Herodotus, writing in the 5th century B.C., told of an Egyptian pharaoh who, "having made himself master of all Egypt . . . built a court for Apis, in which he is fed whenever he appears."
Apis was the sacred bull of ancient Memphis, an incarnation of Osiris, God of the Nile, Judge of the Dead, Ruler of the Kingdom of Ghosts. All traces of that elaborate court described by the Greek historian disappeared many centuries ago, but it was believed to be in the old capital of Memphis. Then the pioneer 20th-century Egyptologists located it, and in 1941 Dr. Ahmad Badawy actually uncovered part of its floor before he ran out of money. No one seemed to care much.
A blistering autumn day in 1954. John Dimick, a wealthy oil engineer and passionate amateur archeologist, wandered about the University of Pennsylvania's dig at Memphis, which he had been named to manage. Near the Temple of Ptah, a site being dug out with excruciating patience by brushing, scraping and picking, by the teaspoonful, he noticed some limestone blocks and a partly excavated stone floor half-hidden by silt and reeds.
He asked what it was. The head archeologist, Rudolf Anthes, said it was just the Embalming House of the Apis Bulls. None of the experts appeared interested, being absorbed with the burial sites in the temple. Dimick was welcome to fool with the embalming house, which no one had written about.
So he did. He dug it clean, he measured and described it for technical journals. He wrote a book about it, along with his other projects, from Tikal to Kythera. And this fall he will go back to start making it a showplace of ancient Egypt.
"I couldn't even read a glyph then," he said when visited recently at his Washington apartment. "I had to keep going over to ask Anthes and the others to help me every time I ran into some hieroglyphics."
Not any more, of course. One of the first things he did was learn to read the maddening pictographs, which may run right to left and left to right in the same sentance.
The visit will be his first return to the field in 10 years. It will not be the same without his wife Marion "Teena," who died at 77 last month after years of poor health. But Dimick himself appears as full of energy as ever. He is 83.
A native of Kentucky, he was raised in West Virginia, lived in New York for years before coming to Washington in 1948. He broke off many of his university connections when he retired at 75, but he is still associated with New York University and the Brooklyn Museum. He likes to keep his hand in.
"The bug bit me in '32 when I was in Herculaneum watching some restoration work," he said. "They were doing such a bad job it drove me crazy. I figured I could do better than that."
He paid his way into a Tulane University dig in El Salvador, started to work on his own . . . and discovered he couldn't handle it. He called his friend the late Dr. A.V. Kidder of Carnegie Institute. "I can locate the stuff," he shouted over the phone, "but I don't know what I'm finding!"
"John," Kidder replied, "I've been expecting this call."
His feet now thoroughly wet, Dimick talked the chairman of the board of United Fruit into a $4.5-million restoration of a Mayan temple complex in Guatemala. Dimick's skills as an engineer -- he had worked in the West Virginia coal mines and in the Oklahoma oil fields for Phillips Petroleum -- were enormously valued at archeological digs in remote places where water had to be drilled for or distilled from swamps, where peasants had to be turned into instant stonemasons, where compounds had to be built and supplies brought into the jungle.
Dimick's gift for organizing is almost more useful in the long run than his engineering. He laid out barracks and sewer systems for the artillery in World War I, served with the OSS in Spain in World War II. Because of his ability to run things, he was called in to direct the excavations at Tikal, one of the more spectacular early Mayan temples.And when the Egyptians opened the famous boat grave of Cheops, sensationally discovered in 1958 next to the Great Pyramid, Dimick was there.
To his delight he was invited to check out the crude scaffolding that was to lift the limousine-sized stones off the grave. He presented his report guaranteeing, by his American engineering expertise, that the thing would work. It did.
He is hooked on Egypt. The star exhibit in his apratment is a stunning 8-by-8 tapestry copy of the Abu Simbel relief showing Ramses II at the battle of Kadesh. Superbly worked in petit point by Egyptian artisans almost 50 years ago, it reproduces not only the colorful design but an epic poem about the battle, in neat glyphs. He is also full of lore about Egypt.
"Memphis was the capital of Egypt for centuries, but it was too easily attacked by enemies from the north, so they moved the capital to Thebes.Memphis just disintegrated. It was a city for 4,000 years, and it just crumbled finally."
He hopes to survey the whole site of Memphis. He wants to put a fence around his special project to give it more cachet. He is anxious to preserve the 50-ton carved alabaster embalming tables on which the bulls were prepared for the life after death.
The building itself appears to have been roofless rectangle enclosing a sort of maze through which the sacred bull roamed, while the royal necromancers studied the paths he took.
"Apparently there was no top on it, but we did find some stone rings that may have supported poles for a canopy," Dimick added.The actual burial place of the bulls was found in 1851 at nearby Sakkara.
One thing that puzzles him is that, though Apis was worshipped fanatically for 2,000 years, well into the Ptolemaic period, and the embalming practice lasted nearly 1,000 years, this is the only embalming house found in all of Egypt.
"That would argue for its importance, of course," he said. "But Egypt has so much. We haven't scratched the surface. Who knows what's buried out ther under all that sand?"