April is Earth Day month, so here at Peopling the Past we’re featuring researchers who study human-environment relations in the past and the role of the natural world in human history.
What topic are you talking about today?
Today I am talking about the river Nile in ancient Egypt and the central role the river played in ancient Egyptian culture, ideology, economy, and mobility. The Nile, which is the largest river system in the world, combines the waters of two primary tributaries—the White Nile, originating in the Late Victoria basin in Uganda, and the Blue Nile, which flows from Lake Tana in Ethiopia (see fig. 1). These two tributaries meet at Khartoum in the Sudan, flowing northwards towards the Mediterranean Sea. During the annual inundation (roughly late June to September), the Nile waters would rise up to 6m in height, overflowing the riverbanks and covering the floodplain. These floodwaters deposited sediments rich in minerals and nutrients, making the soil of the river valley fertile and excellent for growing crops. The ancient Egyptian name for Egypt—kemet—refers to this black fertile land.
Ancient Egypt primarily occupied the region between the First Cataract and the Medieterranean Sea, with settlements concentrated along the Nile valley and Delta and the desert oases. Human occupation in these regions increased during the 5th–4th millennium BCE, as the climate warmed and seasonal rains declined. As the inhabitants of the region settled into more permanent communities along the Nile, new subsistence strategies were developed, including basic irrigation and agriculture. Evidence for social inequality can be found in the burial wealth at cemeteries in places like Hierakonpolis and Abydos, and communal construction projects appeared in the form of like larger-scale buildings and shared production facilities like the large breweries at Hierakonpolis (fig. 2; to learn more about Predynastic Egypt, check out this open access book Before the Pyramids). Over the next roughly three millennia, the Dynastic state of ancient Egypt relied on the Nile river for the production and transportation of vast resources of staple goods (like grain) and luxury materials sourced within and beyond Egypt.
Although this post will focus on the ancient culture of modern Egypt, there were many other cultures that developed along the Nile in antiquity. Although other Nilotic cultures like those of Nubia to the south have received less attention from historians in the past, increasing research in the last few decades has started to shed light on these important communities (fig. 3). This research has highlighted the artificial nature of our perceived cultural and historical boundaries between Egypt and neighbours to the south and the undeniable close cultural connections between these places (a great example is Solange Ashby’s work on Nubian devotees of Hathor). To learn more about the relationship between Nilotic cultures in Egypt and the Sudan, I recommend this great lecture and accompanying blog post by Dr. Aaron de Souza.
What data or sources do you look at?
My research interests lie in economic and environmental history, so I often focus on the role of the Nile in production and mobility—including travel, agriculture, and trade (fig. 4). The Nile inundation helped with agricultural production, including the growing of barley and emmer wheat, legumes (lentils, peas, and chickpeas), vegetables (onions, lettuce, radishes, garlic, cucumbers, leeks, and gourds), and fruits (dates, pomegranate, melons, berries, grapes, and figs). The river also supported animal husbandry and was an important source for fishing and fowling (fig. 5). Plants such as flax and papyrus were used for the production of linen and paper, and Nile silt was used in the manufacture of pottery, figurines, and mud bricks.
The role of the ancient Egyptian government in economic production and trade varied through time. This role can also be hard to understand since many of our surviving texts come from the perspective of the government and temples and can exaggerate their participation. Along with the more propagandistic texts that boast about state construction projects and trading expeditions, we can also look at accounting documents, administrative titles, biographical records of officials, and census data. Important information also comes from the material evidence like storage facilities, traded goods, images in art, and animal and botanical remains.
What can this tell us about real people in the past?
The central place of importance of the Nile in the lives of the ancient Egyptians is reflected in Egyptian art and ideology (including religious beliefs). From the earliest appearance of figural art in the predynastic period, we have so-called “Nilotic” scenes that show the river, boats, and riverine animals. One early example comes from the “Painted Tomb” (or Tomb 100) from the site of Hierakonpolis, which shows a fleet of boats (fig. 6)—boats and river scenes continue to appear in art throughout ancient Egyptian history.
The Nile inundation or flood was represented by the fertility god Hapy (fig. 7). The image here, a very important one in Egyptian iconography, shows Hapy “uniting” the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt by tying the lotus (the symbol of Upper Egypt) and the papyrus (symbol of Lower Egypt) around the symbol for the lungs and windpipe (the hieroglyph smꜣ, meaning “to unite”). The Middle Kingdom text known as the Hymn to Hapy reiterates the god’s important role as a provider for the Egyptians:
Bringer of food rich in provisions,(Hymn to Hapy, section IV).
creator of all goodness,
lord of reverence, sweet of scent,
the one whose coming makes peace,
creator of plants for the herds,
provider of butchery for every god.
While he is in the underworld,
sky and earth are in his charge.
Filler of storerooms, enlarger of granaries,
the one who gives plenty to the orphan.
This echoes the famous words of the fifth century Greek historian Herodotus, who claimed that Ancient Egypt was the “gift” of the Nile River (Herodotus Histories, 2.5.1).
The Aswan High Dam and the International Rescue Nubia Campaign Although the Nile was a source of life, it could also cause problems for the people of ancient Egypt. Fluctuations in the Nile inundation could be devastating—too low, and the fields wouldn’t be flooded; too high, and the flood waters wouldn’t recede quickly enough to allow crops to grow. The river also migrated across the Nile valley, altering the physical and cultural landscape. The people of ancient Egypt were forced to adapt to these changes, moving settlement and harbour locations and religious architecture. The unpredictability of the Nile course and annual flood was reflected in Egyptian literature, in which fate and fortune were tied ideologically to the river:
As to him who was rich last year, he is a vagabond this year; Don’t be greedy to fill your belly, you don’t know your end at all. Should you come to be in want, another may do good to you. When last year’s watercourse is gone, Another river is here today; great lakes become dry places, sandbanks turn into depths. Man does not have a single way, the lord of life confounds him.Teaching of Any (Translation M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, page 142)
In addition to river changes and unusual floods, the Nile was also home to dangerous creatures like the Hippopotamus and the Crocodile (fig. 8). The threat of drowning posed a particularly terrifying fate, as it meant that the body could not be properly buried or prepared for the afterlife. The river also presented less visible threats in the form waterborne and insect-borne parasites and illnesses like malaria. Despite these threats, the Nile waters played an important role in healing at sanatoria (a Ptolemaic sanatorium survives at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera), while Nile mud and dried river sediments could be used medicinally to reduce heat and swelling, including cooling burns.
In the last century the Nile in Egypt has undergone major transformations with the construction of dams, particularly the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The dam significantly impacted farming and subsistence, since the annual flood was regulated and the waters no longer overflowed the Nile’s riverbanks. Farming had to become more industrialized, relying on new technologies and irrigation. By controlling the flood, settlement along the river could increase, leading to significant population growth. In 1960 the population was roughly 26 million; in the roughly 60 years since the dam was built, the population has roughly quadrupled to over 100 million. Growing populations and water demands along the whole of the Nile valley present ongoing challenges (as they do in many places today).
To learn more about the Aswan Dam, including the relocation of many ancient Egyptian monuments, you can watch the UNESCO Film The World Saves Abu Simbel; I also recommend this podcast retrospective Salvage and Loss: The Aswan High Dam and the Fate of Nubia that discusses the impact and cost of the dam to local inhabitants in Egypt and Nubia and the loss of cultural heritage.
 Scheidel, W. 2001. Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt. Leiden: Brill. Pages 70, 109–117.
 Nunn, J. F. 1996. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. BMP, London. Table 7.3; e.g., Papyrus Ebers 482.
 Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics Statistical Yearbook, 1960. The first modern census in 1800 put the population at roughly 2.5 million.
 Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics Population Clock, July 2020.
Aswan Dam film by UNESCO – The World Saves Abu Simbel
Aswan Dam retrospective – Salvage and Loss: The Aswan High Dam and the Fate of Nubia
Hymn to Hapy from UCL’s Digital Egypt
Bunbury, J. 2019. The Nile and Ancient Egypt: Changing Land- and Waterscapes, from the Neolithic to the Roman Era. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Hassan, F.A., and G. Tassie. 2006. “Modelling Environmental and Settlement Change in the Fayum.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 29: 37–40.
Manning, J. G. 2012. Water, Irrigation and their Connection to State Power in Egypt. Paper read at “Resources: Endowment or Curse, Better or Worse?” Yale University, 24 February, New Haven. http://www.econ.yale.edu/~egcenter/manning2012.pdf.
Scheidel, W. 2001. Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt. Brill, Leiden.
Schneider, T., and C. Johnston, eds. 2020. The Gift of the Nile? Ancient Egypt and the Environment.The Egyptian Expedition, Tucson.
Willems, H., and J.-M. Dahms, eds. 2017. The Nile: Natural and Cultural Landscape in Egypt. Proceedings of the International Symposium held at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, 22 & 23 February 2013. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld.
Christine Johnston is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Mediterranean History at Western Washington University. Her research focuses on the cultures and history of the Ancient Mediterranean world, particularly on economic exchange and cross-cultural interaction. Her current research projects examine changes in production communities during periods of sociopolitical change in Western Cyprus, and analyze the relationship between political and economic institutions and the distribution of imported goods in both Cyprus and Egypt. In addition to the study of political economy, she is active in research on environmental and climate change in Ancient Egypt with colleagues form the University of British Columbia, with a recent co-edited volume.