Island of Lesbos, Greece, July 18, 2017
Today I saw my Queen, Tiye,
walking down the street. She wore
a lacy-fresh white top, and
a pair of grey-black jeans. Her hair
was neatly brushed and tied,
her features ebony.
Such finely noble lineaments;
aesthetic eyes held high –
her every movement gracile
as beside the silent Nile. But her thoughts
were on her future, now. She did not
notice me – though heaven knows
I worshipped her, and strove
to catch her eye – I’d have followed her
until the end, but could only stand, perplexed.
And, sad, in her hand, that
travel bag, with all that she possessed.
I caught my breath; I stared at her; I tried
to stem the tears. She passed,
true-souled and proud, my Queen,
in a line of refugees.
(From ‘Journeys in Time’)
Note: Tiye (c.1398 BCE-1338 BCE) was, all those three thousand and six hundred years ago, Queen of Egypt. She was the daughter of a highly-placed court official and a noblewoman who was possibly of royal descent. She became the Great Royal Wife (i.e., a pharaoh’s principal wife) of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1), and attained a position of great power in Egypt, equalling that of her husband; her name is to be found authoritatively in diplomatic communications with kingdoms both subject to Egypt and outside its wide sphere of influence. Additionally, she was identified with the major goddess Hathor, consort of the Sky God Horus and the Sun God Ra; temples were raised in her honour. She was mother of Pharaoh Akhnaton (2), and the power behind her son’s throne. She was also the grandmother of Tutankhamen. Her mummified remains have been identified by DNA from a comparison of a lock of hair found in the tomb of her grandson Tutankhamen and one cut from the still long, flowing black hair of the female named ‘The Elder Lady’ laid to rest in another royal location; the match was perfect. At the time of her death she was about 40-50 years old, and just 4’9” tall.
My first ‘meeting’ with Tiye was in 1973, when I came across a picture of her face in a book I had bought. I became straightaway, at that very moment, her devotee. I cut out the picture (the book is long gone) intending to have it framed and hung upon my wall, but that – for a long time due to my ineptness with drills and plugs – was not to be. For years – decades – I carried this picture around with me amongst my belongings, laid carefully between two stout pieces of specially cut cardboard and kept in place by a strong elastic band. Now and then I would steal a look at Tiye within. But when I looked for it, not so many years ago, the picture was not to be found. It had, I believe, been mistaken for paper rubbish (along with a sheaf of notes containing my personalized form of notation for playing the Guqin, the ancient Chinese zither) by my Filipina cleaning-lady (3) I have often thought back on that vexatious and totally unwarranted fate…
Let me, anyway, tell you about this picture. It was of a wonderfully detailed head of Tiye – with almond-shaped eyes, long, closely-braided hair beneath a diadem bearing her name, and the fullest of lips, exquisitely down-turned at the edges. The one small damage was to part of her nose, which is chipped; to me, her features appear negroid. And it is obviously an image taken from real-life. It was found in the Temple of Hathor (her divine namesake) and the protective goddess of the Turquoise Mountain at Serabit el-Khadim in faraway Sinai.
I have seen other part-profile pictures of this head, in which these facial features are nicely shown – but none of them match my lost picture, which was taken from a very slightly different angle and in a different light, displaying every single lineament superbly. I have never since seen the like of it. (There are many other representations of this Queen, some stylistic, in reliefs and statues which by no means do her justice – but one or two others are nearer the mark with suggestions of that from-real-life down-turned mouth. There have also been facial reconstructions from her mummified remains – I’ve never had too much faith in any historical facial reconstructions – but think that the Serabit el-Khadim portrait head, as a portrait from real-life, is unmistakably the genuine representation of Tiye.
And what was I doing there on the island of Lesbos on July 18, 2017? Well, I was not; but were the sight not so sad, I would have liked to have been. I caught the scene on a news item. We all know of the destabilization which wars – shameful wars – have brought upon the countries of the Middle East and the fermented, tumultuous movements which have rocked North Africa, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of their peoples. Lesbos (remember its overcrowded Moria camp?) was a major initial destination of refuge for many poor, fleeing thousands. And among the crowds in a sunlit street on Lesbos (4) I homed in immediately on one person – a beautiful African woman dressed as described in the poem, who for me stood apart from all others; a woman with skin (as Lafcadio tells us of the former slave girls of Martinique) ‘the colour of ripe fruit’; a woman beautiful in her proud carriage, her sure walk, her facial and bodily features. My mind sprang straight away to Tiye, whose features this woman’s so much resembled – but alive, and destitute in our own 21st century. I hope that she, fugitive queen, was able to find a future that was kind to her.
(1) Ancient Egyptian personal names… in the case of Amenhotep I’ve always preferred Amenophis, the more assuasive Greek form.
(2) Akhnaton (first known as Amenophis IV) famed for his religious reformation in which the Sun God Ra (Amon Ra) was installed as Egypt’s predominant deity (one cannot but help thinking of his mother Tiye’s influence, here). Akhnaton’s queen was the celebrated Nefertiti, and their son the now world-renowned Tutankhamen.
(3) Why me? Thomas Carlyle must have asked the same question when the sole manuscript for his monumental work on the French Revolution, which he had loaned to John Stuart Mill for a preview, was binned by Mills’ maid, and never retrieved. Poor Carlyle! However do you recover from a thing like that? But he did, and started all over again from scratch. I trust he’d retained fairly full notes on his work, but still… I’m reminded of T.E. Lawrence, too, who left the only manuscript of his The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a seat in the Waiting Room of Reading Railway Station. Gone. Lost. He also began all over again.
(4) The term ‘lesbian’ derives from this island. It was the home of the famed 6th century BCE poet Sappho and her school of female adherents.
Island of Lesbos, Greece, July 18, 2017