Ptah (pronounced Peter) crouched at the entrance to the small cave, high in the hills southeast of the Gulf of Aqaba, much preferring his own company to the thronging masses of his fellow Egyptians back in Alexandria. Given a choice between the rowdy Nile extravaganzas and the barren windswept mountain ravines, he would always choose the latter. Here he could search in quiet for that elusive something that would fill the longing in his soul while immersed in the challenge of the rugged outback.
Day after day he scaled the hot, stony cliffs, like an archaeologist searching for some long lost treasure. Somehow drawn to this particular area, already Ptah had found a wealth of unusual features to study. Inside this particular cave was a sandstone wall, akin to a blackboard both in size and purpose. On it, Ptah mapped out the cave network he had discovered today. He categorised each cave by approximate height above sea level, noting how deep it went back from the entrance, while also adding special features found within.
Today he had found three caves of significance, each at the same altitude but each tunnelling too deep than he was prepared to go without his fiery torch. Tomorrow he would return and explore them further.
Later that afternoon, Ptah watched the sun sink to the west, beyond the twin peaks on the peninsula northwest of him. Further to the southwest, beneath a hot hazy mist, the dunes of the Egyptian desert shimmered beyond the Red Sea, gasping for water. Speaking of which, Ptah checked his map to choose between two springs where his thirst could be quenched. He decided on the one nearest the coast which he named the Maqna Spring. The southern one at Sharmah was smaller and more difficult to reach from here.
Taking his leather water bottle and cane backpack, Ptah carefully climbed down to the seashore. Halfway down he got a stone in his sandal and bent to loosen it. Straightening, his eyes glanced over the inlet and a curious image struck him. Beneath the darkening blue waters, there appeared to be a long raised mound that bisected the two halves of the gulf. Ptah loved skin-diving and sailing, and the unusual submarinal feature intrigued him. Another task for tomorrow, he thought. Fathoming the depths of the gulf of Aqaba. He loved adventure - and statistics.
Reaching the small plateau at the base of the cliff, he knelt down beside a swift running stream, cupped his hands and drank in the cool fresh water. It refreshed him instantly and he gasped thankfully. He wondered how such beautiful water could be so plentiful in an otherwise barren desert. Quickly now he filled his leather water bottle because, when the sun finally disappeared over the horizon, the night would instantly close in.
After the arduous climb back up the cliff, returning to the cave, Ptah took a last look out across the still, panoramic vista and silently gave thanks to be alive. Inside he unravelled his goat-skin sleeping bag and climbed in, his head cushioned upon a cotton-filled pouch. He drifted immediately to sleep.
Breakfast was easily prepared. All over the hills were small wild plants, the roots of which were delicious - either raw or cooked. The sky was clear. It was going to be a beautifully hot fine day. Great weather for plumbing the depths of the Gulf of Aqaba. Ptah stretched his arms wide and looked over the inlet. A few tools were necessary.
Amongst the reeds where the Maqna Stream dropped and flowed into the Aqaba, Ptah found some flax which he cut with his trusty stone adze. Peeling these back into narrow strips, he tied several together to make a plumb line. Spare strips he strapped together round his waist, tying them to his belt. It took him some time to find a rock with a hole in it but after searching along the coast he found a piece of broken coral that perfectly fit the bill. He tied the plumbline to the coral which acted as a weight to hold the line as vertical as possible under the water.
Next he needed a boat. Earlier he spotted two ideal pieces of driftwood and he returned to retrieve them. Then began the arduous task of cutting reeds and weaving them with flax to the two outer planks of the raft. This took several hours but by mid morning, Ptah had completed his floating laboratory.
Along the side of one log Ptah etched out a rough grid. The distant peaks were to be markers by which he could line up his position on the water. Each length of flax was 1 metre long and he simply dropped the line into the water and counted off the metres to estimate the depth.
Thankfully it was a still day as Ptah slung his adze round his neck and pushed off across the sea on his makeshift raft. Being methodically minded, he calculated each square one at a time, etching the result onto his log grid. Completing one width of the gulf, he paddled back down the next line on the grid. It took several hours before he began to see a pattern emerging that showed he’d found the underwater mound. Here is the tabulated result of his days’ work:
XX XX XX XXX XXXX XXXX XXX XXX XX X
X X X XX XXX XXX XXXX XX X XX
X XX XX XXX XXXXX XXXXX XXX XXX XX X
XX X X XX XXX XXX XXXX XX X X
X XX XX XXX XXXXX XXXXX XXX XXX XX X
X X X XX XXX XXX XXXX XX X XX
XX XX XX XXX XXXX XXXX XXX XXX XX X
X X X XX XXX XXX XXXX XX X X
Returning once more to his cave, Ptah transferred the results from his log to the sandstone wall. The question he wanted answers for were: “How did this mound come to be here?” and “What purpose did it serve under the water?”
The first thing he noticed was that the upraised mound ran on a direct line between Mt. Musa and Mt. Laws, like an underwater bridge. It was possible that the “bridge” had been formed by the same uplift as these two mountains, being on that ridge. Or perhaps he was entirely wrong. Perhaps the strong winds that rushed in from the NE were a cause. Perhaps the sea-floor sands were pushed into this position by underwater currents. He really had no clue to work on at this stage.
Ptah recorded all these observations on some scrolls which he kept dry in some clay jars in the cave. He hoped one day to use them to found a society for like-minded fellows. Perhaps he would call it the Egyptian Geographic Society.
Ptah had a saying: ‘Red morning, adventure’s warning.” Bright pink met his gaze the following morning, as he exited the cave and stretched his arms in exhilaration at the commencement of the new day. A storm was brewing in the NE. A good day to burrow underground.
Some checks were needed before leaving however. First his tools. These consisted of: his trusty stone adze (which never left his side); a good length of strong flax-rope; and his paraffin torch. Next his inventions: a compass made from magnetic lodestone; and a magnifying glass. Inside the caves he needed the compass to plot his direction, and hopefully guard against going round and round in circles. He needed the magnifying glass to light his torch. Finally he refilled his water-pouch and gathered up a few choice roots to gnaw periodically.
Exiting his home cave, he dropped down amongst the rocks until he spotted the first of the three caves he had found two days earlier. One last look back and he saw streaks of lightning in the distant sky. Quite a storm brewing, he thought. He would need to be extremely careful inside the caves if there was rain about lest he stumble upon a dry river bed that turned into a raging torrent before he had time to get out. It had been known to happen and he didn’t want it happening to him. So he decided that he would explore the upper reaches of the caves rather than the lower ones, just in case it rained outside and he wasn’t aware of it.
In the shelter of the cave entrance, Ptah knelt down with his magnifying glass. He was glad that the storm hadn’t blocked out all the sun quite yet. He concentrated the sun’s rays on the glass and turned it until the light was a minute circle bearing down on a small piece of cotton on the rock. Slowly the cotton turned yellow, then brown, then suddenly burst into flame. With this he lit his lamp and then descended into the bowels of the mountain to begin his exploration.
Initially it was a hands and knees job. But fifty metres in, the cave widened and expanded beyond head height and Ptah found he could stand quite easily. The chamber was like a small church in size and a whole series of stalactites on the far wall looked like huge musical pipes. He knew they couldn’t be pipes because stalactites are full of water. That’s why he was more than surprised to find a small hole at the base of each. He put his mouth to the hole and blew. Out came a deep sounding whistle like that of a soprano singer. He tried another which was longer and it was deeper.
Having determined the pitch of each stalactite, Ptah then played a little tune on the pipes - one of his favourites. Of course, he couldn’t sing and play but the words he knew in his mind were:
What a merry time he had running from pipe to pipe playing his song over and over again, until he was completely puffed out! “I think I’ll call this a ‘mouth organ,’ ” he said aloud. (He even had ideas then for a portable mouth organ made out of reeds. Perhaps when he was a grandfather he could rock his grandchildren to sleep with his mouth-organ.)
Beyond the mouth-organ cave, Ptah found a Y intersection. The left passage headed due north. The right passage headed SE. On the wall in the sandstone he etched “60W”. This meant it was 60 paces west to the exit. The left tunnel dropped away from him whereas the right passage sloped upwards. He chose the safer right one, assuming it to continue upwards. The other advantage in choosing this one would be that later in the day when he was tired and ready to come home, it would be glad of the walk downhill.
The new passage was quite steep in places and once or twice he needed to lasso his rope round boulders higher up and haul himself up the otherwise impassable slopes. The passage zigzagged this way and that, ever higher and higher. Until he came to another Y intersection.
The right passage this time fell away whereas the left continued higher. He wanted to reach the summit of the cave before exploring its lower regions another day, so he turned left but left a direction on the wall. “210 NW” You would wonder that anyone had been counting every step but such was Ptah’s nature!
The new passage shortly did a 100 degree turn and began in an entirely new direction. Ptah put his lamp down on the floor of the cave to check his compass. He was now heading due north by all accounts. The climb from here was far more gradual which he appreciated, having quite exhausted himself during the earlier part. The walls in this section were very dry and bare of stalactites.
Then, in the distance, he heard a sound. He stopped and listened. Far away was what sounded like a waterfall. Climbing higher, the waterfall sound grew louder, yet still no sign of water anywhere. Ptah eventually reached a very narrow cleft in the rock, barely wide enough to squeeze through. But he hadn’t come this far to give up now and he was more and more curious about the waterfall sound. It had grown with every step yet still no sign of water. Most puzzling.
He squeezed through the cleft and rounding a corner he now saw a bright light ahead. Was this the sun shining through the cave exit? He climbed on up the path. The noise was thunderous now and it so surrounded him that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t drenched to the skin. Yet still not a drop to be seen.
The light increased in intensity with the noise and the mystery and awesomeness of it all thoroughly puzzled Ptah. Another narrow cleft ahead. Having squeezed through the tightest bit with his head, Ptah wondered if his shoulders and body would follow. With a shove he finally broke through into a small chamber, beyond which in a further room (if it was a room) a cascade of noise and light was pouring from. He blocked his ears and shaded his eyes and stopped at the ‘door” of whatever was in front of him. He did this for two reasons: 1) he couldn’t see anything ahead now except light and didn’t want to fall into an unseen hole; and 2) he felt he would have been both blinded and deafened for life if he had proceeded any further.
He waited what seemed an age. Then suddenly without warning, the light and noise vanished and Ptah found himself standing at the exit door of the cave. He slowly walked out onto a small plateau, another cave entrance facing him about 30 metres away. Walking to his left past a large rock face, he came to the precipitous edge of the plateau which dropped off the side of the mountain and fell hundreds of metres down to the Gulf of Aqaba far below. Wow, he was high. In fact, looking round he saw he was virtually at the summit of this very tall mountain. The mountain was part of a chain of mountains that ran parallel NE to SW down the Aqaba but this mountain peak was by far the tallest of them all.
Maqna Spring was hidden by a smaller ridge of hills but the water area he had plotted yesterday was directly below him. What a panoramic view from this spot. He was awed by the view. A storm was raging near MT El Igma with lightning, thunder and strong east winds reaching him here on this exposed plateau. The sky had darkened considerably despite being only mid afternoon.
Ptah leaned against a huge chunk of rock to his left and discovered it to be unusually smooth. He looked at it more closely and was surprised to find that it was pure marble. Interesting, he thought. Nothing else was like it. He retraced his steps to the centre of the plateau and looked about. The large chunk of marble rock seemed to stand like a sentinel between the two cave entrances, guarding some unseen fortress.
The mountain peak was a mere few metres away above the entrance to the other cave entrance but the peak was too dangerous to climb to. Still, he was happier enough to have reached the summit here. He crossed the plateau which was no more than 30 metres long and looked over another precipitous fall to a great sandy wilderness to the east. The desert of Arabia! Often heard about but never seen. What a bleak place that looked from here.
Ptah felt like he was on the rooftop of the world. One more view back over the Gulf and he would make his way down via the cave opposite, hoping it joined to one of the other passages he had seen earlier in the day. At the cliff edge, a glint of light caught his eye on the opposite sea coast, west of Dahab. He looked. Then looked again. Was he seeing things??! A vast crowd of travellers, on foot, were winding their way round the coast from Sharm el Sheikh towards Dahab. Thousands of them!
Who on earth….?
Chapter 3 : The Exodus
Ptah scratched his head trying to fathom what he was watching. He must have stood on the edge of the plateau for a good few hours watching the mass of men and women and children thread their way until they reached a particular headland. Here they stopped, perhaps to regroup.
Then it was that he heard a new sound. The sound of trumpets. What happened to the peace and quiet of the wilderness?! Looking further west, Ptah saw a myriad of horses and chariots rounding the peninsula near Sharm el Sheikh. They seemed very determined about their task, pushing relentlessly on towards their goal - whatever that was.
It was too late to head back to his own cave so Ptah decided to spend the night sheltered inside one of the two caves on the summit. It was nice and dry and this way he could hopefully see the outcome of what was happening below. Despite the darkness fast closing in, the frequent bursts of lightning gave him a clear view of what was unfolding far below him. Ptah took some roots out of his bag to chew. He was a little hungry by now but the sight below him made him forget his hunger in the meantime.
The foot crowd were now pressing right up to the water and Ptah could make out one man standing on the shore, as if addressing the throng. At this point the crowd were quite calm but a moment later, Ptah heard the trumpets again and suddenly the crowd let up a roar, as if they were all talking at once. Angry shouts drifted up to Ptah, despite the distance between he and them.
The guy at the front must have said something upsetting, Ptah thought to himself. Perhaps the crowd were angry that they had to walk whilst the late ones were coming by chariot. Perhaps they realised they had missed high tide and the best fishing time. Perhaps… Well, whatever the cause the man on the seashore began waving his stick in the air, probably trying to restore order. The chariots were getting closer.
At that moment Ptah felt a strong blast of wind strike his face and he gathered his cloak about his face. A flash of lightning lit the sky and when it struck, Ptah looked and saw that the waters of the gulf had suddenly gathered into one huge gigantic wave that was being held back by some mysterious force.
Right across the width of the gulf, this wall of water held in place. Then suddenly the waters parted and another wall of water gathered about 50 metres from the first until there was a path between the two. “That’s across the underwater bridge!” Ptah said aloud. “Amazing!” he continued in excitement and awe. Incredible sights unfolding before his eyes. Things he had never seen before in his life. Whatever was going to happen next?!
The man standing at the seashore was holding his stick on an angle up in the air over the water. Was he pointing at something? He seems to be pointing at me, Ptah suddenly thought. He ducked quickly round behind the rock. At that instant the noise and light he heard earlier returned, not near him but, he thought, not far from here. He peered slowly round the rock to see if he was still being watched and to try to identify the source of the light and noise.
Another remarkable sight met his eyes. Ptah wondered how many more impossible sights were going to happen to him today. There hovering over the Gulf was a huge white cloud lighting up the entire scene. Bright sunlight and the noise of waterfalls streamed out from within it. “Wow! What a Sound and Light Show this is turning out to be,” Ptah said aloud. He found he was talking to himself a lot now! No longer did he need the lightning flashes to see. The whole scene was displayed before him in brilliant light.
Looking across to where the man at the seashore was standing, Ptah watched a few people walk into the water. Well, where the water had been a few minutes earlier anyway. “Surely, they’re not going to walk across the sea path,” Ptah thought, concerned for their safety. Any moment those walls of water could come crashing down and wipe them out. The man with the stick just stood there and seemed quite unconcerned about what was happening.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the whole crowd of travellers then followed the first few in and began making their way across the “bridge.”
Ptah gasped. He cried out will all his might, “Don’t do it!” But of course nothing could be heard now above the noise of the cloud. Not even the trumpets. “Why are these people so careless about their lives?” he asked himself. “No one’s even got lifejackets on!”
The further they proceeded, however, the more excited and tense he got. Would they reach the other side before the walls of water crashed down? Men, women, children, animals, carts, were streaming across Ptah’s bridge. It seemed surprisingly dry for having been submerged for so long. He would dearly like to know if the bridge had a rock base. His analytical mind was back in action.
The last of the crowd stepped onto the dry seabed and the man with the stick followed in behind. At that moment the horses and chariots rounded the last bend towards the sea. They were about 1km away from the bridge. “They certainly are in a hurry, that lot,” Ptah mused. Then the thought struck him for the first time. “They’re not pursuing the others, are they?” He looked back to the rear party inside the sea. Sure enough, they were looking very distressed now.
This realisation brought a whole new set of feelings to Ptah - and hundreds more questions. Looking closely he now identified the shining gold chariots as belonging to the Egyptian Royal Military Cavalry. It was an attack! But why?!
Ptah tried to think back to any recent news he had heard in Egypt about the likelihood of such a battle out here in the desert, but he had been too many months in the desert alone to remember anything of significance.
What was so important that the Royal Cavalry would be so far from home? What had these people done to so anger the Pharaoh? He couldn’t believe that all these people could be criminals. Something momentous had obviously taken place in Egypt in the past few days and Ptah was watching its inevitable conclusion. The wiping out of a defenceless tribe by the powerful Egyptian Army.
The rear guard were well onto the bridge when the first of the chariots swept onto it in swift pursuit. The entire regiment followed and Ptah could see that it would only be seconds before the rear of the foot brigade were being cut down by the Egyptians.
At that very second a black cloud materialised out of nowhere and descended immediately behind the foot crowd, placing the Egyptians in total darkness. Thus Ptah lost sight of them and not only he but the crowd couldn’t see anything either. Ptah kept expecting the first of the chariots to come into view but none emerged from amidst the darkness. What was happening in there?
Part of the answer was given a moment later when a sheet of lightning lit the whole area for a brief second. The Egyptian Army were in complete disarray between the walls of water! Their chariot wheels had mysteriously broken away from their chariots. This had caused a huge traffic jam in the middle of the gulf with soldiers running hither and thither trying to loosen horses from their immobile transports.
Darkness closed over this state of chaos. The night wore on. By 5.00am the last of the foot brigade reached the side nearest Ptah, not far from the Maqna Spring. The man with the rod was much clearer now and he appeared to be an older man, judging by his long white beard. A youngish man stood alongside him - probably his bodyguard!
With the whole crowd safely on the shore, the old man (whose arms must have become quite sore having held the rod up for most of the night, switching between arms,) dropped the rod. “Whew! At last,” thought Ptah. “He’s having a break.”
To Ptah’s astonishment and horror, at that instant, the wall of water suddenly caved in on the trapped Egyptian Army. Of course, he couldn’t see this take place. None of them could because the scene was totally black. But they all heard, even above the noise of the white cloud, an audible gasp of grief from those in the sea, moments before the waves cascaded inwards. Further cries were lost in the sounds of the waves crashing together in the darkness.
The noise of the white cloud was stilled and when the waves receded, there was a hush throughout the gulf and an awe-struck silence amongst the crowd beneath him. Then the old man began singing. Ptah couldn’t make out the words, though some floated up to him from time to time. “……” but he didn’t understand them or their significance. When he had finished his song, a woman began singing. It was beautiful. Her song echoed round the valley and, one by one, others joined her, the song gaining volume as it turned from awe to triumph. Men, women and children became one great choir and some even danced round about to express their joy. (Exod 15:20) It was a spectacular sight, the scene ablaze with light from the mysterious cloud that hovered above them.
What was the meaning of all this? What God had intervened so miraculously to save this unknown tribe? What magic power did the old man’s rod have to be able to call up the seas by his command? Even the greatest magicians of Egypt couldn’t do this. Until now Ptah had believed Egypt to be the most powerful nation in all the world. They possessed mighty military strength, modern technological advances that far surpassed those of surrounding nations, brilliant mathematicians and scientists. A formidable foe indeed. Yet… For all Egypt’s might, tonight proved that man’s might was nothing when confronted by a God with such force as this!
Ptah was exhausted. He stumbled over to the small cave opposite and collapsed just inside the entrance and fell fast asleep.