The Day I Died: The Dreams of Remembrance of a Past Life
Rhawn Gabriel Joseph, Ph.D.
Until about seven years of age, I had recurring dreams of an ancient towering city by the sea. The dreams always ended the same, but would begin at different moments, backwards in time, on the day I died.
I was playing upon the summit of a steep grassy hill, near my mother who was robed in white Grecian-style dress, and watched as a formation of helmeted Roman soldiers, ovoid shields slung on their left, spears gripped tightly on their right, marched in formation, on a wide Roman road, alongside the river bank down below.
The river was deep and wide. Boats and men worked the waters as birds dived for fish and hippos splashed and munched on watery grass, soggy plants and sodden weeds. Hawks soared overhead. Loons, gannets and grebes hunted near the shallows. Wild papyrus, lotus, bamboo, reeds, conifers and palms swayed in the hot but gentle breeze.
There were dark skinned men, Egyptians, dressed in white diapers and kilts, fishing, sailing, pulling wide nets of squirming, struggling fish from the great river; and Egyptian women, laboring, washing clothes, babies on their hips, or nursing upon swollen breasts, and children swimming, playing among the reeds, the older boys enviously watching the soldiers.
And all along the river-hugging Roman road, there were Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Libyans, and Jews, some on horseback or riding hairy two humped camels, going to or returning from the ancient city, the poor on foot with goods balanced on their heads, others, the rich and noble elites, traveling in horse- or slave-drawn gleaming carriages with package-laden camels and servants following in their wake.
In dream time, I remembered my father, a Roman General, explaining how the Greeks, then the Romans had conquered Egypt, and Rome now ruled the world. And my mother, a slim, wide-eyed Greek beauty with a ten generation history into the ancient Egyptian past, laughing gayly, winking at me, saying "but its women who rule the Romans who rule the world."
The soldiers had come to a halt their helmets gleaming in the sun. A Roman officer was barking orders and the soldiers clumped together in turtle-fighting formation as if ready to do battle with an invisible foe hidden among the swaying reeds. More orders and they changed formation and resumed their march, followed now, by several little boys, playing soldier and marching in-step.
The dream was always fresh and new, completely real, and yet the same, differing only in that on some nights the dream began at different times that fateful day. This dream, with all ancestral memories in tow, began early morning, after we had departed our palatial Roman-style villa and farmlands which were nourished by one of the five tributaries of the great river which formed the fertile delta and then flowed to the sea.
In dream time, I lived moment to moment, not knowing what would happen next, or that my life would soon be coming to an end.
I could smell the sea-life and the salt of the ocean, and the swampy aroma of the river which flowed toward the shining city and became one with the sea. The southerly gates of the city opened to a plateau down below.
Gazing from my hilltop perch, I could see great boulevards, monuments, temples, palaces, soaring obelisks, and titanic statues of great kings, queens, conquerors, and others shaped like rams, lions, and bulls, some with men's bodies, some with men's heads. And towering above it all, an immense lighthouse of gleaming marble standing sentry at the end of a wide causeway that jutted miles into the sea.
Everything glimmered, like a dream.
I gazed longingly at our enclosed four-seater carriage and the two white horses grazing on the tall, lush green grass. The driver, a muscular male servant entrusted with our safety, was resting, half-asleep, droplets of sweat forming on his brow. It was growing hot and I was eager to continue our short journey to the ocean. Although I loved the ocean, the river beckoned, but my father had said the Nile was too dangerous, as crocodiles swam as far north as the delta. And yet, I could see other boys playing, swimming in the water!
My mother was chatting gayly with her younger sister and a sultry, blonde haired beauty, a golden bowl of succulent fruits between them. My mother and her sister were not Roman but Greek, their ancestors hailing from centuries before, generals who accompanied the great conquering king. The women were resting, talking, laughing, sitting on a carpet richly woven with threads of silver and gold. Waves of flowing black hair fell in a mass of curls upon the two sister's delicate shoulders, the blonde's piled high upon her head. They were young, gay, slim and beautiful, with lips painted red, and precious jewels, gold, and diamonds adorning arms, necks, fingers, ears and toes, reflecting rays of sunlight that escaped the feathered fans wielded by three scantily clad servant girls who silently umbrellad away the sun.
The blonde woman was lounging on one elbow, smiling cat-like, sipping purple wine from a bejeweled golden cup. She was Roman, and said little, but her blue eyes said much, lingering on my mother's lips as she giggled and gossiped. The woman was buxum and beautiful, a widow, a guest at our villa, her husband having been killed at war. Now she was gazing at the outline of my mother's breasts with a predatory intensity that I understood, without understanding, to be lust, admiration, and desire. I had seen that look before in the eyes of men as they gazed upon my mother, and remembered, just the night before, when my father was away, a Captain of the guard, a surprise visitor to our villa, staring at my mother with the same yearning smiling intensity. The blonde woman must have felt my eyes, for she looked up, smiled, then blew me a kiss.
The sky was cloudless, the morning sun blazing. The air felt thick and warm.
The three women stirred, stretched, adjusted their clothes, makeup and hair. It was a signal. They were getting ready to depart. Soon we would pass through the great city, and then onward to the endless blue-green sea.
And then, the ground began to shake and roll, as if a great serpent was snaking beneath the earth. Wine spilled from overturned cups. The servant girls screamed and cried out, dropped their fans, and clung to each other fearfully. Soldiers, down below, dropped shields, spears, stumbled and fell. Fisherman were cast into the river from their wildly rocking boats. Horses reared throwing their riders. Snorting camels ran pell-mell. Women and men toppled, their precious packages falling to the ground. Our horses bolted and nearly overturned the carriage in their desperation to escape the roiling serpent that shook the earth. It felt as if the entire world was about to turn upside down, and I fearfully gripped clumps of shrubbery and bush, sure I would be tossed and killed upon the rocks down below.
And although my aunt, their woman friend, and the servent girls clutched at one another as they cried out in fear, my mother who was adventurous and fearless, only laughed.
"Oh what fun!" she cried out gayly when the earth ceased to rock and roll. "Did you like that?" She asked, smiling at me.
No, I didn't, but instead replied: "I'm bored. I want to go swimming in the ocean."
My mother laughed. "Okay, my brave, handsome little man. We shall go to market, then to the sea."
The ocean! I felt happy, excited. Why? Then, and now, swimming the sea gives me a feeling of balance, a buoyant sense of utter freedom, an escape from the many rules which governed my life. The sea, for me, was, is, a doorway to another world: the universe, the beginning of time, the birth of all life in an ocean of water. In the ocean I felt, and still feel, an eternal oneness, unity, with the great beyond and the beginning of all, which is why, I love the sea.
Riding in our gold-gilded carriage --one servant girl up front with the driver, the others in the "rumble seat" in back-- we entered a wide stone causeway through the gate of the moon, and passed monuments, government buildings, an avenue of lion-shaped Sphinx, and the pyramidal-shaped tomb of a long dead queen guarded by marble colonnades, obelisks, and statues of heroes and ram-headed gods. Walls, temples, and vast colonnades were decorated with colorful hieroglyphics, others with words in Latin or Greek. Camels, horses, carts, soldiers, slaves, the rich and poor were going about their business.
Up ahead, the great library which housed the wisdom of the ancient world, and then the temple of the great god-king entombed in a coffin of gold. Only the fallen bricks, an overturned urn or statue, and slaves cleaning up the debris, bore witness to whatever god or demon had, that morning, shook the earth.
Onward we rode, the two white horses leading, the servant girls following close behind, passing shrines, shining towers, spiraling palaces where lived the city's nobles and royal elite; then a wide majestic park wondrous and green with all manner of exotic plants, a lake at its center, and the great zoo where lions, camels, gazelles, tigers, ostriches, and elephants roamed giant enclosures surrounded by moats wide and deep.
And now the marketplace, which led to the harbor, the lighthouse, and the blue-green sea. Here the aftermath of the great quake was still evident: overturned and shattered vases, fractured pottery and large broken jars lying in pools of spilt wine.
My mother excitedly exited the carriage, her sister and woman friend eagerly following. I hid my disappointment.
I was fascinated yet repelled by the marketplace knowing full well that my mother, once tempted, could endlessly shop. There were men, of course, but crowds of women, rich and poor, some clothed in double strapped linen dresses, others in shawls and tunics, or tube-like multi-colored sheaths of silk or wool, shopping, searching for precious bargains or food for the evening's dinner plate. I could see my mother's flashing eyes linger upon this treasure and that, as a thousand voices, speaking dozens of dialects and foreign tongues squabbled, haggled, shouted and argued over this and that. Carvings of gold, silver, ebony and jade. Persian perfumes. Cosmetics from Crete. Gems and jewelry. Porcelains and spices. Delicate silks and multi-colored skirts and cloths. Skins of panther and lion. Fine wines. Exotic foods. Merchants and shopkeepers. Magicians and jugglers. Beggars and thieves jostling the crowds. Arrogant Roman soldiers with gladius swords in their scabbards. Prostitutes and slaves with skin and hair as black as night or as bright as the golden sun, some in chains, others flexing their muscles or showing their breasts, genitals and thighs to those who might be tempted to buy.
I tugged my mother's arm, fearful we would spend eternity shopping and haggling. Laughing gayly, taking her sister and the blonde woman by the hands, my mother let me lead the way. The horse drawn carriage followed.
As we approached the harbor and the sea, a shadow passed over the sun. Vast flocks of birds and squads of sacred ibises were winging their way inland, screeching, calling out in a discordant, ominous chorus, as if to say: danger danger danger, fly fly fly away.
I gazed questioningly at my mother, her sister, her friend and searched the faces of the milling crowds, but few took notice of the fearful feathered flocks fleeing the sea.
We were soon upon the white sands of the ocean sea, a private reserve, the playground of the rich and elite. It was hot, sultry, and there were gaudy tents and crowds of people, some laying, sitting, chatting, watching, or feasting while slaves with great fans shielded them from the sun, whereas others, men and boys, were swimming in the sea.
Three handsome strapping men I knew to be officers of the guard were waiting outside a Roman-square-shaped tent erected in the sands. They waved in recognition, and were joined by my mother, her sister, and friend. Smiling they stepped inside. I had seen one of the men several times before, a captain of the guard, at the villa, when my father was away. That he and his friends may have been waiting for us to arrive, did not surprise or trouble my mind, though, I understood, secretly, it was not my love of the ocean which had brought us to the sea.
I stripped down, rushed joyously to the waters and began to swim, ducking beneath the waves, which, to my surprise, began to pull me out to sea. I fought against the tugging current, found footing and stood waist high in the sinking waters as the ocean began to recede...back back back... and then I stood amazed, my feet sinking into the wet mud and pools of drying sand. The ocean was gone.
There were crabs, giant shells and fish flopping on a sea of mud where moments before there had been crashing waves and a vast blue sea... Ships and small boats lay helter skelter on their sides as fish flopped and wiggling gasping sea creatures struggled for life upon the slime and the muck...
I ran across the wet sands to where the ocean had been, picking up giant multi-colored shells some with wiggling living creatures still inside, and gazed in wonder at the treasures that moments before had been hidden beneath the sea... Others, men, boys, and some girls and women, also ran onto the muck and wet sand picking up wiggling fish and laughing and talking in amazement because the ocean had receded back back back for miles and miles leaving the floor of the sea and all its wonders revealed for everyone to see....
I ran hither and yon, further and further out to where the ocean had been, exploring, excited by this miracle... and all around me crowds and couples chattered excitedly, doing the same...
Sailors, fishermen, sea-captains, and marines did not share our joy, but with puzzled, serious, even fearful looks. were abandoning their stricken ships, climbing over slanting sterns and starboard bows lying on their sides, sinking in the muck.
...and then... and then... and then...
… I heard screams... men, women, children, sailors and marines, yelling, screaming... and all were running toward the shore... and those on shore, they too were running, screaming... everyone running running, running away, terrified, shouting, screaming, scattering in a panic...
... and I heard a distant rumbling roar growing louder, coming closer, and I turned away from the maddening hysterical crowds, and gazed back at the struggling creatures of the deep, and ships mired in the muck and mud... and there, in the far distance, a rushing WALL OF OCEAN.. a MOUNTAIN OF WATER looming up into the sky... the ocean was returning, a titanic wave rushing toward where I was standing with sea shells in my hands... and I ran... like everyone else, running running running...
...and I could see, over my shoulder, behind me, the roaring wall of ocean water coming closer, and closer... faster faster faster... and I could see within the titanic wall of rushing water, schools of fish swimming and submerged boats and bodies of drowned sailors tumbling within the onrushing mountainous crest...
...and I kept running... everyone was running and screaming...trying to get away... and then the towering WALL OF WATER was just behind me... then looming over me... and then it crashed down upon me... the salty sea filling my mouth and lungs and crushing the life from out of me... and then I would awake in my bed... the same boy who drowned, but a different boy... me...
The dream haunted my sleep for years... the dream always ending the same... the impact of this wall of water smashing down, and the salty sea filling my mouth and lungs and crushing the life from out of me...
I analyzed these dreams, their Jungian symbolism, and searched for answers... It never occurred to me, then, that the ocean could actually recede as it did in my dreams...I knew nothing of Tsunamis until many years later... and then a new search for the source began...
On the morning of July 21, 365 AD, an earthquake of great magnitude caused a huge tsunami more than 100 feet high which inundated and destroyed several towns on the coasts of the Mediterranean, including the ports of the great city of Alexandria in Egypt, the shining ancient city of my dreams. This is how Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman historian, described the tsunami and its aftermath:
Slightly after daybreak, and heralded by a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts, the solidity of the whole earth was made to shake and shudder, and the sea was driven away, its waves were rolled back, and it disappeared, so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered and many-shaped varieties of sea-creatures were seen stuck in the slime; the great wastes of those valleys and mountains, which the very creation had dismissed beneath the vast whirlpools, at that moment, as it was given to be believed, looked up at the sun’s rays. Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered at will about the paltry remains of the waters to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea as if insulted by its repulse rises back in turn, and through the teeming shoals dashed itself violently on islands and extensive tracts of the mainland, and flattened innumerable buildings in towns or wherever they were found. Thus in the raging conflict of the elements, the face of the earth was changed to reveal wondrous sights. For the mass of waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning, and with the tides whipped up to a height as they rushed back, some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down."
We have been here before... We will be here again...
Life is but a dream...