Pharaoh (Polish: Faraon) is the fourth and last major novel by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus. Composed over a year's time in 1894 - 1895, it was the sole historical novel by an author who had previously disapproved of historical novels as inevitable distortions of history.
Czesław Miłosz has described Pharaoh as a "novel on... mechanism[s] of state power and, as such, ... probably unique in world literature of the nineteenth century.... Prus, [in] selecting the reign of 'Pharaoh Ramses XIII' in the eleventh century BCE, sought a perspective that was detached from... pressures of [topicality] and censorship. Through his analysis of the dynamics of an ancient Egyptian society, he... suggest[s] an archetype of the struggle for power that goes on within any state."
Pharaoh is set in the Egypt of 1087 - 1085 BCE as that country experiences internal stresses and external threats that will culminate in the fall of its Twentieth Dynasty and New Kingdom. As events unfold, the protagonist Ramses learns that those who would challenge the powers that be are vulnerable to cooption, seduction, subornation, defamation, intimidation and assassination. Perhaps the chief lesson, belatedly absorbed by Ramses as pharaoh, is the importance, to power, of knowledge.
Preparatory to writing the novel, Prus immersed himself in ancient Egyptian history, art and writings. In the course of telling his story of power and personality, he produced one of the most compelling literary depictions ever of life at every level of ancient Egyptian society. He offers a vision of mankind as rich as Shakespeare's, ranging from the sublime to the quotidian, from the tragic to the comic. The book is written in limpid prose, imbued with poetry, leavened with humor, graced with moments of transcendent beauty. Pharaoh has been translated into twenty languages and adapted as a Polish feature film.
Pharaoh comprises a compact but substantial introduction, sixty-seven chapters, and an evocative epilogue (the latter omitted at the book's original publication, and restored in the 1950s). Like Prus' previous novels, Pharaoh debuted (1895-96) in newspaper serialization: in the Warsaw Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly). It was dedicated "To my wife, Oktawia Głowacka, née Trembińska, as a small token of esteem and affection."
Unlike the author's earlier novels, however, Pharaoh had first been composed in its entirety, rather than being written in chapters from issue to issue. This may help account for its often being described as Prus' "best-composed novel" —indeed, as "one of the best-composed [of all] Polish novels."
The original 1897 and some subsequent book editions divided the novel's text into three volumes. Later editions have presented it in two volumes or in a single one. Except in wartime, the book has never been out of print in Poland.
Pharaoh combines features of several literary genres: the historical novel, the political novel, the Bildungsroman, the utopian novel, the sensation novel. It also comprises a number of interbraided strands — including the plot line, Egypt's cycle of seasons, the country's geography and monuments, and ancient Egyptian practices (e.g. mummification rituals and techniques) — each of which rises to prominence at appropriate moments.
The fate of the novel's protagonist, the future "Ramses XIII" (historically there were only eleven Ramesside pharaohs), is known from the beginning. Prus closes his introduction with the statement that the narrative "relates to the eleventh century before Christ, when the Twentieth Dynasty fell and when, after the demise of the Son of the Sun the eternally living Ramses XIII, the throne was seized by, and the uraeus came to adorn the brow of, the eternally living Son of the Sun Sem-amen-Herhor, High Priest of Amon." What the novel will subsequently reveal is the elements that lead to this denouement: the character traits of the principals, the social forces in play.
Ancient Egypt at the end of its New Kingdom period is experiencing adversities. The deserts are eroding Egypt's arable land. The country's population has declined from eight to six million. Foreign peoples are entering Egypt in ever-growing numbers, undermining its unity. The chasm between the peasants and craftsmen on one hand, and the ruling classes on the other, is growing, exacerbated by the ruling elites' fondness for luxury and idleness. The country is becoming ever more deeply indebted to Phoenician merchants, as imported goods destroy native industries.
The Egyptian priesthood, backbone of the bureaucracy and virtual monopolists of knowledge, have grown immensely wealthy at the expense of the pharaoh and the country. At the same time, Egypt is facing prospective peril at the hands of rising powers to the north — Assyria and Persia.The 22-year-old Egyptian crown prince and viceroy Ramses, having made a careful study of his country and of the challenges that it faces, evolves a strategy that he hopes will arrest the decline of his own political power and of Egypt's internal viability and international standing. Ramses plans to win over or subordinate the priesthood, especially the High Priest of Amon, Herhor; obtain for the country's use the treasures that lie stored in the Labyrinth; and, emulating Ramses the Great's military exploits, wage war on Assyria.
Ramses proves himself a brilliant military commander in a victorious lightning war against the invading Libyans. On succeeding to the throne, he encounters the adamant opposition of the priestly hierarchy to his planned reforms. The Egyptian populace is instinctively drawn to Ramses, but he must still win over or crush the priesthood and their adherents.
In the course of the political intrigue, Ramses' private life becomes hostage to the conflicting interests of the Phoenicians and the Egyptian high priests.
Ramses' ultimate downfall is caused by his underestimation of his opponents and by his impatience with priestly obscurantism. Along with the chaff of the priests' myths and rituals, he has inadvertently discarded a crucial piece of scientific knowledge.
Prus took characters' names where he found them, sometimes anachronistically or anatopistically. At other times (as with the priest Samentu in chapter 55) he apparently invented them. The origins of the names of some prominent characters may be of interest:
Pharaoh belongs to a Polish literary tradition of political fiction whose roots reach back to the 16th century and Jan Kochanowski's play, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys (1578), and also includes Ignacy Krasicki's Fables and Parables (1779) and Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz's The Return of the Deputy (1790). Pharaohs story covers a two-year period ending in 1085 BCE with the demise of the Egyptian Twentieth Dynasty and New Kingdom.
Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz has written of Pharaoh:The protagonist, Prince Ramses, learns that those who would oppose the priesthood are vulnerable to cooption, seduction, subornation, defamation, intimidation or assassination. Perhaps the chief lesson, belatedly absorbed by Ramses as pharaoh, is the importance, to power, of knowledge — of science.
As a political novel, Pharaoh became a favorite of Joseph Stalin's; similarities have been pointed out between it and Sergei Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible, produced under Stalin's tutelage. The novel's English translator has recounted wondering, well in advance of the event, whether President John F. Kennedy would meet with a fate like that of the book's protagonist.
Pharaoh is, in a sense, an extended study of the metaphor of society-as-organism that Prus had adopted from English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer and that he makes explicit in the introduction to the novel. All of society's organ systems must work together harmoniously, if society is to survive and prosper.
Pharaoh is unique in Prus' oeuvre as a historical novel. A Positivist by philosophical persuasion, Prus had long argued that historical novels must inevitably distort historic reality. He had, however, eventually come over to the French Positivist critic Hippolyte Taine's view that the arts, including literature, may act as a second means alongside the sciences to study reality, including broad historic reality. Prus did in fact, in the interest of making certain points, introduce some anachronisms and anatopisms into the novel.
Pharaoh drew from many sources for its inspiration. Depicting the demise of Egypt's New Kingdom three thousand years earlier, the book also reflects the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's demise in 1795, exactly a century before Pharaohs completion. A preliminary sketch for Prus' only historical novel was his first historical short story, "A Legend of Old Egypt." This remarkable story shows clear parallels with the subsequent novel in setting, theme and denouement.
"A Legend of Old Egypt", in its turn, had taken inspiration from contemporaneous events: the fatal 1887-88 illnesses of Germany's warlike Kaiser Wilhelm I and of his reform-minded successor, Friedrich III. The latter emperor would, then unbeknown to Prus, survive his ninety-year-old predecessor, but only by ninety-nine days.
In 1893 Prus' old friend Julian Ochorowicz, having returned to Warsaw from Paris, delivered several public lectures on ancient Egyptian knowledge. Ochorowicz (whom Prus had portrayed in The Doll as the scientist "Julian Ochocki") may have inspired Prus to write his historical novel about ancient Egypt, and made available to Prus books on the subject that he had brought from Paris. In preparation for composing Pharaoh, Prus made a painstaking study of Egyptological sources, including works by John William Draper, Ignacy Żagiell, Georg Ebers and Gaston Maspero. Prus actually incorporated ancient texts into his novel like tesserae into a mosaic; drawn from one such text was a major character, Ennana.
Pharaoh also resonates, throughout, with allusions to the Bible (including a miniature turning-of-water-to-blood) and to ancient history generally, including Troy and its recent excavation by Heinrich Schliemann.For certain of the novel's prominent features Prus, the conscientious journalist and scholar, seems to have insisted on having two sources, one of them based on personal or at least contemporary experience. Thus the historical Egyptian Labyrinth had been described in the fifth century BCE in Book II of The Histories of Herodotus by the Father of History, who visited Egypt's entirely stone-built administrative center, pronounced it more impressive than the pyramids, declared it "beyond my power to describe," then proceeded to give a striking description that Prus incorporated into his novel. The Labyrinth had, however, been made palpably real for Prus by an 1878 visit that he had paid to the famous ancient labyrinthine salt mine at Wieliczka, near Kraków in southern Poland. According to the foremost Prus scholar, Zygmunt Szweykowski, "The power of the Labyrinth scenes stems, among other things, from the fact that they echo Prus' own experiences when visiting Wieliczka."
Writing over four decades before the construction of the United States' Fort Knox Depository, Prus pictures Egypt's Labyrinth as a perhaps flood-able Egyptian Fort Knox, a repository of gold bullion and of artistic and historic treasures. It was, he writes (chapter 56), "the greatest treasury in Egypt. [H]ere... was preserved the treasure of the Egyptian kingdom, accumulated over centuries, of which it is difficult today to have any conception." Another dually-determined feature of the novel is the "Suez Canal" that the Phoenician Prince Hiram proposes digging. The modern Suez Canal had been completed by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1869, a quarter-century before Prus commenced writing Pharaoh. But, as Prus was aware when writing chapter one, it had had a predecessor in a canal connecting the Nile River with the Red Sea — during Egypt's Middle Kingdom, centuries before the period of the novel. A third dually-determined feature was inspired by a solar eclipse that Prus had witnessed at Mława, a hundred kilometers north-northwest of Warsaw, on August 19, 1887, the day before his fortieth birthday. Prus likely was also aware of Christopher Columbus' manipulative use of a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504, while marooned for a year on Jamaica, to extort provisions from the natives. The latter incident strikingly resembles the exploitation of a solar eclipse by Ramses' chief antagonist, Herhor, high priest of Amon.  Finally, a fourth dually-determined feature relates to Egyptian beliefs about an afterlife. In 1893, the year before beginning his novel, Prus the skeptic had started taking an intense interest in Spiritualism, attending Warsaw séances which featured the Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino —the same medium whose Paris séances, a dozen years later, would be attended by Pierre and Marie Curie. Palladino had been brought to Warsaw from a St. Petersburg mediumistic tour by Prus' friend Ochorowicz.
Modern Spiritualism had been initiated in 1848 in Hydeville, New York, by the Fox sisters, Katie and Margaret, aged 11 and 15, and had survived even their 1888 confession that forty years earlier they had caused the "spirits'" telegraph-like tapping sounds by snapping their toe joints. Spiritualist "mediums" in America and Europe claimed to communicate through tapping sounds with spirits of the dead, eliciting their secrets and conjuring up voices, music, noises and other antics, and occasionally working "miracles" such as levitation. Spiritualism inspired several of Pharaohs most striking scenes, especially (chapter 20) the secret meeting at the Temple of Seth in Memphis between three Egyptian priests—Herhor, Mefres, Pentuer—and the Chaldean magus-priest Berossus; and (chapter 26) the protagonist Ramses' night-time exploration at the Temple of Hathor in Pi-Bast, when unseen hands touch his head and back.
Prus, a disciple of Positivist philosophy, took a strong interest in the history of science. He was aware of Eratosthenes' remarkably accurate calculation of the earth's circumference, and the invention of a steam engine by Heron of Alexandria, centuries after the period of his novel, in Alexandrian Egypt. In chapter 60, he fictitiously credits these achievements to the priest Menes, one of three individuals of the identical name who are mentioned or depicted in Pharaoh : Prus was not always fastidious about characters' names.
Examples of anachronism and anatopism that are mentioned above make it clear that punctilious historic accuracy was never an object with Prus in writing Pharaoh. "That's not the point", Joseph Conrad told a relative, regarding putative inaccuracies in Pharaoh. Prus had long emphasized in his "Weekly Chronicles" that historical novels cannot help but distort historic reality. He himself used ancient Egypt as a great canvas on which to draw his deeply-considered perspectives of man, civilization and politics.
Nevertheless, overall, Pharaoh is remarkably accurate, even from the standpoint of present-day Egyptology; and the novel does a notable job of recreating a primal ancient civilization, complete with the geography, climate, plants, animals, ethnicities, countryside, cities, social stratification, politics, Egyptian religion and warfare. Prus succeeds remarkably in transporting readers back to the Egypt of thirty-one centuries ago.
The embalming and funeral scenes; the court protocol; the waking and feeding of the gods; the religious beliefs, ceremonies and processions; the concept behind the design of Pharaoh Zoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara; the descriptions of travels and of locales visited on the Nile and in the desert — all draw upon scholarly documentation. The personalities and behaviors of the characters are keenly observed and deftly drawn, often with the aid of apt ancient Egyptian texts.
Pharaoh, as a "political novel", has remained perennially topical ever since it was written. The book's enduring popularity, however, has as much to do with a critical yet sympathetic view of human nature and the human condition. Prus offers a vision of mankind as rich as Shakespeare's, ranging from the sublime to the quotidian, from the tragic to the comic. The book is written in limpid prose, imbued with poetry, leavened with humor, graced with moments of transcendent beauty.
The novel has been translated into twenty languages: Armenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, French, Georgian, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Ukrainian.
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