Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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King Tut Exhibit

faraokt3The King Tut Exhibit is in America till the end of September 2007. By November it will be in London. It is a road show that travels the world.

I saw it on August 18th 2007. While it is not cheap and you do not understand much of what you are looking at, it is still worth it. It is not every day that you get to see the lost treasure of a king from 3,000 years ago.

If you are thinking of going, then:

  • Get the Rough Guide to King Tut and read as much of it as you can beforehand. I wish I had done that!
  • Get the audio guide: it will save you a good deal of reading when you are there.
  • Try not to bring children.

You do not see King Tutankhamen’s body. That is back in Egypt. So is his death mask: that thing made of gold and something blue that has his face, the thing you probably think of first when you think of King Tut.

What you do see are some of the treasures that were found in the rooms of his grave – along with those of some of his relations. You can see what he had in this life and what he needed for the afterlife.

All of it very 18th Dynasty, which means you do not always understand what you are looking at. Which means trying to read what it is while the people behind you are trying to push you along.

The main trouble is that you do not understand the religion. You are like a Buddhist in the Vatican. You do not know their gods or how it is one got into the afterlife.

Try not to bring children: my boys are 10 and 12 and were bored. It requires too much university-level reading. It took them less than an hour to go through it, it took me two.

What the show needs are guides who will walk you through and tell you what each object is and answer questions. But that would mean paying guides (and good ones cannot be cheap) and letting fewer people through. So perhaps the show would not make money that way.

But there are three cheaper ways to make the show better:

  1. Have a short film at the beginning which tells you the most important things you need to know to understand the treasures. A bit on history and a bit on religion. Make it clear how ancient and rare these things are. The History Channel makes us think these things are all over the place in Egypt.
  2. Have the audio guide talk about more objects.
  3. Make the reading easier. I would offer three levels: one written by experts (what they have now), one written by USA Today and one written by a latter-day A. A. Milne. We would all read the Milne, of course, but that is fine. Think of it: we could read it to our children too. It would be like walking through a storybook.

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King Tutankhamen

King Tutankhamen (-1337 to -1318), or King Tut for short, was the pharaoh or king of Egypt from -1327 to -1318, from age 9 to 19. Being only a boy he had little power and was soon forgotten. But then in +1922 he became the most famous pharaoh ever when Howard Carter discovered his body and his treasures. They had lain under the sands of Egypt for over 3,000 years.

Ancient Egypt laid their kings to rest in pyramids. The pyramids have stood for thousands of years, but all of them are empty, having been robbed of everything long ago. That is why the King Tut find was so amazing. It would be like finding a London flat from 1922 in near perfect condition in 5100s.

King Tut is so ancient he lived a hundred years before Moses and the fall of Troy.

Howard Carter was one of the few who believed there was still a king and his treasure to be found. But after 15 years even he was about to give up. All he found of Tutankhamen was a cup and some gold leaf. But then one of his workers found steps leading down into the sand. It led to a door…

King Tut’s treasures, but not his body, are part of a travelling show that goes round the world.

His body had a broken leg and a blow to the head. The blow to the head came after death, but his leg he broke just days before he died.

He stood 1.70 metres tall, had a long head and an overbite. When he died his hair was in dreadlocks.

He loved the game of senet: we have four of his boards. Two little girls were also found with him. Maybe his daughters. We know he had no sons.

Tutankhamen married the daughter of king Akhenaten and the beautiful queen Nefertiti.

Akhenaten was king before Tutankhamen. He did away with all but one god, Aten, a sun god. He closed the temples of the other gods, making enemies of their priests and believers. He also moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna and tried to get the Egyptians to draw in a natural style – not in that ancient side-of-the-head thing.

None of it lasted. When Akhenaten died and Tutankhamen became king, all the old ways were brought back: the old gods and their priests and temples, the old capital and even the old way of drawing.

Tutankhamen was only nine when he became king. Most of the power was in the hands of Ay, his top minister, and Horemheb, his top general. Both were to become pharaohs after he died.

In the last year of his short life, Tutankhamen fought in Syria with the Mitanni against the Hittites.

In a later age Tutankhamen and some others were stricken from the lists of kings. So people forgot about him – even the grave robbers forgot. Which is why his grave has lasted down to our time.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2018): Changed the dates to match “The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” (1996) so that my Ancient Egyptian posts use consistent dates. Note, though, that dates as far back as King Tut’s time can easily be 35 years off.

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Paper (3000 BC – ) is a material for writing that comes in thin sheets. Books, magazines and newspapers are made out of paper. When I first wrote this, it was on paper.

Paper is no longer the only thing you can write on. You can also write on a computer. That makes whatever you write easy to copy, search, send and print, but it also requires having a computer. Paper is still cheaper and easier to use than a computer: you can fold it up and put in your pocket. No batteries required.

For example, right now I am writing this on paper. I have my computer with me, but I am on a packed bus and do not have enough room to use it. My little black notebook, where two-thirds of these postings get their start, does not have that drawback.

Paper has not always been made from wood.

Paper was first made out of papyrus – that is where the name comes from. Papyrus was a plant which grew along the Nile. You could make paper out of it that was easy to write and draw on. The paper was also much thicker and stronger and lasted longer than ours. It was even washable. It was the sort of paper you needed to make a scroll.

But papyrus is not good for making a codex: a book like the ones we are used to where all the pages are bound together at one end. A codex is much better than a scroll, so no one uses papyrus any more.

Parchment took the place of papyrus. It is made from animal skins, like from sheep. It is named after the city of Pergamon where it was first made. Pergamon used to have the second best library in the world. The best library in the world at the time, the Library of Alexandria, was afraid Pergamon would become the best, so they stopped papyrus from leaving Egypt. This forced Pergamon to come up with a new sort of paper: parchment.

Parchment is much thinner than papyrus so books could be smaller. But it was not cheap stuff: to make a large church Bible, for example, took 200 sheep skins!

In the 100s the Chinese found out how to make paper from wood. This is the sort of paper that we know. It did not reach the West till the 1200s. It came through Spain from the Muslim world, not as a general writing material – few knew how to write – but as something for making Korans.

With computers a new sort of paper is possible: electronic paper. Like other kinds of paper it can hold a mark and be taken anywhere – it does not need to be powered like a computer. Yet a computer can write and rewrite on it. A book made of this paper could become any book you like. You could even make this blog into a book.

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Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.

Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.

It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:

  • Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
  • Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
  • Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
  • Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.

Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.

The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.

He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.

Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.

For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.

Origen’s New Testament included:

  • Acts of Paul
  • 1 Clement
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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Claudius Ptolemy (about 100-170) of Alexandria is the inventor of the Ptolemaic system, a theory of the heavens that said the stars, sun, moon and planets went round the earth. The earth did not move, it did not even turn. In the early 1600s this was replaced by the theory of Copernicus and Kepler that held that the earth and everything else went round the sun.

Ptolemy also wrote about music, astrology, optics and geography. He was among the first to apply trigonometry to science.

He wrote about his theory of the heavens in the “Almagest” (150) and other works. With it you can get the position of the sun, moon and planets on any given day, past, present or future.

Ptolemy built his theory on 25 years of his own observations and the work of Hipparchus — and probably the work of others (now lost).

The Almagest is a work of genius and beauty that stood for over a thousand years, but it is hardly perfect:

  • We now know some of his observations were made up.
  • It contains arithmetic errors that just happen to let his proofs come out right.
  • It was based on Aristotle’s physics, some of which was easy to prove wrong if anyone took the trouble to check it out against the real world. Someone finally did: Galileo.

Ptolemy takes Aristotle’s physics as a given and then comes up with a theory that fits both Aristotle and his observations.

The root trouble with his theory is not what you think – where he put the earth – but his use of circles.

According to Aristotle heavenly bodies were made up of something called quintessence. Quintessence, being perfect moved in perfect circles. Aristotle said that was the perfect motion.

And so Ptolemy manfully stuck to circles. But to get his circles to match his observations, he needed circles within circles – the dreaded epicycles.

Planets move in stretched-out circles called ellipses, as Kepler later found out. It is not that Ptolemy could not do ellipses – it was just the sort of thing he was good at. It was his physics that held him back.

Copernicus used circles and epicycles too, so he was not that much better. It was not till the work of Galileo, Kepler and Newton that Copernicus’ theory won the day. Galileo proved it true, Kepler made it usable and Newton provided the physics.

Astrology: Ptolemy believed that the movements of the heavens affect us. In his book “Tetrabiblios” he shows how in terms of Aristotle’s physics.

Geography: his book on geography was not known in the West till 1300. In it he gives the latitude and longitude of over 8000 places from Spain to China, making possible a detailed map of the world as it was known in Alexandria in his day. It is from Ptolemy that we get the idea of north being “up.”


Ptolemy’s world map (c. AD 150)

Ptolemy knew the earth was round but thought it was smaller than it really is. That is why Columbus thought that he could easily get to Asia by sailing west across the ocean.

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The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646) was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for almost a thousand years. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.

The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:

  • putting things in alphabetical order,
  • dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
  • the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
  • the works of Homer as we know them,
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
  • punctuation,
  • the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
  • latitude and longitude,
  • heliocentrism.

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.

Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.

It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..

Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..

The Library was (partly) destroyed in:

  • -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
  • 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
  • 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
  • 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
  • 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.

Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt (-2900 to -30) lasted from its first king, Namer, to its last queen, Cleopatra.  Its glory days were from -2900 to -1069. After that it fell under foreign rule. It is famous for its pyramids, the huge buildings where they buried their pharaohs (god kings) as mummies.

Egypt was, compared to later times, a small and weak country. Its army was no match for the Persians or the Greeks, much less the Romans. All the same, before -1100 few could match Egypt in learning, art, invention or warfare.

Most of Ancient Egypt – its cities and towns – were on or close to the Nile river. Yet the fertile land was not completely farmed – there was still a lot of wilderness left.

Egypt comes in two parts:

  • Lower Egypt: the north, the Delta, where the Nile branches out before it reaches the sea.
  • Upper Egypt: south Egypt where the Nile follows a single course.

The two chief cities were Memphis in the north where all the great pyramids are, and Thebes in the middle, where its great temples are. For most of its history Egypt was ruled from Thebes.

There were three great periods in Egypt’s ancient history:

  • -2686 to -2160: Old Kingdom
  • -2055 to -1650: Middle Kingdom
  • -1550 to -1069: New Kingdom

Each period lasted about 400 to 500 years, when there was peace and prosperity. In between each was a hundred years of war, when royal families fought one another – or foreigners came to make themselves kings.

The Great Sphinx and most of the famous pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom. The picture that most people have of Egypt, however, comes from the New Kingdom, particularly the time of King Tut (-1300s) and Ramesses II (-1200s).

The most famous book of Ancient Egypt is the “Book of the Dead”, written about -1550, at the beginning of the New Kingdom. Some of the Proverbs of the Bible come from the “Instruction of Amenemope”, written during the later half of the New Kingdom.

Ancient Egyptian writing is known as hieroglyphics. For over a thousand years people had forgotten how to read them, till the early 1800s when Napoleon’s army found the Rosetta Stone in Egypt. It had hieroglyphics translated into Greek.

Hieroglyphics are a kind of picture writing. Some of the pictures tell you what a word means, some tell you how to say it. It is more a system of suggestions for those who already know Egyptian than a faithful record of a spoken language. Most English letters come from an Egyptian hieroglyph.

Since -1069, Egypt has repeatedly fallen under foreign rule:

  • c. -780: Nubian,
  • -525: Persian,
  • -323: Greek (Ptolemaic),
  • -30: Roman / Byzantine,
  • +642: Arab,
  • +1517: Turkish (Ottoman),
  • +1882: British,
  • c. +1980: American (as a banana republic).

After Cleopatra:

Religion: By +200, Christianity had spread throughout Egypt. In +391 public worship of the old gods was outlawed. By the 600s even their private worship had probably died out. It was not till the 1300s that most people were Muslim.

Language: Starting in the -300s, the top people became Greek-speaking. Most people, though, continued to speak Coptic, a late form of Egyptian. From the 600s to the 1600s, Arabic slowly took the place of Coptic. Now you only hear Coptic in church.

– Abagond, 2006, 2016.

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St Antony of Egypt

St Anthony of Egypt (251-356) was the first Christian monk. There is not just one famous St Anthony, but two: the one from Egypt who lived in the fourth century and became the first Christian monk and the other, who lived almost a thousand years later in Padua, Italy. It is the second St Antony that is well known in Catholic circles. Most of the Tonys of the world owe their name to him. But here I am speaking of the St Antony from Egypt. Most Christian monks of the world owe their way of life to him.

St Antony of Egypt lived in the mountains of eastern Egypt. He had no money (having sold his father’s estate to give the money to the poor), little schooling and when he died all he had were two changes of clothing. Yet he had an absolute faith in God, a deep knowledge of Holy Scripture and could work miracles. The high and mighty sought him out. By the power of his simple example he changed the world.

Before Antony there were men and women who gave their lives completely to God, giving up any idea of wealth, family or even self-will. But it was the example of Antony that made such a life something to be admired and followed by the many. More than that, he made it an established way of life by founding the first monasteries.

For Antony life was a ceaseless battle against the Devil and his demons. The Greeks feared them as gods and even for serious Christians they made following a holy life difficult. Antony found that not only prayer, good works, faith in Christ and the sign of the cross were good ways to resist them, but so was avoiding luxury and denying the body.

While most lived for family or wealth, he had neither, living only for God. He had no money, no sex and lived on very little food. Often he stayed up all night praying. He spent his days praying, reading Scripture and working in the fields.

We live in luxury in the name of good health. Antony took the opposite path and still lived to be a hundred. We value the health of the body, but Antony saw that what matters more is the health of the soul. And a soul that is a slave to the body’s desires is not a healthy soul.

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