Today on Project Gutenberg #8

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

An Egyptian Princess by Georg Ebers

Egypt! I had an extended Egyptology phase when I was a kid, so this is of particular interest to me. “Extended Egyptology phase” could also be used to describe the Victorian era itself. From the discovery of the Rosetta Stone just before 1800 to the archaeological exploits of Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter at the end of the century, Europeans got hooked on metaphorically and literally pillaging the culture of ancient Egypt. You saw it in their jewelry, their architecture, their museums, their spirituality and their books. This particular book wasn’t just written by any old Egypt enthusiast, but by one of the century’s more prominent authorities on the topic.

Georg Ebers was a German Egyptologist best known for uncovering one of the oldest Egyptian medical papyri in existence. Called the Ebers Papyrus, it dates back to around 1550 BCE and contains suggested treatments for asthma, diabetes, guinea-worm disease and even mental health problems like depression and dementia. Overall, it contains about 700 folk remedies. Ebers was also a novelist, and much of his career was spent writing historical fiction that was meant to help teach readers about ancient Egypt. This book, An Egyptian Princess (or Eine ägyptische Königstochter in the original German) was his first effort, published in 1864. It was apparently quite a success, and he wrote several other books in the same vein.

The book may be called An Egyptian Princess, but its scope is far greater than just Egypt. The bulk of the narrative is actually concerned with the story of the Persian king Darius the Great, who ruled the Achaemenid Empire in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE. His rise to power and eventual takeover of Egypt is shown through the eyes of Rhodopis, the eponymous princess.

While this is a work of historical fiction, Ebers puts way more emphasis on the “historical” part over the “fiction” part. He’s basically using the story as a vessel for telling us everything he knows about ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia. There are dozens if not hundreds of footnotes throughout the book, intended to provide further context and details. Take this example from the first chapter. The main text appears on top, and the footnote text is in bold.

The two Greeks, following the servant, seated themselves in an arbor, and Aristomachus, after gazing on the scene around him now brilliantly lighted by the moon, said, “Explain to me, Phanes, by what good fortune this Rhodopis, formerly only a slave and courtesan can now live as a queen, and receive her guests in this princely manner?”

[The mistresses (Hetaere) of the Greeks must not be compared with modern women of bad reputation. The better members of this class represented the intelligence and culture of their sex in Greece, and more especially in the Ionian provinces. As an instance we need only recall Aspasia and her well-attested relation to Pericles and Socrates. Our heroine Rhodopis was a celebrated woman. The Hetaera, Thargalia of Miletus, became the wife of a Thessalian king. Ptolemy Lagi married Thais; her daughter was called Irene, and her sons Leontiskus and Lagus. Finally, statues were erected to many.]

Chapter 1

It’s pretty common for these footnotes to be longer than the sentence or paragraph they’re connected to. Interesting information also crops up in the main text, especially when the Greek and Egyptian characters are interacting with each other. A lot of time is spent comparing ancient Greek and Egyptian culture: how they each treated women, how they approached art, etc. It gets really detailed, and it’s fascinating stuff.

Ebers may not be the greatest storyteller, but his commitment to historical accuracy is admirable. There were at least nine editions of this book judging by the available prefaces, and in most of them, Ebers describes revisions that he made to the story based on new information he’s uncovered. He’s so strict that he even wants the flowers to be perfectly accurate!

In Vol. I, page 7, I allow mimosas to grow among other plants in Rhodopis’ garden. I have found them in all the descriptions of the Nile valley, and afterwards often enjoyed the delicious perfume of the golden yellow flowers in the gardens of Alexandria and Cairo. I now learn that this very mimosa (Acacia farnesiana) originates in tropical America, and was undoubtedly unknown in ancient Egypt. The bananas, which I mentioned in Vol. I, p. 64, among other Egyptian plants, were first introduced into the Nile valley from India by the Arabs. The botanical errors occurring in the last volume I was able to correct. Helm’s admirable work on “Cultivated Plants and Domestic Animals” had taught me to notice such things.

Preface to the Fifth German Edition

It might seem a bit silly, and it probably is from a modern perspective, but it shows how passionate Ebers really was about these subjects and about his goal of using literature to help educate people.

I’m glad to have found this fascinating little book, an early example of what modern readers would call “edutainment.” You can peruse it for yourself here, and I recommend that you do so, especially if you’re a history lover.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. I’ll see you next time!

— Dana

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