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Egypt history culture

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© Lonely Planet Publications
29

History
The history of Egypt is as rich as the land, as varied as the landscape, as
lively as the character of its people. And it is as long as the Nile, longer
than most in the world. While much of Europe was still wrapped in animal
skins and wielding clubs, Egyptians enjoyed a sophisticated life, dedicated
to maintaining order in the universe and to making the most of their one
great commodity, the Nile.

THE NILE

The Nation’s Gift
The Greek historian Herodotus observed that Egypt was the gift of the Nile
and although it might now be a cliché, it also happens to be true. Ancient
Egyptians called it simply iteru, the river. Without the Nile, Egypt as we
know it would not exist.
The exact history is obscure, but many thousands of years ago the climate
of North Africa changed dramatically. Patterns of rainfall also changed and
Egypt, formerly a rich savannah, became increasingly dry. The social consequences were dramatic. People in this part of Africa lived as nomads, hunting,
gathering and moving across the region with the seasons. But when their
pastures turned to desert, there was only one place for them to go: the Nile.
Rainfall in east and central Africa ensured that the Nile in Egypt rose
each summer; this happened some time towards the end of June in Aswan.
The waters would reach their height around the Cairo area in September.
In most years, this surge of water flooded the valley and left the countryside
hidden. As the rains eased, the river level started to drop and water drained
off the land, leaving behind a layer of rich silt washed down from the hills
of Africa.
Egyptians learned that if they planted seed on this fertile land, they could
grow a good crop. As more people settled along the valley, it became more
important to make the best use of the annual floodwater, or there would not
be enough food for the following year. A social order evolved to organise
the workforce to make the most of this ‘gift’, an order that had farmers at
the bottom, bureaucrats and governors in the middle and, at the top of this
pyramid, the pharaoh.
Egyptian legend credited all this social development to the good king
Osiris, who, so the story went, taught Egyptians how to farm, how to make
best use of the Nile and how to live a good, civil life. The myth harks back
to an idealised past, but also ties in with what we know of the emergence
of kingship: one of the earliest attributions of kingship, the pre-dynastic
Scorpion Macehead, ...
The history of Egypt is as rich as the land, as varied as the landscape, as
lively as the character of its people. And it is as long as the Nile, longer
than most in the world. While much of Europe was still wrapped in animal
skins and wielding clubs, Egyptians enjoyed a sophisticated life, dedicated
to maintaining order in the universe and to making the most of their one
great commodity, the Nile.
THE NILE
The Nation’s Gift
The Greek historian Herodotus observed that Egypt was the gift of the Nile
and although it might now be a cliché, it also happens to be true. Ancient
Egyptians called it simply iteru, the river. Without the Nile, Egypt as we
know it would not exist.
The exact history is obscure, but many thousands of years ago the climate
of North Africa changed dramatically. Patterns of rainfall also changed and
Egypt, formerly a rich savannah, became increasingly dry. The social conse-
quences were dramatic. People in this part of Africa lived as nomads, hunting,
gathering and moving across the region with the seasons. But when their
pastures turned to desert, there was only one place for them to go: the Nile.
Rainfall in east and central Africa ensured that the Nile in Egypt rose
each summer; this happened some time towards the end of June in Aswan.
The waters would reach their height around the Cairo area in September.
In most years, this surge of water flooded the valley and left the countryside
hidden. As the rains eased, the river level started to drop and water drained
off the land, leaving behind a layer of rich silt washed down from the hills
of Africa.
Egyptians learned that if they planted seed on this fertile land, they could
grow a good crop. As more people settled along the valley, it became more
important to make the best use of the annual floodwater, or there would not
be enough food for the following year. A social order evolved to organise
the workforce to make the most of this ‘gift’, an order that had farmers at
the bottom, bureaucrats and governors in the middle and, at the top of this
pyramid, the pharaoh.
Egyptian legend credited all this social development to the good king
Osiris, who, so the story went, taught Egyptians how to farm, how to make
best use of the Nile and how to live a good, civil life. The myth harks back
to an idealised past, but also ties in with what we know of the emergence
of kingship: one of the earliest attributions of kingship, the pre-dynastic
Scorpion Macehead, found in Hierakonpolis around 3000 BC, shows an
Hi s to ry
Earliest human traces in Egypt.
The valley is surrounded by
savannah that provides ample
food for groups of hunter-
gatherers until climate change
turns lush countryside to
desert and forces settlement
along the fertile Nile.
c 250,000 BC c 3100 BC 2650–2323 BC
Legend credits a pharaoh
named Narmer with uniting the
people between the Mediter-
ranean and the first Cataract
at Aswan. Memphis emerges
as the first capital of a united
Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.
This period of great pyramid
building at Giza and Saqqara
suggests that for at least part
of each year, presumably when
the Nile flooded, a substantial
workforce was available for
civic projects.
The Penguin Guide to
Ancient Egypt by William
J Murnane is one of the
best overall books on the
lifestyle and monuments
of the Pharaonic period,
with illustrations and
descriptions of the major
temples and tombs.
Egyptians called the vast
areas of barren desert
deshret (red land) and the
narrow banks of the Nile
kemet (black land).
29
© Lonely Planet Publications
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