Copyright (c) 2011 Adam Palmer
“Joshua, my time is coming and the mantle of leadership will pass to you.”
The white-haired man was lying down in the cave on a bed of hay, looking at the one whom he had chosen as his successor. The younger man, a dark-haired forty-year-old, had torn his robes in mourning, while the older man yet lived. There were tears of grief in his eyes.
“I will not leave your side, my teacher.”
Joshua had long known that this day would come, that one day the man who had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt would be taken to God’s bosom and that he, the loyal disciple, would take over the mantle of leadership from the man to whom he owed so much. Yet he still felt ill-prepared for the duties that would fall upon him. It wasn’t just the fact that this once vibrant man was now reduced to the frail figure before him. It was also the terrifying sight of the red lesions on his mentor’s flesh that looked like fiery snakes
“I am not long for this earth, Joshua. When I die, you must bury me here and leave this place forever.”
From the valley below the sound of the murmuring of the people as they awaited news of their leader billowed up to the cave on the desert wind.
“But why must we leave?” asked Joshua. “Why can we not stay here and make peace with the Snake God?”
“Because the Snake God is false!” The old man’s voice resonated once again with the strength of his youth. The harsh tone instilled his disciple with fear and joy in equal measure. Despite his age and the ravages of disease, his vitality had not yet deserted him. “That is why Jehovah has punished us. It was for our appeasement of the Snake God that we were chastised with disease. Jehovah commanded us to have no other gods before him and yet we built that …” he waved his arm towards the cave entrance, “… that monstrous idol to the Snake God.”
“Then I shall tear down the monument and show the Snake God that we are loyal only to Jehovah,” the younger man replied earnestly.
“That is not enough. This place is cursed. You must lead the people across the river into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Jehovah your God will go with you.”
“But we are weak. We cannot fight the Canaanites. They are giants and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes.”
A blazing fire lit up the old man’s eyes.
“Enough! Do you really believe those foolish rantings? Did not Caleb tell us that Jehovah will give us strength to conquer them?”
“But they are more numerous than we.”
The old man’s voice mellowed again, as if he had spent himself with his wrath and had no more fight left in him. “Then live in the hills not in the valleys, and leave them alone until you are ready. Bide your time, Joshua, just as I bided my time.”
Joshua nodded. But the teacher was not finished. Through his frailty, the old man raised his head and shoulders to speak one more time. Joshua leaned forward to place his ear next to the mouth of Moses.
“Be strong and courageous. Because you will lead the people into the land which Jehovah promised their fathers … and you will make it their legacy.”
Khamsin – the hot slow dry wind that blows in from the west.
Derived from the Arabic word for “fifty” because according to Arab tradition, it is supposed to blow for fifty days during the course of the year.
The lean nineteen-year-old from West London was sweltering, unaccustomed to these desert conditions. At least the heat was dry, he thought; that made it just about bearable. All he had to do was remember to drink plenty of water. Having holidayed once in Sharm el-Sheikh, he was grateful that it wasn’t humid here like it was on the coast. But even so, it was weather for relaxing by a hotel swimming pool, not for working on an archaeological dig.
Now, in the heat of a morning in late March,, over a dozen fit young students worked in their designated areas under the watchful eyes of Egyptian soldiers. Dressed in t-shirts and Bermuda shorts (referred to locally as “Islamic shorts” because of their relative modesty), these enthusiastic volunteers came from all over the world: Egypt, Europe, South America, even Australia and New Zealand. Each volunteer was assigned an area of one metre square, marked out on a grid with flags stating their co-ordinates.
It was painstaking work. Armed with a metal trowel, plastic scoop and small-headed brush for cleaning larger finds, the youth dug out to a depth of six inches below the previous level, put the contents into his bucket and took it over to the two volunteers who operated the sieve screens. The pair were known as JJ because of their initials: Joel and Jane. Though similar in age – he at the end of his teens, she barely out of hers – they were an unlikely team: the wiry, ginger-haired nerd and the bottle blonde with a cheerleader body. But they had been thrown together by chance and now the two of them were inextricably linked by this coincidence of nomenclature.
Joel had been assigned to this relatively simple job because of his lack of experience, but it was a role that carried its fair share of responsibility. And as the volunteer from London turned up at his shoulder with a bucketful of sand and pebbles, Joel sighed – he wasn’t expecting anything to break the monotony of the day.
From a corner of the dig site, the work was being overseen by a blonde woman with a commanding presence and an almost Nordic appearance. She preferred to watch from a distance, because whenever she wandered around the site, people stopped their work to look at her, especially the men.
It was an understandable reaction – she was not a woman whom it was easy to ignore. Her back was both broad and straight, and her well-toned thighs and arms subtly muscular. But her torso was by no means devoid of body fat. In a woman of average height, this combination of muscle and fat would have made her look rather squat, but at five foot eleven she towered over most other women and was perfectly proportioned, especially in the eyes of men.
She was Gabrielle Gusack, a young Viennese archaeologist, and she was looking at the work with a mixture of exhaustion and pride. It had taken a lot of determination and a healthy dose of diplomacy to get this dig approved. The site was in a restricted military area at the foot of Mount Hashem el-Tarif, closely guarded by the Egyptian army due to its proximity to the Israeli border, and for this reason had never been subjected to proper archaeological excavation, despite hints and signs that it might be of historical significance.
After some delicate lobbying, the authorities gave the dig an official green light, albeit with some stringent security conditions attached; no mobile phones or cameras were be brought to the site and only an official cameraman working for the Supreme Council of Antiquities would be allowed to take pictures. Thus the Egyptian authorities could control the flow of information that came out of the dig.
It was the Supreme Council of Antiquities and its head, Akil Mansoor, that had proved to be the lynchpin of this whole project. Mansoor was not only an enthusiastic supporter of the project, but also Gabrielle’s mentor – she had done her PhD under him at the University of Cairo, and their friendship had proved enduring, if somewhat volatile at times. He was also a friend of her uncle, the much respected British biblical historian, Harrison Carmichael. Perhaps most important of all, he was the Vice Minister of Culture.
But not even he could override security considerations or the wishes of the Egyptian military, and he had been forced to engage in a certain amount of horse-trading as he gingerly tiptoed around the objections and won over the key decision-makers in the political and military hierarchy.
And now with the job of brokering the deal accomplished, he stayed away from the site and let the enthusiastic kids rise to the challenge of “painting the fence” – with his young, attractive protégée playing the role of Tom Sawyer. Of course, if they found anything exciting, he would lose no time in going out there to make the official announcement in front of the cameras.
The volunteer who had just emptied his bucket into the sieve screen that Joel was operating didn’t wait to see the results, he simply returned to his digging. The screen consisted of a four-sided wooden box with a quarter inch metal mesh “floor” and a pair of handles that could be used to shake it.
Joel shook the screen now to begin the separation process, and as the sand fell away through the mesh, a large number of stone fragments remained. Normally the residue proved to be nothing but desert pebbles, but this time something caught his eye. Mindful of Gabrielle’s instruction to observe the residue before bagging it up, he looked more closely, blinked and then looked again.
It wasn’t that the stones were of any radically different material – quite the contrary: they were typical of the local stone – nor were they any larger than usual. And they certainly didn’t have the glint of noble metals or the crystalline glow of precious stones. No, it was just that these stones, or rather fragments of stone, seemed to have markings on them.
Joel picked one up and held it closer to get a better look. Turning it this way and that, he noticed that on one side it seemed to have some engraved shapes. The shapes were too simple to be hieroglyphics and they looked too unfamiliar to be any alphabet that he knew. But they did look like writing, not merely random markings.
He picked up another and looked at it, then another and then yet another. He noticed some repetition of the symbols, which confirmed his suspicion that there was nothing random about these engravings. They had been made purposively, by a human hand. And that made this a find!
He could just bag it up and mark it, leaving the others to figure out its significance in due course. But something about this discovery appealed to his ego. He wanted some small share of the kudos, even if someone else had dug it up, and someone more knowledgeable than himself would interpret it. And in any case, if it was something important, they would surely want to know about it now.
Joel realized that he had been daydreaming and Jane had noticed that something was up.
“What?” she asked, in that ever cheerful way of hers.
He held out one of the stone fragments and let her look at it, making sure that she didn’t actually get her hands on it.
“Oh … my … God!” she blurted out.
Fearing that others people would hear and start gathering round before he had had a chance to claim his glory, he threw the fragments into a plastic bag and raced over to Professor Gusack, suppressing the urge to cry out aloud like Archimedes on his homeward sprint from the public bath house.
While Joel was racing off to claim his share of the glory, Jane felt her breath constricting. Unlike Joel, she understood the full significance of what she had just seen. And she had to do something about it.
Mumbling some excuse about a stomach bug, she raced off to the latrines, which were little more than holes in the ground with individual booths around each drop. She closed and bolted the door behind her and whipped out her slender mobile phone from the pocket of her combat trousers. She was supposed to have handed it in to the security people at the entrance to the camp, but she had been forewarned of this in advance, so she had made sure she had two mobiles. The large flashy one she had handed over meekly with a look of disappointment. But this small thin one with its limited features, she had retained. She knew that the male soldiers wouldn’t frisk a woman, and they had no female soldiers at hand to do the job. So her secret was safe.
Safely ensconced in the latrine, she frantically keyed in a message and hit the “Send” button. A minute later her message appeared on another phone six thousand miles away. It said: They found the stones.
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