The Ancient Egyptians

Adam Ashcroft

Situated in the north east of Africa, the Nile is the blood, life and backbone of Egyptian existence and culture, for without it, Egypt would just be a wasteless continuation of the Sahara Desert. In this essay, I will explain the environmental and geographical factors as well as some of their influences upon the political and social structure of the Ancient Egyptians. My references come from a wide range of different books and internet websites.

With its natural borders - the vast Sahara Desert and it's few scattered oases to the west, the mountainous Eastern Desert and the Red Sea to the east, the narrow coastline of the Meditteranean Sea edging the marshy Delta to the north and the black and red granite rocks of the Cataracts to the south, ancient Egyptians were reasonably free from aggressors. This gave Egypt time to develop its unique culture, religion, and political state.

The land was divided by the ancient Egyptian state into two parts. Upper Egypt - the narrow valley area of the Nile south of Memphis down to Abu on the First Cataract was called ta-shema. The king of the Upper Egypt wore the White conical crown [hedjet] which ended in a bulb and was protected by the goddess Nekhbet. A flowering sedge plant represented the south. Lower Egypt or the Delta area was called ta-mehu and its representation was the papyrus plant. The king of Lower Egypt wore the chair shaped Red Crown [deshret] which had a coil or plume protruding from it and was protected by the goddess Wadjet. When the pharaoh is seen as the 'King of the Two Lands', he is shown wearing the combined crown called the 'The Two Mighty Ones' [pschent], which can be best described as the White Crown inserted into the top of the Red Crown.

The two lands were subdivided into nomes which were individually governed by their own nomarchs and had their own symbols. The ancient Egyptians called these divisions sepat. Upper Egypt had 22 nomes and these were probably in existence since the unification [c.3100 BC]. Lower Egypt consisted of 20 nomes but these were not introduced until the Ptolemaic Period.

Upper and Lower Egypt each had one vizier [tjaty] each, appointed by the king to represent the state and carry out the orders and wishes of the monarch and to ensure the smooth running of the affairs of the country. The first mention of a vizier is during the 2nd Dynasty [c.2890-2686 BC], but it is probable that the office of vizier started at the beginnings of Pharaonic Egypt. There was only one vizier for the whole country until the 18th Dynasty [c.1550]. The control of office was then split in two - one each for Upper and Lower Egypt and this became a permanent fixture. Pepy II and Senusret I did however, have two viziers beforehand, during the 6th and 12th Dynasty respectively. The split of viziership was probably caused by the division of power to Thebes and the Delta during the Second Intermediate Period.

Egypt was rich in abundance of soft and hard building stone. The three main stones were Nubian sandstone, Egyptian limestone and Aswan granite. The stones used for statues, vessels and other artworks were jasper, chert, breccia, calcite [alabaster], basalt, greywacke [siltstone or schist] from the Wadi Hammamat in the eastern desert and diorite from Nubia. Quartzite was one of the hardest stones worked by the Egyptians and was mined north east of Cairo from Gebel el-Ahmar. Precious stones were also available. Amethyst was mined by the Egyptians in the south east of Aswan from Wadi el-Hudi. Turquoise came from Sinai and lapis lazuli was traded from Afghanistan. Other resources were natron, from Wadi Natron, which was used in mummification and malachite from the Sinai.

Tin and copper were mined from various locations in the Eastern Desert as well as Nubia and Sinai. Cyprus also provided some copper through means of trade with the Egyptians. Gold was mined in the south of the Eastern Desert and especially in the Nubian Desert, which was exploited from Egypt's earliest times, for its abundance of the precious metal. Silver was never mined in Egypt but traces of it can be found in Egyptian gold, however, there is no record of silver ever being extracted from the gold. The Greeks termed the mix of gold and silver as electrum.

Good quality building wood was a rarity in Egypt and had to be imported. The main area for the import of wood, was Byblos, which was situated on the coast of the Lebanon. This provided the Egyptians with cedar. Acacia wood and ebony came from Nubia. Nubia also provided ivory, ostrich feathers, leopard skins, giraffe tails, monkeys and even Nubian slaves. Dwarves and pygmies were also brought to Egypt from the heart of Africa, again, through trade with the Nubians
Punt or Pwene, was a land thought to have been situated around the area of Somalia. Trading expeditions to this area brought home aromatic spices, gold, African blackwood, ebony, and ivory.

Before the Aswan Dam was completed in 1971, the Nile received the flood waters from the summer monsoons and the melting snows from the Ethiopian and Abyssinian highlands. There are three tributaries - the smallest stream, the Atbara, which joins the Nile just above the 5th Cataract near Berber and the Blue Nile which rises in Lake Tana in Ethiopia and joins the Nile near Khartoum in Sudan, fill up with the flood waters from the Ethiopian mountains and push back the waters of the main stream, the White Nile which rises in Lake Victoria. All three converge to form the character of the River Nile itself, bringing with them, the rich, fertile silt which washes away the damaging, natural salts and replenishes the land with valuable nutrients essential for the forthcoming farming period.

Once the floodwaters passed the red and black granite masses which form the six cataracts, it heads rapidly northwards to flood the river banks of Egypt. When the inundation subsided, it left a black, crumbly silt and this was where the Egyptians got the name for their land - 'Kemet' - the Black Land. Areas left untouched by the inundation were known as 'Deshret' - the Red Land. The flood heads north and there is a change in the landscape between Edfu and Gebel Silsila. On the banks of the Nile, the soft, Nubian sandstone changes to limestone, which forms the bulk of the landscape of Egypt.

As the Nile makes its way through Middle Egypt, a canal called the Bahr Yusef branches of from Cusae - the 14th nome of Upper Egypt - follows the Nile parallel to the western side and after going pass Heracleopolis, starts westward and heads to the Faiyum - a broad wet region, almost like an enlarged oasis. The Nile itself continued northwards and just after passing the ancient capital of Memphis, fans out into several tributaries which reach out to the Mediterranean Sea. This creates a triangle shape which the ancient Greeks called 'Delta' after they noticed the similarity to one of the letters of their alphabet. In Pharaonic times, the Delta consisted of 5 main branches, the Rosetta, Pelusiac, Sebenyttic, Canopic and Damietta. Today, however, only the outer branches of the Delta exist - the Rosetta to the west and the Damietta to the east.
The contrast between the narrow Nile valley region of Upper Egypt and the broad area of the Delta, known as Lower Egypt, gave rise to the concept of 'The Two Lands' or the 'Dual Lands'. Duality was an important concept in ancient Egypt. When Egypt was united, amongst the kings titles were 'The Lord of the Two Lands', and 'He of the Sedge and the Bee'. The land was split into kemet [black land] and deshret [red land] and also split into east [the land of the living] and west [the land of the dead]. There was also an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil, Horus and Seth.

The annual rise and fall of the Nile gave the Egyptians their 3 seasons. Each season was split into 4 months of 30 days each. Each month consisted of 3 weeks of 10 days. 5 Epagomenal were added to their calendar to bring it in line with the seasons. The period of time between the months of July and September was known to the ancient Egyptians as 'akhet' - the period of inundation. This was when the land was covered by the floodwaters. During this period, the farmers work came to a halt and the state had a mass of manpower available to work on building projects. This helped to provide food for the farmers' families, which came from the state stores.

In October, the flood waters subsided - quickly at first then gradually slower - and so began the period known as 'peret' - the time of emergence. This season of ploughing and sowing went on from November until the following February. Canals and reservoirs were dug to capture water for the land that was out of reach of the inundation and dykes were built to prevent the floodwaters from flooding and washing away the settlements. The regularity of the inundation was an important factor for the Egyptians. If the Nile flooded too high, the mud brick buildings would be washed away by the waters, making people homeless and also make the ground too wet to plant at the right time. If the waters rose too little, large areas around the Nile remained unwatered and unfertilized. Each of these scenarios caused a limited harvest. If it occurred for one year, the Egyptians could cope, but if it happened for several years, it caused widespread hunger, famine and hardship.

Sometimes, farmers worked on the large estates of the royal family, temples, noble and wealthy landowners, receiving a small amount of crops for their pay. Some farmers managed to rent fields from the rich landowners, giving most of their hard laboured crops as payment and working just to earn enough to feed their families. Then started the farmers and their families' most labour intensive period, the season known to them as 'shemu' - the harvest. This involved reaping, threshing, winnowing and also the collection and carrying of the grain for storage.

The grain was used for making of the main staple of the people's diet - bread and beer. The farmers also grew lettuce, cucmbers, beans, lentils, onions, leeks as well as fruit such as dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, mandrakes, persea fruit and dom palm fruits. Grapes were grown in the Delta and oases regions and were used for making wine. Dates and honey were the primary sweeteners in the food and drink. Egyptians were also the first known beekeepers. When it was time to extract the honey, fires were lit to smoke the bees out of the long cylinders which were positioned in rows on the ground.

Oil was an essential part of the diet. Flax gave them linseed oil and cloth. Nuts were also used for oil and later in the Roman Period, olive oil was being produced. As well as being used for cooking, the oils were also used for lighting, cosmetics and mummification.

The papyrus plant, which was grown in the marshes of the Delta region, was cultivated for a wide variety of uses. The inner, fleshy parts of the stem was used for paper and the very strong and flexible outer fibres were used for making sails, ropes, mats, sandals, basketry and for the caulking of boats.

Animal husbandry was an important part of the farmers' life. The most common domesticated animals were cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and poultry. Pigs were kept, but were considered unclean, probably because they were associated with the god of chaos - Seth. Pork was, however, still used as part of the diet of some societies of Ancient Egypt. Cattle and donkeys were used for pulling the ploughs and treading in the newly sown seeds as well as threshing. The cattle was also used for its meat and milk. Donkeys were mainly used for transporting heavy loads. Sheep and goats provided wool, milk, meat and also helped with the trampling of the seeds. Horses were introduced into Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period and were mainly used for military purposes. Camels were not domesticated until about the 9th century BC. The main type of poultry that was kept was the duck, geese and also pigeons.

Other animals that were present in Ancient Egypt were the hippopotami and crocodiles, whose home was the Nile River. Wolves, jackals and hyenas were also present by the desert edge. Antelopes and the oryx have been shown in reliefs. Frogs, snakes, flies, mosquitoes and scorpions were also amongst the animal habitat.

Marriage was an important centre of social life, even though the Egyptians did not have a word for it and there was no formal ceremony. The setting up of a home between a man and woman, constituted a marriage in the eyes of the Egyptians. Although some kings had more than one wife, monogamy seemed to be the general rule. The children of the lower classes of society did not go to school. The girls learned the 'trade' of keeping home from their mothers, whilst the boys learned the trade of their fathers, whether it be carpentry, leatherworking, brickmaking, building, metalworking, jewellery making, barber, fisherman or farmer. Being a scribe was the profession which every father wanted their son to be. Unfortunately, it was only open to the wealthier families who could afford to send their son to school. If their fathers could afford the payment or obtain a sponsor by showing his son is gifted in any academical way, then the boy of the lower class family may have got an opportunity to learn the trade of the scribe. Girls were not allowed to go to school and study this profession, although Queens and some ladies of upper class society, could read and write. The lower class person could also move up to the middle classes, by means of marriage or success in their farming or chosen profession.

The Nile was unarguably the main reason for the existence of Ancient Egypt. With no river to break the expanse of desert, settlement would have been impossible. In reality, the Nile was the starting heartbeat of the growth of the Ancient Egyptian culture. Egypt's geographical positioning in the north east of Africa was not a fortunate placement, but it was fortunate for the growth of this civilization that man learned to harness the power and agricultural riches of the longest river in the world.

The River Nile