Chapter VI - Egypt (Part I)

[pg 93]

"The Egypt to which the Hellenes come in ships is . . . a gift of the River."

We have already seen much in the Museum that has brought vividly before our eyes the fluttering of sails and the glancing of oars on the Great Sea.

We have made acquaintance with the Greek traveler, Pytheas, in his distant home at Massilia; we have seen vases won in games at great festivals in the Mother Country, carried to the victors' homes in North Africa, to be found there, centuries later, in their graves.

Those beautiful coins from Sicily and South Italy (called Great Hellas) have shown us how important and rich were their owners, living in the colonies across the Ionian Seas; while fragments of fine temples and tombs, from Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean, have helped us to feel that the art and power of the Hellenes (Greeks) were their splendid birthright, and found expression in works of beauty wherever they settled.

This chain of Greek-speaking seafarers, traders, [pg 94] artists, all round the shores of the Mediterranean was made complete, so to speak, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., when enlightened rulers of Egypt threw open to Greek merchants, ports which had hitherto been closed to foreigners. The newcomers flourished, and many and interesting are the remains that have been dug up from the Greek towns in Egypt.

If you were to fill your brush with green paint and make a triangular-shaped lotus flower, extending the point at the apex into a long, bent stalk, finishing off with a bud on the left side, a little below the flower, you would have a rough sketch of the rive Nile.

The flower is the Delta, to which "the Hellenes came in ships"--you remember the ships on the vases? The stalk is the course of the river, with the country watered by it on each side; the bud is the district called the Fayyum.

Think of the position of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea on the north and east of your green sketch, and you will have an idea, not only of the Nile, but of Egypt--the real habitable Egypt--as well, for though you may see straight boundary lines on a map, marking out the confines of the country, it is nearly all desert beyond the influence of the river.

For countless years the great river has silently been at work, bringing down fertile mud from the highlands through which it passes. It will interest you to trace the mighty river up to one of its sources in Abyssinia, and then journey on to the huge parent lakes in the heart of Africa. Can you image a river twenty times as long as the Thames, and in parts many times wider [pg 95] than our river is at London Bridge? Where the course is rocky and steep there are rushing cataracts, but from the point where the Nile enters Egypt it flows on steadily to the sea, forming the great natural highway of the country.

If you measure the Delta by the scale on a map you will find it is about ninety miles in the widest part, and that the point of the triangle, near Cairo, is about ninety miles from the sea, also that the length of the Nile from here to the boundary of Egypt at the First Cataract is about as far as from Land's End to John o' Groat's.

You may have noticed in harbours, or when passing under bridges on the Thames, figures to show the daily rise of the tides. Now Cairo and other places in Egypt there is a Nile measurer-not to show tides, for there are none, but to show the rise of the inundation.

Year by year the great river rises out of his usual bed and spreads the rich mud he has carried from afar over the low-lying country around, watering and fertilizing it in a truly wonderful manner. You know already how fertile Egypt was in old times, for did not neighbours such as Abraham, about the twenty-first century B.C., and Joseph's brothers, about the eighteenth century, come to Egypt seeking food when it was scarce in their own land?

There was terrible distress in the country of the Nile if it rose too high and drowned the farmers and villages, or if it began to sink before the life-giving waters had spread far enough.

The Egyptians of old felt so much reverence and [pg 96] awe for this river that they worshipped it as a god, under the name of Hapi, "the Hidden," for they knew not whence it came, nor why the stream rose and fell; nor why it was now red, now green. They addressed many beautiful hymns to the "Hidden" one.

 "Hail to thee, O Nile!
 Thou showest thyself in this land
 Coming in peace, giving life to Egypt,
 Shine forth in glory, O Nile!"

Now in the fifth century B.C., already so full of importance, there came a traveler to Egypt, who also kept a very careful and full notebook from which he afterwards wrote a history. His name was Herodotus; he was a Greek, born at Halicarnassus in Caria, Asia Minor--that name is already familiar to you. Do you remember the picture in the Mausoleum Room, showing the restoration of the tomb that was once one of the wonders of the world?

More than a hundred years before Mausolus and his queen, Artemisia, lived and died, and left their mark on the world of the fourth century B.C., the boy Herodotus played about under the blue sky--chiefly one would believe, about the rocky harbour of Halicarnassus--eagerly watching the ships, and listening to the talk of the sailors and merchants, and of soldiers home from the war.

Think of the fifth century: six years before Herodotus, the "Father of History," was born, the battle of Marathon was fought; so he was four when the struggle between the Persians and Greeks was continued at Thermopylae and Salamis. [pg 97]

As you think over the map of the then known world, try to feel the spirit of those times, the wave of relief as the huge Persian armies straggled back to the lands in Asia whence they had come; and try, too, to understand the energy, the patriotism, and the pride that nerved Greeks to make good what the hated enemies had burnt and destroyed.

You can then realize a little the thoughts passing through the minds of Herodotus as he traveled from Babylon to South Italy, from the Black Sea to the First Cataract of the Nile. Especially can you feel with him on his second visit to Athens when, passing through the Colonnade of the new Gate Temple, he saw the dazzling fresh beauty of the Parthenon before him. As he gazed from the Acropolis he would mentally picture all he had gathered about Salamis and the other battles that had saved not only his country, but Europe beyond.

Perhaps you are wondering why he went to Egypt at all, when the object of his book was to give the true history of the struggle between Europe and Asia. Now the "First Artist in Prose"--this is another of his pleasant names--liked, above all things, to begin at the beginning, so he traces the steps by which the Persians became so numerous and powerful; and as one of these steps was their invasion and conquest of Egypt some years before the attempt of Greece, a description of that country had to come into his scheme.

Herodotus was filled with wonder as he traveled by the Nile, and found much to say about its size, its [pg 98] mouths, it s floods, its sources, as well as about the people who lived on its banks.

When he saw the valley from Cairo to the First Cataract lying under water, and the Delta like a great lake with towns and villages studding its surface like islands, the Greek traveler was reminded of the islands of the Aegean. It was he who called the Delta the gift of the Nile; we can go further, now so much more is known about the soil of Egypt and the sources and course of the Nile, and say that practically the whole habitable country lies in its gift.

The observant traveler was greatly struck by sharp contrasts in Egypt. The flowing, wide river, with its border, now narrow, now wider, of fertile fields, teeming with busy life and labour, shut in on each side by the silent, lifeless, rocky desert! He must have enjoyed the glorious colours of the sun rising and setting, and his unclouded passage day by day across the smiling valley! Small wonder that the sun was another Egyptian god. We shall meet with him constantly under the name Ra.

As we slowly pass along the ground floor galleries we realize how much Herodotus had to see and admire, and take notes about, besides the beauties of Nature.

Look at the stand of photographs. Those pyramids which he passed on leaving the Delta had stood there, in their plain grandeur and gigantic size, for more than twenty-four centuries.

That takes you back to the twenty-ninth century B.C. Some of the pyramids have been built later, [pg 99] but that is generally considered the great century of pyramid building.

How can we realize the size of these monster tombs? The base of one of the largest covers about the same ground as Lincoln's Inn Fields; it is over a hundred feet higher than St. Paul's. Think of the thousands of men toiling in the sun, year after year, to build such enormous structures for the honour and glory of the reigning Pharaoh, and to hold his body when life had left it.

There are a few stones from the pyramids in the Museum in the Northern Egyptian Vestibule. The eyes of Abraham, Joseph, Herodotus, Alexander, have all rested on the pyramids!

Again, many of these massive stone statues and columns from temples and tombs were standing in the time of Herodotus, as well as the obelisk we know so well on the Embankment. We call it Cleopatra's Needle, and it belongs to the fifteenth century B.C., like Stonehenge perhaps. Look at the great granite face of Thothmes III. Smiling down the gallery, if you would see the Pharaoh who set it up; the famous Cleopatra lived many centuries later.

Egyptian history was almost twice as old as ours is now when Herodotus traveled on the busy Nile, notebook in hand, in the fifth century B.C., and many families or dynasties of rulers had conquered, held their own for a time, and passed away; many changes of all kinds had come and gone. The Pharaoh who employed Greek soldiers and allowed Greek traders to settle in the Delta reigned [pg 100] from the middle till nearly the end of the seventh century B.C., and belonged to the twenty-sixth dynasty; another king of this dynasty, a hundred years later, also favour the Greeks, and in his reign Naucratis became a great city. Then came a dynasty of Persians in the fifth century; then some native kings of the thirtieth and last Egyptian dynasty.

One of these, Nekht-hor-ehbe, was buried in the great stone sarcophagus in the South Egyptian Gallery; you will notice that it is a sculptured inside and out with writing and pictures referring to the passing of the night sun through the other world. You can find the Sun god in the boat in which he traveled from his setting to his rising. Behind this is the beautifully cut black slab with the figure of the last king of this dynasty.

After him the Persians again ruled in Egypt for a few years till they in their turn were set aside by Alexander the Great. You know his brilliant story well; his control of the spirited horse, of his army, of the fierce nations in his path of conquest; in short, his control of everything except himself.

As you look again at his portrait in the Ephesus Room, and on the coins, think especially of his connection with Egypt. You will recall his romantic journey across the desert, to sacrifice to his imaginary ancestor, the god, Jupiter Ammon; and to this day the second city in Egypt is called after his name, Alexandria. He planned it and founded it, and for many centuries after his death it continued to grow in importance and learning. For the race of kings who succeeded. [pg 101]

Alexander, the Ptolemies (sixteen of them, the first of the name being one of Alexander's generals, and the last, Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra) honoured the city of the great founder of their fortunes.

One started the immense library and the museum, or rather, university, and encouraged learned Greeks to settle there. Another Ptolemy built the tall light-house, the Pharos, also one of the wonders of the ancient world; then there was the great causeway that divided the harbour into two parts, and the remarkable buildings which held statues and other works of art, also the bodies of Alexander and his successors.

The Ptolemies were famous builders and restorers, as may be seen in the stands of photographs in the Egyptian Gallery. Notice particularly the Temple of Edfu, its splendid towers and gateways, and further still up the Nile, near the First Cataract, on the island of Philae, the temple called Pharaoh's Bed, and the Temple of Isis.

A few years ago a huge dam was made six miles below Philae in order to regulate the flow of the water; this caused Philae at certain seasons to be flooded, and probably this work of the Ptolemies may be destroyed. Many of the race were great book collectors, fortunately for their own times. Unhappily for us, most of the books were afterwards burnt.

Near these are other relics of interest in the Southern Gallery on the ground floor; the cast of the tablet or stele from Canopus, inscribed with three different [pg 102] kinds of writing, also the slab with Greek writing; the granite shrine, with holes for the perch of the sacred bird.

Chief among the treasures here is the Rosetta Stone.

Examine it carefully. It came into the possession of the English about a hundred years ago, and scholars worked hard for many years to discover what the writing upon it meant. You will notice that there are three different kinds of writing, as on the tablet close by. That at the top is the picture writing, called hieroglyphic, which you will see on the toms, columns, and stones all round you; next is the same decree in the writing used for business and social purposes, called Demotic; both these are in the Egyptian language. The writing below this is in the Greek language, so familiar to scholars, and therefore it served as a key-with other help-to unlock the meaning of the hitherto unknown inscriptions.

How little did the Greek ruler of Egypt, in B.C. 196, who ordered this decree to be written thus, think of what immense use it would be in opening out the history of the country to nations then unborn.

Leaving now the long Egyptian Gallery on the ground floor, we will pass on to the Egyptian rooms at the head of the north-west staircase. Here before you are two large rooms full of mummies and their cases, in every variety of style, according to the age to which they belong. Let us leave the very early ones for the present and, in the Second Egyptian Room, examine a few of those that come from the [pg 103] later times. Herodotus gives a very full account of how mummies were made and bandaged and decorated.

The Egyptians, through all their history, wished to preserve the bodies of their dead, hence all this care, and the use of stone coffins, and great tombs, which they hoped no one would enter and disturb.

You see the picture in the corner of the Second Egyptian Room of a mummy on a bier and a human-headed bird hovering over its chest? That was the Egyptian idea of how a soul-the ka-revisited the body in which it had dwelt during life; and to sustain and supply all the needs of a mummy and the ka the Egyptians buried in the tombs everything that had been used and enjoyed in life; in some cases pictures seem to answer the purpose.

There are many cases in the Egyptian Rooms full of these things, from a handsome wig, three thousand years old, to roast ducks and toys.

Look around this Second Egyptian Room. Here are the bodies of fellow-creatures who lived and died and were mourned on the banks of the Nile while the early Britons were spending their lives hunting and fighting, and were burying their dead in great mounds; and of all these Britons we know not one single name!

But here before us are chiefly illustrious persons, lying in these glass cases in the light of day, for all to see, after two or three thousand years of the dark stillness of the tombs on the borders of the desert. In most cases their names and professions are painted [pg 104] on their wrappings or coffins; also their dates and ages, the names of their parents and their dwelling-place.

You will find high officials of the court and palace, priests and priestesses, musicians-you notice the cymbals lying on the body of Ankh-Hapi? We can guess at many particulars of their appearance in life, the shape of their heads, their height. In many cases they are covered with painted shrouds, on which are shown the chief gods connected with the world of the dead; you can easily distinguish Osiris, the form of the Sun god after he had set, and the giver of eternal life; Isis, his wife; Horus, their son; Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the mummy chamber and of the cemetery; Thoth, the scribe of the gods.

As well as the painted shroud, there is often a painted portrait over the face, in examples in the First Room; one of the most lifelike and interesting of these is one of a Greek settler in Egypt; this mummy comes from the Fayyum, and is of late date, being about eighteen hundred years old. The face is a beautiful dark one; rather sad and thoughtful, with truthful-looking eyes. There is a wreath painted on the hair like those we have seen in the Gold Room, and on the red mummy-covering are painted in gold many scenes connected with the gods of the dead, and of the soul revisiting the body. You can find the Greek words over the chest which sound very tender and pathetic, and mean, "O Artemidorus, farewell."

The children, too, close by, seem to be high-born like their elders. There is little Cleopatra Candace, [pg 105] with a comb put in amongst the bandages on the left side of her head, and a withered wreath. Her age is given very exactly--eleven years, one month, twenty-five days.


Another child carries a bunch of red flowers in her left hand, according to an old funeral custom; another girl is painted with a yellow tunic under a robe of red trimmed with green, and wears snake bracelets on her wrists. There is, too, six-year-old Tphous, whose short life was passed during the reign of Hadrian, our wall-builder and patron of the arts.

In the First Egyptian Room the eye is caught at once by the mummies of animals in the wall-cases--cats beautifully bandaged, with varying expressions; crocodiles, bulls, apes, and many others, that were held sacred in various parts of Egypt.

In the Fourth Egyptian Room we must glance at the collection of ushabti figures, the "answerers" to the bidding of the dead with whom they were buried. They were supposed to do the work that fell to the share of their masters in the fields of the blessed. Notice the hoe, cord, and basket many of them hold, and the endless variety in their shape, colour, and material. The collection of "pillows," placed under the heads of mummies in the tombs, comes next. These hard head-rests are like those used in many parts of Africa at the present time.

The models of the funeral boats close by show how the mummy was ferried across the Nile to the west bank where most of the cemeteries were. Some of the other class of boats show the shapes and kinds of river [pg 106] boats belonging to different periods, and, like the models of houses, barns, labourers at work, were believed to be of use to the dead beside whom they were placed. Note the symbols of "life," "good luck," "stability," the "Eye of Horus," the various scepters, and crowns, all of which and many more will be found in the table-cases on the Fifth Egyptian Room; many of them come from the wrappings of mummies.

The case of shoes in the Fourth Room is particularly interesting; the small wearers of the red and green leather sandals, and the fine green leather shoes, must have felt much satisfaction in possessing them; some might have fitted Cleopatra Candace and Tphous. Very dainty ladies must have owned those white leather shoes and the ones with embroidered toes.

Amongst the writing materials in the Sixth Room we have specimens of "paper," pens, and ink. School exercises in Greek, one on a wax tablet, another on a piece of pottery, consisting of lines from a Greek play, are exhibited in the MSS. Department.

Other pieces of pottery--like broken-up flower pots--show receipts for all sorts of payments, and help us to understand life in Egypt when the thirteen Ptolemies were kings. There were plenty of taxes evidently. Here is a receipt for one on vines; another is for a land tax, a fish tax, even a poll tax. It is believed that there were about seven million people in Egypt under the Ptolemies, and nearly everything that they used or possessed was taxed to support the law courts, the police, and the general order and comfort of the country. [pg 107]

Many other interesting relics are in these rooms, from the times of the Ptolemies and later. There are the "Happy New Year" vases; the amusing figures of Horus dressed as a Roman soldier; jars and their seals from the wine cellar of the period; bronze figures of Egyptian and Greek gods and heroes; Aphrodite, with the head-dress of Isis; Isis, in the form of a Greek matron, nursing Horus; a bronze plaque of Pegasus; school exercises, scribbled drawings.

If we glance again into the Second Vase Room we find early pottery from Naucratis, also ornaments and ivory work. In the familiar case of dolls and toys in the Room of Greek and Roman Life are several treasures from Egypt, notably the rag doll, the reading exercises and writing tablet, the lawyer's notebook, and the papyrus letter from Alexandria, asking for pure drugs--"none of your rotten stuff."

Let us look for a moment at the faces of the Ptolemies, as shown on their coins, especially comparing that of Cleopatra with her bust in the Hall of Inscriptions.

It has been said that no country in the world has written so many or such good books as Greece; we have already seen how the Ptolemies collected these books, and that thousands of them have perished.

Still, rich treasures of Greek manuscripts are being discovered year by year, chiefly in Egypt, and often hidden in tombs, beside the mummies. Some of these are shown in the case near the middle of the Manuscript Room, headed "Greek manuscripts." Many of them are either the only known copies of ancient [pg 108] writers or the earliest copies that have yet been found.

You will see some familiar names, amongst them a poem of Sappho, and copies of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, though it would be hard to gather the well-known stories from the fragments of papyrus before us. Then there is a part of Psalm xii., described as one of the earliest manuscripts of any portion of the Bible known to be in existence.

The petition from the old recluse at Memphis, complaining of the Egyptians assaulting him because he was a Greek, makes one feel that the two nationalities did not always get on together in 161 B.C. There are other complaints of injuries, and many census returns, and records of loans of all kinds, and receipts for payments of lands and olive yards, as well as demands to furnish soldiers to help in collecting "imperial dues," and a request to send a boat to convey sailors and workmen.

The certificates granted to labourers to say that they had performed the required five days' work on the embankment, with the exact date, August 2, A.D. 49, help us to realize the constant effort to arrange fro the inundation, and to make the most of its benefits. This is even now still one of the great difficulties in Egypt.

It has been well said that "it is the shadow of Rome, which ever lengthening towards the East, marked, stage by stage, the history of the decline of Egypt under the Ptolemies."

If you have seen the play of Anthony and Cleopatra [pg 109] you will know the tragedy of the end of Egypt's greatness-Anthony's despair and death, and the passing, when all was lot, of the great Queen, to whom Tennyson gives these words:

 "I died a Queen. The Roman soldier found
 Me lying dead, my crown about my brows,
 A name for ever!"

Just after the middle of the first century B.C., you will remember, Julius Caesar was in Egypt; then came the burning of the library of Alexandria; then Egypt was made a Roman province. As you look back, and then forwards, you will see that this was about a hundred years after Greece fell before the world-conquerors, and about a hundred years before Claudius set the seal on his soldiers' success in Britain.

(typed by Dawn Taylor)

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