Egypt Visited by the First Reporter (Dec. 20)

Egypt Visited by the First Reporter
All phases of life were pictured by Herodotus in his history.
Like a modern newspaper reporter, he combines weird stories,
scandals, and battle accounts with descriptions of places, persons,
and sights about town.
Read from Herodotus’ AN ACCOUNT OF EGYPT Vol. 33, pp. 7-17




WHEN Cyrus had brought his life to an end, Cambyses
received the royal power in succession, being the son of
Cyrus and of Cassandane the daughter of Pharnaspes, for
whose death, which came about before his own, Cyrus had made
great mourning himself and also had proclaimed to all those over
whom he bore rule that they should make mourning for her: Cambyses,
I say, being the son of this woman and of Cyrus, regarded
the Ionians and Aiolians as slaves inherited from his father; and
he proceeded to march an army against Egypt, taking with him as
helpers not only the other nations of which he was ruler, but also
those of the Hellenes over whom he had power besides.
Now the Egyptians, before the time when Psammetichos became
king over them, were wont to suppose that they had come into being
first of all men; but since the time when Psammetichos having become
king desired to know what men had come into being first, they
suppose that the Phrygians came into being before themselves, but
they themselves before all other men. Now Psammetichos, when
he was not able by inquiry to find out any means of knowing who
had come into being first of all men, contrived a device of the following
kind:—Taking two new-born children belonging to persons
of the common sort he gave them to a shepherd to bring up at the
place where his flocks were, with a manner of bringing up such as
I shall say, charging him namely that no man should utter any word
in their presence, and that they should be placed by themselves in
a room where none might come, and at the proper time he should
bring to them she-goats, and when he had satisfied them with milk

he should do for them whatever else was needed. These things
Psammetichos did and gave him this charge wishing to hear what
word the children would let break forth first, after they had ceased
from wailings without sense. And accordingly so it came to pass;
for after a space of two years had gone by, during which the shepherd
went on acting so, at length, when he opened the door and
entered, both the children fell before him in entreaty and uttered
the word bekos, stretching forth their hands. At first when he
heard this the shepherd kept silence; but since this word was often
repeated, as he visited them constantly and attended to them, at
last he declared the matter to his master, and at his command he
brought the children before his face. Then Psammetichos having
himself also heard it, began to inquire what nation of men named
anything bekos, and inquiring he found that the Phrygians had
this name for bread. In this manner and guided by an indication
such as this, the Egyptians were brought to allow that the Phrygians
were a more ancient people than themselves. That so it came to
pass I heard from the priests of that Hephaistos who dwells at
Memphis; but the Hellenes relate, besides many other idle tales,
that Psammetichos cut out the tongues of certain women and then
caused the children to live with these women.
With regard then to the rearing of the children they related so
much as I have said: and I heard also other things at Memphis
when I had speech with the priests of Hephaistos. Moreover I
visited both Thebes and Heliopolis for this very cause, namely because
I wished to know whether the priests at these places would
agree in their accounts with those at Memphis; for the men of
Heliopolis are said to be the most learned in records of the Egyptians.
Those of their narrations which I heard with regard to the
gods I am not earnest to relate in full, but I shall name them only,
because I consider that all men are equally ignorant of these matters:
and whatever things of them I may record, I shall record only
because I am compelled by the course of the story. But as to those
matters which concern men, the priests agreed with one another in
saying that the Egyptians were the first of all men on earth to find
out the course of the year, having divided the seasons into twelve
parts to make up the whole; and this they said they found out from

the stars: and they reckon to this extent more wisely than the Hellenes,
as it seems to me, inasmuch as the Hellenes throw in an intercalated
month every other year, to make the seasons right, whereas
the Egyptians, reckoning the twelve months at thirty days each,
bring in also every year five days beyond the number, and thus
the circle of their seasons is completed and comes round to the
same point whence it set out. They said moreover that the Egyptians
were the first who brought into use appellations for the twelve gods
and the Hellenes took up the use from them; and that they were
the first who assigned altars and images and temples to the gods,
and who engraved figures on stones; and with regard to the greater
number of these things they showed me by actual facts that they
had happened so. They said also that the first man who became
king of Egypt was Min; and that in his time all Egypt except the
district of Thebes was a swamp, and none of the regions were then
above water which now lie below the lake of Moiris, to which lake
it is a voyage of seven days up the river from the sea: and I thought
that they said well about the land; for it is manifest in truth even
to a person who has not heard it beforehand but has only seen, at
least if he have understanding, that the Egypt to which the Hellenes
come in ships is a land which has been won by the Egyptians
as an addition, and that it is a gift of the river: moreover the regions
which lie above this lake also for a distance of three days’
sail, about which they did not go on to say anything of this kind,
are nevertheless another instance of the same thing: for the nature
of the land of Egypt is as follows:—First when you are still approaching
it in a ship and are distant a day’s run from the land,
if you let down a sounding-line you will bring up mud and you
will find yourself in eleven fathoms. This then so far shows that
there is a silting forward of the land. Then secondly, as to Egypt
itself, the extent of it along the sea is sixty schoines, according to our
definition of Egypt as extending from the Gulf of Plinthine to the
Serbonian lake, along which stretches Mount Casion; from this
lake then the sixty schoines are reckoned: for those of men who are
poor in land have their country measured by fathoms, those who
are less poor by furlongs, those who have much land by parasangs,
and those who have land in very great abundance by schoines: now

the parasang is equal to thirty furlongs, and each schoine, which
is an Egyptian measure, is equal to sixty furlongs. So there would
be an extent of three thousand six hundred furlongs for the coastland
of Egypt. From thence and as far as Heliopolis inland Egypt
is broad, and the land is all flat and without springs of water and
formed of mud: and the road as one goes inland from the sea to
Heliopolis is about the same in length as that which leads from the
altar of the twelve gods at Athens to Pisa and the temple of
Olympian Zeus: reckoning up you would find the difference very
small by which these roads fail of being equal in length, not more
indeed than fifteen furlongs; for the road from Athens to Pisa
wants fifteen furlongs of being fifteen hundred, while the road to
Heliopolis from the sea reaches that number completely. From
Heliopolis however, as you go up, Egypt is narrow; for on the one
side a mountain-range belonging to Arabia stretches along by the
side of it, going in a direction from the North towards the midday
and the South Wind, tending upwards without a break to that
which is called the Erythraian Sea, in which range are the stonequarries
which were used in cutting stone for the pyramids at
Memphis. On this side then the mountain ends where I have said,
and then takes a turn back; and where it is widest, as I was informed,
it is a journey of two months across from East to West;
and the borders of it which turn towards the East are said to produce
frankincense. Such then is the nature of this mountain-range;
and on the side of Egypt towards Libya another range extends,
rocky and enveloped in sand: in this are the pyramids, and it runs
in the same direction as those parts of the Arabian mountains which
go towards the midday. So then, I say, from Heliopolis the land
has no longer a great extent so far as it belongs to Egypt, and for
about four days’ sail up the river Egypt properly so called is narrow:
and the space between the mountain-ranges which have been
mentioned is plain-land, but where it is narrowest it did not seem
to me to exceed two hundred furlongs from the Arabian mountains
to those which are called the Libyan. After this again Egypt
is broad. Such is the nature of this land: and from Heliopolis to
Thebes is a voyage up the river of nine days, and the distance of
the journey in furlongs is four thousand eight hundred and sixty,

the number of schoines being eighty-one. If these measures of
Egypt in furlongs be put together, the result is as follows:—I have
already before this shown that the distance along the sea amounts
to three thousand six hundred furlongs, and I will now declare what
the distance is inland from the sea to Thebes, namely six thousand
one hundred and twenty furlongs: and again the distance from
Thebes to the city called Elephantine is one thousand eight hundred
Of this land then, concerning which I have spoken, it seemed
to myself also, according as the priests said, that the greater part
had been won as an addition by the Egyptians; for it was evident to
me that the space between the aforesaid mountain-ranges, which lie
above the city of Memphis, once was a gulf of the sea, like the
regions about Ilion and Teuthrania and Ephesos and the plain of
the Maiander, if it be permitted to compare small things with great;
and small these are in comparison, for of the rivers which heaped up
the soil in those regions none is worthy to be compared in volume
with a single one of the mouths of the Nile, which has five mouths.
Moreover there are other rivers also, not in size at all equal to the
Nile, which have performed great feats; of which I can mention
the names of several, and especially the Acheloos, which flowing
through Acarnania and so issuing out into the sea has already made
half of the Echinades from islands into mainland. Now there is in
the land of Arabia, not far from Egypt, a gulf of the sea running
in from that which is called the Erythraian Sea, very long and narrow,
as I am about to tell. With respect to the length of the voyage
along it, one who set out from the innermost point to sail out
through it into the open sea, would spend forty days upon the voyage,
using oars; and with respect to breadth, where the gulf is
broadest it is half a day’s sail across: and there is in it an ebb and
flow of tide every day. Just such another gulf I suppose that Egypt
was, and that the one ran in towards Ethiopia from the Northern
Sea, and the other, the Arabian, of which I am about to speak,
tended from the South towards Syria, the gulfs boring in so as
almost to meet at their extreme points, and passing by one another
with but a small space left between. If then the stream of the Nile
should turn aside into this Arabian gulf, what would hinder that

gulf from being filled up with silt as the river continued to flow,
at all events within a period of twenty thousand years? indeed for
my part I am of opinion that it would be filled up even within
ten thousand years. How, then, in all the time that has elapsed
before I came into being should not a gulf be filled up even of
much greater size than this by a river so great and so active? As
regards Egypt then, I both believe those who say that things are
so, and for myself also I am strongly of opinion that they are so;
because I have observed that Egypt runs out into the sea further
than the adjoining land, and that shells are found upon the mountains
of it, and an efflorescence of salt forms upon the surface, so
that even the pyramids are being eaten away by it, and moreover
that of all the mountains of Egypt, the range which lies above
Memphis is the only one which has sand: besides which I notice
that Egypt resembles neither the land of Arabia, which borders
upon it, nor Libya, nor yet Syria (for they are Syrians who dwell
in the parts of Arabia lying along the sea), but that it has soil
which is black and easily breaks up, seeing that it is in truth mud
and silt brought down from Ethiopia by the river: but the soil of
Libya, we know, is reddish in colour and rather sandy, while that
of Arabia and Syria is somewhat clayey and rocky. The priests
also gave me a strong proof concerning this land as follows, namely
that in the reign of king Moiris, whenever the river reached a
height of at least eight cubits, it watered Egypt below Memphis;
and not yet nine hundred years had gone by since the death of
Moiris, when I heard these things from the priests: now however,
unless the river rises to sixteen cubits, or fifteen at the least, it does
not go over the land. I think too that those Egyptians who dwell
below the lake of Moiris and especially in that region which is
called the Delta, if that land continues to grow in height according
to this proportion and to increase similarly in extent, will suffer
for all remaining time, from the Nile not overflowing their land,
that same thing which they themselves said that the Hellenes would
at some time suffer: for hearing that the whole land of the Hellenes
has rain and is not watered by rivers as theirs is, they said that
the Hellenes would at some time be disappointed of a great hope
and would suffer the ills of famine. This saying means that if the

god shall not send them rain, but shall allow drought to prevail for
a long time, the Hellenes will be destroyed by hunger; for they
have in fact no other supply of water to save them except from
Zeus alone. This has been rightly said by the Egyptians with reference
to the Hellenes: but now let me tell how matters are with
the Egyptians themselves in their turn. If, in accordance with what
I before said, their land below Memphis (for this is that which is
increasing) shall continue to increase in height according to the
same proportion as in the past time, assuredly those Egyptians who
dwell here will suffer famine, if their land shall not have rain nor
the river be able to go over their fields. It is certain, however, that
now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labour than any
other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they
have no labour in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in hoeing
nor in any other of those labours which other men have about a
crop; but when the river has come up of itself and watered their
fields and after watering has left them again, then each man sows
his own field and turns into it swine, and when he has trodden the
seed into the ground by means of the swine, after that he waits
for the harvest, and when he has threshed the corn by means of the
swine, then he gathers it in.
If we desire to follow the opinions of the Ionians as regards
Egypt, who say that the Delta alone is Egypt, reckoning its seacoast
to be from the watch-tower called of Perseus to the fish-curing
houses of Pelusion, a distance of forty schoines, and counting it to
extend inland as far as the city of Kercasoros, where the Nile divides
and runs to Pelusion and Canobos, while as for the rest of
Egypt, they assign it partly to Libya and partly to Arabia,—if, I say,
we should follow this account, we should thereby declare that in
former times the Egyptians had no land to live in; for, as we have
seen, their Delta at any rate is alluvial, and has appeared (so to
speak) lately, as the Egyptians themselves say and as my opinion
is. If, then, at the first there was no land for them to live in, why
did they waste their labour to prove that they had come into being
before all other men? They needed not to have made trial of the
children to see what language they would first utter. However I
am not of opinion that the Egyptians came into being at the same

time as that which is called by the Ionians the Delta, but that they
existed always ever since the human race came into being, and that
as their land advanced forwards, many of them were left in their
first abodes and many came down gradually to the lower parts. At
least it is certain that in old times Thebes had the name of Egypt,
and of this the circumference measures six thousand one hundred
and twenty furlongs.
If then we judge aright of these matters, the opinion of the
Ionians about Egypt is not sound: but if the judgment of the Ionians
is right, I declare that neither the Hellenes nor the Ionians themselves
know how to reckon since they say that the whole earth is
made up of three divisions, Europe, Asia, and Libya: for they ought
to count in addition to these the Delta of Egypt, since it belongs
neither to Asia nor to Libya; for at least it cannot be the river
Nile by this reckoning which divides Asia from Libya, but the Nile
is cleft at the point of this Delta so as to flow round it, and the
result is that this land would come between Asia and Libya.
We dismiss then the opinion of the Ionians, and express a judgment
of our own on this matter also, that Egypt is all that land
which is inhabited by Egyptians, just as Kilikia is that which is inhabited
by Kilikians and Assyria that which is inhabited by Assyrians,
and we know of no boundary properly speaking between Asia
and Libya except the borders of Egypt. If however we shall adopt
the opinion which is commonly held by the Hellenes, we shall suppose
that the whole of Egypt, beginning from the Cataract and
the city of Elephantine, is divided into two parts and that it thus
partakes of both the names, since one side will thus belong to Libya
and the other to Asia; for the Nile from the Cataract onwards flows
to the sea cutting Egypt through in the midst; and as far as the
city of Kercasoros the Nile flows in one single stream, but from this
city onwards it is parted into three ways; and one, which is called
the Pelusian mouth, turns towards the East; the second of the ways
goes towards the West, and this is called the Canobic mouth; but
that one of the ways which is straight runs thus,—when the river
in its course downwards comes to the point of the Delta, then it
cuts the Delta through the midst and so issues out to the sea. In
this we have a portion of the water of the river which is not the

smallest nor the least famous, and it is called the Sebennytic mouth.
There are also two other mouths which part off from the Sebennytic
and go to the sea, and these are called, one the Saitic, the other
the Mendesian mouth. The Bolbitinitic, and Bucolic mouths, on the
other hand, are not natural but made by digging. Moreover also
the answer given by the Oracle of Ammon bears witness in support
of my opinion that Egypt is of the extent which I declare it to be
in my account; and of this answer I heard after I had formed my
own opinion about Egypt. For those of the city of Marea and of
Apis, dwelling in the parts of Egypt which border on Libya, being
of opinion themselves that they were Libyans and not Egyptians,
and also being burdened by the rules of religious service, because
they desired not to be debarred from the use of cows’ flesh, sent to
Ammon saying that they had nought in common with the Egyptians,
for they dwelt outside the Delta and agreed with them in
nothing; and they said they desired that it might be lawful for
them to eat everything without distinction. The god however did
not permit them to do so, but said that that land was Egypt which
the Nile came over and watered, and that those were Egyptians
who dwelling below the city of Elephantine drank of that river.
Thus was it answered to them by the Oracle about this: and the
Nile, when it is in flood, goes over not only the Delta but also of
the land which is called Libyan and of that which is called Arabian
sometimes as much as two days’ journey on each side, and at times
even more than this or at times less.
As regards the nature of the river, neither from the priests nor
yet from any other man was I able to obtain any knowledge: and
I was desirous especially to learn from them about these matters,
namely, why the Nile comes down increasing in volume from the
summer solstice onwards for a hundred days, and then, when it has
reached the number of these days, turns and goes back, failing in
its stream, so that through the whole winter season it continues to
be low, and until the summer solstice returns. Of none of these
things was I able to receive any account from the Egyptians, when
I inquired of them what power the Nile has whereby it is of a
nature opposite to that of all other rivers. And I made inquiry, desiring
to know both this which I say and also why, unlike all other

rivers, it does not give rise to any breezes blowing from it. However
some of the Hellenes who desired to gain distinction for cleverness
have given an account of this water in three different ways:
two of these I do not think it worth while even to speak of except
only to indicate their nature; of which the one says that the Etesian
Winds are the cause that makes the river rise, by preventing the
Nile from flowing out into the sea. But often the Etesian Winds
fail and yet the Nile does the same work as it is wont to do; and
moreover, if these were the cause, all the other rivers also which
flow in a direction opposed to the Etesian Winds ought to have
been affected in the same way as the Nile, and even more, in as
much as they are smaller and present to them a feebler flow of
streams: but there are many of these rivers in Syria and many also
in Libya, and they are affected in no such manner as the Nile. The
second way shows more ignorance than that which has been mentioned,
and it is more marvellous to tell; for it says that the river
produces these effects because it flows from the Ocean, and that the
Ocean flows round the whole earth. The third of the ways is much
the most specious, but nevertheless it is the most mistaken of all:
for indeed this way has no more truth in it than the rest, alleging
as it does that the Nile flows from melting snow; whereas it flows
out of Libya through the midst of the Ethiopians, and so comes
out into Egypt. How then should it flow from snow, when it flows
from the hottest parts to those which are cooler? And indeed most
of the facts are such as to convince a man (one at least who is capable
of reasoning about such matters), that it is not at all likely that it
flows from snow. The first and greatest evidence is afforded by
the winds, which blow hot from these regions; the second is that
the land is rainless always and without frost, whereas after snow
has fallen rain must necessarily come within five days, so that if it
snowed in those parts rain would fall there; the third evidence is
afforded by the people dwelling there, who are of a black colour by
reason of the burning heat. Moreover kites and swallows remain
there through the year and do not leave the land; and cranes flying
from the cold weather which comes on in the region of Scythia
come regularly to these parts for wintering: if then it snowed ever
so litde in that land through which the Nile flows and in which it

has its rise, none of these things would take place, as necessity compels
us to admit. As for him who talked about the Ocean, he carried
his tale into the region of the unknown, and so he need not
be refuted; since I for my part know of no river Ocean existing, but I
think that Homer or one of the poets who were before him invented
the name and introduced it into his verse.

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