Watching the news out of Egypt, I could have cried. Like the long ago Library of Alexandria, the richest and most celebrated library of the ancient world, it burned by ‘accident’ when the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at a neighboring building. The Library of Alexandria burned in much the same way, depending on the story.
“The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended,” the director of the institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, told state television over the weekend. The building was managed by a local non-governmental organization.
Servant of the Gods
As a student of history I’ve been fascinated by Egypt and the Arab world for most of my life. I watched the dawn of the Arab Spring with amazement and a real sense of hope that perhaps once again that part of the world could be an example to the rest of us.
Say what you will of Greece being the cradle of democracy, it was in the lands of the Near East where civilization was birthed and nurtured.
As I watch the Egyptian people fight for a restoration of their rights after decades of near dictatorship, taking to the streets of Cairo in droves, I think back to their ancestors.
In those days learning was treasured. As they tried to make sense of their world they studied the one around them. From the Arab world and India came the concept of Zero (0), without which a base 10 system (used in most computers) would be impossible. The astrologers of the day gave birth to our own wonder at the heavens and the science of astronomy. In the movements of the stars, they noticed that some were fixed while some moved (planets).
In those days, *laughing* unlike ours, there was much complaint in other cultures about the independence of Egyptian women. That still holds today, as some of the most notable of the protesters are Egyptian women. Unlike so many other cultures, in almost all of their art, husbands and wives are pictured together, and ancient documents give testament to their devotion to each other. In most cases, women could hold any occupation they wished, including serving in the army. While not as ‘liberal’ as we are, they didn’t need to be convinced of the value of women in society, it was simply accepted.
There are those who are afraid Egypt and the others will fall under the sway of the militants, but I remember how they stood up first to Mubarak, Gaddafi, etc., and now to the army. Tens of thousands gathered in the square to demand true liberty. Even if they fail, they will have inspired the next generation. After all, they inspired this one. Look at the folks gathered to Occupy Wall Street. It’s the same movement, the same idea. And ideals…
One of the things I find amusing is to listen to people talk about ancient cultures and describe the lives of those who lived then as ‘hard’. In comparison to ours, they definitely were. After all, most people barely lived past the age of forty and cause of death would be as likely from tooth decay. That was for men. We act shocked by the idea that young women of that time were married by twelve and old maids at fourteen, without considering that by the time their children were adults they’d already lived over half their lives. That’s if they survived childbirth, one of the leading causes of death for women. Many children died young, either in childbirth, or from disease or accident.
For the ancient Egyptians, its clear from their writings and their statuary that marriage was a sacred institution for them, and husband and wife were considered equal. As were women in general, many of whom ran their own businesses.
In most ancient societies the relationships between people, whether as couples or friends, were important and valued. If you read their writings, without the cynicism imposed by our own society, you can see it. In ancient Egypt husbands wrote to wives and wives to their husbands, of their devotion to each other without shame or embarrassment. Something that in our society until the last half century. Imagine something like that now.
There are tales throughout history of friends who sacrificed their lives for each other – now we refer to such friendships in derogatory terms like bromances, or BFFs.
People also had rights many today would envy. In early Rome women could get divorced and own their own property, something that didn’t exist in some parts of the US until this last century.
Yes, there was slavery, but slavery still exists in this world, and many slaves had better rights than many of those who work on production lines or in cubicles, since their owners were at least required to feed and clothe them.
Cultural assumptions were also much different, or non-existent. Homosexuality wasn’t an issue. In many cultures no one cared.
Sexual roles were also less defined. Without the societal assumption that women were the ‘weaker’ sex, women in those ancient cultures were able to do any job or hold any career they wished. Even serve in the army.
For example, in some pre-puebloan societies it was men who did the weaving – a task considered women’s work for many these days – and a boy who wished to court a girl took a particularly fine blanket, woven by his own hands, to his prospective mother-in-law for judgment.
Yet in much of our writings we tend to condemn those societies based on our own cultural assumptions. It’s easy to do so, after all, through the lens of our own judgments.
For instance, we condemn Cleopatra and portray her as being a harlot for marrying her brother but by the terms of Egyptian culture, what she did wasn’t sacrilege or incest, it was their culture. After all, the Gods Isis and Osiris were also brother and sister (a neat way to explain how the first gods managed the whole procreation thing, unlike in the Bible, where a whole different tribe just appears).
We condemn ancient Rome for its excesses and yet some in the US Congress or on Wall Street could certainly give them a run for their money. As we also tend to look down on the pharaohs and early Caesars but most of them understood they held their place at the will of their people. More than one ruler found himself overthrown when they forgot that. Some folks in power now might do well to remember it.
Given the importance of interpersonal relationships among those early societies, an argument could be made that the first sign of their failure was when those relationships were devalued, when the excesses of those in power diminished the value of those relationships and began to take away their rights. Not that they were all perfect, but in many cases they were far better than we’ve assumed.
Some of what we know now appears relatively new, but isn’t, but the assumption that there’s nothing new to learn is equally untrue.
The burial place of a female gladiator was only recently – relatively – accepted as such, in spite of the fact that all evidence pointed to her sex as being female. The evidence for it long existed, it just couldn’t be seen past the lens of our own assumptions.
We’re still uncovering new information. They just recently discovered previously untouched (except by thieves) ancient Egyptian tombs.
We now know that we understand much less about the ancient Incan culture than we once did, based on new discoveries.
So, are you or will you write your novel from the point of view of your cultural upbringing, to espouse a certain concept, or will you try to write it without preconceptions? And how will you market it? As ‘factual’ or as a ‘re-imagining’?
There is a group of reviewers that say they’ll review your novel, not just the quality of the writing, but for historical accuracy. My only question is, whose history? From which point of view?
For example, if you’re writing a western, and you want your female character to do certain things, would her actions have been acceptable or even possible for the period? I had started one, but was caught short by questions about that era. A little research reassured me that not only was my concept possible, it was even more likely to be right than the images we have of western women now. I’ll definitely be citing my research on that one.
In a few days I’ll be releasing a new book, a thriller/horror/romance based in time of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt. I’ll make no claims that it will be 100% historically accurate – it is fiction after all – but I did try to stay as true to that era as possible. For example – I had my heroine riding a horse, possible given where she’d come from but unlikely even then, and certainly in ancient Egypt. The horses of that time hadn’t advanced so much, they were much smaller. Breeding and time would change that.
The problem is that many people assume the author made the effort to do the research and so believe a lot of what they read. However I know a lot of books that were/are wildly inaccurate historically, others just mildly. Bodice-ripping is much harder to do than most assume. And let’s not talk about the movie Pocahontas. I also had someone chide me about the danger of using the word Nike in the title of my book Nike’s Wings – it was clear the individual had no clue that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory and not just a shoe manufacturer. Most of us know of a few novels written about ancient cultures from a specific point of view and some of those authors have quite a devoted following. If the native cultures they described could read those books, I wonder if they would recognize themselves? Especially given that some historians and archaeologists now question some of those assumptions?
So, what does this mean to us as fiction writers? (Non fiction writers have different issues) What are our responsibilities when it comes to referring to or describing these incredibly complex ancient cultures? First, before we put pen to paper, we must decide how true to that culture we want to be, how fictional is fictional? What do we owe those ancient societies? What do we owe our readers?
Honesty, that’s all.
Heart of the Gods
Tales of the legendary Tomb of the Djinn and its Guardian fascinated Ky Farrar since a visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when he was a boy. The story of the star-crossed lovers and their battle to save ancient Egypt from the dark Djinn made him decide to become an archeologist. He believes he’s close to finding it, only to discover the Tomb’s Guardian is all too real, far closer than he expects – and she’s as lovely as she is lethal.
He’s also not the only one looking for the Tomb. It’s a race against time to reach it before it can be opened, and what’s imprisoned within is set loose on an unsuspecting world.
It had been a race then, to see which camel could run or be goaded faster against the fury of the storm.
Once again, Abdul won, his fingers clenched around the figurine of the little priestess as he heard the cry out of the darkness.
Still he couldn’t shake the idea he was still hunted. He could feel it.
Desperate, he raced into the first temple he found and threw himself on mercy of she who ruled there.
All he had to offer was the golden figurine of the priestess.
“Take it,” he said to one of the priests, thrusting it into his hands. “Take it as my offering to her, to Sekhmet.”
The Goddess of War.
Instead the priest looked toward the open door of the temple and his face grew grim and set. As one, he and the others backed away, disappeared into the shadowed depths of the temple.
Nearly weeping with terror, Abdul slowly turned.
Sand swirled through the entrance. Something stepped out of it.
He looked from the figure in his hand to the terrible one who stood in the doorway.
The Guardian of the Tomb.
They were the same.
His cry was first of sheer terror and then of a deep and horrifying ecstasy.
When silence came once again to Sekhmet’s temple, the priests and priestesses emerged.
All that remained of the old thief was a dry and empty husk.
The wind gusted and swept the temple clean.