Ancient History & Civilisation





The world into which the Egyptian baby emerged was a narrow one, especially in the physical sense; the Valley of the Nile is some six hundred miles long and on average about ten miles wide. Pharaonic Egypt consisted of the elongated valley and the triangular delta, where the river breaks up into several branches before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The two parts of Egypt are very different in physical geography, and the Egyptians always thought of them as distinct areas. Before the First Dynasty, when Egypt emerges into historic times as a united nation under a single king, the Delta and the Valley were probably separate kingdoms. Even after the unification there are constant references to what must once have been separate entities.

The king of Egypt wore two hats—literally. His Double Crown was a combination of the White Crown of Upper Egypt and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The duality of the monarchy is indicated by many other signs: the two goddesses, Nekhbet of the south and Buto of the north, protected the king; and his titles include “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” and “Lord of the Two Lands.” We could go on, but this is enough to indicate why we feel we are safe in assuming that, at some point, there was political separation as well as topographical difference between Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Two Lands were the areas we call Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, corresponding, roughly, to the Valley and the Delta. (The Nile flows from south to north, so Upper Egypt is “under” Lower Egypt on a normal map.) You may encounter a reference to Middle Egypt, meaning the area between Cairo and Assiut, but the threefold division was not natural to the Egyptians. They apparently enjoyed parallels, for in addition to the contrast between Upper and Lower Egypt they emphasized the difference between the Red Land and the Black.

The Black Land was Egypt, and anyone who has ever visited the Nile Valley can understand why the Egyptians chose this name for their own land, in comparison with the Red Land of the desert. On either side of the Nile there is a strip of rich, dark soil which, before the construction of the Aswan dams, was fertilized annually by the inundation of the river. The Black Land ends so abruptly that it is as if a divine finger had drawn a line down the length of the land, decreeing: on this side life, the green of growing crops; on that side, death and sterility in the lifeless sand. The sterility which begins within the Valley itself extends on, up and out, over the cliffs and into the two deserts of Libya and Arabia, which border Egypt on east and west.

For the Egyptians, the desert was a place of abhorrence. There dwelt the wretched Bedouin, the wanderers who did not know the gods; there the traveler found heat and thirst and misery. Yet without the Red Land, Egypt as we know it would never have existed. From the barren plateaus the Egyptians drew the gold which made them an object of envy among the other ancient peoples of the Near East and gave them the power that comes from wealth. In the Red Land of the desert they found copper, the source of the tools that built the pyramids and the weapons that helped them conquer an empire. And on the sands that bordered the Black Land, below the cliffs, they built the temples and tombs that have survived to tell us of the splendor that was Egypt. The rich black soil the Egyptians prized so highly gives life to the ephemeral things that survive for one season; the sterile desert sand has preserved not only stone but such frail objects as textiles and papyrus and human flesh. Ancient Egypt was the product of both Black Land and Red Land, though its people called it Kemet, the Black.

The Delta region was all black land—flat, green, and swampy. Artifacts, including mummies, don’t survive as well in damp soil as in dry sand. Thus, we know less about Lower Egypt than we do about the narrow ribbon of valley. However, a number of expeditions have been working in this difficult area, where the water table is often so high that pumps must work continually to keep the lower levels of excavation dry. They have come up with some interesting new information.

In the western Delta was the predynastic northern capital, Buto, “the place of the Throne.” Its goddess, the cobra, later became one of the two protective powers that guarded the king. South of Buto was Sais, with its sacred lake, the home of the goddess Neith. Farther east, almost in the center of the Delta, lay Busiris, where Osiris lived before he moved south to Abydos, in Upper Egypt. Bubastis, southeast of Busiris, should be an object of interest to all cat fanciers, since it was here that the feline-headed goddess Bastet had her chief shrine. North and east of Bubastis lay Mendes, home of the sacred ram, and directly east of that city was Tanis, on the salty plain south of Lake Menzalah. It was not so old a city as Sais or Buto. For a time scholars believed Tanis could be identified with Avaris, the stronghold of the Hyksos, who invaded Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period and took over the northern part of the country. Recent excavation by a team from the University of Vienna has proved that the Hyksos capital was someplace else—a site called Tell el Dab’a, in the eastern Delta. Tanis was an important city, though, and the capital of Egypt in the late dynasties. A French expedition working there at the beginning of World War II found royal tombs of the Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Dynasties, with treasures second only to those of Tutankhamon. In its neighborhood the Ramesside kings built temples and plea sure palaces. One source of plea sure, surely, was the fine wine of the Tanis area, and that of Inet, south of Tanis.

The northeast Delta was famous for wine in ancient times, and it also provided pasturage for the great herds of the king and the gods. Great stretches of the region must have been pure swamp, filled with the pretty, feathery papyrus and with reeds which grew higher than a man’s head. The reeds sheltered geese and duck and other fowl, including ibis and heron. There were even hippopotami there in pharaonic times, although these animals have now vanished from Egypt proper, along with crocodiles. The Delta cities and villages were often raised on hillocks or man-made eminences. The area is wet today, and it may have been wetter in ancient times. Now there are two main exits for the river, the Damietta and Rosetta Mouths. In the time of Herodotus there were no fewer than seven mouths, and between the main branches there were streams and canals and lakes.

It is a pity we don’t know more about the Delta, with its handsome palaces and temples, its prized vintages, its herds and wildfowl and fields. We have had to be content with a hasty, bird’s-eye survey of the area. Now let us compensate by viewing Upper Egypt in more detail. Naturally, we will go by boat. It is still the pleasantest way of seeing Egypt, and in ancient times it was the only practical way.

We cast off from the docks at Mennefer, Memphis, before dawn on a fine summer morning in the fifty-second year of the Lord of the Two Lands Usermaatre Setepenre Ramses Meriamon—whom later generations will know, more conveniently, as Ramses II. We have the king’s permission to hitch a ride, and such permission is necessary because the ship and its cargo belong to him, as does almost everything in Egypt that doesn’t belong to the gods—grain, temples, animals, and men. The voyage is not a commercial enterprise for profit. The boat carries wine of the king’s vineyards of Inet to be delivered to the god Khnum of Elephantine, and to the god’s priests, who will probably enjoy it more than he does. Along the way we will stop to drop off a few jars at certain cities especially favored by the king.

The skies are a pale brightening blue as we lean against the rail, yawning, and look back to see the stately triangles of the Giza pyramids outlined on the horizon. Above our heads the great sails swell and grow taut; boats coming downstream to Memphis go with the current, but we must depend on the north wind for power. Luckily it is almost always blowing from that direction. We pick up speed, leaving Memphis behind—the White Wall, the first capital of united Egypt, which has stood at the junction of the Two Lands since the time of Menes the Unifier. From afar we can see the pylon gate of the temple of Ptah rising high above the massed greenery of palms and tamarisks that beautifies its courts.

The light grows stronger; then the glowing disk of the sun, Re-

Harakhte, soars on falcon wings up over the rim of the world. His beams illumine the mighty bulk of the Step Pyramid, marking the old cemetery of Sakkara. Across the river, on our left, the black holes of the limestone quarries at Masarah are conspicuous against the pale gold of the cliffs. From these quarries came the stones which smoothed the slopes of the pyramids of Giza, and still the pharaohs delve into the heart of the hills to extract blocks for their temples and shrines.

The sun is high when we pass the Dahshur pyramids; their slopes shine golden in the light. At Medum we see the last of the big pyramid tombs of the Old Kingdom. It is a landmark for miles around. Still pyramid-shaped, it will not remain so much longer. The collapse of its sides has already begun, and in the twenty-first century it will look like a tall, stepped tower.

Near Medum we have to stop and tie up for the night. Nothing short of a dying mother or a threat to the crown could make a captain sail his craft in the darkness. There are too many sandbars, for one thing, and the spiritual dangers are equally grave. The dead wander at night—the ones with their faces turned backwards.

The captain has invited us to dine with him on the deck. It is a pleasant spot, with the cool night breeze touching our faces and the glitter of stars overhead. The captain apologizes for the meal—just rough sailor’s food—but we find it more than ample. A roast duck, onions and radishes, fresh baked bread from the village where we lie at anchor, and fruit to finish up with—dates and apricots and figs. And—can it be?—wine of Inet!

The captain is surprised and a bit hurt when we mention the wine, although we do so tactfully. Certainly it’s wine of Inet. Would you expect him to travel six hundred miles with that nectar in the hold and not have so much as a taste? He shrugs, throwing out his hands in a gesture which must have been born with the human race. A little wine here and there will never be missed; everyone expects that sort of thing, it’s the custom. He is an honest man; he won’t sell a quarter of the cargo on the side, with a share of the profits to the scribe who checks the king’s accounts at the end of the trip. None of that sort of thing for him! Indeed, it is not too safe at this point in history, for Usermaatre (may he live, prosper, and be healthy!) is not patient with trifling of that nature. In past times, the captain has heard, such things were done with impunity. The good old days…but who is going to make a fuss over a jar or two? It is excellent wine, isn’t it? We agree, and empty another cup, safe in the knowledge that if anyone is going to suffer for the missing wine it won’t be us.

Next day we pass the entrance to the Fayum. If we could see that far—which we can’t—we would behold a wide lake surrounded by green fields and temples, towns, and palaces. The wonder of the Fayum area is the Labyrinth, as it will be called by a Greek named Strabo a thousand years from now. The captain knows it as the temple of Amenemhat, an ancient king; it contains two thousand rooms built of monolithic slabs of stone. The Fayum is like a big oasis, attached to the Nile by a tributary which will be called the Bahr Yusuf—Joseph’s Canal—to commemorate a man and a series of events of which Egyptian records hold not the slightest trace. Is this because Joseph never existed, except in the poetic imaginations of the Hebrews? It’s a great story, from the coat of many colors to the final triumph of Joseph as right-hand man of pharaoh, but there is no archaeological evidence for it. Ramses II is believed by some to have been the pharaoh of the Exodus. There’s no evidence for that either, but if an evil spirit appeared and offered a biblical scholar the chance to take a trip like this one in exchange for his immortal soul, many of them, I imagine, would be sorely tempted.

One hundred and eighty miles south of Memphis, we pull into the docks at Beni Hassan, our first real stop, to drop off a few jars of wine. The local prince is partial to Delta wine, and he is a close friend of the king’s. They shared many a jar on the Kadesh campaign. The town is on the east bank, and up in the cliffs behind it there are tombs, already ancient, which archaeologists of future generations will cherish tenderly. The prince is not at home just now; he’s off in the desert hunting, so we are not invited to drop in for a drink. The captain is anxious to get on, so as soon as the prince’s porters have carried off the jars we set sail again.

Next day we pass a spot where the eastern cliffs fall back, leaving a fertile cup of land along the river. We crowd to the side and stare; the sailors whisper among themselves and finger the amulets hung around their necks on bits of string. There is not much to see now, only ruined walls and heaps of stone. But once this was a city, the capital of the archheretic who tried to defy the king of the gods himself. He met the fate he deserved, that criminal of Akhetaton. Even his name is forbidden now, so we don’t mention it, or that of his more famous son in-law, Tutankhamon.

Just below Akhetaton, which we know better as Tell el Amarna, we are conscious of a tightening of tension on board. The captain comes out from under his shelter and stands alert in the prow, eyes sweeping the river. The oars are manned. Then we see that the cliffs which bound the river on the east have moved in. They form a sheer wall down into the water, and from countless holes in the rock an army of birds emerges, fluttering and screaming. This is one of the worst spots on the river, where gusts of wind dropping down the cliffs seize the boat and whirl it into hidden sandbars. The oars dig in, at a shouted command, and we swing away from the cliffs, missing a sand-bar by inches. There are twenty miles of this sort of thing, and when we emerge from the narrows of the Gebel Abu Feda (a name, of course, which our captain has never heard of), we are ready to stop for the night. The captain took a chance coming through so late; twilight falls as we drop anchor and prepare the evening meal.

Eighty miles from Beni Hassan, over two hundred and fifty from Memphis, and we are approaching Assiut. We have been on the way for over ten days now, and we are less than halfway to Elephantine. Assiut is a great city whose rulers once came close to being kings of Egypt, and the prince of Assiut is still an important nobleman. Perhaps if we reach the city before nightfall we will have time for a visit to the tombs of his ancestors, up in the cliffs.

Date palms and sycamores, pomegranate and persea, fields of flax and wheat—it is through a green, fertile district that we pass on from Assiut, reaching the holy city of Abydos two weeks after leaving Memphis. Osiris himself lies buried here, and the waters are crowded with boats. Some are barges, bringing stone for the great temple Ramses is building, but most are carrying pilgrims to the shrine of Osiris—live pilgrims and dead ones. A funeral boat, with a gilded mummy case on deck under an awning, cuts under our prow, and the captain, forgetting respect for the dead, hurls a string of curses at the sweating rowers. Then he steps to the side and makes an obeisance and says a prayer or two in the general direction of the Great Temple. He will make this journey again one day, in the same shape as the Osiris on the boat he nearly ran down—if he can save enough to pay for the pilgrimage.

When we reach Hu (which the Greeks will call Diospolis Parva) the perpetual low undercurrent of grumbling which marks the Egyptian sailor rises to an audible growl. We have had stretches before where the men had to man the oars, not only in the narrows but in spots where the river turned east or west for a short distance. Here begins the great bend, going almost due east for thirty miles and then turning back on itself for another thirty miles westward. There will be blisters even on the sailors’ callused hands three days from now.

The last of the cities on the eastward section of the bend is Denderah, the site of the Hathor temple. In the twenty-first century A.D., men will travel a long way to visit the Temple of Denderah, but they will see only a graceless, late version of the wonder we now behold—a shrine built by Thutmose III, the great conqueror of the Eighteenth Dynasty, after a plan handed down from the time of Khufu.

Past the cities of Coptos and Kus and Nagadah, still laboriously rowing; and then we are in the long westward stretch, and ahead of us, red in the sunset, rise the obelisks and pylons of Thebes. The capitals of Egypt’s present kings lie far to the north, in Memphis and Tanis, but they still come here for burial, where the capital of the king of the gods will always remain. The captain calls it Waset, but the Greeks will give it the name that endures—Thebes of the Hundred Gates, with its massive temples of Karnak and Luxor. A little farther, and we can see both temples; the gold-tipped flagstaffs before the painted pylons bear scarlet banners that flutter bravely in the evening breeze. As we move in toward the docks on the east bank the panorama of west Thebes, City of the Dead, glides into view: first the giant seated statues flanking the handsome mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, then the temple of our own Ramses, looking raw and new against the weathered cliffs. It makes a brave show, however, even in comparison with the other rich temples that run in a colorful line along the western desert. In a sheltered bay there is one structure that holds the eye, among all the other marvels—a temple of sweeping colonnades and soaring ramps. This temple is dedicated to Amon and Hathor and to the Thutmosid kings, says the captain, and he ought to know; he is a widely traveled man and has visited many of the temples himself. We nod politely; but we, travelers from a world distant in time as well as in space, for once know better than the native of the era of Ramses Usermaatre. This was the temple of Hatshepsut, the woman who dared to be king. Her name is not mentioned in the king lists. Her cartouches and her form have been cut out and covered over on the walls of her own temple. It will remain for archaeologists of a future day to bring her back to life.

It is still a few hours before dark, but the captain decides to lie over at Thebes till morning. He is an indulgent captain, for he lets the men go ashore. We seize the opportunity too and go up to pay our respects to Amon—a sheep, perhaps, to be offered at the sunset service. After our religious obligations are fulfilled we can visit the town. We owe it to ourselves to see the nightlife of this great city of the past. There is not time to visit the tombs on the west bank, even if we were allowed to do so. The Valley of the Kings is guarded, and inquisitive visitors are regarded with suspicion.

Unfortunately the sailors find the nightlife of Thebes equally fascinating, though they lack our antiquarian bent. In the morning they are sleepy and disagreeable, and two of them never show up at all. The captain comments on their ancestors and personal habits, hires two of the hangers-on around the dock, and we set sail, only an hour behind schedule.

The men have another ten or fifteen miles of rowing ahead of them, but we leisured tourists can lean over the boat’s side and watch the obelisks of Karnak fade into the distance. Before long we are passing Hermonthis, also on the Theban plain. Montu lives here, Montu the war god. Then at last we round the far bend and head south under a stiff breeze. The pace seems like flying after the hard days of rowing; two days after leaving Thebes we pass the twin cities, El Kab with the remains of its ancient wall and Hierakonpolis on the opposite side of the river. They are very old cities indeed, dating back to the time of the primeval kings. A little farther on is Edfu, one of the sanctuaries of Horus. As at Denderah, we now see something finer than the Ptolemaic temple which will one day attract hordes of tourists; this is the original, designed by the great Imhotep himself, who erected the Step Pyramid. His plan has been cherished and preserved by all succeeding kings.

Two more days, and we approach Silsileh, sacred to Sobek the crocodile god. There is a good reason for being polite to crocodiles here. The plateaus of the northern part of Egypt are limestone rock, which changes to sandstone near Silsileh, where the river cliffs come together like the pylons of a giant gateway. Whirl pools, rocks, and sandbars make this into a treacherous stretch; often in the past boats have struck and capsized. Then the proper prayers to Sobek might have paid dividends. Gape as we may, we see no crocodiles; they have become scarce in past generations. But as the captain pessimistically remarks, you usually don’t see them until it’s too late.

There is another small bend, and a group of islands, at Kom Ombo, which will be a favorite tourist spot in a few thousand years; from there we have a straight stretch twenty-five miles long into Elephantine. The scenery makes a wonderful close to this part of our trip. Straight ahead is the end of the island of Elephantine, with a cluster of houses around the temple, which is on the high point at the south end of the island. The sandstone cliffs begin to show outbreaks of granite, and granite boulders protrude above the brown water of the river.

The house of the prince is on the island—his earthly house. His House of Eternity is being built for him in the north, so he can lie near his royal master. But there are tombs high in the western cliffs across from the island; we can see them, if the sun is right, as rectangular black holes against the cliff face. If we feel like it, we can climb the cliff and walk right in; these Houses of Eternity are empty now. Perhaps the prince of Elephantine, who is also vizier of Cush, is wise to locate his own tomb in the capital where the cemeteries are guarded against thieves. His predecessors, the owners of the empty tombs, however, were not men who leaned on someone else for protection. Explorers and adventurers, they set out for the next world just as they had ventured into the wild jungles of inner Africa—alone, leading instead of following. We can read about their exploits if we like; they are carved on the walls of their tombs, and in perfectly good Egyptian too. Some of the words are a little odd, old-fashioned, but any literate person can read them. There is a lot to see at Elephantine: the granite quarries; the two holes out of which the Nile flows; and on the island of Sehel, to the south, the Nilometer, which measures the height of the inundation, so important to the prosperity of the nation.


Elephantine is the border between Egypt proper and the land of Nubia; the boundary is marked by a particularly nasty cataract region filled with granite rocks. To get to Nubia we go overland for a few miles and join our boat, which has been towed over the rocks, below the cataract. We get on board opposite a big island which will one day be called Philae.

The next part of the trip is not as interesting; the land is poor and not so green with growing crops. Insofar as the monuments go, however, we might still be in Egypt. We pass temples built in the traditional style at half a dozen places, and at least half of them were built by Ramses, a not immodest pharaoh. His most impressive enterprise is at Abu Simbel, which we reach on the eighth day after leaving Aswan. The temple itself is cut into the rock; on the facade are four enormous statues of Ramses, sixty-six feet high.

One of the passengers on our boat is a scribe, who will leave us at Abu Simbel. He carries a bag of scrolls with the texts which he is going to copy onto the walls of the temple, and he tells us that the king wants to revise—once again—the inscriptions that describe his great victories over the Hittites, that presumptuous group of people far away in the north. The scribe is a middle-aged man, run to fat a trifle around the waistline, as scribes usually are; his face has the blank amiability of the trained bureaucrat of any age. But we think we see a twitch at the corner of his mouth as he refers, respectfully, to the king’s famous victory. We too know a few things about the battle of Kadesh, but we are just as tactful as the scribe.

To purists the statues at Abu Simbel seem too big, and rather stumpy. The facade of the temple looks overloaded, with the four colossi, a complicated sculptured group over the doorway, and a row of carved apes on top of the whole thing. It is impressive, though, in keeping with the ambitions of the king. The smaller, adjoining temple is dedicated to the king’s wife, Nefertari, but hers is not the only image to appear there. You can guess who predominates. Beautiful or not, it is certainly solid. As the captain says, it will surely endure as long as the pyramids of Giza.

A further two days’ travel brings us to the Second Cataract, where the river descends in a series of rapids and a chaos of glistening black boulders, wet with foam. Above the gorge is our destination, and it is quite a sight: a massive fort, with battlements and ramparts. Our messages are for the commander of Buhen, where we are welcomed by a crowd which consists of most of the inhabitants of the fort. It is a dull life, and they are always glad to see someone from home.

Buhen is a good place to stop on this trip, for it marks the end of the area which has been under Egyptian control for so long that it is Egyptian in manners and customs—Lower Nubia, or Wawat, as it was known in those days. Anyhow, the rapids of the Second Cataract are dangerous; few vessels attempt to pass them. There are forty miles of rapids, with more forts along the way. The region to the south, Upper Nubia, or Cush, was invaded by several warrior pharaohs, but it refused to stay conquered. We decide not to go on; we are five hundred years too early for the pyramids of Napata and Meroe, which will be built by the descendants of the wretched Cushites whom the commander of Buhen has just mentioned with such sneering condescension. He seems like a pleasant fellow; we need not tell him that within a few centuries the wretched Cushites will be on their way north to take over the throne of Egypt.

We have seen most of the Black Land now, and without so much as leaving the deck of the ship. Boat travel is pleasant; but as we turn from the Black Land to a quick survey of the Red, we can be thankful that our journey is only an imaginary one. We are going into the desert, and that requires fortitude.

The deserts—the Libyan on the west and the Arabian on the east—are high above the valley. In prehistoric times the river cut its way through a plateau which is composed of limestone in the north and sandstone in the south, so that by the pharaonic period, as today, the valley lay at the bottom of a trench whose cliffs are several hundred feet high.

If we were going into the eastern desert with the ancient Egyptians, we would probably backtrack down the Nile to Coptos, which lies on the eastward bend where the river comes closest to the Red Sea. Here we would fit out a caravan of donkeys—the camel will not be known for a long time yet—and start out along the Wadi Hammamat, heading due east.

The eastern plateau is full of these wadis, which are like small canyons or arroyos, and we follow them when we can. There are wells along this particular wadi, which has been a traveled route for millennia. Even so, it is a dreadful trip. The landscape is as barren and dead as a scene on the moon; high mountains parallel the coast, and at one point in our route we have to climb over a pass that rises to 2,500 feet above sea level. The sun is baking hot, and the short-lived spring flowers, products of the winter rains, have long since died. Remembering the cool gardens around the prince’s palace in Coptos, we wipe our streaming brows and wonder why anyone but a madman would venture into these purgatorial rocks. The clue lies, in part, in the ancient name of Coptos. It was called Nebet, and “Nebet” means “the Golden Place.”

Some of the gold that made Egypt great among the nations came from Nubia, but a goodly share of it was found in the desert east of Egypt proper. Some of the gold is still there. Corporations to rework the ancient mines were formed in the last century of our era, but the effort had to be abandoned after a few years because the ores were not worth the expense of extraction. This problem would not have worried the Egyptians; if they wanted something they were willing to put forth a degree of energy which we would consider prohibitive—as witness the pyramids. Perhaps, too, they got all the richer ores and left the rest.

In the Museum at Turin there is a particularly fascinating papyrus, perhaps the oldest treasure map in the world. It may have been drawn at about the time of this imaginary journey to ancient Egypt, and it shows the location of some of the gold mines of the eastern desert. Archaeologists are not sure which mines were meant, but they may have been the very mines that lie along the Hammamat route. These mines, those of Fawakir, are almost on Egypt’s front doorstep compared with some of the others. At some of the desolate, isolated sites there are ruins of ancient camps—stalls for cattle and for the miserable human cattle who worked the mines, barracks for the troops who kept them at a job none of them would have endured unless they had been forced to do it. Perhaps only criminals and prisoners of war were sent to these godforsaken spots; it would have been punishment to suit any crime.

There are jewels in this desert as well as gold—garnets, agate, chalcedony, jasper, rock crystal, carnelian—all prized by the Egyptians for ornaments. Apparently the ancients never discovered the beryls and emeralds, which were found later.

Hard stone was quarried in this barren landscape. True, all stones are hard, but some, I am told, are a lot harder than others. The limestone and sandstone of the valley cliffs, from which most temples were constructed, are soft stones. The Egyptians wanted finer material for special objects, such as the sarcophagus that held a king’s body and the statue that depicted his divine form. At Aswan they quarried red and black granite, from a quarry northeast of Cairo they obtained quartzite, and from the Wadi Hammamat they got the “beautiful bekhen stone,” a gray-blue graywacke prized for the mirrorlike polish it could take. Flint also came from the desert; the ancient mines have been located.


Ancient map of gold-mining area

Under its forbidding surface, the desert was a treasure house. But the Egyptians had still another motive for venturing into it. Through the Wadi Hammamat, ancient caravans made their way to the Red Sea, and from ports on the coast they set sail on trading expeditions south to Africa. The products of the mysterious country the Egyptians called “God’s Land” are as poetic as the name itself—apes and ivory, gold and ebony, panther skins, ostrich feathers, frankincense and myrrh. The strange little dancing dwarfs, who made such popular royal “pets,” also came from God’s Land. We don’t know precisely where this exotic country was located, but we think it was somewhere near modern Somaliland.

Having made one jump from Elephantine to Coptos, let us make another one northward, to where the Delta spreads out green arms to east and west. The desert east of the Delta merges into the peninsula of Sinai, also a source of wealth and a high road to distant lands.

The discovery of how to mine and work copper was one of the great advances of early Egyptian culture. The pyramids were built with copper tools. There are a number of ancient mines in Sinai, most of them in the south of the peninsula. Some of the copper which was so essential to Egypt must have come from the eastern desert, although inscriptional evidence is scarce. It is also scarce with regard to the copper mines of Sinai, but it is a safe assumption that the Egyptians got a good deal of this essential mineral there. The miners who worked at Magharah and Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai left numerous inscriptions scratched on the rocks nearby, but these workmen were after turquoise. This semiprecious stone, popular in jewelry from the earliest times, was sacred to the goddess Hathor, one of whose epithets was Lady of Turquoise.

The rocky, sandy roads of northern Sinai led into Asia. The Egyptians got tin and silver, amber and lapis lazuli from the East, not to mention the famous cedar of Lebanon. Under the empire, when they conquered—and were conquered—they also acquired slaves, mercenary soldiers, cattle, and miscellaneous booty. Unfortunately, roads go two ways—if the Egyptians could get out, the Asiatics could get in. They could not get in so easily, since the Egyptians guarded the paths; by garrisoning the few wells they could pretty well control the goings and comings of the “wretched Asiatics.” Still, the Asiatics came, and at certain periods they came in a flood instead of a trickle. The hated Hyksos were Asiatics who brought to Egypt a national humiliation which was not wiped out until the warrior kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty drove the invaders back out into the deserts from which they had come. Even from the invaders the Egyptians got new and useful ideas, and at all periods contacts with the other civilized powers of the Near East—Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, Hatti—led to important developments in Egyptian history and culture. The other great civilized powers with whom Egypt had trade relations were off in the middle of the “Great Green”—Crete, Cyprus, and, later, the Mycenean civilization.

The desert on the west of Egypt, the one we call the Libyan, was not so exciting as the eastern desert. It had some valuable minerals, notably diorite and amethyst, but its most distinguishing characteristic was the string of oases that ran in a line roughly paralleling the Nile. There are six oases, five of which were controlled by the ancient Egyptians. Kharga, the “southern oasis,” was one of the most important; it was famous for wine, as was Bahriyah, the “northern oasis.” Perhaps the most useful was the Wadi Natrun, the source of natron, the salt used by the Egyptians in embalming. Far to the northwest of the Wadi Natrun lay Siwa, the only one of the group which was probably not under Egyptian control until late. This was where Alexander the Great went to be recognized as king of Egypt by the great god Amon.

The water which makes the oases possible comes up in pools or springs, some of them thermal in nature. There is so much water that, ironically, the oases used to be quite unhealthy because of malarial fevers. Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were more skillful at handling their water supply than were the Arabs of the nineteenth century A.D., but it is interesting to note that the oases were dumping grounds for undesirables in pharaonic times—political enemies and criminals were exiled to them. The isolation of the oases did make them good prisons without bars; once you were there, there you stayed unless you could bribe the soldiers of the desert patrol to look the other way while you loaded a donkey caravan with food and water. But if the places were as unhealthy in ancient times as they were a century ago, they might also have been a slow sentence of death for anyone the king wanted to get rid of.

The original inhabitants of the oases may have been the wandering tribes the Egyptians called the Tjemehu and Tjehenu. These people had to live somewhere, and there is no place else to live in that area; a few days away from the oases the great sand sea of the Sahara begins. Other nomads lived up north, near the western side of the Delta. They were relatively primitive peoples compared with the Egyptians, who were constantly having to go out and “chastise” them. Living where and as they did, we can hardly blame the Libyan tribes for occasionally raiding one of the oases or a western Delta village. Eventually some of them migrated into Egypt itself and became “Egyptianized.”

In our armchair sail up the Nile, we have seen more of Egypt than most ancient Egyptians did. Even if they were adventurous travelers who had gone all the way from Coptos to Memphis, or Amarna to Elephantine, they still saw the same eternally unchanging landscape—the river and the valley, the high cliffs, the desert and the sown. In the heyday of the empire a commoner might see exotic foreign lands, but usually as a soldier. And even if he did not leave his bones in the unconsecrated soil of Asia or Cush, the Egyptian hated every minute away from home. For him the world was small and serene, and blessedly predictable; and that was just the way he wanted it to be.

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