Ancient Egypt – Arthur Gilman and George Rawlinson

In shape Egypt is like a lily with a crooked stem. A broad blossom terminates it at its upper end; a button of a bud projects from the stalk a little below the blossom, on the left-hand side. The broad blossom is the Delta, extending from Aboosir to Tineh, a direct distance of a hundred and eighty miles, which the projection of the coast—the graceful swell of the petals—enlarges to two hundred and thirty. The bud is the Fayoum, a natural depression in the hills that shut in the Nile valley on the west, which has been rendered cultivable for many thousands of years by the introduction into it of the Nile water, through a canal known as the “Bahr Yousouf.” The long stalk of the lily is the Nile valley itself, which is a ravine scooped in the rocky soil for seven hundred miles from the First Cataract to the apex of the Delta, sometimes not more than a mile broad, never more than eight or ten miles. No other country in the world is so strangely shaped, so long compared to its width, so straggling, so hard to govern from a single centre. At the first glance, the country seems to divide itself into two strongly contrasted regions; and this was the original impression which it made upon its inhabitants. The natives from a very early time designated their land as “the two lands,” and represented it by a hieroglyph in which the form used to express “land” was doubled. The kings were called “chiefs of the Two Lands,” and wore two crowns, as being kings of two countries. The Hebrews caught up the idea, and though they sometimes called Egypt “Mazor” in the singular number, preferred commonly to designate it by the dual form “Mizraim,” which means “the two Mazors.” These “two Mazors,” “two Egypts,” or “two lands,” were, of course, the blossom and the stalk, the broad tract upon the Mediterranean known as “Lower Egypt,” or “the Delta,” and the long narrow valley that lies, like a green snake, to the south, which bears the name of “Upper Egypt,” or “the Said.” Nothing is more striking than the contrast between these two regions. Entering Egypt from the Mediterranean, or from Asia by the caravan route, the traveller sees stretching before him an apparently boundless plain, wholly unbroken by natural elevations, generally green with crops or with marshy plants, and canopied by a cloudless sky, which rests everywhere on a distant flat horizon. An absolute monotony surrounds him. No alternation of plain and highland, meadow and forest, no slopes of hills, or hanging woods, or dells, or gorges, or cascades, or rushing streams, or babbling rills, meet his gaze on any side; look which way he will, all is sameness, one vast smooth expanse of rich alluvial soil, varying only in being cultivated or else allowed to lie waste.

Turning his back with something of weariness on the dull uniformity of this featureless plain, the wayfarer proceeds southwards, and enters, at the distance of a hundred miles from the coast, on an entirely new scene. Instead of an illimitable prospect meeting him on every side, he finds himself in a comparatively narrow vale, up and down which the eye still commands an extensive view, but where the prospect on either side is blocked at the distance of a few miles by rocky ranges of hills, white or yellow or tawny, sometimes drawing so near as to threaten an obstruction of the river course, sometimes receding so far as to leave some miles of cultivable soil on either side of the stream. The rocky ranges, as he approaches them, have a stern and forbidding aspect. They rise for the most part, abruptly in bare grandeur; on their craggy sides grows neither moss nor heather; no trees clothe their steep heights. They seem intended, like the mountains that enclosed the abode of Rasselas, to keep in the inhabitants of the vale within their narrow limits, and bar them out from any commerce or acquaintance with the regions beyond. Such is the twofold division of the country which impresses the observer strongly at the first. On a longer sojourn and a more intimate familiarity, the twofold division gives place to one which is threefold. The lower differs from the upper valley, it is a sort of debatable region, half plain, half vale; the cultivable surface spreads itself out more widely, the enclosing hills recede into the distance; above all, to the middle tract belongs the open space of the Fayoum nearly fifty miles across in its greatest diameter, and containing an area of four hundred square miles. Hence, with some of the occupants of Egypt a triple division has been preferred to a twofold one, the Greeks interposing the “Heptanomis” between the Thebais and the Delta, and the Arabs the “Vostani” between the Said and the Bahari, or “country of the sea.” It may be objected to this description, that the Egypt which it presents to the reader is not the Egypt of the maps.

Undoubtedly it is not. The maps give the name of Egypt to a broad rectangular space which they mark out in the north-eastern corner of Africa, bounded on two sides by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and on the two others by two imaginary lines which the map-makers kindly draw for us across the sands of the desert. But “this Egypt,” as has been well observed, “is a fiction of the geographers, as untrue to fact as the island Atlantis of Greek legend, or the Lyonnesse of mediæval romance, both sunk beneath the ocean to explain their disappearance. The true Egypt of the old monuments, of the Hebrews, of the Greeks and Romans, of the Arabs, and of its own people in this day, is a mere fraction of this vast area of the maps, nothing more than the valley and plain watered by the Nile, for nearly seven hundred miles by the river’s course from the Mediterranean southwards.” [1] The great wastes on either side of the Nile valley are in no sense Egypt, neither the undulating sandy desert to the west, nor the rocky and gravelly highland to the east, which rises in terrace after terrace to a height, in some places, of six thousand feet. Both are sparsely inhabited, and by tribes of a different race from the Egyptian—tribes whose allegiance to the rulers of Egypt is in the best times nominal, and who for the most part spurn the very idea of submission to authority. If, then, the true Egypt be the tract that we have described—the Nile valley, with the Fayoum and the Delta—the lily stalk, the bud, and the blossom—we can well understand how it came to be said of old, that “Egypt was the gift of the river.” Not that the lively Greek, who first used the expression, divined exactly the scientific truth of the matter. The fancy of Herodotus saw Africa, originally, doubly severed from Asia by two parallel fjords, one running inland northwards from the Indian Ocean, as the Red Sea does to this day, and the other penetrating inland southwards from the Mediterranean to an equal or greater distance! The Nile, he said, pouring itself into this latter fjord, had by degrees filled it up, and had then gone on and by further deposits turned into land a large piece of the “sea of the Greeks,” as was evident from the projection of the shore of the Delta beyond the general coast-line of Africa eastward and westward; and, he added, “I am convinced, for my own part, that if the Nile should please to divert his waters from their present bed into the Red Sea, he would fill it up and turn it into dry land in the space of twenty thousand years, or maybe in half that time—for he is a mighty river and a most energetic one.” Here, in this last expression, he is thoroughly right, though the method of the Nile’s energy has been other than he supposed.

The Nile, working from its immense reservoirs in the equatorial regions, has gradually scooped itself out a deep bed in the sand and rock of the desert, which must have originally extended across the whole of northern Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Having scooped itself out this bed to a depth, in places, of three hundred feet from the desert level, it has then proceeded partially to fill it up with its own deposits. Occupying, when it is at its height, the entire bed, and presenting at that time the appearance of a vast lake, or succession of lakes, it deposes every day a portion of sediment over the whole space which it covers: then, contracting gradually, it leaves at the base of the hills, on both sides, or at any rate on one, a strip of land fresh dressed with mud, which gets wider daily as the waters still recede, until yards grow into furlongs, and furlongs into miles, and at last the shrunk stream is content with a narrow channel a few hundred yards in width, and leaves the rest of its bed to the embraces of sun and air, and, if he so wills, to the industry of man. The land thus left exposed is Egypt—Egypt is the temporarily uncovered bed of the Nile, which it reclaims and recovers during a portion of each year, when Egypt disappears from view, save where human labour has by mounds and embankments formed artificial islands that raise their heads above the waste of waters, for the most part crowned with buildings. There is one exception to this broad and sweeping statement. The Fayoum is no part of the natural bed of the Nile, and has not been scooped out by its energy. It is a natural depression in the western desert, separated off from the Nile valley by a range of limestone hills from two hundred to five hundred feet in height, and, apart from the activity of man, would have been arid, treeless, and waterless. Still, it derives from the Nile all its value, all its richness, all its fertility. Human energy at some remote period introduced into the depressed tract through an artificial channel from the Nile, cut in some places through the rock, the life-giving fluid; and this fluid, bearing the precious Nile sediment, has sufficed to spread fertility over the entire region, and to make the desert blossom like a garden. The Egyptians were not unaware of the source of their blessings.

From a remote date they speculated on their mysterious river. They deified it under the name of Hapi, “the Hidden,” they declared that “his abode was not known;” that he was an inscrutable god, that none could tell his origin: they acknowledged him as the giver of all good things, and especially of the fruits of the earth. They said — “Hail to thee, O Nile! Thou showest thyself in this land, Coming in peace, giving life to Egypt; O Ammon, thou leadest night unto day, A leading that rejoices the heart! Overflowing the gardens created by Ra; Giving life to all animals; Watering the land without ceasing: The way of heaven descending: Lover of food, bestower of corn, Giving life to every home, O Phthah!… O inundation of Nile, offerings are made to thee; Oxen are slain to thee; Great festivals are kept for thee; Fowls are sacrificed to thee; Beasts of the field are caught for thee; Pure flames are offered to thee; Offerings are made to every god, As they are made unto Nile. Incense ascends unto heaven, Oxen, bulls, fowls are burnt! Nile makes for himself chasms in the Thebaid; Unknown is his name in heaven, He doth not manifest his forms! Vain are all representations! Mortals extol him, and the cycle of gods! Awe is felt by the terrible ones; His son is made Lord of all, To enlighten all Egypt. Shine forth, shine forth, O Nile! shine forth! Giving life to men by his omen: Giving life to his oxen by the pastures! Shine forth in glory, O Nile!” [2] Though thus useful, beneficent, and indeed essential to the existence of Egypt, the Nile can scarcely be said to add much to the variety of the landscape or to the beauty of the scenery. It is something, no doubt, to have the sight of water in a land where the sun beats down all day long with unremitting force till the earth is like a furnace of iron beneath a sky of molten brass. But the Nile is never clear. During the inundation it is deeply stained with the red argillaceous soil brought down from the Abyssinian highlands. At other seasons it is always more or less tinged with the vegetable matter which it absorbs on its passage from Lake Victoria to Khartoum; and this vegetable matter, combined with Its depth and volume, gives it a dull deep hue, which prevents it from having the attractiveness of purer and more translucent streams. The Greek name, Neilos, and the Hebrew, Sichor, are thought to embody this attribute of the mighty river, and to mean “dark blue” or “blue-black,” terms sufficiently expressive of the stream’s ordinary colour.

Moreover, the Nile is too wide to be picturesque. It is seldom less than a mile broad from the point where it enters Egypt, and running generally between flat shores it scarcely reflects anything, unless it be the grey-blue sky overhead, or the sails of a passing pleasure boat. The size of Egypt, within the limits which have been here assigned to it, is about eleven thousand four hundred square miles, or less than that of any European State, except Belgium, Saxony, and Servia. Magnitude is, however, but an insignificant element in the greatness of States—witness Athens, Sparta, Rhodes, Genoa, Florence, Venice. Egypt is the richest and most productive land in the whole world. In its most flourishing age we are told that it contained twenty thousand cities. It deserved to be called, more (probably) than even Belgium, “one great town.” But its area was undoubtedly small. Still, as little men have often taken the highest rank among warriors, so little States have filled a most important place in the world’s history. Palestine was about the size of Wales; the entire Peloponnese was no larger than New Hampshire; Attica had nearly the same area as Cornwall.

Thus the case of Egypt does not stand by itself, but is merely one out of many exceptions to what may perhaps be called the general rule. If stinted for space, Egypt was happy in her soil and in her situation. The rich alluvium, continually growing deeper and deeper, and top-dressed each year by nature’s bountiful hand, was of an inexhaustible fertility, and bore readily year after year a threefold harvest—first a grain crop, and then two crops of grasses or esculent vegetables. The wheat sown returned a hundredfold to the husbandman, and was gathered at harvest-time in prodigal abundance—”as the sand of the sea, very much,”—till men “left numbering” (Gen. xli. 49). Flax and doora were largely cultivated, and enormous quantities were produced of the most nutritive vegetables, such as lentils, garlic, leeks, onions, endive, radishes, melons, cucumbers, lettuces, and the like, which formed a most important element in the food of the people. The vine was also grown in many places, as along the flanks of the hills between Thebes and Memphis, in the basin of the Fayoum, at Anthylla in the Mareotis at Sebennytus (now Semnood), and at Plisthiné, on the shore of the Mediterranean. The date-palm, springing naturally from the soil in clumps, or groves, or planted in avenues, everywhere offered its golden clusters to the wayfarer, dropping its fruit into his lap. Wheat, however, was throughout antiquity the chief product of Egypt, which was reckoned the granary of the world, the refuge and resource of all the neighbouring nations in time of dearth, and on which in the later republican, and in the imperial times, Rome almost wholly depended for her sustenance.

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