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.
The Two Lands
Because all life came from the Nile, geography was everything in ancient
. 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, lime-stone gorge, 10 to 30 miles wide, stretching from the first cataract at Egypt 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, Aswan Upper Egypt’s floodplain totaled 42,500 square miles. Cultivated lands ex-tended from just over one and a half miles wide at to about 13 miles wide on the west bank opposite modern Tell el-Amarna. Aswan
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”).
Nile had at least five, and as many as 16, outlets to the sea. (The modern Nile has only two, Rosetta and .) About 50 miles southwest of the Delta’s apex lay the Faiyum. Connected under-ground to the Damietta 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.
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 ). It flows more than 1,000 miles before joining the Ethiopia White Nile. The two streams join at Khartoum, capital of the modern Republic of the , and flow another 1,900 miles to the sea. About Sudan
140 miles north of
Khartoum, the Atbara River, rising from the Ethiopian highlands, joins the Nile.
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 . Once past the first cataract, near the modern city of Egypt , sandstone gives way to softer limestone. This made it much easier for the Aswan Nile to carve a relatively straight channel.
After passing the
island of Elephantine, the Nile enjoys a 675-mile, un-obstructed passage to the Delta and the Mediterranean Sea.