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."...

Position 29 - The Earliest Occupation Of Men And The First Attempt At A Pyramid, Sakkara

It is but a limited stretch of the Memphite cemetery which we have before us; but it includes a remarkable monument, which we promised you should see, as we stood on the summit of the Great Pyramid. Gizeh and that pyramid are now some eleven miles away to our right, as we look out upon this lineal ancestor of the Great Pyramid, without which the Great Pyramid never would have been (see Map 4). This terraced structure was built by King Zoser, a Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty. Let us remember him, for we shall find a curious inscription of his at the first cataract (Position 88). He stands at the dawning of the Old Kingdom, before any pyramid had ever been built.

He first erected here a mastaba, much like those later built at Gizeh, which you saw there. This mastaba of Zoser is now in the heart of that strange terraced structure yonder; for he enlarged his original mastaba upon the ground and also carried it upward by placing upon it a second mastaba, smaller than the first. This process he repeated, producing at last the terraced structure as you see it now. It is neither pyramid nor mastaba, but a kind of transitional form between the two. It is one of the most important links connecting the mastaba and the pyramid.

One of Zoser's successors, Snofru, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty, completed the transition, and after building a terraced monument like this, he filled out the terraces in a smooth slope at the pyramid angle of 52°. This was the first pyramid ever built, and it now stands at Medum, near the south end of our sixty-mile line of pyramids.

We thus trace the development from the sand heap through the mastaba; then this terraced structure before us, and finally the first of all pyramids of Medum. Strange that so soon after the attainment of the pyramid form by this process, the erection of the greatest pyramid ever built should follow! It is like the appearance of a Shakespeare so early in the history of the English drama. But we have before us, I repeat, one of the landmarks in the path of that long development which led up to and made possible the Great Pyramid. How fortunate are we when these surviving footprints of early man are not found scattered and isolated, but as here, one following upon another, and all leading upward toward some summit, which we have already recognized.

This terraced tomb of Zoser is 196 feet high, and exceeds in height as it does in age all the surrounding pyramids. Why it should have been dropped in here at this point, long before neighboring Memphis was capital, or there were any other royal tombs here, we do not know. The surrounding pyramids are all of the 5th and 6th Dynasties, in accordance with what we said at Gizeh, that in following our sixty-mile line of pyramids southward, we should be passing from the older to the younger and moving down the centuries as we move down the line; but there are individual exceptions like this tomb of Zoser and the pyramid of Medum, already referred to.

Let us not forget that most of the tombs in this cemetery are invisible. The thousand generations that lived at Memphis now sleep beneath our feet. On every hand are covered tombs, shrouded in the accumulated sands of thousands of years. You may sink a shaft almost anywhere here and find a masonry tomb or mastaba, and there are literally miles of the humbler burials of the poor distributed along this desert margin.

Practical considerations alone, if myth and religion had not led the same way, would have forced the ancient Egyptians to bury their dead in these unproductive sands, rather than in the cultivable soil of the restricted Nile bottoms, for during all these thousands of years at least ten million of people died in Egypt every century, and a hundred million every thousand years, all of whom it was desired to place in permanent resting-places, and many in enduring masonry tombs. A portion of this sleeping host therefore lies beneath our feet, wherever we walk, over these desolate sands, and yonder swarthy native shepherd little knows how many generations of his ancestors he is trampling under foot, as he drives homeward his little flock.

In him and his flock, backed by the tomb of one of his ancient rulers, we are again confronted with that ever-present contrast, between the modern and the ancient condition of this people. From the creation of such works as yonder tomb, at the very dawn of human history, they have fallen until their sole industries are herding and agriculture, the primitive avocations of their ancestors in the remote days that lie far behind this tomb of Zoser.

But not merely this man's own ancestors are buried here; the ancestors of his cattle—at least some of them—also lie in this vast cemetery! For here was buried at his death, the sacred Apis-bull, and long generations of the ever-reincarnated god are here interred in vast galleries, having a total length of some 1,150 feet, hewn in the rock beneath these sands. The embalmed body of the animal was regularly buried in a huge granite sarcophagus about thirteen feet long and weighing sixty-five tons. Twenty-four of these sarcophagi are still in place in the chambers hewn out for them.

The temples built over these galleries have now disappeared, but in classic times the whole, known as the Serapeum, was the shrine to which thousands of pilgrims annually journeyed, walking over these very sands where we now stand; and a wealthy and influential priesthood maintained a splendid ritual and daily service of the god. It was for centuries one of the most important religious centres of antiquity, especially when under the Ptolemies, the bull (Osir-) Apis was identified by misunderstanding, with the popular foreign god Serapis.

Thus among the hosts of pilgrims were found large numbers of foreigners from all parts of the classic world. But all its glory is now departed, and flocks and herds are now driven over its sand-covered avenues of sphinxes and fallen sanctuaries. It was utterly forgotten, save by the learned few who knew of it in the literature of the Greeks, until it was discovered and excavated by Mariette in 1851.

We shall not stop to look into the burial vaults; we must return toward Cairo, and visit the quarries, whence came the stone for the pyramids. These quarries you find on Map 4, about seven miles south of Cairo, not far from the east bank of the Nile.

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