It took only 20 minutes for the presidents and potentates to march down a dusty Egyptian road in hot desert sunshine at Anwar Sadat's funeral today. Fleeting as the minutes were, the kind of power represented in those ranks was as old as the pyramids.
They moved along, a river of influence, drawn from the corners of the globe. There were enough ribbons, medals and gold braid on their uniforms to fill a new wing in the Egyptian Museum. And in their midst were three presidents of America, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, talking with dignitaries such as Britain's Prince Charles, looking earnest with his formal white uniform with a green sash across his tunic, and France's defeated president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
In this line stood Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, looking drawn and weary, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Carter's Middle East envoy, Sol Linowitz.
Precisely at noon, just after a roll of drums signaled the beginning of the ceremony and the burly figure of Sadat's apparent successor, Hosni Mubarak, strode briskly from his limousine, they all stepped off.
By a bit of luck, I was with the American and other dignitaries in the procession and overheard bits of their conversation. For all the solemnity of the moment, it was hardly historic, which is probably the case in all such state occasions.
From my position just behind the three former U.S. presidents, I heard Giscard calling out in strongly accented English, "Jimmy," and asking Carter, "Are you working in Washington now?"
"No, I have an office in Atlanta."
Giscard then talked about dinner parties, of having 400 guests at once.
Later, Giscard shifted over to Ford's side. The former president's booming Michigan voice was heard:
"July 14, yes, yes, that's my birthday, too."
He was, obviously, referring to France's national holiday, Bastille Day.
Ford again, laughing: "Mine won't live in history as long."
The specter of violence was omnipresent. Some of the Americans were wearing bulletproof vests. They and all the other foreign leaders were surrounded in the street by their various bodyguards who spoke a plethora of languages into their ubiquitous walkie-talkies.
Just before the procession began, a Secret Service agent standing next to me, only a few feet from Ford, Carter and Nixon, spoke quietly into his radio:
"Pace," he said, "there's a silver vehicle off to the right. It is armed. If anyone goes down, bring it over to the left."
It was a reminder, if any were needed, that this group was marching exactly in the same footsteps of Sadat's own soldiers, and to the very spot where some of them had assassinated the Egyptian leader four days ago.
Among the Americans, each president had his own special security contingent.
Off to the left, Nixon and his former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, were talking as they walked, but not loudly enough for others to hear.
Now it was Ford booming out again, his voice carrying over the sound of drums and the funeral dirge. He spoke to Begin this time, "Your parliament is in session now?"
He asked Begin if he knew Egypt's new leader, Mubarak.
"I have dealt with him," Begin replied.
As they marched along, to a slow pace, the foreign dignitaries were escorted on each side by two ranks of armed Egyptian soldiers. At first the soldiers failed to keep time to the drums, but as the procession moved along they fell into step. When the dignitaries stopped talking for moments at a time, the sound of the soldiers' boots beat a steady crescendo that filled their silence.
In the distance loomed a pyramid-shaped structure -- Egypt's tomb of the unknown soldier. Ahead, to the right, was a pavilion.
It was hotter now. The formal attire required -- dark suit and tie -- was suitable to the occasion but not to the weather.
At six minutes after noon, the procession stopped. Egyptian ranks formed around the first block of mourners, containing the Americans, Israelis, the French and others.
Carter turned to Ashraf Ghorbal, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, and asked, "Where was the assassination?"
Ghorbal swung his right hand around toward the pavilion. "It was right there. They ran from the truck from over there," he said, gesturing with his left hand.
Through television, that scene was familiar, but in person it seemed different. It is a bleak area in a bleak surrounding -- a dusty road standing in a dusty area of Egypt.
The procession moved again, slower now, turning toward the right and the pavilion. We stopped for what seemed like several minutes.
"It's eerie standing here like this," said Jody Powell, Carter's former press secretary.
He meant, although he did not have to say it, that if terrorists ever wished to pull off a dramatic coup with worldwide repercussions, here was the place and the time.
It was precisely the same spot where Sadat, like some tragic character in a Verdi opera, was slain by his own soldiers at a moment when he had every reason to feel most secure.
From the time earlier today when the American delegations' motorcade left the El Salaam Hotel near the airport, ordinarily an oasis of calm but now transformed into an armed camp with soldiers posted every few feet, automatic rifles extended, the question of violence could not be avoided.
The drive through the city also was eerie. Hardly a soul was seen along the way, except for long lines of soldiers in white uniforms, standing on the desert sands.
Once, a small group of women in black robes and veils, followed by about 10 Arab men, marched by waving signs in Arabic. There was nothing more until the motorcade neared Nasr City and turned toward the war memorial, where the funeral would be held.
Down one main street thick crowds were seen. A swarm of Egyptian troops, holding shields up, were beating them back with long wooden poles used in this part of the world to quell mobs.
Lines of troops were massed at the funeral area. There were more of them the closer the motorcade approached.
Their presence was reassuring, except for the knowledge that from such ranks came the shots that killed their president.
Security was the story today, the subject on everyone's mind. This time, to the world's relief, the security was secure.