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Synopsis

The countries that laid the foundation of our civilisation are not of those through which traffic passes on its way from land to land. Neither Babylon nor Egypt lies on one of the natural highways of the world; they lie hidden, encircled by mountains or deserts, and the seas that wash their shores are such as the ordinary seafarer avoids rather than frequents. But this very seclusion, which to us, with our modern ideas, seems a thing prejudicial to culture, did its part toward furthering the development of mankind in these ancient lands; it assured to their inhabitants a less troublous life than otherwise falls to the lot of nations under primitive conditions. Egypt, more particularly, had no determined adversary, nor any that could meet her on equal terms close at hand. To west of her stretched a desert, leading by interminable wanderings to sparsely populated lands. On the east the desert was less wide indeed, but beyond it lay the Red Sea, and he who crossed it did but reach another desert, the Arabian waste. Southward for hundreds of miles stretched the barren land of Nubia, where even the waterway of the Nile withholds its wonted service, so that the races of the Sudan are likewise shut off from Egypt. And even the route from Palestine to the Nile, which we are apt to think of as so short and easy, involved a march of several days through waterless desert and marshy ground. These neighbour countries, barren as they are, were certainly inhabited, but the dwellers there were poor nomads; they might conquer Egypt now and again, but they could not permanently injure her civilization. Thus the people which dwelt in Egypt could enjoy undisturbed all the good things their country had to bestow. For in this singular river valley it was easier for men to live and thrive than in most other countries of the world. Not that the life was such as is led in those tropic lands where the fruits of earth simply drop into the mouth, and the human race grows enervated in a pleasant indolence; the dweller in Egypt had to cultivate his fields, to tend his cattle, but if he did so he was bounteously repaid for his labour. Every year the river fertilised his fields that they might bring forth barley and spelt and fodder for his oxen. He became a settled husbandman, a grave and diligent man, who was spared the disquiet and hardships endured by the nomadic tribes. Hence in this place there early developed a civilisation which far surpassed that of other nations, and with which only that of far-off Babylonia, where somewhat similar local conditions obtained, could in any degree vie. And this civilisation, and the national characteristics of the Egyptian nation which went hand in hand with it, were so strong that they could weather even a grievous storm. For long ago, in the remote antiquity which lies far beyond all tradition, Egypt was once overtaken by the same calamity which was destined to befall her twice within historic times—she was conquered by Arab Bedouins, who lorded it over the country so long that the Egyptians adopted their language, though they altered and adapted it curiously in the process. This transplantation of an Asiatic language to African soil is the lasting, but likewise the only, trace left by this primeval invasion; in all other respects the conquerors were merged into the Egyptian people, to whom they, as barbarians, had nothing to offer. There is nothing in the ideas and reminiscences of later Egyptians to indicate that a Bedouin element had been absorbed into the race; in spite of their language the aspect they present to us is that of the true children of their singular country, a people to whom the desert and its inhabitants are something alien and incomprehensible. It is the same scene, mutatis mutandis, that was enacted in the full light of history at the rise of Islam; then, too, the unwarlike land was subdued by the swift onset of the Bedouins, who also imposed their language on it in the days of their rule; and yet the Egyptian people remains ever the same, and the people who speak Arabic to-day in the valley of the Nile have little in common with the Arabs of the desert.

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