to be crammed with interesting fictions; and the pretension of the Egyptians to such prodigious antiquity of their state was regarded as one of the most patent examples of such figments. Yet it is probable that, in respect of this and other pieces of information of like character, the learned Egyptians said no more, not only than they fully believed, but than they might fairly enough think they had good reason for believing; and modern investigations have shown that they were certainly much nearer the truth than sundry of their critics.
Among the achievements of scientific method in this century, none is, to my mind, more wonderful than the disinterment of so much of a past, to all appearance hopelessly dead, by the interpretation of the hieroglyphic and cuneiform inscriptions in which the ancient inhabitants of the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates chronicled the events of their history. Thanks to the sagacity and the untiring toil of such men as Lepsius—just about to receive the congratulations of all the world on the completion of half a century of fruitful labor—of Birch, of Mariette, of Brugsch, the student of Egyptology, guided by the spirit of scientific criticism, is probably far more accurately informed about the ancient history of Egypt than was the whole College of Heliopolis in Herodotus's time.
An exact chronology of Egyptian history is yet to be constructed; but those best qualified to judge agree that contemporary monuments tell us of the state of Egypt more than five thousand years ago; and since they prove, beyond the possibility of doubt, that the people who erected them possessed a complex social organization, as replete with all the necessaries and conveniences of life as that of any nation in Europe in the middle ages, and not inferior in literature or in skill in the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, it is but rational to conclude that, even at this farthest point of time to which written records take us, the Egyptian people had, for long ages, left barbarism behind, and constituted a settled and a civilized polity. So that, whether Menes was followed by three hundred and thirty kings or not, the general impression of the vast antiquity of the Egyptian state which Herodotus received, and has transmitted to us, has full justification.
But that which is so characteristically modern about Herodotus is that he was not satisfied to stop where written records halt, or to accept traditional accounts of an earlier time without discussion. His informants told him that, when Menes began to reign, Lower Egypt was covered with water, a dismal and pestilent swamp, and that the first Pharaoh drained and rendered habitable that alluvial soil which they called "the gift of the Nile."
Herodotus was evidently very much interested in this statement. Perhaps he asked his Heliopolitan friends how they knew this. Perhaps they answered him as they did a countryman of his, "You Greeks always were and always will be children," asking the why of the wherefore. A true saying, which, however it may have been intended,