The Egyptians

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.

Next in importance to the sacerdotal caste were the military caste or order, whose native name indicated that they stood on the left hand of the king, while the priests occupied the right. They were classified in Kalasires and Hermotybii, who occupied lands in eighteen particular nomes or provinces, principally in Lower Egypt. The Kalasiries had once amounted to 160,000 men, the Hermotybii to 250,000, when at the maximum of their population; but that highest point had long been past in the time of Herodotus. To each man of this soldier-caste was assigned a portion of land, equal to about 6? English acres, free from any tax. The lands of the priests and the soldiers were regarded as privileged property, and exempt from all burdens; while the remaining soil was considered as the property of the king, who however, received from it a fixed proportion one-fifth of the total produce leaving the rest in the hands of the cultivators. The soldiers were interdicted from every description of art and trade.'

The other castes are differently given in different authors; the most probable account, however, is that which assigns them as three the caste of the husbandmen, that of the artificers, and that of the herdsmen, which last caste included a variety of occupations held in contempt, the lowest and most degraded of all being that of swineherd. The separation between the husbandmen and the herdsmen seems to have arisen from the circumstance that different parts of the country, not suitable for agriculture, were entirely laid out in pasture. The artificers, constituting the vast town population of Egypt, were subdivided into a great variety of occupations, weavers, masons, sculptors, etc., who were compelled to these professions by hereditary obligation. It was by the labor of this vast town population, assisted by that of herds of slaves, that those huge works were accomplished, the remains of which attest the greatness of ancient Egypt. Part of the artisan population were exclusively occupied in skilled labor; and in a country where there was such a taste for works of masonry, sculpture was necessarily one of the most largely-stocked of the skilled occupations. Perfect exactness of execution,' it is said, mastery of the hardest stone, and undeviating obedience to certain rules of proportion, are general characteristics of Egyptian sculpture. There are yet seen in their quarries obelisks not severed from the rock, but having three of their sides already adorned with hieroglyphics, so certain were they of cutting off the fourth side with precision.' These skilled artificers may be supposed to have acted as foremen and overseers of the great numbers of laborers who were employed in public works such as the Pyramids. In the construction of these works no degree of labor for any length of time seems to have intimidated the Egyptians. The huge blocks of stone, sometimes weighing 1000 tons each, were dragged for hundreds of miles on sledges, and their transport, perhaps, did not occupy less time than a year; in one case which is known, 2000 men were employed three years in bringing a single stone from a quarry to the building in which it was to be placed. Usually, the sledges were drawn by men yoked in rows to separate ropes, all pulling at a ring fixed to the block. Where it was possible, the blocks were brought from the quarries on flat-bottomed boats on the Nile. But the transport of these masses was much more easily accomplished than the placing of them in elevated situations in the buildings They were raised by the power of levers and inclined planes at immense trouble and cost. The waste of human life in these gigantic works must have been enormous. About 120,000 men are said to have perished in the digging of a canal, which was left unfinished, between the Red Sea and an arm of the Nile; and according to Herodotus, the Egyptian priests of his day described the building of the Pyramids as a time of extreme exhaustion and hardship to the whole country.

The religion of the Egyptians seems to have been, in its popular form at least, a mere gross Fetishism, whose principal characteristic was a worship of teeming animal life the bull, the cat, the ibis, the crocodile, etc.; different animals in different nomes. Whatever profounder meaning lay hid under this gross ceremonial the priest-caste reserved to themselves, as one of the mysteries, the possession of which severed them from the rest of the population. Among these mysteries was the art of writing, which was practised both in the alphabetical and the hieroglyphic form; the latter being used for special purposes. Some vague notion of the immortality of the soul, resembling the Hindoo tenet of transmigration, seems to have pervaded the Egyptian religion; and this belief appears to have lain at the foundation of the Egyptian practice of embalming the dead. The business of embalming was a very 'dignified one, and was aided by a host of inferior functionaries, who made and painted coffins and other articles which were required. The bodies of the poorer classes were merely dried with salt or natron, and wrapt up in coarse cloths, and deposited in the catacombs. The bodies of the rich and great underwent the most complicated operations, wrapt in bandages dipped in balsam, and laboriously adorned with all kinds of ornaments. Thus prepared they were placed in highly-decorated cases or coffins, and then consigned to sarcophagi in, the catacombs or pyramids. Bodies so prepared have been called mummies, either from the Arabian word momia, or the Coptic mum, signifying bitumen or gum-resin.

Although the Egyptians carried on from early times a caravan-commerce with the adjacent countries of Phoenicia, Palestine, and Arabia, importing such articles as wine, oil, and spices for embalming, yet exclusiveness and self-sufficiency were characteristics of their civilization. There, on the banks of the Nile, these millions lived, changeless in their methods through centuries, each individual mechanically pursuing the occupation to which he was born - millions cultivating the soil, and producing wheat, etc., for the subsistence of the whole; others tending the cattle necessary for food or sacrifice; millions, again, crowded into the numerous towns, occupied in the various handicrafts necessary to provide articles of clothing, luxury, etc. - a large proportion of this class being available for stupendous architectural works; and lastly, diffused through these country and town populations, two other proprietor-castes - the one a militia, occupied in gymnastic exercises alone; the other a sacerdotal or intellectual order, within whose body was accumulated all the speculative or scientific wisdom of the country. Relations existed between Egypt and the adjacent countries; and rumours of the nature of its peculiar civilization may have spread through the nations of the Mediterranean; but for a long while it was shut, like the present China, against foreign intrusion; and it was not till about the year 650 B.C. that it was thrown open to general inspection. In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the philosophers of other countries, and especially of Greece, used to visit Egypt in order to acquire, by intercourse with the Egyptian intellectual caste, some of that precious knowledge of which they were believed to be the depositaries.

Although the Egyptian civilization is known to have existed pretty much as we have described it from immemorial antiquity, yet, with the exception. of what we learn from Scripture, we know little of Egyptian history, properly so called, anterior to the time when the country was thrown open to the Greeks. Herodotus and Manetho, indeed, have given us retrospective lists of the Egyptian kings, extending back into the primitive gloom of the world; but portions of these lists are evidently constructed backwards on mythical principles. Thus Manetho, preserving doubtless the traditions of the sacerdotal Egyptian caste, to which he is supposed to have belonged, carries back the imagination as far as 30,000 years before the birth of Christ. From this date till B.C. 5702, great divine personages ruled in Egypt; then (B.C. 5702) it came into the possession of human kings, the first of which was Menes. From the accession of Menes down to the incorporation of Egypt with the Persian empire (B.C. 525), Herodotus assigns 330 kings, or, as they are called in Scripture, Pharaohs, whose names he informs us, were read to him out of a papyrus manuscript by the Egyptian priests, who pledged themselves to its accuracy; and Manetho reckons up twenty-six dynasties, some of them native raid others foreign, which divided the long period into portions of different lengths.