Elephantine, Egypt, the 530s AD
There are differences of opinion regarding this book. A friend of mine found it slow and often boring and commented that the author had managed to waste a great idea. I had not then read the book; I had, however, been reading Confessions of a Pagan Nun, which I found superb (I must post a review of that here, too) and it occurred to me that the two books had a great deal in common. Both were set in the 6th Century and both depicted the Church Militant stamping out the still-glowing embers of the indigenous religion, in one case the Catholicism of Rome crushing the last practitioners of Celtic druidism, in the other the Orthodoxy of Byzantium persecuting the few remaining adepts of the ancient Isis-cult.
It is true that it is slow. Christian Jacq is a slow writer. In the Ramses series, it takes him five books to tell a story that any other writer would have told in one. But he has his good side.
For a start, he is an expert on ancient Egypt.
So I read For the Love of Philae.
One problem is the translation, which is often wordy and clumsy, and occasionally absurd. “I know how to oar” says the general, leaping into the boat. The priestess “dialogued with the spirit that …” The bishop was “wearing his long red dress”. “You had the impudence of reading” a private document, the Prefect protests. “Half the adepts remained prostrated, sitting on their heels,” we are told, and “The community chanted a slow introverted psalm” and, of the High Priestess, that “a green hue enhanced the curb of her eyebrows”. Sometimes, as in “You will have face a tempest” (stet), the problem may be a typo, but it is all very careless and off-putting. The editor is quite as much to blame here as the translator.
That said, and apart from that, I found the book fascinating. I never once wanted to lay it aside; quite the contrary. I realised immediately that I knew little or nothing about sixth-century Egypt (or, thinking about it, sixth-century Greece); now I do, and I learnt in (as Heinlein once said) “the nicest possible way”. I have an image in my mind of one small part of Egypt in 534-5 AD, and of one small group of people who lived there.
The place is Elephantine, an island in the Nile, far to the south, close to the first cataract:a historic island, once the home of the only Jewish temple outside Jerusalem and the heart of a heretical form of diaspora-Judaism; and also the heart and home of Isis worship, where the mystery of Isis and Osiris (the dying-rising god) was celebrated. (The picture shows the Temple of Philae as it is now.)
The people are the High Priestess, Isis, direct descendant of Cleopatra and the pharaohs (and so beautiful that she is held by all and sundry to be the incarnation of the goddess Isis herself), her lover, the new young High Priest, Sabni, and other adepts of the Isis cult that still – no, not flourishes, but at least survives intact, a pure flame still burning, on this island.
Opposed to them are Theodore, the Christian bishop, childhood friend of Sabni; and Maximin, the prefect of the province, appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople (these were the early years of Justinian and Theodora).
Bishop Theodore protects the Isis temple and cult for Sabni’s sake, pretending that it does not exist. Sabni’s side of the bargain is that they should keep a very low profile.
Then the Prefect falls in love with Isis. And the auguries are that for the second year in succession the Nile will not flood adequately and there will be famine in the province; the bishop’s prayers are failing to move the ancient gods that, the people believe, still control the great river: only Isis, the people believe, can help them now. And the Prefect, Maximin, agrees with them.
A poor translation but a good story, memorable characters that you can’t help loving – or hating – and a really great setting.