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The Gift of the Nile
When Julius Caesar went to Egypt in 48 BC, he was the leader of a military expedition against one of his rivals for power. He was also a pilgrim, paying his respects to the world's oldest civilization. For the Romans, as for the Greeks before them, Egypt was the land where humans had first learned the names of the gods. Here people had invented the alphabet, learned to do complex calculations, domesticated wild animals, developed irrigation, and constructed the first buildings in stone. And what buildings-temples, tombs, colossal statues and obelisks so huge and elaborate that the gods themselves must have helped put them up!
Many of these great buildings were of an age that could scarcely be imagined. In the temples, scrolls and wall paintings listed the names and accomplishments of all the pharaohs, in a line that went back almost to the beginning of time. Julius Caesar may have already had an ambition to create an empire centered on his home city of Rome, but even he could hardly have dared hope to build anything as lasting as the Egypt of the pharaohs. After all, we at the end of the 20th century are a thousand years closer in time to Julius Caesar than he was to the earliest known rulers of Egypt.
To understand better the immense sweep of time that ancient Egypt covered, consider the following graph, which shows the life span of ancient Egypt compared to those of some other world powers across history.
Black Land and Red Land
On a map of the world, Egypt looks like a rectangle, roughly one and a half times the size of Texas. While strictly corrrect, such a mapis also seriously misleading. In reality, Egypttoday, as in ancient times-is a narrow ribbon of life, laid across a vast, uninhabitable desert. That ribbon is the valley of the Nile River, hundreds of miles long but only a few miles wide. Although it makes up a tiny fraction of the country, the Nile Valley contains nearly all the fertile land and all the population. People have been saying it for 2,500 years or more, and it is still true: Egypt is the gift of the Nile.
The Nile Valley is an immensely long canyon, carved out over aeons by the river on its way northward to the sea. The sources of the Nile are thousands of miles south, in the tablelands of central Africa. From late spring into summer, heavy monsoon rains from the Indian Ocean drench these areas. The waters drain into the Nile and rush downstream, carrying along fertile topsoil. Until the construction, in the 20th century, of the Aswan High Dam, every July the river would rise to 25 feet or more above its level during most of the year. It spread out five miles or more in each direction from its usual banks, irrigating and depositing new soil on the fields on either side.
For the ancient Egyptians, this annual flood was so important that they made it the starting point of their calendar. They divided the year into three seasons: Inundation, Seedtime, and Harvest. The size of the flood was literally a matter of life and death to them. If the river rose only a few inches less than normal, that meant a year of hunger. Any less than that meant a devastating famine. If the Nile rose more than usual, that, too, spelled disaster, as the raging waters washed away dikes and mud-brick villages.
According to legend, the floods were controlled by the ram-headed god Khnum, who sent them forth from a cavern under the island of Elephantine, near the southern border of Egypt. On Elephantine, near the temple of Khnum, a steep flight of 90 precisely measured steps led from the heights to the low water level. This was the Nilorneter, used to measure the rate at which the river was rising and to forecast what height it would reach.
The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in about 450 BC, commented that the Egyptians did everything different from other people. If so, maybe it was because the basis of life in Egypt was so different from anywhere else. in other parts of the world, crops depended on the weather, which changed from day to day. Sometimes the sun shone, sometimes clouds covered the sky, sometimes it rained. Plowed fields lay next to meadows that in turn were bordered by wooded hillsides. If you wanted contact with other people, you might follow a path or rough track in any direction and come to a town, village, or hamlet. If you wanted to keep others from your land, you had to stay always on guard along your borders.
In Egypt, however, it almost never rained. Each day dawned as clear and sunny as the one before, and each night revealed an endless sea of stars. On earth, only two directions really mattered: north along the river, and south along the river. When you traveled, it was by boat, carried along by the current on northward journeys and by the prevailing northerly winds when you returned upstream. To east and west, the rich black soil deposited by the Nile went as far as the highest level reached by the annual flood. just beyond, with no transition at all, was barren red sand. You could stand with one foot in a green field and the other in a desert that stretched for hundreds of miles.
The desert was more than a constant presence; it was also a guardian. Now and then, strangers might come in from the desert by ones and twos, but no invading army could hope to cross it and survive. To the south, beyond Elephantine, the river highway was blocked by a series of cataractsrapids and falls impassable by boats. At its northern end, it emptied into what Egyptians called the "Big Green" -- the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years, until other peoples finally dared to sail across open waters, out of sight of land, this border, too, was safe.
Throughout its history, Egypt has been divided between the Black Land-the fertile Nile Valley -- and the Red Land-the surrounding desert. It is also divided in another sense. For most of its length, from the First Cataract at Elephantine to near present-day Cairo, the river is edged by narrow terraces that rise gradually to the base of sheer cliffs. Near the sea, however, the land becomes flatter and marshier, and the river spreads out into several branches...Secrets of the Pharoahs. Copyright � by Ian Mcmahan Phd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.