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The Nile and it's importance to the Ancient Egyptians.

Egypt was as Heroditus said "the gift of the Nile". Everything depended on the river in ancient times as it still does today to a large extent. It is quite simply Egypt's lifeblood. Even with all the modern progress attributed to today, Egypt's settlement pattern mirrors closely that of older times, in as far as viable habitation is, and was only possible within the Nile's floodplain; a narrow strip of land, limited to several miles each side of the river. The best way to really see this is from the air, where you can see the fertile area adjacent to the river in stark contract to the vast expanses of desert, stretching away for an eternity. Habitation was only possible within the Nile's floodplain, where all agrarian activity took place and where much depended on the river's behavior and the regularity of its inundation. Arable land accounted for a small percentage of the vast expanse of Egypt's area and it was here that the vast majority of the people were to be found. Apart from some isolated oases in desert regions, everything was concentrated along Egypt's main artery of the Nile.

The annual flood or inundation usually started in mid June and lasted until mid October and planting would begin when the water receded. Crops would be ready for harvesting from February to June, when the river was at its lowest. However, things did not always run to plan with such precision. Sometimes the floods were low, which could lead to shortages or sometimes high, which could cause destruction to villages and settlements along the river. The floods could be early or late thus effecting the yearly cycle. The greatest disruption occurred when certain patterns persisted for successive years. Egyptians expected disruption from time to time and could survive this to a large extent but continuous years of either low or high floods spelt disaster. In recent times the building of the Aswan Dam is Egypt's latest effort to control this mighty life-force but in olden times it was very much a case of being prepared as best as possible for all eventualities. Down through the years, Egyptians have made great efforts to monitor the levels of the river at various times throughout its cycle. In fact this became a necessity and turned somewhat into an exact science as far as this was possible. There was a gauge for measuring the flood levels at Rhoda (near Cairo), which recorded information for more recent times. It shows that periods of drought took place with great regularity between 930 - 1070 and 1180 - 1350. It's not hard to imagine the consequences of such disasters, i.e. famine, pestilence and a breakdown of law and order and the whole social fabric as they knew it.


The gift of the Nile enabled the Egyptians to cultivate wheat, barley, beans, lentils, peas, leeks and onions, as well as fruits such as dates, figs, grapes and melons. From this we can see that Egyptians enjoyed bread, beer and wine in abundance and many of the foods we take for granted today. According to earlier texts it was the god Osiris who showed people how to get the best from the Nile by the art of cultivation. There were many varieties of fish in the river and cattle, sheep and goats were plentiful also. Geese and birds of all types populated the delta region. There are many examples of rural life and common activities to be seen in Egyptian art and these images help us greatly in our understanding of this great civilisation..


The river of course was also the main means of transport between places in ancient times. Although donkeys were also used to transport people and goods, everyone took to the river as a means of transport. Other methods such as horses and camels, only appeared in later times, the later being introduced by the Persians when they occupied Egypt. The river flowing south to north connected both Upper and Lower Egypt (the land of the two kingdoms). Movement was faster during the flooding period. If you wanted to go from Thebes to Memphis (approx. 500 miles), it would take you about two weeks in the flooding season but perhaps as long as two months when the waters were low. Boats and barges were constantly travelling between various centers, transporting grain and other commodities in good times and bad. Canals were often cut from river tributaries that had dried up and harbours were built to cater for the ever-increasing numbers and sizes of vessels. An example of this being the harbour at Medinet Hatu in Thebes, built by Amenhotep III (1390 - 1353 BC). Although the Egyptians could not completely tame this mighty river, they did to the best of their abilities, try to limit its devastating effects. They strengthened natural levees and managed the flood basins to enable enough water to flow via channels and canals to places where water was required for planting in times of low levels.

The river as well as having a practical purpose also had a profound spiritual influence. The Egyptians were obsessed by the whole concept of cosmic order personified by the goddess Ma'at, who was the overseer of order and justice. Everything had its particular place and particular cycle and not the Pharaoh or even the gods themselves were immune from this. The Egyptians measured their lives against the daily movement of the sun across the sky and the annual cycle of the Nile. The god Re symbolises the daily cycle by being transported across the sky in a boat and is guided through the underworld in a barque. We can see the significance of everyday objects such as boats, barques and the river itself to these cosmic events. As mentioned already Osiris is closely associated with the river and its annual inundation but it is Hapi who is most renowned as being the supreme god of the Nile. He is represented as a rotund figure, emphasising the abundance of the Nile. His symbol is the papyrus plant, another product associated with the river and used in ancient times as a writing material.

For the Egyptians it was always a constant battle to tame this river and when times were good and there was an abundance of produce, the gods were smiling on them. But even when times were bad, being a people convinced and believing in cosmic order, they knew that soon things would balance out and the gods would once more be in their favour.

Egyptian Cartouches