Ancient Egypt (Rawlinson)/The Good Amenemhat and his Works
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The Good Amenemhat and his Works
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The great river to which Egypt owes her being, is at once the source of all her blessings and her chiefest danger. Swelling with a uniformity, well calculated to call forth man's gratitude and admiration, almost from a fixed day in each year, and continuing to rise steadily for months, it gradually spreads over the lands, covering the entire soil with a fresh coating of the richest possible alluvium, and thus securing to the country a perpetual and inexhaustible fertility. Nature's mechanism is so perfect, that the rise year after year scarcely varies a foot, and is almost exactly the same now as it was when the first Pharaoh poured his libation to the river-god from the embankment which he had made at Memphis; but though this uniformity is great, and remarkable, and astonishing, it is not absolute. There are occasions, once in two or three centuries, when the rainfall in Abyssinia is excessive. The Blue Nile and the Atbara pour into the deep and steady stream of the White Nile torrents of turbid water for months together. The windows of heaven seem to have been opened, and the rain pours down as if it would never cease. Then the river of the Egyptians assumes a threatening character; faster and faster it rises, and higher and higher; and further and further it spreads, until it begins to creep up the sides of the two ranges of hills. Calamitous results ensue. The mounds erected to protect the cities, the villages, and the pasture lands, are surmounted, or undermined, or washed away; the houses, built often of mud, and seldom of any better material than crude brick, collapse; cattle are drowned by hundreds; human life is itself imperilled; the population has to betake itself to boats, and to fly to the desert regions which enclose the Nile valley to the east and west, regions of frightful sterility, which with difficulty support the few wandering tribes that are their normal inhabitants. If the excessive rise continues long, thousands or millions starve; if it passes off rapidly, then the inhabitants return to find their homes desolated, their cattle drowned, their household goods washed away, and themselves dependent on the few rich men who may have stored their corn in stone granaries which the waters have not been able to penetrate. Disasters of this kind are, however, exceedingly rare, though, when they occur, their results are terrible to contemplate.
The more usual form of calamity is of the opposite kind. Once or twice in a century the Abyssinian rainfall is deficient. The rise of the Nile is deferred beyond the proper date. Anxious eyes gaze daily on the sluggish stream, or consult the "Nilometers" which kings and princes have constructed along its course to measure the increase of the waters. Hopes and fears alternate as good or bad news reaches the inhabitants of the lower valley from those who dwell higher up the stream. Each little rise is expected to herald a greater one, and the agony of suspense is prolonged until the "hundred days," traditionally assigned to the increase, have gone by, and there is no longer a doubt that the river has begun to fall. Then hope is swallowed up in despair. Only the lands lying nearest to the river have been inundated; those at a greater distance from it lie parched and arid during the entire summer-time, and fail to produce a single blade of grass or spike of corn. Famine stares the poorer classes in the face, and unless large supplies of grain have been laid up in store previously, or can be readily imported from abroad, the actual starvation of large numbers is the inevitable consequence. We have heartrending accounts of such famines. In the year 457 of the Hegira (A.D. 1064) a famine began, which lasted seven years, and was so severe that dogs and cats, and even human flesh, were eaten; all the horses of the Caliph but three perished, and his family had to fly into Syria. Another famine in A.D. 1199 is recorded by Abd-el-Latif, an eye-witness, in very similar terms.
There is reason to believe that, under the twelfth dynasty, some derangement of meteoric or atmospheric conditions passed over Abyssinia and Upper Egypt, either in both the directions above noticed, or, at any rate, in the latter and more ordinary one. An official belonging to the later part of this period, in enumerating his merits upon his tomb, tells us, "There was no poverty in my days, no starvation in my time, even when there were years of famine. I ploughed all the fields of Mah to its southern and northern boundaries; I gave life to its inhabitants, making its food; no one was starved in it. I gave to the widow as to the married woman." As the late Dr. Birch observes, "Egypt was occasionally subject to famines; and these, at the time of the twelfth dynasty, were so important, that they attracted great attention, and were considered worthy of record by the princes or hereditary lords who were buried at Beni-Hassan. Under the twelfth dynasty, also, the tombs of Abydos show the creation of superintendents, or storekeepers of the public granaries, a class of functionaries apparently created to meet the contingency."
The distress of his subjects under these circumstances seems to have drawn the thoughts of "the good Amenemhat" to the devising of some system which should effectually remedy these evils, by preventing their occurrence. In all countries where the supply of water is liable to be deficient, it is of the utmost importance to utilize to the full that amount of the life-giving fluid, be it more or be it less, which the bounty of nature furnishes. Rarely, indeed, is nature absolutely a niggard. Mostly she gives far more than is needed, but the improvidence or the apathy of man allows her gifts to run to waste. Careful and provident husbanding of her store will generally make it suffice for all man's needs and requirements. Sometimes this has been effected in a thirsty land by conducting all the rills and brooks that flow from the highlands or hills into subterranean conduits, where they are shielded from the sun's rays, and prolonging these ducts for miles upon miles, till every drop of the precious fluid has been utilized for irrigation. Such is the kareez or kanat system of Persia. In other places vast efforts have been made to detain the abundant supply of rain which nature commonly provides in the spring of the year, to store it, and prevent it from flowing off down the river-courses to the sea, where it is absolutely lost. For this purpose, either huge reservoirs must be constructed by the hand of man, or else advantage must be taken of some facility which nature offers for storing the water in convenient situations. Valleys may be blocked by massive dams, and millions of gallons thus imprisoned for future use, as is done in many parts of the North of England, but for manufacturing and not for irrigation purposes. Or naturally land-locked basins may be found, and the overflow of streams at their flood-time turned into them and arrested, to be made use of later in the year.
In Egypt the one and only valley was that of the Nile, and the one and only stream that which had formed it, and flowed along it, at a lower or higher level, ceaselessly. It might perhaps have been possible for Egyptian engineering skill to have blocked the valley at Silsilis, or at the Gebelein, and to have thus turned Upper Egypt into a huge reservoir always full, and always capable of supplying Lower Egypt with enough water to eke out a deficient inundation. But this could only have been done by an enormous work, very difficult to construct, and at the sacrifice of several hundred square miles of fertile territory, thickly inhabited, which would have been covered permanently by the artificial lake. Moreover, the Egyptians would have known that such an embankment can under no circumstances be absolutely secure, and may have foreseen that its rupture would spread destruction over the whole of the lower country. Amenemhat, at any rate, did not venture to adopt so bold a design. He sought for a natural depression, and found one in the Libyan range of hills to the west of the Nile valley, about a degree south of the latitude of Memphis--a depression of great depth and of ample expanse, fifty miles or more in length by thirty in breadth, and containing an area of six or seven hundred square miles. It was separated from the Nile valley by a narrow ridge of hills about two hundred feet high, through which ran from south-east to north-west a narrow rocky gorge, giving access to the depression. It is possible that in very high floods some of the water of the inundation passed naturally into the basin through this gorge; but whether this were so or no, it was plain that by the employment of no very large amount of labour a canal or cutting might be carried along the gorge, and the Nile water given free access into the depression, not only in very high floods, but annually when the inundation reached a certain moderate height. This is, accordingly, what Amenemhat did. He dug a canal from the western branch of the Nile--the modern Bahr Yousuf--leaving it at El-Lahoun, carried his canal through the gorge, in places cutting deep into its rocky bottom, and by a system of sluices and flood-gates retained such an absolute control over the water that he could either admit or exclude the inundation at his will, as it rose; and when it fell, could either allow the water that had flowed in to return, or imprison it and keep it back. Within the gorge he had thus at all times a copious store of the invaluable fluid, banked up to the height of high Nile, and capable of being applied to purposes of cultivation both within and without the depression by the opening and shutting of the sluices.
So much appears to be certain. The exact size and position of Amenemhat's reservoir within the depression, which a French savant was supposed to have discovered, are now called in question, and must be admitted to be still sub judice. M. Linant de Bellefonds regarded the reservoir as occupying the south-eastern or upper portion of the depression only, as extending from north to south a distance of fourteen miles only, and from east to west a distance varying from six to eleven miles. He regarded it as artificially confined towards the west and north by two long lines of embankment, which he considered that he had traced, and gave the area of the lake as four hundred and five millions of square mêtres, or about four hundred and eighty millions of square yards. Mr. Cope Whitehouse believes that the water was freely admitted into the whole of the depression, which it filled, with the exception of certain parts, which stood up out of the water as islands, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet high. He believes that it was in places three hundred feet deep, and that the circuit of its shores was from three hundred to five hundred miles. It is to be hoped that a scientific expedition will ere long set this dispute at rest, and enable the modern student distinctly to grasp and understand the great work of Amenemhat. Whatever may be the truth regarding "Lake Mœris," as this great reservoir was called, it is certain that it furnished the ancients one of the least explicable of all the many problems that the remarkable land of the Nile presented to them. Herodotus added to the other marvels of the place a story about two sitting statues based upon pyramids, which stood three hundred feet above the level of the lake, and a famous labyrinth, of which we shall soon speak.
Whether the reservoir of Amenemhat had the larger or the smaller dimensions ascribed to it, there can be no doubt that it was a grand construction, undertaken mainly for the benefit of his people, and greatly conducing to their advantage. Even if the reservoir had only the dimensions assigned to it by M. de Bellefonds, it would, according to his calculations, have contained water sufficient, not only for irrigating the northern and western portions of the Fayoum throughout the year, but also for the supply of the whole western bank of the Nile from Beni-Souef to the embouchure at Canopus for six months. This alone would in dry seasons have been a sensible relief to a large portion of the population. If the dimensions exceeded those of De Bellefonds, the relief would have been proportionately greater.
The good king was not, however, content merely to benefit his people by increasing the productiveness of Egypt and warding off the calamities that occasionally befell the land; he further gave employment to large numbers, which was not of a severe or oppressive kind, but promoted their comfort and welfare. In connection with his hydraulic works in the Fayoum he constructed a novel species of building, which after ages admired even above the constructions of the pyramid-builders, and regarded as the most wonderful edifice in all the world. "I visited the place," says Herodotus, "and found it to surpass description; for if all the walls and other great works of the Greeks could be put together in one, they would not equal, either for labour or expense, this Labyrinth; and yet the temple of Ephesus is a building worthy of note, and so is the temple of Samos. The pyramids likewise surpass description, and are severally equal to a number of the greatest works of the Greeks; but the Labyrinth surpasses the pyramids. It has twelve courts, all of them roofed, with gates exactly opposite one another, six looking to the north, and six to the south. A single wall surrounds the whole building. It contains two different sorts of chambers, half of them underground, and half above-ground, the latter built upon the former; the whole number is three thousand, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper chambers I myself passed through and saw, and what I say of them is from my own observation; of the underground chambers I can only speak from report, for the keepers of the building could not be induced to show them, since they contained (they said) the sepulchres of the kings who built the Labyrinth, and also those of the sacred crocodiles. Thus it is from hearsay only that I can speak of them; but the upper chambers I saw with my own eyes, and found them to excel all other human productions; for the passages through the houses, and the varied windings of the paths across the courts, excited in me infinite admiration, as I passed from the courts into chambers, and from the chambers into colonnades, and from the colonnades into fresh houses, and again from these into courts unseen before. The roof was, throughout, of stone, like the walls; and the walls were carved all over with figures; every court was surrounded with a colonnade, which was built of white stones, exquisitely fitted together. At the corner of the Labyrinth stands a pyramid, forty fathoms high, with large figures engraved upon it, which is entered by a subterranean passage."
The pyramid intended is probably that examined by Perring and Lepsius, which had a base of three hundred feet, and an elevation, probably, of about one hundred and eighty-five feet. It was built of crude brick mixed with a good deal of straw, and cased with a white silicious limestone. The same material was employed for the greater part of the so-called "Labyrinth," but many of the columns were of red granite, and some perhaps of porphyry. Most likely the edifice was intended as a mausoleum for the sacred crocodiles, and was gradually enlarged for their accommodation--Amenemhat, whose prænomen was found on the pyramid, being merely the first founder. The number of the pillared courts, and their similarity, made the edifice confusing to foreigners, and got it the name of "The Labyrinth"; but it is not likely the designers of the building had any intention to mislead or to confuse.
Amenemhat's prænomen, or throne-name, assumed (according to ordinary custom) on his accession, was Ra-n-mat, "Sun of Justice" or "Sun of Righteousness." The assumption of the title indicates his desire to leave behind him a character for justice and equity. It is perhaps noticeable that the name by which the Greeks knew him was Mœris, which may mean "the beloved." With him closes the first period of Theban greatness. A cloud was impending, and darker days about to follow; but as yet Egypt enjoyed a time of progressive, and in the main peaceful, development. Commerce, art, religion, agriculture, occupied her. She did not covet other men's lands, nor did other men covet hers. The world beyond her borders knew little of her, except that she was a fertile and well-ordered land, whereto, in time of dearth, the needy of other countries might resort with confidence.
- "Records of the Past," vol. xii. p. 60.
- Euterpe, ch. 148