Egyptian Myth and Legend
Egypt's Golden Age
A Leader of Men--Gloomy Prophecy--Agriculture flourishing--The Chief Treasurer and his Auditors--Great Irrigation Scheme--Lake Moeris formed--Military Expeditions--A Murdered King--Disturbing Race Movements--First Mention of Hittites--Abraham in Egypt--Syria invaded--The Labyrinth--Like Mazy Cretan Palaces--Fall of Knossos--Bronze in Egypt--Copper and Iron--Trade in Tin--The British Mines--Spiral Ornament in Egypt and Europe.
THE Twelfth Dynasty, which embraces about two centuries, was a period of industrial and intellectual activity, and is appropriately called "The Golden Age of Egypt". It was ushered in, as we have seen, by Amenemhet I, whose name signifies "Amon leads". The king was, in a true sense, a leader of men; he displayed great military and administrative genius, and proved to be a saviour of the people. He rose to power at a time when a great crisis was approaching. The kingdom had grown weak as a result of prolonged internal dissensions, and its very existence as a separate power was being threatened by invaders on the northern and southern frontiers. The hour had come, and with it the man.
Amenemhet subdued the Nubians, who were as warlike and aggressive as the modern Sudanese; he cleared the eastern Delta of hordes of Asiatics, attracted thither by the prospects of plunder and the acquisition of desirable territory, and he reduced by shattering blows the growing power of the Libyans. His administrative reforms were beneficial to the great mass of the people, for the
establishment of a strong central government protected them from brigandage and periodic visitations of devastating famines. Agriculture was promoted, and the revival of trade ensured a more equitable distribution of wealth. As the influence of the feudal lords declined, it became possible for capable men of humble rank to attain high official positions.
In a striking literary production of the age, a prophetic scribe, named Apura, stands before his king, uttering grave warnings of approaching national disaster. He pictures Egypt in the throes of revolution; brothers contend against brothers; men cease to till the soil. The prophet exclaims:
In vain will the Nile rise in flood, for the land will lie barren. Men who were wont to plough will say: "What is the good of it? We know what is coming." No children will be born in Egypt. Poor people will seize upon treasure. A man hitherto unable to purchase sandals will obtain possession of much grain. Diseases will decimate all classes; a terrible plague will smite the land; there will be war and much shedding of blood. Rich men will sorrow and poor men will laugh. All the cities will desire to throw off the yoke of their rulers. . . . Slaves will plunder their masters, and their wives will be decked with fine jewellery. Royal ladies will be driven from their homes; they will sit in the dust, wailing: "Oh! that we had bread to eat."
Thus, he declared, Egypt would suffer from the Conquest of Evil. But a more terrible conquest would immediately follow. Suddenly foreigners would enter the land to set up barbarous rule. Then all classes of Egyptians would endure great afflictions.
Having drawn this dark and terrible picture, the prophet foretells that a great deliverer is to arise. He will "cool the fire of oppression" and will be called "The Shepherd of his People". He will gather together
his wandering flocks; he will smite the wrongdoer; he will stir up enthusiasm in the hearts of the men of Egypt and become their leader. "May he indeed be their deliverer!" exclaims the scribe. "Where is he to be found? Is he already here, waiting among the people?"
It is possible that at this period contemporary historical events were narrated in the prophetic manner, and that the scribe was eulogizing the reigning Pharaoh and justifying his reforms. In the "Instruction of Amenemhet" the old king reflects with astonishment that those he set free should rise up against him. A more literal rendering of his remark is: "He struggles for an ox that is bound who hath no memory of yesterday". Amenemhet had set the people free, and those who had received benefits showed that they failed to appreciate them by espousing the cause of their old oppressors. Was it their desire to become serfs again?
The condition of the past is reflected in the tomb inscription of one of the nome lords whose family owed its rise to its loyalty to the monarch. He boasts that every available piece of land under his jurisdiction was thoroughly cultivated. He protected the lives of the people. None starved, for he saw that all received food. A widow was treated in the same manner as a woman whose husband was alive, and when relief was given the poor received the same treatment as the powerful. Lord Kitchener has recently commented upon the financial embarrassments of the present-day fellahin of Egypt. Apparently the problem is one of long standing, for this governor--Ameni of the Gazelle nome--states that when the river rose high, and there was an abundance of produce, he "did not oppress the peasant because of his arrears".
It was the duty of the Chief Treasurer to see that the various nomes were administered in such a manner that they yielded adequate surpluses. A "sinking fund" was instituted for bad years, and relief was given in those localities where harvests were insufficient. The problem of irrigation received constant attention, and it became customary to measure the rise of the Nile on the rocks of the second cataract. The statistics thus obtained made possible the calculation of the probable yield of grain, so that the assessments might be fixed in the early part of each year. The royal auditors were constantly engaged throughout the land "taking stock" and checking the transactions of those who collected taxes "in kind", and references are made to their operations in tomb inscriptions. Their returns were lodged in the office of the Chief Treasurer at Memphis, who was ever in a position to advise the Pharaoh regarding the development of a particular district, and, in times of distress, to know where to find supplies to relieve the needy.
During the reign of Amenemhet Ill, the sixth monarch of the Dynasty, a great water storage and irrigation scheme was successfully carried out. The possibilities of the swampy Fayum had been recognized by certain rulers. King Den, of the First Dynasty, began the work of reclamation there, and some of his successors continued to deal with the problem. Amenemhet's operations were conducted on a grand scale. The famous Lake Moeris was formed by the erection of a reclaiming wall which extended for nearly thirty miles. It was connected with the Nile by a broad canal, and its largest circumference was 150 miles, while its area was about 750 square miles. It served the same purpose as the Assouan dam of the present day, but of course benefited only the province of the Fayum and the district
below it. Strabo, writing long centuries after it was constructed, said: "The Lake Moeris, by magnitude and depth, is able to sustain the superabundance of water which flows into it when the river rises, without overflowing the inhabited and cultivated parts of the country. When the river falls the lake distributes the excess of water through its canal, and both the lake and the canal retain a remainder which is used for irrigation. . . . There are locks on both mouths of the canal, and the engineers use these to store up and distribute the water."
When the scheme was completed the area of land reclaimed embraced., according to Major R. H. Brown, R.E., about 27,000 acres. He has calculated that a sufficient quantity of water was conserved to double the flow of the Nile during the period between April and July, when it is very low. The extension of the cultivatable area increased greatly the drawings of the Chief Treasurer. Pharaoh, in a generous moment, being, no doubt, well pleased with the success of the scheme. made over the revenue from the fishing rights of the lake to his queen, so that she might provide luxurious attire and jewellery for herself and her train.
Senusert I, the friend of Sentihet, was an able and vigorous ruler. During his reign of about forty years he appears to have engaged himself mainly in carrying out the policy inaugurated by his father. The results were eminently satisfactory. Peace was maintained with a firm hand on the northern frontier, and the Libyans were kept at bay. He found it necessary, however, to lead in person a strong army into Nubia. There does not appear to have been much fighting, for in the tomb of his general, the favoured Ameni, it is recorded that the losses were insignificant. Apparently the most notable
event of the campaign was the capture of an elephant. Other expeditions followed, the last being in the year before the king's death. The Nubians never ceased to give trouble.
Senusert restricted at every opportunity the powers of the feudal lords, and pursued the diplomatic policy of conciliating the various religious cults. He erected a great temple at Heliopolis, and its site is marked today by a stately obelisk which bears his name. He also repaired or extended temples at Coptos, Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Karnak, and his monuments were judiciously distributed throughout the land.
Two years before his death Senusert appointed as regent his son, who became the second Amenemhet. After reigning for thirty years, Amenemhet II lost his life, according to Manetho, in a palace revolution. Senusert II, who followed, appears to have resided chiefly at Illahun, a town which is of special interest to us, because a plan of it was discovered by Petrie in the royal tomb. We are not impressed by the accommodation provided for the great mass of the inhabitants. The workers resided in narrow slums. Many of the living rooms in the blocks run one into another, so that there could not have been either great comfort or much privacy.
A new type of face begins to appear in the royal house, as is shown by the smaller sculpture work of the time. This matter will be dealt with in the next chapter. Nomadic tribes were also settling in Egypt. In the well-known Beni-hassan tomb of the loyal nome governor Khnumuhotep ("the god Khnumu is satisfied") appears an interesting and significant wall painting of a company of Semites, who are presenting gifts of perfumes to the Pharaoh. They are accompanied by their wives and
families, as if they desired to become faithful subjects in the land of prosperity and good government.
Syria at this period was in a state of constant unrest. Great race movements were in progress over a considerable area in Asia and Europe. These were caused by one of those periodic waves of migration from Arabia, the southward and westward pressure of hill tribes in middle Asia, and by the aggressive tendencies of the Hittites. The earliest mention of the latter is made in the reign of Amenemhet I. Their seat of power was at Boghaz-Kol in Asia Minor, and they were raiding Mesopotamia and gradually pressing down through northern Syria. The smaller tribes were displaced by the larger, and migrations by propulsion were, in consequence, frequent and general. Many privations were endured by the scattered people, and of course agricultural operations must have been completely suspended in some districts.
About this time Abraham sojourned in Egypt, because "the famine was grievous in the land" (Canaan). After he returned he purchased from Ephron, the Hittite, the cave of Machpelah, in which to bury his dead. This landowner was evidently a pioneer settler from Asia Minor. He was friendly to the patriarch, whom he addressed as "a mighty prince among us". The Hittites may have penetrated Canaan as far south as Jerusalem.
Owing to the unrest on his northern frontier Senusert III found it necessary to invade Syria. A stela of his has been found at Gezer. It is recorded at Abydos that a battle was fought in which the Asiatics were defeated, and Sebek-khu, an Egyptian dignitary, to whom we are indebted for this scrap of interesting history, boasts of the gifts he received from the Pharaoh
for his bravery on the field. Nubia was also giving trouble again during this reign. A vigorous campaign against the restless warriors resulted in the extension of the Egyptian frontier to the third cataract. Two great forts were afterwards erected and garrisoned. It was also decreed that no negroes with cattle or merchandise should pass northward by land or water beyond a certain point. Traders were followed by colonists, and then fighting men desired to take forcible possession of territory. A second campaign was conducted against the dusky tribes eight years after the first, and three years later there was another. The flesh pots of Egypt were attracting all sorts and conditions of peoples.
The interests of the next king, Amenemhet III, were centred chiefly in the Fayum, where he saw completed the great Lake Moeris scheme. His reign, which lasted for nearly half a century, was peaceful and prosperous. He was one of the great Pharaohs of Egypt. Under his jurisdiction the country developed rapidly, commerce increased, and the industries were fostered. Instead of sending periodic expeditions to Sinai for copper and turquoise, as had been the custom hitherto, he established a colony there. A reservoir was constructed and a temple built to the goddess Hathor. The colonists suffered greatly from the heat during the summer months. A nobleman recorded on a stela the hardships endured by a pioneer expedition which visited the mines at an earlier date than usual, before permanent settlement was effected in that tropical land. "The mountains are hot," he says, "and the rocks brand the body." He endured his hardships with exemplary fortitude, and expressed the hope that others would similarly show their readiness to obey royal commands.
It was a building age, and Amenemhet honoured the
gods and at the same time humoured the growing communities of priests by erecting and enlarging temples. He gave special recognition to Osiris at sacred Abydos, where many Egyptians of all ranks continued to seek sepulture; to Amon, the family deity at Karnak; and to Her-shef at Heracleopolis. Ptah, the god of the artisans, appears to have been neglected, which seems to indicate that he had absorbed, or was absorbed by, Her-shef, whom he so closely resembles.
This Amenemhet is credited with having erected the great Labyrinth in the vicinity of Lake Moeris. The mosque-building Arabs must have used it as a quarry, for no trace of it remains. It appears to have been an immense temple, with apartments for each of the Egyptian gods. "All the works of Greece", declared Herodotus, "are inferior to it, both in regard to workmanship and cost." The Greek historian was of opinion that it surpassed even the Pyramids. There were twelve covered courts with entrances opposite to each other--six to the north and six to the south, and the whole was enclosed by a wall. Of the three thousand apartments half were underground. "The numerous winding passages through the various courts", Herodotus wrote, "aroused my warmest admiration. I passed from small apartments to spacious halls, and from these to magnificent courts, almost without end. Walls and ceilings were of marble, the former being sculptured and painted, and pillars of polished marble surrounded the courts." At the end of the labyrinth stood Pharaoh's Pyramid, with figures of animals carved upon its casement. "No stranger", Strabo informs us, "could find his way in or out of this building without a guide." The brick pyramids of the Twelfth Dynasty were also constructed with winding passages to baffle the tomb robbers; but they were "jerry
built", compared with those of the Khufu type, and survive to us in various stages of decay.
The idea of a labyrinth may have come from Crete. The palaces of the island kingdom were of mazy character, and the earliest at Knossos and Phaestos were erected in the First Middle Minoan period, which is parallel with the Eleventh Egyptian Dynasty. Their fame must have reached the Nile valley, for the influence of the island kingdom's architecture is traceable in the construction of Mentuhotep's complicated temple at Der el Bahari. A people who appear to have been "broad-headed" mountaineers invaded Crete at the close of its Second Middle Minoan period, which is parallel with the Twelfth Egyptian Dynasty. Their success culminated in the destruction of the earlier palace of Knossos. At a later age, when a similar invasion occurred, large numbers of Cretans fled to Asia Minor, and it is possible that in the time of Amenemhet III many of the island refugees settled in the Nile valley. If these included architects and skilled artisans, they must have received most hospitable welcome.
Egypt, we know, was at this period in close touch with Crete. The numerous relics of the Twelfth Dynasty which have been found in the palace ruins of the island show how free and continuous was the sea trade between the two kingdoms. No doubt it was greatly stimulated by the Egyptian demand for tin. We find that bronze came into more general use during the Twelfth Dynasty than had previously been the case. In Old-Kingdom times tools were made chiefly of copper, and occasionally of iron. The latter was called "The Metal of Heaven", and is referred to in the Pyramid texts of King Unas. If it was obtained originally from meteorites, as has been suggested, we can understand why, in Egypt as elsewhere,
it was supposed to possess magical qualities. It does not seem to have been excavated in great quantities by the early Egyptians; the difficulty of smelting it must have been great, owing to the scarcity of timber.
Copper was used in the late pre-Dynastic period, when expeditions from the southern kingdom began to visit the mines of the Sinaitic peninsula. The Delta people may have also obtained it from Cyprus, where the earliest weapons and pottery resemble Egyptian forms. At the close of the Third Dynasty bronze was introduced or manufactured; the bronze "rod of Medum" was found deeply embedded in the fillings of a mastaba associated with the pyramid of King Sneferu. A bronze socketed hoe of the Sixth Dynasty bears resemblances to examples from Cyprus and South Russia preserved in the British Museum. Trade with the copper island did not assume any dimensions, however, until the Eighteenth Dynasty, and the Cypriote weapons which were imported into the Nile valley before that period may have come along the trade route through Syria, if they were not captured in frontier conflicts with Asiatic invaders.
Egypt manufactured its own bronze, and the suggestion of W. M. Muller, that certain figures on a Sixth-Dynasty relief are "Aegeans bringing tin into Egypt" is therefore of special interest. If such a trade existed, it must have been hampered greatly, if not entirely cut off, during the disturbed period prior to the rise of Amenemhet I.
Whence were the liberal supplies of bronze obtained by the Egyptians in the Twelfth Dynasty? The unrest in Asia must have interrupted trade along the great caravan routes to the ancient tin mines of Khorassan in Persia, from which Babylonia received supplies. The Phoenician mariners had scarcely yet begun to appear in
the Mediterranean. Tin must have come mainly through Crete therefore; indeed the island traders could not have had anything more valuable to offer in exchange for the corn of Egypt.
Crete had long been familiar with bronze. The First Early Minoan period, which marks the transition from stone, began in Egypt's Third Dynasty, or slightly earlier. Was its tin obtained from Central Europe or Brittany? Dr. Duncan Mackenzie, the distinguished archaeologist, says in this connection: "By the beginning of the Bronze Age (in Crete) the valley of the Rhone must have played a dominant role of communication between the great world of the Mediterranean and the north; by that time it was probably the high continental trade route towards the tin mines of Britain". If so, the tin-mining industry of Cornwall and the Scilly islands must have been increased greatly by the demand created by the tin-importing and temple-building Pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty, who flourished long before Joseph appeared in the land of Egypt.
Another link between ancient Britain and the Nile valley is the spiral ornament, which appears in "degenerate form" on the so-called "spectacle stones" of Scotland. The spiral is common on Egyptian scarabs of the Twelfth Dynasty. We find that it passed to Crete, and then along the Danube trade route to Denmark, where the ornaments on which it appeared were possibly given in exchange for the much-sought-for Baltic amber. It spread in time through Scandinavia. The spiral must also have followed the Rhone-valley route, for it was passed on from France to the British Isles, through which it was widely diffused in the Bronze Age. In Ireland it was carved on the stones of the famous New Grange barrow, County Meath.
The brilliant Twelfth Dynasty came to an end soon after the death of the great Amenemhet III. His closing years were shadowed by domestic grief, for his favourite son, Ewib-ra, predeceased him. A wooden statue of the prince is preserved in the Cairo museum, and is that of a handsome and dignified youth. The next king, Amenemhet IV, ruled for about nine years. He left no son, and was succeeded by Queen Sebeknefru-ra, a daughter of Amenemhet III, and the last of her "line", who sat on the throne for four years. With her passed away the glory and grandeur of the "Golden Age", the latter half of which had special features of much interest. These are dealt with in the next chapter.