The Sky Barge

8 Nov

The vision first came to an astronomer-priest in Thebes named Nakht.

This observer monitored the heavens over Egypt every night in order to determine the precisely correct timing of religious festivals and rituals. As the overseer of the hours, it was his responsibility to protect the interests of the Pharaoh, Amenhotep the Fourth.

But in the dreams that came during his daylight sleep, Nakht saw something that energized his powerful imagination.

He decided it was safe to reveal what he had visualized to a high treasury scribe who had long been his confidant, Tjay. The young man had risen fast in the imperial service and now supervised the palace and stables of the ruler. As overseer of the treasury, he had the authority to provide the resources needed to make the vision into a reality.

Nakht entered his friend’s private chamber without announcing himself.

“Greetings, comrade,” he began, smiling broadly. “Do you have the time to listen to something that is haunting my thought?”

“Take a chair, please. There is always time for you and me to talk.”

The priest took several moments before proceeding with his revelation.

“A peculiar dream has come to me, repeating over and over. It involves a pharaonic barque, a long barge with fantastic capabilities. You see, this vessel can rise above the water of the Nile and float on air, high above anything below.

“I have been astounded by such a sight. But even more amazing is the nature of what forms the sail of the boat. It is a long, large sack of linen. Not a true sail, but rather a sort of pillow that contains air that is being warmed by a fire at the middle of the royal barge.

“The vision takes my breath away. I see the air boat moving along the river, but even making its journey over the streets and houses of Thebes. The magical barque comes down in the central courtyard of the Pharaoh’s palace.

“The impression all of it makes on me is indescribable.”

Tjay studied the face of his visitor, staring into the dark green eyes.

“That is most interesting, Nakht, but all of us tend to see things while asleep. It is part of our human life.”

The astronomer leaned forward. “This one is different. I believe that it can be made true, with resources and determination.”

Tjay gasped for breath. “You speak in seriousness?”

“Indeed, I do. The dream has turned into the aim and purpose of my life.”

In a little while, Nakht recruited the overseer of the treasury into his enterprise to construct a flying boat.

It was decided that the best material for building the barque was the papyrus commonly used in transport vessels on the Nile. Tjay requisitioned sheets of strong, thick material and hired carpenters to make use of them. For the balloon sack, he purchased a large quantity of fine, gauze-like linen, the variety known as byssus.

Watchful eyes reported all these unusual activities to superiors in the hierarchy of Thebes, until the attention of the chief vizier, Ptahmose, was drawn in that direction. What is going on? wondered the individual who was overseer of all construction works as well as high priest of Ammon, the state god. As mayor of all Thebes, his subordinates told him of the strange vessel being out together at a building dock. He had to get to the bottom of this business, so the vizier summoned the treasury overseer to the great central palace.

“What is the purpose of this new barge with the strange, gigantic sails?” demanded the huge official in resplendid role of glowing yellow. “Why were materials expended for such a vessel?”

Tjay, a conscious bureaucrat, was not capable of clever lying.

“It is a project of promise, but so far its success has not been confirmed in actual deed. As of today, the ship awaits the final confirmation when it rises into the air and moves to new locations. Until then, though, the sky ship is a carrier of hopes.”

Ptahmose, in a whirl of confusion, kept silent until his thoughts were again in order.

“I do not understand you. How can any boat sail through the sky?”

“The person with the greatest knowledge of the matter is the hours-priest named Nakht. From him comes the original vision of the barge, occurring to him in a clear dream.”

Frowning in rage, the vizier considered how to deal with the situation facing him.

“Such a matter should have been decided upon at the highest level, not by you and an hours priest. The Pharaoh should have been informed from the beginning on something of such importance. But he is now at Memphis in the north. His arrival is about a week away. Until then, you and your partner must stop all work on the barque. Our holy ruler shall be the one to make a final determination on this. Is what I say clear to you?”

Tjay nodded that it was, and then made a quick, silent departure.

Nakht listened to the bad news brought to him by his associate with horror and alarm. He began to speak haltingly, but his voice grew strong as he went on.

“That is bad to hear, but we have to take an accurate measure of what the vizier means. Does he have the authority to put a stop to our barge? That is a question of major importance. I would think that only the Pharaoh himself can determine what he future of our plan will be, not his subordinate minister of administration.”

“It is not our task to decide such a question,” agreed Tjay. “Only our divine ruler can make a final, definite judgment on the matter, I would imagine.”

The astronomer-priest changed the subject.

“I had a spectacular dream last evening. The sky over Thebes was full of flying ships. They were headed up and down the valley of the Nile, carrying objects of trade as well as government officials. The traffic in the sky was thick and busy. What a magnificent scene it was! What an inspiring panorama!”

“That may well come about in days to come,” said the other. “But what are we to do in the present? How can we deal with the obstacles set before us by the vizier?”

Nakht hesitated before making a daring proposal.

“We must ignore Ptahmose and his obstruction. I believe that we are justified in going on with the completion of the barque. When the Pharaoh returns to Thebes, he will welcome what we achieve. His decision will be final and absolute.”

Tjay thought a moment. “Yes, what you say is the truth. We must complete what has been started. Our divine ruler will justify the course we take.”

The take-off was set for dawn, when charcoal set on flat plates and urns was to be set ablaze, the hot air then rising through small pores into the giant linen sack above the boat.

It had been decided that Nakht, along with two assisting artisans was to make the first flight in the long barge. Tjay agreed to stay behind and deal with any trouble that was certain to arise with the vizier who acted as mayor of Thebes.

The great linen sack, tied with ropes to the barque below it, filled with hot fumes from the several fires in containment plates and urns. At last, the balloon started to lift upward, the boat along with it.

Nakht, on the rising deck, raised a hand to Tjay, who stood on the docking shore.

Yes, the vessel was climbing into the air, in the direction of the heavens. It soon was at least forty spans above the water of the river. The flight was on.

Half a dozen witnesses, Tjay and his workmen, watched in awe from below.

Nakht on the rising papyrus vehicle looked down at Thebes in astonishment. All at once, the sky barge stopped climbing. On its own, the vessel started to fly in a northward direction, along the valley of the Nile.

On the surface from where the journey had begun, Tjay observed the wonder with upraised face and eyes. So entranced, he failed to notice the arrival of the large figure of the vizier. A small squad of royal guards accompanied the high official.

“This is all illegal!” thundered Ptahmose. “I ordered you to cease your sacrilegious activity. It is evident that my commands were ignored and disobeyed.”

Tjay watched in astonishment as the vizier turned to the senior among the guards.

“Take this rebellious troublemaker to the palace keep and lock him up. The Pharaoh will decide his fate upon his arrival in Thebes.”

The command received fast fulfillment. In armed custody, Tjay was hustled away.

As the magnificent royal barge slowly floated toward the southern capital, a wave of cries rose among the rowers and their officers. The noise was so loud that the Pharaoh himself came forth from his shaded compartment to find out what was the cause if the commotion.

“A divine barque sails through the daylight sky!”

“Who is the god aboard up above us?”

“This is a sight for the ages!”

Shading his sensitive eyes, the ruler of the two Egypts peered up at the fast moving center of all attention.

He felt his legs shake and buckle.

Many eyes watched as the object drifted away, until it fell below the northern horizon. Only then did each person return to their customary activity.

Amenhotep returned to his covered compartment. All the way to Thebes his thoughts were concentrated on what he had just seen.

It is on omen, a sign, he told himself.

But who sent it? What does this divine vessel mean for me and my kingdoms?

As the royal barge neared Thebes, the Pharaoh came to a crystal clear answer.

The significance of the vision was its approval of his attempt to concentrate and simplify the highest god into one center: the sun disc known as Atem.

He had to continue his attempt to mold all divine beings into one alone.

This was a sign of approval from above.

Such a genuine religion reform was necessary to save the future for the two Egypts. It was the only means of avoiding a destructive collapse of the kingdom of the Nile.

Upon arrival in Thebes, Amenhotep continued the religion reform that would lead to the monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten, the new name he would give to himself.

Tjay was released from imprisonment as soon as he promised Ptahmose that no more sky barges would be constructed.

The vessel with Nakth aboard disappeared without any trace whatever left behind.

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