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THE BOOKS

What follows is a survey of some popular books devoted to ancient Egypt.  Every effort has been made to discern themes as they occur in the text as well as in the illustrations.  It is not in any way a scientific survey of the sites and objects concerned, but more up to date observations have been added to clarify particular areas that may have been confused by Victorian authors.

Rambles in Bible Lands by Richard Newton, Gall and Inglis, London    

The book is not dated but refers to a trip made to the Bible lands in 1870. There is a certificate pasted in the front of the book that shows it was awarded as a prize for "Good Conduct Diligence and Regular Attendance" in 1909 by the Salvation Army.  It is therefore is no surprise that the book is religious in nature, but it is not specifically aimed at children.  It clearly reflects the mores of at least a part of the Christian community during this age. Egypt is given only a short section. Most of this is taken up by a consideration of the pyramids, which are a clearly recognized symbol of ancient Egypt.

A background that is not clear in the book is in order here. The pyramids of Giza are well known to tourists from time periods after the date of their construction.  They were well known to the Greeks who considered them one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The three pyramids are credited to the rulers Khufu, Chephren and Mycerimus and were constructed about 4,000 years ago. The largest of the pyramids, the one ascribed to Khufu, has a base some 5 hectares in extent and rises 137 meters, although from the angle of the structure it was originally about 146 meters high.  The blocks used to make the pyramid were immense, weighing between 2.5 and 15 tons each.  The outer facing would have been of polished limestone, now vanished.  It has been estimated that originally there were some 2,300,000 separate blocks used in construction.  The Greek Historian Herodotus in the 5th century records hearing from Egyptian priests that a tyrant king reduced 100,000 subjects to slavery for three months a year for about 20 years. Written sources from Egypt, however, suggest that even large pyramids could be built in much less time that 20 years.  The fact remains, however, that the awe inspiring mass of the pyramids leads one to ponder the amount of work required to construct them.

The author of the book Rambles in Bible Lands states:
"Egypt is wonderful for its own history, too, as well as for its connection with the history of the Bible.  It is wonderful for the learning of which it was once the seat, and for the surprising works of art which it has produced.  Among all these there is nothing which has excited more surprise and wonder than the pyramids..." (p. 11).

The passage above reflects, as do a number of other Victorian era books on Egypt, the concept of decline.  This was of course a common theme explored by all empires, which wax and wane according to wider social trends. The statue in King Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Dan. 2) is not mentioned specifically, but the image is a powerful one.  The future as foreseen by the King and interpreted by Daniel was like a statue.  The head was of pure gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of iron, and feet of iron and clay.  Babylon was specifically mentioned in the book of Daniel as representing the head of clay, but clearly to later historians the ancient empire, including Egypt, was also be considered here.  Christian authors interpreted the eventual destruction of the statue by a rock hitting the feet of the statue as the triumph of that religion.  To a Victorian reader this may represent the eventual triumph of the Christian West. This would also provide a rationale behind the empire.  Further, in the King's dream, that a rock should destroy such a grand statue suggests that a moral can be drawn.  

The author of Rambles in Bible Lands suggests that a moral lesson can be learned from the pyramids: "These huge pyramids were built by men who were living and labouring only to please themselves.  We may well regard the pyramids, therefore, as illustrating the difference between working for Jesus and working for self" (p. 13).  The author goes on to explain that the pyramids were made to be monuments, but that as a final observation working for Jesus is much easier than working for self.  This is further illustrated by literary images of the Israelites, who were slaves and could be beaten by their Egyptian masters.  Yet according to the author even though the ruler would not do the work himself, there would be many issues that would arise in the construction of the pyramids that would raise anxiety.  

In contrast, the author proposes that: 
"...if we are working for Jesus, instead of for ourselves, how different our position is from that of the builder of the pyramids!  Then, whether we are rulers or subjects, kings or peasants, rich men or poor, we are saved from the temptation of engaging in any such foolish works"(p. 14).  These works are particularly foolish considering that all material things decay with time, as they author states: "And old as the pyramids are, and solid and substantial as they appear, yet the time will come when they will be destroyed and the very memory of them will pass away. The Bible tells us that the names of the wicked, and their works as well, shall perish.  They will be "rooted out." They will all pass away, like the visions of the night, and no trace of them will be left upon the earth" (p. 15).

The author more than suggests that the Egyptian monuments he is examining are evidence of wickedness.  The same treatment is not given to the antiquities of Palestine, which are largely used as positive moral examples. It is interesting to note that while the author cites the examples of Egypt acting as a refuge, and praises Egypt for learning and art in the first part of the chapter, the final judgement is negative.  This does not appear to be a view shared by other authors of the period.


Illustration of Pyramids Figure 1.  The only illustration of ancient Egypt in Rambles in Bible Lands is of the pyramids, which form the basis for moral instruction.  


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