Horse riders of the west Parthenon frieze. (Photo: Giorgos Vitsaropoulos, © Acropolis Museum).
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Irene Vallejo’s ‘The infinity within a reed‘ (El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo) The invention of the book in the ancient world. At the moment, there is no English translation (!), so we will share in the coming days a few excerpts we will translate into English for you, good patrons and readers, so to behold an impression of Irene Vallejo’s story-telling talent and skillful scholarship. This one being the second excerpt. From the French translation of Anne Plantagenet, Editions de Belles Lettres, 2021.
A mysterious group of horse riders furrow the roads of Greece. From their fields or at the doorstep of their huts, farmers were observing them with defiance. Experience taught them that only dangerous people travel: soldiers, mercenaries and slaves smugglers. They frown and grumble until they see them disappear on the horizon. They don’t like armed strangers.
The riders are racing without paying attention to them. During months, they ascended highlands, crossed mountain passes, dashed through valleys and rivers, navigated from island to island. Their muscles and their stamina hardened since they were entrusted with this strange mission. To fulfil their task, they must venture in violent territories of a world in quasi-permanent wars. They are the hunters searching for preys of a very particular nature. Silent preys, intelligent, leaving no traces.
If those alarming messengers were sitting at the tavern of a harbor to drink wine and eat grilled octopus, talk and getting drunk with strangers (which they never do, being careful), they would tell great travel stories. They ventured through lands devastated by the plague. They crossed regions burned away by fires, saw the smoking ashes of destruction and the brutality of rebels and mercenaries readying for war. As they are no maps of these regions, they got lost and wandered for days under the furor of the sun or storms. They were obliged to drink stagnant water that gave them monstrous diarrheas. As soon as it rains, their carts and their mules get bogged down potholes. Between shouts and swears, they release them, falling on their knees, face in the mud. When night surprises them far from any shelter, only their cape protects them from scorpions. They knew the unbearable torture of lice and the constant fear of highway men that were infesting the roads. Often, when they would progress over huge desertic lands, they would be terrified at the idea that a group of thieves is watching them, holding their breath, hidden behind a turn, and would raid them, kill them in cold blood, rob them, and abandon their still warm bodies behind bushes.
It is logic that they are afraid. The king of Egypt gave them huge amounts of money to carry out his orders on the other side of the sea. At that period, a few decades after the death of Alexander, travelling with an important amount was very risky, almost suicidal. And even if the thieves’ daggers, the contagious diseases, the shipwrecks, were threatening to fail such a costly mission, pharaoh kept sending his agents from the country of the Nile, crossing borders and great distances, at the four parts of the world. He wishes passionately, with a patient and painful craving to recover the preys his secret huntsmen are tracking for him, facing unknown dangers.
The farmers sitting at the threshold of their huts eying on them, the mercenaries and the scoundrels would have opened their eyes wide open full of surprise and open their mouths in disbelief, if they would have known what the foreign riders were searching.
Books. They were looking for books.
It was the most kept secret at the Egyptian court. The Lord of the Two Lands, one of the most powerful men, would have given his life (others’ more likely, it is always like that with kings) to acquire all the books of the world for his Great Library of Alexandria. He was pursuing a dream of an absolute and perfect library, where he would gather authors’ life-works from the beginning of time.