1. The Language.—2. The Writing.—3. The Literature.—4. The Monuments. —5. The Discovery of Champollion.—6. Literary Remains; Historical; Religious; Epistolary; Fictitious; Scientific; Epic; Satirical and Judicial.—7. The Alexandrian Period.—8. The Literary Condition of Modern Egypt.
1. THE LANGUAGE.—From the earliest times the language of Egypt was divided into three dialects: the Memphitic, spoken in Memphis and Lower Egypt; the Theban, or Sahidic, spoken in Upper Egypt; and the Bashmuric, a provincial variety belonging to the oases of the Lybian Desert.
The Coptic tongue, which arose from a union of ancient Egyptian with the vulgar vernacular, later became mingled with Greek and Arabic words, and was written in the Greek alphabet. It was used in Egypt until the tenth century A.D., when it gave way to the Arabic; but the Christians still preserve it in their worship and in their translation of the Bible. By rejecting its foreign elements Egyptologists have been enabled to study this language in its purity, and to establish its grammar and construction. It is the exclusive character of the Christian Egyptian literature, and marks the last development and final decay of the Egyptian language.
2. THE WRITING.—Four distinct graphic systems were in use in ancient Egypt: the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, the demotic, and Coptic. The first expresses words partly by representation of the object and partly by signs indicating sounds, and was used chiefly for inscriptions. The hieratic characters presented a flowing and abbreviated form of the hieroglyphic, and were used more particularly in the papyri. The great body of Egyptian literature has reached us through this character, the reading of which can only be determined by resolving it into its prototype, hieroglyphics.
The demotic writing indicates the rise of the vulgar tongue, which took place about the beginning of the seventh century B.C. It was used to transcribe hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions and papyri into the common idiom until the second century A.D., when the Coptic generally superseded it.
3. THE LITERATURE.—The literary history of ancient Egypt presents a remarkable exception to that of any other country. While the language underwent various modifications, and the written characters changed, the literature remained the same in all its principal features. This literature consists solely of inscriptions painted or engraved on monuments, or of written manuscripts on papyrus buried in the tombs or beneath the ruins of temples. It is so deficient in style, and so unsystematic in its construction, that it has taxed the labors of the ablest critics for the last fifty years to construct a whole from its disjointed materials, and these are so imperfect that many periods of Egyptian history are complete literary blanks. In the great period of the Rameses, novels or works of amusement predominated; under the Ptolemies, historical records, and in the Coptic or Christian stage, homolies and church rituals prevailed; but through every epoch the same general type appears. Notwithstanding these deficiencies, however, Egypt offers a most attractive field for the archaeologist, and new discoveries are constantly adding to our knowledge of this interesting country.
4. THE MONUMENTS.—The monuments of Egypt are religious, as the temples, sepulchral, as the necropoles, or triumphal, as the obelisks. The temples were the principal structures of the Egyptian cities, and their splendid ruins, covered with inscriptions, are among the most interesting remains of antiquity. Life after death, the leading idea of the religion of Egypt, was expressed in the construction of the tombs, so numerous in the vicinity of all the large cities. These necropoles, excavated in the rocks or hillsides, or built within the pyramids, consist of rows of chambers with halls supported by columns, which, with the walls, are often covered with paintings, historical or monumental, representing scenes from domestic or civil life. The great pyramids were probably built for the sepulchres of kings and their families, and the smaller ones for persons of inferior rank.
The most magnificent of the triumphal monuments are the obelisks, gigantic monoliths of red or white granite, some of which are more than two hundred feet high, covered with inscriptions, and bearing the image of the triumphant king, painted or engraved. The splendid obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, at Paris, celebrates the glories of Rameses II.
The obelisk now in New York is one of a pair erected at Heliopolis, before the Temple of the Sun, about 1600 B.C. In the reign of Augustus both were removed to Alexandria, and were known in modern times as Cleopatra's Needles. One was presented by the Khedive to the city of London in 1877, and the other to the city of New York the same year. The shaft on the latter bears two inscriptions, one celebrating Thothmes III., and the other Rameses II.
One of the most characteristic monuments of Egypt is the statue of the Sphinx, so often found in the temples and necropoles. It is a recumbent figure, having a human head and breast and the body of a lion. Whatever idea the Egyptians may have attached to this symbol, it represents most truly the character of that people and the struggle of mind to free itself from the instincts of brutal nature.
5. THE DISCOVERY OF CHAMPOLLION.—During the expedition into Egypt, in 1799, in throwing up some earthworks near Rosetta, a town on the western arm of the Nile, an officer of the French army discovered a block or tablet of black basalt, upon which were engraved inscriptions in Egyptian and Greek characters. This tablet, called the Rosetta Stone, was sent to France and submitted to the orientalists for interpretation. The inscription was found to be a decree of the Egyptian priests in honor of Ptolemy Epiphanes (196 B.C.), which was ordered to be engraved on stone in sacred (hieroglyphic), common (demotic), and in Greek characters. Through this interpretation, Champollion (1790-1832), after much study, discovered and established the alphabetic system of Egyptian writing, and applying his discovery more extensively, he was able to decipher the names of the kings of Egypt from the Roman emperors back, through the Ptolemies, to the Pharaohs of the elder dynasties. This discovery was the key to the interpretation of all the ancient monuments of Egypt; by it the history of the country was thrown open for a period of twenty-six centuries, the annals of the neighboring nations were rendered more intelligible, the religion, arts, sciences, life, and manners of the ancient Egyptians were revealed to the modern world, and the obelisks, the innumerable papyri, and the walls of the temples and tombs were transformed into inexhaustible mines of historical and scientific knowledge.
6. LITERARY REMAINS; HISTORICAL; RELIGIOUS; EPISTOLARY; FICTITIOUS; SCIENTIFIC; EPIC; SATIRICAL AND JUDICIAL.—The Egyptian priests from the earliest times must have preserved the annals of their country, though obscured by myths and symbols. These annals, however, were destroyed by Cambyses (500 B.C.), who, during his invasion of the country, burned the temples where they were preserved, although they were soon rewritten, according to the testimony of Herodotus, who visited Egypt 450 B.C. In the third century B.C., Manetho, a priest and librarian of Heliopolis, wrote the succession of kings, and though the original work was lost, important fragments of it have been preserved by other writers. There seem to have been four periods in this history of ancient Egypt, marked by great changes in the social and political constitution of the country. In the first epoch, under the rule of the gods, demigods, and heroes, according to Manetho, it was probably colonized and ruled by the priests, in the name of the gods. The second period extends from Menes, the supposed founder of the monarchy, to the invasion of the Shepherd Kings, about 2000 B.C. In the third period, under this title, the Phoenicians probably ruled Egypt for three centuries, and it was one of these kings or Pharaohs of whom Joseph was the prime minister. In the fourth period, from 1180 to 350 B.C., the invaders were expelled and native rule restored, until the country was again conquered, first by the Persians, about 500 B.C., and again by the Greeks under Alexander, 350 B.C. From that time to the present no native ruler has sat on the throne of that country. After the conquest by Alexander the Great, who left it to the sway of the Ptolemies, it was successively conquered by the Romans, the Saracens, the Mamelukes, and the Turks. Since 1841 it has been governed by a viceroy under nominal allegiance to the Sultan of Turkey. In 1865 the title of khedive was substituted for that of viceroy.
Early Egyptian chronology is in a great measure merely conjectural, and new information from the monuments only adds to the obscurity. The historical papyri are records of the kings or accounts of contemporary events. These, as well as the inscriptions on the monuments, generally in the form of panegyric, are inflated records of the successes of the heroes they celebrate, or explanations of the historical scenes painted or sculptured on the monuments.
The early religion of Egypt was founded on a personification of the laws of Nature, centred in a mysterious unity. Egyptian nature, however, supplied but few great objects of worship as symbols of divine power, the desert, a natural enemy, the fertilizing river, and the sun, the all-pervading presence, worshiped as the source of life, the lord of time, and author of eternity. Three great realms composed the Egyptian cosmos; the heavens, where the sun, moon, and stars paced their daily round, the abode of the invisible king, typified by the sun and worshiped as Ammon Ra, the earth and the under-world, the abode of the dead. Here, too, reigned the universal lord under the name of Osiris, whose material manifestation, the sun, as he passed beneath the earth, lightened up the under-world, where the dead were judged, the just recompensed, and the guilty punished.
Innumerable minor divinities, which originally personified attributes of the one Supreme Deity, were represented under the form of such animals as were endowed with like qualities. Every god was symbolized by some animal, which thus became an object of worship; but by confounding symbols with realities this worship soon degenerated into gross materialism and idolatry.
The most important religious work in this literature is the “Book of the Dead,” a funeral ritual. The earliest known copy is in hieratic writing of the oldest type, and was found in the tomb of a queen, who lived probably about 3000 B.C. The latest copy is of the second century A.D., and is written in pure Coptic. This work, consisting of one hundred and sixty-six chapters, is a collection of prayers of a magical character, an account of the adventures of the soul after death, and directions for reaching the Hall of Osiris. It is a marvel of confusion and poverty of thought. A complete translation may be found in “Egypt's Place in Universal History,” by Bunsen (second edition), and specimens in almost every museum of Europe. There are other theological remains, such as the Metamorphoses of the gods and the Lament of Isis, but their meaning is disguised in allegory. The hymns and addresses to the sun abound in pure and lofty sentiment.
The epistolary writings are the best known and understood branch of Egyptian literature. From the Ramesid era, the most literary of all, we have about eighty letters on various subjects, interesting as illustrations of manners and specimens of style. The most important of these is the “Anastasi Papyri” in the British Museum, written about the time of the Exodus.
Two valuable and tolerably complete relics represent the fictitious writing of Egyptian literature; they are “The Tale of Two Brothers,” now in the British Museum, and “The Romance of Setna,” recently discovered in the tomb of a Coptic monk. The former was evidently intended for the amusement of a royal prince. One of its most striking features is the low moral tone of the women introduced. “The Romance of Setna” turns upon the danger of acquiring possession of the sacred books. The opening and date of the story are missing.
Fresh information is being constantly acquired as to the knowledge of science possessed by the ancient Egyptians. Geometry originated with them, or from remote ages they were acquainted with the principles of this science, as well as with those of hydrostatics and mechanics, as is proved by the immense structures which remain the wonder of the modern world. They cultivated astronomy from the earliest times, and they have transmitted to us their observations on the movements of the sun, the stars, the earth, and other planets. The obelisks served them as sun dials, and the pyramids as astronomical observatories. They had great skill in medicine and much knowledge of anatomy. The most remarkable medical papyri are to be found in the Berlin Museum.
The epics and biographical sketches are narratives of personal adventure in war or travel, and are distinguished by some effort at grace of style. The epic of Pentaur, or the achievements of Rameses II., has been called the Egyptian Iliad. It is several centuries older than the Greek Iliad, and deserves admiration for its rapid narrative and epic unity.
The history of Mohan (by some thought to be Moses) has been called the Egyptian Odyssey, in contrast to the preceding. Mohan was a high official, and this narrative describes his travels in Syria and Palestine. This papyrus is in the British Museum, and both epics have been translated.
The satirical writings and beast fables of the Egyptians caricature the foibles of all classes, not sparing the sacred person of the king, and are often illustrated with satirical pictures. Besides these strictly literary remains, a large number of judicial documents, petitions, decrees, and treaties has been recovered.
7. THE ALEXANDRIAN PERIOD.—Egypt, in its flourishing period, having contributed to the civilization of Greece, became, in its turn, the pupil of that country. In the century following the age of Alexander the Great, under the rule of the Ptolemies, the philosophy and literature of Athens were transferred to Alexandria. Ptolemy Philadelphus, in the third century B.C., completed the celebrated Alexandrian Library, formed for the most part of Greek books, and presided over by Greek librarians. The school of Alexandria had its poets, its grammarians, and philosophers; but its poetry lacked the fire of genius, and its grammatical productions were more remarkable for sophistry and subtlety, than for soundness and depth of research. In the philosophy of Alexandria, the Eastern and Western systems combined, and this school had many distinguished disciples.
In the first century of the Christian era, Egypt passed from the Greek kings to the Roman emperors, and the Alexandrian school continued to be adorned by the first men of the age. This splendor, more Grecian than Egyptian, was extinguished in the seventh century by the Saracens, who conquered the country, and, it is believed, burned the great Alexandrian Library. After the wars of the immediate successors of Mohammed, the Arabian princes protected literature, Alexandria recovered its schools, and other institutions of learning were established; but in the conquest of the country by the Turks, in the thirteenth century, all literary light was extinguished.
8. LITERARY CONDITION OF MODERN EGYPT.—For more than nine hundred years Cairo has possessed a university of high rank, which greatly increased in importance on the accession of Mehemet Ali, in 1805, who established many other schools, primary, scientific, medical, and military, though they were suffered to languish under his two successors. In 1865, when Ismail- Pacha mounted the throne as Khedive (tributary king), he gave powerful aid to the university and to public instruction everywhere. The number of students at the University of Cairo advanced to eleven thousand. The wife of the Khedive, the Princess Cachma-Afet, founded in 1873, and maintained from her privy purse, a school for the thorough instruction of girls, which led to the establishment of a similar institution by the Ministry of Public Instruction. This princess is the first in the history of Islam who, from the interior of the harem, has exerted her influence to educate and enlighten her sex.
When the Khedive was driven into exile in 1879, the number of schools, nearly all the result of his energetic rule, was 4,817 and of pupils 170,000. Since the European intervention and domination the number of both has sensibly diminished, and a serious retrograde movement has taken place.
The higher literature of Egypt at the present time is written in pure Arabic. The popular writing in magazines, periodicals, etc., is in Arabic mixed with Syriac and Egyptian dialects. Newspaper literature has greatly increased during the past eight years.