The International Magazine/Volume 2/Issue 3/Egypt under the Pharaohs

129610The International MagazineVol. 2, Issue 3 (February 2, 1851): (Egypt Under the Pharaohs: Mr. Kenrick's History[1])

All nations turn to Egypt, as to the mother of civility, and the Christian sees there the prison where are detained, until the end of the world, the witnesses of truths which vindicate his religion. How much the Holy Land is our country, appears from this, that to all Christians, however remote the places where they live, the scenes about Jerusalem are more familiar than those about the capital of his own nation, and with Egypt we are scarcely less intimately, though much less perfectly, acquainted. Within the last half century, great researches have been made, by individual or national enterprise, into the poetry and antiquities of Egypt, by the enterprise of travellers and the diligence of archæologists, among whom England claims the names of Young, Wilkinson, and Vyse. But comparatively few know what has been the result of these researches. They lie scattered over a number of works in different languages, beyond the reach even of the ordinary student, much more of the general reader. Mr. Kenrick (of whose"Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs" we copy below the main portion of a reviewal in the London Times) has undertaken the task of supplying a synopsis, and this task he appears to us to have accomplished excellently well. Mr. Kenrick is a very estimable as well as a very accomplished man. Like the great majority of the abler historical, philosophical and religious writers of England at this time, he is a Dissenter, which perhaps lessens somewhat the warmth of the critic's commendations. We hope to see his work, as well as that of Mr. Sharpe, relating to Egypt under the Ptolemies, reproduced, by some of our own publishers. Of Mr. Kenrick, the Times says:—

"He commences with the land of Egypt. In the East great rivers are the parents of civilized nations. A great river, which by its deposit forms a long valley and a broad delta of rich alluvial soil in the midst of deserts, was the parent, the nourisher, and the god of the oldest civilized nation of the earth. The Nile is Egypt; the Egyptians were those who lived below the cataracts and drank of the Nile. Above the cataracts they pushed their arms into Ethiopia, and left there the monuments of their dominion. To the west they were at once defended and confined by a desert impassable to armies, but which the oasis rendered passable to the caravan. On the north was an almost harborless sea. On the east was another desert, through which roads led to the ports of the Red Sea and the mines of Sinai. On the north-east the Arabian desert formed an imperfect barrier. It was traversed by the hosts of Sesostris and Sheshonk, of Nebuchadnezzar and Cambyses, and across its sands Egypt communicated commercially and politically with the other seats of ancient civilization which, broken by the recurring desert, formed an irregular chain from Philistia to China.

"Of the singular productions of Egypt, the hippopotamus, the crocodile, the ibis, the papyrus, we need not speak. There were few beasts of chase, and the Egyptian conquerors did not begin like those of central Asia by being mighty hunters. It was a land of corn, and of the vine, of fruit trees, and all herbs. The nations sought its granaries in famine; the Israelites in the wilderness thirsted for the cooling vegetables of its gardens. Fish abounded in the Nile, waterfowl in the marshes. Nature yielded freely, but perhaps for that very reason the mind of man was less exercised and less active. And the unvarying landscape, the unchanging sky, the small number and unpoetic or even grotesque forms of the plants and animals, may partly account for the lack of imagination evinced by the most formal and most stationary of nations, scarcely excepting the Chinese.

"Who and whence were the Egyptians? This question Mr. Kenrick has to ask, and, like others, to leave unanswered. This is the secret which the grave of the Pharaohs will not yield. Physiology supplies no clue. The mummy cases, the paintings and sculptures, depict a race short, slight, with low foreheads, high cheek bones, long eyes, hair now crisp now curled, and a complexion which the conventionality of the painter's art makes to differ in men and women, but which probably was brown with a tinge of red, dark compared with that of the Syrian, black compared with that of the Greek. Thick lips are frequently seen, but they are supposed to indicate intermarriage with Ethiopians. From the negro the Egyptians were far removed, nor can they be connected with any other known race. If we turn to language, a surer guide perhaps than physiology, we are again completely baffled. The Coptic has been identified through many etymologies with the old Egyptian; and of the Coptic, though it became a dead language in the twelfth century, much literature remains. It is an uncultivated and formal tongue, with monosyllabic roots and rude inflexions totally different from the neighboring languages of Syria and Arabia, totally opposite to the copious and polished Sanscrit. The last fact at once severs Egypt from India, and destroys every presumption of affinity that may arise from the presence in both countries of caste, of animal worship, and of a religion derivable from a primitive adoration of the powers of nature. The hypothesis of an Ethiopian origin sprang from the notion, natural but untrue, that population would follow the course of the descending river. And no tradition among the Egyptians themselves told of a parent stock or of another land.

"Respecting the mighty works of Egypt, little mystery remains. The great Pyramids had been rifled by the Caliphs, if not by earlier hands, and no inscriptions have been found. But no doubt exists that they were the sepulchres of the Kings of Memphis. The Queens and the "princes of Noph" reposed in smaller pyramids beside the Kings. These mountains of wasted masonry belong to the earliest ages of the Pharaonic monarchy, before the time of the Sesostrian conquests, and therefore they bespeak the toil and suffering, not of captives, but of native slaves. Before them couches the Sphinx, hewn from the rock, to spare, as a Greek inscription says, each spot of cultivable land. His riddle — for it is a male — is read. He represents, perhaps portrays, the reigning King, and the thick lips may indicate Ethiopian blood. The lion's body represents the monarch's might — the human head his wisdom. The rock, from which the figure is cut, broke the view of the Pyramids, and to convert it into the Sphinx was a stroke of Egyptian genius. Pyramids were, in the Pharaonic times, peculiar to Memphis. The countless tombs of Thebes are excavated in the rocky face of the Libyan hills. Those of the Theban Pharaohs stand apart, and we approach through a narrow gorge called the "Gate of Kings." The paintings, sculptures, and inscriptions on these tombs, literally the eternal houses of the dead, are the Pompeii of the Egyptian antiquary. At Thebes are the magnificent temple-like palaces of the greatest of the Pharaohs, the halls of their assemblies and their counsels, the records of their wars and conquests. At Thebes, too, is the Memnon, a mutilated statue of Amnoph, which never was vocal except by trick or in imagination, and the Obelisks, whose form is sufficiently explained, without obscenity or mystery, by the fancy for monolithic monuments and the possession of large blocks of granite. The remains of the Labyrinth do not enable us to pronounce whether its twenty-seven halls were a burial-place for kings or crocodiles, or a place of assembly for the provinces of Egypt.

"Very various and very extravagant notions have been formed of the population of ancient Egypt. That it was dense may well be inferred from the length of time through which it multiplied in a limited space, and from that evident parsimony of land which drove tombs and monuments to the rocks, and cities to the edge of the desert. Calculations based on the number of cities, and on the number of men of military age, have plausibly placed the sum at about five millions.

"Agriculture was the chief business of the Egyptians, and the chief business of agriculture consisted in distributing and detaining, by canals and dams, the precious waters of the Nile. The sheep and cattle were numerous. A grandee of Eilytheia possessed one hundred and twenty two cows and oxen, three hundred rams, twelve hundred goats, and fifteen hundred swine. Lower Egypt contained the great pasture lands, and was the abode of the herdsmen — a lawless race, and, therefore, an abomi nation to their more civilized countrymen. The ass was the beast of burden. The horse was bred for the war-chariot — that great attribute of ancient power. The breed was small but fine and peculiar to the country. They were kept in stables along the Nile, and hence they do not appear in the landscapes. Horticulture was extensively and elaborately practised, both for use and pleasure; and the Pharaohs, like Solomon, 'made them gardens and orchards, planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit, and made them pools of water to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees.'

"When forced to serve on shipboard by the enterprise of their own Monarchs or by their Persian conquerors, the Egyptians appear not to have made bad sailors. They fought well at Salamis. But their natural tendency was to shun the sea, which they regarded as the element of the Destroyer Typhon. Their navigation was on the Nile, which formed the highway of their commerce, the path of their processions and their pilgrimages, and their passage to the tomb. The river being thus the universal road, and being moreover without bridges, must have swarmed with boats of all descriptions — the heavy bari of the merchant, the light papyrus or earthenware skiffs of the common people, and the sumptuous barge of Royalty, whose golden pavilion, masts, and rudder, fringed and embroidered sails, and sculptured prow, remind us of the galley of Cleopatra. The caravans of surrounding nations visited Egypt with their precious and fragrant merchandise to exchange for her corn and manufactures. But the Egyptian trader appears seldom to have visited other countries either by land or sea.

"The army was a warrior caste. Its might consisted in its chariots. No mounted cavalry appear in any of the monuments. With this exception they had every kind of force and every weapon known to ancient warfare. They used the long bow and drew the arrow, like the English archers, to the ear. Their armor was imperfect, and more often of quilting than of mail. They had regular divisions, with standards, and regular camps. Their sieges were unscientific, and their means of assault scaling ladders, sapping hatchets, and long pikes brought up to the walls under a sort of shed. Of their battles no definite notion can be formed. All is lost in the King, whose gigantic figure, drawn by gigantic horses, crushes, massacres, or grasps by the hair scores of his pigmy enemies, whose hands after the victory are laid in heaps before him and counted by attendant scribes. Thus it is that Rameses the Great and the other Pharaohs are seen warring against the Assyrian, and Chaldean against the Jew, the Edomite, the Ethiopian, and the 'nine bows' of Libya, and assailing the 'fenced cities' of strange races that have long passed away.

"In the lower parts of civilization and the mechanical arts, the Egyptians had attained high perfection. Their machinery and tools appear to have been defective, but the defect was supplied by skill of hand, traditional and acquired, as it is among the Chinese. They were cunning workmen in metals, in jewelry, in engravings, in enamel, in glass, in porcelain, and in pottery. Their fine linen and embroidery were famous. For their chariots Solomon gave 600 shekels of silver; and they fashioned into a hundred articles of luxury the ivory of Africa, the mahogany of India, and the cedar of Lebanon. As no specimens remain of their domestic architecture, it is supposed rather than ascertained that their houses were of a single story with a terraced roof. The rooms of great men at least were richly and elegantly painted, and furnished with tables, chairs, and couches, which have supplied models for the upholstery of modern times.

"Architecture is the most material of the arts. It was the art in which the Egyptians most excelled. They seem to have understood in some degree the grandeur which results from proportion and arrangement, as well as that which results from size. The profuse and elaborate sculpture with which their temples are covered, does not mar their majesty. Their heaviness is relieved by the glowing sun and the deep sky. But the impression produced must always have been that of cost and power rather than of art. Some changes of style are noticed. The golden age was that of the Pharaohs of the 19th dynasty, when the power and greatness of the nation were at the highest. More florid and less majestic forms mark the era of the Ptolemies. But in this respect, as in others, the Egyptians seem to have maintained their stationary character, and the remains of Meroe, which are now known to be among the latest, have been taken for the earliest of all the monuments.

"In sculpture the summit of manual skill was reached. But religion, the mistress and tyrant of Egyptian art, prescribed for the images of the gods her unalterable and often hideous forms, and the rules of an hereditary craft, which fixed certain proportions for each part of the statue, and gave the execution of the several parts to several workmen, laid another chain on the genius of the artist. Painting seems not to have advanced beyond the barbarous excellence of brilliant colors. Drawing and design were monstrous, and the laws of perspective and even of vision unknown or disregarded. Of music, we learn from Plato that it was restricted to certain established tunes of approved moral tendency, and the wayward Athenian thought all restraint wholesome as he saw that some license was pernicious.

"If we pass to science, we shall find no reason for supposing that the advances of modern times were anticipated by the mysterious wisdom of the Egyptians. Something they must have known of astronomy to practice astrology, to divide the ecliptic, and to effect the exact orientation of the Pyramids. Some knowledge of chemistry is implied in their manufacture of porcelain; some knowledge of physiology, pathology, pharmaceutics and surgery, in their division of the medical art; something of geometry in their measurement of land; and something of mechanics in their enormous buildings and monuments. But their great engines were multitudes of laborers, aided by such natural expedients as the lever, the roller, and the inclined plane, which can scarcely be called machines. In other sciences there is evidence of long and careful observation, but nothing to prove an acquaintance with the laws of nature. Progress in the medical art was precluded by the necessity of adhering to the precepts of the sacred books. Science was monopolized by the priests; and it is said that by them the King was regularly sworn to retain the old and unintercalated year. The want of decimal notation, and the consequent clumsiness of the system of numeration, would go far to preclude the improvement of arithmetic, or any science into which calculation entered.

"Literature the Egyptians appear to have had none, except of the monumental or sacred kind, including under the latter head the sacred books of science. But the art of writing was practised by them, or at least by the learned part of them, more extensively than by any contemporary nation. Mr. Kenrick gives us a full history of the interpretation of hieroglyphics, the key to which was first given by the parallel inscriptions in hieroglyphic and Greek found on the famous Rosetta stone, and metes to Young and Champollion their due shares in that discovery, of which each uncandidly claimed the whole. The hieroglyphics are now known to he of three kinds, all of which are generally mingled in the same inscription — the pictorial, the symbolical, and the phonetic. The pictorial hieroglyphic is the simple picture of the thing signified. Symbolical hieroglyphics are, among others, a crescent for a month, the maternal vulture for maternity, the filial vulpanser for son, the bee for a people obedient to their king, the bull for strength, the ostrich feather with its equal filaments for truth, the lotus for Upper and the papyrus for Lower Egypt. To these we may add the bird, which denotes a cycle of time (in Coptic phanech), and about which such wild fables were received by the credulity of Herodotus and by that of the Fathers. But the greater part of the hieroglyphics are phonetic like our alphabet, and are being slowly and precariously deciphered into the words of a language which is identified with the ancient form of Coptic.

"The religion of the Egyptians must be gathered chiefly from the sculptures and paintings. The religious inscriptions and funeral papyri remain undeciphered. The account of Herodotus is rendered suspicious by his solicitude to force the Pantheon of Egypt into a conformity with that of Greece. The accounts of the later Greeks are tainted by their philosophizing and mysticizing spirit. That the Egyptian theology embodied no profound physical or metaphysical system is evident from the fact that it was not formed at once, but by gradual addition and development, and that it was to the last partly local. It appears to have been, like the other religions of the Pagan world — of Greece and Italy, of Phœnicia and India — a worship of the powers of nature represented by great natural objects, such as the sun and moon, or by forms bestial or human, which were selected as symbolical of their attributes.

"On this groundwork imagination wrought, as among the Greeks, though to a less extent and in a different way. We cannot tell how far the more reflective minds may have advanced towards the conception of a single God, either independent of or permeating the material world; but contact with the philosophic Greeks in the age of the Ptolemies can hardly have failed to lead to some speculations of this kind, and the accounts derived from Greek sources of Egyptian mysticism, though false of early, were no doubt, in part at least, true of later times. Amuna or Ammon appears to have been nominally the chief of the gods. His attributes are to some extent identified with those of the sun; but they are not easily distinguished from the attributes of several subordinate deities. His ram's head is still a mystery. Thoth was the god of intellect and learning. His representatives were the ape and the ibis: the former, it is supposed, because it approaches nearest in intellect to man; the latter, because its black and white feathers resemble, or may be imagined to resemble, writing. The popular divinity was Osiris, the god at once of the Nile and the realms below. Typhon, the scorching wind of the desert which dries up the waters of the Nile, was the antagonist and the murderer of Osiris; and at a more advanced stage of religious speculation the two may have represented the conflicting powers of Good and Evil. Sacrifices were offered for the ordinary purposes — to conciliate the favor of the gods, to requite their benefits, and to avert their wrath. Typhonian, that is, red-haired men, were immolated when they fell into the hands of the natives in honor of Osiris, whose name is concealed in that of the fabled Busiris. That the practice of offering human sacrifices is compatible with a high degree of civilization we know from the examples of Greece, of Rome, and Mexico. There were great gatherings in honor of the gods, in the nature of pilgrimages or holy fairs, which were celebrated with festivity, with noisy music, with illuminations, and with license. There were mysteries, which were not, in Egypt at least, initiations into any thing different from the popular religion; but merely representations — celebrated amidst nocturnal gloom — of the sufferings of Osiris. If strangers in Egypt underwent painful initiation, it was an initiation into the knowledge of the priests, and not into their mysteries. The Egyptians believed in the existence of the soul after death; they believed that it would be judged in Amenthe by Osiris and his forty-two assessors, before whom it was brought by Analis; they had an Elysium, surrounded by waters, where the Osirian — that is, the happy dead — ploughed, sowed, reaped, and threshed, as on earth — a singular want of fancy. Retributive pains, by fire and steel, are also supposed to have been detected among the paintings. At the same time they held and taught to the Greeks the doctrine of metempsychosis. It is difficult to reconcile with either of these notions their belief that the spirit dwelt in the body so long as the body could be rescued from decay, and the reason which they give for bestowing such prodigality of labor on their sepulchers — that the tomb was man's eternal home. The darkness of uninterpreted hieroglyphics still rests to a great extent on the religious creed and practices of the Egyptians. But three things we think we can discern from the information which Mr. Kenrick has collected: — l. That the Egyptian religion was in all essential respects like the other religions of Paganism, and traceable to the same sources; and consequently that whatever may be Egypt's 'place in universal history,' she is not likely to assume an extraordinarily important place in the history of theology, or to affect, in any material respect, our views as to the origin of religion. 2. That no connection is to be traced between the religion of the Egyptians and the religion of the Hebrews. A more decided polytheism than that of Egypt cannot be imagined. So far from recognizing any thing like the supremacy of a single Divine Being in their theological system, we can scarcely even trace any thing answering to that primacy of Jupiter which preserves at least a vestige of monotheism in the religion of the Greeks. The rite of circumcision, which is supposed to have been borrowed by one nation from the other, was not practised by the Egyptians as a religious ceremony, nor upon infants, nor universally. And it is remarkable that the belief in the conscious existence of the soul and a retributive state after death — a doctrine hardly to be lost when once imparted — seems to have been so prominent in the one faith while it was so much the reverse of prominent in the other. 3. That there was no connection between the mythology of Egypt and that of Greece. Subtract what is common to all polytheistic systems, and what is common to all systems of natural religions, and absolutely no similarity remains. On the one side are forms of human beauty, majesty, and passion, in which the original groundwork of nature-worship is as much as possible concealed by the working of a plastic imagination; on the other side are forms bestial or grotesque, featureless and passionless, exhibiting nature-worship in one of its lowest stages. But in every respect, in language, in physiognomy, in mind, in political tendencies, in manners, as well as in religion, the contrariety between the Egyptian and the Athenian is complete. There is nothing on the other side except the vain pretensions of the priests of Thebes, the credulity of Herodotus, and the wildest legends of the mythical age; and we are surprised that so strict an ethnologist as Mr. Kennick should be inclined to admit even the general fact of an Egyptian colonization.

"The most degrading part of the religion of the Egyptians was their animal worship, which they carried to a higher pitch than any other people, not excepting the Hindoos. Almost the whole animal and some part of the vegetable kingdom enjoyed either a national or a local sanctity. Gods it was said grew in the gardens. The most cogent reasons of policy and the terrible name of Rome failed to save from death the Roman who had killed a cat. Fancy had first assigned to each god his favorites or symbols among beasts or plants. Then the beasts and plants themselves were reverenced, and at last worshipped. Stately avenues of colossal statues, magnificent porticoes and columned courts ushered the awe-stricken devotee into the sacred presence of an ibis or an ape. The highest object of this superstition, the bull Apis, was regarded as an actual incarnation of Osiris. No rational account of such a system can be given. The serpent cannot have been respected for its utility. The ibis cannot have been honored as the destroyer of the sacred serpent. Nothing divine can have been perceived in the beetle or the ape. The connection between the god and the beast was originally the offspring of a grotesque imagination, and priestcraft and the superstitions tendency of the people did the rest.

"The political constitution of Egypt was based on caste. The privileged castes were those of the warriors and the priests, who, with the Pharaoh, held in fee all the land of Egypt. The Government was an hereditary monarchy. When election was necessary the two privileged castes chose from among their own numbers; the people enjoyed only the right of acclamation. If the choice fell on a warrior, he was at once received into the order and initiated into the wisdom of the priests. Legislation was the prerogative of the King; but he was bound to rule and judge according to the law. He was much in the hands of the priests, who imposed strict rules upon his life, and by a daily homily made the duties and virtues of sovereignty familiar, perhaps too familiar, to the royal ear. The priests, in fact, were the lords of Egypt. Exclusively possessed of science, and even of letters, numerous, wealthy, united, in a single polity, a confined territory and an isolated people, unchecked by any literary, philosophical, or foreign influence, they must have exercised a dominion unrivalled by any priesthood in the history of the world. The result was a land of temples, of deified apes and consecrated onions, a literature of religious inscriptions and funeral scrolls, a Government apparently mild and humane, an enduring polity and long internal peace, an intense and stubborn nationality, a civilization wonderful but low, which in every department, from the act of government to the art of writing, appears to have remained as nearly as possible at a fixed point for about two thousand years. The mummy, as it is the characteristic product, is the fit emblem of ancient Egypt. Yet material happiness appears to have been enjoyed. From sports, from caricatures, from the fanciful decorations of their houses, from their use of music as a daily recreation, we should judge that the Egyptians were not a gloomy people; and that their social and political system aimed, though imperfectly, at a high standard, may be inferred from the reverence, however exaggerated, which was entertained for it by the Greeks.

"Egyptian history is the 'dynasties' of Manetho partly filled up and illustrated, and in time it is to be hoped to be filled up and illustrated still more from the monuments, paintings, and inscriptions. For this, with its thirty dynasties, its twenty centuries, and its chronological difficulties, still formidable though much reduced, we must refer the reader entirely to Mr. Kenrick's second volume, of which it occupies nearly the whole. The slight sketch above given indicates the contents of what will be to the general reader the more interesting part of the work. In conclusion, we once more cordially commend the book. It displays not only the ordinary merits of a good synopsis, such as clearness of style and of arrangement, but also a high power of combination, and, where the author treats of philosophical questions, a sound and sensible philosophy. On some points, perhaps, Mr. Kenrick might have spoken with more authority had he personally visited Egypt, and the imagination of his reader would be assisted by a well selected volume of plates. We are glad to see that Syria and Phœnicia are to form the subject of another publication by the same hand."

Notes edit

  1. Ancient Egypt Under the Pharaohs. By John Kenrick, M.A. In two volumes. London: B: Fellows.