When Egypt Ruled the East

When Egypt Ruled the East

by George Steindorff, Keith C. Steele


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ISBN-13: 9780226771991
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/1963
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 581,015
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.80(d)

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When Egypt Ruled the East

By George Steindorff, Keith C. Seele

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1957 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77199-1



ON MAY 19, 1798, a French fleet under the command of the young general Napoleon Bonaparte sailed from Toulon in order to challenge the power of England in Egypt. He hoped by the conquest of the Nile to construct a French stronghold in the East from which to threaten British power and wealth in India. While the Nile Valley soon fell into French hands, confused political circumstances at home forced Napoleon to return during the following year, and the possession of Egypt had to be forfeited in 1801.

Though the military conquest of Egypt had failed, yet Napoleon's expedition had a different and an infinitely more significant result. It unlocked to science the door to Egypt's past. For the French fleet had borne from Toulon not only an army of soldiers; an extensive staff of scholars and artists were collected on its decks as well. To this day we stand in awe before the enormous folios and numerous other volumes of materials which they collected during the short life of Bonaparte's campaign. Unending industry had resulted likewise in the garnering of a rich harvest of ancient monuments. Under the terms of the capitulation, most of these were forfeited to the British by General Menou at the surrender of Alexandria. They became the foundation for the magnificent collection of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum.

In one swift gesture was drawn aside the nebulous veil which had so securely enveloped old Egypt and behind which both the investigators of ancient Greece and the doting writers of modern times had conjured up such a superfluity of profoundest mystery. The educated world was astonished at the magnificent monuments of the land and the primeval culture now first revealed. It was not long until the final barrier was leveled which had prevented an unhindered vista over the long history of Egypt. This came about as the result of a find (Fig. 2) so unusual and significant that the fortunate discoverer immediately ordered an impression of the inscriptions to be made and forwarded to the Egyptian Institute, which Napoleon had already established in Cairo. The French savants had no difficulty in reading the Greek text at the bottom of the stone. It was found to be a decree in honor of the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205–180 B.C.) composed in the year 196 by an assembly of Egyptian priests at Memphis. It described numerous benefactions by which the pharaoh had enriched the temples of Egypt, and it extended various honors to the king in return for his generosity. Finally, in order to perpetuate the priestly decree for all time, it was ordered to be engraved on a tablet "in the sacred writing [hieroglyphic], in the native script [demotic], and in Greek letters."

This threefold version of the decree on the Rosetta stone reflected the heterogeneous character of the Egyptian population of the age. Ever since the seventh century B.C., but especially since the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.), numerous Greeks had migrated to and settled in the land, along with the court and the ruling class. It was for this element that the decree was promulgated in the Greek tongue. The native Egyptians were served by two different versions. The "sacred writing" (hieroglyphic) was the time-honored picture script which had been in use for thousands of years but which was understood at this time by the priests alone; the "popular script" (demotic), on the other hand, was universally employed in official and commercial intercourse and in documents and letters. It roughly corresponded to the contemporary spoken language and was familiar to the educated classes, if not to the illiterate masses.

One significant and outstanding fact was unmistakably revealed by the Greek inscription on the "trilingual" Rosetta stone. It was perfectly evident to any intelligent reader that the section at the top composed in the ancient picture symbols, the middle section written in, "native" or more accurately in cursive script, and the Greek text at the bottom must include precisely the same content. Thus for the first time the means had come to light by which an Egyptian inscription might be deciphered and the mystery of the hieroglyphic writing might be penetrated.

The key to the understanding of the Egyptian picture script had been lost since the days of imperial Rome. It was evident from the numerous monuments which had been brought to Italy and especially to Rome that this script was composed of a multitude of pictures of concrete objects, but how the signs were to be read was an open question. As a result they had come to be construed as symbols with a definite concept for each character. Such an attack was certain to lead to the most ridiculous results. Thus, for example, the famous Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601–80) interpreted the group of signs which represent the Roman imperial title "autocrator" in the following manner: "The creator of fertility and of all vegetation is Osiris, whose engendering power the holy Mophta draws from heaven into his empire."

Under such circumstances what a shock was delivered to the scientific world by the discovery of the Rosetta stone! In 1802 the noted French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy published a pamphlet dealing with the central—the demotic—section of the monument, with an attempt to elucidate the Greek personal names of Ptolemy, Berenike, and Arsinoë which it contains. Basing his efforts on De Sacy's results, a Swedish scholar named Akerblad carried on the work of decipherment so effectively that in the same year he was able to publish a complete alphabet of its cursive Egyptian characters.

No such speedy success attended the efforts of students of the hieroglyphic picture-writing of the trilingual monument. That was destined to come only some twenty years later to reward the ingenuity of the young French scholar Jean François Champollion, who was born in 1790 in southern France. After the English physicist Thomas Young had advanced via the name of the pharaoh Ptolemy to the recognition of numerous Egyptian characters, Champollion independently arrived at the realization of the existence of an Egyptian alphabet. It is not possible to relate here in full detail the devious ways and false leads which Champollion tortuously followed during the decade preceding that fourteenth of September in 1822 when he reached the goal and was able in an ecstasy of joy to announce the triumph of his genius: "Je tiens l'affaire!" A few days later the task was completed. On September 27 he laid before the first scholars of France the results of his long years of labor in an essay in which by a methodical scientific demonstration he proved that the hieroglyphic system of writing consisted fundamentally of alphabetic and other phonetic signs. These had been employed not only to write out the Greco-Roman personal names foreign to the Egyptian language but also to render such purely native proper names as those of the pharaohs Thutmose and Ramesses. Once on this solid ground, Champollion advanced rapidly. In the very next year he published an outline of the Egyptian hieroglyphic system. By 1832, when an untimely death cut short his brilliant career, he had not only succeeded in reading and translating numerous Egyptian texts, some of considerable difficulty, but he bequeathed to posterity a complete Egyptian grammar and a substantial dictionary as well.

The science of Egyptology has at the present time advanced to such a level that it is no longer necessary by a series of more or less inspired guesses to arrive at the approximate meaning of an inscription. The scholar is now able to undertake the interpretation of an Egyptian text much as one of his colleagues would attempt the translation of a passage of Hebrew or Arabic or the reading of a Greek or Latin document.

The successes of the French expedition provided stimulus for a more or less systematic exploitation of ancient Egyptian cemeteries, city mounds, and temple ruins in a series of campaigns which continued throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and on to our own time. Egyptian museums were founded for the preservation of the finds, and the collections were extensively augmented from time to time by important purchases. Thus in the course of a hundred years collections of scientific materials in the form of inscribed monuments, manuscripts, and works of art grew to enormous proportions and afforded a steadily widening field of investigation. In consequence we are today in a position to survey the history and civilization of the Nile Valley from the fourth millennium before Christ to the seventh century of our era—the period of the Arab conquest—a cultural development spanning nearly five thousand years in an unbroken continuity not elsewhere similarly traceable on this planet. We are able to follow the exploits of a long succession of kings in war and peace. The highly developed constitution of the Egyptian empire and the exemplary political economy of the Greco-Roman period at least have been unfolded to our vision. We have reached an understanding of the religion of the people, of the manifold conceptions which they entertained concerning the life after death, and of the forms of worship which they practiced toward their gods. We have become acquainted with their manners and customs, the pastimes of the wealthy, and the daily life of the rank and file in town and country. Above all, we have acquired familiarity with Egyptian art and technical crafts—the noblest legacy of all—and gained access to a unique world of beauty.

However numerous the surviving Egyptian monuments of stone or the literary works and other records on papyrus, leather, stone, or wood, however enlightening for certain periods of Egyptian history we may find Bible stories, the reports of the Greeks, or cuneiform documents of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites—this treasury of material is still insufficient to yield a consistently illuminated picture of ancient Egyptian times and events. Sometimes the stream of tradition flows on and on like a mighty torrent; at others it has shrunk to a mere trickle; on occasions, fortunately very rare, the spring dries up altogether. Thus the intervals of Egyptian history which are well represented by surviving records tend to occupy the foreground of our attention, while those which wholly or partially lack such testimony are undeservedly slighted. For this reason it will be forever impossible to extend to the treatment of Egyptian history the same uniformity which may be applied, for example, to the classical peoples of Greece and Rome or to the peoples of Europe during the Middle Ages. There is, moreover, an additional obstacle to a clear picture. A great majority of the historical monuments were intended as official propaganda with the purpose of transmitting to posterity a "correct" impression of the glory and power of the pharaohs. Crises of revolution and that type of inner strife so common in the Orient, as well as military defeats in foreign wars, were either passed over completely or were interpreted so that the monuments conveyed impressions much distorted and unduly colored to the credit of the Egyptians. In the same manner, darkness must forever continue to "black out" the characters and personalities of most of the heroes of Egyptian history; contemporary chronicles and memoirs concerning them simply do not exist. In compensation for this serious lack of historical data is a vast body of material in the realm of art and culture which embraces practically every branch of material and intellectual existence to a degree scarcely surpassed elsewhere in the world in extent or variety. In consequence, any attempt to portray the history of Egypt in whole or in part must place its emphasis on Egyptian art and culture.

Like the other peoples of antiquity, the Egyptians possessed no fixed system of reckoning time. The events which they desired to record chronologically were associated with certain regnal years of the pharaohs. In the earliest period these were not counted, but, as in ancient Babylonia, they were named for outstanding events which had occurred in them. For example, one year was designated as "the year of fighting and smiting the northerners"; another became perpetuated as "the year of the second enumeration of all large and small cattle of the north and the south." This inconvenient method was gradually superseded by the simpler one of reckoning according to the regnal year, so that an event became dated, for example, to "the fifteenth year of Senwosret [Sesostris] III." Eventually, in order to determine precisely when certain events had taken place, the priests compiled and caused to be recorded in the temples detailed lists of kings in which their names and either the designations or later the numbers of their regnal years were entered. It is quite probable that these archives are the basis both of the king lists carved on the walls of various temples and tombs and of the valuable tables preserved in the historical treatise written by the Egyptian priest Manetho (ca. 300 B.C.). In this work Manetho divided all the Egyptian rulers, from the earliest historical king Menes to Alexander the Great, into thirty dynasties, corresponding in general to the various royal houses which successively or even sometimes contemporaneously exercised the royal power. In spite of definite limitations, the convenience of Manetho's scheme has recommended its retention by modern scholars. Certain related dynasties naturally fall together into groups, and these in the course of time have acquired designations of their own. Thus the period covering the Third to the Sixth Dynasty constitutes the "Old Kingdom," that of the Seventh to the Eleventh is the "First Intermediate Period," the Twelfth Dynasty is known as the "Middle Kingdom," while the period of the Thirteenth to the Seventeenth Dynasty is now usually described as the "Second Intermediate Period," and the era of the Eighteenth to the Twentieth is known as the "New Kingdom."

"Egypt is the gift of the Nile." This epigram of Hecataeus, quoted first by Herodotus and frequently since, expresses with admirable brevity and appropriateness the character of the Egyptian country. In the vast almost waterless expanse of the desert plateau which occupies the entire northeast portion of the African continent, the river Nile, descending in two branches from the extensive lake region of equatorial Africa and from the snow-clad mountains of Abyssinia, has painfully through endless ages excavated out of the sandstone and limestone a deep valley the lower end of which—the land of Egypt—it has by its regular annual deposits of alluvium transformed into one of the most fruitful lands on earth. When at length a people settled in this valley in order to pasture its herds and to cultivate the soil, the Nile by strict necessity impelled it to civilization and culture. The abundant flow of water which rushed northward each summer after the copious rainfall at the sources of both Nile branches to inundate the land had to be systematically and regularly conducted over the fields. It was necessary to construct dams and dikes and to provide canals and sluices. Swamps had to be drained and converted into meadows. Such operations, however, could not possibly be accomplished by peasants working individually; the inhabitants of the land were obliged to organize themselves into large communities under a leader whose guiding hand assisted them to centralize their efforts in the direction of the common interest. Thus the Nile awakened a demand for an adequate law code and an ordered commonwealth. For the sake of reckoning the rise and retreat of the Nile flood and of determining the season for cultivating the fields, it was imperative to observe the change of the seasons and the courses of the stars. Whenever, as frequently occurred, an unusually high Nile inundation obliterated the boundaries between neighboring plots of land, the fields had to be remeasured and the new survey recorded in the official registry. It was the Nile again which encouraged the development of writing, of reckoning time "by a systematic calendar, and the study of astronomy. When later in the historical period colossal pyramids and mighty temples were constructed, or gigantic statues and obelisks were set up in honor of the gods and the kings, it was the Nile once more which facilitated or even made possible the transport of heavy building materials; on its broad bosom the huge granite blocks were borne northward from the southern border of Egypt all the way to Memphis or distant Tanis in the extreme northeast corner of the Delta. The great river always constituted for the country the indispensable source of life on which the weal or woe of its inhabitants was dependent. An abnormally high Nile could destroy the villages and rob the people of their homes; a shortage of water from a low inundation subjected them to bitter famine; a normal Nile, on the other hand, brought with it a prosperous year. Was it, then, extravagant for the Egyptians to deify the river as "Hapi" (Fig. 3) and to praise him in inspiring hymns as the one "who comes to nourish Egypt," or as the one who "bringing sustenance is rich in food and is the creator of every good thing"?


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
I. How the Lost Key to Ancient Egypt Was Found Again
II. The Old and Middle Kingdoms
III. The Hyksos
IV. The War of Liberation
V. The Rise of the Golden Age
VI. Western Asia in the Middle of the Second Millennium B.C.
VII. The Conquests of Thutmose III
VIII. The Golden Age: The Successors of Thutmose III
IX. The King and the Administration in the Golden Age
X. The Outside World
XI. The Egyptian Hieroglyphs
XII. The Egyptian Religion
XIII. The Art of the Egyptians
IX. Amenhotep IV-Akhnaton and the Reformation
XV. Tutankhamun and the Close of the Eighteenth Dynasty
XVI. The Age of the Ramessids
XVII. The Decline and Loss of Egyptian Independence
Outline of Egyptian History
Index of Divinities, Persons, and Peoples
Index of Places
General Index

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