Every civilisation reflects, to some degree, the influence of its environment. Egypt is a country where, perhaps more than most, the physical and natural features provide a dramatic and contrasting setting for human events. It would be difficult to reside in Egypt and remain unaffected by the natural forces and their cycles. In antiquity, as now, the two great life-giving forces were the Nile and the sun, and in their religious beliefs the Egyptians recognized the omnipotence of these, as well as the existence of the other natural elements which shaped their world.
In the words of a Classical writer, Egypt is the ‘gift of the Nile’. The existence of the fertile areas has always been due to the natural phenomenon of the regular inundation of the river, for Egypt’s scanty and irregular rainfall would never have supplied sufficient water to support crops and animals. The Nile, Africa’s longest river, rises far to the south of Egypt, in the region of the Great Lakes near the equator. Known as Bahr el-Jebel (Mountain Nile) in its upper course, after its junction with the Bahr el-Ghazel it becomes the White Nile. In the highlands of Ethiopia, another river, the Blue Nile, rises in Lake Tana, and the Blue and White Niles join at Khartoum. From Khartoum to Aswan the river is now interrupted by a series of six cataracts. These are not waterfalls, but appear as scattered groups of rocks across the river which obstruct the stream, and at the Fourth, Second and First cataracts, interfere with navigation. Egypt begins at the First Cataract, and comprises the area between this natural barrier and the Mediterranean, some 965 km to the north. It was in the region of the northernmost cataracts that the Egyptians, from early times, subdued the local population, to gain access to the hard stone and gold supplies of Nubia.
Within Egypt, the Nile follows a course which divides into two regions. The Nile Valley, a passage which the river has forced through the desert, runs from Aswan to just below modern Cairo, a distance of some 804 km. The scenery along this valley varies from steep rocky cliffs which rise up on either side of the river,
and then give way to the encroaching deserts, to flat, cultivated plains, with lush vegetation which, again, in the far distance, succumb to the desert. This cultivated area, wrung from the desert by the irrigation of the land with the Nile floods, varies in width; in parts, the Nile Valley is between twelve and six miles wide, but elsewhere, the cliffs hug the edges of the river and there is no cultivatable land. Nowhere in Egypt is the traveller more aware of the significance of the river’s life-force, for here there is virtually no rainfall. The sun is always present, and without the Nile, this region would be desert, like the surrounding area.
The ancient Egyptians recognised the geographical facts and divided their country into two regions. In earliest times, this was a political as well as a geographical reality, but even after the unification of the country, the concept of ‘Two Lands’ was still present. To them, the Nile Valley was ‘Upper Egypt’, whereas the northern area, the Delta, was ‘Lower Egypt’.
Today, the modern capital of Egypt, Cairo, stands at the apex of the Delta. In antiquity, the ancient capital of Memphis lay a few miles south, and from here there was a marked change in the Nile and its surrounding countryside. Here, the river fans out into a delta nearly one hundred miles long; through the two main branches at Rosetta in the west and Damietta in the east, it finally flows into the Mediterranean. The Delta forms a flat, low-lying plain, scored by the Nile’s main and lesser branches; at its widest, northern perimeter, it spreads out over some two hundred miles. However, despite the considerable area of watered land in this region, much of the Delta is marshy or water-logged and cannot be cultivated. Here in antiquity, the nobility and courtiers enjoyed favorite outdoor as times of fishing and fowling in the marshes. The climate in the north also differs from that of Upper Egypt, for the temperatures are more moderate and there is some rainfall.
The ‘Two Lands’ were therefore distinct regions, but were nevertheless interdependent, joined together by the unifying force of the Nile. However, their geographical features imposed different attitudes on their inhabitants. Lower Egypt, closest to the Mediterranean, looked towards the other countries to the north,
and was more readily receptive of influences from outside, becoming a centre for the cross-currents of the politics and culture of the ancient world. Upper Egypt, encapsulated by the deserts and bordered on the south by the land of Nubia, was more isolated from new ideas and influences. The contrast between the Two Lands can be seen not only in the geographical and environmental features, but in the distinctive art schools which emerged and even in the physique of the people. The northerners tended to be more stockily built, with lighter skins, while the southerners displayed something of the angularity evident in the southern school of art. However, these are broad generalisations, for Egypt remained a strongly unified country; at different periods, the capital moved from one region to another, and with it, the courtiers, officials, craftsmen, and workforce associated with the requirements of a great city; and the art followed the same broad traditional principles in both north and south, so that today only an experienced eye can detect differences in the ancient regional
It was the Nile however which enabled the Egyptians to cultivate crops and to rear animals, and indeed to develop their remarkable civilization. Rain in Upper Egypt was the exception, and the infrequent, short and violent rain bursts could often bring damage; these were regarded as evil rather than beneficent events. In the
Delta also, only the northernmost area benefited from the wintry rains of the Mediterranean. It was the annual inundation of the Nile which brought life to the parched land.
This was the most important natural event of the year, and inevitably became the focus of religious attention. The annual rains in tropical Africa caused the waters of the Blue Nile to swell; in Egypt, this eventually had the effect of causing the river to flood its banks, and spread out over the fields, carrying with it the rich, black mud which was deposited on the land. It was this silt and the people’s management of the water which enabled the Egyptians to grow and cultivate crops. The rise of the river was first noticeable at Aswan in late June; by July, the muddy silt began to arrive. The swelling flood would cover the surrounding fields, and if it breached the dykes, would submerge the fields and villages to a depth of several feet. The flood finally reached the area near Cairo at the end of September, and the waters would then gradually recede, with the river contained within its banks by October and reaching its lowest level in the following April. Thus, the countryside presented great extremes—for part of the year, the villages and palm trees could be marooned like islands in the expanse of floodwater; by the end of the cycle, the earth would be parched and cracked, awaiting the new, life-giving waters of the next inundation.
However, the Nile’s gift was variable and although it rose unfailingly, the height of the inundation fluctuated. A Nile which was too high would flood the land and bring devastation and the ruination of the crops; towns, villages and houses could also be destroyed, with the consequent and considerable loss of life. On the other hand, a low Nile would bring famine. The erratic nature of the inundation was a constant threat to the safety and prosperity of the people, and although the Egyptians showed great awareness of their dependence on the inundation in their religious literature, they were also constantly concerned that the inundation should not be exceptional. Indeed, it is not surprising that moderation and balance were amongst their most highly valued concepts.
In addition to their religious observances, from earliest times, they took practical measures to control and regulate the Nile waters. Started in the predynastic period, their irrigation system evolved a pattern whereby the land was divided up into sections of varying sizes, each being enclosed by strong earth banks. These
banks were arranged on a chequerboard system, with long banks running parallel to the river, and another series running across them, from the river to the desert edge. At the inundation, the water was let into the banked sections through canals, and was held there while the silt settled. Once the river had fallen, the water was drained off, and the ploughing and sowing began. This system provided Egypt with rich agricultural land, and the need for such a system was also probably responsible for the early centralization and organisation of the country.
The interdependence of physically isolated village communities on the all-important joint project of constructing, extending and maintaining an irrigation system gave the people an awareness of the need to co-operate and an acceptance of a strong centralized state. Dykes and dams were built, canals were dug and the system was maintained with the active support of the first kings. Today, the advent of a successful harvest is no longer dependent on nature, and on the petitions addressed to the Nile god, Hapy, and to Osiris, the god of vegetation and rebirth. Modern technology has led to the building of dams at certain points on the river, enabling the volume of water to be held back and supplied for irrigation as required, through a series of canals.
The physical division of Egypt into northern and southern regions is not the only geographical distinction which the Egyptians recognised. It is still possible today to stand with one foot in the desert and one in the cultivation, along the clearly defined line of demarcation between these two areas. For the Egyptians, the cultivated area represented life, fertility and safety; here, with assiduous husbandry, they could grow ample crops, and establish their communities. The name they gave to their whole country was ‘Kemet’, which means the ‘Black Land’. This referred to the cultivation, fertilised for countless years by the black mud of the inundation. Beyond this strip, however, lay the desert, stretching away to the horizon under the glaring sun, a place of death and terror to the Egyptians. They gave this the name of ‘Deshret’, meaning ‘Red Land’, because of the color of the rocks and the sand. These two regions symbolized life and death, and probably influenced some of their most basic religious ideas.
The other most important natural life-force was of course the sun. The Egyptians acknowledged this as the creative force and sustainer of life, and worshiped it under several names as a god; however, Ra was the name by which the solar deity was continuously and most frequently known.
The two great life-forces of sun and Nile had much in common. Both expressed, in their natural cycles, patterns of life, death and rebirth. The sun rose every morning and set at night, to reappear unfailingly on the horizon; the Nile annually imparted its gift of water, so that the life, death and rebirth of the countryside was
vividly experienced. It has been suggested that this regular environmental pattern impressed itself so clearly on the Egyptian consciousness that they transferred the concept of life, death and rebirth, seen in natural cycles, to the human experience. From their earliest development, it seems that they believed in the continued existence of the individual—his rebirth—after death, and the concept of eternity remained a constant feature of their religious and funerary ideas. Although the supposed exact location of this continued existence varied in the different historical periods and according to the individual’s social status, (almost) all Egyptians believed in some kind of afterlife and, for those who could afford it, elaborate preparations of the tomb and associated funerary equipment were made, to facilitate the deceased’s journey into the next world. Both the gods associated with these life-forces— Ra, as the solar god, and Osiris, the god who symbolized vegetation and was king of the underworld by virtue of his own resurrection from the dead—promised regeneration and eternity to their followers.
It was possible for the often unique ideas which distinguished the Egyptian civilization to flourish over many centuries and to develop largely unaffected by outside influences, because of the geographical situation of the country. A glance at a map of Egypt will immediately reveal the importance of its natural barriers. In antiquity, these were of more significance than they are today, for they encapsulated Egypt and buffered it against all invaders, so that, unlike many other areas, in the earlier times at least, Egypt was not subjected to continuous waves of conquerors. To the north, there lies the Mediterranean and to the south, the African hinterland; on the east there is the eastern desert and the Red Sea, while to the west, with its seemingly endless desolate hills, the Libyan desert stretches out. Here, in an otherwise waterless expanse, there runs an irregular chain of oases, scattered roughly parallel to the river. The largest ‘oasis’ (although, strictly speaking, it is not a true oasis) is the Fayoum, a depression in the desert, into which runs a minor channel, some 321 km long, known as the ‘Bahr Yusef’ (Joseph’s river). This channel leaves the main stream of the Nile west of the river near the modern town of Assiut. It was here, in the Fayoum, that the community of Kahun lived some 4,000 years ago. But before returning to consider this area in more detail, it is necessary to examine the historical events which led the kings of the 12th Dynasty to select the Fayoum as their center.