Ancient Egypt: 13th - 19th Dynasties

After the next dynasty, the thirteenth, the power of the kingdom dwindled again. Foreign invaders entered Egypt from Asia and succeeded in capturing the throne. Who these invaders were or by what means of marriage or of conquest they became rulers of Egypt, we do not know. The later Egyptians hated them and never willingly spoke of them. If they erected monuments, later generations destroyed these. The invaders were never referred to except by a contemptuous name, the "Hyksos," which implied that they were ignorant and savage.

These Hyksos, or "shepherd kings," came from Syria, and were probably a wandering nomadic tribe like that of Abraham. They were admitted into lower Egypt, perhaps peacefully, gradually acquired an ascendancy there, stormed Memphis, the ancient capital, and then by conquest won control of Thebes and upper Egypt. One theory is that they defeated the Egyptians by the use of horses and war-chariots in battle, the horse having been unknown in Egypt before that time, but being in common use in Asiatic warfare. Says the Egyptian historian Manetho: "I know not wherefore, the gods caused to blow on us an evil wind, and in the face of all probability bands from the East ignoble people, came upon us unawares, attacked the country and subdued it easily, without fighting." This last phrase, we know, is not true; there was long and bitter fighting extending over generations. But at last the Hyksos obtained control of the land and held it in subjection for over four hundred years, though perhaps they never wholly subdued the princes farthest up the Nile.

It was under these Hyksos that Joseph rose to power in Egypt, and the Israelites established themselves there, presumably as welcome allies of these Asiatic kindred. There were several successive dynasties of the "shepherd kings," and then they were finally expelled from Egypt about 1600 B.C. by the armies of the upper valley, led by a prince of Thebes named Aahmes. He defeated the Hyksos in battle and besieged them in their great fortress camp Avaris. Perhaps he also carried Avaris by assault, but more probably he came to a peaceful agreement with its defenders; for we find them quietly leaving Egypt as they had entered it, at the head of their endless flocks and herds.

Aahmes I., the liberator, was hailed by his delighted countrymen as "Pharaoh" of Egypt, and founded the eighteenth dynasty. With this the "modern age" of Egypt began, the period of her greatest wealth and triumph during which, in imitation of the Asiatic nations, she also set out to be mistress of the world.

Thothmes III., the greatest of the rulers of the eighteenth dynasty, has been called "the Alexander of Egypt." He overran the whole of the civilized world, as he knew it, making repeated raids into Asia, reaching even to the Euphrates river, and carrying back to Egypt vast quantities of plunder.

In the first year of his reign he won a decisive battle over the confederated kings of Palestine and Syria at Megiddo, or Armageddon, that town celebrated in the Bible as the site of so many desperate battles. The fleeing kings clamored for entrance into the city, but the people within dared not open the gates, and only let down ropes by which some of the fugitives clambered up to safety. This battle reduced Palestine and Syria to temporary obedience.

Later they rebelled against the exactions of the Egyptians, and Thothmes harried the land again and again. The powerful King of Kadesh defied the oppressor and withstood a siege behind the walls of Kadesh. When the Egyptian chariots dashed to the attack the besieged let loose a mare, which ran among the chariot horses and so distracted them that the chariots were thrown into confusion. The besieged rushed out to attack them and the Egyptians would have been defeated but for a valiant officer who leaped from his chariot and slew the mare, and then stormed the city. For this action he was given high honor by the Pharaoh.

Egypt grew rich with the spoils of so many campaigns. Even the kings of Babylon and Assyria sent Thothmes tribute. His people celebrated his greatness in legend and in song. His court poet wrote of him a chant of praise that has been preserved to us, and which served as a model for future generations of Egyptian poets. It says, in part:

"I give thee, said the god, the rebels That they may fall beneath thy sandals, That thou mayst crush the defiant. I grant thee, by my command, The earth in its length and breadth.

"The tribes of the West and of the East Are placed under the power of thy countenance. Thou goest over all strange lands with a gay heart; For there is none who will withstand thy Majesty, I am thy guide and thou tramplest them underfoot.

"Thou hast crossed the water of the great Euphrates, They have heard thy roars echoing in their dens, By thy strength I have deprived them of life. I have granted thee that thy deeds shall sear their hearts, My symbol which is on thy crown shall burn them."

But trampled Asia revenged itself upon the conqueror's race, after he had passed away. His great-grandson, Amenhotep IV., fascinated by Babylonian culture and art, sought to introduce it into Egypt. He aimed to overthrow the old religion and break the enormous power of the priests. With this object he introduced sun-worship, changed his own name to one meaning "Glory of the Solar Disk"; and, deserting his old capital Thebes, built a new city, in which he started a completely new civilization, differing widely from the Egyptian. What followed is very obscure. It may have been purposely made so by the priests. There was a revolution; the new city was destroyed; Amenhotep's mummy was torn to pieces; and the stones of the new god's temple were carried to Thebes to be used in the service of the old god Amon. The eighteenth dynasty disappeared, and the nineteenth reigned in its stead.

Before entering upon this last great period in Egyptian history, it will be interesting to consider the civilization of that remarkable people. The population of ancient Egypt was five millions and probably more. You have learned of the land's amazing fertility, where the ground was covered by the rich film from the annual overflow of the Nile. Since food was cheap and abundant, the population increased rapidly. Think of the statement of a Greek visitor to Egypt a short time before the birth of the Saviour, to the effect that to bring up a child to manhood cost hardly four dollars of our money, or at the rate, say, of less than a cent a week!

A much larger percentage of the Egyptian population could read and write than of any other ancient nation. The most ancient monuments and pyramids show inscriptions, and nearly every article for use or adornment was marked. The best of writing-material was made from the leaves of the papyrus plant, of which we have manuscripts two thousand years old. It is from the word papyrus that we derive "paper."

There were many excellent mechanics among the Egyptians. They could polish and engrave precious stones to perfection, while in glass manufacture, porcelain-making, and dyeing none could surpass them. Linen was their usual article of dress, and they made it from a fine kind of flax which they cultivated. They worked in metals, and their walls and ceilings afford exquisite patterns for us in these days. While they had a knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and medicine, yet in these sciences they were crude, and the Babylonians were scientifically their superiors.

The religion of the Egyptians embodies a conception of the immortality of the soul and the existence of one supreme Being, but his attributes and manifestations were shown in various forms. While the learned accepted these as merely symbols, the ignorant looked upon them as divinities and objects of worship. Thus it came about that the Egyptians had gods almost without number-sufficient for every day in the year. The most general worship was of the great god Osiris and the beautiful goddess Isis. The lovely Nile island of Philae, at the extreme limit of the kingdom, was one of the centres of her worship, and the ruins of her temple there still survive.

The universal belief was that at the resurrection, the soul and body would reunite. To this belief was due the practice of embalming the dead bodies, the art reaching a remarkable degree of skill. It impresses us strangely to look in our museums upon one of those mummies, which has preserved even the color of the hair about the base of the head, and the cast of the features, while we know that thirty centuries or more have swept over the world since the immortal spirit fled from the body.

A striking feature of the Egyptian religion was the adoration paid to brutes. The ibis, the dog, and the cat were held in special honor everywhere, while other beasts were worshipped only in certain districts. The bull Apis, at Memphis, and the calf Mnevis, at Heliopolis, received the highest of all honors. The animals thus worshiped were kept with the utmost care in the temples and were embalmed at death. If any one killed an ibis or hawk, even by accident, he was immediately put to death. Such mental debasement is certain to bring woful results to a people, as was proven in the subsequent history of Egypt.

We find that from the time of the nineteenth dynasty the people made little progress. Their religion dominated their art. Every picture which an artist drew, indeed, every act of life was guided by religion and strictly regulated by custom. Hence originality declined. In the words of Professor Swinton: "The greatest characteristic of Egyptian institutions was their unchangeableness. This stationary character is seen in Egyptian government, society, religion, art, learning. Egypt herself was a mummy."

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