EGYPT has always been a land of wonder and of mystery. We of today look on it with reverence for its age, amazement for its giant statues and stupendous pyramids, awe for its strange civilization and secret priesthoods. And these same emotions toward the ancient land were already in the heart of man in old Phoenician days, before either Persia or Greece had written a name in history, before Abraham walked with angles in the fields of Palestine.
Indeed, that sense of mystery must have touched even the earliest. Babylonian traders when, three thousand years or more before the birth of Christ they first penetrated into the valley of the Nile, coming after months of journeying across dreary wildernesses and amid barbaric tribes, to study with their shrewdly watchful eyes a people almost their equals. For in this distant valley they encountered a civilization unlike yet nearly as advanced as that which they themselves had built up in Babylonia.
In the story we have so far followed, we have seen that the chief movements of man's growth, the tale of his slowly rising culture and political power, continued to centre in the valley of the Euphrates from the very earliest beginnings down to the time of the decay of the first Persian empire. But meanwhile, strangely enough, there was growing up in this other similar river valley of the Nile another wholly independent and oddly contrasting civilization. Egypt, lying far off in Africa, apart from the main highroad of migrating nations, and protected from invasion by the surrounding deserts, was not, like Babylonia, a great "melting pot" wherein many races mixed, uniting many languages and many differing modes of thought. Instead, a single race, the Hamites, built up along the Nile by natural development a culture and philosophy wholly their own, peculiar, powerful, unique. The possessed wonderful mechanical appliances which even our scientists of today can not explain, and beautiful decorative arts whose secrets we may never know.
Many ages must have passed while they were discovering and perfecting their wide knowledge. Yet behind them we are beginning to catch glimpses of a different and older people who lived along the Nile before even the Egyptians came there. It may well be that race after race of mankind has grown to power and old age, and has perished in this same silent, secret, mysterious land. Today the Hamitic Egyptians would be almost as forgotten as earlier peoples, had they not erected those remarkable monuments, which time has been unable to destroy.
Little by little the story of this extraordinary race, the battles of their mighty kings, the arts of their patient workmen, the secrets of their subtle priests, are being unfolded to us by the researches of science. And each new marvel that we learn suggests other and greater marvels behind. Let us look into these.
Egypt has been well called the "Gift of the Nile." What the land is, the Nile has made it. In the geographies, Egypt is an oblong tract, filling the whole corner of Africa, five hundred miles broad and over a thousand long. But nine-tenths of this is mere waste space, uninhabitable, burning desert. The Egypt of history is simply the Nile valley, one long narrow strip through the middle of this desert.
A strange river, the Nile! It has its mysteries as striking as the country's own. During all these ages, the delta at the mouth has been a centre of civilization, yet the other end of the stream, its source, remains unknown. "It rises in heaven," the old Egyptian priests told Herodotus, the Greek historian, who came among them seeking information; and, though we have discarded that explanation of the priests, yet even in this twentieth century we can only say a little less vaguely that it rises somewhere in the unexplored wilderness of Central Africa. The river, which perhaps in all the world has been longest known, has not even yet been traced to its farthest streamlet.
You can best picture the Nile to yourself by imagining it as a palm-tree. The many streams which join far back in Africa to form it are the roots, tremendously big, old roots, which, as we follow them toward their source, gradually divide and subdivide into the tiniest thread-like filaments, each coaxing its single drop of moisture from the ground. Then there is the great trunk of the river itself, flowing northward sixteen hundred miles without a tributary. Then, less than a hundred miles from the Mediterranean, it suddenly spreads out like a fan into a beautiful green delta, a network of branches and canals, amid a land famous for its enormous produce and its luxuriant vegetation.
This delta in the old days was "Lower Egypt"; and just where the branches spread from the trunk stood its capital city, the famous Memphis. "Upper Egypt" was the narrow valley of the Nile, reaching from Memphis six hundred miles as the river flowed, to where a low ledge of rock stretching from bank to bank formed the first cataract, the boundary of Egypt proper. Beyond lay Nubia and the Soudan. Through all this distance Egypt is but a cleft in the desert; the Nile flows through a deep valley, which it has been tunnelling for ages from the surrounding cliffs. These red sandstone cliffs rise abruptly at an average distance of about three miles from the stream's bank; and all along, under them, or carved from them, or reared on their summit, stand thousands of tombs and statues and pyramids. The ancient Egyptian was very anxious to preserve his memory after death; and nature here supplied him a site which has kept his graveyard visible to all the world.
Beyond these cliffs on each side lies the high plateau of the desert; between them, the greenest, richest, most productive land the world can boast. That narrow valley has supported a population of uncounted millions. Herodotus tells us there were twenty thousand cities in Egypt in his day.
The wonderful fertility of this soil is, like everything good in Egypt, the gift of the Nile. Every July, without excitement, without visible cause, the river slowly begins to rise. There are marks in many places along the banks, and anxious natives watch these, hour by hour, calling to each other in joy, "It rises!" or in fear and prayer, "It does not rise!" for this means life and death to them. Once or twice in the last half century the river did not rise, and then there was a famine in the land. But usually it rises, day by day, week by week, until by September it has flooded all the valley. At the first cataract it is about forty feet above its ordinary level; at Thebes, the capital of upper Egypt, it is thirty-six, Memphis twenty-five, and there, spreading out over the lowlands of the Delta, it drops to only four feet at the Mediterranean. The country is a sea; the villages, little mounds peeping above the waters.
Then the waters retreat as silently and mysteriously as they have risen. By November the river is back within its old banks, leaving the land covered inches deep with a film of mud, from which all plant life springs as if by magic.
No wonder the old Egyptians said their god made the river rise, and worshipped him. What better can we say today? We discuss learnedly the superficial means by which it is done; we call it the result of storms in Central Africa, of melting snows of Abyssinian mountains; but the central fact remains unchanged. God makes the river rise, that His People may be fed.
In this marvelous valley there lived, in days so remote that we cannot even guess when, a people of whose history we know nothing, except that they were conquered by another race who came from the East, that is, from Asia. The latter were the Egyptians of whom we know, a Hamitic race, perhaps closely associated with the early people of the Euphrates, for the very crude civilization they brought with them had touches that remind us of the canal-making and brick-building of Babylonia.
The Egyptians themselves said that they were children of the god Osiris, and that they had gods for their kings in Egypt during a period of 449,000 years. This is, of course, the mere babble of romance. Kings they had, of whose tombs we are beginning to find traces; but we know little historically until we come to Menes, the king who, as-Herodotus was told, brought all the little kingdoms of the land into a single great one, and built his capital at Memphis.
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