THE GIFT OF THE NILE
Egypt is readily recognizable on the map today as an angular wedge of northeastern Africa and a chunk of southwestern Asia. It covers slightly more than a million square kilometers, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century it was inhabited by approximately seventy-five million people. The capital of Egypt, Cairo, with its population of more than sixteen million, is the largest city on the African continent.
But to envision Egypt historically, and to understand its geographical essence, one must think first about the Nile, the longest river in the world, and a river that flows through the Sahara, the largest desert in the world. When the Greek traveler Herodotus described Egypt as the gift of the Nile in the fifth century BC, he was probably just repeating what was already a well-worn phrase, but one true since long before historical memory and no less so now. Rainfall is insignificant in the valley of the Nile, and not abundant in the Delta, so that virtually all of Egypt's water comes from the Nile, and even with the amazing development during the past few decades of the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, 95 percent of the population of Egypt still live within a few miles of the river. Almost all of Egypt's arable land, about 34,000 square kilometers, lies in the river valley and the Delta.
The Egyptian Nile has three major sources. The longest is the White Nile. The sources of this river, until the mid-nineteenth century one of the world's great geographical mysteries, lie deep within Africa, especially in the lake region, where Lake Victoria in Uganda and Tanzania makes the largest contribution. As it flows for more than 6,400 kilometers to the Mediterranean, the White Nile passes through ten modern nations amid changing geography. In southern Sudan, it becomes mired in the Sudd, a vast swamp that slows it and causes heavy water loss through evaporation, although the Sudd also mediates the river's flow, releasing it over a longer period of time. Because of the Sudd and the fact that Lake Victoria's catchment area is fed by rainfall throughout the year, the Egyptian Nile's flow never fails entirely.
The other main sources of the Egyptian Nile are the Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile in Sudan at Khartoum, and the Atbara, which flows into the Nile farther north in Sudan. They account for the annual inundation of the Nile, the central geographical feature of Egyptian history. Their tributaries are rooted in the Ethiopian highlands, where the summer monsoon dumps vast amounts of water that runs off quickly, laden with silt and clay washed away from Ethiopia's volcanic mountains. Although popular imagination tends to associate the sources of the Nile with the White Nile and the lake region of central Africa, 84 percent of the river's water that reaches Egypt comes from Ethiopia.
In perfect harmony with the solar year, the Nile began to rise in Egypt at the midsummer solstice and peaked at the autumnal equinox, rising from a low of less than fifty million cubic meters per day in early June to over seven hundred at the inundation's height in September. When the swollen river reached the broad flood plains of Egypt, it spilled over its banks, soaking the rich alluvial soil and washing away the harmful salts that were the long-term bane of other ancient hydraulic civilizations such as Mesopotamia. As it receded, the river left behind pools of water and a fine layer of sediments and minerals. The drying earth would crack open, aerating the soil and thus completing the cycle of renewal. The shift to the past tense is because the construction of the Aswan High Dam ended the inundations in Egypt during the 1960s.
The inundation was the pulsing life force of Egypt. Everything depended on it--and that it be at the correct level. If the inundation was too low, or if it failed entirely, the fields could not be irrigated adequately. A succession of low Niles was catastrophic, causing not only famine but also extreme general economic and political dislocation. But too high an inundation was even worse because it flooded and destroyed the homes that were built on mounds above the expected rise of the water, damaged or destroyed irrigation dams and sluices, and left the water on the land beyond the planting season.
The peculiar rhythms of the Nile created an unusual agricultural cycle in Egypt. Most rivers swell to their fullest in the spring then diminish as the weather grows warmer, but the Nile rose and crested during the summer, at precisely the hottest time of the year. Crops were sown in the fall and ripened through the winter. Harvest came in early spring; then the land was allowed to lie fallow a few weeks until the inundation again spread across it. Coming as it did at the end of June, the flood spared crops from exposure to scorching heat and people from the necessity of laboring in it. The ancient Egyptians recognized three seasons: inundation, seed-time, and harvest.
The Nile is continuously navigable for the nine hundred kilometers between the First Cataract at Aswan and the Delta, a fact that was of fundamental importance for Egypt's unification and continuing prosperity. The river is ideal for sailing vessels. Going north, they are propelled by the steady current; and, because the prevailing winds are from the northwest, boats can usually sail south up the river. If the wind fails, the crews can tow their boats from the paths along the bank. One can still get a lively sense of sail navigation on the Nile by riding on one of the ubiquitous feluccas, whose elegant triangular sails are to be seen all along the river. The Egyptians relied heavily on the Nile and continue to do so today. It was the main avenue for long-distance communication, commerce, and transportation. The Nile provided a way to move very large, heavy objects like building stone over long distances, then the annual inundation could bring the barge right next to the building site. One reason ancient Egypt was relatively late in using wheeled vehicles was lack of roads; space for roads had to come out of the limited amount of fertile land, so they were kept short and narrow. Who needed long-distance highways when the river ran the length of Egypt and was within a few kilometers of almost everyone?
A short distance north of Cairo, the Nile fans out into a wide delta. Today the river has two main channels through the Delta, the Rosetta and the Damietta; in ancient times there were seven. The Delta is Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt being the stretch of the Nile between the Delta and the First Cataract at Aswan. The distinction between Lower and Upper is determined by the fact that the river flows from south to north, not which area is higher on the map. This point is emphasized because people commonly get it backwards, thinking wrongly that Upper Egypt must be in the north and Lower Egypt in the south. Strictly speaking, it is still correct for someone traveling south from Cairo to Luxor or Aswan to say that they are "going up" to those places, although few do so today. The Delta, with twice as much arable land as Upper Egypt, was exceedingly important in early Egyptian history, but much of its material record has been concealed or obliterated by the waterlogged nature of the land, which usually makes Deltan archaeology exceedingly difficult, thereby biasing available evidence toward Upper Egypt, where conditions of preservation and access are much better.
The rocky nature of the river valley has determined the geography of Upper Egypt. After a stretch from Aswan north to Gebel al-Silsileh, where hard Nubian sandstone predominates and constricts the valley, the Nile enters a long region of softer limestone, which allowed the river to form a much wider floodplain that is highly suitable for agriculture. Between the great Qena Bend and Cairo, the hills and mountains on the west bank subside, allowing the fertile floodplain on that side of the river to become wider still while the mountains on the east push close to the river, restricting agriculture and sometimes precluding it altogether on the eastern side. This portion of Upper Egypt is sometimes referred to as Middle Egypt.
Although the border of the modern nation of Egypt lies much farther south, the land of Egypt, properly speaking, ends at the First Cataract, just above (south of) the town of Aswan. Altogether there are six of these cataracts between Aswan and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles at Khartoum. These are not so much cataracts in the dictionary sense of the word, which implies a waterfall, as they are rapids, and so they are called in Arabic. The First Cataract was formed by a band of uplifted granite bedrock and boulders that divided the Nile's waters into numerous fast-running rivulets, and that made Aswan an important source of granite. Ancient quarry marks and inscriptions still appear sharp and clear on the durable stone in the channels at Aswan. Boats could be passed through the First Cataract, but only with difficulty, so it was a barrier to navigation and became something of a cultural and political barrier as well. The First Cataract was partially obliterated by the Aswan Dam at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the Second Cataract was submerged by the waters of Lake Nasser in the middle of the century.
Nubia lies to the south of the First Cataract. Egyptian Nubia, or Lower Nubia (as in Egypt, Lower is in the north and Upper in the south), was the northern stretch of Nubia between the First Cataract and the Second Cataract at Wadi Halfa. Until it was obliterated by the waters of Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s, Lower Nubia was a distinct cultural and geographical area, and often politically distinct as well. The Nubians spoke different languages from ancient Egyptian and, later, from Arabic. The fate of their land vis-à-vis Egypt was heavily determined by geography, for unlike the river valley in most of Egypt, where soft limestone and other factors permitted the river to spread across a wide, fertile floodplain, Nubia was covered with much harder sandstone that allowed the river to cut only a narrow trench through it. The mountains often slanted right down into the water, resulting in steep banks along which only a slender band of cultivation was possible, and sometimes none at all. This meant that Nubia could never support a population comparable in size to Egypt's, nor could it produce the vast agricultural surplus that was the economic basis of Egyptian civilization.
A view of the Nile Valley from the air is unforgettable: a band of intense green running through a desolate desert. The contrast can also be striking on the ground, where one can literally stand with one foot in fertile fields and the other on barren sand. The band of cultivation is usually quite distinct, so that the ancient Egyptians spoke of the Black Land (kemet), because of the rich mud deposited over the millennia by the annual inundation and the Red Land (deret), the desert beyond the inundation's reach.
The Eastern Desert of Egypt lies between the Nile and the Red Sea. Its most significant feature is the Red Sea mountain range, which runs north-south along most of its length. The Eastern Desert's craggy peaks, resulting from both uplift and erosion, constitute some of the most memorable scenery on earth. The range is cut with numerous wadis, dry stream beds that mostly run east-west to drain into the Red Sea or the Nile. Although rain is rare in the Eastern Desert, when it comes the wadis can turn into raging torrents. Some wadis, such as the large Wadi Qena, were formed by ancient rivers. The steep walls and alluvial beds of wadis form natural passages through the difficult terrain. Of these, one of the most significant is Wadi Hammamat, which provides a line of communication between Qift on the Nile and Quseir on the Red Sea. An important source for stone and certain precious metals, the Eastern Desert has been quarried and mined since ancient times. The area has long been inhabited by Bedouin peoples, but the coastal strip began to experience intensive development in the late twentieth century.
The geography of the Western Desert, or Libyan Desert, is more varied, and it is much larger, covering two-thirds of Egypt, the entire area between the Nile and the Libyan border. Much of it consists of rocky outcrops and sandy or stony wastes. On the west is the Great Sand Sea, and the southwest is dominated by a high plateau, the Gilf al-Kebir. The Western Desert features a number of large depressions, including the enormous Qattara Depression, which descends to 133 meters beneath sea level at its lowest point. This desert also contains several fertile oases, including Siwa in the north and the Inner Oases: Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga. By far the largest is Dakhla. Continuously inhabited since the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, Dakhla Oasis is an archaeological site of exceptional importance.
One of the depressions in the Western Desert is the area known as the Fayyum. Though often described as an oasis, it is closely connected to the Nile system and derives all its water directly from the nearby river through the Hawara Channel, a small opening in the escarpment on the western valley. The Fayyum is phenomenally fertile, its productivity enhanced by a complex system of irrigation so that water flows into it from the Nile then spreads out through ever smaller channels descending along the gentle southern slope of the depression until it reaches a large lake, Birket Qarun. The size of this lake has fluctuated greatly since the Old Kingdom with increased control over the influx of water; presently its surface is about forty-five meters below sea level. The north side of Birket Qarun is bounded by steeper infertile slopes. Sometimes a map of Egypt is likened to a lotus plant: the Nile is the plant's long stem, the Delta its flower, and the Fayyum a leaf.
The Sinai Peninsula is composed of a mountainous plateau in the south that drops sharply into the Gulf of Aqaba on the southeast and less precipitously into the Gulf of Suez on the southwest. Like the Eastern Desert, this part of the peninsula has long been a source of materials such as copper and turquoise. Northern Sinai is a wide coastal plain that provides a corridor of contact between Egypt and southwestern Asia, though one somewhat inhibited by its desert nature.
The two seacoasts of Egypt are the Mediterranean on the north and the Red Sea on the east. Although the Mediterranean coast receives slightly more rainfall than the rest of Egypt, it has historically been an area of low-density population, but it has recently been subjected to heavy development along most of its extent. It has no natural harbors, and there were no ports until the establishment of Alexandria, nor did the geography of the Delta lend itself to communication with the sea.
Excerpted from A History of Egypt by Jason Thompson. Copyright © 2009 by Jason Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.