Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Life of a Schoolboy in Ancient Egypt

In The Aten Sequence Books the main character Aten sends Luke and Neferptah to be educated with Prince Dhutmose and other noble boys in an educational institution called the ‘Kap’, situated in the royal place.  But what was life really like for a schoolboy in Ancient Egypt?  What were they expected to learn and how were their lessons taught?

What was it like to be a schoolboy in Ancient Egypt? Formal education was mainly reserved for the upper classes and boys from wealthy families would begin their schooling around the age of four.  They would be trained in all the skills they would need to follow in their father’s footsteps.   A boy’s future occupation was decided by his family and they usually entered the same profession as their father.  Many important positions at Pharaoh’s court and in the major temples were handed down from father to son for many generations. The Ancient Egyptians were also a very practical people, so children were taught only the subjects and skills that would be relevant in their later career.

Child Working in Garden - Tomb of Menna
Child Working in Garden - Tomb of Menna

Literacy was mainly confined to the ruling classes such as courtiers, state administrators, senior members of the priesthood, and important army officers.  The artisans at the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina who worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the mortuary temples of the west bank could also read and write and, most unusually for the ancient world, there is evidence that some of their wives and daughters were also literate.  These workmen needed literacy skills as they had to accurately carve or paint texts onto tomb and temple walls from papyri or ostraca. Any Egyptian who was literate was known as a ‘scribe’ and the ability to read and write was so highly valued that many important courtiers and officials had statues carved that depicted them as scribes with a roll of papyrus stretched out across the knees.

School started early in the morning and would generally take place at the teacher’s house.  Boys were required to bring their own lunch and would pack bread and beer to keep them refreshed until the lessons ended at noon.  Teachers were very strict and the lessons would be made up of copying from old hieroglyphic texts and memorising passages from stories and texts.  Papyrus was very expensive, so students would practise their writing on fragments of limestone called ostraca or pieces of broken pottery.  If the teacher thought a pupil was being lazy, was caught sleeping in class or had been disruptive, then the punishment could be harsh as they would be beaten across the back with a stick.  Arithmetic was also taught but, although texts were recited out loud in order to learn them, all mathematical calculations were done silently and not spoken aloud.

The lessons were very difficult as the students would have to learn both the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts.  Hieroglyphics were the formal version of the script and were used in tombs, on temple walls and on the possessions of royalty and important noblemen. Hieratic was developed around the same time as the hieroglyphic script and was a simplified version that was used for more mundane purposes such as keeping accounts, making records and private correspondence. There were many different hieroglyphic signs to learn, over 700, all of which were consonants.  There were no vowels, and the grammar was also difficult. 

When writing in English we write from left to right across the page, but Egyptian schoolboys could right from top to bottom or across the page.  If writing across the page, the text could be started from either the left or right. The way they would know which way to read the text was to look at which way the animal, bird or people signs were facing; if they were facing right, the text was to read from right to left.  Writing was regarded as sacred by the Ancient Egyptians as they believed it had been given to them by the gods, so texts had to be perfect, with no mistakes and neatly presented. The schoolboys would use brushes made from reeds to do their work, which they would dip into either black or red ink.  The ink, along with the reed pens, was stored in a pallet that was generally made from wood, although more elaborate ones were crafted in ivory or gilded.  Black ink was made from soot and water and other colours were made from mixing water with ground up minerals.

Physical education and military training did not really come to the fore until the time of the New Kingdom when the army came to more prominence and senior army officers began to wield great power in the ever growing empire.  Young royal princes and scions of the nobility were brought up and educated in an institution called the ‘kap’ or the Royal Nursery.  The ‘kap’ was part of the royal palace and having been a ‘child of the kap’ conferred a great deal of prestige in later life and was often mentioned on the owner’s statues and tomb inscriptions.  Foreign princes and nobility were also sent to the Royal Nursery, or brought as hostages, to be educated alongside the future pharaoh. This may have been done to forge strong personal bonds between the crown prince and the young men who would go on to rule the satellite states of the Egyptian empire or to ensure the continuing good behaviour of their fathers.  Not all who gained the coveted title of ‘Child of the Nursery’ were from the highest levels of society; some young boys came from relatively humble beginnings, such as the draughtsman Nebseny, although their career prospects were bound to have been boosted from their early proximity to the highest in the land.

Hieratic Text Copied by Schoolboy
Hieratic Text Copied by Schoolboy

These privileged young men would have been trained in archery, hunting, chariot driving, swimming and fighting with sticks.  Pharaohs had always been portrayed as accomplished warriors and athletes, but by the time of the New Kingdom the heir to the throne was shown and described engaging in amazing feats of arms and athleticism. Most of these images probably portrayed rituals rather than real life events, but the Egyptians doubtless looked up to their kings as physically powerful and fearless fighters.

Parents also taught their children the stories of the gods, religious rituals, ethics and morals.  There were texts called Books of Instruction or Wisdom Literature, which stressed desirable precepts such as veracity, treating people fairly, being obedient, leading an ordered life and taking responsibility.  The Ancient Egyptians tried to live by the principles of Maat, personified as a goddess, which created prosperity and balance in the country. These principles were harmony, cooperation, justice, truth and decorum.  Punishment for not following these ideals was believed to come after death, when your heart was weighed on a scale against a feather of Maat.  You would only be allowed to move on to a joyful, prosperous afterlife if your heart balanced the scale.  However, if during your life you had murdered, lied or cheated your heart would be too heavy, so it would then be flung to a demon called Ammut to devour and your life would be ended forever.

Palette of a Scribe
Palette of a Scribe

Children from poorer families started working and being useful from an early age.   So you can see images on tomb walls of children helping with the harvest, herding animals, fishing and many other tasks.  They would have been trained by a close family member such as their father or uncle, and would have been expected to contribute economically to the household from very early on.  Girls were not educated as formally as their brothers, although there is evidence that royal princesses were taught to read and write.  However, they would be taught by their mothers how to do all the daily household tasks and maybe also how to sing, dance and play instruments.  These skills were especially useful for the girls who went to be a singer or a dancer in one of the many temples.

So the life of an Ancient Egyptian schoolboy was regimented and they were expected to be diligent, respectful and follow the path laid out for them by their family.  Much more was expected of them at an early age than would be today, but life expectancy was typically only between thirty and forty. Children had to grow up faster and work hard to make their mark in a world that could be tough and unpredictable.

Hieratic text image Wafulz on Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Child Working in Garden - Tomb of Menna image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Palette of a Scribe image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Importance of Gold to the Ancient Egyptians

In The Aten Sequence Books, our hapless main character Aten is desperately trying to get his hands on enough gold to make more fuel for his ship, so that he can blast off back into space and join his evil Uncle Lucie in conquering the Universe.  After trying out a few options, such as the Bank of England in Victorian London, he decides the Temple of Karnak during the reign of the fabulously wealthy Pharaoh Amenophis III is his best bet.  Now this is pure fiction, but the Ancient Egyptians were famous for the amount of gold they possessed, so why was it so important to them?

“And gold – everywhere the glint of gold” - Howard Carter on what he saw as he opened the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.

Cobra Details on Tutankhamun's Gold Throne
Cobra Details on Tutankhamun's Gold Throne

Most people when they think of Ancient Egypt think of gold.  Ever since the glittering tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun was excavated in 1922, we have associated the mysterious land of Egypt with untold wealth and glittering treasure. It seemed as though every exquisite piece of funerary equipment removed from the tomb was gilded in the precious yellow metal or even made entirely of solid gold, like the famous funerary mask and inner coffin.  And if this was the treasure placed in the tomb of a relatively insignificant pharaoh who only ruled for a few years and died young, what wealth could the tombs of the mighty kings such as Ramesses the Great and Thutmosis III have contained before they were robbed?

But why was gold so important to the Egyptian pharaohs?  It was not a precious metal used by the ordinary people; it was reserved for the exclusive use of royalty and important nobility.  Domestically it had no economic value, as barter was used for trade and all servants of the crown were paid with food, fuel and gifts.  

Money was not used in Egypt until the Ptolemaic period, so gold was not used in coins. One of the reasons it was so highly prized was that it was associated with the dazzling light of the sun and the solar deity Ra.  It was believed that the very skin of the gods was golden and that their bones were composed of silver.  Because it is a precious metal that does not tarnish and is fairly indestructible it was also associated with eternal life.  The pharaoh was viewed as divine, the human link between the earth and the numinous, so gold was used for royal coffins and funerary equipment to help preserve the king’s mortal remains for eternity.

It was in international trade that gold became important, and Egypt became famous for the amount of the prized precious metal that it sent to all corners of its far flung empire.  It was not only used for trade, it was also an important diplomatic tool as pharaohs would send quantities of gold and gilded treasures to their allies and vassal monarchs in order to keep them happy and fighting to maintain Egypt’s borders. 

So used were these vassal kings to having a continuous flow of gold being sent out to them that they would write and complain if there was any disruption in supply.  In the late eighteenth dynasty King Tushratta of Mitanni wrote to Queen Tiye to moan that her husband Amenophis III was only sending gilded statues not the solid gold ones he had apparently promised:
I have asked Mimmuriya, your husband, for massive gold statues.  But your son has gold-plated statues of wood.  As the gold is like dust in the country of your son, why have they been the reason for such pain, that your son should not have given them to me?

Gold was also given as rewards to courtiers and military leaders.  Reliefs at Amarna show the royal couple Akhenaten and Nefertiti handing out golden collars and arm rings to their faithful followers and large flies fashioned from gold were handed out for valour on the battlefield, much as we give out medals today. Interestingly these military awards were sometimes even presented to women, as Queen Aahhotep I, the mother of Pharaoh Ahmose I, was buried with three such flies in her tomb.

As the wealth and might of the Egyptian empire grew in the New Kingdom, so did the prestige of goldsmiths.  The men who created the exquisite jewelry, statues and funerary masks became feted and wealthy in their own right.  They developed several techniques that are still used by jewellers today such as utilising the lost-wax technique to make intricate statues, beating gold into fine leaves, and mixing it with other metals to create alloys.  

Electrum, a blend of gold, silver, copper and other metals, was one such alloy that was very widely used to plate the exterior of monuments such as obelisks and the pyramidions that topped the pyramids.Gold had been mined and worked in Egypt since predynastic times. How it was first discovered is shrouded in mystery, but this very early gold was more than likely extracted from alluvial deposits. 

It was one of the first metals to be worked and used by prehistoric man, probably because it could be found in the natural world that surrounded them, is very malleable and soft so can easily be worked with rudimentary tools, and its shine and glitter would have made it attractive for use in jewelry and ornaments.  Most of the gold extracted in antiquity in Egypt was mined in the Eastern Desert and Nubia. In fact Nubia even incorporates the ancient word for gold ‘nub’ in its name.

  Ay receiving rewards of gold from Akhenaten & Nefertiti
Ay receiving rewards of gold from Akhenaten & Nefertiti

All of the mines in Ancient Egypt were state monopolies and were worked predominantly by prisoners and slaves.  According to the writings of the historian Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica written around 60 BCE these unfortunate souls were treated very badly; being made to work in appalling conditions, with little food or water and being beaten if they weren’t thought to be working hard enough.

The methods of extracting the metal were simple but effective. The earliest method used was probably extracting gold from auriferous sand, which was known in antiquity as nub-en-mu or  ’gold of the river’.    Quantities of auriferous sand would be placed into a sack made from an animal fleece, with the woolly side facing inward.  Water would then be poured into the bag and vigorously shaken around by two men.  This would separate the heavier metal from the dirt and grit and when the water was drained out, it would take the dirt with it leaving the gold dust adhering to the fleece.

Funerary Mask of Psusennes I
Funerary Mask of Psusennes I
Shallow underground mining probably didn’t start until the New Kingdom and this technique of extraction was known as nub-en-set or ‘gold of the mountain’.  The metal bearing rock was first crushed into powder and then spread over a stone table that was slightly tilted.  Water was then poured over the powder, which separated all the dirt and dust from the metal, leaving only the particles of gold on the table.  

This was repeated a few times until only gleaming, yellow metal particles remained.  They then rubbed these precious particles between their hands for a length of time, before they finally ran small sponges over it to clear out any remaining dirt.

So far there have been over a hundred gold workings and settlements that have been found, most of them in the arid wadis of the Eastern Desert.  However, according to the map on the Turin Papyrus, there were at least 1300 such mines in ancient times.  Hopefully, more evidence and remains of the ancient gold mining industry will be excavated from beneath the sands of Egypt, as well as further beautiful examples of the ancient goldsmith’s art.

Psusennes I image Lazaroni Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Ay gold rewards image ddehisen Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Gold Cobra image External Radiance Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported

Monday, 29 July 2013

'I Was Really Going Places You Know' - The Lament of Tuy

Tuy is one of the important female characters in The Aten Sequence Books, efficiently looking after the practical side of Aten's life at the villa, while at the same time being a sarcastic thorn in his side.  But she too has her story and her dreams, and being stuck on Earth with Aten had very definitely never been part of her plans.

Deir el Bahri

‘I was really going places you know,’ Tuy gulped, as two fat teardrops formed in the corner of her eyes and slowly tracked their way down her flushed cheeks.

‘I had plans, I had dreams, I was really going places.  And now look at me?  Stuck here in this hot, dusty hellhole that doesn’t even have a proper power supply.’

The guard cat broke off from his morning ablutions to fix her with his enigmatic feline stare.

‘Don’t look at me like that.  It’s not my fault that the only thing I’ve got to talk to is a cat.  At least you don’t answer back, which is more than I can say for some of them round here.’

Tuy flung the onions she had been peeling into the bowl with unnecessary vigour and turned around to fetch the goose that was hanging on the wall behind her.

‘And don’t think that I don’t know what you are up to?  If you put so much as one paw on this goose carcass, you’ll be going into the pot with it.  Don’t think I don’t know where that stuffed carp went last week.’

The guard cat looked mildly offended at this insinuation and returned to lovingly licking his front leg.

‘See, even you don’t take me seriously,’ Tuy wailed, as fresh tears started tumbling down her face.

‘But you don’t know; none of you know. I was really going someplace, someplace special.  I was the only one out of my clutch to even make it external processing and do you know how many get through and are given an exit permit? Only 2%!  I was in the top 2% of my clutch and look at me now?  A single mother stuck on a backward planet I don’t even know the name of.  Motherhood was never what I wanted, especially not at my age. And what am I going to do with him? There aren’t any opportunities for a young Galasian here and it’s no life for him stuck in that shed all day.’

The guard cat switched to cleaning his other front leg without even looking up to acknowledge Tuy’s distress.

‘He needs to be out in the fresh air, running and playing with the other youngsters. Not shunned for being different and locked away as if he were a monster.’

These words did cause the guard cat to temporarily interrupt his washing and look up at Tuy with an air of disbelief.  His sensitive nose could detect the rank odour of Piy locked up in his shed, even this far away in the kitchen, despite the strong tang of onions that was in the air and the gamey scent of a goose that had been hanging for a long time.

‘And it wasn’t just the exit permit I got.  I was one of only seven hundred and twenty females to be admitted into the Galactic Cocktail Shaking School on Mildorium 27.  Can you even begin to imagine what an achievement that was?’

The guard cat yawned delicately and turned around to lick his nether regions.  When would the tedious woman shut up?  At this rate she would never turn her back, so he could get at that goose.  She might think she had a hard life down here, but really she had no clue as to what he had to go through just to get the odd mouthful of food occasionally.  And cocktails? Really? She would have been better off going to a good mousing academy, though god knows how many small rodents she would have to kill every day to keep that malodorous turnling of hers fed.

Medinet Habu

‘It’s bad enough that you ignore me when I’m trying to talk to you, but do you have to wash your private parts on my kitchen table?” she asked him irritably.  ‘And how come you can’t talk like those royal cats can?’

If the guard cat had eyebrows he would have raised them in disbelief. Why on earth did the woman think he would talk to her? Having to listen to her rants as he was waiting for food was bad enough.

‘I was great at the cocktail shaking school; one of their fastest learners ever.  By the time I graduated I could mix over fifteen hundred cocktails from fourteen different planetary systems.  And did you know that I was one of only eight thousand graduates ever licensed to use slieppel juice from Grandorminian 75?  That stuff can fell a Lotkair Sloth with just two drops.  I had my pick of jobs.  I really thought that bar in the mining belt was going to be the first step in a glittering career.  It was just oozing with rich miners and droids, all with plenty of cash in their pockets and out for a good time.  The tips were fabulous.  Did I tell you the story of the night that tulsphate miner dropped a 560 carat diamond in my cleavage?

The cat elegantly stretched and then curled up into a ball of mackerel striped fur.  Was the woman going to rant all night?  What he really wanted was to have a quick nap, but he could almost guarantee that as soon as his eyes were closed that goose would be put in the baking pot and he would have lost his chance. But it couldn’t hurt to let the woman think he was asleep.

He could hear that Tuy had started plucking the large bird.  Time was running out and, in the mood she was in, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be around when she started to chop it up with her cleaver.

‘You can ignore me if you want, but I’ve still got my story.  That tulsphate miner loved me you know.  Said he’d take me on his next prospecting trip and buy me anything I wanted. Oh why did Aten have to come into my bar that night?  There were seventy five others on that strip. I mean it’s not like I ever fancied him or anything, but I’d never met one of the immortal ones before.  It’s not often a girl gets a chance to party with a member of the First Families.  He offered to show me his space ship and the next thing you know we’ve run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. ‘

The guard cat curled up even tighter in the hope the woman would take the hint and stop talking.  Tuy, however, was just getting into her stride.

‘I mean how does one of the immortal ones do something that stupid?  They’re supposed to be role models for us, right? People we can look up to, not incompetent idiots who run out of fuel and then don’t know how to fix the problem.  If I’d known that I was going to be stuck sweeping and cooking in a scratchy linen robe and too much eye make-up I would have just stayed on the home planet.  I could have raised several clutches by now, not just one turnling.’

The guard cat could feel himself gradually dozing off.  His was so sleepy he felt like his head had been stuffed with cotton wool.  The woman’s voice now just sounded like a constant drone in his head and she wasn’t showing any signs of stopping any time soon.  If he wanted that goose he would have to do something drastic.

There was only one thing he could think of that was guaranteed to get her out of the kitchen in a hurry, leaving his coveted prize unattended.  So he slowly reached out his mind, probing until he found the wooden door of the shed Piy was locked in.  He could sense the Galasian turnling impotently hammering at the rough wooden slats trying to get out, so he pulsed some energy into the stout piece of rope that was holding the door closed.  After a few seconds it ignited in a blaze of hot, blue flames that rapidly burned through the rope. The next time Piy’s fist hit the door it swung abruptly open.

Any time now thought the guard cat smugly, as he started counting down from ten.  Ten, nine, eight, seven ....... Suddenly, a loud female scream, followed by the guttural roar of a Galasian turnling shattered the late afternoon silence that had been hanging over the villa.  More screaming and the sound of running feet followed.

Tuy, her tearful rant rudely interrupted by the commotion, angrily slammed the half-plucked goose back down on the table in a cloud of grey and white feathers.

‘Not again,’ she screamed. ‘How did he get out this time?  And why are those stupid girls screaming, it’s not like he’s anything to be scared of. I suppose I’m going to have to go and sort it out.  Not like anyone else is going to.’

She quickly wiped her hands clean on the scrap of linen she used as a towel and ran out of the room in the direction of the screaming.

The guard cat waited until he could hear her footsteps pounding down the verandah, before he lifted his head and looked at where the goose was now lying on the kitchen table.

These humans think they are so clever, he thought as he dragged the large bird off the table and out into the courtyard.  Now he could have his dinner in peace in his special hiding place behind the dung heap, have another leisurely wash and a good long sleep.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Bast – Ancient Egyptian Goddess of Cats

In the second book of the Aten Sequence ‘Hall of the Crocodiles’ we are introduced to Prince Dhutmose’s cat Ta-miu.  In the book Ta-miu is a very special royal talking cat who has a very important role to play in the unfolding of the story. We do know that the real, historical Prince Dhutmose did have a beloved pet called Ta-miu because her carved limestone coffin was discovered and is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  What we don’t know is whether she could talk to her prince, but even if the Egyptian cats couldn’t talk or do magic they were revered by the Ancient Egyptians and they had an important cat goddess they called Bast.

Ancient Egyptian Bronze Cat
Ancient Egyptian Bronze Cat

Cats were regarded very highly by the Ancient Egyptians, so it is perhaps not too surprising that they worshipped a powerful cat goddess called Bast or Bastet.  She is depicted as a cat or as a woman with the head of a feline.  She was a daughter of the sun god Ra and her name means ‘warmth of the sun’. In the pharaonic period she was worshipped as a sun deity but, after their arrival, the Greeks associated her with one of their lunar goddesses Artemis and she became known as a moon goddess.

Like most Ancient Egyptian deities Bast had many attributes.  In some guises she was an angry, vengeful goddess, one of her father Ra’s avenging deities sent to punish wrong doers and Egypt’s enemies.  At other times she was a kind, protective goddess who would shower you with blessings if you gained her favour.  She was also a goddess of fertility and love, with the cat being her sacred animal.   It was considered to be a great sin to harm a cat, one certain way of bringing Bast’s wrath down on your head.

It is thought that cats were first domesticated in the Middle East in around 10,000 BC.  They probably became so important to the Ancient Egyptians because they were so useful at killing vermin.  They would have hunted and killed the rats, mice and venomous snakes that lurked in the granaries, houses and also in the fields surrounding the ancient settlements.  They were also valued as domestic pets and there are tomb paintings that show these domesticated felines out hunting with their masters.

Bast was a very important, powerful goddess and her cult was spread the length of the Nile Valley, but the centre of her worship was at the city named after her in the Nile Delta. During pharaonic times the city was called Per-Bast or ‘House of Bast’ and it then became known as Bubastis.  It reached the peak of its importance during the 22nd dynasty when Pharaoh Shoshenq I created it as his capital.  The city remained the capital of Egypt for over 230 years until the Persian invasion led by Cambyses II in 525 BC.

What is left of the ancient remains of the city lies on the outskirts of the modern industrial city of Zagazig, some 80 kms north of Cairo.  The great temple of Bast, which the historian Herodotus described as a building of great splendour and beauty, has been excavated.  The building of this temple commenced in the 4th dynasty in the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu, who was the king who also constructed the Great Pyramid at Giza, and was extended and embellished by many successive pharaohs over the course of the next 1700 years.  The temple of Bast was built from blocks of valuable red granite that had to be transported all the way from the distant quarries at Aswan.
The temple attracted many worshippers and Herodotus also recorded that a great annual festival was held to venerate the goddess.  He noted that as many as 700,000 pilgrims would arrive in the town to celebrate, make votive offerings and join in the great procession.  There was also a famous oracle of Bast located in the city.

Egyptian Cat Mummy
Egyptian Cat Mummy

One of the most common offerings made to gain favour and blessings from Bast was a mummified cat.  Thousands upon thousands of these cat mummies have been discovered and there is a huge cat cemetery situated in Bubastis itself.  This extensive cat necropolis was started in the Third Intermediate Period, and grew into a network of subterranean passages and tomb chambers made from mud brick some 200 metres north of the temple.  The cat mummies were placed in niches and on shelves along the walls.  Some of these cat mummies had been carefully wrapped in fine linen and placed in finely decorated coffins; others are much simpler, probably reflecting the wealth and status of the pilgrim.  Because so many of these cat mummies have been discovered in Egypt, in the recent past many of them were  ground up to use as fertiliser or burned for fuel.

Egyptian cat mummy image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Ancient Egyptian bronze cat image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

‘Ghosts and Other Really Big Surprises’ Is Now Available In Print!

‘Ghosts and Other Really Big Surprises’ has been available as an ebook on Kindle for almost a year, so I decided the time was right to create it as a print book in CreateSpace.  Somehow, even though I wrote these short stories, it felt that having a printed book of them, something I could hold in my hands and turn the pages, would make them seem more real somehow.

Now there are these amazing Indie authors out there who seem to just know how to do absolutely everything, but unfortunately I am not one of them.  Formatting large documents is not one of my favourite tasks, but I had managed it OK for the digital file, so surely I could create one for the print version? Well six upload attempts and several different error messages later I was beginning to wonder.  I had downloaded the template, pasted all the text in, read notes on ideal margins and stuff, but every time I uploaded it again, bingo there was another error message.  So I made some more adjustments (fiddled around a bit hoping I would get it right by default!), crossed my fingers and uploaded it for what I hoped would be the final time.

Hallelujah! This time there were no errors noted. I clapped, shrieked with happiness and generally carried on like a crazy woman.  I was full of that wonderful feeling of accomplishment on a job well done, an obstacle overcome, reaching the finishing tape after running a long race.  Then I proofed the formatted documented.  You guessed it; I had crowed way too soon.  The one thing that I hadn’t taken into consideration was that by changing the margins, I was also changing where the text was sitting on the page.  So I had to go back to the document, move the text back to where it was supposed to be and then upload it again.  Thankfully, this time I got it right and all was well.

I used the CreateSpace resource to design the cover, which was another adventure and learning experience, and with some trepidation pressed the finish button.  So now you can buy a printed version of these spooky short stories.  Read about Harold’s sinister adventures with vegetables that grow much bigger than they should, the mysterious plague that sweeps through Britain bringing economic and social devastation in its wake, or the tale of an evil ancient Egyptian who may not be resting easily in her coffin.  If you like ghosts, there is the story of a little girl who was saved by a ghost one snowy Christmas and the tragic tale of the mother who was trying to protect her young son from a malevolent presence from beyond the grave.  There is even romance as Gemma goes on a first date that doesn’t quite go to plan and Hazel finds that there is more to bird watching than she previously thought.

Definitely stories to read hiding under the duvet, with a torch held in your trembling hand.  Make sure that you have some hot cocoa and plenty of chocolate for comfort and don’t forget to lock the back door.  Because those weren’t footsteps you heard in the kitchen were they?  Someone making their way slowly up the stairs?

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Akhmim – Ancient Egypt’s Oldest City?

‘The Aten Sequence Books’ are science fantasy fiction novels, but I have used some real historical characters and locations in Ancient Egypt to create my stories.  One place that gets mentioned is an ancient city called Akhmim, as it was where Princess Merytamen’s wicked stepmother Queen Tiye came from. So where is the town of Akhmim and what was its importance in antiquity?

In the 16th century the author and diplomat Leo Africanus claimed that Akhmim was the oldest city in Egypt.  So is it true?  How old is Akhmim and what was its importance to the mighty ancient Egyptian civilisation?  It is situated on the east bank of the River Nile in Upper Egypt, a few miles from the more bustling town of Sohag.  Its earliest beginnings are more than probably lost in the shifting sands of the desert, but clues of human habitation start to appear with artefacts from the Badarian culture in the 5th century BC.  It is from the remains of these very early settlements and cemeteries that we see the first evidence of the development of agriculture in the Nile valley. They also made very distinctive pottery, which included polished red vessels with black rims.  Early artwork has also been discovered in the form of carved ivory figurines.

Statue of Merytamun at Akhmim
Statue of Merytamun at Akhmim

In pharaonic times the city was known as Ipu or Khent-Menu and was a centre of worship for the fertility god Min. In the late period the Greeks knew the city as Panopolis.  The cult of Min stretched back into predynastic times and he was usually shown as a man with black skin, holding his erect phallus in his left hand and holding a flail in his outstretched right hand.  Min was depicted with  black skin to show that he is a fertility deity and great festivals would be held every year to celebrate his ‘coming forth’, where worshippers would carry his statue in procession and present him with votive offerings. He was the god Egyptians would pray to for a successful annual inundation of the Nile followed by a bountiful harvest.  Oddly enough, lettuce was one of the key features of his festivals, possibly because when the leaves are ripped apart they secrete a milky substance that resembles semen, which is also an opiate and aphrodisiac.  The Greeks associated him with their god Pan, another fertility god who was often shown with the head and torso of a man and the lower limbs of a goat.

Tiye was the wife of the Pharaoh Amenophis III and Queen of Egypt towards the end of the 18th dynasty in the period known as the New Kingdom.  Unusually, we know who her parents were as Amenophis III produced a series of commemorative ‘marriage scarabs’ stating that the name of her father is Yuya, the name of her mother is Thuya; she is married to the great king whose southern border is at Karoy and whose northern is Naharin’.   These scarabs make it very clear that Queen Tiye was not of royal birth and it is believed that her parents came from the town of Akhmim.  The intact tomb of Yuya and Thuya was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1905 by James Quibell. The mummy of her father Yuya shows that he was unusually tall for an Egyptian of that period, had a beard and facial features that differed from those of a typical Egyptian. A theory has been put forward that he was a foreigner or at least of foreign descent, with some scholars pointing to the unusual spelling of his name as further evidence.

Mummy Mask of Yuya, Cairo Museum
Mummy Mask of Yuya, Cairo Museum

Yuya was a courtier of Pharaoh Thutmosis IV and was a commander of the chariotry and then went on to serve his successor and son-in-law Amenophis III.  His titles included ‘Master of the Horse’, ‘King’s Lieutenant’ and ‘Father of the God.’  In his home town he held the titles ‘Priest of Min’, ‘Overseer of the Cattle of Min’ and ‘Lord of Akhmim.’  His wife Thuya also held a string of impressive, high status titles that included ‘Priestess of Amen’, ‘Chief of the Harem of Min’, ‘Chief of the Harem of Amen’ and ‘Chantress of Hathor’.  Their burial was robbed during antiquity, but much of the impressive, elegant furniture remained and both the mummies were discovered intact in their coffins.  They were known to have a son called Anen, who became known as the ‘Divine Father’ and also held the titles of ‘Chancellor of Lower Egypt’, ‘Second Prophet of Amun’, and ‘Priest of Heliopolis.’  Many scholars also believe that Ay, a prominent courtier in the reigns of Amenophis III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun who then took the throne and ruled as Pharaoh for around four years, was also a son of Yuya and Thuya.  So although we have no evidence that Queen Tiye had royal blood, her family were obviously powerful and influential at the Egyptian court.

There is very little left of the pharaonic town of Ipu to be seen as many of the carved and dressed blocks of stone from the temples were taken away and used in later building projects.  In 1981 a temple dedicated to Min and his local consort Triphis, also known as Repyt, thought to have been built during the Graeco-Roman period was excavated to reveal remains of a monumental gate.  Fragments of statues of Ramesses II were discovered as well as a colossal statue of his daughter, and later great royal wife, Queen Merytamun.  This beautiful statue has been restored and now stands as the centrepiece of a small open-air museum.  Interestingly there are also some carved blocks from Akhetaten (Amarna) that had probably been scavenged to build the later structure.  More recently another temple dating to the time of Ramesses the Great has been found and the fragments of a broken colossal statue of this pharaoh lies partially buried by what used to be the gate.

There is a necropolis at Akhmim dating from pharaonic times, which has never been systematically excavated although some more recent discoveries include five tombs dating to the Old Kingdom.  There is also a necropolis at nearby el-Hawawish that is notable for its rock-cut tombs of the governors of the Nome who were buried there from the 4th to the 11th dynasties.  Also at nearby el-Salamuni there are more rock-cut tombs dating from the Graeco-Roman period and a chapel that was dedicated to Min. This rock chapel was thought to have been carved during the reign of Thutmosis III and decorated during the reign of Ay by Nakhtmin, who was the ‘First Prophet of Min’, with reliefs of Ay and his wife Tey worshipping local deities.  The chapel was known to the Greeks as the ‘Grotto of Pan’ and more reliefs were added depicting Ptolemy II Philadelphus during this period.

Bust of Queen Tiye
Bust of Queen Tiye

Magic is a very important part of the story in ‘The Aten Sequence Books’ and Akhmim is also known as a place where alchemy and Egyptian magic were very important.  Indeed the town was known by the name Khemmis or Chemmis, which may have been the basis for our modern word chemistry.  In ancient times the land of Egypt was called ‘Khem’ meaning ‘black earth’.  Some of the oldest known books on alchemy were written at the end of the 3rd century AD by a famous alchemist called Zosimos of Panopolis, whose writings were among those of around forty alchemists that were placed in a compendium put together in Byzantium in the 7th or 8th centuries AD.  Alchemists concerned themselves with the transformation of base metals such as copper or lead into precious metals such as gold or silver.  They also acknowledged that a process of transformation and purification within themselves was as important as the outward changes in the metal and they worked more for the gaining of spiritual knowledge and development than they did for the material gains.  The greatest magician and alchemist of legend, Hermes Trismegistus, who was a composite of the Egyptian god of writing Thoth and the Greek Hermes, was also supposed to have lived for some time in the town.  So Aten’s attempts to turn gold into the fuel he needs for ship were perhaps an echo of the experiments these alchemists undertook.

These links between Akhmim and alchemy were to last for many centuries as in the 9th century AD the celebrated Sufi Dhu’l al-Misri was born in Akhmim.  He thought to have been an alchemist and been able to perform miracles. He was a great scholar and travelled large distances across the Arabian Peninsula and through Syria in order to learn from the great teachers of the day and also to teach himself.  He died in 859 AD and is buried in Cairo’s City of the Dead.

So although Akhmim might now be a relatively unknown regional town in Middle Egypt, in antiquity it was a prosperous, bustling regional centre.  Queen Tiye is said to have owned vast estates in the area, which would have produced a vast array of agricultural produce. It still has a thriving weaving industry that produces fine silk and Egyptian cotton that is said to date back to the time of the pharaohs.  It became a centre for magic and alchemy during the Greek period, melding the ancient Egyptian traditions and knowledge with the philosophies the Greeks had brought with them.

Statue of Merytamun image Kurohito Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Mummy Mask of Yuya Wikimedia Commons Any Purpose

Bust of Queen Tiye image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Monday, 8 July 2013

My Very First Online Interview! An Author First For Me

I guess I was pretty naive when I started writing the first Aten Sequence book back in 2007.  I just sat down at my laptop one Sunday and started typing.  After typing five whole pages I was pretty impressed with myself.  Who knew that I could string so many words of fiction together? Perhaps not surprisingly, not a single one of those first words actually made it into the final draft, but they will always be important as the first steps in my writing journey. I even have them saved somewhere on my laptop.

Cynthia Marsh - Author of The Aten Sequence Books
Cynthia Marsh - Author of The Aten Sequence Books

But what I did not know then was how much other stuff I would need to learn in order to get my books written, produced and sold.  Because I chose to go down the self-publishing route, I quickly worked out that being an indie author means you either have to do everything yourself or pay someone else to do it for you. Oh, the lucky writers who just happen to be partnered up with a cover designer, editor or file formatter that will do freebies for them!

Like many authors, I have done a lot of things myself and paid to have some other things done for me.  My first foray into self publishing, which was a bit of a test really, was my collection of spooky short stories ‘Ghosts and Other Really Big Surprises.’  This was a totally DIY project and I put the cover together myself, formatted the file for Kindle Direct Publishing and uploaded it.  I have recently been wrestling with it in CreateSpace, so that I can have a printed version for sale and not just an ebook.

For The Aten Sequence Books, I wanted to have professional book covers designed.  I also wanted them to be available on more online book retailing sites.  So I chose to use BookBaby and have been very impressed with them so far, as they took my somewhat sketchy brief for the book covers and produced something very close to what I had envisaged in my mind’s eye.

But it is the book marketing and promotion that I have found the most challenging so far.  Write it and they will not necessarily come!  Now that self-publishing is so accessible and can be done for free, there are thousands upon thousands of indie books out there.  Some are amazing, some are good and some are ....., well just are.  But the challenge is how do I make my Aten Sequence Books stand out among so many others clamouring to be downloaded onto the e-readers across the globe? How do I persuade a potential reader to take a punt and spend some of their hard earned cash on a book written by an unknown author?

I was so focussed on the writing and editing side of things, that I neglected to read the advice on starting to promote your book at least a year before its release.  So I am already a late starter in the promotion game.  But impatience doesn’t help anything.  This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I have set my goal as doing one thing a day, however small, to market my books and get them out there. So you can imagine how excited I was when I saw that standoutbooks were looking to interview indie authors and they agreed to interview me.

Being a typical introvert writer, my first concern was what was I going to tell them?  I mean I write stories about other people, not about me.  How was I going to make me interesting?  There is a myth that writing is a glamorous profession.  Well maybe it is when you get to the level of success enjoyed by J K Rowling and others, but for us relative newbies writing means hours hunched over your laptop at home, quite often still in your pyjamas and picking cornflakes out of your hair.  So I had to put on my big girl pants and open up about myself, my writing and my books.  Not easy at the start, but as I started answering the questions it started to flow and I amazed myself at how much came out. 

I have to give standoutbooks a big thank you, as I think they have done an amazing job in putting the interview together online.  It looks really professional and I am very proud of it. I’d also really like to thank them for giving a few of us indie authors the chance to talk about our books.  We are all looking for a break, that first elusive whiff of a winning streak and I don’t think people realise how much it means to us when you tweet about our books, share our posts on Facebook , comment on our blogs or write a review on sites like Amazon or Goodreads.  So thank you to everyone who has ever shown their support for The Aten Sequence Books.  So make an indie author happy today and tweet this post or share it on Facebook – go on, you know you want to!

In case you missed this awesome interview you can catch it here - Author Interview: Cynthia Marsh

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

When Did Reading Become Such Hard Work?

I have a question to ask you all; when did reading become such hard work?

I have always loved reading and even as a small child my mother would find me sitting in a corner immersed in a book rather than being out playing with my friends.  I was a devourer of books; getting them from the local library, as birthday and Christmas presents and from jumble sales.  I started off on Enid Blyton, progressed to pony books and then started reading my mother’s romances. Some of my favourite books I read multiple times, until the pages were dog-eared and the covers battered.  Now I read a fairly eclectic mix of non-fiction, thrillers and horror with the very occasional chick-lit romance thrown in.

Book Stack Waiting to be Read
Book Stack Waiting to be Read

But reading has always been easy; you just pick up a book you like the look of and read it.  If you don’t finish it, it’s no biggie.  But I don’t know whether this has been a knock-on effect of the internet, but for a lot of folks out there reading is now hard work and a serious business.  People are compiling reading lists, setting themselves targets about how many books they want to read in a given time and then talking about it on the net.  It makes my ten minutes reading a day just before I switch the light off at night look very inadequate and I have had to ask myself a very hard question – am I a lazy reader?  Am I just not disciplined enough?  After all, there are millions of books out there and how am I ever going to get through them all unless I have a plan?

Of course I could blame the Kindle.  With the electronic e-readers that are now available, people can have hundreds of books sitting there waiting for them to dive in.  I still use the local library, so my queue is based on how many they let me take out and how many I can carry home.  Buying books poses some of the same problems, along with the big question of storage.  I have at least twelve packing cases full of books stored away, as well as the ones I have out on the shelves.  I shudder to think how many I have taken to the charity shops over the years, although parting with any book is always a wrench.  I mean how do I know whether or not I may want to read it again in fifteen years and tie-dyeing tights may well come back into fashion?

One of the things that I loved about travelling in Australia was that they have book exchange shops, where you can take your old books and they will give you a few dollars for them or exchange them for some different titles.  Some of these places are like Aladdin’s cave, piled high with a huge assortment of reading material, some of it many years old.  I found a lot of books that I had read and loved years ago, so had some nostalgic moments as I dived into stories that I remembered from my teens and twenties.

But if being a disciplined, goal driven reader is right up your street, where can you go to achieve your aims?

Book Clubs: 

Book clubs have become very popular.  They can be as simple as a few friends getting together, choosing a novel they are all interested in reading (not always so easy!) and meeting up at each other’s houses for tea and cake (or wine and pizza), to discuss the book.  There are also several high profile TV book clubs you can join, which generally seem to pick a different title every month or week.  In the US, Oprah has a book club, with lots of different articles and a book of the week suggestion and here in the UK Richard and Judy still have a book club on the internet.  Otherwise, if you can’t cajole your friends into giving up an evening a month to discuss literature and share snacks, just do a web search and you are bound to find a book club in your area or on the net that is right for you.

Reading Lists and Goals: 

Now if you are a really organised, motivated person you can create your own lists of books you want to read, set a time frame and keep tally of how you are doing.  But if you want some company, there are now plenty of places on the internet where you can hang out and do all this, with the added bonus of being able to interact with a group of like-minded avid readers while you are doing it.  Perhaps, one of the best known sites is Goodreads, where you can set up our profile, add books you have read to your shelves, post reviews and join in the discussions and groups. There are even book clubs on Goodreads you can join.  Of course, we authors love readers that post reviews of our books.  Good ones are great, but even a less than glowing review that gives constructive criticism can be very helpful for the future.  Shelfari is a similar site and there are also sites like Wattpad where you can post your own stories as well as read and comment on stories written by others.

So Gentle Reader, if you want to take your reading habits to the next level and set yourself some serious goals and you do not want to do it alone, then there are now many resources you can tap into to help you get there.  As for me, I might get around to that pile of books that have been sitting on the shelf for over a year once I’ve made a cup of tea, but then I’ve always got the excuse that I’m supposed to be writing them!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

What Happened to the Three Youngest Amarna Princesses?

The heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Queen Nefertiti had six daughters, who were often shown with them on their monuments and in tomb decorations.  Before this time at the end of the 18th dynasty it was rare for Pharaoh’s to be shown with their offspring or even alongside their royal wives, and there are probably many royal children who have not made it onto the pages of history from Ancient Egypt. But from these illustrations from Amarna it would appear that these little girls lived a privileged life of luxury and ease in the royal palace and also that they were loved and included in both the public and private lives of their parents.  But life expectancy was not very long in Ancient Egypt, even for the cosseted children of royalty, so what did happen to the three youngest Amarna princesses Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure and Setepenre?

Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure
Amarna Princesses - Neferneferuaten and Neferneferure

What draws many people to the Amarna period of Ancient Egypt is the innovative, more realistic style of the art and statuary.  For the first time in Ancient Egypt’s long history the palaces were decorated with colourful scenes from nature, such as flying birds, fish in ponds, gambolling calves and plants.  The royal family were also shown in a more natural guise for the first time.  No longer were the Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife shown in the perfect, formal poses of earlier reigns; they were drawn or carved with pot bellies and long, spindly limbs, doing the kind of things that ordinary families do, such as playing with the children and showing affection to one another. Some of the most charming scenes from this time depict the young Amarna princesses playing with each other, cuddling with their parents or even being naughty by poking a chariot horse with a stick.  But, as well as being attractive images, these carvings and wall paintings provide us with most of the evidence we have regarding the lives of these royal children.

Their royal father Akhenaten abandoned the traditional capital and religion of Egypt and built an entirely new city called Akhetaten, based on the worship of the Aten or sun disk, for his family and to be the principle royal administrative centre.  It is very likely that Neferneferuaten Tasherit (Beauty of the Beauties of Aten’ – Tasherit means ‘the younger one’ or ‘little’) was the first of the royal sisters to have been born in the new city, followed by Neferneferure (‘Most Beautiful One of Re’) shortly after and then the youngest princess, Setepenre (‘Chosen of Re’).  The very first image we have of them all dates to around year 9 and is a wall painting from the King’s House in Amarna. It shows the entire royal family relaxing, with Neferneferuaten Tasherit painted sitting with her sister Neferneferure on a cushion.  The fresco is very badly damaged unfortunately and all that is left of the picture of the youngest daughter, Setepenre, is her tiny hand.

The three youngest Amarna princesses are also shown in the decorations on the walls of the noble’s tombs at Amarna.  It is in these tombs that we see the last scenes that show Nefertiti surrounded by all six of her daughters.  In year 12 of Akhenaten a ‘Great Durbar’ was held at Amarna where foreign rulers and vassals came from all corners of the Empire to pay tribute and give offerings to the Pharaoh.  The three little princesses are shown with their elder sisters standing behind Akhenaten and Nefertiti as they receive tribute in the tombs of Meryre II and Huya, the Chief Steward of their grandmother Queen Tiye, and in one of the registers Neferneferure is shown holding a pet gazelle, which her youngest sister Setepenre leans forward to pet.  This ‘Great Durbar’ seems to be the nadir of Akhenaten’s reign, as after this glittering event things seem to start falling apart at Akhetaten and many members of the royal family slip away into the shadows of history.

There is evidence from the Amarna letters that a great plague was sweeping through the Middle East at that time and that unwittingly the coming together of so many people from different countries could have helped it to spread.  It is thought that the three youngest Amarna princesses may have been victims of whatever disease it was that was ravaging the population of Egypt.  The tiny Setepenre may have been the first to die, as there is no evidence of her after years 13-14.  Her name does appear on Wall C in the Royal Tomb, along with that of four of her sisters. She is also not shown on a wall in another chamber of the tomb that shows her parents and family mourning the death of her older sister Princess Meketaten.  No evidence of her burial has been found, although she was very likely interred in the Royal Tomb and, heartbreakingly, the little girl was probably not even six years old when she died.

Princess Neferneferure is also missing from the death scene of Meketaten in the royal tomb at Amarna, so may also have died by years 13-14.  However, it is important to remember that we do not know that much about the protocol surrounding royal burial ceremonies; these two princesses may simply have been too young to have been mourners in the scene.  However, Neferneferure’s name is plastered over on Wall C in another chamber in the tomb.  She could also have been buried in the Royal Tomb, although there is some evidence she could have been buried in another tomb at Amarna, Tomb 29, based on an inscription that was discovered on the handle of a pot that refers to the ‘inner (burial) chamber of Neferneferure’.  If she was indeed interred in this other tomb, it could be that she died after her father Akhenaten and the Royal Tomb was already sealed and could not be opened for another burial.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters
Again we cannot be certain what happened to Neferneferuaten; when she died or what was the cause of her death.  She is shown on the walls of the royal tomb mourning the death of her elder sister Meketaten accompanied by Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten, so was presumably still alive at this time, which was around year 14.  There has been speculation that Neferneferuaten could have been married to a foreign ruler, one of her father Pharaoh Akhenaten’s vassals, and sent abroad but this has never been proved and would have been highly unusual. Egyptian princesses were married within the royal family or to prominent courtiers, and not married off into foreign royal families as diplomatic bargaining pieces. There is also a theory that she could have been her father’s mysterious co-regent, a shadowy figure who may have been either male or female. However, it is thought that she died before Tutankhamun and her sister Ankhesenpaaten (Ankhesenamun) came to the throne, as there is no evidence of her during their reign that has so far come to light.

Perhaps we will never know what the ultimate fate of these three young Amarna princesses was, but the sands of Egypt still hold many secrets and new evidence may be found during future excavations. So hopefully there are artefacts out there still waiting to be found that might give us more clues and further glimpses into the extraordinary royal lives of these three little girls.

Image Amarna PrincessesNeferneferuaten and Neferneferure Wikimedia Commons Any Purpose
Image Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters Wikimedia Commons Public Domain