Ancient History & Civilisation

THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA ARE THE DEFINING SYMBOL OF ANCIENT Egypt. In historical terms, they mark the first great flowering of pharaonic culture, the Old Kingdom. Yet the pyramids and the sophisticated culture they represent did not spring into existence fully formed without a long period of gestation. The origins and early development of civilization in Egypt can be traced back to at least two thousand years before the pyramids, to the country’s remote prehistoric past.

Over a period of many centuries, communities living in the fertile Nile Valley and the dry grasslands to the east and west developed the main cornerstones of Egyptian culture, their distinctive outlook shaped by their unique natural environment. As competing territories were forged, through trade and conquest, into the world’s first nation-state, the pace of social development accelerated, and by the advent of Egypt’s first dynasty of kings, all the main elements were in place.

The subsequent eight centuries witnessed the emergence of a great civilization, and its fullest expression is in those most iconic of monuments on the Giza plateau. Yet, as the Egyptians themselves knew only too well, order and chaos were constant bedfellows. As quickly as it had blossomed, the overstretched state withered under pressures at home and abroad, bringing the Old Kingdom to an inglorious end.

Part I of this book charts this first rise and fall of ancient Egypt, from its extraordinary birth to its cultural zenith at the height of the Pyramid Age, and its subsequent decline—the first of many such cycles in the long history of the pharaohs. If there is one defining feature of this period, it is the ideology of divine kingship. The promulgation of a belief in a monarch with divine authority was the most significant achievement of Egypt’s early rulers. The belief embedded itself in the Egyptian consciousness so deeply that it remained the only acceptable form of government for the next three thousand years. For sheer longevity, this type of monarchy ranks as the greatest political and religious system the world has ever known. The belief in this system was expressed through art, writing, ceremony, and, above all, architecture, such expression providing both the inspiration and the justification for massive royal tombs.

The officials who served the king and whose administrative genius built the pyramids left their own monuments, too, their lavishly decorated sepulchres a testament to the sophistication and resources of the court. But there was also a darker side to royal government. The appropriation of land, forced labor, a scant regard for human life—these were characteristics of the Pyramid Age as much as grandiose architecture was. The ruthless exploitation of Egypt’s natural and human resources was a prerequisite for achieving the state’s wider ambitions, and it set the scene for the following centuries of pharaonic rule. While kings ruled by divine right, the rights of their subjects interested them little. This would be an abiding theme in the history of ancient Egypt.



IN A TALL GLASS CASE IN THE ENTRANCE HALL OF THE EGYPTIAN Museum in Cairo stands an ancient slab of fine-grained greenish-black stone, about two feet high and no more than an inch thick. Shaped like a shield, it is carved on both sides in low relief. The scenes, though still crisp, are difficult to make out in the diffuse, hazy light that filters down through the dusty glazed dome in the museum ceiling. Most visitors barely give this strange object a second glance as they head straight for the golden riches of Tutankhamun on the floor above. Yet this modest piece of stone is one of the most important documents to survive from ancient Egypt. Its place of honor at the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, the world’s greatest treasure-house of pharaonic culture, underlines its significance. This stone is the object that marks the very beginning of ancient Egyptian history.

The Narmer Palette, as it is known to Egyptologists, has become an icon of early Egypt, but the circumstances of its discovery are clouded with uncertainty. In the winter of A.D. 1897–1898, the British archaeologists James Quibell and Frederick Green were in the far south of Egypt, excavating at the ancient site of Nekhen (modern Kom el-Ahmar), the “city of the falcon” (classical Hierakonpolis). The nineteenth century was still the era of treasure seeking, and Quibell and Green, though more scientific in their approach than many of their contemporaries, were not immune from the pressure to discover fine objects to satisfy their sponsors back home. So, having chosen to excavate at Nekhen, a site eroded by countless centuries and largely devoid of major standing monuments, they decided to focus their attentions on the ruins of the local temple. Though small and unimpressive by comparison with the great sanctuaries of Thebes, this was no ordinary provincial shrine. Since the dawn of history, it had been dedicated to the celebration of Egyptian kingship. The local falcon god of Nekhen, Horus, was the patron deity of the Egyptian monarchy. Might the temple, therefore, yield a royal treasure?

The two men worked away, and their initial results were disappointing: stretches of mud brick wall; the remains of a mound, faced in stone; a few worn and broken statues. Nothing spectacular. The next area to be investigated lay in front of the mound, but here the archaeologists encountered only a thick layer of clay that resisted systematic excavation. The city of the falcon seemed determined to keep its secrets. But then, as Quibell and Green struggled their way through the clay layer, they came upon a scatter of discarded ritual objects, a motley collection of sacred paraphernalia that had been gathered up and buried by the temple priests some time in the remote past. There was no gold, but the “Main Deposit”—as the archaeologists optimistically called it—did contain some interesting and unusual finds. Chief among them was a carved slab of stone.

There was no doubt about what sort of object they had found. A shallow, circular well in the middle of one side showed it to be a palette, a grindstone for mixing pigments. But this was no workaday tool for preparing cosmetics. The elaborate and detailed scenes decorating both sides showed that it had been commissioned for a much loftier purpose, to celebrate the achievements of a glorious king. Beneath the benign gaze of two cow goddesses, a representation of the monarch himself—shown in the age-old pose of an Egyptian ruler, smiting his enemy with a mace—dominated one side of the palette. The archaeologists wondered who he was and when he had reigned. Two hieroglyphs, contained within a small rectangular panel at the very top of the palette, seemed to provide the answer, spelling out the monarch’s name: a catfish (“nar” in the Egyptian language) and a chisel (“mer”)—Narmer. Here was a king previously unknown to history. Moreover, the style of the carvings on the Narmer Palette pointed to a very early date. Subsequent research showed that Narmer was not just an early king; he was the very first ruler of a united Egypt. He came to the throne around 2950, the first king of the First Dynasty. In the mud of Nekhen, Quibell and Green had stumbled upon ancient Egypt’s founding monument.


While Narmer may be the first historical king, he is not the beginning of Egypt’s story. The decoration of his famous palette shows the art of the Egyptian royal court and the iconography of kingship already in their classical forms. However, some of the palette’s stranger motifs, such as the intertwined beasts with long serpentine necks and the bull trampling the walls of an enemy fortress, hark back to a remote prehistoric past. On his great commemorative palette, Narmer was explicitly acknowledging that the cornerstones of Egyptian civilization had been laid long before his own time.


AS THE NARMER PALETTE DEMONSTRATES ON A SMALL SCALE AND FOR an early date, the Egyptians achieved a mastery of stone carving unsurpassed in the ancient, or modern, world. Diverse and abundant raw materials within Egypt’s borders combined with great technical accomplishment to give the Egyptians a highly distinctive medium for asserting their cultural identity. Stone also had the advantage of permanence, and Egyptian monuments were consciously designed to last for eternity. The origin of this obsession with monumentality was in the Western Desert, near the modern border between Egypt and Sudan. The remote spot is known to archaeologists as Nabta Playa. Today, a paved main road carves through the desert only a mile or two away, bringing construction traffic to Egypt’s New Valley project. But until very recently, Nabta Playa was as far away from civilization as it was possible to get. Its main distinction was as a pit stop on the cross-country route between the desert springs of Bir Kiseiba and the shores of Lake Nasser. The flat bed of an ancient, dried-up lake—or playa—together with a nearby sandy ridge, certainly make Nabta an ideal spot for an overnight camp. There is, however, much more to the site than a casual first glance would suggest. Scattered throughout the landscape are large stones—not naturally occurring boulders but megaliths that had been hauled from some distance away and set up at key points around the edge of the playa. Some stand in splendid isolation, as sentinels on the horizon; others form a linear alignment. Most remarkable of all, on a slight elevation a series of stones has been set out in a circle, with pairs of uprights facing each other. Two pairs are aligned north to south, while two more point toward the midsummer sunrise.

Previously unknown and entirely unexpected, Nabta Playa has emerged from obscurity as the ancient Egyptian Stonehenge, a sacred landscape dotted with carefully placed stone structures. Scientific dating of the associated sediments has revealed a startlingly early date for these extraordinary monuments, the early fifth millennium B.C. At that time, as in even earlier periods, the Sahara would have been very different from its current arid state. On an annual basis, summer rains would have greened the desert—filling the seasonal lake, and turning its shores into lush pasture and arable land. The people who migrated to Nabta Playa to take advantage of this temporary abundance were seminomadic cattle herders who roamed with their livestock across a wide area of the eastern Sahara. Large quantities of cattle bones have been excavated at the site, and traces of human activity can be found scattered over the ground: fragments of ostrich eggshells (used as water carriers and, when broken, for making jewelry), flint arrowheads, stone axes, and grindstones for processing the cereals that were cultivated along the lakeshore. With its seasonal fertility, Nabta offered semi-nomadic people a fixed point of great symbolic significance, and over generations they set about transforming it into a ritual center. Laying out the stone alignments must have required a large degree of communal involvement. Like their counterparts at Stonehenge, the monuments of Nabta show that the local prehistoric people had developed a highly organized society. A pastoral way of life certainly needed wise decision-makers with a detailed knowledge of the environment, close familiarity with the seasons, and an acute sense of timing. Cattle are thirsty animals, requiring a fresh supply of water at the end of each day’s wandering, so judging when to arrive at a site such as Nabta and when to leave again could have been a matter of life and death for the whole community.

Prehistoric rock art in Egypt’s Eastern Desert  TOBY WILKINSON

The purpose of the standing stones and the “calendar circle” seems to have been to predict the arrival of the all-important rains that fell shortly after the summer solstice. When the rains arrived, the community celebrated by slaughtering some of their precious cattle as a sacrifice of thanks, and burying the animals in graves marked on the ground with large, flat stones. Under one such mound, archaeologists found not a cattle burial but a huge sandstone monolith that had been carefully shaped and dressed to resemble a cow. Dated, like the calendar circle, to the early fifth millennium B.C., it is the earliest known monumental sculpture from Egypt. Here are to be found the origins of pharaonic stone carving—in the prehistoric Western Desert, among wandering cattle herders, a millennium and more before the beginning of the First Dynasty. Archaeologists have been forced to rethink their theories of Egypt’s origins.

On the other side of Egypt, in the Eastern Desert, equally remarkable discoveries have been made, confirming the impression that the arid lands bordering the Nile Valley were the crucible of ancient Egyptian civilization. Thousands of rock pictures pecked into the sandstone cliffs dot the dry valleys (known as wadis) that crisscross the hilly terrain between the Nile and the Red Sea hills. At some locations, usually associated with natural shelters, overhangs, or caves, there are great concentrations of pictures. One such tableau, by a dried-up plunge pool in the Wadi Umm Salam, has been likened to the Sistine Chapel. Its images constitute some of the earliest sacred art from Egypt, prefiguring the classic imagery of pharaonic religion by as much as a thousand years. Like their sculpture-loving counterparts at Nabta Playa, the prehistoric artists of the Eastern Desert seem also to have been cattle herders, and pictures of their livestock—and the wild animals they hunted out on the savanna—feature heavily in their compositions. But instead of using megaliths to signify their deepest beliefs, they exploited the smooth cliff faces offered by their own environment, turning them into canvases for religious expression. Gods traveling in sacred boats, and ritual hunts of wild animals, are key themes in the pharaonic iconography first attested in the Eastern Desert rock art. The inaccessible and inhospitable character of the region today belies its pivotal role in the rise of ancient Egypt.


ONGOING SURVEY AND EXCAVATION AT SITES ACROSS THE WESTERN and Eastern deserts is revealing a pattern of close interaction between desert and valley peoples in prehistory. Rather unexpectedly, the semi-nomadic cattle herders who roamed across the prehistoric savanna seem to have been more advanced than their valley-dwelling contemporaries. But in a lesson for our own times, the cattle herders’ vibrant way of life was made extinct by environmental change. Beginning in about 5000, the climate of northeast Africa began to undergo a marked shift. The once predictable summer rains that for millennia had provided cattle herders with seasonal pasture away from the Nile became steadily less reliable. Over a period of a few centuries, the rain belt moved progressively southward. (Today the rains, when they fall at all, fall over the highlands of Ethiopia.) The savannas to the east and west of the Nile began to dry out and turn to desert. After little more than a few generations, the desiccated land was no longer able to support thirsty herds of cattle. For the herders, the alternative to starvation was migration—to the only permanent water source in the region, the Nile Valley.

Here, the earliest settled communities, along the edge of the floodplain, had been established in the early fifth millennium B.C., broadly contemporary with the megalith builders of Nabta Playa. Like the cattle herders, the valley dwellers had also been practicing agriculture, but in contrast to the seasonality of rainfall in the arid regions, the regime of the Nile had made it possible to grow crops year-round. This would have given the valley dwellers the incentive and the wherewithal to occupy their villages on a permanent basis. The way of life the valley dwellers developed is known to Egyptologists as the Badarian culture, after the site of el-Badari, where this lifestyle was first recorded. The local vicinity was ideally suited to early habitation, with the juxtaposition of different ecosystems—floodplain and savanna—and excellent links to a wider hinterland. Desert routes led westward to the oases, while a major wadi ran eastward to the Red Sea coast. It was through these avenues that the Badarian way of life was strongly influenced by the early desert cultures.

One such influence, an interest in personal adornment, stayed with the ancient Egyptians throughout their history. Another development with long-term ramifications was the gradual stratification of society into leaders and followers, a small ruling class and a larger group of subjects. This was a system that owed much to the challenging lifestyle faced by pastoral seminomads. These external stimuli and internal dynamics began to transform Badarian society. Over many centuries, gradual changes took root and began to accelerate. The rich grew richer and began to act as patrons to a new class of specialist craftsmen. They, in turn, developed new technologies and new products to satisfy their patrons’ ever more sophisticated tastes. The introduction of restricted access to prestige goods and materials further reinforced the power and status of the wealthiest in society.

The process of social transformation, once started, could not be stopped. Culturally, economically, and politically, prehistoric society became increasingly complex. Egypt was set on a course toward statehood. The final drying-out of the deserts around 3600 must have injected further momentum into this process. A sudden increase in population—when those living in the deserts migrated to the valley—may have led to greater competition for scarce resources, encouraging the development of walled towns. More mouths to feed would also have stimulated more productive agriculture. Urbanization and the intensification of farming were responses to social change but were also a stimulus to further change.

Under such conditions, communities in Upper Egypt began to coalesce into three regional groupings, each probably ruled by a hereditary monarch. Strategic factors help to explain the early dominance of these three prehistoric kingdoms. One kingdom was centered on the town of Tjeni (near modern Girga), a site where the floodplain narrowed and allowed the town’s inhabitants to control river traffic. This area was also where trade routes from Nubia and the Saharan oases met the Nile Valley. A second territory had its capital at Nubt (“the golden,” modern Nagada), which controlled access to gold mines in the Eastern Desert via the Wadi Hammamat, on the opposite bank of the river. A third kingdom had grown up around the settlement of Nekhen, which, like Tjeni, was the starting point for a desert route to the oases (and thence to Sudan) and, like Nubt, controlled access to important Eastern Desert gold reserves, in this case the more southerly deposits reached via a wadi directly opposite the town.

The rulers of these three territories did what all aspiring leaders do: they sought to demonstrate and enhance their authority by political, ideological, and economic means. Their unquenchable thirst for rare and valuable objects, whether gold and precious stones from the deserts of Egypt or exotic imports from far-off lands (such as olive oil from the Near East and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), stimulated internal and external trade. The authority to remove such items permanently from circulation was a particularly powerful statement of wealth and privilege, so the burials of the elite became increasingly elaborate and richly furnished, building upon a tradition of grave goods that stretched back to Badarian times. The development in all three territories of special burial grounds, set aside for the local ruling class, is a sure sign of strongly hierarchical societies. With three kingdoms vying for dominance, the inevitable clash was not long in coming.

The precise train of events is hazy, for this was an era before written texts. However, by comparing the size and magnificence of tombs in the three localities, we can get some indication of who was winning the battle for supremacy. Certainly, the burials at Nekhen and Abdju (classical and modern Abydos, the necropolis serving the town of Tjeni) outstrip their counterparts at Nubt. The later reverence shown to Nekhen and Abdju by Narmer and his successors—in contrast to their relative lack of interest in Nubt—points in the same direction.

An intriguing recent discovery, once again in the Western Desert, may even record the moment at which Tjeni eclipsed Nubt. The desert between Abdju and Nubt is crisscrossed by tracks, many of which have been in use for thousands of years. These overland paths happened to offer a quicker, more direct route than the river, because of the wide bend the Nile describes at this point in its course. Next to the principal route between Abdju and Nubt, a rock-cut tableau seems to record a victory by the prehistoric ruler of Tjeni, perhaps against his rival. Winning control of the desert routes certainly would have given Tjeni a decisive strategic advantage, allowing it to outflank its neighbor and cut it off from access to trade with areas farther south.

It can be no coincidence that, during exactly the same period, a ruler of Tjeni built the largest tomb of its time anywhere in Egypt, in the elite cemetery at Abdju. The tomb was designed to resemble a miniature palace, and its unparalleled size and contents—which included an ivory scepter and a cellar of the finest imported wine—mark it out as a true kingly burial. Furthermore, its owner was clearly a ruler whose economic influence spread far beyond his Nile Valley homeland. Among the most remarkable finds from the tomb were hundreds of small bone labels, each inscribed with a few hieroglyphic signs. Each label was once attached, by means of a cord, to a box or jar of supplies for the royal tomb. The inscriptions record the quantity, nature, provenance, or ownership of the contents, demonstrating—from the very dawn of writing—the ancient Egyptians’ predilection for record keeping. Not only are these labels the earliest Egyptian writing yet discovered, but the places they mention as the sources of commodities include the shrine of Djebaut (in modern Tell el-Fara‘in) and the town of Bast (modern Tell Basta) in the Nile delta, hundreds of miles north of Abdju. The ruler of Tjeni who built this impressive sepulchre was well on the way to becoming the king of all Egypt.

One monarch ruling from Tjeni with control over the Nile delta, another based at Nekhen with access to sub-Saharan trade: there were now just two players left in the game. It is frustrating that there is virtually no evidence for the last phase of the struggle, but the preponderance of martial motifs on decorated ceremonial objects from the period, and the construction at Nubt and Nekhen of massive town walls, strongly suggests that military conflict was involved. So does the incidence of cranial injuries among the late predynastic population of Nekhen.

The final outcome was certainly clear-cut. When the dust settled, it was the line of kings of Tjeni that claimed victory. Their control of two-thirds of the country, combined with access to seaports and to the lucrative trade with parts of the Near East (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine), proved decisive. Around 2950 B.C., after nearly two centuries of competition and conflict, a ruler of Tjeni assumed the kingship of a united Egypt—the man known to us as Narmer. To symbolize his conquest of the delta—perhaps the final battle in the war of unification—he commissioned a magnificent ceremonial palette, decorated with scenes of triumph. In a gesture of homage to his erstwhile rivals (or perhaps to rub salt into their wounds), he dedicated the object in the temple at Nekhen … where it lay until its retrieval from the mud 4,900 years later.


GIVEN THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND SCHOLARLY EFFORT INVOLVED IN rediscovering Narmer, it is humbling to acknowledge that his relatively recent identification as the first king of ancient Egypt merely confirms the account given by the Greek historian Herodotus, writing twenty-four centuries ago. For the father of history, there was no doubt that Menes (another name for Narmer) had founded the Egyptian state. It is a salutary lesson that the ancients were often far cleverer than we give them credit for. Herodotus also made another fundamental observation about Egypt, which still captures the essential truth about the country and its civilization: “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”1 Flowing through the Sahara, the Nile makes life possible where otherwise there would be none. The Nile Valley is a linear oasis, a narrow strip of green hemmed in on either side by a vast and arid desert, boundless and bare. The rise of ancient Egypt is to be traced as much in the river and its character as in the archaeology of graves, rock pictures, and megaliths.

The environment of the Nile Valley has always had a profound effect on its inhabitants. The river molds not only the physical landscape, but also the way in which the Egyptians think about themselves and their place in the world. The landscape has influenced their habits and customs, and from an early period it imprinted itself upon their collective psyche, shaping over the course of generations their most fundamental philosophical and religious beliefs. The symbolic force of the Nile is a thread that runs through pharaonic civilization, starting with the Egyptians’ myth of their own origins.

According to the most ancient account of how the universe was formed, in the beginning there was nothing but a watery chaos, personified as the god Nun: “The great god who creates himself: he is water, he is Nun, father of the gods.”2 A later version of the creation myth described the primeval waters as negative and frightening, the embodiment of limitlessness, hiddenness, darkness, and formlessness. Yet despite being lifeless, the waters of Nun nevertheless held the potential for life. Although chaotic, they held within them the possibility of created order. This belief in the coexistence of opposites was characteristic of the ancient Egyptian mind-set, and was deeply rooted in their distinctive geographical surroundings. This view was reflected in the contrast between the arid desert and the fertile floodplain, and in the river itself, for the Nile could both create life and destroy it—a paradox inherent in its peculiar regime.

Until the construction of the Aswan Dam in the early twentieth century A.D. and its larger twin, the Aswan High Dam, in the 1960s, the Nile performed an annual miracle. The summer rains falling over the Ethiopian highlands swelled the Blue Nile—one of two great tributaries that join to form the Egyptian Nile—sending a torrent of water downstream (in this case, north). By early August, the approaching inundation was clearly discernible in the far south of Egypt, both from the turbulent sound of the floodwaters and from a noticeable rise in the river level. A few days later, the flood arrived in earnest. With an unstoppable force, the Nile burst its banks, and the waters spread out over the floodplain. The sheer volume of the flood caused the phenomenon to be repeated along the entire length of the Nile Valley. For several weeks, all the cultivable land was underwater. But as well as destruction the inundation brought with it the potential for new life: a layer of fertile silt deposited by the floodwaters over the fields, and the water itself. Once the flood retreated, the soil emerged again, fertilized and irrigated, ready for the sowing of crops. It was thanks to this annual phenomenon that Egypt enjoyed such productive agriculture—when the Nile flood was sufficient but not too powerful. Deviations from the norm, both “low Niles” and “high Niles,” could prove equally catastrophic, leaving crops to desiccate with insufficient water or drown in waterlogged fields. Fortunately, in most years the inundation was moderate and the harvest bountiful, providing a surplus beyond the immediate subsistence needs of the population and allowing a complex civilization to develop.

In fact, Egypt was doubly blessed by its geography. Not only did the river bring the annual miracle of the inundation, but the river’s shaping of the valley’s topography also proved highly beneficial to agriculture. In cross section, the Nile Valley is slightly convex, with the highest land lying immediately next to the river—the remnants of old levees—and lower-lying areas located at the edges of the floodplain. This made the valley especially suitable for irrigation, both by the natural floodwaters and by artificial means, since water would automatically come to rest, and remain longest, in the fields farthest from the riverbank—potentially the very areas most prone to drought. Moreover, the long, narrow floodplain naturally divides into a series of flood basins, each compact enough to be managed and cultivated with relative ease by the local population. This was an important factor in the consolidation of early kingdoms, such as those based at Tjeni, Nubt, and Nekhen.

The fact that Egypt was unified under Narmer instead of remaining a series of rival power centers or warring city-states—the situation in many neighboring lands—can likewise be attributed to the Nile. The river has always provided an artery for transport and communication, serving the whole country. All life in Egypt ultimately depends on the life-giving waters of the Nile, so in ancient times no permanent valley community could have survived more than a few hours’ walk from the river. This proximity of the population to the Nile allowed a dominant authority to exercise economic and political control on a national scale with relative ease.

As the country’s defining geographical feature, the Nile was also a powerful metaphor for all Egyptians. For this reason, Egypt’s rulers gave the river and its annual inundation key roles in the state ideology that they developed to underpin their authority in the eyes of the population at large. The political value of religious doctrine can be seen most strikingly if we look at one of the earliest creation myths, developed at Iunu (classical and modern Heliopolis). According to the story, the waters of Nun receded to reveal a mound of earth, just as dry land would appear from the floodwaters after the inundation. This story underscored the ever present potential for creation in the midst of chaos. The primeval mound then became the setting for the act of creation itself, with the creator god emerging at the same time as the mound, sitting upon it. His name was Atum, which, characteristically, means both “totality” and “nonexistence.” In Egyptian art, Atum was usually represented wearing the double crown of kingship, identifying him as the creator not just of the universe but also of ancient Egypt’s political system. The message was clear and unambiguous: if Atum was the first king as well as the first living being, then created order and political order were interdependent and inextricable. Opposition to the king or his regime was tantamount to nihilism.

A slightly different version of the creation myth explained how a reed grew on the newly emerged mound, and the celestial god, in the form of a falcon, alighted on the reed, making his dwelling on earth and bringing divine blessing to the land. Throughout the long course of pharaonic history, every temple in Egypt sought to emulate this moment of creation, siting its sanctuary on a replica of the primeval mound in order to re-create the universe anew. The rest of the myth recounts the origins of the essential building blocks of existence: the male and female principles; the fundamental elements of air and moisture; the earth and sky; and, finally, the first family of gods, who, like the waters of Nun from which they arose, embraced both orderly and chaotic tendencies. In total, Atum and his immediate descendants numbered nine deities, three times three expressing the ancient Egyptian concept of completeness.

The essential interest of the story, apart from its philosophical sophistication and its subtle legitimation of royal government, is that it demonstrates the force with which the Egyptians’ unique environment—the combination of regularity and harshness, dependability and danger, and an annual promise of rebirth and renewal—imprinted itself on the people’s collective consciousness and determined the pattern of their civilization.


THE NILE WAS NOT JUST THE CAUSE AND INSPIRATION OF ANCIENT Egyptian culture; it was also the unifying thread running through Egyptian history. It witnessed royal progresses, the transport of obelisks, the processions of gods, the movement of armies. The Nile Valley and delta—“the Two Lands” in the Egyptians’ own terminology—are the backdrop to the rise and fall of ancient Egypt, and their particular geography is key to understanding Egypt’s long and complex history.

There are no surviving maps of Egypt in ancient times, but if there were, one startling difference would leap off the page. The ancient Egyptians oriented themselves to the south, because it was in the south that the Nile rose, and it was from the south that the annual inundation arrived. In the ancient Egyptian mind-set, south lay at the top of their mental map, north at the bottom. Egyptologists perpetuate this unorthodox view of the world by calling the southern part of the country Upper Egypt and the north Lower Egypt. In accordance with this orientation, the west lay to the right (the two words were synonymous in ancient Egyptian), the east to the left. Egypt itself was known affectionately as “the Two Banks,” underlining the fact that the country was synonymous with the Nile Valley. An alternative, more familiar designation was Kemet, “the black land,” referring to the dark alluvial soil that gave the country its fertility; this was often contrasted with Deshret, “the red land” of the deserts. As for the Nile itself, the Egyptians had no need of a special name: it was simply Iteru, “the river.” In their world, there was no other.

Despite its unifying influence, the Nile is far from uniform in character. On its course from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, it molds the terrain through which it flows into a great diversity of different landscapes, each of which the ancient Egyptians learned to harness. In their worldview, the river began its course at the first cataract, a series of spectacular rapids near the modern city of Aswan, the rapids caused by the intrusion of hard, resistant granite across the narrow Nile Valley. The rumbling sound made by the floodwaters each inundation season, as they poured through the restricted channels and over exposed rocks, led the ancient Egyptians to believe that the flood itself originated in a deep underground cavern beneath the cataract. On the boulder-strewn island of Abu (classical and modern Elephantine), in the middle of the Nile, the people worshipped this force of nature in the guise of the ram god Khnum, while a Nilometer on the island, for measuring the height of the flood, gave an early indication of the inundation’s strength each year. With its dangerous rapids and submerged rocks, the cataract region is hazardous to shipping, but the ancient Egyptians turned this to their advantage. Abu, meaning “elephant (town)” and named for its importance in the ivory trade, became Egypt’s southern border post, an easily defensible location that overlooked and controlled the river approach from lands farther south. It also formed the natural point of departure for caravans heading overland, via the Kurkur, Dunqul, and Salima oases, to join up with the Darb el-Arba‘in (“forty days road”), the main north-south trans-Saharan trade route, which runs from El Fasher in the Darfur region of Sudan to Asyut in Egypt. Ongoing archaeological surveys are steadily revealing the ancient importance of desert tracks, and it is clear that control of these well-worn trade routes was strategically just as important as control of river traffic. The importance of Abu and other early centers was due to their favorable location for both types of travel. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, Abu and the first cataract region marked the beginning of Egypt proper. When Egyptian ships sailing north from conquered territories passed Biga Island, at the head of the cataract, their crews must have rejoiced, for they knew they were home at last.

North of Abu, the Nile Valley is at its narrowest, flowing between cliffs of hard Nubian sandstone. Here, the strip of agricultural land on either side of the river is extremely compressed—no more than a couple of hundred yards wide in some places—and, as a result, this part of southern Upper Egypt never supported a large population. But it has other natural advantages that the ancient Egyptians were swift to exploit. In particular, wadis lead from both banks of the Nile deep into the surrounding deserts, providing access to trade routes and to the sources of valuable raw materials such as gemstones, copper, and gold. These factors compensated for the relative scarcity of agricultural land and made the southern Nile Valley a major center of economic—and hence political—developments throughout Egyptian history, from Nekhen in prehistoric times to nearby Apollonopolis Magna (modern Edfu) in the Roman Period.

A major transition in the geology of the Nile Valley occurs at Gebel el-Silsila, forty miles north of Abu, where Nubian sandstone gives way to the softer Egyptian limestone. The towering sandstone cliffs that extend to the water’s edge at this point were obvious markers for boats plying up- and downriver. The cliffs also provided a readily accessible quarry for large sandstone blocks, supplies for major building projects in the later phases of pharaonic civilization.

Beyond Gebel el-Silsila, the landscape is gentler, the cliffs lining the valley lower and more eroded, and the floodplain wider. With greater agricultural potential, the region is able to sustain a larger population than areas farther south. This was a key factor in the rise and steady growth of Thebes, the largest city in Upper Egypt for most of ancient Egyptian history. The main centers of habitation were always situated on the east bank of the Nile, where the floodplain is at its widest, while the dramatic cliffs of the west bank and the broad expanse of low desert at their foot offered ideal locations for burial—close enough to the city for convenience, yet far enough away to maintain an essential separation. Thebes was thus divided, both geographically and ideologically, into a city of the living (where the sun rose) and a city of the dead (where the sun set). The city also benefited from the extensive network of desert tracks behind the hills of the west bank. Keenly contested, control of these cross-country express trails conferred a major strategic advantage, and played a decisive role at important moments of Egyptian history. In addition, they allowed Thebes to regulate access to Nubia from the north.

As the Nile enters the great “Qena bend,” it swings to the east, bringing it closer to the Red Sea than at any other point in its course. The east bank was therefore the obvious point of departure for expeditions into the Red Sea hills—with their gold mines and stone quarries—and beyond to the shores of the Red Sea itself. Throughout pharaonic times, the Egyptians sent trading expeditions to the distant and fabled land of Punt (coastal Sudan and Eritrea)—expeditions that left from Red Sea ports. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, the Red Sea offered the quickest maritime route to India, and the deserts to the east of the Qena bend were a hive of commercial and military activity.

Continuing northward past the Qena bend, the Nile Valley changes character again, becoming much wider, with only distant vistas of age-eroded bluffs. Ironically, although it is one of the most agriculturally productive parts of the country, northern Upper Egypt generally remained something of a backwater, because of its comparative isolation from the main centers of political power. A notable exception was the prominence of Tjeni during the prehistoric period and early dynasties, which probably resulted from its command of the shortest route from the Nile to the oases. In later periods, the great antiquity of Abdju as a royal burial ground gave it a religious significance, and it became the most important pilgrimage site in the whole of Egypt, a status it retained throughout pharaonic times. In the civil war that followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom state, Abdju was a key prize, and the surrounding region would be fought over many times in the periodic conflicts that erupted between rival power centers in the north and south of Egypt.

Continuing downstream, there is a marked constriction in the Nile Valley at the modern city of Asyut. The name Asyut is derived from the ancient Egyptian place-name Sauty, meaning “guardian,” and the moniker is well chosen, for Asyut guards both the northern approach to the riches of Upper Egypt, and, from the other direction, the southern approach to the capital city and the Mediterranean ports. Hence, Asyut was always a natural “break point” in the territorial integrity of Egypt: when the country split into northern and southern halves, as it did during various periods, the border was generally drawn at Asyut. The city also guards the Egyptian terminus of the Darb el-Arba‘in, the forty days road, so Asyut is a place of huge strategic importance.

North of Asyut, the lush, expansive fields resume, imparting a serene and timeless beauty to the stretch of valley sometimes called Middle Egypt. Once again, desert routes from the west bank provide easy access to the Saharan oases and thence to Sudan. However, the most notable feature here is not the valley itself but the large, fertile depression of the Fayum, fed by a subsidiary Nile branch, the Bahr Yusuf, which leaves the main river at Asyut. Birket Qarun, the vast freshwater body at the heart of the Fayum, brings life to the surrounding Sahara. In ancient times the area would have teemed with wildlife, and the lake’s shores supported abundant vegetation and productive agriculture. From the very beginning of pharaonic history, the Fayum was a popular location for royal retreats and summer palaces. In the Middle Kingdom and Ptolemaic Period in particular, it was the focus of major irrigation and land reclamation activities, which in effect created “another Egypt” in the Western Desert.

Strategically, the most important location in the whole of Egypt is the point where the Nile Valley broadens out and the river divides into many distributaries as it flows toward the Mediterranean Sea. This region formed the junction between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the ancient Egyptians called the area “the balance of the Two Lands”; after unification, it was the obvious location for the capital city, since it commanded both parts of the country. Home to ancient Memphis and modern Cairo, the apex of the delta has remained the administrative hub of Egypt for more than five millennia. Its importance in pharaonic times is underscored by the pyramids that line the edge of the desert escarpment west of Memphis for a distance of nearly twenty miles.

In ideological and political terms, the ancient Egyptians gave Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt equal prominence; yet our modern understanding of the delta still lags far behind that of the Nile Valley. The main reasons are the steady accumulation of silt over centuries, burying many of the ancient remains, and the area’s difficult and uncompromising terrain. The contrast with the narrow, well-defined valley could not be greater. The delta comprises great expanses of flat, low-lying land, stretching to the horizon, interrupted only by the occasional stand of palm trees. Hazardous marshes and a multitude of small waterways make cross-country travel particularly difficult. The delta offers fertile grazing land and bountiful agriculture, but it is marginal land, at perennial risk from the inundation or the sea. (The ancient Egyptians clearly recognized this, referring to Lower Egypt as Ta-Mehu, “flooded land.”) It was also Egypt’s exposed northern flank, with the western delta prone to incursion by Libyans and the east prone to migration and attack by people from Palestine and beyond. The fringes of the delta were surrendered to foreign domination during periods of national weakness, and were fortified at times of strong central government—as a buffer zone against attack and as a base for military campaigns to defend and widen Egypt’s borders. At the end of pharaonic history, the delta rose to prominence because of its Mediterranean links and its proximity to the other centers of power in the ancient world, notably Greece and Rome.

As the Nile nears the end of its course, the marshlands of Lower Egypt give way to brackish lagoons fringing the coast, and the sandy shores of the Mediterranean. This is a shifting landscape, poised between dry land and sea, and it served as a further reminder to the ancient Egyptians of the precarious balance of their existence. Their whole environment seemed to emphasize that the maintenance of created order relied upon the balance of opposites: the fertile black land and the arid red land, the east as the realm of the living and the west as the realm of the dead, the narrow Nile Valley and the broad delta, and the annual struggle between the chaotic floodwaters and the dry land.

If the geography of Egypt molded the psyche of its inhabitants, it was the particular genius of the country’s early rulers to cast the king as the linchpin who alone could maintain the forces in equilibrium.

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