فصل 03

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فصل 03

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TH E LAND BY THE NILE Here ­ as I promised ­ History begins. With a when and a where. It is 3100 BC (that is, 5,100 years ago), when, as we believe, a king named Menes was ruling over Egypt. If you want to know exactly where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow. Every autumn, when it gets cold, swallows fly south. Over the mountains to Italy, and on across a little stretch of sea, and then they’re in Africa, in the part that lies nearest to Europe. Egypt is close by. In Africa it is hot, and for months on end it doesn’t rain. In many regions very little grows. These are deserts, as are the lands on either side of Egypt. Egypt also gets very little rain. But here they don’t need it, because the Nile flows right through the middle of the country, from one end to the other. Twice a year, when heavy rain filled its sources, the river would swell and burst its banks, flooding the whole land. Then people were forced to take to boats to move among the houses and the palm trees. And when the waters withdrew, the earth was wonderfully drenched and rich with oozing mud. There, under the hot sun, the grain grew as it



did nowhere else. Which is why, from earliest times, the Egyptians worshipped the Nile as if it were God himself. Would you like to hear a hymn they sang to their river, four thousand years ago?

Glory be to thee, Oh Nile! You rise out of the earth and come to nourish Egypt! You water the plains and have the power to feed all cattle. You quench the thirsty desert, far from any water. You bring forth the barley, You create the wheat. You fill the granaries and storehouses, not forgetting the poor. For You we pluck our harps, for You we sing.

So sang the ancient Egyptians. And they were right. For, thanks to the Nile, their land grew rich and powerful. Mightiest of all was their king. One king ruled over all the Egyptians, and the first to do so was King Menes. Do you remember when that was? It was in 3100 BC. And can you also remember ­ perhaps from Bible stories ­ what those kings of Egypt were called? They were called pharaohs. A pharaoh was immensely powerful. He lived in a great stone palace with massive pillars and many courtyards, and his word was law. All the people of Egypt had to toil for him if he so decreed. And sometimes he did. One such pharaoh was King Cheops, who lived in about 2500 BC. He summoned all his subjects to help construct his tomb. He wanted a building like a mountain, and he got it. You can still see it today. It’s the Great Pyramid of Cheops. You may have seen pictures of it, but you still won’t be able to imagine how big it is. A cathedral would fit comfortably inside. Clambering up its huge stone blocks is like scaling a mountain peak. And yet it was human beings who piled those gigantic stones on top of each other. They had no machines in those days ­ rollers and pulleys at most. They had to pull and shove every single block by hand. Just think of it, in the heat of Africa! In this way, it seems, for thirty years, some hundred thousand people toiled for the pharaoh, whenever they weren’t working in the fields. And when they grew tired, the king’s overseer was sure to drive them on with his hippopotamus-skin whip, as they dragged and heaved those immense loads, all for their king’s tomb.



Perhaps you’re wondering why the pharaoh should want to build such a gigantic tomb? It was all part of his religion. The Egyptians believed in many gods. Some had ruled over them as kings long ago ­ or at least, that’s what they thought ­ and among these were Osiris and his consort, Isis. The sun god, Amon, was a special god. The Kingdom of the Dead had its own god, Anubis, and he had a jackal’s head. Each pharaoh, they believed, was a son of the sun god, which explains why they feared him so much and obeyed all his commands. In honour of their gods they chiselled majestic stone statues, as tall as a five-storey house, and built temples as big as towns. In front of the temples they set tall pointed stones, cut from a single block of granite. These are called ‘obelisks’ (a Greek word meaning something like ‘little spear’). In some of our own cities you can still see obelisks that people brought back from Egypt. There’s one in London by the Thames. In the Egyptian religion, certain animals were sacred: cats, for example. Other gods were represented in animal form. The creature we know as the Sphinx, which has a human head on a lion’s body, was a very powerful god. Its statue near the pyramids is so vast that a whole temple would fit inside. Buried from time to time by the desert sands, the Sphinx has now been guarding the tombs of the pharaohs for more than five thousand years. Who can say how long it will continue to keep watch? And yet the most important part of the Egyptians’ strange religion was their belief that, although a man’s soul left his body when he died, for some reason the soul went on needing that body, and would suffer if it crumbled into dust. So they invented a very ingenious way of preserving the bodies of the dead. They rubbed them with ointments and the juices of certain plants, and bandaged them with long strips of cloth, so that they wouldn’t decay. A body preserved in this manner is called a mummy. And today, after thousands of years, these mummies are still intact. A mummy was placed in a coffin made of wood, the wooden coffin in one of stone, and the stone one buried, not in the earth, but in a tomb that was chiselled out of the rock. If you were rich and powerful like King Cheops, ‘Son of the Sun’,



a whole stone mountain would be made for your tomb. Deep inside, the mummy would be safe ­ or so they thought! But the mighty king’s efforts were in vain: his pyramid is empty. But the mummies of other kings and those of many ancient Egyptians have been found undisturbed in their tombs. A tomb was intended to be a dwelling for the soul when it returned to visit its body. For this reason they put in food and furniture and clothes, and there are lots of paintings on the walls showing scenes from the life of the departed. His portrait was there too, to make sure that when his soul came on a visit it wouldn’t go to the wrong tomb. Thanks to the great stone statues, and the wonderfully bright and vivid wall paintings, we have a very good idea of what life in ancient Egypt was like. True, these paintings do not show things as we see them. An object or a person that is behind another is generally shown on top, and the figures often look stiff. Bodies are shown from the front and hands and feet from the side, so they look as if they have been ironed flat. But the Egyptians knew what they were doing. Every detail is clear: how they used great nets to catch ducks on the Nile, how they paddled their boats and fished with long spears, how they pumped water into ditches to irrigate the fields, how they drove their cows and goats to pasture, how they threshed grain, made shoes and clothes, blew glass ­ for they could already do that! ­ and how they shaped bricks and built houses. And we can also see girls playing catch, or playing music on flutes, and soldiers going off to war, or returning with loot and foreign captives, such as black Africans. In noblemen’s tombs we can see embassies arriving from abroad, laden with tribute, and the king rewarding faithful ministers with decorations. Some pictures show the long-dead noblemen at prayer, their arms raised before the statues of their gods, or holding banquets in their houses, with singers plucking harps, and clowns performing somersaults. Next to these brightly coloured paintings you often see lots of tiny pictures of all sorts of things, such as owls and little people, flags, flowers, tents, beetles and vases, together with zigzag lines



and spirals, all jumbled up together. Whatever can they be? They aren’t pictures, they are hieroglyphs ­ or ‘sacred signs’ ­ the Egyptian form of writing. The Egyptians were immensely proud of their writing ­ indeed, they were almost in awe of it. And of all professions, that of scribe was the most highly esteemed. Would you like to know how to write using hieroglyphs? In fact, learning this sort of writing must have been incredibly hard, as it’s more like constructing a picture puzzle. If they wanted to write the name of their god, Osiris, they would draw a throne ( ), which was pronounced ‘Oos’, and an eye ( ), which was pronounced ‘iri’, so that the two together made ‘Os-iri’. And to make sure that no one thought they meant ‘Throne-eye’, they often drew a little flag like this beside it ( ). Which meant that person was a god. In the same way that Christians used to draw a cross after a name, if they wanted to show that that person was dead. So now you can write ‘Osiris’ in hieroglyphs! But think what a job it must have been to decipher all that Egyptian writing when people became interested in hieroglyphs again, two hundred years ago. In fact, they were only able to decipher them because a stone had been found on which the same words were written in three scripts: ancient Greek, hieroglyphs and another Egyptian script. It was still a tremendous puzzle, and great scholars devoted their lives to it. You can see that stone ­ it’s called the Rosetta Stone ­ in the British Museum in London. We are now able to read almost everything the Egyptians wrote. Not just on the walls of palaces and temples, but also in books, though the books are no longer very legible. For the ancient Egyptians did have books, even that long ago. Of course they weren’t made of paper like ours, but from a certain type of reed that grows on the banks of the Nile. The Greek name for these reeds is papyrus, from which our name for paper comes. They wrote on long strips of this papyrus, which were then rolled up into scrolls. A whole heap of these scrolls has survived. And when we read them we discover just how wise and clever those ancient Egyptians really were. Would you like to hear a saying written more than five thousand years ago? But you must



listen and think about it carefully: ‘Wise words are rarer than emeralds, yet they come from the mouths of poor slave girls who turn the millstones.’ Because the Egyptians were so wise and so powerful their empire lasted for a very long time. Longer than any empire the world has ever known: nearly three thousand years. And they took just as much care as they did with their corpses, when they preserved them from rotting away, in preserving all their ancient traditions over the centuries. Their priests made quite sure that no son did anything his father had not done before him. To them, everything old was sacred. Only rarely in the course of all that time did people turn against this strict conformity. Once was shortly after the reign of King Cheops, about 2100 BC, when the people tried to change everything. They rose up in rebellion against the pharaoh, killed his ministers, and dragged the mummies from their tombs: ‘Those who formerly didn’t even own sandals now hold treasures, and those who once wore precious robes go about in rags,’ the ancient papyrus tells us.’The land is turning like a potter’s wheel.’ But it did not last long, and soon everything was as strict as before. If not more so. On another occasion it was the pharaoh himself who tried to change everything. Akhenaton was a remarkable man who lived around 1370 BC. He had no time for the Egyptian religion, with its many gods and its mysterious rituals. ‘There is only one God,’ he taught his people, ‘and that is the Sun, through whose rays all is created and all sustained. To Him alone you must pray.’ The ancient temples were shut down, and King Akhenaton and his wife moved into a new palace. Since he was utterly opposed to tradition, and in favour of fine new ideas, he also had the walls of his palace painted in an entirely new style. One that was no longer severe, rigid and solemn, but freer and more natural. However, this didn’t please the people at all. They wanted everything to look as it had always done for thousands of years. As soon as Akhenaton was dead, they brought back all the old customs and the old style of art. So everything stayed as it had been, for as long as the Egyptian



empire endured. Just as in the days of King Menes, and for nearly three and a half more centuries, people continued to put mummies into tombs, write in hieroglyphs, and pray to the same gods. They even went on worshipping cats as sacred animals. And if you ask me, I think that in this, at least, the ancient Egyptians were right.

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