History Podcasts

The History of Egypt - The Nile

The History of Egypt - The Nile


An introduction to Dr. Neiman's lecture on Egypt and the Amarna age. Neiman discusses how the physical geography of Egypt shaped its culture and development.

The History of Egypt - The Nile - History

The Nile (Arabic: النيل ‎, romanized: an-Nīl, Arabic pronunciation: [an'niːl] , Bohairic Coptic: ⲫⲓⲁⲣⲟ Pronounced [pʰjaˈro] , [4] Luganda: Kiira Ganda pronunciation: [ki:ra] , Nobiin: Áman Dawū [5] ) is a major north-flowing river in northeastern Africa. The longest river in Africa, it has historically been considered the longest river in the world, [6] [7] though this has been contested by research suggesting that the Amazon River is slightly longer, [8] [9] the Nile is amongst the smallest in the world by measure of cubic metres flowing annually. [10] About 6,650 km (4,130 mi) [n 1] long, its drainage basin covers eleven countries: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan, and Egypt. [12] In particular, the Nile is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan. [13]

The Nile has two major tributaries – the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile is considered to be the headwaters and primary stream of the Nile itself. The Blue Nile, however, is the source of most of the water, containing 80% of the water and silt. The White Nile is longer and rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, with the most distant source still undetermined but located in either Rwanda or Burundi. It flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia [14] and flows into Sudan from the southeast. The two rivers meet just north of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. [15]

The northern section of the river flows north almost entirely through the Sudanese desert to Egypt, where Cairo is located on its a large delta and the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria. Egyptian civilization and Sudanese kingdoms have depended on the river since ancient times. Most of the population and cities of Egypt lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan. Nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt developed and are found along river banks.

Basics about the Nile River

At more than 4,100 miles long, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Nile River is the longest river in the world. It flows through a massive part of northeastern Africa, starting south of the equator and ending up at the Mediterranean Sea. HowStuffWorks explains that the Nile actually consists of three different tributaries flowing together: the White Nile, the Blue Nile, and the Atbara River. Each adds both water and a different color sediment to the main river's flow — that's where the rivers get their names.

But the Nile isn't just confined to its own banks. As National Geographic notes, it floods regularly, irrigating the dry plains of Africa. Plus, the river deposits nutrient-rich silt along that flood plain, making it possible to grow crops in what would otherwise be desert. Without the Nile, we wouldn't have had ancient Egypt . or several other amazing civilizations.

The origin of the name "Nile" itself is shrouded in mystery. Some scholars, like those at Britannica, say it comes from the Greek root "neilos," meaning "river valley," but the folks at the Online Etymology Dictionary claim it comes from a Semitic word that also means "river." According to the British Museum, the Egyptians called the Nile "iteru," which simply means "the river." Regardless, when you name something its very definition, you know it must be super-important.


I have never seen a documentary done by Bettany Hughes which wasn't phenomenal, entertaining and narrated with such enthusiasm and passion for the subject at hand. I was disappointed however, by the distracting cleavage to the point of embarrassment. Some people are taking issue with another reviewer who felt the same way about that. You may not have issue with her outfits (normally I wouldn't either) but you need to understand that this is about respecting other cultures - especially when you are visiting another country. It is called cultural sensitivity and I think it's sad that some will never get what this means. Ms Hughes is one of the very best documentary narrators around but she of all people should know what is or isn't appropriate, especially in places like Egypt where religious and cultural practices are vastly different to the western world - I was really surprised at this.

Again, I agree that this was another great production filled with sincere excitement and great knowledge about the subject - no one outshines Ms Hughes in this regard. Unfortunately, I was constantly distracted by her attempts (or lack thereof) to cover up, especially around Egyptian people.

Just the thing to watch and experience when you cannot travel at this pandemic moment. Cairo, Luxor, Dendera, Aswan, Valley of the Kings. it's all here and more.

Professor Bettany Hughes is a favorite scholar. She's a bit chatty on this one--but the camerawork and special tours are amazing. There are fun moments where we see the lives of those who built the ancient monuments--and the special role of lowly donkeys to haul goods and people.
Some of the tomb scenes go a bit quickly would love to linger a bit longer.

[Her outfit just isn't practical, except for maybe her red scarf--an ill-fitting skirt that rides up and her ample bosom squished into a scoop-neck tee. Rather distracting and awkward. Also, why not a hat in the scorching sun? And sunglasses? She looks really disheveled and awkward--which belies her academic credentials. A pair of khakis and crew neck tee would be better--or a tunic and cotton pants like the locals. Perhaps items that fit. I do admire her curves, but her clothing sizing is off. She does don boots for a hair-raising tomb deep exploration.]
Interesting archaeologists and scholars in the region weigh in.
Mummies, tombs, temples, the city, the music/dance, the animals, and the people (ancient and modern, inviting her to breakfast on the banks of the Nile) all here as if we could be there.

Bettany Hughes had no business being in the back of that poor, tiny donkey. Someone should report that to PETA.

Her clothing choices were embarrassingly inappropriate and she narrates as if people listening might have comprehension speed issues. It does get annoying.

Other than that, I am grateful I got a virtual tour in an ancient place, a cradle of civilization, I may never get to see in person due to the area being ravaged by terrorism and the rampant travel/medical discrimination running roughshod over our civil rights. Welcome to the global communism every one, and the Divided Communist States of America.

Absolutely wonderful historical view of The Nile. Bettany is outstanding and was able to keep us steady as we viewed all four episodes in one sitting.

How did the Nile River influence Egyptian civilization?

The Nile River was the center of Ancient Egypt. The floods brought rich black soil onto the banks of the Nile River which made it possible for farmers to grow crops. The dry climate near the Nile made it so the ancient pyramids still stand today. Unlike most cultures the ancient egyptians gave women many rights.

Beside above, how did the Nile River affect ancient Egypt religion? The Nile influenced many religious acts in ancient Egypt, which stemmed from its depiction of the afterlife, such as the preservation of mummies and the construction of the Great Pyramids that were built with its waters. The Nile River, due to its importance for Egyptian life, was present in their religion.

Secondly, what role did the Nile play in Egyptian civilization?

Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile River in large part because the river's annual flooding ensured reliable, rich soil for growing crops. Ancient Egyptians developed wide-reaching trade networks along the Nile, in the Red Sea, and in the Near East.

What influence did the Nile River have on ancient Egyptian life?

The Sahara desert, the Nile River and the abundance of rock greatly influenced where and how the ancient Egyptians settled and built their civilization. These factors combined: landforms, climate and water, are looked at in detail. Ancient Greeks said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile.

The History of Egypt - The Nile - History

7:21 PM Ancient Egypt No comments

Kingdoms of the Nile
Egypt was “the gift of the Nile"
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus once observed that all Egypt was “the gift of the Nile.” Each year rain caused the river to flood, bringing rich silts down from the Ethiopian Highlands and depositing them over the lower parts of the river valley. From the earliest times, Egyptian farmers planned their work around the flood, not only taking advantage of the richness of the soil it left behind, but also using its waters for irrigation.

Over the centuries, strong leaders united early Egyptian farming settlements to create two kingdoms, Lower Egypt in the north, and Upper Egypt in the south. Then, sometime after 3200 B.C., a king of Upper Egypt, known as Menes (MEE»neez), united the two kingdoms. He and his successors eventually took the title pharaoh. They crushed rebellions, gained new territory, regulated irrigation, and encouraged trade, bringing increased prosperity. From the time of Menes to almost 300 B.C., about 30 Egyptian dynasties, or families .of rulers, rose and fell. Historians divide this time span into three kingdoms: the Old Kingdom, which lasted from about 2650 to 2180 B.C. the Middle Kingdom, from about 2040 to 1780 B.C. and the New Kingdom, which was established about 1570 B.C. The periods between the kingdoms are referred to as intermediate periods.

The Hyksos
During the second intermediate period, about 1650, much of Egypt fell under the control of an Asiatic people the Hyksos (HIK*sohs) whose horse-drawn chariots overwhelmed the Egyptians. Eventually, a new leader emerged in the city of Thebes who drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and proclaimed the New Kingdom under his own dynasty. Adopting the battle techniques of the Hyksos, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom conquered new territories in Nubia and along the eastern Mediterranean coast, in the process establishing an empire.

From about 1380 to 1362 B.C., Egypt was ruled by the pharaoh Amenhotep (ahm»uhn»HOH»tep) IV. Amenhotep IV tried to replace the traditional Egyptian belief in many gods, a practice known as polytheism, with his own belief in only one god, a practice known as monotheism. The new god was symbolized by the disk of the Sun, called the Aton, and Amenhotep even changed his name to Akhenaton (ahk«NAHT#uhn), or “he who is pleasing to Aton.” Akhenaton’s religious revolution stirred up resentment and the end of his reign was marked by strife between the pharaoh and the priests of the old religious cults. After Akhenaton’s death, the priests regained power and, under the boy- king Tutankhamen (too • tang»KAHM#uhn), they restored the old polytheistic religion in Egypt.

After Akhenaton, few strong pharaohs ruled Egypt. Perhaps the most important exception was Ramses II, sometimes called Ramses the Great, who ruled from about 1279 to 1213 B.C. Ramses’ successors could not hold the empire together, however, and eventually Egyptian power declined.

With the prosperity provided by the Nile’s bounty and protected for the most part from invaders by its geographical location, Egyptian civilization was remarkably stable over the course of its long history.

Anxious to keep track of the Nile floods, the Egyptians developed a remarkably accurate calendar based on the rising and setting of the star Sirius. They also developed a number system based on 10, remarkably similar to the decimal system we use today. They used geometry to calculate how to restore the boundaries of fields after floods, and also to build the pyramids. Egyptian architects and engineers ranked among the best of the ancient world. The Egyptians also learned a great deal about the human body and used this knowledge to treat illnesses and to preserve the bodies of the dead.

At the heart of Egyptian civilization was the Egyptians’ concern with religion. Egyptians believed in many gods, including the idea that the pharaoh himself was a god. The most important of these gods was Amon, or Amon-Re, the king of the gods. They also came to believe in an afterlife and the possibility of achieving immortality after death by preserving the body of someone who had died. To do this, they developed a process known as mummification, which involved removing internal organs and treating the body with chemicals so that it would remain preserved for centuries. Although at first only the pharaoh was treated in this fashion, eventually even ordinary Egyptians hoped to survive after physical death. In later periods, they included copies of the Book of the Dead hymns, prayers, and spells that acted as a kind of guide to the afterlife in people’s tombs. It was largely in an effort to preserve bodies and to safeguard all the articles with which they were buried for the needs of the afterlife that Egyptians spent so much time constructing elaborate tombs like the pyramids. Much of Egyptian art was also devoted to religious themes and to decorating the tombs in which people expected to spend eternity.

5. Water Management

Water management in ancient Egypt / River Nile
Jana Tarek / Pixabay

While the annual flooding of the Nile was relatively predictable and calm, it wasn’t always perfect.

In some years, high floodwaters could destroy farms and settlements while on others, too little flooding could lead to a famine.

To make the best use of the river’s water throughout the year, the ancient Egyptians developed and made use of many water management practices.

One of the most common was the practice of basin irrigation.

A criss cross gird of earthen walls was established around the farm fields.

When the Nile flooded, water would enter these basins.

The water would remain in these basins after the river receded, allowing the Ancient Egyptians to keep their crops fully watered for far longer. (8)

How Ancient Egypt was Unearthed

The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb is one of the most important archeological discoveries of all time . Learn how conservators at the Getty Institute protect and preserve the tomb and the importance of their work in this informative video.

When the work began on the High Aswan Dam in Upper Egypt, the two temples of Abu Simbel were threatened with complete destruction. See the incredible work of the International Campaign launched by UNESCO in this 1972 film on the efforts to save the temples

Excavations in Dahshur have revealed a brand new pyramid and it's tomb that appears to have been robbed. Follow along with Smithsonian Channel to begin unraveling the mystery.

The History of Egypt - The Nile - History

In striking contrast to the early Indus civilization and those of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria in Mesopotamia, the great Egyptian civilization in the Nile River valley has sustained itself for some 5,000 years without interruption. It lasted through warfare and conquest by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Turks, as well as through pandemic disease that devastated its population. Yet its agricultural foundation remained intact. Only in more recent times has the sustainabililty of Egyptian agriculture come into question. In response to a 20-fold increase in its population over the last two centuries-from 3 million in the early 1800s to 66 million today-Egypt replaced its time-tested agriculture based on the Nile's natural flow rhythms with more intensified irrigation and flood management that required complete control of the river.[1]

Compared with the flashy floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the historic Nile flood was much more benign, predictable, and timely. As is the case today, most of its flow originated from monsoon-type rains in the Ethiopian highlands. The remainder came from the upper watershed of the White Nile around Lake Victoria. With almost calendrical precision, the river began to rise in southern Egypt in early July, and it reached flood stage in the vicinity of Aswan by mid-August. The flood then surged northward, getting to the northern end of the valley about four to six week later.

At its peak, the flood would cover the entire floodplain to a depth of 1.5 meters. The waters would begin to recede in the south by early October, and by late November most of the valley was drained dry. Egyptian farmers then had before them well-watered fields that had been naturally fertilized by the rich silt carried down from Ethiopia's highlands and deposited on the floodplain as the water spread over it. They planted wheat and other crops just as the mild winter was beginning, and harvested them in mid-April to early May. By this time, the river's flow had diminished, sustained only by the more constant flow of the White Nile the floodplain was completely dry. Then, magically to the ancients, the cycle started all over again. Even into modern times, every June 17 th Egyptians celebrated the "'Night of the Drop,' when the celestial tear fell and caused the Nile to rise."[2]

The Egyptians practiced a form of water management called basin irrigation, a productive adaptation of the natural rise and fall of the river. They constructed a network of earthen banks, some parallel to the river and some perpendicular to it, that formed basins of various sizes. Regulated sluices would direct floodwater into a basin, where it would sit for a month or so until the soil was saturated. Then the remaining water would be drained off to a basin down-gradient or to a nearby canal, and the farmers of the drained plot would plant their crops.[3]

The earliest evidence of water control in ancient Egypt is the famous historical relief of the mace head of Scorpion King which dates to around 3,100 BC. It depicts one of the last predynastic kings, holding a hoe and ceremoniously cutting a ditch in a grid network. Besides attesting to the importance of these waterworks and the great ceremony attached to them, this picture confirms that Egyptians began practicing some form of water management for agriculture about 5,000 years ago.[4]

Egyptian irrigators did not experience many of the vexing problems that plagued (other historic) irrigation societies. The single season of planting did not overly deplete the soil, and fertility was naturally restored each year by the return of the silt-laden floodwaters. In some basins, farmers planted grains and nitrogen-fixing legumes in alternative years, which helped maintain the soil's productivity. Fallowing land every other year, which was essential in (areas like) Mesopotamia, was thus unnecessary in the Nile valley.[5]

Neither was salinization a problem. The summer water table remained at least 3-4 meters below the surface in most basins, and the month or so of inundation prior to planting pushed whatever salts had accumulated in the upper soil layers down below the root zone. With salt buildup naturally checked and fertility constantly restored, Egyptian agriculturists enjoyed not only a productive system, but a sustainable one.

Illustration 1. A shaduf was used to raise water above the level of the Nile.

Photograph 1. A noria , buckets attached to a waterwheel, was another device used to lift water.

The blessings of the Nile were many, but they did not come without some costs. A low flood could lead to famine, and too high a flood could destroy dikes and other irrigation works. Even a 2-meter drop in the river's flood level could leave as much as a third of the floodplain unwatered.[7]

The well-known biblical account of Joseph and the Pharaoh's dream is a reasonable reflection of the threat of famine that Egyptians periodically faced. Asked to interpret his ruler's dream, Joseph foretells several years of abundant harvests followed by seven years of shortage, and advises the Pharaoh to begin storing massive quantities of grain to avert famine. During a period of disappointing floods between the reigns of Ramses III and Ramses VII in the twelfth century BC, food shortages caused the price of wheat to rise markedly. Prices stabilized at a high level until the reign of Ramses X, and then fell rapidly as shortages eased by the end of the Ramessid Dynasty, about 1070 BC.[8]

Because of the link between the Nile's flow level and Egyptian well-being, early on the ancient Egyptians developed a system for measuring the height of the Nile in various parts of the country. This monitoring allowed them to compare daily river levels with years past and to predict with some accuracy the coming year's high mark. At least 20 "nilometers " were spaced along the river, and the maximum level of each year's flood was recorded in the palace and temple archives (see Photograph 2 ).[9]

Photograph 2. The nilometer on Elephantine Island, Aswan, consists of stairs and staff gauges.

In combination, the reliability of the Nile flood and the unpredictability of its magnitude rooted ancient Egyptians deeply in nature and fostered respect for order and stability. Rulers were viewed as interveners with the gods to help ensure prosperity. Father of all gods was the god of the Nile-Hapi-who although male was portrayed with breasts to show his capacity to nurture.[10]

The Egyptians worshipped Hapi not only in temples, but through hymns:

In contrast to (other historic) civilizations, early Egyptian society did not centrally manage state irrigation works. Basin irrigation was carried out on a local rather than a national scale. Despite the existence of many civil and criminal codes in ancient Egypt, no evidence exists of written water law. Apparently, water management was neither complex nor contentious, and oral tradition of common law withstood the test of a considerable amount of time.

Although difficult to prove, the local nature of water management, in which decisionmaking and responsibility lay close to the farmers, was probably a key institutional factor in the overall sustainability of Egyptian basin irrigation. The many political disruptions at the state level, which included numerous conquests, did not greatly affect the system's operation or maintenance. While both slaves and corvee labor were used, the system's construction and maintenance did not require the vast numbers of laborers that Mesopotamia's irrigation networks demanded. The waves of plague and warfare that periodically decimated Egypt's population did not result in the irrigation base falling into serious disrepair, as occurred in (other historic systems).

Local temples appear to have played an important role in redistributing grain supplies to help cope with the periodic famines. From very early times, boats plied the Nile and were used to transport grain from one district to another. The surplus from several districts might be stored in a central granary and shared to secure food supplies for the whole region. Fekri Hassan, a professor in the department of Egyptology at the University of London, speculates that the emergence of kingship in Egypt was linked to the need for larger coordination in collecting grain and providing relief supplies to districts experiencing crop failure.[12]

The central government imposed a tax on the peasant farmers of about 10-20 percent of their harvest, but the basic administration of the agricultural system remained local. As Hassam observes, "Egypt probably survived for so long because production did not depend on a centralized state. The collapse of government or the turnover of dynasties did little to undermine irrigation and agricultural production on the local level."[13]

Overall, Egypt's system of basin irrigation proved inherently more stable from an ecological, political, social, and institutional perspective than that of any other irrigation-based society in human history. Fundamentally, the system was an enhancement of the natural hydrological patterns of the Nile River, not a wholesale transformation of them. Although it was not able to guard against large losses of human life from famine when the Nile flood failed, the system sustained an advanced civilization through numerous political upheavals and other destabilizing events over some 5,000 years. No other place on Earth has been in continuous cultivation for so long.

Source : Postel, Sandra, 1999. Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? , W.W. Norton Company (A Worldwatch Book), New York. www.worldwatch.org

Notes [1] Early 1800s population from: Malcom Newson, Land, Water, and Development: River Basin Systems and Their Sustainable Management (London: Routledge, 1992) current population from Population Reference Bureau, World Population Data Sheet , wallchart (Washington DC: 1998). Karl W. Butzer, Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976) quote from M.S. Drowser, "Water-Supply, Irrigation, and Agriculture," in C. Singer, E.J. Holmyard, and A.R. Hall, eds., A History of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954). Gen. 41:1-37 (Revised Standard Version of the Bible) J. Donald Hughes, "Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Egypt," Agriculture History , Vol. 66, pp. 12-22 (1992) Butzer, op. cit. reference 2. Drowser, op. cit. reference 2. Fekri A. Hassan, "The Dynamics of a Riverine Civilization: A Geoarchaelogical Perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt," World Archeology, vol. 29, no. 1 (1997). Selected portion of the hymn as quoted in Hughes, op. cit. reference 8. Hassan op. cit. reference 10. Tax figures from Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954) Hassan, op. cit. reference 10. Project History Teacher I began this blog when I started teaching social studies over ten years ago. I enjoy writing articles about the subjects I teach. I hope they are helpful to you! Thanks for stopping by! Home 5 Themes of Geography Stone Ages Mesopotamia Egypt Indus Valley Greece Rome Mayas Aztecs Spanish Conquest Privacy Geography of Ancient Egypt - the Nile River

Greek historian Herodotus said that ancient Egypt was “an acquired country, the gift of the river.” The river he wrote of was the Nile.

The Nile has its origins as the Blue and White Niles in Ethiopia and Rwanda. The two rivers combine near the modern city of Khartoum, Sudan. Each year, the Nile, swollen from rains in equatorial Africa, carries life sustaining black soil that is then deposited along the banks of the river downstream. The Nile and the black soil are what made the civilization of the ancient Egyptians possible.

The Nile generally flows from south to north. Students are sometimes confused by this, as if it’s against the laws of nature. It’s not. The Nile follows the laws of gravity from the highlands down to the river’s mouth at the Mediterranean Sea. Students are also often confused by the term “Upper Egypt” for the southern two thirds and “Lower Egypt” for the Nile Delta region. I remind them that "north" does not always mean "up" and the direction of the flow of a river is downstream, hence the term “Lower Egypt.”

Starting at the delta and going south, Herodotus described the geography of ancient Egypt in great detail. He wrote that the delta, the land was flat and covered with swamps. Going upstream, he said that Egypt narrowed up to the banks of the river with hills and deserts on either side. The banks, Herodotus wrote, were covered with soil, “black and crumbly, as being alluvial and formed of the deposits brought down by the river from Ethiopia.”

Watch the video: The history of Egypt - The Nile Part 1 l Lessons of Dr. David Neiman (January 2022).