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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

TIME TRAVELLING

"I felt once more the strange equivocal power of the city -- its flat alluvial landscape and exhausted airs...Alexandria, which is neither Greek, Syrian nor Egyptian, but a hybrid: a joint."
Lawrence George Durrell (1912-1990) "Justine" (1957) pt.1

It was April 331 BC when Alexander founded the city still named after him. It is said that he wanted the city he built to be a port and one night he dreamed that he saw a grey-haired man standing reciting those lines from 'The Odyssey': "Out of the tossing sea, where it breaks on the Egyptian beaches, Rises an island from the water and the name men give it is Pharos.'

Alexander woke the next morning and went to the lighthouse known as Pharos and saw the perfect site for his city. "Mark it out," he ordered the architects. They had no chalk so they took barley meal, marked out a semi-circle on the dark earth and also marked the outlines of the city and the plan of the street in grids. The street plan of Alexandria is much the same today." Nick McCarty "Alexander the Great"

Of all the places where I have visited while researching my novel "Shadow of the Lion", I have never visited Alexandria Egypt. It definitely ranks high on my 'to go' list, but I've not been able to afford the trip although ten years or so ago when I did have a windfall of money I probably should have gone, but didn't. I've visited Alexandria (the ancient city) several times in my mind though. And this past week I've been there again, with Ptolemy, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and so I'll take you there with me, dear readers, on a time-travel to that magnificent jewel of the Nile that was built from Alexander's dream.

Our first visit is in 322 BC not long after Alexander's death.

From the terrace of his elegant house in Alexandria, Ptolemy surveyed the long lines of straight streets and public buildings, their gilded pastel facades gleaming with new paint. A thermal sirocco dragged across the red desert sands to fan the arid afternoon air. Without it, the Egyptian summer would be unbearable.

Beyond the terra-cotta rooftops, the aquamarine sea curdled with froth. In the harbour, where a fleet of sleek, curve-prowed merchants ships unloaded grain and produce from the north, Ptolemy sighted a crew of workmen hauling stones to build the causeway that would connect the off-shore island to the main city.

He thought of Homer's words as Alexander had quoted them when his feet first touched Egytpian soil. "An island lies within sounding surf--an island Pharos, on the Egyptian shore."

Ten years had passed since they had strode this site together planning with the architects and engineers where Alexander would build his new city. Now it was prospering, just as the prophets had predicted it would.

The torrid breath of the sirocco shifted through the palm trees in the courtyard. In the distance, over the delta, green with life drawn fro the ceaslessly flowing Nile, the gulls soared, wheeling against the wind.

It was Alexander's wish to be buried here in Egypt, he thought. They had discussed it some time after their visit to Siwah, where Alexander had met with the priests of Ammon-Ra. Something they had said convinced him of his divinity.

Ptolemy turned into the refreshing sanctuary of his study and took a page of papyrus to his writing table. He must record everything now, w hile his memory of it was still keen, the details vivid in his mind.

We return to Alexandria again in the Spring of 320 BC. Acting on Alexander's wishes, Ptolemy had hijacked the funeral carriage that was taking Alexander's body from Babylon to be interred in the royal tombs at Aigai in Macedonia. Now Perdikkas, commander-in-chief of the Macedonian army, has chased him back to Egypt and declared war in the attempt to retrieve the body.

The windows of Ptolemy's study faced a view of the sea where he could watch ships enter the wide curve of Alexandria's harbour. Today a fleet of triremes was anchored off the mole, their bright standards fluttering from the masts, oars resting high out of the water. He could just make out the stevedores who scrambled among the bales of cargo, and the bright glint of soldier's armour. The triremes were warships which he had inherited from Alexander's fleet. He had called them to Alexandria when the mounted scouts informed him that Perdikkas' army was advancing toward the Nile Delta.

He turned from the window and went to stand beside his huge writing-desk which was piled high with scorlls and papyrus -- petitions and state documents from his day's work. That morning, before coming to his study, he had spent some time at the sea flats supervising the drills of his new cavalry squadrons. When he left Babylonia two years ago, Perdikkas had only allowed him two thousand men, and with the threat of an encounter looming he had been forced to appeal for new conscripts. The response had astonished him. Not only did young men willingly answer his call, but thousands of retired veterans came, leaving their comfortable new homes, begging to reenlist and resume their former commissions. Within weeks, the army had swelled to ten thousand, adequate in numbers to meet the troops of the Grand Chiliarch. Ptolemy's ships too, far outnumbered those of Perdikkas' fleet.

He sat at his desk on the big chair with the sphynx-headed arms and began to sift through the tablets and scrolls. He must study the plans fo the new library that Dinocrates, the architect, had brought him that afternoon. As the foundations were already laid, it would be unfortunate to halt its construction. Dinocrates had suggested they should keep the Egyptian workmen busy erecting the lime-stone walls, even though all the able-bodied Greeks, Macedonians, Libyans and Kyrenians had been conscripted into the army. The confrontation with Perdikkas must be solved quickly so as not to hinder progress of the building of Alexander's new city.

Now it is Winter, 319 BC. Ptolemy has received a request from Kassandros, commander of the Macedonian army, to send him some ships. He claims that Polyperchon, the Regent of Macedon is planning to march on Greece. Kassandros wants to overthrow Polyperchon. Ptolemy respects the Regent, but knows that Polyperchon is incomeptant. He is also bound by his marriage to Kassandros' sister, to honour the request. Faced with this difficult dilemma he visits Alexander's tomb.

As was his daily habit, he left the palace, escorted by his personal guard, and walked down the broad avenue of the Canopic Way that led to Alexander's tomb where he would offer prayers and sacrifices. He usually visited the tomb early each morning, but today the arrival of Kassandros' letter had upset his routine. He walked briskly despite the mid-afternoon heat. In the morning, the street was usually bustling with crowds but at this time of day it was deserted.

The street was bordered with wide colonnades of gleaming white marble. It ran the length of the city to the sacred site where Alexander's body was enshrined in the temple he'd had built for Hephaestion. The tomb sat at the crossroads of Canopic Way and the Soma that ran from the south shore of Lake Mareotis to the sea. Spread out around it, Alexander's city sparkled, a pristine vision of white against the brilliant turquoise of the Mediterranean.

Ahead, Ptolemy could see the beacon that burned on the temple roof, sacred fire brought from Persia signifying the immortality of the king. In front of the entrance the golden flagstaffs with their starburst emblems of Macedon stirred in the light breeze. Everyone who came to Alexandria stopped to pay obeisance at Alexander's tomb and he noted, with a sense of relief, the absence of pilgrims at the sacred site this day.

Ptolemy offers incense and invokes the power of the gods: Oserapis, protector of Alexandria; Zeus, God the Father; Ammon-Ra the All-Powerful; and Alexander, born of the horned serpent, beloved of Ammon, son of Ra. Then he goes inside the cold, silent crypt.

Around the alabaster sarcophagus lighted candles burned flickering like tiny stars. Under it's shield of transparent blown glass, the body of Alexander lay, dressed in a polished breastplate, his hands crossed over his breast. The flesh of his face was sunken and taut over the strong bones, the familiar features rigid as a statue, no longer animated. Yet his lion's mane of hair was still crisp and bright as gold. The embalmers had preserved him well. Death had made him immortal.

Ptolemy placed both his hands on the sarcophagus. Leaning over it, he spoke directly to Alexander as he would have in life.

"You were invincible, Alexander, so you made us feel invincible," he said. "You had the knack of making everything seem possible, so we did the imposslbe. When you died, Alexander, so did that magic that had so captivated us and we became ordinary men, with unexceptional limits. Look down on us now, Alexander. We are the survivors of your Empire. Help us. Do not let your accomplishments be destroyed by corruption and greed. Show me what I must do or your kingdom will be devoured by the vultures who once called you friend and supreme leader. Give me your strength, Alexander."

He had risked everything, even his own life, when he had waylaid Alexander's funeral bier and brought Alexander's corpse to Alexandria. He had meant to take it to the bural place at Siwah, but it had proved impossible to make the arduous journey across the desert, so he had kept it here in Hephaestion's temple. The ransomed body was the symbol of almighty power. How long would it be before one of the Successors would try to steal it away?

I'll be returning to Alexandria a few more times in the future. Ptolemy is the lynch-pin of my novel, beginning with the Prologue and ending with the Epilogue. So perhaps you'll meet him again and together we'll take you on an other visit to his Alexandria.

"His (the poet's) function is to make his imagination theirs (the people's) and he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the mind of others."

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) "The Necessary Angel" (1951)



6 comments:

Sam said...

Very lovely Wynn!!!!
I have shivers up my spine.

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks, Sam. This is a character (and a setting) I love writing. Some of it (the earlier excerpts) were written a long time ago as they are in the first part of the novel so it was really interesting to revisit Alexandria and Ptolemy again. The last part is what I've been working on these past weeks. There's lots more to it also, as I have some scenes with his new wife, Dika, as in the earlier parts I have scenes with his courtesan, Thais. I should post some of the 'hot' scenes later just for a change, eh?

Gabriele C. said...

That's beautiful. Your writing is different from mine, more descriptive and more reflexive, but I like different styles. It surely brings back Alexander's world.

One small nit: "You had the knack of," sounds too modern, too American, imho.

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for the suggestions. Funny my critique group didn't catch that little 'modernism'. (it's a M.E. word = knack) Also 'study' should be changed. How far do you go when you are culling the 'modern' usages? I'm generally very careful in this particular novel to use a certain level of diction but once in awhile to keep it from becoming stilted, an odd 'modernism' slips in. I know Steve Pressfield uses them frequently and seems to pull it off.

Scott Oden said...

Great excerpts, Wynn! I'm guilty of using modernisms, too, especially as shortcuts. It boils down to how you use it and does it detract from the 'feel' of the setting. In the above examples, I didn't find 'knack' or 'study' to be jarring at all (keep in mind, Renault was fond of using more modern terms for rooms, etc. in her books and it fit well with her style). As with all aspects of writing, modernisms are best used in moderation :)

Wynn Bexton said...

HiScott, yes as I am an ardent fan of Renault I have to watch that I don't use too many 'Renaultisms' in my writing and I do see where she uses modernisms now and then. I'm trying to be very careful but sometimes they just slip in (usually unnoticed as my critique group are eagle-eyed when it comes to this).