Time and the River; Life in Ancient Egypt Was Geared to the Annual Nile Flood

By Baines, John | UNESCO Courier, September 1988 | Go to article overview

Time and the River; Life in Ancient Egypt Was Geared to the Annual Nile Flood


Baines, John, UNESCO Courier


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. …

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