Using historical narratives to teach history – Ancient Egypt short story

Little Hatshepsut

Like a miracle, a light rain had drifted in from the sea. The sea was a long, long way off and Ahmes looked at it as if it was some strange emissary from Hapi[1].  Rain was rare in her world. Little pock marks on the river below her. It looked pretty but she still thought the rain was sad. It was also a little cold, and Ahmes retreated beneath the roof of the shrine… Still she could see the water below her.  The river did not mind the rain at all; it simply took those pock marks and swallowed them up. The river is, it just is, she thought… I should not be sad either.

But she was.

She sat in her family’s shrine on the low cliff above the river, a favourite spot of hers. From here you could watch the fishing boats with their nets or spearmen in the bow, or you saw a full moon ride the river and thought of sesame cakes and feasts when no work was done, or you could watch the river race and froth across the lowlands on the other side. It was Hapi’s gift; the flood with its rich silts and water. It grew the barley her family made into beer, the beer had made her family well to do and so they had a shrine to Hapi on the low cliff above the water near where they’d build their new house.

She’d come here, her face still stinging from her father’s slap, because here she was happy. She liked the river, with its eternal flow, its rages and its quiet times. She liked Hapi and always said hello to him when she came. Even now, with her red face and the ugly sound of her father’s ‘you will obey me’ ringing in her mind.

Ahmes felt a tear run down her face and rubbed it away with a grimace. She did not like the weakness of girls. Her older brother Mahsut never wept. Nor did her mother. She resented the tear, almost as much as her father’s brute slap… She closed her eyes and wished him gone, then opened them, afraid that Hapi or perhaps a more powerful god may have interpreted this as a prayer. She even smiled then for she did not want her father dead, merely replaced with a more understanding version.

The water below her looked uneasy. Perhaps it had been a crocodile. She could not be sure, but she knew crocodiles lived here. She was forbidden from descending the stairs cut into the cliff and going near the water. They’d lost a slave once. Memet, her younger brother, had come back with the tale; of a swirl, a cry, and a bubble of blood on the surface. The slave was gone and her father cursed the river. Now they used a long pole and counterweights to collect the water from below and then the water was carried up the stairs. The water for the house came from here; it was always fresh and cool even in the greatest of droughts. So her father cursed the expense but he built a safe way of collecting water. Slaves were too expensive to feed the crocodiles, her penny pinching father had said.

It was always money with him, Ahmes thought. And that was why he wanted her married to Nitocris, whose father’s shipping trade would expedite the growth of their business. Skinny Nitocris who whined and told on others and with a nose that always ran – sickly, infuriating Nitocris. She did not love him and in Egypt a woman could marry for love. Her mother had told her so.

‘I loved your father,’ she said, ‘when I married him.’

Why did she say loved, Ahmes had wondered… But she giggled and laughed with her mother’s remembered joy. Her father had been tall and proud, with a hawk’s eyes, and he had a good head for business, even then, and her mother, named Nephrasut, loved him.

Where did love go? Ahmes wondered.

She did not love anyone, certainly not another, which was what her father had suggested, but she was not some chattel of his to be sold in business. That was what she had said, and then, surprising them all, he had slapped her. Time had stood still and then she had simply turned and run. Her mother called out after her to stop, to wait… but she did not stop.

Her mother had called out Ahmes, a name she hardly ever used. For normally, in a kind of shared joke, Ahmes was Little Hatshepsut, in honour of the long gone pharaoh whom her mother said she resembled. When she was little, Ahmes had wondered if she looked like Hatshepsut, whose image it was hard to find [2]… But no, so her uncle told her, the resemblance was not physical. He’d laughed and said no more and little Ahmes had stamped her imperious foot…

She worked it out – the resemblance was her character.

‘Stubborn little Hatshepsut,’ she was when she stamped her foot, crossed her arms and said ‘no’, or ‘my wilful little Hatshepsut’ when she would not eat her dinner,  and ‘little queen,’ when her smile and honest laugh had won the heart of a trader in pots and stolen a good deal for her father.

‘Beware’ Nephrasut sometimes said, ‘for though we women in Egypt have a good life, it is still, in reality, a man’s world.’

And there, standing on the bank in the rain above the troubled river, she realised something else. Her mother must once have stood and looked down at some troubled place, just as she was now doing. And Nephrasut had known that you had to acquiesce… but she had still done it on her terms. It was all a compromise. Compromise, her mother had said, is a woman’s art.

And now that rare rain fell harder. Her heart felt broken all of a sudden for she knew what her mother meant. It was a man’s world. Her father’s world. Because it was good for business she would marry Nitocris and she would do so willingly. She might divorce him later, it is true, but the deal would first be stitched up with a marriage and at least one child for Nitocris’s father. The merchant’s dynasty would be assured. The men would go on. The women would take their offered freedoms… but in the end it was a man’s world.

The rain splattered in the quiet water of her family’s little bay beneath the shrine of Hapi. And a crocodile with just its snout and two yellow eyes showing, so Ahmes saw, looked up at her. The rain, rare inundation of the sky, fell harder.

The crocodile must think itself unobserved, Ahmes realised. It was taking a liberty in the rain-troubled water. Ahmes suddenly laughed out loud. So would she. She’d have her revenge on men before she fell in with their wishes and married repulsive Nitocris.

She peeled off her linen robe, wet now. She took the little knife that hung in the shrine and cut her arm a little. Blood dripped onto the linen dress, soaked in, turned pink with rain. It was only a little cut she’d made, and though it hurt she laughed as the last drips fell into her robe. She took it to the cliff and looked down at the place where, with a dimpled little wave, the crocodile had just disappeared … and she simply threw the robe into the air. It opened a little, fluttered like some wounded bird, then settled on the river’s surface. A swirl, a splash and the crocodile had it. It boiled and rolled and then let the cloth go. Waves washed it ashore.

Ahmes smiled and walked away from the river. She walked toward the desert but she was not going there. She knew a grove of dates where there were rushes to lie down and wait out the next day. On the next day she would be obedient and fall in with a man’s world but for now, for just a little while longer, she would be little Hatshepsut.

[1] Hapi was a minor god of Egypt, associated with the yearly flooding of the Nile. This was the inundation which brought Egypt’s prosperity.

[2] When Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III, who became pharaoh, had ordered her images and temples destroyed because he was angry that Hatshepsut had kept him from the throne. This is why Ahmes would have had trouble seeing an image of Hatshepsut.

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