Before the Throne

  Naguib Mahfouz

  Before the Throne

  Naguib Mahfouz was one of the most prominent writers of Arabic fiction in the twentieth century. He was born in 1911 in Cairo and began writing at the age of seventeen. His first novel was published in 1939. Throughout his career, he wrote nearly forty novel-length works and hundreds of short stories. In 1988 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2006.

  About the Translator

  Raymond Stock, former Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Drew University, is writing a biography of Naguib Mahfouz. He is the translator of numerous works by Mahfouz, including Voices from the Other World, Khufu’s Wisdom, The Seventh Heaven, The Dreams (which includes Dreams of Departure) and The Coffeehouse.



  The Beggar, The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail (omnibus edition)

  Respected Sir, Wedding Song, The Search (omnibus edition)

  The Beginning and the End

  The Time and the Place and Other Stories

  Midaq Alley

  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma


  Adrift on the Nile

  The Harafish

  Arabian Nights and Days

  Children of the Alley

  Echoes of an Autobiography

  The Day the Leader Was Killed

  Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth

  Voices from the Other World

  Khufu’s Wisdom

  Rhadopis of Nubia

  Thebes at War

  Seventh Heaven

  The Thief and the Dogs

  Karnak Café

  Morning and Evening Talk

  The Dreams

  Cairo Modern

  Khan al-Khalili

  The Mirage


  Palace Walk

  Palace of Desire

  Sugar Street


  Copyright © 1983 by Naguib Mahfouz

  First published in Arabic in 1983 as Amam al-‘arsh

  English translation copyright © 2009 by Raymond Stock

  Translator’s Afterword copyright © 2009 by Raymond Stock

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Originally published in hardcover in the United States by The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, in 2009.

  Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-94865-6

  Cover photograph: ©Keith Garrett/Getty Images. Cover design by Eric Fuentecilla.




  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Translator’s Afterword



  THE COURT GATHERED in its divine entirety within the Hall of Justice, whose high walls were adorned with writing in the sacred hieroglyphic script, under a gilded ceiling in whose heavens gleamed the dreams of all humankind. In the center of the hall Osiris reposed on his golden throne; to his right was Isis, and to his left Horus, each seated on their own thrones. Not far from Osiris’s feet squatted Thoth, Scribe of the Gods, the Book of All laid open across his thighs. Meanwhile, chairs plated with pure gold were arrayed on both sides of the hall, ready to receive those whose ultimate fates now would be written.

  To commence the proceedings, Osiris declaimed, “From the remotest past, it has been decreed that humans shall spend their lives on earth. All the while, there would go with them, even over the threshold of death—like a shadow that clings to them—a record of all their acts and desires, embodied on their naked forms. Finally, there would be held a detailed dialog that would end with a decisive word. This, then, is that trial, convened after the passage of the allotted span of time.”

  Osiris then signaled to Horus, and the youth called out with a booming voice, “King Menes!”

  From the door at the farthest end of the hall, a man entered, attired in his burial shroud, though his head and feet were bare. With clear features and a powerful form, he drew closer and closer to Osiris’s throne, until he stood three arms’ lengths from it, in a stance of stark humility.

  At this, Osiris beckoned to the divine scribe Thoth, who began to read from the book before him, “The mightiest monarch of the First Dynasty, he warred on the Libyans until he subdued them. He attacked Lower Egypt, joining it to southern Egypt, declaring himself king of all Egypt together, crowning himself with the Double Crown. He altered the course of the Nile, establishing the city of Memphis on the new land this formed.”

  Addressing Menes, Osiris demanded, “Tell us what you have to say.”

  “Thoth, your sacred scribbler, has condensed my life in words,” Menes replied. “How easy is the telling, and how hard was the doing!”

  “We have our own view of how to appraise rulers and their deeds,” Osiris warned him. “Do not waste time by praising yourself.”

  “I inherited rule of the southern kingdom from my family,” Menes said. “With it I inherited a mighty dream—which all of our early men and women shared—to cleanse the country of foreign intruders, and establish an eternal unity whose two wings would be the lands of southern and northern Egypt.

  “The voice of my paternal aunt, Awuz, was the prime moving force that ignited this awesome dream. She would gaze at me with concern and say, ‘Will you spend your whole life eating, drinking, and hunt
ing?’ Or she would goad me by adding, ‘Osiris did not teach us farming merely to give us a chance to fight among ourselves over the water needed to irrigate a feddan.’

  “Once I said to my beloved spouse that I could feel a firebrand in my breast that would not cool until I had realized this dream. She was a splendid royal wife when she answered me with passion, ‘Don’t let the Libyans threaten your capital—and don’t allow the people to divide up the land that the Nile has made one.’

  “So I threw myself with vigor into training our strong men for battle, praying to the gods to endow me with the satisfaction of victory, until at my hand the vision of which my pioneering parents and grandparents had dreamed was fulfilled.”

  “You reaped one hundred thousand of the Libyans’ lives,” Osiris reproached him.

  “They were the aggressors, My Lord,” said Menes in his own defense.

  “And of the Egyptians, northerners and southerners combined, two hundred thousand fell as well,” Osiris reminded him.

  “They sacrificed themselves for the sake of our nation’s unity,” said Menes. “Then security and peace reigned over all, while the blood that had regularly been shed in periodic fighting ceased to flow into the waters of the Nile.”

  “Could you not win the people over with words before resorting to the sword?” asked Osiris.

  “I tried that with my neighbors, and brought some of them to us without going to war,” Menes answered. “But afterward, the sword achieved in a few years what words had failed to do in generations.”

  “Many say such things merely to conceal their belief in force,” said Osiris.

  “The glory and security of Egypt took possession of my emotions,” objected Menes.

  “Your personal glory too,” the presiding divinity rejoined.

  “I do not deny that,” Menes conceded, “but well-being was general throughout the country.”

  “Wherein your own dynasty and supporters benefited the most—and the peasants the least,” continued Osiris.

  “I spent most of my reign in combat and construction,” Menes replied. “I never luxuriated in the life of the palace, nor savored the taste of fine food or drink, nor cavorted with women other than my own wife—while I was obliged to reward my helpers as befitted their labors.”

  Isis asked leave to speak.

  “My Lord,” she said, “you are judging a human, not a god. According to this man, he forsook ease and indolence to purge the land of invaders. He unified Egypt, freed her hidden powers, and uncovered her buried blessings. At the same time, he provided the peasants with peace and security. He is a son of which to be proud.”

  Osiris was silent briefly, then called out, “O King, take the first seat at the right side of the throne as your own.”

  Menes proceeded to his chair, knowing he was one of the privileged few who may dwell in the Other World.


  HORUS HAILED THE COURT, “King Djoser and his vizier, Imhotep!”

  From the most distant door to the hall two men, both wrapped in their winding sheets, heads and feet bare, strode briskly forward, one behind the other. The one in the lead was of medium height and solidly built. The one following was shorter and very thin. They walked until they both stood before Osiris, who spoke first to Imhotep.

  “Step forward, next to the king,” he said. “In this court, there is no difference between a monarch and his flock.”

  Imhotep carried out this command, and Thoth read out, “King Djoser, founder of the Third Dynasty. He invaded Nubia, discovered the copper mines in the Eastern Desert, and built the Step Pyramid.

  “And Vizier Imhotep. A sage whose wisdom was passed on for generations. He mastered medicine, astronomy, magic, and architecture: people revered his memory for centuries after his death.”

  Osiris called on Djoser to speak.

  “A unified kingdom—vast of expanse, plentiful in resources, and dwelling in peace—was given to me at birth. Yet those surrounding it had ambitions toward it. So I initiated a policy—followed by those who came after me—that the defense of Egypt rests on smiting those who strike her from beyond her borders. The country from which most of this infiltration into my country occurred was Nubia. As a result, I decided to expand our southern borders by invading Nubia’s north, where I established a temple to the God. By virtue of his science and sorcery, Imhotep was aware of the hidden riches in the Eastern Desert. I dispatched expeditions to explore the belly of the earth, where we were rewarded by the discovery of immense veins of copper, a material greatly useful in both war and peace. As the nation’s welfare rose, I erected the Step Pyramid. At the same time, I encouraged the sciences by awarding gifts to those who excelled in them. The days of my reign brought to Egypt both strength and progress.”

  Osiris then summoned Imhotep to speak.

  “I grew up loving science and knowledge,” Imhotep began. “I studied under the august priests of Memphis, learning all that was known about medicine, engineering, astronomy, magic, and wisdom. When the king heard of my unusual erudition, he brought me to work in his royal entourage, though I was of humble origins. And I proved my worthiness in everything he charged me to do: I successfully cured the king of the illnesses that come with the desert storms of spring. Through sorcery, I saved one of the princesses from a malicious spirit and the evil eye. In reward, Pharaoh made me his minister, and commissioned me to build his pyramid. This was the construction miracle of its age, yet I would not have achieved what I did—in knowledge, expertise, or labor—if not for the divine sanction and inspiration of Ra.”

  “But you invaded Nubia,” Osiris drilled Djoser, “without an attack being launched against you from within the borders of her kingdom.”

  “I have stated, My Lord,” Djoser replied, “that the defense of our own borders was guided by the idea of assaulting those who came against us from outside them.”

  “A theory only espoused by the powerful harboring aggression,” opined Osiris.

  “My first duty was to prevent any probable harm to my country.”

  “You built a temple to the God, endowing it with lands used by those who had nothing,” Osiris accused him.

  “But temples have rights above all others,” answered Djoser.

  “That explanation does not hold without the proper consideration of the prevailing conditions.”

  The king lapsed into silence, as Osiris resumed his prosecution.

  “You did not provide the miners with enough care and sustenance,” he berated him. “Many of them perished.”

  “Great works are not made without victims and sacrifice,” Djoser shot back.

  Osiris then turned to Vizier Imhotep. “What was your opinion of the king’s policies?”

  “In my view,” said Imhotep, “trade relations would do more than invasions to protect our borders. I thought as well that the temple’s expenses should have been drawn from Egypt, and should benefit the unfortunate people of Nubia. Moreover, I did not want to send missions to the Eastern Desert until we had given them adequate provisions and medical attention. Yet my lord was eager to bolster the security and prosperity of Egypt and her people.”

  “Happy is he can who defend himself truthfully without shirking the defense of another,” Osiris declared. “The gods did not fall short in your education—for they taught you not only the principles of farming and fighting, but of proper conduct, as well.”

  Isis asked to say a word.

  “Djoser is a great king,” she insisted, “despite his faults, and Imhotep is a beloved son who has ennobled his nation.”

  Osiris addressed them, “O King, I will be satisfied that I have rebuked you. Take your seats—you and your vizier—among the Immortals.”

  Djoser sat down on the right hand of Menes, and Imhotep to the right of Djoser.


  “KING KHUFU!” Horus exclaimed.

  The king came in, powerfully built and rather tall, bareheaded and barefoot though wound in his shroud, until he stood obedientl
y before the throne.

  Then Thoth began to read aloud, “King Khufu: chief monarch of the Fourth Dynasty; he of the Great Pyramid. He organized the state’s administration with a rigor not seen either before or since. In his time, the land was abundant with goods and the markets were full, while agriculture, industry, and the arts reached their highest degree of refinement. Meanwhile, the pious awe of Pharaoh burst outward on the horizons like the sun, cowing the troublesome desert tribes, so that peace prevailed in every district and in every soul.”

  Asked to speak by Osiris, Khufu recounted, “From infancy I was enchanted by order and precision. All activities must have their rules and time-honored methods. In this, there is no difference between police work and sculpture, or architecture and marital relations. My personality reached into each village as an example to civil servants, the guardians of public order, and to those in the temples. Egypt became an assembly of heavenly traditions and precise administrative systems. This is what aided me in erecting the most monumental building known to man. Many thousands harmoniously took part in building it for over twenty years, a period unmarred by neglect and unrest. Not one of the laborers went without due care or protection, nor was there ever wanting a watchful, wakeful eye. And so my people boldly embarked upon a unique experiment with exemplary success, demonstrating beyond doubt their transcendent ability in the service of the God, and in gaining His satisfaction and His blessings.”

  “Did you exploit your nation in building your tomb?” Osiris questioned him caustically.

  “If I had merely wanted a tomb for myself, then I would have had it dug out in the mountains, far beyond the sight of any covetous eye,” said Khufu. “Instead, I built a symbol of divine immortality caching within it all the secrets hidden from the mind of man. The people were so keen to build it that they created a complete city—happy and holy in itself—where they labored to the utmost for the sake of the God alone. This was the work of free men—not of slaves!”

  Osiris turned to his right toward that happy few who had attained eternal life in the Other World. “Let whoever wishes, speak!”

  “A majestic accomplishment,” lauded Menes, “that reminds me of the building of mighty Memphis, which age did not permit me to finish.”

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