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The River Nile in Ancient Egypt

River Nile, Nuba, Aswan, Egypt, with Fila Temple.

Surely one of the world’s most evocative rivers as well as being its longest, the mighty Nile River surges imperiously ever northwards 6,650 kilometres (4,132 miles) from its origins in Africa to its mouth on the Uat-Ur the Egyptian word for the Mediterranean Sea. Along its passage, it gave life to the ancient Egyptians nourishing them with its annual deposits of rich black sediment providing the basis for the agriculture, which supported the flowering of their culture.

Seneca the Roman philosopher and statesman described the Nile as a “remarkable spectacle” and an amazing wonder. The surviving records indicate this is an opinion widely shared by ancient writers who visited Egypt’s “mother of all men.”

The river derives its name from the Greek “Neilos,” meaning valley, although the ancient Egyptians called their river Ar, or “black” after its rich sediments. However, the story of the Nile River doesn’t begin in the expansive delta of marshes and lagoons of its Mediterranean exit, but in two distinct sources, the Blue Nile, which cascades down from the Abyssinian highlands and the White Nile, which springs from lush equatorial Africa.

The Nile’s broad fan-shaped Delta is flat and green. At its farthest reaches, Alexander the Great built Alexandria, a bustling port city and home to the Library of Alexandria and the famed Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Beyond the expanse of the Nile Delta lies the Mediterranean and Europe. At the far end of the Nile, sat Aswan the gateway city to Egypt, a small, hot, garrison town for Egypt’s armies as they hotly contested the territory with Nubia over the centuries.

Facts About The River Nile in Ancient Egypt

  • Around five million years ago, the Nile River started flowing north towards Egypt
  • The Nile River at 6,695 kilometres (4,184 miles) long is believed to be the world’s longest river
  • Over its course, the Nile flows through nine Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zaire and Sudan, before finally reaching Egypt
  • The Nile River played a crucial role in nurturing the ancient Egyptian civilization
  • Before the construction of the High Aswan Dam, the Nile overflowed its banks, depositing rich, fertile deposits during its annual, supporting agriculture alongside the banks of the Nile
  • The Osiris myth, which lies at the core of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs is based on the Nile River
  • The Nile was also Egypt’s transportation link with fleets of ships ferrying goods and people from Aswan to Alexandria
  • The waters of the Nile River was a source of irrigation for ancient Egypt’s crops while marshes in its vast delta were home to flocks of waterfowl and papyrus beds for building and paper
  • Ancient Egyptians enjoy fishing, rowing and playing a host of competitive water sports on the Nile

The Nile’s Importance To The Rise Of Ancient Egypt

Little wonder then, that ancient Egyptians venerated the Nile recognizing that its waters were home to perch fish and other fish, its marshes harboured a profusion of waterfowl and papyrus for boats and books, while its loamy riverbanks and flood plains produced the mud needed for bricks for its colossal construction projects.

Even today, “May you always drink from the Nile,” remains a common Egyptian blessing.

The ancient Egyptians recognized the Nile as the source of all life. It spawned myths and legends Egypt and played an essential role in the lives of the gods and goddesses. In Egyptian mythology, the Milky Way was a celestial mirror reflecting the Nile River and those ancient Egyptians believed Ra their sun god drove his divine barque across it.

To the gods fell the credit for giving Egypt its annual floods, with their deposits of black highly fertile sediment along the parched banks. Some myths pointed to Isis for the gift of agriculture while others credited Osiris. Over time, Egyptians developed a network of sophisticated canals and irrigation systems to channel water to increasing areas of land, greatly expanding food production.

The Nile also proved to be an indispensable leisure outlet for ancient Egyptians, who hunted in its marshes, fished and swam in its waters and rowed boats across its surface in hotly contested competitions. Water jousting was another popular water sport. Two-man teams comprising a `rower’ and a `fighter’ in a canoe would try to knock their opponent’s fighter from their canoe and into the water.

The Nile River was thought to be a divine manifestation of the god Hapi, a popular water and fertility god. Hapi’s blessings brought life to the land. Ma’at the goddess who represented balance, harmony and truth were similarly closely associated with the Nile as was the goddess Hathor and then Osiris and Isis. Khnum was a god who evolved into the god of creation and rebirth. He had his origins as the god overseeing the Nile’s source waters. It was he who oversaw its daily flows and created the annual inundation, which was so vital for revitalising the fields.

The Nile’s pivotal role in creating ancient Egypt started around five million years ago when the river started flowing north into Egypt. Permanent habitation and settlements gradually arose along great stretches of the river’s banks, beginning c. 6000 BCE. Egyptologists credit this with being the beginning of the rich Egyptian culture and sprawling civilization, which emerged as the world’s first truly recognizable nation state around c.3150 BCE.

Famine And The Nile

Egypt was devastated by a great famine at one point during King Djoser’s (c. 2670 BCE) reign. Djoser dreamt Khnum appeared before him and complained his temple on Elephantine Island had been allowed to fall into ruin. Khnum was displeased with the disrespect the neglect of his temple showed. Imhotep Djoser’s legendary vizier suggested the pharaoh journey to Elephantine Island to inspect the temple and discover if his dream was true. Djoser discovered the condition of Khnum’s temple’s condition was as poor as his dream had suggested. Djoser ordered the temple to be restored and its surrounding complex renovated.

Following the temple’s reconstruction, the famine ended and Egypt’s fields were once again fertile and productive. The Famine Stele erected by the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE) 2,000 years after Djoser’s death narrates this story. It demonstrates just how critical the Nile was to Egyptians view of their universe that the god governing the Nile’s annual floods had to be placated before the famine could break.

Agriculture And Food Production

While the ancient Egyptians ate fish, most of their food came from farming. The Nile basin’s rich topsoil is 21 metres (70 feet) deep in some places. This annual deposit of rich sediment enabled the first farming communities to take root and established an annual rhythm of life, which endured up to modern times.

The ancient Egyptians divided their annual calendar into three seasons, Ahket the season of Inundation, Peret the growing season and Shemu the harvest season. These reflect the annual cycle of floods of the Nile River.

Following Ahket, the season of Inundation, farmers planted their seeds. Peret, the main growing season lasted from October through to February. This was a crucial time for farmers to tend to their fields. Shemu was harvest season, a time of joy and abundance. Farmers dug extensive irrigation canals from the Nile River to provide water for the rich black kemet of their fields.

Farmers cultivated a range of crops including the famed Egyptian cotton for clothing, melons, pomegranates and figs for their evening meal and barley for beer.

They also grew local strains of beans, carrots, lettuce, spinach, radishes, turnips, onions, leeks, garlic, lentils and chickpeas. Melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers grew profusely on the banks of the Nile.

Fruit commonly appearing in ancient Egyptians diets included plums, figs, dates, grapes, persea fruit, jujubes and the fruit of the sycamore tree.

Three crops however dominated ancient Egyptian agriculture centred on the Nile River, papyrus, wheat and flax. Papyrus was dried to create an early form of paper. Wheat was ground into flour for bread, the daily staple of ancient Egyptians, while flax was spun into linen for clothes.

A Vital Transportation And Trade Link

As most of ancient Egypt’s main cities were sited along or close to the banks of the Nile River, the river formed Egypt’s major transportation link, connecting the Empire. Boats constantly shuttled up and down the Nile transporting people, crops, trading goods and construction materials.

Without the Nile River, there would be no pyramids and no great temple complexes. Aswan in ancient times was a hot and inhospitable arid area. However, Ancient Egypt considered Aswan indispensable due to its large deposits of Syenite granite.

Immense Syenite blocks were chiselled from living stone, hoisted onto barges, before being shipped down the Nile to provide the signature building material for the pharaohs’ colossal building projects. Enormous ancient sandstone and limestone quarries have also been discovered in the hills lining the Nile. These materials were shuttled the length of Egypt to meet the demand created by the pharaoh’s ambitious construction efforts.

During the annual floods, the trip took about two weeks, thanks to the absence of cataract. During the dry season, the same trip required two months. Thus the Nile River formed ancient Egypt’s superhighway. No bridges could span its immense width in ancient times. Only boats could navigate its waters.

Sometime around 4,000 B.C. the ancient Egyptians began making rafts by lashing together bundles of papyrus stalks. Later, ancient shipwrights learned to build large wooden vessels from local acacia wood. Some boats could transport up to 500 tons of cargo.

The Osiris Myth And The Nile

Among the most popular ancient Egypt myths centred on the Nile is that of telling of Osiris’ betrayal and murder by his brother Seth. Eventually, Set’s envy of Osiris turned to hatred when Set discovered his wife, Nephthys, had adopted Isis’ likeness and seduced Osiris. Set’s anger was not directed to Nephthys, however, but on his brother, “The Beautiful One”, a temptation too beguiling for Nephthys to resist. Set tricked his brother into laying down in a casket he had made to Osiris’ exact measurement. Once Osiris was inside, Set slammed the lid shut and tossed the box into the Nile River.

The casket floated down the Nile and was eventually caught in a tamarisk tree by the shores of Byblos. Here the king and queen were captivated by its sweet scent and beauty. They had it cut down for a pillar for their royal court. While this was happening, Set usurped Osiris’ place and reigned over the land with Nephthys. Set neglected the gifts Osiris and Isis had bestowed and drought and famine stalked the land. Eventually, Isis found Osiris inside the tree-pillar at Byblos and returned it to Egypt.

Isis knew how to resurrect Osiris. She set her sister Nephthys to guard the body while she gathered herbs for her potions. Set, discovered his brother’s and hacked it into pieces, scattering the parts across the land and into the Nile. When Isis returned, she was horrified to discover her husband’s body was missing.

Both sisters scoured the land for Osiris’ body parts and reassembled Osiris’ body. Wherever they found a piece of Osiris, they erected a shrine. This is said to explain the numerous tombs of Osiris scattered throughout ancient Egypt. It was claimed to have been the origin of the nomes, the thirty-six provinces governing ancient Egypt.

Unfortunately, a crocodile had eaten Osiris’ penis leaving him incomplete. However, Isis was able to return him to life. Osiris was resurrected but could no longer rule the living, as he was no longer whole. He descended to the underworld and reigned there as Lord of the Dead. The Nile was made fertile by Osiris’ penis, giving life to the people of Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, the crocodile was associated with Sobek the Egyptian god of fertility. Anyone eaten by a crocodile was thought to have been fortunate in experiencing a happy death.

The Osiris myth represents important values in Egyptian culture, those of eternal life, harmony, balance, gratitude and order. Set’s envy and resentment of Osiris stemmed from a lack of gratitude. In ancient Egypt, ingratitude was a “gateway sin” which predisposed an individual to other sins. The story told of the victory of order over chaos and the establishment of harmony in the land.

Reflecting On The Past

Even today, the Nile River remains an integral facet of Egyptian life. Its ancient past lives on in the lore, which has been passed down to us, while it still plays its part in Egypt’s commercial pulse. Egyptians say that should a visitor look upon the beauty of the Nile, that visitor’s return to Egypt is assured, a claim made since antiquity. A view shared by many who experience it today.

Header image courtesy: Wasiem A. El Abd via PXHERE

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "The River Nile in Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, March 20, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/the-river-nile-in-ancient-egypt.

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