IN 450 B.C. Babylon was falling into decay and dynastic Egypt was nearing the end of its long history. Their palaces, tombs, and temples stood as witness to a great past; their priests told tales of the mighty kings of long ago. The Greek visitor, coming from a homeland still in the vigour of youth, still eagerly experimenting with new ideas and developing new methods of expression, was awed by the vast antiquity of the lands of the Near East, their reverence for tradition, their preoccupation with past greatness. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was one of those who saw and marvelled. He felt something of the debt which his own civilization owed to these countries which had been old when the first Greeks sighted the Aegean Sea, and in his history of the struggle between East and West he set down what he knew of their past. He had been told of Semiramis and Nitocris, of Sesostris and Rhampsinitus; eleven thousand years, said the Egyptians, had passed since the reign of the first Pharaoh. It is probable that his history, distorted and exaggerated though it is, represents the sum of knowledge current among his hosts. Even Manetho, who later had access to the official records, was far from presenting a satisfactory outline of his country's past.
To-day we are more fortunate. Excavation and research have told us more of the ancient civilizations of the East than they could know who saw them in the last stages of their decline. We do not yet possess the whole drama; some acts are still imperfect, some scenes wholly veiled from our sight. But the main lines of development are now clear, and the unfolding of the plot in detail, which goes on year after year, itself gives an added fascination to the study of the past. A stroke of the pick, a turn