Egypt And The Pharaohs

The first country to which Moses refers, in connection with the

Hebrew history, is Egypt. This favored land was the seat of one of the

oldest monarchies of the world. Although it would seem that Assyria was

first peopled, historians claim for Egypt a more remote antiquity. Whether

this claim can be substantiated or not, it is certain that Egypt was one

of the primeval seats of the race of Ham. Mizraim, the Scripture name for

the country, indicates that it was settled by a son of Ham. But if this is

true even, the tide of emigration from Armenia probably passed to the

southeast through Syria and Palestine, and hence the descendants of Ham

had probably occupied the land of Canaan before they crossed the desert

between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. I doubt if Egypt had older

cities than Damascus, Hebron, Zoar, and Tyre.

But Egypt certainly was a more powerful monarchy than any existing on the

earth in the time of Abraham.

Its language, traditions, and monuments alike point to a high

antiquity. It was probably inhabited by a mixed race, Shemitic as well as

Hamite; though the latter had the supremacy. The distinction of castes

indicates a mixed population, so that the ancients doubted whether Egypt

belonged to Asia or Africa. The people were not black, but of a reddish

color, with thick lips, straight black hair, and elongated eye, and sunk

in the degraded superstitions of the African race.

The geographical position indicates not only a high antiquity, but a

state favorable to great national wealth and power. The river Nile,

issuing from a great lake under the equator, runs 3,000 miles nearly due

north to the Mediterranean. Its annual inundations covered the valley with

a rich soil brought down from the mountains of Abyssinia, making it the

most fertile in the world. The country, thus so favored by a great river,

with its rich alluvial deposits, is about 500 miles in length, with an

area of 115,000 square miles, of which 9,600 are subject to the

fertilizing inundation. But, in ancient times, a great part of the country

was irrigated, and abounded in orchards, gardens, and vineyards. Every

kind of vegetable was cultivated, and grain was raised in the greatest

abundance, so that the people lived in luxury and plenty while other

nations were subject to occasional famines.

Among the fruits, were dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, apricots,

peaches, oranges, citrons, lemons, limes, bananas, melons, mulberries,

olives. Among vegetables, if we infer from what exist at present, were

beans, peas, lentils, luprins, spinach, leeks, onions, garlic, celery,

chiccory, radishes, carrots, turnips, lettuce, cabbage, fennel, gourds,

cucumbers, tomatoes, egg-plant. What a variety for the sustenance of man,

to say nothing of the various kinds of grain,--barley, oats, maize, rice,

and especially wheat, which grows to the greatest perfection.

In old times the horses were famous, as well as cattle, and sheep, and

poultry. Quails were abundant, while the marshes afforded every kind of

web-footed fowl. Fish, too, abounded in the Nile, and in the lakes. Bees

were kept, and honey was produced, though inferior to that of Greece.

The climate also of this fruitful land was salubrious without being

enervating. The soil was capable of supporting a large population, which

amounted, in the time of Herodotus, to seven millions. On the banks of the

Nile were great cities, whose ruins still astonish travelers. The land,

except that owned by the priests, belonged to the king, who was supreme

and unlimited in power. The people were divided into castes, the highest

being priests, and the lowest husbandmen. The kings were hereditary, but

belonged to the priesthood, and their duties and labors were arduous. The

priests were the real governing body, and were treated with the most

respectful homage. They were councilors of the king, judges of the land,

and guardians of all great interests. The soldiers were also numerous, and

formed a distinct caste.

When Abram visited Egypt, impelled by the famine in Canaan, it was

already a powerful monarchy. This was about 1921 years before Christ,

according to the received chronology, when the kings of the 15th dynasty

reigned. These dynasties of ancient kings are difficult to be settled, and

rest upon traditions rather than well defined historical grounds,--or

rather on the authority of Manetho, an Egyptian priest, who lived nearly

300 years before Christ. His list of dynasties has been confirmed, to a

great extent, by the hieroglyphic inscriptions which are still to be found

on ancient monuments, but they give us only a barren catalogue of names

without any vital historical truths. Therefore these old dynasties, before

Abraham, are only interesting to antiquarians, and not satisfactory to

them, since so little is known or can be known. These, if correct, would

give a much greater antiquity to Egypt than can be reconciled with Mosaic

history. But all authorities agree in ascribing to Menes the commencement

of the first dynasty, 2712 years before Christ, according to Hales, but

3893 according to Lepsius, and 2700 according to Lane. Neither Menes nor

his successors of the first dynasty left any monuments. It is probable,

however, that Memphis was built by them, and possibly hieroglyphics were

invented during their reigns.

But here a chronological difficulty arises. The Scriptures ascribe ten

generations from Shem to Abram. Either the generations were made longer

than in our times, or the seventeen dynasties, usually supposed to have

reigned when Abram came to Egypt, could not have existed; for, according

to the received chronology, he was born 1996, B.C., and the Deluge took

place 2349, before Christ, leaving but 353 years from the Deluge to the

birth of Abraham. How could seventeen dynasties have reigned in Egypt in

that time, even supposing that Egypt was settled immediately after the

Flood, unless either more than ten generations existed from Noah to Abram,

or that these generations extended over seven or eight hundred years?

Until science shall reconcile the various chronologies with the one

usually received, there is but little satisfaction in the study of

Egyptian history prior to Abram. Nor is it easy to settle when the

Pyramids were constructed. If they existed in the time of Abram a most

rapid advance had been made in the arts, unless a much longer period

elapsed from Noah to Abraham than Scripture seems to represent.

Nothing of interest occurs in Egyptian history until the fourth

dynasty of kings, when the pyramids of Ghizeh, were supposed to have been

built--a period more remote than Scripture ascribes to the Flood itself,

according to our received chronology. These were the tombs of the Memphian

kings, who believed in the immortality of the soul, and its final reunion

with the body after various forms of transmigration. Hence the solicitude

to preserve the body in some enduring monument, and by elaborate

embalment. What more durable monument than these great masses of granite,

built to defy the ravages of time, and the spoliations of conquerors! The

largest of these pyramids, towering above other pyramids, and the lesser

sepulchres of the rich, was built upon a square of 756 feet, and the

height of it was 489 feet 9 inches, covering an area of 571,536 feet, or

more than thirteen acres. The whole mass contained 90,000,000 cubic feet

of masonry, weighing 6,316,000 tons. Nearly in the centre of this pile of

stone, reached by a narrow passage, were the chambers where the royal

sarcophagi were deposited. At whatever period these vast monuments were

actually built, they at least go back into remote antiquity, and probably

before the time of Abram.

The first great name of the early Egyptian kings was Sesertesen, or

Osirtasin I., the founder of the twelfth dynasty of kings, B.C. 2080. He

was a great conqueror, and tradition confounds him with the Sesostris of

the Greeks, which gathered up stories about him as the Middle Ages did of

Charlemagne and his paladins. The real Sesostris was Ramenes the Great, of

the nineteenth dynasty. By the kings of this dynasty (the twelfth)

Ethiopia was conquered, the Labyrinth was built, and Lake Moevis dug, to

control the inundations. Under them Thebes became a great city. The

dynasty lasted 100 years, but became subject to the Shepherd kings. These

early Egyptian monarchs wore fond of peace, and their subjects enjoyed

repose and prosperity.

The Shepherd kings, who ruled 400 years, were supposed by Manetho to

be Arabs, but leaves us to infer that they were Phoenicians--as is

probable--a roving body of conquerors, who easily subdued the peaceful

Egyptians. They have left no monumental history. They were alien to the

conquered race in language and habits, and probably settled in Lower Egypt

where the land was most fertile, and where conquests would be most easily


It was under their rule that Abram probably visited Egypt when driven by a

famine from Canaan. And they were not expelled till the time of Joseph, by

the first of the eighteenth dynasty. The descendants of the old kings, we

suppose, lived in Thebes, and were tributary princes for 400 years, but

gained sufficient strength, finally, to expel the Shemite invaders, even

as the Gothic nations of Spain, in the Middle Ages, expelled their

conquerors, the Moors.

But it was under the Shepherd kings that the relations between Egypt

and the Hebrew patriarchs took place. We infer this fact from the friendly

intercourse and absence of national prejudices. The Phoenicians belonged to

the same Shemitic stock from which Abraham came. They built no temples.

They did not advance a material civilization. They loaded Abram and Joseph

with presents, and accepted the latter as a minister and governor. We read

of no great repulsion of races, and see a great similarity in pursuits.

Meanwhile, the older dynasties under whom Thebes was built, probably

B.C. 2200, gathered strength in misfortune and subjection. They reigned,

during five dynasties, in a subordinate relation, tributary and oppressed.

The first king of the eighteenth dynasty seems to have been a remarkable

man--the deliverer of his nation. His name was Aah-mes, or Amo-sis, and he

expelled the shepherds from the greater part of Egypt, B.C. 1525. In his

reign we see on the monuments chariots and horses. He built temples both

in Thebes and Memphis, and established a navy. This was probably the king

who knew not Joseph. His successors continued the work of conquest, and

extended their dominion from Ethiopia to Mesopotamia, and obtained that

part of Western Asia formerly held by the Chaldeans. They built the temple

of Karnak, the "Vocal Memnon," and the avenue of Sphinxes in Thebes.

The grandest period of Egyptian history begins with the nineteenth

dynasty, founded by Sethee I., or Sethos, B.C. 1340. He built the famous

"Hall of Columns," in the temple of Karnak, and the finest of the tombs of

the Theban kings. On the walls of this great temple are depicted his

conquests, especially over the Hittites. But the glories of the monarchy,

now decidedly military, culminated in Ramesis II.--the Sesostris of the

Greeks. He extended his dominion as far as Scythia and Thrace, while his

naval expeditions penetrated to the Erythraean Sea. The captives which he

brought from his wars were employed in digging canals, which intersected

the country, for purposes of irrigation, and especially that great canal

which united the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. He added to the temple of

Karnak, built the Memnonium on the western side of the Nile, opposite to

Thebes, and enlarged the temple of Ptah, at Memphis, which he adorned by a

beautiful colossal statue, the fist of which is (now in the British

Museum) thirty inches wide across the knuckles. But the Rameseum, or

Memnonium, was his greatest architectural work, approached by an avenue of

sphinxes and obelisks, in the centre of which was the great statue of

Ramesis himself, sixty feet high, carved from a single stone of the red

granite of Syene.

The twentieth dynasty was founded by Sethee II., B.C. 1220 (or 1232

B.C., according to Wilkinson), when Gideon ruled the Israelites and

Theseus reigned at Athens and Priam at Troy. The third king of this

dynasty--Ramesis III.--built palaces and tombs scarcely inferior to any of

the Theban kings, but under his successors the Theban power declined.

Under the twenty-first dynasty, which began B.C. 1085, Lower Egypt had a

new capital, Zoan, and gradually extended its power over Upper Egypt. It

had a strong Shemetic element in its population, and strengthened itself

by alliances with the Assyrians.

The twenty-second dynasty was probably Assyrian, and began about 1009 B.C.

It was hostile to the Jews, and took and sacked Jerusalem.

From this period the history of Egypt is obscure. Ruled by

Assyrians, and then by Ethiopians, the grandeur of the old Theban monarchy

had passed away. On the rise of the Babylonian kingdom, over the ruins of

the old Assyrian Empire, Egypt was greatly prostrated as a military power.

Babylon became the great monarchy of the East, and gained possession of

all the territories of the Theban kings, from the Euphrates to the Nile.

Leaving, then, the obscure and uninteresting history of Egypt, which

presents nothing of especial interest until its conquest by Alexander,

B.C. 332, with no great kings even, with the exception of Necho, of the

twenty-sixth dynasty, B.C. 611, we will present briefly the religion,

manners, customs, and attainments of the ancient Egyptians.

Their religion was idolatrous. They worshiped various divinities:

Num, the soul of the universe; Amen, the generative principle; Khom, by

whom the productiveness of nature was emblematized; Ptah, or the creator

of the universe; Ra, the sun; Thoth, the patron of letters; Athor, the

goddess of beauty; Mu, physical light; Mat, moral light; Munt, the god of

war; Osiris, the personification of good; Isis, who presided over funeral

rites; Set, the personification of evil; Anup, who judged the souls of the


These were principal deities, and were worshiped through sacred

animals, as emblems of divinity. Among them were the bulls, Apis, at

Memphis, and Muenis, at Heliopolis, both sacred to Osiris. The crocodile

was sacred to Lebak, whose offices are unknown; the asp to Num; the cat to

Pasht, whose offices were also unknown; the beetle to Ptah. The worship of

these and of other animals was conducted with great ceremony, and

sacrifices were made to them of other animals, fruits and vegetables.

Man was held accountable for his actions, and to be judged, according to

them. He was to be brought before Osiris, and receive from him future

rewards or punishments.

The penal laws of the Egyptians were severe. Murder was punished

with death. Adultery was punished by the man being beaten with a thousand

rods. The woman had her nose cut off. Theft was punished with less

severity--with a beating by a stick. Usury was not permitted beyond double

of the debt, and the debtor was not imprisoned.

The government was a monarchy, only limited by the priesthood, into

whose order he was received, and was administered by men appointed by the

king. On the whole, it was mild and paternal, and exercised for the good

of the people.

Polygamy was not common, though concubines were allowed. In the

upper classes women were treated with great respect, and were regarded as

the equals of men. They ruled their households. The rich were hospitable,

and delighted to give feasts, at which were dancers and musicians. They

possessed chariots and horses, and were indolent and pleasure-seeking. The

poor people toiled, with scanty clothing and poor fare.

Hieroglyphic writing prevailed from a remote antiquity. The papyrus

was also used for hieratic writing, and numerous papyri have been

discovered, which show some advance in literature. Astronomy was

cultivated by the priests, and was carried to the highest point it could

attain without modern instruments. Geometry also reached considerable

perfection. Mechanics must have been carried to a great extent, when we

remember that vast blocks of stone were transported 500 miles and elevated

to enormous heights. Chemistry was made subservient to many arts, such as

the working of metals and the tempering of steel. But architecture was the

great art in which the Egyptians excelled, as we infer from the ruins of

temples and palaces; and these wonderful fabrics were ornamented with

paintings which have preserved their color to this day. Architecture was

massive, grand, and imposing. Magical arts were in high estimation, and

chiefly exercised by the priests. The industrial arts reached great

excellence, especially in the weaving of linen, pottery, and household

furniture. The Egyptians were great musicians, using harps, flutes,

cymbals, and drums. They were also great gardeners. In their dress they

were simple, frugal in diet, though given to occasional excess; fond of

war, but not cruel like the Assyrians; hospitable among themselves, shy of

strangers, patriotic in feeling, and contemplative in character.

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