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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

A LITTLE OLD WORLD

[1] NO story is complete unless it begins at the very beginning. But where is the beginning? Where is the dawn of geography—the knowledge of our earth? What was it like before the first explorers made their way into distant lands? Every day that passes we are gaining fresh knowledge of the dim and silent past.

Every day men are patiently digging in the old heaps that were once the sites of busy cities, and, as a result of their unwearying toil, they are revealing to us the life-stories of those who dwelt therein; they are disclosing secrets writ on weather-worn stones and tablets, bricks and cylinders, never before even guessed at.

Thus we read the wondrous story of ancient days, and breathlessly wonder what marvelous discovery will thrill us next.

For the earliest account of the old world—a world made up apparently of a little land and a little water—we turn to an old papyrus, the oldest in existence, which tells us in familiar words, unsurpassed for their exquisite poetry and wondrous simplicity, of that great dateless time so full of mystery and awe.

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness [2] was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God . . . divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. . . . And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear. . . . And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas."

Thus beautifully did the children of men express their earliest idea of the world's distribution of land and water.

And where, on our modern maps, was this little earth, and what was it like? Did trees and flowers cover the land? Did rivers flow into the sea? Listen again to the old tradition that still rings down the ages—

"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden . . and a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads. The name of the first is Pison . . and the name of the second river is Gihon; the name of the third river is Hiddekel (Tigris). And the fourth river is Euphrates."

Now look at a modern map of Asia. Between Arabia and Persia there is a long valley watered by the Tigris and Euphrates, rivers which rise in Armenia and flow into the Persian Gulf. This region was the traditional "cradle of the human race." Around and beyond was a great world, a world with great surging seas, with lands of trees and flowers, a world with continents and lakes [3] and bays and capes, with islands and mountains and rivers.

There were vast deserts of sand rolling away to right and to left there were mountains up which no man had climbed; there were stormy seas over which no ship had ever sailed. But these men of old had never explored far. They believed that their world was just a very little world, with no other occupants than themselves. They believed it to be flat, with mountains at either end on which rested a solid metal dome known as the "firmament."

In this shining circle were windows, in and out of which the sun would creep by day and the moon and stars by night. And the whole of this world was, they thought, balanced on the waters. There was water above, the "waters that be above the firmament," and water below, and water all around. Long ages pass away. Let us look again at the green valley of the Euphrates and Tigris. It has been called the "nursery of nations"—names have been given to various regions round about, and cities have arisen on the banks of the rivers. Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, Assyria—all these long names belonged to this region, and around each centres some of the most interesting history and legend in the world.

Rafts on the river and caravans on the land carried [4] merchandise far and wide—men made their way to the "Sea of the Rising Sun," as they called the Persian Gulf, and to the "Sea of the Setting Sun," as they called the Mediterranean. They settled on the shores of the Caspian Sea, on the shores of the Black Sea, on the shores of the Red Sea. They carried on magnificent trade—cedar, pine, and cypress were brought from Lebanon to Chaldea, limestone and marble from Syria, copper and lead from the shores of the Black Sea.


[Illustration]

THE OLDEST KNOWN SHIPS: BETWEEN 6000 AND 5000 B.C.
(FROM A PRE-EGYPTIAN VASE-PAINTING).

And these dwellers about Babylonia built up a wonderful civilisation. They had temples and brick-built houses, libraries of tablets revealing knowledge of astronomy and astrology; they had a literature of their own. Suddenly from out the city of Ur (Kerbela), near the ancient mouth of the Euphrates, appears a traveller. There had doubtless been many before, but records are scanty and hard to piece together, and a detailed account of a traveller with a name is very interesting.

"Abram went . . . forth to go into the land of Canaan. . . . And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South. And there was a famine in the land. And Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there." He would have travelled by the chief caravan routes of Syria into Egypt. Here about the fertile mouth of the Nile he would have found an ancient civilisation as wonderful as that to which he was accustomed in Baby- [5] lonia. It was a grain-growing country, and when there was famine in other lands, there was always "corn in Egypt"—thanks to the mighty life-giving Nile.

But we must not linger over the old civilisation, over the wonderful Empire governed by the Pharaohs or kings, first from Memphis (Cairo) and then from the hundred-gated Thebes; must not linger over these old pyramid builders, the temple, sphinxes, and statues of ancient Egypt. Before even Abram came into their country we find the Egyptians famous for their shipping and navigation. Old pictures and tombs recently discovered tell us this.

On the coast of the Red Sea they built their long, narrow ships, which were rowed by some twenty paddlers on either side, and steered by three men standing in the stern. With one mast and a large sail, they flew before the wind. They had to go far afield for their wood; we find an Egyptian being sent "to cut down four forests in the South in order to build three large vessels . . . out of acacia wood."

Petrie tells us of an Egyptian sailor who was sent to Punt or Somaliland "to fetch for Pharaoh sweet-smelling spices." He was shipwrecked on the way, and this is the account of his adventures—

" 'I was going,' he relates, 'to the mines of Pharaoh and I went down on the sea on a ship with a hundred and fifty sailors of the best of Egypt, whose hearts were stronger than lions. They had said that the wind would be contrary, or that there would be none. But as we approached the land the wind rose and threw up high waves. As for me, I seized a piece of wood; but those who were in the vessel perished, without one remaining. A wave threw me on an island; after that I had been three days alone without a companion beside my own heart, I laid me in a thicket, and the shadow covered me. I [6] found figs and grapes, all manner of good herbs, berries and grain, melons of all kinds, fishes and birds. I lighted a fire and I made a burnt-offering unto the gods. Suddenly I heard a noise as of thunder, which I thought to be that of a wave of the sea. The trees shook and the earth was moved. I uncovered my eyes and I saw that a serpent drew near; his body was as if overlaid with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli.'

" 'What has brought thee here, little one, to this isle, which is in the sea and of which the shores are in the midst of the waves?' asked the serpent.

"The sailor told his story kneeling on his knees, with his face bowed to the ground.

" 'Fear not, little one, and make not thy face sad,' continued the serpent, 'for it is God who has brought thee to this isle of the blest, where nothing is lacking and which is filled with all good things. Thou shalt be four months in this isle. Then a ship shall come from thy land with sailors, and thou shalt go to thy country. As for me, I am a prince of the land of Punt. I am here with my brethren and children around me; we are seventy-five serpents, children and kindred.'

"Then the grateful sailor promised to bring all the treasures of Egypt back to Punt, and 'I shall tell of thy presence unto Pharaoh; I shall make him to know of thy greatness,' said the Egyptian stranger.

"But the strange prince of Punt only smiled.

" 'Thou shalt never more see this isle,' he said; 'it shall be changed into waves.' "

Everything came to pass as the serpent said. The ship came, gifts were lavished on the sailor from Egypt, perfumes of cassia, of sweet woods, of cypress, incense, ivory tusks, baboons, and apes, and thus laden he sailed home to his own people.

Long centuries after this we get another glimpse at [7] the land of Punt. This time it is in the reign of Queen Hatshepsu, who sent a great trading expedition into this famous country. Five ships started from Thebes, sailing down the river Nile and probably reaching the Red Sea by means of a canal. Navigation in the Red Sea was difficult; the coast was steep and inhospitable; no rivers ran into it. Only a few fishing villages lay along the coasts used by Egyptian merchants as markets for mother-of-pearl, emeralds, gold, and sweet-smelling perfumes.

Thence the ships continued their way, the whole voyage taking about two months. Arrived at Punt, the Egyptian commander pitched his tents upon the shore, to the great astonishment of the inhabitants.


[Illustration]

EYPTIAN SHIP OF THE EXPEDITION TO PUNT, ABOUT 1600 B.C.
(FROM A ROCK-CARVING AT DER EL BAHARI.)

"Why have ye come hither unto this land, which the people of Egypt know not?" asked the Chief of Punt. "Have ye come through the sky? Did ye sail upon the waters or upon the sea?"

Presents from the Queen of Egypt were at once laid before the Chief of Punt, and soon the seashore was alive [8] with people. The ships were drawn up, gang-planks were very heavily laden with "marvels of the country of Punt." There were heaps of myrrh, resin, of fresh myrrh trees, ebony and pure ivory, cinnamon wood, incense, baboons, monkeys, dogs, natives, and children. "Never was the like brought to any king of Egypt since the world stands." And the ships voyaged safely back to Thebes with all their booty and with pleasant recollections of the people of Somaliland.


[Illustration]

THE ARK ON ARARAT AND THE CITIES OF NINEVEH AND BABYLON.
(FROM LEONARDO'DATI'S MAP OF 1422.)

In spite of these little expeditions the Egyptian world seemed still very small. The Egyptians thought of the earth with its land and sea as a long, oblong sort of box, the centre of which was Egypt. The sky stretched over it like an iron ceiling, the part toward the earth being sprinkled with lamps hung from strong cables lighted by night and extinguished by day. Four forked trunks of trees upheld the sky roof. But lest some storm should overthrow these tree trunks there were four lofty peaks connected by chains of mountains. The southern peak was known as the "Horn of the Earth," the eastern, the "Mountain of Birth," the western, the "Region of Life," the southern was invisible. And why? Because they [9] thought the Great Sea, the "Very Green," the Mediterranean, lay between it and Egypt. Beyond these mountain peaks, supporting the world, rolled a great river, an ocean stream, and the sun was as a ball of fire placed on a boat and carried round the ramparts of the world by the all-encircling water.

So we realise that the people living in Babylonia about the river Euphrates, and those living in Egypt about the river Nile, had very strange ideas about the little old world around them.


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