Littell's Living Age/Volume 140/Issue 1810/Ancient Egypt - Part I

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I.[edit]

The object of these papers is to give the reader who has not made a special study of Egyptology some idea of its general results in reference both to the ancient Egyptians and to the races with which they came in contact. The subjects are the characteristics of the main periods of Egyptian history, the religion and civilization of the people, and the bearing of their records on Hebrew, Greek, and Phœenician history. The vast body of information by which we may now carry up the annals of the civilized world for at least two thousand years before the time of Herodotus is for the most part scattered in works both learned and costly of which no short summary has yet been produced.[1] It will be my endeavor to do my work merely as an interpreter, in order that the great value of materials almost unknown to the generality may be understood, and perhaps some new students added to a body which, in England at least, is now decreasing. In a short series of papers many details must be omitted, but there will be space enough to show that the study of Egyptology touches and illustrates in turn many of the great problems of the story of ancient civilization.

No country has more markedly influenced its inhabitants than Egypt. It is a table-land of rock, through which the Nile has cut a passage, which by its annual overflow it has gradually fertilized. The valley thus formed is but a few miles broad until it widens out into the triangular plain of the Delta. Small as is the deposit of soil — not more than four and a half inches in a century for the last three thousand years — it requires no manuring to produce an annual crop, nor need it ever be left fallow, and the use of artificial irrigation adds a second and third crop. In no country is life easier or the acquisition of wealth from the land more rapid. The oldest Egyptians were agriculturists, who, having gained all they required, felt the natural desire of a settled people to leave some record of their lives for later times. The conditions were wonderfully favorable. The rainless climate preserves for ages what elsewhere perishes in a year. The sides of the valley afford quarries of limestone and sandstone, easily worked and lying close to the great water-way for transport, and at the first cataract the Nile is obstructed by rocks of the fine red granite which the ancients called syenite. At a very remote age the art of making paper from the papyrus reed, then abundant, was discovered, and black and red ink was manufactured. All these materials were in full use as early as the time of the king who built the Great Pyramid, in the earliest period of Egyptian monumental history.

But who were the Egyptians? in other words, what is their place among the races of man? Their neighbors were the yellow Shemite Syrians, the fair Libyans, and the negroes. In the interesting pictures of the four races of man in the Tombs of the Kings (b.c. cir. 1350–1100) the Egyptians portray these three races and themselves "mankind " as a fourth. Like all such subjects in ancient Egyptian art, these are eminently characteristic, and the most elementary ethnologist will instantly recognize the four distinct types, three of which are markedly different from the Egyptian. Is the Egyptian a distinct race, or can it be directly traced to a fusion of two or more of the other three types? The modern Egyptian helps us towards a solution of this problem. If we knew nothing of his descent we should say that he was an Arab with a tincture of another race, so markedly has the westward flow of Arab immigration made the Arab type to predominate among the people. But this is a superficial view. Looking more carefully, we see usually in the Copts, who have intermarried among themselves for the last twelve centuries, and occasionally in the Muslim Egyptians, a type which, however modified since antiquity, forcibly recalls the old pictures. Here the Shemite traits are slighter, and we come to the conclusion that their race merely contributed an element, and perhaps not the most important, to the old Egyptian type. Another element, perhaps the only other, seems to be Nigritian. The weak calf of the leg and the flat foot are markedly indicative of Nigritian influence, and so is the thickness of the nose, and the fulness of the lips. Other circumstances seem to indicate the presence of Shemite and Nigritian elements in the ancient Egyptians. It will be seen that their language and their religion may be traced to two sources which exist together, mixed but not fused, like oil and water. One of these elements in language probably, in religion certainly, is Nigritian, the other in language is certainly Shemite, and in religion probably the same. Of any other element there seems to be as yet no proof.

Ancient Egyptian history does not help us to discover the origin of the race. It dawns with the reign of Menes the first mortal king. Nothing is said of any previous movement of population. The prehistoric age, the time before Menes, called the reign of the gods, was evidently mythical, as it was reckoned by astronomical cycles, and the gods were arranged in it according to their importance, the rule of the great gods coming first, and very inferior mythological personages reigning towards the close. Between Menes and the earliest dated monuments, was an interval of probably not above seven or eight centuries, which may be called traditional, and of which legends were related. Yet at the head of this age stands the undoubtedly historical figure of Menes ruling at an Egyptian town over all Egypt.

The vestiges of a prehistoric period are thought to remain in the stone implements found in Egypt. Here, it is argued, as elsewhere, there was a prehistoric stone age. This may well have been, but two things must be borne in mind: that the paintings show the use of stone arrowheads far down in the historic age, and also that the stone implements discovered may have been in some cases the work of a neighboring savage race. For the present we want evidence of a true prehistoric stone age in Egypt. This subject has been neglected by explorers, who are probably diverted from it by the wealth of historical documents that reward them in all parts of the country.

History, then, but not pure history, begins with Menes, the first king of the first of those thirty dynasties under which the Egyptian historian Manetho arranged the kings of Egypt. The first historical event is the founding of the oldest capital, Memphis, "the good station," to which the seat of government was probably removed by Menes. He came from the still older town of Thinis or This, in Upper Egypt, close to the more famous sacred city of Abydos. Memphis is a little to the south of Cairo, and not far south of the point of the Delta. The site was therefore well chosen as a central point from which the whole country could be governed, while the valley of Upper Egypt was protected by it, and afforded a safe retreat in case of disaster. Here at Memphis, great and powerful seven or eight centuries later, the history of its foundation surely must have been well known, and this, combined with the consistent character of all which is told by the agreement of historians as to Menes, leaves no doubt of his historical character.

Passing at once from a time as to which we have no certain contemporary records, we are arrested by the earliest known monuments, the pyramids of El-Geezeh and the lesser tombs around, and suddenly find ourselves face to face with the Egyptian life of more than four thousand years ago, recorded by architecture, sculpture, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

It is not any longer necessary to prove that hieroglyphics can be read, but it may be well here to mention the method by which this is done. The ancient language is essentially the same as the modern or Coptic, which was written with the Greek alphabet and some additional letters to express sounds wanting to Greek. The ancient characters are either phonetic (syllabic or alphabetic) or ideographic. Any word may be written phonetically or by ideograph (symbol), or in both ways combined, the ideograph then determining the sense of the word, as we write "fifty pounds, £50." Those words which we do not find in Coptic are interpreted either by the obvious meaning of the ideographs used to determine their sense, as when the figure of an animal follows its name, or by induction. The way to learn hieroglyphics is to begin with Coptic, in which the occurrence of Greek words aids the student's progress, and thus to obtain a notion of the genius of the language and a copia verborum, before entering on the harder enterprise of studying its older phase in the ancient character. After no long time the learner will be convinced that the general sense of all but the religious documents can be ascertained as readily as that of any similar Greek or Roman record. Philologically the most interesting phenomena are the monosyllabic (Nigritian) character of the roots, and the Semitic character of the pronouns whether isolated or affixed, the latter including the verbal forms. The roots lack the rhythmic vowelling of early (true) Se mitic, and resemble its worn-away (Syriac) phase.

The religion of every nation is the keynote of its history. That of ancient Egypt is therefore the first subject as to which we must question the monuments. Here it may be well to dismiss the idea that the Egyptian religion continued to grow and went through changes during the historical period before it felt the influence of Greek philosophy. With the exception of a single permanent change, due apparently to foreign influence, it varied as little as the language in which it was written. It had of course its changing fashions, but the main doctrines, the objects of worship, and the rites, continued the same during this vast period of far above twenty centuries. Our chief difficulty in dealing with it is that we are often at a loss to grasp the real sense of the terms used. This is owing to three causes. When the Egyptians became Christians they eliminated most religious terms from their vocabulary as idolatrous, and substituted for them Greek equivalents. Thus the valuable aid of the Coptic often here fails us. We also find it very difficult to place our minds in the attitude of the Egyptians when we know the radical sense of a term: we can construe and cannot translate, like a schoolboy with a hard piece of Virgil. There is moreover another and very grave hindrance. There can be no doubt that the priests allegorized their doctrines, and that much which is nearly unintelligible is so in consequence of this practice. In the great Egyptian religious work, the "Ritual," the text is in general clearer than the commentary, which explains by allegory, and is probably but not certainly of later date. Notwithstanding these difficulties we have now a general idea of the Egyptian religion.

At first sight this religion seems a hopeless puzzle. The student who attempts to understand it feels like a visitor to a museum, in which antiquities of all classes are mixed without even a rudimentary arrangement. Long and patient labors have quite lately made this difficult subject easier to understand than the religion of Greece, though much remains to be done. The results are strangely unexpected. Instead of finding, like old inquirers, a philosophic meaning in the lowest forms of worship, we now accept them as no more than what they appear; and yet in the higher forms we discover as lofty a philosophy as had been before imagined.

Long after hieroglyphics had been read, evidence from them was wanting that the Egyptians had any idea of one God. Lately M. de Rougé, the most philosophic and one of the acutest of Champollion's successors, advanced the strongest reasons for maintaining that they held this doctrine. In the "Ritual," one Supreme Being is distinctly mentioned, called by no proper name, and thus not identical with any member of the Egyptian pantheon, although Ra, the sun, is, probably by a later view, identified in the same work with this mysterious divinity. The Supreme Being was the source of another being equally unnamed, and is thus called "the Double Being." From him came the other gods. This idea of monotheism, though seemingly lost in the multitude of gods in the pantheon, constantly reappears in their identification with one another in mixed forms or interchange of attributes. To what did the Egyptians owe this idea? Those who hold with M. Renan that the Shemites were essentially monotheists, will find a ready answer, and in this discover a fresh instance of the Shemite element. M. Renan's position is, however, one hard to maintain. In antiquity no Shemites were monotheists but the Hebrews, and though the Hebrew teachers were all monotheists, the people were constantly either adopting idolatrous objects of worship, or mistaking the true meaning of monotheism in their idea that they served a national God, instead of the creator and ruler of the universe. The contact of Hebrew with Aryan thought during the Babylonian captivity seems to have afforded the people the means of understanding what they had before misinterpreted, and thenceforward they were true monotheists. The pagan Arabs before Mohammed were polytheists of the lowest type. It was due to foreign influences that they adopted monotheism. The Aryans, on the other hand, had this idea from a remote time, though the importance they attached to the conflict of good and evil is apt to make us forget it in the use of the term dualism. The ancient Aryan religions which admit a pantheon imagine it to be presided over by a chief divinity, thus preserving in an alloyed form the original monotheistic idea. It is in this feature of Egyptian doctrine, if anywhere, that we may trace an Aryan element in Egypt, unless we may suppose that the Egyptian priests attained the monotheistic idea by philosophic inquiry: if so, but this is a rash hypothesis, they must have done this at a remote age, for the "Ritual" is, in part at least, as early as the period of the oldest monuments.

The Egyptian pantheon, at first sight very complex, may be reduced to system by a study of the order of the great gods. The two chief forms of that order are made inconsistent by the addition at the head of two divinities of inferior consequence in their attributes, the gods of Memphis and Thebes. This was undoubtedly due to political causes, and marks the ascendency of the priests of the two ancient capitals. Leaving these gods out, the order resolves itself into two groups, the sun-gods and the family of Osiris. The true heads of these groups are Ra, the sun, and Osiris. It is very noteworthy that these gods only and goddesses who were female forms of Osiris were worshipped throughout Egypt, Osiris everywhere, and Ra by combination with other gods, and as the representative of kingly power in the sky, as well as under the type of the king as Ra on earth. The myth of Ra and that of Osiris are strikingly alike. Ra as Osiris is the sun in constant conflict with evil. The enemy of Ra is the great serpent Apap, whom he vanquishes. The enemy of Osiris is his own brother or son Set, physical evil, who vanquishes him, to be finally overcome by Horus the solar son of Osiris. Ra has no consort but a very inferior divinity, a female sun. Osiris has Isis to wife, whose worship almost equalled his. That which distinguishes the myth of Osiris from that of Ra is its human aspect. It is solar up to a certain point in the conflict of light and darkness, and the setting of the old sun seemingly to perish and reappear in new young splendor in its rising. But in the destruction of Osiris by evil, the temporary triumph of evil, and its final defeat and the destruction of its force by Horus and wisdom (Thoth), and in the revival of Osiris, we see the story of human life in its war with physical evil, its death, and its resurrection, in its war with moral evil, its temporary fall, and final triumph. Thus while the myth of Ra remained a part of religion, that of Osiris became the part to which the affections of the Egyptians attached themselves. Osiris became, as the hidden sun, the ruler of the underworld, and so the judge of the dead, then represented as a mummy. It was to him or to a member of his family that the prayers for the dead were addressed. As the Egyptian entered into the divine underworld (Karneter), the west, the hidden land (Amenti), he placed himself under the protection of the sun of the night. Yet more, as one who hoped to be justified, he took the name of his judge, and an Osiris went through the ordeals of the hidden world, hoping for a new life in the Elysian fields. Thus Osiris became essentially the ruler of the unseen world, Ra became the ruler of the visible universe but these ideas interchanged, Osiris appears as the Nile and as the source of productiveness, Ra as the ruler of the hidden land. Yet Osiris remained the judge of the dead, and hence the prevalence and strength of his worship. It would be impossible to explain the existence side by side of two forms of the same myth, for this is the meaning of the two groups of great gods, did we not see in it the history of the early growth of the Egyptian religion. In a very remote age the doctrines of Heliopolis, the city of the sun, and of Abydos, the ancient city of Osiris, were thus united. Menes, the first king, came from Thinis, so close to Abydos as to have become almost if not quite a suburb of the city which eclipsed it, and founded Memphis nearly opposite to Heliopolis. Thus the two systems, that of the worship of Osiris at Abydos, and that of the worship of Ra at Heliopolis, were brought so near that it was necessary that they should either be amalgamated, or that one should give way to the other. Hence the two groups of the great gods.

It is a long step from the lofty ideas that these archaic systems suggest to the figures under which the gods were represented, and the symbols regarded as their living forms. Osiris has indeed a human shape, but Ra is usually hawk-headed, and Thoth, the god of wisdom, has the head of an ibis. Some goddesses are lioness-headed and cat-headed; others sometimes have the head of a cow. Osiris, despite his human character, was supposed to dwell in the sacred bull Apis; and each divinity had a living representative in a quadruped, bird, reptile, or fish, while sacred trees and mountains were held in reverence. How can so low a pedestal be reconciled with so high a superstructure? When it is remembered that the Egyptian worship is intensely local, that each town had its special divinity and sacred animal, we find the clue out of this labyrinthine question, in which some inquirers have lost themselves, while others, having reached, as they thought, the end, have given up the subject in despair, like the old visitor who entered a beautiful Egyptian temple, and after traversing its spacious chambers rich with painted sculptures, marvelled to find in the innermost shrine a cat or crocodile or serpent. The clue is that at each settlement that worship of a local fetish which is a characteristic of the negroes, was a tradition derived from the original population. Generally, when a race of superior belief has conquered one of inferior belief, it has endeavored to substitute its faith for the lower one, by connecting the two. Thus a taint has injured most religions, the higher never succeeding in effacing the lower. This theory accounts for much in Greek mythology. Why should the laurel have been sacred to Apollo, the tortoise to Aphrodite, save for this, reason, that in their adopted country the Greeks found certain trees and animals worshipped by the earlier population whom they sought to conciliate by connecting the lower object of worship with the higher ideal they themselves reverenced? Similarly the old agalmata of barbarous form which their predecessors had received from Egypt or copied on Egyptian models were gradually superseded by more fit representations. In literature we may trace the transition when Homer uses epithets that cannot be doubted to be taken from old animal-headed forms for the divinities he describes with human characteristics. In art the transition is seen in the story of Onatas the sculptor, who, when charged to execute a statue of the horse-headed Demeter, whose agalma had been destroyed by fire, being perplexed how to do so in an age of growing art, saw the goddess in a dream, and no doubt then represented her in accordance with the higher ideas of his time. Another striking instance is seen in the nome-coins of Egypt struck under Roman emperors, when Greek ideas were strong in the country, on which the divinity of the province, though in some cases animal-headed, in others has a human form, and carries in his hand the sacred animal of the nome.

We can therefore scarcely doubt whence arose the combination of animal-worship with sun-worship (of Shemite origin?), and the union of the animal's head with the human body in the representations of the local divinities of the mixed system thus formed. Rarely can we find anything appropriate in the union. It is true that the sun-gods have the head of the hawk, a bird of the noble family which gazes at the sun; the sun-goddesses that of the luminous-eyed feline tribe, usually of its highest member the lioness; but for the most part the associations seem to be the effect of mere chance. It may be asked why any should be appropriate if they were the result of the adoption of existing superstitions by new-comers into Egypt; but it should be remembered that we cannot suppose all the towns of Egypt to have been growths from older Nigritian settlements. Memphis we know was not, and we may infer the same of Hermopolis Magna. The prominence of the lower element in the Egyptian religion need not surprise us when we see the old sacred stone at Mekkeh (the Black Stone) still venerated by nearly all Muslims, and yet more remarkably see in Egypt itself a sacred snake reverenced at the tomb of the Sheykh el-Hareedee in Upper Egypt, which must be the representative of a long series of sacred snakes which have held their own from the overthrow of paganism through fourteen centuries to the present day.

Writing was as old in Egypt as architecture and sculpture. The papyrus reed, as already noticed, furnished the most ancient material for paper in the days of the oldest monuments. The dry climate has preserved a great number of ancient rolls, of which most are religious, and of these again the greater part copies of one book, the "Ritual," which French scholars call the "Funereal Ritual," and Germans the "Book of the Dead." It is a work evidently compiled from time to time, divided into sections, originally separate books, and chapters, each chapter being usually illustrated by a representation of its chief subject above the text. Part of this book has been found of the date of the eleventh dynasty (before b.c. 2000), and according to its own statement, which derives collateral support from a more general assertion of Manetho, one chapter was discovered in the time of the great pyramid-building kings of the fourth dynasty. There can be no doubt that the greater part is of extreme antiquity.

Two great difficulties assail us in the endeavor even to construe this book. It was held to be specially advantageous to the mummified Egyptian that a copy should be deposited in his tomb. Consequently it became the custom to write these copies in great numbers, and, as they were not to be read, the scribes were careless in their copying. Hence arises a multitude of errors which at every step embarrass the student. The other difficulty is due to the causes which render the Epyptian religious writings more hard to interpret than the historical. Yet, thanks to M. de Rougé's patience and skill, the general purport of the work is now understood. It is throughout text and commentary, and curiously, as already remarked, the text usually simpler than the commentary, which by its allegorizing method renders the obscurity of the subject greater. The theme of the "Ritual" is the story of man's fate in the netherworld, and the text consists of a series of prayers to be said in each of the several zones through which the soul was to pass on its way to judgment, and the confession of innocence that was to ensure its acquittal. It might be supposed that so great a matter would have been treated in the loftiest style of which the language was capable, with the simplicity of the Egyptian memoir, the pathos of the dirge, and the occasional grandeur of the historical writings and the religious hymns. But it is far otherwise. Nowhere is the lower element of the Egyptian religion so evident as in the "Ritual." It is obscure and mysterious, without elevation or dignity. The student seeks in vain for a single passage worthy of the ideas conveyed through the eye by the pyramids and the tombs of the kings. He wanders through a labyrinth peopled by the forms of the lowest superstition, and the idea forces itself upon him that the negro element of the Egyptian mind is here dominant, not always in the thoughts, but always in their expression. Nothing more forcibly shows the strength of this element, not even animal-worship. Side by side with the "Ritual" we find another work relating to the underworld, the "Book of the Lower Hemisphere," describing the journeyings of the soul after death through twelve zones corresponding to the twelve hours of the nocturnal sun. This book was in fashion at the period to which most of the tombs of the kings (nineteenth and twentieth dynasties) belong, and their pictures afford the illustrations of its chapters.

The "wisdom of the Egyptians" is not to be found in the "Ritual" and the "Book of the Lower Hemisphere," but in the few moral treatises that are left. The oldest complete one of these, that of Ptah-hotep, a prince, son of a king of the fifth dynasty, is the first work of the character of the Hebrew Proverbs which has come down to us as a whole. It teaches a high morality apart from the Egyptian religion; that religion it almost ignores, in general speaking of God in the singular as the judge of men's actions. It is a curious question whether proverbial writing of this kind, that is, wisdom embodied in short pithy sayings, very often stating a duty and the reason for its performance, is not of Egyptian origin. In Hebrew literature it is scarcely found before the date of the Proverbs. If that book is in its origin of the time of Solomon, and this can scarcely be doubted, a curious question arises. How are we to explain the striking similarity of method in the Hebrew and the Egyptian book? It is not likely that the contact between Egypt and the East between the times of Moses and Solomon was sufficiently strong to influence Hebrew literature. It is far more probable, unless the similarity is accidental, that tradition preserved a method of teaching that must have been known to Moses, who was "educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians." If so, the Hebrew work may contain archaic fragments preserved by the original collector just as it contains sayings added after its first completion.

Scientific literature, at least in the province of medicine, not unmixed with superstition, is of the first age of Egyptian monuments, and probably historical literature in the shape of memoirs, afterwards among our best sources, is not much later. Fiction, letters, and state annals are not yet known of this antiquity, and therefore must be afterwards noticed.

Thus much we know of the belief and thought of the people of Egypt in the age of their first monuments. What they did and how they lived in those days is the next point of interest.

As we stand beneath the Great Pyramid the first question that rises in our mind is this. How long ago was this monument raised? Has it stood for four, five, or six thousand years? M. Mariette answers six, Professor Lepsius five, and some cautious reckoners adhere to Napoleon's forty centuries. But in truth the question cannot yet be answered. With all reverence for the scholarship that has attempted it, the difference of opinion proves that the date of the oldest Egyptian monuments must still remain blank. The cause may be explained in a few words which the student would do well to ponder lest he waste his strength on the unknowable to the loss of more fruitful research.

The Egyptians had no era, no reckoning from the building of Memphis or from the institution of a festival. They had at least one astronomical cycle, a vast period of fourteen hundred and sixty-one wandering years of three hundred and sixty-five days each, a cycle pyramid-like in its dimensions, but we do not find that they dated by it.[2] Their reckoning was by kings' reigns, each year being called the first or second and so forth of the king from the current year in which he began to reign. There is one known instance in which a long period, from one reign to a later one, is stated, and unfortunately we only know the historical place of the later of the two kings mentioned. The Egyptians do not seem to have recorded eclipses, and their stellar observations are unintelligible, as we find a star-rising recorded year after year on the same day of the wandering year of three hundred and sixty-five days, when it must have moved a day later every four years. They rarely recorded long genealogies. The succession of kings is broken by dire chasms in the series of monuments — ages almost without records — of which it is not possible even to conjecture the length. Our chief authority is still the historian Manetho, an Egyptian priest, who, under the first or second Ptolemy, wrote in Greek the list of the native dynasties, thirty in number, from Menes to Nectanebes II., overthrown by Artaxerxes Ochus. His numbers are shown by the monuments to be untrustworthy in their present state, and he does not tell us whether the royal houses were all successive or some contemporary. The monuments, with the aid of a fragmentary ancient list on papyrus, and for the latest period that of Hebrew, Assyrian, and Greek documents, enable us in many cases to correct Manetho; and we have for the later part of Egyptian history a chronology, which, reckoning upwards, is first nearly exact, then roughly true, and at last merely approximative within a century, perhaps more, until we reach the first or most recent chasm.

If we reckon upwards from the overthrow of Nectanebes II. (dynasty xxx.), b.c. 340 (?) to the accession of the first Ethiopian monarch Sabaco (dynasty xxv.), b.c. cir. 715, the dates are nearly exact. From Sabaco to Sheshonk I., the Shishak of the Bible (dynasty xxii.), b.c. cir. 967, probably there is not an error of more than thirty years. Thenceforward to the beginning of the empire (dynasty xviii.), b.c. cir. 1600—1550, there is an increasing obscurity in chronology. We now find ourselves on the nearer side of the first chasm, the age during which Egypt was ruled by the Shepherd Kings, Eastern strangers, whose rule began after or during that of the later Theban kings of the old line (dynasty xiii.), and is generally held to have lasted, inclusive of a period of war at its close, for five centuries or a little more. This theory, however, rests upon a solitary passage of Manetho, cited by one only of his copyists, and if it seems supported by numbers in the dynastic lists given by this and the other copyists, we must remember the fatal facility with which numbers seem to lend themselves to the theories of chronologers. On the other side of the chasm we have all or a part of the old Theban kingdom (dynasties xi., xii., and part or the whole of xiii.). Then comes another chasm, characterized by the rule of a line of kings of another capital. We then once more reach a period illuminated by the light of contemporary monuments, the age of the Memphite kings, the pyramid-builders (last king of dynasty iii. and dynasties iv., v., vi.), which probably lasted six or seven centuries. Between this time and the rule of Menes stretches yet another great chasm, the age before monuments, to which a conjectural length of seven or eight centuries may be assigned. The reckoning, therefore, stands thus: —

  • Pre-monumental age (dynasties i.—iii.,part) 800 or 700 years (?).
  • Memphite kingdom under pyramid-builders (iii., part, iv., v., vi.), 700 or 600 (?).
  • Doubtful period (vii., viii., ix., x.).
  • Theban kingdom (xi., xii., xiii., part?) 250 years or more.
  • Shepherd rule (xiii., part? xiv., xv., xvi., xvii.).
  • The empire (xviii., xix., xx., part), b.c. 1600—1500 to 1200—1100.
  • Fall of empire (xx., part, xxi.).
  • Sheshonk I., or Shishak (xxii.), b.c. cir. 967.
  • Shebek, or Sabaco (xxv.), b.c. cir. 715.
  • Psammetichus I., Saïte supremacy (xxvi., part) 665.
  • Final Persian conquest, b.c. 340 (?).

The Great Pyramid stands almost at the beginning of the first monumental age. Its date would be before at least {{{1}}} 2350 by the length of the second and third chasms; in other words the length of these two unknown periods must be added to at least b.c. 2350 if we would obtain the date of the pyramid. We must, therefore, surrender Napoleon's forty centuries. How much we must add to them is yet to be discovered.

The age of the pyramids is doubtful. The object for which they were built is certain. There is no need here to examine curious speculations to which their measures have, like the numbers of Manetho's list, seemed to offer themselves with a strange facility, like false lights that lead a traveller into the quicksands. They were royal tombs and nothing more. We need not draw any idea of astronomical use from their facing the cardinal points, whereas the Chaldean pyramids pointed to them, nor, in the case of the Great Pyramid, from the curious circumstance that at the time of its building its entrance passage pointed to the then pole-star, a Draconis, nor from the excellent platform for astronomical observation on its summit, nor from its chief measures being in exact Egyptian cubits without fractions. There may have been a religious reason for the orientation of this and the other Egyptian pyramids, but it is quite obvious that a deviation of direction would have produced a disagreeable discord in the placing of these geometrically-shaped buildings. It was no use to point a passage to the pole-star, as it had to be closed at the completion of the structure after the king's sepulture. The platform did not exist when the casing of the monument was complete to its apex. The most famous buildings of antiquity were constructed of full measures without fractions in all their chief dimensions. What perhaps originated in the difficulty of observing due proportion when fractions were allowed, became a matter of religion.

The pyramids then were tombs of kings. Each had its name. The Great Pyramid was called "the Splendid;" the second pyramid, strangely enough, "the Great;" the third pyramid, "the Superior." Each must have been the chief object of a king's reign. Begun, at or perhaps in some cases before, his accession, it was built on a plan which allowed constant addition and speedy completion. Thus the pyramids are the measures of the reigns of those who built them, and happily in many cases we know from the tombs around who these royal builders were.

The main principles of an Egyptian tomb of this age are the same in the pyramids and in the smaller built tombs, though the mode in which the principles are carried out is different. These smaller tombs consist of a quadrangular mass of masonry like an oblong truncated pyramid, having a pit entered from above descending to a sepulchral chamber cut in the rock beneath; and within is also a chapel entered from an external door, and a secret chamber to contain statues of the deceased. The pyramids represent the purely sepulchral part of these structures. In front of the entrance of each was a chapel, to which was probably attached a secret chamber.

The form of the pyramids is probably traceable to the natural shapes of the desert mountains. All Egyptian architecture is characterized by the same sloping lines as these mountains, varying like them from the sharp inclination of the pyramids to the very slight slope of the built tombs, and, it may be added, of all the great massive gateways of the later temples. Whether these forms were thus derived or not, their adoption must have been due to their extreme strength.

The manner in which the pyramids were constructed was first shown in Professor Lepsius's "Letters from Egypt." The objects of the royal builders were strength of position, a secure place of sepulture, and a method by which the monument could be gradually increased from year to year and finished with little delay when the king's death made this necessary. A site was chosen on the low table-land of the Libyan desert, and a slight elevation was selected as a peg on which the structure should as it were be pivoted. In this core of rock a sloping descending passage, usually entered from the north, was cut, of sufficient size for the conveyance of a sarcophagus, leading to a sepulchral chamber. Above and around the rock a solid structure of masonry was raised, of cubical form but with slightly sloping sides. In the case of the king's death at this stage of the work, the pyramid was at once completed by the addition of sloping lateral masses and a pyramidal cap. Roughly this additional work did not exceed in quantity the first construction, excluding the excavation. If the king lived on, the first construction was enlarged on each of its four sides, so as to form a great platform on which a second central mass was raised, and a pyramid of two degrees without filled-in angles was formed. At this stage again the work could be completed if necessary, or if the king still lived each platform from the lowest could be increased on the same principle. The form of the pyramid of steps at Sakkarah, the central monument of the necropolis of Memphis, is a good illustration of the general principle, and the change of angle in the southern pyramid of Dahshoor is valuable as a probable instance of hasty completion.

The manner in which the pyramids were built is thus clear enough: the mechanical skill their construction shows must remain a marvel. The main materials were indeed quarried from the limestone rock on which the monuments stand, but the finest quality used was brought from quarries on the opposite side of the river, and, in the instances in which granite was employed, usually for details, from the First Cataract. How were the vast blocks lowered from the quarries and transported to the river, how embarked, again transported to the edge of the desert, raised to the low table-land on which the pyramids stand, and then elevated to the heights required, in the case of the Great Pyramid up to above four hundred and fifty feet, and how were not alone the casing-stones, but also the stones lining and roofing the narrow passages and chambers, fitted with an exactness that has never been surpassed? We know from their pictures something of the machinery of the Egyptians, how they transported huge masses of stone by the use of the labor of men or oxen, on sledges moving on rollers, and we also know that great causeways led up from the valley of the Nile to the plateau of the pyramids. But this is all. Of their mode of raising masses we are wholly ignorant. People have talked of mounds up which the stones were dragged to build the pyramids, but the work of constructing an easy incline for a pyramid four hundred and sixty feet high would have been tremendous, and the materials, unless it was built of stone, would not have been at hand. At present we are as far as ever from a solution of this curious problem.

The Great Pyramid was originally four hundred and eighty feet high, and each side of its base measured seven hundred and sixty-four feet, dimensions slightly reduced by its use as a quarry in later times. The successive Muslim capitals of Egypt, of which Cairo is the latest, have been built of the monuments of Memphis. The city and its temples have disappeared, and left scarcely a trace; yet the larger pyramids have lost but a small proportion of their materials, and where there are marks of ruin, it is rather due to the efforts of explorers than to the actual removal of the stones from the site. Seen from afar, on what Horace well calls their royal site, the vastness of the pyramids strikes us; as we approach them, and begin to distinguish the courses of stone, this impression wanes, to return with an oppressive force as we stand beneath them. All other works of man are dwarfed by them, but it must be remembered that no other works of man occupied a whole nation, as it is all but certain the greater pyramids did, for one or even two generations each. No public works save the pyramids are known of the Memphite kingdom. When true public works begin, pyramids become far less costly, like that of the wise king who excavated the Lake Mœris.

The object of each pyramid was to entomb a single mummied king: sometimes two sepulchral chambers may point to a double burial: in one case an early monument, the third pyramid, seems to have been enlarged by a later sovereign; but in general each monument seems to have been designed for a single entombment. The purpose of so vast a labor is no longer a mystery if we may assume that the Egyptians held the preservation of the body to be essential to immortality. It is certain that all Egyptian tombs were constructed under the influence of a belief in the immortality of the soul. The final aim of the pyramid-builders was that each head of the religion and State should rest securely in these vast monuments, whose form is a type of immortality, resting on the solid rock, themselves solid and indestructible, yet pointing heavenwards. It is a weakness of practical natures to laugh with Pliny at the pyramids, as mere monuments of human vanity. We forget the human weakness of personal commemoration when we remember that the pyramids are material records of a belief in immortality, the oldest and the most enduring.

Of the chapels in front of each pyramid there are but scanty remains. A priesthood was attached to each, and we know that as late as the time of the Saïte kings, in the sixth century b.c., the priesthood of some of these pyramid kings was still maintained. That one of these is a king whom Herodotus charges with hostility to religion, is a curious commentary on the historian's untrustworthiness when dealing with matters he did not know except on the evidence of mere gossip.

The Sphinx, true to its character in legend, has still a riddle — the date when it was carved out of the rock. An inscription in the name of the king who built the Great Pyramid, but perhaps recut at a later time, speaks of it as already extant in his remote age. It was the symbol of the god Har-em-akhu, Horus in the horizon, or the rising sun, and was thus particularly connected with the worship of Heliopolis, the city of the sun, on the opposite bank of the Nile, not far to the northward. In later times avenues of sphinxes led to the temples. This solitary sphinx has no such purpose, and was itself worshipped, a little chapel being constructed between its forepaws.

While there is much to perplex us in the great monuments of the pyramid field, the lesser ones are full of fruitful information. Around the royal mausolea lie the multitudinous sepulchres of the subjects of the kings of that time. Each has its chapel, or more rarely chapels, decorated with a great variety of scenes of daily life, which bring us face to face with the Egyptian of this distant age. It has been thought, somewhat fancifully, that these subjects relate to the occupations of the future state, but the absence of any but the most reserved representation of funereal matters, as well as of all religious pictures, forbids an allegorical view inconsistent with the simplicity of this early age.

Thus the first thing that strikes us in these oldest of contemporary pictures is their extreme reticence as to religion. There is a short prayer, characteristically not directly addressed as in later times to Osiris, but to Anubis, an inferior divinity of his family. Its purport is simply for the welfare of the chief person of the tomb in the divine underworld. We miss the appeal of later inscriptions to the voyagers up and down the beloved river, towards which most of the Egyptian tombs look, to repeat the inscribed formula for the good of the soul of the deceased. In the tomb there is but a slight indication of its purpose, the occasional representation of the occupant as a mummy. No ceremonies of sepulture are pictured, no passages of the "Ritual" inscribed. We are at an extreme limit of Egyptian usage in this respect, and it is not till the end of the monarchy that the other extreme is usual, religious subjects having gradually won a preponderance.

Still more remarkable is the absence of pictures of the king, even in tombs of members of his family, unlike the usage of the empire, in the tombs of which we sometimes see the king receiving the homage of his subject. It would seem that at this remote time the Pharaoh stood as high above his subjects in rank as his pyramid overtopped their modest sepulchres. Even a queen is spoken of as having had the honor of seeing the king. The most important priestly function seems to have been the priesthood of each king, to which was entrusted the ceremonial of his sepulchral chapel. Each great man held priestly, military, and civil power, or at least could do so. There was not at this time the distinction into classes, and the habit of hereditary transmission of functions, that made the later system from the empire downwards almost one of castes. It is also significant that nearly all the high functionaries are of the blood royal, though there is a remarkable exception in the case of an able man who probably rose from the ranks and was rewarded by a marriage with a princess, Ti, whose beautiful tomb at Sakkarah is one of the most interesting of the many sights of Memphis.

Notwithstanding the greatness of royal power, the Egyptians of this age were a light-hearted people. No one can have seen the wooden statue of a gentleman of that period which was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, and is now one of the most precious monuments of early Egyptian art in the Boolák Museum, without being struck by its air of well-fed content; indeed the word "jolly "is almost the only term by which its character can be described. And this is evidently the type of man whose daily life was portrayed as a memorial in his tomb. There we see him walking afoot, for the horse was not yet known in Egypt, his staff in his hand, seeing the various occupations of the field, the garden, and the vineyard, taking stock of his asses, oxen, sheep, goats, and ducks, witnessing the various handicrafts of his folk — we do not know that they were serfs — or superintending the transport by river of his produce. We see him too watching the fishers or those who bring in game and wild fowl, more rarely himself engaged in sport. His home-life is not forgotten. He entertains his friends at feasts, while players on instruments of music and singers are present for their diversion.

These are the subjects of the wall-pictures, or, more strictly, painted sculptures, of the tombs of the age of the fourth and fifth dynasties, those of the pyramid period in the neighborhood of Memphis. The sixth dynasty, evidently another line, if it did not transfer the royal seat to Middle Egypt, certainly has left more memorials of its subjects there, and at Abydos in the Thebaïd. Then the Egyptian memoir is first found, thenceforward to be our most precious source of history.

It is worth while to see how the Egyptian memoir had its origin. The purpose of all the sculptures and inscriptions of the pyramid age is historical. They embody the wish of the old Egyptian who caused them to be graven, that all should know what he was and what he did, not in a vainglorious sense, but with the natural desire to record good service. It is indicative of the growth of this idea that the oldest memoirs only speak of service to the king, and careful and just administration; but the later ones dwell in addition on services to the people, each governor being specially anxious for the well-being of his province.

The first, and in some respects the most important, of the memoirs, is that of Una, which tells us almost all we know of the history of the sixth dynasty. The writer was a great officer under three kings, whom he probably served for at least sixty years, perhaps much longer. Like many of the earlier Egyptians, he attained high office in youth, and held it in old age. The story of Joseph finds its parallel in the selection of young men of character and talent for the highest offices; and yet the wisdom of experience is not seen to be undervalued in ancient Egypt.

The story of Una shows a change in the national instincts. In earlier times there is no hint of foreign wars. The older Pharaohs are not known to have attempted any expedition against their neighbors. They maintained the frontiers, but we do not find any record telling us that they crossed them except to establish and hold against the natives mining-stations in the peninsula of Sinai. But under the sixth dynasty foreign expeditions were undertaken. Whether they arose from a threatened invasion, or whether ambition prompted them, we do not know. The story reads as if there was danger on the borders. Una made a levey en masse of the Egyptians, and tributary negro states, which now appear for the first time, contributed a contingent, which all the Egyptian officials, including the priests, were ordered to drill. A series of successful expeditions by land, and one by water, were carried out. All was under the direction of Una. Who the chief enemies were we know; they were "the dwellers on the sand;" but we fail to identify any later race or tribe with this designation. Probably they represent a great pressure of Arab tribes, either driven by famine or attracted by the wealth of Egypt, into which the Arab race has never ceased to pour.

In the same memoir we see the first indication of the growth of Egyptian power in the south. In the land of the tributary negro princes, stations and dockyards are made for the purpose of supplying Egypt with timber. At this time the Ethiopian forests must have extended far north of the Atbara, or the Egyptians must have penetrated a great distance beyond the First Cataract to the south. A hint of the different character of the country in very early times is afforded by the name of the island of Elephantine, near the First Cataract, of which the meaning is the same in Egyptian as in Greek, for when the elephant was found so far north there must have been forests at no great distance. The subsequent change in the level of the Nile, which before the empire was much higher in the upper Thebaïs and lower Nubia, may have had something to do with a general modification of the productions of the country.

We find this great officer of state, Una, whose last post was that of governor of Upper Egypt, occupied in the duty of conveying stones from the quarries for royal buildings, and we observe that the first care of a new king was to provide himself with a block of alabaster for a sarcophagus.

With the beautiful queen Nitocris, the subject of many legends, the sixth dynasty either ended or lost all power. It was she who appears to have enlarged the third pyramid, as a tomb for herself, and to have cased it wholly with red granite of Syene, making it worthy of its name, "the Superior." In Greek tradition she is confused with Rhodopis, and by the Arabs she was thought, in the Middle Ages, still to haunt her burial-place as an evil fairy who lured the wayfarer into the desert to his destruction.

One of the chasms of Egyptian history follows the sixth dynasty. Other Memphite kings then ruled, a rival or later royal house arose at Heracleopolis, either the town of that name in Middle Egypt or that in Lower Egypt, and we have no records but the names of kings in later royal lists, which we cannot assign to any dynasty. Contemporary monuments fail us until the rise of the Theban house, when Egypt again appears rich and powerful, with signs of a fresh development of art and civilization.

Notes[edit]

  1. In the "Records of the Past," the student unacquainted with the original Egyptian, Assyrian, and other Eastern texts, will find translations of the most important of these documents. Yet the necessary introduction to the study of the documents is wanting, and the critical apparatus is far too scanty.
  2. This cycle, called the Sothiac, because it began when the dog-star Sothis rose heliacally on the first day of the wandering year of 365 days, marked the coincidence of that year in its beginning with the fixed Sothiac year of 365¼ 4 days, which, of course, could only occur on the completion of 1,461 wandering years, and 1,460 Sothiac.