The White Nile begins in an underwater spring in Lake Victoria, and is immediately showered by tributaries desperate to join it. It then flows north for two and a half thousand miles through six countries, before the Blue Nile joins it at Khartoum. Now known simply as the Nile, it continues northwards, carving its way through two thousand miles of desert, until, just after Cairo, it fragments into a delta of rivulets covering fifteen thousand square miles, which collapse as they reach the Mediterranean Sea, and half-heartedly throw their contents in the general direction of Greece or Turkey.
A few metres from the river, in the centre of a vast and otherwise empty room, a colossal stone statue lay on a table, gazing up at the ceiling. Operating on the statue was a thin, shaven-headed man wearing a white linen kilt and a pair of sandals made of reeds from the banks of the Nile, all of which had been woven by Hetepi, his wife.
In his hands, the sculptor held a hammer and chisel. He walked ceaselessly around the colossus, examining it from different angles, and from time to time gently applying his instruments to make a delicate alteration to his great stone patient.
Another man, also wearing a simple home-made kilt, walked through the doorway into the room.
“Mek,” he called as he approached the table. The sculptor glanced up briefly from his work.
“Ah, Sobet,” he said, lowering his tools and transferring his full attention from the colossus to the servant.
“So, how's it going?” asked Sobet, coming to a halt in front of the lifeless statue.
“I'm almost there,” said Mek. “There's just a few imperfections on the skin here and there, and I think it needs a bit more work on the face. Actually-” he steered Sobet around so that his deep brown eyes stared into the stone pharaoh's perfectly blank ones “-tell me, what do you think? Of the face?”
The servant looked blankly at the stone face, with its calm eyebrows, its majestically sloping nose, and its iris-less, pupil-less eyes that looked ever upwards, but saw nothing.
“It's incredible,” he said truthfully, unsure of how Mek wanted him to respond.
“Yes. It's really impressive.”
“Yes,” said Mek, hurriedly brushing away the praise, “but does it look … flattering? Will the pharaoh like it? Is it too … I don't know, too passive? Too calm?”
“It's no good asking me,” said Sobet. “I don't know anything about sculpting.”
“Neither does Ramesses, even despite his obsession with having statues of himself built all the time. But you know about expressions, don't you? And you know the pharaoh better than I do, so do you think he'll like a statue of himself with this expression?”
“I see,” said Sobet, still slightly uncertain. He leaned closer to see the expression better, and also to make it look like he was trying to see the expression better. “Well, he is quite aggressive. And a bit scary. Or at least, he seems to want people to think he is. So maybe … I don't know, maybe it is a bit too passive. Maybe if you made it look … not angry, just a bit more … firm. More commanding.”
Mek nodded. “That's what I was thinking,” he said, “but I didn't want to do it just yet, in case the pharaoh thought it made him look too – as you said – too angry, because then it would be as if he wasn't in control, as if he'd lost his temper. And of course, it's easier to add a frown than to get rid of it, because you've got to carve the little wrinkles and things into the stone, and you can't really undo that.”
He looked up at Sobet, who nodded.
“Sorry,” said Mek, realising that the other man had probably got a bit bored by his sculpting talk. “You probably came with a message, didn't you?”
“Yes,” said Sobet. He had actually forgotten that that was his original purpose. “The pharaoh would like to know when the work will be finished,” he said, reciting the message that he had been given.
“Yes, I've already overrun, haven't I?” said Mek. “I'd say about four days. Actually, no, say a week, just to be on the safe side. I don't want to end up overrunning twice. I imagine that wouldn't go down well.”
“Probably not, no.”
“Hmm. Yes, say a week, and tell the pharaoh I'm very sorry, I offer my humble apologies, and all that.”
Sobet laughed, and his laughter filled the room and echoed off the walls, causing him to hurriedly suppress it.
“OK, I'll tell Ramesses that,” he said, turning to leave. “Have you had lunch?” he asked, turning back to Mek.
“No, I don't think I'll bother today,” said the sculptor, who had already taken up his hammer and chisel again.
“You need to eat, Mek,” said Sobet, glancing at the man's skeletal chest.
“No, it's fine. It saves time not to, and I can eat when I get home.”
“If you say so. Well, I'll go to the pharaoh and give him your message. He'll probably send me back in a few days, so I'll see you then.”
“OK, see you then, then.”
Sobet left the men made respectively of flesh and stone, heading for the stone man's flesh equivalent, who was Pharaoh Ramesses II.
Throughout the afternoon, Mek worked on his patient's face, gently adding the delicate lines of a frown to his forehead, and the subtle wrinkles of a stern sneer to his lip. He continued to work until the early evening, when he decided that he should probably go home, and after a final, brief, and slightly pointless examination of the statue, he left.
The expression of controlled anger was not yet complete, but it wouldn't be long. Of course, even once the aesthetics were completed, the patient wouldn't be able to leave the ward; it would take an army of slaves to raise him from the operating table and carry him to his pedestal in the city.
Mek walked out of his studio and began his journey home, which ran mostly along the river. He walked a few hundred metres upstream before he noticed someone standing in his path on the riverbank. As he got closer, he saw that it was an old woman, who seemed to be taking handfuls of something out of a bag and throwing them up into the air. Mek stopped a few feet away from her.
“Excuse me,” he said. The woman looked at him. She was not very old, only about fifty, but at that time, for a woman to have survived as long as that was quite impressive.
“Yes?” asked the woman.
“What are you doing?” asked Mek. “May I ask,” he added hurriedly, worried that he might have sounded too accusatory. Just by the virtue of her age, he already respected the woman, and in a way feared her.
“I'm throwing salt into the Nile.”
The woman turned her attention back to the salt. She lifted a small handful of it out of the bag, and then cast it up into the air. It rose rapidly, before slowing down to a halt above thin air, and then beginning to accelerate downwards, plummeting into the river, where it quietly dissolved into the water and was carried downstream to the vast sprawling delta, to be lost in the salty seas of the Mediterranean.
Mek watched her silently for a few seconds, and then spoke nervously again.
The woman looked at him again and smiled slightly.
“Because I want to be as great as Ramesses.”
She resumed her salt-throwing.
“Sorry, what do you mean?”
“Isn't it obvious?”
“Not to me, no.”
She turned her head again to watch the rising and falling salt.
“But isn't that, perhaps, a bit of a waste of salt?”
“Well I'd have thought so. Unless it somehow helps with the farming, or something? I mean, does it help to fertilise the soil?”
“Not that I know of.”
“So, if that isn't the point of it, surely in a way, it is a waste?”
“Then Ramesses is wasting a lot of stone. And that's a lot more effort than wasting salt.”
“Erm, right. OK.”
The woman continued with her imitation of the pharaoh, and after a few more seconds, Mek decided to walk on, leaving her throwing salt into the Nile.
He arrived home a few minutes later, and over a meal of bread, lettuce, and scallions which Hetepi had prepared, he told her about the woman throwing salt into the Nile.
“But that's a waste of good salt! If she's got more salt than she needs – which she clearly does if she can afford to throw a whole bag of it into the river – then she can do something useful with it, like giving it to the peasants, or the slaves. I bet they don't have a salt surplus.”
“That's what I said, that it was a waste of salt.”
“What a strange woman. And she said she was doing it to be as great as Ramesses?”
“Well I can't say I think too highly of Ramesses personally, what with all the wars in Syria he keeps starting, and all the work he makes the slaves do – but then again who doesn't make the slaves work? – but I've never seen him throwing salt into the Nile.”
“No, neither have I. Oh yes, has anything happened about Syria?”
“Well apparently we've crossed the border.”
“Yes, they marched into Hatti at about eight o'clock this morning. I think they're going through the Negev Desert, so there probably hasn't been much fighting yet, but half the army's heading for Jericho, and the other half's going through Edom and Moab, so I imagine they'll be some slaughter soon enough.”
“How do you know all that so soon?”
“Nedjefi told me. Her husband's a general, and from what she said, he seems to have planned the whole thing, although I think she might have been exaggerating.”
“So do you know if there's any particular reason, or is it just general empire-building?”
“Well the Canaanites keep rebelling, don't they, and apparently the Hittites are encouraging them. At least, that's what they're telling us.”
“Bloody Canaanites,” said Mek sarcastically. “You'd think they didn't like being invaded and ruled by a foreign kingdom.”
Hetepi laughed fairly humourlessly.
“I know,” she said. “So ungrateful.”
“Perhaps the pharaoh's hoping to get a bit further than Kadesh this time.”
“Well maybe he will, but I don't really see how it affects us. It'll just make temporary slaves of some Hittites, and how that helps anyone, I don't know. It's not as if we have a shortage of slaves.”
After they finished their meal, Mek and Hetepi talked for a bit longer about work, politics, and what they were going to do at the weekend. They then played a game of Senet, which Hetepi won, and went to bed. And while they slept, the river carried the salt in solution downstream to the sea. Last-minute tributaries, anxious not to be left behind in the desert, rushed down into the valley, each one causing the river to grow slightly. And as the water grew, the salt paled and diluted, until, by the time the solute passed through the delta and was lost in the saline ocean, the Nile was indistinguishable from freshwater.