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A Journey up the Nile

While men in the great wilderness of Europe were still sunk in the barbarism of the Stone Age, civilized life was beginning in the East.

The first settled societies began where geographical conditions were most favourable -- in the basins of the great rivers, the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Ganges, the Yang-tse-kiang. Here men found a mild climate, and a rich, well-watered soil. (For the importance of rivers and wells in early life, see Genesis xxi. 22-30.)

The stone-workers of two of these rich valleys, the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates, began to pass into civilized life about 6,000 years ago. Every year these great rivers overflowed into plains on both sides. Thus little effort was needed to farm and to build mud houses. The rivers were an easy means of trading between the settlements, while the surrounding deserts and mountains made them safe for a time from attack.

Thus, it was probably the favourable climate, and the overflowing of the rivers following the changes of the seasons, that made these people of the Nile and the Euphrates the first civilized peoples, and the first students of the heavens and the earth -- of astronomy and mathematics. Here it was that men first trained themselves in the art of government (of living together in an orderly way), and invented those methods of record which rulers need -- the arts of writing and of measurement. Geometry means "measuring the earth," and, strange to say, the old Egyptian way of measuring the fields is still in use in the rural areas of England.

The lands around these two great river-basins are what we know as the Bible Lands. Much of their history is written in the Old Testament, and upon stone and brick monuments. From the Bible Lands civilized life gradually passed westwards -- first to Crete and Greece, then to Rome and western Europe, and finally to America. A journey into the Nile valley reveals the tombs and monuments of many ages of man. Even the present-day Egyptian mud-brick huts remind us of the dwellings of prehistoric man. In the Nile delta we may find low mounds where the later stone-workers, with their stone implements, have lain buried for 6,000 years. Sometimes grains of wheat and bits of linen are found in these ancient graves. And it was perhaps from ancient Egypt that grain and flax first made their way to barbarian Europe.

The "Father of History," the Greek Herodotus, asserts that the early Egyptians were "religious beyond all other people." In both Egypt and Babylon, religion was a great force, and the priests the main support of the rulers. It was probably to help them to keep religious festivals at the right time that the early Egyptians invented the first calendar (4241 B.C. -- the earliest known date in history). They were the first people to divide the year into twelve months. For writing, they used pictures of flowers, birds, etc., to represent words and syllables. The picture of a disc stood for the "sun"; then from pictures they passed to symbols, and the disc of the sun came to suggest "day" by association of ideas. This system of writing was called hieroglyphics -- i.e. "sacred letters" used by the priests for inscriptions on monuments. Ordinary people used these letters in more and more shortened forms; an alphabet gradually grew up; and it was from this simpler form of writing that the Phoenicians later made the alphabet from which we derive our own A B C. But the Chinese, even to this day, have no alphabet as it is understand in the West.

The Egyptians also learnt to make ink; they used a pointed reed for a pen; and they invented "paper" by splitting the river-reed, called papyrus, into thin yellow strips. You see, then, that our word "paper" is derived from the old Egyptian "papyrus."

It was only fairly recently that a young Frenchman learnt to read the "sacred letters" of the ancient Egyptians. When Napoleon's soldiers were in Egypt they found an inscribed stone near to the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. On this "Rosetta Stone" had been inscribed a record of certain honours which the priests had paid to their king. Fortunately the record was written in both Greek and Egyptian. By comparing the two, the Frenchman first found out the signs for the names of Cleopatra, Ptolemy, etc., and then he learnt the meaning of the other signs. Not till this quite recent discovey could scholars read the ancient records of Egyptian history.