Visitors to ancient Egypt – II

David Tresilian , Tuesday 4 May 2021

The long history of writing about Egypt from the outside includes some lesser-known ancient visitors


While the ancient Greek historian Herodotus is probably the best-known visitor to ancient Egypt, some other ancient visitors left less extensive accounts behind that contain observations of almost equal value.

Herodotus visited Egypt in the mid-5th century BCE when the country was under Persian rule, and as a result he did not have the chance to see some of the country’s best-known monuments, among them the famous Lighthouse and Library of Alexandria, built after the city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. For details of these and other sites on the ancient Egyptian visitor circuit, modern readers are obliged to turn to accounts left by later writers.

One of the most important is the 1st century BCE Greek geographer Strabo, who in the last of his 17 books on the then known world’s geography left a lengthy account of the physical and human geography of ancient Egypt after a visit in around 25 BCE. While Strabo did not see himself as also being a historian and an ethnographer like Herodotus, his account nevertheless contains observations of more than just geographical interest.

The Egypt Strabo visited would have only recently become part of the Roman Empire following the defeat of ancient Egypt’s last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra, and her Roman consort Mark Antony by Octavius, later the emperor Augustus, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Perhaps for this reason, he is strikingly hostile towards the then recently defunct Ptolemaic dynasty in his account of the country, possibly in a bid to attract Roman readers or to virtue-signal his own pro-Roman views.

Strabo praises what he sees as the efficient administration introduced into Egypt by its Roman conquerors, and he goes out of his way to criticise the Ptolemies. “All the kings after the third Ptolemy, being corrupted by luxurious living, administered the affairs of government badly,” he writes.

“But worst of all were the fourth, seventh, and last, Ptolemy Auletes [‘flute-player’], who, apart from his general licentiousness, practiced the accompaniment of choruses with the flute and would not hesitate to celebrate contests in the royal palace,” perhaps a bit like the Roman emperor Nero fiddling as Rome burned. Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, was put on the throne by Julius Caesar, along with her brother “although he was exceedingly young.”

It was the Egypt of the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, that Strabo reports on in his account of the country. Egypt, he says, “is disposed to be peaceful,” its people living a “civic and cultivated life,” partly owing to the country’s climate and the regularity of its agricultural rhythms, thanks to the rising and falling of the Nile. Like most ancient visitors to the country, he discusses the possible sources of the latter and the reasons for its annual flooding, coming quite close to the truth.

There is a description of Alexandria under Roman rule, including of the Lighthouse, or Pharos, built on an island of the same name, and of the city’s streets and palaces, among them the famous Museum, or Library, whose director, “formerly appointed by the [Egyptian] kings, is now appointed by Caesar” in Rome. Strabo repeats the story that the tomb of Alexander the Great is in Alexandria, the body reportedly having been taken to Egypt from Babylon in Mesopotamia in a sarcophagus made of gold. 

He travelled up the Nile as far as Elephantine, allowing him to describe the temples at Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Like many ancient Greek visitors, he is struck by the lay-out of ancient Egyptian temples and by what they contain, an avenue “of stone sphinxes placed in order on each of two sides” leading up to massive “propylum [pylon] and then another and another as one proceeds” to “a sanctuary of commensurate size, though it has no statue, or rather no statue of human form, but only of some irrational animal.”

He is impressed by the Pyramids and also by the Valley of the Kings. “Here are two colossi,” the Colossi of Memnon, “which are near one another and are each made of a single stone,” he writes. Above them, “in caves, are tombs of kings, which are stone-hewn, about forty in number, and marvelously constructed and a sight worth seeing.” There is no mention of their contents.

Strabo sometimes says that Egypt’s temples are decaying, often not being properly maintained. The Oracle of Ammon at Siwa “has been almost abandoned,” even though it had once been sought out by Alexander the Great. Changing religious practices are partly responsible, since Egypt’s Roman rulers are “satisfied with the oracles of the Sibyl and with Tyrrhenian prophecies obtained from the entrails of animals, the flight of birds, and omens from the sky.”

Another reason may be increasing tourism, with temple priests being tempted to perform rituals for visitors whose true significance they may have forgotten. Arriving at Arsinoe, formerly Crocodilopolis, the city of crocodiles, in what is now Fayoum, Strabo witnesses what seems to be a staged performance by the sacred crocodile.

 “Our guide went with us to the lake, carrying a kind of cake and some roasted meat and a pitcher of wine mixed with honey,” he writes. “We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake; and when the priests went up to it, some of them opened its mouth and another put in the cake and then the meat and then poured down the honey mixture. The animal leaped into the lake and rushed across to the far side.”

Diodorus and others

While many ancient authors mention Egypt in their works, fewer show the kind of engagement with the country that might suggest they had visited it. 

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle makes occasional references to Egypt, reporting that the ancient Egyptians invented certain branches of mathematics. Plato, not always known for his openness to outside influences, says that the ancient Egyptian god Thoth invented writing, thereby showing some familiarity with the Egyptian pantheon. 

But while some ancient writers report that both philosophers visited Egypt, they did not leave accounts of their visits behind. Instead, their works would have filled the shelves of the Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s great repositories of learning, and they would have been required reading in Egyptian schools. 

Various lesser writers did visit the country, however. In addition to Strabo, there was the 1st century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who hoped to write a kind of ancient history of the world. He spent time in Egypt in around 60 BCE before writing up his findings in Rome. While much of his history, entitled the “Library,” has been lost, the sections dealing with Egypt have survived.

Born in Sicily, writing in Greek, and living much of his life in Rome, Diodorus was typical of the cosmopolitanism that characterised the ancient Mediterranean, his history being part of a single vision that saw the region as a whole. While it was always possible to write only local histories, it made more sense to approach the past in comparative terms, bringing out the different ways in which different peoples had approached universal concerns. 

Among these were mortality, the nature of the gods, and relations with the natural world, and here Diodorus, like other Greek writers, is struck by ancient Egyptian solutions. The ancient Greeks buried or burned their dead, in contrast to Egyptian practices of mummification. They represented their gods in human form, investing them with human motives and emotions, again in contrast to the ancient Egyptians, who identified their gods with animals or represented them in hybrid forms. 

All this could be hard for visitors to ancient Egypt to understand, with Diodorus being no exception. Like other Greek visitors, he is intrigued by species not known in Greece like hippopotamuses and crocodiles, as well as by what seems to him to be the extravagant veneration of animals. “The practice naturally appears to be extraordinary,” he says. “The Egyptians venerate certain animals not only during their lifetime but even after their death, such as cats and dogs, hawks and the birds they call ibises, as well as wolves and crocodiles.” 

“Whenever a dog is found dead in a house, every resident goes into mourning… If the Egyptians are making a military expedition to another country, they ransom any captive cats and hawks and bring them back to Egypt… They are continually bathing [sacred] animals in warm water, anointing them with precious ointments, and burning precious incense in front of them.” 

The Egyptians say “that the gods who came into existence in the beginning, being few in number and overpowered by the multitude and lawlessness of men, took on the form of certain animals, and in this way saved themselves from the savagery and violence of mankind.” They say that “animals render [service] for the benefit of community life,” citing domesticated animals like cows and sheep, as well as dogs, “useful for protection,” and cats, “useful against snakes.” 

Much of the chronology in Diodorus’s history is garbled, but what comes through is the fact that Greece, when compared to Egypt, is historically much the junior partner, not only because of Egypt’s far greater antiquity, but also because of the Egyptian habit of claiming precedence. 

His interlocutors, mostly temple priests, explain that many Greek cities were originally Egyptian colonies, including Athens. They say that “according to the records in their sacred books, they were visited by the poet Homer… and Solon of Athens [the city’s 6th-century BCE lawgiver] and the philosopher Plato.” They say that “all the things for which these men were admired among the Greeks were transferred from Egypt.”

Diodorus does not give his own opinion on much of what he is told. But he is strikingly positive about the ancient Egyptian political and legal system. “Many of the customs obtained in ancient days among the Egyptians… have aroused no little admiration among the Greeks,” he says. The Egyptians enjoyed the rule of law before other nations as well as limited government. The country’s kings “were not allowed to render any legal decision or transact any business at random… but only in accordance with the established laws relative to each offence.”

His conclusion is that “during most of the time covered by the kings of whom we have a record, the Egyptians maintained an orderly government and continued to enjoy a most felicitous life… and more than that they conquered more nations and achieved greater wealth than any other people and adorned their lands with monuments and buildings never to be surpassed.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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