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The Gift
The Nile

Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia; that sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even vessels of bulrushes upon the waters.
Isiah xviii 1,2

lowing for over 4000 miles (6,500 kms) the Nile is the longest river in the world. It is formed by two rivers which come together at Khartoum. The Blue Nile, which rises in Uganda, and the White Nile, which rises in Ethiopia. From Khartoum it runs north until it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. Over the final 100 miles (160 kms) of its journey the river spreads out a web of tributaries, like a giant fan across the landscape, in a region known as the Delta. This is Lower Egypt, an area of marshy flats. To the south the land is much drier and the river is bounded by cliffs. This is the region of Upper Egypt.

The Nile

The Nile is the life blood of Egypt because there is virtually no rainfall. The people relied on the annual floods to provide fertile earth for their crops. In August each year, from rainfall in the highlands of Ethiopia, the Nile would flood across the land bringing with it deposits of fertile silt. By November the waters would have receded enough for the planting of crops to begin and in the drought, which lasted from March to August, harvesting could take place. In addition to this the Egyptians built a network of reservoirs and canals to hold water after the flood had gone so that the crops could continue to be nourished. The annual flood was seen as the arrival of the Nile god, Hapi, and the land of Egypt became known as "The Gift of the Nile".

Models of boats in the
tomb of Tutankhamun

Since all the population lived along the river all the towns and cities were easily accessible by boat. This made the Nile an important route of communication and trade. The earliest record of a ship is on a pot dating from about 3200 BC. The Egyptians developed different types of craft for different tasks and the earliest were undoubtedly little skiffs or rafts made of papyrus reeds lashed together. Boats were used for agricultural produce, moving troops, transporting cattle, wood and stone, and in funeral processions. Details have survived in the form of models, technical texts and even complete full-size boats. Close to the Pyramids of Giza the Solar Boat of Khufu was found buried. Now reconstructed, it is believed that the body of Khufu was transported to his tomb aboard the boat which was then buried for him to use in the afterlife.

Wildlife was also concentrated around the Nile and large areas of the delta region were preserved for hunting and fishing. The Egyptians may have been one of the first civilisations to regard fishing as both a sport and a source of food. During this time the river was also a habitat for the crocodile and hippopotamus both of which were associated with the gods. Despite this the hippopotamus was hunted with harpoons.

The Solar Boat of Khufu
Geese from a wall painting
at Maidum, c.2500 BC

The marshlands were also the source of the papyrus plant which the Egyptians used to make a type of paper. This was made by cutting the pith (taken from the stem) into thin strips and arranging it on a stone. It was then beaten with wooden hammers and the natural juices within it bound it together. Small sheets were then joined together to make long scrolls on which to write. Papyrus no longer grows naturally in Egypt but it was used as paper as long ago as the 1st Dynasty (c.3100 BC).

Scene of a wildlife hunt.
In the tomb of Nebamun, 18th Dynasty
A scene showing wildlife in the papyrus marshes.
From the mastaba of Mereruka, 6th Dynasty

There is evidence that a huge reservoir was constructed in the Faiyum region with an area of 66 sq miles (100 sq km). Today the Aswan High Dam retains the huge reservoir of Lake Nassar, the modern day system to control the Nile flood waters. The reservoir submerged whole villages and many monuments after the construction of the dam in the 1960's and 1970's.

Some monuments however were saved by literally cutting them into huge blocks, some weighing 30 tonnes, and transferring them to higher ground. The most impressive operation was the salvage operation of the temple at Abu Simbal, originally erected by Ramses II. The beautiful temples of Philae were also painstakingly demolished stone by stone and then rebuilt on an island safe from the waters of the Nile.

The Temple of Ramses
Abu Simbal
The River Temple of Philae

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