I’m taking several liberties with this piece. I have zero expertise in geology, archaeology, ancient or modern Egyptian history. A major earthquake did hit Egypt in the early 1990s, and Al Mokattam Mountains and St. Simon Monastry are real. Other than that, the rest is total fiction.
Looking out the airplane window, I could see the pyramids at Giza clearly. From that altitude they were deceptively small, but their precise geometry was beautiful. Perfect stone polyhedra standing sentinel in a vast ocean of sand.
A year ago when I first joined Dr. Wasser’s research team as a grad assistant, I never expected to be part of such a historic project.
A major earthquake, measuring 7.3, had been reported in Egypt. The epicenter some 30 miles south east of Cairo. Aftershocks had affected the Monastery of St. Simon in the Al Mokattam Mountains. The main cathedral cavern had suffered severe structural damage and a second, even larger chamber revealed behind the altar.
Wasser and his team were called in as experts on limestone caves. There was some questions about the authenticity of the chamber. Egyptian geologists had concerns that the revealed chamber was man-made, and the hieroglyphics found inside clever counterfeits. There were also questions surrounding what appeared to be cave paintings inside the chamber.
I was so close to the cabin window that my breath was fogging up the glass.
“First time visiting Cairo,” Wasser asked, peering at me over the top of his ever present half glasses. The hint of a smile, curling his lips.
“First time in a plane,” I confessed, pulling my shirt sleeve over my hand to buff off the condensation.
The captain’s voice telling us to fasten our seat belts halted any more conversations as we made our descent into the desert.
I huddled with the other GAs, circling our gear and duffle bags like an old Western wagon train. Unsure what to do while we waited for our driver to find us, we remained awkwardly silent.
Wasser stood apart searching the crowd for a familiar face. Pulling a pack of unfiltered Camels and a silver engraved lighter from his field jacket’s breast pocket, he shielded the flame as he lit a cigarette. Inhaling deeply, he puffed out a stream of smoke rings, each one slowly floating away, disappearing as they grew wider, falling apart in the scorching, dry heat.
We all turned toward a voice calling Wasser’s name carrying over the causeway. A slight man, dressed in a blindingly white galabeya, forged a path through the other travelers.
He and the professor greeted one another with the traditional Egyptian kiss on each cheek, then spoke briefly in rapid-fire Arabic. We were quickly assembled and herded through the air port to waiting vans. Driven at break-neck speeds through frighteningly congested streets, we were taken to a walled compound that would be our home for the next few months.
Over the following weeks, we were briefed on the research site and what we would find there. The exposed cavern was half again as big as the cathedral chamber with nearly every available space covered in hieroglyphics and engraved murals detailing an unknown tribe that thrived in the mountains centuries before the pharaohs.
While we were able to verify the age of the runes, there was no way to corroborate them based on existing knowledge. The story told was one of an ancient society much like how historians describe Atlantis – culturally superior, and highly intelligent.
My job was to transcribe the runes, taking rubbings so Wasser and the resident archeologist Dr. Khouri could translate. I was also tasked with copying the painted runes accurately. I knew enough hieroglyphics to keep a running narrative in my head as I continued the tedious, but necessary grunt work. In translating the runes, along with the detailed engravings depicting events and people, an unbelievable the story was unfolding.
Odd animal-human hybrids weren’t unusual, many ancient gods where shown with both characteristics. Misshapen oblong human heads, regalia that bore a strange resemblance to modern spacesuits, references to fire and lights in the sky could easily be attributed to a society that didn’t have an explicit enough vocabulary to accurately describe these events and creatures. By all indications, these murals showed a peaceful coexistence with other tribes, up to a point.
Still, I wanted to discuss my translations with Wasser and Khouri. I asked them if we could meet at the site to look over my work.
Spreading out my rubbings, I pointed to several series of runes, making my case. I showed them where the engraved runes ended abruptly, many unfinished, and the more hastily painted ones began.
“It’s as if these people knew their time was dear and engraving the runes would take too much time. They wanted to get these events recorded quickly, so reverted to paintings.”
Wasser and Khouri poured over the pages of parchment, debating my interpretations, arguing over historical events and what those could mean in deciphering these records. Occasionally they would question me over how I translated certain rune clusters, dismissing some due to my inexperience, mulling over others as they made their own speculations.
Turning over the final page, I revealed copies of last runes. I explained that these were painted bolder and darker than the others, implying that these were important, and more effort was made to make sure these survived the passage of time.
As I voiced what I believed these marks meant, I could see from their expressions, Wasser and Khouri agreed.
‘We have no record of this tribe because they were utterly destroyed,” I said, tapping each rune separately. “We know ancient Egyptians had names for planets, separate from the names they called their deities. They tell us right here what happened. You see it too.”
Wasser removed his glasses, the first time I’ve ever seen him without them. Wiping his brow, first looking to Khouri who nodded his assent, then to me.
“Her Descher, the Red One… ” he whispered, “Mars attacks…”
*edit: through the little bit of research I did for this piece, I found several sources that indicated the ancient Egyptian name for Mars, the planet, was ‘Her Descher,’ which translated to ‘The Red One.’
My challenge went out to Princess Dar-Dar at Thoughts on a Mission: a Churchill quote, “I’m ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
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