The importance of the River Nile in Ancient Egyptian Civilization

Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

Pyramids at Gizah
Pyramids at Gizah | Source
A letter written on papyrus
A letter written on papyrus | Source
River Nile providing fertile land for crops
River Nile providing fertile land for crops | Source
A papyrus tree, which when grown naturally in the wild had so many uses.
A papyrus tree, which when grown naturally in the wild had so many uses. | Source

In the Beginning

A centralised state which we recognise as Ancient Egypt emerged from the mixed tribes of the area around 3100BC. At this point the state was headed by a single ruler with symbols and powers of kingship in a defined area, supported by an administrative organisation. The Nile was the main route of communication but was liable to delays, especially if moving against the prevailing wind. This resulted in a united state but with some unitary government as decisions were often delayed getting to parts of the kingdom.

The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt pp202-203 opines "without the waters and the fertile flood plain of the Nile,it is highly unlikely that Egyptian civilization would have developed in the deserts of north-eastern Africa. For many centuries the Nile did not even have a name, It was identified in ancient texts as the Iteru- the river or the iteru-aa- the great river.

Ancient Egypt was, as it is today, a land of total extremes from the arid desert landscape to the narrow ribbon of very fertile land surrounding its lifeblood the River Nile. there was an annual flood between June and September, when the river swelled with rainfall from rain in Central Sudan and the Ethiopian Highlands. The water from the Nile was instrumental in healthy harvests. these annual floods known as the INUNDATION allowed new layers of fertile soil to be deposited on the land of the flood plain on an annual basis. The river was the principle form of transportation and is the longest river in the world. It flows 4,189 miles (6,741 km) from its source in the East African Highlands to the Delta where it then flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

Away from the Nile were the desert areas with the extremes of temperature from scorching heat whilst the sun shone to freezing cold when the sun went down at night. Add to that, lack of water and inhabitants who were nomadic in nature, it was not a hospitable place. Yet the desert was not without its own value. Financially it was a source of valuable stones, amethyst, turquoise and also gold but geographically it acted as a barrier to invasion, creating a society which was focused on itself and not responsive to outside changes.


The banks of the River Nile were lined with Papyrus reeds. the stems of the plant could be used for many purposes, such as the manufacture of ropes and the caulking of boats, to be used for travel along the river. The stems could be tied together to make primitive hunting boats, however these had a limited lifespan as the reeds became water logged and the boats sank!. It was this ability to absorb water that made the papyrus plant suitable for transformation into a paper like writing material also known as papyrus. It is not known when papyrus was first used although the earliest surviving sheets (blank) were discovered in the 1st Dynasty tomb of Hemaka at Saggara (3035BC)

To make papyrus

To make papyrus sheets, the plants triangular stems were cut and the outside layers stripped off. The stems were then soaked in water and cut into strips, normally not more than a modern day 45 cm. The strips would be beaten with a hammer to break down and flatten the fibres. A second layer would be added by placing more strips at right angles to the first strips and beaten so that the felted texture of the pith of the plant meshed together. This "felting" process is perhaps easily recognisable for those of us who have made felt by hand today, but not with the hammer, I hasten to add. The papyrus sheet was then weighted and left to dry out in the sun. The individual squares of papyrus could then be fixed together to make a roll which conventionally contained 200 squares, although rolls could be joined together if a longer document was required. Papyrus had two sides- the recto which was the inside and the verso which was the outside. Sheets were rolled in such a way that the writing was contained on the recto only. However in poorer households used papyrus was bought and in the those cases the verso or outside of the papyrus was used. Papyrus continued in use until the 9th Century A.D.


The river was the principle source of food in that it provided fertile growing land along the edges of the Nile. The poorest people seem to have subsisted on bread, beer and a few vegetables, mainly onions. According to the Greek writer Herodutus it is with these goods that the Great Pyramids builders were paid. Bread was made from emmer wheat- the was ground by hand in a laborious arrangement of stones known as a saddle queen. This flour contained fragments of stone and sand which inflicted great wear and tear on the teeth

Bread came in various shapes with some made in moulds,especially if it was for ritual use. Beer was usually made from Barley and seems to have been a thick soupy liquid- not that alcoholic but seemingly nutritious. Sometimes it was sweetened with dates or flavoured with other fruits. Oil came from nuts of the moringa tree as well as flax in the form of linseed oil- High quality oil was regarded as a high value item, buried in some tombs to ensure prosperity in the after life. Meat was regarded as a considerable luxury to be eaten at festivals or on festive occasions. Hares, gazelle and other wild animals would supplement the poor persons diet.


The river was the main form of transport, indeed there is no record of any Egyptian roads. The ancient Egyptians had little use for the wheel using boats for river travel and donkeys for any land based travel. Indeed there was no word within the language for "bridge" as the ancients crossed the river by boat, indeed a practise that is still common in modern Egypt. The prevailing wind on the Nile came from the north and boats would use sails to go south whilst those heading north would use a combination of current and oars. Travel by boat was ingrained in the ancient Egyptian psyche- the sun god Ra is depicted as travelling through the sky or the netherworld in his bark. Indeed the wind power was reflected in hieroglyphic symbols- the hieroglyphic for khento which means to travel south was of a boat with its sail up whilst the hieroglyphic for a boat travelling north or khedi was boat with its sail down.

Early boats were made from papyrus for fishing or hunting game but were replaced in the middle kingdom about 2686BC by wooden boats which had steering oars, a mast and sail so that they could travel with the wind and against it. The boats were steered by the oar and sometimes had cabins on them depending on whether they were used for the transport of wealthy people or just goods. An old kingdom boat was found by the pyramid of Khufu at Giza which was made of large planks of wood "sewn together with papyrus ropes". Less elaborate boats would have been used to transport stone for the pyramids from the quarries.

Boats had a religious symbolism. Om tomb walls there were often depictions of boats, often carrying the very stone that made the tomb. Models of boats were placed in early middle kingdom burials to create a wealthy state for the date in the after life- with the boat they believed that the dead would be able to trade and transport goods

The River Nile was therefore an important part of Ancient Egypt without it there would have been little agriculture, transport and communication. it is unlikely that the ancient civilization would have developed.

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Comments 28 comments

loloburg 23 months ago

This awesome Great info this has helped me so much with my homework I could not have completed it with this info but maybe a bit more info about how the Egyptians used it

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CASE1WORKER 24 months ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

Thank you for your kind comment

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pstraubie48 24 months ago from sunny Florida

It is interesting to read of this and to know that the Nile went unnamed until finally a name was chosen

Rivers have been important in the development of many towns and cities throughout history.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Angels are on the way to you this afternoon. ps

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CASE1WORKER 2 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

why thank you very much for your visit

katungye levi 2 years ago

wonderful information

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CASE1WORKER 3 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

Thanks Nell - the river brought them life . I guess that as they did not live especially long their teeth did not have to last!

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Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

This was fasinating reading, the stone and sand must have done terrible damage to their teeth, but what a great account of how they lived back then, voted up and shared!

Olajumoke 4 years ago

I like history & I am Also proud to be A Diplomat.

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CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

Marc Samora- Glad to be of help with your homework!

LANI GEMENI_ Glad to be able to help your brother, I hope he does well with his homework.

Thankyou both for your kind visits and comments.

LANI GEMENI 5 years ago


marc samora 5 years ago

That is good keep it up you helped do my home work thank you si much

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CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

RalpjGreene- Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comment.

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RalphGreene 5 years ago

Great information.

krystal 5 years ago

wow what a beautiful cat!

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

Trish M- thanks- more i read about ancient civilisations the more I realise they lasted longer than ours

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Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

I love history, too, and the stories of ancient Egypt are particularly amazing, I think.

Thanks :)

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

melbel- thanks for your kind comments- i guess there must be a few crocs lurking in the cool of the papyrus on a hot day! thanks for the offer re formatting- anything assistance is great- going off now to read some of yours!

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melbel 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

Wow, this is an absolutely beautiful hub! I LOVE the pictures. The papyrus looks really cool. I'd heard about papyrus when I was a kid and there's a stationary store at the mall called papyrus something but I never knew what it looked like. Great hub! Oh hey, if you want some tips, I can show you how to format the pictures and stuff in the hub so you can get more *ahem* adsense dollahz.



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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

Divok- thanks for your comments- i recommend that others read his hubs they are very good

Divok profile image

Divok 6 years ago

Great hub :) I saw before in the comments you were perhaps going to think about the religious aspect of the nile? If you want a really quick overview I wrote a hub about how the nile dictated egyptian religion if you want to take a look?

P.S This is really great stuff :D Why I havnt seen this sooner I don't know

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

milenaamr- yes I know what you mean, it used to be the same with the chinese but they are embracing change- perhaps they have found something else.... happiness

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milenaamr 6 years ago

Nice hub. I leave in Egypt for a while and I love it as a country. Every time when I read something like that about their glorious past I always ask myself why did they stop develop with the speed they did back then. Civilization that was so advance 5000 years ago now is consider a third world country. Thanks for the article.

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

thanks- hopefully i will write some more

Rob Hanlon profile image

Rob Hanlon 6 years ago from Epicentre of everywhere

Very informative. History was/is never a strong subject for me, but it is much better delivered in this kind of way. Well done.

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

thank you- i think the religious aspect of the egyptians might be good to look at-

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Lady Guinevere 6 years ago from West By God

Perhaps they didn't know of anything else and that was their staple. I loved this hub because it educates people. I was going to write, and might still, a hub on this and that of babylon because what the religions teach is not always what it was like in those places. I rated this hub up.

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CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM Author

what fascinated me was how it would have hurt their teeth and yet as it was the only food available they ate it- makes me shudder!

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christopheranton 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Thank you for a fascinating article. The details of the daily life were especially interesting, like the bread they ate, and the beer.

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