In all of Egypt’s history, so it is said, no pharaoh was wealthier than Rhampsinitus, who possessed gold, silver, precious gems, and other treasures in incredible abundance. Not surprisingly, he worried that someone might try to steal his treasures.
That would make him a poor king, and in Rhampsinitus’s mind a poor king was a powerless one who would not be remembered by his people after he had passed on to Osiris’s nether realm beneath the horizon.
Consequently, Rhampsinitus ordered that a special treasure room be built along one side of the palace. “There are to be no windows and only a single door,” he told the architect. “Furthermore, I want you to construct the walls, floor, and ceiling out of huge stone blocks that a man with a large ax would not be able to chip away, even if he worked at it day and night for twenty years.”
The architect carried out the king’s instructions and built the new, seemingly indestructible and robbery-proof treasure room. Then Rhampsinitus had all of his treasure placed inside and stationed his most trusted guards at the door, confident that no thief could ever gain entrance.
However, what the king did not count on was that the architect, in addition to being an expert builder, was a very clever man. While constructing the room, the architect cut into two pieces one of the stone blocks destined for the back, outer wall. One of the two pieces he cemented in place; but the other, which was light enough for one man to move with some considerable effort, he left loose. He inserted it so perfectly into the wall that the seam was practically invisible to the eye.
The Architect’s Two Sons
Several years passed and the architect, who was growing old, fell gravely ill. Lying on his deathbed, he summoned his two young sons and whispered to them the secret of the treasure room and its loose stone. “I do not want you boys to go through life having to bow and scrape for a living,” he said, “while that greedy pharaoh of ours hoards more wealth than he deserves. When I am dead and gone,
search out the stone, enter the treasure room, and carry away some of his wealth for yourselves. All that I ask is that you take care not to become as greedy as he is.”
Removing the stone and climbing inside the room, the brothers lit a torch and, to their awe and delight, saw the king’s magnificent treasures glittering in the yellow-orange glow. Quietly, so as not to alert the guards, they stuffed their pockets with gold coins and some jewelry and exited the room the same way they had entered. Then they replaced the stone.
The next day, King Rhampsinitus went to the treasure room to get a prized necklace for one of his wives. He saw that the guards were still on duty, and he also checked to make sure the seal he had placed on the door was unbroken. “My treasure must still be safe,” he thought reassuringly to himself. But when he entered the room and found the necklace, along with some other jewelry, missing, his confidence began to evaporate. “How can this be?” he muttered. “The guards saw nothing, and the door seal was unbroken.”
The king’s frustration grew as night after night the same scenario played out. The brothers sneaked into the treasure room, stole whatever they could carry, and escaped; and the next day the king discovered the theft, but could not fathom how it had been accomplished. Finally, the king ordered that a trap, made of heavy metal clamps, be set inside the room.
That very night the brothers entered the treasure room as usual, and it did not take long for one of them to get his legs ensnared in the trap’s metal clamps. Try as he might, the other brother was unable to free him. “If they find me in here in the morning, they will come looking for you and
our whole family will be punished,” said the trapped brother.
“There is only one thing to be done. You must cut off my head and take it with you. That way no one will be able to identify me, and our family will be safe.” Sobbing with grief, the second brother, who agreed that there was no alternative, carried out those instructions.
His Cleverest Deed
The next morning, when Rhampsinitus discovered the headless body in his treasure room, he cried out in anger. Since someone had to have removed the man’s head from the room, the king reasoned, there must still be a second thief at large!
In an effort to draw the living thief out, Rhampsinitus had the body of the dead one hung from the outside palace wall and placed guards nearby. If anyone attempted to retrieve the body, the guards would arrest him and the thief would be caught at last. At least, this is what the king thought would happen.
Instead, the surviving brother, who was, it turned out, even more clever than his father, devised a brilliant plan. First, he collected several goatskins, filled them with wine, put them on donkeys, and herded the animals past the guards outside the palace wall. Secretly, he cut two of the skins slightly open to allow the wine to begin flowing out.
Then he began screaming, “My master will beat me for this!” Seeing what was happening, some of the guards came over to help the young man save the wine; and before long he had become friendly with them and offered them the wine in the remaining goatskins. Once the drunken guards had fallen asleep and night had fallen, he cut down his brother’s body and escaped with it.
When the king heard of this trickery, he was more frustrated than ever. “So help me,” he swore, “I will outwit this fellow somehow.” This time Rhampsinitus devised a plan that involved his daughter, the royal princess. “I will issue a proclamation,” he told her, “saying that any man in the kingdom can speak to you and that you will grant him whatever favor he desires. But first, he will have to tell you
the cleverest thing he has ever done. When our thief reveals himself in this way, he will be my prisoner at last!”
But once more, the king’s plan backfired. Hearing the proclamation and guessing that it was meant to be a trap, the thief went to a cemetery, cut an arm off a corpse, and hid the severed limb under his robe. When it was his turn to meet with the princess, she posed the question about his cleverest deed.
Confidently, the thief told her about getting the guards drunk and escaping with his brother’s body.
When she heard this news, the princess grabbed hold of his arm and called out to the guards. “I have caught the thief!” she yelled triumphantly. But then, to her horror, she noticed that the man was gone and she was left holding the severed arm, which the thief had cleverly made to look like his own.
Having been outwitted so many times, Rhampsinitus decided that it was useless to waste any more energy trying to catch the thief. Admitting defeat, the king issued another proclamation, this time offering the thief a pardon and a rich reward if he would come forward and reveal his identity. A few days later, the architect’s son arrived at the palace and presented himself to the king in front of the
entire royal court.
“You are indeed a clever man to have been able to outwit me,” said Rhampsinitus. “Indeed, you are the cleverest Egyptian of them all! You will not only become my royal advisor, but also my son-in-law, for I will give you my daughter’s hand in marriage.” In this way, Rhampsinitus showed that he was, if not exceedingly clever, at least wise: for now the cleverest living countryman would be his trusted servant forever.
Label: Egyptian mythology