A General History for Colleges and High Schools (Myers)/Chapter 2, pp. 18-39

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

Political History[edit]

Egypt and the Nile[edit]

Memphis, Thebes (upstream) and Alexandria, in that order, were capitals of ancient Egypt.

Egypt comprises the delta of the Nile and the flood-plains of its lower course. The whole land is formed of the deposits of the river; hence Herodotus, in happy phrase, called the country “the gift of the Nile.” The delta country was known to the ancients as Lower Egypt; while the valley proper, reaching from the head of the delta to the First Cataract, a distance of six hundred miles, was called Upper Egypt. (About seven hundred miles from the Mediterranean a low ledge of rocks, stretching across the Nile, forms the first obstruction to navigation in passing up the river. The rapids found at this point are termed the First Cataract. Six other cataracts occur in the next seven hundred miles of the river’s course.)

Through the same means by which Egypt was originally created, is the land each year still renewed and fertilized. The Nile, swollen by the heavy tropical rains about its sources, begins to rise in its lower parts late in June, and by October, when the inundation has attained its greatest height, the country presents the appearance of an inland sea.

By the end of November the river has returned to its bed, and the fields, over which has been spread a film of rich earth (The rate of the fluviatile deposit is from three to five inches in a century. The surface of the valley at Thebes, as shown by the accumulations about the monuments, has been raised seven feet during the last seventeen hundred years), present the appearance of black mud-flats. Usually the plow is run lightly over the soft surface, but in some cases the grain is sown upon the undisturbed deposit, and simply trampled in by flocks of sheep and goats driven over it. In a few weeks the entire land, so recently a flooded plain, is overspread with a sea of verdure, which forms a striking contrast to the desert sands and barren hills that rim the valley.


In Lower Egypt, near the sea, the rainfall in the winter is abundant; but the climate of Upper Egypt is all but rainless, only a few slight showers falling throughout the year. This dryness of the Egyptian air is what has preserved through so many thousand years, in such wonderful freshness of color and with such sharpness of outline, the numerous paintings and sculptures of the monuments of the Pharaohs.

The southern line of Egypt only just touches the tropics; still the climate, influenced by the wide and hot deserts that hem the valley, is semi-tropical in character. The fruits of the tropics and the cereals of the temperate zone grow luxuriantly. Thus favored in climate as well as in the matter of irrigation, Egypt became in early times the granary of the East. To it less favored countries, when stricken by famine, -- a calamity so common in the East in regions dependent upon the rainfall, -- looked for food, as did the families of Israel during drought and failure of crops in Palestine.

Dynasties and Chronology[edit]

Jar c. 3500 B.C.

The kings, or Pharaohs, that reigned in Egypt from the earliest times till the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.), are grouped into thirty-one dynasties. Thirty of these we find in the lists of Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the third century B.C., and who compiled a chronicle of the kings of the country from the manuscripts kept in the Egyptian temples.

We cannot assign a positive date to the beginning of the First Dynasty, chiefly because Egyptologists are at a loss to know whether to consider all the dynasties of Manetho’s list as successive or in part contemporaneous. Thus, it is held by some scholars that several of these families were reigning at the same time in the different cities of Upper and Lower Egypt; while others think that they all reigned at different epochs, and that the sum of the lengths of the several dynasties gives us the true date of the beginning of the political history of the country. Accordingly, some place the beginning of the First Dynasty at about 5000 B.C., while others put it at about 3000 B.C. The constantly growing evidence of the monuments is in favor of the higher figures.

Menes, the First of the Pharaohs[edit]

Menes is the first kingly personage, shadowy and indistinct in form, that we discover in the early dawn of Egyptian history. Tradition makes him the founder of Memphis, near the head of the Delta, the site of which capital he secured against the inundations of the Nile by vast dikes and various engineering works. To him is ascribed the achievement of first consolidating the numerous petty principalities of Lower Egypt into a single state.

The Fourth Dynasty: the Pyramid Kings (about 2700 B.C.).[edit]

The kings of the Fourth Dynasty, who reigned at Memphis, are called the Pyramid builders. Kufu I., the Cheops of the Greeks, was the first great builder. To him we can now positively ascribe the building of the Great Pyramid, the largest of the Gizeh group, near Cairo; for his name has been found upon some of the stones, -- painted on them by his workmen before the blocks were taken from the quarries.

The mountains of stone heaped together by the Pyramid kings are proof that they were cruel oppressors of their people, and burdened them with useless labor upon these monuments of their ambition. Tradition tells how the very memory of these monarchs was hated by the people. Herodotus says that the Egyptians did not like even to speak the names of the builders of the two largest pyramids.

The Twelfth Dynasty (about 2300 B.C.).[edit]

After the Sixth Dynasty, Egypt, for several centuries, is almost lost from view. When finally the valley emerges from the obscurity of this period, the old capital Memphis has receded into the background, and the city of Thebes has taken its place as the seat of the royal power.

The period of the Twelfth Dynasty, a line of Theban kings, is one of the brightest in Egyptian history. Many monuments scattered throughout the country perpetuate the fame of the sovereigns of this illustrious house. Egyptian civilization is regarded by many as having during this period reached the highest perfection to which it ever attained.

The Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings (from about 2100 to 1650 B.C.).[edit]

Soon after the bright period of the Twelfth Dynasty, Egypt again suffered a great eclipse. Nomadic tribes from Syria crossed the eastern frontier of Egypt, took possession of the inviting pasture-lands of the Delta, and established there the empire of the Shepherd Kings.

These Asiatic intruders were violent and barbarous, and destroyed or mutilated the monuments of the country. But gradually they were transformed by the civilization with which they were in contact, and in time they adopted the manners and culture of the Egyptians. It was probably during the supremacy of the Hyksos that the families of Israel found a refuge in Lower Egypt. They received a kind reception from the Shepherd Kings, not only because they had the same pastoral habits, but also, probably, because of near kinship in race.

At last these intruders, after they had ruled in the valley four or five hundred years, were expelled by the Theban kings, and driven back into Asia. This occurred about 1650 B.C. The episode of the Shepherd Kings in Egypt derives great importance from the fact that these Asiatic conquerors were one of the mediums through which Egyptian civilization was transmitted to the Phoenicians, who, through their wide commercial relations, spread the same among all the early nations of the Mediterranean area.

And further, the Hyksos conquest was an advantage to Egypt itself. The conquerors possessed political capacity, and gave the country a strong centralized government. They made Egypt in fact a great monarchy, and laid the basis of the power and glory of the mighty Pharaohs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties.

The Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1650-1400 B.C.).[edit]

Phalanx of the Khita

The revolt which drove the Hyksos from the country was led by Amosis, or Ahmes, a descendant of the Theban kings. He was the first king of what is known as the Eighteenth Dynasty, probably the greatest race of kings, it has been said, that ever reigned upon the earth.

The most eventful period of Egyptian history, covered by what is called the New Empire, now opens. Architecture and learning seem to have recovered at a bound from their long depression under the domination of the Shepherd Kings. To free his empire from the danger of another invasion from Asia, Amosis determined to subdue the Syrian and Mesopotamian tribes. This foreign policy, followed out by his successors, shaped many of the events of their reigns. Thothmes III., one of the greatest kings of this Eighteenth Dynasty, has been called “the Alexander of Egyptian history.” During his reign the frontiers of the empire reached their greatest expansion. His authority extended from the oases of the Libyan desert to the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Thothmes was also a magnificent builder. His architectural works in the valley of the Nile were almost numberless. He built a great part of the temple of Karnak, at Thebes, the remains of which form the most majestic ruin in the World. His obelisks stand to-day in Constantinople, in Rome, in London, and in New York.

The name of Amunoph III. stands next after that of Thothmes III. as one of the great rulers and builders of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

The Nineteenth Dynasty (about 1400-1280 B.C.)[edit]

Seti I.
Rameses II.

The pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty rival those of the Eighteenth in their fame as conquerors and builders. It is their deeds and works, in connection with those of the preceding dynasty, that have given Egypt such a name and place in history. The two great names of the house are Seti I. and Rameses II[1].

One of the most important of Seti’s wars was that against the Hittites (Khita, in the inscriptions) and their allies. The Hittites were powerful non-Semitic people, whose capital was Carchemish, on the Euphrates, and whose strength and influence were now so great as to be a threat to Egypt.

But Seti’s deeds as a warrior are eclipsed by his achievements as a builder. He constructed the main part of what is perhaps the most impressive edifice ever raised by man,--the world-renowned “Hall of Columns,” in the Temple of Karnak, at Thebes (see illustration, p. 32). He also cut for himself in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, at the same place, the most beautiful and elaborate of all the rock-sepulchres of the Pharaohs (see p. 31). In addition to these and numerous other works, he began a canal to unite the Red Sea and the Nile,--an undertaking which was completed by his son and successor, Rameses II.

Rameses II., surnamed the Great, was the Sesostris of the Greeks. His is the most prominent name of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Ancient writers, in fact, accorded him the first place among all the Egyptian sovereigns, and made him the hero of innumerable stories. His long reign, embracing sixty-seven years, was, in truth, well occupied with military expeditions and the superintendence of great architectural works.

His chief wars were those against the Hittites. Time and again is Rameses found with his host of war-chariots in their country, but he evidently fails to break their power; for we find him at last concluding with them a celebrated treaty, in which the chief of the Hittites is called “The Great King of the Khita” (Hittites[2]), and is formally recognized as in every respect the equal of the king of Egypt. Later, Rameses marries a daughter of the Hittite king. All this means that the Pharaohs had met their peers in the princes of the Hittites, and that they could no longer hope to become masters of Western Asia.

It was probably the fear of an invasion by the tribes of Syria that lead Rameses to reduce to a position of grinding servitude the Semitic peoples that under former dynasties had been permitted to settle in Lower Egypt; for this Nineteenth Dynasty, to which Rameses II. belongs, was the new king (dynasty) that arose “which knew not Joseph” (Ex. i. 8), and oppressed the children of Israel. It was during the reign of his son Menephtha that the Exodus took place (about 1300 B.C.).

The Twenty-sixth Dynasty (666-527 B.C.)[edit]

We pass without comment a long period of several centuries, marked, indeed, by great vicissitudes in the fortunes of the Egyptian monarchs, yet characterized throughout by a sure and rapid decline in the power and splendor of their empire.

During the latter part of this period Egypt was tributary to Assyria. But about 666 B.C., a native prince, Psammetichus[3] I. (666-612 B.C.), with the aid of Greek mercenaries from Asia Minor, succeeded in expelling the Assyrian garrisons. Psammetichus thus became the founder of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty.

The reign of this monarch marks a new era in Egyptian history. Hitherto Egypt had secluded herself from the world, behind barriers of jealousy, race, and pride. But Psammetichus being himself, it seems, of non-Egyptian origin, and owing his throne chiefly to the swords of Greek soldiers, was led to reverse the policy of the past, and to throw the valley open to the commerce and influences of the world. His capital, Saïs, on the Canopic branch of the Nile, forty miles from the Mediterranean, was filled with Greek citizens; and Greek mercenaries were employed in his armies.

This change of policy, occurring at just the period when the rising states of Greece and Rome were shaping their institutions, was a most significant event. Egypt became the University of the Mediterranean nations. From this time forward Greek philosophers, as in the case of Pythagoras and of Plato, are represented as becoming pupils of the Egyptian priests; and without question the learning and philosophy of the ancient Egyptians exerted a profound influence upon the quick, susceptible mind of the Hellenic race, that was, in its turn, to become the teacher of the world.

The liberal policy of Psammetichus, while resulting in a great advantage to foreign nations, brought a heavy misfortune upon his own. Displeased with the position assigned Greek mercenaries in the army, the native Egyptian soldiers revolted, and two hundred thousand of the troops seceding in a body, emigrated to Ethiopia, whence no inducement that Psammetichus offered could persuade them to return.

The son of Psammetichus, Necho[4] II. (612-596 B.C.), the Pharaoh-Necho of the Bible, followed the liberal policy marked out by his father. To facilitate commerce, he attempted to reopen the old canal dug by Seti I. and his son, which had become unnavigable. After the loss of one hundred and twenty thousand workmen in the prosecution of the undertaking, Necho was constrained to abandon it; Herodotus says, on account of an unfavorable oracle.

Necho then fitted out an exploring expedition for the circumnavigation of Africa, in hope of finding a possible passage for his fleets from the Red Sea to the Nile by a water channel already opened by nature, and to which the priests and oracles could interpose no objections. The expedition, we have reason to believe, actually accomplished the feat of sailing around the continent; for Herodotus, in his account of the enterprise, says that the voyagers upon their return reported that, when they were rounding the cape, the sun was on their right hand (to the north). This feature of the report, which led Herodotus to disbelieve it, is to us the very strongest evidence possible that the voyage was really performed.

The Last of the Pharaohs[edit]

Before the close of his reign, Necho had come into collision with the king of Babylon[5], and was forced to acknowledge his supremacy. A little later, Babylon having yielded to the rising power of Persia[6], Egypt also passed under Persian authority (see p. 77). The Egyptians, however, were restive under this foreign yoke, and, after a little more than a century, succeeded in throwing it off; but the country was again subjugated by the Persian king Artaxerxes III. (about 340 B.C.), and from that time until our own day no native prince has ever sat upon the throne of the Pharaohs. Long before the Persian conquest, the Prophet Ezekiel[7], foretelling the debasement of Egypt, had declared, “There shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt.” (Ezek. XXX. 13.)

Upon the extension of the power of the Macedonians[8] over the East (333 B.C.) , Egypt willingly exchanged masters; and for three centuries the valley was the seat of the renowned Graeco-Egyptian Empire of the Ptolemies[9], which lasted until the Romans[10] annexed the region to their all-absorbing empire (30 B.C.).

“The mission of Egypt among the nations was fulfilled; it had lit the torch of civilization in ages inconceivably remote, and had passed it on to other peoples of the West.”

Religion, Arts, and General Culture[edit]

Classes of Society[edit]

Egyptian society was divided into three great classes, or orders,--priests, soldiers, and common people; the last embracing shepherds, husbandmen, and artisans.

The sacerdotal order consisted of high-priests, prophets, scribes, keepers of the sacred robes and animals, sacred sculptors, masons, and embalmers. They enjoyed freedom from taxation, and met the expenses of the temple services with the income of the sacred lands, which embraced one third of the soil of the country.

The priests were extremely scrupulous in the care of their persons. They bathed twice by day and twice by night, and shaved the entire body every third day. Their inner clothing was linen, woollen garments being thought unclean; their diet was plain and even abstemious, in order that, as Plutarch says, “their bodies might sit light as possible about their souls.”

Next to the priesthood in rank and honor stood the military order. Like the priests, the soldiers formed a landed class. They held one third of the soil of Egypt. To each soldier was given a tract of about eight acres, exempt from all taxes. They were carefully trained in their profession, and there was no more effective soldiery in ancient times than that which marched beneath the standard of the Pharaohs.

The Chief Deities[edit]

Attached to the chief temples of the Egyptians were colleges for the training of the sacerdotal order. These institutions were the repositories of the wisdom of the Egyptians. This learning was open only to the initiated few.

The unity of God was the central doctrine in this private system. They gave to this Supreme Being the very same name by which he was known to the Hebrews -- Nuk Pu Nuk, “I am that I am.” (“It is evident what a new light this discovery throws on the sublime passage in Exodus iii. 14; were Moses, whom we may suppose to have been initiated into this formula, is sent both to his people and to Pharaoh to proclaim the true God by this very title, and to declare that the God of the highest Egyptian theology was also the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. The case is parallel to that of Paul at Athens.” -- Smith’s Ancient History of the East, p. 196, note.) The sacred manuscripts say, “He is the one living and true God, . . . who has made all things, and was not himself made.”

The Egyptian divinities of the popular mythology were frequently grouped in triads. First in importance among these groups was that formed by Osiris, Isis (his wife and sister), and Horus, their son. The members of this triad were worshipped throughout Egypt.

The god Set (called Typhon by the Greek writers), the principle of evil, was the Satan of Egyptian mythology. While the good and beneficent Osiris was symbolized by the life-giving Nile, the malignant Typhon was emblemized by the terrors and barrenness of the desert.

Prize bull, mummified.


Sepulchral chamber of the sacred bulls.

The Egyptians regarded certain animals as emblems of the gods, and hence worshipped them. To kill one of these sacred animals was adjudged the greatest impiety. Persons so unfortunate as to harm one through accident were sometimes murdered by the infuriated people. The destruction of a cat in a burning building was lamented more than the loss of the property. Upon the death of a dog, every member of the family shaved his head. The scarabaeus, or beetle, was especially sacred, being considered an emblem of the sun, or of life.

Not only were various animals held sacred, as being the emblems of certain deities, but some were thought to be real gods. Thus the soul of Osiris, it was imagined, animated the body of some bull, which might be known from certain spots and markings.

Upon the death of the sacred bull, or Apis, as he was called, a great search, accompanied with loud lamentation, was made throughout the land for his successor: for, the moment the soul of Osiris departed from the dying bull, it entered a calf that moment born. The calf was always found with the proper markings; but, as Wilkinson says, the young animal had probably been put to “much inconvenience an pain to make the marks and hair conform to his description.”

The body of the deceased Apis was carefully embalmed, and, amid funeral ceremonies of great expense and magnificence, deposited in the tomb of his predecessors. In 1851, Mariette discovered this sepulchral chamber of the sacred bulls. It is a narrow gallery, two thousand feet in length, cut in the limestone cliffs just opposite the site of ancient Memphis. A large number of the immense granite coffins, fifteen feet long and eight wide and high, have been brought to light.

Many explanations have been given to account for the existence of such a debased form of worship among so cultured a people as were the ancient Egyptians. Probably the sacred animals in the later worship represent an earlier stage of the Egyptian religion, just as many superstitious beliefs and observances among ourselves are simply survivals from earlier and ruder times.

Judgment of the Dead[edit]

Death was a great equalizer among the Egyptians. King and peasant alike must stand before the judgment-seat of Osiris and his forty-two assessors.

This judgment of the soul in the other world was prefigured by a peculiar ordeal to which the body was subjected here. Between each chief city and the burial-place on the western edge of the valley was a sacred lake, across which the body was born in a barge. But, before admittance to the boat, it must pass the ordeal called “the judgment of the dead.” This was a trial before a tribunal of forty-two judges, assembled upon the shore of the lake. Any person could bring accusations against the deceased, false charges being guarded against by the most dreadful penalties. If it appeared that the life of the deceased had been evil, passage to the boat was denied; and the body was either carried home in dishonor, or, in case of the poor who could not afford to care for the mummy, was interred on the shores of the lake. Many mummies of those refused admission to the tombs of their fathers have been dug up along these “Stygian banks.”

But this ordeal of the body was only a faint symbol of the dread tribunal of Osiris before which the soul must appear in the lower world. In one scale of a balance was placed the heart of the deceased; in the other scale, an image of Justice, or Truth. The soul stands by watching the result, and, as the beam inclines, is either welcomed to the companionship of the good Osiris, or consigned to oblivion in the jaws of a frightful hippopotamus-headed monster, “the devourer of evil souls.” This annihilation, however, is only the fate of those inveterately wicked. Those respecting whom hopes of reformation may be entertained are condemned to return to earth and do penance in long cycles of lives in the bodies of various animals. This is what is known as the transmigration of souls. The kind of animals the soul should animate, and the length of its transmigrations, were determined by the nature of its sins.


The Egyptians bestowed little care upon the temporary residences of the living, but the “eternal homes” of the dead were fitted up with the most lavish expenditure of labor. These were chambers, sometimes built of brick or stone, but more usually cut in the limestone cliffs that form the western rim of the Nile valley; for that, as the land of the sunset, was conceived to be the realm of darkness and of death. The cliffs opposite the ancient Egyptian capitals are honeycombed with sepulchral cells.

In the hills back of Thebes is the so-called Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, the “Westminster Abbey of Egypt.” Here are twenty-five magnificent sepulchres. These consist of extensive rock-cut passages and chambers richly sculptured and painted.

The subjects of the decorations of many of the tombs, particularly of the oldest, are drawn from the life and manners of the times. Thus the artist has converted for us the Egyptian necropolis into a city of the living, where the Egypt of four thousand years ago seems to pass before our eyes.

The Pyramids[edit]

B-1B Great Pyramid.jpg

The Egyptian pyramids, the tombs of the earlier Pharaohs, are the most venerable monuments that have been preserved to us from the early world. They were almost all erected before the Twelfth Dynasty. Although thus standing away back in the earliest twilight of the historic morning, nevertheless they mark, not the beginning, but the perfection of Egyptian art. They speak of long periods of growth in art and science lying beyond the era they represent. It is this vast and mysterious background that astonishes us even more than these giant forms cast up against it.

Being sepulchral monuments, the pyramids are confined to the western side of the Nile valley (see p. 31). There are over thirty still standing, with traces of about forty more.

The pyramid of Cheops, the largest of the Gizeh group, near Cairo, rises from a base covering thirteen acres, to a height of four hundred and fifty feet. According to Herodotus, Cheops employed one hundred thousand men for twenty years in its erection.

Palaces and Temples[edit]

Columns at Karnak.png
Karnak temple, Großer Säulensaal 9473.JPG

The earlier Memphian kings built great unadorned pyramids, but the later Theban monarchs constructed splendid palaces and temples. Two of the most prominent masses of buildings on the site of Thebes are called, the one the Palace of Karnak, and the other the Temple of Luxor, from the names of two native villages built near or within the ruined enclosures. The former was more than five hundred years in building. As an adjunct of the Palace at Karnak was a Hall of Columns, which consisted of a phalanx of one hundred and sixty-four gigantic pillars. Some of these columns measure over seventy feet in height, with capitals sixty-five feet in circumference.

In Nubia, beyond the First Cataract, is the renowned rock-hewn temple of Ipsambul, the front of which is adorned with four gigantic portrait-statues of Rameses II., seventy feet in height. This temple has been pronounced the greatest and grandest achievement of Egyptian art.

Sculpture: Sphinxes and Colossi[edit]

Made c. 1367 B.C.
Memnon statues.png

A strange immobility, due to the influence of religion, attached itself, at an early period, to Egyptian art. The artist, in the portrayal of the figures of the gods, was not allowed to change a single line in the conventional form. Hence the impossibility of improvement in sacred sculpture. Wilkinson says that Menes would have recognized the statue of Osiris in the Temple of Amasis. Plato complained that the pictures and statues in the temples in his day were no better than those made “ten thousand years” before.

The heroic, or colossal size of many of the Egyptian statues excites our admiration. The two colossi at Thebes, known as the “Statues of Memnon,” are forty-seven feet high, and are hewn each from a single block of granite. The appearance of these time-worn, gigantic figures, upon the solitary plain, is singularly impressive. “There they sit together, yet apart, in the midst of the plain, serene and vigilant, still keeping their untired watch over the lapse of ages and the eclipse of Egypt.”

One of these statues acquired a wide reputation among the Greeks and Romans, under the name of the “Vocal Memnon.” When the rays of the rising sun fell upon the colossus, it emitted low musical tones, which the Egyptians believed to be the greeting of the statue to the mother-sun. (It is probable that the musical notes were produced by the action of the sun upon the surface of the rock while wet with dew. The phenomenon was observed only while the upper part of the colossus, which was broken off by an earthquake, remained upon the ground. When the statue was restored, the music ceased.)

Egyptian Museum - Sphinx.JPG
Made c. 2612 B.C.

The Egyptian sphinxes were figures having a human head and the body of a lion, symbolizing intelligence and power. The most famous of the sphinxes of Egypt is the colossal figure at the base of the Great Pyramid, at Gizeh, sculptured, some think, by Menes, and others, by one of the kings of the Fourth Dynasty. The immense statue, cut out of the native rock, save the fore-legs, which are built of masonry, is ninety feet long and seventy feet high. “This huge, mutilated figure has an astonishing effect; it seems like an eternal spectre. The stone phantom seems attentive; one would say that it hears and sees. Its great ear appears to collect the sounds of the past; its eyes, directed to the east, gaze, as it were, into the future; its aspect has a depth, a truth of expression, irresistibly fascinating to the spectator. In this figure--half statue, half mountain--we see a wonderful majesty, a grand serenity, and even a sort of sweetness of expression.”

Glass Manufacture[edit]

King Tut’s Pendant
Glass jar c. 1320 B.C.

The manufacture of glass, a discovery usually attributed to the Phoenicians (The Phoenicians, being the carriers of antiquity, often received credit among the peoples with whom they traded, for various inventions and discoveries of which they were simply the disseminators), was carried on in Egypt more than four thousand years ago. The paintings of the monuments represent glass-blowers moulding all manner of articles. Glass bottles, and various other objects of the same material, are found in great numbers in the tombs. Some of these objects show that the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with processes of coloring glass that secured results which we have not yet been able to equal. The Egyptian artists imitated, with marvelous success, the variegated hues of insects and stones. The manufacture of precious gems, so like the natural stone as to defy detection, was a lucrative profession.

The Papyrus Paper[edit]

The chief writing material used by the ancient Egyptians was the noted papyrus paper, manufactured from a reed which grew in the marshes and along the water-channels of the Nile. From the Greek names of this Egyptian plant, byblos and papyrus, come our words “Bible” and “paper.” The plant has now entirely disappeared from Egypt, and is found only on the Anapus, in the island of Sicily, and on a small stream near Jaffa, in Palestine. Long before the plant became extinct in Egypt an ancient prophecy had declared, “The paper reeds by the brooks . . . shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.” (Isa. xix. 7.) The costly nature of the papyrus paper lead to the use of many substitutes for writing purposes--as leather, broken pottery, tiles, stones, and wooden tablets.

Forms of Writing[edit]

The Egyptians employed three forms of writing: the hieroglyphical[11], consisting of rude pictures of material objects, usually employed in monumental inscriptions; the hieratic[12], an abbreviated or rather simplified form of the hieroglyphical, adapted to writing, and forming the greater part of the papyrus manuscripts; and the demotic[13], or encorial[14], a still simpler form than the hieratic. The last did not come into use till about the seventh century B.C., and was then used for all ordinary documents, both of a civil and commercial nature. It could be written eight or ten times as fast as the hieroglyphical form.

Key to Egyptian Writing[edit]

Rosetta Stone

The key to the Egyptian writing was discovered by means of the Rosetta Stone. This valuable relic, a heavy block of black basalt, is now in the British Museum. It holds an inscription, written in hieroglyphic, in demotic, and in Greek characters. Champollion, a French scholar, by comparing the characters composing the words Ptolemy, Alexander, and other names in the parallel inscriptions, discovered the value of several of the symbols; and thus were opened the vast libraries of Egyptian learning.

We have now the Ritual, or Book, of the Dead, a sort of guide to the soul in its journey through the underworld; romances, and fairy tales, among which is “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper”; autobiographies, letters, fables, and epics; treatises on medicine, astronomy, and various other scientific subjects; and books on history--in prose and verse--which fully justify the declaration of the Egyptian priests to Solon[15]: “You Greeks are mere children, talkative and vain; you know nothing at all of the past.”

Astronomy, Geometry, and Arithmetic[edit]

Ursa Major, etc, on tomb ceiling of Seti I; perspective shows belief in a vast cosmos.

The cloudless and brilliant skies of Egypt invited the inhabitants of the Nile valley to the study of the heavenly bodies. And another circumstance closely related to their very existence, the inundation of the Nile, following the changing cycles of the stars, could not but have incited them to the watching and predicting of astronomical movements. Their observations led them to discover the length, very nearly, of the sidereal[16] year, which they made to consist of 365 days, every fourth year adding one day, making the number for that year 366. They also divided the year into twelve months of thirty days each, adding five days to complete the year. This was the calendar that Julius Caesar introduced into the Roman Empire, and which, slightly reformed by Pope Gregory XIII. in 1582, has been the system employed by almost all the civilized world up to the present day.

The Greeks accounted for the early rise of the science of geometry among the Egyptians by reference to the necessity they were under each year of re-establishing the boundaries of their fields--the inundation obliterating old landmarks and divisions. The science thus forced upon their attention was cultivated with zeal and success. A single papyrus has been discovered that holds twelve geometrical theorems.

Arithmetic was necessarily brought into requisition in solving astronomical and geometrical problems. We ourselves are debtors to the ancient Egyptians for much of our mathematical knowledge, which has come to us from the banks of the Nile, through the Greeks and the Saracens[17].

Medicine and the Art of Embalming[edit]

The custom of embalming the dead, affording opportunities for the examination of the body, without doubt had a great influence upon the development of the sciences of anatomy and medicine among the Egyptians. That the embalmers were physicians, we know from various testimonies. Thus we are told in the Bible that Joseph “commanded the physicians to embalm his father.” The Egyptian doctors had a very great reputation among the ancients.

Every doctor was a specialist, and was not allowed to take charge of cases outside of his own branch. As the artist was forbidden to change the lines of the sacred statues, so the physician was not permitted to treat cases save in the manner prescribed by the customs of the past; and if he were so presumptuous as to depart from the established mode of treatment, and the patient died, he was adjudged guilty of murder. Many drugs and medicines were used; the ciphers, or characters, employed by modern apothecaries to designate grains and drams are of Egyptian invention.

The Egyptians believed that after a long lapse of time, several thousand years, the departed soul would return to earth and reanimate its former body; hence their custom of preserving the body by means of embalmment. In the processes of embalming, the physicians made use of oils, resin, bitumen, and various aromatic gums. The body was swathed in bandages of linen, while the face was sometimes gilded, or covered with a gold mask. As this, which was the “most approved method” of embalming, was very costly, the expense being equivalent probably to $1000 of our money, the bodies of the poorer classes were simply “salted and dried,” wrapped in coarse mats, and laid in tiers in great trenches in the desert sands.

Rameses II, mummy drawing.
Rameses II, ancient statue.

Only a few years ago (in 1881) the mummies of Thothmes III., Seti I., and Rameses II., together with those of nearly all of the other Pharaohs of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Dynasties, were found in a secret cave near Thebes.

It seems that, some time in the 12th century B.C., a sudden alarm caused these bodies to be taken hastily from the royal tombs of which we have spoken (see p. 31), and secreted in this hidden chamber. When the danger had passed, the place of concealment had evidently been forgotten; so the bodies were never restored to their ancient tombs, but remained in this secret cavern to be discovered in our own day.

Darwin, 1809-1882

The mummies were taken to the Boulak Museum, at Cairo, where they were identified by means of the inscriptions upon the cases and wrappings. Among others the body of Seti I. and that of Rameses II. were unbandaged (1886), so that now we may look upon the faces of the greatest and most renowned of the Pharaohs. The faces of both Seti and Rameses are so remarkably preserved, that “were their subjects to return to earth to-day they could not fail to recognize their old sovereigns.” Both are strong faces, of Semitic cast, that of Rameses bearing a striking resemblance to that of his father Seti, and both closely resembling their portrait statues and profiles. Professor Maspero, the director-general of the excavations and antiquities of Egypt, in his official report of the uncovering of the mummies, writes as follows of the appearance of the face of Rameses: “The face of the mummy gives a fair idea of the face of the living king. The expression is unintellectual, perhaps slightly animal; but even under the somewhat grotesque disguise of mummification, there is plainly to be seen an air of sovereign majesty, of resolve, and of pride.” (On the finding and identification of the Pharaohs, consult two excellent articles in The Century Magazine for May, 1887.)

Chapter 3


  1. Rameses (ram-muh-sees); also spelled Ramses, Ramesses & Raamses; meaning: skeleton. A century after he died, his remains began to be stolen and rescued and were moved from place to place for thousands of years and ended up in a Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
  2. Hittites, i.e. Turks
  3. Psammetichus. s-uh met-i k-us.
  4. Necho. knee k-oh.
  5. Babylon: Iraq.
  6. Persia: Iran.
  7. the Prophet Ezekiel: A Hebrew priest at the time Necho lost Egypt to Babylon.
  8. Macedonians: Greek Army.
  9. Ptolemies: Greek Egyptians.
  10. Romans: Italians.
  11. Hieroglyphic (high row gliff ik), phonetically punctuated picture alphabet for decorating monuments with writing.
  12. Hieratic (higher attic), old more cursive alphabet for writing on paper.
  13. Demotic (de m-ah tik), newer, easier cursive alphabet popular 650 B.C.- 450 A.D. was followed by Coptic (K-ah-p tik), Egyptian written phonetically with the Greek alphabet, preserved by Egyptian Christians instead of Latin.
  14. Enchorial (en k-or e uh-l), demotic.
  15. Gen. Solon, wealthy Greek in foreign trade, elected to high office in 594 B.C., outlawed debtor’s slavery and made Athens more democratic.
  16. sidereal, star.
  17. Saracens, inhabitants in ancient times of just east of the Mediterranean Sea.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.