The outstanding cultural patterns coalesced in the valleys of great rivers in northern subtropical regions. It is clear that a culture of great complexity could develop only where a sufficient number of people were able to come together in relative peace and comfort, share their many tasks and the fruits thereof, and stimulate one another. Those rivers are the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Indus and the Ganges, the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze, and perhaps also the Menam and the Mekong.³⁵ They are all of considerable length (the shortest, the Menam, being about 750 miles long, while the longest, the Nile and the Yangtze, measure respectively 3473 and 3200 miles) and they drain and irrigate enormous territories. That coincidence is not accidental. The rivers that were carrying to the sea not only water but men, goods, ideas, had to be pretty large to provide a sufficient concentration and competition in the lower reaches. Any culture, even the least developed, is so complex that it cannot be created by small groups, but only by relatively large ones — thousands or millions of men. To appreciate the immensity of the tasks that had to be accomplished, one need think of only one element, language, the perfection of which implied a multitudinous, anonymous, unconscious fermentation of unimaginable intricacy.

As we are primarily concerned with the origins of our own culture, we shall consider only in this and the following chapter the two civilizations of the Ancient Near East, for these two influenced the Mediterranean world most deeply. Indeed, these two civilizations were closest to the Mediterranean, though neither was a complete part of it. This is obvious enough for Mesopotamia; the upper Euphrates came very near the Mediterranean Sea, yet the outlets of both that river and the Tigris were in the Persian Gulf. The Nile — the only one of the great rivers named above that flows northward — poured its waters into the Mediterranean, yet the Old Egyptian culture did not grow near the sea but some distance away from it and the sea of the Egyptians was not the Mediterranean but the Nile itself. Egypt was like “a long river oasis in the middle of the desert.” ³⁶

The periodic overflow of the Nile fertilized the narrow valley and helped to produce abundant crops. The dry sterile climate was tempered by those inundations and Egypt was favored above all the nations of the Mediterranean world. It is of course impossible to say when Egyptian culture began and to decide whether it is anterior to Mesopotamian and Chinese cultures or not. These questions of priority are not sufficiently relevant to our purpose to be discussed here. Indeed, we shall not describe the conditions obtaining in prehistoric Egypt ³⁷; it will suffice to say that its prehistoric culture was that of the late Stone Age and that the early Egyptians had already developed many agricultural arts; they cultivated barley, spelt (a kind of wheat),³⁸ and flax, wove linen, had a yearly calendar. When the curtain of history rises on the First Dynasty, the cultural achievements that we are able to witness are not by any means a beginning; they are rather a climax, the existence of which would have been impossible but for a preparation lasting many thousands of years.

The oldest historical period of Egypt, called the Old Kingdom, is a succession of six dynasties (First to Sixth) which lasted from c. 3400 to c. 2475 B.C., or almost a thousand years.³⁹ The first half of that period is not well known, and when we speak of the Old Kingdom we are thinking primarily of the second half, the Pyramid Age (Third to Sixth Dynasties, c. 2980 to c. 2475, half a millennium ) . The Pyramid Age is immortalized by a number of inscriptions and a few other writings, above all by prodigious monuments.


The greatest achievement of the early Egyptians was the invention of writing. Whether they were the first to make that invention, or were anticipated by the Sumerians or the Chinese, is a moot question. At any rate, they made it independently. One must bear in mind that such an invention, wherever it was made, cannot be very conveniently marked off on a time scale, because it was not made in one step nor at one definite time. As far as Egypt is concerned, it was begun during the prehistoric age and may have been brought to a fair stage of completion before the end of that age. The earliest writings that have come down to us are of the Old Kingdom.

We may assume that the Egyptians began by using pictograms (images) representing things or ideas rather than words. In the course of time such images would be gradually conventionalized, simplified, and standardized, and they would finally come to be associated with spoken words. Then each image would represent not simply an idea but a definite word of the Egyptian language. Later still the original idea might be forgotten, and the image would retain only a phonetic value. The scribes, having at their disposal a sufficient number of such phonemes, might use them, and did actually use them, to write words containing the same sounds, especially proper names or abstract words, which were not susceptible of pictographic representation. The Egyptians went even a step further; in the course of long usage certain symbols were used to represent only the consonantal beginnings of such phonemes. During the Old Kingdom, they had thus obtained a group of twenty-four alphabetic signs, which was not increased afterward (Fig. 3).

May we then say that the Egyptians invented the alphabet? No, they invented alphabetic symbols, but did not grasp their full implications, for they continued

Fig. 3. The Egyptian alphabet. [Borrowed with permission from Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian grammar ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), p. 27.]

to use all kinds of other complicated symbols — hieroglyphics⁴⁰ — together with the twenty-four “letters” which they had succeeded in abstracting from their language. That stopping short in sight of the goal may seem strange, but in the history of science it is the rule rather than the exception. The great inventions were seldom completed by the great inventors; other men — often smaller men but more practical or more radical — were needed to realize the full value of the invention and to exploit it ruthlessly. The Faradays and the Maxwells sow the seeds, the Edisons and the Marconis pluck the fruits. The Egyptians were so accustomed to their hieroglyphics that they would not forsake them and carried them along for thousands of years, together with the alphabetic signs which they had invented but did not use properly.⁴¹ The invention was brought to a higher stage of perfection by the Phoenicians, who created the first Semitic alphabet (purely consonantal); it was completed by the Greeks, who added vowels. The whole development lasted two or three thousand years, if not longer.

How did the Egyptians finally write down a word of their language? Most of the hieroglyphics contain two kinds of signs, “phonetic” and “determinative.” The first indicate the sound, the latter the idea, the class to which the word would belong in any classification according to meaning. The phonetic signs may be simply alphabetic (consonantal) or they may represent combinations of consonants, such as mr, tm, nfr. The combination of the two kinds of signs completes the identification of a word, and facilitates its recognition and one’s remembrance of it, among thousands of others. The Egyptian writing, born out of inherent compromise, is cumbersome enough and often redundant, but English-speaking people should not judge it too harshly, for their own perversion of the alphabet due to similar compromises is just as shocking. They have inherited a marvelous instrument but have failed to use it consistently and unambiguously for the spelling of their own language.

Any Chinese or Sinologist reading my brief description of hieroglyphics will say to himself that it applies very well to Chinese characters. The Egyptians and the Chinese, working independently at two ends of the world, created two vast collections of word symbols. It is very interesting to compare the fruits of those gigantic experiments. They started with pictograms as everybody would; moreover, the early Chinese and Egyptian pictograms of the same objects — sun, moon, mountains, water, rain, man, bird — were often analogous. As the two kinds of word symbols were standardized and simplified, and became more and more numerous, both peoples reached the same general conclusion — that each word should contain a phonetic element (sound sign) and a determinative one (sense sign). The Chinese did this very consistently. About 80 percent of their characters are made up of two parts, one of which is a clue to the sound, while the other (one of 214 “classifiers”) is a clue to the meaning; generally speaking, the pronunciation of the classifier and the meaning of the phonetic element are disregarded.

Thus far the Chinese and Egyptian achievements are very much alike; there are fundamental differences between them, however — and what else could we expect, considering that the two nations were very unlike and had been submitted for thousands of years to very different physical and psychologic environments? In Egyptian writing the vowels are omitted and in speech they are frequently changed either to obey grammatical inflections or to indicate variations of meaning; in Chinese, on the contrary, the vowels belong to the root, have a semantic value, and are constant. The study of the meanings of Chinese words cannot be separated from the study of their sounds. One can see how alphabetic signs could eventually emerge from the Egyptian habit of script; they could not have emerged from the Chinese one.⁴² The Chinese word is always concentrated in a single character, more or less complex, yet meant to occupy the same space as any other character; the Egyptian word is more like a word in any syllabic script, it may cover more or less space.

The early students of Chinese and Egyptian were far more impressed by the resemblances between the two scripts than by their divergencies. Having more enthusiasm than knowledge, they jumped eagerly to the conclusions that appealed to their sensibility. In 1759 the French Sinologist Joseph de Guignes wrote a memoir in which he claimed that the Chinese characters were derived from the Egyptian, and that China was originally an Egyptian colony!⁴³ This started a controversy that we have no time to analyze. But a century ago Samuel Birch (1813–1885) was still approaching the study of the hieroglyphics from the Chinese point of view.⁴⁴ Birch was not by any means a dilettante, but a man of incredible zeal, the author of the first Egyptian dictionary in alphabetic order (1867).

In the meanwhile the consonantal nature of the Egyptian script had started another polemic. Indeed, alphabets restricted to consonants are a feature common to every Semitic language. Should we not then consider Egyptian a member of the Semitic family? This controversy is far more serious than the Chinese-Egyptian one. The Chinese-Egyptian similarities are due to the sameness of the tasks to which the Chinese and the Egyptians had addressed themselves and the essential identity of their own natures. The Egyptian-Semitic similarities were due to definite contacts and borrowings. This cannot be denied and the discussion turns around the quantity of the borrowing rather than its reality. Many distinguished Egyptologists concluded that the Egyptian and Semitic languages were closely related, and one of them, the Italian Simeone Levi, published a Coptic-Hebrew-hieroglyphic dictionary wherein the many affinities that he had (or thought he had) discovered between Egyptian and Hebrew were brought together.⁴⁵ Not only are there parallelisms in words and word building but the formation of pronouns and numbers is similar. Yet for all that the differences between Egyptian and the Semitic family are far greater than those obtaining between the different members of that family.

Consider the Egyptian number words. The words for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 are African, those for 6, 7, 8, 9 are Semitic. What does that mean? It means that the original linguistic stock was African (Hamitic), for surely the words for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 are among the first to be needed and coined in any language; it also means (see previous chapter) that the number base of the early Egyptians was five. Later contacts with Semitic peoples in the South and East introduced Semitic features into their language plus the base ten. As the Egyptians became more powerful (during the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties, from the end of the sixteenth century to the twelfth, Egypt controlled a world empire), they influenced the Semitic peoples of the Near East. Many traces of Egyptian influence can be detected in the form and contents of the Hebrew Bible.⁴⁶ Those exchanges of influence are of deep concern to the historian of humanity. They show that Egypt was after all an intrinsic part of the Mediterranean world. Though Egyptian wisdom reached us largely through Semitic channels, Egyptian manners and arts came to us also via Crete and other islands.⁴⁷


The invention of writing was given its full social value by another invention, that of a suitable material to write upon, easily available and not too expensive. It is clear that as long as writing was restricted to inscriptions on stone (as was apparently the case in Greece for centuries), its scope was limited to records considered to be of outstanding importance. Literary productions were too long to be chiseled on stone or metal; a cheaper material was needed for their nonoral preservation.

The early Egyptians solved that fundamental problem in a magnificient way by the invention of papyrus. This was a remarkably good writing material, made of the pith of the stem of a tall sedge (Cyperus papyrus), then abundant in the Delta marshes.⁴⁸ The pith was cut into longitudinal strips, and these strips were arranged crosswise in two or three layers, soaked, pressed, and burnished. The cost could not be very high for there was no end of reeds in the marshes; it sufficed to collect them and the fabrication was simple enough.

Every invention calls for complementary inventions. It is not enough to have something handy to write upon; one must have tools for writing with. The Egyptians used various kinds of pigment (or ink) and spread it on the papyrus with a fine brush made of a thin rush (Juncus maritimus)⁴⁹ found in the same marshes as the sedge.

The tremendous importance of the invention of papyrus is immortalized by two words common in many languages, paper and bible. The first word is somewhat misleading, for our paper, made of pulp, is a Chinese invention essentially different from the Egyptian one. The Greeks called papyrus byblos and a strip of it byblion or biblion; later they used the word for a whole book (compare the similar evolution of the Latin word liber). It is possible but not certain that the word byblos was itself derived from the name of a busy marketplace and harbor north of Beirut (Byblos = Jubayl), for the international trade in papyrus was largely controlled by Phoenicians. Indeed, objects have often been named from their best-known place of importation, rather than from the place of origin, which might be, and often was, unknown (India ink, Arabic numerals, etc.).

The superiority of papyrus over other writing grounds that the Egyptians used at one time or another (such as bones, clay, ivory, leather, linen) was clear enough; there is one aspect of it that may not have been immediately obvious, though it is perhaps to our mind the most important. Accounts written on pieces of bone, leather, or what not were bound to remain disjecta membra, which it would have been almost hopeless to keep together for centuries. The ingenious creators of papyrus, after having fabricated isolated sheets, discovered that many sheets, in fact almost any number of them, could be glued together, each one to the edge of the preceding one, and thus it was possible to make a roll (volumen, hence our word volume) to contain a text of any length and preserve it completely in its proper sequence. The width of a roil varied from 3 to 18½ in.; the length depended naturally on the text it included; the longest papyrus is the Papyrus Harris No. 1 (British Museum No. 9999), measuring 133 feet by 16½ in. Thanks to the invention of the roll, many ancient texts have come down to us in their entirety.

The makers of papyrus supplied the ancient Western world with an excellent, attractive, and cheap⁵⁰ vehicle for the diffusion of its main cultural achievements. Most of the rolls that we now have were found in tombs. The preservation of papyrus, which would have been impossible under those conditions in most climates and highly problematic in many, was guaranteed by the dry weather of Egypt. A great part of ancient literature was thus safeguarded by the miraculous coincidence of a great invention with an extraordinary climate. Without nature’s help, man’s efforts would have been wasted.⁵¹ Though we are concerned now mainly with ancient Egypt, the literary remains of which have been preserved almost exclusively by means of papyrus, it may be mentioned that we owe to the same material the preservation of a vast number of other documents, Biblical, Greek, and Roman. The accumulated knowledge at the disposal of the Romans would have been considerably less without papyrus, and the course of intellectual history very different.

To be sure, other materials for writing might have been invented, but the only ones that proved of comparable value,⁵² parchment and paper, did not become available until much later. If the story connecting the invention of the former with the library of Pergamon is correct, its invention dates only from the second century B.C. Paper was invented in China at the beginning of the second century after Christ. Thus both parchment and paper are definitely posterior to Pharaonic Egypt; we may say that even the oldest of both was invented more than twenty-seven centuries later than papyrus! That is, during that very long period of time, papyrus was not only the best but, with the exception of clay tablets, the only suitable material for the diffusion of culture.

In fact, papyrus was so good that it continued to be used until the eleventh century,⁵³ though Chinese paper was known in Egypt c. A.D. 800 and manufactured there a century later. Parchment (or vellum) was an excellent material, but far more expensive, prohibitively so for the simpler purposes of life.

As long as writing was needed only for monumental purposes, it was done very slowly. Inscriptions, especially on hard stone like granite, were exceedingly difficult to carve. That difficulty was not a serious obstacle, for inscriptions, even the longest, are relatively short. From the artistic point of view it was a blessing. The artisan was put on his mettle, did his best, and often surpassed himself. Some of the monumental hieroglyphics, chiseled in the hard stone, inlaid, or simply painted, are among the treasures of Egyptian art. However, when scribes began to write on papyrus, they had to proceed much faster and the old hieroglyphics became unmanageable. Thus there gradually developed a new, easier, script, a cursive or running hand, called hieratic (c. 1900 B.C.). Later still (c. 400 B.C.), as writing was popularized, even the hieratic script was too slow, and it was replaced by a kind of shorthand called enchorial or demotic (Fig. 4).⁵⁴ Of course every script has been submitted to a similar evolution, but the range of that evolution was greater for Egyptian than for any other script because the hieroglyphics were the most elaborate symbols ever invented. The only characters comparable to them are the Chinese, but these were much simpler and also less beautiful. In the course of time Chinese calligraphy achieved a remarkable beauty of its own, but always more abstract than the beauty of hieroglyphics.

Fig. 4. The passage from hieroglyphics to demotic script. [Borrowed with permission from George Steindorff and Keith C. Seele, When Egypt ruled the East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 123.]

Fig.5. Nut and Shu. A collosal figure of Nut, goddes of the sky, supported by Shu, god of the air, in the cenotaph of Seti 1 ( 1313–1292, Nineteenth Dynasty) in Abydos. Nut gives birth every day to the Sun and the stars. On her body are given the names of the decans and undemeath her, and also on her arms and legs, are tabulated the days and months upon which a morning, a midnight, or an evening rising of the corresponding constellation occured.(From H. Franefort, The cenotaph of Seti 1 at Abydos ( 2 vols.,London: Egypte Exploitation Society,Memoir 39, 1933), vol. 1, pp. 27. 72–75; vol. 2, pl.lxxxi.j

A similar allegory may be seen in the tomb of Ramses IV (1167-1161, Twentieth Dynasty) in thebes, See diagram and commentary in Heinrich Brugsch, Astronomische und astrologische Inscriften altaegyptischer Denkmaeler (Leipzig, 18/83), p 174.

Fig 6. Nut and Shu. The goddess of the sky, Nut, is represented surrounding heaven and supporting herself on her hands and feet. The earth god, Qeb, is stretched on the ground. The god Shu stands in the middle after having lifted up Nut on his two hands. Sheet 87 of the Greenfield papyrus in the British Museum, the longest papyrus of the Theban recension of the Book of the Dead (before being divided into 96 sections, the roll was nearly 123 ft long and 1 ft 6½ in. high). [Reproduced with the Trustees’ permission from E. A. Wallis Budge, The Greenfield papyrus. The funerary papyrus of Princess Nesitanebtashu, priestess of Amen-Ra at Thebes c. 970 B.C. (British Museum, 1912), pl. 106.]


The Egyptians’ familiarity with the stars dates back to the most remote prehistoric age. This is no wonder, for their cloudless atmosphere and the pleasant freshness of their climate at night invited men to contemplate the rotation of the sky. They could not help noticing that the stars were unequally distributed and formed groups (or constellations) of recognizable shape. One of their early mythologic fancies was to conceive the whole heaven as surrounded by the body of a goddess (Nut), who is supporting herself on her hands and feet (Figs. 5 and 6). That vast conception gave them the habit of sweeping the whole sky with their eyes and enabled them to recognize constellations of gigantic size as compared with ours. The longest of them, the man Nekht, took almost 6 hours to pass across the meridian. For the sake of easy reference they divided a wide belt along the equator into 36 parts, each part including the most conspicuous stars and constellations (or parts of constellations) the rising of which could be observed during each successive 10-day period or decad (h decas); hence each such group of stars was called a decan (ho decanos). We have early tables of the decans, listing the stars characteristic of each.⁵⁵

The most important event in the life of Egypt was the annual overflow of the Nile, upon which depended the farmer’s prosperity (or, if it were to fail, his misery). That event coincided or almost coincided (for its regularity was imperfect) with the heliacal rising of the brightest star in the sky, Sothis.⁵⁶

The Egyptians had first tried to take account of the passing of time by means of the Moon, but, fortunately for them, they discovered the ambiguities of such a method before being committed to it by religious ceremonies and could thus easily overthrow it in favor of a solar calendar. Their year was at first divided into twelve months of three decads each (corresponding to the 36 decans), but they soon added a holiday season of five days (hai epagomenai sc. h merai). The civil or calendar year began with the first day of the month Thot; the Sothic or astronomic year began with the heliacal rising of Sothis. The continued observation of that rising, year after year, must have given their astronomers considerable perplexity. Indeed, their civil year had 365 days, while the heliacal rising of Sothis recurred after a somewhat longer interval of about 365¼ days. After four years (tetraet ris) there was a difference of one day; Sothis did not reappear on the first day of the new civil year but a day later; after forty years, the difference was 10 days. It seems easy enough to conclude, and the ancients did so, that after 1460 years the Sothic cycle would be completed (for 365 × 4 = 1460).

However, Carl Schoch ⁵⁷ has shown that the length of the Sothic cycle was 1456 rather than 1460 years; he took into consideration the secular acceleration of the sun, the large proper motion of Sirius, and improved values of the arcus visionis. The following table, based on Schoch’s discussion, shows that the Julian-calendar date corresponding to the first day of Thot, the civil New Year, changed from 16 July to 19 July at the beginning of the four Sothic cycles of Egyptian history; the heliacal rising of Sothis, on the corresponding July dates, fell on 1 Thot during the fourtetraeterides indicated in the second column of the table.

The Sothic (or Julian) year of 365¼ days was introduced in Rome in 45 B.C. by Julius Caesar, with the technical assistance of an Egyptian Greek, S sigen s. The beginning of the new Sothic cycle (the fourth in the list above), that is, the coincidence of the first day of Thot with the heliacal rising of Sothis, was actually observed in Egypt in A.D. 140–143. Calculating backward from that date and assuming wrongly that the Sothic cycle equaled 1460 years and was constant, Breasted determined what he called “the oldest fixed date” in history, the era of the Sothic calendar, the year 4241 B.C.⁵⁸ After taking Schoch’s corrections into account we conclude that the “oldest fixed date” was not 4241 but 4229–4226. In any case, we should bear in mind that that date is the result of backward extrapolation, and not attach too much importance to it.

The astronomic ability of the early Egyptians is proved not only by their calendar, tables of star culminations, and tables of star risings, but also by some of their instruments, such as ingenious sundials or the combination of a plumb line with a forked rod that enabled them to determine the azimuth of a star. Specimens of such instruments are preserved in the Cairo and Berlin museums, and accurate replicas of them may be examined in many Egyptologic or astronomic collections.⁵⁹


The pyramids are so well known to everybody that they do not require any description. The average reader, however, thinks only of the three Pyramids of Giza, which are the largest but not by any means the only ones, nor the earliest. The oldest one, built for King Zoser of the Third Dynasty (in the thirtieth century), is the so-called step pyramid (al-haram al-mudarraj) of Saqqar (near the old capital, Memphis, south of Cairo); it is about 200 ft high. The Great Pyramid, the largest of the three in Giza, was built a century later for Khufu (Cheops) of the Fourth Dynasty; this was the largest building of ancient times and one of the largest ever built by man. Each side measures about 775 ft, and when it was intact the monument was 480 ft high. The pyramids, erected to house and protect royal tombs, are structures of limestone blocks, built solid except for the funereal chamber and devious passages leading to it.

The construction of such immense buildings forty-nine centuries ago raises a number of technical problems, many of which have not yet been solved. How Cheops’ architects could devise and his subjects construct such edifices still baffles the imagination. Their mechanical equipment, however advanced it might be as compared with that of illiterate savages, was vastly inferior to ours. The Great Pyramids are so wonderful that some of the scholars who tried to penetrate their secrets became the victims of a mild form of insanity and ascribed to the ancient builders occult and metaphysical intentions and an esoteric knowledge the possession of which would have been even more marvelous than the mechanical and engineering ability that they certainly possessed. But the pyramids were built, there they stand in the desert, the most massive facts of antiquity, the best witnesses of their builders to this day, and they will probably outlast most of the buildings of which modern man is so proud.

The achievements of the pyramid builders have been pooh-poohed by people who say: “The Egyptians used many thousands of men working for long periods of time. They replaced machine power by manpower in unlimited quantities.” Of course, they used large numbers of men, but this does not solve the main architectural and technical riddles, and it introduces new ones — human riddles — of almost equal difficulty. It is easy to speak of harnessing 30,000 men to a task and making them work together, but exactly how was it done? The number of people that can be usefully associated for a definite task in a limited space is limited, but assuming that a very large number, say tens of thousands, could be used at one and the same time, the direction of their efforts required considerable skill and forethought, and the satisfaction of their hunger and other needs required administrative experience and a commissariat technique of great complexity. Whether the power needed for a task is supplied by a dynamo or by an army of men, the planning and execution of the task imply knowledge, intelligence, and adaptability.

It is impossible to review here all the problems involved in Egyptian architecture, for they are legion. Let us consider a special case, the erection of granite obelisks.⁶¹ To see the pyramids one must needs go to Egypt, but obelisks are available in many European countries and even in New York. How were they created? All the granite obelisks were quarried in Asw n, just below the First Cataract.⁶² The very quarries (ma ajir) from which they were taken can be examined today and are indeed a great attraction to tourists, especially because one can see in situ a gigantic obelisk that had to be abandoned when fissures developed in its mass. If it had been possible to extract and to erect it, that obelisk would have been the largest of all, reaching a height of 137 ft and a weight of 1,168 tons. That abandoned obelisk has made it possible to figure out how the ancient engineers proceeded to remove the top layers of the granite stratum, to set out the mass of stone to be detached, and finally to separate it all around from its matrix. Reginald Engelbach, taking advantage of all the evidence available in Asw n and elsewhere, has explained these matters to us, as well as the transportation of the detached obelisk on sleds to the Nile, its embarkation on a ship, later its disembarkation, its transport to the point of erection, and finally its erection. In spite of his mechanical and archaeologic experience, Engelbach has not been able to explain everything. For example, what kind of tools did the Egyptians use to cut the very hard rock? They probably used dolerite balls (many of which are found in situ) to bash it out, rather than cut it out, but they needed other tools — metal tools probably, but what? How were the intricate and long hieroglyphic inscriptions engraved into the hard granite?⁶³

The sophistication of the Egyptian architect is proved by the existence of a definite entasis in the Paris obelisk.⁶⁴ The final erection of an obelisk was an extremely delicate job, on which the architect risked his reputation and possibly his life. If the obelisk did not fall gently enough⁶⁵ it would break, and years of labor would be lost, or if it was not properly adjusted to its base, the damage was irreparable and the architectural effect spoiled.⁶⁶ The task was complex and so full of hidden difficulties that one cannot help wondering whether the Egyptians did not experiment with scale models in order to determine the weight and balancing points of the obelisks, rehearse the erection process, and thus escape fatal disappointments. ⁶⁷ In any case, the Egyptian architects and their royal masters were fully conscious of their achievements and proudly recorded them. Half a dozen of the obelisk architects are personally known to us, because they were rewarded with tombs in the Theban necropolis and with statues in the temple. The inscriptions on the tombs and statues relate the erection of obelisks, but unfortunately do not explain how it was done. Maybe the explanation would have taken too much space and would have been of no interest except to other architects, who did not need it (or who needed technical details rather than generalities). In the same way, when we place an inscription upon a bridge we do not try to explain, even in the briefest manner, how the bridge was built.

Fig. 7. Statue of Senmut, architect of queen Hatshepsut (1495–1475), holding in his lap her eldest daughter Nefrure whom he reared (Cairo Museum). It is 60 cm high. For Senmut see J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906), vol. 2, sees. 345–368.

Let me evoke two of those archiects. The first is Senmut, chief architect of Queen Hatshepsut (1495–1475), builder of her obelisks and of the great temple of Deir al-Ba ar . In his statue, he is represented holding her eldest daughter, Nefrure, whose tutor he was (Fig. 7). The second is Beknekhonsu, living a century later, creator of the Paris obelisk and perhaps inventor of the entasis; his statue, bearing a long autobiographic inscription, is now in the Glyptothek of Munich.⁶⁸

Many of the obelisks were moved from Egypt and taken to Rome,⁶⁹ Constantinople, later to Paris, London, and other cities, and even across the Atlantic to New York. The Romans, who were connoisseurs of engineering difficulties, were the leaders in the obelisk exodus. The largest obelisk to be seen anywhere today is the one standing in front of S. Giovanni in Laterano. It was begun by Thutmosis III and completed by Thutmosis IV (1420–1411) for the temple of Karnak. It was transported to Alexandria in A.D. 330 by order of Constantine the Great, who wanted it to embellish Constantinople, but in 357 his son Constantius II took it to the Circus Maximus in Rome. In 1587, it was discovered there, broken in three pieces; in the following year it was set up in its present location by Domenico Fontana. The same Fontana achieved greater fame by the erection of another obelisk, the Vatican one, smaller but unbroken. That obelisk had not been finished by the Egyptians, for it bears no hieroglyphic inscription (hence we do not know its early history). It was brought from Heliopolis by order of Caligula (emperor, 37–41) and set up in the circus later called the Circus of Nero. Pope Sixtus V ordered its transportation to the Piazza di San Pietro, which was done under Fontana’s direction in 1586 (Fig. 8). The event attracted considerable attention and was discussed in detail by Fontana himself in a remarkable book.⁷⁰

Fig. 8. Reërection of an Egyptian obelisk in the Vatican, Rome, in 1586 by Domenico Fontana. [From G. Sarton, Agrippa, Fontana and Pigafetta, Arch. internat. d’histoire des sciences 28, 827–854 (Paris, 1949), with 14 figures.]

The Paris obelisk was taken from Luxor and moved to its present location by the naval engineer J. B. A. Lebas in 1836. The New York and London obelisks were originally standing together in Heliopolis where they had been erected by Thutmosis III (1501–1448). Both had been moved by the Romans c. 22 B.C. to Alexandria. ‘Abd al-La if (XIII–1), writing at the beginning of the thirteenth century, saw them both standing; Pierre Belon (1517–1564), who visited Alexandria about the middle of the sixteenth century, saw only one. In the meantime, one of them had fallen; happily, the piles of sand that had accumulated around it throughout the centuries had broken its fall and it had remained whole. That one was erected on the London embankment in 1878; the standing one was taken down and reërected in Central Park, New York, in 1881. The engineer responsible for the transportation to America and erection in New York was the Barbados-born Henry Honeychurch Gorringe (1841–1885), Lt. Com., U.S. Navy, who published an excellent account of the achievement, together with information on all the other obelisks. This is still the standard work on the subject.

It has already been mentioned that the abandoned Asw n obelisk would have weighed 1,168 tons. The other obelisks named above (I name them again in order of size) — Lateran, Vatican, Paris, New York, London — weigh, respectively, 455, 331, 227, 193, 187 tons.⁷¹ The ancient Egyptians were prepared to handle obelisks much larger than those familiar to us in the West; the Asw n obelisk would have been almost six times as heavy as the London one. The erections directed by Fontana in 1586 and by Gorringe in 1881 were talked about as nine-day wonders, and yet these men were but repeating a part of the work that their Egyptian forerunners had done thousands of years earlier.

The boastful accounts of modern engineers ⁷² who have at their disposal mechanical means of incredible power (the fruits of centuries of accumulated efforts) constitute the best proof of the genius of the Egyptian engineers, who were able to accomplish similar deeds without such means. From that point of view, modern Egyptians should not regret that so many obelisks were taken away from their native country. Each one of the exiled obelisks is an almost imperishable monument to the glory of ancient Egypt.


The architectural and engineering events of Egypt imply a good deal of arithmetic and geometric knowledge. To begin with, simple means of keeping complicated accounts were indispensable. Such needs were satisfied early. There is a royal mace in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, dating from King Nar-Mer, before the First Dynasty (before 3400 B.C.); it records the taking of 120,000 prisoners, 400,000 oxen and 1,422,000 goats.⁷⁴ These are large numbers; they are written somewhat in the Roman manner, there being symbols for each decimal multiple (up to a million) which are repeated as often as necessary.⁷⁵ In general, the largest units were listed first, then the others in order of importance, but that was not essential; they might be grouped in any order that would be pleasing to the eye. Later a simplified method was used and one wrote 100,000 X 101 instead of 10,100,000.⁷⁶

As to geometry, the need of it was obvious, even for the building of monuments as simple in outward appearance as the pyramids, and these take us back to the thirtieth century. The pyramid builders were obliged to cut limestone blocks exactly before bringing them to their proper position; the largest blocks were those placed in a complex arrangement above the royal chamber with the objective of diverting the pressure from its ceiling; there are fifty-six such roofing beams over the chamber of the Great Pyramid, the average weight of which is 54 tons. The accuracy obtained in the building of that pyramid (Cheops, Fourth Dynasty) is almost incredible. According to Flinders Petrie,

the mean error of length of the sides, 755 ft long, is 1 in 4,000, an amount which would be produced by a difference of 15°C in the temperature of copper measuring bars. The error of squareness is 1’12”. The error of leveling averages 5 in. between the different sides, or 12”. On shorter lengths of 50 ft the differences are only 0.02 in.

The accuracy of three granite sarcophagi of Senusert II, Twelfth Dynasty, averages 0.004 in. from a straight line in some parts, 0.007 in. in others. The curvature of the planes of the sides is only 0.005 in. on one, 0.002 in. on another face. The mean error of the proportions of the different dimensions in even numbers of palms is 0.028 in. This is more like the work of opticians than of masons.⁷⁷

The cutting of stones that were meant to fit nicely together implied some knowledge of stereometry (we shall see presently that the Egyptians had gone remarkably far in that field); one might claim that it also involved some knowledge of descriptive geometry and stereotomy. It was not enough to solve such problems in a general way, for the stonecutter must be shown very clearly how the limestone blocks should be cut. That knowledge, however, remained empirical and probably unformulated.⁷⁸

Though we may be certain that the pyramid builders had already a fair mathematical equipment, without which the scientific part of their task could not have been accomplished, we have no mathematical texts of the Old Kingdom, nor any prior to the Twelfth Dynasty (2000—1788). The two most important texts have come down to us in somewhat later editions, but they go back very probably to that same dynasty.

Archibald ⁷⁹ has listed some thirty-six original documents concerning Egyptian mathematics; they are written in Egyptian, Coptic, and Greek, and range in date from c. 3500 B.C. to c. A.D. 1000 (forty-five centuries); the documents prior to 1000 B.C. are only sixteen in number and two of them are so much longer and more complete that they overshadow all the others.

Let us consider them more closely. They are two collections of mathematical problems — we might call them treatises — the oldest mathematical treatises in existence. They are in the form of papyrus rolls, called respectively (after the names of former owners), the Golenishchev papyrus (in Moscow) and the Rhind papyrus (in London).⁸⁰ The Golenishchev is the older, dating from the Thirteenth Dynasty (beginning in 1788), but reflecting manners of the preceding dynasty; the Rhind papyrus dates from the Hycsos time (say the seventeenth century), but it professes to be a copy of an older document of the Twelfth Dynasty. Thus these two venerable treatises, though different in age, may be said to represent the same time, the Twelfth Dynasty (2000–1788), or roughly the nineteenth century. The period extending from the twentieth to the seventeenth century (four centuries) marked the scientific climax of Egypt, while the period immediately following, say from the sixteenth to the twelfth century, marked its political climax, Egypt being then the head of a world empire. Note that the intellectual climax preceded the political one, instead of coinciding with it or following it as we might expect.

Strangely enough, those two extraordinary papyri have the same length (544 cm), but while the Rhind one is of full width (33 cm) the Golenishchev one is a sort of pocket edition only one quarter of that width (8 cm). Though the latter is ostensibly the earlier, it is convenient to speak first of the Rhind papyrus.

The immense constructions undertaken during the Pyramid Age necessitated the activities of clerks who preserved and expanded the traditions in the form of methods and recipes, problems, accounts and tables, and what was the equivalent of our blueprints. We must assume the preservation of such traditions, gradually enriched, until the end of Egyptian splendor. For example, the erection of so many obelisks during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties suggests that the results of many experiments, and the methods gradually developed by trial and error, were transmitted by each architect to his apprentices, and from court to court. It is probable that the priests, who were the only educated people, or at any rate the best-educated ones, were the guardians of such scientific traditions, or that they helped to preserve them. The Rhind papyrus was actually written by a responsible scribe who names himself in the introductory paragraph.

Rules for enquiring into nature, and for knowing all that exists, [every] mystery, . . . . every secret. Behold this roll was written in Year 33, month 4 of the inundation season, . . . . [under the majesty of the King of Upper] and Lower Egypt Aauserrë’, endowed with life, in the likeness of a writing of antiquity made in the time of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Nemarë’. It was the scribe A m se who wrote this copy.⁸¹

This statement suggests that A m se realized the great importance of his mission. He was actually writing a treatise, that is, a systematic account of available knowledge in his field. To be sure, his treatise is not by any means as systematic as one written today, but as much method as it does contain is tremendously impressive. Think of it; here is a man, A m se, who lived almost as many centuries before Christ as we do after Christ, undertaking to set forth the main problems of arithmetic and geometry as they appeared to his contemporaries.

We have two excellent editions of it in English, Peet’s and Chace’s, either or both of which may be found in almost every reference library. Chace’s edition, published six years later than Peet’s, is far more instructive, since it enables one to pass gradually from the original hieroglyphics to the free English version.

Before describing the contents of the Rhind papyrus, it is necessary to explain the Egyptian idea of a fraction. For some strange reason the only fractions acceptable to them were those of the type 1/n (the nth part); they wrote it “part 125,” meaning 1/125. They also used two “complementary” fractions, 2/3 and 3/4 (each expressing the remainder when “part three” or “part four” is taken away). Their use of the second one — “three parts” — is rare, but that of the first — “two parts” (meaning two thirds) — is very common. The fraction 2/3 was represented by a separate symbol, which occurs frequently in the mathematical texts.

The Rhind papyrus begins with a table of the resolution of fractions of the type 2/(2n + 1), wherein n is given every integral value from 2 to 50, into sums of fractions with numerator one:

The very publication of this table at the beginning of the book is typical of its semitheoretical, semipractical nature. The scribe or his unknown predecessor had already reached experimentally a certain amount of abstraction and found it advantageous to put it forward.

Then follow forty arithmetic problems (see problem 4 in Fig. 9) concerning the division of 1, 2, . . . , 9 by 10, the multiplication of fractions, problems in completion (complete 2/3 1/30 to 1; the correct answer is 1/5 1/10), quantity problems (a quantity and its 1/7 added together become 19, what is the quantity?; the answer is 16 1/2 1/8), division by fractions, division of the measure hekat, division of loaves in arithmetic progression (see the example given below). These problems lead to equations of the first degree with one unknown quantity. Of course, there are no equations in the papyrus, but we notice symbols denoting addition and subtraction, and even one representing the unknown quantity. A problem in a Berlin papyrus (No. 6619) of Kahun (Twelfth Dynasty) leads to two equations, one of them quadratic, with two unknown quantities.⁸² In modern notation,

The answer, correctly given, is x = 8, y = 6. Then 8² + 6² = 100, or 4² + 3² = 5², and we recognize the numbers involved in the Pythagorean theorem, to which we shall come back in a moment.

Here is the final arithmetic problem as translated by Chace: ⁸³

Problem 40.

Divide 100 loaves among 5 men in such a way that the shares received shall be in arithmetic progression and that of the sum of the largest three shares shall be equal to the sum of the smallest two. What is the differences of the shares?

Do it thus: Make the difference of the shares 5½. Then the amounts that the 5 men receive will be

23 17½ 12 6½ 1, total 60

As many times as is necessary to multiply 60 to make 100, so many times must these terms be multiplied to make the true series.

The total, 1 , times 60 makes 100. Multiply by 1

Fig. 9. The Rhind papyrus, problem 4 (partly in the British Museum and partly in the New York Historical Society). The top part reproduces the original hieratic script; below is a transcription in hieroglyphic with a literal transliteration in our own alphabet. A free translation reads:

Divide 7 loaves among 10 men Each man receives 2/3 1/30

Proof. Multiply 2/3 1/30 by 10, the result is 7

Do it thus: 1 2/3 1/30

2 1 1/3 1/15

4 2 2/3 1/10 1/30

8 5 1/2 1/10

Total 7 loaves, which is correct. [Reproduced with kind permission from the edition by A. B. Chace, The Rhind mathematical papyrus (Oberlin, 1927-1929), vol. 1, p. 61; vol. 2, p. 36.]

Problems 41 to 60 deal with the determination of areas and volumes, and problems 61 to 84 are miscellaneous. The area of a triangle was obtained by multiplying its base by half of its side; this was correct only in the case of narrow triangles. The volume of a cylindrical granary of diameter d and height h is said to be (d—1/9dh. This is a remarkably close approximation for the area of the circle — 0.7902 instead of 0.7854 , as if π equated 3.16 instead of 3.14.

There is no reason to believe that the Egyptians knew the Pythagorean theorem, except the indirect one suggested above apropos of the Berlin papyrus. They might have obtained an empirical knowledge of it in many ways, but the matter is very uncertain. The fact that that knowledge was relatively easy to obtain and that they overcame greater difficulties is no valid argument. It is one of the commonplaces of the history of science that problems have not always been solved, either by one nation or by all of them collectively, in order of increasing difficulty.

The allusion of Democritos of Abdera (V B.C.) to the wise harpedonaptai, the rope stretchers or rope fasteners, of Egypt has been wrongly interpreted. According to Democritos,⁸⁴ no one of his time had surpassed him in constructing figures from lines and in proving their properties, not even the rope stretchers of Egypt. It has been assumed without further proof that the rope stretchers were able to draw right angles by using ropes divided by knots in the ratios 3:4:5. It is more probable that the function of the rope stretchers was astronomical rather than mathematical. “Stretching the cord” was one of the initial ceremonies at the foundation of a temple. The cord had to be stretched in the direction of the meridian in order to orient the temple properly.⁸⁵ It is not impossible that the rope stretchers were able also to draw a perpendicular to the meridian and they may have done it with a rope divided in segments of 3, 4, 5 units, but that is guesswork, as are all the theories ascribing the discovery of the Pythagorean theorem to Hindus or Chinese.

There are only twenty-five problems in the Golenishchev papyrus, but one of them is breath-taking.⁸⁶ It seems to prove that the Egyptians knew how to determine the volume of the frustum of a square pyramid, and their solution was essentially the same as ours, represented by the formula

V = (h/3) ( + ab + b²),

where h is the height of the frustum and a and b are the sides of its base and its top.

That solution may be called the masterpiece of Egyptian geometry. It is typical of Egyptian precocity and of the limitations of their genius that that solution was found by them perhaps as early as the nineteenth century, if not earlier, and that they never found anything better though they continued to work for three more millennia.


The most important technical achievement from the point of view of its cultural implications was the manufacture of papyrus, which has been discussed above. Let us say a few words about two other departures, each of which opened up infinite possibilities — the making of glass and the weaving of textiles.

It is impossible to say when glass was first made deliberately (there are a few predynastic specimens), but by the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1580) it was already produced on a large scale, and by the middle of that dynasty (c. 1465) the technique had reached a high standard of excellence.⁸⁸ Glass is obtained by fusing together silica (sand) with alkali; the alkali found in Egyptian examples is very largely soda, potash being present only in very small proportion. This shows that their alkali was obtained mainly from natron (a native sodium carbonate) and not from the leaching of plant ashes; remains of glass factories have been excavated in the Wadi Natr n.⁸⁹ The Egyptians made glazes of many kinds, notably to coat earthen vessels, and glasses of many colors — amethyst, black, blue, green, red, white, yellow. This means that they had discovered that the addition of certain metals or earths to the basic materials (quartz sand and natron) produced desirable effects. It would be highly misleading to call such empirical knowledge by the name of chemistry, or to say, for example, that they knew cobalt because cobalt has been found in ancient glass (even as early as the Eighteenth Dynasty). Yet the presence of that cobalt is significant, because cobalt compounds do not occur in Egypt and had to be imported from other regions (Persia, Caucasus). This implied that the Egyptian glassmakers were already sophisticated enough to hunt abroad for sundry ingredients in order to obtain new colors, in this case a dark blue one.

They fashioned glass into beads, mosaic, and vases. The last were formed on a sandy clay core. Blown glass was not known until considerably later, in Roman times.

Some fabrics were woven in prehistoric days. The Egyptian methods of spinning and weaving can be understood from a model ⁹⁰ of the Eleventh Dynasty (2160—2000) and from wall paintings of the Twelfth and later dynasties. Some linen found in royal tombs is so finely woven that one can hardly distinguish it from silk with the naked eye, and it was translucent. Even if we did not have actual specimens of such linen (of the Old Kingdom!) we could deduce its existence from ancient paintings showing a woman’s limbs through the fabric she is wearing. The painter reproduced exactly what he saw.⁹¹


The value of hard metals for technical purposes is one of the fundamental discoveries of mankind. That discovery was made independently in many places. Wherever it was made it created or prepared an industrial revolution. We think of the metal ages as succeeding the stone ages, and ancient Egypt impresses us as a kind of triumphal stone culture, because the metal tools have vanished, while the stone monuments still dominate the Nile valley. As a matter of fact, it was probably metal chisels that made those monuments possible, or at least increased their number. Metal instruments changed not only the mason’s craft, but many other crafts; metal weapons modified profoundly the political equilibrium.

How were the first metals discovered? This is not an Egyptian problem, but a problem of prehistory in general. The discovery was probably accidental, and it may have occurred in more than one way. There was plenty of copper ore in the Sinai peninsula; a native or an Egyptian visitor banking his campfire with pieces of that ore might have reduced some of it, and shining bits of copper would be found next morning in the embers. Egyptian women of the earliest age known to us (the Badarian) used malachite as an eye paint. Malachite is a copper ore (green basic carbonate of copper); if a piece of malachite fell into a charcoal fire it might be reduced and a bead of copper would appear. If the man in the first case, or the woman in the second, was intelligent enough to learn anything from a casual and irrelevant experience (very few people are, but there were such in every time), he would repeat and vary the experiment, obtain more copper, learn to hammer or to cast it into a desired shape, make a tool of a new kind, use that tool . . . As always, there is not one discovery to be considered, but a chain of them, so long a chain that no single man, yea, no single people, would be able to forge it alone; each would have followers, and each of the followers more followers. By the time the Pyramids were built the Copper Age was already well advanced.

Ores are seldom restricted to one metal. The early metallurgists were bound to obtain impure metals, that is, a mixture of one main metal, copper, with others. They may have noticed the superior value of some alloys and, at a later stage, prepared similar alloys by the mixture of different ores. That is, they may have noticed that a better kind of metal was obtained when various ores were melted together. Later still, much later, they may have prepared definite alloys by mixing metals in a constant proportion. This paragraph summarizes many millennia of metallurgic experience.

The best-known alloy of antiquity was bronze (that is, copper with tin); it was probably unintentional before the Eighteenth Dynasty (1580–1350). Specimens of copper older than that dynasty contain varying amounts of tin, arsenic, manganese, or bismuth. The invention of bronze, that is, the deliberate mixing of copper with a definite amount of tin (2 to 16 percent in ancient times; 9 or 10 percent now), was a step up almost as important as the discovery of copper itself; it marked the beginning of a new age. Bronze is stronger and harder than copper, particularly when hammered; ⁹² its melting point is lower than that of copper, and casting is easier in various ways; melted bronze does not contract like melted copper and does not absorb gases as readily. Much use was made of bronze during the Eighteenth Dynasty and later.

Where did the Egyptians get the tin? It is possible that it was already imported into Egypt before the end of the Old Kingdom.⁹³ Tin was brought from some of the islands, from Byblos, possibly even from Central Europe. The most obvious source was Byblos, in the vicinity of which ores of copper and ores of tin were obtainable together. It is thus possible that the mixture of those ores occurred very early in that city, accidentally to begin with, then more and more deliberately.

After having used up ores that were close to the surface, if those ores proved to be especially valuable, if there was a demand for them, the natives must have learned to dig for them, to dig deeper and deeper. The mines of Sinai were already exploited during the Old Kingdom; their exploitation was reorganized during the Twelfth Dynasty, in the time of Sesostris I (1980–1935), and much developed under Amenemh t III (1849–1801), who dug wells and cisterns, and built barracks for the workmen, houses for the overseers, and fortifications to keep the Beduins out. At Sar b t al-Kh dim (Sinai) he excavated a large cistern in the rocks; the mines were administered very methodically. Ruins of that mining settlement of almost thirty-eight centuries ago can be seen today.⁹⁴

The Egyptians made occasional use of meteoric iron, but their main metals were copper and bronze. The metallurgy of iron is far more difficult than that of copper; it was initiated and developed in Western Asia and not introduced into Egypt until very late (in Naucratis, sixth century B.C.). It is possible that Asiatic blacksmiths came to Egypt before that time and that would explain the presence of a few iron tools, more or less carburized and annealed, dating from 1200 B.C. and later.

In order to increase the temperature of their metallurgic furnaces, the Egyptians used blowpipes as early as the Fifth Dynasty, and bellows in the Eighteenth Dynasty and later.


It is not necessary to emphasize the antiquity of Egyptian medicine; ih every culture medicine develops very early, for the need of it is too universal and too pressing ever to be overlooked. We may be sure that some kind of medicine was already practiced in Egypt in the earliest prehistoric days, many millennia before Christ. To quote an example, the use of malachite as an eye paint and an eye salve goes back to the Badarian age; the use of galena for similar purposes was introduced later, though still in predynastic times. Circumcision is a rite of immemorial age; bodies exhumed from prehistoric graves (as early as, say, 4000 B.C.) show traces of it. A very clear representation of the operation was sculptured on the wall of a tomb of the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2625–2475); see Fig. 10.

Fig. 10. The earliest representation of a surgical operation: circumcision with a stone knife. Saqq ra, beginning of the Sixth Dynasty (say the end of the twenty-seventh century). [From the drawing by W. Max MüJler, Egyptological researches (Washington, 1906), vol. 1, pl. 106. Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington.]

The earliest physician whose name has been recorded, Imhotep,⁹⁶ was the waz r of Zoser, founder of the Third Dynasty, in the thirtieth century. Imhotep was a learned man, astronomer, physician, architect (he may have been the builder of the first pyramid, the step pyramid of aqq ra). In later times he was worshiped as a hero, as a blameless physician, and later still as the god of medicine, the prototype of Asclepios (even as the learned God Thoth was the prototype of Hermes and Mercury). We know precious little about Imhotep’s medical knowledge but his apotheosis is significant and we may well take him at the Egyptian valuation as the first great man in medicine. The people who speak of Hippocrates as the father of medicine should bear in mind that Hippocrates comes about half way between Imhotep and us. That would improve their perspective of ancient science.

Not only were there many physicians in the Pyramid Age, but there were very specialized ones. The skill of an early dentist is beautifully illustrated by a mandible found in a tomb of the Fourth Dynasty (2900–2750), in which an alveolar process was pierced to drain an abscess under the first molar. From the tombstone of Iry, chief physician to a pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty (2625–2475), we learn that he was also “palace eye physician” and “palace stomach-bowel physician” and bore the titles “one understanding the internal fluids” and “guardian of the anus.”⁹⁷

The medical papyri that have come to us, seven or more, are relatively late. They date from the Twelfth Dynasty to the Twentieth (2000 to 1090), but most of them reflect professedly earlier knowledge, going back to the Old Kingdom, as far back as the Fourth Dynasty. The two earliest papyri, the Kahun and the Gardiner fragments (c. 2000), deal with diseases of women, children, and cattle. The two most important ones, the so-called Smith and Ebers papyri, date from the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. The Smith one is of the same age as the Rhind mathematical papyrus. Roughly speaking, we may say that the outstanding mathematical and medical treatises that have come to us are of the same general period, the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom, just prior to the imperial age, when Egypt dominated the world.

Let us consider more carefully the two outstanding papyri, the Smith and the Ebers, both of which are much larger than any others. On the basis of the figures given by Sarton,⁹⁸ the seven medical papyri listed by him include 3746 lines; the Smith has 469 lines and the Ebers 2289, so that together they have 2758 lines, which is almost 74 percent of the total. As all the manuscripts are ultimately derived from similar Old Kingdom sources, we may safely assume that the study of the Ebers and the Smith papyri will give us a fair knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine.

We shall begin with the younger one, the Ebers papyrus, because it is by far the largest (almost five times as large as the Smith) and was the best known until very recent times. The difference in age is small anyhow, about a century, and negligible if one bears in mind that both texts represent older traditions. We are sure that the Ebers papyrus was written somewhat later than the Smith one, but it would be unwise to conclude that the contents of the former are of later date than the contents of the latter.

The Ebers papyrus is a roll 20.23 m long and 30 cm high; the text is distributed in 108 columns of 20 to 22 lines each. It contains 877 recipes concerning a great variety of diseases or symptoms. Spells are recommended only in twelve cases, and in other cases the therapeutics does not seem irrational, though we are seldom able to understand either the trouble or the remedy. The contents are arranged in the following order:

Recitals before medical treatment, to increase the virtue of the remedy. Internal medical diseases. Diseases of the eye. Diseases of the skin (with an appendix of sundries). Diseases of the extremities. Miscellanea (especially diseases of the head, for example, of the tongue, teeth, nose, and ears, and cosmetics). Diseases of women (and matters concerning housekeeping). Information of an anatomic, physiologic, and pathologic nature, and explanations of words. Surgical diseases.⁹⁹

That order is open to many objections, but the author’s intention is clear enough. He wanted to put together as well as possible all the information that a physician might need; he wrote a medical treatise, one of the earliest ever written (thirty-six centuries ago!).

The Smith papyrus is much shorter. It is 33 cm high and was probably 5 m long, but the beginning has been lost and it now measures 4.70 m. It is a copy of a much older text, dating back to the Pyramid Age, perhaps even early in that age, let us say the thirtieth century. After it had circulated for some generations it was found that its terms were antiquated.

Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, say in the twenty-sixth century, a learned physician had the idea of rejuvenating it by the addition of glosses (69 in all), explaining obsolete terms and discussing dubious matters. (N.B. the Papyrus Ebers has also some glosses, 26 in all, but they have been badly messed up.) These glosses constitute the most valuable part of the papyrus.¹⁰⁰

The text as we have it now comprises two very distinct parts — 17 columns (377 lines) on the front and 4½ columns (92 lines) on the back. The latter part contains only recipes and incantations and need not detain us. The main part is a surgical treatise, informed by a scientific spirit far superior to that of the Ebers papyrus.

To be sure, the field of surgery is much less likely than that of internal medicine to be contaminated by irrational ideas, for in most surgical cases dealt with by ancient physicians the cause of the injury was too obvious to require the insertion of magical antecedents. On the contrary, an internal disease is always mysterious and likely to breed superstitious ideas in the patient’s mind, even in the physician’s mind. The Smith papyrus consists not of recipes but of definite cases. It was planned to deal with the ailments in the order of the bodily parts from head to foot, but unfortunately it stops a little below the shoulders, whether because the scribe was interrupted or because the end of the manuscript got lost, we do not know. That order — eis podas ec cephal s, a capite ad calces — remained the standard one throughout the Middle Ages, but it was so natural, as a first approximation, that we should not assume it was determined by the Egyptian example.

The forty-eight cases dealt with in the papyrus, as it has come to us, are classified as follows:

The discussion begins with the head and skull, proceeding thence downward by way of the nose, face and ears, to the neck, clavicle, humerus, thorax, shoulders and spinal column, where the text is discontinued, leaving the document incomplete. Without any external indication of the arrangement of the text, the content of the treatise is nevertheless carefully disposed in groups of cases, each group being concerned with a certain region.

These groups are as follows:

Head (27 cases, the first incomplete): Skull, overlying soft tissue and brain, Cases 1–10. Nose, Cases 11–14. Maxillary region, Cases 15–17. Temporal region, Cases 18–22. Ears, mandible, lips and chin, Cases 23–27.

Throat and neck (cervical vertebrae), Cases 28–33.

Clavicle, Cases 34–35.

Humerus, Cases 36–38

Sternum, overlying soft tissue, and true ribs, Cases 39-46.

Shoulders, Case 47.

Spinal Column, Case 48.¹⁰¹

The incompleteness of Case 48 confirms our suspicion that the rest of the treatise is lost. The discussion of each case is done systematically in the following way:




Treatment (unless a fatal case, considered untreatable).

Glosses (a little dictionary of obscure terms, if any, employed in the discussion of the case).¹⁰²

The title of Case 4 reads, “Instructions concerning a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, and splitting his skull”; that of Case 6, “Instructions concerning a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, smashing his skull, and rending open the brain of his skull.”

The examination regularly begins thus: “If thou examinest a man having . . .” The form adopted is that of a teacher instructing a pupil that he shall do so and so. The methods of observation expressly stipulated or implied are answers elicited from the patient, ocular, olfactory, and tactile observations, movements of parts of the body by the patient as directed by the surgeon. Strange to say, eight out of eleven surgical operations are classified with the examination rather than with the treatment. This would suggest that the surgical work was considered a preparation to the medical treatment, independent of it.

The diagnosis is always introduced by the words: “Thou should say concerning him [the patient] ...” and ends with one of three statements:

An ailment which I will treat.

An ailment with which I will contend.

An ailment not to be treated.

Three diagnoses consist of this final hopeless verdict and nothing more; but in forty-nine diagnoses in our treatise the three verdicts are preceded by other observations on the case. In thirty-six of these forty-nine diagnoses the other observations are nothing more than a repetition of the title of the case, or of observations already made in the examination; but in the remaining thirteen, the diagnosis adds one or more conclusions based on the facts determined in the examination. These are the earliest surviving examples of observation and conclusion, the oldest known evidences of an inductive process in the history of the human mind.¹⁰³

Parallel with the systematic use of these three verdicts is a similar series of temporal clauses bearing more directly on the condition of the patient although not so regularly employed, and placed at the end of the treatment. These read:

“Until he recovers.”

“Until the period of his injury passes by.”

“Until thou knowest that he has reached a decisive point.” ¹⁰⁴

The matter-of-factness and soberness of those early medical texts is very impressive. The doctor who wrote them down was not only an experienced man but a wise one, whose general point of view sometimes adumbrates that of the Hippocratic writings. For example, he recommends an expectant attitude, trusting in the healing power of nature, or he recommends waiting “until thou knowest that he [the patient] has reached a decisive point”; this reminds us of the Hippocratic notion of crisis.

There is no reason to believe that the ancient Egyptians had studied anatomy by means of deliberate dissections, but they had taken advantage of the accidental experiments falling under their eyes and had accumulated much knowledge. Of course, the mummification of dead bodies of men and animals, which had been practiced from time immemorial, might have taught them many things, but I am rather skeptical about that; the embalmers were too much concerned about their own difficult art to pay attention to irrelevant anatomic details. It is possible that the practice of mummification made it easier later, much later, in Ptolemaic times, for Greek scientists to undertake systematic dissections, but that is another story. As far as ancient Egypt is concerned there is no evidence of the influence of mummification on anatomic knowledge.

The author whose work is recorded in the Smith papyrus had meditated on anatomic and physiologic questions. He was aware of the importance of the pulse, and of a connection between pulse and heart. He had some vague idea of a cardiac system, though not of course of a circulation, which nobody clearly understood before Harvey. His knowledge of the vascular system was made hopelessly difficult by his inability to distinguish between blood vessels, tendons, and nerves. Yet consider these astounding observations of the brain (Fig. 11):

If thou examinest a man having a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, smashing his skull, and rending open the brain of his skull, thou shouldst palpate his wound. Shouldst thou find that smash which is in his skull like those corrugations which form in molten copper, and something therein throbbing and fluttering under thy fingers, like the weak place of an infant’s crown before it becomes whole — when it has happened there is no throbbing and fluttering under thy fingers until the brain of his [the patients) skull is rent open — and he discharges blood from both his nostrils, and he suffers with stiffness in his neck.¹⁰⁵

He had observed the meninges, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the convolutions of the brain (compared in the previous quotation to the rippling surface of metallic slag). Moreover, he had realized that the brain was the seat of the control of the body, and that special kinds of control were localized in special parts of the brain. For further details I must refer to Breasted’s masterly edition or to my long review of it.¹⁰⁶

To conclude, the Smith papyrus, and to a lesser extent the Ebers one, give us a very favorable idea of the medicine, anatomy, and physiology of the Egyptians, and of the scientific outlook that they had obtained at least two thousand years before Hippocrates.


The preceding accounts of Egyptian engineering, mathematics, and medicine, brief as they are, are sufficient, I believe, to answer a query that the reader is bound to make (as I am keenly aware because of my experience as a teacher). Can we speak of Egyptian “science,” or is all that simply empiricism and folklore?

Fig. 11. The Smith papyrus, case 6, translated in the text. This is not the original hieratic text, but the hieroglyphic transcription, reproduced with kind permission from James Henry Breasted, The Edwin Smith papyrus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930) [Isis 15, 355–367 (1931)]. For the original hieratic, see the same work, vol. 2, pl. II.

What is science? May we not say that whenever the attempt to solve a problem is made methodically, according to a predetermined order or plan, we are witnessing a scientific procedure, we are witnessing the very growth of science? To be sure, early methods seem childish and weak as compared with ours, but will the scientists of the year 5000 think as favorably of our methods as we do ourselves? A beginning had to be made and not only did the Egyptians make it, but they proceeded remarkably far along the road that we are still following. For example, do not the tables of the Rhind papyrus represent a deliberate attempt to solve problems in a general way and by anticipation? Such tables are the true ancestors of all the mathematical tables — their name is legion — of which we are so proud today. It is probable that other tables were compiled by the scribes in charge of the accounts and measurements entailed by the gigantic constructions. It is not surprising that such documents have failed to reach us, for they would not be preserved in tombs for eternity, but would be used by living men and worn out of existence. And the classification of cases in the Smith papyrus, the method followed in the discussion of each case — is not that science?

Some readers having at the back of their minds the prejudice that science is a Greek invention (have not scholars repeated that for centuries?) will insist and say, “That may be science, but not pure sicence.” Why not? At the end of his admirable investigation of the Smith papyrus, Breasted concluded:

Indeed these two men, the surgeon who was the original author of the treatise, and his later successor, who wrote the glosses forming the ancient commentary, both living in the first half of the third thousand years B.C., were the earliest known natural scientists. In the long course of human development they are the first men whom we can see confronting a great body of observable phenomena, which they collected and stated, sometimes out of interest in the rescue of the patient, sometimes out of pure interest in scientific truth, as inductive conclusions which they drew from observed fact.¹⁰⁷

I am sure that not only the Egyptians who had reached the stage of composing mathematical and medical treatises, but simpler men, living perhaps thousands of years earlier, were already pure scientists, that is, men moved by such an intense curiosity that the practical results and immediate fruits of their research became of secondary importance to them. As to Ahm se and the unknown author of the Smith papyrus, I am sure that no men of science can read their books today without emotion, for they cannot help recognizing in them some of their own intellectual traits.

If disinterestedness is the criterion of pure science, we may say that science was never completely pure or completely impure. The circumstances of life and the inexorable drift of their own endeavors obliged the Egyptians to solve many technical problems; the exploration of those problems created scientific interests extending beyond the immediate solution of particular cases. The development of Egyptian science was simply an anticipation of the development of science in general.

There can be no doubt about the efflorescence of a scientific spirit in Egypt before the middle of the second millennium, but alas! its development was arrested and it gradually died down. What were the causes of its fall and decadence? Similar questions have been asked about China, Greece, Rome, Islam, and have never been answered completely. At first the growth of Egyptian science, and later its very life, were stopped by the combination of political with religious obscurantism. The science and wisdom of the Egyptians were blighted, but their efforts were eventually continued by other nations. This has happened again and again in the past and even within our own experience; it may happen again in the future, but obscurantism, however well organized, can never be universal and perpetual.


Though we are primarily concerned with science, it is necessary to say a few words about Egyptian art and letters because the general reader is not so well acquainted with them as he may be with art and letters of later times. If he lives near one of the great museums he may have some familiarity with Egyptian art, but even so, prejudices may have prevented him from seeing it well. I have heard educated people remark that everything in Egyptian art was stereotyped and static, that the representation of human figures was dominated by the law of frontality, and so forth. The fact is that much in Egyptian art, even of the Old Kingdom, is tremendously active and sensitive, and that that art, far from being fixed, did evolve considerably during its long existence. Moreover, it is extremely complex, for it includes such gigantic monuments as the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Colossi of Memnon, the Temples; conventional statues of kings, stiffened by ritual and symbolism; and many other statues — even of kings and queens — full of individuality and expressing many peculiarities, many moods, many graces. To mention only the most popular examples, think of the bust of Prince Ankhhaef (Fourth Dynasty) in Boston, the Shaykh al-balad (Fifth Dynasty) in Cairo, the squatting clerk (Fifth Dynasty) in the Louvre (“Le scribe accroupi”), the head of Queen Nefertete (Eighteenth Dynasty)¹⁰⁸ in Berlin. We owe to Egypt some of the most individualized and the most moving portraits of ancient times. Descriptions of such matters are futile. Take an album of Egyptian art and examine it leisurely with an open mind.

Art cannot be dissociated from literature, for in Egypt (as in the Christian Middle Ages) it was the literature of the illiterate. Of course the vast majority of the people were illiterate, for the various forms of script were so forbidding that only a few people in a thousand could read them at all. We find in the Egyptian tombs immense collections of the objects that living people used (small replicas of them were placed in the tombs for use in the hereafter; see Fig. 12); moreover, bas-reliefs and paintings describe most of their occupations. Such delineations are far more effective than verbal explanations. We can see the fallãhin of the Pyramid Age plowing and sowing, harvesting, threshing, weaving; we can see the carpenters, the potters, the bakers, the smiths, the charioteers, the boatmen and sailors, the scribes, and also the jugglers and acrobats, the wrestlers, the dancing girls and musicians, the women on their way to market; we witness hunting scenes in the papyrus marshes (Fig. 13) or in the desert; we become acquainted not only with people but with their animal companions, cows and calves, donkeys, rams, dogs, cats, horses,¹⁰⁹ and also poultry, rabbits, geese and ducks, owls and cranes, mice, gazelles and oryxes, ibexes, ichneumons, leopards, crocodiles, hippopotami, giraffes, elephants; we visit the gardens and the fields, the villas of the noblemen with all their appurtenances; we watch the chariots and the ships. There was everywhere a great love of beauty, which is immortalized in the models, the reliefs, the paintings and drawings, and in innumerable details of the objects that have come down to us in abundance. In short, we have no difficulty in visualizing the life of ancient Egypt in all its infinite variety and we have a better knowledge of it than we have of periods much nearer to our own. We certainly know the Egyptians of the Pyramid Age far more intimately than the Greeks of the Homeric Age; in the second case, it is true, we have the Iliad and the Odyssey, but we lack the wealth of illustrations that enable us to evoke the life that was lived two thousand years earlier.

Fig. 12. Hippopotamus in blue faience, Seventeenth Dynasty (seventeenth or sixteenth century), to illustrate Egyptian freedom from the law of frontality; such freedom was not by any means exceptional with the Egyptians. [Courtesy of the British Museum.]

Egyptian literature is not at all on the level of Egyptian art, either in quality or in quantity, but it is Original,¹¹⁰ meaningful, and impressive. We know it very imperfectly, for the written documents preserved only a part of it to begin with, and the majority of those documents have been lost. Only those enclosed in tombs had a chance of survival. Little has come down to us from the Old Kingdom beyond the so-called Pyramid Texts, which are hardly more than magical incantations. From the period following the Sixth Dynasty, however, we have a fair collection of literary efforts, varied and conscious. By the time of the Twelfth Dynasty (2000–1788), an “author” was already complaining of the difficulty of saying anything new! We have the heterogenous collection united under the misleading name of the Book of the Dead,¹¹¹ the book of what is in the nether world (Am Duat), rituals, litanies, moving hymns, royal and private letters, historical

Fig. 13. View of a papyrus marsh along the Nile. The flowers and vertical lines represent the papyrus thicket. Observe the men in a reed boat, hippopotami, birds, fishes, mongoose (right of center). This is one of the many bas-reliefs concerning fishing and hunting in the marshes, in the mastaba of Mereruka. [From the Sakkarah Expedition, Prentice Duell, field director, The mastaba of Mereruka (2 vols., folio; Chicago: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago Press, 1938), pl. 19; reproduced with kind permission of the Oriental Institute; see also pls. 9–13, 15–21, showing other hunting and fishing scenes in the marshes.] The mastaba is a monument of the Old Kingdom, Sixth Dynasty (2625–2475).

records, laws and treaties, touching stories such as the tale of Sinuhe,¹¹² and other stories anticipating The Arabian Nights, collections of maxims for the edification of young princes (prototypes of the medieval Regimina principum), lamentations and books of wisdom suggesting comparison with similiar books in the Old Testament. That literature is often bombastic, and hackneyed metaphors create an impression of monotony; on the other hand, it is enlivened by directness, picturesqueness, and humor. When attempting to judge it we should bear in mind the possibility of misunderstanding it or at least of failing to appreciate it completely because of our insufficient knowledge of the language and of the people who spoke it; we should remember also that, such as it is, it is stretched out during a long period, two millennia, which completely antedates the whole of the Greek and Hebrew literatures.¹¹³


There is no point in trying to explain the very complicated religion of the Egyptians, for this would illustrate their mythopoeic imagination rather than their scientific ability. However, the growth of science postulates a sufficient development of moral and social ideals. We may ask ourselves, why did it grow so early in the land of Egypt? The answer involves many factors, some of which are beyond our ken; it must suffice here to discuss briefly the political and religious ones.

No culture can be built in one day or in a single century; its elaboration implies the persistence of convergent efforts for a long time, and this is hardly possible without a sufficient amount of political concentration and stability. Such conditions obtained very early in the Nile Valley and help to account for what might be called the Egyptian miracle.

Some kind of political unity was already achieved in prehistoric times (say by 4000 or before), but it did not yet involve the whole of Egypt. There were two kingdoms, that of Lower Egypt (the Delta) and that of Upper Egypt, a long ribbon stretching from Memphis (Cairo) to the First Cataract (Asw n, ancient Syene, 24°5’ N). The dynastic periods began when King Menes united the two kingdoms, wore the double crown, and styled himself “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” or “Lord of Both Lands.” That union did not last forever, but it lasted during the first six dynasties (the Old Kingdom), or from c. 3400 to 2475, that is, almost a millennium, enough time to crystallize moral ideas and moral habits. For the sake of readers who insist on thinking of ancient Egypt as a monotonous sameness, let me recall that there were three periods of stability:

Old Kingdom

Dyn. I–VI


Middle Kingdom



New Kingdom



These periods lasted, respectively, 925, 372, and 490 years, and were separated by two periods of anarchy or at least of instability lasting 315 and 208 years. Happily for the Egyptians, the periods of stability were long enough, especially the first and fundamental one, to establish their institutions and enable traditions to take root. In order to appreciate the length of those periods, let us express them in terms of American history. If we consider the length of that history from the Revolution, 1775, until 1950 (175 years) as one unit; then the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms lasted, respectively, 5.3, 2, and 3 units, and the twenty-six dynasties of ancient Egypt (3400 to 525 = 2875 years) lasted 16.4 units. While the periods of stability were long enough to give to the whole of Egyptian culture a certain unity, various upheavals and interruptions, changes of political gear and religious mood, prevented excessive uniformity. The simplest way of measuring the evolution is to consider good series of works of art in their chronological sequence; if one is suf6ciently sensitive to them one thus obtains immediately an intuitive understanding of the development up and down of the Egyptian genius.

During the Old Kingdom the Egyptians were already discussing the problem of right and wrong; witness the so-called Memphite drama, which we know only through a late Ethiopian copy (Dyn. XXV, 712-663) but the contents of which are of great antiquity. The Proverbs of Ptathotep which can be traced back to the Vth Dynasty, evidence the progress of moral fermentation, what might be called the birth and growth of human conscience. Here is an example: ¹¹⁵

Be not arrogant because of thy knowledge, and be not puffed up for that thou art a learned man. Take counsel with the ignorant as with the learned, for the limits of art cannot be reached, and no artist is perfect in his excellence. Goodly discourse is more hidden than the precious green-stone, and yet it is found with slave-girls over the millstones.

This is something different from art and science, even from religion, something the absence of which would make any lasting culture impossible. Meanwhile Egyptian religion was developing into two main directions leading respectively to Heaven and to Hell — on one hand, a solar cult with the conception of an empyrean realm of the dead; on the other hand, the Osiridian cycle of myths, suggested by the miraculous fertility of plants, animals, and men, together with the conception of underground mysteries. Those fables can be followed (with difficulty) in the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, but in the latter we find occasional utterances that adumbrate the idea of human brotherhood. Says Re, the Sun-god,

I have made the four winds that every man might breathe thereof like his brother during his time.

I have made the great waters that the pauper like the lord might have use of them.

I have made every man like his brother, and I have forbidden that they do evil, (hut) it was their hearts which undid that which I had said.¹¹⁶

To be sure, those hoary texts, the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, are full of magic and nonsense, but the seeds of morality that they contain vindicate and redeem them. The dawn of morality was as important as the dawn of science. The Book of the Dead explains the idea of a moral judgment and its illustrations give it a very concrete form. We witness the actual weighing of the man’s heart in the temple of Osiris (Fig. 14).¹¹⁷

This moral and religious fermentation reached a climax toward the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty. That dynasty was an age of great power; Egypt dominated the Western World. Political imperialism suggested a kind of religious imperialism. There was but one Pharaoh, there should be but one god. The last king of that dynasty, Amenhotep IV (c. 1375–1350), tried to establish a new monotheistic religion and as a symbol of his own conversion changed his own name to Ikhnaton. His fervor is illustrated by hymns, the most remarkable of which is the “Adoration of the Disk [the Disk of the Sun, Aton, name of the one God] by King Ikhnaton and Queen Nefertete.” ¹¹⁸ According to Breasted, that hymn is the earliest truly monotheistic hymn in the world literature; parts of it suggest comparison with the 104th Psalm.

In order to consecrate his reformation of the religion of his fathers, Ikhnaton moved his capital from the priest-ridden Thebes to a new site, Tell al-‘Amdrna.¹¹⁹ Many literary and artistic treasures have been found in the ruins of that place, as well as a part of his political correspondence with the kings of Western Asia, written on clay tablets in cuneiform characters (more about that anon) .

Fig. 14. Papyrus of the ladv Anhai (British museum, papyrus No. 10472), Book of the Dead, chap. cxxv. [Reproduced with kind permission from E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead. Facsimiles of the papyri of Hunefer, Anhai, Kerasher and Netchemet (folio; London, 1899), pl. 4 of Anhai.]

The lady Anhai was a priestess in the college of Amon-Re in Thebes, at the time of the Twentieth or Twenty-first Dynasty (c. 1200–945). The scene represented is the weighing of the conscience (psychostasia). At the top left are the gods seated near tables covered with offerings. The weighing is taking place below them. The jackal-headed Anubis is weighing the heart of Anhai ( right-hand scale ) against a little figure of Maat, goddess of truth; Anubis knows that the weights are equal when the pointer of the balance is parallel to a plumb line or to the vertical stand supporting the balance. On the extreme left are Maat and, below her, the ibis-headed Thoth, god of knowledge and justice, who records the result of the trial. The larger figures on the right are the falcon-headed Horus, leading Anhai into the presence of Osiris (not included in this plate.). At the extreme right, the goddess Maat is embraced by the goddess Amentet.

Ikhnaton was a powerful king, but no ruler can rule alone, and the greater his empire the more assistants he needs; in the long run those assistants are bound to limit and perhaps to control his power. The Egyptian empire (not unlike almost every other empire) rested on three pillars, the King, the Clergy, and the Army. Ikhnaton’s bold reform, a kind of Reformation occurring twenty-nine centuries before the European one, was premature. Moreover, the Empire had passed its climax and was beginning to slip out of the Pharaoh’s hands. The monotheistic cult of Aton was rejected by the priests. After Ikhnaton’s death they reestablished the old mythology, resumed their power, and discouraged new adventures. Religion and science were fossilized; further progress became more difficult, if not impossible. Ikhnaton’s failure was sealed when his second successor and son-in-law, Tutankhamon, abandoned Tell el-‘Am rna and moved his capital back to Thebes.¹²⁰

Ikhnaton’s folly or genius being repudiated, a chapter in the history of mankind was closed or seemed closed. In spite of their immense power and their mystical hold on the people, the priests could not eradicate the monotheistic ideal. Ideas can never be completely eradicated; they are bound to crop out again and again. Ikhnaton’s noble vision reappeared three and a half centuries after his death in the Wisdom of Amenemope (or Amenophis)¹²¹ and later still in the Proverbs of Solomon.

One does not know what to admire most in Egyptian achievements, especially those of the third and second millennia — the glory of art, the beginnings of mathematics and medicine, the variety and perfection of their techniques, the dawn of conscience. We should bear in mind that the scientific achievements, which are our main concern, were of necessity the least developed, while the artistic achievements and even the religious ones could attain a climax, comparable to the climaxes of later ages. Ikhnaton could reach as near to God as we can, and the artists of the Old Kingdom could come as close to beauty as the artists of any time. On the other hand, the Egyptian mathematicians and physicians were standing near the bottom of a ladder which we are still climbing. Their position was necessarily low, and if ours is a bit higher, it is partly to their efforts that we owe it. They were our first guides and our first teachers.

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