Egypt Through The Stereoscope

A Journey Through The Land Of The Pharaohs

by James Henry Breasted | 1908 | 103,705 words

Examines how stereographs were used as a means of virtual travel. Focuses on James Henry Breasted's "Egypt through the Stereoscope" (1905, 1908). Provides context for resources in the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). Part 3 of a 4 part course called "History through the Stereoscope."...

The Story of Egypt

There is no people whose career can be followed through so long a period as that of the people of Egypt. The civilization of Babylon may be older, though that question is still under debate, but Babylonia so early disappeared as a nation, that the length of its career is shorter by many centuries than that of Egypt.

Egypt still survives with a people of the same mental characteristics and the same physical peculiarities as we find in those subjects of the Pharaohs who built the pyramids. They have changed their language once and their religion twice, but they are still Egyptians as of old, pursuing the same arts, following the same occupations, holding the same superstitions, living in the same houses, using the same medicines, and employing the same devices for irrigation and cultivation of the fields, which the student of the monuments finds among their ancestors five thousand years ago.

The amazing persistence of the chief elements of their civilization, the survival of these things into our own times, is due in large measure, if not solely, to the very unusual natural conditions under which they lived. We must therefore note briefly the geography and climate of the Nile valley, if we would at all understand the marvelous people who so early found a home there.

The whole northern end of the African continent is traversed from the Atlantic on the west to the Red Sea on the east by a vast desert, which is continued eastward through Arabia and far into the heart of Asia (Map 1). This desert of two continents is crossed by two great river valleys: in Africa by that of the Nile; in Asia by the Euphrates valley, supplemented by that of the Tigris. These two great river valleys, one in Africa, the other in Asia, formed the home of two remarkable peoples, to whom the classic world of Europe, and through it we ourselves, owe the fundamentals of civilization, which were there developed from the most primitive beginnings to a high degree of perfection, and then transmitted to the European nations in the basin of the Mediterranean.

He who would know the story of man, and particularly its first chapter, will find it necessary to delve long and patiently among the surviving remains in these two river valleys, for there is the earliest human culture, which we are able to date with approximate accuracy, as compared with the vast range of uncertainty in the date of the remains of early man, found elsewhere by the anthropologist, like the relics of the cave-dwellers of prehistoric Europe. We are to journey together through one of these ancient cradles of civilization, and I repeat, we must know, before we enter upon the journey, something about the valley, its climate and the other natural conditions, among which its people lived.

Rising at a point three degrees south of the equator, the Nile flows northward through equatorial Africa, until, fifteen hundred miles after passing the lakes called Victoria and Albert Nyanza, it is joined from the east by a great affluent coming out of Abyssinia. From the color of the water the western river is known as the White Nile, while the eastern is called the Blue Nile (Map 2). After their junction, the common stream is the Nile proper. The territory thus far traversed by the river is a vast and fertile region known as the Sudan, which means “blacks” and refers, of course, to the race inhabiting the region.

At the junction of the two Niles is the frontier town of Khartum; about one hundred and forty miles north of this place, the Nile receives another tributary from the east, the Atbara, which is its last affluent; on all its long journey to the sea it receives no further contribution to its waters, but must make its way through the desert alone. For just below its junction with the Atbara, the Nile enters the table land of Nubian sandstone, which there underlies the Sahara; for over a thousand miles the river must fight its way through the tough sandstone which forms its bed, and not the countless ages which have elapsed since it first debouched upon the Sahara, have sufficed to wear away a perfect channel.

In many places the huge and stubborn rocks are piled in masses in the stream, dividing the waters into numerous, tortuous channels, where they descend with rush and roar, only to meet with similar obstructions below. These are the so-called cataracts of the Nile, which break the stream at ten or more points; but they fall into six main groups, so that it is usually stated, that the cataracts of the Nile are six in number. They are not what we generally understand by the term cataract, as there is no sudden and great fall as in our cataract at Niagara.

Finally the river escapes from the last obstruction, an outcropping of granite which thrusts up its rough shoulder at Assuan, where the stream emerges upon an unobstructed course of some seven hundred miles to the sea. The reason for this difference is, that the bed of the Sahara, at a point about sixty-five miles below Assuan, suddenly changes to limestone, a less refractory material, through which the river has worn a wide, deep channel. Something over a hundred miles before reaching the sea, the river divides into two branches, the western, called the Rosetta mouth, and the eastern, known as the Damietta mouth; but in antiquity there were seven such Delta mouths of the river.

From the source to the mouth it is about four thousand miles in length and thus ranks with the longest rivers of the world. The Delta was, of course, originally a large bay, which has been gradually filled by silting up from the river.

The valley of the Nile is simply a vast cañon cut across the eastern end of the Sahara from south to north by the age-long erosion of the river. This cañon, in the long, dreary stretch of the sandstone country above Assuan, is shallow and narrow, so much so that it can in places hardly be termed a cañon; but below Assuan, where the limestone begins, the cañon is fourteen to thirty-two miles wide, and the cliffs or bluffs on either side are frequently several hundred feet high. Flanking these cliffs are the desert wastes, less barren and forbidding on the east. We shall often take our stand upon the crest of these cliffs and overlook the valley, so that we need not further describe them here.

Egypt proper extended from the sea only to Assuan, or the first cataract, as the last cataract obstructing the river is usually called, because it is the first one met in the ascent. Egypt was and is, therefore, a vast trench in the Sahara, to which we must add the Delta, the scattered oases in the desert on the west, the eastern desert to the Red Sea, with the greater part of the Peninsula of Sinai. Of cultivable soil the narrow valley above the Delta contains less than 5,000 square miles, the Delta itself somewhat more than that, so that the entire area of habitable country is under 10,000 square miles.

Within such narrow limits as these, about equal to the area of Vermont and Rhode Island combined, developed the remarkable civilization which we are to study. It will be seen that we have here natural boundaries producing unusual isolation; on the north the almost harborless coast of the Delta; on the east and west the desert, and on the south the cataracts. Here the earliest Egyptians lived in the greatest security and seclusion, and under such conditions have not only developed but also preserved many striking and individual characteristics.

The climate, although not absolutely rainless as often stated, was and is effectually so, as far as agriculture is concerned. The people were thus forced to depend upon the annual inundation from the river for the fertilization of their lands, as well as their irrigation after the waters receded. Of all this we shall see many examples when we have entered the country, and we shall not wonder that the people early developed mechanical arts, when forced to the daily use of clever devices for the utilization of the river, whether in irrigation or navigation. They enjoyed a climate which was, to be sure, intensely hot in summer, but in winter equable and delightful to a degree that is now drawing thousands of convalescents to Egypt every season.

Here, then, recent excavations enable us to trace the prehistoric Egyptian, in the fifth or possibly the sixth millennium before Christ, as he passes from the use of stone and pottery, to the conquest of metals, the acquisition of writing and an ordered civilization under a king.

The earliest Egyptians were probably related to the Libyans, and at some remote period of their history, they were invaded by tribes of Semites, as in the seventh century A. D., the Arabs came in and made conquest of the country, at the beginning of the spread of Islam. This prehistoric invasion brought Semitic elements into the language and gave it a fundamentally Semitic structure. Doubtless also some things hitherto unknown there, were imported into the material culture of the earliest Nile dwellers. The resulting composite race, of African-Libyan and Semitic-Asiatic origin, is that which emerges into the light of history, in the middle of the forty-third century before Christ, when they had already sufficient knowledge of astronomy to introduce a calendar with a year of three hundred and sixty-five days. This is the earliest fixed date in history (4241 B. C.).

We dimly see at this remote period, two kingdoms on the Nile: one in the south, occupying the valley proper; the other in the north, that is, the Delta. These two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united some centuries later into one nation, under one king, and thus Egypt, as a homogeneous nation, is born.

Menes, the king under whom this union was accomplished, thus heads the long list of dynasties and the line of Pharaohs begins. This is called the dynastic period, because from now on we find successive generations or families of kings, called, as in European history, dynasties, as numbered and enumerated by the Egyptian historian, Manetho, who wrote in the middle of the third century B. C.

The chronology of these dynasties is in the greatest confusion, but it is probable that the accession of Menes and the beginning of the dynastic age falls not later than 3400 B. C., although it may possibly be a hundred years earlier. Beginning here, then, we look down the changing panorama of Egyptian history during nearly 5,400 years to the present. Of this vast sweep of years, only the first 2,400 or 2,500 were under native Pharaohs, for since the middle of the tenth century B. C. Egypt has been under foreign kings, with but trifling exceptions.

We see her then under her native kings, making the earliest chapter in human history, of which we are adequately informed.' The first two dynasties of kings, living on the upper river, near Abydos, were masters of a civilization, from which we have, with slight exceptions, only material remains; but these are of such a character as to arouse the greatest admiration at the technical skill of these remote craftsmen on the one hand, and their fine sense of beauty on the other. But we cannot trace the political career of these earliest dynasties.


The Old Kingdom
2980—2445 B. C.

With the accession of the 3rd Dynasty we are able to discern something of the political conditions, as we see Egypt rising into her first great period of power and prosperity, which we call the Old Kingdom. It includes Dynasties 3, 4, 5 and 6, and lasted from the early decades of the thirtieth century to about 2400 B. C., nearly 600 years. It offers the oldest example of a developed civilization that is in any adequate measure known to us. Even granting that Mesopotamian culture is older, it presents for the period of the Old Kingdom, only an isolated date or two with here and there a royal name.

But to the existence of the kings of the Old Kingdom, their pyramids still bear vivid witness; and often, too, these royal tombs are surrounded by a silent city of mastabas (masonry tombs), the walls of whose chapels acquaint us not merely with the names, but in graphic bas-relief also with the occupations, pastimes and daily life of whole generations of grandees, who formed the court of the Pharaoh in life, and in death now sleep beside him. Hewn in granite, limestone or diorite, their faces are familiar to us, and even the flesh and blood features of one of these antique Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom have survived to look into our faces across nearly fifty centuries.

In order to view the career of the kings of this period, we must station ourselves at the southern apex of the Delta, on the western side of the river, where the ruins of Memphis lie, for their royal residence was always in or near this city (Map 3). Here we might have seen the Pharaoh ruling in absolute power, sending his officials from end to end of his kingdom, and dominating a functionary-state, the officials of which lived at court directly under the monarch's eyes. It was therefore a closely centralized state, the power of which was focused in the person of the Pharaoh.

Had we walked the streets of Memphis we would have found three classes of people at least: at the top and bottom, the noble and official, governing class, and the serf; but it is impossible to think that the magnificent works of the Old Kingdom in art and mechanics, many of which were never later surpassed, could have been produced without a class of free craftsmen. There was, therefore, a free middle class of artisans and tradesmen. Art in sculpture, and the crafts attained a marvelous perfection; literature flourished; and in religion appear traces of an ethical test applied to every one.

It is far easier to draw a picture of the life of the Old Kingdom than to trace its history. Purely monumental materials are often eloquent witnesses of power and splendor, but give us little of that succession of conditions and events which forms history. Imagine an attempt to trace the history of Greece solely from its surviving monuments; much of the temper of the Greek people may have found expression there, but little of the course of events which marked their political history, and still less of the gradual mental unfolding, by which a people of rare intellectual powers developed with unparalleled rapidity, from childish myths to the profoundest philosophy. So in the 4th Dynasty, its rapid rise is evident from the enormous size of the Gizeh pyramids, but of the other deeds of their builders we know little.

Already in the 1st Dynasty, the Pharaohs had begun mining operations among the copper veins in the Peninsula of Sinai, and left their monuments of victory there. Snofru, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty, continued these enterprises, and sent fleets on the Mediterranean as far north as the slopes of Lebanon, where they procured cedar for Snofru's buildings. After three-quarters of a century of ever-increasing power and splendor, the 3rd Dynasty was then succeeded by another family, the builders of the great pyramids of Gizeh , the 4th Dynasty. The possibly three centuries or more during which the 4th and 5th Dynasties ruled, clearly show a steady decline in power after the first century, if the decreasing size of the pyramids is any criterion; until in the 6th Dynasty, it is evident that the central power is slowly disintegrating.

The Pharaoh's governors in the local administrative districts had gradually gained hereditary hold upon their offices and the districts they governed. They thus developed into a class of powerful landed lords and princes. They no longer build their tombs alongside that of the Pharaoh, but are buried on their own ancestral estates, where they have doubtless resided rather than at court as before. They were gradually drawing away from the king, who was unable to prevent them from attaining a greater degree of independence.

A court favorite of the time, named Una, has left us in his biography, an account of how he led a body of troops into the Peninsula of Sinai, where he five times routed the Beduin enemy. After this he brought his army by sea, on an expedition, as he says, “north of the land of the sand-dwellers,” that is, the Beduin of Sinai. North of them means toward if not into Palestine, as he speaks of reaching certain “highlands,” which may be those of Judea; but few details further than the defeat of the enemy are given.

Already at this remote age, the noblemen of the Pharaoh carried on for him traffic with the east African coast, near the mouth of the Red Sea, the region which we now call the Somali coast (Map 2), These are the earliest voyages in the open sea known in history. On the southern frontier similar officials carried on caravan trade with the Sudan, and subdued the warlike Nubian tribes in order to keep open the southern trade-routes. We shall visit the tombs of these aggressive nobles at the first cataract. There are also evidences of trade with the Aegean islands in the Old Kingdom.

Having ruled some 150 years, the 6th Dynasty sank gradually into obscurity; with it fell the Old Kingdom, leaving as its witnesses the irregular line of pyramids, which stretch from Abu Roash, opposite the southern apex of the Delta, southward for sixteen miles along the margin of the desert to Sakkara, beside the ruins of ancient Memphis (Map 5).

With the overthrow of the Old Kingdom we see the seat of power gradually moving up the river from Memphis. The local barons, who have now gained their independence, are contending among themselves for the crown. Of the 7th and 8th Dynasties we know nothing, but we shall see, in our voyage up the river, the tombs of the nobles of Assiut, the vassals of the 9th and 10th Dynasty kings who ended Memphite supremacy and lived at Heracleopolis (Maps 6 and 3).


The Middle Kingdom
2160—1788 B. C.

The Heracleopolitans were unable to maintain themselves against the nobles of the south, especially the princes of Thebes, a city which, at this point, for the first time appears among the contestants, in so far as we know. You will find it at an important strategic point upon the river, not far above the bend, where it approaches most closely to the Red Sea (south of its northern arm, known as the Gulf of Suez :—see Map 3). Thebes from now on plays a prominent part in the history of the country; for a Theban family of nobles succeeds in pushing down the river, overthrowing the Heracleopolitans, and setting up a new dynasty, the 11th.

This begins Egypt's second great period of power, which we will call the Middle Kingdom. As the 11th Dynasty was succeeded by the 12th, also of Theban origin, the power of Thebes was firmly established over the whole country, and thus about 2000 B. C. the country entered upon two centuries of unexampled prosperity and splendor. The organization of the new government was essentially that of a feudal state, a fact which shows that during the obscure period that preceded, the nobles have won a large degree of independence, the beginnings of which we have already seen in the 6th Dynasty. Social conditions have not materially changed since the Old Kingdom.

In order better to govern their new kingdom, the powerful monarchs of the 12th Dynasty, the Theban Amenemhets and the Sesostrises, moved down the river to a point not far from the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, probably just above Memphis, and there they ruled with a sagacity and firmness that kept their family on the throne for over two hundred years. This is the classic period of Egyptian history; the system of writing for the first time attains a consistent and fixed orthography and literature flourishes as never before. The arts continued to develop with unprecedented splendor, medicine and elementary science made great progress; in religion, the ethical element had now triumphed, and the ethical quality of a man's life determined his destiny hereafter.

The resources of the country were developed and utilized as at no time before. The kings executed enormous hydraulic works for recovering a portion of the flooded Fayum, a large oasis on the west of the Nile valley, so close to it that at some probably prehistoric period it was flooded from the inundation by the river (Map 5), forming the Lake Moeris of Greek times. Near the same place Amenemhet III built the vast structure known in classic days as the labyrinth.

Abroad, Sesostris III followed up the campaigns of his ancestors in Nubia so successfully that he conquered all the territory above the first cataract as far as the second (Maps 2 and 3), and made his permanent frontier at a point above the second cataract, where he established several strong fortresses to maintain it, thus adding 200 miles of Nile valley to the kingdom of Egypt.

This province he then connected with Egypt by a canal at the first cataract. Trade with the southern Red Sea countries was still maintained. We hear even of a campaign in Syria, though its results were evidently not lasting. Traffic with the Aegean islands was not uncommon. Thus the Middle Kingdom, the feudal age of Egypt, shows itself more aggressive both at home and abroad than the Old Kingdom, the age of the pyramid builders.

The 12th Dynasty kings have also left us their pyramids extending in a straggling line from Dashur, just south of Sakkara, to Illahun, in the mouth of the Fayum (Map 6). Of their temples, next to nothing has survived, owing to the complete rebuilding under the Empire. Under their successors of the 13th Dynasty, the power of the Pharaohs is again on the decline, resulting finally in the second period of uncertainty, like that which followed the Old Kingdom.

Passing over the obscurities of the period, all that we certainly know is, that for a few generations before its close, we find the country in the power of foreigners, usually called the Hyksos (after Josephus), who took possession of the Delta and the valley for an uncertain distance up the river. They came from the north—that is, Asia—and were probably Semites.


The Empire
1580—1150 B. C.

Against these usurpers, the Theban princes, the successors of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs, finally waged a war of independence, which was brought to a successful issue by Ahmosis, the founder and first king of the 18th Dynasty. He drove the enemy from their stronghold, Avaris in the Delta, whence they fled to Palestine, and there Ahmosis besieged them for six years in the southern Palestinian city of Sharuhen, mentioned also in the Old Testament (Joshua xix, 6). After he had expelled them and pursued them to Phoenicia, he returned to Egypt to wield a power, up to that time unknown to any Pharaoh. For in the war for liberty and long-continued internecine conflicts the local barons have been practically exterminated, and thus about 1580 B. C.

Egypt begins her third period of power, which we may call the Empire, with a totally different organization from any that we have thus far found. It is now a military state, largely made so by the wars with the Hyksos, who taught the Egyptians warfare and for the first time introduced the horse into the Nile valley.

What few nobles have survived are no longer local proprietors, but simply hold rank in the Pharaoh's service; the Pharaoh personally owns the land. For the first time there is a great standing army, into which we see Egyptian gentlemen entering as professional soldiers, and from now on the soldier is the most prominent figure in political life. Side by side with him, and for the first time also a power in the state, now stands the priest. Soldier and priest, therefore, replace the barons of the Middle and the functionaries of the Old Kingdom.

From Thebes, now just beginning its career of splendor, the great military monarchs of the 18th Dynasty went forth to cross the isthmus of Suez and conquer Palestine and Syria, or to pass up the river into Nubia and push the frontier of Egypt to a point above the fourth cataract of the Nile (Map 3), the extreme southern limit of Pharaonic conquest. The grandson of Ahmosis, Thutmosis I, whose obelisk we shall see at Thebes, carried Egyptian power to the upper Euphrates (Maps 1 and 2), but was unable to organize his conquests into Egyptian dependencies.

The succession of his daughter, Hatshepsut, interrupted the course of foreign conquest, for this remarkable queen was not given to war, and neglected the empire abroad. She devoted herself to the peaceful development of her empire. Her greatest feat was an expedition to the Somali coast, on a much larger scale than anything formerly known, and, when we have visited Thebes, we will see her expedition trafficking with the natives of distant Punt, as the Egyptians called the Somali coast. Meantime the Asiatic conquests quests fall away. Finally, after much confusion in the succession to the crown, Thutmosis III, the brother of the talented queen, succeeds in maneuvering his sister out of the throne. He immediately began the recovery of the conquests in Asia.

In no less than seventeen great campaigns he subdued all Palestine and Syria; he planted a tablet of victory alongside that of his father on the banks of the Euphrates, he organized the conquered lands into dependencies of Egypt, built forts, planted garrisons, appointed governors, or allowed former princes to rule as vassals of Egypt; and when he died, after a reign of fifty-four years, he was regularly receiving tribute from the uttermost parts of a vast realm, the first organized empire known in history, extending from the upper waters of the Euphrates to the fourth cataract of the Nile. All that honor, which, following current tradition, we have customarily accorded Ramses II, belongs to Thutmosis III as the greatest military genius of earlier Oriental history.

This position of power and splendor, the influx of untold wealth, the sudden and intimate commingling with the life and culture of Asiatic peoples, reacted powerfully upon Egypt, as well in political as in social and industrial life, producing after the reign of Thutmosis III the most profound and far-reaching changes. Before the 18th Dynasty, social conditions were not radically different from those of the Middle Kingdom, so that there is more of change in this particular, in and immediately following his reign, than during the entire interim from the Middle Kingdom to the Empire.

Among many of these changes, we notice the vast influx of foreign captives, taken especially in the Asiatic wars. They were utilized particularly on the Pharaoh's buildings, in just such a manner as the Hebrews were employed, or in mediaeval days, the captives from the ranks of the crusaders forced by Saladin to build the walls of his citadel at Cairo. It was their labor, though not their skill, which built the mighty temples which we shall find up the river, especially at Thebes. In general, all those changes, which affect a people of simple habits, when suddenly raised to a position of great power, are now observable.

Asiatic princesses from Babylonia and the upper Euphrates for three traceable generations and probably longer, are given in marriage to the Pharaoh by their royal fathers. In the industrial and aesthetic arts, in language, in costume, in religion, in pastimes, in war, Egypt is now strongly tinctured by Semitic Asia. Even far off Mycenae, too, is present in pottery and metal work, and traffic with the whole northern world is constant and far-reaching.

Under the two immediate successors of Thutmosis III, his vast conquests in Asia were maintained with vigilance, followed by some relaxation under Amenophis III, his great-grandson. The thinking men of the time now began unconsciously to feel the widening of the horizon, which Egypt had experienced in the last hundred and fifty years.

Most of their gods had once been local divinities, worshiped only in restricted districts, but they now began to extend the jurisdiction of the great state god Re to the limits of the Egyptian empire. In other words, political conditions were gradually leading them to a practical if not to a philosophical monotheism. Amenophis IV, the son of Amenophis III, provoked by the rising power of the old Theban god Amon, with whose priesthood he was politically at loggerheads, inaugurated a far-reaching revolution, in the course of which he attempted to introduce the exclusive worship of Re, the sun-god, throughout his realm.

For this purpose he established several new cities, one in Egypt, one in Nubia, and possibly one in Palestine, each devoted to the sole worship of his sun-god under the name “Aton,” which is an old Egyptian word, meaning “sun-disk” The new city in Egypt was located at (Map 3), about 320 miles below Thebes; and, forsaking Thebes, the king made it his royal residence and capital, at the same time changing his own name from Amenophis, which contained the name of the hated Amon, to Ikhnaton, which means “Brightness (or possibly Spirit) of the Sun-Disk.”

The beliefs of the new faith, developed by Amenophis IV, are remarkable. The surviving hymns, containing all that we know of it, express adoration of one god, ruling all the world of which the Egyptian knew. They delight in reiterated examples of his creative power, as seen in plants, animals, men, or the great world itself, and then of his benevolent sustenance of all that he has created. But they are not ethical; they contain no hint that the recognition of a great benevolent purpose carries with it morality and righteousness in the character of god, or the demand for these in the character of men. Nevertheless, the entire movement was far in advance of the age. After a reign of seventeen years Ikhnaton died, leaving no son; with him perished the remarkable movement, which solely by his own personal power he had sustained against the tremendous inertia of immemorial custom and tradition. The Amonite priests wreaked vengeance upon the body, the tomb, the temple and the city of the hated idealist, and reestablished the traditional religion.

The Amarna letters, a series of long-continued correspondence found in the ruins of Ikhnaton's new city of , a correspondence maintained between the Pharaohs and their vassal kinglets in Syria and Palestine, besides also a series of letters between the kings of the Tigro-Euphrates valley and the Pharaohs —all this affords us a vivid picture of the provincial administration of this period, and of the plotting and counterplotting of the petty, semi-independent Palestinian and Syrian rulers, each striving to gain the support of the home government against his fellows.

Here we find Machiavellian politics already ripened to a degree of cynical perfection, which we should never have anticipated. But the far-reaching disturbances accompanying the revolution of Ikhnaton weakened the foreign administration to such an extent that all the Asiatic states revolted. The revolt was complicated by the advance of the Hittites from eastern Asia Minor into Syria, and the invasion of Palestine and Syria by Beduin hordes in one of their periodic overflows from the eastern deserts.

With this latter movement began the Hebrew occupation of Palestine, and among the Beduin, whose invasion of Palestine is revealed in the Amarna letters at this time, we must recognize the Hebrews. The royal house could not withstand the shock and the 18th Dynasty fell about 1350 B. C., having enjoyed two hundred and thirty years of unprecedented power and splendor.

With the rise of the 19th Dynasty, about 1350 B. C., new conditions confronted the Pharaohs in Asia. The Hittites, foemen fully equal to the contest with Egypt for the possession of her former Asiatic conquests, had meantime, as we have seen, pressed into Syria from Asia Minor, and, advancing southward, before the close of the 18th Dynasty, had occupied the country as far south as the Lebanons.

Thus Sethos I, whose face we shall yet look upon, after receiving the ready submission of Palestine, was able to advance no further than a little north of Carmel, thus gaining the southern coast of Phoenicia. His son, Ramses II, after continuous war for over seventeen years, failed to break the power of the stubborn Hittites, or to wrench from them the northern conquests of Thutmosis III. He therefore concluded a peace with them on equal terms, having permanently advanced his northern boundaries very little beyond those of his father, Sethos I.

One of his famous battles in this war at the city of Kadesh nearly cost him his life, and he was fond of having his valiant defence on that occasion depicted in splendid reliefs in his great temples. These we shall later see at Thebes. Egypt's territory in Asia is now essentially within the limits of later Palestine, with the addition of the Phoenician coast cities as far north as Beirut (Berytus, Map 2).

The enormously long reign of Ramses II (sixty-seven years) and the astonishing number of his great buildings made him the ideal Pharaoh in the eyes of later generations, and even modern scholars have falsely identified him with Sesostris, the legendary hero of Egypt in Greek tradition, about whom clustered all the great deeds of Egypt's kings of every age. But all the Sesostrises belong in the Middle Kingdom.

Under the successors of Ramses II, the Empire, hard beset by Libyan invasion, again sank into weakness and confusion. Among the Semitic captives who, in great numbers, have been brought into the country since the days of Thutmosis III, the Hebrews must have been toiling on the royal buildings of this age, as narrated in the Old Testament. They dwelt in the land of Goshen, in the eastern Delta, which we shall later visit. In the Cairo Museum we shall see the only monument referring to Israel by name. The scanty evidence would indicate that their escape from Egypt occurred in the decline which followed the death of Ramses II, but there is no monumental reference to their flight. On their escape they were able to join kindred tribes who had been gradually occupying Palestine since the decline of the 18th Dynasty. (See above.)

With the accession of the 20th Dynasty, about 1200 B. C., the country is so visibly on the decline, that the rise of this or that family into power is but an incident in her decay. The advent of the 20th Dynasty under Ramses III was therefore but a deceptive rally. This king, who in every way imitated Ramses II, succeeded in turning back the tide of Libyan invasion, already serious at the close of the 19th Dynasty.

He was notably successful in maintaining his Asiatic frontier at essentially the same limits as those of Ramses II, and this, against an inpouring horde of invaders from the north, who advanced southward by sea and land, devastating Syria as they went. We shall see at Thebes, on the wall of one of his temples, the naval battle which he fought with them. But his is an empty prosperity; affairs at home are in the worst possible condition.

The native forces of the Egyptian people are exhausted; their military enthusiasm is forever quenched. From the fall of the 19th Dynasty, the internal history of Egypt is but the story of the overthrow of the Pharaohs and the usurpation of the throne, first by the priests of Amon, and then by foreign mercenaries from the ranks of the Libyans, who now largely make up the army. The offices of the priest and the soldier, the strength of the state in the early Empire, are now perverted to the destruction of the ancient nation.


The Decadence
1150—663 B. C.

Shortly after the death of Ramses III the Asiatic empire finally collapsed, and the long Decadence ensued. Ramses XII, the ninth of the feeble Ramessids, who, one after another, followed Ramses III, was unable to transmit the crown to his son, or was quietly set aside by Hir-Hor, the high priest of Amon at Thebes. The priests did not long succeed in retaining the royal honors, for the Ramessids, who, from Ramses II's day, had lived in the Delta, set up a dynasty in his splendid Delta city of Tanis. They forced the Amonite priests from the throne and reconciled the priestly party by themselves assuming the high priesthood of Amon, and intermarrying with the women of the old priestly house. They form the 21st Dynasty.

The overthrow of the Ramessids of the 20th Dynasty could hardly have occurred much later than 1100 B. C. It brought the seat of power finally to the Delta, already since Ramses II's day the royal residence, and thus the decline of Thebes began. It also lost Palestine to Egypt and permitted the rise of the Israelitish monarchy during the eleventh and tenth centuries, in a region, which, for about five hundred years had been an Egyptian province. The great building period which began with the 18th Dynasty at Thebes, was now ended, and the vast temples which we shall find there grew up under the Empire, particularly the 18th and 19th Dynasties.

From very early times the Egyptians, naturally unwarlike, had received Libyan mercenaries among their troops. From the rise of the 19th Dynasty onward, the native forces were more and more inclined to relinquish the sword to these foreigners, who increased in numbers with every subsequent reign.

The victories of Ramses III were for the most part due to them. About 950 B. C., when the power of the native Pharaohs was at its lowest ebb, these powerful military adventurers thrust aside the feeble 21st Dynasty and assumed the kingship, forming the 22nd Dynasty. Thus, after some two thousand five hundred years of native rule, the spent and impoverished nation passed under foreign masters, and with trifling exceptions she has had nothing else since. From this time on, there was “no more a prince out of the land of Egypt.”


The Libyan Period
950—663 B. C.

The first ruler of the new family, Sheshonk (Biblical Shishak), early planned for the recovery of the ancient province of Palestine. Hence it was that he received Jeroboam so willingly and seized the opportunity of a division among the Hebrews (with which it is not impossible that he had something to do), to reconquer Palestine and plunder Jerusalem (I Kings xiv, 25-26). The attempted reconquest, apparently little more than a plundering expedition, was not enduring but Sheshonk had a record of it engraved on the wall of the Karnak temple at Thebes, where we shall study it.

But the power of Sheshonk's successors in Bubastis, the Osorkons, the Sheshonks, and the Takelots, rapidly declined, while in the Delta and up the valley there was, within a hundred years of the first Sheshonk's death, a similar kinglet in almost every important city. Hence it was that Egypt was unable to do anything to check the rapidly rising power of Assyria, which was now threatening Palestine. Of these Bubastite or 22nd Dynasty kings after Sheshonk I, we know almost nothing, so few monuments have been left us, and so complete is the destruction of the Delta cities.


The Nubian Period
775—663 B. C.

While the weakling princes of the Delta were doing all in their power to check Assyria's westward progress, a new complication arose in the Nile valley itself. Probably as early as the 21st Dynasty the Nubians had gained their independence and there grew up an independent Cushite kingdom on the upper river, with its capital at Napata, just below the fourth cataract (Maps 2 and 3). Here, then, with an ever deepening tinge of barbarism, we find developing a repetition of the Theban state, with Amon at its head. These Egyptianized Ethiopians soon pushed northward and gained control of Thebes, whose priesthood had perhaps founded the new kingdom at Napata.

By 732 B. C. they were ready for greater things, and the conquest of all Egypt, with the exception of some of the more stubborn Delta cities, was successfully achieved by their first great king, Piankhi. It was, however, but temporary, and for a hundred years after the invasion the history of Egypt is made up on the one hand of attempts of the local kinglets on the lower river at overthrowing each other, and on the other of invasions of the Ethiopians, who found it only too easy to subdue and plunder a nation so disorganized. This situation was further complicated by continual attempts against the advance of the Assyrians. But by 670 B. C., after futile efforts on the part of successive Ethiopian kings to halt Assyria, the dreaded invasion by that power comes, and Memphis is plundered.

Tanutamon, the last of the Ethiopians to renew the attempt to hold Egypt, again came down the river as far as Memphis in 663 B. C., and thus provoked another invasion of the Assyrians under Ashurbanipal. The latter advanced a forty days' march up the river to Thebes, which he sacked and wasted, a ruin from which the great capital of the monarchs of the Empire never wholly recovered. Neither Tanutamon nor his successors ever again ventured into Egypt; the Ethiopian domination in Egypt had thus lasted, with some interruptions, from 732 to 663 B. C. Having transferred the capital from Napata to Meroe (Map 3) far up toward the junction of the two Niles, the Ethiopian kingdom endured down into the first Christian centuries.


The Restoration
663—525 B. C.

The strife of the local dynasts and petty kings, which now broke out anew, might have continued indefinitely had not a new element been suddenly introduced. Psamtik (Greek Psammetichos), a Delta prince of Sais, following the traditions of his family, was enabled to gain the lead by the employment of mercenaries from a new source; these were Greeks and Carians. By this means he rapidly subdued his neighbors, threw off the yoke of Assyria, and by 645 B. C. had gained the whole valley as far as the first cataract, in addition to the Delta. Assyria, now nearing her fall, was unable to prevent the consolidation of his power.

Thus, after centuries of unparalleled confusion and disunion, Egypt was finally granted peace and stable government, and Psamtik ushered in a new day. His family we call the 26th Dynasty. Egypt now prospered as never before, and in Greek and Phoenician bottoms, her products were carried to every mart of the known world. Now began the establishment of her naval power, which made her so formidable under the Ptolemies.

The Greeks now entered the country in large numbers, and were allowed to found in the western Delta their great trading city of Naukratis. This period was in every sense a restoration; perhaps not of the glory of the Empire, but in intention at least, a restoration of the Old Kingdom, which had created such enduring witnesses of its power, and seen through the perspective of twenty centuries, seemed to the Saites an ideal age.

Although the hopes of Psamtik's Dynasty, for the recovery of Syria and Palestine, naturally excited by the fall of Assyria, were thwarted by the unexpected rise of Babylonia under Nebuchadrezzar, nevertheless the family ruled in great power and prosperity for 138 years from the accession of its founder. But new forces are at work, the old oriental world is being gradually broken up and transformed, Egyptian and Semitic dominance is at an end, and the western world is soon to touch the east with a mighty hand, involving it forever in the destinies of the great nations of Europe. But first came the rise and dominance of Persia.


The Persian Period
525—338 B. C.

In 525 B. C. Cambyses defeated Psamtik III, the last representative of the 26th Dynasty, at Pelusium, in the eastern Delta. By moderation and justice, the Persian kings came to be recognized as the successors of the old Pharaohs of Egypt, and, with some interruptions, they ruled the country from Cambyses's victory until 338 B. C., almost 200 years. They are called the 27th Dynasty, and the native princes of the Delta cities, who rebelled against them from time to time, succeeded in setting up the ephemeral 28th, 29th and 30th Dynasties, all of which fall within the period of Persian rule.

Of these last dynasties, only one king, Nektanebos, succeeded in gaining any great power or the sovereignty of the whole country. This king, under whom a faint revival of the old glory flickered fitfully for a few years, built the beautiful temple of Philae. which we shall visit.


The Greek Period
332—30 B. C.

With the overthrow of the Persians by Alexander the Great, Egypt was incorporated into his vast kingdom without resistance in 332 B. C. He founded Alexandria in the same year, and it soon became the centre of Mediterranean commerce. On the division of his kingdom, Egypt fell to Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, who gradually assumed royal prerogatives and became Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The family at times developed great power and ruled the old Asiatic dominions of Egypt as far as the upper Euphrates.

Ptolemy I founded in Alexandria the Museum, containing a great library and commanding liberal endowments for the support of scholars and men of literature and science. Such patronage was continued by his successors, and Alexandria thus became the greatest seat of learning in antiquity. But his later descendants were often guilty of the grossest misgovernment, cruelty, and neglect, under which the country gradually declined.

But they were all regarded as the legitimate successors of the old Pharaohs; they respected the old religion and built splendid temples, of which we shall find impressive examples when we ascend the Nile in our tour of the country. Finally, as Rome rose, she mingled more and more freely in the affairs of the Ptolemies, until, after the romantic career and tragic death of Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic line, Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B. C.


The Roman Period 30
B. C.—640 A. D.

The Roman emperors were now regarded as the Pharaohs of the land, which they ruled by means of governors, called prefects. Egypt, the once powerful nation, settled down into much the same condition in which she now is. The fertile valley became the granary of Europe, and the recognized source of paper, made from papyrus reeds, which it had begun to export as early as 1100 B. C.; but the spirit of the old arts, and the mighty architecture had fallen forever asleep. The land was now visited by wealthy Greek and Roman tourists, who ascended the river and admired its marvels, as Cook's thousands do at the present day.

Christianity spread rapidly, in spite of frequent persecution by the Roman emperors, until, under Theodosius I (379-395 A. D.), the magnificent temples of the Pharaohs were forever closed. The conflicts among the Christians themselves on questions of doctrine and the vast number of ascetics in the innumerable monasteries, involved Alexandria in constant broils, which, with the persecution of the Jews, her best merchants, made the continuance of her commercial supremacy impossible.

With the partition of the Roman Empire in 395 A. D., Egypt became a portion of the Eastern or Byzantine dominion, with its capital at Constantinople. Declining steadily in power and initiative, the Egypt of this period has left very few monuments, and we shall find little to remind us of it as we pass through the country.


The Moslem Period
640—1517 A. D.

Eight years after the death of Mohammed, which occurred in 632 A. D., Amr ibn el- As, the general of the second caliph, 'Omar, marched against the now entirely Christianized Egypt, and made complete conquest of the country. The caliphs governed it with justice and discretion by means of governors, but as the caliphate declined and the caliphs of Bagdad became mere puppets in the hands of their governors and generals, the governors of Egypt made themselves independent rulers of the country, and the first dynasty of such independent monarchs was founded by Ibn Tulûn, in 868 A. D.

We shall later see his mosque, which is the oldest building in Cairo. Under the Fatimids, who ruled from 969 to 1171 A. D., Cairo was founded (969 A. D.), and rapidly grew to be an important city in the Moslem world. With the overthrow of the Fatimids by the famous Saladin, a Turk, in 1171 A. D., Egypt again ruled Syria to the upper waters of the Euphrates.

But Saladin introduced as his trained body-guard a multitude of white slaves, who are called Mamlukes in Arabic. Rewarded with lands by the Sultan and forced to render him a certain quota of troops each year, these white slaves soon became a body of rich and powerful feudal nobles, who made sultans as often as they pleased, and no sooner had one of their number succeeded in gaining the coveted crown, than he was assassinated or displaced by another, unless he was a man of unusual strength and initiative.

They overthrew the Eyyubid Dynasty (as that of Saladin is called) in 1240 A. D., and they ruled the country until 1517. Some of them were strong and able men, who did much for the country and greatly encouraged art and letters. Under them in the fourteenth century Cairo became what we shall find it, and its most beautiful mosques were the work of these rulers.

Christianity, though often tolerated and sometimes treated with great liberality, was also severely persecuted. Islam had long since gained a large majority of the population, and the Christians, now called Copts, gradually diminished in numbers under persecution. The old language of the Pharaohs, which had been slowly yielding to the Arabic for centuries, now gave way entirely and was spoken only in a few remote villages, as in modern times the ancient Keltic language of Ireland is spoken. It had long ceased to be written, either in hieroglyphic, or its cursive forms, hieratic and demotic, but for a thousand years the Egyptians had employed Greek letters in the writing of their ancient language, as we employ Roman letters in writing English.

In the translations of the Bible and in the church ritual, this form, written with Greek letters and called Coptic, continued to be used; but by the close of the Mamluke domination the old language of the monuments vanished completely as a spoken tongue, and Arabic became the language of Egypt. But Coptic is still used in reading the church service, and in the Coptic churches you may still hear the language of the monuments; but the listening congregation does not understand it any more than a Roman Catholic congregation in Italy understands the service of their church in Latin, though that tongue was once the common language of the country.


The Turkish Period
1517 to the Present

In 1517 the Mamlukes were defeated by the Turks, and although they long continued powerful in Egyptian politics, Egypt became a province of Turkey, and a victim of the misrule to which all Turkish provinces are so often subject. The Turkish Sultan's grasp upon the country was often so loose, that his authority was merely nominal, and after the ephemeral French occupation under Napoleon (1798-1801), terminated by the British, a young and obscure Roumelian named Mohammed Ali, a colonel in the Albanian division of the Turkish army, succeeded in gaining the upper hand and founding a new dynasty in Egypt, which is still on the throne.

In 1811 he exterminated the Mamlukes; and but for the interference of Europe after he had gained possession of Syria he might have overthrown the Sultan, whose European territory he was preparing to invade. His family has since secured from the Sultan the title of Khedive, or viceroy, which is now hereditary in the dynasty. Financial extravagance and hostility to European influence finally forced the English and French to interfere, and in 1881, the French having withdrawn, the English bombarded Alexandria, and, landing, defeated the Egyptian leader Arabi Pacha at Tell el-Kebir. Since then Egypt has been under British influence to such an extent that it amounts to a British protectorate.

English rule, however, received a rude setback in the Sudan rebellion. The country on the upper Nile, to a frontier some distance above the two Niles, had been gained for Egypt by Mohammed Ali and his descendants; but in 1883 a religious enthusiast named Mohammed Ahmed, who called himself Mahdi (“the Guided”), succeeded in stirring up a widespread rebellion, in opposing which, the great Englishman, General Gordon, perished.

The whole Sudan was lost to Egypt, and the southern frontier was at Wadi Halfa by the second cataract, until Sir (now Lord) Herbert Kitchener, after completing the railroad across the desert from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hammed, defeated the Mahdist forces in 1898, and recovered the Sudan. British rule has been an unquestionable blessing for Egypt, and the country is now enjoying a prosperity, and financial stability which it has never before possessed.

Look back for one moment through this long line of foreign conquerors, who have entered Egypt since the glory of the first great empire under the 18th and 19th Dynasties faded and disappeared. One after another they have entered and marched across the Delta for 3,000 years; Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French and English. Of all these we shall find some remains as we journey through the country, and in no other land can we find a succession of kings and dynasties or a series of monuments embracing such a wide span of centuries as in the Nile valley.

A chronological table will enable you to follow the whole period of Egyptian history with greater clearness.

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