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39 EGYPT-THE PEOPLE.


 

explained by reason or tradition, to that extent would the office and influence of the priest suffer in popular esteem; and if, under other conditions, natural phenomena seemed to be specially involved and mysterious, if the causes of things appeared occult and far beyond the reach of human vision, to that degree would the character and office of the seer be held in veneration.

In no other country of ancient or modern times were the aspects and processes of Nature clothed in such profound mystery as in Egypt. Here the one great striking phenomenon the inundation of the Nile seemed to be absolutely causeless. The absence of rain and snow left the popular imagination without even a vague hint respecting the origin of that great natural fact upon which his very life depended. The source of the river, being inaccessible by distance and the interposition of the cataracts which effectually barred up-stream exploration, seemed almost as remote and infinite as the origin of the annual flood. The solemnity of the procession of the planets and stars, unobscured by tree or mountain or cloud, heightened the effect of the I mundane mystery.

As the yellow, turbid waters swelled bankfull and silently overspread the valley, rising higher and higher without apparent cause, driving the flocks to the higher grounds and the people into upper compartments, the ancient Egyptians found themselves in a situation strangely combining the hurry and commotion of cities with the solitude of the seas.

They who, in the midst of such phenomena, seemingly causeless and preternatural, assumed the task of accounting for the order and the cause of things that is, of constructing a system of natural and religious philosophy would from the beginning be regarded by the people with peculiar awe and veneration. Even the powerful soldier-class would do reverence to those who explained and perhaps influenced that hidden world of mystery from which proceeded both benefits and disasters.

The natural environment in which the civilization of ancient Egypt was planted was exceptionally favorable to the development of a priestly caste, separated from the people and specially powerful in the affairs of the nation.

In a country of hills and rivers and forests, the people are easily divided into distinct communities, having diverse tastes and conflicting political interests. In such a situation there is a natural tendency to the development of popular institutions. Republics spring up and flourish under conditions of struggling personal interests and antagonistic political preferences. In countries where the physical and industrial situation of all classes is the same, institutions of an opposite sort are likely to prevail. Monarchy finds its natural soil in the sameness of the situation of its subjects. And this was peculiarly the condition in ancient Egypt. A great number of civic communities, some greater, some of less note, but all in like relation as to soil, industry, disposition, interest, and physical surrounding, could but suggest a strong centralized government, despotic in its nature and military in its methods. The situation was such as to foster and develop a race of warrior-princes, before whose ambitions the liberties of the Egyptians would fall an easy prey.

Such then was the ethnic origin of the people of Egypt, so far as it is understood; and such were the antecedent physical conditions by which that people was most deeply impressed during the formative period of Egyptian nationality. From these conditions arose the peculiar institutions which flourished for so long a period in the valley of the Nile.

The ancient Egyptians were a people of great power and vigor, but without the passions and caprices of most of the European tribes. The constitution of the race was at once elastic and conservative, energetic and restful, obedient and pertinacious. It was a race self-conscious without egotism, haughty without disdain, laborious without great motives, ambitious without enthusiasm, warlike without the spirit of conquest.

In physical form the Egyptians were closely allied to the Asiatic peoples with whom they were ethnically related. The person and countenance, however, soon assumed a distinct type under the influence of the peculiar climate to which they were exposed. Judging