Egyptian History

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Life and Death?! Unearthing the MYSTERIES of the Nile River.

We’ll return to the yearly inundation throughout this video since it was so important to 

ancient Egypt’s economic, social, political, and even religious growth.

But, if you’re anything like me, you can’t help but wonder: What was it like?

Use your imagination to travel back in time.

As puzzling as it is for Egyptians, can you get a feeling of the mystery of the inundation?

Consider the words of John Feeney, a New Zealand filmmaker:

Flowing out of a barren desert, from a source “beyond all known horizons,” the Nile had baffled the world for thousands of years.

Regular as sun and moon, in the middle of burning summer, without a drop of rain in sight, when all other rivers on earth were drying up, for no apparent reason at all, the Nile rose out of its bed every year, and for three months embraced all of Egypt.

Feeney and his Egyptian team headed out in 1964 to record the last Nile flood and Egyptian inundation before the Aswan High Dam was completed.

He and his team are the only people in history to have tracked the flood from its source in the Ethiopian highlands all the way to Cairo and documented it.

His remarks are a moving, though bittersweet, tribute to a single event that formed and defined a civilization:

With a name that means “roaring fire,” the Tisisat Falls must be one of the loneliest places on Earth, little known and rarely seen by outsiders….We first heard the murmur and then the roar as we got our first glimpse through the trees.

Then we stood transfixed before the answer to the riddle that had baffled the world for thousands of years.

There before us, pouring forth with the sound of thunder in one colossal fuming torrent, the Blue Nile was anything but blue, plunging from its source in Lake Tana above, down into a deep dark abyss that was the beginning of its great journey to Egypt.

He continues by saying,

By August, the most colossal Nile flood of the century was pouring out of Ethiopia. We followed the surge as it moved like a slow-motion tidal wave across the deserts of eastern and northern Sudan into Egypt.

With the arrival of the inundation, dry land became lakes; basins filled and overflowed, filling adjacent basins.

Villages, built on high ground, became islands (reminiscent of the Primordial Mound of creation, surrounded by turbulent, chaotic water), and neighbors visited one another in boats. The sounds of singing and celebration echoed throughout the Nile Valley.

At last, when the waters had receded, In the soft sediment left by the floodwaters…the farmers of Egypt…set about planting their crops of beans, wheat, and barley as they had done for thousands of years.

Theirs was an organic relationship with Iteru, the river that brought life and enjoyment to the Egyptian people through waters that were not native to the nation but came as a gift from afar.

The Red Land

While the Nile was thought to have been gifted with the narrow strip of fertile land known as Kemet or the “black land,” the surrounding desert, Deshret or the “red land,” was said to be the exact opposite.

Egyptians knew that the western and eastern deserts provided a strong, though not impenetrable, natural barrier to invaders, resulting in substantial cultural isolation in which the distinctive Egyptian civilization could flourish.

Nonetheless, they considered the red land to be mostly uninhabitable. After all, they were the People of the Black Soil, and the Nile Valley’s fertility was Hapy’s blessing.

The desert was parched, scorching, and perilous. 

It was also the home of foreigners – Libyans to the west, nomadic tribes, and developing empires like Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia to the north and east – who constituted a real and perceived danger to ancient Egypt’s stability.

The fact that the Egyptians were eager to travel the unknown and perilous desert to utilize its natural treasures, notably gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and other valuable minerals, demonstrates how powerful the attraction was to ancient Egypt’s elite.

Aside from its buried wealth, the two apparent aspects of the Red Land that found meaning within the Egyptian worldview and maintained its continuing relevance were its aridity and location.

The Red Land was a desert near the Nile’s western bank but beyond the reach of the annual flood.

This, as we’ll discover in Chapter 8, made it a perfect location for Egyptian tombs.

Remember our prior study into the Predynastic Period and sand-pit graves?

Modern people, who lived not just in the Nile Valley but also in the surrounding desert territories for millennia, buried their dead in shallow pits excavated into the sand, which served to desiccate, preserve, and, to some degree, naturally mummify the bones.

Even when the mastaba, a four-sided, sloping stone building resembling a bench, became a popular burial monument, the person within was still buried in the same sand-pit, typically covered with wooden boards that were buried beneath a layer of sand.

Only later in the Old Kingdom, when ideas about the nature of the Afterlife changed, did the upper elements of society, the Pharaoh, his family, and affluent citizens, begin to build tombs for above-ground burial.

Egyptian graves were thus purposefully created west of the Nile, on the outskirts of the western desert.

However, the preserving properties of desert sand were not the entire tale of Egyptian burial traditions.

The legend of Osiris and Isis developed into a paradigm of the deceased’s preparation for a conscious, physical presence in the Afterlife.

The Pharaoh, and eventually the Egyptian people as a whole, began to associate their death or rebirth experience with Osiris, Lord of the Underworld.

He was known as the Lord of the Westerners, referring to the momentarily disembodied spirits of the departed who waited in “the West” for their approaching rebirth into their previously preserved or mummified bodies.

Egyptian burial rituals reaffirmed and supported the concept that resurrection would come from the west, from the direction of the Red Land.

Bodies of deceased people were transferred by boat from the west bank of the Nile to the east bank, where they were deposited in the hands of embalmers.

The mummified body was then taken to a boat and carried over the Nile, toward the west, where the family staged a ceremonial drama before the remains were buried, after a complex preparation procedure customized to the family’s financial means.

It is ironic that, while every Egyptian’s life originated from the Black Land, Kemet, the new life that everyone longed for and expected was thought to come from Deshret, the Red Land.

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A Trip to the Ancient Nile, Ancient Egypt 101

The Many Colors of the Nile River

“Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt”.

That would be a bold remark if it weren’t completely true.

Before the advent of the first human species, Homo erectus, the Nile river, also called Iteru in ancient Egyptian, has dominated and characterized the East African terrain more than 700,000 years ago.

The Egyptian section of the Nile River follows a relatively straight south-to-north path from the contemporary Aswan to Cairo and the Delta.

From above, the river’s path resembles the papyrus reed, with its thin stalk and blooming head, and like that iconic water plant, was vital to ancient Egyptian culture and civilization.

This was so accurate that Egypt’s glyph was literally a horizontal line, representing the flat floodplain, with three black circles below it, signifying clumps of the black alluvial soil left behind after the annual flooding.

Egypt’s lifeblood was the river’s waters, particularly the annual flooding.

According to Harvey Cox, “the annual flooding of the Nile…provided the framework by which the society was held together”.

Despite this, no Egyptian throughout the country’s 3,000-year history knew the real geographical source of the Nile, which is now acknowledged as the world’s longest river at 4,130 miles.

Nor would the typical Egyptian have recognized the importance of knowing.

Instead, their worldview was structured by an all-encompassing polytheism that attributed divine intervention to every element of human experience, even the life-sustaining flow of the river.

“There was plenty of sun gods, river goddesses, and astral deities. History was subsumed under cosmology, a society under nature, time under space. Both god and man were part of nature”.

That worldview compelled Egyptians that the river’s life-giving, or perhaps life-taking waters came from a subterranean cavern beneath the First Cataract, near Egypt’s southern border with Nubia, also now called Sudan.

This underground cavern was the home of the god Hapy, who was not the god of the Nile, but of the annual flooding.

Despite the fact that no one has ever seen Hapy, pictograms portray this god as a big-bellied, droopy-breasted creature of unknown gender wearing a ceremonial beard.

This conception reflects the Egyptian belief that Hapy, like the waters of Iteru, was the source of fertility and wealth.

Nothing expresses their conviction more strongly than the following excerpt from the “Hymn to Hapy,” originally written in Middle Egyptian and considered to have been written during the Middle Kingdom period, 2060-1782 BCE.

Hail flood! emerging from the earth, arriving to bring Egypt to life, hidden of form, the darkness in the day, the one whose followers sing to him, as he waters the plants, created by Ra to make every herd live, who satisfies the desert hills removed from the water, for it is his dew that descends from the sky–he, the beloved of Geb, controller of Nepri, the one who makes the crafts of Ptah verdant….

If he is greedy, the whole land suffers, great and small fall moaning. People are changed at his coming; the one who creates him is Khnum. When he rises, then the land is in joy, then every belly is glad, every jaw has held laughter, every tooth revealed.

Of course, we only need a map to realize the reality that was beyond their comprehension. The Nile, the only river they knew, is the result of several major and minor tributaries that converged far south in regions once occupied by ancient Nubia, the semi-mythical Land of Punt, and beyond the ‘end of the world’ as the Egyptians knew it.

The main branch of the Nile, known as the White because of its thick clay deposits, originates in a stream called the Ruvyironza, which starts from Mount Kikizi in southern Burundi and flows into Lake Victoria.

It runs from Jinja, Lake Victoria, to Lake Albert, and then northward till it reaches the Blue Nile at Khartoum, Sudan – a distance of approximately 2,300 miles from its source.

The Blue Nile, on the other hand, begins in Lake Tana in modern-day Ethiopia’s highlands and runs 900 miles across Ethiopia and Sudan.

Historically, it has supplied at least 80% of the Nile’s fresh water and silt during the North African monsoon season, which runs from June to October.

A third major Nile tributary, the Atbara River or often known as the Red Nile, begins its trip 500 miles southeast of the White Nile, in the highlands 30 miles north of Lake Tana as little more than a stream.

However, like the Blue Nile to the south, it rises substantially after the late summer rains, contributing to the Nile Valley’s yearly flooding.

The Yellow Nile, a former tributary of the White Nile that flowed from eastern Chad to its confluence at the southern end of the Great Bend between  8000 BCE and  1000 BCE went extinct around the same time that the ancient Egyptian civilization was absorbed by the Roman Empire.

So there were many rivers, each with its own gifts–fresh, clear water, clay, black silt, in a convergence of currents, rushing through steep gorges and past red sandstone cliffs, eventually tumbling around the crags of the First Cataract in Upper Egypt and on toward the Great Green, as Egyptians used to call the Mediterranean Sea.

I believe the ancient Egyptians would be delighted if they discovered that the Nile River’s tributaries, Blue, White, Red, and Yellow, when viewed from above, resemble the roots of their beloved and famous papyrus plant!

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