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Herodotus' fourth logos: geography of Egypt

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Map of Egypt at the end of the sixth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering. Lower Egypt

The geography of Egypt (2.1-34)

After the death of king Cyrus the Great, his son Cambyses becomes the new shah of Persia. His plan to conquer Egypt gives Herodotus the opportunity to dedicate three logoi to the ancient kingdom on the boards of the Nile.

In the first logos of Book Two, he gives a description of the country. He starts with a (rather unconvincing) proof that the Egyptian language is the one of the oldest in the world. Then, Herodotus discusses the Egyptian calendar (which he considers to be better than the Greek calendar), and explains that Egypt consists of alluvial deposits of the Nile (it is 'a gift of the Nile'). He continues with a description of the size of the country and ridicules the opinions of earlier, Greek researchers on this subject. Having pointed out the absurdities of their opinions, he describes the inundation of the Nile, tries to explain its rising, and tells several stories about the sources of this river.
 

Herodotus
 

Comment

Although he sometimes errs, Herodotus shows himself an unbiased and critical observer. His observation of  the Nile valley as an alluvium is scientific triumph; his discussion of the cause of the inundation of this river is exemplary. We also see an unpleasant aspect of Herodotus' character: he frequently attacks the Ionian researcher Hecataeus of Miletus (see below), and rather unfairly too.

A remarkable aspect of Herodotus' account that he often tries to present Egypt as the oldest country in the world, which makes the inhabitants it the exact opposites of Scythia (below), the world's youngest people.


Literature

  • Alan B. Lloyd, commentary on Herodotus. Book Two. Its three volumes appeared in Leiden between 1975 and 1988.
  • Alan B. Lloyd, 'Herodotus on Egyptians and Libyans' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 215-253.
  • Alan B. Lloyd, "Egypt" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 415-436.
 
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