The earliest extant history of ancient Egypt is preserved in the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian priest (c. 300 BC) who lived at the Temple of Sebennytos in the Delta. As a priest, he had intimate knowledge of the religious beliefs and customs and temple rituals, and he could read both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
When Egypt became a province of the Roman empire in 30 BC, travellers and writers began to regard the country as a safe place to visit. They travelled from distant parts of the empire to marvel at the ancient monuments and to gain a first-hand impression of this strange and exotic civilisation. Several writers of this period have left us their personal accounts and descriptions of Egyptian culture, and these remained the major source for studying the history, geography, art, religion and customs, until hieroglyphs were deciphered in the nineteenth century.
However, even before Egypt was absorbed into the Roman empire, the most famous Classical eye-witness account was written by Herodotus (c. 484-430 BC), who today is regarded as the ‘Father of History’ because he was the first commentator who seriously attempted to separate fantasy and speculation from reality. Born at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, Herodotus wrote his works in Greek.
Herodotus’ Histories describes the great conflict between Greece and Persia. When he retired to Thurii in Italy, he added to this work, including a digression from the main theme (Book II, ‘Euterpe’) which was devoted to the examination and interpretation of the history and geography of Egypt.
One of the most significant aspects of Herodotus’ career as a writer and historian was his personal involvement in his subject-matter: he actually visited the places and people that he described. In c. 450 BC he travelled to Egypt, which was then under Persian domination, and was thus able to give his own first-hand description of the monuments he saw there, and to draw on the ‘facts’ which were relayed to him by the priests and other people he encountered on his travels.
He provides most information about the northern sites in Egypt, describing the Giza pyramids (which he correctly identified as royal burial places), and places in the Fayoum district such as Lake Moeris (now Birket Qarun) and the great temple and administrative complex known as The Labyrinth which, he claimed, must have cost more in labour and money than all the
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Publication information: Book title: The Experience of Ancient Egypt. Contributors: Rosalie David - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 51.
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