Wednesday, 14 May 2014

From Dot to Cleopatra - FACT, THEORY AND FICTION

Bearing in mind the huge range of years which the title ‘From Dot to Cleopatra’ suggests - billions of years - it may be surprising that the first chapter consists of only a few pages yet covers all the time up to about 3000 BC, yet the remainder of the book covers only the Ancient Egyptians over about 3000 years. Now that you have read Chapter One you may be wondering “Well, what is true?”, which is really the reason why I have included it. My intention was not, however, to confuse you or make you feel any pointlessness in studying history; on the contrary it is designed to give you a taste of forming your own conclusions, establishing your own beliefs and starting you off on the fascinating journey of unravelling the fact from the fiction. There are certainly a lot of gaps in our knowledge of our past and the past of our planet and the universe, a lot of ‘dark’ times about which we have little or no knowledge and have to rely largely on guess work and theory. In addition there are very many theories and beliefs and different interpretations of the solid discoveries that have been made.

History and Egyptology are both subjects which, like science, rely on observation, but in these cases the observations are of ‘items’ left either purposefully or accidentally, from the past. What these things mean is a different matter. Like scientists we must look at what we have before us and form a theory; then we must look at whatever else we know for sure and check the theory out for consistency. If the facts don’t fit we have to change the theory. Remember it was not so long ago that mankind believed the Earth was flat and that we could fall off the end. That was a theory based on observation. But there came a time when someone sailed round the world and never did fall off and then we had to get rid of the idea and believe the Earth was round.

There are two types of past which I am talking about, the Prehistoric and the Historic. History is the study of the past based on records kept, of particular interest to us now; records of people, places, events, activities and changes in society, the people and the rulers. In a perfect world, history would be an unbroken record of what actually happened. Unfortunately the world of man is never perfect: there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge. For a start, before we could have records we had to have some sort of writing or drawing in symbols. Then we had to feel the need to record events for posterity. Then those records had to survive until today, or at least until someone else could find and rewrite them, in which case that person’s interpretation would come into play.

Prehistory, then, is the study of the time before records were kept. On a world scale this time finished on different dates in different places. The Ancient Egyptians started writing about 3000 BC, whereas in Britain and Europe it came much later. Prehistory becomes history when we reach the stage in the development of the civilisation where they considered dates important. Before that we have to rely on what we can see now and on what is recorded as having been seen in the past. Scientists such as astronomers, cosmologists, cosmogonists, archaeologists and geologists base their theories on what is seen to happen, what it looks like has happened and what they postulate will happen, making the best guess possible. These guesses may be reasonable inferences or vague ideas. Sometimes there are so many observations which confirm the ideas that the theories become accepted as facts.

Consider, for instance, dinosaurs. We know that they existed, because plenty of bones have been found. We can infer their appearances by imagining how the bones fitted together and how they would be covered by muscle and skin. We can guess at what they ate by looking at fossils found from the same periods and looking at their teeth and comparing them with teeth of other creatures. We can guess that they were not very clever from the size of their brains, supposing that their brains were in their heads! But do we know what colours they were? Do we know what they did each day? Do we know why, after surviving for millions of years before any recognisable form of man came along, they suddenly died out? When dinosaurs roamed the world the ancestors of the creatures which would one day walk and talk, write and sing and cook and use tools and so on, that is us, were little more than clever little rodents living off leftovers. We can only guess at the answers.

History, being based on written records, should produce a more reliable picture of the past, but, you will see, that is not always so. We have a lot of modern day techniques such as radiocarbon dating, which enables us to date organic materials by measuring the percentages of a particular radio isotope of carbon, carbon 14 and we have computers to tabulate and analyse finds. We have stone stele and papyrus scrolls to study, often fragmented and needing rebuilding like a jigsaw puzzle. We have literally thousands of finds to ponder on. We have the tombs with their wall paintings and huge pyramids and temples with hieroglyphic carvings. From all this we can get a fairly good picture of what was happening.

The discovery of a stone tablet which you will read about, now called the Rosetta stone, which was found in Egypt at a place called Rosetta and, after about 20 years hard work deciphering it, we have been able to start to read the thousands of inscriptions and papyri. So we are able to create a picture of what happened all those years ago. But there will always be questions unanswered. For instance, imagine a stone tablet found out in the desert; it may hold script including the name of the writer and information from which we can date it - we cannot use radiocarbon dating on stone. Do we know this was the name of the person who wrote it? Well we do know that certain Pharaohs wrote their names - or rather got workmen to carve them - on their predecessors’ monuments, thus making them appear to be their’s instead. Sometimes even a royal name was chiselled out and a new name put in, or left blank. Another occurrence could have been when someone came along later and carved a name where there had been none, the name he may have thought should have been there. Would we know whether the name was the right one, carved at the time of building, or even a thousand years later? There was a particular Egyptian historian who became interested in the ‘Ancient Monuments’ some 2000 years after they were built and he is known to have visited the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Upon seeing the absence of the king’s name on one of the other pyramids, he chiselled it out - Unas, or Wenis.

Imagine another situation where a tomb or a hole in the ground is discovered and in this is found a corpse together with some everyday objects such as a comb, a doll, or a piece of jewellery. On one of these items there is a name. Is this the name of the owner? Was this the name of the living person whose body is in the grave? Often there is no way of knowing. Certainly there have been finds in places where such items would not normally be expected to occur. Maybe the item was transported, lost or robbed, and buried or sold on. This type of discovery was made in Giza near Cairo, at the site of the Great Pyramid. The Great Pyramid did not seem to bear the name of the builder, which would seem rather strange if it had been built as a monument to the Pharaoh of the time. Many people have thought that the Great Pyramid was built as the result of an egotistical urge of the Pharaoh to proclaim his greatness. This argument has serious flaws; for a start they say that the Pharaoh’s successor also built a pyramid, but if it also was a result of ego then we may well ask why this Pharaoh built one slightly smaller and why the next Pharaoh built his one smaller. But how do we know who these Pharaohs were? Well, not far from the outside of the Great Pyramid, deep within an underground shaft, was found a very small statuette of the Pharaoh Cheops (now in Cairo Museum). In fact this is the only representation of Cheops so far ever found and it was upside down as if dropped. Based on this find it is generally accepted that Cheops was the builder of the Great Pyramid, although the reasoning is hardly reliable.

What about stories handed down generation after generation before being written down? How reliable are those? If you have ever played ‘Chinese whispers’ with about seven or so people, you will have seen how repeated words can change. Over hundreds or thousands of years the stories would certainly be subjected to colourful embellishments and exaggerations. Even if an event was recorded at the time, was that how it happened or simply how the writer or his superior wanted it to look? Did Adam walk on Earth? What about Osiris? Was there a great flood? If there was, did the people who survived know what caused it, or only guess? Who selected what to record and what to miss out?

In the Bible the name Egypt is mentioned hundreds of times, yet in Egyptian history the name Israel is hardly mentioned at all. In the Bible, Moses is mentioned and the king is simply referred to as Pharaoh, so we do not know for sure which one it was. Whoever it was, the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery must have been a momentous event, yet there is no record of it at all in Egypt’s records and no mention of Moses. Maybe the defeated Pharaoh, like most people, preferred to record his winnings to his losses!

So Egyptology is vague. In this book I am trying to show you the difference between what I know, what I am reasonably sure of and what I can only guess at and leave the decision of what to believe up to you. As you go on to read more you can always change your mind and opinions without shame. There is not always a clear cut right and wrong. For a moment think about the fantastic discoveries from the Tomb of Tutankhamun in The Valley of the Kings. There was huge wealth inside. We can reasonably believe that the items were put there due to religious beliefs and stayed there because it was not found earlier! Other Pharonic tombs, when rediscovered in modern times, mostly contained nothing save a damaged mummy. We can surmise that this was because they were robbed and we know that this was a big problem in the time of Ramesses X. Since many of the Pharaohs were a lot richer than Tutankhamun it is reasonable to say that their tombs would have contained a lot more than his. So where did all that stuff go? Who were the robbers? Poor men, workers maybe, corrupt officials, later Pharaohs, foreign invaders? Nobody knows.

If you decide to scratch a little deeper into the mysteries of Ancient Egypt you will find every section an ever deepening intrigue before you; you will realise the contradictions between authors both in opinion and so-called fact. You will see whole dynasties moved about through hundreds of years and anomalies such as tombs apparently built before the owner’s birth. Many are the remaining mysteries. Yet sacred Egyptian writings promise that one day all will be revealed.

Next I want to mention the names of the Pharaohs and how we know them. Firstly consider that we know the hieroglyphs were all consonants; there were no real vowels. So if we get a name like, Rmsss, it could be Ramesses, Romassis, Remosses and so on. So we are not entirely sure we are pronouncing the name as it was pronounced in those days, but that really is not very important since a name is merely a means of reference and providing we keep to the same name for the same person, we should not get too confused. Think of them as nicknames.

A lot of the information we rely on was written by historians of the past; in particular, we rely on them for lists of Pharaohs’ names. The first person who wrote history was a son of the famous Ramesses II, called Khaemwese, who lived about 1250 BC By this time the pyramids were ancient and the Valley of the Kings old. Khaemwese was actually a Magician and a High Priest of Ptah. He visited many tombs at Saqqara and studied books in the Royal Library. He was the one who chiselled the name of Unas on the pyramid at Saqqara and he also carved a message saying that it was he who carved the name, “since it was not found on the face of the pyramid, because the priest Khaemwese loved to restore the monuments of Upper and Lower Egypt”.

In about 450 BC a Greek writer called Herodotus visited Egypt and tried to sort out the fact from the fiction, basing his work on the results of discussions with people, in particular the priests. Herodotus had been born in Halicarnassus and travelled a lot and in his later life wrote a book called ‘The Histories’. He is now considered the ‘Father of History’ and we rely upon his reports, although he was sometimes inaccurate, relying so much on hearsay. Some of his information, such as the time when the Pharaoh Cheops was said to have closed the temples, has since proved inaccurate, but his information on certain other Pharaohs, such as Amasis, is all we have. In fact we know very little about Herodotus himself. The lives of the writers were not recorded in great detail, or at least none have been found. We know that Herodotus was the son of Lyxes called Carian and Dryo. He seems to have been very much influenced by the Inonian culture of Greece and, in fact, Ionic was the language in which he wrote. His large volumes contained information on the geography, history and ethnography of Egypt. His observations in Egypt, at the time after the invasion by Cambyses, are invaluable. Herodotus wrote of Egypt “Such animals as there are in Egypt, both wild and tame, are held to be sacred”.

During the reign of Ptolemy II, there lived a priest called Manetho (305 - 285 BC) and it is to him we owe the division of the Pharonic times into 31 dynasties. Manetho wrote in Greek and took his information from surviving documents, now lost. He gave the ancient Pharaohs Greek names. Some of the dynasties he listed were contemporaneous with each other, there being one ruler in Upper Egypt and another in Lower Egypt. These were competing dynasties.

As well as dividing the large time span into dynasties modern day historians have divided it into periods. These are the approximate dates of the different periods:-
Archaic Period 3100 - 2686 BC
Old Kingdom 2686 - 2181 BC
First Intermediate Period 2181 - 2133 BC
Middle Kingdom 2133 - 1633 BC
Second Intermediate Period 1633 - 1567 BC
New Kingdom 1567 - 1085 BC
Third Intermediate Period 1085 - 750 BC
Late Period 750 - 323 BC
Ptolemaic Period 323 - 30 BC

As with most dates from ancient Egypt these are subjective.

During Roman times tourists were able to move around and visit many of the monuments, including the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings and they often left graffiti to commemorate their interest. What were in those days simply uncalled-for scribbles on the monuments have become, to us, historic inscriptions in themselves!

In 25 BC a Greek called Strabo wrote 17 books called ‘Geographia’and although mainly about geography, the last book provides some interesting information. Strabo mentions the two huge statues of Amenophis III, on the West Bank at Thebes, known as the ‘Colossi of Memnon’. They once flanked a large mortuary temple. In 27 BC there was an earthquake which cracked the monuments and led to a very strange and eerie sound in the mornings. By the time Strabo arrived there were tales of the singing colossi! However, it is now known that it was caused by the morning temperature rise which made the insides of the statues vibrate as the warm air passed through the cracks. Strabo listed the names of towns, pyramids, tombs, temples and also made notes on the Nilometer at Elephantine, near Aswan. A very useful 2000 years old list.

In the years of the Roman occupation of Egypt there lived another historian, Pleny the Elder (27 -79 AD) who wrote his ‘Historia Naturalis’, drawing from many older sources which have since disappeared. He described the Sphinx and obelisks (one of which was transported to Rome and stands there to this day) and mentions some of the techniques of preparation of mummies.

A few years later Plutarch (50 - 120 AD) wrote an account of the myth of Osiris and Isis. This is very fortunate for us, since no original Egyptian version has survived until today.

At the same time a Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote his own work using extracts from Manetho and making comments on Moses, the Exodus and the Hyksos invasion.

In the following few centuries AD, Egypt became a Christian country for a while. The Christians held no respect whatsoever for the monuments, destroying many of the inscriptions on temples and even scraping the paint off the walls of tombs. The Christians considered the ancient religions of Egypt to be evil. Monks who adapted tombs as their living quarters often defaced or obliterated the wall paintings.

By the time the Arabs arrived in Egypt in the 7th century AD, the population had forgotten all about the early civilisations and lost the ability to read the hieroglyphs. The Arabs, like the Christians, considered the monuments evil, thinking that the huge pyramids and statues had been built by giants or magicians. They ignored them, except when they wanted to destroy one, or take it apart for the materials for their new buildings and mosques.

In more recent times, especially since Napoleon Bonaparte’s visit to Egypt in 1798 AD, interest in the old cultures has regrown. There were several major explorers and discoverers who have contributed a tremendous amount to our knowledge. Belzoni (1778 - 1823 AD) discovered the tomb of Aye, the magnificent tomb of Seti I and four others. He was also responsible for opening the Pyramid of Khephren and the discovery of the colossal statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. His competitors, John Lewis Burckhart (1784 - 1817 AD), Bernardino Drovetti (1775 - 1852 AD) and Henry Salt (1780 - 1827 AD) were also very active in Egypt, often bringing items back to European museums. Drovetti, an Italian, made a major find, the Turin Canon of Kings.

Various people had tried to understand the hieroglyphs over the years. It was one William Warburton (1698 - 1779 AD), who became the Bishop of Gloucester, who recognised that hieroglyphics was in fact a written language and not just symbolic. But none of his contemporaries liked his ideas much, sticking to the notion that it was a symbolic script which would be impossible to understand.

In 1741 William Stukely, a doctor and famous antiquarian who was active at Avebury and Salisbury (in England), founded the Egyptian Society in London. Interest in ancient Egypt became more widespread. Stukely had examined the hieroglyphs on a statue in Turin and concluded that they were completely different from Chinese characters, which ‘experts’ were claiming had been derived from the hieroglyphs. He claimed that it was a symbolic script and that the hieroglyphics were beyond understanding.

Napoleon’s troops discovered the Rosetta Stone in Egypt. Wax impressions of the scripts (there were three on the stone - Hieroglyphs, Greek and Hieratic, which was an easier and quicker everyday form of hieroglyphs for everyday documents), were circulated amongst historians in Europe. The Stone itself was brought to Britain after the British troops had ousted Napoleon’s men from Egypt in 1801, following Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Aboukir.

Thomas Young (1773 - 1824) became fascinated by hieroglyphics and discovered the other written languages of Ancient Egypt. He realised that hieroglyphs were in fact alphabetical as well as ideogrammatic. He also suggested that the oval shaped Cartouche contained Royal Names, which we now know is true.

A major advance in our knowledge resulted from the decision made by Jean François Champollion to try to decipher the hieroglyphs. He spent his early years learning many languages and scripts, including Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Parsi, Persian, Zend, Pali, Chaldean and Coptic. He realised that the hieroglyphs were phonetic. When he eventually started to understand the inscriptions they were able to find out more about who owned what. In 1768 another great discoverer, James Bruce, had found a tomb in the Valley of the Kings but was not able to discover which Pharaoh it had belonged to. It turned out to have been Ramesses III’s.

Robert Hay (1799 - 1863) constructed 49 volumes of beautiful and detailed drawings of the monuments. This is now housed in the British Museum. It was about this time that another keen investigator of antiquity founded ‘Egyptology’ in England. This was John Gardner Wilkinson, 1797 - 1875. Wilkinson excavated many tombs at Thebes, adding much to knowledge of the Pharaohs.

Egypt was now becoming a popular tourist attraction for the wealthy. Florence Nightingale visited the monuments of Luxor in 1849. When she saw the Colossus of Memnon on the west bank, she exclaimed that it did not look so big after all, and that it was consistent with its surroundings stating that she thought it is us who were the dwarves. Another who visited to Egypt was Mark Twain in 1869.

A Frenchman called Auguste Mariette (1821 - 1881 AD) became interested in Egyptology after his son, Nestor l’Hôte, had been to Egypt with Champollion. He studied Egyptian writing and started building catalogues of items in the museum in Boulogne. He was then sent to Egypt himself, to collect rare manuscripts. He visited Saqqara and noticed the head of a sphinx sticking out of the sand and, having read Strabo’s descriptions of an avenue of Sphinxes, decided to start digging. This resulted in the discovery of the avenue, several tombs and the Serapeum where the Sacred Bulls had been buried. These were sensational finds at the time, especially the finding of the mummified bulls. Mariette decided he would love to open a museum in Egypt itself and, after some political changes in Egypt, Mariette was offered the post of Director of Ancient Monuments. This was the start of the first Egyptian museum. He then initiated excavations all over Egypt, at thirty-five different locations, including Dier el- Bahari, Karnak, Thebes, Abydos, Esna and Elephantine. His work led to an international exhibition including the precious jewellery of Queen Ahhotep, which was found at Thebes. Unfortunately though, it may be that Mariette’s enthusiasm for artefacts left a trail of damage and debris; seldom did explorers take care with how they worked, often using explosives instead of slower methods, to force entry, destroying untold valuable evidence of the past.

Until 1870 nobody (in the modern world) knew that Royal Mummies had been moved in the time of Ramesses X and XI, in the Valley of the Kings. The mummies were simply assumed to be missing or destroyed. It was Gaston Maspero (1846 - 1916 AD) who rescued them after they had been discovered in a cache in 1871 by a local villager called Ahmed Abd er-Rasul, accidentally, while he was searching for a lost goat!

Since then there have been many Egyptologists working all over the country. People like Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853 - 1942 AD) and Howard Carter (1874 - 1939 AD), a student of Petrie, have made monumental discoveries and filled museums in Egypt and around the world. There are 120,000 objects in the National Museum in Cairo. One could spend weeks roaming the corridors looking at statues, stele, small items, mummies, sarcophagi, papyri and so on. But without a very good guide book and, at least some ideas of who was who, one would probably be becoming more and more confused.

Petrie discovered tombs at Abydos, information on the Pharaoh Akhenaten and royal treasures from near the pyramid at Lahun. He also discovered over two thousand predynastic graves at a very ancient site, Nagada and the old city which had been given for the Greeks to live in, Naucratis. Howard Carter discovered, of course, the incredible tomb of Tutankhamun, amongst others, in the Valley of the Kings.

An American, George Reisner (1867 - 1942) was responsible for finding the tomb of the IVth dynasty Queen Hetepheres at Giza and the Valley temple of Menkaure and mastaba graves of nobles on the same site.

Mummies had become a valuable commodity in Europe and Asia, because people believed they had medicinal properties, which led to the exportation of mummies on a massive scale. One wonders which of the ancient Pharaohs and nobles were eaten in Europe, to cure a wide range of ailments such as coughs, nausea, ulcers, concussion and abscesses! The word mummy, derived from the Persian for bitumen, was often confused with bitumen itself. Even the King Francis I of France carried some ground up mummy, mixed with rhubarb, to cure his aches and pains. In 1809 Queen Victoria was given a gift of a mummy from the King of Persia. By the 18th century trade in mummies was so huge that it had to be made illegal.

As for the names of the Pharaohs, we rely on several sources, which together still do not give us a complete list. These are:-
(a) Manetho, who wrote Greek versions of the names.
(b) The Turin Canon of Kings, also known as the Turin Papyrus, now in the Museum of Turin. This is a Hieratic papyrus from the time of Ramesses II, which, although ruined gave us eighty to ninety Kings’ names.
(c) The Gallery of Lists in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos shows seventy-six ancestors of the Pharaoh Seti.
(d) The Table of Karnak from the time of Tuthmosis III, discovered in 1825, originally held sixty-one names but not all have survived to be read.
(e) The Table at Saqqara originally had fifty-seven names but only fifty are legible now.
(f) The Palermo Stone, badly broken, held the names of the first five dynasties and went back into pre-dynastic times, listing also the lengths of the Pharaoh’s reigns. It was originally compiled in the fifth dynasty. There are only five surviving pieces, now housed in museums in Cairo, the Palermo Museum and in the private collection of Petrie in the University College London.

Having several lists to refer to has both enabled Egyptologists to try to make a complete list and complicated matters further! This is because the Pharaohs each had more than one name and different lists refer to different names. In fact some finds previously attributed to two different Pharaohs are now known to be the work of one with two different names. Added to that is the fact that the ancient historians used other different names, even Greek versions and it is names like these that are often recognised today, like Cheops who was probably called Khufu. The works of the ancient historians such as Manetho have not survived, but were copied by later historians and not always copied well. It is particularly confusing for the first and second dynasties - dates are uncertain, names are changed, lengths of reigns are different in different lists. The first few Pharaohs offer a very small amount of evidence as to who they were exactly. We call the first Pharaoh Menes, but his hieroglyphs reveal the name Narmer. We do not know whether these names belonged to the same man or not. Before Narmer or Menes we believe there was a great pre-dynastic conqueror called Scorpion and after Narmer there was a Pharaoh now known as Hor-Aha. These names may apply to one, two, three or four different Kings, or for that matter even whole tribes. Apart from these names we actually know very little about the individual Pharaohs. We know some were great warriors and conquered other lands, whilst some seemed to have been peacemakers. Yet others were weak and under the thumbs of noblemen. One or two were very different, such as Akhenaten, who changed the religion and was later regarded as a heretic. There are a few stories which have come down to us from ancient times, which tell us that so-and-so was a cruel king or a kind king. It seems that the Pharaohs of dynasty four were quite cruel men, at the time of the building of the massive pyramids of Giza, although there were very few slaves. Mostly it seems that the local peoples worshipped the Pharaohs as gods, at least in the very early periods. As I have said we know very little and have to guess a lot.

Despite the vagueness and fuzziness of Egyptology and the large lists of strange names, it is this uncertainty which can lead to the fascination of unravelling it all. We are talking of a period of time longer than we are since Jesus and, apart from the Bible, there is little evidence of Him either. It can sometimes be far more enjoyable than knowing for sure, just like the fun of the jigsaw puzzle is in putting it all together.

Over the years the tombs and monuments of Ancient Egypt have continually suffered from tourists and explorers alike. From olden times finds have been exported from Egypt, both for museums and private collections. As well as removing and destroying mummies, deliberate damage was done to tombs and monuments by Christians and Moslems. In more modern times damage has been done accidentally by tourists. The fantastic tomb wall paintings of Nefertari, for instance, has suffered terribly form the results of thousands of tourists simply breathing! The salts in their breath have started to crystallise on top of the paint and chemicals in the rocks have crystallised under the paint, due to humidity. So the beautiful images have started falling apart, which, fortunately in this case, led to the closing of the tomb to the public and reparation work by experts. Other problems are solved far less easily, or maybe not at all, being caused by atmospheric pollution from 20th century factories. What little rain falls around Giza today is acid rain. Bits have been falling off the Sphinx, no longer hidden by sands, and have to be stuck back on. Another point of interest here is the face of the Sphinx. In all honesty it’s very ugly! It was actually badly damaged by invading Mameluks who decided to use it to test their canons! It is amazing it still stands at all, this ‘Father of Time’ as the Arabs call it.

Step Pyramid

If you visit Egypt and pay entrance fees to museums or tombs and pyramids, you can do so with the awareness that your money is going towards saving these precious monuments from the ancient past. Once they have gone they will never be built again!

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