Egypt – An Ancient Civilisation : The River of Life

khufus pyramid complex ii

The river Nile is the most important geographical feature* of Egypt. The river rises south of the equator and has a length of about 6,600 km. In Egypt it runs through a desert area of about 1,100 km. In the summer, after heavy tropical rains in the Upper Nile Basin (East Africa), the river would swell. The floods would reach Egypt and the river rise. When the water went down after about 60 days it would leave black mud on both sides of the river which was good for growing plants. Therefore the Egyptians called the river valley and their country as a whole ‘The Black Land’. The desert, i. e. the sandy and rocky area around it, was named ‘The Red Land’. With the Nile flooding farming became possible in the dry and hot country on a strip of land from 6 to 20 km wide. To make the best use of the water the people had learned to build dykes* and canals. In catch basins the water could be kept for about forty days before it ran off. To raise water from the river to the canal and from lower to higher canals people used various means, such as the shadoof. Herodotus* was right when he referred to Egypt as a gift of the Nile. The flooding and the watering of the fields in general allowed great harvests. The surplus production of food, i.e. a production that is higher than actually needed, made it possible that not everybody had to work in the fields.
Some people could for example practice a craft, e. g. making pots (a potter) or be employed in service. For farming the people would use wooden ploughs*, drawn by oxen. When the soft soil had been turned, seed* was scattered* onto the fields. Then animals, goats* and sheep, would trample it into the ground. Apart from being important for farming the Nile was also the waterway for transport, as there was no real road system. Then the river was useful because of its fish. So you would see fishermen in their boats made of papyrus. This plant was also used to make paper. But you would not only find fish in the river, but also crocodiles and hippos*. Crocodiles were life-threatening and hippos were disliked very much as they would run into the fields and trample the plants.
The Egyptians depended very much on the Nile flooding. So each year they would watch out for signs of the water rising. By carefully watching the regular flooding, which roughly happened in an interval of 365 days, people developed a natural calendar. Though not quite accurate this calendar was still comparatively the best one in the ancient world.

The ‘Great House’ and the ‘Eternal* Home’

The word ‘pharaoh’ was used in the Old Testament. It comes from Old Egyptian ‘pere’o’, which means ‘great house’ or ‘royal palace’. As a pharaoh was thought to be godlike, his personal name was much too holy with which to address him. In the course of time ‘pharaoh’ became a word for king and was used the same in modern times the White House is used for the US Government. As a pharaoh was the king of Upper and Lower Egypt he wore two crowns, a white one for Upper Egypt and a red one for Lower Egypt. The royal symbols were a crook* which it looked like a shepherd’s staff and a flail*. The pharaoh’s most important duty was to win the support of the gods for his country and himself, so he looked after all important religious festivals himself. He was the head of the government; he made laws, he decided what was right or wrong and led the army. Ordinary people, who had the honour to be received by him, had to approach him in a very respectful manner. They had to kneel down before they were allowed to speak to him.
As the Egyptians depended so much on the Nile it was an absolute necessity to have an excellent organisation for all the work in connection with the Nile flooding. To control all this, the pharaoh was helped by a lot of people. His chief helpers were two viziers*. The vizier had to see that the pharaoh’s orders were carried out and he had to keep him informed. One of the vizier’s main duties was to control the archives, the place where all important documents, such as royal decrees (orders), were kept, so it was possible to check what people had to hand in as taxes. The vizier also kept close contact with the local governors of the districts. Such contacts would also stop them from becoming a threat to the pharaoh’s position.
Below the viziers was the large group of royal scribes (writers). Other scribes worked in temples or private estates*. They had to control orders and did all the record keeping. They recorded nearly everything, especially how many taxes people had to pay. They wrote reports on the progress of temples or pyramids the pharaoh was building, and they were the authors of historical texts and other documents. As there was only a very small number of people who were able to read and write, ordinary people needed the service of a scribe if they wanted to have something written or read out to them. The importance of the scribe and the high opinion people had of him is shown by the fact that he was often the subject in ancient Egyptian art.
Later, when the pyramid was finished, the ramp was taken away. After the pharaoh’s death his coffin was moved inside and the entrance blocked and hidden.

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