A Priestess. An Enchanted Sphinx. An Afterlife
A malevolent force transcends space and time
Born in the harem of Rameses the Great, Tia-Sitra is the daughter of a Hittite Princess. Separated from her mother as a child, she is sent to the temple of Amun Ra and raised as a priestess. There, she learns the science of healing and the power of spells and incantations, but when she falls in love with a Nubian slave, they have to flee from certain death.
Yet, Tia-Sitra possesses an enchanted amulet - a Gilded Sphinx.
In Luxor, Andrew Miles, a PhD student, uncovers a secret known only to the high priests and forgotten for three thousand years. His mentor, Dr Joanne Sharman, is investigating a chamber in the Valley of the Queens when she falls unconscious and wakes up with tantalising glimpses of her previous life.
Together, they trace the perilous journey of Tia-Sitra and her slave lover, to reveal their true legacy, the rise of the Black Pharaohs - but not before they unleash the ominous power of the Gilded Sphinx.
Release date: August 20, 2022
Print pages: 274
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The Gilded Sphinx
‘What the hell were you thinking? I've just had my head chewed off by the head of Egyptian Antiquities.’ Joanne sat back and folded her arms. ‘It seems that one of my students is a tomb robber.’
Andrew was sitting in the office of Dr Joanne Sharman his mentor, in the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Luxor. She was ambitious and, he thought, quite stunning. She’d battled consistently against the entrenched male dominance back home at Oxford University and had worked her way up.
He was a PhD student, and they were working on a dig near the Valley of the Queens. Everyone had been talking about the mysterious chambers they’d uncovered while searching for the burial place of Queen Nefertari, wife of Rameses II. The chambers were sealed but appeared to be totally empty. The only clue was a group of a dozen clay bottles, amphora, left outside. They were assumed to have contained the drying salts, natron used in the mummification process. Perhaps they were just meant to be burial chambers but had never been used. Andrew thought otherwise.
‘I'm not a tomb robber,’ he protested, ‘I just borrowed a clay pot for a few hours, that’s all.’
‘That’s all? Don't you realise we can’t touch a grain of sand here without their authorisation? Thanks to you, we're in danger of being banned from Egypt for a generation.’ She leaned back, exhaled slowly and crossed her legs. He tried not to look at them. ‘So, what's all this about. What’s so fascinating about a clay pot?’
‘Did you read my submission on the fossil record Dr Sharman?’
‘No, should I have?’
‘Yes, I think you should. Nature has provided us with various clues to the past. The fossil record is the most obvious, but I suspect there are other clues, if only we could understand them. I’ve always wondered if sounds and images from the past are somehow written into the stone of the buildings, waiting to be deciphered.’
‘This all sounds very fanciful, Mr Miles, but we scientists have to deal in facts, evidence.’
‘Have you heard of the Camera Obscura Dr Sharman? A darkened room or chamber with a small aperture set in one wall. The biggest Camera Obscura in the world is not that far from Oxford in fact - in Aberystwyth.’
‘Really? I must visit it sometime.’
He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic but he didn't care. ‘Light from an external brightly lit scene such as a building will pass through the hole and project an image onto the wall opposite. Leonardo da Vinci and many early artists used it as an aid for their sketches. Even the ancient Greeks and Chinese were familiar with its principles and I believe it's possible, the Ancient Egyptians also.’
‘I see, and how does this involve your stolen clay pot?’
‘The medieval artists simply used the Camera Obscura as an aid, by tracing over the projected image, but I think the ancient Egyptians, a select few such as the priesthood, knew how to take it one stage further.’
Dr Sharman uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. He'd caught her interest.
‘I need facts, Mr Miles, not idle speculation.’
‘Yes, of course. Before I began my PhD, I graduated in Chemistry. I have a colleague in the spectroscopy lab. I asked him to analyse a small sample from that pot. What he found was interesting and raises some questions.’
The phone rang, breaking the tension. She ignored it.
‘I showed my young nephew a cassette tape recorder the other day. He had no idea what it was. I had to explain it to him. Show a floppy disk to someone under twenty years old, and you would just get a blank look. In less than a generation, we can invent and develop gadgets, and then completely forget about them. Who knows what knowledge has been forgotten over the last three thousand years?’
The phone rang again. This time she answered it. She listened in silence. ‘Yes, yes of course. I will tell him. Thank you, Minister.’ She replaced the phone and looked at him with resignation. ‘Well I'm sorry to interrupt your fascinating story, but that was the Minister of State for Antiquities. I'm afraid you've been banned from all their sites until further notice.’
They were both shocked into silence for several minutes. Andrew became aware of the rhythmic hum of the ceiling fan, and the buzz of a large bumblebee thumping against the window looking for an escape. He knew how it felt.
Finally, he let out a sigh. ‘Can't you sweet talk him, bring him round? I've seen you working your charms before.’
She smiled ruefully and shook her head. ‘We're not in Oxford now Andrew.’ She stood up and began to arrange a black hijab around her head. ‘This is Egypt and I'm a woman, remember. I have a meeting with the Ministry in half an hour. I'm sorry Andrew. You'll have to leave. It had to be either you or the whole expedition would be in jeopardy.’
The plane had landed at Cairo airport for a five-hour layover before his flight to Heathrow. Andrew decided to take the airport bus to the city centre to kill some time.
The mid-day heat was like a hair-drier set on high. El Ahram Street was a disorganised chaos of cars, taxis, motorised tricycles and the odd camel. In the distance, thrusting its apex above the orange haze of traffic pollution, he could just make out the Great Pyramid of Giza. That was to be his last look at ancient Egypt. He was now looking at the end of a career in Egyptology before it had even begun. Even worse, he might never see Joanne Sharman again. She'd always been there for him, encouraging him, building his confidence. His grant would fizzle out in a matter of days with no chance of a renewal. He had no choice but to return to the UK, back to the damp bed-sit in Twickenham and a twilight existence, working bars and pizza joints.
‘Hey Mister, you buy? Only two dollars.’
The small boy was tugging at his shirt. Andrew shook his head. ‘No. Imshi!’
‘Special for you, only one dollar. It bring you good luck.’
He looked down at the boy. He was very thin, about eight years old with large brown eyes and no shoes. He was waving a cheap amulet, it looked like a plastic sphinx. Andrew searched his pockets and gave him fifty cents. The boy handed over the sphinx, squealed with delight, and ran off to show the money to his friend.
Andrew studied the amulet. It felt surprisingly heavy, made of some kind of resin and painted in red and gold just as the real one would have been over five thousand years ago. He ran his fingers over it. It felt cool and tactile, and strangely comforting. He slipped into the top pocket of his shirt and forgot about it.
Terminal Building Two at Cairo International Airport was busy. He shared a bench seat with a young mother and her four young children. They exchanged smiles. The children stared at him with unabashed curiosity. He admired the magnificent palm tree installations and wondered if they were real. He decided they can't have been, but they looked very convincing.
A man, who he thought was the father of the children was pacing around looking agitated and nervous. Andrew watched him for a while. He was wearing an anorak, which seemed odd in this heat. There was something about his eyes. They were dull, dead to the world.
To Andrew, it happened in slow motion. The man stopped pacing around and stared up at the ceiling. Then he opened the front of his anorak to reveal the suicide belt, and yelled something in Arabic, something about paradise. Andrew threw himself at him with something mixed with fear and outrage.
He saw a blinding flash but heard nothing. Everything went black. He was roused by the smell of cordite and something else, something acrid. The man looked dead, his entrails strewn across the marble floor. Somewhere, a woman was screaming. Andrew tried to stand. The numbness in his chest developed into a throbbing pain. Someone asked him a question in Arabic.
He heard the distant wail of an ambulance.
Tim Rickman stared at the Infra-Red spectrograph printout, trying to make sense of it. He'd not seen absorption lines like this in any other specimen from the Middle Kingdom. The telltale peak for Sodium Carbonate, the main constituent of Natron salts, was completely missing. Instead, he noted several hydrocarbon signatures belonging to a petroleum group.
He keyed in Andrew’s number.
‘Andrew, it’s Tim.’
‘Hi, Tim. What've you got?’
‘I have something to show you. I think it would be best if you came over to the lab.’
‘Ok. Give me fifteen minutes.’
Andrew grimaced as he slowly settled himself onto the lab stool.
‘Are you OK?’ said Tim ‘You seem in pain.’
‘Yes, I am, but only if I talk, or breathe.’
‘What happened to you?’
‘It’s a long story. I was at the airport. Seen the news recently?’
‘You didn’t get mixed up in that terrorist thing?’
‘Yeah, I was standing too close to the bad guy. I’ll tell you all about it sometime. I’ll be OK. I was lucky it was just a nasty burn from the detonator. It failed to trigger the explosive. The doctor told me to keep the dressing dry, at least until it starts to heal.’
Tim shook his head slowly. ‘My God Andrew. It could have been a lot worse.’
Andrew shrugged and pointed to the printout ‘Anyway, what did you find?’
‘Some partially hydrogenated polycyclic aromatics.’
‘Come on Tim, try me in English.’
‘I reckon that black powder you left with me is just some ancient bitumen.’
‘Bitumen? So, you don't think they used it for mummification?’
‘Unlikely. They have found some evidence of bitumen, where it was used as an alternative preservative to pine resins.’
‘Yes, but not as far back as the Middle Kingdom.’
'No. They used it in Ptolemaic and Roman times, but certainly not earlier than 500 BC.'
Andrew fell silent for a while as his mind wandered.
‘Yes, sorry. I just thought of something.’
Tim looked at him quizzically ‘So, why all this undercover stuff, Andrew? What’s so fascinating about an old jar of black pitch?’
Andrew grinned. ‘I’ll tell you later. I have to go. Thanks for your help.’
Back in his hotel room, Andrew pondered the significance of the ancient bitumen. What was bitumen doing in that empty chamber three thousand years ago?
He knew about Bitumen of Judea, which historically came from the shores of the Dead Sea, and they'd used it for thousands of years as an antiseptic. They even mixed it with olive oil to make soap. For a long time, it was assumed that mummification always used bitumen. In fact, the word came from the Arab mum for bitumen and so they called the preserved bodies Mumia.
In fact, they mainly used tree resins for mummification. These turned black during the process, hence the confusion.
He thought again about the Eye of Horus set in the centre of one of the walls. It was also seen as the Eye of Ra, the Sun God. If the eye were to open, symbolically, the golden light of the sun would come flooding in.
Andrew opened his laptop, though he wasn’t really looking. Slowly, it began to dawn on him, though at first, he resisted it. The realisation kept coming, but he tried to push it back. He needed to get used to the enormity of it - bitumen is light-sensitive. They must have coated the wall with light-sensitive bitumen.
He knew there was only one reason why they would want to do that …
Andrew filled a glass from a can of Luxor Classic and closed his eyes. He tried not to think about the dull pain in his chest as he ran his fingers over the cool resin surface of the sphinx. He smiled to himself as he realised he’d hardly let go of the thing over the last thirty-six hours.
The silence was broken by the doorbell. He jumped up and winced.
‘Just a minute.’
Standing at the door was Joanne. She was still wearing the hijab. It made her look younger somehow.
‘Andrew, I've been worried sick about you. Why didn’t you ring?’
‘I meant to, but – anyway, I thought we were finished.’
‘Don’t be silly. I couldn't believe it was you, in the middle of all that at the airport. What were you thinking?’
‘I wasn’t thinking. That idiot was standing right next to four young children, one of them can’t have been more than two years old. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t just run off.’
Joanne kissed him softly on the cheek. ‘You're a hero Andrew, I’m so proud of you.’
‘Hey, steady on. Does this mean I get my job back?’
Joanne sat down, unwrapped the hijab, shook her hair and crossed her legs. ‘Well. Wait until you hear this.’ She nodded towards the lager can. ‘Got any more of that?’
‘Yes of course, sorry.’
She took a long gulp of the ice-cold lager and screwed up her eyes. ‘Wow, that’s cold. Anyway, I was in the middle of this meeting with the ministry. We were discussing you at the time, or rather, I was. I was explaining about how dedicated you were and how mad keen you were on all things ancient Egyptian, but that you tended to get carried away, a little over-enthusiastic, that sort of thing’.
Andrew nodded and rolled his eyes.
‘From the blank looks though, I could see I was getting nowhere. Then this secretary burst in and said there’d been a serious incident at the airport. They turned on CNN and running along the bottom of the screen was a banner saying ‘Suicide bomber foiled by English student, Cairo airport’. Next minute on came some CCTV footage of you, demonstrating this amazing rugby tackle. I just yelled out ‘that’s him, that’s my student!’ You should have seen their faces. I mean I’d just told them you were over-enthusiastic, then there you were diving full tilt at a bloody terrorist – oh my God!’ She giggled uncontrollably and started to choke on a mouthful of lager.
Andrew watched her, bemused at the transformation from power female to giggly schoolgirl.
He folded his arms. ‘Well, I'm glad you found it so funny.’
She wiped away the laughter tears, recovering slightly. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. It must have been very frightening for you. It was just the thought of the look on their faces you see. Within only fifteen minutes or so, you had become famous. Then, ten minutes later, on came the President on the phone, wanting to know all about you. They handed me the phone. So there I was telling the President of Egypt about you, and your career in Egyptology, about to be snuffed out for a minor indiscretion. I’m not kidding Andrew, the Minister of State for Antiquities wasted no time in explaining how it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding.’
She stood and held up her glass. ‘Andrew Miles. You’re hereby reinstated with full honours!’ She tilted the glass forward. ‘Give us some more of that.’
The great funerary barge glided gracefully upstream. With hardly a splash, the tips of its oars kissed the surface in perfect synchronism as forty Nubian oars-men propelled the craft up the river to Thebes.
Standing erect at the prow, the chief priest thrust his arms forward, spreading sweet-smelling incense in his wake. Meanwhile, the Queen's maid-servants surrounded the catafalque beat their chests and sang incantations.
For most of the crowd flocking to the river bank, this would have been their only chance to ever see their great Queen. Workers in the fields, many of whom had spent years carving out her very tomb, laid down their scythes and marvelled at the spectacle.
Within minutes of her untimely death, her body would have been packed in carefully selected herbs and spices to try and fend off decay. Time was of the essence. Her soul must first be presented to the Sun-God Ra before mummification could begin.
After the recent heavy rains, long-dormant seeds had burst into life, filling the Valley of the Queens with brilliant desert flowers. On arrival, the oars-men carried their Queen up to the valley, their oiled bodies glistening in the fierce sun. As they reached the outside of the carefully prepared chamber the dozen maid-servants knelt and bowed their heads, while four selected Nubians slowly raised the catafalque until it was almost upright, facing the chamber, and lit by the mid-day sun. On a signal from the priest, a trumpeter raised his instrument and sounded one long blast.
Inside the chamber, the girl trembled with a mixture of fear and excitement. She had spent most of her young life preparing for this moment. By her side was a basket of bread, figs and wine to sustain her on the journey. But first, she had one final duty to perform.
On hearing the trumpet blast, she carefully peeled off the gold disk which covered the aperture on the Eye of Horus. She shielded her eyes as the chamber was flooded with brilliant golden light - and stared with amazement at the opposite wall.
As if by magic, a wonderful mirage floated upside-down before her. Palm trees waved in the breeze, circled with flowers of brilliant blue, crimson and orange. Taking centre stage was the Queen, surrounded by her courtiers. Her eyes were closed as if in peaceful slumber and her pale skin was adorned with rings and bracelets of gold, lapis, obsidian, and garnets.
Surely this was her first glimpse of the afterlife! She knelt as tears of joy trickled down her cheeks. Then she heard the second trumpet blast, this time two short bursts in rapid succession. Quickly, she ran forward and re-sealed the aperture with the disc, spreading it liberally with gum Arabic. The chamber was plunged once more into darkness. Now was the time.
She crept back into the corner and finished the last of the bread and wine. She retrieved a small alabaster bottle from the basket, uncorked it, and swallowed the contents.
Gradually, her limbs went numb, and she drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Joanne crawled through the gap, straightened and looked around. The blackness was total, it seemed to draw her in. She shuddered.
Andrew touched her arm ‘You OK? Here, hold onto this.’ He handed her the sphinx.
‘What is it?’
‘It's just an amulet. It'll calm you. It worked for me.’
A faint musty smell crept into her nostrils. The influx of spores and moisture must have kick-started mould growth in the sterile tomb. She swung the torch slowly and peered into the gloom. Then she saw it - a bundle of rags, hunched in the corner.
She stared in disbelief and tried to control her rapid breathing. She knelt and studied it in silence for a few minutes. In the cool arid atmosphere of the tomb, the corpse seemed remarkably well preserved. It appeared to be crouched, leaning against the wall at a skewed angle. The desiccated skin was stretched across the skull like parchment. Emaciated arms and fingers reached out from beneath a faded silken shroud. Everything was grey, covered with a fine film of dust. A gold ring hung loosely around a bony forefinger.
Joanne exhaled slowly. ‘Going by the shape of the pelvis and the condition of the teeth, I'd say this had been a young woman.’
She felt Andrew's excited breath behind her. ‘What do you think happened? Do you think they sealed her in? Buried her alive?’
‘You mean a retainer sacrifice? Unlikely. They didn't do that so much, not after the first dynasty. No, it was probably a suicide. It would have been considered a great privilege to enter the afterlife along with the Queen next door.’
Andrew gasped. ‘That's incredible. They must have really believed all that stuff. Wait, I'll go and get the camera.’
Joanne stared at the tufts of reddish hair clinging to the grey scalp and tried to imagine this young woman as she would have looked several thousand years ago. Not a princess maybe, but a valued servant certainly. Then she noticed something else. Just beyond the fingers of the right hand, a small glass phial. She reached forward to touch it - and jumped back with a start.
She heard it again, a faint scraping, like fingers nails, dragged down a blackboard. The corpse had started to slide slowly down the wall.
‘Oh shit! Andrew, where the hell are you with that camera?’ As she struggled to stand up, the torch slipped from her fingers and hit the floor with a loud clatter. The light flickered and went out.
On her knees she fumbled desperately for the torch, her hand now scratched and bleeding from the coarse gritty surface. The only sound was her frantic breathing and the thump-thump of her heart.
Panic crept up on her. She was six years old again, trapped in the below-stairs cupboard with the door clicked shut behind her. She'd shouted for her mother, but she wasn't there.
She stood, frantically looking around in the black cloaking darkness. She held onto the sphinx - and opened her mouth to scream.
Then she saw lights, many lights - but they were all inside her head.
She spun around and collapsed in a heap.
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