gaze of those twinned statues of Apophis and Set. They looked down on us with what seemed a new glint in their stony eyes, as if they knew we were aware of the dark secrets they had borne witness to.
We could breathe again. We gained our feet, none of us saying anything, only thankful that we had made it out of whatever madness had descended upon us. Then, Erin looked at the sky. The way she screamed, it was as if had been ripped from her, it was as if forced against her will.
We all looked up – the moon, though we could only have been in the temple for, at most, twenty minutes, was gone. The stars, though, the stars! There we stood, amidst the statuary thrown into stark relief, and the stars, they looked a thousand thousand times closer. They dominated the sky, vast whorls of cosmic gasses, visible to the naked eye as never before.
Jung, Campbell, Leary, they talk of the ego death, the subsumption of the self in the face of the sublime. If that is not what we experienced then, I have no name for it. We were lost, lost under the weight of that alien sky.
This was not the place that we had left so short a time ago, this was not our land, the land of the living. Some change had been made, and nothing would ever be the same.
We carried it away with us, a piece of that strangeness. I don’t remember how we made it back to Luxor. All I can recall is being under that swirling, nightmare sky, and then suddenly back in our hotel room.
I’ve not heard from Tara or Jim since. Nor did I ever come across any report regarding the exploration of Gar-Sutekh, despite my fevered searching.
Erin and I, of course, separated last year. The weight was too much to bear.
And still my dreams, my waking moments, are haunted.
Oh, that must be the nurse now. I guess you have to go.
Posted on December 12, 2014, in Mauve Prose, Short(er) Stories and tagged Ancient Egypt, Cosmic Horror, Egypt, Horror, Psychological Thriller, Pulp, Weird Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.