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EGYPT To the records made by themselves only we must look for accounts of the earliest civilization of the Egyptians. Of necessity therefore the first to be known is concerning a people already sufficiently advanced to have developed a written language, except as it may be carried back by traditions passed down from earlier times and subsequently recorded. Though the surroundings of the valley of the Nile suggest conditions under which a race of people might have developed in peace, secure against attacks from external enemies, history fails to reach such a time. Whether the ancient Egyptians, whose descendants still occupy the country, originated in Egypt or elsewhere cannot be answered from any reliable evidence. Like most people, they begin their account of their nation with a mythical line of supernatural rulers, and a time when the gods resided on earth and gave mortals the benefit of their instruction. If the truth be that the human race is the product of evolution from the lower to the higher, the advancement has not been steady and continuous with any people of whom we have a long history. Times of marked intellectual activity as well as of moral advancement have been followed by periods of torpor and degradation. It may therefore well happen, that at one period the people may look back to a prior time as a golden age, when men were wiser and better, and when the gods came nearer to them. Thus everywhere we find people looking to their ancestors for wisdom. The accumulation of knowledge at any period is the product of the past, for which prior generations must be given credit, and there is a tendency to credit it all to some favorite age. Whether the Egyptians were pioneers, in advance of all other people in civilization, cannot be stated with certainty, but that they have left unmistakable proofs of the antiquity of their
advancement, which antedate those of any other people may be safely asserted. Owing to the peculiar climate of the country and the desire to leave enduring monuments, the investigator of today may study at first hands the work of Egyptians who lived many thousands of years ago. He may read on granite monuments, or even on frail papyrus, the inscriptions of Egyptian artists and scribes in the original hieroglyphics as made by themselves long prior to the time of Moses or Joseph. The profound interest with which students of all the sciences to which they are related have in recent years studied these ancient records, and the diligence and success with which their efforts to decipher and interpret them have been rewarded, have added greatly to our knowledge of the past and of the arts, which before were traced only to people nearer to us in time and in blood.
The starting point, from which Egyptian history is written in modern times, is the reign of Menes, who united the upper and lower countries and established his capital at Memphis. The date of his reign is not definitely known, but it could not have been much later than 4000 B.C. and may have been much earlier. From his time a list of successive dynasties is given by ancient writers, and Herodotus tells us, that the priests read to him from a papyrus the names of 330 monarchs, who ruled as his successors to the reign of Moeris. After him came a great monarch, whose name he calls Sesostris.
He also says that they told him that in the time of Men (Menes), all Egypt except the Thebaic canton was a marsh, none of the land below lake Moeris then showing itself above the surface of the water. There are no records from which a connected account of the successive rulers can be constructed, and it is quite impossible to fix dates in the early reigns with any fair degree of accuracy. How many people were ruled over by Menes and what system of government had prevailed before his time, we do not know, nor can the state of the arts at that time be declared, nor the condition of the valley of the Nile be described further than that it was exceedingly fertile, then as now, and subject to yearly overflow from the river. Whether it then contained forests and waste lands or was already cleared and cultivated is unknown. How long the people had then been dwellers in the valley of the Nile, whence they came and how they had lived in prior times, are questions that cannot be answered.
The contemporaneous inscriptions do not begin till about the time of what is termed the Fourth Dynasty, if the scholars are correct in their inferences. The three great pyramids of Gizeh, built as enduring tombs of successive Pharaohs, are assigned to this time. These great works evidence a numerous population, without whose labor they could not have been constructed, a strong government, able to command the services of the necessary workers, and also indicate peaceful relations with all other people, for war of any great magnitude would almost certainly have absorbed the attention and energies of the nation to too great a degree to allow such vast works to be carried forward at the same time. These monuments tell us with certainty that great numbers of people worked in concert for their completion, and that the government must have been firmly established and the people accustomed to the exercise of authority. The implements used in their construction prove that the art of metal working was well advanced. The power employed in transporting the material and placing it in position, as shown by the pictures and inscriptions, was mainly the combined strength of great numbers; but Herodotus tells us that machines were used for raising the great stones to their positions, and this seems probable, though we have no description of them. The pictures, which have been preserved, exhibit the evolution of dress from a simple short skirt, not much more to the purpose than a breech clout, to a costume consisting of a shirt, skirt, long over dress, sandals, wig, etc. It is not necessary to mention mere ornaments, for the lowest races all indulge in ornaments according to taste and ability, though clothing be considered a superfluous luxury or not thought of at all. At the time of the building of the great pyramids the evolution in dress was not much past the primary stage and short skirts were in fashion. In agriculture, though the implements used were crude, the variety of crops raised was quite extensive, and the people were well supplied with cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys, as well as with fowls, especially geese and ducks.
In the earliest times of which we have any record, a division of the country into the upper or south and lower or no
th was recognized. The political organization of the upper country seems to have been in advance of that of the lower, and the internal development of it probably preceded that of the more marshy delta. While the government of Egypt was at all times monarchical in form, the actual administration was ordinarily in accordance with established rules, which were recognized as limitations on the power of the officials. The people, however, were without substantial guarantee against the oppression of despotic Pharaohs, and the construction of the great pyramids was a heavy burden, mercilessly imposed on his subjects by the king.
According to the earliest accounts, under what is termed the old empire, upper Egypt was divided into provinces, the local government of each of which was hereditary in a noble family. The same family also ordinarily held the office of high priest. In those times the nobility seem to have held a large share of political power, and the central authority to have been less potent than in later times. The division of lower Egypt into provinces or nomes appears to have followed later.
The character of the government was unmilitary. The worship of the gods, maintaining the temples and honoring the dead, occupied a large share of the attention of the government, and required the services of a numerous priesthood, always closely allied to the civil authorities, and who usually combined priestly functions with administrative ones. There were thirty “great men of the south” having unequal districts and powers.
A governor of a district was also a judge and ruler of the chief town. It was the fashion to combine a long list of official titles, many of which were often without real significance. As judges they were priests of Ma'at the goddess of truth. Over these thirty chief men of the South was a governor of the south. . The lower country was afterward divided into similar nomes and placed under a governor of the north country, but at what date these were established does not appear, though the title of "governor of the north country” appears in inscriptions of the time of the Middle empire. In each of the small districts into which the country was divided, there was a court of justice, a storehouse for corn and a local militia. The central power was mainely concerned with the revenue and filling the treasure houses. There was a central .finance department, which employed numerous superintendents and scribes to attend to the collection and care of the public revenues, most of which were received in kind from the fields, mines and workshops. There was a superintendent of agriculture, who had general charge of matters connected with overflow and irrigation, and also a superintendent of the forests in the border country up the Nile.
The chief judge was the highest official under the king. He was the “leader of the great men of the south and of the north” and “second after the king in the court of the palace,” to these were often added a long list of priestly and other titles, some of which indicated real power and substantial duties. Under him were numerous judges of different degrees. Six great courts are spoken of, made up of local judges. Great respect was entertained for law and the judicial offices.
In each province or nome there were officials of high and low degree charged with various public functions. As under most modern governments, there was a constant struggle to gain official preferment, and the main end of all public servants was the gathering of revenues for themselves and those under whom they served. The beneficial service rendered for the multitude was in public works, the administration of justice and protection against external enemies. Of the public works those connected with agriculture and the distribution of water by canals, reservoirs, etc. were highly useful, while the construction of temples and tombs, for which no other people seem to have had so much regard, gratified the pride and accorded with the sentiments of the people.
The monuments and records were made to preserve the memory of the rich and powerful. The inscriptions show the