Egypt, whose position on the map of Africa is well known, is about 500 miles long from its most northern to its most southern point. Through its whole length flows the Nile, a fine large stream rising in the inland kingdom of Abyssinia, and, from certain periodic floods to which it is subject, of great use in irrigating and fertilizing the country. A large portion of Egypt consists of an alluvial plain, similar to our meadOw grounds, formed by the deposits of the river, and bounded by ranges of mountains on either side. The greatest breadth of the valley is 150 miles, but generally it is much less, the mountain ranges on either side often being not more than a few miles from the river.
A country so favorably situated, and possessing so many advantages, could not but be among the earliest peopled; and accordingly, as far back as the human memory can reach, we find a dense population of a very peculiar character inhabiting the whole valley of the Nile. These ancient Egyptians seem, as we have already said, to have been a mixture of the Semitic with the Ethiopic element, speaking a. peculiar language, still surviving in a modified form in the Coptic of modern Egypt. In the ancient authors, however, the Egyptians are always distinguished from the Ethiopians, with whom they kept up so close an intercourse, that it has been made a question whether the Egyptian institutions came from the Ethiopian Meroe, or whether, as is more probable, civilization was transmitted to Ethiopia from Egypt.
The whole country is naturally divided into three parts - Upper Egypt, bordering on what was anciently Ethiopia; Middle Egypt; and Lower Egypt, including the Delta of the Nile. In each there were numerous cities in which the population was amassed: originally Thebes, a city of Upper Egypt, of the size of which surprising accounts are transmitted to us, and whose ruins still astonish the traveler, was the capital of the country; but latterly, as commerce increased, Memphis in Middle Egypt became the seat of power. After Thebes and Memphis, Ombi, Edfou, Esneh, Elephantina, and Philoe seem to have been the most important of the Egyptian cities.
Our accounts of the Egyptian civilization are derived chiefly from the Greek historian Herodotus (B.C. 408), who visited Egypt and digested the information which he received from the priests as to its ancient history; and Manetho, a native Egyptian of later times, who wrote in Greek. From their accounts it is inferred that the country was anciently divided into thirty-six sections or provinces called nomes ten in Upper, sixteen in Middle, and ten in Lower Egypt. Many of the separate nomes were of considerable substantive importance, and had a marked local character each to itself, religious as well as political; though the whole of Egypt, from Elephantine to Pelusium and Kanopus, is said to have always constituted one kingdom.' Of this kingdom, the population, according to a rough estimate, may have been about seven millions. The government was a monarchy based on an all-powerful priesthood, similar to the Brahminical system of India; and, as in India, the most striking feature in the Egyptian society was the division of the people into hereditary castes. The population of Egypt,' says Mr Grote in his History of Greece, was classified into certain castes or hereditary professions, of which the number is represented differently by different authors. The priests stand clearly marked out as the order richest, most powerful, and most venerated, distributed all over the country, and possessing exclusively the means of reading and writing, besides a vast amount of narrative matter treasured up in the memory, the whole stock of medical and physical knowledge then attainable, and those rudiments of geometry (or rather land-measuring) which were so often called into use in a country annually inundated. To each god and to each temple throughout Egypt, lands and other properties belonged, whereby the numerous band of priests attached to him were 'maintained. Their ascendancy, both direct and indirect, over the minds of the people was immense; they prescribed that minute ritual under which the life of every Egyptian, not excepting the king himself, was passed, and which was for themselves more full of harassing particularities than for any one else. Every day in the year belonged to some particular god, and the priests alone knew to which. There were different gods in every nome, though Isis and Osiris were common to all; and the priests of each god constituted. a society apart, more or less important, according to the comparative celebrity of the temple. The property of each temple included troops of dependents and slaves, who were stamped with " holy marks," and who must have been numerous, in order to suffice for the service of the large buildings and their constant visitors.