Gift of the Nile is an expression that you have surely heard if you ever read about ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile was a gift from the gods, and for a very good reason: without the Nile, there would be no Egyptian civilization.
For more than three thousand years, this great civilization flourished on the banks of the world’s longest river, built countless great monuments, and set a standard for many civilizations and cultures that came after it.
In this article, we will explore how the Egyptians built their civilization thanks to the advantages that the Nile offered, and how the great river shaped almost every aspect of ancient Egyptian society.
What Is the Gift of the Nile?
Egypt was described as being “wholly the Gift of the Nile” by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who’s often considered the father of history. Herodotus noted Egypt’s unique geographical position, its isolation, and dependence on the Nile for survival. The term can be said to reflect reality: without the waters of the Nile, it would not have been possible to build a complex civilization in such harsh climatic conditions.
Gift of the Nile Definition
A strip of fertile land surrounded by desert, Egypt owes its existence to the Nile. This fact was noted by Herodotus, who visited Egypt during the period when the country was ruled by the Persian Empire and wrote about its history and customs.
An Oasis in the Desert: Egypt Long Love Affair With the Nile
Egypt was just one of the great river valley civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, northwestern India, and eastern Asia. But unlike them, Egypt was entirely dependent on the Nile river for its survival.
Separated from Asia by the Sinai Peninsula to the west, then as today Egypt is geographically isolated and surrounded by deserts to the west and east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Sahara, the world’s largest desert, stretches from the Atlantic coast in the west, to the Red Sea in the east.
– Egypt: A Land Between the Desert and the Sea
This means that 96 percent of the territory of the modern state of Egypt is covered by desert, with only 3.5 percent of the total land area under cultivation. The Nile Valley and the Nile Delta divide Egypt in two: the Western Desert (alternatively called the Libyan Desert), and the Eastern Desert.
– Egypt’s Geography and Climate in Ancient Times
During Pharaonic times (3100 – 342 BC) Egypt’s boundaries, like today, were defined by the Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Sinai Peninsula.
To the south, the First Cataract delineated the boundary with Nubia, an ancient kingdom located in what is now Sudan. Although the Egyptians, most notably during the New Kingdom period (1539 – 1075 BC), expanded into the Levant and Nubia, Egypt’s political boundaries largely followed the natural ones.
Then as now, Egypt’s climate was defined semi-desert, with hot dry summers and moderate winters, and very little precipitation. That meant ancient Egyptians had to rely solely on the Nile for farming and water supply.
– The Egyptian Calendar Was Based on the Three Cycles of the Nile
Since life in ancient Egypt revolved around farming along the fertile banks of the Nile, the calendar used by the ancient Egyptians likewise revolved around the river and its cycles. The Egyptians had a lunar calendar and the year was divided into three natural seasons:
- Inundation (or Flood), known as Akhet (translated from ancient Egyptian ꜣḫt), lasting from September to January
- Emergence or Winter (Peret), from January to May
- Low Water or Harvest or Summer (Shemu), from May to September
– Life in Egypt Was Dictated by the Annual Flooding of the Nile
The great majority of Egypt’s population were farmers who worked the land and paid taxes in grain, cattle and labor in the name of the pharaoh. Their livelihoods depended on whether the harvest was bountiful which, in turn, depended on the flooding of the Nile.
Each year, the river’s level would rise and the Nile would overflow its banks, depositing a thick layer of alluvial soil on either bank and rendering the land extremely fertile. Farmers could begin sowing and plowing after the water receded. If the river did not flood or did not flood enough, Egypt would be engulfed by famine and turmoil.
The Nile’s Journey From the Mountains of Ethiopia to the Mediterranean
As we have already noted, life in ancient Egypt relied on the great river which provided food and means of transportation to people who lived along its banks. The Nile is officially the longest river in the world with a length of 4,130 mi (6,650 km). It flows northward to discharge into the Mediterranean Sea.
The source of the Nile had remained undiscovered until the 19th century, when the sources of the Nile’s two main tributaries were discovered by European explorers. The White Nile has its source in Burundi or Rwanda, whereas the Blue Nile (which supplies much more water to the Nile’s flow) originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
The two rivers meet near Khartoum, the modern capital of Sudan, where they form the Nile which flows north through ancient Nubia and Upper Egypt, on its way to the delta region and the sea.
– Did the Nile Follow a Different Course in Antiquity?
The Nile has changed its course over the last 5000 years. At the time of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza (2550 BC), the river followed a more westerly course and was closer to the Giza Plateau, where Old Kingdom pharaohs had built their pyramids.
In recent times, Egyptologists have made a series of discoveries proving the existence of ancient canals that connected the Nile and the Giza Plateau. The remnants of the ancient canals suggest the Egyptians used the river to transport heavy blocks to pyramid building sites.
– Nile Today and Nile in Ancient Times
The construction and the opening of the Aswan Dam in 1970 ended the annual flooding of the Nile, which can now be regulated during low-water years to prevent drought. In ancient times, the Egyptians had attempted to control the Nile by building numerous canals to offset the potentially damaging effects of excess flooding, as well as store water in case of drought.
The Nile Delta has also undergone significant changes. In antiquity, the river had seven branches, only two of which remain today. The remaining five branches have gone defunct due to stilting and flood control, altering the topography and landscape of the Delta region.
How the Egyptians Harnessed the Power of the River To Build on a Massive Scale
In ancient times, the Nile river valley was used for the transport of both people and goods. Traveling by boat was easier and safer than traveling by land, which made the river the lifeline of the ancient Egyptian economy.
Barges and galleys sailed upstream from the First Cataract in the south, to the Delta in the north, carrying building material for various construction projects and goods from distant countries such as Nubia and the fabled land of Punt.
– A Highly Developed Irrigation System
The Nile was not only used as a means of transport. On the contrary, the ingenuity of ancient Egyptian engineers made it possible to connect the great river to numerous canals.
A well-devised and highly-developed irrigation system further increased Egypt’s wealth. Water could be stored and used in case of a drought, securing food supply for the population. More land could be reclaimed from the desert and used for the cultivation of crops.
– The Canal of the Pharaohs: The Forerunner of the Suez Canal
During the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (1991 – 1800 BC) the Egyptians commenced immense waterworks, the aim of which was to deepen and broaden the natural lake in the Faiyum Oasis, to the west of the Nile.
In particular, a canal was built to connect the river and the lake to regulate the water level of the Nile by storming surpluses of water for later use. As a result, the Faiyum Oasis became one of the most fertile regions of ancient Egypt.
In the Delta region, the so-called Canal of the Pharaohs was built to connect the Red Sea with the Nile. The canal is considered an ancient precursor of the Suez Canal and remained in use until the early Middle Ages.
A Sacred River in the Center of the Egyptian World
Egypt natural barriers were the desert, a series of rocky cascades and rapids that formed the First Cataract, the Mediterranean Sea and the Sinai Peninsula, which separated Egypt from the Levant and Mesopotamia.
Due to its geographical isolation, Egypt was spared of enemy invasions, enabling the pharaohs to use the country’s resources for monumental building projects and the development of advanced art and culture.
It is no surprise that all life in ancient Egypt was centered on the Nile River. To the Egyptians, the river was sacred and played an important part in Egyptian mythology and religion.
– “The Father of Life”
Egyptians sometimes referred to the Nile as the “Father of Life” and the “Mother of All Men.” The river was linked with several important deities, most notably the god Hapi, who was thought to be responsible for the annual flooding, allowing life to thrive. The river was linked to Ma’at, the goddess of truth and harmony, and Hathor the goddess of the sky, women, and fertility.
– The Nile and Ancient Egypt’s Most Important Myth
One of the oldest and most important ancient Egyptian myths tells a tale of how Osiris, the God-Pharaoh, was betrayed by his jealous brother Set. Tricked by Set into laying down in an elaborate sarcophagus, Osiris was locked inside and thrown into the Nile.
After a long and arduous search, Isis, the wife of Osiris, had located her husband’s coffin but failed to defend Osiris’ body from Set, who hacked it into pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis eventually managed to retrieve all the body parts but one (the penis, which had been swallowed by a crocodile).
Osiris thus became the god of the afterlife, who presided over the divine tribunal that judged the deceased and decided whether they would be admitted to paradise.
Pyramids, Temples, and Tombs Were Built Close To the River
The Egyptians used the numerous gifts of the Nile river wisely. They used the river for transport, irrigation, and associated it with their gods. In ancient times, cities were built along the Nile’s eastern bank.
In Egyptian religion, the east symbolized life, whereas the west symbolized the journey to the afterlife. Hence, pyramids and royal tombs were built on the western bank of the mighty river.
The majority of Egypt’s most iconic landmarks are located near the river. These include the Valley of the Kings, a series of rock-cut royal tombs built in Upper Egypt, west of Thebes, the pyramids of Giza, and Abu Simbel near Aswan.
All life in Egypt depended on the river which made the thin strip of land surrounded by the desert suitable for cultivation. It was considered the source of life and played a central role in ancient Egyptian history, mythology, and religion. How did the Nile shape ancient Egypt?
- The river, along with other natural barriers of ancient Egypt protected Egypt from harsh desert climate and foreign invaders.
- It was the only source of water and fertile land.
- The Egyptians used the Nile for transport and trade.
- The annual flooding of the Nile increased soil fertility, making it possible to grow various crops and feed a large population.
For thousands of years, life thrived in the fertile Nile Valley, the home to one of the world’s first civilizations. Then, as today, Egypt remains an oasis in the desert and the Nile’s gift to the world.