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Index by Period

Ancient Egyptian Literature

Egypt shared with ancient Babylon and Assyria in the civilization of its primitive literature. It is from five of its Pyramids, opened in 1881, that valuable writings have been brought to light that carry us back one thousand years before the time of Moses.

Their famous "Book of the Dead,"of which many copies are found in our museums of antiquities, is one instance of their older civilization. These copies of the original, in the form of scrolls, are some of them over a hundred feet long, and are decorated with elaborate pictures and ornamentation. The book gives conclusive proof of the teaching of the Egyptians of a life beyond this. Their belief in the journey of the soul after death to the Underworld, before it is admitted to the Hall of Osiris, or the abode of light, is akin to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and Heaven. The Egyptian literature is painted or engraved on monuments, written on papyrus, and buried in tombs, or under the ruins of temples, hence, as has been said elsewhere, much of it remained hidden until nineteenth century research brought it to light. Even at the present time many inscriptions are still undeciphered.

Geometry originated with the Egyptians, and their knowledge of hydrostatics and mechanics (shown in the building of the Pyramids), and of astronomy and medicine, is of remotest antiquity. The Greeks borrowed largely from them, and then became in turn their teacher. The Egyptian priests, from the earliest age, must have preserved the annals of their country; but they were destroyed by Cambyses (500 B.C.), who burned the temples where they were stored.

In the fourth century B.C., Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, who left it under the rule of the Ptolemies. The next century after the Alexandrian age the philosophy and literature of Athens was transferred to Alexandria. The Alexandrian library, completed by Ptolemy Philadelphus, in the third century before Christ, was formed for the most part of Greek books and it also had Greek librarians; so that in the learning and philosophy of Alexandria at this time, the Eastern and Western systems were combined. During the first century of the Christian era Egypt passed from the control of the Greek Kings to that of the Roman Emperors, under whom it continued to flourish. In the seventh century the country was conquered by the Saracens, who burned the great Alexandrian library. Following them came the Arabian Princes, who protected literature, and revived the Alexandrian schools, establishing also other seats of learning. But in the thirteenth century the Turks conquered Egypt, and all its literary glory henceforth departed. It has had no further development, and no influence in shaping the literature of foreign nations. What it might have been if the literary treasures of Egypt had not been destroyed by Cambyses and the Saracens, we can only guess. Great literary monuments must have been lost, which would shed more light on the civilization of the ancient world.


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