|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
THE EGYPTIANS INVENT THE ART OF WRITING AND THE RECORD OF HISTORY BEGINS
 THESE earliest ancestors of ours who lived in the great
European wilderness were rapidly learning many new things.
It is safe to say that in due course of time they would have
given up the ways of savages and would have developed a
civilisation of their own. But suddenly there came an end to
their isolation. They were discovered.
A traveller from an unknown southland who had dared to
cross the sea and the high mountain passes had found his way
to the wild people of the European continent. He came from
Africa. His home was in Egypt.
The valley of the Nile had developed a high stage of civilisation
thousands of years before the people of the west had
dreamed of the possibilities of a fork or a wheel or a house.
And we shall therefore leave our great-great-grandfathers in
their caves, while we visit the southern and eastern shores of
the Mediterranean, where stood the earliest school of the
The Egyptians have taught us many things. They were
excellent farmers. They knew all about irrigation. They built
temples which were afterwards copied by the Greeks and which
served as the earliest models for the churches in which we worship
nowadays. They had invented a calendar which proved
 such a useful instrument for the purpose of measuring time
that it has survived with a few changes until today. But most
important of all, the Egyptians had learned how to preserve
speech for the benefit of future generations. They had invented
the art of writing.
We are so accustomed to newspapers and books and magazines
that we take it for granted that the world has always been
able to read and write. As a matter of fact, writing, the most
important of all inventions, is quite new. Without written
documents we would be like cats and dogs, who can only teach
their kittens and their puppies a few simple things and who,
because they cannot write, possess no way in which they can
make use of the experience of those generations of cats and
dogs that have gone before.
In the first century before our era, when the Romans came
to Egypt, they found the valley full of strange little pictures
which seemed to have something to do with the history
of the country. But the Romans were not interested in "anything
foreign" and did not inquire into the origin of these queer
figures which covered the walls of the temples and the walls of
the palaces and endless reams of flat sheets made out of the
papyrus reed. The last of the Egyptian priests who had
understood the holy art of making such pictures had died several
years before. Egypt deprived of its independence had
become a store-house filled with important historical documents
which no one could decipher and which were of no earthly use
to either man or beast.
Seventeen centuries went by and Egypt remained a land
of mystery. But in the year 1798 a French general by the
name of Bonaparte happened to visit eastern Africa to prepare
for an attack upon the British Indian Colonies. He did
not get beyond the Nile, and his campaign was a failure. But,
quite accidentally, the famous French expedition solved the
problem of the ancient Egyptian picture-language.
One day a young French officer, much bored by the dreary
life of his little fortress on the Rosetta river (a mouth of the
Nile) decided to spend a few idle hours rummaging among
 the ruins of the Nile Delta. And behold! he found a stone
which greatly puzzled him. Like everything else in Egypt
it was covered with little figures. But this particular slab of
black basalt was different from anything that had ever been
discovered. It carried three inscriptions. One of these was
in Greek. The Greek language was known. "All that is
necessary," so he reasoned, "is to compare the Greek text with
the Egyptian figures, and they will at once tell their secrets."
The plan sounded simple enough but it took more than
twenty years to solve the riddle. In the year 1802 a French
professor by the name of Champollion began to compare the
Greek and the Egyptian texts of the famous Rosetta stone. In
the year 1823 he announced that he had discovered the meaning
of fourteen little figures. A short time later he died from
overwork, but the main principles of Egyptian writing had
become known. Today the story of the valley of the Nile is
better known to us than the story of the Mississippi River.
We possess a written record which covers four thousand years
of chronicled history.
As the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics (the word means
"sacred writing") have played such a very great role in
history, (a few of them in modified form have even found their
way into our own alphabet,) you ought to know something
about the ingenious system which was used fifty centuries ago
to preserve the spoken word for the benefit of the coming
Of course, you know what a sign language is. Every
Indian story of our western plains has a chapter devoted to
strange messages written
in the form of little pictures which
tell how many buffaloes were killed and how many hunters
there were in a certain party. As a rule it is not difficult to
understand the meaning of such messages.
Ancient Egyptian, however, was not a sign language. The
clever people of the Nile had passed beyond that stage long
before. Their pictures meant a great deal more than the object
which they represented, as I shall try to explain to you now.
 Suppose that you were Champollion, and that you were
examining a stack of papyrus sheets, all covered with hieroglyphics.
Suddenly you came across a picture of a man with
a saw. "Very well," you would say, "that means of course that
a farmer went out to cut down a tree." Then you take another
papyrus. It tells the story of a queen who had died at the age
of eighty-two. In the midst of a sentence appears the picture
of the man with the saw. Queens of eighty-two do not handle
saws. The picture therefore must mean something else. But
That is the riddle which the Frenchman finally solved.
He discovered that the Egyptians were the first to use what
we now call "phonetic writing"—a system of characters which
reproduce the "sound" (or phone) of the spoken word and
which make it possible for us to translate all our spoken words
into a written form, with the help of only a few dots and dashes
Let us return for a moment to the little fellow with the saw.
The word "saw" either means a certain tool which you will find
in a carpenter's shop, or it means the past tense of the verb
This is what had happened to the word during the course
of centuries. First of all it had meant only the particular tool
which it represented. Then that meaning had been lost and it
had become the past participle of a verb. After several hundred
years, the Egyptians lost sight of both these meanings and
came to stand for a single letter, the
letter S. A short sentence will show you what I mean. Here
is a modern English sentence as it would have been written in
either means one of these two round objects
in your head, which allow you to see or it means "I," the person
who is talking.
is either an insect which gathers honey, or it
represents the verb "to be" which means to exist. Again, it
may be the first part of a verb like "be-come" or "be-have."
In this particular instance it is followed by
means a "leaf" or "leave" or "lieve" (the sound of all three
words is the same).
The "eye" you know all about.
Finally you get the picture of a
It is a giraffe.
It is part of the old sign-language out of which the hieroglyphics
You can now read that sentence without much difficulty.
"I believe I saw a giraffe."
Having invented this system the Egyptians developed it
during thousands of years until they could write anything they
wanted, and they used these "canned words" to send messages
to friends, to keep business accounts and to keep a record of the
history of their country, that future generations might benefit
by the mistakes of the past.
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