On Ancient Egypt

I finished today the account of Herodotus, a Greek writer from the fifth century B.C.E., of the land and people of Egypt as he travelled about the ancient world in search of history and culture.

I found his account to be a delightful read because of his keen interest in how things come to be, not just politically and culturally, but also geologically and architecturally. This is evident immediately as he postulates that Egypt must have been largely or completely under water long ago, for the land at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea slopes upward toward the coast, and because seashells have been found on mountain tops far from any coast. Herodotus speaks more of the shape and size of Egypt before moving on to the way of its people, their stories, and eventually their history.

Did you know that the Egyptians were obsessed with cleanliness? They had proper rules surrounding the handling of pigs as dirty creatures, so severe that those members of the social class which handled swine were permitted to only marry within the same class, a rule which Herodotus did not mention applied to any other. Furthermore, any contact with swine warranted an immediate washing in the Nile river, all clothes left on. Swine aside, Egyptians washed often, and had special rules regarding attire when accessing their holy temples.

Herodotus further describes the ways of Egyptians as being opposite from the rest of the world at that time. For example, women went to the market to trade while the men stayed home and weaved. Women carried heavy things on their shoulders, and men on their heads. Apparently, circumcision was a standard practice as well, likely because it was deemed “cleaner.”

Being both a skeptic and an honest man brings much credibility to Herodotus’ account. He talks often of the stories of the gods, much of which are shared between the Greeks and the Egyptians. Through his evaluation of stories recorded by the Egyptians and the Greeks alike, he determined often that the Egyptians brought these gods to the Greeks, and not vice versa. When describing the beauty and marvelousness of the Great Pyramids and the Labyrinth, he easily remarks these as wonders greater in cost and extravagance than all the Greek wonders combined! Though there is plenty to be said about some of his less-than-rational remarks and approaches, he seems to me to be more “modern” in his method of record than any other accounts I’ve read of the ancient world. (At the same time, perhaps I haven’t read enough!)

Speaking of the Labyrinth, I had never even heard of it until I read Herodotus’ description of it. Upon further research, I learned that only very recently (in 2008) has the Labyrinth been reasonably proven to exist. Unfortunately, it is currently inaccessible underground, filled with salt water that is quickly eroding away all of its purported majesty. I hope that one day it is safely excavated so that I may see it with my own eyes. Herodotus described it as being larger and more spectacular than the pyramids, perhaps adding to the list an eighth wonder of the ancient world.

In any case, Herodotus also discusses the two Egyptians scripts, the rules and customs surrounding death and burial, and under what circumstances certain animals, such as crocodiles, are considered sacred. I would highly recommend reading his account.