Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – The House of Rhodopis

The Nile had overflowed its banks and spread itself far and wide over what were, but a little while before, rich grain fields and blooming gardens — an endless stretch of water as far as the eye could reach. The cities, guarded by their levees, with their gigantic temples and palaces, and the village roofs crowned with tall palms and acacias, were alone reflected in the river below. The boughs of the sycamore and plantain dipped into the stream, while the silvery poplars seemed to be trying to lift their upward-springing branches high above its reach. The full moon was pouring its soft light from beyond the Libyan hills, that faded far away into the western horizon ; to the north, scarcely to be seen, lay the Mediterranean; on the water’s surface floated the blue and the white lotus flowers ; and through the night air, heavy with the scent of jasmine and acacia, flew bats of many kinds. In the tree tops slept the wild doves ; pelicans, storks, and cranes crouched among the rushes on the river bank ; the pelicans, sleeping with their great beaks under their wings, did not stir, but the cranes, startled by the stroke of the oars or the boatman’s song, put out their long, thin necks, half in fear, half in curiosity. Not a breeze stirred, and the image of the moon, floating like a silver shield upon the water, showed that the Nile, which had taken the cataracts in a wild leap and had dashed past the giant temples of Upper Egypt in headlong flight, here, where it reached out to the sea with its hundred arms, had foregone its furious speed and given itself over to more gentle movement.

Upon this moonlight night, in the year 528 B.C., a boat passed up the almost unfelt current of the Canopean mouth of the Nile. An Egyptian sat on the high roof of the stern deck, and managed thence the long steering pole ; in another part of the boat were the rowers, singing at their oars, while two men lay upon cushions placed on the deck under a canopy. Even by the light of the moon one could see that their faces were Hellenic. The elder, a large and muscular man of some sixty years, looked gloomily down into the stream, while his companion, younger by twenty years, now gazed up into the sky, now hailed the steersman, now gathered his beautiful purple chlamys into new folds. The boat had started two hours before from Naucratis, the only town in Egypt then open to the Greeks.

As the boat neared the shore the younger passenger arose and said to his fellow traveler: “We shall soon be at our goal, Aristomachus. Yonder, to the left, the house in the garden of palms that rises over the inundated flats, is the house of my friend Rhodopis. Her husband, Charaxus, who is now dead, built it for her, and all her friends, even the king himself, vie with each other in adorning it, year by year, with new beauties. Quite needless labor; the fairest ornament of the house, had they poured into it the treasures of the universe, will ever be its own noble mistress.”

The old man raised himself, gave a passing look at the building, and said curtly, ” What a paragon you make of this Rhodopis ! ”

Phanes smiled and answered in a self-satisfied tone, ” I think I know something of men and women, and let me assure you that I know nothing in all Egypt grander than this gray-haired widow.”

The boat at this moment reached the river wall of the garden, and with a light spring the Athenian, Phanes, leaped from the boat, while his companion followed him with a slow, steady step. The garden of Rhodopis, with its flowers, its perfumes, and its myriads of insects, seemed like a part of the land of fairies. Acanthus, yellow mimosas, hedges of snow-ball bushes, jasmines and lilacs, roses and laburnums, crowded each other ; huge palms, acacias, and balsam trees towered over the bushes ; great bats with delicate wings flitted through the air ; and on the water were the distant sounds of song and laughter. An Egyptian had laid out this garden, and the builders of the Pyramids were from all time the most renowned landscape gardeners of the world ; they understood the art of placing the flower beds, of arranging by rule the groups of trees and bushes, of giving to the canals, fountains, and arbors their places, of making for the walks their artistically fashioned hedges, and of dotting here and there ponds for gold and silver fish.

The house of Rhodopis was in the Grecian style. The exterior of the long one-story building would, according to our views, have been thought very simple within, it united Egyptian color with Hellenic symmetry. The wide principal door opened upon the entrance hall of the house, on whose left side a large dining hall looked upon the river, while opposite to this was the kitchen, a room found only among the rich Greeks, the poorer people cooking their food at the hearth in the antechamber. The room for receiving visitors was at the farther opening of the entrance hall and in the form of a square surrounded by a gallery, into which several rooms opened. In the midst of this apartment there burned, upon an altar-shaped brazier of rich AEgina metal, the great fire of the house. During the day this room was lighted by means of openings in the roof, through which, at the same time, the smoke from the fire made its escape. Opposite to the entrance hall ran a passage terminated by a heavy door leading to the women’s apartment, ornamented with pillars on three sides only ; in this the women were accustomed to stay, except when sitting at their spinning and weaving in the rooms near the door opening into the yard. Between these and the rooms which extended along the women’s apartment to the right and left, and which were used as guest chambers, lay the sleeping rooms, which were also used to hold the treasures of the house.

The walls of the reception hall were painted a reddish brown, against which the marble statues, gifts of an artist of Chios, stood out in strong relief. Heavy carpets from Sardis covered the floor. In front of the pillars lay cushions covered with tiger skins, while round the carved brazier were curiously shaped Egyptian chairs and finely cut tables of thya wood, upon which lay all sorts of musical instruments — flutes, lyres, etc. On the wall hung countless lamps—one representing a dolphin belching fire, another a strange winged creature whose jaws cast forth flames — all mingling their light with the blaze on the hearth.

In this hall stood several men of different appearance and various costumes. A Syrian from Tyre, in a rose-colored cloak, was having an animated conversation with a man whose sharply cut features and curly black hair showed the Israelite. The latter had come from his home to Egypt to buy for Zerubbabel, ruler of Judah, Egyptian horses and wagons, at that time greatly in repute. Near these stood three Greeks from Asia Minor, in the costly flowing garments of Miletus, talking earnestly with the simply clad ambassador of Delphi, who had come to collect moneys for the temple of Apollo. Rhodopis herself was talking with two Greeks from Samos ; they spoke of art and poetry. The eyes of the Greek woman glowed with the fire of youth, her tall figure was straight and full, her gray hair curled in waves round her well-shaped head, and was twisted at the back into a net of delicate gold thread. Her fair forehead was crowned with a sparkling diamond. The noble Hellenic face was pale but beautiful, and without a wrinkle, in spite of her advanced age. Every one supposed Rhodopis to be much younger than she really was, though she never assumed the youth which she did not possess. All her movements were those of matronly dignity, and her grace was not that of youth, which tries to please, but that of age, which shows forth its graciousness, demanding and receiving respect.

At this moment our two travelers appeared in the hall. The eyes of all turned toward them, and when Phanes entered, leading his friend by the hand, he was welcomed most heartily.

One of the Milesians exclaimed, ” I have been trying all this while to find out what was missing. Now it is perfectly clear that without Phanes there is no mirth!”

Another cried in a deep voice, ” Mirth is a good thing, and if you bring it with you, you are welcome, Athenian ! ”

” To me,” said Rhodopis, going to meet her new guests, ” you are most welcome if you are happy, and no less welcome if oppressed with trouble, for I have no greater joy than to smooth the lines of care from the forehead of a friend. You too, 0 Spartan,” she said, turning to Aristomachus, ” I call a friend, for every one is that who is dear to those I care for.”

Adapted from “An Egyptian Princess”

Rhodopis (ro do pis). — Edfu (ed’foo): a town in Upper Egypt; its temple is the most perfect existing example of an ancient Egpytian religious edifice. — Canopean (kan o pe’an) mouth : the Nile has several mouths, near one of which the ancient city of Canopus (ka no’pus) stood. — Hellenic (he len ik): Greek, from Hellas (hel’as), the ancient name for Greece. — chlamys (kla mis) : a Greek cloak. — Naucratis (nau’kra tis).