Explorer Rushes Back to Collect Pygmy Prize After Child Pharaoh’s Golden Letter
Harkhuf the Explorer, while traveling through Nubia, received an urgent message from the Pharaoh himself.
“Come to the Palace at once!” the king’s letter read. “Drop everything!”
This was unusual. Harkhuf’s work was incredibly important; no pharaoh would stop it unless it was for something truly important.
Harkhuf in a relief from his tomb at Qubbet el-Hawa. (Karen Green/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
He was one of history’s earliest explorers. More than 4,000 years ago, in the 23rd century BC, he made his living wandering out into uncharted land. He made first contact with some of the tribes and kingdoms of Africa and came back giving the pharaohs allies and riches they’d never imagined existed. And now, on his fourth expedition into the unknown, he was being called home early.
Nothing back home in Egypt had changed – except that the king had gotten his letter. And that, for the young boy who sat on the throne as king, had changed everything.
The ancient Egyptian dwarf deity Bes, as depicted on a relief at Dendera. (Olaf Tausch/ CC BY 3.0 ) In ancient Egypt, especially during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods, dwarfs and pygmies were seen as people with celestial gifts.
The king’s scribe wrote to Harkhuf:
“You said in this letter of yours that you have brought a pygmy, of divine dances, from the land of the horizon dwellers. … Hurry and bring that pygmy you have brought, alive, happy and well, for the divine dances, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of the king!”
That was how Harkhuf’s fourth expedition came to an end: with the excited, squeal of the little boy who was his king, begging him to bring him a dancing pygmy.
Statue of the dwarf Seneb, his wife and children, 4th or 5th dynasty. ( Jon Bodsworth )
Such was life under the rule of an eight-year-old.
Pepi II: The Boy King Of Egypt
Pepi II was six-years-old when he became the pharaoh of Egypt. He was one of Egypt’s youngest rulers; but even as a child, he was considered a living god among men.
It was one of the strange realities of living in ancient Egypt. From time to time, a boy so young that he may well have still been wetting the bed found his way onto the throne. Suddenly, he was crowned the supreme ruler of Egypt and the intermediary between the people and the gods. His every whim was the will of the divine.
It made for some strange sights. In the early days of his reign, a statue was carved of the king, dressed in the full regalia of a pharaoh, sitting on his mother’s lap.
Statue of Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and Her Son, Pepy II. ( Brooklyn Museum )
They probably didn’t actually let him make that many important decisions. It’s believed that, early on, most of the business of ruling an empire was managed by his mother and his uncle . And even when he grew up, Pepi II was unusually willing to let his governors share his power.
But the boy-king wasn’t without his powers. And this letter is one of the few, rare glimpses we get into what life was like under the thumb of a little boy with power over an entire kingdom.
Harkhuf: One of History’s First Explorers
The letter meant a great deal to Harkhuf. In fact, it may well have been the most important moment in his entire life. That’s why we still have it today – Pepi II’s letter meant so much to him that Harkhuf had it engraved on the walls of his tomb .
Tomb of Harkhuf. ( Public Domain )
It wasn’t like Harkhuf’s life had been dull up until then. Under the rule of the last pharaoh, Mernere, he’d charted a never-before-discovered path into the kingdom of Yam and brought back an incredible wealth of exotic treasures, the likes of which Egypt had never seen.
He even stopped a war. During his third expedition, he convinced the king of Yam not to invade the kingdom of Temeh. Thousands of souls were in his debt: Yam’s army was so powerful that, if he hadn’t intervened, every person in Temeh would have been killed.
And yet, for him, none of that seems to have compared to the thrill of bringing young Pepi II a foreign dancer with dwarfism.
Head of Pepi II. ( FANDOM)
There was a reason, though, that this was so important to Harkhuf. It wasn’t just the chance to see joy in the child’s eyes. That pygmy made him a very, very wealthy man.
The Letter And The Dancing Pygmy
Pepi II’s letter made it clear just how important it was that that pygmy made it to his kingdom unharmed. Even before he sent it out, he’d had the overseer of the priests get ready for him. Every accommodation was being made for the little dancing man. He wouldn’t risk anything.
He ordered Harkhuf:
“When he goes down with you to the boat, get trusty men to stand around him on the gangplank - don't let him fall in the water! When he goes to bed at night, get trusty men to lie all round him in his hammock. Inspect ten times a night!”
Royal head from a small statue, black stone, Reign of Pepi II, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. ( CC0)
If Harkhuf got that pygmy to him alive, Pepi II promised, he would become a very, very rich man:
“His Majesty will provide many splendid rewards, so as to benefit your son's sons for all time, so that people will say when they hear what my Majesty has done for you, ‘Can anything equal what was done for Harkhuf when he returned from lyam?’”
Harkhuf and his son, Qubbet el-Hawa. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
Pepi II was as good as his word. It’s believed that Harkhuf spent the rest of his life an incredibly wealthy and powerful man. After a lifetime of discovering distant kingdoms, opening trade routes, and bringing back exotic discoveries, Harkhuf finally made his fortune by entertaining a child.
To archaeologists, the story of Harkhuf and the pygmy is interesting as evidence of ancient Egyptian culture and trade routes. To them, it’s a coded message that needs to be deciphered to understand the extent of a once-great empire.
But it’s hard to ignore the human part of the story: the image of Harkhuf coming home from a trip that took him 2,000 km (1242.74 miles) away from Egypt, bringing the little-boy king a dancing pygmy, and seeing his eyes light up with complete and utter childlike joy.
Top Image: Statue of Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and Her Son, Pepy II. ( Brooklyn Museum ) Background: Papyrus with ancient Egyptian writing. ( Public Domain )
By Mark Oliver
Heikkinen, Deanna. “Ancient Egyptian and Hittite Voices”. Los Angeles Valley College. https://professordeannaheikkinen.weebly.com/
Kinnaer, Jacques. 2014. “Biography of Pepi II”. The Ancient Egypt Site. http://www.ancient-egypt.org/history/old-kingdom/6th-dynasty/pepi-ii/biography-of-pepi-ii.html
Manetho. 1940. Maetho, with an English Translation by W.G. Waddell. Trans. W. G. Waddell. The Loeb Classic Library.
“Tomb Inscription of Harkhuf.” Kibbutz Reshafim. Trans. James Henry Breasted. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/harkhuf.htm
I’ve just finished reading Praise of the Scribe’s Profession: Egyptian Letter referred to in this article.it’s fascinating and I encourage everyone to read it. Thank you for the link