This book is only a synopsis, moving from peak to peak of archæological achievement. It cannot do justice, for example, to all the scholars who, laboring like ants, have classified and catalogued, at times coming forward with some bold interpretation, a creative hypothesis, or some fruitful enthusiasm.
Throughout the decades following Champollion’s decipherment of the hieroglyphs, the great Egyptological discoveries are linked with the four following names: the Italian, Belzoni, the collector; the German, Lepsius, the cataloguer; the Frenchman, Mariette, the preserver; and the Englishman, Petrie, the measurer and interpreter.
“One of the most remarkable men in the whole history of Egyptology,” Howard Carter, the archæologist, called Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778–1823), one-time strong man in a London circus. Carter was referring to the man’s personality rather than to his professional accomplishments. As we know, amateurs have played important roles in the history of archæology; but of all laymen who have been attracted to the field, Belzoni is perhaps the most curious.
Belzoni was born in Padua, of a family originally Roman, and as a youth thought of entering the church. Before taking orders, however, he became entangled in political intrigues and, to escape being sent to jail, ran off to London. There, according to a newspaper account of the times, he found employment in a cheap music hall as the “Italian giant” and “strong man” who every evening carried an unbelievably large number of men around the stage. During this period, very obviously, nothing could have been farther from his mind than archæology. He seems next to have turned to the study of mechanical engineering, but his interest in this field was not entirely orthodox; for in 1815 he invented a water wheel for use in Egypt, which, he claimed, would accomplish four times as much work as native devices. He must have been a clever and persistent sort of fellow, for he finally secured permission to set up a model of his machine in the palace of Mohammed Ali.
This Mohammed Ali was a rather sinister character, and at the time had just mounted the first rung of the ladder of success. Of Albanian extraction, Mohammed Ali had been a dealer in coffee, then a general, and when Belzoni arrived had been functioning for some time as viceroy, or khedive, of Egypt for the Sublime Porte. Later he was to become absolute ruler of Egypt, and of parts of Syria and Arabia as well. Twice he had administered crushing defeats to English troops. He was also notorious for his brutal political liquidations. On one occasion he had resolved his differences with the Mamelukes by inviting four hundred and eighty beys to a banquet in Cairo and slaughtering them all. Though in many respects he was an admirer of progress, Mohammed Ali was not impressed by Belzoni’s water wheel. Belzoni was not dashed. In the meantime, through the German explorer Burckhardt, he had wangled an introduction to the British consul-general in Egypt, a man named Salt. To Salt he made the audacious proposal that he be allowed to take charge of the transport, from Luxor to Alexandria, of two seated statues of King Amenophis III, or Ramses II, which today are on exhibition in the British Museum.
His next five years were spent collecting, first for Salt, later on his own. He collected everything in sight, from scarabs to obelisks. (One of Belzoni’s obelisks fell off a barge into the Nile, but he fished it out again.) He functioned during a period when Egypt, having become widely known as the greatest source of antiquities in the world, was being aimlessly plundered. Much the same exploitive methods used a couple of decades later in the California and Australian gold rushes were used in digging for golden antiquities. Either there were no laws to govern the situation, or what few there were were ignored. More than once differences of opinion were settled by gunfire.
It was inevitable that this passion for collecting objects without the least regard for their archæological significance should entail more destruction than discovery. Whatever knowledge was incidentally acquired was more than negated by the damage done. Though somewhere along the way Belzoni had picked up a smattering of archæological information, like the rest of his kind he went about his collecting hammer and tongs. He thought nothing, for example, of smashing open sealed tombs with a battering ram.
Despite Belzoni’s rampageous methods—methods that would make a modern archæologist’s hair stand on end—Howard Carter held him in fairly high esteem. On one occasion Carter remarked that Belzoni deserved recognition for his excavations and “the mode and method of carrying them out.” This opinion is hardly intelligible unless we judge Belzoni within the rough context of his times and remember that he was, in large measure, the author of certain discoveries that gave rise to a chain of investigations not yet completed.
In October 1817, in the valley of Biban el-Muluk, near Thebes, Belzoni discovered, among other tombs, that of Sethos (Seti) I, predecessor of the great Ramses, and conqueror of Libya, Syria, and Chatti, land of the Hittites. The empty sarcophagus today is in the Soane Museum in London. The tomb actually had been empty for three thousand years. Where the mummy had disappeared to, Belzoni did not discover. The opening up of the tomb of Sethos paved the way for a long series of important finds in the Valley of the Kings. For years the whole area was intensively excavated, the greatest discovery being made in our own century.
Six months later, on March 2, 1818, the Italian opened up the second Pyramid of Gizeh, tomb of Chephren, and penetrated into the royal burial chamber. These primitive investigations by Belzoni launched the study of the pyramids, greatest structures of the ancient world. Out of the darkness of Egyptian prehistory the first human traits took shape, framed within a vast geometry.
Belzoni was not the first to burrow into the Valley of the Kings, nor the first to seek entrance to a pyramid. Yet despite his being more a seeker after gold than after knowledge, at least he was the first to disclose, in burial chamber and pyramid at two different sites, important archæological problems that were solved only in recent times.
In 1820 Belzoni returned to London, and in the Egyptian Hall that had been erected in Piccadilly some eight years before, he set up an exhibition, the chief attractions of which were the alabaster sarcophagus of Sethos and a model of his burial chamber. A few years later Belzoni died on an exploring trip to Timbuktu. Today we can forgive him the impropriety of scratching his name into the throne of Ramses II in the Ramesseum at Thebes, an act by which he established a vandalistic precedent followed through the years by countless antiquarian Mr. Browns, Herr Schmidts, and Messieurs Leblancs, who ever since have been a thorn in the side of archæologists.
Sethos fights the Hittites in Syria. This design comes from the temple at Thebes. At one time both sculpture and inscription were painted. Belzoni, who found the tomb of Sethos, reported that only traces of the original colors remained.
Belzoni had been the great collector; the time had come for the cataloguers and arrangers to step forth on the stage, greatest of whom was Richard Lepsius.
Alexander von Humboldt, traveler and naturalist, persuaded King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to put up ample funds for an Egyptian expedition. Thirty-one-year-old Richard Lepsius was picked to be leader. Lepsius (born in 1810, in Naumburg, Germany) had studied philology and comparative languages. At the age of thirty-two he had become a lecturer at the University of Berlin. A year later he went on the trip to Egypt.
The three-year schedule, 1843–5, offered an advantage no other expedition had ever enjoyed: time. Quick booty was not the objective; the purpose was to catalogue and to understand; and the abundance of time permitted them to drive their spades into whatever spot seemed likely. They thus spent six months on Memphis alone, and seven on Thebes.
Lepsius’s first success was the discovery of several monuments of the Old Kingdom—the early period of Egyptian history, of pyramid-building, between 3200 and 2270 B.C. He found the traces and remains of thirty hitherto unknown pyramids, thereby extending the total list to sixty-seven. He also investigated one hundred and thirty mastabas, a type of interment chamber neglected by archæologists before him. A mastaba is an oblong structure with sloping sides containing cult rooms and connected by a shaft with a burial chamber in the rock beneath. These mastabas were built during the period of the Old Kingdom to serve as tombs for prominent people. In Tell-el-Amarna Lepsius found material that provided an initial insight into the character of the great religious reformer Amenophis IV. He was also the first to take measurements in the Valley of the Kings. Under his direction casts were made of reliefs on temple walls and of countless inscriptions, and transcriptions were made of cartouches containing the names of royalty. Lepsius ransacked the ages as far back as the fourth millennium B.C. He was the first to impress order on what he saw, the first to see Egyptian history as a panorama, to understand the ruins as the end products of a process of becoming.
The treasures of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin were fruits of this Lepsius expedition. A tremendous array of publications, beginning with the twelve-volume showpiece called Monuments of Egypt and Ethiopia and branching out into a spate of specialized monographs on all manner of esoteric subjects, resulted from the expedition’s intensive study of Egyptological sources.
Lepsius died in 1884, at the age of seventy-four. His biographer, Georg Ebers, an excellent Egyptologist, whose florid romances of Pharaonic times were avidly read by all romantic young ladies about the turn of the century, properly describes him as the real founder of modern archæology. Two of the great classifier’s works assure him a permanent place in posterity: his Egyptian Chronology, published in 1849; and his Book of Egyptian Kings, which came out a year later.
The Egyptians, like all ancient peoples, contrary to our modern habit, did not leave us history books in the modern sense; there were, in short, no historians, nor did they reckon the flow of time from some fixed point of temporal reference. Instead they dated in “king’s years,” calling each year after a prominent event that had happened in it. They compiled lists of kings divided into dynasties, beginning with the first king of the First Dynasty. The oldest annals preserved to us, the so-called Palermo Stone, date from the Old Kingdom, a tantalizingly broken fragment; the Papyrus of the Kings, also in a bad state of preservation, dates from the New Kingdom. The reconstruction of the Egyptian past was much like working out a passably accurate chronology of European history from inscriptions on public buildings, the texts of the church fathers, and the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm. This is pretty much what the pioneers in Egyptology attempted to do. We should accord this problem of constructing an Egyptian chronology at least brief notice, if only because it strikingly illustrates how the archæologists made typically keen use of every point d’appui at their disposal in pinning down four thousand years of human experience. The effort was so successful that today our knowledge of Egyptian dates is more exact, for example, than was Herodotus’, who actually traveled in Egypt almost twenty-five hundred years ago.
Although all the old Egyptian sources had to be given due regard, a piece of writing by an Egyptian priest, as it happened, offered the first historical toehold. The priest, a certain Manetho of Sebennytus, three hundred years before Christ, or soon after the death of Alexander the Great, and sometime during the reign of the first two Ptolemaic kings, wrote a history of Egypt in Greek, called the Egyptian Annals, or Egyptian History. Manetho’s work has not come down to us in complete form. We know him from epitomes found in Julius Africanus, Eusebius, and Josephus. Manetho divided the long list of Pharaohs known to him into thirty dynasties, which same division we use today.
J. H. Breasted, the American archæologist, calls Manetho’s annals a “collection of childish folk-tales.” This harsh judgment ought perhaps to be qualified. We must remember that Manetho had no precedent to guide him, and three thousand years of history to account for. He was in somewhat the position of a modern Greek historian, were he to try to plot out an account of the Trojan War using only national tradition and folklore. For several decades Manetho’s list was the only basic source available to archæologists. (Then, as now, archæology was the technical term for the general study of antiquity. Egyptian monuments and inscriptions are so numerous, however, that they require undivided attention. Since the days of Lepsius the term Egyptology has been used for this specialized field of archæology, as in more recent times the term Assyriology is used for the study of Mesopotamian antiquities.) How far the scholars of the West have departed from Manetho’s chronology is shown by the following array of dates assigned, through the years, by different authorities to the unification of Egypt by King Menes, an event that marked the real beginning of Egyptian history and may be taken as the earliest happening of dynastic significance:
Champollion, 5867 B.C.; Lesueur, 5770; Bökh, 5702; Unger, 5613; Mariette, 5004; Brugsch, 4455; Lauth, 4157; Chabas, 4000; Lepsius, 3892; Bunsen, 3623; Eduard Meyer, 3180; Wilkinson, 2320; Palmer, 2224. Recently the date has been pushed back again. Breasted dates Menes at 3400, Georg Steindorff at 3200, and the newest research at 2900.
It is significant that all dates become more difficult to determine the farther back one goes into the past. As for the more recent phases of Egyptian history—and by this is meant the New Kingdom, and the Late Period, which had just drawn to a close when Cæsar was languishing with Cleopatra—it is possible to make use of comparative dates drawn from Persian, Hebrew, Greek, and Assyrian-Babylonian history.
Suddenly, in 1843, new possibilities of control for the remote past through the comparative approach appeared with the discovery of the Royal Tablet of Karnak, which was deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. On the tablet was inscribed a list of Egyptian rulers from the oldest times down to the Eighteenth Dynasty. Another prime source is the Royal Tablet of Sakkara, which was found in a tomb, and which now reposes in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. On one side of the Sakkara Tablet is a hymn to Osiris, god of the underworld, on the other the prayer of the scribe, Tunri, directed to fifty-eight kings, from Miëbis to Ramses the Great, the names being arranged in two rows.
More famous, however, and even more important for Egyptology, was the Royal List of Abydos. This inscription, which was found in a gallery of the Temple of Sethos, shows Ramses II and Sethos I, the former as a crown prince. They are sculptured in the act of paying homage to their ancestors—Sethos himself swinging a censer—the ancestors listed in two rows, containing seventy-six names all told. Bread, beer, mutton, goose meat, incense, and other things used in votive offerings are all faithfully recorded on the relief. The Abydos list offered excellent opportunities for crosschecking the royal line of succession, but no help in establishing exact dates in our own calendrical fashion.
Strewn about everywhere in the ruins of ancient Egypt, however, were inscriptional and other references to the duration of this or that king’s reign, to the length of such a campaign, to the length of time required to build a temple, and so on. By using the so-called “addition of minimal dates” method—that is, by adding together the regnal intervals—the skeleton of Egyptian history was gradually pieced together.
The first absolute datings, however, were made possible by recourse to something older than Egypt, older than human history, older than man himself—the movements of the stars. The Egyptians had an annual calendar correlated with the changes of the seasons, and had used it since time immemorial in forecasting the flood periods of the Nile, on which the very existence of the land depended. It was not the first calendar, as we shall see later, although, according to Eduard Meyer, it was in use at least by 4241 B.C., a date abandoned as far too early. This Egyptian calendar provided the basis for the Julian calendar, introduced in Rome in 46 B.C., the system of time-reckoning adopted by the Western World and used until replaced, A.D. 1582, by the Gregorian calendar.
The archæologists turned for help to the mathematicians and astronomers, whom they supplied with old texts, copies of inscriptions, and translations of hieroglyphic references to stellar events. By an analysis of announcements concerning the ascension of Sirius on Thout 1—that is, July 19—a date that marked the Egyptian new year, the astronomers were able to place the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty with some exactness at the year 1580 B.C., likewise the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty at the year 2000 B.C., always allowing for an error of three or four years.
Henceforth there were fixed points of reference on which to build a chronology. The known reigns of a whole series of kings could now be fitted into the scheme. Presently it was discovered that the durations assigned by Manetho to some of the dynasties were fantastically exaggerated. Out of this skeletal framework of three thousand years of history a true history of Egypt gradually evolved.
Egyptian culture was a riparian culture. When the first political alliances had come about, the North Kingdom arose in the Delta region, and the South Kingdom arose between Memphis (Cairo) and the first cataract of the Nile. The real history of Egypt begins with the fusion of these two early kingdoms, an event that occurred sometime about 2900 B.C., during the reign of King Menes, of the First Dynasty.
The dynasties that followed have, for easier comprehension, been lumped together in larger groups, known as kingdoms. The dates, especially for the earliest times, are quite inaccurate and may be as much as several hundred years out of the way. The dates and divisions up to the New Kingdom used here will be those of the German Egyptologist Georg Steindorff. Thereafter an appropriate synoptical division will be used, at the same time following Steindorff’s dynastic dates.
The Old Kingdom (2900–2270 B.C.) comprises the First to the Sixth Dynasties. It is the time of portentous cultural germination, a period during which the basic cultural forms, the Egyptian religions, script, and artistic idiom, took characteristic shape. It is also the time of the pyramid builders of Gizeh, of the great kings Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus, all of whom fall in the Fourth Dynasty.
The First Intermediate Period (2270–2100 B.C.) was introduced by the catastrophic collapse of the Old Kingdom. It may be regarded as a transitional period leading to feudalism, an interlude throughout which a factitious royalty lingered on at Memphis. The First Intermediate Period comprises the Seventh to the Tenth Dynasties, which together include more than thirty kings.
The Middle Kingdom (2100–1700 B.C.) represents a period of development dominated by the Theban princes, who threw out the Heracleopolitan kings and again united the country. This era covers the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Dynasties. We may think of it as a time of cultural efflorescence which found expression in the countless distinguished architectural works completed under the four rulers called Amenemhet and the three called Sesostris.
The Second Intermediate Period (1700–1555 B.C.) stands under the sign of the Hyksos rulers. The Hyksos were a Semitic people (“shepherd kings”) who invaded the land of the Nile, conquered it, and held sway for a century. They were finally driven from the country by the Theban princes (Seventeenth Dynasty). Until most recently it had been assumed that the expulsion of the Hyksos is related to the Biblical legend of the exodus of the Children of Israel. Now this hypothesis has been completely abandoned.
The New Kingdom (1555–1090 B.C.) is the epoch of political grandeur, the time of the “Cæsaristic” Pharaohs of the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties. The conquests of Thotmes III forged relationships with the Near East. Foreign peoples were forced to pay tribute to Egypt; tremendous wealth flowed into the land of the Nile. Splendid buildings were erected. Amenophis III formed an alliance with the kings of Babylonia and Assyria. His successor, Amenophis IV (husband of Nefertiti), was the great religious reformer, who attempted to replace the old religion with a form of sun-worship and for that reason called himself Ikhnaton—“He in whom Aton (the sun-god) is satisfied.” He built a new capital in the desert, which he called Tell-el-Amarna, and which became a rival of Thebes. But the new religion collapsed in civil wars and did not survive the King. Under the rule of Amenophis’ stepson, Tutankhamen, the royal residence was moved back to Thebes.
Egypt, however, reached the pinnacle of political power under the rulers of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Ramses II, later called Ramses the Great, during his sixty-six-year reign, projected his omnipotence in monumental—indeed, colossal—architectural works at Abu Simbel, Karnak, Luxor, Abydos, and Memphis, and at Thebes in the mortuary temple called the Ramesseum.
After Ramses’ death anarchy ensued, but Ramses III restored peace and order during a reign that lasted twenty-one years. Thereafter Egypt fell under the sway of the increasingly powerful priests of Amen (Amun, Amon).
The Third Intermediate Period (1090–712 B.C.) was a time of turbulence and changing authority. Among the kings of the Twenty-first to the Twenty-fourth Dynasties, Sheshonk I interests us as the conqueror of Jerusalem who plundered the Temple of Solomon. Under the Twenty-fourth Dynasty, Egypt came under Ethiopian rule for a short time.
The Late Period (712–525 B.C.) marks the conquest of Egypt, during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, by the Assyrians under Esarhaddon. The Twenty-sixth Dynasty was able once again to reunite the country, though with the loss of Ethiopia. The alliance with Greece stimulated trade and cultural exchanges. The last ruler of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, Psamtik (Psammtech) III, was defeated by the Persian King, Cambyses, at the Battle of Pelusium. Thereafter Egypt became a Persian province. The true Egyptian cultural and historical dynamic was spent by 525 B.C.
The rule of Persia (525–332 B.C.) was imposed on Egypt by Cambyses, Darius I, and Xerxes I, and collapsed under Darius II. During this period Egyptian culture lived on the past, and the land became known as the “booty of strong peoples.”
The Græco-Roman Rule (332 B.C.–A.D. 638) was initiated by Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt and the founding of the city of Alexandria, which became the focal point of the Greek-metropolitan ethos. The Alexandrian Empire began to show decline, but through Ptolemy III Egypt again rose to political autonomy and power. The two centuries preceding the birth of Christ were filled with the dynastic quarrels of the Ptolemies. Egypt drifted more and more into the Roman orbit. Under the later Roman emperors the fiction of an autonomous Egypt was preserved, but in reality the country was nothing but a Roman province, granary of the Roman Empire, a colony drastically impoverished by plundering.
Christianity took hold very early in Egypt. From A.D. 640 onward, however, the land became completely subject to the Arab caliphate, and later tributary to the Osmanli Turks. Egypt finally entered into the European historical complex through its conquest by Napoleon.
In 1850 Auguste Mariette, thirty-year-old French archæologist, climbed to the top of the citadel of Cairo. Just landed in Egypt, he was burning to have a look at the land he had heard so much about. As he slowly turned, staring raptly in all directions, an antique empire took shape before his mind’s eye. He looked beyond the slender minarets of Islam to the gigantic silhouettes of the pyramids, rising out of the western rim of the desert. The past beckoned him. And though he had come on a brief assignment, what he saw from the citadel became his fate.
Born in Boulogne in 1821, Mariette had begun to study Egyptology at an early age. In 1848 he had been appointed to an assistant’s post in the Louvre, and it was while there that he had been commissioned to go to Cairo to buy papyri. In Egypt he saw how its antiquities were being plundered, and soon found he was much more interested in doing something to remedy this condition than in haggling with antique dealers. How could he help? Archæologists and tourists, excavators, and everybody else who happened along seemed to be carried away by the passion for “collecting antiques”—that is, for robbing the old monuments and making off with the treasures of the land. The native Egyptians themselves assisted in this thievish process. The laborers employed by the archæologists slipped all the small objects they came across into their pockets for resale to foreigners “foolish” enough to pay money for them. This random spoliation also resulted in a great deal of irreparable physical damage. Material success was held in much higher esteem than scientific accomplishment. Despite Lepsius’s orderly example, the pillaging methods of Belzoni continued to be the order of the day. Mariette, who actually was interested mainly in excavation, realized that without a conservation program the future of archæology in Egypt would be seriously jeopardized. And indeed a few years later he did organize tremendously successful controls and set up the world’s largest museum of Egyptian antiquities. Yet he, too, third among the four great Egyptologists of the nineteenth century, turned to excavation and discovery first.
He had not been in Egypt very long before he noticed a most remarkable fact. Stone sphinxes of obviously identical sculptural inspiration were found on display in the private luxury gardens of Egyptian officialdom and in front of the newer temples in Alexandria, Cairo, and Gizeh. Mariette was the first to wonder where the sphinxes had come from.
Chance plays an important part in all discoveries. Walking through the ruins at Sakkara, a town near Cairo, Mariette came upon a sphinx, buried all but the head in the sand, near the great stepped pyramid that has been identified with Zoser. Mariette was by no means the first man to see this artifact, but he was definitely the first to recognize a similarity between it and those of Cairo and Alexandria. And when he found on it an inscription recording a pronouncement attributed to Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, everything that he had read, heard, or seen about the subject fell into place in his mind; he envisioned the mysterious lost Avenue of Sphinxes, which was known to have existed, but which up to that time had never been found. Why could not the Avenue of Sphinxes be located right here at Sakkara? Mariette hired a gang of Arabs, equipped them with shovels, and set them to digging. Their labors brought to light one hundred and forty-one sphinxes! Today we call the excavational area that Mariette opened up near Sakkara the Serapeum, or Serapeion, after the god Serapis.
The Avenue of Sphinxes at one time had connected two temples. These temples Mariette also excavated, and found the artifacts traditionally identified with the site—the tombs of the Apis, the sacred bulls. This discovery provided much deeper insight than had hitherto obtained into certain Egyptian cultural forms; that is, into a mode of religious veneration alien and sinister, a form of worship that even the ancient Greeks, in their travelogues, reported as bizarre.
The Apis bull. The white triangle on his forehead is the symbol marking him as sacred among his taurine kind.
Not until late in Egyptian history were the likenesses of the gods given human form. In the old religious consciousness of the land the gods were incarnated in the form of emblems, plants, and animals. The goddess Hathor was a cow, thought to dwell in a sycamore tree; the god Nefertem in a lotus flower; the goddess Neith was honored in the form of a shield on which two crossed arrows were nailed. Mostly, however, the Egyptian deities were represented in animal forms. The god Khnum was a ram; Horus a falcon; Thoth an ibis; Sebek a crocodile; the goddess Nut, at Bubastis, a cat; and the goddess Buto a serpent.
Not only these animal gods, as such, but actual animals, providing they met certain qualifications, were revered. The most famous of these sacred animals, the object of an elaborate cult, was the sacred bull of Memphis, Apis, whom the Egyptians conceived to be the servant of the god Ptah.
The sacred bull was worshipped as an actual animal. He was housed in a temple and tended by priests. When he died he was embalmed and buried with great ceremony, whereupon a new bull with the same markings took his place. Cemeteries worthy of the gods and kings were built for the interment of these holy beasts. At Bubastis and Beni Hasan there was a graveyard for cats, at Ombos one for crocodiles, at Ashmunein one for ibises, at Elephantine one for rams. Some of the animal cults spread throughout the whole land and in so doing developed in endless variation. Others were locally restricted, and after a sudden flare-up would fade into obscurity for centuries.
The god Ptah, “creator of the world.”
Mariette stood before the resting-place of the sacred Apis bulls. At the entrance to the subterranean chambers was a mortuary chapel comparable to those built at the entrances of the mastabas used for the interment of the Egyptian nobility. A steep shaft led down into the long burial chamber where Apis, in innumerable incarnations, had been buried in the days of Ramses the Great and for hundreds of years thereafter. Mariette found the remains disposed in separate chambers arranged along a passageway 320 feet long. Laterexcavations, which brought the tomb down to Ptolemaic times, increased the total length of the galleries to 1,120 feet. What a cult!
Guided by flickering torchlight, the Egyptian laborers hardly daring to raise their voices above a whisper as they slunk along fearfully behind him, Mariette went from one burial chamber to the next. The stone sarcophagi in which the bulls had been laid away were made of heavy black and red granite, each one cut from a single polished block approximately 9.6 feet high, 6.4 feet broad, and 12.8 feet long. The weight of these blocks has been estimated at about 72 tons.
The covers had been pushed off many of the sarcophagi. Mariette and his successors found only two of the stone containers absolutely intact, with all the original burial regalia inside. The rest had been rudely plundered. When? Nobody knows the answer. The robbers are nameless. Again and again Egyptologists, in dismay and helpless anger, have discovered that robbers have anticipated them. The eternally shifting sands, which drift over temples and tombs and cities, have erased all traces of the culprits.
Mariette had plunged into the dark region of lost cults. He was to be granted the privilege—after his excavations at Edfu, Karnak, and Deir el-Bahri—of having a supreme glimpse into the rich and colorful life of ancient Egypt.
Today the tourist, having emerged from the tombs of the sacred bulls, rests on the terrace of the Mariette House, to the right of the stepped pyramid and at the left of the Serapeum. There he sips Arabian coffee and lets himself be harangued by the loquacious guides in preparation for the picture world that awaits his gaze.
It was near the Serapeum that Mariette found the tomb of the courtier and great landowner Ti. The tomb of the rich man was tremendously old, in contrast with the tombs of the sacred bulls, where signs of human activity had been found dating back to the relatively recent Ptolemaic period. Indeed, work on the tombs of Apis had been terminated so abruptly that a large sarcophagus of black granite was left just inside the entrance instead of being taken down the shaft and into its allotted place. The tomb of Ti had been finished soon after the time when Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus were building their pyramids. This tomb was distinguished by its wealth of realistic decoration. Mariette was well acquainted with ancient Egyptian burial customs and had expected to find the usual complement of funerary gifts, the usual rich carvings and narrative friezes. All these were present in the tomb of Ti, but in unexpected abundance. The reliefs on the walls of burial chamber and corridor proved to be far superior to anything discovered up to that time in the detail used to show the daily life of the deceased. The rich man, Ti, had evidently held in high regard absolutely everything connected with his domestic and official existence. All the personalities and appurtenances of his entourage had been taken along with him, figuratively, into the realm of death. Ti himself is shown in a dominant position in all the reliefs, three or four times larger than common people and slaves. The very physical proportions of his likeness express might and meaning and a vast gap between his and the lesser lot.
The highly stylized, linear, and richly detailed wall paintings and reliefs depict the utilitarian as well as the leisure activities of the rich. We see flax being prepared, reapers mowing grain, donkeymen driving donkeys, threshers and winnowers at work on the grain. The process of building a ship 4,500 years ago is illustrated: the felling of the trees; the cutting of the planks; the use of adze, hand ram, and paring chisel. We see that saw, ax, and auger were in common use. We also see gold-smelters at work, and observe how air was blown into the ovens to produce high temperatures. We discover sculptors, stonemasons, and leatherworkers at their daily tasks.
Again and again we are impressed by the power over his fellows invested in an official of Ti’s status. Village magistrates are represented in the act of being driven like sheep to Ti’s house to settle their accounts, with constables roughly hauling laggards along by the scruff of the neck. We see endless rows of peasant women bringing Ti gifts, and troops of servants, some leading up sacrificial bulls, others in the act of slaughtering them. We see Ti at the table, with his wife, with his whole family, Ti out fowling, Ti traveling with his family in the Delta, and Ti on a journey through the papyrus thickets.
In Mariette’s day the reliefs were valued more for their factual than for their æsthetic qualities. Through them it was possible to get an idea of the most intimate particulars of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. The reliefs showed not only what their ocupations were, but how they went about them. Other monuments came to light that greatly extended the factual type of information used as a decorative motif on the tomb of Ti. Some of these relics were found in the tomb of the vizier Ptahhotep, and the tomb of Mereruka, discovered some forty years later. All these artifacts were found at Sakkara. And these insights into the primitive yet carefully elaborated techniques developed by the Egyptians to cope with the physical problems of their time make the feat of building the pyramids all the more admirable. As for Mariette and his contemporaries, knowing what the Egyptians had to work with only increased the mystery of the pyramids. In actual fact Egyptian technology rested on an abundance of slave power. For many decades after Mariette all kinds of fantastic conjectures about the secret methods used by the Egyptians in building their Cyclopean structures continued to appear in the press, in travel books, and even in technical publications, when in truth there was no mystery at all. The principles of Egyptian engineering were revealed by a man who was born in London at the time Mariette was digging at the Serapeum.
The great lord Ti is punted through the papyrus thickets.
Eight years after Mariette had his first view of ancient Egypt from the citadel of Cairo, he finally turned his mind to what from the first he had sensed to be the most essential task. In Bulak he founded the Egyptian Museum, and a little later was appointed by the viceroy to be director of the Egyptian office of antiquities and chief supervisor of all excavations.
In 1891 the Egyptian Museum was moved to Gizeh, and finally, in 1902, settled permanently at Cairo, not far from the Nile bridge built by Dourgnon in the fake antique style that was the best which could be mustered at the turn of the century. The museum became a control station as well as an Egyptological collection. Henceforth whatever was discovered in Egypt, whether found by chance or methodically disclosed, had first to be offered to the museum. By this means Mariette, Frenchman and foreigner, stopped the plunder and incontinent sale of antiquities that rightly belonged to the Egyptians. As a token of gratitude Egypt erected a statue of Mariette in the museum garden, and after his death brought his remains to Egypt, where they were laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus.