His interest in the wider aspects of the ancient world beyond that of Greece and Rome had been sparked by Napoleon’s visit to Egypt and the treasures brought back to Europe as a result. He also had the resources to travel, and, he discovered, a taste for it – and a knack for entertaining others with tales of what he had seen, whether in written or narrated form.
He had researched those who had attempted in previous periods to decipher the hieroglyphs – much of what they had thought seemed fantastical. Probably the inscriptions were much as in his own day – accounts of resources, praise of rulers and denouncing their enemies, and ordinary stories. His travels had taken him to an obscure Jesuitical library which, it was said, held some of the volumes of Athanasius Kircher, polymath and researcher into hieroglyphs.
What he had come across amongst the other books was a strange old volume, associated with Kircher. It was some sort of herbal or encyclopaedia like others of the middling ages, written in a strange hand, at first glance similar to many another medieval written hand, with no clue as to what sort of language or code was actually used. One of his pursuits now was to find some other volume using the same script so he and the monastic librarian could have their curiosity satisfied.
Ships did not suit him.as a mode of travel for the longer term. It was mainly the physical constraints of being in a ship on the high seas – and there being little more than sea and more sea, cloud patterns and storms to observe. Going on a boat following a shoreline or up a river, or the long-distance land routes suited him better– he could explore the changing landscapes and talk with the locals, directly or through interpreters.
He had now arrived in Egypt, following in the wake of Napoleon’s travels. He was one of many such travellers, their presence encouraged by the ruler of the country. What could he discover on his explorations and bring back to Europe, along with his notes and drawings?
There was much of interest – monuments and monasteries, inscriptions and records, but none resembled that of the mysterious volume. There were rumours of modern scholars attempting to translate the hieroglyphs, but it was very evident that the book did not make use of such symbols.
Then one of his contacts told him of a monument apparently as yet unvisited by Europeans. He was now familiar with the locals’ practices – some of the localities and the objects had been discovered previously, and they wished to get the maximum reward from the reveal, which he could understand. Sometimes at least they shared their charges’ wonder, and they were interested in the stories of the long ago, even if “they did some things differently back then.” Besides, they took pride in having a longer history than the Europeans, an attitude which he could understand.
So they travelled into the desert, occasionally going past the remains of the ancient world, visiting oases and trading with the people there, carrying messages from one to another – apparently some conversations were carried on for years. When he wondered if some had begun in “the days of the Pharaohs and when Iskandar the Great had passed through” – some tales of Alexander the Great were told – his companions had replied “perhaps, perhaps.”
Then they reached “the fallen statue”: the legs still stood on the pedestal, and the head was fallen into the sand, glowering over the desert, now seemingly empty and with tracks known only to the locals and the animals that lived, somehow, in the desert. He translated the inscription about Ozymandias.
‘Where be his works; are they told of in the tales from your land?’
‘I have not come across them. But I remember a story from the land of Iskandar.’ Telling stories was one of the ways in which he paid for his travels.
‘Tell us then.’
‘You have come across those who can see into the future?’ Though often only those which were very right or very wrong were remembered, and sometimes there were other aspects to the tale. He suspected that sometimes predictions were merely “advice” otherwise packaged or reflected decisions already made.
‘Some you know are true before the event – and some you realise are true only after they have fully played out.’
‘That is so. Well one of those in the land of Iskandar was considered inspired and wise. To test her wisdom she was asked for a prediction that would always be valid.’
‘Was she wise enough?’
‘Yes. Her answer was “This too will pass.” The works of Ozymandias have passed, or are buried so deep in the sand they cannot be found – but your people and the desert will endure regardless.’
‘That is true – and everything in the world created passes. Let us return to our usual places, and you can travel to your own lands and see if this Ozymandias has been heard of there.’
‘And if I discover any information I will find a way of bringing it to the desert, and eventually you will be told. There are those who wish to learn the meaning of the strange scripts of the olden days – may it be that they will decipher them and tell us of the wonders of old, including this ruler.’
‘The meaning of the inscriptions is evident – we who put up the monuments are glorious kings, possessed of great wealth and have done many deeds and fought battles considered glorious, which should be remembered until as many years have passed as there are grains of sand in the desert. Other writings say little more than listing what they owned. But they are forgotten, and the wealth has gone.’
‘You are probably right. What is it the poet said – the pen of history writes and moves on.’ And all the piety and wit was eventually forgot.
When he returned back to Europe the story he and his listeners enjoyed the most was about Ozymandias.
There was, seemingly, some success in understanding the principles behind deciphering the hieroglyphics – but he had to report his lack of success with the script of the strange manuscript to the monastic librarian.
‘Perhaps we should not regret it – then it would be like the similar manuscripts you have seen,’ the librarian said. ‘But as it is it may puzzle people for as long as this Ozymandias.’