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ithout the Nile, Egypt probably would never have become one of the most important civilizations in history. In ancient Egyptian culture, the Nile was more than just a physical presence, it was also a political and spiritual one. For the ancient Egyptians, this river was a way of life (sort of say) as they have seen water as the most important element of life. The sun rising from the Nile was a majestic view that the Egyptians believed to be an offering from the Gods.

Evolution of the Nile river

In ancient times, the greatness of Egypt was based on its agricultural wealth hence the Nile. Agriculture was not initially the basis of subsistence, but evolved, along with arable land, in the millennium that followed the last Glacial Era, which ended around 10,000 BC, and developed greatly since 4,500 BC.

In 3100 BC, the Valley and the Nile Delta coagulated into a single entity, which was one of the first large nation-states in the world. In addition to providing the region with material potential, the Nile and other geographical features also influenced political developments and were important in the development of Egyptian thinking. The land continued to develop and its population grew in Roman times. Important factors for this process were unity, political stability, and expansion of cultivated arable land. The recovery of the Nile was essential to its development.

Flooding of the Nile river

It is unclear how early and how much the flood was regulated. During the Middle Kingdom period (c. 1975–1640 BC). the irrigation basin, where large portions of the meadow were administered as single units, was already well established, but is not likely to have been practiced in the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2150 BC) when the great pyramids were built. The only area where major irrigation works were carried out before the Grao-Roman era was Faiyum, an oasis west of the Nile. Here, the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom regained ground by controlling the water flow along a river channel, directing it to irrigate other lands, while the water level in the lake was reduced. But their system didn’t last.

The Nile River flooding by the Giza Pyramids. October 31, 1927 (Source: Public Domain)

Egyptian texts say little about irrigation techniques and water supplies. Exceptions are the biographies of the local leaders of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2125–1975 BC), who claim that they built canals and supplied their people with water, while others did not. In more prosperous times, such matters would have been taken as such and would not have been mentioned in public texts.

The crops could be planted after the flood, which covered the valley and the delta in August and September; they needed minimal irrigation and reached maturity in March-May. Good management of the flood system for better land cover and flood regulation, increased the yield, while the system of drainage and accumulation of alluvium enlarged the agricultural areas. Vegetables are grown on small plots needed irrigation throughout the year, water that had to be carried by hand, in pots only in 1500 BC.

The culture around the Nile river

This information is known through ancient texts and traces of plants and animals. But the Egyptians glorified their world in which they also lived by decorating their graves. There are numerous pictures here about agriculture and animal husbandry, but the Nile itself is absent. In contrast, the “aquatic scenes” are represented by swamps or small watercourses that were crossed by peasants and shepherds. Paintings about the great festivals and commercial expeditions that used large ships dominate the temples, these being the most explicit representations of the river. The scenes, however, praise Pharaoh, who commanded such expeditions.

Temple Island Phidale Egyptian Nile River Ruins Painting circa 2150 BC (Source: Public Domain)

The main crops were cereals, wheat for bread and barley for beer which was easy to store. Other essential plants for the Egyptians were flax (products for making clothes and ropes, products that were also exported) and papyrus (the main element of making ancient paper). The papyrus root was edible, and the strain was used to make the various things needed by the Egyptians from boats and mats to famous writing materials. the Nile also provided plenty of fish.

The river was important in other ways as well. Delta and its mouths were an obstacle to the invaders. Traveling through the desert or into Asia was more difficult than that through Egypt, where transport was facilitated by boat trips on the Nile, while at the same time being a unifying force in a long and thin state. In social terms, however, the Nile could separate people. A poor man was one who did not have a boat to cross the river.

The political influence of the Nile river

The Nile acted as a magnet, making Egypt a compact region and favoring the development of political unity, which increased the potential for land exploitation, but also the responsibilities to the rulers. The kings controlled the agricultural resources through the ultimate ownership of the land, taxes on agricultural products and administrative measures to ensure that the land is cultivated and compulsory labor. Instead, they were responsible for the storage and redistribution in case the year was not fruitful.

This system of centralized organization in the third millennium BC created a workforce discipline that would lead to the construction of large royal monuments and sumptuous tombs of the elite. This force worked to create fortifications and pyramids in the Middle Kingdom, and after the imperial expansion, created the great temples and tombs of the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC).

The effective organization and agricultural productivity offered by the flood system made all this possible. When the central control collapsed, especially in the three intermediate periods (c. 2125–1975 BC, 1630–1520 BC, 1075–715 BC), few monuments were built and political expansion slowed down. Even so, the agricultural base of power and prosperity was not destroyed, and after reunification, monumental projects and culture revived.

Osiris Egyptian God Of Underworld (Source: Public Domain)

One of the biggest Egyptian Gods, closest to the Nile, was Osiris. In ancient Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the king of Egypt and was killed by his brother Seth on the bank of the river, then thrown into a coffin. His body was cut to pieces. Later, his sister, widow Isis, managed to put together the pieces of his body and bring him back to life, to conceive his son, Horus.

Osiris, however, did not return to this world but became a king in the world beyond. His death and resurrection were related to the fertility of the earth. In the festivals during the flood season, mud figurines that embodied Osiris were planted with barley, whose germination was a symbol for the rebirth of the god and the earth.

Considering that the Egyptian civilization was born around the Nile, the Egyptians turned south, from where the river originated, so that the west was to their right, so this was the “good” part of crossing into the world beyond. The year and calendar were also set after the Nile and stars. The New Year was in the middle of July when the river began to swell for the floods, which roughly coincided with the resurgence of Sirius (Sothis) after 70 days of disappearance from the sky. Sothis was an astronomical anchor in the 365-day calendar.

Without the Nile river, our world would have been very different.

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