The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/Dawn of Civilization

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

DAWN OF CIVILIZATION

B.C. 5867[1]

G.C.C. MASPERO

It is a far cry to hark back to 11,000 years before Christ, yet borings in the valley of the Nile, whence comes the first recorded history of the human race, have unveiled to the light pottery and other relics of civilization that, at the rate of deposits of the Nile, must have taken at least that number of years to cover.
Nature takes countless thousands of years to form and build up her limestone hills, but buried deep in these we find evidences of a stone age wherein man devised and made himself edged tools and weapons of rudely chipped stone. These shaped, edged implements, we have learned, were made by white-heating a suitable flint or stone and tracing thereon with cold water the pattern desired, just as practised by the Indians of the American continent, and in our day by the manufacturers of ancient (sic) arrow-, spear-, and axe-heads. This shows a civilization that has learned the method of artificially producing fire, and its uses.
Egypt is the monumental land of the earth, as the Egyptians are the monumental people of history. The first human monarch to reign over all Egypt was Menes, the founder of Memphis. As the gate of Africa, Egypt has always held an important position in world-politics. Its ancient wealth and power were enormous. Inclusive of the Soudan, its population is now more than eight millions. Its present importance is indicated by its relations to England. Historians vary in their compilations of Egyptian chronology. The epoch of Menes is fixed by Bunsen at B.C. 3643, by Lepsius at B.C. 3892, and by Poole at B.C. 2717. Before Menes Egypt was divided into independent kingdoms. It has always been a country of mysteries, with the mighty Nile, and its inundations, so little understood by the ancients; its trackless desert; its camels and caravans; its tombs and temples; its obelisks and pyramids, its groups of gods: Ra, Osiris, Isis, Apis, Horus, Hathor—the very names breathe suggestions of mystery, cruelty, pomp, and power. In the sciences and in the industrial arts the ancient Egyptians were highly cultivated. Much Egyptian literature has come down to us, but it is unsystematic and entirely devoid of style, being without lofty ideas or charms. In art, however, Egypt may be placed next to Greece, particularly in architecture.
The age of the Pyramid-builders was a brilliant one. They prove the magnificence of the kings and the vast amount of human labor at their disposal. The regal power at that time was very strong. The reign of Khufu or Cheops is marked by the building of the great pyramid. The pyramids were the tombs of kings, built in the necropolis of Memphis, ten miles above the modern Cairo. Security was the object as well as splendor.
As remarked by a great Egyptologist, the whole life of the Egyptian was spent in the contemplation of death; thus the tomb became the concrete thought. The belief of the ancient Egyptian was that so long as his body remained intact so was his immortality; whence arose the embalming of the great, and hence the immense structures of stone to secure the inviolability of the entombed monarch.

The monuments have as yet yielded no account of the events which tended to unite Egypt under the rule of one man; we can only surmise that the feudal principalities had gradually been drawn together into two groups, each of which formed a separate kingdom. Heliopolis became the chief focus in the north, from which civilization radiated over the wet plain and the marshes of the Delta.

Its colleges of priests had collected, condensed, and arranged the principal myths of the local regions; the Ennead to which it gave conception would never have obtained the popularity which we must acknowledge it had, if its princes had not exercised, for at least some period, an actual suzerainty over the neighboring plains. It was around Heliopolis that the kingdom of Lower Egypt was organized; everything there bore traces of Heliopolitan theories—the protocol of the kings, their supposed descent from Ra, and the enthusiastic worship which they offered to the sun.

The Delta, owing to its compact and restricted area, was aptly suited for government from one centre; the Nile valley proper, narrow, tortuous, and stretching like a thin strip on either bank of the river, did not lend itself to so complete a unity. It, too, represented a single kingdom, having the reed and the lotus for its emblems; but its component parts were more loosely united, its religion was less systematized, and it lacked a well-placed city to serve as a political and sacerdotal centre. Hermopolis contained schools of theologians who certainly played an important part in the development of myths and dogmas; but the influence of its rulers was never widely felt.

In the south, Siut disputed their supremacy, and Heracleopolis stopped their road to the north. These three cities thwarted and neutralized one another, and not one of them ever succeeded in obtaining a lasting authority over Upper Egypt. Each of the two kingdoms had its own natural advantages and its system of government, which gave to it a peculiar character, and stamped it, as it were, with a distinct personality down to its latest days. The kingdom of Upper Egypt was more powerful, richer, better populated, and was governed apparently by more active and enterprising rulers. It is to one of the latter, Mini or Menes of Thinis, that tradition ascribes the honor of having fused the two Egypts into a single empire, and of having inaugurated the reign of the human dynasties.

Thinis figured in the historic period as one of the least of Egyptian cities. It barely maintained an existence on the left bank of the Nile, if not on the exact spot now occupied by Girgeh, at least only a short distance from it. The principality of the Osirian Reliquary, of which it was the metropolis, occupied the valley from one mountain to the other, and gradually extended across the desert as far as the Great Theban Oasis. Its inhabitants worshipped a sky-god, Anhuri, or rather two twin gods, Anhuri-shu, who were speedily amalgamated with the solar deities and became a warlike personification of Ra.

Anhuri-shu, like all other solar manifestations, came to be associated with a goddess having the form or head of a lioness—a Sokhit, who took for the occasion the epithet of Mihit, the northern one. Some of the dead from this city are buried on the other side of the Nile, near the modern village of Mesheikh, at the foot of the Arabian chain, whose deep cliffs here approach somewhat near the river: the principal necropolis was at some distance to the east, near the sacred town of Abydos. It would appear that, at the outset, Abydos was the capital of the country, for the entire nome bore the same name as the city, and had adopted for its symbol the representation of the reliquary in which the god reposed.

In very early times Abydos fell into decay, and resigned its political rank to Thinis, but its religious importance remained unimpaired. The city occupied a long and narrow strip between the canal and the first slopes of the Libyan mountains. A brick fortress defended it from the incursions of the Bedouin, and beside it the temple of the god of the dead reared its naked walls. Here Anhuri, having passed from life to death, was worshipped under the name of Khontamentit, the chief of that western region whither souls repair on quitting this earth.

It is impossible to say by what blending of doctrines or by what political combinations this Sun of the Night came to be identified with Osiris of Mendes, since the fusion dates back to a very remote antiquity; it had become an established fact long before the most ancient sacred books were compiled. Osiris Khontamentit grew rapidly in popular favor, and his temple attracted annually an increasing number of pilgrims. The Great Oasis had been considered at first as a sort of mysterious paradise, whither the dead went in search of peace and happiness. It was called Uit, the Sepulchre; this name clung to it after it had become an actual Egyptian province, and the remembrance of its ancient purpose survived in the minds of the people, so that the "cleft," the gorge in the mountain through which the doubles journeyed toward it, never ceased to be regarded as one of the gates of the other world.

At the time of the New Year festivals, spirits flocked thither from all parts of the valley; they there awaited the coming of the dying sun, in order to embark with him and enter safely the dominions of Khontamentit. Abydos, even before the historic period, was the only town, and its god the only god, whose worship, practised by all Egyptians, inspired them all with an equal devotion.

Did this sort of moral conquest give rise, later on, to a belief in a material conquest by the princes of Thinis and Abydos, or is there an historical foundation for the tradition which ascribes to them the establishment of a single monarchy? It is the Thinite Menes, whom the Theban annalists point out as the ancestor of the glorious Pharaohs of the XVIII dynasty: it is he also who is inscribed in the Memphite chronicles, followed by Manetho, at the head of their lists of human kings, and all Egypt for centuries acknowledged him as its first mortal ruler.

It is true that a chief of Thinis may well have borne such a name, and may have accomplished feats which rendered him famous; but on closer examination his pretensions to reality disappear, and his personality is reduced to a cipher.

"This Menes, according to the priests, surrounded Memphis with dikes. For the river formerly followed the sand-hills for some distance on the Libyan side. Menes, having dammed up the reach about a hundred stadia to the south of Memphis, caused the old bed to dry up, and conveyed the river through an artificial channel dug midway between the two mountain ranges.

"Then Menes, the first who was king, having enclosed a space of ground with dikes, founded that town which is still called Memphis: he then made a lake around it to the north and west, fed by the river; the city he bounded on the east by the Nile." The history of Memphis, such as it can be gathered from the monuments, differs considerably from the tradition current in Egypt at the time of Herodotus.

It appears, indeed, that at the outset the site on which it subsequently arose was occupied by a small fortress, Anbu-hazu—the white wall—which was dependent on Heliopolis and in which Phtah possessed a sanctuary. After the "white wall" was separated from the Heliopolitan principality to form a nome by itself it assumed a certain importance, and furnished, so it was said, the dynasties which succeeded the Thinite. Its prosperity dates only, however, from the time when the sovereigns of the V and VI dynasties fixed on it for their residence; one of them, Papi I, there founded for himself and for his "double" after him, a new town, which he called Minnofiru, from his tomb. Minnofiru, which is the correct pronunciation and the origin of Memphis, probably signified "the good refuge," the haven of the good, the burying-place where the blessed dead came to rest beside Osiris.

The people soon forgot the true interpretation, or probably it did not fall in with their taste for romantic tales. They rather despised, as a rule, to discover in the beginnings of history individuals from whom the countries or cities with which they were familiar took their names: if no tradition supplied them with this, they did not experience any scruples in inventing one. The Egyptians of the time of the Ptolemies, who were guided in their philological speculations by the pronunciation in vogue around them, attributed the patronship of their city to a Princess Memphis, a daughter of its founder, the fabulous Uchoreus; those of preceding ages before the name had become altered thought to find in Minnofiru or "Mini Nofir," or "Menes the Good," the reputed founder of the capital of the Delta. Menes the Good, divested of his epithet, is none other than Menes, the first king of all Egypt, and he owes his existence to a popular attempt at etymology.

The legend which identifies the establishment of the kingdom with the construction of the city, must have originated at a time when Memphis was still the residence of the kings and the seat of government, at latest about the end of the Memphite period. It must have been an old tradition at the time of the Theban dynasties, since they admitted unhesitatingly the authenticity of the statements which ascribed to the northern city so marked a superiority over their own country. When the hero was once created and firmly established in his position, there was little difficulty in inventing a story about him which would portray him as a paragon and an ideal sovereign.

He was represented in turn as architect, warrior, and statesman; he had founded Memphis, he had begun the temple of Phtah, written laws and regulated the worship of the gods, particularly that of Hapis, and he had conducted expeditions against the Libyans. When he lost his only son in the flower of his age, the people improvised a hymn of mourning to console him—the "Maneros"—both the words and the tune of which were handed down from generation to generation.

He did not, moreover, disdain the luxuries of the table, for he invented the art of serving a dinner, and the mode of eating it in a reclining posture. One day, while hunting, his dogs, excited by something or other, fell upon him to devour him. He escaped with difficulty and, pursued by them, fled to the shore of Lake Moeris, and was there brought to bay; he was on the point of succumbing to them, when a crocodile took him on his back and carried him across to the other side. In gratitude he built a new town, which he called Crocodilopolis, and assigned to it for its god the crocodile which had saved him; he then erected close to it the famous labyrinth and a pyramid for his tomb.

Other traditions show him in a less favorable light. They accuse him of having, by horrible crimes, excited against him the anger of the gods, and allege that after a reign of sixty-two years he was killed by a hippopotamus which came forth from the Nile. They also relate that the Saite Tafnakhti, returning from an expedition against the Arabs, during which he had been obliged to renounce the pomp and luxuries of life, had solemnly cursed him, and had caused his imprecations to be inscribed upon a "stele"[2] set up in the temple of Amon at Thebes. Nevertheless, in the memory that Egypt preserved of its first Pharaoh, the good outweighed the evil. He was worshipped in Memphis, side by side with Phtah and Ramses II.; his name figured at the head of the royal lists, and his cult continued till the time of the Ptolemies.

His immediate successors have only a semblance of reality, such as he had. The lists give the order of succession, it is true, with the years of their reigns almost to a day, sometimes the length of their lives, but we may well ask whence the chroniclers procured so much precise information. They were in the same position as ourselves with regard to these ancient kings: they knew them by a tradition of a later age, by a fragment papyrus fortuitously preserved in a temple, by accidentally coming across some monument bearing their name, and were reduced, as it were, to put together the few facts which they possessed, or to supply such as were wanting by conjectures, often in a very improbable manner. It is quite possible that they were unable to gather from the memory of the past the names of those individuals of which they made up the first two dynasties. The forms of these names are curt and rugged, and indicative of a rude and savage state, harmonizing with the semi-barbaric period to which they are relegated: Ati the Wrestler, Teti the Runner, Qeunqoni the Crusher, are suitable rulers for a people the first duty of whose chief was to lead his followers into battle, and to strike harder than any other man in the thickest of the fight.

The inscriptions supply us with proofs that some of these princes lived and reigned:—Sondi, who is classed in the II dynasty, received a continuous worship toward the end of the III dynasty. But did all those who preceded him, and those who followed him, exist as he did? And if they existed, do the order and relation agree with actual truth? The different lists do not contain the same names in the same position; certain Pharaohs are added or suppressed without appreciable reason. Where Manetho inscribes Kenkenes and Ouenephes, the tables of the time of Seti I give us Ati and Ata; Manetho reckons nine kings to the II dynasty, while they register only five. The monuments, indeed, show us that Egypt in the past obeyed princes whom her annalists were unable to classify: for instance, they associated with Sondi a Pirsenu, who is not mentioned in the annals. We must, therefore, take the record of all this opening period of history for what it is—namely, a system invented at a much later date, by means of various artifices and combinations—to be partially accepted in default of a better, but without, according to it, that excessive confidence which it has hitherto received. The two Thinite dynasties, in direct descent from the fabulous Menes, furnish, like this hero himself, only a tissue of romantic tales and miraculous legends in the place of history. A double-headed stork, which had appeared in the first year of Teti, son of Menes, had foreshadowed to Egypt a long prosperity, but a famine under Ouenephes, and a terrible plague under Semempses, had depopulated the country; the laws had been relaxed, great crimes had been committed, and revolts had broken out.

During the reign of the Boethos a gulf had opened near Bubastis, and swallowed up many people, then the Nile had flowed with honey for fifteen days in the time of Nephercheres, and Sesochris was supposed to have been a giant in stature. A few details about royal edifices were mixed up with these prodigies. Teti had laid the foundation of the great palace of Memphis, Ouenephes had built the pyramids of Ko-kome near Saqqara. Several of the ancient Pharaohs had published books on theology, or had written treatises on anatomy and medicine; several had made laws called Kakôû, the male of males, or the bull of bulls. They explained his name by the statement that he had concerned himself about the sacred animals; he had proclaimed as gods, Hapis of Memphis, Mnevis of Heliopolis, and the goat of Mendes.

After him, Binothris had conferred the right of succession upon all women of the blood-royal. The accession of the III dynasty, a Memphite one according to Manetho, did not at first change the miraculous character of this history. The Libyans had revolted against Necherophes, and the two armies were encamped before each other, when one night the disk of the moon became immeasurably enlarged, to the great alarm of the rebels, who recognized in this phenomenon a sign of the anger of heaven, and yielded without fighting. Tosorthros, the successor of Necherophes, brought the hieroglyphs and the art of stone-cutting to perfection. He composed, as Teti did, books of medicine, a fact which caused him to be identified with the healing god Imhotpu. The priests related these things seriously, and the Greek writers took them down from their lips with the respect which they offered to everything emanating from the wise men of Egypt.

What they related of the human kings was not more detailed, as we see, than their accounts of the gods. Whether the legends dealt with deities or kings, all that we know took its origin, not in popular imagination, but in sacerdotal dogma: they were invented long after the times they dealt with, in the recesses of the temples, with an intention and a method of which we are enabled to detect flagrant instances on the monuments.

Toward the middle of the third century before our era the Greek troops stationed on the southern frontier, in the forts at the first cataract, developed a particular veneration for Isis of Philæ. Their devotion spread to the superior officers who came to inspect them, then to the whole population of the Thebaid, and finally reached the court of the Macedonian kings. The latter, carried away by force of example, gave every encouragement to a movement which attracted worshippers to a common sanctuary, and united in one cult two races over which they ruled. They pulled down the meagre building of the Saite period, which had hitherto sufficed for the worship of Isis, constructed at great cost the temple which still remains almost intact, and assigned to it considerable possessions in Nubia, which, in addition to gifts from private individuals, made the goddess the richest land-owner in Southern Egypt. Knumu and his two wives, Anukit and Satit, who, before Isis, had been the undisputed suzerains of the cataract, perceived with jealousy their neighbor's prosperity: the civil wars and invasions of the centuries immediately preceding had ruined their temples, and their poverty contrasted painfully with the riches of the new-comer.

The priests resolved to lay this sad state of affairs before King Ptolemy, to represent to him the services which they had rendered and still continued to render to Egypt, and above all to remind him of the generosity of the ancient Pharaohs, whose example, owing to the poverty of the times, the recent Pharaohs had been unable to follow. Doubtless authentic documents were wanting in their archives to support their pretensions: they therefore inscribed upon a rock, in the island of Sehel, a long inscription which they attributed to Zosiri of the III dynasty. This sovereign had left behind him a vague reputation for greatness. As early as the XII dynasty Usirtasen III had claimed him as "his father"—his ancestor—and had erected a statue to him; the priests knew that, by invoking him, they had a chance of obtaining a hearing.

The inscription which they fabricated set forth that in the eighteenth year of Zosiri's reign he had sent to Madir, lord of Elephantine, a message couched in these terms: "I am overcome with sorrow for the throne, and for those who reside in the palace, and my heart is afflicted and suffers greatly because the Nile has not risen in my time, for the space of eight years. Corn is scarce, there is a lack of herbage, and nothing is left to eat: when any one calls upon his neighbors for help, they take pains not to go. The child weeps, the young man is uneasy, the hearts of the old men are in despair, their limbs are bent, they crouch on the earth, they fold their hands; the courtiers have no further resources; the shops formerly furnished with rich wares are now filled only with air, all that was within them has disappeared. My spirit also, mindful of the beginning of things, seeks to call upon the savior who was here where I am, during the centuries of the gods, upon Thot-Ibis, that great wise one, upon Imhotpu, son of Phtah of Memphis. Where is the place in which the Nile is born? Who is the god or goddess concealed there? What is his likeness?"

The lord of Elephantine brought his reply in person. He described to the king, who was evidently ignorant of it, the situation of the island and the rocks of the cataract, the phenomena of the inundation, the gods who presided over it, and who alone could relieve Egypt from her disastrous plight.

Zosiri repaired to the temple of the principality and offered the prescribed sacrifices; the god arose, opened his eyes, panted, and cried aloud, "I am Khnumu who created thee!" and promised him a speedy return of a high Nile and the cessation of the famine.

Pharaoh was touched by the benevolence which his divine father had shown him; he forthwith made a decree by which he ceded to the temple all his rights of suzerainty over the neighboring nomes within a radius of twenty miles.

Henceforward the entire population, tillers and vinedressers, fishermen and hunters, had to yield the tithe of their income to the priests; the quarries could not be worked without the consent of Khnumu, and the payment of a suitable indemnity into his coffers; finally, metals and precious woods, shipped thence for Egypt, had to submit to a toll on behalf of the temple.

Did the Ptolemies admit the claims which the local priests attempted to deduce from this romantic tale? and did the god regain possession of the domains and dues which they declared had been his right? The stele shows us with what ease the scribes could forge official documents when the exigencies of daily life forced the necessity upon them; it teaches us at the same time how that fabulous chronicle was elaborated, whose remains have been preserved for us by classical writers. Every prodigy, every fact related by Manetho, was taken from some document analogous to the supposed inscription of Zosiri.

The real history of the early centuries, therefore, eludes our researches, and no contemporary record traces for us those vicissitudes which Egypt passed through before being consolidated into a single kingdom, under the rule of one man. Many names, apparently of powerful and illustrious princes, had survived in the memory of the people; these were collected, classified, and grouped in a regular manner into dynasties, but the people were ignorant of any exact facts connected with the names, and the historians, on their own account, were reduced to collect apocryphal traditions for their sacred archives.

The monuments of these remote ages, however, cannot have entirely disappeared: they existed in places where we have not as yet thought of applying the pick, and chance excavations will some day most certainly bring them to light. The few which we do possess barely go back beyond the III dynasty: namely, the hypogeum of Shiri, priest of Sondi and Pirsenu; possibly the tomb of Khuithotpu at Saqqara; the Great Sphinx of Gizeh; a short inscription on the rocks of Wady Maghara, which represents Zosiri (the same king of whom the priests of Khnumu in the Greek period made a precedent) working the turquoise or copper mines of Sinai; and finally the step pyramid where this Pharaoh rests. It forms a rectangular mass, incorrectly oriented, with a variation from the true north of 4° 35', 393 ft., 8 in. long from east to west, and 352 ft. deep, with a height of 159 ft. 9 in. It is composed of six cubes, with sloping sides, each being about 13 ft. less in width than the one below it; that nearest to the ground measures 37 ft. 8 in. in height, and the uppermost one 29 ft. 2 in.

It was entirely constructed of limestone from neighboring mountains. The blocks are small and badly cut, the stone courses being concave, to offer a better resistance to downward thrust and to shocks of earthquake. When breaches in the masonry are examined, it can be seen that the external surface of the steps has, as it were, a double stone facing, each facing being carefully dressed. The body of the pyramid is solid, the chambers being cut in the rock beneath. These chambers have often been enlarged, restored, and reworked in the course of centuries, and the passages which connect them form a perfect labyrinth into which it is dangerous to venture without a guide. The columned porch, the galleries and halls, all lead to a sort of enormous shaft, at the bottom of which the architect had contrived a hiding-place, destined, no doubt, to contain the more precious objects of the funerary furniture. Until the beginning of this century the vault had preserved its original lining of glazed pottery. Three quarters of the wall surface was covered with green tiles, oblong and lightly convex on the outer side, but flat on the inner: a square projection pierced with a hole served to fix them at the back in a horizontal line by means of flexible wooden rods. Three bands which frame one of the doors are inscribed with the titles of the Pharaoh. The hieroglyphs are raised in either blue, red, green, or yellow, on a fawn-colored ground.

The towns, palaces, temples, all the buildings which princes and kings had constructed to be witnesses of their power or piety to future generations, have disappeared in the course of ages, under the feet and before the triumphal blasts of many invading hosts: the pyramid alone has survived, and the most ancient of the historic monuments of Egypt is a tomb.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Champollion.
  2. The burned tile showing the impression of the stylus, made on the clay while plastic.—ED.