WITHOUT the Nile, which flows north from the Ethiopian highlands and Central Africa to the Mediterranean, Egypt with its negligible rainfall would have been almost completely inhospitable. Because of the river, it was the largest and most prosperous East Mediterranean State from 3000 BC until the Roman conquest in 30 BC. It regained this pre-eminence in the Middle Ages, and remains the most important and populous country in the Near East. There is true continuity over this enon-nous period, because Egypt's boundaries have changed little.
Throughout Antiquity, the country's standing relied on its agricultural wealth and hence on the Nile; yet agriculture was not the original basis of subsistence, but evolved with the land in prehistory. As well as governing material potential, the Nile and other geographical features affected political developments and played a part in Egyptian ideas.
In the Pleistocene era, which ended around 10,000 BC, Egypt was part of the eastern Sahara, which was inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers. The region was rather less arid than at present and supported people in areas now without resources or population. The Nile, whose Valley and Delta were largely swamp, was privileged as a reliable water source, attracting game and people, and being exploited for its plants and fish. By 12,000 BC people also gathered wild grasses, presumably for their cereal grains, which needed more processing than other foods they consumed. lThis suggests that pressure on food resources was increasing.
In succeeding millennia the Sahara slowly dried, becoming by 2000 BC almost as arid as it is now. From 10,000 to 5000 BC, late Stone-Age people gathered where there was water, exploiting resources ever more intensively, both in the desert and near the NHe. The culture of the region was uniform, unlike that of later small-scale peasant societies. The transition to crop-growing occurred either near water in the desert or in the Nile Valley and Delta. Dates of 7000-5000 BC have been suggested for both, much later than in Western Asia. Because the Nile Valley preserves little evidence for farming, it may have been present earlier than can be documented.
The Nile Valley and Delta were opened up gradually for agriculture and population increased. By 4000 BC there were only two principal cultures in Egypt, the older Merimda culture in the Delta and the Badarian, centred on Asyut in Upper Egypt. Before 3100 BC the single Egyptian State had formed-the first large nation State.
Egypt continued to develop and population increased until Roman times. Important factors in this process were unity and political stability, and the possibility of cultivating ever more fertile land. In this internal expansion the harnessing of the Nile was crucial. Crops could be planted after the annual inundation, which covered the Valley and Delta from late July to September; they needed minimal watering and ripened from March to May. Some management of the inundation to improve its coverage of the land and to regulate the period of flooding increased yields, while drainage and the river's slow deposition of silt extended the fields. Vegetables grown in small plots needed irrigating all year from water carried by hand in pots; not until 1500 BC was any artificial water-lifting device introduced. Some plants, such as date palms, whose crops ripened in the late summer, drew their water from the subsoil and needed no other watering.
It is uncertain how early and how far this regulation of the inundation and small-scale watering shifted toward full-scale irrigation. By the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1640 BC) basin irrigation, in which large sections of the floodplain were treated as single units, was well established, but it may not have been present in the Old Kingdom (third millennium BC), when the great pyramids were built.
Egyptian texts say little about irrigation and provision of water, making it dufficult to establish when techniques were introduced. Exceptions are autobiographies of local leaders of the troubled First Intermediate Period (c. 2134-2040 BC), who claimed that they built canals and supplied water to their people when others had none. In more prosperous times such matters may have been taken for granted or not thought prestigious enough to be described in public texts. The only area where there was major irrigation work before Graeco-Roman times was the Fairyum, a lakeside oasis to the west of the Nile south of the Delta apex. Here Middle Kingdom kings reclaimed land by controlling the water flow down a side river channel and directing it away from the lake to lowlying land. Their constructions did not last.
The Nile's annual inundation was quite reliable, and the floodplain and Delta were uniquely fertile, making Egyptian agriculture the most secure and productive in the region, while stability allowed storage against scarcity. This situation was, however, only relatively favourable. Crop failure due to poor floods, population loss through disease, and other hazards, restricted the pace of growth and-unlike modern Egypt-only one main crop was grown per year. High floods could be very destructive.
The principal crops were cereals, emmer wheat for bread, and barley for beer. These made up the staple diet and were casity stored. Other vital plants were flax, which was used for products from rope to the finest cloth and was also exported, and papyrus, a swamp plant which may have been cultivated or gathered wild. Papyrus roots could be eaten, and the stems ,were used for making anything from boats and mats to the characteristic Egyptian writing material with the same name as the plant; this too was exported. In addition, a wide range of fruit and vegetables was cultivated. Meat from livestock was relatively unimportant in the diet, but birds were hunted in the marshes and the Nile produced much fish, which was the main animal protein for most people.
Apart from making agriculture possible, the Nile was the chief means of communication. In the Egyptian script words for travelling are written with signs of ships. Heavy loads were taken by river and the ease of water transport helped the country's integration, while the complex geography of the Delta and its mouths were obstacles to invasion. Travel into the desert or to Asia was incomparably more difficult than movement within Egypt. The river could also separate people. The image of a poor man was someone who had no boat, whom the more fortunate should ferry across. Dying was "coming into land" on the "other side", and the passage into the next world was a "crossing".
The compactness of Egypt, centred on the Nile, favoured political unity, which brought both potential for exploiting the land's fertility and obligations on rulers. Rulers controlled agricultural resources through ownership of land, taxation of its produce, administrative measures to ensure that it was cultivated, and compulsory labour. In return for control, they were responsible for storage and for provision against failures, so that they took upon themselves much that is achieved through co-operation in small societies. The central organization that grew in the third millennium BC created a disciplined labour force which was used to build vast royal monuments and elite tombs, for the fortifications and pyramids of the Middle Kingdom, for the imperial expansion, temples and private tombs of the New Kingdom (c . 1550-1070 BC), and for building and other activities of the Graeco-Roman period.
Organization and the productivity of inundation agriculture made all this possible, temporarily releasing many from the land during the slack summer months in the fields, or permanently freeing people to follow specialized and elite occupations. When central control collapsed, chiefly in the three Intermediate Periods, few monuments were constructed and there was little political expansion, but the agricultural basis of power and prosperity was not destroyed; after reunification monumental projects and general culture revived. One should not, however, for et that for most people this use of labour made available by productivity was not a personal benefit, but served the rulers and the elite. Were it not for political instability, the lot of many could have been as good or better in the Intermediate Periods (c. 2134-2040 BC, 1640-1532 BC, 1070-712 BC), but here beliefs about king and country may have affected their outlook.
The Nile, which was so fundamental to the country's life, was surprisingly unimportant in religion. The Egyptians took their environment for granted as the centre of the world. There was no special name for the Nile, which was simply the "river"; the word 'Nile" may not be Egyptian in origin. The bringer of water and fertility was not the static river but its inundation, called Hapy, who became a god. Hapy was an essential image of abundance, but he was not a major god. Both kings and local potentates likened themselves to Hapy in their prosperity and provision for their subjects. A hymn to Hapy dwells on the inundation's bountiful nature but does not relate him to the rest of the gods, as was done in the praise of other deities. He was not depicted as a god but as a fat figure bringing the produce of abundance to the gods. He had no temple, but was worshipped annually at the start of the inundation with sacrifices and hymns at Gebel el-Silsila, which was probably a prehistoric frontier, where the hills come close to the river north of Aswan.
In some other respects the Nile and the inundation were central to the Egyptian world view. Unlike most peoples, the Egyptians oriented themselves to the south, from which the river came, so that the west was on their right-with the result that it was the "good" side for passage into the next world. The year and calendar were determined by the Nile and by the stars. New Year was in mid July, when the river began to rise for the inundation; this coincided with the reappearance of the star Sirius, Egyptian Sothis, in the sky after seventy days' invisibility. The river defined three seasons of four months, "Inundation", "Emergence" (November-March) when the land reappeared and could be cultivated, and "Heat' or "Harvest', when crops were gathered and the water was lowest.
The major god most closely connected with the Nile was Osiris. In myth Osiris was a king of Egypt who was killed by his brother Seth on the banks of the river and cast into it in a coffin. His corpse was cut into many pieces. Later, his sister and widow Isis succeeded in reassembling his body and reviving it to conceive a posthumous son, Horus. Osiris, however, did not return to this world but became king of the underworld. His death and revival were linked to the land's fertility. In a festival celebrated during the inundation, damp clay models of Osiris were planted with barley, whose germination stood for the revival of the land brought by the flood, so that Osiris, the river and the land were drawn into a complex of ideas about fertility and rebirth.
Another important god linked to the river was Khnum the 'Lord of the Cataract", the ram god of Elephantine at the southern frontier. Khnum was a creator god and the patron of the point where the inundation entered Egypt. This connection was, however, secondary, supplementing an ancient local cult of the goddess Satis, whose temple celebrated the conjunction between Sothis and the inundation; despite the later arrival of the inundation in more populous areas further north, the conjunction was observed and recorded at Elephantine.
The Nile's fundamental importance may be more evident to us than to the ancient Egyptians, who were so accustomed to it that they termed rain in other countries an "inundation in the sky". In order to appreciate its position in Antiquity, one must see it through ancient eyes with ancient distinctions between sacred and secular, divine and human. The Egyptians had a matter-of-fact attitude to the river, whose inundation could be destructive but was a beneficent moral force in their lives; most gods were more complex beings whose abode was outside the normal world. It was left to the Greeks and Romans to make the Nile a god like the other rivers of their world.
JOHN BAINES, of the United Kingdom, has been Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford since 1976. He is the author with Jaromir Malek of the Atlas of Ancient Egypt (1980), which has been translated into many languages, of Fecundity Figures (1985), which includes a study of the personification of thinundation of the Nile, Hapy, and of articles on Egyptian religion, Kingship and other subjects. He has lectured on ancient Egypt in Africa, Europe, and the United States.…