Let us leave this depressing subject and proceed to view, with comfortable detachment, the decline and fall of somebody else. The Assyrians had ended the power of Cush, but they had not yet done with Egypt. Assyrian strength was extended to its uttermost; the vast, dissatisfied empire required constant sorties in force to keep the vassal areas under control. Asshurbanipal could not spare enough troops for a military occupation of Egypt. He had to rely on the loyalty of the vassals he selected. And Egyptian oaths of fealty were written on water. Whether one commends the Egyptians for their stubborn hatred of foreign domination, or damns them as oath breakers, one must confess that they did not lie down until they were dead. Asshurbanipal left a man called Necho, of Sais, in charge of Egypt when he went home. Necho, of course, rebelled the first chance he got, and Necho’s son Psamtik I was the founder of what Manetho calls the Twenty-sixth, or Saite, Dynasty. Psamtik must have had some of the old spark. He succeeded in persuading his bickering fellow nobles to unite against the Assyrians and got control of Thebes by ordering the God’s Wife at that place to adopt his daughter. Of course Psamtik didn’t put it so crudely; the famous stela describing the adoption of the princess by her predecessor stresses the fact that Psamtik did not arbitrarily remove this lady, who was of the family of Taharka. (In fact, Psamtik’s daughter didn’t actually assume the title until after the death of the older lady. All very civil and, if I may say so, ladylike.) By uniting Egypt he ended the Third Intermediate Period, so, just for the record, we are now in the Late Period.
The success of Psamtik gave his subjects an illusion of rebirth, and modern scholars sometimes refer to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty as a renaissance. A surge of real vitality produces new cultural features, which resemble the products of other renaissances only in the strength and creativity of the impulse that gave them birth. But when the impetus and the vigor are lacking, a backward-looking society may strive to emulate the past by imitating its external symbols. That is what happened in the Saitic revival of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty.
Copying is the most striking manifestation of the revival of painting—a copying so anxious and so exact that the men of this time reproduce, line for line, the decoration of the tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. To be fair, not all art was slavishly imitative; beginning in the preceding dynasty, perhaps under the influence of the energetic Cushite rulers, we see a new style in sculpture. It is found, at its best, in certain heads of kings and nobles. They are hard—hard in surface and in style, formalized, and yet giving an impression of realism. These two seemingly contradictory impressions, naturalism and formalism, are found in the same work of art, and the result is remarkable. Some of the most interesting sculptures belonged to a certain Mentuemhat, who was not a king but a priest and major of Thebes.
The altered mood of the wisdom literature is equally indicative of the change in national attitudes, though it began earlier than the Twenty-sixth Dynasty; dating such texts is difficult, since they were copied and recopied, but it is likely that the first dates from the late Ramesside period and the second from even later. There is a wistful charm in some of the late wisdom texts; in some ways the sentiments they express are more sympathetic to us than the rather cold-blooded practicality of earlier advice to the young. Take this section, from the “Instructions” of a father to his son:
Double the food which thou givest thy mother, carry her as she carried thee. She had a heavy load in thee, but she did not leave it to me. After thou were born she was still burdened with thee; her breast was in thy mouth for three years, and though thy filth was disgusting, her heart was not disgusted. When thou takest a wife, remember how thy mother gave birth to thee, and her raising thee as well; do not let thy wife blame thee, nor cause that she raise her hands to the god.
There is plenty of sentiment in this passage, although the tone and the candid selection of details raise it above mere sentimentality. Now compare the words of Ptahhotep of the Fourth Dynasty on a similar subject:
If thou art a man of standing, thou shouldst found a house hold and love thy wife at home, as is fitting. Fill her belly, and clothe her back; ointment is the prescription for her body. Make her heart glad, for she is a profitable field for her lord.
Tastes may differ as to the relative wisdom of these excerpts, but there is no doubt about the change in attitude. The dominating theme of the later texts is submission and patience; the key word, terrifyingly reiterated, is “silence.” An Old Kingdom Egyptian would have laughed incredulously at such guides to success; what, sit silent like a fool while some glib talker shoves his way ahead? The self-assertion of the earlier dynasties is not unattractive; it is breezy, bouncy, a little naive, and wholly sympathetic. In its greatest form, it dared to question the immortal gods as to the meaning of life. The spirit of ancient Egypt was indeed dead when men could boast of being silent.
The theme of silence is found in another late “instruction,” the Wisdom of Amenemopet, which has an unusual interest beyond the fact that it gives the attitudes of a particular age.
The reader may recall that we mentioned the parallels between Akhenaton’s famous sun hymn and one of the Psalms, and then rejected a romantic story by claiming that the resemblance did not prove a direct connection between Egypt and Israel at that period. With the Amenemopet text, the dramatic conclusion is hard to avoid, for its parallels with the biblical book of Proverbs are so close that only the dependence of one upon the other can satisfactorily explain the resemblance. It has been suggested that the Egyptians borrowed their text from the Hebrews, but most scholars incline toward the opposite interpretation. There is nothing “un-Egyptian” about the contents of Amenemopet; the text is perfectly consistent with the feeling of the age, as expressed in a variety of other cultural phenomena. If we compare Amenemopet with the biblical text, especially with Proverbs 22:17 through 24:22, we find the same precepts repeated, often in almost the same words. But the final proof of relationship is a really beautiful bit of research, which enabled an Egyptologist to correct the Hebrew text.
The Egyptologist was Adolf Erman, the teacher of an entire generation of philologists, British and American as well as German. In looking over the passage, Erman noted Proverbs 22:20–21, which, in the King James version, read as follows:
Have I not written unto thee excellent things in counsel and knowledge,
That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?
The words “excellent things” were marked with a question. The Hebrew had shilshon, “formerly,” which is obviously an error; the original editors had suggested shalishim, “officers,” which is hardly an improvement. Now Hebrew, as it was originally written, resembled Egyptian—and other Semitic languages—in that it wrote only the consonants. Much later a system was developed that indicated vowels by means of “points,” small marks written above or below the line. The reader will note that the Hebrew words that have been suggested for the disputed reading differ only in the pointing, their consonants being the same.
Erman, of course, was familiar with the Amenemopet text, and he had found a passage which in many ways seemed to resemble the two verses of Proverbs. But the Egyptian text reads: “See thou these thirty chapters; they entertain, they instruct. They are the foremost of all books; they make the ignorant man to know.”
As Erman studied the text he was struck by the recollection that the Hebrew word for “thirty” is sheloshim—a word that involves only a small change in pointing and makes better sense of the Hebrew than do any of the suggested renderings. The Egyptian text contains precisely thirty chapters; the Hebrew passage is not so divided, but it does contain thirty different precepts. Erman’s discovery not only settled the question of borrowing between the two sources, but made the direction of the borrowing pretty sure, for the use of the word “thirty” is more logical in the Egyptian. The applicability of the numeral to the Hebrew text is not so obvious, and it is easy to understand why later copyists misread the word or tried to substitute a—to them—more logical alternative.
After the transitory reflection of greatness which appeared during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the aging giant on the Nile stumbled ever faster down the ignominious path to annihilation. It is a depressing subject for Egyptophiles, and very confusing; for those reasons, most general works, including this one, tend to pass rapidly over the details. Assyria fell, but Babylon took its place as a conquering power; the last pharaohs of Egypt fought their hopeless battles with the aid of mercenaries, Greeks who had settled in large numbers in the Delta. Toward the end of the dynasty the decline of Babylon left Egypt temporarily at peace, but Babylon had fallen to the conqueror Cyrus, the Achaemenid. Cyrus left a far-flung empire to his son Cambyses; it included most of the known world—except Egypt. Cambyses remedied this lack. In 525 B.C., at the Battle of Pelusium, he broke the back of Egyptian independence. The country became a province of the vast Persian empire, and Manetho’s Twenty-seventh Dynasty consists of Persian kings. The Twenty-eighth through Thirtieth Dynasties were “native” again, feeble princes who took advantage of Persia’s preoccupation with other areas to attain an illusory independence. In 343 B.C., the Persians found time to remember Egypt. As a result we have a Thirty-first Dynasty, another Persian one, which was later combined with Manetho’s Thirtieth—to make them symmetrical, I suppose. The last king of pharaonic Egypt was Nectanebo, and that is probably all you need to know about him.
Meanwhile, in the barbaric backwaters of Macedonia, a new Great Man was coming of age. Alexander is one of those overpowering personalities who leave a mark not only on history but on the imagination. He added Egypt to his growing empire in 332 B.C.There’s a legend that he took the long desert road west to Siwa Oasis, to consult the oracle of Amon located there—and that Amon, predictably, named him son and pharaoh. After Alexander’s premature death in 323 B.C., his empire, the greatest known until then, was eventually divided. Egypt fell to Ptolemy, one of his generals, whose descendants held sway for over two centuries. Being polytheists anyhow, the Greek pharaohs had no problem honoring the Egyptian gods. The temples were maintained, and new ones built. Many of the most famous religious edifices popular with tourists date in whole or in part from this and the following Roman period—Philae, Denderah, Edfu. It isn’t difficult to distinguish Ptolemaic art and architecture; art forms became a strange (and in the views of many, awkward) amalgam of Greek and Egyptian techniques. Ptolemaic hieroglyphs are hard to read, even for a student of classical Egyptian.
However, political and cultural institutions were maintained. The Ptolemies were divine pharaohs, their names written in cartouches, their images prominent on temple walls, paying homage to the ancient gods. The city of Alexandria became a magnificent capital and a center of learning; its library was world famous and its prestige was enhanced by the tomb of Alexander himself. The conqueror had died in Babylon; his embalmed body was being taken back to Macedonia for burial when it was “hijacked,” as one scholar has put it, by General Ptolemy. Much of ancient Alexandria lies underwater today, and Alexander’s tomb has never been found. It is unlikely that people will stop looking for it, though.
The Ptolemies continued the ancient royal custom of brother-sister marriage. They were not a loving family. The last two Ptolemies, numbers thirteen and fourteen, were brothers; they and their sister Cleopatra the Seventh were constantly at one another’s throats. She is the Cleopatra we all know, the lover of Mark Antony, who tried in vain to hold off the mighty power of Rome. Under Octavian, better known as Augustus, Egypt became a province of the Roman empire, and one of the first to adopt Christianity. The Greeks and the Romans had respected the old gods and adopted some of them; the cult of Isis spread through the empire. But mono the ism is by its very nature intolerant; the Coptic Christian church of Egypt began the destruction of the pagan monuments and inscriptions. The language passed from the knowledge of men, and the hieroglyphs became a source of wild speculation and mystical theorizing. The wisdom of Egypt would become a legend, but its learning was lost beneath the weight of twenty centuries of dust and ignorance. Yet still today the forested pillars of Karnak trumpet the name of Ramses to men and women from lands that the conqueror never knew existed, and until the last stone falls from the sides of the Great Pyramid of Giza, men will marvel at the might and the presumption of its builder.
A goodly number of books on archaeological subjects end with resounding sentences like that last one. There is a perfectly good reason for the popularity of the theme. The physical survival of the great Egyptian monuments is a noteworthy phenomenon in itself, when one considers that most of the other civilizations of comparable antiquity are visible to us only as mud-brick-foundation outlines, or as verbal reconstructions. Structures such as the pyramids, the Karnak temple, and the temples of Philae, Abu Simbel, and Abydos would be astonishing even if they were not so old; in size and magnificence they compare favorably with the ruins of almost any other past culture that is known to us.
Still, I have a prejudice against an emphasis of this type; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have a predilection in favor of another sort of emphasis. The tombs, the temples, the golden coffins of Tutankhamon, are exciting and dramatic, yet they have not so much fascination for me as have other, less tangible, contacts with an antique and alien world. My interest in archaeology was stimulated initially by the lure of buried treasure; but eventually I found myself allured by the ideas of the past even more than by its artifacts. And this development led to another, very personal and perhaps subjective, discovery. People who read and write about history, particularly about ancient history, are wont to marvel at the “unexpectedly modern” sound of an ancient institution or expression. I do it myself, and I enjoy the small thrill of recognition which results from such an encounter. Yet in a broader sense the works of the past to which our emotions respond are not “ancient” or “modern,” not “Egyptian” or “American,” but simply—human. The specific expression of a given motivation may be one which our society no longer uses or accepts; but it may be completely valid for the culture in which it operates, and as we come to understand other elements of that culture we will see, behind the unfamiliar facade of exotic custom, human urges that should be as recognizable as our own features in a mirror.
This is not to disparage, nor to disregard, the uniqueness of history. The richness and variety of the attempted solutions to man’s numerous problems are marvelous and appalling, and a lifetime is not long enough to begin to comprehend their manifold complexities. This unending diversity is one of the attractions of historical study, and the glamour of exotic custom is another. Egyptian mortuary practices, to take a single example, have understandably intrigued students for generations: the process of mummification, the elaborate tomb, the magical rite, the rich equipment of the dead. As we read the descriptions of the fantastic tombs, we marvel at the ingenuity of their builders, who provided for every conceivable mishap that might befall the naked soul wandering through darkness toward immortality. How richly grotesque—how bizarre—was the spiritual world which these long-dead aliens envisaged!
And then we come upon a single sentence, or an isolated phrase, and the mask of ceremonial vanishes to expose the familiar poignancy of man’s quest for immortality, with all its uncertainty and its aching desire. “No one has returned from there to tell us how they fare.”
The lament for a dead child, the demand for justice, the lover’s yearning for his beloved—before our recognition of the universality of human emotion, time and distance shrink, the barriers of language, color, and nationality go down; we look into the mind of a man three millennia dead and call him “brother.”