Ancient Egyptian History: How we come to know it

Before telling you of Menes and the kings that follow him, let me explain how we come to know Egyptian history, and how learned men are beset with difficulties in its study. Herodotus, the Greek, went to Egypt about the year 418 B.C.; and the Egyptian priests laughed at him, as belonging to a nation that "had no history," that is to say, whose history only extended back in rather hazy outlines some seven centuries. So Herodotus, like an abashed child, sat himself down at the feet of these men to learn something; and they obligingly filled him full of their own history; and he wrote it all down as they told it. What was true and that false probably the priests themselves did not know; but it was certainly impressive to a stranger.

Only one writer added much to Herodotus. This was Manetho, an Egyptian priest of the third century B.C. He wrote a history of his country, but only a few fragments of it have been preserved to us. So at the beginning of the nineteenth century we knew little of ancient Egypt beyond the uncertain tale of Herodotus. The land itself was covered with stone carvings, hieroglyphics meant to tell its story; but no man could read them.

When, a little more than a hundred years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte led a great military expedition into Egypt, one of his engineers, while digging the foundation of a fort near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile, came upon a stone tablet some three feet in length, on which was an inscription in three different characters. The lowest of the inscriptions was in Greek, and of course there was no difficulty in translating it. It was found to be an ordinance of the priests ordering certain honors to an Egyptian sovereign on the occasion of his coronation, 196 B.C. It commanded that the decree should be inscribed in three languages, in the sacred letters, or hieroglyphics, in the letters of the country or demotic, and in Greek letters. This was for the convenience of the mixed population.

Now, you will see how valuable a find this was to scholars, who after a time succeeded in unravelling the alphabet of the hieroglyphics, and since then have read with ease the carvings, which throw a flood of light on the ancient history of Egypt.

One unfortunate difficulty remains. The Egyptians see to have had no regular system of chronology. That is to say, they did not date all their history from one great event, as we do from the birth of Christ. Under each new king, apparently in compliment to him, they began counting again, and dated events only as happenings in such and such a year of his reign. We have a fairly complete list of their kings, and it looks, of course, as though it would be an easy matter just to average all the reigns together, and so learn the dates of the earlier ones. But Herodotus, trying some such plan, placed Menes in the year 12,000 B.C., and another writer carried the enormous total back to 16.402 B.C. The fragments of Manetho, and later the hieroglyphics themselves, showed us that these dates were absurd. But even very lately scientists have disagreed to the extent of over three thousand years, one authority placing Menes' date at 5702 B.C., while another brought it down to 2691. The difficulty is that many of these kings, and even whole families of them, appear to have been contemporaneous. A father would associate his son with him on the throne or one family might rule in Memphis while another was ruling at Thebes. We are gradually approaching the truth, getting light in the dark places. Within the last decade, the date of 2700 B.C. has been abandoned as obviously far too late, and we can say with reasonable security that 4000 or even 5000 B.C. is not too ancient a date to set for the establishment of the empire of Menes.

Support this site and add value to yours by linking to this page. Just copy the text or HTML below and paste into your web site. Thank you!

Read about Ancient Egyptian History: How we come to know it in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

Help us improve and/or update this article. Please send suggested text to For submission Terms and Conditions, click here.