Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER VIII
Egypt

I. THE GIFT OF THE NILE

1. In the Delta

Alexandria—The Nile—The Pyramids—The Sphinx

THIS is a perfect harbor. Outside the long breakwater the waves topple over one another roughly; within it the sea is a silver mirror. There, on the little island of Pharos, when Egypt was very old, Sostratus built his great lighthouse of white marble, five hundred feet high, as a beacon to all ancient mariners of the Mediterranean, and as one of the seven wonders of the world. Time and the nagging waters have washed it away, but a new lighthouse has taken its place, and guides the steamer through the rocks to the quays of Alexandria. Here that astonishing boy-statesman, Alexander, founded the subtle, polyglot metropolis that was to inherit the culture of Egypt, Palestine and Greece. In this harbor Caesar received without gladness the severed head of Pompey.

As the train glides through the city, glimpses come of unpaved alleys and streets, heat waves dancing in the air, workingmen naked to the waist, black-garbed women bearing burdens sturdily, white-robed and turbaned Moslems of regal dignity, and in the distance spacious squares and shining palaces, perhaps as fair as those that the Ptolemies built when Alexandria was the meeting-place of the world. Then suddenly it is open country, and the city recedes into the horizon of the fertile Delta—that green triangle which looks on the map like the leaves of a lofty palm-tree held up on the slender stalk of the Nile.

Once, no doubt, this Delta was a bay; patiently the broad stream filled it up, too slowly to be seen, with detritus carried down a thousand miles;* now from this little corner of mud, enclosed by the many mouths of the river, six million peasants grow enough cotton to export a hundred million dollars’ worth of it every year. There, bright and calm under the glaring sun, fringed with slim palms and grassy banks, is the most famous of all rivers. We cannot see the desert that lies so close beyond it, or the great emptywadis—river-beds—where once its fertile tributaries flowed; we cannot realize yet how precariously narrow a thing this Egypt is, owing everything to the river, and harassed on either side with hostile, shifting sand.

Now the train passes amid the alluvial plain. The land is half covered with water, and crossed everywhere with irrigation canals. In the ditches and the fields black fellaheen* labor, knowing no garment but a cloth about the loins. The river has had one of its annual inundations, which begin at the summer solstice and last for a hundred days; through that overflow the desert became fertile, and Egypt blossomed, in Herodotus’ phrase, as the “gift of the Nile.” It is clear why civilization found here one of its earliest homes; nowhere else was a river so generous in irrigation, and so controllable in its rise; only Mesopotamia could rival it. For thousands of years the peasants have watched this rise with anxious eagerness; to this day public criers announce its progress each morning in the streets of Cairo.2 So the past, with the quiet continuity of this river, flows into the future, lightly touching the present on its way. Only historians make divisions; time does not.

But every gift must be paid for; and the peasant, though he valued the rising waters, knew that without control they could ruin as well as irrigate his fields. So from time beyond history he built these ditches that cross and recross the land; he caught the surplus in canals, and when the river fell he raised the water with buckets pivoted on long poles, singing, as he worked, the songs that the Nile has heard for five thousand years. For as these peasants are now, sombre and laughterless even in their singing, so they have been, in all likelihood, for fifty centuries.3 This water-raising apparatus is as old as the Pyramids; and a million of these fellaheen, despite the conquests of Arabic, still speak the language of the ancient monuments.4

Here in the Delta, fifty miles southeast of Alexandria, is the site of Naucratis, once filled with industrious, scheming Greeks; thirty miles farther east, the site of Saïs, where, in the centuries before the Persian and Greek conquests, the native civilization of Egypt had its last revival; and then, a hundred and twenty-nine miles southeast of Alexandria, is Cairo. A beautiful city, but not Egyptian; the conquering Moslems founded it in A.D. 968; then the bright spirit of France overcame the gloomy Arab and built here a Paris in the desert, exotic and unreal. One must pass through it by motorcar or leisurely fiacre to find old Egypt at the Pyramids.

How small they appear from the long road that approaches them; did we come so far to see so little? But then they grow larger, as if they were being lifted up into the air; round a turn in the road we surprise the edge of the desert; and there suddenly the Pyramids confront us, bare and solitary in the sand, gigantic and morose against an Italian sky. A motley crowd scrambles about their base—stout business men on blinking donkeys, stouter ladies secure in carts, young men prancing on horseback, young women sitting uncomfortably on camel-back, their silk knees glistening in the sun; and everywhere grasping Arabs. We stand where Caesar and Napoleon stood, and remember that fifty centuries look down upon us; where the Father of History came four hundred years before Caesar, and heard the tales that were to startle Pericles. A new perspective of time comes to us; two millenniums seem to fall out of the picture, and Caesar, Herodotus and ourselves appear for a moment contemporary and modern before these tombs that were more ancient to them than the Greeks are to us.

Nearby, the Sphinx, half lion and half philosopher, grimly claws the sand, and glares unmoved at the transient visitor and the eternal plain. It is a savage monument, as if designed to frighten old lechers and make children retire early. The lion body passes into a human head with prognathous jaws and cruel eyes; the civilization that built it (ca. 2990 B.C.) had not quite forgotten barbarism. Once the sand covered it, and Herodotus, who saw so much that is not there, says not a word of it.

Nevertheless, what wealth these old Egyptians must have had, what power and skill, even in the infancy of history, to bring these vast stones six hundred miles, to raise some of them, weighing many tons, to a height of half a thousand feet, and to pay, or even to feed, the hundred thousand slaves who toiled for twenty years on these Pyramids! Herodotus has preserved for us an inscription that he found on one pyramid, recording the quantity of radishes, garlic and onions consumed by the workmen who built it; these things, too, had to have their immortality.* Despite these familiar friends we go away disappointed; there is something barbarically primitive—or barbarically modern—in this brute hunger for size. It is the memory and imagination of the beholder that, swollen with history, make these monuments great; in themselves they are a little ridiculous—vainglorious tombs in which the dead sought eternal life. Perhaps pictures have too much ennobled them: photography can catch everything but dirt, and enhances man-made objects with noble vistas of land and sky. The sunset at Gizeh is greater than the Pyramids.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!