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Introduction to the Nile landscape.

Ancient Egypt has captivated many minds. A question many ask is how did such a highly civilised society flourish so early, and why did it come to an end. All too often the endurance of the Egyptian civilisation is overlooked and many are shocked when they discover that the pharaohs ruled Egypt for nearly three millennia. To truly understand the dynamics of the Egyptian civilisation one needs to fully appreciate the geography of Egypt.

Egypt lies within the eastern extremes of the Sahara desert that dominates the North African landscape. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean coast to the shores of the Red Sea the desert covers an area of c.9,100,100 km2. This is the largest desert in the world and occupies one quarter of the African continent. Average rainfall is less than 255 mm per year and temperatures can sore to extremes of 580c. It seems remarkable that such a landscape of extremes could also be home to the world's longest river. The Nile rises in South Central Burundai, 6741 km away from the Mediterranean Sea where the river has formed a vast delta. Two main tributaries feed the Nile: the Blue Nile, which rises in Lake Tana, Ethiopia and central Africa, and the White Nile which rises in Southern Sudan and central Africa. Both flow separate courses until they merge at Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, Egypt's modern southern neighbour. It was the extremities of Egypt's location that fuelled such a great and remarkable civilisation. Surrounded by deserts and sea Egypt had a natural buffer perimeter that could allow cultural contacts and even absorbtion but more importantly keep enemies at bay.

At the beginning of the Holocene (over 10000 years ago) the Nile valley became a more desirable place to live. Before this time the Eastern Sahara was of a Savannah Environment with plentiful flora and fauna, with a far higher taxonomic variety than today. Wild herds of grazing antelope, gazelle and cattle made easy game for hunting. However since the end of the last Ice Age North Africa has been undergoing environmental change, with climatic fluctuations. Increasing desiccation at the end of the Pleistocene (start of the Holocene) most likely induced human groups to merge towards the Nile (Childe 1934; Hassan 1984b). Indeed from as early as 15000 BC we have various examples of Palaeolithic sites with stone tool assemblages, distributed along the desert limits.

The Nile has carved its way quite easily through the Eocene (second epoch of the Tertiary period) limestone bed of the desert Plateau. The rivers vast sediment load has deposited extensive alluvium deposits across the valley floor. Maximum deposition occurs towards the end of the rivers course, with Cairo having alluvium deposits in excess of 9.6 metres deep compared to Aswan with 4 metres. Indeed estimates suggest that over half of all suspended matter has been shed by time the river reaches Cairo (Ball 1933). The greatest sedimentation rates exist within the slower moving waters of the delta. At present the Nile splits into two main Branches: Damietta and the Rosetta. Recent estimates (Coutellier and Stanley 1993) suggest that high Holocene sedimentation rates have extended the delta coastline by as much as 50 km over the past 5000 years. Sea level was around 4 m higher during the Archaic Period and has gradually regressed to present level which was first reached during the Greco-Roman period. Hence the delta of ancient Egypt was slightly different to what it appears today. Since ancient times the area has been of enormous agricultural value, and now represents over 58% of total agricultural land.

The fertile land of the Nile valley and delta was called 'Kemet' (black) by the ancient Egyptians and indeed this is the name that they gave to their beloved country. The arid lands of the desert were called 'Deshret' (red). The annual storms and snow melt of the Ethiopian highlands delivered the necessary high waters of the Nile inundation that started around June-August. The turbulent waters would flow throughout Egypt accompanied by a super-abundance of silt. River levees would recede at the end of September and reach a lowest level in May. The time of inundation was termed 'Akhet'' and this was proceeded by the season of planting called 'Peret' . The past flood would have left a rich top-dressing of fertiliser and this was prime time to sow seeds. Growth rates were quick because of the favourable conditions, and harvest would take place during the season called 'Shemu' which fell between the months of March and May. There was little need for farmers to physically aerate the soil themselves as the hot dry summer would dry and break up the soil that would also reduce excessive accumulations of top-lying natural salts. Unlike other areas of the ancient Near East (the Levantine Valley) farming required little toil. Large rewards could be reaped from a disproportionate expenditure of labour.
(Ashley Elsdon Cooke)

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