Part 1 out of 2
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THE BEGINNING OF CIVILIZATIONS
BY HENDRIK WILLEM VAN LOON
DEDICATION To HANSJE AND WILLEM.
My darling boys,
You are twelve and eight years old. Soon you will be grown up. You will
leave home and begin your own lives. I have been thinking about that
day, wondering what I could do to help you. At last, I have had an idea.
The best compass is a thorough understanding of the growth and the
experience of the human race. Why should I not write a special
history for you?
So I took my faithful Corona and five bottles of ink and a box of
matches and a bale of paper and began to work upon the first volume. If
all goes well there will be eight more and they will tell you what you
ought to know of the last six thousand years.
But before you start to read let me explain what I intend to do.
I am not going to present you with a textbook. Neither will it be a
volume of pictures. It will not even be a regular history in the
accepted sense of the word.
I shall just take both of you by the hand and together we shall wander
forth to explore the intricate wilderness of the bygone ages.
I shall show you mysterious rivers which seem to come from nowhere and
which are doomed to reach no ultimate destination.
I shall bring you close to dangerous abysses, hidden carefully beneath a
thick overgrowth of pleasant but deceiving romance.
Here and there we shall leave the beaten track to scale a solitary and
lonely peak, towering high above the surrounding country.
Unless we are very lucky we shall sometimes lose ourselves in a sudden
and dense fog of ignorance.
Wherever we go we must carry our warm cloak of human sympathy and
understanding for vast tracts of land will prove to be a sterile
desert--swept by icy storms of popular prejudice and personal greed and
unless we come well prepared we shall forsake our faith in humanity and
that, dear boys, would be the worst thing that could happen to any
I shall not pretend to be an infallible guide. Whenever you have a
chance, take counsel with other travelers who have passed along the same
route before. Compare their observations with mine and if this leads you
to different conclusions, I shall certainly not be angry with you.
I have never preached to you in times gone by.
I am not going to preach to you today.
You know what the world expects of you--that you shall do your share of
the common task and shall do it bravely and cheerfully.
If these books can help you, so much the better.
And with all my love I dedicate these histories to you and to the boys
and girls who shall keep you company on the voyage through life.
HENDRIK WILLEM VAN LOON.
_Barrow Street, New York City. May 8, xx_.
I. PREHISTORIC MAN
II. THE WORLD GROWS COLD
III. END OF THE STONE AGE
IV. THE EARLIEST SCHOOL OF THE HUMAN RACE
V. THE KEY OF STONE
VI. THE LAND OF THE LIVING AND THE LAND OF THE DEAD
VII. THE MAKING OF A STATE
VIII. THE RISE AND FALL OF EGYPT
IX. MESOPOTAMIA--THE COUNTRY BETWEEN THE RIVERS
X. THE SUMERIAN NAIL WRITERS
XI. ASSYRIA AND BABYLONIA--THE GREAT SEMITIC MELTING-POT
XII. THE STORY OF MOSES
XIII. JERUSALEM--THE CITY OF THE LAW
XIV. DAMASCUS--THE CITY OF TRADE
XV. THE PHOENICIANS WHO SAILED BEYOND THE HORIZON
XVI. THE ALPHABET FOLLOWS THE TRADE
XVII. THE END OF THE ANCIENT WORLD
It took Columbus more than four weeks to sail from Spain to the West
Indian Islands. We on the other hand cross the ocean in sixteen hours in
a flying machine.
Five hundred years ago, three or four years were necessary to copy a
book by hand. We possess linotype machines and rotary presses and we can
print a new book in a couple of days.
We understand a great deal about anatomy and chemistry and mineralogy
and we are familiar with a thousand different branches of science of
which the very name was unknown to the people of the past.
In one respect, however, we are quite as ignorant as the most primitive
of men--we do not know where we came from. We do not know how or why or
when the human race began its career upon this Earth. With a million
facts at our disposal we are still obliged to follow the example of the
fairy-stories and begin in the old way:
"Once upon a time there was a man."
This man lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.
What did he look like?
We do not know. We never saw his picture. Deep in the clay of an ancient
soil we have sometimes found a few pieces of his skeleton. They were
hidden amidst masses of bones of animals that have long since
disappeared from the face of the earth. We have taken these bones and
they allow us to reconstruct the strange creature who happens to be
The great-great-grandfather of the human race was a very ugly and
unattractive mammal. He was quite small. The heat of the sun and the
biting wind of the cold winter had colored his skin a dark brown. His
head and most of his body were covered with long hair. He had very thin
but strong fingers which made his hands look like those of a monkey. His
forehead was low and his jaw was like the jaw of a wild animal which
uses its teeth both as fork and knife.
[Illustration: PREHISTORIC MAN.]
He wore no clothes. He had seen no fire except the flames of the
rumbling volcanoes which filled the earth with their smoke and
He lived in the damp blackness of vast forests.
When he felt the pangs of hunger he ate raw leaves and the roots of
plants or he stole the eggs from the nest of an angry bird.
Once in a while, after a long and patient chase, he managed to catch a
sparrow or a small wild dog or perhaps a rabbit These he would eat raw,
for prehistoric man did not know that food could be cooked.
His teeth were large and looked like the teeth of many of our own
During the hours of day this primitive human being went about in search
of food for himself and his wife and his young.
At night, frightened by the noise of the beasts, who were in search of
prey, he would creep into a hollow tree or he would hide himself behind
a few big boulders, covered with moss and great, big spiders.
In summer he was exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.
During the winter he froze with cold.
When he hurt himself (and hunting animals are for ever breaking their
bones or spraining their ankles) he had no one to take care of him.
He had learned how to make certain sounds to warn his fellow-beings
whenever danger threatened. In this he resembled a dog who barks when a
stranger approaches. In many other respects he was far less attractive
than a well-bred house pet.
Altogether, early man was a miserable creature who lived in a world of
fright and hunger, who was surrounded by a thousand enemies and who was
for ever haunted by the vision of friends and relatives who had been
eaten up by wolves and bears and the terrible sabre-toothed tiger.
Of the earliest history of this man we know nothing. He had no tools and
he built no homes. He lived and died and left no traces of his
existence. We keep track of him through his bones and they tell us that
he lived more than two thousand centuries ago.
The rest is darkness.
Until we reach the time of the famous Stone Age, when man learned the
first rudimentary principles of what we call civilization.
Of this Stone Age I must tell you in some detail.
THE WORLD GROWS COLD
Something was the matter with the weather.
Early man did not know what "time" meant.
He kept no records of birthdays and wedding-anniversaries or the hour of
He had no idea of days or weeks or years.
When the sun arose in the morning he did not say "Behold another day."
He said "It is Light" and he used the rays of the early sun to gather
food for his family.
When it grew dark, he returned to his wife and children, gave them part
of the day's catch (some berries and a few birds), stuffed himself full
with raw meat and went to sleep.
In a very general way he kept track of the seasons. Long experience had
taught him that the cold Winter was invariably followed by the mild
Spring--that Spring grew into the hot Summer when fruits ripened and the
wild ears of corn were ready to be plucked and eaten. The Summer ended
when gusts of wind swept the leaves from the trees and when a number of
animals crept into their holes to make ready for the long
[Illustration: THE GLACIAL PERIOD.]
It had always been that way. Early man accepted these useful changes of
cold and warm but asked no questions. He lived and that was enough to
Suddenly, however, something happened that worried him greatly.
The warm days of Summer had come very late. The fruits had not ripened
at all. The tops of the mountains which used to be covered with grass
lay deeply hidden under a heavy burden of snow.
Then one morning quite a number of wild people, different from the other
inhabitants of his valley had approached from the region of the
They muttered sounds which no one could understand. They looked lean and
appeared to be starving. Hunger and cold seemed to have driven them from
their former homes.
There was not enough food in the valley for both the old inhabitants and
the newcomers. When they tried to stay more than a few days there was a
terrible fight and whole families were killed. The others fled into the
woods and were not seen again.
For a long time nothing occurred of any importance.
But all the while, the days grew shorter and the nights were colder than
they ought to have been.
Finally, in a gap between the two high hills, there appeared a tiny
speck of greenish ice. It increased in size as the years went by. Very
slowly a gigantic glacier was sliding down the slopes of the mountain
ridge. Huge stones were being pushed into the valley. With the noise of
a dozen thunderstorms they suddenly tumbled among the frightened people
and killed them while they slept. Century-old trees were crushed into
kindling wood by the high walls of ice that knew of no mercy to either
man or beast.
At last, it began to snow.
It snowed for months and months and months.
[Illustration: THE CAVE-MAN.]
All the plants died. The animals fled in search of the southern sun. The
valley became uninhabitable. Man hoisted his children upon his back,
took the few pieces of stone which he had used as a weapon and went
forth to find a new home.
Why the world should have grown cold at that particular moment, we do
not know. We can not even guess at the cause.
The gradual lowering of the temperature, however, made a great
difference to the human race.
For a time it looked as if every one would die. But in the end this
period of suffering proved a real blessing. It killed all the weaker
people and forced the survivors to sharpen their wits lest they
Placed before the choice of hard thinking or quick dying the same brain
that had first turned a stone into a hatchet now solved difficulties
which had never faced the older generations.
In the first place, there was the question of clothing. It had grown
much too cold to do without some sort of artificial covering. Bears and
bisons and other animals who live in northern regions are protected
against snow and ice by a heavy coat of fur. Man possessed no such coat.
His skin was very delicate and he suffered greatly.
He solved his problem in a very simple fashion. He dug a hole and he
covered it with branches and leaves and a little grass. A bear came by
and fell into this artificial cave. Man waited until the creature was
weak from lack of food and then killed him with many blows of a big
stone. With a sharp piece of flint he cut the fur of the animal's back.
Then he dried it in the sparse rays of the sun, put it around his own
shoulders and enjoyed the same warmth that had formerly kept the bear
happy and comfortable.
Then there was the housing problem. Many animals were in the habit of
sleeping in a dark cave. Man followed their example and searched until
he found an empty grotto. He shared it with bats and all sorts of
creeping insects but this he did not mind. His new home kept him warm
and that was enough.
Often, during a thunderstorm a tree had been hit by lightning. Sometimes
the entire forest had been set on fire. Man had seen these forest-fires.
When he had come too near he had been driven away by the heat. He now
remembered that fire gave warmth.
Thus far, fire had been an enemy.
Now it became a friend.
A dead tree, dragged into a cave and lighted by means of smouldering
branches from a burning forest filled the room with unusual but very
Perhaps you will laugh. All these things seem so very simple. They are
very simple to us because some one, ages and ages ago, was clever enough
to think of them. But the first cave that was made comfortable by the
fire of an old log attracted more attention than the first house that
ever was lighted by electricity.
When at last, a specially brilliant fellow hit upon the idea of throwing
raw meat into the hot ashes before eating it, he added something to the
sum total of human knowledge which made the cave-man feel that the
height of civilization had been reached.
Nowadays, when we hear of another marvelous invention we are very proud.
"What more," we ask, "can the human brain accomplish?"
And we smile contentedly for we live in the most remarkable of all ages
and no one has ever performed such miracles as our engineers and
Forty thousand years ago when the world was on the point of freezing to
death, an unkempt and unwashed cave-man, pulling the feathers out of a
half-dead chicken with the help of his brown fingers and his big white
teeth--throwing the feathers and the bones upon the same floor that
served him and his family as a bed, felt just as happy and just as proud
when he was taught how the hot cinders of a fire would change raw meat
into a delicious meal.
"What a wonderful age," he would exclaim and he would lie down amidst
the decaying skeletons of the animals which had served him as his dinner
and he would dream of his own perfection while bats, as large as small
dogs, flew restlessly through the cave and while Prehistoric man lived
through at least four definite eras when the ice descended far down
into the valleys and covered the greater part of the European continent.
The last one of these periods came to an end almost thirty thousand
From that moment on man left behind him concrete evidence of his
existence in the form of tools and arms and pictures and in a general
way we can say that history begins when the last cold period had become
a thing of the past.
The endless struggle for life had taught the survivors many things.
Stone and wooden implements had become as common as steel tools are in
our own days.
Gradually the rudely chipped flint axe had been replaced by one of
polished flint which was infinitely more practical. It allowed man to
attack many animals at whose mercy he had been since the beginning
The mammoth was no longer seen.
The musk-ox had retreated to the polar circle.
The tiger had left Europe for good.
The cave-bear no longer ate little children.
The powerful brain of the weakest and most helpless of all living
creatures--Man--had devised such terrible instruments of destruction
that he was now the master of all the other animals.
The first great victory over Nature had been gained but many others were
Equipped with a full set of tools both for hunting and fishing, the
cave-dweller looked for new living quarters.
The shores of rivers and lakes offered the best opportunity for a
The old caves were deserted and the human race moved toward the water.
Now that man could handle heavy axes, the felling of trees no longer
offered any great difficulties.
For countless ages birds had been constructing comfortable houses out of
chips of wood and grass amidst the branches of trees.
Man followed their example.
He, too, built himself a nest and called it his "home."
He did not, except in a few parts of Asia, take to the trees which were
a bit too small and unsteady for his purpose.
He cut down a number of logs. These he drove firmly into the soft bottom
of a shallow lake. On top of them he constructed a wooden platform and
upon this platform he erected his first wooden house.
It offered many advantages over the old cave.
No wild animals could break into it and robbers could not enter it. The
lake itself was an inexhaustible store-room containing an endless supply
of fresh fish.
These houses built on piles were much healthier than the old caves and
they gave the children a chance to grow up into strong men. The
population increased steadily and man began to occupy vast tracts of
wilderness which had been unoccupied since the beginning of time.
And all the time new inventions were made which made life more
comfortable and less dangerous.
Often enough these innovations were not due to the cleverness of man's
He simply copied the animals.
You know of course that there are a large number of beasties who prepare
for the long winter by burying nuts and acorns and other food which is
abundant during the summer. Just think of the squirrels who are for ever
filling their larder in gardens and parks with supplies for the winter
and the early spring.
Early man, less intelligent in many respects than the squirrels, had not
known how to preserve anything for the future.
He ate until his hunger was stilled, but what he did not need right away
he allowed to rot. As a result he often went without his meals during
the cold period and many of his children died from hunger and want.
Until he followed the example of the animals and prepared for the future
by laying in sufficient stores when the harvest had been good and there
was an abundance of wheat and grain.
We do not know which genius first discovered the use of pottery but he
deserves a statue.
Very likely it was a woman who had got tired of the eternal chores of
the kitchen and wanted to make her household duties a little less
exacting. She noticed that chunks of clay, when exposed to the rays of
the sun, got baked into a hard substance.
If a flat piece of clay could be transformed into a brick, a slightly
curved piece of the same material must produce a similar result.
And behold, the brick grew into a piece of pottery and the human race
was able to save for the day of tomorrow.
If you think that my praises of this invention are exaggerated, look at
the breakfast table and see what pottery, in one form and the other,
means in your own life.
Your oatmeal is served in a dish.
The cream is served from a pitcher.
Your eggs are carried from the kitchen to the dining-room table on a
Your milk is brought to you in a china mug. Then go to the store-room
(if there is no store-room in your house go to the nearest Delicatessen
store). You will see how all the things which we are supposed to eat
tomorrow and next week and next year have been put away in jars and cans
and other artificial containers which Nature did not provide for us but
which man was forced to invent and perfect before he could be assured of
his regular meals all the year around.
Even a gas-tank is nothing but a large pitcher, made of iron because
iron does not break as easily as china and is less porous than clay. So
are barrels and bottles and pots and pans. They all serve the same
purpose--of providing us in the future with those things of which we
happen to have an abundance at the present moment.
And because he could preserve eatable things for the day of need, man
began to raise vegetables and grain and saved the surplus for future
This explains why, during the late Stone Age, we find the first
wheat-fields and the first gardens, grouped around the settlements of
the early pile-dwellers.
It also tells us why man gave up his habit of wandering and settled down
in one fixed spot where he raised his children until the day of his
death when he was decently buried among his own people.
[Illustration: PREHISTORIC MAN IS DISCOVERED.]
It is safe to say that these earliest ancestors of ours would have given
up the ways of savages of their own accord if they had been left to
But suddenly there was an end to their isolation.
Prehistoric man was discovered.
A traveler from the unknown south-land who had dared to cross the
turbulent sea and the forbidding mountain passes had found his way to
the wild people of Central Europe.
On his back he carried a pack.
When he had spread his wares before the gaping curiosity of the
bewildered natives, their eyes beheld wonders of which their minds had
never dared to dream.
They saw bronze hammers and axes and tools made of iron and helmets made
of copper and beautiful ornaments consisting of a strangely colored
substance which the foreign visitor called "glass."
And overnight the Age of Stone came to an end.
It was replaced by a new civilization which had discarded wooden and
stone implements centuries before and had laid the foundations for that
"Age of Metal" which has endured until our own day.
It is of this new civilization that I shall tell you in the rest of my
book and if you do not mind, we shall leave the northern continent for a
couple of thousand years and pay a visit to Egypt and to western Asia.
"But," you will say, "this is not fair. You promise to tell us about
prehistoric man and then, just when the story is going to be
interesting, you close the chapter and you jump to another part of the
world and we must jump with you whether we like it or not."
I know. It does not seem the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, history is not at all like mathematics.
When you solve a sum you go from "a" to "b" and from "b" to "c" and from
"c" to "d" and so on.
History on the other hand jumps from "a" to "z" and then back to "f" and
next to "m" without any apparent respect for neatness and order.
There is a good reason for this.
History is not exactly a science.
It tells the story of the human race and most people, however much we
may try to change their nature, refuse to behave with the regularity and
the precision of the tables of multiplication.
No two men ever do precisely the same thing.
No two human brains ever reach exactly the same conclusion.
You will notice that for yourself when you grow up.
It was not different a few hundred centuries ago.
Prehistoric man, as I just told you, was on a fair way to progress.
He had managed to survive the ice and the snow and the wild animals and
that in itself, was a great deal.
He had invented many useful things.
Suddenly, however, other people in a different part of the world entered
They rushed forward at a terrible speed and within a very short space of
time they reached a height of civilization which had never before been
seen upon our planet. Then they set forth to teach what they knew to the
others who had been less intelligent than themselves.
Now that I have explained this to you, does it not seem just to give the
Egyptians and the people of western Asia their full share of the
chapters of this book?
THE EARLIEST SCHOOL OF THE HUMAN RACE
We are the children of a practical age.
We travel from place to place in our own little locomotives which we
When we wish to speak to a friend whose home is a thousand miles away,
we say "Hello" into a rubber tube and ask for a certain telephone number
At night when the room grows dark we push a button and there is light.
If we happen to be cold we push another button and the electric stove
spreads its pleasant glow through our study.
On the other hand in summer when it is hot the same electric current
will start a small artificial storm (an electric fan) which keeps us
cool and comfortable.
We seem to be the masters of all the forces of nature and we make them
work for us as if they were our very obedient slaves.
But do not forget one thing when you pride yourself upon our splendid
We have constructed the edifice of our modern civilization upon the
fundament of wisdom that had been built at great pains by the people of
the ancient world.
Do not be afraid of their strange names which you will meet upon every
page of the coming chapters.
Babylonians and Egyptians and Chaldeans and Sumerians are all dead and
gone, but they continue to influence our own lives in everything we do,
in the letters we write, in the language we use, in the complicated
mathematical problems which we must solve before we can build a bridge
or a skyscraper.
And they deserve our grateful respect as long as our planet continues to
race through the wide space of the high heavens.
These ancient people of whom I shall now tell you lived in three
Two of these were found along the banks of vast rivers.
The third was situated on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The oldest center of civilization developed in the valley of the Nile,
in a country which was called Egypt.
The second was located in the fertile plains between two big rivers of
western Asia, to which the ancients gave the name of Mesopotamia.
The third one which you will find along the shore of the Mediterranean,
was inhabited by the Phoenicians, the earliest of all colonizers and by
the Jews who bestowed upon the rest of the world the main principles of
their moral laws.
This third center of civilization is known by its ancient Babylonian
name of Suri, or as we pronounce it, Syria.
The history of the people who lived in these regions covers more than
five thousand years.
It is a very, very complicated story.
I can not give you many details.
I shall try and weave their adventures into a single fabric, which will
look like one of those marvelous rugs of which you read in the tales
which Scheherazade told to Harun the Just.
THE KEY OF STONE
Fifty years before the birth of Christ, the Romans conquered the land
along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and among this newly
acquired territory was a country called Egypt.
The Romans, who are to play such a great role in our history, were a
race of practical men.
They built bridges, they constructed roads, and with a small but highly
trained army of soldiers and civil officers, they managed to rule the
greater part of Europe, of eastern Africa and western Asia.
As for art and the sciences, these did not interest them very much. They
regarded with suspicion a man who could play the lute or who could write
a poem about Spring and only thought him little better than the clever
fellow who could walk the tightrope or who had trained his poodle dog to
stand on its hind legs. They left such things to the Greeks and to the
Orientals, both of whom they despised, while they themselves spent their
days and nights keeping order among the thousand and one nations of
their vast empire.
When they first set foot in Egypt that country was already terribly old.
More than six thousand and five hundred years had gone by since the
history of the Egyptian people had begun.
Long before any one had dreamed of building a city amidst the swamps of
the river Tiber, the kings of Egypt had ruled far and wide and had made
their court the center of all civilization.
While the Romans were still savages who chased wolves and bears with
clumsy stone axes, the Egyptians were writing books, performing
intricate medical operations and teaching their children the tables of
This great progress they owed chiefly to one very wonderful invention,
to the art of preserving their spoken words and their ideas for the
benefit of their children and grandchildren.
We call this the art of writing.
We are so familiar with writing that we can not understand how people
ever managed to live without books and newspapers and magazines.
But they did and it was the main reason why they made such slow progress
during the first million years of their stay upon this planet.
They were like cats and dogs who can only teach their puppies and their
kittens a few simple things (barking at a stranger and climbing trees
and such things) and who, because they can not write, possess no way in
which they can use the experience of their countless ancestors.
This sounds almost funny, doesn't it?
And why make such a fuss about so simple a matter?
But did you ever stop to think what happens when you write a letter?
Suppose that you are taking a trip in the mountains and you have seen a
You want to tell this to your father who is in the city.
What do you do?
You put a lot of dots and dashes upon a piece of paper--you add a few
more dots and dashes upon an envelope and you carry your epistle to the
mailbox together with a two-cent stamp.
What have you really been doing?
You have changed a number of spoken words into a number of pothooks and
But how did you know how to make your curlycues in such a fashion that
both the postman and your father could retranslate them into
You knew, because some one had taught you how to draw the precise
figures which represented the sound of your spoken words.
Just take a few letters and see the way this game is played.
We make a guttural noise and write down a "G."
We let the air pass through our closed teeth and we write down "S."
We open our mouth wide and make a noise like a steam engine and the
sound is written down "H."
It took the human race hundreds of thousands of years to discover this
and the credit for it goes to the Egyptians.
Of course they did not use the letters which have been used to print
They had a system of their own.
It was much prettier than ours but not quite so simple.
It consisted of little figures and images of things around the house and
around the farm, of knives and plows and birds and pots and pans. These
little figures their scribes scratched and painted upon the wall of the
temples, upon the coffins of their dead kings and upon the dried leaves
of the papyrus plant which has given its name to our "paper."
But when the Romans entered this vast library they showed neither
enthusiasm nor interest.
They possessed a system of writing of their own which they thought
[Illustration: THE KEY OF STONE]
They did not know that the Greeks (from whom they had learned their
alphabet) had in turn obtained theirs from the Phoenicians who had again
borrowed with great success from the old Egyptians. They did not know
and they did not care. In their schools the Roman alphabet was taught
exclusively and what was good enough for the Roman children was good
enough for everybody else.
You will understand that the Egyptian language did not long survive the
indifference and the opposition of the Roman governors. It was
forgotten. It died just as the languages of most of our Indian tribes
have become a thing of the past.
The Arabs and the Turks who succeeded the Romans as the rulers of Egypt
abhorred all writing that was not connected with their holy book,
At last in the middle of the sixteenth century a few western visitors
came to Egypt and showed a mild interest in these strange pictures.
But there was no one to explain their meaning and these first Europeans
were as wise as the Romans and the Turks had been before them.
Now it happened, late in the eighteenth century that a certain French
general by the name of Buonaparte visited Egypt. He did not go there to
study ancient history. He wanted to use the country as a starting point
for a military expedition against the British colonies in India. This
expedition failed completely but it helped solve the mysterious problem
of the ancient Egyptian writing.
Among the soldiers of Napoleon Buonaparte there was a young officer by
the name of Broussard. He was stationed at the fortress of St. Julien on
the western mouth of the Nile which is called the Rosetta river.
Broussard liked to rummage among the ruins of the lower Nile and one day
he found a stone which greatly puzzled him.
Like everything else in that neighborhood, it was covered with picture
But this slab of black basalt was different from anything that had ever
It carried three inscriptions and one of these (oh joy!) was in Greek.
The Greek language was known.
As it was almost certain that the Egyptian part contained a translation
of the Greek (or vice versa), the key to ancient Egyptian seemed to have
But it took more than thirty years of very hard work before the key had
been made to fit the lock.
Then the mysterious door was opened and the ancient treasure house of
Egypt was forced to surrender its secrets.
The man who gave his life to the task of deciphering this language was
Jean Francois Champollion--usually called Champollion Junior to
distinguish him from his older brother who was also a very learned man.
Champollion Junior was a baby when the French revolution broke out and
therefore he escaped serving in the armies of the General Buonaparte.
While his countrymen were marching from one glorious victory to another
(and back again as such Imperial armies are apt to do) Champollion
studied the language of the Copts, the native Christians of Egypt. At
the age of nineteen he was appointed a professor of History at one of
the smaller French universities and there he began his great work of
translating the pictures of the old Egyptian language.
For this purpose he used the famous black stone of Rosetta which
Broussard had discovered among the ruins near the mouth of the Nile.
The original stone was still in Egypt. Napoleon had been forced to
vacate the country in a hurry and he had left this curiosity behind.
When the English retook Alexandria in the year 1801 they found the stone
and carried it to London, where you may see it this very day in the
British Museum. The Inscriptions however had been copied and had been
taken to France, where they were used by Champollion.
The Greek text was quite clear. It contained the story of Ptolemy V and
his wife Cleopatra, the grandmother of that other Cleopatra about whom
Shakespeare wrote. The other two inscriptions, however, refused to
surrender their secrets.
One of them was in hieroglyphics, the name we give to the oldest known
Egyptian writing. The word Hieroglyphic is Greek and means "sacred
carving." It is a very good name for it fully describes the purpose and
nature of this script. The priests who had invented this art did not
want the common people to become too familiar with the deep mysteries of
preserving speech. They made writing a sacred business.
They surrounded it with much mystery and decreed that the carving of
hieroglyphics be regarded as a sacred art and forbade the people to
practice it for such a common purpose as business or commerce.
They could enforce this rule with success so long as the country was
inhabited by simple farmers who lived at home and grew everything they
needed upon their own fields. But gradually Egypt became a land of
traders and these traders needed a means of communication beyond the
spoken word. So they boldly took the little figures of the priests and
simplified them for their own purposes. Thereafter they wrote their
business letters in the new script which became known as the "popular
language" and which we call by its Greek name, the "Demotic language."
The Rosetta stone carried both the sacred and the popular translations
of the Greek text and upon these two Champollion centered his attack. He
collected every piece of Egyptian script which he could get and together
with the Rosetta stone he compared and studied them until after twenty
years of patient drudgery he understood the meaning of fourteen
That means that he spent more than a whole year to decipher each single
Finally he went to Egypt and in the year 1823 he printed the first
scientific book upon the subject of the ancient hieroglyphics.
Nine years later he died from overwork, as a true martyr to the great
task which he had set himself as a boy.
His work, however, lived after him.
Others continued his studies and today Egyptologists can read
hieroglyphics as easily as we can read the printed pages of our
Fourteen pictures in twenty years seems very slow work. But let me tell
you something of Champollion's difficulties. Then you will understand,
and understanding, you will admire his courage.
The old Egyptians did not use a simple sign language. They had passed
beyond that stage.
Of course, you know what sign language is.
Every Indian story has a chapter about queer messages, written in the
form of little pictures. Hardly a boy but at some stage or other of his
life, as a buffalo hunter or an Indian fighter, has invented a sign
language of his own, and all Boy Scouts are familiar with it. But
Egyptian was something quite different and I must try and make this
clear to you with a few pictures. Suppose that you were Champollion and
that you were reading an old papyrus which told the story of a farmer
who lived somewhere along the banks of the river Nile.
Suddenly you came across a picture of a man with a saw.
"Very well," you said, "that means, of course, that the farmer went out
and cut a tree down." Most likely you had guessed correctly.
Next you took another page of hieroglyphics.
They told the story of a queen who had lived to be eighty-two years old.
Right in the middle of the text the same picture occurred. That was very
puzzling, to say the least. Queens do not go about cutting down trees.
They let other people do it for them. A young queen may saw wood for the
sake of exercise, but a queen of eighty-two stays at home with her cat
and her spinning wheel. Yet, the picture was there. The ancient priest
who drew it must have placed it there for a definite purpose.
What could he have meant?
That was the riddle which Champollion finally solved.
He discovered that the Egyptians were the first people to use what we
call "phonetic writing."
Like most other words which express a scientific idea, the word
"phonetic" is of Greek origin. It means the "science of the sound which
is made by our speech." You have seen the Greek word "phone," which
means the voice, before. It occurs in our word "telephone," the machine
which carries the voice to a distant point.
Ancient Egyptian was "phonetic" and it set man free from the narrow
limits of that sign language which in some primitive form had been used
ever since the cave-dweller began to scratch pictures of wild animals
upon the walls of his home.
Now let us return for a moment to the little fellow with his saw who
suddenly appeared in the story of the old queen. Evidently he had
something to do with a saw.
A "saw" is either a tool which you find in a carpenter shop or it means
the past tense of the verb "to see."
This is what had happened to the word during the course of many
First of all it had meant a man with a saw.
Then it came to mean the sound which we reproduce by the three modern
letters, s, a and w. In the end the original meaning of carpentering was
lost entirely and the picture indicated the past tense of "to see."
A modern English sentence done into the images of ancient Egypt will
show you what I mean.
[Illustration: eye bee leaf eye saw giraffe]
The [Illustration: eye] means either these two round objects in your
head which allow you to see, or it means "I," the person who is talking
A [Illustration: bee] is either an animal which gathers honey and pricks
you in the finger when you try to catch it, or it represents to verb "to
be," which is pronounced the same way and which means to "exist." Again
it may be the first part of a verb like "be-come" or "be-have." In this
case the bee is followed by a [Illustration: leaf] which represents the
sound which we find in the word "leave" or "leaf." Put your "bee" and
your "leaf" together and you have the two sounds which make the verb
"bee-leave" or "believe" as we write it nowadays.
The "eye" you know all about.
Finally you get a picture which looks like a giraffe. [Illustration:
Giraffe] It is a giraffe, and it is part of the old sign language, which
has been continued wherever it seemed most convenient.
Therefore you get the following sentence, "I believe I saw a giraffe."
This system, once invented, was developed during thousands of years.
Gradually the most important figures came to mean single letters or
short sounds like "fu" or "em" or "dee" or "zee," or as we write them, f
and m and d and z. And with the help of these, the Egyptians could write
anything they wanted upon every conceivable subject, and could preserve
the experience of one generation for the benefit of the next without the
That, in a very general way, is what Champollion taught us after the
exhausting search which killed him when he was a young man.
That too, is the reason why today we know Egyptian history better than
that of any other ancient country.
THE LAND OF THE LIVING AND THE LAND OF THE DEAD
The History of Man is the record of a hungry creature in search of food.
Wherever food was plentiful and easily gathered, thither man travelled
to make his home.
The fame of the Nile valley must have spread at an early date. From far
and wide, wild people flocked to the banks of the river. Surrounded on
all sides by desert or sea, it was not easy to reach these fertile
fields and only the hardiest men and women survived.
We do not know who they were. Some came from the interior of Africa and
had woolly hair and thick lips.
Others, with a yellowish skin, came from the desert of Arabia and the
broad rivers of western Asia.
They fought each other for the possession of this wonderful land.
They built villages which their neighbors destroyed and they rebuilt
them with the bricks they had taken from other neighbors whom they in
turn had vanquished.
Gradually a new race developed. They called themselves "remi," which
means simply "the Men." There was a touch of pride in this name and they
used it in the same sense that we refer to America as "God's
Part of the year, during the annual flood of the Nile, they lived on
small islands within a country which itself was cut off from the rest of
the world by the sea and the desert. No wonder that these people were
what we call "insular," and had the habits of villagers who rarely come
in contact with their neighbors.
They liked their own ways best. They thought their own habits and
customs just a trifle better than those of anybody else. In the same
way, their own gods were considered more powerful than the gods of other
nations. They did not exactly despise foreigners, but they felt a mild
pity for them and if possible they kept them outside of the Egyptian
domains, lest their own people be corrupted by "foreign notions."
They were kind-hearted and rarely did anything that was cruel. They were
patient and in business dealings they were rather indifferent Life came
as an easy gift and they never became stingy and mean like northern
people who have to struggle for mere existence.
When the sun arose above the blood-red horizon of the distant desert,
they went forth to till their fields. When the last rays of light had
disappeared beyond the mountain ridges, they went to bed.
They worked hard, they plodded and they bore whatever happened with
stolid unconcern and profound patience.
They believed that this life was but a short preface to a new existence
which began the moment Death had entered the house. Until at last, the
life of the future came to be regarded as more important than the life
of the present and the people of Egypt turned their teeming land into
one vast shrine for the worship of the dead.
[Illustration: THE LAND OF THE DEAD.]
And as most of the papyrus-rolls of the ancient valley tell stories of a
religious nature we know with great accuracy just what gods the
Egyptians revered and how they tried to assure all possible happiness
and comfort to those who had entered upon the eternal sleep. In the
beginning each little village had possessed a god of its own.
Often this god was supposed to reside in a queerly shaped stone or in
the branch of a particularly large tree. It was well to be good friends
with him for he could do great harm and destroy the harvest and prolong
the period of drought until the people and the cattle had all died of
thirst. Therefore the villages made him presents--offered him things to
eat or a bunch of flowers.
When the Egyptians went forth to fight their enemies the god must needs
be taken along, until he became a sort of battle flag around which the
people rallied in time of danger.
But when the country grew older and better roads had been built and the
Egyptians had begun to travel, the old "fetishes," as such chunks of
stone and wood were called, lost their importance and were thrown away
or were left in a neglected corner or were used as doorsteps or chairs.
Their place was taken by new gods who were more powerful than the old
ones had been and who represented those forces of nature which
influenced the lives of the Egyptians of the entire valley.
First among these was the Sun which makes all things grow.
Next came the river Nile which tempered the heat of the day and brought
rich deposits of clay to refresh the fields and make them fertile.
Then there was the kindly Moon which at night rowed her little boat
across the arch of heaven and there was Thunder and there was Lightning
and there were any number of things which could make life happy or
miserable according to their pleasure and desire.
Ancient man, entirely at the mercy of these forces of nature, could not
get rid of them as easily as we do when we plant lightning rods upon our
houses or build reservoirs which keep us alive during the summer months
when there is no rain.
On the contrary they formed an intimate part of his daily life--they
accompanied him from the moment he was put into his cradle until the day
that his body was prepared for eternal rest.
Neither could he imagine that such vast and powerful phenomena as a bolt
of lightning or the flood of a river were mere impersonal things. Some
one--somewhere--must be their master and must direct them as the
engineer directs his engine or a captain steers his ship.
A God-in-Chief was therefore created, like the commanding general of an
A number of lower officers were placed at his disposal.
Within their own territory each one could act independently.
In grave matters, however, which affected the happiness of all the
people, they must take orders from their master.
The Supreme Divine Ruler of the land of Egypt was called Osiris, and all
the little Egyptian children knew the story of his wonderful life.
Once upon a time, in the valley of the Nile, there lived a king called
He was a good man who taught his subjects how to till their fields and
who gave his country just laws. But he had a bad brother whose name
Now Seth envied Osiris because he was so virtuous and one day he invited
him to dinner and afterwards he said that he would like to show him
something. Curious Osiris asked what it was and Seth said that it was a
funnily shaped coffin which fitted one like a suit of clothes. Osiris
said that he would like to try it. So he lay down in the coffin but no
sooner was he inside when bang!--Seth shut the lid. Then he called for
his servants and ordered them to throw the coffin into the Nile.
Soon the news of his terrible deed spread throughout the land. Isis, the
wife of Osiris, who had loved her husband very dearly, went at once to
the banks of the Nile, and after a short while the waves threw the
coffin upon the shore. Then she went forth to tell her son Horus, who
ruled in another land, but no sooner had she left than Seth, the wicked
brother, broke into the palace and cut the body of Osiris into
[Illustration: A PYRAMID.]
When Isis returned, she discovered what Seth had done. She took the
fourteen pieces of the dead body and sewed them together and then Osiris
came back to life and reigned for ever and ever as king of the lower
world to which the souls of men must travel after they have left
As for Seth, the Evil One, he tried to escape, but Horus, the son of
Osiris and Isis, who had been warned by his mother, caught him and
This story of a faithful wife and a wicked brother and a dutiful son who
avenged his father and the final victory of virtue over wickedness
formed the basis of the religious life of the people of Egypt.
Osiris was regarded as the god of all living things which seemingly die
in the winter and yet return to renewed existence the next spring. As
ruler of the Life Hereafter, he was the final judge of the acts of men,
and woe unto him who had been cruel and unjust and had oppressed
As for the world of the departed souls, it was situated beyond the high
mountains of the west (which was also the home of the young Nile) and
when an Egyptian wanted to say that someone had died, he said that he
"had gone west."
Isis shared the honors and the duties of Osiris with him. Their son
Horus, who was worshipped as the god of the Sun (hence the word
"horizon," the place where the sun sets) became the first of a new line
of Egyptian kings and all the Pharaohs of Egypt had Horus as their
Of course, each little city and every small village continued to worship
a few divinities of their own. But generally speaking, all the people
recognized the sublime power of Osiris and tried to gain his favor.
This was no easy task, and led to many strange customs. In the first
place, the Egyptians came to believe that no soul could enter into the
realm of Osiris without the possession of the body which had been its
place of residence in this world.
[Illustration: HOW THE PYRAMIDS GREW.]
Whatever happened, the body must be preserved after death, and it must
be given a permanent and suitable home. Therefore as soon as a man had
died, his corpse was embalmed. This was a difficult and complicated
operation which was performed by an official who was half doctor and
half priest, with the help of an assistant whose duty it was to make the
incision through which the chest could be filled with cedar-tree pitch
and myrrh and cassia. This assistant belonged to a special class of
people who were counted among the most despised of men. The Egyptians
thought it a terrible thing to commit acts of violence upon a human
being, whether dead or living, and only the lowest of the low could be
hired to perform this unpopular task.
Afterwards the priest took the body again and for a period of ten weeks
he allowed it to be soaked in a solution of natron which was brought for
this purpose from the distant desert of Libya. Then the body had become
a "mummy" because it was filled with "Mumiai" or pitch. It was wrapped
in yards and yards of specially prepared linen and it was placed in a
beautifully decorated wooden coffin, ready to be removed to its final
home in the western desert.
The grave itself was a little stone room in the sand of the desert or a
cave in a hill-side.
After the coffin had been placed in the center the little room was well
supplied with cooking utensils and weapons and statues (of clay or wood)
representing bakers and butchers who were expected to wait upon their
dead master in case he needed anything. Flutes and fiddles were added to
give the occupant of the grave a chance to while away the long hours
which he must spend in this "house of eternity."
Then the roof was covered with sand and the dead Egyptian was left to
the peaceful rest of eternal sleep.
But the desert is full of wild creatures, hyenas and wolves, and they
dug their way through the wooden roof and the sand and ate up the mummy.
This was a terrible thing, for then the soul was doomed to wander
forever and suffer agonies of a man without a home. To assure the corpse
all possible safety a low wall of brick was built around the grave and
the open space was filled with sand and gravel. In this way a low
artificial hill was made which protected the mummy against wild animals
Then one day, an Egyptian who had just buried his Mother, of whom he had
been particularly fond, decided to give her a monument that should
surpass anything that had ever been built in the valley of the Nile.
He gathered his serfs and made them build an artificial mountain that
could be seen for miles around. The sides of this hill he covered with a
layer of bricks that the sand might not be blown away.
People liked the novelty of the idea.
Soon they were trying to outdo each other and the graves rose twenty and
thirty and forty feet above the ground.
At last a rich nobleman ordered a burial chamber made of solid stone.
On top of the actual grave where the mummy rested, he constructed a pile
of bricks which rose several hundred feet into the air. A small
passage-way gave entrance to the vault and when this passage was closed
with a heavy slab of granite the mummy was safe from all intrusion.
The King of course could not allow one of his subjects to outdo him in
such a matter. He was the most powerful man of all Egypt who lived in
the biggest house and therefore he was entitled to the best grave.
What others had done in brick he could do with the help of more costly
Pharaoh sent his officers far and wide to gather workmen. He constructed
roads. He built barracks in which the workmen could live and sleep (you
may see those barracks this very day). Then he set to work and made
himself a grave which was to endure for all time.
We call this great pile of masonry a "pyramid."
The origin of the word is a curious one.
When the Greeks visited Egypt the Pyramids were already several thousand
[Illustration: THE MUMMY]
Of course the Egyptians took their guests into the desert to see these
wondrous sights just as we take foreigners to gaze at the Wool-worth
Tower and Brooklyn Bridge.
The Greek guest, lost in admiration, waved his hands and asked what the
strange mountains might be.
His guide thought that he referred to the extraordinary height and said
"Yes, they are very high indeed."
The Egyptian word for height was "pir-em-us."
The Greek must have thought that this was the name of the whole
structure and giving it a Greek ending he called it a "pyramis."
We have changed the "s" into a "d" but we still use the same Egyptian
word when we talk of the stone graves along the banks of the Nile.
The biggest of these many pyramids, which was built fifty centuries ago,
was five hundred feet high.
At the base it was seven hundred and fifty-five feet wide.
It covered more than thirteen acres of desert, which is three times as
much space as that occupied by the church of Saint Peter, the largest
edifice of the Christian world.
During twenty years, over a hundred thousand men were used to carry the
stones from the distant peninsula of Sinai--to ferry them across the
Nile (how they ever managed to do this we do not understand)--to drag
them halfway across the desert and finally hoist them into their
But so well did Pharaoh's architects and engineers perform their task
that the narrow passage-way which leads to the royal tomb in the heart
of the pyramid has never yet been pushed out of shape by the terrific
weight of those thousands and thousands of tons of stone which press
upon it from all sides.
THE MAKING OF A STATE
Nowadays we all are members of a "state."
We may be Frenchmen or Chinamen or Russians; we may live in the furthest
corner of Indonesia (do you know where that is?), but in some way or
other we belong to that curious combination of people which is called
It does not matter whether we recognize a king or an emperor or a
president as our ruler. We are born and we die as a small part of this
large Whole and no one can escape this fate.
The "state," as a matter of fact, is quite a recent invention.
The earliest inhabitants of the world did not know what it was.
Every family lived and hunted and worked and died for and by itself.
Sometimes it happened that a few of these families, for the sake of
greater protection against the wild animals and against other wild
people, formed a loose alliance which was called a tribe or a clan. But
as soon as the danger was past, these groups of people acted again by
and for themselves and if the weak could not defend their own cave, they
were left to the mercies of the hyena and the tiger and nobody was very
sorry if they were killed.
In short, each person was a nation unto himself and he felt no
responsibility for the happiness and safety of his neighbor. Very, very
slowly this was changed and Egypt was the first country where the people
were organized into a well-regulated empire.
The Nile was directly responsible for this useful development. I have
told you how in the summer of each year the greater part of the Nile
valley and the Nile delta is turned into a vast inland sea. To derive
the greatest benefit from this water and yet survive the flood, it had
been necessary at certain points to build dykes and small islands which
would offer shelter for man and beast during the months of August and
September. The construction of these little artificial islands however
had not been simple.
[Illustration: THE YOUNG NILE.]
A single man or a single family or even a small tribe could not
construct a river-dam without the help of others.
However much a farmer might dislike his neighbors he disliked getting
drowned even more and he was obliged to call upon the entire
country-side when the water of the river began to rise and threatened
him and his wife and his children and his cattle with destruction.
Necessity forced the people to forget their small differences and soon
the entire valley of the Nile was covered with little combinations of
people who constantly worked together for a common purpose and who
depended upon each other for life and prosperity.
Out of such small beginnings grew the first powerful State.
It was a great step forward along the road of progress.
It made the land of Egypt a truly inhabitable place. It meant the end of
lawless murder. It assured the people greater safety than ever before
and gave the weaker members of the tribe a chance to survive. Nowadays,
when conditions of absolute disorder exist only in the jungles of
Africa, it is hard to imagine a world without laws and policemen and
judges and health officers and hospitals and schools.
But five thousand years ago, Egypt stood alone as an organized state and
was greatly envied by those of her neighbors who were obliged to face
the difficulties of life single-handedly.
A state, however, is not only composed of citizens.
There must be a few men who execute the laws and who, in case of an
emergency, take command of the entire community. Therefore no country
has ever been able to endure without a single head, be he called a King
or an Emperor or a Shah (as in Persia) or a President, as he is called
in our own land.
[Illustration: THE FERTILE VALLEY.]
In ancient Egypt, every village recognized the authority of the
Village-Elders, who were old men and possessed greater experience than
the young ones. These Elders selected a strong man to command their
soldiers in case of war and to tell them what to do when there was a
flood. They gave him a title which distinguished him from the others.
They called him a King or a prince and obeyed his orders for their own
Therefore in the oldest days of Egyptian history, we find the following
division among the people:
The majority are peasants.
All of them are equally rich and equally poor.
They are ruled by a powerful man who is the commander-in-chief of their
armies and who appoints their judges and causes roads to be built for
the common benefit and comfort.
He also is the chief of the police force and catches the thieves.
In return for these valuable services he receives a certain amount of
everybody's money which is called a tax. The greater part of these
taxes, however, do not belong to the King personally. They are money
entrusted to him to be used for the common good.
But after a short while a new class of people, neither peasants nor
king, begins to develop. This new class, commonly called the nobles,
stands between the ruler and his subjects.
Since those early days it has made its appearance in the history of
every country and it has played a great role in the development of
I must try and explain to you how this class of nobles developed out of
the most commonplace circumstances of everyday life and why it has
maintained itself to this very day, against every form of opposition.
To make my story quite clear, I have drawn a picture.
It shows you five Egyptian farms. The original owners of these farms had
moved into Egypt years and years ago. Each had taken a piece of
unoccupied land and had settled down upon it to raise grain and cows and
pigs and do whatever was necessary to keep themselves and their children
alive. Apparently they had the same chance in life.
How then did it happen that one became the ruler of his neighbors and
got hold of all their fields and barns without breaking a single law?
[Illustration: THE ORIGINS OF THE FEUDAL SYSTEM.]
One day after the harvest, Mr. Fish (you see his name in hieroglyphics
on the map) sent his boat loaded with grain to the town of Memphis to
sell the cargo to the inhabitants of central Egypt. It happened to have
been a good year for the farmer and Fish got a great deal of money for
his wheat. After ten days the boat returned to the homestead and the
captain handed the money which he had received to his employer.
A few weeks later, Mr. Sparrow, whose farm was next to that of Fish,
sent his wheat to the nearest market. Poor Sparrow had not been very
lucky for the last few years. But he hoped to make up for his recent
losses by a profitable sale of his grain. Therefore he had waited until
the price of wheat in Memphis should have gone a little higher.
That morning a rumor had reached the village of a famine in the island
of Crete. As a result the grain in the Egyptian markets had greatly
increased in value.
Sparrow hoped to profit through this unexpected turn of the market and
he bade his skipper to hurry.
The skipper handled the rudder of his craft so clumsily that the boat
struck a rock and sank, drowning the mate who was caught under the sail.
Sparrow not only lost all his grain and his ship but he was also forced
to pay the widow of his drowned mate ten pieces of gold to make up for
the loss of her husband.
These disasters occurred at the very moment when Sparrow could not
afford another loss.
Winter was near and he had no money to buy cloaks for his children. He
had put off buying new hoes and spades for such a long time that the old
ones were completely worn out. He had no seeds for his fields. He was in
a desperate plight.
He did not like his neighbor, Mr. Fish, any too well but there was no
way out. He must go and humbly he must ask for the loan of a small
sum of money.
He called on Fish. The latter said that he would gladly let him have
whatever he needed but could Sparrow put up any sort of guaranty?
Sparrow said, "Yes." He would offer his own farm as a pledge of good
Unfortunately Fish knew all about that farm. It had belonged to the
Sparrow family for many generations. But the Father of the present owner
had allowed himself to be terribly cheated by a Phoenician trader who
had sold him a couple of "Phrygian Oxen" (nobody knew what the name
meant) which were said to be of a very fine breed, which needed little
food and performed twice as much labor as the common Egyptian oxen. The
old farmer had believed the solemn words of the impostor. He had bought
the wonderful beasts, greatly envied by all his neighbors.
They had not proved a success.
They were very stupid and very slow and exceedingly lazy and within
three weeks they had died from a mysterious disease.
The old farmer was so angry that he suffered a stroke and the management
of his estate was left to the son, who worked hard but without
The loss of his grain and his vessel were the last straw.
Young Sparrow must either starve or ask his neighbor to help him with a
Fish who was familiar with the lives of all his neighbors (he was that
kind of person, not because he loved gossip but one never knew how such
information might come in handy) and who knew to a penny the state of
affairs in the Sparrow household, felt strong enough to insist upon
certain terms. Sparrow could have all the money he needed upon the
following condition. He must promise to work for Fish six weeks of every
year and he must allow him free access to his grounds at all times.
Sparrow did not like these terms, but the days were growing shorter and
winter was coming on fast and his family were without food.
He was forced to accept and from that time on, he and his sons and
daughters were no longer quite as free as they had been before.
They did not exactly become the servants or the slaves of their
neighbor, but they were dependent upon his kindness for their own
livelihood. When they met Fish in the road they stepped aside and said
"Good morning, sir." And he answered them--or not--as the case might be.
He now owned a great deal of water-front, twice as much as before.
He had more land and more laborers and he could raise more grain than in
the past years. The nearby villagers talked of the new house he was
building and in a general way, he was regarded as a man of growing
wealth and importance.
Late that summer an unheard-of-thing happened.
The oldest inhabitants could not remember such a thing, but it rained
hard and steadily for two whole days. A little brook, the existence of
which everybody had forgotten, was suddenly turned into a wild torrent.
In the middle of the night it came thundering down from the mountains
and destroyed the harvest of the farmer who occupied the rocky ground at
the foot of the hills. His name was Cup and he too had inherited his
land from a hundred other Cups who had gone before. The damage was
almost irreparable. Cup needed new seed grain and he needed it at once.
He had heard Sparrow's story. He too hated to ask a favor of Fish who
was known far and wide as a shrewd dealer. But in the end, he found his
way to the Fishs' homestead and humbly begged for the loan of a few
bushels of wheat. He got them but not until he had agreed to work two
whole months of each year on the farm of Fish.
Fish was now doing very well. His new house was ready and he thought the
time had come to establish himself as the head of a household.
Just across the way, there lived a farmer who had a young daughter. The
name of this farmer was Knife. He was a happy-go-lucky person and he
could not give his child a large dowry.
Fish called on Knife and told him that he did not care for money. He was
rich and he was willing to take the daughter without a single penny.
Knife, however, must promise to leave his land to his son-in-law in
case he died.
This was done.
The will was duly drawn up before a notary, the wedding took place and
Fish now possessed (or was about to possess) the greater part of
It is true there was a fifth farm situated right in between the others.
But its owner, by the name of Sickle, could not carry his wheat to the
market without crossing the lands over which Fish held sway. Besides,
Sickle was not very energetic and he willingly hired himself out to Fish
on condition that he and his old wife be given a room and food and
clothes for the rest of their days. They had no children and this
settlement assured them a peaceful old age. When Sickle died, a distant
nephew appeared who claimed a right to his uncle's farm. Fish had the
dogs turned loose on him and the fellow was never seen again.
These transactions had covered a period of twenty years.
The younger generations of the Cup and
Sickle and Sparrow families accepted their situation in life without
questioning. They knew old Fish as "the Squire" upon whose good-will
they were more or less dependent if they wanted to succeed in life.
When the old man died he left his son many wide acres and a position of
great influence among his immediate neighbors.
Young Fish resembled his father. He was very able and had a great deal
of ambition. When the king of Upper Egypt went to war against the wild
Berber tribes, he volunteered his services.
He fought so bravely that the king appointed him Collector of the Royal
Revenue for three hundred villages.
Often it happened that certain farmers could not pay their tax.
Then young Fish offered to give them a small loan.
Before they knew it, they were working for the Royal Tax Gatherer, to
repay both the money which they had borrowed and the interest on
The years went by and the Fish family reigned supreme in the land of
their birth. The old home was no longer good enough for such
A noble hall was built (after the pattern of the Royal Banqueting Hall
of Thebes). A high wall was erected to keep the crowd at a respectful
distance and Fish never went out without a bodyguard of armed soldiers.
Twice a year he travelled to Thebes to be with his King, who lived in
the largest palace of all Egypt and who was therefore known as
"Pharaoh," the owner of the "Big House."
Upon one of his visits, he took Fish the Third, grandson of the founder
of the family, who was a handsome young fellow.
The daughter of Pharaoh saw the youth and desired him for her husband.
The wedding cost Fish most of his fortune, but he was still Collector of
the Royal Revenue and by treating the people without mercy he was able
to fill his strong-box in less than three years.
When he died he was buried in a small Pyramid, just as if he had been a
member of the Royal Family, and a daughter of Pharaoh wept over
That is my story which begins somewhere along the banks of the Nile and
which in the course of three generations lifts a farmer from the ranks
of his own humble ancestors and drops him outside the gate but near the
throne-room of the King's palace.
What happened to Fish, happened to a large number of equally energetic
and resourceful men.
They formed a class apart.
They married each other's daughters and in this way they kept the family
fortunes in the hands of a small number of people.
They served the King faithfully as officers in his army and as
collectors of his taxes.
They looked after the safety of the roads and the waterways.
They performed many useful tasks and among themselves they obeyed the
laws of a very strict code of honor.
If the Kings were bad, the nobles were apt to be bad too.
When the Kings were weak the nobles often managed to get hold of the
Then it often happened that the people arose in their wrath and
destroyed those who oppressed them.
Many of the old nobles were killed and a new division of the land took
place which gave everybody an equal chance.
But after a short while the old story repeated itself.
This time it was perhaps a member of the Sparrow family who used his
greater shrewdness and industry to make himself master of the
countryside while the descendants of Fish (of glorious memory!) were
reduced to poverty.
Otherwise very little was changed.
The faithful peasants continued to work and pay taxes.
The equally faithful tax gatherers continued to gather wealth.
But the old Nile, indifferent to the ambitions of men, flowed as
placidly as ever between its age-worn banks and bestowed its fertile
blessings upon the poor and upon the rich with the impartial justice
which is found only in the forces of nature.
THE RISE AND FALL OF EGYPT
We often hear it said that "civilization travels westward." What we mean
is that hardy pioneers have crossed the Atlantic Ocean and settled along
the shores of New England and New Netherland--that their children have
crossed the vast prairies--that their great-grandchildren have moved
into California--and that the present generation hopes to turn the vast
Pacific into the most important sea of the ages.
As a matter of fact, "civilization" never remains long in the same spot.
It is always going somewhere but it does not always move westward by any
means. Sometimes its course points towards the east or the south. Often
it zigzags across the map. But it keeps moving. After two or three
hundred years, civilization seems to say, "Well, I have been keeping
company with these particular people long enough," and it packs its
books and its science and its art and its music, and wanders forth in
search of new domains. But no one knows whither it is bound, and that is
what makes life so interesting.
[Illustration: THE SOIL OF THE FERTILE VALLEY.]
In the case of Egypt, the center of civilization moved northward and
southward, along the banks of the Nile. First of all, as I told you,
people from all over Africa and western Asia moved into the valley and
settled down. Thereupon they formed small villages and townships and
accepted the rule of a Commander-in-Chief, who was called Pharaoh, and
who had his capital in Memphis, in the lower part of Egypt.
After a couple of thousand years, the rulers of this ancient house
became too weak to maintain themselves. A new family from the town of
Thebes, 350 miles towards the south in Upper Egypt, tried to make itself
master of the entire valley. In the year 2400 B.C. they succeeded. As
rulers of both Upper and Lower Egypt, they set forth to conquer the rest
of the world. They marched towards the sources of the Nile (which they
never reached) and conquered black Ethiopia. Next they crossed the
desert of Sinai and invaded Syria where they made their name feared by
the Babylonians and Assyrians. The possession of these outlying
districts assured the safety of Egypt and they could set to work to turn
the valley into a happy home, for as many of the people as could find
room there. They built many new dikes and dams and a vast reservoir in
the desert which they filled with water from the Nile to be kept and
used in case of a prolonged drought. They encouraged people to devote
themselves to the study of mathematics and astronomy so that they might
determine the time when the floods of the Nile were to be expected.
Since for this purpose it was necessary to have a handy method by which
time could be measured, they established the year of 365 days, which
they divided into twelve months.
Contrary to the old tradition which made the Egyptians keep away from
all things foreign, they allowed the exchange of Egyptian merchandise
for goods which had been carried to their harbors from elsewhere.
They traded with the Greeks of Crete and with the Arabs of western Asia
and they got spices from the Indies and they imported gold and silk
But all human institutions are subject to certain definite laws of
progress and decline and a State or a dynasty is no exception. After
four hundred years of prosperity, these mighty kings showed signs of
growing tired. Rather than ride a camel at the head of their army, the
rulers of the great Egyptian Empire stayed within the gates of their
palace and listened to the music of the harp or the flute.
One day there came rumors to the town of Thebes that wild tribes of
horsemen had been pillaging along the frontiers. An army was sent to
drive them away. This army moved into the desert. To the last man it was
killed by the fierce Arabs, who now marched towards the Nile, bringing
their flocks of sheep and their household goods.
Another army was told to stop their progress. The battle was disastrous
for the Egyptians and the valley of the Nile was open to the invaders.
They rode fleet horses and they used bows and arrows. Within a short
time they had made themselves master of the entire country. For five
centuries they ruled the land of Egypt. They removed the old capital to
the Delta of the Nile.
They oppressed the Egyptian peasants.
They treated the men cruelly and they killed the children and they were
rude to the ancient gods. They did not like to live in the cities but
stayed with their flocks in the open fields and therefore they were
called the Hyksos, which means the Shepherd Kings.
At last their rule grew unbearable.
A noble family from the city of Thebes placed itself at the head of a
national revolution against the foreign usurpers. It was a desperate
fight but the Egyptians won. The Hyksos were driven out of the country,
and they went back to the desert whence they had come. The experience
had been a warning to the Egyptian people. Their five hundred years of
foreign slavery had been a terrible experience. Such a thing must never
happen again. The frontier of the fatherland must be made so strong that
no one dare to attack the holy soil.
A new Theban king, called Tethmosis, invaded Asia and never stopped
until he reached the plains of Mesopotamia. He watered his oxen in the
river Euphrates, and Babylon and Nineveh trembled at the mention of his
name. Wherever he went, he built strong fortresses, which were connected
by excellent roads. Tethmosis, having built a barrier against future
invasions, went home and died. But his daughter, Hatshepsut, continued
his good work. She rebuilt the temples which the Hyksos had destroyed
and she founded a strong state in which soldiers and merchants worked
together for a common purpose and which was called the New Empire, and
lasted from 1600 to 1300 B.C.
Military nations, however, never last very long. The larger the empire,
the more men are needed for its defense and the more men there are in
the army, the fewer can stay at home to work the farms and attend to the
demands of trade. Within a few years, the Egyptian state had become
top-heavy and the army, which was meant to be a bulwark against foreign
invasion, dragged the country into ruin from sheer lack of both men
Without interruption, wild people from Asia were attacking those strong
walls behind which Egypt was hoarding the riches of the entire
At first the Egyptian garrisons could hold their own.
One day, however, in distant Mesopotamia, there arose a new military
empire which was called Assyria. It cared for neither art nor science,
but it could fight. The Assyrians marched against the Egyptians and
defeated them in battle. For more than twenty years they ruled the land
of the Nile. To Egypt this meant the beginning of the end.
A few times, for short periods, the people managed to regain their
independence. But they were an old race, and they were worn out by
centuries of hard work.
The time had come for them to disappear from the stage of history and
surrender their leadership as the most civilized people of the world.
Greek merchants were swarming down upon the cities at the mouth of
A new capital was built at Sais, near the mouth of the Nile, and Egypt
became a purely commercial state, the half-way house for the trade
between western Asia and eastern Europe.
After the Greeks came the Persians, who conquered all of northern
Two centuries later, Alexander the Great turned the ancient land of the
Pharaoh? into a Greek province. When he died, one of his generals,
Ptolemy by name, established himself as the independent king of a new
The Ptolemy family continued to rule for two hundred years.
In the year 30 B.C., Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemys, killed
herself, rather than become a prisoner of the victorious Roman general,
That was the end.
Egypt became part of the Roman Empire and her life as an independent
state ceased for all time.
MESOPOTAMIA, THE COUNTRY BETWEEN THE RIVERS
I am going to take you to the top of the highest pyramid.
It is a good deal of a climb.
The casing of fine stones which in the beginning covered the rough
granite blocks which were used to construct this artificial mountain,
has long since worn off or has been stolen to help build new Roman
cities. A goat would have a fine time scaling this strange peak. But
with the help of a few Arab boys, we can get to the top after a few
hours of hard work, and there we can rest and look far into the next
chapter of the history of the human race.
Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the vast
desert, through which the old Nile had cut herself a way to the sea, you
will (if you have the eyes of a hawk), see something shimmering
It is a valley situated between two big rivers.
It is the most interesting spot of the ancient map.
It is the Paradise of the Old Testament.
It is the old land of mystery and wonder which the Greeks called
The word "Mesos" means "middle" or "in between" and "potomos" is the
Greek expression for river. (Just think of the Hippopotamus, the horse
or "hippos" that lives in the rivers.) Mesopotamia, therefore, meant a
stretch of land "between the rivers." The two rivers in this case were
the Euphrates which the Babylonians called the "Purattu" and the Tigris,
which the Babylonians called the "Diklat." You will see them both upon
the map. They begin their course amidst the snows of the northern
mountains of Armenia and slowly they flow through the southern plain
until they reach the muddy banks of the Persian Gulf. But before they
have lost themselves amidst the waves of this branch of the Indian
Ocean, they have performed a great and useful task.
They have turned an otherwise arid and dry region into the only fertile
spot of western Asia.
That fact will explain to you why Mesopotamia was so very popular with
the inhabitants of the northern mountains and the southern desert.
It is a well-known fact that all living beings like to be comfortable.
When it rains, the cat hastens to a place of shelter.
When it is cold, the dog finds a spot in front of the stove. When a
certain part of the sea becomes more salty than it has been before (or
less, for that matter) myriads of little fishes swim hastily to another
part of the wide ocean. As for the birds, a great many of them move from
one place to another regularly once a year. When the cold weather sets
in, the geese depart, and when the first swallow returns, we know that
summer is about to smile upon us.
Man is no exception to this rule. He likes the warm stove much better
than the cold wind. Whenever he has the choice between a good dinner and
a crust of bread, he prefers the dinner. He will live in the desert or
in the snow of the arctic zone if it is absolutely necessary. But offer
him a more agreeable place of residence and he will accept without a
moment's hesitation. This desire to improve his condition, which really
means a desire to make life more comfortable and less wearisome, has
been a very good thing for the progress of the world.
It has driven the white people of Europe to the ends of the earth.
It has populated the mountains and the plains of our own country.
It has made many millions of men travel ceaselessly from east to west
and from south to north until they have found the climate and the living
conditions which suit them best.
In the western part of Asia this instinct which compels living beings to
seek the greatest amount of comfort possible with the smallest
expenditure of labor forced both the inhabitants of the cold and
inhospitable mountains and the people of the parched desert to look for
a new dwelling place in the happy valley of Mesopotamia.
It caused them to fight for the sole possession of this Paradise upon
It forced them to exercise their highest power of inventiveness and
their noblest courage to defend their homes and farms and their wives
and children against the newcomers, who century after century were
attracted by the fame of this pleasant spot.
This constant rivalry was the cause of an everlasting struggle between
the old and established tribes and the others who clamored for their
share of the soil.
Those who were weak and those who did not have a great deal of energy
had little chance of success.
Only the most intelligent and the bravest survived. That will explain to
you why Mesopotamia became the home of a strong race of men, capable of
creating that state of civilization which was to be of such enormous
benefit to all later generations.
THE SUMERIAN NAIL WRITERS
In the year 1472, a short time before Columbus discovered America, a
certain Venetian, by the name of Josaphat Barbaro, traveling through
Persia, crossed the hills near Shiraz and saw something which puzzled
him. The hills of Shiraz were covered with old temples which had been
cut into the rock of the mountainside. The ancient worshippers had
disappeared centuries before and the temples were in a state of great
decay. But clearly visible upon their walls, Barbara noticed long
legends written in a curious script which looked like a series of
scratches made by a sharp nail.
When he returned he mentioned his discovery to his fellow-townsmen, but
just then the Turks were threatening Europe with an invasion and people
were too busy to bother about a new and unknown alphabet, somewhere in
the heart of western Asia. The Persian inscriptions therefore were
Two and a half centuries later, a noble young Roman by the name of