Wednesday 24 May 2023

The Nile Adventures; writing about Ancient Egypt, by Saviour Pirotta

When this post drops on the 24th of May, it'll only be four days to the publication of the third instalment in The Nile Adventures series. Purely by coincidence, I have just finished the final draft of the last title in the saga: The Serpent's Eclipse. It's been a long journey with the three main characters - Renni, Mahu and Balaal, three children who live during the reign of Ramesses II, considered to be the most glorious period in Ancient Egyptian history. It's a journey that started over twenty five years ago on a trip to Egypt. 

Cruising along the Nile, with stops along the way to visit awe inspiring sites like Kom Ombo, Philae and Abu Simble, I was struck by the grandeur and majesty of it all: the remains of enormous temples, the walkways guarded by sphinxes, the hypostyle halls. I only had to close my eyes and I was back there at the time of the Renni, Mahu and Balaal, when the temples were still standing and the power of Pharaoh over his people was absolute.

But there was a simpler side to the grandeur, one that seems to have survived into present times. Sitting under a canopy on the deck of our vessel, you could see daily life on the banks of the Nile. Farmers tilling the land with hand tools, (the famous Nile inundation does not happen anymore, thanks to the building of the Aswan dam; mums singing as they scrubbed their infant children clean at the water's edge; boys standing still as statues on fishing boats, hoping to spear a tilapia for supper. I didn't need to close my eyes to imagine these people in Ancient Egypt. They were there in the flesh, doing what their ancestors have been doing since the first temples were built. And it was this aspect of Egypt that I wanted to capture in my stories.  Everyone can google facts about he high and mighty; the Pharaohs, the queens, the viziers, the chief priests of the temples. But what was life like for the children of the farmers, the artists, the simple craftsmen, the sailors on Iteru, the grand river?

I soon filled an entire notebook with scribbles and photos, with ideas for plots and set pieces. Doing my research afterwards, I was struck by the duality of Ancient Egyptian life. On the one hand, the Egyptians celebrated life with verve. Even their language was effusive. Celebrations had evocative names like Beautiful Festival of the Valley. A person might refer to the sunrise as 'the glorious coming forth of the light.' People, no matter their class, dressed up for parties - the rich in their mansions, the poor out on the streets or in the courtyards of the grand temples. They were entertained by musicians, jugglers, dancers and deft magicians.

And yet they were also obsessed with death and the afterlife. In a culture where life expectancy was short, where infant mortality was high and accidents in the workplace a daily occurrence, people lived in fear of death. Everything, no matter how beautiful or precious, had a darker side. The great river supplied the means of life itself but it also harboured death in the form of crocodiles, water snakes and storms.  This duality was mirrored in their beliefs. The crocodile was revered as an incarnation of the god Sobek but also feared as ruthless taker of life. 

This was another aspect of Ancient Egypt I wanted to capture in my series. So the stories have their own duality. One story arc deals with the earthly ambitions of the children. Renni wants to be an artist. His elder brother Mahu dreams of being a sailor. Balaal, a Phoenician princess in exile, wants to learn about the Egyptian way of life. The second arc deals with the afterlife as one foolish act by the brothers brings them up against gods, monsters (both human and immortal) and the ka, the spirit of a dead general. 

I hope the two sides of the narrative blend as seamlessly as life and belief did in the real Ancient Egypt. I have grown fond of the characters, especially Renni who is partly based on yours truly and shares my world point of view. It will be difficult, and sad, to let go of them but new eras and new characters beckon. 

Saviour's The Nile Adventures series is published by Maverick. It is illustrated by Jo Lindley.  Follow Saviour on twitetr @spirotta and on insta @spirotta2858.


Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely agree about wanting to find out - and show - what life was like for the 'little' people.

Penny Dolan said...

Good wishes for your new title, Saviour! What a fabulous trip that must have been those memories are still inspiring you & your books today.