Friday, July 22, 2022

WORLD WAR ZERO - The Archaeology of Marah Chase

 By Jay Stringer

My first two Marah Chase novels - released originally in hardback as Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb and Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth - are getting a new life in paperback and ebook from July 26th. (Which is my birthday. BUY MY BOOKS ON MY BIRTHDAY.) 

They have new titles and covers, and new branding. Gone is the "Marah Chase and..." to be replaced with standalone titles, with "Marah Chase in..." on the cover. Why that change? Well, first time round the titles were chosen to give the books an Indiana Jones feel. This time I decided to go with what I wish they'd done with Indiana Jones. Rather than rebranding Raiders of the Lost Ark to match the follow-ups, I think they should have given all the films a standalone Raiders style title, with "Indiana Jones in.."

And in so many ways these books are a chance for me to play with ideas that I think Raiders sets up and the other films ignore. One of the first descriptions we get of Jones is as "professor of archaeology, expert in the occult does one say it...obtainer of rare antiquities." The Jones of this film is a shady character, living in a dark world of the antiquities black market. He's an expert in the occult. And in the last part of the quote we see the tacit acknowledgment that what he's doing is wrong. Not yet criminal - the international laws against what he was doing were not yet fully formed- but definitely wrong. And your mileage may vary, but for me the other films in the franchise never delivered on these ideas. They turned him from Humprey Bogart into Gary Cooper. I want to stay in the former. I want to play in that world. 

So from July 26th Marah Chase is in WORLD WAR ZERO and THE END OF EDEN. 

The series plays around with history or more accurately alternative history. Long-time readers may know I have a fascination with that world. From the not-even-a-myth of Atlantis, to the exodus, lost cities, ancient myths, the occult, and we can even throw in tangents into cryptids and aliens. There's a whole world out there, bubbling away just beneath pop culture, formatting (well...mostly recycling) ideas that pop up into the mainstream every few years. Some of them are fun. Some of them are racist. Some of them are downright racist. 

But I also have a deep love for genuine history. For the real deal. The way we know who built the pyramids because we have the literal receipts. The movements of political ideas and technological innovations across the world. A history of labour rights (the first recorded labour strike in history was in Egypt, under Ramses III.) As much fun as alternative history is, it can't hold a candle to real history. And I like to play -through fiction- with the gap between what we really know and what alt-history theorists want to pretend we know. 

Over the next two weeks I'm going to take a brief look at some of the real -and very very fake- history of the Marah Chase series. 

And there do be spoilers here. 

The Tomb of Alexander the Great.

For the most part I played the story close to the truth. He did probably have three tombs -dying far away from home, being transported to Egypt, and then interred in his 'final' resting place. And it was famous. People travelled from all around, and many early maps and drawings of Alexandria show the 'Soma', which was the name for the tomb. Though it's important to note that none of the maps are from the time when the Soma still stood. The tomb vanished somewhere around 300 CE, and from there became the subject of myth, legend, and pulp fiction. It's often been said to be buried beneath a mosque or in the basement of a Coptic church. There's a sarcophagus in a Turkish museum that has sometimes been claimed to have been Alexander's. 

One curiosity I play with in the book is the idea that the tomb wasn't one of the seven ancient wonders. That strikes me as odd. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was included on the list, and would have been fresh in the memory around the time Alexander died. I would have thought the 'man who conquered the world' would have been built an even grander and more remarkable tomb in an act of dead penis envy. And yet....nope. In an early draft of the Marah Chase story I placed the tomb beneath the lighthouse of Alexandria, which is one of the ancient wonders and is in the right city at the right time. But I moved away from that idea after doing more research. 

For what it's worth, the location of the tomb in the book is my best guess as to where it really stood. Though unlike in the novel, I don't think there's anything there to find. An interesting theory that I touched on briefly in the story comes from Andrew Chugg, who suggests that Alexander's relics were co-opted by early Christians in the city and turned into those of Saint Mark. If Chugg is correct, Alexander's remains could still be found in the Vatican, where Saint Mark is interred. From there, everything else I write in the book about the tomb, or Alexander himself, is pure fiction. 

The Heretic King

I make much play in the book about the period of Egyptian history known as the Armana Period and the Pharoah Akhenaten. He is both the Elvis Pressley and Forrest Gump of alternative history. There are countless books, websites, and youtube documentaries that will try to tell you he was an alien, or Moses, or a vampire, or the founder of monotheism. His era -the Armana Period- is both a blessing and a curse to Egyptology. Akhenaten has been the focus of alt-history theorists and adventure writers for so long that he has threatened to overshadow all that we genuinely know about Egyptian history. And his son Tutankhamon -a fairly minor king in the grand scheme- dominates the pop culture of Egypt. Akhenaten and his son bring eyes and attention to ancient Egyptian history, but so many people stop there -choosing to believe the fringe theories - and don't move beyond them to explore a great and varied history. 

But even aside from the fringe, there are things we just accept as true about Akhenaten that aren't. Chief among them is monotheism, and the idea that he was a religious zealot. 

Religion in ancient Egypt was complex. Different regions and cities had different patron gods. All united under one main pantheon. In a pop culture sense we know Akhenaten as the man who came to power, changed his name, and wiped out the old religion to install a new one. His father has started to place greater emphasis on the worship of Aten. That is -greater emphasis within the existing structure- and Akhenaten continued this trend. But people were still free to worship other gods for most -if not all-of his reign. In reality it was more of a political and financial change. In making the official 'state' religion Atenism, Akhenaten took power and money away from the priests of Amun. Think of this more in relation to English history and Henrys II and VIII. They rebelled against priests and reformed state religion as suited them, but we don't think of them as religious zealots so much as power-seeking opportunists. One of the reasons Tutankhamon was buried with so much treasure -especially given he reigned for such a short time- could be that he was bribed by the priests of Amun to reinstate them. And Atenism wasn't really monotheism. Not as we think of it. Akhenaten didn't declare that there was only one god, he decided that there was only one god who should be prayed to. And the people didn't pray to Aten, they prayed to Akhenaten, who then claimed to pass all of the prayers on. That's not monotheism, that's a pyramid scheme. (See what I did there?)

But of course, for WORLD WAR ZERO, I lean into the pop culture view of Akhenaten. A crazed king, a religious cult leader. That's where the fun is....

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