THE RUINS: MEDITATION ON THE REVOLUTIONS OF EMPIRES AND THE LAW OF NATURE
by C. F. VOLNEY
THE RUINS OF EMPIRES
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CONTENT [Ch. I] [Ch II] [Ch. III] [Ch. IV]
In the eleventh year of the reign of Abd-ul-Hamid, son of Ahmid, emperor of the Turks; when the Nogais-Tartars were driven from the Crimea, and a Mussulman prince of the blood of Gengis-Kahn became the vassal and guard of a Christian woman and queen,* I was travelling in the Ottoman dominions, and through those provinces which were anciently the kingdoms of Egypt and Syria.
* In the eleventh year of Abd-ul-Hamid, that is 1784 of the Christian era, and 1198 of the Hegira. The emigration of the Tartars took place in March, immediately on the manifesto of the empress, declaring the Crimea to be incorporated with Russia. The Mussulman prince of the blood of Gengis-khan was Chahin-Guerai. Gengis-Khan was borne and served by the kings whom he conquered: Chahin, on the contrary, after selling his country for a pension of eighty thousand roubles, accepted the commission of captain of guards to Catherine II. He afterwards returned home, and according to custom was strangled by the Turks.
My whole attention bent on whatever concerns the happiness of man in a social state, I visited cities, and studied the manners of their inhabitants; entered palaces, and observed the conduct of those who govern; wandered over fields, and examined the condition of those who cultivated them: and nowhere perceiving aught but robbery and devastation, tyranny and wretchedness, my heart was oppressed with sorrow and indignation.
I saw daily on my road fields abandoned, villages deserted, and cities in ruin. Often I met with ancient monuments, wrecks of temples, palaces and fortresses, columns, aqueducts and tombs. This spectacle led me to meditate on times past, and filled my mind with contemplations the most serious and profound.
Arrived at the city of Hems, on the border of the Orontes, and being in the neighborhood of Palmyra of the desert, I resolved to visit its celebrated ruins. After three days journeying through arid deserts, having traversed the Valley of Caves and Sepulchres, on issuing into the plain, I was suddenly struck with a scene of the most stupendous ruins--a countless multitude of superb columns, stretching in avenues beyond the reach of sight. Among them were magnificent edifices, some entire, others in ruins; the earth every where strewed with fragments of cornices, capitals, shafts, entablatures, pilasters, all of white marble, and of the most exquisite workmanship. After a walk of three-quarters of an hour along these ruins, I entered the enclosure of a vast edifice, formerly a temple dedicated to the Sun; and accepting the hospitality of some poor Arabian peasants, who had built their hovels on the area of the temple, I determined to devote some days to contemplate at leisure the beauty of these stupendous ruins.
Daily I visited the monuments which covered the plain; and one evening, absorbed in reflection, I had advanced to the Valley of Sepulchres. I ascended the heights which surround it from whence the eye commands the whole group of ruins and the immensity of the desert. The sun had sunk below the horizon: a red border of light still marked his track behind the distant mountains of Syria; the full-orbed moon was rising in the east, on a blue ground, over the plains of the Euphrates; the sky was clear, the air calm and serene; the dying lamp of day still softened the horrors of approaching darkness; the refreshing night breezes attempered the sultry emanations from the heated earth; the herdsmen had given their camels to repose, the eye perceived no motion on the dusky and uniform plain; profound silence rested on the desert; the howlings only of the jackal,* and the solemn notes of the bird of night, were heard at distant intervals. Darkness now increased, and through the dusk could only be discerned the pale phantasms of columns and walls. The solitude of the place, the tranquillity of the hour, the majesty of the scene, impressed on my mind a religious pensiveness. The aspect of a great city deserted, the memory of times past, compared with its present state, all elevated my mind to high contemplations. I sat on the shaft of a column, my elbow reposing on my knee, and head reclining on my hand, my eyes fixed, sometimes on the desert, sometimes on the ruins, and fell into a profound reverie.
* An animal resembling a dog and a fox. It preys on other small animals,
and upon the bodies of the dead on the field of battle. It is the Canis aureus
Here, said I, once flourished an opulent city; here was the seat of a powerful empire. Yes! these places now so wild and desolate, were once animated by a living multitude; a busy crowd thronged in these streets, now so solitary. Within these walls, where now reigns the silence of death, the noise of the arts, and the shouts of joy and festivity incessantly resounded; these piles of marble were regular palaces; these fallen columns adorned the majesty of temples; these ruined galleries surrounded public places. Here assembled a numerous people for the sacred duties of their religion, and the anxious cares of their subsistence; here industry, parent of enjoyments, collected the riches of all climes, and the purple of Tyre was exchanged for the precious thread of Serica;* the soft tissues of Cassimere for the sumptuous tapestry of Lydia; the amber of the Baltic for the pearls and perfumes of Arabia; the gold of Ophir for the tin of Thule.
* The precious thread of Serica.--That is, the silk originally derived from the mountainous country where the great wall terminates, and which appears to have been the cradle of the Chinese empire. The tissues of Cassimere.--The shawls which Ezekiel seems to have described under the appellation of Choud- choud. The gold of Ophir.-- This country, which was one of the twelve Arab cantons, and which has so much and so unsuccessfully been sought for by the antiquarians, has left, however, some trace of itself in Ofor, in the province of Oman, upon the Persian Gulf, neighboring on one side to the Sabeans, who are celebrated by Strabo for their abundance of gold, and on the other to Aula or Hevila, where the pearl fishery was carried on. See the 27th chapter of Ezekiel, which gives a very curious and extensive picture of the commerce of Asia at that period.
And now behold what remains of this powerful city: a miserable skeleton! What of its vast domination: a doubtful and obscure remembrance! To the noisy concourse which thronged under these porticoes, succeeds the solitude of death. The silence of the grave is substituted for the busy hum of public places; the affluence of a commercial city is changed into wretched poverty; the palaces of kings have become a den of wild beasts; flocks repose in the area of temples, and savage reptiles inhabit the sanctuary of the gods. Ah! how has so much glory been eclipsed? how have so many labors been annihilated? Do thus perish then the works of men--thus vanish empires and nations?
And the history of former times revived in my mind; I remembered those ancient ages when many illustrious nations inhabited these countries; I figured to myself the Assyrian on the banks of the Tygris, the Chaldean on the banks of the Euphrates, the Persian reigning from the Indus to the Mediterranean. I enumerated the kingdoms of Damascus and Idumea, of Jerusalem and Samaria, the warlike states of the Philistines, and the commercial republics of Phoenicia. This Syria, said I, now so depopulated, then contained a hundred flourishing cities, and abounded with towns, villages, and hamlets.* In all parts were seen cultivated fields, frequented roads, and crowded habitations. Ah! whither have flown those ages of life and abundance?--whither vanished those brilliant creations of human industry? Where are those ramparts of Nineveh, those walls of Babylon, those palaces of Persepolis, those temples of Balbec and of Jerusalem? Where are those fleets of Tyre, those dock-yards of Arad, those work-shops of Sidon, and that multitude of sailors, of pilots, of merchants, and of soldiers? Where those husbandmen, harvests, flocks, and all the creation of living beings in which the face of the earth rejoiced? Alas! I have passed over this desolate land! I have visited the palaces, once the scene of so much splendor, and I beheld nothing but solitude and desolation. I sought the ancient inhabitants and their works, and found nothing but a trace, like the foot-prints of a traveller over the sand. The temples are fallen, the palaces overthrown, the ports filled up, the cities destroyed; and the earth, stripped of inhabitants, has become a place of sepulchres. Great God! whence proceed such fatal revolutions? What causes have so changed the fortunes of these countries? Wherefore are so many cities destroyed? Why has not this ancient population been reproduced and perpetuated?
* According to Josephus and Strabo, there were in Syria twelve millions of souls, and the traces that remain of culture and habitation confirm the calculation
Thus absorbed in meditation, a crowd of new reflections continually poured in upon my mind. Every thing, continued I, bewilders my judgment, and fills my heart with trouble and uncertainty. When these countries enjoyed what constitutes the glory and happiness of man, they were inhabited by infidel nations: It was the Phoenician, offering human sacrifices to Moloch, who gathered into his stores the riches of all climates; it was the Chaldean, prostrate before his serpent-god,* who subjugated opulent cities, laid waste the palaces of kings, and despoiled the temples of the gods; it was the Persian, worshipper of fire, who received the tribute of a hundred nations; they were the inhabitants of this very city, adorers of the sun and stars, who erected so many monuments of prosperity and luxury. Numerous herds, fertile fields, abundant harvests-- whatsoever should be the reward of piety--was in the hands of these idolaters. And now, when a people of saints and believers occupy these fields, all is become sterility and solitude. The earth, under these holy hands, produces only thorns and briers. Man soweth in anguish, and reapeth tears and cares. War, famine, pestilence, assail him by turns. And yet, are not these the children of the prophets? The Mussulman, Christian, Jew, are they not the elect children of God, loaded with favors and miracles? Why, then, do these privileged races no longer enjoy the same advantages? Why are these fields, sanctified by the blood of martyrs, deprived of their ancient fertility? Why have those blessings been banished hence, and transferred for so many ages to other nations and different climes?
* The dragon Bell.
At these words, revolving in my mind the vicissitudes which have transmitted the sceptre of the world to people so different in religion and manners from those in ancient Asia to the most recent of Europe, this name of a natal land revived in me the sentiment of my country; and turning my eyes towards France, I began to reflect on the situation in which I had left her.*
* In the year 1782, at the close of the American war.
I recalled her fields so richly cultivated, her roads so admirably constructed, her cities inhabited by a countless people, her fleets spread over every sea, her ports filled with the produce of both the Indies: and then comparing the activity of her commerce, the extent of her navigation, the magnificence of her buildings, the arts and industry of her inhabitants, with what Egypt and Syria had once possessed, I was gratified to find in modern Europe the departed splendor of Asia; but the charm of my reverie was soon dissolved by a last term of comparison. Reflecting that such had once been the activity of the places I was then contemplating, who knows, said I, but such may one day be the abandonment of our countries? Who knows if on the banks of the Seine, the Thames, the Zuyder-Zee, where now, in the tumult of so many enjoyments, the heart and the eye suffice not for the multitude of sensations,--who knows if some traveller, like myself, shall not one day sit on their silent ruins, and weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their former greatness.
At these words, my eyes filled with tears: and covering my head with the fold of my mantle, I sank into gloomy meditations on all human affairs. Ah! hapless man, said I in my grief, a blind fatality sports with thy destiny!* A fatal necessity rules with the hand of chance the lot of mortals! But no: it is the justice of heaven fulfilling its decrees!--a God of mystery exercising his incomprehensible judgments! Doubtless he has pronounced a secret anathema against this land: blasting with maledictions the present, for the sins of past generations. Oh! who shall dare to fathom the depths of the Omnipotent?
* Fatality is the universal and rooted prejudice of the East. "It was written," is there the answer to every thing. Hence result an unconcern and apathy, the most powerful impediments to instruction and civilization.
And sunk in profound melancholy, I remained motionless.
While thus absorbed, a sound struck my ear, like the agitation of a flowing robe, or that of slow footsteps on dry and rustling grass. Startled, I opened my mantle, and looking about with fear and trembling, suddenly, on my left, by the glimmering light of the moon, through the columns and ruins of a neighboring temple, I thought I saw an apparition, pale, clothed in large and flowing robes, such as spectres are painted rising from their tombs. I shuddered: and while agitated and hesitating whether to fly or to advance toward the object, a distinct voice, in solemn tones, pronounced these words:
How long will man importune heaven with unjust complaint? How long, with vain clamors, will he accuse Fate as the author of his calamities? Will he forever shut his eyes to the light, and his heart to the admonitions of truth and reason? The light of truth meets him everywhere; yet he sees it not! The voice of reason strikes his ear; and he hears it not! Unjust man! if for a moment thou canst suspend the delusion which fascinates thy senses, if thy heart can comprehend the language of reason, interrogate these ruins! Read the lessons which they present to thee! And you, evidences of twenty centuries, holy temples! venerable tombs! walls once so glorious, appear in the cause of nature herself! Approach the tribunal of sound reason, and bear testimony against unjust accusations! Come and confound the declamations of a false wisdom or hypocritical piety, and avenge the heavens and the earth of man who calumniates them both!
What is that blind fatality, which without order and without law, sports
with the destiny of mortals? What is that unjust necessity, which confounds
the effect of actions, whether of wisdom or of folly? In what consist the
anathemas of heaven over this land? Where is that divine malediction which
perpetuates the abandonment of these fields? Say, monuments of past ages!
have the heavens changed their laws and the earth its motion? Are the fires
of the sun extinct in the regions of space? Do the seas no longer emit their
vapors? Are the rains and the dews suspended in the air? Do the mountains
withhold their springs? Are the streams dried up? And do the plants no longer
bear fruit and seed? Answer, generation of falsehood and iniquity, hath God
deranged the primitive and settled order of things which he himself assigned
to nature? Hath heaven denied to earth, and earth to its inhabitants, the
blessings they formerly dispensed? If nothing hath changed in the creation,
if the same means now exist which before existed, why then are not the present
what former generations were? Ah! it is falsely that you accuse fate and
heaven! it is unjustly that you accuse God as the cause of your evils! Say,
perverse and hypocritical race! if these places are desolate, if these powerful
cities are reduced to solitude, is it God who has caused their ruin? Is it
his hand which has overthrown these walls, destroyed these temples, mutilated
these columns, or is it the hand of man? Is it the arm of God which has carried
the sword into your cities, and fire into your fields, which has slaughtered
the people, burned the harvests, rooted up trees, and ravaged the pastures,
or is it the hand of man? And when, after the destruction of crops, famine
has ensued, is it the vengeance of God which has produced it, or the mad
fury of mortals? When, sinking under famine, the people have fed on impure
aliments, if pestilence ensues, is it the wrath of God which sends it, or
the folly of man? When war, famine and pestilence, have swept away the
inhabitants, if the earth remains a desert, is it God who has depopulated
it? Is it his rapacity which robs the husbandman, ravages the fruitful fields,
and wastes the earth, or is it the rapacity of those who govern? Is it his
pride which excites murderous wars, or the pride of kings and their ministers?
Is it the venality of his decisions which overthrows the fortunes of families,
or the corruption of the organs of the law? Are they his passions which,
under a thousand forms, torment individuals and nations, or are they the
passions of man? And if, in the anguish of their miseries, they see not the
remedies, is it the ignorance of God which is to blame, or their ignorance?
Cease then, mortals, to accuse the decrees of Fate, or the judgments of the
Divinity! If God is good, will he be the author of your misery? If he is
just, will he be the accomplice of your crimes? No, the caprice of which
man complains is not the caprice of fate; the darkness that misleads his
reason is not the darkness of God; the source of his calamities is not in
the distant heavens, it is beside him on the earth; it is not concealed in
the bosom of the divinity; it dwells within himself, he bears it in his own
Thou murmurest and sayest: What! have an infidel people then enjoyed the
blessings of heaven and earth? Are the holy people of God less fortunate
than the races of impiety? Deluded man! where then is the contradiction which
offends thee? Where is the inconsistency which thou imputest to the justice
of heaven? Take into thine own hands the balance of rewards and punishments,
of causes and effects. Say: when these infidels observed the laws of the
heavens and the earth, when they regulated well-planned labors by the order
of the seasons and the course of the stars, should the Almighty have disturbed
the equilibrium of the universe to defeat their prudence? When their hands
cultivated these fields with toil and care, should he have diverted the course
of the rains, suspended the refreshing dews, and planted crops of thorns?
When, to render these arid fields productive, their industry constructed
aqueducts, dug canals, and led the distant waters across the desert, should
he have dried up their sources in the mountains? Should he have blasted the
harvests which art had nourished, wasted the plains which peace had peopled,
overthrown cities which labor had created, or disturbed the order established
by the wisdom of man? And what is that infidelity which founded empires by
its prudence, defended them by its valor, and strengthened them by its
justice--which built powerful cities, formed capacious ports, drained
pestilential marshes, covered the ocean with ships, the earth with inhabitants;
and, like the creative spirit, spread life and motion throughout the world?
If such be infidelity, what then is the true faith? Doth sanctity consist
in destruction? The God who peoples the air with birds, the earth with animals,
the waters with fishes--the God who animates all nature--is he then a God
of ruins and tombs? Demands he devastation for homage, and conflagration
for sacrifice? Requires he groans for hymns, murderers for votaries, a ravaged
and desolate earth for his temple? Behold then, holy and believing people,
what are your works! behold the fruits of your piety! You have massacred
the people, burned their cities, destroyed cultivation, reduced the earth
to a solitude; and you ask the reward of your works! Miracles then must be
performed! The people whom you extirpated must be recalled to life, the walls
rebuilt which you have overthrown, the harvests reproduced which you have
destroyed, the waters regathered which you have dispersed; the laws, in fine,
of heaven and earth reversed; those laws, established by God himself, in
demonstration of his magnificence and wisdom; those eternal laws, anterior
to all codes, to all the prophets those immutable laws, which neither the
passions nor the ignorance of man can pervert. But that passion which mistaketh,
that ignorance which observeth neither causes nor effects, hath said in its
folly: "All things flow from chance; a blind fatality poureth out good and
evil upon the earth; success is not to the prudent, nor felicity to the wise;"
or, assuming the language of hypocrisy, she hath said, "all things are from
God; he taketh pleasure in deceiving wisdom and confounding reason." And
Ignorance, applauding herself in her malice, hath said, "thus will I place
myself on a par with that science which confounds me--thus will I excel that
prudence which fatigues and torments me." And Avarice hath added: "I will
oppress the weak, and devour the fruits of his labors; and I will say, it
is fate which hath so ordained." But I! I swear by the laws of heaven and
earth, and by the law which is written in the heart of man, that the hypocrite
shall be deceived in his cunning--the oppressor in his rapacity! The sun
shall change his course, before folly shall prevail over wisdom and knowledge,
or ignorance surpass prudence, in the noble and sublime art of procuring
to man his true enjoyments, and of building his happiness on an enduring
Thus spoke the Phantom. Confused with this discourse, and my heart agitated with different reflections, I remained long in silence. At length, taking courage, I thus addressed him: Oh, Genius of tombs and ruins! Thy presence, thy severity, hath disordered my senses; but the justice of thy discourse restoreth confidence to my soul. Pardon my ignorance. Alas, if man is blind, shall his misfortune be also his crime? I may have mistaken the voice of reason; but never, knowingly, have I rejected its authority. Ah! if thou readest my heart, thou knowest with what enthusiasm it seeketh truth. Is it not in its pursuit that thou seest me in this sequestered spot? Alas! I have wandered over the earth, I have visited cities and countries; and seeing everywhere misery and desolation, a sense of the evils which afflict my fellow men hath deeply oppressed my soul. I have said, with a sigh: is man then born but for sorrow and anguish? And I have meditated upon human misery that I might discover a remedy. I have said, I will separate myself from the corruption of society; I will retire far from palaces where the mind is depraved by satiety and from the hovel where it is debased by misery. I will go into the desert and dwell among ruins; I will interrogate ancient monuments on the wisdom of past ages; I will invoke from the bosom of the tombs the spirit which once in Asia gave splendor to states, and glory to nations; I will ask of the ashes of legislators, by what secret causes do empires rise and fall; from what sources spring the Prosperity and misfortunes of nations, on what principles can the Peace of Society, and the happiness of man be established?
I ceased, and with submissive look awaited the answer of the Genius.
Peace and happiness, said he, attend those who practice justice! Since thy
heart, O mortal, with sincerity seeketh truth; since thine eyes can still
recognize her through the mist of prejudice, thy prayer shall not be in vain.
I will unfold to thy view that truth thou invokest; I will teach thy reason
that knowledge thou seekest; I will reveal to thee the science of ages and
the wisdom of the tombs.
Then approaching and laying his hand on my head, he said:
Rise, mortal, and extricate thy senses from the dust in which thou movest.
Suddenly a celestial flame seemed to dissolve the bands which held us to
the earth; and, like a light vapor, borne on the wings of the Genius, I felt
myself wafted to the regions above. Thence, from the aerial heights, looking
down upon the earth, I perceived a scene altogether new. Under my feet, floating
in the void, a globe like that of the moon, but smaller and less luminous,
presented to me one of its phases; and that phase* had the aspect of a disk
varigated with large spots, some white and nebulous, others brown, green
or gray, and while I strained my sight to distinguish what they were, the
* See Plate representing half the terrestrial globe, opposite page 10.
Disciple of Truth, knowest thou that object?
O Genius, answered I, if I did not see the moon in another quarter of the
heavens, I should have supposed that to be her globe. It has the appearance
of that planet seen through the telescope during the obscuration of an eclipse.
These varigated spots might be mistaken for seas and continents.
They are seas and continents, said he, and those of the very hemisphere which
What! said I, is that the earth--the habitation of man?
Yes, replied he, that brown space which occupies irregularly a great portion
of the disk, and envelops it almost on every side, is what you call the great
ocean, which advancing from the south pole towards the equator, forms first
the great gulf of India and Africa, then extends eastward across the Malay
islands to the confines of Tartary, while towards the west it encircles the
continents of Africa and of Europe, even to the north of Asia.
That square peninsula under our feet is the arid country of the Arabs; the
great continent on its left, almost as naked in its interior, with a little
verdure only towards its borders, is the parched soil inhabited by black-men.*
To the north, beyond a long, narrow and irregular sea,** are the countries
of Europe, rich in meadows and cultivated fields. On its right, from the
Caspian Sea, extend the snowy and naked plains of Tartary. Returning in this
direction that white space is the vast and barren desert of Cobi, which separates
China from the rest of the world. You see that empire in the furrowed plain
which obliquely rounds itself off from our sight. On yonder coasts, those
ragged tongues of land and scattered points are the peninsulas and islands
of the Malays, the wretched possessors of the spices and perfumes. That triangle
which advances so far into the sea, is the too famous peninsula of India.***
You see the winding course of the Ganges, the rough mountains of Thibet,
the lovely valley of Cachemere, the briny deserts of Persia, the banks of
the Euphrates and Tygris, the deep bed of the Jordan and the canals of the
** 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
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
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
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.
I have suggested the same ideas in my Travels into Syria, founded upon the
black complexion of the Sphinx. I have since ascertained that the antique
images of Thebias have the same characteristic; and Mr. Bruce has offered
a multitude of analogous facts; but this traveller, of whom I heard some
mention at Cairo, has so interwoven these facts with certain systematic opinions,
that we should have recourse to his narratives with caution.
It is singular that Africa, situated so near us, should be the least known
country on the earth. The English are at this moment making explorations,
the success of which ought to excite our emulation.
*** Ailah (Eloth), and Atsiom-Gaber (Hesien-Geber.) The name of the first
of these towns still subsists in its ruins, at the point of the gulf of the
Red Sea, and in the route which the pilgrims take to Mecca. Hesion has at
present no trace, any more than Quolzoum and Faran: it was, however, the
harbor for the fleets of Solomon. The vessels of this prince conducted by
the Tyrians, sailed along the coast of Arabia to Ophir, in the Persian Gulf,
thus opening a communication with the merchants of India and Ceylon. That
this navigation was entirely of Tyrian invention, appears both from the pilots
and shipbuilders employed by the Jews, and the names that were given to the
trading islands, viz. Tyrus and Aradus, now Barhain. The voyage was performed
in two different modes, either in canoes of osier and rushes, covered on
the outside with skins done over with pitch: (these vessels were unable to
quit the Red Sea, or so much as to leave the shore.) The second mode of carrying
on the trade was by means of vessels with decks of the size of our river
boats, which were able to pass the strait and to weather the dangers of time
ocean; but for this purpose it was necessary to bring the wood from Mount
Libanus and Cilicia, where it is very fine and in great abundance. This wood
was first conveyed in floats from Tarsus to Phoenicia, for which reason the
vessels were called ships of Tarsus; from whence it has been ridiculously
inferred, that they went round the promontory of Africa as far as Tortosa
in Spain. From Phoenicia it was transported on the backs of camels to the
Red Sea, which practice still continues, because the shores of this sea are
absolutely unprovided with wood even for fuel. These vessels spent a complete
year in their voyage, that is, sailed one year, sojourned another, and did
not return till the third. This tediousness was owing first to their cruising
from port to port, as they do at present; secondly, to their being detained
by the Monsoon currents; and thirdly, because, according to the calculations
of Pliny and Strabo, it was the ordinary practice among the ancients to spend
three years in a voyage of twelve hundred leagues. Such a commerce must have
been very expensive, particularly as they were obliged to carry with them
their provisions, and even fresh water. For this reason Solomon made himself
master of Palmyra, which was at that time inhabited, and was already the
magazine and high road of merchants by the way of the Euphrates. This conquest
brought Solomon much nearer to the country of gold and pearls. This alternative
of a route either by the Red Sea or by the river Euphrates was to the ancients,
what in later times has been the alternative in a voyage to the Indies, either
by crossing the isthmus of Suez or doubling the cape of Good Hope. It appears
that till the time of Moses, this trade was carried on across the desert
of Syria and Thebais; that afterwards it fell into the hands of the Phoenicians,
who fixed its site upon the Red Sea; and that it was mutual jealousy that
induced the kings of Nineveh and Babylon to undertake the destruction of
Tyre and Jerusalem. I insist the more upon these facts, because I have never
seen any thing reasonable upon the subject.
**** It appears that Babylon occupied on the eastern banks of the Euphrates a space of ground six leagues in length. Throughout this space bricks are found by means of which daily additions are made to the town of Helle. Upon many of these are characters written with a nail similar to those of Persepolis. I am indebted for these facts to M. de Beauchamp, grand vicar of Babylon, a traveller equally distinguished for his knowledge of astronomy and for his veracity.