Ancient Egypt (Rawlinson)/The Dawn of History
All nations, unless they be colonies, have a prehistoric time--a dark period of mist and gloom, before the keen light of history dawns upon them. This period is the favourite playground of the myth-spirits, where they disport themselves freely, or lounge heavily and listlessly, according to their different natures. The Egyptian spirits were of the heavier and duller kind--not light and frolicsome, like the Greek and the Indo-Iranian. It has been said that Egypt never produced more than one myth, the Osirid legend; and this is so far true that in no other case is the story told at any considerable length, or with any considerable number of exciting incidents. There are, however, many short legends in the Egyptian remains, which have more or less of interest, and show that the people was not altogether devoid of imagination, though their imagination was far from lively. Seb, for instance, once upon a time, took the form of a goose, and laid the mundane egg, and hatched it. Thoth once wrote a wonderful book, full of wisdom and science, which told of everything concerning the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea, and the four-footed beasts of the earth. He who knew a single page of the book could charm the heaven, the earth, the great abyss, the mountains, and the seas. Thoth took the work and enclosed it in a box of gold, and the box of gold he placed within a box of silver, and the silver box within a box of ivory and ebony, and that again within a box of bronze; and the bronze box he enclosed within a box of brass, and the brass box within a box of iron; and the box, thus guarded, he threw into the Nile at Coptos. But a priest discovered the whereabouts of the book, and sold the knowledge to a young noble for a hundred pieces of silver, and the young noble with great trouble fished the book up. But the possession of the book brought him not good but evil. He lost his wife; he lost his child; he became entangled in a disgraceful intrigue. He was glad to part with the book. But the next possessor was not more fortunate; the book brought him no luck. The quest after unlawful knowledge involved all who sought it in calamity.
Another myth had for its subject the proposed destruction of mankind by Ra, the Sun-god. Ra had succeeded Phthah as king of Egypt, and had reigned for a long term of years in peace, contented with his subjects and they with him. But a time came when they grew headstrong and unruly; they uttered words against Ra; they plotted evil things; they grievously offended him. So Ra called the council of the gods together and asked them to advise him what he should do. They said mankind must be destroyed, and committed the task of destruction to Athor and Sekhet, who proceeded to smite the men over the whole land. But now fear came upon mankind; and the men of Elephantine made haste, and extracted the juice from the best of their fruits, and mingled it with human blood, and filled seven thousand jars, and brought them as an offering to the offended god. Ra drank and was content, and ordered the liquor that remained in the jars to be poured out; and, lo! it was an inundation which covered the whole land of Egypt; and when Athor went forth the next day to destroy, she saw no men in the fields, but only water, which she drank, and it pleased her, and she went away satisfied.
It would require another Euhemerus to find any groundwork of history in these narratives. We must turn away from the "shadow-land" which the Egyptians called the time of the gods on earth, if we would find trace of the real doings of men in the Nile valley, and put before our readers actual human beings in the place of airy phantoms. The Egyptians themselves taught that the first man of whom they had any record was a king called M'na, a name which the Greeks represented by Mên or Menes. M'na was born at Tena (This or Thinis) in Upper Egypt, where his ancestors had borne sway before him. He was the first to master the Lower country, and thus to unite under a single sceptre the "two Egypts"--the long narrow Nile valley and the broad Delta plain. Having placed on his head the double crown which thenceforth symbolized dominion over both tracts, his first thought was that a new capital was needed. Egypt could not, he felt, be ruled conveniently from the latitude of Thebes, or from any site in the Upper country; it required a capital which should abut on both regions, and so command both. Nature pointed out one only fit locality, the junction of the plain with the vale--"the balance of the two regions," as the Egyptians called it; the place where the narrow "Upper Country" terminates, and Egypt opens out into the wide smiling plain that thence spreads itself on every side to the sea. Hence there would be easy access to both regions; both would be, in a way, commanded; here, too, was a readily defensible position, one assailable only in front. Experience has shown that the instinct of the first founder was right, or that his political and strategic foresight was extraordinary. Though circumstances, once and again, transferred the seat of government to Thebes or Alexandria, yet such removals were short-lived. The force of geographic fact was too strong to be permanently overcome, and after a few centuries power gravitated back to the centre pointed out by nature.
If we may believe the tradition, there was, when the idea of building the new capital arose, a difficulty in obtaining a site in all respects advantageous. The Nile, before debouching upon the plain, hugged for many miles the base of the Libyan hills, and was thus on the wrong side of the valley. It was wanted on the other side, in order to be a water-bulwark against an Asiatic invader. The founder, therefore, before building his city, undertook a gigantic work. He raised a great embankment across the natural course of the river; and, forcing it from its bed, made it enter a new channel and run midway down the valley, or, if anything, rather towards its eastern side. He thus obtained the bulwark against invasion that he required, and he had an ample site for his capital between the new channel of the stream and the foot of the western hills.
It is undoubtedly strange to hear of such a work being constructed at the very dawn of history, by a population that was just becoming a people. But in Egypt precocity is the rule--a Minerva starts full-grown from the head of Jove. The pyramids themselves cannot be placed very long after the supposed reign of Menes; and the engineering skill implied in the pyramids is simply of a piece with that attributed to the founder of Memphis.
In ancient times a city was nothing without a temple; and the capital city of the most religious people in the world could not by any possibility lack that centre of civic life which its chief temple always was to every ancient town. Philosophy must settle the question how it came to pass that religious ideas were in ancient times so universally prevalent and so strongly pronounced. History is only bound to note the fact. Coeval, then, with the foundation of the city of Menes was, according to the tradition, the erection of a great temple to Phthah--"the Revealer," the Divine artificer, by whom the world and man were created, and the hidden thought of the remote Supreme Being was made manifest to His creatures, Phthah's temple lay within the town, and was originally a naos or "cell," a single building probably not unlike that between the Sphinx's paws at Ghizeh, situated within a temenos, or "sacred enclosure," watered from the river, and no doubt planted with trees. Like the medieval cathedrals, the building grew with the lapse of centuries, great kings continually adding new structures to the main edifice, and enriching it with statuary and painting. Herodotus saw it in its full glory, and calls it "a vast edifice, very worthy of commemoration." Abd-el-Latif saw it in its decline, and notes the beauty of its remains: "the great monolithic shrine of breccia verde, nine cubits high, eight long, and seven broad, the doors which swung on hinges of stone, the well-carven statues, and the lions terrific in their aspect." At the present day scarcely a trace remains. One broken colossus of the Great Ramesses, till very recently prostrate, and a few nondescript fragments, alone continue on the spot, to attest to moderns the position of that antique fane, which the Egyptians themselves regarded as the oldest in their land.
The new city received from its founder the name of Men-nefer--"the Good Abode." It was also known as Ei-Ptah--"the House of Phthah." From the former name came the prevailing appellations--the "Memphis" of the Greeks and Romans, the "Moph" of the Hebrews, the "Mimpi" of the Assyrians, and the name still given to the ruins, "Tel-Monf." It was indeed a "good abode"--watered by an unfailing stream, navigable from the sea, which at once brought it supplies and afforded it a strong protection, surrounded on three sides by the richest and most productive alluvium, close to quarries of excellent stone, warm in winter, fanned by the cool northern breezes in the summer-time, within easy reach of the sea, yet not so near as to attract the cupidity of pirates. Few capitals have been more favourably placed. It was inevitable that when the old town went to ruins, a new one should spring up in its stead. Memphis still exists, in a certain sense, in the glories of the modern Cairo, which occupies an adjacent site, and is composed largely of the same materials.
The Egyptians knew no more of their first king than that he turned the course of the Nile, founded Memphis, built the nucleus of the great temple of Phthah, and "was devoured by a hippopotamus." This last fact is related with all due gravity by Manetho, notwithstanding that the hippopotamus is a graminivorous animal, one that "eats grass like an ox" (Job xi. 15). Probably the old Egyptian writer whom he followed meant that M'na at last fell a victim to Taourt, the Goddess of Evil, to whom the hippopotamus was sacred, and who was herself figured as a hippopotamus erect. This would be merely equivalent to relating that he succumbed to death. Manetho gave him a reign of sixty-two years.
The question is asked by the modern critics, who will take nothing on trust, "Have we in Menes a real Egyptian, a being of flesh and blood, one who truly lived, breathed, fought, built, ruled, and at last died? Or are we still dealing with a phantom, as much as when we spoke of Seb, and Thoth, and Osiris, and Set, and Horus?" The answer seems to be, that we cannot tell. The Egyptians believed in Menes as a man; they placed him at the head of their dynastic lists; but they had no contemporary monument to show inscribed with his name. A name like that of Menes is found at the beginning of things in so many nations, that on that account alone the word would be suspicious; in Greece it is Minos, in Phrygia Manis, in Lydia Manes, in India Menu, in Germany Mannus. And again, the name of the founder is so like that of the city which he founded, that another suspicion arises--Have we not here one of the many instances of a personal name made out of a local one, as Nin or Ninus from Nineveh (Ninua), Romulus from Roma, and the like? Probably we shall do best to acquiesce in the judgment of Dr. Birch: "Menes must be placed among those founders of monarchies whose personal existence a severe and enlightened criticism doubts or denies."
The city was, however, a reality, the embankment was a reality, the temple of Phthah was a reality, and the founding of a kingdom in Egypt, which included both the Upper and the Lower country some considerable time before the date of Abraham, was a reality, which the sternest criticism need not--nay, cannot--doubt. All antiquity attests that the valley of the Nile was one of the first seats of civilization. Abraham found a settled government established there when he visited the country, and a consecutive series of monuments carries the date of the first civilization at least as far back as B.C. 2700--probably further.
If the great Menes, then, notwithstanding all that we are told of his doings, be a mere shadowy personage, little more than magni nominis umbra, what shall we say of his twenty or thirty successors of the first, second, and third dynasties? What but that they are shadows of shadows? The native monuments of the early Ramesside period (about B.C. 1400-1300) assign to this time some twenty-five names of kings; but they do not agree in their order, nor do they altogether agree in the names. The kings, if they were kings, have left no history--we can only by conjecture attach to them any particular buildings, we can give no account of their actions, we can assign no chronology to their reigns. They are of no more importance in the "story of Egypt" than the Alban kings in the "story of Rome." "Non ragionam di loro, ma guarda e passi."
The first living, breathing, acting, flesh-and-blood personage, whom so-called histories of Egypt present to us, is a certain Sneferu, or Seneferu, whom the Egyptians seem to have regarded as the first monarch of their fourth dynasty. Sneferu--called by Manetho, we know not why, Soris--has left us a representation of himself, and an inscription. On the rocks of Wady Magharah, in the Sinaitic peninsula, may be seen to this day an incised tablet representing the monarch in the act of smiting an enemy, whom he holds by the hair of his head, with a mace. The action is apparently emblematic, for at the side we see the words Ta satu, "Smiter of the nations;" and it is a fair explanation of the tablet, that its intention was to signify that the Pharaoh in question had reduced to subjection the tribes which in his time inhabited the Sinaitic regions. The motive of the attack was not mere lust of conquest, but rather the desire of gain. The Wady Magharah contained mines of copper and of turquoise, which the Egyptians desired to work; and for this purpose it was necessary to hold the country by a set of military posts, in order that the miners might pursue their labours without molestation. Some ruins of the fortifications are still to be seen; and the mines themselves, now exhausted, pierce the sides of the rocks, and bear in many places traces of hieroglyphical inscriptions The remains of temples show that the expatriated colonists were not left without the consolations of religion, while a deep well indicates the care that was taken to supply their temporal needs. Thousands of stone arrow-heads give evidence of the presence of a strong garrison, and make us acquainted with the weapon which they found most effectual against their enemies.
Sneferu calls himself Neter aa, "the Great God," and Neb mat, "the Lord of Justice." He is also "the Golden Horus," or "the Conqueror." Neb mat is not a usual title with Egyptian monarchs; and its assumption by Sneferu would seem to mark, at any rate, his appreciation of the excellence of justice, and his desire to have the reputation of a just ruler. Later ages give him the title of "the beneficent king," so that he would seem to have been a really unselfish and kindly sovereign. His form, however, only just emerges from the mists of the period to be again concealed from our view, and we vainly ask ourselves what exactly were the benefits that he conferred on Egypt, so as to attain his high reputation.
Still, the monuments of his time are sufficient to tell us something of the Egypt of his day, and of the amount and character of the civilization so early attained by the Egyptian people. Besides his own tablet in the Wady Magharah, there are in the neighbourhood of the pyramids of Ghizeh a number of tombs which belong to the officials of his court and the members of his family. These tombs contain both sculptures and inscriptions, and throw considerable light on the condition of the country.
In the first place, it is apparent that the style of writing has been invented which is called hieroglyphical, and which has the appearance of a picture writing, though it is almost as absolutely phonetic as any other. Setting apart a certain small number of "determinatives," each sign stands for a sound--the greater part for those elementary sounds which we express by letters. An eagle is a, a leg and foot b, a horned serpent f, a hand t, an owl m, a chicken u, and the like. It is true that there are signs which express a compound sound, a whole word, even a word of two syllables. A bowl or basin represents the sound of neb, a hatchet that of neter, a guitar that of nefer, a crescent that of aah, and so on. Secondly, it is clear that artistic power is considerable. The animal forms used in the hieroglyphics--the bee, the vulture, the uræus, the hawk, the chicken, the eagle--are well drawn. In the human forms there is less merit, but still they are fairly well proportioned and have spirit. No rudeness or want of finish attaches either to the writing or to the drawing of Sneferu's time; the artists do not attempt much, but what they attempt they accomplish.
Next, we may notice the character of the tombs. Already the tomb was more important than the house; and while every habitation constructed for the living men of the time has utterly perished, scores of the dwellings assigned to the departed still exist, many in an excellent condition. They are stone buildings resembling small houses, each with its door of entrance, but with no windows, and forming internally a small chamber generally decorated with sculptures. The walls slope at an angle of seventy-five or eighty degrees externally, but in the interior are perpendicular. The roof is composed of large flat stones. Strictly speaking, the chambers are not actual tombs, but mortuary chapels. The embalmed body of the deceased, encased in its wooden coffin (Gen. 1. 26), was not deposited in the chamber, but in an excavation under one of the walls, which was carefully closed up after the coffin had been placed inside it. The chamber was used by the relations for sacred rites, sacrificial feasts, and the like, held in honour of the deceased, especially on the anniversary of his death and entrance into Amenti. The early Egyptians indulged, like the Chinese, in a worship of ancestors. The members of a family met from time to time in the sepulchral chamber of their father, or their grandfather, and went through various ceremonies, sang hymns, poured libations, and made offerings, which were regarded as pleasing to the departed, and which secured their protection and help to such of their descendants as took part in the pious practices.
Sometimes a tomb was more pretentious than those above described. There is an edifice at Meydoum, improperly termed a pyramid, which is thought to be older than Sneferu, and was probably erected by one of the "shadowy kings" who preceded him on the throne. Situated on a natural rocky knoll of some considerable height, it rises in three stages at an angle of 74° 10' to an elevation of a hundred and twenty-five feet. It is built of a compact limestone, which must have been brought from some distance. The first stage has a height a little short of seventy feet; the next exceeds thirty-two feet; the third is a little over twenty-two feet. It is possible that originally there were more stages, and probable that the present highest stage has in part crumbled away; so that we may fairly reckon the original height to have been between a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifty feet The monument is generally regarded as a tomb, from its situation in the Memphian necropolis and its remote resemblance to the pyramids; but as yet it has not been penetrated, and consequently has not been proved to have been sepulchral.
A construction, which has even a greater appearance of antiquity than the Meydoum tower, exists at Saccarah. Here the architect carried up a monument to the height of two hundred feet, by constructing it in six or seven sloping stages, having an angle of 73° 30'. The core of his building was composed of rubble, but this was protected on every side by a thick casing of limestone roughly hewn, and apparently quarried on the spot. The sepulchral intention of the construction is unquestionable. It covered a spacious chamber excavated in the rock, whereon the monument was built, which, when first discovered, contained a sarcophagus and was lined with slabs of granite. Carefully concealed passages connected the chamber with the outer world, and allowed of its being entered by those in possession of the "secrets of the prison-house." In this structure we have, no doubt, the tomb of a king more ancient than Sneferu--though for our own part we should hesitate to assign the monument to one king rather than another.
If we pass from the architecture of the period to its social condition, we remark that grades of society already existed, and were as pronounced as in later times. The kings were already deities, and treated with superstitious regard. The state-officials were a highly privileged class, generally more or less connected with the royal family. The land was partly owned by the king (Gen. xlvii. 6), who employed his own labourers and herdsmen upon it; partly, mainly perhaps, it was in the hands of great landed proprietors--nobles, who lived in country houses upon their estates, maintaining large households, and giving employment to scores of peasants, herdsmen, artizans, huntsmen, and fishermen. The "lower orders" were of very little account. They were at the beck and call of the landed aristocracy in the country districts, of the state-officials in the towns. Above all, the monarch had the right of impressing them into his service whenever he pleased, and employing them in the "great works" by which he strove to perpetuate his name.
There prevailed, however, a great simplicity of manners. The dress of the upper classes was wonderfully plain and unpretending, presenting little variety and scarcely any ornament. The grandee wore, indeed, an elaborate wig, it being imperative on all men to shave the head for the sake of cleanliness. But otherwise, his costume was of the simplest and the scantiest. Ordinarily, when he was employed in the common duties of life, a short tunic, probably of white linen, reaching from the waist to a little above the knee, was his sole garment. His arms, chest, legs, even his feet, were naked; for sandals, not to speak of stockings or shoes, were unknown. The only decoration which he wore was a chain or riband round the neck, to which was suspended an ornament like a locket--probably an amulet. In his right hand he carried a long staff or wand, either for the purpose of belabouring his inferiors, or else to use it as a walking-stick. On special occasions he made, however, a more elaborate toilet. Doffing his linen tunic, he clothed himself in a single, somewhat scanty, robe, which reached from the neck to the ankles; and having exchanged his chain and locket for a broad collar, and adorned his wrists with bracelets, he was ready to pay visits or to receive company. He had no carriage, so far as appears, not even a palanquin; no horse to ride, nor even a mule or a donkey. The great men of the East rode, in later times, on "white asses" (Judges v. 10); the Egyptian of Sneferu's age had to trudge to court, or to make calls upon his friends, by the sole aid of those means of locomotion which nature had given him.
Women, who in most civilized countries claim to themselves far more elaboration in dress and variety of ornament than men, were content, in the Egypt of which we are here speaking, with a costume, and a personal decoration, scarcely less simple than that of their husbands. The Egyptian materfamilias of the time wore her hair long, and gathered into three masses, one behind the head, and the other two in front of either shoulder. Like her spouse, she had but a single garment--a short gown or petticoat reaching from just below the breasts to half way down the calf of the leg, and supported by two broad straps passed over the two shoulders. She exposed her arms and bosom to sight, and her feet were bare, like her husband's. Her only ornaments were bracelets.
There was no seclusion of women at any time among the ancient Egyptians. The figure of the wife on the early monuments constantly accompanies that of her husband. She is his associate in all his occupations. Her subordination is indicated by her representation being on an unduly smaller scale, and by her ordinary position, which is behind the figure of her "lord and master." In statuary, however, she appears seated with him on the same seat or chair. There is no appearance of her having been either a drudge or a plaything. She was regarded as man's true "helpmate," shared his thoughts, ruled his family, and during their early years had the charge of his children. Polygamy was unknown in Egypt during the primitive period; even the kings had then but one wife. Sneferu's wife was a certain Mertitefs, who bore him a son, Nefer-mat, and after his death became the wife of his successor. Women were entombed with as much care, and almost with as much pomp, as men. Their right to ascend the throne is said to have been asserted by one of the kings who preceded Sneferu; and from time to time women actually exercised in Egypt the royal authority.
- R. Stuart Poole, "Cities of Egypt," pp. 24, 25.