From Jacek Bocheński's Divine Julius, Part III: Love
It proved impossible to secure Cleopatra’s interests without spilling blood. Caesar fought the Egyptian War for her sake. There are reports that he nearly drowned at some point when he jumped into the sea while holding some documents high above his head so that they would not get wet. Another time, he suffered from thirst because sneaky Egyptians filled in a canal and pumped sea water into his water tanks. He burned seventy-two Egyptian ships and a goodly part of the Alexandrian Library—he does not mention that last thing in his memoirs. In time, he broke up Ptolemy’s army, and when Cleopatra’s brother drowned in the Nile, Ceasar was finally free to experience the raptures of love. Cleopatra proposed a cruise up the Nile to Upper Egypt. Caesar had never seen the country, had known only the descriptions of Herodotus. They sailed upriver.
The landscapes they saw along the way are among the most gorgeous in the world. At first, the country was flat, the sky cloudless. For a long time, that was all they saw. So they spent their time in the royal apartment, furnished with oriental splendor and such refinement that Caesar, used to European restraint, had to feel a little abashed. That fairy-tale love nest made an impression on the conqueror of the world. He had never seen anything like this, not in Greece, not in Asia Minor. The young queen, one part Isis, one part Mut and Hathor, gave herself to him like a goddess. He had set her on the throne and never forgot that she owed it to him. And yet, this half-goddess made him feel divine.
This was funny business, of course, because how can anyone take such love-religious production seriously, and yet… one could not help falling under its spell. She created this very strange illusion aboard the ship. “They often feasted until dawn,” writes Suetonius discreetly.
As they sailed upriver, the views shifted. They left the lowlands, and now there were only narrow lines of greenery on both sides of the river, isolated clumps of date palms, here and there white temples raised by pharaohs millennia ago, flocks of ibis in the sky. Then this landscape changed, too, when massive rocks, which had for a long time only showed up at the far horizon, now multiplied and came closer until, until, eventually, they reached the very edge of the water. Your antiquary has no special insight into what Caesar was thinking about then, but he suspects he thought about—monuments. Any look at topographical maps suggests as much. By the time one reaches the Elephantine and the First Cataract, the lay of the land is such that one is forced to think about monuments, especially if one has seen the enormous statues of Ramses II in Thebes.
And by the time one reaches the First Cataract, the mystery of those statues becomes suddenly transparent to all who sail that way, all the more so to a mind like Caesar’s. One can resist the magic of lights reflected on the river; one can even ignore the coquettish way in which the naked rocks bathe in the water, but even the world’s coldest realist cannot escape the impression that stone Ramseses exist in nature. And thus, Caesar, who, of course, had a very broad interest in monuments, suddenly realized why the pharaohs had been unable to resist the urge to carve monuments out of this incredibly rich material lying about in readiness, in every direction, as far as the eye could see. He sailed past gigantic black granite rocks and saw how strikingly similar they were to super-human giants. One did not even have to do much carving. Just pick the right stones and set them up on plinths.
With his beloved half-goddess at his side, himself an equal of the gods, surrounded by the stony giants who would serve as his future monuments, he rose higher and higher. Besides, everything was gigantic in Upper Egypt, and one has to take this into account when trying to understand Caesar’s extraordinary love for Cleopatra. Only at the very end of their trip, as they approached Kush, which was the name of the mysterious land to the south, did something unpleasant happen: signs of displeasure among the troops.
Because the army marched right behind them, but the men were eager to get back to Italy, where they were to be paid. It was their ninth month in Egypt already, and it seems that songs about the “bald whoremonger” suddenly resounded at the First Cataract, completely spoiling Caesar’s exalted mood. Urged by his men, the commander decided to turn back.