This edited article about Ancient Egypt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 730 published on 10 January 1976.
Every boy and girl has seen a “comic” weekly paper, where the speech “balloons” come out of the mouths of the people in the pictures. As a means of artistic communication, the “comic balloon” is forever popular.
Forever? Yes, indeed, for the “comic balloon” idea probably came first to an ancient Egyptian artist 4,500 years ago. His “picture strip” can still be seen on the walls of a nobleman’s tomb at Sakkara, near Cairo.
The tomb, of Ptah-hotep, who was a Pharaoh’s Prime Minister, is lined with drawings which, say an inscription, show the former Prime Minister looking “at every good pastime that is done in the whole land”.
In one scene, a group of boys are shown trying their skill at a feat of strength, rising from a sitting position while holding their toes. Another boy kneels on the ground, trying to confuse his friends by catching their feet. In another scene, the boys are attacking the kneeling boy, for playfully spoiling their fun.
In the “balloons” of hieroglyphs above the pictures, the artist has written the spoken words: “You’ve kicked me!” – “I’ve got you!” – and so on.
Another “strip” depicts a party, where each of the guests is seated, on chairs and cushions, around his own individual table, laden with rich food. Slave-girls pour water over the hands of the guests before they begin their meal. Other servants pour out wine, while in the background an orchestra plays music for the dancing girls.
And one of the lady guests is made to say in her “balloon”: “Give me something to drink! My inside is as dry as straw!”
These are two of the scenes which represented “every good pastime that is done in the whole land”. Others show men herding cattle across a pool infested with crocodiles, men gathering papyrus reeds in the marshes, from which the Egyptians made paper, men driving donkeys, and struggling with one that is being particularly stubborn, and butchers cutting up the carcasses of cattle.
Why, one wonders, should all this brilliant artistry be lavished upon an otherwise gloomy tomb, which was destined to be shut up from the world forever?
The answer is that the ancient Egyptians believed that such pictures had a magical value, and simply by representing such people, animals and objects on their tomb walls, they would be ensured of having all the things in the pictures in their after lives. The butchers and the meat, for instance, would become real, and they would therefore always be certain of a regular food supply.
All these tomb pictures give us a wealth of information about the fascinating people who lived along the banks of the Nile river 5,000 years ago. They tell us, for certain, that they must have had an impish sense of humour, even in the “house of the dead”. They tell us, too, that life must have been very good, for otherwise, why should they go to such pains to visualise death merely as its happy continuance?
Besides the pictures that depicted the way of life that the dead person wanted continued, all sorts of everyday objects were left in the tombs. A new pair of sandals, for instance, would be placed beside the coffin. These were for the dead person to wear when the sacred threshold leading to the after-life had to be crossed. If the dead person was a woman, there would be a make-up box, with tiny jars of perfume (the Egyptian ladies rouged their lips, used eye-shadow and tinted their nails).
If the dead man had been rich or noble, it was the custom to bury with him little wooden models of his servants, performing their daily tasks just as they did in life. It was believed that their spirits would administer to their master in the next world.
A schoolboy, dying prematurely, would be buried with his exercise books – complete with mistakes; a carpenter with his tools, and for every dead person there would be plates of food in the tomb. And when, for thousands of years, the light of life was closed from all these things, to re-emerge under the skilful probing of modern archaeologists, they revealed to us a way of life and a pattern of culture more vividly than any history book could have done.
We know, for instance, that after the era of the great pyramid-building Pharaohs, called the Old Kingdom, there was no strong Pharaoh in Egypt. Instead, each small district, or nome as the Greeks called it, along the Nile Valley had its own king or chief.
One of these local kings, or nomarks, was Intef, the lord of Thebes, a city in the south of Egypt. During his 50-year reign, dating from about 2160 B.C., Intef extended his realm across most of the southern or upper half of Egypt. Intef was followed by a long line of Theban Pharaohs whose period we call the Middle Kingdom.
In their tombs, the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs seemed at great pains to write of how wisely they ruled the land and how happy they made its people. Well, we know that one of them, King Amenemhet III, certainly made a success of his reign. About 25 miles (40km.) west of the Nile and 65 miles (104km.) south of the Delta, there was a low-lying region called the Fayum, where a shallow lake was filled up every year by the Nile flood. Amenemhet built a wall about 27 miles (43km.) long around the lake to hold the waters, and he also dug canals to carry the water between the lake and the Nile, a distance of about 23 miles (37km.)
With his lake and canal, the Pharaoh stored up enough water to irrigate about 27,000 acres (10,926 hectares) of good farm land which before had been worthless because it received no water. An ancient Egyptian poet who lived in the time of Amenemhet wrote of the Pharaoh:
He makes the Two Lands verdant more than the great Nile
He has filled the Two Lands with strength,
His is life, cooling the nostrils.
The Two Lands mentioned by the poet were Upper and Lower Egypt, one day to be united under a race of all-powerful Pharaohs, but, for the next few centuries, to fall into trouble and disorder. Perhaps the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs were too busy with their public works or their self-regard, but it was soon evident that the real power was falling back into the hands of the local nomes. It was at this point in our story that something happened to ancient Egypt that had never happened before and which had hitherto seemed a geographic impossibility. Suddenly, the Nile Valley was invaded.
The uninvited invaders were a Semitic people, probably from Palestine, who for a long time have been described as the Hyksos, a word which is said to mean “shepherd kings”. In fact, although we know very little about them, they were neither shepherds nor kings, and the name is a misnomer.
They came the only way that the Nile Valley could be invaded – by sea to the Nile Delta and then pouring southwards down the river. Before them, the Egyptians were like amateurs. For the past thousand years, the Pharaoh’s people had pushed out their southern frontiers and skirmished with the natives, but they had never been seriously tested in battle and, because of the geographic isolation of their country, never expected to be. Now, all the contempt they had always expressed towards foreigners was rudely jolted.
Strangely, for all their superiority in the art of war, the Hyksos never succeeded in overcoming the local kings of Thebes. Perhaps Thebes was too far south for them to keep their army supplied; perhaps the Thebans were better fighters than their northern countrymen. Whatever the answer, the Nile Valley conquest of the Hyksos stopped short north of Thebes, and that gave the Theban Egyptians time to prepare themselves for war. About the middle of the 16th century B.C., they threw themselves against the Hyksos and drove them from the land of the Pharaohs.
The great warrior who was responsible for this important victory was the Pharaoh Ahmose I, the first Pharaoh of the period called the New Kingdom, when all the splendour and magnificence of ancient Egypt reached its zenith. This was the start of the era of Tutankhamen, or Rameses the Great, of Seti, and of the mystical Pharaoh Akhnaton and his wife Nefertiti, who believed that there was only one god. And it was an era in which the Egyptians, so furious at the humiliation brought upon them by the Hyksos invasion that they tried to erase all reference to it from their records, determined that never again would foreign invaders set foot on the Pharaoh’s land.
In his 20-year reign, Ahmose the warrior had built a powerful army and restored lost pride to a shattered people. But not long after his death, his successors were faced with an intriguing problem. One of them, the Pharaoh Thutmose I, had four children – two sons and two daughters. But when Thutmose died, only one, a daughter named Hatshepsut, was living.
The problem was, could a woman wear the crown of the mighty Pharaohs? Most of the court said that could never happen. But Hatshepsut was a very remarkable woman, and she was quite determined that the crown was hers – as we shall see next week.
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