Ancient History Ch. 4 (pt.2): Ancient Egyptian Industry, Learning, Writing, Religion


The following is an excerpt (Chapter IV, pages 24-32) from Ancient and Medieval History (1946) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use Search to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.

CHAPTER IV (continued)


17. The irrigation system was one of the wonders of old Egypt. Its beginnings go back to the earliest recorded history. But it reached its highest perfection about 2400-2000 B.C. Large canals received the water from the river to carry it to distant places. They fed smaller water courses, and these in turn split into narrow ditches for the countless large and small farms. The ground was divided into square beds with raised borders of earth-, and the water could be let in or shut out at will. Vast reservoirs were constructed to store up the water for those years in which the Nile would not rise high enough, the most famous of them being Lake Moeris. The cities and villages were either situated on elevations or surrounded by dikes. The flood time was the glorious time of the year, because it foreboded a rich harvest. Myriads of boats and barks, filled with gay people, covered the surface of the Nile, which now like an arm of the ocean stretched from the river’s mouth several hundred miles to the south. To control, keep in repair, and watch over this admirable system were naturally the privilege and duty of the government, which alone had been able to undertake its construction, and in their inscriptions the greatest of the pharaohs justly take no little pride in having improved or extended it.

18. Agriculture. — The mud deposited by the Nile made the land incredibly fertile. A harvest of a hundredfold for the grain was not rare. The farmer sowed wheat and barley, besides raising beans, peas, lettuce, radishes, melons, cucumbers, and onions. His only implements were a simple sort of a plow, which, however, does not seem to have been used in all parts of the country; a short crooked hoe, the use of which bent him almost double; and the sickle for cutting the grain. The grain was not threshed but trodden out by cattle. The Egyptian barnyard contained not only many animals familiar to us, such as cows, goats, sheep, and pigs, but also antelopes, gazelles, and storks. The hen was unknown. For their clothing the Egyptians grew flax in large quantities, and abundant flocks of sheep furnished wool. Cotton, too, appears to have been raised.

19. Trade. — It is surprising that Egypt with its dense population, its multiplex division of labor, — some producing the foodstuffs, others making clothes and shoes and all sorts of implements — its elaborate system of taxation, and its numerous officials of government and nobility, was able to get along thousands of years without the use of money.

Note the great variety of occupations. No two men are doing the same thing.

The farmer offering his grain, the truck farmer his onions or cucumbers, expected to receive in exchange clothes, pottery, perhaps fineries. He had to wait by his basket in the market place until someone wanting his produce and offering in exchange the article he desired happened to come along. All trade was barter. Money came into use as late as 650 B.C. (§ 66). For some time before this date they used rings of precious metal, but it was of uncertain weight and quality. Barter was the only method of exchanging goods even in the great world trade, in which Egypt took a very active part. Egyptian historical sources inform us of countless imported articles, many of which must have come from very distant countries.


20. The Industrial Arts. — The skilled artisans included brickworkers, weavers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, coppersmiths, upholsterers, glass blowers, potters, shoemakers, tailors, armorers, and almost as many other trades as are to be found among us to-day. In many of these occupations, the workers possessed marvelous dexterity, and were masters of processes that are now unknown. Weavers produced delicate and exquisite linen, almost as fine as silk, and workers in glass and gold and bronze were famous for their skill. Jewels were imitated in colored glass so artfully that only an expert to-day can detect the fraud. Though iron was used by men long before the Deluge, it does not occur in the ruins of Egypt before 800 B.C. This useful metal evidently did not find its way into the Nile valley — Egypt has no iron mines — in sufficient quantity to allow the formation of an iron workers’ craft before that date.

21. The Chief Fine Arts. — In conformity with the strong belief of the Egyptians in the life after death and their general religious character, the principal works of architecture were
tombs and temples. The palaces of the kings and nobles, though at times grand, were on the whole of much less importance.

MASTABAS: These are the burial chapels of great men. (The word mastaba means “bench” and was given to these structures by the Arabs) The pyramids, exclusively the burial mound of kings, grew out of the mastabas.

In the oldest times of the kingdom the rich people built for themselves tombs called mastabas, which were flat-topped, massive stone chapels. The carefully embalmed body, called “mummy,” was placed in a vertical shaft leading down into the solid rock. The earliest kings, however, erected the majestic pyramids, artificial hills of stone with four sides rising to a point, for their resting place. The highest of the seventy pyramids still extant is that of Gizeh, said to have been built by Cheops about 3000 B.C. It rises 481 feet above its base.

The Sphinx was recently uncovered completely for the first time in 3600 years. The tablet discovered between the front legs recorded the fact that the huge figure had been similarly cleared of sand by Thothmes IV and Rameses II. The inscription of Thothmes indicates that the figure probably represented Harmachis, a special form of the sun god, and guarded the graveyard near the pyramids. The statue was carved out of the native rock, perhaps under the orders of Chephren, and is 66 feet high and 240 feet long. At the left is the second pyramid of Chephren; at the right, the pyramid of Cheops. (By kallerna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

No mortar is used, but the edges of the huge blocks of which it is piled up are so nicely fitted together that in many places it is impossible to detect the joints. Hundreds of thousands of men worked thirty years at the large pyramid. The king’s mummy was placed in a chamber near the center. Sometimes a later pharaoh cast out the mummy of a predecessor and took possession of the pyramid for himself.

After Thebes in Upper Egypt, situated in the narrow valley between the rocky hills, had become the capital, the kings and great men preferred graves hewn into the rocks. These often were regular apartments, each consisting of several chambers, fitted out sumptuously with all kinds of furniture, and decorated with paintings and inscriptions. In 1922 the tomb of King Tutankhamen, who reigned in the fourteenth century B.C., was discovered. It was filled with articles made of the most costly materials, resplendent with gold, and of perfect taste and workmanship. This tomb had escaped the devastations of the grave robbers, who plied their trade even in early times.

22. Temples were erected from the most remote ages. The larger ones consisted of several chambers and one or more wide halls, grouped around courts. Columns of massive dimensions, with capitals imitating the sacred lotus flower, and richly decorated, gave the effect of indescribable grandeur. Obelisks, high, square, tapering stone columns, flanked the entrances; and rows of sphinxes, which are combinations of a lion’s body with a human head, marked the avenues. Sphinxes, often of colossal size, are also found elsewhere. They symbolize the union of intellect with physical strength. The walls of the temples and tombs, inside and outside, and the surfaces of columns and obelisks are commonly found covered with inscriptions and painted and sculptured pictures, which make the ruins of Egypt veritable libraries in stone.

The Egyptian art was architecture. The Egyptians had the will, the skill, and the material, to build for ages. All other arts served chiefly to adorn the buildings. Painting and sculpture, however, were well developed. Admirable is the exactness with which portrait pictures were executed and portrait reliefs and statues chiseled in the stone. But we often miss in the paintings and the products of sculpture that naturalness and that ease of posture to which we are nowadays accustomed. The pictures, too, entirely lack perspective; that is, the painters did not know how to distinguish the figures in the foreground and those in the rear of the pictures.

This restoration shows that the Egyptian temples consisted of a series of open courts and covered halls, all of which decreased in size and height toward the end. Note the obelisk on each side of the main portal, the avenue lined with sphinxes, and the broad “cut-off” towers called (by the Greeks) “pylons,” which flank the entrances. — The term “restoration,” or “reconstruction” does not mean that the temple or palace has actually been rebuilt, but merely that learned men, after gathering and studying all the information which can be gleaned from the remains and, perhaps, from descriptions in the writings of contemporaries, have drawn a picture of what in all probability the original building must have looked like.

23. Science. — The frequent need of surveying the land after an inundation had much to do with the skill of the Egyptians in geometry. The need of fixing in advance the time of the inundation soon directed attention to astronomy. The Egyptians early had a year of twelve months of thirty days each, and five supplementary days, that is, of 365 days in all. This means much more than we moderns, who glibly read the date from a wall calendar, are inclined to imagine. A year is the time which elapses between the moment when the sun stands in a certain point of the heavens and the moment when it has returned to the same point. It took some skill and perseverance in observing the sun and stars to fix this time with tolerable accuracy. (See H. T. F., “Calendar,” 7.) In arithmetic the Egyptians dealt readily in numbers up to millions. Their figures were similar to those of the Romans. The accompanying diagram shows how they wrote the number 3423.



24. Hieroglyphs. — The Greeks called the Egyptian writing hieroglyphs, that is, sacred signs. In the beginning the priests alone knew the hieroglyphs, although later on there arose a class of professional scribes. It was a picture writing, that is, instead of writing the word “house” they drew a plain picture of a house. But even in the earliest inscriptions there appears an improvement. The sign for the sun, for instance, also stood for “light,” the sign of a bird for “flying.” Some signs came to signify syllables, and some even sounds, as our letters do. Had the Egyptians increased the number of these and dropped all the others, they would have had a real alphabet. But this they never did. The hieroglyphs to the last remained an assemblage of men, birds, snakes, tools, stars, etc., which was interesting to behold but very difficult to understand. Hence the position of the scribes was very honorable and profitable. For the writing of books, however, for private letters, business papers, etc., a simplified system of hieroglyphs gradually developed. The strokes of each of the many signs were made less carefully, and were run into one another, thus creating a sort of script, called “demotic” or popular writing. The dry air of Egypt has preserved for us an enormous number of productions of all kinds of Egyptian literature.

25. Literature. — The literature of the Egyptians has much similarity to the literature of our own days. They wrote religious books, poems, histories, travels, novels, orations, books on morals, on medicine, on science, cookbooks, fairy stories, catalogues of libraries. They had a tale of an Egyptian Cinderella, with her glass slipper.


26. Religion. — We said in § 4 that the worshiping of many gods may have started by the adoration of One God under different names in different localities. Scholars are inclined to assume that this was the case in Egypt. Ammon, Osiris, Ptah, Aten, Horns, originally designated the same Supreme Being in different parts of Egypt.
By and by a sort of family of gods was constructed, without, however, setting aside other deities. Osiris became the supreme god. He seems to have been really identical with Aten, the sun god. Osiris’ spouse was Isis, goddess of the sky. There were other gods of the moon, rivers, winds, darkness, desert, etc. (Thot, the god of the moon, had invented the calculation of time.) The cult of the gods was strangely disfigured by making certain animals, such as cats, dogs, cows, their type. At Memphis, Ptah was represented by the bull “Apis.” In some places people would save their cats from a burning house before thinking of their children. Bodies of Apises and other sacred beasts are found carefully embalmed in the tombs of Egypt.

About 1500 B.C., the time when the Israelites were in Egypt, a pharaoh Ikn-aten made the attempt to force the exclusive worship of Aten, the sun god, upon the whole people. But his successor, Tutankhamen (§ 21), put the old gods and goddesses again on their granite thrones and reopened their temples. From the time of Ikn-aten date such beautiful verses as the following, which seem to indicate that by the sun god was meant in reality the one true God “Who made heaven and earth.”

O living Aten, the beginning of life . . .
How many are the things which thou hast made. . . .
Thou givest to every man his place; thou framest his life.

There is certainly much repelling in the system of the Egyptian gods, though they were at stated times carried in brilliant processions through the streets of the cities. A redeeming feature, to some extent, is the Egyptian idea of future life.

27. The Idea of Future Life. — From the earliest times the Egyptians believed that man is survived in death by a certain part of his being similar to what we call the soul. This idea was not clearly understood, for they believed that the soul needed the body to continue its existence, and must either live in or near it. For this reason care was taken to prevent decay of the body, and food and drink were placed in the tomb. Later painted food was used instead. Among the higher classes there was a somewhat truer idea of immortality. They believed in a severe trial by forty-two “ Judges of the Dead,” on which depended the soul’s fate. But this, too, was weakened by rank superstition, as certain formulas or articles were considered to deceive the judges. Of course, even so, this thought of a just retribution could not fail to exercise a wholesome influence upon the moral conduct of men.
The following sentences are culled from the Repudiation of Sins. “ I have not committed iniquity against men. I have not oppressed the poor. I have not pulled down the scales of the balance.” “Grant that he may come unto you. . . . He hath given bread to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, and he hath clothed the naked with garments.” And a noble declares in his epitaph: “I have caused no child to mourn. I have despoiled no widow. None of those about me have been unfortunate or starving in my time.” Such sympathy for the poor is a note not often heard in ancient literature.