Almost every person in the world has heard about Egypt. Its pyramids and other massive architectural accomplishments astonish not only ordinary people but also historians and archeologists. Pyramids are the most popular entities associated with Ancient Egypt, but not many people know about other of its achievements. Ancient Egypt was a highly agricultural state that utilized specialized equipment and complex irrigation systems. Its geographical location made Egypt safe from external invasions. The land was not rich with natural resources, and all advancements were made in the direction of agriculture. This paper will describe Ancient Egypt’s unique geographical locations, available resources that allowed the population to become one of the most prosperous states in terms of harvest and cattle.
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Geography of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was a historical and cultural region of the largest civilization of the ancient world that existed in northeastern Africa along the lower reaches of the Nile River. According to the data of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the middle of the 5th century BC, the whole country, flooded and irrigated by the Nile, belonged to Egypt, and all people living below Elephantine and drinking Nile water were Egyptians (La’da 180). Thus, in ancient times, Egypt was called the Nile Valley – a stretch of land extending from south to north in northeastern Africa, which the Nile watered during annual spills, ensuring fertility (“Ancient Egypt”). Elephantine is the outermost city in the southern part of Egypt – upstream of the river is the first threshold of the Nile, which was the border of Egypt and Nubia (Mark).
The Nile Valley north of Elephantine is exceptionally narrow to a greater extent (4–20 km wide); this part of the country was called Upper Egypt (O’Connor and Reid 45). Downstream of the ancient capital city of Memphis, the course of the river was divided into several arms that make up the delta (the name given by the Greeks because these arms on the map resembled the letter of the Greek alphabet) (La’da 176). It was a fertile and wide area in which cattle breeding was remarkably developed (The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts 32). The delta and Nile Valley in the Memphis area were collectively called Lower Egypt (Mark). Today, the delta is formed by the two mouths of the Nile, but their number during different periods of early ages ranged from five to seven. The mouths flew into the Mediterranean Sea; in ancient times, cities and rural settlements were close to the center of the delta (The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts 51).
Egypt and the Red Sea were connected by the valley of the dry Wadi Hammamat river, which went from the city of Koptos in Upper Egypt to the Koseira region on the coast, where the sea harbor was located (The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts 67). There were no harbors on the Mediterranean coast, due to low population; seaports were, like settlements, situated deep into the delta region (The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts 34). That is how in the middle of the 1st millennium BC, the ancient Greek colony Naucratis was established (Moeller 100). Only during the conquest of Alexander the Great, Alexandria of Egypt was founded on the sea coast – a fortified position, which then became the trading center and the residence of the kings of Hellenistic Egypt (Moeller 121).
Deserts surrounded the delta and the Nile Valley on both sides (Arabian in the east, Libyan in the west) (Manning et al. 2). In the east, the delta bordered with the Isthmus of Suez, which connects Africa and Asia. In the western part, the Nile Valley bordered with a vast Fayum oasis. Several more oases (Bahria, Dakhla, Siva, Kharga) lay in the depths of the Libyan desert and connected with Egypt by caravan routes.
Summing up, we can say that Ancient Egypt was a compact country with natural borders that isolated it from the rest of the world. At the same time, isolation was provided not only by borders but also by the fact that for a greater extent of ancient history, the neighboring population lived alongside the Egyptians, were inferior to them in quantity and level of development, and did not pose a threat (Ancient Records of Egypt 63). Because of these facts, the invasions of Egypt were rare and did not lead to a change in the dominant ethnic group.
Resources and Conditions for Agriculture
The basis of Egypt’s prosperity was the Nile floods that served as the foundation for the fertile soil of the region. They occurred annually due to melting snow on the Ethiopian Highlands and spring rains at the source of the Nile (The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts 46). The beginning of the flood in Egypt took place in mid-July – the water flooded the fields and was held in place by a complex system of dams, while sludge fertilizing it settled on the soil, consisting of mineral particles brought from the sources of the Nile (The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts 47). High water was a particular season of the Egyptian calendar associated with the agricultural work cycle.
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There was almost no rain in Egypt; therefore, irrigation of cultivated lands was only possible using the water accumulated during the high water season (“Ancient Egypt”). The flood subsided by November, water flowed from the fields into the river, and the agricultural season began. By March (the beginning of the dry season), the population collected a rich harvest that would exceed the sown grain many times in volume (“Ancient Egypt”). The Egyptians sowed wheat, emmer, barley, grown flax, bred sycamore, and date palms (“Ancient Egypt”). Livestock and poultry breeding were developed, and an increasing role was played by papyrus growing throughout the valley (“Ancient Egypt”).
Having favorable conditions for agriculture, Egypt, however, was deficient in the forest, metal deposits, and even stone. From ancient times, special expeditions were equipped for these materials, which formed the direction of the external expansion of Egypt (“Ancient Egypt”). The western direction was considered the least important and not much expansion took place toward the West. In addition to areas lying near cultivated areas and giving Egypt animal skins and mineral salts, as well as remote oases that served as stopping points on caravan routes, there was nothing significant for the Egyptians in the Libyan desert.
In the Arabian desert east of the Nile, raw material deposits were developed–Nubia was rich in gold, for instance. Incense and other types of fragrant materials were also brought from outside of Egypt. They were used in religious rites to establish contacts with deities. Therefore, both the Sinai Peninsula and Nubia from an early age became Egypt’s territories for raw materials. The places were held firm – even having lost the rest of the Asian possessions, Egypt maintained a presence in the Sinai.
The Sinai Peninsula was primarily inhabited by mobile and relatively small nomadic tribes. A settled agricultural population lived in Nubia, and in the III millennium BC, the territory was driven by the idea of statehood (Manetho 87). However, the inequality between Nubia and Egypt, which predetermined the subordinate position of the former until the II-I millenniums, was the difference in the natural conditions of the two countries (“Ancient Egypt”). In Nubia, the Nile did not put alluvium on the ground, and therefore fertility was low (“Ancient Egypt”). Statehood there arose later than in Egypt and took on weaker forms since it did not rely on an extensive bureaucratic system that ensured the functioning of the irrigation system.
Only in the first millennium BC, with the transition to the Iron Age, Nubia was compensated for their wait and became a state that was stronger than Egypt for a while. The state relied on the cultural and religious traditions brought into Nubia by the Egyptians in the II millennium BC (“Ancient Egypt”). In Asia, in addition to the Sinai Peninsula, the area of the presence of the Egyptians, who experienced their cultural influence, was the area of the city of Byblos in Phoenicia (“Ancient Egypt”). The city was interesting for the Egyptians because it was a source of valuable wood – cedar, which grew in abundance on the mountain slopes of Lebanon.
As was previously mentioned, rocks and metals were scarce in the territories of Ancient Egypt. Therefore, to build massive pyramids, people needed to bring those stones from elsewhere, places like Nubia. These resources were primarily used for the construction of architectural items (Ancient Records of Egypt 76). Because of the enormous sizes of stones that were used for the building of pyramids, it can be supposed that the majority of the Egyptian population was involved in construction works outside of high water and fertile seasons.
There was Alabaster in Egyptian territories, and people used them to carve sacred tools that were used during mummification processes (The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts 93). Gold and trees, however, were heavily imported from Nubia, as the list of trees that grew in Ancient Egypt was limited to palm trees, acacia, and sycamore (Ancient Records of Egypt 90). Egyptians wore clothes made primarily from flax because such a plant was grown by the people alongside kinds of wheat.
Ancient Egypt was not wealthy in natural resources, such as gold, metal, and wood. However, because of the possibilities given by the Nile River, the Egyptians managed to become one of the most prosperous states. The wealth provided by the fertile land allowed the population to construct a bureaucratic system that was stronger than neighboring territories. In turn, this position allowed the Egyptians to invade other places that were rich in metals, rock, and wood, and import those scarce materials to build pyramids and tombs made of gold. Ancient Egypt was among the few examples in history when a state managed to use the available resources effectively to become one of the greatest civilizations. In a territory surrounded by deserts, they built a strong economy that is based on agriculture and breeding of cattle.
“Ancient Egypt.” History.com, 2020, Web.
Ancient Records of Egypt. Translated by James Breasted, Russell & Russell, 1962.
La’da, Csaba A. “Encounters with Ancient Egypt: The Hellenistic Greek Experience.” Ancient Perspectives on Egypt, edited by Roger Matthews and Cornelia Roemer, Routledge, 2016, pp. 173-186.
Manetho. Translated by William Waddell, Harvard University Press, 1997.
Manning, Joseph G., et al. “Volcanic Suppression of Nile Summer Flooding Triggers revolt and Constrains Interstate Conflict in Ancient Egypt.” Nature Communications, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-9.
Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2009, Web.
Moeller, Nadine. The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
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O’Connor, David, and Andrew Reid. Ancient Egypt in Africa. Routledge, 2016.
The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Translated by Raymond Faulkner, Aris & Phillips, 1973.
The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Translated by Raymond Faulkner, Aris & Phillips, 1973.