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Peeps at Many Lands: Modern Egypt
Every boy or girl who has read the history of Joseph must often have wondered what kind of a country Egypt might be, and tried to picture to themselves the scenes so vividly suggested in the Bible story.
It must have been a startling experience for the little shepherd boy, who, stolen from his home among the quiet hills of Canaan, so suddenly found himself an inmate of a palace, and, in his small way, a participator in the busy whirl of life of a royal city.
No contrast could possibly have been greater than between his simple pastoral life spent in tending the flocks upon the hillsides and the magnificence of the city of Pharaoh, and how strange a romance it is to think of the little slave boy eventually becoming the virtual ruler of the most wealthy and most highly cultured country in the world!
And then in course of time the very brothers who had so cruelly sold him into bondage were forced by famine to come to Joseph as suppliants for food, and, in their descendants, presently to become the meanest slaves in the land, persecuted and oppressed until their final deliverance by Moses.
How long ago it all seems when we read these old Bible stories! Yet, when 4,000 years ago necessity compelled Abraham, with Sarah his wife, to stay awhile in Egypt, they were lodged at Tanis, a royal city founded by one of a succession of kings which for 3,000 years before Abraham's day had governed the land, and modern discoveries have proved that even before that time there were other kings and an earlier civilization.
How interesting it is to know that today we may still find records of these early Bible times in the sculptured monuments which are scattered all over the land, and to know that in the hieroglyphic writings which adorn the walls of tombs or temples many of the events we there read about are narrated.
Many of the temples were built by the labour of the oppressed Israelites, others were standing long before Moses confounded their priests or besought Pharaoh to liberate his people. We may ourselves stand in courts where, perhaps, Joseph took part in some temple rite, while the huge canal called the "Bahr Yusef" (or river of Joseph), which he built 6,300 years ago, still supplies the province Fayoum with water.
Ancient Tanis also, from whose tower Abraham saw "wonders in the field of Zoan," still exists in a heap of ruins, extensive enough to show how great a city it had been, and from its mounds the writer has often witnessed the strange mirage which excited the wonder of the patriarch.
Everywhere throughout the land are traces of the children of Israel, many of whose descendants still remain in the land of Goshen, and in every instance where fresh discovery has thrown light upon the subject the independent record of history found in hieroglyph or papyrus confirms the Bible narrative, so that we may be quite sure when we read these old stories that they are not merely legends, open to doubt, but are the true histories of people who actually lived.
As you will see from what I have told you, Egypt is perhaps the oldest country in the world — the oldest, that is, in civilization. No one quite knows how old it is, and no record has been discovered to tell us.
All through the many thousands of years of its history Egypt has had a great influence upon other nations, and although the ancient Persians, Greeks, and Romans successively dominated it, these conquering races have each in turn disappeared, while Egypt goes on as ever, and its people remain.
Egypt has been described as the centre of the world, and if we look at the map we will see how true this is. Situated midway between Europe, Africa, and Asia in the old days of land caravans, most of the trade between these continents passed through her hands, while her ports on the Mediterranean controlled the sea trade of the Levant.
All this helped to make Egypt wealthy, and gave it great political importance, so that very early in the world's history it enjoyed a greater prosperity and a higher civilization than any of its neighbours. Learned men from all countries were drawn to it in search of fresh knowledge, for nowhere else were there such seats of learning as in the Nile cities, and it is acknowledged that the highly trained priesthood of the Pharaohs practised arts and sciences of which we in these days are ignorant, and have failed to discover.
In 30 B.C. the last of the Pharaohs disappeared, and for 400 years the Romans ruled in Egypt, many of their emperors restoring the ancient temples as well as building new ones; but all the Roman remains in Egypt are poor in comparison with the real Egyptian art, and, excepting for a few small temples, little now remains of their buildings but the heaps of rubbish which surround the magnificent monuments of Egypt's great period.
During the Roman occupation Christianity became the recognized religion of the country, and today the Copts (who are the real descendants of the ancient Egyptians) still preserve the primitive faith of those early times, and, with the Abyssinians, are perhaps the oldest Christian church now existing.
The greatest change in the history of Egypt, however, and the one that has left the most permanent effect upon it, was the Mohammedan invasion in A.D. 640, and I must tell you something about this, because to the great majority of people who visit Egypt the two great points of interest are its historical remains and the beautiful art of the Mohammedans. The times of the Pharaohs are in the past, and have the added interest of association with the Bible; this period of antiquity is a special study for the historian and the few who are able to decipher hieroglyphic writing, but the Mohammedan era, though commencing nearly 200 years before Egbert was crowned first King of England, continues to the present day, and the beautiful mosques, as their churches are called (many of which were built long before there were any churches in our own country), are still used by the Moslems.
Nothing in history is so remarkable as the sudden rise to power of the followers of Mohammed. An ill-taught, half-savage people, coming from an unknown part of Arabia, in a very few years they had become masters of Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, and Egypt, and presently extended their religion all through North Africa, and even conquered the southern half of Spain, and today the Faith of Islam, as their religion is called, is the third largest in the world.
Equally surprising as their accession to power is the very beautiful art they created, first in Egypt and then throughout Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, and Spain. The Moslem churches in Cairo are extremely beautiful, and of a style quite unlike anything that the world had known before. Some of my readers, perhaps, may have seen pictures of them and of the Alhambra in Spain, probably the most elegant and ornate palace ever built.
No country in the world gives one so great a sense of age as Egypt, and although it has many beauties, and the life of the people today is most picturesque, as we will presently see, it is its extreme antiquity which most excites the imagination, for, while the whole Bible history from Abraham to the Apostles covers a period of only 2,000 years, the known history of Egypt commenced as far back as 6,000 years ago! From the sphinx at Ghizeh, which is so ancient that no one knows its origin, to the great dam at Assuan, monument of its present day, each period of its history has left some record, some tomb or temple, which we may study, and it is this more than anything else which makes Egypt so attractive to thoughtful people.