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Leontopolis by August Strindberg

 

A caravan was encamped on a height eastward of the ancient Egyptian town Heliopolis. There were many people in it, but all were Hebrews. They had come on camels and asses from Palestine through the desert —the same desert which the Israelites had passed through thousands of years before.

In the evening twilight, by the faint light of the half-moon, hundreds of camp-fires were to be seen, and by them sat the women with their little children while the men carried water.

Never yet had the desert beheld so many little children, and, as they were now being put to bed for the night, the camp echoed with their cries. It was like an enormous nursery. But when the washing was over, and the little ones were laid to their mothers' breasts, the cries one after the other ceased, and there was complete silence. Under a sycamore tree sat a woman, and suckled her child; close by stood a Hebrew, feeding his ass with branches of the broom plant; when he had done that, he went higher up the hill, and looked towards the north. A foreigner—a Roman, to judge by his dress —passed, and regarded the woman with the child closely, as though he were counting them.

The Hebrew showed signs of uneasiness, and began a conversation with the Roman, in order to divert his attention from the woman.

“Say, traveller, is that the City of the Sun there in the west?”

“You see it!” answered the Roman.

“Then it is Bethshemesh.”

“Heliopolis, from which both Greeks and Romans have derived their wisdom; Plato himself has been here.”

“Can Leontopolis also be seen from here?”

“You see the pinnacles of its temple two miles northward.”

“But that is the land of Goshen, which our father Abraham visited, and which Jacob had portioned out to him,” said the Hebrew, turning to his wife, who only answered with an inclination of her head. Then, speaking to the Roman, he continued, “Israel wandered from Egypt to Canaan. But after the Babylonish captivity a part of them returned and settled down here. You know that.”

“Yes, I know that. And now the Israelites here have increased till they number many thousand souls, and have built a temple for themselves, which you see standing in the distance. Did you know that?”

“Yes, something about it. So that, then, is Roman territory?”

“Yes. Everything is Roman now—Syria, Canaan, Greece, Egypt —Germany, Gaul, Britain; the world belongs to Rome, according to the prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl.”

“Good! But the world is to be redeemed through Israel, according to God's promise to our father Abraham.”

“I have heard that fable also, but for the present Rome has the fulfilment of the promise. Do you come from Jerusalem?”

“I come through the desert like the others, and I bring wife and child with me.”

“Child—yes! Why do you Hebrews carry so many children with you?”

The Hebrew was silent, but since he perceived that the Roman knew the reason, and since the latter looked like a benevolent man, he resolved to tell the truth.

“Herod the King heard from the Wise Men of the East the prophecy that a King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem in the land of Judaea. In order to escape the supposed danger, Herod had all the children recently born in that district put to death. Just as Pharaoh once had our first-born put to death here. But Moses was saved, in order to free our people from the Egyptian bondage.”

“Well! but who was this King of the Jews to be?”

“The promised Messiah.”

“Do you believe that he is born?” “I cannot tell.”

“I can,” said the Roman. “He is born; he will rule the world, and bring all people under his sceptre.”

“And who will that be?”

“The Emperor, Augustus.”

“Is he of Abraham's seed or of David's house? No. And has he come with peace, as Isaiah prophesied, 'His kingdom shall be great, and of peace there shall be no end'? The Emperor is certainly not a man of peace.”

“Farewell, Israelite. Now you are a Roman subject. Be content with the redemption through Rome. We know not of any other.”

The Roman departed.

The Hebrew approached his wife. “Mary!” he said.

“Joseph!” she answered. “Hush! The child sleeps.”

 
 
 

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