The Nomad’s Question

The Nomad's QuestionAuthor’s Note: My children love tales from other cultures or faraway lands. When your budget doesn’t allow a trip to a foreign destination, transport your family there through a story.

Once upon a time, there lived in ancient Egypt a wise king called the Pharaoh. This Pharaoh was very good to his people. One day each month, he opened his palace, and let the people enter to seek his advice. The Pharaoh was fair and just, and always had a solution to his subjects’ problems.

One day, a farmer came before the Pharaoh. The farmer told the Pharaoh that his crops would no longer grow. Every year for six years he had been blessed with bountiful crops. But now – nothing. The farmer asked the Pharaoh, “What do I do now, Oh Wise Ruler?”
The Pharaoh rubbed his bearded chin, deep in thought. Then he said, “You need to let your fields rest. And that’s not all. Throw all your garbage into the fields and mix it with the soil. That’s right, your spoiled food, your trash, even the manure from your livestock. Your fields are worn out. Their nutrients are gone. Let the fields rest for two years. While they rest, fertilize them just as I’ve instructed.”

The farmer was pleased with the advice. He left the court a hopeful man. Everyone in the Pharaoh’s court was amazed. They could all see that the Pharaoh’s answer carried great wisdom.

The next month, a merchant from a nearby city came to seek the Pharaoh’s advice. The merchant lived with his wife and mother. “My problem,” explained the merchant, “is that I live in the same house with my mother and my wife. They always fight. My wife screams at my mother, and before long, they’re pushing and hitting each other. I don’t know what to do. Please help me, O great Pharaoh!”

The Pharaoh reflected for a moment. Suddenly he said, “The problem is you. Your mother and your wife are jealous of one another. They both want your loyalty and attention. You should move into your neighbor’s house for a week. Leave your mother and your wife alone. They will see the cause of their fighting and settle their differences.” The merchant was impressed. The Pharaoh had offered the perfect solution. Everyone in the Pharaoh’s court came away humbled by the Pharaoh’s insight and judgment.

The next month, a nomad came into the kingdom. Nomads have no homes, and wander far and wide. In fact, this nomad had wandered all his life. Each day, he walked as far as his legs could carry him, only to wake the next day and wander again.

The nomad had heard of the Pharaoh’s reputation for fairness and wisdom. He went to the court and told the Pharaoh his problem. “Each day, I try to walk to the horizon. But the more I walk, the farther away I seem. Oh, wise Pharaoh, does the horizon ever end?”

“What do you mean,” asked the Pharaoh, “’does the horizon ever end?’“

The nomad scratched his matted hair. “If I keep walking in a straight line, will I ever come to an end? Will I ever reach the horizon . . . the place where the sky meets the land?”
The Pharaoh was stumped. He’d never been beyond his own kingdom, and didn’t know what lay beyond its frontiers. The nomad’s question was unlike any other he’d been asked. He didn’t know what to say.

The court officials looked anxiously at the Pharaoh. Never before had the Pharaoh taken so long. A few wondered whether the Pharaoh, who’d always been so wise and thoughtful, even knew the answer.

The Pharaoh too was worried. Not wanting to admit he didn’t have an answer, the Pharaoh announced, “I shall give the nomad an answer to his question tomorrow. As soon as the sun has risen.”

The Pharaoh left in a troubled state. He’d never been stumped before. He kept muttering to himself, “Where does the horizon end?” The Pharaoh believed that a person could never reach the horizon, but did that mean a person could walk in one direction forever?

The Pharaoh had difficulty falling asleep that night. He sat by an open window in his bedroom, watching the Nile River and the desert that extended beyond its banks to the West. There was a full moon, so bright he could see as if in daylight. A soft, warm breeze blew in from the desert, fluttering his robes and bringing with it the smell of scented smoke from cooking fires now dying down.

The Pharaoh closed his eyes and prayed to the many gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt for knowledge and guidance. He offered his most heartfelt prayers to the sky goddess Nut. The ancient Egyptians believed that Nut’s body created a protective canopy over all the Earth. Just as the Pharaoh finished his prayer, something miraculous happened. The Earth passed between the sun and the moon, casting its shadow across the moon’s face.
The Pharaoh had never seen this before. How had it occurred? Was it a ghost? A spirit? Some sort of evil? Or perhaps, a sign from the gods? He watched the eclipse for a full hour, and then returned to his bed to toss and turn during a troubled sleep.

In the early morning, the Pharaoh had a mysterious dream. Nut appeared, and with a gesture of her hand, caused the Pharaoh to be lifted from his bed. Accompanied by Nut, the Pharaoh passed through the Earth’s atmosphere and soared into the heavens. He looked down in awe upon the greens and blues of the Earth, bathed in a swirl of milky clouds. He then focused his eyes beyond the Earth, and marveled at the deep expanse of blue-black space embedded with the golden lights of countless stars and planets.

Nut extended her arms, and showed the Pharaoh an eclipse of the moon for what it really was. As the Pharaoh watched, the Earth passed between the sun and the moon, casting its circular shadow upon the moon’s surface. The Earth turned an eerie yellow-white in the sun’s glare. The moon appeared as if it were being swallowed, one hungry mouthful at a time. At once, the Pharaoh understood how an eclipse came to be. But more importantly, seeing the eclipse helped him understand the answer to the nomad’s question.

“That’s it!” exclaimed the Pharaoh. “The earth is not flat, but round. And if you could walk far enough toward the horizon in one direction, you would eventually come back to the very same place you started. That’s why the nomad could never reach the horizon.”

The Pharaoh awoke to sunlight streaming through his bedroom window. “The nomad!” he exclaimed as he dressed and rushed from his room. “I must hurry to give the nomad the answer to his question.”

When he arrived at court, his officials and the nomad were waiting for him, just as he commanded. Catching his breath, the Pharaoh ordered his servants to bring a candle and two eggs, one larger than the other. Everyone look confused, and wondered whether the Pharaoh had lost his mind. When his servants returned, the Pharaoh lit the candle and then held an egg in each hand.

“Think of this candle as the sun,” said the Pharaoh, “and these two eggs as the Earth and the moon.”

“But respectfully, sire, the Earth is flat,” one of his priests said.

“Not at all,” replied the Pharaoh. “It just looks flat when you stand here on the Earth’s surface. But when you see the Earth from the heavens, as I have, it’s as round as a ball.”
The court officials whispered to one other. Had the Pharaoh really seen the Earth from above?

The Pharaoh held the two eggs next to the candle. The Pharaoh pointed to the smaller egg in his right hand. “Pretend this egg is the moon, and that the larger egg, which I hold in my left hand, is the Earth.” The Pharaoh moved the larger egg between the candle and the smaller egg. “As you can see, the candle casts the larger egg’s shadow onto the face of the smaller egg.”

The Pharaoh turned to the nomad. “In the same way, whenever the Earth passes between the sun and moon – as it did last night – the Earth’s shadow is cast across the face of the moon. The Earth’s shadow is round, so we know that the Earth itself must be round. That’s why you could walk in one direction without ever reaching the horizon.”

Everyone was amazed, including the nomad.

All the court officials asked the Pharaoh, “How did you ever find the answer to the nomad’s question?”

The Pharaoh paused for a moment before responding. “It was easy. I found the answer in the moonlight.”