This next excerpt from Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music reads more like a pulp-fiction mystery novel. However, the story is preserved on 3000 year old papyri. It has torture, conspiracy, bribery and, yes, a bit of music.
The setting: Egypt, 1080 BCE. It was the end of the second Ramessid dynasty, during what Egyptologists call “The New Kingdom.” Law and order had decayed in the once great cities. Crime and corruption were on the rise as gangs looted old tombs and palaces for the precious treasures buried with the dead.
The scene of this crime was the "Valley of the Queens," an ancient burial site for the wives of pharaoh over the centuries.
The usual suspects were a gang of tomb-robbers headed up by a herdsman named Bukaaf. Bukaaf was brought in for questioning (meaning torture) over the theft of precious metals. He squealed and implicated several of his associates, including Peripatjau and Amenkhau, musicians/trumpeters who served in the temple of Amun in Thebes.
There wasn’t much else special about these two men. The ancient trumpet wasn’t a particularly beautiful instrument. It was loud, harsh, like the braying of an animal. In Egypt, the trumpet was associated with the god of the dead, Osiris, and the call of the instrument was meant to resurrect those who had just departed, to wake the dead. Peripatjau and Amenkhau most likely were just a couple of the many musicians employed at the temple. I can’t imagine there was much money or upward mobility in their future. Perhaps that’s why they turned to a life of crime.
Both Peripatjau and Amenkhau were taken into custody and tortured. Peripatjau ended up implicating his friend, his wife and even his own son in the plot. His son was chief porter and his wife was involved in the distribution of the captured loot.
For his part, Amenkhau denied all charges brought against him. He did however confess that he knew about the plot and advised Peripatjau to not participate. After several rounds of interrogation, Amenkhau was released; which is odd because many of the other gang members had named him as a co-conspirator. Amenkhau most likely bribed his way to freedom.
Peripatjau wasn’t so lucky. He was convicted, his wife imprisoned and the account ends there. We can only assume what happened next. Grave robbing was a serious, heinous crime in ancient Egypt, the penalty of which was death by impalement.
The moral of this story: in ancient Egypt, perhaps one should just stick to playing their loud, harsh trumpet or they’ll get the stick.
Learn more about the musicians and culture of ancient Egypt in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.
Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.