Egypt, as Herodotus has said, is "the gift of the Nile," one of the latest of the earth's geological formations, and yet one of the earliest countries to be settled and dominated by man. It consists now, as in the ancient days, of the valley of the Nile, bounded on the east by the Arabian mountains and on the west by the Libyan desert. Well-watered and fertile, it was doubtless at first a pastoral and agricultural country ; then, by its riverine traffic, a commercial country, and finally, by conquest, a land enriched with the spoils of warfare.
Its earliest records show a strongly established monarchy. Dynasties of kings called Pharaohs succeeded one another by birth or conquest. The king made the laws, judged the people, declared war, and was monarch supreme. Next to him in rank came the priests, who were not only in the service of religion but in that of the state, as counsellors, secretaries, and the like. The common people, with true Oriental lack of individuality, depending blindly on leaders, were little more than the servants of the upper classes.
The Egyptian religion existing in the earliest days was a worship of the personified elements of nature. Each element had its particular controlling god, worshipped as such. Later on in Egyptian history the number of gods was increased, and each city had its trinity of godlike protectors symbolized by the propylaea of the temples. Future life was a certainty, provided that the Ka, or spirit, did not fall a prey to Typhon, the God of Evil, during the long wait in the tomb for the judgment-day. The belief that the spirit rested in the body until finally transported to the aaln fields (the Islands of the Blest, afterward adopted by the Greeks) was one reason for the careful preservation of the body by mummifying processes. Life itself was not more important than death. Hence the imposing ceremonies of the funeral and burial, the elaborate richness of the tomb and its wall paintings. Perhaps the first Egyptian art arose through religious observance, and certainly the first known to us was sepulchral.
ART MOTIVES: The centre of the Egyptian system was the monarch and his supposed relatives, the gods. They arrogated to themselves the chief thought of life, and the aim of the great bulk of the art was to glorify monarchy or deity. The massive buildings, still standing to-day in ruins, were built as the dwelling-places of kings or the sanctuaries of gods. The towers symbolized deity, the sculptures and paintings recited the functional duties of presiding spirits, or the Pharaoh's looks and acts. Almost everything about the public buildings in painting and sculpture was symbolic illustration, picture-written historyâ€”written with a chisel and brush, written large that all might read. There was no other safe way of preserving record. There were no books ; the papyrus sheet, used extensively, was frail, and the Egyptians evidently wished their buildings, carvings, and paintings to last into eternity. So they wrought in and upon stone. The same hieroglyphic character of their papyrus writings appeared cut and colored on the palace walls, and above them and beside them the pictures ran as vignettes explanatory of the text. In a less ostentatious way the tombs perpetuated history in a similar manner, reciting the domestic scenes from the life of the individual, as the temples and palaces the religious and monarchical scenes.
In one form or another it was all record of Egyptian life, but this was not the only motive of their painting. The temples and palaces, designed to shut out light and heat,
were long squares of heavy stone, gloomy as the cave from which their plan may have originated.