Sep 20, 2010



Was born about 5000 B.C.E. in the valley of the Nile River in northeastern Africa. Tucked into a long, narrow gorge threaded by the river and bounded by steep cliffs, Egypt enjoyed a predictable, mostly pleasant climate and natural barriers against invasion. To the west lay the Sahara Desert, to the east a harsh, mountainous wasteland. To the south, a series of six great rapids (called cataracts) obstructed the river. To the north was the “Great Green:”

The Mediterranean Sea

An Egyptian called his homeland Kemet. His world was divided into lowland kemet (“black land”), the narrow ribbon of rich, black earth on the valley floor, and highland deshret (“red land”), the pale, reddish sand of the forbidding desert plateaus. Foreigners were “highlanders.” “Going up” meant leaving the valley; “descending” was returning home.

Egypt was a long, narrow oasis carved by the Nile River through the harsh desert. “The Egypt to which we sail nowadays is… the gift of the river,” said Greek historian and traveler Herodotus. The Nile, one of the world’s longest rivers, flows more than 4,200 miles north from central Africa to the Mediterranean. The name “Nile” comes from the Greek word Neilos, but the Egyptians called it simply iteru, “the river.”

The Two Lands

Because all life came from the Nile, geography was everything in ancient Egypt. The narrow valley through which the Nile ran, and the wider Delta where it flowed into the sea, were known as the “two lands” of ancient Egypt. Upper Egypt, Ta-Shomu (“narrow land”), was a long, narrow, limestone gorge, 10 to 30 miles wide, stretching from the first cataract at Aswan to the edge of the Delta, 500 miles to the north. It was bounded by cliffs that rose from a few hundred feet to almost 1,000 feet high. In ancient times, Upper Egypt’s floodplain totaled 42,500 square miles. Cultivated lands extended from just over one and a half miles wide at Aswan to about 13 miles wide on the west bank opposite modern Tell el-Amarna

About 100 miles south of the Mediterranean, the Nile split into two streams and many smaller tributaries. It formed the fan-shaped Nile Delta, an 8,500-square-mile region of marsh and heavily silted land called Lower Egypt, Ta-Mehu (“water-filled land”).

The ancient Nile had at least five, and as many as 16, outlets to the sea. (The modern Nile has only two, Rosetta and Damietta.) About 50 miles southwest of the Delta’s apex lay the Faiyum. Connected underground to the Nile, the ancient Faiyum was a wetlands paradise, thick with lotus and papyrus plants and teeming with birds and animals. Birket Qaran, a lake in the northern Faiyum, was a favorite hunting spot.

The Nile (then and now) blends two major streams. The White Nile rises from the clear waters of Lakes Victoria, Albert, and Edward in central Africa. As it flows north, it gathers water from over 1,500 miles of tributaries. The Blue Nile rises in Lake Tana, in the highlands of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). It flows more than 1,000 miles before joining the White Nile. The two streams join at Khartoum, capital of the modern Republic of the Sudan, and flow another 1,900 miles to the sea. About 140 miles north of Khartoum, the Atbara River, rising from the Ethiopian highlands, joins the Nile.

Near Khartoum, the Nile enters a region of hard sandstone. As it runs through this difficult land, there are six lengths—the cataracts—where it has been unable to carve a clear channel. Stony outcroppings, rapids, and small but treacherous falls obstruct navigation. The northernmost cataract (the first) is closest to Egypt. Once past the first cataract, near the modern city of Aswan, sandstone gives way to softer limestone. This made it much easier for the Nile to carve a relatively straight channel.
After passing the island of Elephantine, the Nile enjoys a 675-mile, unobstructed passage to the Delta and the Mediterranean Sea.

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