It was Herodotus who coined the most perfect turn of phrase ever applied to ancient Egypt. “Egypt,” he said, “is the gift of the Nile.” Everything that occurred in the land of the pharaohs sprang from this great river, the only thing which made life possible in the desert. “Hail to Thee, O Nile, that gushest forth from the earth and comest to nourish Egypt!” ran one of the ancient hymns. To the Egyptians, the Nile was nothing less than a gift from the gods, its presence as inexplicable as the sun and the stars which wheeled above them. For they knew only a relatively small portion of the river’s length. The faraway jungles and mountains which provided this water of life were as remote from their experience as the sands of Mars are from ours.
The Nile is by the reckoning of most geographers the longest river in the world. It begins, more than 2100 miles (3400 kilometers) south of the Giza Plateau, at Lake Victoria, an immense, landlocked body of fresh water whose shores touch modern-day Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. The first stretch of the river, which is sometimes called the White Nile, flows northward from there through the mountains, jungles, and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, joining with a major tributary, the Blue Nile, near the modern-day Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
A series of six “cataracts” — stretches of rapids so violent that they’re well-nigh impossible to negotiate by boat — marks the conjoined entity’s continued progress out of the lush jungle and into the arid desert. At the last of the cataracts, dubbed the First Cataract by European explorers working their way up the Nile, lies the modern-day Egyptian city of Aswan, which was known as Swenett in ancient times. Back then, it marked the southern boundary of the land of the pharaohs, some 550 miles (885 kilometers) from Egypt’s northern boundary of the Mediterranean shoreline. (That portion of modern-day Egypt which lies south of Aswan was considered to be part of the separate land of Nubia, despite the fact that it was frequently invaded and subjugated by ancient Egypt proper over the millennia.)
The violent, dangerous Nile becomes a peaceful, placid river after the First Cataract as it meanders northward toward the sea. About 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Mediterranean shore, it suddenly branches into many small tributaries known as the Nile Delta, covering a swathe of land some 120 miles (190 kilometers) in breadth, but flowing always toward the river’s ultimate goal of the sea. The Giza Plateau and the modern Egyptian capital of Cairo lie at the southern boundary of the Nile Delta.
Prior to its damming in the 20th century, the Egyptian Nile had a personality unique among the world’s major rivers. Late every summer, several weeks of torrential rains falling in what we know today as Ethiopia, along with melting snow in the mountainous regions of Africa, would turn the southerly stretches of the Nile into a raging torrent which ran all the way down to Egypt. In the flat lands beyond the First Cataract, the river would swell far beyond its normal banks, inundating the land that immediately surrounded it. Then, after a few weeks, the water would retreat again, leaving the soil impregnated with moisture and nutrients. One couldn’t have devised a more perfect system of large-scale irrigation had one tried.
It really is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Nile to Egyptian cosmology, epistemology, technology, and daily life. Everything revolved around the river, to the extent that it was literally impossible for the Egyptians to imagine an existence without it; both the mythic Egyptian heaven and the underworld had great rivers of their own running through their centers. The Nile provided the very boundaries of Egyptian existence; few dared venture more than a few hours’ walk away from it. Egyptians spoke of the “black land,” meaning the alluvial land watered by the Nile, and the “red land,” meaning everywhere else.
Thanks to the Nile, the Egyptians invented a system of directions that’s the polar opposite of ours. It was natural for them, gazing up the river toward the mysterious wellspring of their lives, to see our south as their north, our east as their west. Their names for the two great regions of their land followed the same pattern. Contradictory to our natural intuition about such things, Upper Egypt, the land of the river valley, lay south by our reckoning of Lower Egypt, the land of the delta. The modern country of Egypt still uses these names which it inherited from its ancient forefathers.
The seasons of the year too were dictated by the Nile. Instead of four seasons of equal length, the Egyptians divided the year into three unequal seasons. August to September was the time of the inundation; September to April was the growing season, when the black land was moist and wonderfully fertile, sometimes enough so as to yield three full harvests in one year; April to August was the time of drought and hardship, when the temperature was at its hottest and it was difficult to distinguish the black land from the red land, difficult to believe that the desolate landscape would soon bloom into life once again. Such was the pattern of a good year, at any rate. Egyptians lived in terror of the occasional years of a “low Nile” or “high Nile.” The former often meant famine; the latter, floods and destruction. Each August, priests peered anxiously at a “Nilometer” installed at the First Cataract for clues as to the river’s disposition that year even as they offered up their prayers and sacrifices.
Such was the rhythm of life in Egypt from the land’s murkiest prehistory, through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, through the Ptolemaic period, the Roman period, and after the coming of Islam. It took the dams and advanced irrigation systems of the 20th century to finally change it. Prior to that point, one could be forgiven for assuming that this rhythm was indeed eternal, as some of the European visitors we met in earlier chapters, comparing the life around them to the one depicted on the walls of ancient tombs, were tempted to do. Certainly the ancient Egyptians themselves had no cultural memory of any way of life that might have come before the one they knew. In their cosmology, the god Atum had created the Nile and the land surrounding it out of nothing at a time beyond human reckoning. To them, the Nile was the world, or at least its centerpiece. As life had always been there, so life would always be.
But we creatures of the epoch of Progress have to recognize that nothing under the sun is truly eternal — not even the sun itself. The human-made dams and irrigation systems of the 20th century are neither the first nor the most powerful of the forces that have transformed the landscape of Egypt over the course of the millennia. We need only cast our view back 12,000 years or so to see a place as foreign to us as it would have been to the Egyptians who built the Pyramids of Giza.
From approximately 115,000 BC to 10,000 BC, the earth was in the grip of what climatologists call a “glacial period,” characterized by significantly cooler temperatures than those of other periods. Glaciers spread out from the Arctic to cover much of Europe and North America, and much territory that we think of as temperate today was turned to frozen tundra. What we know as the desert land of Egypt, on the other hand, became a temperate land of fields and forests, where water was plentiful and the flora and fauna diverse.
Tribes of humans roamed across this idyllic landscape that was so unlike the Egypt of today, hunting wild game. In appearance and in intellectual and physical capacity, these humans were little different from us. Yet they lacked the trait that later generations would come to define as the marker of civilization: they didn’t build fixed villages or cities — in fact, they didn’t really build at all — and they engaged in only limited, transient forms of agriculture. Why should they, when wild foodstuffs were plentiful all around them, just waiting to be gathered?
But, beginning sometime around 10,000 BC, changes came to the land as the glacial age ended. Even as other parts of the world became more livable as a result of the great thaw, Egypt became perversely less so. Over the course of several thousand years, temperatures gradually increased, the once-plentiful rainfall slackened and finally all but disappeared, and plants and animals — and doubtless many humans — died as the landscape was transformed into the desert we recognize today. The process of transformation was so gradual that it could only have been observed across generations. The hunter-gatherers of Egypt, who lacked writing and thus any form of reliable historical memory, must have been completely unaware that it was happening at all.
Still, over this vast span of time those dwindling numbers of humans who remained were forced to live ever closer to the Nile, which was increasingly becoming the one reliable source of water that remained to them. With wild vegetation no longer plentiful for eating and grazing, they studied the river’s annual inundation and learned to use it to their advantage: they built permanent settlements just outside its floodplain and began to farm.
It wasn’t an easy transition to make, and the blessings it brought with it were not unmixed. Indeed, some of the ills it brought remain with us to this day. It appears, for instance, that women were forced into the role of the subservient sex only after the advent of sedentary farming, thanks to their relative lack of physical strength and the need for a division of household labor.
Faced with the dullness, the backbreaking labor, and the desperate uncertainty of primitive subsistence farming, no people would choose it voluntarily unless every other alternative was exhausted. But the starving erstwhile hunter-gatherers who came to cluster around the Nile had in fact run out of alternatives to a hard life spent slaving in the fields. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.
The Egyptians weren’t quite the first people to take up sedentary farming; in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys some distance to their east, a similar process took place somewhat earlier, in response to the same changing climate. The peoples in other parts of the world who didn’t take the same step at the same time weren’t inferior to those that did; they were merely lucky enough to live in places where it didn’t become a necessity. Or, that is to say, they were lucky on a scale of individual lives. On the larger scale of generations, of course, the hardscrabble epoch would prove the necessary precursor to all of the wonders of civilization to come.
We don’t know the precise century or even millennium when Egypt became a land of farmers. Even if our knowledge of such things was absolute, the process would need to be understood as a process, one that went in fits and starts with the reluctant tribes up and down the length of the Nile. Our first archaeological evidence of sedentary farming there, on the other hand, would seem to date to approximately 5000 BC. It consists of 300 non-portable storage bins for grain or seeds, discovered in the 1920s on the shore of Lake Faiyum, a body of water about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of the Giza Plateau that’s fed by a tributary of the Nile.
These humble bins represent a transformation in human psychology far more significant than anything wrought by the invention of writing, the printing press, or the Internet: they represent the moment when humans came unstuck from time. For to store seeds or food for a relatively distant future is to cease to live entirely in the now. To become aware of time as a quantifiable, intellectual thing is to lose the ability to just exist in the flow of time. Humanity gained much from its bargain with time, not least the wonders of the Giza Plateau. Yet the associated loss of the ability to be absolutely present — absolutely one with the flow of life — led to chronologically displaced emotions, such as worry and regret, stress and shame, that are unknown to any other animal. Small wonder that many of the world’s religions have hearkened back to this bittersweet moment through their tales of a mystical lost garden of timeless innocence, or that echoes of it continue to stir our culture — in, for instance, Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage, free of our civilized enslavement to chronology. How many of us, watching a kitten or a small child at play, haven’t wished to return to just such a state of nature? Such is the price of progress.
At any rate, with the long view of things thus adopted, Egyptian civilization could, for better or for worse, develop further. It was likely these early peoples of the Nile who invented — or at least codified — the first truly long-viewed system of human government: the practice of monarchy. Monarchy replaced the power struggles and chaos that otherwise followed the death of a ruler with the peaceful passing of the torch of rulership from father unto son, albeit not without dealing another severe blow to the relative egalitarianism that marks the life of most hunter-gatherer peoples. Eager to justify their ascendancy over their peers, the emerging ruling classes wove their family trees into the rich tapestry of religion that was arising from the new conditions of life on the Nile. Rebellion against an ordinary despot is one thing; rebellion against a literal god or demigod is quite another.
Thanks to the Nile, that ever-present fact of life in Egypt, the tribes who settled down in villages didn’t remain isolated from one another for very long. They learned to build boats, which they employed to visit, to trade, and often doubtlessly to war with one another; the river became the superhighway binding an emerging greater civilization together. By negotiation, conquest, and simple osmosis, the villages amalgamated into larger and larger entities, growing ever richer and more culturally sophisticated in the process. Eventually, there were just three proto-nations of Egypt. Then there were just the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. And finally, in approximately 3000 BC, the full length of the Egyptian Nile, from the First Cataract to the shores of the Mediterranean, was united for the first time under one ruler.
Egyptian myth had it that the very first pharaoh was the god known as Osiris. All of those that followed were his descendants, gods or demigods in their own right who happened to walk the earth in mortal shells for a time.
But the historical record preserved by the Egyptians themselves gives the name of the canonical first pharaoh of the First Dynasty of Egypt as Narmer. His name and stature were memorialized forever in the “Narmer palette,” a ceremonial grindstone of the sort used for mixing pigments, which was discovered not far north of the First Cataract in the late 1890s. The once-plentiful cattle of Egypt, which had become rare and precious since the region’s climate had changed, had come to play a major role in religious belief by the time the palette was made. Thus one side of it depicts Narmer smiting his enemies with a mace beneath the benevolent gaze of two bovine goddesses. The other side of the palette depicts the pharaoh himself in the form of a bull, trampling his enemies underfoot; it also shows him as the leader of a royal procession in his human form. Narmer wears the traditional crown of Upper Egypt on one side of the palette, that of Lower Egypt on the other, thereby demonstrating his dominion over both. Within another century or two, the two crowns would be integrated into a single elaborate royal headdress.
And there’s still another fascinating aspect to the Narmer Palette: scattered around its surfaces are a number of hieroglyphs. Their presence tells us that, even before 3000 BC, even before Egypt was unified for the first time under a single ruler, its people had invented a form of writing.
That said, it seems unlikely that it was the Egyptians who invented the very idea of writing. Most scholars today believe that honor to be more properly bestowed upon the ancient Sumerians, with whom the Egyptians were already in communication by 3200 BC. They likely saw examples of Sumerian writing and came up with their own system, suited to their own language.
Writing enables bureaucracy. Archaeologists have discovered official records stretching back to the time of Narmer and even slightly before. Some of what is recorded is uncannily similar to what one might find in the government archives of today. The height of the all-important annual Nile inundation, for example, is meticulously tracked, year by year over spans of centuries. But most of all, the bureaucrats focused their efforts on tax collection, which took the form of agricultural produce paid directly into the royal treasury. (Egypt would remain a cash-less barter economy for millennia to come.)
When combined with the superhighway that was the Nile, writing and the systems of taxation it enabled turned ancient Egypt into an oddly modern sort of place in comparison to other ancient civilizations, allowing the development of a powerful central government able to closely oversee its people from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean. The government thus played a much larger role in the average Egyptian’s life than was the norm with other ancient civilizations. Indeed, ancient Egypt is often credited with inventing the very concept of the centralized nation-state in addition to that of monarchy. The pharaoh himself periodically took a slow trip down the length of the Nile in his royal barge, visiting all of the cities and villages under his rule and, even more importantly, being seen by his subjects. In addition to the royal family itself, taxes supported what amounted to a civil service: an upper crust of courtiers, scribes, tax collectors, soldiers, and specialists in various other trades. There was even a social safety net of a sort: some grain was held in reserve by the government, to be redistributed to the people after a poor harvest. And of course the royal treasury also funded national defense and the occasional war of conquest, as well as monumental building projects like the Pyramids of Giza.
Such grandiose achievements as these were made possible only by the central government’s ability to tax its people and to efficiently marshal them in the service of a cause. And, as we’ve seen, that ability in turn stemmed directly from the unique geography of ancient Egypt. Thanks above all to the Nile — that water of life and conduit of trade, medium of communication and method of control — the civilization the Egyptians built became truly magnificent. While other contemporary civilizations would produce wonders of their own, none would dare to build on quite the same grand scale as Egypt.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)