Egypt: Spring AD 77
They say you can see the Lighthouse from thirty miles away. Not in the day, you can’t. Still, it kept the youngsters quiet, precariously balancing on the ship’s rail while they looked for it. When travelling with children, always keep a little game in hand for those last troublesome moments at the end of a long journey.
We adults stood close by, wrapped up in cloaks against the breeze and ready to dive in if little Julia and Favonia accidentally plunged overboard. To add to our anxiety, we could see all the crew making urgent attempts to work out where we were as we approached the long, low, famously featureless coastline of Egypt, with its numerous shoals, currents, rocky outcrops, suddenly shifting winds and difficult lack of landmarks. We were passengers on a large cargo boat that was making its first lumbering trip south this season; indications were that over the winter everyone had forgotten how to do this journey. The dour captain was frantically taking soundings and looking for silt in seawater samples to tell him he was near the Nile. Since the Nile delta was absolutely enormous, I hoped he was not such a poor navigator he had missed it. Our sailing from Rhodes had not filled me with faith. I thought I could hear that salty old sea god Poseidon laughing.
Some Greek geographer’s turgid memoirs had supplied oodles of misinformation to Helena Justina. My sceptical wife and tour-planner reckoned that even from this far out you could not only see the Lighthouse, shining like a big confusing star, but also smell the city wafting across the water. She swore she could. True or not, we two romantics convinced ourselves that exotic scents of lotus oil, rose petals, nard, Arabian balsam, bdellium and frankincense were greeting us over the warm ocean—along with the other memorable odours of Alexandria, sweaty robes and overflowing sewage. Not to mention the occasional dead cow floating down the Nile.
As a Roman, my handsome nose detected this perfume’s darkest under-notes. I knew my heritage. I came fully equipped with the old prejudice that anything to do with Egypt involved corruption and deceit.
I was right too.
At last we sailed safely through the treacherous shoals to what could only be the legendary city of Alexandria. The captain seemed relieved to have found it—and perhaps surprised at his skilful steering. We pootled in under the enormous Lighthouse then he tried to find one empty space to moor amongst the thousands of vessels that lined the embankments of the Eastern Harbour. We had a pilot, but pointing out a spare stretch of quay was beneath him. He put himself off into a bumboat and left us to it. For a couple of hours our ship manoeuvred slowly up and down. At last we squeezed in, shaving the paint on two other vessels with the joggle-mooring method.
Helena and I like to think we are good travellers, but we are human. We were tired and tense. It had taken six days from Athens, via Rhodes, and an interminable time out from Rome before that. We had lodgings; we were to stay with my Uncle Fulvius and his live-in boyfriend—but we did not know them well and were anxious about how we would find their house. In addition, Helena and I were well-read. We knew our history. So, as we faced up to disembarkation, I could not help joking about Pompey the Great: how he was collected from his trireme to go ashore to meet the King of Egypt—and how he was stabbed in the back by a Roman soldier he knew, butchered with his wife and children watching, then beheaded.
My job involves weighing up risks, then taking them anyway. Despite Pompey, I was all set to lead the way bravely down the gangplank when Helena shoved me out of her way.
‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Falco. Nobody here wants your head— yet. I’ll go first!’ she said.
Excerpted from Alexandria by Lindsey Davis.
Copyright © 2009 by Lindsey Davis.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
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