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The Nile River and Ancient Egypt

Egypt occupies the northeast corner of Africa or the

land between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean
Sea. It takes up a 30th of Africa s total land area
and is 665 miles long (1,073 km) from north to
south and 720 miles wide (1,226 km) from east to

Five major geographic regions:

the Nile River Valley,
the Nile Delta,
the Western Desert,
the Eastern Desert,
the Sinai Peninsular.

The Nile River is a major

north-flowing river in
northeastern Africa,
generally regarded as the
longest river in the world. It is 6,650 km (4,130 miles) long.
It runs through the ten countries of Sudan, South Sudan,
Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.
The Nile has two major tributaries, the White Nile and Blue
Nile. The White Nile is longer and rises in the Great Lakes
region of central Africa, with the most distant source still
undetermined but located in either Rwanda or Burundi. It
flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and
South Sudan. The Blue Nile is the source of most of the
water and fertile soil. It begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and
flows into Sudan from the southeast. The two rivers meet
near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
The northern section of the river flows almost entirely
through desert, from Sudan into Egypt, a country whose
civilization has depended on the river since ancient times.
Most of the population and cities of Egypt lie along those
parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan, and nearly all the
cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along
riverbanks. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into
the Mediterranean Sea.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that "Egypt was the gift
of the Nile". An unending source of sustenance, it provided a
crucial role in the development of Egyptian civilization. Silt
deposits from the Nile made the surrounding land fertile
because the river overflowed its banks annually. The Ancient
Egyptians cultivated and traded wheat, flax, papyrus and
other crops around the Nile. Wheat was a crucial crop in the
famine-plagued Middle East. This trading system secured
Egypt's diplomatic relationships with other countries, and
contributed to economic stability.
Far-reaching trade has been carried on along the Nile since
ancient times. The Ishango bone is probably an early tally
stick. It has been suggested that this shows prime numbers
and multiplication, but this is disputed. In the book "How
Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years", Peter
Rudman argues that the development of the concept of prime
numbers could only have come about after the concept of
division, which he dates to after 10,000 BC, with prime
numbers probably not being understood until about 500 BC.
He also writes that "no attempt has been made to explain
why a tally of something should exhibit multiples of two,
prime numbers between 10 and 20, and some numbers that
are almost multiples of 10." It was discovered along the
headwaters of the Nile (near Lake Edward, in northeastern
Congo) and was carbon-dated to 20,000 BC.
Water buffalo were introduced from Asia, and Assyrians
introduced camels in the 7th century BC. These animals were
killed for meat, and were domesticated and used for
ploughing - or in the camel's case, carriage. Water was vital
to both people and livestock. The Nile was also a convenient
and efficient means of transportation for people and goods.
The Nile was an important part of ancient Egyptian spiritual
life. Hapi was the god of the annual floods, and both he and
the pharaoh were thought to control the flooding. The Nile
was considered to be a causeway from life to death and the
afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and
growth, and the west was considered the place of death, as
the god Ra, the Sun, underwent birth, death, and
resurrection each day as he crossed the sky. Thus, all tombs
were west of the Nile, because the Egyptians believed that in
order to enter the afterlife, they had to be buried on the side
that symbolized death.
As the Nile was such an important factor in Egyptian life, the
ancient calendar was even based on the 3 cycles of the Nile.
These seasons, each consisting of four months of thirty days
each, were called Akhet, Peret, and Shemu. Akhet, which
means inundation, was the time of the year when the Nile
flooded, leaving several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding in
agricultural growth. Peret was the growing season, and
Shemu, the last season, was the harvest season when there
were no rains.
The Nile river, around which much of the population of the
country clusters, has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture
since nomadic hunter-gatherers began living along the Nile
during the Pleistocene. Traces of these early peoples appear
in the form of artifacts and rock carvings along the terraces
of the Nile and in the oases. By about 6000 BC, organized
agriculture and large building construction had appeared in
the Nile Valley.
Between 5500 and 3100 BC, during Egypt's Predynastic
Period, small settlements flourished along the Nile.
By the late Predynastic Period, just before the first Egyptian
dynasty, Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, known as
Upper and Lower Egypt. The dividing line was drawn roughly
in the area of modern Cairo.
The Nile river (iteru in Ancient Egyptian) flows northward
through the center of Egypt from a southerly point to the
Mediterranean. The geologically lower delta region to the
north, where the Nile river branches out into several mouths
providing a wide, rich area of agricultural land, was known
as Lower Egypt.
Whereas the geologically higher land upriver to the south,
where the river valley is narrow and the fertile land on either
side may only be a couple of miles in width, was known as
Upper Egypt.
The two kingdoms were unified by Narmer in c. 3100 BC,
and a series of dynasties ruled Egypt for the next three
millenia. The last native dynasty, known as the Thirtieth
Dynasty, fell to the Persians in 343 BC.
In ancient Egypt, the narrow strip of fertile land which runs
alongside the Nile was called Kemet ("the black land", in
Ancient Egyptian Kmt), a reference to the rich, black silt that
is deposited there every year by the Nile floodwaters. The
ancient Egyptians used this land for growing crops. It was the
only land in ancient Egypt that could be farmed. In contrast,
the barren desert that bordered the fertile land to the east
and west was called Deshret ("the red land", in Ancient
Egyptian Dsrt), c.f. Herodotus: "Egypt is a land of black soil.
We know that Libya is a redder earth".
These deserts separated ancient Egypt from neighboring
civilizations and provided a natural defense against invading
armies. They also provided a source of precious metals and
semi-precious stones. The vowels within the consonants K-M-
T and D-S-R-T are not known with certainty. Coptic,
however, provides some indication.
Natural Resources

Egypt is rich in building and decorative stone, copper and

lead ores, gold, and semiprecious stones. These natural
resources allowed the ancient Egyptians to build
monuments, sculpt statues, make tools, and fashion
jewelry. Embalmers used salts from the Wadi Natrun for
mummification, which also provided the gypsum needed
to make plaster.
Ore-bearing rock formations were found in distant,
inhospitable wadis in the eastern desert and the Sinai,
requiring large, state-controlled expeditions to obtain
natural resources found there. There were extensive gold
mines in Nubia, and one of the first maps known is of a
gold mine in this region. The Wadi Hammamat was a
notable source of granite, greywacke, and gold.
The Egyptians worked deposits of the lead ore galena at
Gebel Rosas to make net sinkers, plumb bobs, and small
figurines. Copper was the most important metal for
toolmaking in ancient Egypt and was smelted in furnaces
from malachite ore mined in the Sinai. Workers collected
gold by washing the nuggets out of sediment in alluvial
deposits, or by the more labor-intensive process of
grinding and washing gold-bearing quartzite. Iron
deposits found in upper Egypt were utilized in the Late
Flint was the first mineral collected and used to make
tools, and flint handaxes are the earliest pieces of
evidence of habitation in the Nile valley. Nodules of the
mineral were carefully flaked to make blades and
arrowheads of moderate hardness and durability even
after copper was adopted for this purpose.Ancient
Egyptians were among the first to use minerals such as
sulfur as cosmetic substances.
High-quality building stones were abundant in Egypt; the
ancient Egyptians quarried limestone all along the Nile
valley, granite from Aswan, and basalt and sandstone
from the wadis of the eastern desert. Deposits of
decorative stones such as porphyry, greywacke, alabaster,
and carnelian dotted the eastern desert and were
collected even before the First Dynasty. In the Ptolemaic
and Roman Periods, miners worked deposits of emeralds
in Wadi Sikait and amethyst in Wadi el-Hudi.


The ancient Egyptians engaged in trade with their foreign

neighbors to obtain rare, exotic goods not found in Egypt. In
the Predynastic Period, they established trade with Nubia to
obtain gold and incense. They also established trade with
Palestine, as evidenced by Palestinian-style oil jugs found in
the burials of the First Dynasty pharaohs. An Egyptian colony
stationed in southern Canaan dates to slightly before the First
Dynasty. Narmer had Egyptian pottery produced in Canaan
and exported back to Egypt.
By the Second Dynasty at latest, ancient Egyptian trade with
Byblos yielded a critical source of quality timber not found in
Egypt. By the Fifth Dynasty, trade with Punt provided gold,
aromatic resins, ebony, ivory, and wild animals such as
monkeys and baboons. Egypt relied on trade with Anatolia
for essential quantities of tin as well as supplementary
supplies of copper, both metals being necessary for the
manufacture of bronze. The ancient Egyptians prized the
blue stone lapis lazuli, which had to be imported from far-
away Afghanistan. Egypt's Mediterranean trade partners also
included Greece and Crete, which provided, among other
goods, supplies of olive oil. In exchange for its luxury imports
and raw materials, Egypt mainly exported grain, gold, linen,
and papyrus, in addition to other finished goods including
glass and stone objects.
Artists and craftsmen were of higher status than farmers, but
they were also under state control, working in the shops
attached to the temples and paid directly from the state

Egyptian society was a merging of North and Northeast

African as well as Southwest Asian peoples. Modern genetics
reveals that the Egyptian population today is characterized
by paternal lineages common to North Africans primarily,
and to some Near Eastern peoples. Studies based on the
maternal lineages closely links modern Egyptians with people
from modern Ethiopia. The ancient Egyptians themselves
traced their origin to a land they called Punt, or "Ta
Nteru" ("Land of the Gods"), which most Egyptologists locate
in the area encompassing the Ethiopian Highlands.
A recent bioanthropological study on the dental morphology
of ancient Egyptians confirms dental traits most characteristic
of North African and to a lesser extent Southwest Asian
populations. The study also establishes biological continuity
from the predynastic to the post-pharaonic periods. Among
the samples included is skeletal material from the Hawara
tombs of Fayum, which was found to most closely resemble
the Badarian series of the predynastic. A study based on
stature and body proportions suggests that Nilotic or tropical
body characteristics were also present in some later groups
as the Egyptian empire expanded southward. Although
analyzing the hair of ancient Egyptian mummies from the
Late Middle Kingdom has revealed evidence of a stable diet,
mummies from circa 3200 BC show signs of severe anemia
and hemolitic disorders.