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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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A Peep at Ancient Egypt.

By A. J. Goodison, M.R.A.I., Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, &c.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 598


In the history of antiquity to no country can we turn with greater interest than to Egypt, the cradle of civilisation; a country so intimately associated with the fortunes of Israel, on the walls of whose tombs and temples we can still trace the religious and domestic life of five thousand years ago, and from whose papyri or written records we can learn much of the feelings and habits of men who lived even earlier than the building of the great pyramid. We puzzle our brains in vain to fathom the antiquity of the Egyptian race; various have been the surmises as to its origin, and the evidence to be obtained from skulls in the most ancient tombs point to a Caucasian origin; but Mr. Flinders Petrie, in an able article in Harper's Magazine, July, 1888, draws attention to the resemblance between the portraits and statues of the early Egyptians, and those of the early inhabitants of Pun in Southern Arabia; and brings strong evidence to bear concerning the relationship of the two. The statues and wall paintings bear a striking resemblance to some of the natives met with in Egypt at the present day, for many of the Copts or descendants of the old Egyptians, who early embraced Christianity, have still preserved the full lips, broad face, and elongated eyes of their ancestors; in fact the likeness is often startling. The earliest known statues are those of Rahotep and his wife Nefert, in the Gizeh Museum; they were found in a tomb near the Pyramid of Meydoom, and were executed during the reign of King Snefru, about 3733 B.C. The hieroglyphics upon the back of their seats record their names and station. Rahotep appears to have been a military man of high rank in his profession, but of inferior birth, while his wife was a princess of royal birth, and is called "the beautiful."

These statues are carved in limestone, and painted; the man, of a reddish brown colour, and his wife much paler, as if fairer from less exposure to the sun. There is a strange fascination in these figures, so old and yet so beautiful, and one longs to hear the story of their lives; the eyes especially charm one, they are so lifelike, and seem full of expression; they are inserted, and the eyeball of white quartz, with iris of rock crystal, encloses a pupil formed of some bright metal, which gives them a sparkling and yet gentle expression.

When Mariette, the great French Egyptologist, discovered the tomb in which he found these charming examples of ancient art, it was buried in sand and debris, clearing which away he made a hole large enough to insert his body; all was darkness within, but through the gloom there shone four fiery eyes; he beat a retreat, thinking he must be in a den of wild beasts; on procuring a light, however, his fears gave place to delight, for there sat the two beautiful figures, whose eyes seemed to have a merry twinkle in them as if conscious of the joke they had helped to perpetrate. In the earliest wall paintings we find the better classes of Egypt surrounded with proofs of a delicate and refined civilisation; and here we have proof that encouragement was given to the advanced industries, such as working in gold, glass blowing, delicate embroidery, and the weaving of fine linen, &c. Undoubtedly agriculture was a very prominent pursuit, owing to the great advantages derived from the annual overflow of the Nile; each season the noble river, overflowing its banks, leaves a deposit on the soil of the most fertilising nature, into which the seeds are thrown, and rapidly germinate. This muddy deposit is composed of the debris of volcanic rocks in the highlands of Abyssinia, which the floods, caused by the melted snow, carry into the Nile tributaries, and so swell the sacred river. The numerous occupations connected with husbandry, such as ploughing, sowing, cutting corn, threshing and storing the grain, &c., are all painted in colour on the walls of many ancient tombs in both Upper and Lower Egypt; we even see in one the representation of a farm yard, its buildings of wood supported by carved wooden pillars, and a duck pond in the centre, on which the birds are swimming; geese are being fattened by having pellets of flour and fat put down their throats, and men are carrying in grain for the poultry, the rearing of which was an important part of the farming duties; but the hens never reared their own families, incubators being used from an early period in Egypt, a practice which still continues.

Few changes take place in country life in Egypt, and to this day the fellahin ploughs his fields with an implement made on the same principle as was that used by his ancestors five thousand years ago. Although Herodotus, who gives us the earliest historical account of Egypt, derived his principal information from the priests, he seems to have had a high regard for the agricultural classes, for which he says, "Of the Egyptians, those who inhabit that part of Egypt which is sown with corn, in that they cultivate the memory of past events more than any other men, are the best informed of all with whom I have had intercourse." Parties, and the entertainment of guests, are frequently represented on the walls of the tombs; and we cannot help noticing the lavish display of gold and silver vessels, choice viands, wine, &c.; attentive servants wait upon the guests, professional musicians and dancers are always provided, and male and female acrobats often enliven the scene; gossip seems to be freely indulged in, the ladies admiring each other's clothes, jewellery, &c. Sometimes an accident occurs to disturb the harmony, a curtain falls, or an insecure seat gives way; and in a Theban tomb, a scene representing a most enjoyable party is disturbed by a guest, who, having leaned too heavily against a pillar, in the centre of the room, has caused it to give way, and the other guests, with upraised arms, are displaying their fright. There is no doubt that, in spite of a preponderance of formal representations, funereal, mythical, and warlike, on their tombs and temples, the ancient Egyptians must have been a very merry, laughter-loving people. Caricature was known from a very early period, a little broad sometimes and full of satire, but telling and original. In a papyrus of the nineteenth dynasty, now in the Turin Museum, amusing scenes are depicted in the love affairs of a shaven priest and a songstress of the Temple of Ammon; whilst in the same papyrus are sketched comic groups of animal life. In the first scene, a lion, a crocodile, and an ape are giving a vocal and instrumental concert. Next comes an endospore, dressed, armed, and sceptred like a Pharaoh; with majestic swagger, he receives the gifts presented to him by a cat of high degree, to whom a bull acts as proud conductor. A lion and gazelle are playing at draughts, a hippopotamus is perched in a tree, and a hawk has climbed into the tree by means of a ladder, and tries to dislodge him. A Pharaoh in the shape of a rat, drawn in a chariot by prancing greyhounds, is proceeding to storm a fortress, garrisoned by cats, the latter having no arms but teeth and claws, whereas the rats have battle-axes, shields, and bows and arrows.

The artist's idea seems to have been the defeat of the cats by the animals upon which they prey, or, if we look for a deeper meaning, the successful revolt of the oppressed upon the oppressor. In a papyrus in the British Museum, a flock of geese are being driven by a cat, and a herd of goats by two wolves, with crooks and wallet; one of the wolves is playing a double flute. A drawing on a tile in the New York Museum represents (quite in the Caldecott style) a cat dressed as an Egyptian lady of fashion, seated languidly in a chair, sipping wine out of a small bowl, and being fanned and offered dainties by an abject-looking tom cat with his tail between his legs. On the walls of a tomb at Thebes belonging to a priest of Ammon, the love of caricature is indulged in, even in the sacred subject of a funeral. One of the boats following in the mournful procession across the Nile to the sacred necropolis has grounded, and in being pushed off the bank, strikes a smaller one laden with sacerdotal offerings of cakes, fruit, &c. The table on which these dainties are arranged has upset, and the good things are falling like a hailstorm on the heads of the astonished rowers underneath. The more we learn of the habits of the ancient Egyptians, the less we cherish the old impression of their being a gloomy people of serious character. Human nature five thousand years ago was much the same as it is to-day, altered simply by climate and custom, and the oldest papyrus in the world, now in the National Library in Paris, written 3350 B.C., contains a series of maxims which we of to-day might take to heart. The more the old Egyptian literature is studied, the more deeply is the reader impressed with its simplicity and wisdom; its language, translated literally, has a true Biblical ring about it; and one feels how fit it was to be associated with the designers and builders of the noble, chaste, and beautiful temples and tombs, the remains of which are still to be seen on either side of the Nile. Surely every fact we can glean as to the manners and history of this great cotemporary nation should be used to illustrate our teaching of the history of Israel as recorded in the Bible. The more points of touch we establish between the Bible narrative and cotemporary records, the more solid and intelligent will be our teaching of Bible history.



Typed by Melissa P., April 2016