The land of Egypt is six hundred miles long, and is bounded by two ranges of naked limestone hills which sometimes approach and sometimes retire from each other, leaving between them an average breadth of seven miles. On the north they widen and disappear, giving place to a marshy meadow plain which extends to the Mediterranean coast. On the south they are no longer of limestone, but of granite; they narrow to a point; they close in till they almost touch; and through the mountain gate thus formed the river Nile leaps with a roar into the valley, and runs north towards the sea.
In the winter and spring it rolls a languid stream through a dry and dusty plain. But in the summer an extraordinary thing happens. The river grows troubled and swift; it turns red as blood, and then green; it rises, it swells, till at length, overflowing its banks, it covers the adjoining lands to the base of the hills on either side. The whole valley becomes a lake from which the villages rise like islands, for they are built on artificial mounds.
This catastrophe was welcomed by the Egyptians with religious gratitude and noisy mirth. When their fields had entirely disappeared they thanked the gods and kept their harvest-home. The tax gatherers measured the water as if it were grain, and announced what the crops and the budget of the next year would be. Gay barges with painted sails conveyed the merry husbandmen from village to village and from fair to fair. It was then that they had their boat tournaments, their wrestling matches, their bouts at single-stick and other athletic sports. It was then that the thimble-riggers and jack-puddings, blind harpers and nigger minstrels from Central Africa, amused the holiday-hearted crowd. It was then that the old people sat over draughts and dice-box in the cosy shade, while the boys played at mora, or at pitch and toss, and the girls at a game of ball, with forfeits for the one who missed a catch. It was then that the house-father bought new dolls for the children, and amulets or gold ear-rings or necklaces of porcelain bugles for the wife. It was then that the market stalls abounded with joints of beef and venison, and with geese hanging down in long rows, and with chickens hatched by thousands under heaps of dung. Salted quails, smoked fish, date sweetmeats, doura cakes, and cheese; leeks, garlic cucumbers, and onions; lotus seeds mashed in milk, roasted stalks of papyrus, jars of barley beer and palm wine, with many other kinds of food, were sold in unusual plenty at that festive time.
It was then also that the white-robed priests, bearing the image of a god and singing hymns, marched with solemn procession to the waterside, and cast in a sacrifice of gold. For the water which had thus risen was their life. Egypt is by nature a rainless desert which the Nile and the Nile only, converts into a garden every year.
Far, far away in the distant regions of the south, in the deep heart of Africa, lie two inland seas. These are the headwaters of the Nile; its sources are in the sky. For the clouds, laden with waters collected out of many seas, sail to the African equator, and there pour down a ten months’ rain. This ocean of falling water is received on a region sloping towards the north, and is conveyed by a thousand channels to the vast rocky cisterns which form the Speke and Baker Lakes.** They, filled and bursting, cast forth the Nile, and drive it from them through a terrible and thirsty land. The hot air lies on the stream and laps it as it flows. The parched soil swallows it with open pores, but ton after ton of water is supplied from the gigantic reservoirs behind, and so it is enabled to cross that vast desert which spreads from the latitude of Lake Tchad to the borders of the Mediterranean Sea.
The existence of the Nile is due to the Nyanza Lakes alone, but the inundation of the river has a distinct and separate cause. In that phenomenon the lakes are not concerned.
Between the Nile and the mouth of the Arabian Gulf are situated the highlands of Abyssinia, rising many thousand feet above the level of the sea, and intercepting the clouds of the Indian Ocean in their flight towards the north. From these mountains, as soon as the rainy season has set in, two great rivers come thundering down their dried-up beds, and rush into the Nile. The main stream is now forced impetuously along; in the Nubian desert its swelling waters are held in between walls of rock; as soon as it reaches the low lying lands of Egypt it naturally overflows.
The Abyssinian tributaries do even more than this. The waters of the
[** Lakes Victoria and Albert]
White Nile are transparent and pure; but the Atbara and Blue Nile bring down from their native land a black silt which the flood strews over the whole valley as a kind of top-dressing or manure. On that rich and unctuous mud, as soon as the waters have retired, the natives cast their seed. Then their labours are completed; no changes of weather need afterwards be feared; no anxious looks are turned towards the sky; sunshine only is required to fulfil the crop, and in Egypt the sun is never covered by a cloud.
Thus, were it not for the White Nile, the Abyssinian rivers would be drunk up by the desert; and were it not for the Abyssinian rivers, the White Nile would be a barren stream. The river is created by the rains of the equator; the land by the tropical rains condensed in one spot by the Abyssinian mountain pile.
In that fair Egyptian valley, fattened by a foreign soil, brightened by eternal sunshine, watered by terrestrial rain, the natives were able to obtain a year’s food in return for a few days’ toil, and so were provided with that wealth of time which is essential for a nation’s growth.
A people can never rise from low estate as long as they are engrossed in the painful struggle for daily bread. On the other hand, leisure alone is not sufficient to effect the self-promotion of men. The savage of the primeval forest burns down a few trees every year; his women raise an easy crop from the ashes which mingle with the soil. He basks all day in the sunshine, or prostrates himself in his canoe with his arms behind his head and a fishing-line tied to his big toe. When the meat-hunger comes upon him he takes up bow and arrow and goes for a few days into the bush. His life is one long torpor, with spasms of activity. Century follows century, but he does not change. Again, the shepherd tribes roam from pasture to pasture; their flocks and herds yield them food and dress and "houses of hair," as they call their tents. They have little work to do; their time is almost entirely their own. They pass long hours in slow conversation, in gazing at the heavens, in the sensuous, passive oriental reverie. The intellectual capacities of such men are by no means to be despised, as those who have lived among them are aware. They are skilful interpreters of nature’s language and of the human heart; they compose beautiful poems; their religion is simple and sublime; yet time passes on, and they do not advance. The Arab sheikh of the present day lives precisely as Abraham did three thousand years ago; the Tartars of Central Asia are the Scythians whom Herodotus described.
It is the first and indispensable condition of human progress that a people shall be married to a single land; that they shall wander no more from one region to another, but remain fixed and faithful to their soil. Then, if the Earth-wife be fruitful, she will bear them children by hundreds and by thousands; and then calamity will come and teach them by torture to invent.
The Egyptians were islanders, cut off from the rest of the world by sand and sea. They were rooted in their valley; they lived entirely upon its fruits, and happily these fruits sometimes failed. Had they always been able to obtain enough to eat, they would have remained always in the semi-savage state.
It may appear strange that Egypt should have suffered from famine, for there was no country in the ancient world where food was so abundant and so cheap. Not only did the land produce enormous crops of corn; the ditches and hollows which were filled by the overflowing Nile supplied a harvest of wholesome and nourishing aquatic plants, and on the borders of the desert thick groves of date-palms, which love a neutral soil, embowered the villages, and formed live granaries of fruit.
But however plentiful food may be in any country, the population of that country, as Malthus discovered, will outstrip it in the long run. If food is unusually cheap, population will increase at an unusually rapid rate, and there is not limit to its ratio of increase – no limit, that is to say, except disease and death. On the other hand, there is a limit to the amount of food that can be raised, for the basis of food is land, and land is a fixed quantity. Unless some discovery is made by means of which provisions may be manufactured with as much facility as children, the whole earth will some day be placed in the same predicament as the island in which we live, which has outgrown its food-producing power, and is preserved from starvation only by means of foreign corn.
At the time we speak of, Egypt was irrigated by the Nile in a natural and therefore imperfect manner. Certain tracts were overflooded; others were left completely dry. The valley was filled with people to the brim. When it was a good Nile, every ear of corn, every bunch of dates, every papyrus stalk and lotus root was pre-engaged. There was no waste and no surplus store. But sometimes a bad Nile came.
The bread of the people depended on the amount of inundation, and that depended on the tropical rains, which vary more than is usually supposed. If the rainfall in the Abyssinian highlands happened to be slight, the river could not pay its full tribute of earth and water to the valley below; and if the rainfall was unusually severe, houses were swept away, cattle were drowned, and the water instead of returning at the usual time, became stagnant on the fields. In either case famine and pestilence invariably ensued. The plenty of ordinary years, like a baited trap, had produced a luxuriance of human life, and the massacre was proportionally severe. Encompassed by the wilderness, the unfortunate natives were unable to escape. They died in heaps; the valley resembled a field of battle; each village became a charnel-house; skeletons sat grinning at street corners, and the winds clattered among dead men’s bones. A few survivors lingered miserably through the year, browsing on the thorny shrubs of the desert, and sharing with the vultures their horrible repast.
"God made all men equal" is a fine sounding phrase, and has also done good service in its day, but it is not a scientific fact. On the contrary, there is nothing so certain as the natural inequality of men. Those who outlive hardships and sufferings which fall on all alike owe their existence to some superiority, not only of body but of mind. It will easily be conceived that among such superior-minded men there would be some who, stimulated by the memory of that which was past and by the fear of that which might return, would strain to the utmost their ingenuity to control and guide the fickle river which had hitherto sported with their lives.
We shall not attempt to trace out their inventions step by step. Humble in its beginnings, slow in its improvements, the art or science of hydraulics was finally mastered by the Egyptians. They devised a system of dikes, reservoirs, and lock-canals, by means of which the excessive waters of a violent Nile were turned from the fields and stored up to supply the wants of a dry year. Thus also the precious fluid was conveyed to tracts of land lying above the level of the river, and was distributed over the whole valley with such precision that each lot or farm received a just and equal share. Next, as the inundation destroyed all landmarks, surveying became a necessary art in order to settle the disputes which broke out every year. And, as the rising of the waters was more and more carefully observed, it was found that its beginning coincided with certain aspects of the stars. This led to the study of astronomy and the discovery of the solar year. Agriculture became a mathematical art. It was ascertained that so many feet of water would yield so many quarters of corn, and thus, before a single seed was sown, they could count up the harvest as correctly as if it had been already gathered in.
A natural consequence of all this was the separation of the inventor class, who became at first the counsellors and afterwards the rulers of the people. But while the men of mind were battling with the forces of Nature, a contest of another kind was also going on. Those who dwell on the rich banks of a river flowing through desert lands are always liable to be attacked by the wandering shepherd hordes who resort to the waterside in summer, when the wilderness pasture is dried up. There is nothing such tribes desire better than to conquer the corn-growing people of the river lands, and to make them pay a tribute of grain when the crops are taken in. The Egyptians, as soon as they had won their harvests from the flood, were obliged to defend them against the robbers of the desert, and out of such wars arose a military caste. These allied themselves with the intellectual caste, who were also priests, for among the primitive nations religion and science were invariably combined. In this manner the bravest and wisest of the Egyptians rose above the vulgar crowd, and the nation was divided into two great classes, the rulers and the ruled.
Then oppression continued the work which war and famine had begun. The priests announced, and the armies executed, the divine decrees. The people were reduced to servitude. The soldiers discovered the gold and emerald mines of the adjoining hills, and filled their dark recesses with chained slaves and savage overseers. They became invaders; they explored distant lands with the spear. Communications with Syria and the fragrant countries at the mouth of the Red Sea, first opened by means of war, were continued by means of commerce. Foreign produce became an element of Egyptian life. The privileged classes found it necessary to be rich. Formerly the priests had merely salted the bodies of the dead; now a fashionable corpse must be embalmed, at an expense of two hundred and fifty pounds, with asphalt from the Dead Sea and spices from the Somali groves; costly incense must be burnt on the altars of the gods; aristocratic heads must recline on ivory stools; fine ladies must glitter with gold ornaments and precious stones, and must be served by waiting-maids and pages with woolly hair and velvety black skins. War and agriculture were no longer sufficient to supply these patrician wants. It was no longer sufficient that the people should feed on dates and the course doura-bread, while the wheat which they raised was sold by their masters for gewgaws and perfumes. Manufactures were established; slaves laboured at a thousand looms; the linen goods of Egypt became celebrated throughout the world. Laboratories were opened; remarkable discoveries were made. The Egyptian priests distilled brandy and sweet waters. They used the blow-pipe, and were far advanced in the chemical processes of art. They fabricated glass mosaics, and counterfeited precious stones and porcelain of exquisite transparency and delicately blended hues. With the fruits of these inventions they adorned their daily life, and attracted into Egypt the riches of other lands.
Thus, when Nature selects a people to endow them with glory and with wealth, her first proceeding is to massacre their bodies, her second to debauch their minds. She begins with famine, pestilence and war; next, force and rapacity above, chains and slavery below. She uses evil as the raw material of good; though her aim is always noble, her earliest means are base and cruel. But as soon as a certain point is reached she washes her black and bloody hands, and uses agents of a higher kind. Having converted the animal instinct of self-defence into the ravenous lust of wealth and power, that also she transforms into ambition of a pure and lofty kind. At first knowledge is sought only for the things which it will buy—the daily bread indispensable to life, and those trinkets of body and mind which vanity demands. Yet those low desires do not always and entirely possess the human soul. Wisdom is like the heiress of the novel who is at first courted only for her wealth, but whom the fortune-hunter learns afterwards to love for herself alone.
At first sight there seems little in the arts and sciences of Egypt which cannot be traced to the enlightened selfishness of the priestly caste. For in the earlier times it was necessary for the priests to labour unceasingly to preserve the power which they had usurped. It was necessary to overawe not only the people who worked in the fields, but their own dangerous allies, the military class; to make religion not only mysterious but magnificent; not only to predict the precise hour of the rising of the waters, or the eclipses of the moon, but also to adopt and nurture the fine arts, to dazzle the public with temples, monuments, and paintings. Above all, it was necessary to prepare a system of government which should keep the labouring classes in subjection and yet stimulate them to labour indefatigably for the state; which should strip them of all the rewards of industry and yet keep that industry alive. Expediency will therefore account for much that the Egyptian intellect produced, but it certainly will not account for all. The invention of hieroglyphics is alone sufficient to prove that higher motives were at work than mere political calculation and the appetite of gold. For writing was an invention which at no time could have added in a palpable manner to the wealth or power of the upper classes, and which yet could not have been finished to a system without a vast expenditure of time and toil. It could not have been the work of a single man, but of several men labouring in the same direction, and in its early beginnings must have appeared as unpractical, as truly scientific to them, as the study of solar chemistry and the observation of the double stars to us. Besides, the intense and faithful labour which is conspicuous in all the Egyptian works of art could only have been inspired by that enthusiasm which belongs to noble minds.
We may fairly presume that Egypt once possessed its chivalry of the intellect, its heroic age, and that the violent activity of thought generated by the love of life and developed by the love of power was raised to its full zenith by the passion for art and science, for the beautiful and the true.
At first the Nile valley was divided into a number of independent states, each possessing its own corporation of priests and soldiers, its own laws and system of taxation, its own tutelary god and shrine, but each a member of one body, united by the belief in one religion, and assembling from time to time to worship the national gods in an appointed place. There, according to general agreement ratified by solemn oaths, all feuds were suspended, all weapons laid aside. There also, under the shelter of the sanctuary, property was secure, and the surplus commodities of the various districts could be conveniently interchanged. In such a place, frequented by vast crowds of pilgrims and traders, a great city would naturally arise, and such it seems probable was the origin of Thebes.
But Egypt, which possesses a simple undivided form, and which is nourished by one great arterial stream, appears destined to be surmounted by a single head, and we perceive in the dim dawn of history a revolution taking place, and Menes, the Egyptian Charlemagne, founding an empire upon the ruins of local governments, and inspiring the various tribes with the sentiment of nationality. Thebes remained the sacred city, but a new capital, Memphis, was built at the other end of the valley, not far from the spot where Cairo now stands.
By degrees the Egyptian empire assumed a consolidated form. A regular constitution was established and a ritual prescribed. The classes were organised in a more effective manner, and were not at first too strictly fixed. All were at liberty to intermarry, excepting only the swineherds, who were regarded as unclean. The system of government became masterly, and the servitude of the people became complete. Designs of imperial magnitude were accomplished, some of them gigantic but useless, mere exploits of naked human strength, others structures of true grandeur and utility. The valley was adorned with splendid monuments and temples; colossal statues were erected, which rose above the houses like the towers and spires of our cathedral towns. An army of labourers was employed against the Nile. The course of the mighty stream was altered; its waters were snatched from its bosom and stored up in Lake Moeris, an artificial basin hollowed out of an extensive swamp, and thence were conducted by a system of canals into the neighbouring desert, which they changed to smiling fields. For the Sahara can always be revived. It is barren only because it receives no rain.
The Empire consisted of three estates—the Monarch, the Army, and the Church. There were in theory no limits to the power of the king. His authority was derived directly from the gods. He was called "the Sun"; he was the head of the religion and the state; he was the supreme judge and lawgiver; he commanded the army and led it to war. But in reality his power was controlled and reduced to mere pageantry by a parliament of priests. He was elected by the military class, but as soon as he was crowned he was initiated into the mysteries and subjected to the severe discipline of the holy order. No slave or hireling might approach his person: the lords in waiting, with the state parasol and the ostrich-feather fans, were princes of the blood; his other attendants were invariably priests. The royal time was filled and measured by routine: laws were laid down in the holy books for the order and nature of the king’s occupations. At daybreak he examined and dispatched his correspondence; he then put on his robes and attended divine service in the temple. Extracts were read from those holy books which contained the sayings and actions of distinguished men, and these were followed by a sermon from the High Priest. He extolled the virtues of the reigning sovereign, but criticised severely the lives of those who had preceded him—a post-mortem examination to which the king knew that he would be subjected in his turn.
He was forbidden to commit any kind of excess: he was restricted to a plain diet of veal and goose, and to a measured quantity of wine. The laws hung over him day and night; they governed his public and private action: they followed him even to the recesses of his chamber, and appointed a set time for the embraces of his queen. He could not punish a single person except in accordance with the code; the judges took oath before the king that they would disobey the king if he ordered them to do anything contrary to law. The ministry were responsible for the actions of their master, and they guarded their own safety. They made it impossible for him to forfeit that reverence and affection which the ignorant and the religious always entertain for their anointed king. He was adored as a god when living, and when he died he was mourned by the whole nation as if each man had lost a well-beloved child. During seventy-two days the temples were closed; lamentations filled the air; and the people fasted, abstaining from flesh and wine, cooked food, ointments, baths, and the company of their wives.
The Army appears to have been severely disciplined. To run twenty miles before breakfast was part of the ordinary drill. The amusements of the soldiers were athletic sports and martial games. Yet they were not merely fighting men. They were also farmers. Each warrior received from the state twelve acres of choice land; these gave him a solid interest in the prosperity of the fatherland and in the maintenance of civil peace.
The most powerful of the three estates was undoubtedly the Church. In the priesthood were included not only the ministers of religion, but also the whole civil service and the liberal professions. Priests were the royal chroniclers and keepers of the records, the engravers of inscriptions, physicians of the sick and embalmers of the dead, lawyers and lawgivers, sculptors and musicians. Most of the skilled labour of the country was under their control. In their hands were the linen manufactories and the quarries between the Cataracts. Even those posts in the Army which required a knowledge of arithmetic and penmanship were supplied by them: every general was attended by young priest scribes, with papyrus rolls in their hands and reed pencils behind their ears. The clergy preserved the monopoly of the arts which they had invented; the whole intellectual life of Egypt was in them. It was they who, with the nilometers, took the measure of the waters, and proclaimed good harvests to the people or bade them prepare for hungry days. It was they who studied the diseases of the country, compiled a pharmacopoeia, and invented the signs which are used in our prescriptions at the present day. It was they who judged the living and the dead, who enacted laws which extended beyond the grave, who issued passports to paradise, or condemned to eternal infamy the memories of men that were no more.
Their power was immense, but it was exercised with justice and discretion: they issued admirable laws, and taught the people to obey them by the example of their own humble, self-denying lives.
Under the tutelage of these pious and enlightened men, the Egyptians became a prosperous and also a highly moral people. The monumental paintings reveal their whole life, but we read in them no brutal or licentious scenes. Their great rivals, the Assyrians, even at a later period, were accustomed to impale and flay alive their prisoners of war. The Egyptians granted honours to those who fought gallantly against them. The penalty for the murder of a slave was death; this law exists without parallel in the dark slavery annals both of ancient and of modern times. The pardoning power in cases of capital offence was a cherished prerogative of royalty with them as with us; and with them also as with us, when a pregnant woman was condemned to death the execution was postponed until after the birth of the guiltless child. It is a sure criterion of the civilisation of ancient Egypt that the soldiers did not carry arms except on duty, and that the private citizens did not carry them at all. Women were treated with much regard. They were allowed to join their husbands in the sacrifices to the gods; the bodies of man and wife were united in the tomb. When a party was given the guests were received by the host and hostess seated side by side in a large armchair. In the paintings their mutual affection is portrayed. Their fond manners, their gestures of endearment, the caresses which they lavish on their children, form sweet and touching scenes of domestic life.
Crimes could not be compounded, as in so many other ancient lands, by the payment of a fine. The man who witnessed a crime without attempting to prevent it was punished as partaker. The civil laws were administered in such a manner that the poor could have recourse to them as well as the rich. The judges received large salaries that they might be placed above the temptation of bribery, and might never disgrace the image of Truth which they wore round their necks suspended on a golden chain.
But most powerful of all, to preserve the morality of the people by giving a tangible force to public opinion, and by impeaching those sins against society which no legal code can touch, was that sublime police institution the "Trial of the Dead."
When the corpse had been brought back from the embalming house it was encased in a sycamore coffin covered with flowers, placed in a sledge, and drawn by oxen to the sacred lake. The hearse was followed by the relations of the deceased, the men unshorn and casting dust upon their heads, the women beating their breasts and singing mournful hymns.
On the banks of the lake sat forty-two judges in the shape of a crescent;
a great crowd was assembled; in the water floated a canoe, and within it stood Charon the ferryman, awaiting the sentence of the chief judge.
On the other side of the lake lay a sandy plain, and beyond it a range of long, low hills, in which might be discerned the black mouths of the caverns of the dead.
It was in the power of any man to step forward and accuse the departed before the body could be borne across. If the charge was held to be proved, the body was denied burial in the consecrated ground, and the crowd silently dispersed. If a verdict of not guilty was returned, the accuser suffered the penalty of the crime alleged, and the ceremony took its course. The relatives began to sing with praises the biography of the deceased; they sang in what manner he had been brought up from a child till he came to man’s estate, how pious he had been towards the gods, how righteous he had been towards men. And if this was true, if the man’s life had indeed been good, the crowd joined in chorus, clapping their hands, and sang back in return that he would be received into the glory of the just. Then the coffin was laid in the canoe, the silent ferryman plied his oar, a priest read the service of the dead, and the body was deposited in the cemetery caves. If he was a man of rank he was laid in a chamber of his own, and the sacred artists painted on the walls an illustrated catalogue of his possessions, the principal occupations of his life, and scenes of the society in which he moved. For the priests taught that, since life is short and death is long, man’s dwelling-house is but a lodging, and his eternal habitation is the tomb. Thus the family vault of the Egyptian was his picture gallery, and thus the manners and customs of this singular people have, like their bodies, been preserved through long ages by means of religious art.
There are also still existing on the walls of the temples, and in the grotto tombs, grand historical paintings which illuminate the terse chronicles engraved upon the granite. Among these may be remarked one subject in particular which appears to have been a favourite with the artist and the public, for it again and again recurs. The Egyptians, distinguished always by their smooth faces and shaven heads, are pursuing an enemy with long beards and flowing robes, who are surrounded by flocks and herds. The Egyptians here show no mercy; they appear alive with fury and revenge. Sometimes the victor is depicted with a scornful air, his foot placed upon the neck of a prostrate foe; sometimes he is piercing the body through and through with a spear. Certain sandals have also been discovered in which the figure of the same enemy is painted on the inner sole, so that the foot trod upon the portrait when the sandal was put on.
Those bearded men had inflicted on Egypt long years of dreadful disaster and disgrace. They were the Bedouins of the Arabian peninsula, a pastoral race who wandered eternally in a burning land, each tribe or clan within an orbit of its own. When they met they fought, the women uttering savage cries and cursing their husbands if they retreated from the foe. Accustomed to struggle to the death for a handful of withered grass or for a little muddy water at the bottom of a well, what a rich harvest must Egypt have appeared to them! In order to obtain it they were able to suspend all feuds, to take an oath of alliance, and to unite into a single horde. They descended upon their prey and seized it at the first swoop. There does not appear to have been even one great battle, and this can be explained if, as is probable enough, the Egyptians before that invasion had never seen a horse.
The Arab horse, or rather mare, lived in her master’s tent and supped from the calabash of milk, and lay down to sleep with the other members of the family. She was the playmate of the children; on her the cruel, the savage Bedouin lavished the one tender feeling of his heart. He treasured up in his mind her pedigree as carefully as his own; he composed songs in honour of his beloved steed—his friend, his companion, his ally. He sang to her of the gazelles which they had hunted down, and of the battles which they had fought together--for the Arab horse was essentially a beast of war. When the signal was given for the charge, when the rider, loudly yelling, couched his spear, she snorted and panted and bounded in the air. With tail raised and spreading to the wind, with neck beautifully arched, mane flapping, red nostrils dilating, and eyes glaring, she rushed like an arrow into the midst of the melee. Though covered with wounds, she would never turn restive or try to escape, but if her master was compelled to take to flight she would carry him till she dropped down dead.
It is quite possible that when the mounted army appeared in the river plain the inhabitants were paralysed with fright, and believed them to be fabulous animals, winged men. Be that as it may, the conquest was speedy and complete; the imperial Memphis was taken, Egypt was enslaved, and the king and his family and court were compelled to seek a new home across the sandy seas.
On the south side of the Nubian desert was the land of Ethiopia, the modern Sudan, which had been conquered by the Egyptians, and which they used as an emporium in their caravan trade with Central Africa and the shores of the Red Sea. But it could be reached only by means of a journey which is not without danger at the present day, and which must have been inexpressibly arduous at a time when the camel had not been introduced.
The Nile, it is true, flows through this desert, and joins Ethiopia to Egypt with a silver chain. But from the time of its leaving the Sudan until it reaches the black granite gate which marks the Egyptian frontier, it is confined within a narrow, crooked, hollow way. Navigation is impossible, for its bed is continually broken up by rocks and the stream is walled in; it cannot overflow its banks. The reign of the Sahara is uninterrupted, undisturbed. On all sides is the desert, the brown, shining desert, the implacable waste. Above is a ball of fire ascending and descending in a steel blue sky; below, a dry and scorching sea which the wind ripples into gloomy waves. The air is a cloud which rains fire, for it is dim with perpetual dust—each molecule a spark. The eye is pained and dazzled; it can find no rest. The ear is startled; it can find no sound. In the soft and yielding sand the footstep perishes unheard; nothing murmurs, nothing rustles, nothing sings. This silence is terrible, for it conveys the idea of death, and all know that in the desert death is not far off. When the elements become active they assume peculiar and portentous forms. If the wind blows hard a strange storm arises; the atmosphere is pervaded by a dull and lurid glare; pillars of sand spring up as if by magic, and whirl round and round in a ghastly and fantastic dance. Then a mountain appearing on the horizon spreads upward in the sky, and a darkness more dark than night falls suddenly upon the earth. To those who gasp with swelled tongues and blackened lips in the last agonies of thirst, the mirage, like a mocking stream, exhibits lakes of transparent water and shady trees. But the wells of this desert are scanty, and the waters found in them are salt.
The fugitives concealed the images of the gods, and taking with them the sacred animals, embarked upon their voyage of suffering and woe. After many weary days they again sighted land; they arrived on the shores of Ethiopia, the country of the blacks. Once more their eyes were refreshed with green pastures; once more they listened to the rustling of the palms, and drank the sweet waters of the Nile. Yet soon they discovered that it was not their own dear river, it was not their own beloved land. In Egypt Nature was a gentle handmaid; here she was a cruel and capricious queen. The sky flashed and bellowed against them; the rain fell in torrents, and battered down the houses of the Ethiopians—wretched huts like
hay-ricks, round in body with a cone-shaped roof, built of grass and mud. The lowlands changed beneath the flood, not into meadows of flowers and fields of waving corn, but into a pestilential morass. At the rising of the dog-star came a terrible fly which drove even the wild beasts from the river banks and destroyed all flocks and herds. At that evil season the Egyptian colonists were forced to migrate to the forests of the interior, which were filled with savage tribes. Here were the Troglodytes who lived under ground. An ointment was their only dress; their language resembled the hissing of serpents and the whistling of bats. Every month they indulged in a carouse; every month they opened the veins of their sheep and drank of the warm and gurgling blood as if it had been delicious wine. They made merry when they buried their dead, and, roaring with laughter, cast stones upon the corpse until it was concealed from view. Here were the root-eaters, the twig-eaters and the seed-eaters, who lived entirely on such wretched kinds of food. Here were the elephant-eaters, who, sitting on the tops of trees like birds, watched the roads, and when they had sighted a herd crept after it, and hovered round it till the sleepy hour of noon arrived. Then they selected a victim, stole up to it snake-like from behind, hamstrung the enormous creature with a dexterous cut from a sharp sword, and as it lay helpless on the ground feasted upon morsels of its live and palpitating flesh. Here were the locust-eaters, whose harvest was a passing swarm, for they lit a smoky fire underneath, which made the insects fall like withered leaves; they roasted them, pounded them, and made them into cakes with salt. The fish-eaters dwelt by the coral-line borders of the Red Sea; they lived in wigwams thatched with seaweed, with ribs of whales for the rafters and the walls. The richest men were those who possessed the largest bones. There was no fresh water near the shore where they hunted for their food. At stated times they went in herds like cattle to the distant river-side, and singing to one another discordant songs, lay flat on their bellies and drank till they were gorged.
Such was the land to which the Pharaohs were exiled,. In the meantime the Bedouins established a dynasty which ruled a considerable time, and is known as that of the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings.
But those barbarians were not domiciled in Egypt. They could not breathe inside houses, and could not understand how the walls remained upright. The camp was their true fatherland. They lived aloof from the Egyptians; they did not ally themselves with the country gods; they did not teach the people whom they had conquered to regard them as the successors of the Pharaohs. Their art of government began and ended with the collection of a tax. The Shepherd Kings were associated in the minds of the Egyptian fellahin, not with their ancient and revered religion, not with the laws by which they were still governed under their local chiefs, but only with the tribute of corn which was extorted from them every harvest by the whip. The idea of revolution was always present in their minds. Misfortune bestowed upon them the ferocious virtues of the desert, while the vice of cities crept into the Bedouin camp. The invaders became corrupted by luxurious indolence and sensual excess, till at length a descendant of the Pharaohs raised an army in Ethiopia and invaded Egypt. The uprising was general, and the Arabs were driven back into their own harsh and meagre land.
The period which followed the Restoration is the most brilliant in Egyptian history. The expulsion of the Bedouins excited an enthusiasm which could not be contained within the narrow valley of the Nile. Egypt became not only an independent but a conquering power. Her armies overran Asia to the shores of the Euxine and of the Caspian Sea. Her fleets swept over the Indian Ocean to the mud-stained shallows at the Indus mouth. On the monuments we may read the proud annals of those campaigns. We see the Egyptian army, with its companies of archers shooting from the ear like the Englishmen of old; we see their squadrons of light and heavy chariots of war, which skilfully skirmished or heavily charged the dense masses of the foe; we see their remarkable engines for besieging fortified towns, their scaling ladders, their movable towers, and their shield covered rams. We see the Pharaoh returning in triumph, his car drawn by captive kings, and a long procession of prisoners bearing the productions of their respective lands. The nature and variety of those trophies sufficiently prove how wide and distant the Egyptian conquests must have been, for among the animals that figure in the triumph are the brown bear, the baboon, the Indian elephant, and the giraffe. Among the prisoners are negroes of the Sudan in aprons of bulls’ hides, or in wild-beast skins with the tails hanging down behind. They carry ebony, ivory, and gold; their chiefs are adorned with leopard robes and ostrich feathers, as they are at the present day. We see also men from some cold country of the North, with blue eyes and yellow hair, wearing light dresses and long-fingered gloves, while others clothed like Indians are bearing beautiful vases, rich stuffs, and strings of precious stones.
When the kings came back from their campaigns, they built temples of the yellow and rose-tinted sandstone, with obelisks of green granite and long avenues of sphinxes, to commemorate their victories and immortalise their names. They employed prisoners of war to erect these memorials of war; it became the fashion to boast that a great structure had been raised without a single Egyptian being doomed to work. By means of these victories the servitude of the lower classes was mitigated for a time, and the wealth of the upper classes was enormously increased. The conquests it is true, were not permanent; they were merely raids on a large scale. But in very ancient times, when seclusion and suspicion formed the foreign policy of states, and when national intercourse was scarcely known, invasion was often the pioneer of trade. The wealth of Egypt was not derived from military spoil—which soon dissolves, however large it may appear—but from the new markets opened for her linen goods.
It is certain that the riches contained in the country were immense. The house of an Egyptian gentleman was furnished in an elegant and costly style. The cabinets, tables, and chairs were beautifully carved, and were made entirely of foreign woods—of ebony from Ethiopia, of a kind of mahogany from India, of deal from Syria, or of cedar from the heights of Lebanon. The walls and ceilings were painted in gorgeous patterns similar to those which are now woven into carpets. Every sitting room was adorned with a vase of perfumes, a flower-stand, and an altar for unburnt offerings. The house was usually one storey high, but the roof was itself an apartment, sometimes covered, but always open at the sides. There the house-master would ascent in the evening to breathe the cool wind, and to watch the city waking into life when the heat was past. The streets swarmed and hummed with men; the river was covered with gilded gondolas gliding by. And when the sudden night had fallen, lamps flashed and danced below; from the house-yards came sounds of laughter and the tinkling of castanets; from the stream came the wailing music of the boatmen and the soft splashing of the lazy oar.
The Egyptian grandee had also his villa or country house. Its large walled garden was watered by a canal communicating with the Nile. One side of the canal was laid out in a walk shaded by trees—the leafy sycamore, the acacia with its yellow blossoms, and the doum or Theban palm. In the centre of the garden was a vineyard, the branches being trained over trellis-work so as to form a boudoir of green leaves, with clusters of red grapes glowing like pictures on the walls. Beyond the vineyard, at the further end of the garden, stood a summer house or kiosk; in front of it a pond which was covered with the broad leaves and blue flowers of the lotus, and in which waterfowl played. It was also stocked with fish which the owner amused himself by spearing: or sometimes he angled for them as he sat on his camp-stool. Adjoining this garden were the stables and coach-houses, and a large park in which gazelles were preserved for coursing. The Egyptian gentry were ardent lovers of the chase. They killed wild ducks with throw-sticks, made use of decoys, and trained cats to retrieve. They harpooned hippopotami in the Nile; they went out hunting in the desert with lions trained like dogs. They were enthusiastic pigeon fanciers, and had many different breeds of dogs. Their social enjoyments were not unlike our own. Young ladies in Egypt had no croquet, but the gentle sport of archery was known among them. They had also boating parties on the Nile, and water picnics beneath the shady foliage of the Egyptian bean. They gave dinners, to which, as in all civilised countries, the fair sex were invited. The guests arrived for the most part in palanquins, but the young men of fashion drove up to the door in their cabs, and usually arrived rather late. Each guest was received by a cluster of servants, who took off his sandals, gave him water to wash his hands, anointed and perfumed him, presented him with a bouquet, and offered him some raw cabbage to increase his appetite for wine, a glass of which was taken before dinner—the sherry and bitters of antiquity.
The gentlemen wore wigs and false beards, and their hands were loaded with rings. The ladies wore their own hair plaited in a most elaborate manner, the result of many hours between their little bronze mirrors and the skilful fingers of their slaves. Their eyelashes were pencilled with the antimonial powder, their finger-nails tinged with the henna’s golden juice—fashions older than the Pyramids which still govern the women of the East.
The guests met in the dining-room, and grace was said before they sat down. They were crowned with garlands of the lotus, the violet, and the rose—the florists of Egypt were afterwards famous in Rome. A band of musicians played during the repast on the harp, the lyre, the flute, and the guitar. Some of the servants carried round glass decanters of wine encircled with flowers, and various dishes upon trays. Others fanned the porous earth-jars which contained the almond-flavoured water of the Nile. Others burnt Arabian incense or flakes of sweet-scented wood to perfume the air. Others changed the garlands of the guests as soon as they began to fade. Between the courses dwarfs and deformed persons skipped about before the company with marvellous antics and contortions; jugglers and gymnasts exhibited many extraordinary feats; girls jumped through hoops, tossed several balls into the air after the manner of the East, and performed dances after the manner of the West. Strange as it may appear, the pirouette was known to the Egyptians three thousand years ago, and stranger still, their ballet-girls danced it in lighter clothing than is worn by those who now grace the operatic boards. At the beginning of the repast a mummy, richly painted and gilded, was carried round by a servant, who showed it to each guest in turn and said, "Look on this, drink and enjoy thyself, for such as it is now, so thou shalt be when thou art dead." So solemn an injunction was not disregarded, and the dinner often ended as might be expected from the manner in which it was begun. The Hogarths of the period have painted the young dandy being carried home by his footman without his wig, while the lady in her own apartment is showing unmistakable signs of the same disorder.
But we must leave these pleasant strolls in the bypaths of history and return to the broad and beaten road. The vast wealth and soft luxury of the New Empire undermined its strength. It became apparent to the Egyptians themselves that the nation was enervated and corrupt, a swollen, pampered body from which all energy and vigour had for ever fled. A certain Pharaoh commanded a curse to be inscribed in one of the temples against the name of Menes, who had first seduced the Egyptians from the wholesome simplicity of early times. Filled with a spirit of prophecy, the king foresaw his country’s ruin, which indeed was near at hand, for though he himself was buried in peace, his son and successor was compelled to hide in the marshes from a foreign foe.
To the same cause may be traced the ruin and the fall, not only of Egypt, but of all the powers of the ancient world; of Nineveh and Babylon and Persia; of the Macedonian kingdom and the Western Empire. As soon as those nations became rich they began to decay. If this were the fifth century, and we were writing history in the silent and melancholy streets of Rome, we should probably propound a theory entirely false, yet justified at that time by the universal experience of mankind. We should declare that nations are mortal like the individuals of which they are composed; that wealth is the poison, luxury the disease, which shortens their existence and dooms them to an early death. We should point to the gigantic ruins around—to that vast and mouldering body from which the soul had fled—moralise about Lucullus and his thrushes, recount the enormous sums that had been paid for a dress, a table or a child, and assure our Gothic pupils that national life and health are only to be preserved by contented poverty and simple fare.
But what has been the history of those barbarians? In the Dark Ages there was no luxury in Europe. It was a miserable continent inhabited by robbers, fetishmen, and slaves. Even the Italians of the eleventh century wore clothes of unlined leather, and had no taste except for horses and for shining arms, no pride except that of building strong towers for their lairs. Man and wife grabbled for their supper from the same plate, while a squalid boy stood by them with a torch to light their greasy fingers to their mouths. Then the India trade was opened; the New World was discovered; Europe became rich, luxurious, and enlightened. The sunshine of wealth began first to beam upon the costs of the Mediterranean Sea, and gradually spread towards the North. In the England of Elizabeth it was declared from the pulpit that the introduction of forks would demoralise the people and provoke divine wrath. But in spite of sermons and sumptuary laws, Italian luxuries continued to pour in, and national prosperity continued to increase. At the present day the income of a nation affords a fair criterion of its intellect and also of its strength. It may safely be asserted that the art of war will soon be reduced to a simple question of expenditure and credit, and that the largest purse will be the strongest arm. As for luxury, a small tradesman at the present day is more luxurious than a king in ancient times. It has been wisely and wittily remarked that Augustus Caesar had neither glass panes to his windows nor a shirt to his back, and the luxury of the Roman senators may without exaggeration be compared with that of the West Indian creoles in the eighteenth century. The gentleman and his lady glittered with jewels; the table and sideboard blazed with plate; but the house itself was little better than a barn, and the attendants a crowd of dirty, half-naked slaves who jostled the guests as they performed the service of the table, and sat down in the verandah over the remnants of the soup before they would condescend to go to the kitchen for the fish.
In the modern world we find luxury the harbinger of progress, in the ancient world the omen of decline. But how can this be? Nature does not contradict herself; the laws which govern the movements of society are as regular and unchangeable as those which govern the movements of the stars.
Wealth is in reality as indispensable to mankind for purposes of growth as water to the soil. It is not the fault of the water if its natural circulation is interfered with, if certain portions of the land are drowned while others are left completely dry. Wealth in all countries of the ancient world was artificially confined to a certain class. More than half the area of the Greek and Roman world was shut off by slavery from the fertilising stream. This single fact is sufficient to explain how that old civilisation, in some respects so splendid, was yet so one-sided and incomplete.
But the civilisation of Egypt was less developed still, for that country was enthralled by institutions from which Greece and Rome, happily for them, were free.
It has been shown that the instinct for self-preservation, the struggle for bare life against hostile nature, first aroused the mental activity of the Egyptian priests, while the constant attacks of the desert tribes developed the martial energies of the military men. Next, the ambition of power produced an equally good effect. The priests invented, the warriors campaigned; mines were opened, manufactories were founded; a system of foreign commerce was established; sloth was abolished by whip and chain; the lower classes were saddled, the upper classes were spurred; the nation careered gallantly along. Finally, chivalrous ardour, intellectual passion, inspired heart and brain; war was loved for glory’s sake; the philosopher sought only to discover, the artist to perfect.
And then there came a race of men who, like those that inherit great estates, had no incentive to continue the work which had been so splendidly begun. In one generation the genius of Egypt slumbered, in the next it died. Its painters and sculptors were no longer possessed of that fruitful faculty with which kindred spirits contemplate each other’s works; which not only takes, but gives; which produces from whatever it receives; which embraces to wrestle, and wrestles to embrace; which is sometimes sympathy, sometimes jealousy, sometimes hatred, sometimes love, but which always causes the heart to flutter, and the face to flush, and the mind to swell with the desire to rival and surpass; which is sometimes as the emulative awe with which Michael Angelo surveyed the dome that yet gladdens the eyes of those who sit on the height of fair Fiesole, or who wander afar off in silver Arno’s vale; which is sometimes as that rapture of admiring wrath which incited the genius of Byron when his great rival was pouring forth masterpiece on masterpiece with invention more varied, though perhaps less lofty, and with fancy more luxuriant even than his own.
The creative period passed away, and the critical age set in. Instead of working, the artists were content to talk. Their admiration was sterile, yet still it was discerning. But the next period was lower still. It was that of blind worship and indiscriminating awe. The past became sacred, and all that it had produced, good and bad, was reverenced alike. This kind of idolatry invariably springs up in that interval of languor and reaction which succeeds an epoch of production In the mind-history of every land there is a time when slavish imitation is inculcated as a duty, and novelty regarded as a crime. But in Egypt the arts and sciences were entangled with religion. The result will easily be guessed. Egypt stood still, and theology turned her into stone. Conventionality was admired, then enforced. The development of the mind was arrested; it was forbidden to do any new thing.
In primitive times it is perhaps expedient that rational knowledge should be united with religion. It is only by means of superstition that a rude people can be induced to support, and a robber soldiery to respect, an intellectual class. But after a certain time this alliance must be ended, or harm will surely come. The boy must leave the apartments of the women when he arrives at a certain age. Theology is an excellent nurse, but a bad mistress for grown-up minds. The essence of religion is inertia; the essence of science is change. It is the function of the one to preserve, it is the function of the other to improve. If, as in Egypt, they are firmly chained together, either science will advance, in which case the religion will be altered, or the religion will preserve its purity, and science will congeal.
The religious ideas of the Egyptians became associated with a certain style. It was enacted that the human figure should be drawn always in the same manner, with the same colours, contour, and proportions. Thus the artist was degraded to an artisan, and originality was strangled in its birth.
The physicians were compelled to prescribe for their patients according to the rules set down in the standard works. If they adopted a treatment of their own and the patient did not recover, they were put to death. Thus even in desperate cases heroic remedies could not be tried, and experiment, the first condition of discovery, was disallowed.
A censorship of literature was not required, for literature in the proper sense of the term did not exist. Writing, it is true, was widely spread. Cattle, clothes, and workmen’s tools were marked with the owners’ names. The walls of the temples were covered and adorned with that beautiful picture character, more like drawing than writing, which cold delight the eyes of those who were unable to penetrate its sense. Hieroglyphics may be found on everything in Egypt, from the colossal statue to the amulet and gem. But the art was practised only by the priests, as the painted history plainly declares. No books are to be seen in the furniture of houses; no female is depicted in the act of reading; the papyrus scroll and pencil never appear except in connection with some official act.
The library at Thebes was much admired. It had a blue ceiling speckled with golden stars. Allegorical pictures of a religious character and portraits of the sacred animals were painted on the walls. Above the door were inscribed these words, "The Balsam of the Soul." Yet this magnificent building contained merely a collection of prayer books and ancient hymns, some astronomical almanacs, some works on religious philosophy, medicine, music, and geometry, and the historical archives, which were probably little else than a register of the names of kings, with the dates of certain inventions and a scanty outline of events.
Even these books, so few in number, were not open to all the members of the learned class. They were the manuals of the various departments or professions, and each profession stood apart; each profession was even sub-divided within itself. In medicine and surgery there were no general practitioners. There were oculists, aurists, dentists, doctors of the head, doctors of the stomach, etc., and each was forbidden to invade the territory of his colleagues. This specialist arrangement has been highly praised, but it has nothing in common with that which has arisen in modern times.
It is one of the first axioms of medical science that no one is competent to treat the disease of a single organ unless he is competent to treat the diseases of the whole frame. The folly of dividing the diseases of such organs as the head and stomach, between which the most intimate sympathy exists, is evident even to the unlearned. But the whole structure is united by delicate white threads, and by innumerable pipes of blood. It is scarcely possible for any complaint to influence one part alone. The Egyptian, however, was marked off like a chess board into little squares, and whenever the pain made a move a fresh doctor had to be called in.
This arrangement was part of a system founded on an excellent principle, but carried to absurd excess. It is needless to explain that division of labour is highly potent in developing skill and economising time. It is also clearly of advantage that in an early stage of society the son should follow the occupation of the father. It is possible that hereditary skill or tastes come into play; it is certain that apprenticeship at home is more natural and more efficient than apprenticeship abroad. The father will take more pains to teach, the boy will take more pains to learn, than will be the case when master and pupil are strangers to each other.
The founders of Egyptian civilisation were acquainted with these facts. Hence they established customs which their successors petrified into unchanging laws. They did it no doubt with the best of motives. They adored the grand and noble wisdom of their fathers; whatever came from them must be cherished and preserved. They must not presume to depart from the guidance of those god-like men. They must paint as they painted, physic as they physicked, pray as they prayed. The separation of classes which they had made must be rendered rigid and eternal.
And so the arts and sciences were ordered to stand still, and society was divided and sub-divided into functions and professions, trades and crafts. Every man was doomed to follow the occupation of his father, to marry within his own class, to die as he was born. Hope was torn out of the human life. Egypt was no longer a nation, but an assemblage of torpid castes isolated from one another and breeding in and in. It was no longer a body animated by the same heart, fed by the same blood, but an automaton neatly pieced together, of which the head was the priesthood, the arms were the army, and the feet the working-class. In quiescence it was a perfect image of the living form, but a touch came from without, and the arms broke asunder at the joints and fell upon the ground.
The colony founded in the Sudan by the exiled Pharaohs became after the restoration an important province. When the new empire began to decline a governor-general rebelled, and the kingdom of Ethiopia was established. It was a medley dominion composed of brown men and black men, shepherds and savages, half-caste Egyptians, Arabs, Berbers, and negroes, ruled over by a king and a college of priests. It was enriched by annual slave hunts into the Black Country, and by the caravan trade in ivory, gold dust, and gum. It also received East India goods and Arabian produce through its ports on the Red Sea. Meroe, its capital, attained the reputation of a great city; it possessed its temples and its pyramids like those of Egypt, but on a smaller scale. The Ethiopian empire in its best days might have comprised the modern Egyptian provinces of Kordofan and Sennaar, with the mountain kingdom of Abyssinia as it existed under Theodore. Of all the classical countries it was the most romantic and the most remote. It was situated, according to the Greeks, on the extreme limits of the world; its inhabitants were the most just of men, and Jupiter dined with them twice a year. They bathed in the waters of a violet-scented spring which endowed them with long life, noble bodies, and glossy skins. They chained their prisoners with golden fetters; they had bows which none but themselves could bend. It is at least certain that Ethiopia took its place among the powers of the ancient world. It is mentioned in the Jewish records and in the Assyrian cuniform inscriptions.
So far had Egypt fallen that now it was conquered by its ancient province. Sabaco of Ethiopia seized the throne and sat upon it many years. But he was frightened by a dream; he believed that a misfortune impended over him in Egypt. He abdicated in haste and fled back to his native land.
His departure was followed by uproar and confusion, a complete disruption of Egyptian society, usurpation, and civil war.
But why should this have been? Sabaco was an Egyptian by descent, though his blood had been darkened on the female side. He had governed in the Egyptian manner. He had abolished capital punishment, but in no other way had altered the ancient laws. He had improved the public works. He had taken the country rather as a native usurper than as a foreign foe. His reign was merely a change of dynasty, and Egyptian history is numbered by dynasties as English history is numbered by kings.
But indirectly the Ethiopian conquest had prepared a revolution. Between the two services, the Army and the Church, there had existed a constant and perhaps wholesome rivalry since the days of Menes, the first king. It was a victory of the warrior class which established the regal power. It was a victory of the priests which assigned to themselves the right hand, to the officers the left hand, of the sovereign when seated on his throne. It was an evident compromise between the two that the king should be elected from the army, and that he should be ordained as soon as he was crowned. During the brilliant campaigns of the Restoration the military had been in power, but a long period of inaction had intervened since then. The discipline of the soldiers was relaxed; their dignity was lowered; they no longer tilled their own land—that was done by foreign slaves. Their rivals possessed the affection and reverence of the common people, while these soldiers, who had never seen a battle, were detested as idle drones who lived upon what they had not earned. Under the new dynasty their position became insecure. In Ethiopia there was no military casts. The army of Sabaco had been levied from the pastoral tribes on the outskirts of the desert, from the Abyssinian mountaineers and the negroes of the river plain. The king of Ethiopia was a priest, elected by his peers. He therefore regarded the soldier aristocracy with no friendly eye. He did not formally invade their prescriptive rights, but he must have disarmed them or in some way have taken out their sting. For as soon as he was gone the priests were able to form an alliance with the people, and to place one of their own caste upon the throne. This king deprived the soldiers of their lands, and the triumph of the hierarchy was complete.
But in such a country as Egypt Disestablishment is a dangerous thing. During long centuries the people had been taught to associate innovation with impiety. That venerable structure the Egyptian constitution had been raised by no human hands. As the gods had appointed certain animals to swim in the water, and others to fly in the air, and others to move upon the earth, so they had decreed that one man should be a priest, and that another should be a soldier, and that another should till the ground. There are times when every man feels discontented with his lot. But it is evident that if men were able to change their occupation whenever they chose, there would be a continual passing to and fro. Nobody would have patience to learn a trade; nobody would settle down in life. In a short time the land would become a desert, and society would be dissolved. To provide against this the gods had ordained that each man should do his duty in that state of life into which he had been called, and woe be to him that disobeys the gods! Their laws are eternal and can never change. Their vengeance is speedy and can never fail.
Such, no doubt, was the teaching of the Egyptian Church, and now the Church had shown it to be false. The revolution had been begun, and, as usually happens, it could not be made to stop half way. As soon as the first precedent was unloosed, down came the whole fabric with a crash. The priest-king Sethos reigned in peace, but as soon as he died the central government succumbed; the old local interests which had been lying dormant for ages raised their heads; the empire broke up into twelve states, each governed by a petty king.
We now approach the event which first brought Egypt into contact with the European world. Psammiticus, one of the twelve princes, received as his allotment the swampy district which adjoined the sea-coast and the mouths of the Nile. His fortune, as we shall see, was made by this position.
The commerce of Egypt had hitherto been conducted entirely by means of caravans. From Arabia Felix came a long train of camels laden with the gums of that aromatic land, and with the more precious produce of countries far beyond—with the pearls of the Persian Gulf and the carpets of Babylon, the pepper and ginger of Malagar, the shawls of Kashmir, the cinnamon of Ceylon, the fine muslins of Bengal, the calicoes of Coromandel, the nutmegs and camphor and cloves of the Indian Archipelago, and even silk and musk from the distant Chinese shores. From Syria came other caravans with the balm of Gilead, so precious in medicine, asphalt from the Dead Sea for embalming, cedar from Lebanon, and enormous quantities of wine and olive oil in earthern jars. Meroe contributed the spices of the Somali country, ebony, ivory, ostrich feathers, slaves, and gold in twisted rings; the four latter products were also imported direct from Darfour, and by another route which connected Egypt through Fezzan with Carthage, Morocco, and the regions beyond the desert in the neighbourhood of Timbuktu. In return, the beautiful glass wares of the Egyptians and other artistic manufactures were exported to Hindustan; the linen goods of Memphis were carried into the very heart of Africa as Manchester goods are now; and then, as now, a girdle of beads was the essential part of an African young lady’s dress.
On the side of the Mediterranean Egypt was a closed land, and this Chinese policy had not been adopted from superstitious motives. The first ships which sailed that sea were pirates who had kidnapped and plundered the dwellers on the coast. The government had therefore in self-defence placed a garrison at Rhacotis harbour, with orders to kill or enslave any stranger who should land. When the Phoenicians from pirates had become merchants they were allowed to trade with Egypt by way of the land, and with this they were content. It was left for another people to open up the trade by sea.
Ionia was the fairest province of Asiatic Greece. It lay opposite to Athens, its motherland. The same soft blue waters, the same fragrant breezes caressed their shores by turn. It was celebrated by the poets as one of the gardens of the world. There the black soil granted a rich harvest and the fruit hung heavily on the branches. It was the birthplace of poetry, of history, of philosophy, and of art. It was there that the Homeric poems were composed. It was there that men first cast off the chains of authority and sought in Nature the materials of a creed.
It was, however, as a seafaring and commercial people that the Ionians first obtained renown. They served on board Phoenician vessels and laboured in the dockyards of Tyre and Sidon until they learnt how to build the "sea-horses" for themselves, and how to navigate by that small but constant star which the Tyrians had discovered in the constellation of the Little Bear. They took to the sea on their own account, and in Egypt they found a good market. The wine and oil of Palestine, which the Phoenicians imported, were expensive luxuries; the lower classes drank only the fermented sap of the palm-tree and barley beer, and had only castor oil, with which they rubbed their bodies, but with which, for obvious reasons, they could not cook their food. The Ionians were able to sell red wine and sweet oil at a much lower price, for in the first place they had vineyards and olive groves of their own, and secondly such bulky wares could be brought by sea more cheaply than by land.
The Greeks first appeared on the Egyptian coast as pirates clad in bronze, next as smugglers, welcomed by the people, but in opposition to the laws, and lastly as allies and honoured friends. They took advantage of the confusion which followed the departure of Sabaco to push up the Nile with thirty vessels, each of fifty oars, and established factories upon its banks. They negotiated with Psammiticus, who ascertained that their country produced not only oil but men. He ordered a cargo, and transports arrived with troops. Europeans for the first time entered the valley of the Nile. Their gallantry and discipline were irresistible, and the empire of the Pharaohs was restored.
But now commenced a new regime. There succeeded to the throne a series of kings who were not related to the ancient Pharaohs, who were not always men of noble birth, who were not even good Egyptians. They were called Phil-Hellenes, or Lovers of the Greeks. Of these Psammiticus was the founder and the first. He moved Egypt towards the sea. He placed his capital near the mouth of the river, that the Greek ships might anchor beneath its walls. This new city of Sais, being distant from the quarries, was built of bricks from the black mud of the Nile, but it was adorned with spoils from the forsaken Memphis. Chapels, obelisks, and sphinxes were brought down on rafts. There was also a kind of Renaissance under the new kings; for a short time the arts again became alive. Psammiticus retained the soldiers who had fought his battles, and sent children to the camp to be taught Greek. Hence rose a class who acted as brokers, interpreters, and ciceroni to the travellers who soon crowded into Egypt. The king encouraged such visits, and gave safe-conducts to those who desired to pass into the interior.
All this was a cause of deep offence to the people of the land. They regarded their country as a temple, and all strangers as impure. And now they saw men whose swords had been reddened with Egyptian blood swaggering as conquerors through the streets, pointing with derision at the sacred animals, eating things strangled and unclean. The warriors were those who suffered most. As a caste they still survived, but all their power and prestige were gone. In battle the foreigners were assigned the post of honour—the right wing. In times of peace the foreigners were the favourite regiments—the household troops, the Guards. While the royals lived merrily at Sais crowned with garlands of the papyrus, and revelling at banquets to the music of the flute, the native troops were stationed on the hot and dismal frontiers of the desert; year followed year, and they were not relieved. Such a state of things was no longer to be borne. One king had robbed them of their lands, and now another had robbed them of their honour. They were no longer soldiers, they were slaves; they determined to leave the country in which they were despised, and to seek a better fortune in the Sudan. In number two hundred thousand, they gathered themselves together and began their march.
They were soon overtaken by envoys from the king, who had no desire to lose an army. The soldiers were entreated to return and not to desert their fatherland. They cried out, beating their shields and shaking their spears, that they would soon get another fatherland. Then the messengers began to speak of their wives and little ones at home. Would they leave them also, and go wifeless and childless to a savage land? But one of the soldiers explained, with a coarse gesture, that they had the means of producing families wherever they might go. This ended the conference. Psammiticus pursued them with his Ionians, but could not overtake them. In the wastes of Nubia there may yet be seen a colossal statue, on the right leg of which is an inscription in Greek announcing that it was there they gave up the chase. The Egyptian soldiers arrived at Meroe in safety; the king presented them with a province which had rebelled. They drove out the men, married the women, and did much to civilise the native tribes.
In the meantime Psammiticus and his successors opened wider and wider the gloomy portals of the land. The town of Naucratis was set apart, like Canton, for the foreign trade. Nine independent Greek cities had their separate establishments within that town, and their magistrates and consuls, who administered their respective laws. The merchants met in the Hellenion, which was half temple, half exchange, to transact their business and offer sacrifices to the gods. Naucratis was in all respects a European town. There the garlic-chewing sailors, when they came on shore, could enjoy a holiday in the true Greek style. They could stroll in the market-place, where the money-changers sat before their tables and the wine merchants ran about with sample flasks under their arms, and where garlands of flowers, strange-looking fish, and heaps of purple dates were set out for sale. They could resort to the barbers’ shops and gather the gossip of the day, or to taverns where quail fighting was always going on. Nor were the chief ornaments of sea-port society wanting to grace the scene. No Egyptian girl, as Herodotus discovered, would kiss a Greek. But certain benevolent and enterprising men had imported a number of Heterae or "lady-friends," the most famous of whom was Rhodopis, "the rosy-faced," with whom Sappho’s brother fell in love, and whom the poetess lampooned.
The foreign policy of Egypt was now completely changed. A long period of seclusion had followed the conquests of the new empire. But the battle-pieces of the ancient time still glowed upon the temple walls. With their vivid colours and animated scenes they seemed to incite the modern Pharaohs to heroic deeds. The throne was surrounded by warlike and restless men. It was determined that Egypt should become a naval power. For this, timber was indispensable, and the forests of Lebanon must be seized. War was carried to the continent. Syria was reduced. A garrison was planted on the banks of the Euphrates. A navy was erected in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Tyrians were defeated in a great sea-battle. The Suez Canal was opened for the first time, and an exploring expedition circumnavigated Africa.
Yet, for all that and all that, the Egyptian people were not content. The victories won by mercenary troops excited little patriotic pride, and the least reverse occasioned the most gloomy forebodings, the most serious discontent. The Egyptians indeed had good cause to be alarmed—the Phil-Hellenes were playing at a dangerous game. Times had changed since Sesostris overran Asia. A great power had arisen on the banks of the Tigris; a greater power still on the banks of the Euphrates. They had narrowly escaped Sennacherib when Nineveh was in its glory, and now Babylon had arisen and Nebuchadnezzar had drawn the sword. For a long time Chaldea and Egypt fought over Syria, their battle-ground and their prey. At last came the decisive day of Carchemish. The Phoenicians, the Syrians, and the Jews obtained new masters; the Egyptians were driven out of Asia.
Yet even then the kings were not cured of their taste for war. An expedition was sent against Cyrene, a Greek kingdom on the northern coast of Africa. It was unsuccessful, and the sullen disaffection which had so long smouldered burst forth into flame. The king was killed, and Amasis, a man of the people, was placed upon the throne.
This monarch did not go to war, and he contrived to favour the Greeks without offending the prejudices of his fellow-countrymen. He was, however, a true Phil-Hellene; he encircled himself with a body-guard of Greeks; he married a princess of Cyrene; he gave a handsome subscription to the fund for rebuilding the temple at Delphi; he extended the commerce of Egypt and improved its manufactures. The liberal policy in trade which he pursued had the most satisfactory results. Never had Egypt been so rich as she was then. But she was defenceless; she had lost her arms. It is probable that under Amasis she was a vassal of Babylon, paying tribute every year; and now a time was coming when gold could no longer purchase repose, when the horrified people would see their temples stripped, their idols dashed to pieces, their sacred animals murdered, their priests scourged, and the embalmed body of their king snatched from its last resting-place and flung upon the flames.