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To Hierax an Egyptian Bishop
(Eus., H. E. vii. 21)
(Part of another Easter Letter)
But what is there surprising in its being difficult for me to correspond even by letter with those who are sojourning at a distance, seeing that it has proved impossible to talk even with myself and to take counsel with my own soul? At all events, with my own kith and kin, with the brethren of my own house and life, citizens of the same Church, I have to communicate by letters and to get them through seems impracticable. For it were easier for one to pass, I say not across the frontier, but even from East to West, than to visit one part of Alexandria from another. For that vast, pathless desert which it took Israel two generations to traverse is not so impassable and hard to cross as the central street of the city, nor is the sea, which they had for a carriage-road when the waters were parted asunder to make a passage through. And our still and waveless harbours153153It is not clear whether Dionysius actually alludes here to the well-protected harbours of Alexandria or (more loosely) to the Lake Mareotis: probably to the former, because the canal he refers to in the next sentence (though he calls it a river) was cut from the Nile into one of the harbours and passed at the back of the city between it and the Lake Mareotis. have become an image of those in the passing of which the Egyptians were overwhelmed; for they have often appeared like the Red Sea from the blood which was in them. And the river which flows past the city at one time appeared drier than the waterless desert and more parched than that which Israel crossed over when they were so thirsty that 74 Moses cried out and drink flowed out of the steep rock from Him that worketh wonders:154154Cf. Ps. lxxvii. 13, cxxxvi. 4, and Wisd. xi. 4. The whole passage, of course, refers to Exod. xiv. and xvii. and at another time it was so full as to overflow the whole neighbourhood, both roads and fields, and to threaten a return of the flood which occurred in the days of Noah. But in either case it runs polluted with blood and slaughter and drowned corpses, as under Moses it happened to Pharaoh, when the river turned to blood and stank.155155Cf. Exod. vii. 20, 21. And what other water could cleanse all this but the water which itself cleanseth all things?156156i. e. if the biggest river and the ocean itself, as he proceeds exaggeratedly to claim, cannot do so, what other cleansing can there be? How could the mighty ocean which man cannot cross, overspread and sweep away this horrid flood? or how could the great river that goeth out of Eden wash off the stain, though it were to divert the four heads into which it is divided into the single head of the Gihon?157157Cf. Gen. ii. 10 ff. Dionysius evidently adopts the later Jewish view that the Gihon was the Nile, Æthiopia (or Cush) being identified with Egypt. or when would the air, reeking everywhere with the evil exhalation, become pure? For such mist from the ground and breezes from the sea, airs from the rivers and vapours from the harbours are given off that for dew we have the impure fluids of corpses rotting in all their component elements. After all this do men wonder, are they at a loss, whence come the continual pestilences, whence the dire diseases, whence the divers ravages, whence the wholesale destruction of life, why the largest city no longer contains in it its former multitude of inhabitants, from infant children to the most advanced in years, whom it used to nourish in other days to a 75 green old age,158158The meaning of the phrase employed by Dionysius here (“hale old men”) comes from Homer, Il. xxiii. 791 (cf. Virg., Æn. vi. 304); but elsewhere a very similar phrase seems to suggest “a cruel, untimely old age.” as the saying went, whereas these from forty up to seventy years of age were so much more numerous then that their number is not now reached even when all from fourteen to eighty are enrolled and put together for the public distribution of food,159159Evidently at Alexandria (the capital of that country which was the chief granary of Rome) either the necessitous citizens or perhaps all between forty and seventy were entitled to receive doles of corn; but now the relief was extended to all ages between fourteen and eighty. and thus those whose looks show them to be quite young have become as it were of equal age with those who have long been advanced in years. And though they see the race of man on earth thus dwindling ever and being exhausted, they do not tremble,160160Either the heathen are meant, who ought to tremble and be convinced, or the Christians, who were too courageous through trust in God to tremble. as its total extinction proceeds and draws near.
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