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.