Geography and the Nile

In ancient times, the boundaries of Egypt were the Mediterranean Sea to the north and Elephantine (modern Aswan) to the south. Its eastern and western boundaries were in the high desert on either side of the narrow strip of Nile valley and low desert. The Nile River, the most important geographic feature in the area, runs the length of the country, flowing from south to north.

Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions: Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower (northern) Egypt consisted of the Nile River’s delta made by the river as it empties into the Mediterranean. Upper Egypt was the long, narrow strip of ancient Egypt located south of the Delta. This area is composed of four topographic zones: the Nile River, the floodplain, the low desert, and the high desert. Each of these zones was exploited differently by the ancient Egyptians. Today the Delta is fifteen thousand square miles of alluvium (silt), which has been deposited over the centuries by the annual flooding of the Nile. For much of Egypt’s history, this area was only thinly settled, although it was used as a grazing area for cattle.

The most important geographic feature in Egypt is the Nile River itself. It was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt, and still makes life possible in the otherwise barren desert. The longest river in the world (over 4,000 miles), the Nile is formed by the union in Khartoum, Sudan, of the White Nile from Lake Victoria in Uganda and the Blue Nile from the mountains of Ethiopia.

The Nile also served as a source of food for the people of ancient Egypt and was crucial to agriculture in the region. The river teemed with fish, and the ancient Egyptians consumed many different kinds, including catfish, mullet, bolti, and perch. Because it left a layer of nutrient-bearing silt when the waters of the annual inundation receded and provided water for irrigation, the Nile made agriculture and, therefore, life in ancient Egypt possible. The river was a regular and predictable source of water in a desert environment. Because the annual flood of the Nile revitalized the floodplain with water and new soil, it symbolized rebirth for the ancient Egyptians.

The low strip of fertile land located on either side of the Nile River is known as the floodplain. Most ancient settlements were located on the highest ground of this zone, and most of the farming occurred here. The Nile did not water a strip of higher land on either side of the floodplain, known as the low desert. It was a zone of little vegetation where men hunted and where the Egyptians located their cemeteries. The high desert was a barren area that was crossed only by trade caravans or organized groups searching for stone and mineral resources. Several oases located in the high desert were cultivated to grow valuable crops like grapes and dates. These areas were important links in trade with more remote areas.

Rains in Central Africa and melting snow and rains in the Ethiopian highlands caused the annual flood, or “Inundation,” of the Nile River that occurred in ancient times. In May, just prior to the flood, the Nile was at its lowest point. From June to August, the river rose rapidly, carrying brown silt in its waters. The flood was at its highest point in mid-September; it took eight to ten days for the crest to pass downstream from Elephantine to Memphis. By October the waters began to recede, leaving pools of water in depressed areas of the floodplain. After the water was absorbed by the soil, the ancient Egyptians planted their crops in the mud. The ancient Egyptians used a device called a “Nilometer” to record the level of the river during the annual flood. Nilometers were staircases that descended into the Nile with marks indicating various levels above low water. The annual flood continued into modern times. With the completion in 1988 of the high dam at Aswan (ancient Elephantine), however, the flooding has been controlled.

The needs of ancient civilized societies like Egypt were not fully satisfied by their own resources, so trade routes were developed to reach distant countries. The ancient Egyptians most often visited the countries along the Mediterranean Sea and the Upper Nile River to the south because they were immediately adjacent to Egypt and contained materials that the Egyptians desired. At various times in their history, the ancient Egyptians set up trade routes to Cyprus, Crete, Greece, Syro-Palestine, Punt, and Nubia. Egyptian records as early as the Predynastic Period list some items that were brought into Egypt, including leopard skins, giraffe tails, monkeys, cattle, ivory, ostrich feathers and eggs, and gold. Punt (whose location is uncertain) was a major source for incense, while Syro-Palestine provided cedar, oils and unguents, and horses.

The Nile was the principal means of travel for the people of ancient Egypt. They developed various types of boats, including cargo, passenger, funerary, and naval vessels, to journey on the river. Land travel was time-consuming and dangerous because of possible attack by nomadic peoples. Donkeys were the only transport and pack animals used by the Egyptians until horses were brought to Egypt in Dynasty XVIII (ca. 1539-1295 B.C.). Horses were valuable and used only for riding or for pulling chariots. The domesticated camel was not introduced in Egypt until after 500 B.C.