Friday, August 13, 2010


A section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead written on papyrus showing the Weighing of the Heart in Duat where Anubis can be seen on the far right, the scales are shown with the feather balance, and Ammit awaits hearts that she must devour - the presence of Osiris at the gateway to the paradise of Aaru dates the papyrus to a late tradition of the myth.

The ancient Egyptians thought of the world as consisting of three parts. The flat Earth, situated in the middle, was divided by the Nile and surrounded by a great ocean; above the Earth, where the atmosphere ended, the sky was held in its position by four supports, sometimes represented by poles or mountains. Beneath the Earth was the underworld, called Duat. This dark region contained all things which were absent from the visible world, whether deceased people, stars extinguished at dawn, or the Sun after having sunk below the horizon. During the night, the Sun was thought to travel through the underground region, to reappear in the east next morning.

Although the universe of the Egyptians was static and essentially timeless, apparently they imagined that the world had not always existed in the form in which they knew it. Theirs was a created world, the creation being described in cosmogonies, of which there existed at least three different versions. Common to them is that they start with a state of primeval waters, a boundless, dark, and infinite mass of water which had existed since the beginning of time and which would continue to exist in all of the future. Although the gods, the Earth, and its myriads of inhabitants were all products of the primeval waters, these waters were still around, enveloping the world on every side, above the sky, and beneath the underworld.

To the Egyptians, the universe and all its components were living entities, some of them represented as persons. The original watery state of chaos was personified as the god Nun, who, in one of the cosmogonies associated with Heliopolis (‘the city of the sun’), gave rise to Atum; according to other versions, Atum emerged out of the primeval waters, as a hill or standing upon a hill. Atum was the true creator-god, and he created out of himself—by masturbation, according to one source—two new gods, one personified as Shu, god of the air, and the other as Tefenet, goddess of rain and moisture. A passage from the Book of the Dead expresses the first creation as follows: ‘I am Atum when I was alone in Nun; I am Re in his [first] appearances when he began to rule that which he had made,. . .[meaning that] Re began to appear as a king, as one who existed before Shu had lifted [heaven from Earth], when he [Re] was on the primeval hillock which was in Hermopolis.’The Earth and the sky came next, represented by the deities Geb and Nut, respectively. However, the Earth and the sky had not yet been created as separate parts, for initially they were locked closely together in a unity. It was only when Shu raised the body of Nut high above himself that the heavens came into existence; at the same time Geb became free and formed the Earth. The creation story continues with the emergence of a variety of new gods, but what has been said is enough to give an impression of the nature of the Egyptian cosmo-myths.

Another text, dating from the old kingdom in Memphis (about 2700–2200 BC), likewise includes Nun as the original god of the waters, but it differs from the other cosmogonies by speaking of an even more original god or spirit, Ptah, who is described more abstractly as a cosmic eternal mind, the maker of everything. Ptah was the one god, a cosmic intelligence and creator who was responsible for all order in the universe, physical as well as moral. Atum and the other gods were said to emerge from Ptah, or be contained in him, Atum being the heart and tongue of Ptah. According to the text, ‘Creation took place through the heart and tongue as an image of Atum. But greatest is Ptah, who supplied all gods and their faculties with [life] through his heart and tongue—the heart and tongue through which Horus and Thoth took origin as Ptah.’

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ahhotep I

Ahhotep I was such an important figure in the early New Kingdom that she is considered to have been a pivotal figure in the founding of the eighteenth dynasty. She had a long and influential life and ruled as regent after the death of her father. She enabled her two sons (Kamose and Ahmose I) to unite Egypt after the Hyskos occupation. She was instrumental in driving the Hyskos invaders out of Egypt. She lived until the age of ninety and was buried beside Kamose at Thebes.
She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.
Weapons and jewelry found in the tomb of Ahhotep I include an axe depicting Ahmose I striking down a Hyskos soldier, and flies in honor for the queen in her role against the Hyskos. She was considered a warrior Queen and was presented with the Order of Valor. She was honored with a stela, commissioned by Ahmose I in the temple of Amun-Re that praises her military accomplishments.

Rome and Egypt

One of the most powerful of the ancient states, Rome emerged from a small, rural community in Italy to conquer most of the Mediterranean world and to bring to an end the long pharaonic history of Egypt in 30 B.C.E.

The first significant involvement of Rome in the affairs of Egypt occurred in 170 B.C.E. when the strife between Egypt and Syria (under King ANTIOCHUS IV) ended with both sides appealing to the Romans to decide who should be the rightful claimant to the throne. The two candidates were PTOLEMY VIII EUERGETES II (the favorite of the Egyptians) and PTOLEMY VI PHILOMETOR (the nephew and favorite of Antiochus IV). The Roman Senate decided to split the rule of the country, so that Philometor reigned in MEMPHIS and Euergetes controlled ALEXANDRIA. This state of affairs proved unsatisfactory to the Egyptians, who wasted no time upon Antiochus’s departure back to Syria to rise up against Philometor. Antiochus responded by marching on Egypt with an army. The Egyptians appealed once more to Rome.

The Roman Senate dispatched a three-man commission to Egypt, and in 168 there occurred the famous encounter between Antiochus IV and Papillius Laenas at Eleusis just outside of Alexandria. Laenas gave Antiochus the terms of the Senate: the Syrians must depart Egypt or there would be war. Laenas then used a stick to draw a circle in the sand around Antiochus’s feet and demanded an answer before he set foot out of the ring. The Syrian agreed to the Senate’s demands, and Ptolemy VI was installed as ruler of all Egypt; Ptolemy VIII was made king of Cyrenaica.

Rome now stood as the supreme arbiter of Egyptian affairs. Thus, when PTOLEMY XII NEOS DIONYSIUS was driven from Egypt in 58 B.C.E. he fled to Rome. After paying extensive bribes and cultivating the political favor of Julius CAESAR, Ptolemy XII returned to Egypt and was reinstated with the assistance of three Roman legions. The remainder of his reign was as a virtual client of Rome, and Ptolemy left provision in his will for the Romans to have oversight over the transition of power to his children, CLEOPATRA VII and PTOLEMY XIII.

The bitter political struggle between Cleopatra and her brother went largely unnoticed by the Romans owing to their own civil war. In 48 B.C.E., however, following the defeat of POMPEY the Great by Julius Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt and what he hoped would be the sanctuary of the court of Ptolemy. The Roman general was immediately assassinated by a cabal of Egyptian courtiers, and his head was given as a gift to Caesar upon the dictator’s arrival in Alexandria.

Caesar decided the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra in favor of the queen, and Ptolemy died in the fighting that followed. In a famous romance, Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers and produced PTOLEMY XV CAESARION. Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.E., Cleopatra established a relationship with Marc ANTONY. Their political and personal alliance culminated in the war with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (the future AUGUSTUS) and the battle of ACTIUM in 31 B.C.E. The defeat of the Egyptian fleet and army opened the door for the Roman conquest of Egypt. Cleopatra committed suicide in famed fashion by stinging herself with an asp, and Marc Antony died on his own sword. Octavian, the future Augustus, entered Alexandria on August 1, 30 B.C.E. Henceforth, until the Arab conquest in 641 C.E., Egypt remained a territory of the Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Exodus

Was Ramses the Great pharaoh of the Exodus? The biblical Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is generally thought to date from the reign of Ramses II, though no such episode appears in Egyptian records or is linked to the expulsion of the Hyksos by Ahmose.

The Exodus was the great deliverance extended to the Israelites “ . . . on the very day the Lord brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts,” Exodus 12:51.

“There is no surviving Egyptian source that described the Exodus. This is not surprising,” commented Nicolas Grimal, “given that the Egyptians had no reason to attach any importance to the Hebrews.”

Documents place the people known as Apiru in Egyptian records at the time of Tuthmose III. During Ramses’ reign, the Apiru were employed in the transportation of stone listed in Leiden Papyrus 348; they were further mentioned in Papyrus Harris I. As brick makers they were mentioned in the neighborhood of the royal harem at Medinet el-­ Ghurob in the Fayum. In the reign of Ramses IV, about 800 worked in the quarries of Wadi Hammamat.

“One document that could provide evidence of a newly formed kingdom of Israel is a stele, dated to the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign,” as told in New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. “Here the name Israel appears (KRI IV, 12–19). There are two further historical records: the journey of the Chosen People in the desert, which lasted forty years, and the capture of Jericho, which occurred after the death of Moses. The fall of Jericho sets the day of 1250 b.c. So the Exodus may have taken place in the early part of the thirteenth century b.c.”

Various scholars have placed Moses in close relationship with Pharaoh Ramses II and as the son of Queen Hatshepsut, who later assumed the Egyptian throne. Moses received his Egyptian education (Acts 7:22) to represent his community in the government. His education at the court (Exodus 2:10– 11) may be interpreted as he benefited from the education provided to future Egyptian state employees. Thus, he would have been with his own people during the reign of Sethos I, the time fortifications were built in the eastern delta and foundations were built for the future city of Piramses (Exodus 1:11). “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-­ cities, Pithom and Raam’ses.”

“It is often speculated that Jewish captives worked on the construction of Piramses,” wrote Bernadette Menu. Was this biblical spelling meant to be Piramses? Moses’s murder of the guard, his flight to the land of Midian, his marriage, his acceptance of God’s revelation, the encounter with the Burning Bush, and his return to Egypt take the dates to the first years of Ramses II’s reign. The book of Exodus has lengthy descriptive dialogue between Moses and a pharaoh. If one is to set aside the Old Testament’s chronological dates, the Exodus could be placed around 1290 b.c. rather than 1441 b.c. This would suggest the pharaoh of the Exodus was Ramses II.

Unresolved Affairs

Although Ramses II was educated by the best tutors and had experienced battles by his father’s side, the priests still doubted his ability to rule Egypt. The young pharaoh had a number of plans in mind, including extensive construction goals that ultimately yielded glorious temples and stone reliefs dedicated to his reign (above).

Ramses took on the old and unsolved problems of the monarchy. Whether or not he had been pleased with his father’s mutual nonaggressive pact with the Hittites is uncertain. What is known is that Ramses had grown restless and now wanted to conquer the intruders so that he could gain back all the Egyptian territories lost by previous pharaohs. To fund these campaigns and build and equip an army he needed gold. There were rich deposits in the eastern deserts around Nubia, but to mine the ore water was essential, and every past king had tried and failed. In the third year of his reign, Ramses formed a plan and summoned his court to discuss how to bring up a well.

“Now, one of these days . . . His Majesty was sitting on the electrum throne, wearing the head fillet and tall plumes . . . thinking about the desert lands where gold could be found, and meditating on plans for digging wells . . . Ramses’ wishes were like magic. The court responded, ‘You are like Re in all that you have done whatever your heart desires comes to pass. If you desire something overnight comes the dawn and it happen[s] immediately!’” according to Kenneth A. Kitchen.

Satisfied with this response, Ramses sent a survey to the Nubians. He commanded a well to appear on the route to Akuyati. As if Hapi had been waiting for Ramses’ appeal, the god of the Nile responded. Overnight, water gushed forth at 12 cubits, a little more than 20 feet (6 meters) below ground. Not at all mystified by Ramses’ close relationship, nor surprised by Hapi’s immediate help, they were nevertheless elated. In honor of the new artesian well, Wadi Allaki, the court named it “the well, Ramses II is valiant of deeds.”

In the fourth year of his reign, Ramses and his Egyptian army of charioteers, infantry of swords and shield bearers, and Sea People in his captivity, set sail for Syria. They journeyed northward along the Phoenician coast. Canaan (Palestine and Phoenicia), Amurru, and Syria formed a vast bubble zone between the warring empires. When they reached Tyra, they advanced overland and eastward to attack Amurru (site of modern-day Lebanon) in the vicinity of Qadesh. Surprised by the unexpected Egyptian assault, Hittite ally and overlord Prince Benteshina was unable to defend Amurru. To prevent any further loss of territory, he surrendered the city. Benteshina became a tribute-paying vassal of Egypt. Confident with his effortless conquest, many prisoners, and much Hittite booty, Ramses planned to conquer the Hittites at Qadesh the following year. Upon their return to Piramses, the victorious battle was carved on the walls of the major temples.

Ancient People

Ancient Egyptians considered Re to be the father of all the gods. Often represented in lion, cat, or falcon form, it is said that Re-created mankind from his own tears. Re (above) is depicted as a cat fighting his enemy snake god Apophis, the god of darkness.

Ancient Egyptians are believed to have belonged to the eastern branch of a people known as the Hamites. They were said to be descendants of Ham, the youngest of the biblical Noah’s three sons, the original speakers of the Hamitic language. The Fellahin (farmers in Arab countries) have been described as the true Egyptians and the oldest people of civilization. They lived in small villages along the riverbanks. Their houses were made of bundles of reeds coated with chopped straw and silt from the ditches. Palm fronds covered the roofs and provided protection from the extreme elements. With crudely made hoes, hand axes, and sickles, they farmed the rich topsoil and raised barley, corn, onions, a coarse grain called cyllestis, and flax for meal and fabric. They kept goats, sheep, and water buffaloes; made bread in clay ovens or open fires; and ate dried fish and wild fowl. Mulberries, gathered from the marshes, were used for lamp oil. When men ventured into the Nile to fish, they sailed in lightweight river skiffs made from papyrus. Ancient tomb art depicts a single man, standing at the bow, holding a long pole to fend off the river’s inevitable crocodile or rhinoceros.

“Food, bread, beer, and all good things,” is a phrase found engraved on a funerary stele and used by the host to inform his guests. The stele provided historians with an ancient menu. Greek historian Herodotus took it a step further and wrote, “They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They made their beverage from barley, for they had no vines in their country, ate fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine.” Foods were served in pottery bowls painted with ducks and deer and on exquisite alabaster dishes.

The bedouins were the wanderers, sometimes called nomads, who traditionally dwelled in the Western and Sinai deserts. They lived in tribes and moved herds of camels and flocks of sheep from oasis to oasis to find suitable pastures. They ate lamb and rice, and their camels supplied a source of milk. From camel hair they made tents, carpets, and their clothes. The head of the tribe was called a sheik. Although bedouins led a primitive and largely isolated life, the women could engage in business and choose their husbands. In ancient times, they were often predaceous and known to plunder from raids on other settlements, passing caravans, and one another.

Nubian people came from northern Sudan and lived along the Nile Valley near Aswan. Like the Fellahin, they made their homes from river mud and straw reeds. Their livelihood came from the dense thickets of date palms that grew along the river’s edge. The palms furnished them with food and materials for timber and making rope. Nubians were also invaders who attempted to control Egypt. In turn, there were long periods during which Egyptian pharaohs, such as Ramses II, controlled and collected taxes from the Nubians. In armed conflict, the Nubians were highly skilled archers and fearless warriors who fought bitter battles against the imposing armies. Taken as prisoners, they were forced into slave labor in the brickfields or had to drag endless tons of stone for Ramses’ great pylon gateway.

During the Middle Kingdom, Semitic-speaking people made their homes in Egypt. They worked as servants or members of Egyptian households, adapting to certain ways of their new masters. Pharaohs had strict control of immigrants and people who were already residents. Many came as prisoners of war: Canaanites, Amorites, and Hurrians. Others became slaves on the vast temple grounds. It they were fortunate, they might work in government departments. The hungry or homeless immigrants came as compulsory slaves.

The Apiru were thought of as displaced, rootless people who easily mixed with others mentioned in the Bible. These people were probably Hebrews or clan groups from Israel. Their forefathers, Jacob and Joseph, had come to Egypt to escape the famine. According to Exodus 1:13–14, “So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor, and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and all kinds of work in the field.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Sun-god creator in the form of a scarab beetle.

The image of the scarab is almost synonymous with Ancient Egypt. The choice of an insect to convey one of the forms of the sun-god illustrates the keen eye of the Egyptian in observing nature and his imagination in trying to understand the universe. Khepri is the sun-god at dawn on the eastern horizon. His iconography is that of the scarab beetle (of which there are numerous varieties in Egypt) pushing the disk of the sun upwards from the Underworld to journey across the sky. In their own local environment the Egyptians would have noticed the scarabs busily rolling balls of dirt across the ground and translated this method of propulsion into an explanation of the sun’s circuit. However, the analogy did not stop there. Observing that out of the ball emerged a scarab, apparently spontaneously, it was logical to see the insect as Khepri – ‘he who is coming into being’, i.e. self-created of his own accord without undergoing the natural cycle of reproduction. The creator sun-god was therefore aptly manifest in the ‘scarabaeus sacer’ or dung beetle.

Inscriptional evidence for Khepri occurs in the pyramids of the Old Kingdom: a wish is expressed for the sun to come into being in its name of Khepri. The priesthood of the sun-god combined his different forms to assert that ATUMKhepri arises on the primeval mound in the mansion of the BENU in Heliopolis. Referring to the myth of the sun-god’s journey through the hours of night, Khepri is said to raise his beauty into the body of NUT the sky-goddess. From noticing the somewhat slimy consistency of the scarab beetle’s dirt-ball, the earth is made from the spittle coming from Khepri.

From about the Middle Kingdom representations of Khepri, as the ovoid scarab, regularly occur in three-dimensional form carved as the amuletic backing of seals. These scarabs, by implication, connect the wearer with the sun-god. The underside could be incised, not just with the titles and name of an official, but also with good-luck designs, deities and the names of royalty used for their protective power. Kings would use the undersides of large scarabs to commemorate specific events – Amenhotep III (Dynasty XVIII) has left a number of these news bulletins which inter alia give information on his prowess at lion hunting and celebrate the arrival of a Syrian princess into his harem. The scarab could form the bezel of a ring or be part of a necklace or bracelet – the tomb of Tutankhamun has provided us with splendid examples of scarabs made of semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli set in gold. One of the young king’s pectorals in particular stresses the dominance of Khepri the sun-god as well as being a masterpiece of the jeweller’s craft: in the centre of the design is a scarab carved from chalcedony combined with the wings and talons of the solar hawk, representing Khepri who, as controller of celestial motion, is shown here pushing the boat of the moon-eye.

Paintings in funerary papyri show Khepri on a boat being lifted up by the god NUN, the primeval watery chaos. In some depictions Khepri coalesces with other conceptions of the sun-god to present the appearance of a ram-headed beetle. On a wall of the interior chamber in the tomb of Petosiris (fourth century BC) at Tuna el-Gebel, Khepri was carved quite naturalistically in low relief, painted lapis lazuli blue, wearing the ‘atef’ crown of OSIRIS. Less frequently Khepri could be shown as an anthropomorphic god to the shoulders with a full scarab beetle for a head. Bizarre as it might seem, the Egyptian artist has left some magnificent depictions of Khepri in this form – e.g. in the tomb of Nefertari (Dynasty XIX) in the Valley of the Queens.

Although relatively few examples are extant in museums or in Egypt, it seems likely that the major temples each possessed a colossal hard-stone statue of Khepri. Raised on a plinth, the scarab symbolised architecturally the concept that the temple was the site where the sun-god first emerged to begin the creation of the cosmos.

Self-Identification with Deity and Voces Magicae in Ancient Egyptian and Greek Magic

By Laurel Holmstrom

Occultists and esotericists , such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn [1], have theorized that ancient Egyptian magic is a primary source for western magic practice and ideas. Since we know that the Hermetica and Neo-platonic theurgy have had a profound influence on later European magical traditions [2], an inquiry into possible relationships between Egyptian and Greek magical ideas would be useful in exploring the veracity of the occultists’ claim. This paper focuses on one set of ancient texts, the Greek Magical Papyri, which offer considerable potential for investigating this relationship.

The PGM (Papryi Graecae Magicae) [3] is the name given to a cache of papryi of magical spells collected by Jean d’Anastaisi in early 1800’s Egypt. Hans Deiter Betz, in his introduction to the newest English translation, speculates that these papyri may have been found in a tomb or temple library and the largest papyri may have been the collection of one man in Thebes.[4 ]However, the exact provenance for the PGM is unknown. Betz states that through literary sources it is known that quite a number of magical books of spells were collected in ancient times, most of which were destroyed.[5] Thus, the PGM are a very important source for first-hand information about magical practices in the ancient Mediterranean.

The PGM spells run the gamut of magical practices from initiatory rites for immortality to love spells and healing rites. Most of the papyri are in Greek and Demotic with glosses in Old Coptic and are dated between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. The spells call upon Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Gnostic and Christian deities.  Two of the most intriguing aspects of these texts are the practice of self-identification with deity and the use of voces magicae in performing magical rituals. In many of the spells, the practitioner is told to use “I am” with a specific deity name to empower or work the spell. PGM I 247-62, a spell for invisibility, states ‘I am Anubis, I am Osirphre, I am OSOT SORONOUIIER, I am Osiris whom Seth destroyed. .”[6] The use of specific magical language in these texts, the voces magicae, is abundant. Most of these words are considered “untranslatable” by the scholars working with the papyri [7].  Words of power in the incantations are composed of long strings of vowels, A EE EEE IIII OOOOO, YYYYYY, OOOOOOO, alone or with special names of deities or daimons which are often palindromes and significantly lengthy as in IAEOBAPHRENEMOUNOTHILARIKRIPHIAEYEAIPIRKIRALITHONUOMENE RPHABOEAI. [8] The exact pronunciation of these voces magicae was key to the success of the spells.

Since Egyptian funerary texts clearly identify the deceased with deity and the power of words and language is a predominant feature of Egyptian magic, these notions found in the PGM appeared to provide a possible link between ancient Egyptian and Greek magic.

Throughout the funerary literature of ancient Egypt, from the Pyramid Texts to the Book of the Dead, there is abundant evidence that ancient Egyptians thought that human beings could become deities. Deities were seen as possessing heku, magic, an aspect of the original creative power that formed the cosmos. [9] Thus, magic was perceived to be an intrinsic part of reality and the divine. [10] The Coffin Texts provide a guide book for the deceased to help her or him retain what magic they already possess and to gain more. Naming is extremely important in this experience and it is the ability to name all the gods and objects encountered that proves one has acquired enough magic to sit with the gods. [11] In these texts, the deceased is clearly identified with the god Osiris. By using historaloe the deceased will successfully navigate the journey to the afterlife as did Osiris. The use of historaloe in magical practice was common, particularly in healing rites. [12] By knowing the names of all encountered in the afterlife and establishing a link with a deity that had already been successful in this realm, the deceased was well prepared for the journey.

In the Pyramid texts, the initial Utterances appear to be a script directing the different Egyptian deities to recite specific formulas on the deceased king’s behalf. Utterance 1 begins “recitation by Nut, the greatly beneficent”, utterance 2, “recitation by Geb” and so forth. [13] Evidence that these utterances were spoken during funeral rites are the notes after the recitations which give directions saying, for example, “pour water”(ut 23) and “cold water and 2 pellets of natron”( ut 32). The priests and priestesses are taking the role of the deities in preparing the deceased to join the gods in the afterlife as well as the deceased being identified with Osiris. Self-identification with deity is an “authentically Egyptian trait”. [14]

Language, and particularly naming, carries substantial magical power in Egyptian thought. The goddess Isis, once she learns Ra’s true name, is then able to cure him of snake bite. [15] One of the oldest cosmologies of the Egyptians from Memphis (approx. 2700 BC) describes the god Ptah creating by his mind (heart) and word (tongue) [16]. Thus, words contain a primal substance and the act of speaking mirrors original creation. Speaking creates reality. Writing was given to humans by the god Thoth and the Egyptians called their langauge “words of the gods” and hieroglyphs “writing of the sacred words.” [17]

The Pyramid Texts, Coffin Text and the Book of the Dead all exhibit the Egyptian belief in the power of language to affect the world. Words, spoken or written were not just symbols, but realities in themselves. [18] Hieroglyphs held particular resonance with magical power and most of the funerary texts were written in hieroglyphs. The Egyptians clearly believed that humans have energetic doubles in the world beyond the physical and it seems reasonable to suspect that the hieroglyphs were thought to have a similar existence since they were written on the inside of the pyramid tombs or coffins or on scrolls placed inside the coffins for the deceased to use. Further evidence of the reality of the images themselves comes from the practice of cutting particular hieroglyphs in half to diminish their potential effect. [19]

Vowel chanting is also found in Egyptian religious practice as reported by Demetrius in his Roman treatise, De Eloutione:
“in Egypt the priests, when singing hymns in praise of the gods, employ the 7 vowels which they utter in due succession and the sound of these letters is so euphonious that men listen to it in place of the flute and lyre” [20] The distinction between religion and magic in scholarly discourse breaks down in the context of Egyptian religion and it is reasonable to suspect that vowel chanting could be used for more than hymns of praise by Egyptian priests.

Thus, self-identification with deity and use of a specific kind of magical language found in the PGM places Egyptian magical notions within a Greek magical context. The question then becomes, can evidence be found that Greek magic, prior to the PGM, included these practices and do they appear in later Greek magical material that we know to have influenced the European tradition.

Betz states in the Encyclopedia of Religion that “magic was an essential part of Greco-Roman culture and religion.” [21] In classical Greece, Egypt and Thessaly were considered prime sources of magical knowledge, but by 323 BC magical material in Greece had increased considerably. Betz further states that it was “Hellenistic syncretism that produced the abundance of material available today.” [22] Greek magical practitioners distinguished different types of magic; goeteia - lower magic, mageia - general magic and theourgia - higher magic. Theourgia, appears to be the most likely place to find self-identification with deity and the use of voces magicae Self-identification with deity in magical acts as part of ancient Greek magical practice prior to the PGM is not evident. The Greeks speculated that humans and gods “had the same mother”, but a huge gap existed between them. From ancient times to the latest date of the PGM, Greek notions about the relationship between human existence and divine existence took a variety of forms [23,] but never followed the Egyptian pattern of the possibility of declarative divine identity. The ancient Greeks believed that communion with the gods was possible as in the Eleusian and Dionysian mysteries [24] and Empedocles declared he had the knowledge to make himself immortal. [25] But, the Greek idea of a divine spark within the human soul which can be activated, contemplated and re-united with the gods still assumes an other-ness of deity and validates the fundamental separateness of human existence from the divine.  For the Egyptians, the divine appears to be immanent in the world. The world of humans and gods were not seen as being decidedly different. Human activity continued after death and Gods, embodied as the Pharoah, lived in human society. Magical practice was merely clarifying what already exists. For the Greeks, magic was a conduit for communication and communion with deity or a process whereby the soul could be purified through direct contact with the Divine. Egyptians had only to affirm a state of being through speech to create the sought reality. “Repeated commands or assertions that a desired state of affairs was already in being, are a common feature of Egyptian spells.” [26]

However, there are references to the voces magicae in ancient Greek material aside from the PGM. Early, are the Ephesia grammata, ( ASKION, KATASKION, LIX, TETRAX, DAMNAMENEUS, AISIA ) mystic letters that were supposedly inscribed on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus used verbally and written to avert evil. A lead tablet inscribed with the Ephesia grammata dates to the 4th c BC and they were said to be used spoken as an apotropiac charm while walking in a circle around newlyweds.  [27 ]

Peter Kingsley, writing of Empedocles’ magical worldview, states “there is nothing that is not vibrantly and knowingly alive. For him [Empedocles] - everything - even the words spoken by a man of understanding has an existence, intelligence and consciousness of its own.” [28] This notion appears close to the Egyptian ideas that words are not symbols, but realities.

Orpheus healed human pathos with poems and the lyre, while Pythagoras could chant his disciples to sleep and heal body and soul through musical words. [29] Fox argues that the PGM are carrying forward this “shamantic” tradition of magical musical charms. For the actual author(s) of the PGM, the notion of the magical potency of language could have been very strong indeed coming out of both the Egyptian and Greek magical traditions.

The use of voces magicae continues into later Coptic texts. For a spell invoking a “thundering power to perform every wish” the practitioner should say: “I invoke you. .  .who is addressed with the great secret name HAMOUZETH BETH ATHANABASSETONI .” [30] Vowel incantations are also found in these Coptic texts in figures typical of the PGM: [31]
Voces magicae are also referred to in the Chaldean Oracles which are contemporary with the PGM and they appear to be an intrinsic part of the theurgist’s ritual. What is intriguing, for this study, about the Chaldean Oracles, is the relationship between the voces magicae and the process of immortalization of the soul, which is the goal of theurgy. These texts provide the closest approximation to self-identification with deity in a non-Egyptian context. According to the Chaldeans, the soul, in its descent to the body gathers impure substances. Through theurgistic rites, the soul can re-ascend, encounter the Divine and be purified of these impure substances and attain immortality.  The voces magicae invoke the assistant spirits that will help the soul to ascend without fear of being dragged down into Hades. [32] However, even though immortalization is the goal, self-identification with deity is not declared and only the soul can attain such a state.

The idea that the Egyptian language specifically held magical power is seen in the writings of people of the time. In the Hermetica (CH xvi) there is a passage which states that Greeks will not understand the Hermetica when translated into their language as Greek does not contain the power of Egyptian. [33] The Chaldean Oracles state “do not ever alter the foreign names (of the gods)”. Lewy elaborates further, “It is impossible to translate the magical formula, because its power it not due to its external sense.” [34] Iamblichus, describing the difficulty of translating the Hermetica from Egyptian to Greek says “. . .for the very quality of the sounds and the [intonation] of the Egyptian words contain in itself the force of things said.” [35] Invocation of deities by their secret names is also characteristic of Egyptian magic prior to the PGM according to Pinch, but unfortunately she does not give examples. [36]

Scholars have identified other potential sources beside Egyptian for specific voces magicae. The glossary in the Betz edition of the PGM speculates on a few of the voces magicae.  Jewish and Greek origins are offered as well as Egyptian for the eight names considered. Betz finds a intricate syncretism of Greek, Egyptian and Jewish elements in the texts. [37] To tease out the various strands and definitively locate the origin of specific voces magicae is yet to be done and will be difficult. What we may be seeing in the voces magicae is a general and wide-spread ancient Mediterranean magical practice. It could be that ABRACADABRA is a cousin to the voces magicae in the PGM.

Further questions to be asked regarding the voces magicae are: what were the potential avenues of magical communication between Egypt and Greece in the 4th century BCE where the earliest evidence of specific magical words is found in the Ephesia grammata? Is there evidence of specific voces magicae, other than vowel chanting, in Egyptian magical practice prior to the PGM? If the specific form comes from Greek notions, why are the voces magicae in the PGM glossed into Old Coptic in many spells where the main body of the text is in Greek?

In conclusion, the claim that the roots of European magic can be traced to Egyptian magic appears highly suspect in regard to the notions discussed. Egyptian ideas and practices of self-identification with deity do not seem to be compatible with Greek notions of the relationship between the human and divine worlds. Through the voces magicae there is evidence of a generalized magical tradition in the ancient Mediterranean from which the European tradition may draw, but not specifically from Egypt.

1. Flying Roll no. XVI “The History of the Rosicrucian Order” states “Know then, O
Aspirant, that the Order of the Rose and Cross hath existed from time immemorial and that its mystic rites were practised and its hidden knowledge communicated in the initiations of the various races of Antiquity. Egypt, Eleusis, Samothrace, Persia, Chaldea and India alike cherished these mysteries, and thus handed down to posterity the Secret Wisdom of the Ancient Ages. . .” Flying Rolls were semi-official internal documents of the Order of an instructional and theoretical nature. see King, Frances.  Ritual Magic of the Golden Dawn. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1987 & 1997, p.  105. See also Ramacharaka. The Kybalion: a study of the Hermetic philosophy of ancient Egypt and Greece. Chicago:”The Yogi Publication Society.
2. see "Occultism" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Elidae, ed.
3. I am using Betz, Hans Deiter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic spells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Papyri Graecae Magicae refers to the original title of the Preisendanz edition.
4. see Betz, Introduction to the PGM, p. xlii.
5. Ibid, p xli.
6. PGM I, 140, 195.
7. Betz, p. xliii.
8. Betz, p. 332
9. Pinch, p. 6.
10. In hieroglyphics, the word for magician uses the symbol for a god as the determinative. Personal communication with Dr. W. Poe, 11/24/97.
11. Brier, p. 125
12. Pinch, p. 23 and Kotansky, Roy. "Incantations and Prayers for Salvation on Inscribed Greek Amulets." in Faraone & Obbink, eds. Magika Hiera.
13. Faulkner, p.1, 4 and 6.
14. Fowden, p. 26.
15. Pinch p. 7.
16. Eliade, p. 89.
17. Personal communication with Dr. W. Poe, 11/24/97.
18. Barb, p. 155
19. Ibid
20. Fowden, p. 118.
21. see "MAGIC: Magic in Greco-Roman Antiquity" in The Encyclopedia of Religion.
22. Ibid.
23. see Corrigan, K. "Body and Soul in Ancient Religious Experience" in Armstrong, A.H. ed. Classical Mediterranean  Spirituality.
24. Willoughby
25. Kingsley, p. 233-38.
26. Pinch, P. 72. For another perspective on this problem, I asked subscribers to ARCANA, a listserv devoted to the scholarly study of the occult if they know of any examples of self-identification with deity in Western magical practice outside of theurgy. Aleister Crowley’s works and the writings of the Golden Dawn were mentioned several times. One writer specifically wrote: “In all their initiatiory rituals, the officers [of the Golden Dawn] took on the forms and powers of various Egyptian gods and directed that force at the initiate” (Benjamin Rowe, Oct 6, 1997 email correspondence, see also He also suggested that John Dee’s Enochian magic included self-identification with deity implicitly in it’s “Angelic Calls”.  The significance of Dee’s use of this particular magical practice is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is fascinating that the Golden Dawn associated Egyptian magical practice with divine self-identification. Exactly how this association was made is also not our topic, but it apparently did not come through the Greek magical tradition.
27. Kotansky, p. 111.
28. Kingsley, p. 230
29. see Fox, Patricia. "In Praise of Nonsense" in Armstrong, A.H. Classical Mediterranean Spirituality.
30. Meyer & Smith, p. 239.
31. Ibid, p. 234 and PGM I, 15-20.
32. Lewy, p. 227-257.
33. see Fowden, chapter 1.
34. Lewy, p. 240.
35. Fowden, p. 30.
36. Pinch, p. 23.
37. Betz, p. xliii

Works Cited
Armstrong, A.H., ed. Classical Mediterranean Spirituality: Egyptian, Greek and Roman. NY: Crossroads, 1980.
Barb. A.A. "Mystery, Myth and Magic" in Harris, J.R. The Legacy of Egypt, 2nd edition, London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Betz, H.D. The Greek Magical Papyri in translation including the Demotic spells. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1980.
Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas. vol. 1, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillian, 1987.
Faraone, Christopher and Obbink, Dirk, eds. Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Faulkner, R. O., trans. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. London: University of Oxford, 1969.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: a historical approach to the late pagan mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Lewy, Hans. Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy: mysticism, magic and platonism in the later Roman empire. Le Caire: Impremerie De L'institut Francais D'Archeologie Orientale, 1956.
Meyer, Marvin and Smith, Richard, eds. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic texts of ritual power. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Willoughby, Harold R. Pagan Regeneration: a study of mystery initiations in the Graeco-Roman world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929.
Other Works Consulted
Johnston, S.I. Hekate Soteria: a study of Hekate's role in the Chaldean Oracles and related literature. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
Majercik, Ruth. The Chaldean Oracles: text, translation and commentary. Leiden and New York: E.J. Brill, 1989.
Parrott, Douglas, ed. Nag Hammadi Codices 5:2-6 and 6 with papyrus Beronliensis 8502, 1 and 4. Leiden: Brill, 1979.
Shaw, G. Theurgy and the Soul: the neoplatonism of Iamblichus. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

The Life of An Egyptian Initiate

In ancient Egypt there were many degrees of Initiation and many Levels of Priesthoods. Some of the priests were born into families of Priests or Priestesses where it was assumed they would follow the path of the family bloodline. Secrets were told within the families about the mystery teachings and the Rites-Passages of Initiation. One could also become a Priest or Priestess after a long course of study, fasting, and ritual.
High Priests were initiated by Ra, himself, in the Great Pyramid when the Sun aligned with the capstone by exact degree.
These Priests would study for many years to achieve this level of spiritual accomplishment. They would forfeit all personal goals and belongings living a life of semi-solitude and worship of the Great Gods and Goddesses of Egypt. For the most part they were men, but there were High Priestesses.
At the time of the Initiation of the High Priests and Priestesses, a stillness would befall the land. Night would become day as the Sun would be seen directly over the capstone of the Great Pyramid of the Sun God Ra.
Once inside the Great Initiation Pyramid the illusions would begin.
The Initiates would enter a secret Chamber in the Pyramid where anything could happen. It was often a test of their endurance. They were to discern what was real and what was illusion. Not everyone passed the tests even after years of study.
Only the very few would witness the appearance of the Sun God, Ra, who would give them the sacred teachings of creation. When their course of study was complete Ra would give them special rods and powers. Next they would then be sent out to Teach, to heal, and to Initiate those who would follow them.
There were times when Ra would be accompanied by a Goddess, Isis or Hathor. It was not unusual to present gifts to the Gods and Goddesses who came to initiate the Priests and Priestesses.
A list was kept of those who passed the tests and became part of the Great White Brotherhood of the Thoth or Isis Mystery Schools.
The High Priests and Priestesses would Initiate others novices who one day hope to expire to greatness working with the Gods.
These novices spend forty days and nights in fasting, prayer and study of the Mysteries.
The fasting consisted of abstaining from all pleasures of the table, to eat no living thing, and to drink no wine.
Part of their study was the memorization of long lines of text given by the priests and magicians of our Inner Mystery School Circle and the reciting of certain magic formulae, declarations, incantations, spells, litanies and some funerary liturgy.
Also the curriculum included certain riddles and mind puzzles of an esoteric nature, bearing a resemblance in form, but not in content, to those commonly used these days as pass times in certain intellectual upper classes. 
At the Midwinter evening ten aspirants gathered by the altar between the paws of Hu [Sphinx's paws] waiting for their entrance into an antechamber located underneath the colossus' belly.
It was a fresh peaceful evening still reflecting on the pyramids the crimson afterglow of the sun Aton, "to Whom all creation worship".
The candidates, talked among themselves about their sacrifices and earnest preparation and fasting prior to the ceremony.
Some stepped at the Thothmes stele at the Sphinx's breast and read some of its lines.
The thrill in anticipation filling their hearts was perceived in their words as they recalled especially the last two weeks of work. As time passed, all quieted and sat absorbed in their own thoughts and expectations.
To some, the answering of the Sphinx's riddle, as a password to get admittance into the temple, seemed a little bit scary. "Could I actually answer it correctly?"
It was known that some students had failed to give the right answer and with embarrassment were asked to return home.
Even if successfully answering the riddle, it was still that fear of the imminent trials, knowing that some past initiates, not using right judgment, did not survive the experience.
They waited patiently between the paws, in silence, that same silence of secrecy of initiation that Hu [the Sphinx] symbolized.
As the initiates waited outside, a mantra was barely heard coming from inside.
The Thothmes stele slowly and mysteriously moved half way sideways as if supported by invisible hinges. An entryway with a cleverly hinged bronze door was revealed at which they saw a torchbearer standing.
He was carrying aloft a torch.
The boy looked about 18 years old and reflected a clear determined countenance.
His voice sounded so confident for a boy of his age. Actually he was a devout student of the Art and dedicated to practice it.
He asked the students this question: "Art thou, dwellers of the outer darkness where ignorance dwelleth, praying admittance into our sacred Temple to seek the Light of Initiation?"
The candidates nodded affirmatively responding: "Yes, we are".
Then he said, "The Path to initiation is treacherous and filled with trials and temptation.
Art thou willing to take it?” They again responded affirmatively.
Next he asked them to make a line and escorted the first in.
The interior passageway was dark as night and musty.
He stepped inside the passageway, closed the door and with a soft voice asked the prospective initiate the following question: "What is that animal which in the morning has four legs, two at noon, and three in the evening?"
 The postulant gazed at the floor as he tried to find an answer to this strange and puzzling riddle he had never heard before.
That description did not seemed to reflect the pattern of any living animal he has ever known.
After some time of thinking, he murmured an answer to the torchbearer who nodded in affirmation and guided the initiate into a small chamber.
Then he returns to bring the next initiate in.
 Seven students were able to answer the riddle: four men and three women. Seven! the number of the perfect man!
After the stone slab was slowly closed at the Sphinx's breast and also the bronze door, they walked down a spiral staircase into a soundless passage that led them to the antechamber where all gathered, murmuring among themselves the answer in excitement: "it was man!".
Underneath the Sphinx is located the Sphinx's Antechamber, annex to a colonnaded Circular Temple. Also, the Sphinx is connected to the Pyramids through subterranean passageways.
The tunnel passage from the Sphinx to the Temple of Aten [Great Pyramid] is commonly taken by the initiates during various ceremonies. Other hallways and rooms exist not to be mentioned here.
The Antechamber was illumined by six torches mounted on holders located five feet above the ground, three torches on the East wall and three on the West.
 The yellowish lights were mellow and flickering.
The initiates, sitting on chairs located against the walls, had just started a short period of meditation when the torchbearer came in and invited the women to follow him to an annex room furnished with four beds and a desk with papyrus scrolls.
The walls were decorated with Holy Scriptures and prayers.
The men were conducted to a separate and similar room.
Both groups were bade to rest and wait.
That night some students had unusual dreams of a prophetic nature anticipating the coming initiation.
The student that referred to me the story, described that... "at about midnight, I saw a floating glowing circle in the middle of the room, the circle slowly turned into a snake with a glittering back and a dark belly that had written a final letter on her tail and a first letter on her head.
Her head was constantly eating her tail without diminishing the size of her body. As I stared at the symbol, big Egyptian hieroglyphs were appearing on top of the symbolic snake stating:
'Every End is the Beginning of a New Cycle'.

The real Count Almasy

By Sandy Mitchell
I could usually produce a cup of tea within 10 minutes in the desert," says Brigadier Rupert Harding Newman, 94, dashing from his drawing room to switch on the kettle. He strides back - tea made in five minutes flat - with a cup on a gleaming salver inscribed with the words "British Military Mission, Egypt, 1939".

He is the only surviving member of the Zerzura Club - a small, legendary group of desert explorers and soldiers formed in North Africa before World War II. Members included men who went on to lead the Special Air Service and set up the Long Range Desert Group, as well as a tall, reserved Hungarian whom they suspected was a Nazi spy.

Count Laszlo Almasy was the most compelling of all in that mysterious time and place; it is his story that inspired Michael Ondaatje's romantic novel, and the subsequent film, The English Patient, which in turn prompted a debate about the true Almasy.

Was he really a German secret agent? Did he betray his best friend in the explorers' club by seducing his new wife? Did he pretend he was English when shot down in flames and captured, his face and body grotesquely charred?

"Almasy?" says Harding Newman, stiffening in his armchair at the mention of the name. "Bloody man," he splutters. He has been prompted to share his memories by the publication of a book, by Dr Saul Kelly, on the desert war, thick with new information drawn from British, German and Italian military intelligence files, and dedicated to "young Rupert". It reveals the count to have been a far more treacherous and exotic figure than fictional accounts have allowed, or the brigadier ever knew.

"At the beginning, what we were doing in the desert had no connection with any military purpose. That came later. It was just fun!"

In 1932, he was a young Royal Tank Corps officer, posted to Egypt. The invitation to join the first British desert expedition as a mechanic and cook offered an escape from routine duties. So he joined the tiny group of army officers, led by Major Ralph Bagnold, as they drove several thousand kilometres into the unexplored sea of sand stretching across southern Egypt and Libya.

The tribes on the desert's fringes could only report that the interior held evil djinns, or spirits, and a tiny scattering of freshwater springs, among them one they could give no help locating - the Wadi Zerzura or "Oasis of the Birds".

There were no maps. No one had flown over the desert. No portable radios were capable of transmitting a signal for help across this vast emptiness. If a man fell sick? "We had aspirin and Dettol," says the brigadier.
Even motorised expeditions could not carry enough water for a complete crossing unless they found oases. Explorers, like Harding Newman, heard the dry crack of bones beneath their truck tyres: bleached skeletons of all the slaves and camels who, for centuries, had perished from thirst. Temperatures hit 76 Celsius.

For all that, Harding Newman found the desert a seductive place. "You could feel the silence on your skin. There were no smells and no flies, which was remarkable in that part of the world." But the Wadi Zerzura oasis eluded them.

Halfway back to civilisation, they stopped at an outpost used by the British-led Sudanese Defence Force. "We were invited to dinner in the officers' mess. Almasy was there in a corner waiting. I drank a gin and tonic and shook his hand."

Harding Newman and his colleagues were wary. "We knew Almasy's reputation. We were always a band of brothers, either brother officers or friends. He had no friends, and was also reckless by our standards. It was our absolute golden rule never to go out alone in case you broke down. Almasy drove hundreds of miles across the desert by himself. And he never carried a mirror." In the crystalline air, a mirror could be used to flash emergency signals to an aeroplane 80 kilometres away.

When Bagnold and his party finally reached a cafe in a decrepit oasis village, on a whim they founded the Zerzura Club. It had just one rule: members must have taken part in the hunt for the lost oasis. Almasy automatically qualified.

It became an annual tradition for members within reach of London to gather at the Royal Geographical Society, where they would swap tales of their discoveries, and later dine at the Cafe Royal.

At the time of the 1936 dinner, Almasy was still in Egypt, so Bagnold read a paper the count had written for the occasion. The Hungarian - it seemed - had discovered Wadi Zerzura in the very heart of the desert, and thus beaten some of the most determined officers in the British Army to the great prize. They congratulated him.

Within three years, those same gentlemen in dinner jackets had become covert soldiers, and their Cafe Royal gossip about desert routes was suddenly classified as critical military intelligence. Only 1600 kilometres of sand and rock separated Italian-held Libya from the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire. Anyone who could find a way through the dunes, a route from oasis to oasis, could perhaps lead an army across the desert.

Harding Newman was in charge of coordinating behind-the-lines raids by the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group (which had been founded by Bagnold). And Almasy?

"I never heard a thing about him during the war," says the brigadier - hardly surprising, given the clandestine world the count had joined.

The new history of the desert war uncovers the full story. When the Hungarian arrived in North Africa in 1926 he was 31 and penniless, a bitter survivor of World War I in which he had served with the defeated Austro-Hungarian air force.

In North Africa, the count's only asset was a connection with some wealthy Egyptian princelings whom he had met on shooting parties in Hungary. They were keen to enjoy some hunting and adventure in the desert to the south of their country, and turned to the veteran pilot for help. Silent film of Almasy's first venture into the desert shows a giraffe-like man with a slight stoop and a very long nose. He is no screen idol. As he pitches camp wearing baggy shorts he looks about as dangerous as a boy scout who has lost his penknife.

But even then, Almasy was passing his hand-drawn maps to grateful officers of Mussolini's army in Libya. By 1940, he was fully involved with the Abwehr - German military intelligence - and proposed a plan directly to its chief in Berlin to provoke an uprising in British-occupied Egypt, led by a local pasha who was one of his pre-war contacts. The plan came to nothing when the pasha crashed his plane into a palm tree as he headed to Germany for his briefing.

By the summer of 1942, Rommel's Afrika Korps was pushing to within hours of Cairo, and the count seized his chance to impress with his boldest plan yet. He would motor with a small convoy 3370 kilometres across the great desert from Libya, entirely through enemy territory, using his own sketch maps. When he reached the Nile he would drop off two agents, then head back the same way. He achieved this stupendous feat of endurance, and Rommel personally promoted him to the rank of major.

Almasy survived the desert campaigns and continued to work for the Abwehr in Turkey, until he sensed he was again on the losing side of a world war. This time he fed his secrets to the British. Even so, when the war ended, he was sent by the Allies to Hungary and imprisoned in a Russian camp. He escaped with the help of friends in the Egyptian royal family, and was bundled into an aeroplane bound for Cairo.

In real life, the "English patient" was never shot down, burnt or captured in the desert.

What of the other escapades attributed to him? In the film, Almasy seduces his friend's young wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). "Such absolute rot. I couldn't watch it," snaps Harding Newman. Apparently, the count's sexual adventures were common gossip in Cairo, and they were not of a kind to threaten anyone's wife. He was homosexual.

And his discovery of the Wadi Zerzura? "It was just a fantasy. There never was an Oasis of the Birds," says the brigadier, and quotes from a book written by Bagnold after the war: "I like to think of Zerzura as an idea for which we have no apt word in English, meaning something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place. As long as any part of the world remains uninhabited, Zerzura will be there."

Almasy died in 1951, of dysentery in a Salzburg sanatorium. He was 54. His tombstone in the local cemetery was inscribed in Arabic, "The Father of the Sands", a title coined before the war by an old camel-rustler. He was given a less grandiose epitaph by a British member of the Zerzura Club: "A Nazi but a sportsman."
"I suppose whatever one thought of him," says the brigadier, "he was the most extraordinary man."

The Hunt for Zerzura by Saul Kelly is published by John Murray.