Thursday, 22 October 2015


One of the peoples who were around at the time, actually little more than desert nomads living in tents and herding goats, were the original Israelites. A lot of our knowledge of the Israelites comes from the Holy Bible, in the Old Testament which makes mention of the Egyptians and the Pharaoh. There is no mention of any specific Pharaoh, except one (I Kings 14) called King Shishak, whomay have been the Pharaoh Sheshonq III (835 - 783 BC), but this is almost one thousand years after the time I am talking about now. In fact, as recorded in the Bible, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians and, for generation after generation, were treated cruelly and used to build cities and monuments. There is no mention of the Israelites in the few contemporary Egyptian stories that we have discovered and no mention in the Bible of any pyramid building (although there is a reference to a capstone). The only building task named in the Bible is connected to the city of Pi-Ramesse, which was somewhere in the Nile Delta and long destroyed.                            

Reading and writing had been around in Egypt for at least 1500 years by this time, but was reserved for royalty, scientists, doctors, astrologers, military commanders and courtiers. The ‘ordinary’ people and certainly the slaves, had very little education outside the family group or community and lived very basic lives, working hard from a very early age. They were involved with farming, goat-herding, construction, service to the rich, army duties and worshipping their various gods. A papyrus has been found that lists the cost of feeding one large group of pyramid construction workers; it seems that they mostly had to survive on things like unleavened bread, onions and garlic! The rich, no doubt, enjoyed a wide range of fish, birds, meat, vegetables and fruit and almost certainly drank wine and beer from very early times. Many of the tomb paintings in Egypt show scenes of life for the Pharaohs and their courtiers, including scenes of hunting, fishing and even making wine.

There is, however, a very interesting and relevant story in the Bible, about an Israelite who became very powerful and went against the Pharaoh and eventually won, enabling the slaves to escape Egypt. The story is called Exodus and the hero was Moses.

The Bible story tells that the Pharaoh strongly believed in astrology and when his Royal Astrologer predicted that an Israelite boy would be born and grow to overthrow the Pharaoh, he hit back and cruelly ordered that all the newest born Israelite boys should be slaughtered. So Moses’ mother decided to hide him in a basket in the bulrushes which grew along the Nile. Well, the story goes, the Pharaoh’s daughter, or one of them, happened to be bathing in the river and spotted the basket and , after sending her maids to bring it back, looked inside and saw the beautiful boy baby whom she named Moses. If you think about the name Moses and realise some of the Pharaohs had names like Amenophis, Tuthmosis and Dudimose, you may see some similarity. Pharaoh’s daughter was so in love with this baby that she decided to keep him for herself and educated him in reading and writing, which the Israelite slaves could not do. She brought him up into the Egyptian way of life, keeping him in ignorance of his true origins. This was a big mistake for the Pharaoh, because eventually Moses grew up and discovered he was really an Israelite and turned against the Pharaoh.

Moses adopted a different religion to the Pharaoh and worshipped the Hebrew god Yahweh. Moses also became very sensitive to the suffering of the slaves, his own people, and the scripture tells us he received instruction from his god to end the bondage of the slaves. Moses went to the Pharaoh and said “Let my people go!”, or words to that effect. Of course the Pharaoh wasn’t too happy about letting all this cheap labour go, so he refused and Moses had to resort to threats of violence and destruction, claiming that his god, Yahweh, was much more powerful than the Pharaohs’ gods all put together.

It is uncertain who the Pharaoh was when Moses was born, or when Exodus happened. Maybe it was Merneptah in the XIX dynasty, 1213 - 1203 BC as some claim, but other historians think differently. In his book ‘A Test of Time’, David Rohl presents a good argument that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was probably Dudimose, the last Pharaoh of the thirteenth dynasty, about 450 years earlier. Rohl also reconsiders the dating of the dynasties based on lists of Israel’s Kings. The Bible tells us that the Exodus was 480 years before the founding of the Temple of Jerusalem by Solomon. An early Christian historian Eusebius, referring to the work of an earlier Jewish historian, Artapanus, tells us about a Pharaoh called Palmanothes, who was cruel to the Hebrews He had a daughter called Merris who adopted a Hebrew boy called Mousos. Merris then married a Pharaoh called Khenephres who eventually became jealous of Mousos, causing Mousos to flee. Rohl argues that Khenephres was in fact the Greek version of the name Khaneferre, meaning ‘the perfection of Re shines in the horizon’, the twenty-third ruler of the thirteenth dynasty, Sobekhotep IV. Sobehhotep IV was a great and powerful ruler. Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus and this was when Dudimose ruled. According to the historian Manetho the reign of this Pharaoh witnessed a ‘blast of God’. Other writers place Moses in the eighteenth dynasty and some even claim he was the same person as the Pharaoh Akhenaten. The truth is that nobody knows who the Pharaoh of Exodus really was.

Although there had been magicians in Egypt for many years, Moses’ magic was said - in the Bible - to be a different sort of ‘magic’. The difference was that Moses prayed to his God Yahweh for the miracles, whereas the Egyptian magicians were said to have performed their feats through powers which they had learned.

Moses, whether through prayer or magic, was able to do some very magical and wonderfully nasty things to the Pharaoh and his people, eventually starting plagues, turning the river to blood and causing the death of the new-born. The Pharaoh had to let them go. But that was not the end of the story because the Pharaoh cheated and went back on his word, leading his armies to bring his slaves back. This was really the worst thing he could have done, because somehow Moses was able to pray and part the waters of the sea, just long enough to let the Israelites through, but, when the Pharaoh and his army went through to chase them, the waters fell back together, drowning them all. Moses, with his brother Aaron, led the people on and on through the deserts, performing many miracles, causing ‘manna’ to fall from heaven, which they could eat when they were starving, as well as getting water out of a rock when they were thirsty. Moses had been taught how to read by the Egyptians and wrote down the stories that had been passed down through the generations, about how the world was made, Adam and Eve, Noah and his ark and who was whose son. In fact Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Old Testament.

As I said, there were many stories of magicians in Egypt long before Moses and in fact documents have been found with stories of similar miracles or magic being performed even as long as 1200 years earlier. For instance, the parting of the waters story can be seen in an old papyrus document, called the Westcar Papyrus, which was written in the early part of the XVIIIth dynasty, about 1550 BC, but it is clear that it has been copied from stories dating from the time of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, 2550 BC. The story is told to King Cheops by a person called Baiuf-Ra and is said to have happened in the time of the King’s father, Snorfu. It is about a powerful magician called Tchatcha-em-ankh (sorry about that, but I didn’t name him!). Well, apparently, one day old Snorfu was feeling a little miserable so called to his nobles to do something to cheer him up. After a while they brought in Tchatcha-em-ankh and he suggested that the king go out on the lake. “For”, said the magician, “the heart of Your Majesty will rejoice and be happy when you sail about and see the beautiful thickets which are on the lake.” Then Tchatcha-em-ankh persuaded Snorfu to allow him to arrange the trip and the story tells that he brought ‘twenty ebony paddles inlaid with gold and also twenty young virgins having beautiful heads of hair and lovely forms and shapely limbs and twenty nets wherein these virgins may dress themselves instead of in their own normal clothes.’ The virgins were to row and sing for his Majesty. Well, believe it or not, the old king was cheered up and had a very good time, until suddenly the leader of the rowers got her hair tangled up and her favourite piece of jewellery made of ‘new turquoise’ fell into the river. This made her stop rowing and singing, then, because she was their leader, all the other girls stopped as well. When Snorfu found out why she was so upset he promised to recover the jewellery and called for Tchatcha-em-ankh. The magician then did a spell (‘spoke certain words of power’) and caused one part of the lake to fold up and over on top of the other and so found the ornament. Snorfu was well pleased and arranged a big feast to celebrate.

This story tells of the power of just one magician, although there are many other stories and they are all just as impressive and reliable as any story ever told or written anywhere. You may choose to believe them or not.

There is another story from the time of Cheops about one of his sons, called Herutataf and a powerful magician called Teta ‘who is one hundred and ten years old’ and knew ‘how to fasten on again to its body a head that has been cut off’. At all times and in most places man has believed and feared magic, both White Magic, which is said to be for a good cause and Black Magic, which is said to be evil. This has led to all sorts of secret societies and rites and rituals, from chanting to sacrifice. Unless you have met a witch or magician yourself you either believe or you don’t.

At this point, we could decide to read the Bible and get an overall picture of what was happening to the Israelites; but I will not be going into biblical details here, as I am more concerned with telling you about the ancient Egyptians. But one thing which I must mention is what happened after the Israelites got away. Whilst they were out in the desert, Moses went up a mountain to pray. When he got to the top of the mountain he saw Yahweh in the form of a burning bush and God spoke to his servant and told him to write down a set of ten laws, The Ten Commandments. Moses was to give them to the people so they would know how to live their lives and be able to get to heaven. Moses carved these out on stone tablets and took them back down the mountainside. Unfortunately when he got there he was horrified and very angry, because all his people had missed his leadership and reverted to worshipping idols, probably in a panic. He found them worshipping a golden calf and in his anger Moses smashed the tablets, so had to go back up and write them again. We can only hope he got them all right the second time and didn’t miss any.

Moses’ set of commandments have been passed down through the ages and millions and millions of people have based their lives on them, or tried to. All in all, they’re not a bad set of rules to help us lead good and consistent lives without harming society around us.

As I said before, Moses was an expert with the writing materials and probably got hold of a whole load of papyrus. He put down on paper all the old stories that were passed down through the ages, about his ancestors and maybe even yours. Right from the very beginning, of how his God, Yahweh or Jehovah as we mostly call Him today, created the world out of the waters (sounds a bit like some of the Egyptian stories of the creation doesn’t it?), made all the earth, sky, oceans, trees, grass, animals and birds and fishes, the lot! Then Yahweh made man and because man was lonely Yahweh made woman. He put man and woman, who he called Adam and Eve, in an absolutely beautiful garden called Eden, with all the creatures and plants. He told Adam he could eat anything he wanted, “the seed bearing herbs and the fruit bearing tree, except the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge”. Up until now Adam and Eve had everything going for them and could do whatever they wanted, just wandering round naked in this beautiful Garden of Eden, in a state of innocence, with nobody bothering them. Unfortunately, like all good things, it came to an end, because a rebel angel from Yahweh’s heaven, who was called Satan, came down to earth and started crawling round the garden trying to get up to no good. Well, to cut a long story short, said Moses in his book ‘Genesis’, Satan managed to persuade Eve to try some of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, because, as he said “It must be good if God doesn’t want you to eat it”. Eve then got Adam to eat some and all the troubles of the world started. Adam and Eve suddenly became ashamed of their nakedness. God became very angry and kicked them out of the garden, saying “Go forth and multiply”, which is exactly what they did and their descendants have been doing ever since.

Moses then went on to tell us that Adam and Eve had three boys, Cain, Abel and Seth, who became farmers and shepherds. Mankind’s trouble was far from over and Cain ended up getting very jealous of Abel and killed him. Once again there is a similarity with the old Egyptian mythology, in which Seth killed Osiris. Do you think it could be the same Seth and maybe that Osiris and Abel were the same person? Who knows? It could be that Cain said Seth did it and Seth said Cain did it. Anyway, in Moses’s story Cain went off and founded his own line and the descendants of Seth, who are listed in the Old and New Testaments, became the Israelites. A lot happened between the time of Seth and that of Moses but Genesis tells us not only who had (begot) whom as a son, but also how long they lived for. If you trace this back it looks like Adam and Eve were around about 4004 BC

Moses went on to write the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt in his book called Exodus and then wrote books of laws and a sort of census. These books, called Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, together with Genesis and Exodus, make up the first five books of the Old Testament and, whatever your religious beliefs are, they make good reading!

Most of the writing in Ancient Egypt was, as I have said, in hieroglyphs and used by specially educated scribes. Royalty was also taught and sometimes even princesses; we know that two of Akhenaten’s daughters possessed writing equipment. The scribe’s writing tools consisted of a palette holding two cakes of ink, one black and the other red, a pot of water, various size brushes and a holder for the brush. The brushes were made, often by the scribe himself, by cutting short lengths of rushes and sucking one end until it became soft. Young scribes were taught a simplified version of hieroglyphics referred to as hieratic script. The difference between these two writing styles is like the difference between our modern day capital letters and handwriting. There are many pictures of scribes on the walls of tombs and statues in Cairo Museum and elsewhere. The scribes were such a valued profession that they were always respected, paid well and could afford good tombs of their own. They often acted as advisors and became knowledgeable in sciences such as astronomy, astrology, medicine, architecture and official letter writing. Parents in Egypt would have been very keen on their son becoming a scribe.

Generally the boys of the family would take up the craft of their fathers; baker’s sons would become bakers, sandal-makers’ sons would be sandal-makers. The teaching was done by dad. But to enter the higher ranks of society a boy would have to learn to read and write. The boy would start his lessons in these arts at a young age and probably at considerable expense to his family It was usually the nobility rather than the wealthy, who were educated best. The schooling, often at the palace, lasted ten or twelve years and would consist of hard work memorising all the characters and lots of practice writing them. There were over seven hundred different characters of hieroglyphics and one would have to remember them all.

Here is a report of a conversation of a father to his son, taken from an ancient papyrus, exhorting him to work hard:

“It is greater than any other profession. There is nothing like it on earth.
I have seen a coppersmith at work at his furnace. His fingers were like the claws of
the crocodile and he stank more than a fish.
The jeweller...when he has completed the inlay work of amulets,
his strength vanishes and he is tired out.
The barber shaves until the end of evening. But he must be up early...He takes himself from street to street to seek someone to shave. He wears out his arms to fill his stomach.
The potter is covered with dirt. His clothes are stiff with mud, his headwear like rag.
The weaver inside the weaving house is terrible. He cannot breathe the air. If he passes just one day without weaving he is beaten with 50 lashes of the whip. He has to give food to the doorkeeper to let him come into daylight. The arrow maker is completely wretched.
The furnace maker, his fingers are burnt, his eyes are inflamed because of the
heaviness of the smoke. The washerman launders at the river bank near the crocodiles!”

Then the father tells his son “See, I have placed you on the path of God”.

So, as you can gather, there were lots of professions open to a young boy, but to be a scribe was the best.

The 700 odd hieroglyphs were little pictures of animals, birds, wavy lines and strange shapes, but each picture was meant to represent the actual object. They were carved on stele, statues, walls and doors of tombs, temples as well as on everyday possessions. Later they were written onto papyrus. It was believed that hieroglyphics were the ‘words of the gods’ and therefore possessed magical powers. Not only did they represent objects, but in the afterlife they would actually become the objects. In the tomb of a king’s son called Rahotep, who was also a high official in the sixth dynasty, there is a list of objects and food he would need with him in the afterlife and , of course, his name and position. If the dead person was a Pharaoh then his name would be put into the oval shaped outline called the Cartouche. This is mostly how we identify relics today, although it was often the case that a later Pharaoh would wipe out the cartouche of an earlier Pharaoh. For instance nearly every cartouche of Hatshepsut was wiped clean by her step-son Tuthmosis IV who hated her for preventing him from becoming Pharaoh when he was a boy. Fortunately, several avoided the destructive chisel and so we do know a little about Hatshepsut.

In Egypt, magic spells were written on the tomb walls inside pyramids and these we have called the ‘Pyramid Texts’. This practice was often reserved for royalty. Noblemen sometimes had pyramid text spells written on the inside of their coffin. These spells were meant to protect the dead person on the journey through the underworld, so that he would suffer neither hunger, nor thirst and be safe from dangers.

Later on, in the New Kingdom and about the XVIIIth dynasty, priests sold spells in ‘Books of the Dead’, although they were not really books, but scrolls which contained spells to be chanted at funeral ceremonies and placed in the tomb or coffin, often with a statuette of the god Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris.

The word ‘hieroglyph’ comes from the Greek name for these characters; ‘hiero’ is the Greek word for ‘holy’ and ‘glyph’ is the Greek word for ‘carving’. Hieroglyphics were used as the language of official documentation in the time of Alexander the Great and used in Egypt up to 300 AD. Then, however, the ability to understand hieroglyphs was lost for 1500 years.

In 1799 AD some troops of Napoleon found a basalt stone tablet bearing three types of script, at a place called Rosetta. This stone, which we now call the ‘Rosetta Stone’ contained hieroglyphics, a demotic script and Greek. It was lucky for us, because that was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphics, since people still used the same Greek letters. A man called Jean Fran├žois Champollion decided to devote his time to the task of deciphering, which, even with knowledge of Greek, was not easy.

No comments:

Post a Comment