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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a country of Africa, called also in the Hebrew Scriptures the land of Mizraim, and the land of Ham; by the Turks and Arabs, Masr and Misr; and by the native Egyptians, Chemi, or the land of Ham. Mr. Faber derives the name from Ai-Capht, or the land of the Caphtorim; from which, also, the modern Egyptians derive their name of Cophts. Egypt was first peopled after the deluge by Mizraim, or Mizr, the son of Ham, who is supposed to be the same with Menes, recorded in Egyptian history as the first king. Every thing relating to the subsequent history and condition of this country, for many ages, is involved in fable. Nor have we any clear information from Heathen writers, until the time of Cyrus, and his son Cambyses, when the line of Egyptian princes ceased in agreement with prophecies to that effect. Manetho, the Egyptian historian, has given a list of thirty dynasties, which, if successive, make a period of five thousand three hundred years to the time of Alexander, or three thousand two hundred and eighty-two years more than the real time, according to the Mosaic chronology. But this is a manifest forgery, which has, nevertheless, been appealed to by infidel writers, as authority against the veracity of the Mosaic history. The truth is, that this pretended succession of princes, if all of them can be supposed to have existed at all, constituted several distinct dynasties, ruling in different cities at the same time; thus these were the kingdoms of Thebes, Thin, Memphis, and Tanis. See WRITING .

2. In the time of Moses we find Egypt renowned for learning; for he was instructed "in all its wisdom;" and it is one of the commendations of Solomon, at a later period, that he excelled in knowledge "all the wisdom of the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt."

Astronomy, which probably, like that of the Chaldeans, comprehended also judicial astrology, physics, agriculture, jurisprudence, medicine, architecture, painting, and sculpture, were the principal sciences and arts; to which were added, and that by their wisest men, the study of divination, magic, and enchantments. They had also their consulters with familiar spirits, and necromancers, those who had, or pretended to have, intercourse with the infernal deities, and the spirits of the dead, and delivered responses to inquirers. Of all this knowledge, good and evil, and of a monstrous system of idolatry, Egypt was the polluted fountain to the surrounding nations; but in that country itself it appears to have degenerated into the most absurd and debased forms. Among nations who are not blessed by divine revelation, the luminaries of heaven are the first objects of worship. Diodorus Siculus, mentioning the Egyptians, informs us, that "the first men, looking up to the world above them, and, struck with admiration at the nature of the universe, supposed the sun and moon to be the principal and eternal gods." This, which may be called the natural superstition of mankind, we can trace in the annals of the west, as well as of the east; among the inhabitants of the new world, as well as of the old. The sun and moon, under the names of Isis and Osiris, were the chief objects of adoration among the Egyptians. But the earliest times had a purer faith. The following inscription, engraven in hieroglyphics in the temple of Neith, the Egyptian Minerva, conveys the most sublime idea of the Deity which unenlightened reason could form: "I am that which is, was, and shall be: no mortal hath lifted up my veil: the offspring of my power is the sun." A similar inscription still remains at Capua, on the temple of Isis: "Thou art one, and from thee all things proceed." Plutarch also informs us, that the inhabitants of Thebais worshipped only the immortal and supreme God, whom they called Eneph. According to the Egyptian cosmogony, all things sprung from athor, or night, by which they denoted the darkness of chaos before the creation. Sanchoniathon relates, that, "from the breath of gods and the void were mortals created." This theology differs little from that of Moses, who says, "The earth was without form, and void; darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

3. A superstitious reverence for certain animals, as propitious or hurtful to the human race, was not peculiar to the Egyptians. The cow has been venerated in India from the most remote antiquity. The serpent has been the object of religious respect to one half of the nations of the known world. The Romans had sacred animals, which they kept in their temples, and distinguished with peculiar honours. We need not therefore be surprised that a nation so superstitious as the Egyptians should honour, with peculiar marks of respect, the ichneumon, the ibis, the dog, the falcon, the wolf, and the crocodile. These they entertained at great expense, and with much magnificence. Lands were set apart for their maintenance; persons of the highest rank were employed in feeding and attending them; rich carpets were spread in their apartments; and the pomp at their funerals corresponded to the profusion and luxury which attended them while alive. What chiefly tended to favour the progress of animal worship in Egypt, was the language of hieroglyphics. In the hieroglyphic inscriptions on their temples, and public edifices, animals, and even vegetables, were the symbols of the gods whom they worshipped. In the midst of innumerable superstitions, the theology of Egypt contained the two great principles of religion, the existence of a supreme Being, and the immortality of the soul.

The first is proved by the inscription on the temple of Minerva; the second, by the care with which dead bodies were embalmed, and the prayer recited at the hour of death, by an Egyptian, expressing his desire to be received to the presence of the deities.

4. The opulence of Egypt was for ages increased by the large share it had in the commerce with the east; by its own favourable position, making it the connecting link of intercourse between the eastern and western nations; and especially by its own remarkable fertility, particularly in corn, so that it was, in times of scarcity, the granary of the world. Its extraordinary fertility was owing to the periodical inundation of the Nile; and sufficient proofs of the ancient accounts which we have of its productiveness are afforded to this day. The Rev. Mr. Jowett has given a striking example of the extraordinary fertility of the soil of Egypt, which is alluded to in Genesis 41:47 : "The earth brought forth by handfuls." "I picked up at random," says Mr. Jowett, "a few stalks out of the thick corn fields. We counted the number of stalks which sprouted from single grains of seed; carefully pulling to pieces each root, in order to see that it was but one plant. The first had seven stalks, the next three, the next nine, then eighteen, then fourteen. Each stalk would have been an ear.

5. The architecture of the early Egyptians, at least that of their cities and dwellings, was rude and simple: they could indeed boast of little in either external elegance or internal comfort, since Herodotus informs us that men and beasts lived together. The materials of their structure were bricks of clay, bound together with chopped straw, and baked in the sun. Such were the bricks which the Israelites were employed in making, and of which the cities of Pithom and Rameses were built. Their composition was necessarily perishable, and explains why it is that no remains of the ancient cities of Egypt are to be found. They would indeed last longer in the dry climate of this country than in any other; but even here they must gradually decay and crumble to dust, and the cities so constructed become heaps. Of precisely the same materials are the villages of Egypt built at this day. "Village after village," says Mr. Jowett, speaking of Tentyra, "built of unburnt brick, crumbling into ruins, and giving place to new habitations, have raised the earth, in some parts, nearly to the level of the summit of the temple. In every part of Egypt, we find the towns built in this manner, upon the ruins, or rather the rubbish, of the former habitations. The expression in Jeremiah 30:18 , literally applies to Egypt, in the meanest sense: ‘The city shall be builded upon her own heap.' And the expression in Job 15:28 , might be illustrated by many of these deserted hovels: ‘He dwelleth in desolate cities, and in houses which no man inhabiteth, which are ready to become heaps.' Still more touching is the allusion, in Job 4:19 , where the perishing generations of men are fitly compared to habitations of the frailest materials, built upon the heap of similar dwelling-places, now reduced to rubbish: ‘How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust!'"

6. The splendid temples of Egypt were not built, in all probability, till after the time of Solomon; for the recent progress made in the decyphering of hieroglyphics has disappointed the antiquaries as to the antiquity of these stupendous fabrics. It is well observed by Dr. Shuckford, that temples made no great figure in Homer's time. If they had, he would not have lost such an opportunity of exerting his genres on so grand a subject, as Virgil has done in his description of the temple built by Dido at Carthage. The first Heathen temples were probably nothing more than mean buildings, which served merely as a shelter from the weather; of which kind was, probably, the house of the Philistine god Dagon. But when the fame of Solomon's temple had reached other countries, it excited them to imitate its splendour; and nation vied with nation in the structures erected to their several deities. All were, however, outdone, at least in massiveness and durability, by the Egyptians; the architectural design of whose temples, as well as that of the Grecian edifices, was borrowed from the stems and branches of the grove temples.

7. It appears to be an unfounded notion, that the pyramids were built by the Israelites: they were, probably, Mr. Faber thinks, the work of the "Shepherds," or Cushite invaders, who, at an early period, held possession of Egypt for two hundred and sixty years, and reduced the Egyptians to bondage, so that "a shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians" in Joseph's time. The Israelites laboured in making bricks, not in forming stones such as the pyramids are constructed with; and a passage in Mr. Jowett's "Researches," before referred to, will throw light upon this part of their history. Mr. Jowett saw at one place the people making bricks, with straw cut into small pieces, and mingled with the clay, to bind it. Hence it is, that when villages built of these bricks fall into rubbish, which is often the case, the roads are full of small particles of straws, extremely offensive to the eyes in a high wind. They were, in fact, engaged exactly as the Israelites used to be, making bricks with straw; and for a similar purpose, to build extensive granaries for the bashaw; "treasure-cities for Pharaoh."

The same intelligent missionary also observes: "The mollems transact business between the bashaw and the peasants. He punishes them if the peasants prove that they oppress; and yet he requires from them that the work of those who are under them shall be fulfilled. They strikingly illustrate the case of the officers placed by the Egyptian taskmasters over the children of Israel; and, like theirs, the mollems often find their case is evil, Exodus 5."

8. It is not necessary to go over those parts of the Egyptian history which occur in the Old Testament. The prophecies respecting this haughty and idolatrous kingdom, uttered by Jeremiah and Ezekiel when it was in the height of its splendour and prosperity, were fulfilled in the terrible invasions of Nebuchadnezzar, Cambyses, and the Persian monarchs. It comes, however, again into an interesting connection with the Jewish history under Alexander the Great, who invaded it as a Persian dependence. So great, indeed, was the hatred of the Egyptians toward their oppressors, that they hailed the approach of the Macedonians, and threw open their cities to receive them. Alexander, merciless as he was to those who opposed his progress or authority, knew how to requite those who were devoted to his interests; and the Egyptians, for many centuries afterward, had reason to recollect with gratitude his protection and foresight. It was he who discerned the local advantages of the spot on which the city bearing his name afterward stood, who projected the plan of the town, superintended its erection, endowed it with many privileges, and peopled it with colonies drawn from other places for the purpose, chiefly Greeks. But, together with these, and the most favoured of all, were the Jews, who enjoyed the free exercise of their religion, and the same civil rights and liberties as the Macedonians themselves. Kindness shown to the people of Israel has never, in the providence of God, brought evil on any country; and there can be no doubt but that the encouragement given to this enterprising and commercial people, assisted very much to promote the interests of the new city, which soon became the capital of the kingdom, the centre of commerce, of science, and the arts, and one of the most flourishing and considerable cities in the world. Egypt, indeed, was about to see better days; and, during the reigns of the Ptolemies, enjoyed again, for nearly three hundred years, something of its former renown for learning and power. It formed, during this period, and before the rapid extension of the Roman empire toward the termination of these years, one of the only two ancient kingdoms which had survived the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Macedonian empires: the other was the Syrian, where the Seleucidae, another family of one of the successors of Alexander, reigned; who, having subdued Macedonia and Thrace, annexed them to the kingdom of Syria, and there remained out of the four kingdoms into which the empire of Alexander was divided these two only; distinguished, in the prophetic writings of Daniel, by the titles of the kings or kingdoms of the north and the south.

9. Under the reign of the three first Ptolemies, the state of the Jews was exceedingly prosperous. They were in high favour, and continued to enjoy all the advantages conferred upon them by Alexander. Judea was, in fact, at this time, a privileged province of Egypt; the Jews being governed by their own high priest, on paying a tribute to the kings of Egypt. But in the reign of Ptolemy Epiphanes, the fifth of the race, it was taken by Antiochus, king of Syria; which was the beginning of fresh sufferings and persecutions; for although this Antiochus, who was the one surnamed the Great, was a mild and generous prince, and behaved favourably toward them, their troubles began at his death; his successor, Seleueus, oppressing them with taxes; and the next was the monster, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose impieties and cruelties are recorded in the two books of Maccabees. But still, in Egypt, the Jews continued in the enjoyment of their privileges, so late as the reign of the sixth Ptolemy, called Philometor, who committed the charge of his affairs to two Jews, Onias and Dositheus; the former of whom obtained permission to build a temple at Heliopolis. The introduction of Christianity into Egypt is mentioned under the article See ALEXANDRIA .

10. The prophecies respecting Egypt in the Old Testament have had a wonderful fulfilment. The knowledge of all its greatness and glory deterred not the Jewish prophets from declaring, that Egypt would become "a base kingdom, and never exalt itself any more among the nations." And the literal fulfilment of every prophecy affords as clear a demonstration as can possibly be given, that each and all of them are the dictates of inspiration. Egypt was the theme of many prophecies, which were fulfilled in ancient times; and it bears to the present day, as it has borne throughout many ages, every mark with which prophecy had stamped its destiny: "They shall be a base kingdom. It shall be the basest of kingdoms. Neither shall it exalt itself any more among the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations. The pride of her power shall come down; and they shall be desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate; and her cities shall be in the midst of the cities that are wasted. I will make the land of Egypt desolate, and the country shall be desolate of that whereof it was full. I will sell the land into the hand of the wicked. I will make the land waste and all that is therein, by the hand of strangers. I the Lord have spoken it. And there shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt," Ezekiel 30:5; Ezekiel 30:7; Ezekiel 30:12-13 . "The sceptre of Egypt shall depart away," Zechariah 10:11 .

11. Egypt became entirely subject to the Persians about three hundred and fifty years previous to the Christian aera. It was afterward subdued by the Macedonians, and was governed by the Ptolemies for the space of two hundred and ninety-four years; until, about B.C. 30, it became a province of the Roman empire. It continued long in subjection to the Romans,— tributary first to Rome, and afterward to Constantinople. It was transferred, A.D. 641, to the dominion of the Saracens. In 1250 the Mamelukes deposed their rulers, and usurped the command of Egypt. A mode of government, the most singular and surprising that ever existed on earth, was established and maintained. Each successive ruler was raised to supreme authority, from being a stranger and a slave. No son of the former ruler, no native of Egypt, succeeded to the sovereignty; but a chief was chosen from among a new race of imported slaves. When Egypt became tributary to the Turks in 1517, the Mamelukes retained much of their power; and every pasha was an oppressor and a stranger. During all these ages, every attempt to emancipate the country, or to create a prince of the land of Egypt, has proved abortive, and has often been fatal to the aspirant. Though the facts relative to Egypt form too prominent a feature in the history of the world to admit of contradiction or doubt, yet the description of the fate of that country, and of the form of its government, may be left, says Keith, to the testimony of those whose authority no infidel will question, and whom no man can accuse of adapting their descriptions to the predictions of the event. Volney and Gibbon are our witnesses of the facts: "Such is the state of Egypt. Deprived, twenty-three centuries ago, of her natural proprietors, she has seen her fertile fields successively a prey to the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Georgians, and, at length, the race of Tartars distinguished by the name of Ottoman Turks. The Mamelukes, purchased as slaves, and introduced as soldiers, soon usurped the power and elected a leader. If their first establishment was a singular event, their continuance is not less extraordinary. They are replaced by slaves brought from their original country. The system of oppression is methodical. Every thing the traveller sees or hears reminds him he is in the country of slavery and tyranny." "A more unjust and absurd constitution cannot be devised than that which condemns the natives of a country to perpetual servitude, under the arbitrary dominion of strangers and slaves. Yet such has been the state of Egypt above five hundred years. The most illustrious sultans of the Baharite and Borgite dynasties were themselves promoted from the Tartar and Circassian bands; and the four-and-twenty beys, or military chiefs, have ever been succeeded, not by their sons, but by their servants." These are the words of Volney and of Gibbon; and what did the ancient prophets foretel?— "I will lay the land waste, and all that is therein, by the hands of strangers. I the Lord have spoken it. And there shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt. The sceptre of Egypt shall depart away." The prophecy adds: "They shall be a base kingdom: it shall be the basest of kingdoms." After the lapse of two thousand and four hundred years from the date of this prophecy, a scoffer at religion, but an eye witness of the facts, thus describes the self-same spot: "In Egypt," says Volney, "there is no middle class, neither nobility, clergy, merchants, landholders. A

universal air of misery, manifest in all the traveller meets, points out to him the rapacity of oppression, and the distrust attendant upon slavery. The profound ignorance of the inhabitants equally prevents them from perceiving the causes of their evils, or applying the necessary remedies. Ignorance, diffused through every class, extends its effects to every species of moral and physical knowledge. Nothing is talked of but intestine troubles, the public misery, pecuniary extortions, bastinadoes, and murders. Justice herself puts to death without formality." Other travellers describe the most execrable vices as common, and represent the moral character of the people as corrupted to the core. As a token of the desolation of the country, mud-walled cottages are now the only habitations where the ruins of temples and palaces abound. Egypt is surrounded by the dominions of the Turks and of the Arabs; and the prophecy is literally true which marked it in the midst of desolation: "They shall be desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate, and her cities shall be in the midst of the cities that are wasted." The systematic oppression, extortion, and plunder, which have so long prevailed, and the price paid for his authority and power by every Turkish pasha, have rendered the country "desolate of that whereof it was full," and still show both how it has been "wasted by the hands of strangers," and how it has been "sold into the hand of the wicked."

12. Egypt has, indeed, lately somewhat risen, under its present spirited but despotic pasha, to a degree of importance and commerce. But this pasha is still a stranger, and the dominion is foreign. Nor is there any thing like a general advancement of the people to order, intelligence and happiness.

Yet this fact, instead of militating against the truth of prophecy, may, possibly at no distant period, serve to illustrate other predictions. "The Lord shall smite Egypt: he shall smite and heal it: and they shall return to the Lord, and he shall be entreated of them, and shall heal them. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land," &c, Isaiah 19:22-25 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Egypt'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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