Chapter 15b


Miriam’s Book Store


“Tell me,” asked Ali, “I have heard that the pyramids are likened to the Belt of Orion, the three stars in a row that are so conspicuous.”


“There are three stars almost in a line in Orion’s Belt, and three great pyramids also almost in a line,” agreed the official.


“And here, I understand,” Ali continued, “We are thirty degrees north of the equator and one hundred twenty degrees north of the south pole.”


“That would be about right.”


“How far from the South Pole is Orion’s belt?  I mean in the sky.”


“Yes.  I understand.  Orion’s Belt is right on the equator.”


“And was Orion’s Belt ever thirty degrees north of the equator?”


“Ah, well of course the fact that there are the three stars of the belt means that you must make some sort of decision as to exactly where the center of the belt is.  But approximately, the belt was as far north as we are about two thousand years ago.  Does that help you?”


“It is interesting, but no it does not really help.  And in that time, I understand that there is something called the precession of the equinoxes.  The position of the sun, let us say in mid winter, is not constant against the background stars, but drifts slowly.”


“Quite true.  This was discovered by a man named Hipparchus, who came from the city of Nicea about 130 BC, as the Christians recon it.  He observed the position of the moon during an eclipse.  That told him the exact position of the sun.  He knew what the time of night was, and the day of the year.  Then he compared what he had seen with what had been described during a previous eclipse, when the time of night and the location of the moon at total eclipse and the day of the year and the year were all recorded.  With this he was able to calculate how fast the sun drifts against the stars.  It amounts to about thirty degrees over the past two thousand years or sixty degrees since the pyramids were built.”


“Or perhaps one hundred twenty degrees since people first began to notice such things,” said Ali.


“In the absence of records, you are free to believe whatever you like,” replied the official.  “But if you want to be in accord with modern science, you must take into account that the North Pole describes a circle in the night sky.  Right now it is pointed at the North Star.  But that will change.  The circle takes about 25,700 years to complete and is about 23.5 degrees in radius.”


“I see,” said Ali.  “So I can believe anything I want, but there are some limits.  What do you believe?  Is there anything mystical or magical about the location, the construction and the time of building of these pyramids?”


“My career is to care for them and to meet the legitimate needs of many people.  There is the government, which has its own needs.  There are the faithful, of which I am one.  There are tourists.  There are scholars.  There are those who entertain tourists.  And there are the seekers who are looking for some sort of mystery.  It can be said of none of these groups that they all believe the same thing.  And of course there are great differences between groups.  I do my job best to see that all have the access they need.  It is easier if I have no rigid belief about these things myself.”


“And how would you describe me?” asked Ali.  “To which group do I belong?”


“I do not know, my friend.”


“Nor I.  As soon as I do, I shall inform you.”


“But tonight,” said the official, “Do you have plans?  My home is yours.  My wife cooks excellent lamb, and I will do all in my power to make you feel welcome.”


“A thousand thanks for your kind invitation.  But I have a night flight to Athens, and much to do before then.  Perhaps, Allah willing, you will find yourself in Mecca some day, and I may have the honor of returning your kindness.”


Ali returned to the car and asked the driver to take him to the inner workings of Cairo.


It was a couple hours and many conversations later before he found the right coffee house.  He directed his driver to collect him in an hour and then went inside and found his contact.  Soon he was leaning across a low table to whisper harshly to the man he had just met, “Find out.  It is very important to me.  Find out.  I shall call you from Malta in a few days.”


“If Allah be willing,” the man said.  The young waiter came by and said something inaudible to the contact.  The man did not react until the waiter had made his way indirectly to the back of the coffee shop.


Then he leaned forward and said to Ali. “It is not safe for you here.  Come with me.”


They went out the back way and found the waiter using all his weight to tip over a flask-shaped earthen jar as high as a man.  Together they rocked it over.  The contact crawled in backwards and beckoned to Ali.  Ali could smell the mass of table scraps within but did as indicated and backed into the huge jar.  Together they righted it.  Ali squatted in the garbage, doing his best to maintain his dignity under the circumstances.  The waiter threw a rug over the jar, being careful not to cover the entire opening.  Presently they could hear the distinctive sound of a police raid on the coffee house.


Having scoured the house, the police came out to the back alley.  One hoisted himself up and smelled the table scraps.  He made a disapproving sound and pulled the rug all the way over the opening.  The air inside began to turn fouler, but after a bit it sounded as if the police had left.  The other man rose slightly and made an opening again.  The police were not expected to be brilliant.  They only had to make a good appearance.


Ali began to think, “Soon my driver will pull up to the front and ask a policeman, ‘Is Ali Kamili in there?’” 


But the driver kept his wits.  Presently they heard the familiar growl of the Land Rover coming down the alley.  The car stopped.  The driver got out, came over to the jar and whispered Ali’s name.


Ali knocked on the side of the container, and the three of them managed to tip it over again.  The two men crawled out and stood, straightening up and cleaning themselves off.


“I seldom think a dirty back alley smells quite so good,” said Ali.


“The smell of Allah’s mercy always has a special scent,” said the other.


“Can I give you a lift somewhere?”




They got in the car and started.


The driver asked, “Where do we go?”


“Take the next left.  We go to the brothel.”


“The brothel?” asked Ali.


“Yes.  Under such circumstances I am always coming home from the brothel.  The day will come when the religious zealots close them.  But for now the desires of the flesh command.


“The religious extremists, of course, are in the employ indirectly of the government.  The troubles they cause give the government the excuse to deny us out rights.  The government could not care less about the occasional bomb, but they are very concerned that anyone should threaten through legal means or otherwise to supplant them.


“So it is a deal made in hell.  The government encourages the extremists and the extremists give the government the excuse to arrest their real enemies.”


The car rolled on through evening traffic.


The contact said, “Go left at the next intersection.  The brothel will be on the right.  It is fortunate that the brothel is able to survive.  If the extremists ever close it down, we shall have no place to hide.  But the call of the flesh means that the brothel has good friends on all sides.


“Or perhaps it is that we all need a place to hide from time to time.”


They let the man off.  The driver turned north and west.  It was about two more hours and quite late when they reached Alexandria.


Alexandria had been built by Alexander the Great, a man on whom the Muslim world wasted little affection.  Alexander had been Greek, at least by sentiment, and Greece had always been a great sea power.  Egypt had been a great world power, but she had never actually had a port on the Mediterranean.  Almost all her commerce was conducted along the Nile or the estuaries of the Nile delta.  Only exceptional voyages went elsewhere.  So Alexandria became the only seaport of a great world economic force. 


For many years after Alexander himself, the city he built remained an intellectual power house.  It was in Alexandria that the world’s size was measured for the first time by a man named Eratosthenes.  It was known that there was a well near Aswan that gave out a flash of light just at noon on the longest day of the year.  It was understood that this happened because the sun was directly overhead.  By measuring the angle of the sun at noon on that day, and knowing the distance between Aswan and Alexandria, it was possible to do a calculation for just how large the earth was.  The method was so good that the largest error was the fact that Alexandria is not exactly north of Aswan. 


In Alexandria stood the Pharos, the world’s first lighthouse.  Here arose the great debate between Trinitarian and Arian Christians in the early days of the Christian church.  The modern city was a free port, as the Ancient city had been the only port.


To Alexandria came Euclid, who created geometry and Archimedes the famous engineer.  Here worked Ptolemy the maker of maps and the inventor as far as Europe knew of the idea of a universe with the sun at the center of the planets.  It took Galleleo, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler and Newton combined to unseat him as foremost authority on the stars.  Here Plotinus renewed interest in Plato, in the idea of life as illusion and alienation from the truth, a concept now called “Post Modern.”  Here the important translation of be Old Testament called the “Septuagint” was made.  Here Herophilus three centuries before Christ did some of the first post-mortem examinations, a technique that was used by Michelangelo to enrich his great art and that in the late 1800’s in Vienna would produce modern medicine; Herophilus first described the ventricles of the brain and found that nerve conducted sensation toward the brain and motor instructions away from the brain.  It is said that he engaged in homosexual behavior. 


Alexandria was home to early studies of the dark art of alchemy.  But alchemy cannot have been born in Egypt.  It is an Arabic word dating from a time before the Arabs controlled that country.


Most compelling was the great library.  Every library under Greek sway was compelled to send their collection to Alexandria, where each book was meticulously copied and the fresh new copy returned.  A second copy and the original were retained in Alexandria.  Scholars drool to this day over the thought of the riches Alexandria contained.  Tragically, the library was damaged by fire more than once.  The first time was in the time of Julius Caesar. 


In something like a reminiscence of old glory, a new library had been built at Alexandria.  It was to this library that Ali made his way, his contacts sufficient to bring one of the staff librarians to meet him after hours and show him around. 


The new library, as the old, concentrated on keeping originals of ancient classics.  Ali had seen many fine collections of rare books in his day.  “Treasure rooms” he called the rare book rooms of the great libraries.  But this library was beyond any he had seen.  Ali had to remind himself that only the Kaaba, of all material objects, could be regarded with true reverence.  The books were precious and important, but they were not sacred.  It only felt as if they were sacred.


“Do you ever worry about fire?” he asked the librarian.


“Hardly ever,” came the response.  “I offer you a trick question.  What destroys more property?  Fire or water?”


“Obviously fire, so since it is a trick question, then water.”


“In fact, more property is destroyed by the water used to extinguish fires than by fire.  Floods are off the scale.”


“But you can hardly fear a flood here.  The sea is not a mile away.  That will never rise much.”


“You have heard of the high dam at Aswan?”


“Of course,” said Ali.


“As long as it is secure, we are happy.  But suppose one day the engineers make a mistake.  They do not maintain the dam properly.  The dam breaks.  What then?”


“That can never happen.  If we were able to build the dam, surely we can maintain it.”


“You have seen the pyramids.  How well have they been maintained?  And perhaps you did not notice, but we have lost the secret of the engineering that made it possible to build them.”


“Very well, so the Aswan dam breaks because we do not have the skilled engineers.  It matters not here.  It is hundreds of miles away.”


“But the Nile Valley is steep sided and narrow.  If that dam ever breaks, there will be a wall of water rushing down the valley at two hundred miles an hour.  It will take it two or three hours to reach Cairo.  It will destroy all of Egypt on the way.  Only the pyramids will survive.”


“That is sad and frightening, and I would not make light of it.  But even Cairo is far from here.  From there the water would spread out and become shallow and tame.”


“Forgive me that I persist,” said the official.  “And I will leave this if you like, but I fear I cannot agree.”


“Nay, pray continue,” said Ali.  “I am flattered you should take the time.”


“You saw the edge of the Nile valley at Cairo, then,” said the librarian.


“Yes, of course.  The pyramids are built on a plateau.”


“Those sheer sided cliffs go all the way to Aswan.  And of course there is little rain, so how did such a large expanse of vertical carving though solid stone ever happen?”


“I know not.”


“A million years ago, the Mediterranean Sea was not connected to the Atlantic Ocean.  The Straights of Gibraltar was a mountain ridge.  Since there has always been more evaporation than rain on the Mediterranean, it became a dry lake bed, a salt flat, such as the Americans use to test their fastest cars.  It was totally hostile to life.  Even now, it is possible to drill into the deepest parts of the Mediterranean and bring up rock salt.”


“I see,” said Ali. “But what has this to do with the sides of the Nile valley?”


“The Mediterranean is very deep.  It is two miles deep in many places.  Imagine the Nile, with all the flow she has at present, dropping two miles into a dry salt lake.”


“The nose would have been amazing.”


“And the cataract carved an enormous canyon, a mile deep and more with vertical sides.  And the cataract worked its way upstream hundreds of miles, as far as Aswan is today.”


“What could have happened to such a ravine?”


“It is still there.  But at last the Straights of Gibraltar opened, the Atlantic rushed in, and the Mediterranean basin was filled.”


“An enormous flood,” said Ali.  “It would have been of biblical proportion.”


“There were no humans at the time to see it.  Whether the human ancestors that science believes in could have carried tales of the event is beyond our knowledge.  Whoever may have been the witness, the valley filled with mud and at last a delta appeared, just a mass of mud clinging to the edge of the bottomless Mediterranean.”


“That would be the Egypt we have today,” said Ali.  “But you mean to say more.”


“You came with very good credentials.  And I must say that either your knowledge of geology or your knowledge of people is more than you proclaim.  At all events, yes.  There is more.  When the Aswan dam breaks, the upper Nile valley will be flushed out like a sewer beneath a toilet.  And when the wall of water reaches Cairo, it will begin to spread east and west, slowing, becoming less deep and, most importantly, dumping an enormous amount of the mud that it carries.  As this continues for an hour or more, it will build a mud dike stretching all the way across the delta.  Behind that dike, the water will pile up.”


“And you will be protected,” said Ali hopefully.


“For a few minutes, yes.  But remember there is no stone.  It is only an enormous pile of mud.  The lateral force will shove the whole delta into the depths of the Mediterranean.”


Ali thought about it for a moment.  He saw the wall of rushing water, the cliffs hemming the flood to left and right.  Tens of millions drowning in the crashing water.  The pyramids alone rising above the flood, alone enduring to proclaim that anyone had ever lived here at all.  But as the flood met the delta, as the whole of lower Egypt tipped into the sea, he could not comprehend it.  He shook his head.


“Tell me, my friend.  Back when the Mediterranean was dry and the Nile valley was a chasm, what do you think it was like?  I imagine it was dry, hot and barren, like the Grand Canyon in America is at this time.”


“The Grand Canyon is dry, but it is because it runs through a desert.  This was no desert a million years ago.  The Sahara was as fertile as Florida, with torrential rains.  There were thunderstorms each afternoon.  The valley would have been lush and green, a mile deep and miles across with rich soil, great trees and teaming life.”


“It was a paradise, then.”


“Ah, save for the serpent.  You see, so deep it was that the air was very dense.   Insects the size of eagles could have flown.  Eagles the size of camels.  But the worst would have been the snakes.”


“Flying snakes?”


“Yes, my friend.  There are snakes that glide out of treetops even in this day.  Given the thick air of the deep Nile valley, they could have flown like birds.”


“You do not believe that.”


“The Egyptian cobra now has the largest and longest hood of any cobra.  It may be a coincidence, but it is possible that it is descended from a flying cobra.  Imagine it armed like the spitting cobra, able to kill by spraying you in the face, able to approach from behind in total silence and to retreat to a treetop and await your death.”


“The flying serpent,” said Ali.  “The dragon breathing fire, the Satan of the Western world.  The angel of death.  The  Midgarth Serpent of the Vikings.” 


“And the feathered serpent of Mexico,” said the librarian. 


“We would have been little more than apes then,” said Ali.  “Yet it must have made an enormous impression.”


“It must have been a terrible danger.  But the valley still had to be crossed if humans were ever going to leave Africa and begin to explore the rest of the earth.”


“My blessings,” said Ali.  “You have given me much to think about.”


“Think well, but have no dreams of it,” said the librarian.


It was time for Ali to start toward the airport.  In another three hours, he had taken leave of his driver and was on the night flight to Athens.


In a dream he was an ape or human venturing to cross the deep Nile valley, he and a host of his companions in a campaign that had lasted for generations.  There were high trees and the sound of rushing water.  Time upon time one of their company was struck by the winged angel of death so that the others would flee in panic.  Until at last they learned to regard anyone dead with the utmost dread and horror fearing that the angel still lurked unseen.  In his dream a man fell dead of venom breath, so as he lay the snake alit, began to tear at flesh with bladelike teeth, and then the air was thick with them. 


Ali awoke thinking about the flying cobra, about the terror men felt in the presence of an angel and about the Midgarth serpent represented as the speckled band of Orion’s belt, sliding through the sky gradually over the centuries until it was now at the equator and ready to strike. 


There have been 5,685 visitors so far.


Home page.