The importance of the River Nile in Ancient Egyptian Civilization
Pyramids of Ancient Egypt
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.