An Ethiopian Journal

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The Ruins of Empires and the Law of Nature
By C.F. Volney (1890) 


Having recently purchased a set of stereotyped plates of Volney’s Ruins, with a view of reprinting the same, I found, on examination, that they were considerably worn by the many editions that had been printed from them and that they greatly needed both repairs and corrections. A careful estimate showed that the amount necessary for this purpose would go far towards reproducing this standard work in modern type and in an improved form. After due reflection this course was at length decided upon, and all the more readily, as by discarding the old plates and resetting the entire work, the publisher was enabled to greatly enhance its value, by inserting the translator’s preface as it appeared in the original edition, and also to restore many notes and other valuable material which had been carelessly omitted in the American reprint.

An example of an important omission of this kind may be found on the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth pages of this volume, which may be appropriately referred to, in this connection. It is there stated, in describing the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, and the ruins of Thebes, her opulent metropolis, that “There a people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men, now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.”

A voluminous note, in which standard authorities are cited, seems to prove that this statement is substantially correct, and that we are in reality indebted to the ancient Ethiopians, to the fervid imagination of the persecuted and despised negro, for the various religious systems now so highly revered by the different branches of both the Semitic and Aryan races. This fact, which is so frequently referred to in Mr. Volney’s writings, may perhaps solve the question as to the origin of all religions, and may even suggest a solution to the secret so long concealed beneath the flat nose, thick lips, and negro features of the Egyptian Sphinx. It may also confirm the statement of Dioderus, that “the Ethiopians conceive themselves as the inventors of divine worship, of festivals, of solemn assemblies, of sacrifices, and of every other religious practice.”

That an imaginative and superstitious race of black men should have invented and founded, in the dim obscurity of past ages, a system of religious belief that still enthralls the minds and clouds the intellects of the leading representatives of modern theology,–that still clings to the thoughts, and tinges with its potential influence the literature and faith of the civilized and cultured nations of Europe and America, is indeed a strange illustration of the mad caprice of destiny, of the insignificant and apparently trivial causes that oft produce the most grave and momentous results.



* Africa.

** The Mediterranean.

*** Of what real good has been the commerce of India to the mass of the people? On the contrary, how great the evil occasioned by the superstition of this country having been added the general superstition!

O Genius, said I, interrupting him, the sight of a mortal reaches not to objects at such a distance. He touched my eyes, and immediately they became piercing as those of an eagle; nevertheless the rivers still appeared like waving lines, the mountains winding furrows, and the cities little compartments like the squares of a chess-board.

And the Genius proceeded to enumerate and point out the objects to me: Those piles of ruins, said he, which you see in that narrow valley watered by the Nile, are the remains of opulent cities, the pride of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia.* Behold the wrecks of her metropolis, of Thebes with her hundred palaces,** the parent of cities, and monument of the caprice of destiny. There a people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences. A race of men now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe. Lower down, those dusky points are the pyramids whose masses have astonished you. Beyond that, the coast, hemmed in between the sea and a narrow ridge of mountains, was the habitation of the Phoenicians. These were the famous cities of Tyre, of Sidon, of Ascalon, of Gaza, and of Berytus. That thread of water with no outlet, is the river Jordan; and those naked rocks were once the theatre of events that have resounded throughout the world. Behold that desert of Horeb, and that Mount Sinai; where, by means beyond vulgar reach, a genius, profound and bold, established institutions which have weighed on the whole human race. On that dry shore which borders it, you perceive no longer any trace of splendor; yet there was an emporium of riches. There were those famous Ports of Idumea, whence the fleets of Phoenicia and Judea, coasting the Arabian peninsula, went into the Persian gulf, to seek there the pearls of Hevila, the gold of Saba and of Ophir. Yes, there on that coast of Oman and of Barhain was the seat of that commerce of luxuries, which, by its movements and revolutions, fixed the destinies of ancient nations.*** Thither came the spices and precious stones of Ceylon, the shawls of Cassimere, the diamonds of Golconda, the amber of Maldivia, the musk of Thibet, the aloes of Cochin, the apes and peacocks of the continent of India, the incense of Hadramaut, the myrrh, the silver, the gold dust and ivory of Africa; thence passing, sometimes by the Red Sea on the vessels of Egypt and Syria, these luxuries nourished successively the wealth of Thebes, of Sidon, of Memphis and of Jerusalem; sometimes, ascending the Tygris and Euphrates, they awakened the activity of the Assyrians, Medes, Chaldeans, and Persians; and that wealth, according to the use or abuse of it, raised or reversed by turns their domination. Hence sprung the magnificence of Persepolis, whose columns you still perceive; of Ecbatana, whose sevenfold wall is destroyed; of Babylon,**** now leveled with the earth; of Nineveh, of which scarce the name remains; of Thapsacus, of Anatho, of Gerra, and of desolated Palmyra. O names for ever glorious! fields of renown! countries of never-dying memory! what sublime lessons doth your aspect offer! what profound truths are written on the surface of your soil! remembrances of times past, return into my mind! places, witnesses of the life of man in so many different ages, retrace for me the revolutions of his fortune! say, what were their springs and secret causes! say, from what sources he derived success and disgrace! unveil to himself the causes of his evils! correct him by the spectacle of his errors! teach him the wisdom which belongeth to him, and let the experience of past ages become a means of instruction, and a germ of happiness to present and future generations.

* In the new Encyclopedia 3rd vol. Antiquities is published a memoir, respecting the chronology of the twelve ages anterior to the passing of Xerxes into Greece, in which I conceive myself to have proved that upper Egypt formerly composed a distinct kingdom known to the Hebrews by the name of Kous and to which the appellation of Ethiopia was specially given. This kingdom preserved its independence to the time of Psammeticus; at which period, being united to the Lower Egypt, it lost its name of Ethiopia, which thenceforth was bestowed upon the nations of Nubia and upon the different tribes of blacks, including Thebes, their metropolis.

** The idea of a city with a hundred gates, in the common acceptation of the word, is so absurd, that I am astonished the equivoque has not before been felt.

It has ever been the custom of the East to call palaces and houses of the great by the name of gates, because the principal luxury of these buildings consists in the singular gate leading from the street into the court, at the farthest extremity of which the palace is situated. It is under the vestibule of this gate that conversation is held with passengers, and a sort of audience and hospitality given. All this was doubtless known to Homer; but poets make no commentaries, and readers love the marvellous.

This city of Thebes, now Lougsor, reduced to the condition of a miserable village, has left astonishing monuments of its magnificence. Particulars of this may be seen in the plates of Norden, in Pocock, and in the recent travels of Bruce. These monuments give credibility to all that Homer has related of its splendor, and lead us to infer its political power and external commerce.

Its geographical position was favorable to this twofold object. For, on one side, the valley of the Nile, singularly fertile, must have early occasioned a numerous population; and, on the other, the Red Sea, giving communication with Arabia and India, and the Nile with Abyssinia and the Mediterranean, Thebes was thus naturally allied to the richest countries on the globe; an alliance that procured it an activity so much the greater, as Lower Egypt, at first a swamp, was nearly, if not totally, uninhabited. But when at length this country had been drained by the canals and dikes which Sesostris constructed, population was introduced there, and wars arose which proved fatal to the power of Thebes. Commerce then took another route, and descended to the point of the Red Sea, to the canals of Sesostris (see Strabo), and wealth and activity were transferred to Memphis. This is manifestly what Diodorus means when he tells us (lib. i. sect. 2), that as soon as Memphis was established and made a wholesome and delicious abode, kings abandoned Thebes to fix themselves there. Thus Thebes continued to decline, and Memphis to flourish, till the time of Alexander, who, building Alexandria on the border of the sea, caused Memphis to fall in its turn; so that prosperity and power seem to have descended historically step by step along the Nile; whence it results, both physically and historically, that the existence of Thebes was prior to that of the other cities. The testimony of writers is very positive in this respect. “The Thebans,” says Diodorus, “consider themselves as the most ancient people of the earth, and assert, that with them originated philosophy and the science of the stars. Their situation, it is true, is infinitely favorable to astronomical observation, and they have a more accurate division of time into mouths and years than other nations” etc.

What Diodorus says of the Thebans, every author, and himself elsewhere, repeat of the Ethiopians, which tends more firmly to establish the identity of this place of which I have spoken. “The Ethiopians conceive themselves,” says he, lib. iii., “to be of greater antiquity than any other nation: and it is probable that, born under the sun’s path, its warmth may have ripened them earlier than other men. They suppose themselves also to be the inventors of divine worship, of festivals, of solemn assemblies, of sacrifices, and every other religious practice. They affirm that the Egyptians are one of their colonies, and that the Delta, which was formerly sea, became land by the conglomeration of the earth of the higher country which was washed down by the Nile. They have, like the Egyptians, two species of letters, hieroglyphics, and the alphabet; but among the Egyptians the first was known only to the priests, and by them transmitted from father to son, whereas both species were common among the Ethiopians.”

“The Ethiopians,” says Lucian, page 985, “were the first who invented the science of the stars, and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess; and it was from them that this art passed, still in an imperfect state, to the Egyptians.”

It would be easy to multiply citations upon this subject; from all which it follows, that we have the strongest reasons to believe that the country neighboring to the tropic was the cradle of the sciences, and of consequence that the first learned nation was a nation of Blacks; for it is incontrovertible, that, by the term Ethiopians, the ancients meant to represent a people of black complexion, thick lips, and woolly hair. I am therefore inclined to believe, that the inhabitants of Lower Egypt were originally a foreign colony imported from Syria and Arabia, a medley of different tribes of savages, originally shepherds and fishermen, who, by degrees formed themselves into a nation, and who, by nature and descent, were enemies of the Thebans, by whom they were no doubt despised and treated as barbarians.


Written by Tseday

September 14, 2008 at 4:01 pm

Posted in African History, Ethiopia

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