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The Egyptians

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Great Empires: Eastern Nations.
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In the north-east of Africa, at a time so uncertain that the date for the first king, assigned by learned men, varies between 5700 and 2440 b.c., arose a wonderful Hamitic people, who became great in arts and arms, and left behind them architectural and sculptural monuments which have been objects of amazement and admiration to all beholders. A true conception of Ancient Egypt requires us to disregard the modern map, and to view the territory as comprising nothing but the narrow valley of the Nile, extending for about 700 miles from the First Cataract to a point below (north of) Cairo, and the outspreading Delta, fan-shaped, lying between that point and the sandy shores of the Mediterranean. The original seven mouths of the mighty river have now been reduced, by silting-up, to two, the Rosetta and Damietta outlets. The valley, a ravine cut out, in the course of ages, in the sandy and rocky soil, nowhere exceeds ten miles in breadth, and is sometimes narrowed to one, the basin being bounded to east and west by hills generally but 300 feet above sea-level. The whole area of this famous country was less than that of Belgium, and was, in its most flourishing days, at least as densely peopled, with a multitude of towns and villages, large and small, forming one great hive of human beings. The valley is known as Upper Egypt or the Said, the Delta as Lower Egypt. The country was, in a peculiar sense, the region of the Nile. That great, and till very recent days, mysterious river, was at once the creator of Lower Egypt by its deposit of mud, and the supporter of all life in Upper and Lower Egypt alike by its annual overflow. In the words of the Greek historian, Egypt was "the gift of the Nile," and so dependent were the inhabitants for subsistence on the due rise of the river, varying from an average of 36 feet in Upper Egypt to 25 at Cairo, that a "bad Nile," or deficient overflow, meant scarcity of food, and a great lack of increase, happily rare, brought absolute famine. The almost utter absence of rain, storm, fog, frost, and snow is the peculiarity of the climate, which has really but two seasons - spring from October into May, with the fruit-trees blossoming in February and crops reaped before the end of April, and summer for the rest of the year. The great lake, studded with islands in the form of towns and villages, into which the Nile spread itself out in its yearly time of flood, left behind, on its retirement, an expanse of rich soil which made the county the most productive in the world, bearing a triple harvest in the ancient days, a crop of grain followed by two crops of grasses or of vegetables fit for the food of mankind. The wheat of Egypt, the most valuable product, supplied all neighbouring peoples m tune of dearth, and the city of Rome, in all her later time was almost wholly fed from the same bountiful source. Doora (a species of millet) and flax were also largely grown. The monuments show us the pressing of the grapes of Egypt, and the date-palm was ever at hand with its delicious fruit. The country possessed great advantages, beyond its wonderful fertility, for the progress of a nation to prosperity and power. The river supplied a highway for rapid communication from end to end, and the situation for commerce was most favourable in the ready access northwards to the Mediterranean, and eastwards, by the Red Sea, to the Indian Ocean or Eastern Sea. In timber the country was not rich, but serviceable woods were easily imported. The tall smooth reed called papyrus supplied long-lasting paper from its pith, and the lovely white water-lily, the lotus, was the favourite flower - an offering to the gods, an ornament worn by guests at the banquet, a model for architectural forms. Fish and water-fowl abounded, and the sport-loving Egyptians had "big game " in the hippopotamus and the crocodile. The early days of Egypt are shrouded in night. Whence came the Egyptian people of olden time? We cannot say. The nation was, beyond all reasonable doubt, of Hamitic race, allied to the negro-peoples in physical and mental character, and in language, though it became, before the most flourishing period of its history, largely mingled with foreign elements from the Semitic peoples to the north-east, in Asia, from the Ethiopians to the south, and the Libyans to the west. Upon the whole, the Egyptians are remarkable for the independent, almost isolated, development of their civilisation.

The history of the country, in its long duration, its wars and conquests, its 30 dynasties, as arranged in the 3rd century b.c. by the priest Manetho, in a work of which only chronological epitomes remain, can only be dealt with briefly in a few salient points. M'na or Menes, a king variously placed at about 5000, 4500, and 3900 years b.c., is represented as the monarch who instituted laws and divine worship, and founded the city of Memphis on a site close to that of the modern Cairo. Two empires are usually recognised, the old empire, lasting from the time of Menes till 1670 b.c., and the new empire, from that date till the Persian conquest. Monumental history begins with a king named Seneferu, who conquered the Sinaitic peninsula, for the sake of its mines of copper and of turquoise. An incised tablet in that region records his person and exploit. Other monuments of his time show the first-known hiero-glyphical writing, and there are pyramids belonging to the same early age. The monarchs named Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura, respectively called Cheops, Cephrenes, and Mycerinus by Herodotus; were the builders of the three largest pyramids, those of Gizeh, near Cairo. The stupendous size of these works is well known. The largest, well styled by the great French archaeologist Lenormant, in respect of its mass, "the most prodigious of all human constructions," had originally a base of which each side was 764 feet in length, and a perpendicular height of 480 feet. Its area was above 13 acres, and its materials would have built a city of 22,000 solid stone houses, with walls a foot thick, 20 feet of frontage, and 30 feet of depth from front to back, the walls being 30 feet in height from the bottom of the foundation, and the party-walls having one-third the material of the main walls. Modern builders fully accept the statement of Herodotus that the construction of the "Great Pyramid" employed the continuous labour of 100,000 men for 20 years. The basement stones are in many cases 30 feet long, 5 feet high, and 4 or 5 feet wide, and weigh each from 46 to 57 tons, and the interior contains an elaborate system of chambers, galleries, and ventilation-shafts. The work displays marvellous mechanical skill in the fact of immense blocks of granite being brought from Syene, 500 miles away, polished like glass, and fitted together so accurately that it is very difficult to detect the joints.

About 2400 b.c. the seat of government of the old empire seems to have been removed to Thebes, about 400 miles up the Nile from Memphis. The place had long been a provincial city of note, with a special style of manners, speech, religion, and mode of writing. Among the monarchs of this period we find Atnenemhat I., an energetic warrior who, in seeking to protect his own frontier, fought with tribes to the west and the south. The kings of this second phase of Egyptian civilisation were not pilers-up of huge monuments to their own glory, so much as executors of works useful to the people - wells and reservoirs and roads; men who encouraged agriculture and commerce, patrons of art, builders of temples and of the obelisks, which were then a novelty in architecture. Under one king of this line (Manetho's 12th dynasty), Usurtasen III., war was made on the Ethiopians to the south, and the Egyptian frontier was advanced from the First to above the Second Cataract. Amenemhat III., who reigned about 2200 b.c., provided for agricultural needs, in case of a "bad Nile," by forming a canal from the western branch of the river, through a narrow rocky gorge piercing a low ridge of hills, into a natural depression of the land south-west of Memphis. He thus created the famous lake Meri, or Moeris, as a reservoir for use in time of scarcity of water, regulating the supply by a system of sluices and flood-gates for irrigation both within and without the depression. It was soon after this time that the visit of Abraham, with his wife Sarai, seems to have occurred, as related in Genesis.

About 2100 b.c. the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings began to rule the part of Egypt included within the Delta, the valley of the Lower Nile, and the fertile district around Lake Moeris. These leaders of nomadic hordes, perhaps of Tartar race, or a collection of tribes from Syria and Arabia, poured into the country like a flood from the north-east, took Memphis by assault, and overran all Lower Egypt almost without resistance. The existing civilisation was swept away, and a ruthless war was waged by the invaders and conquerors against temples, shrines, statues, and sphinxes. The devastation did not spread to Upper Egypt, but for some hundreds of years the Hyksos remained in power, and it is probable that Joseph was vizier or chief minister of one of these kings. The new dominant people by degrees adopted much of the old civilisation of the conquered, and kept up friendly intercourse with the Egyptian rulers at Thebes It was about 1800 b.c. that the rulers of Upper Egypt began a contest for national independence, which ended in the complete expulsion of the Hyksos and their people from Egypt by the native king Aahmes or Amasis of Thebes, who reigned from 1684 to 1659.

The new empire, with its capital first at Thebes, began in 1670, and a period of conquest commenced under Thothmes I., grandson of Aahmes, and a monarch whose grandmother was of Ethiopian or Kushite race. He carried his arms far into Nubia on the south, extending the frontier to Tombos, beyond Dongola, and through Syria as far as the Euphrates. Egypt thus entered on a new career, coming boldly to the front as a great nation aiming at wide dominion abroad. His daughter Hatasu reigned as queen along with her brother Thothmes II., and with sole power after his death, assuming male attire, with the style and title of "King," and playing a manly part in her regal office. Galleys for oars and sails were built on the western shore of the Red Sea, and commerce arose with southern Arabia for spices and incense. A glorious time for Egypt came in the reign of her brother and successor Thothmes III., a very able and ambitious man, who had been for many years under her control as his co-ruler. He marched into Syria, won a great victory over the Palestinian nations at Megiddo, and became master of the whole of Syria and part of Mesopotamia. For many years he was almost constantly engaged in expeditions into the East, making the monarchs of Babylon and Assyria tremble on their thrones. He also exacted from the Ethiopians to the south vast tributes of gold, ivory, ebony, and other valuables. He was both the greatest of Egyptian conquerors and one of the chief builders and patrons of art, erecting numerous temples and other monuments at the chief towns. One of his obelisks is now at Rome, another in Constantinople, a third in London, a fourth at New York. We may note that in this monarch's reign, in the part of the Delta called in Scripture "the land of Goshen," the children of Israel were rapidly growing in numbers and prosperity. His grandson, Amenhotep III. or Amenophis, is famous for the erection of the two seated colossi at Thebes, the greatest ever seen in the world, formed of a single solid block of sandstone, still more than 60 feet in height, after being subject for over 3,000 years to the corroding effect of weather. Nothing more striking can be conceived in art than these sublimely tranquil figures, sitting alone amid a verdant expanse, with islands of ruins in their rear. One of this Amenhotep's palace-temples was at Luxor, on the eastern bank of the Nile, a superb construction 800 feet long, and from 100 to 200 feet broad, with two obelisks, of which one is now in the centre of the Place de la Concorde at Paris.

Early in the 14th century b.c. we find Egyptian forces of Seti I. or Sethos in garrison at Tyre and Aradus in Canaan, and it was at this time that new conflicts arose between Egypt and the powerful people called Khita or Hittites, who had capitals at Kadesh on the Orontes and Karkhemish on the Euphrates. They had fought with the Egyptians under Thothmes III., and since those days had increased in power. The Egyptian insertions claim that a victory of Seti I. deprived the Hittites of predominance in Syria. Under Ramessu or Ramesses II., styled "the Great," who reigned from 1388 to 1322, son and successor of Seti, the contest was renewed, and fierce battles were fought; but the end of all was a treaty of peace between the Hittites and Egyptians, and the marriage of Ramesses to a Hittite princess. From this time forward Egyptian influence and dominion in south-western Asia declined, and the land of the pyramids became again simply an African power, almost confined to her former boundaries. The reigns of Seti I. and Ramesses II. exhibit the culminating point of Egyptian art, as regards the number, variety, and beauty of architectural works. The pillared hall of Seti at Karnak, 330 feet in length and 170 in breadth, was supported by 164 massive stone columns, varying in height from 42 to 66 feet, and from 27 to 33 feet in circumference. The roof was composed of solid blocks of stone, and that, with the walls and pillars, was covered with richly painted hieroglyphics and bas-reliefs, affording a spectacle of incomparable splendour, lighted by means of a clerestory. The whole building is regarded as the greatest of man's achievements in architecture. The rock-tomb of Seti is the most magnificent of all those wondrous works, which were really gorgeous palaces, hewn out of the rock, containing chambers, corridors, staircases, passages, and pillared halls, embellished with paintings in endless variety, executed with the utmost brilliancy and finish. The works of Ramesses include colossal images of himself, four of which, each 70 feet in height, form the fagade of the wonderful rock-temple of Ipsambul. It is almost certain that the features, passionless and most impressively grand, which there still gaze out on the vast expanse of the Nubian desert, are those of the great king who oppressed the children of Israel, the monarch from whose wrath Moses was compelled to flee. His son and successor Menephthah, in a reign of 20 years, 1322-1302, had a troubled time. He seems to have been a man of weak character, and withal tyrannical and treacherous in action. Early in his reign, Egypt was ravaged by invasion of Libyans and other peoples from the west. The capital of the country had just been transferred from Thebes to Memphis, and it was behind its walls that the Egyptian king, from lack of courage, remained secure, while his forces, after a desperate battle of six hours' duration, inflicted a severe defeat on the confederates, and compelled them to quit the land. The monarch, on the monuments, took to himself the whole credit of the victory. Menephthah, the "Pharaoh" of the Exodus, was soon afterwards involved in the quarrel with Moses which led to results so direful for his people in the plagues and in the destruction of the pursuing force of chariots and horsemen in the waters of the Red Sea.

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