Nile valley

© Bob Denton, 2016
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It was as the Mesopotamians went in to a decline that the Egyptians began to build their civilization along the River Nile, one of the longest rivers in the world. Hunter-gatherers were first driven to the riverside around 8,000 BCE when climate changes began to form the Sahara desert, though some suggest the desertification may have been to some extent driven by their over-grazing.

Nile civilizations

By 6,000 BCE two distinct communities had emerged – Upper and Lower Egypt. They inter-traded but remained independent culturally until unified by King Menes in 3,150 BCE, when he founded a dynasty that lasted three millennia.

Water management

The Nile is supplied primarily by Lake Victoria but it also draws water from elsewhere along its c.7,000 kms (4,000+ miles) length. Two-thirds of the water comes from the Blue Nile originating in Ethiopia, the rest from the White Nile flowing out of Rwanda. The valley area itself receives little rain water, the river therefore is its main provider of water.

The name Egypt comes from the Greek, the name literally meaning ‘black soil’ or ‘black ground’ referring to the fertile black silt that the Nile deposited after its regular floods. The Nile floods were regular and predictable unlike the flash-flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris. The Nile routinely started to rise in July and flooded from mid-August until early October, covering the valley to a depth of 1.5 metres. When the level dropped the Egyptians had land that was both watered and fertilised by the nutrients in this silt.

Nile flooding

This regularity of flooding and the single growing season allowed their agriculture to be planned and effective for five millennia without depleting the soil. The water-table was low in summer months and so salinization did not prove to be an issue either. They pursued a process of basin irrigation where earth embankments contained the flood water capturing its nutrients and used to irrigate the soil, they led the water to lower-level basins or terraces of basins to repeat the process. Canals and dykes were also used to move the water around.

One of the ‘Nileometers’ used to measure river levels

They grew wheat and barley as staples, plus flax for textiles and papyrus for paper. They also pursued horticulture out at the edge of the floodplain developing gardens and orchards. This simple approach meant that irrigation could all be managed at a local level, they did not need the water laws that other civilizations felt necessary.

By 3,500 BCE they had developed shadufs (water-lifting devices, see Nubia) and noria wheels (a chain of earthenware pottery containers that gathered the water and deposited it into a small aqueduct) to effect irrigation close to the river in summertime, thus extending their season. The Mesopotamians had probably developed the noria approach but it was the Egyptians who popularised it.

Series of shadufs in use

The earliest record of this work is shown at the Ashmolean on a carved mace-head dating to 3,100 BCE, found in Hierakonpolis. It depicts the pharaoh Scorpion (aka the Scorpion King), identified by an image of a scorpion near his head and his wearing of the Upper Egypt White Crown. He is standing next to what is assumed to be a canal, wielding a hoe. Other figures are seen engaged in irrigation work, establishing a basin grid, he of course requires two fan bearers to keep him cool through the process.

Detail from Scorpion mace-head

They prospered by growing winter crops once the floods had subsided, but as population numbers grew they needed a year-round solution. By 2,500 BCE they had evolved a system of irrigation basins, dykes, sluices and canals that successfully expanded their agricultural growing periods.

This process also meant that despite the region’s dynastic changes and its conquests by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks, the agricultural process simply kept on delivering. The central government taxed local farmers at a 10 to 20% share of their harvest which was stored for lean times or to support areas experiencing harvest failure.

Well of Joseph, Cairo
Source: Keystone-Mast Collection

Egypt’s only other source of water was achieved by digging wells and from aquifers, they used these for pure water supply. To discover such sources they developed reliable divining techniques and clearly had real faith in their skills, because the creators of the Well of Joseph (a tourist site today) dug through 90 metres (300 feet) of solid rock to reach water.

The Egyptians also sought to manage the course of the Nile and near Aswan they built canals to by-pass the cataracts from as early as 2,300 BCE. Close to Cairo they widened and deepened the lake at Faiyum to create the Bahr Yussef canal that controlled flooding, regulated river levels in dry seasons and formed a reservoir to irrigate the land around it. Faiyum would later become the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.

Because the fortune of their civilization was so closely aligned to the Nile levels they created some twenty measuring chambers along the course of the Nile, these would allow them to compare the current level with those in previous years to predict what was likely to happen later in the season. The population of Egypt grew from 400,000 to over two million based upon the wealth of this water-based agriculture.



Egyptians boiled water before drinking it, yet its civilization was not so very different to the Mesopotamian, initially they discarded waste into the streets. But progressively the better-off sought to dispose of it more sensibly by introducing bathing and sewerage systems into their settlements.

Affluent homes would often boast a ‘bathroom’, but this consisted of a limestone ‘shower-tray’ on which the bather stood while slaves tossed containers of water at him/her. The resultant dirty water would either be collected in a bowl or led through a gulley out to an external bowl – whichever system was used a slave was then required to empty the bowl.

From around 2,500 BCE Egyptians used toilet seats of limestone and an ‘earth closet’ where soil or sand would be thrown over the contents after the business was done. Routinely these would be emptied and buried in sands or sandy soil away from the home.

Water also played a vital role in funerary arrangements with ritual purification of bodies before interment. The Egyptians believed that life and death were simply two stages of existence so often placed bathing and toilet facilities inside tombs and pyramids.

When Giza became too crowded with pyramids the pharaohs shifted their attention to Abusir, where fourteen pyramids were built.

BRIEFER: Abusir is where some of the oldest surviving papyri have been found, the earliest dating to the Fifth dynasty of Egypt, the 24th century BCE. These are administrative documents that detail national cattle counts and allocations of grain.

Excavations of the 2,480 BCE pyramid and tomb of King Sahure at Abusir revealed wash basins with an outlet sealed by a lead plug and chain. The outlets used copper tubes running beneath the floor; in total they discovered 380 metres (1,250 ft) of copper piping in the pyramid/tomb. The wastewater courses were lined with limestone.

The father of King Tutankhamun also built a pyramid in Abusir that was found to have used bronze pipework to flow water between temples. There were also latrines built into these tombs.

Personal grooming

The dynasties of pharaohs developed personal grooming into an art form; perhaps understandable as they were claimed as the divine representative on Earth. Egyptian royal tombs have been found to contain razors, manicure tools and other cosmetic implements, some fabricated in gold and bristling with jewels.

From the fourth-century BCE razors were fabricated in copper and gold and several tomb hieroglyphics record how they were used.

Egyptian razors


Egyptian men shaved their beards for religious as well as aesthetic purposes. To them facial hair identified you as not committed to personal daintiness, affluent Egyptians maintained a barber as part of their household. Only peasants, slaves and barbarians had facial hair.

Egyptian priests preached that body hair was unclean, leading male Egyptians to remove all of their body hair from top to bottom; this did benefit from halting the spread of disease and infestation. They made up for this lack of head hair by wearing ornate wigs of real hair or some substitute – these kept off the sun and made a fashion statement. Perversely men believed beards were a sign of masculinity so they wore artificial ones held on with string. Women often kept their head hair, preferring to wear it long and braided, the more affluent often achieving that effect by the addition of a wig.

Kawit at her toilet

Kawit was a consort of the pharaoh Mentuhotep II (2046-1995 BCE) and her tomb (with five other court ladies) was placed within the Deir el-Bahari temple complex. She was considered a priestess of Hathor, the goddess of joy, feminine love, and motherhood.

She is depicted while at her toilet by carvings on her sarcophagus (today in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo). She has short hair and holds a mirror while one servant refreshes her drink and another arranges her hair. Her tomb contained six wax figurines, early forms of ushabti, intended to be her servants in the afterlife. Within her own tomb she was audacious enough to style herself as ‘Queen’, though this title was not acknowledged elsewhere.

Egyptian chamber pot from 1600-1100 BCE
Source: Science Photo Library

At this time Egyptian women were heavy users of cosmetics, using black eyeliner, green pigment for their eyebrows and rouge – somewhat as Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra VII (70-30 BCE) in the 1963 movie.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra Source:


The ‘Ebers Papyrus’ is a medical document from 1,550 BCE which outlines the Egyptian knowledge of herbal medicines, It has 110 pages, unrolling to a length of twenty metres; it is currently at the University of Leipzig. It proposes methods and treatments for contraception, dentistry, depression, dementia, pregnancy and heart disease – though their definition of the heart’s function was vague assuming it was this organ that supplied blood, tears, urine and semen! It describes Egyptians as bathing every day using mild soaps made from animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts. Similar to the soaps used to prepare wool for weaving.

Home comforts

Amenhotep IV (1352-1336 BCE) was considered a heretic for his worship of Aten, the disk of the Sun, that he worshipped as the giver of life. In 1347 BCE he moved his royal residence to an uninhabited part of Middle Egypt, some 600 kms (<400 miles) south of Cairo. Here he built Tel el-Amarna which he named as Akhetaten and took the same name for himself, it meant the horizon of the sun-disc.

Sketch from tomb at Akhetaten

The site was initially considered by the discovering archaeologists as a Roman site they named as Alabastronopolis, for its nearby alabaster quarry. When it was properly explored its significance was established by its royal and other palaces, a number of temples, civil buildings, warehouses, a necropolis of twenty-five tombs, a Royal tomb, gardens and zoos.

Ra’nfer’s well at Akhetaten

The site revealed hundreds of brick-built homes that were atypical of Egyptian living and perhaps a tad too uniform for wealthy inhabitants to express their personalities. They were whitewashed with living areas having a blue painted ceiling and a painted frieze running around the top of walls featuring flowers, fruit and fowl. Some of the homes in the settlement were provided with wells. The houses had a bathroom, latrine and robe room located close to the master bedroom. The bathroom was lined with stone to half-a-metre in height to avoid damp. It had a stone slab floor inclined towards a basin to collect the water, or out through the wall to a drain or directly into the sand.

Toilet seats at Akhetaten Source:

They also had latrines of the earth-closet type, a cover placed over the pit and removed during use. Wooden seats provided a degree of comfort during evacuation, though limestone toilet seats have also been discovered.

The city was used for just twenty years, Tutankhamun abandoned it early in his short reign. This is perhaps what makes the city distinct from other Egyptian sites.


Also remote from the Fertile Crescent, another early civilization developed upriver and south of Egypt. This was Nubia and its successor Kush (today’s Sudan and southern Egypt). However the ethnicity, culture and the practices of the ancient Nubians was quite similar to that of the ancient Egyptians.

Megaliths at Nabta, Nubia

The peoples of this region experienced the Neolithic Revolution during the 5th millennium BCE. They left carvings in rocks that suggest they followed some sort of cattle cult and they created megaliths as astronomical devices that predated Stonehenge by two millennia.

Trade routes to the tropical regions of Africa plied down the Nile from Egypt, through Nubia. Nubia therefore became a major conduit for gold, copper, ebony, incense, ivory and exotic animals. There are three distinct phases to the Nubian culture – from 5,000 to 2,800 BCE called the A-group, from 2,800 – 2,240 BCE the B-group and, you guessed it, the C-group from 2,240-2,150 BCE. After this period they appear to have become enfeebled and dominated by Egypt when it built a series of forts along the Upper Nile to enforce their will over the trade routes.

Nubian pyramids

From 2,500 – 1,500 BCE one of the Nubian kingdoms established its capital at Kerma, founding one of the first urban centres along the Nile. From here they controlled the area between the first and fourth cataracts and by 1,700 BCE had a population of 10,000.

Kerma was sophisticated, with mud-brick walls and structures, palaces and tumuli, there are even traces of a royal bath. Their tombs included possessions to take with them into the afterlife, there is also evidence of human sacrifice.

Its ruling class appears to have been formed from the trading administrators of the north-south caravans. Kerma was later used by the succeeding Kingdom of Kush that held ceremonies and buried their kings here. Biblical scholars suggest there is evidence to support the accounts that the prophet Moses fled into this area from Egypt.

The Kerma peoples at one point ‘almost’ conquered Egypt but they did not drive home their status following a victory. Egyptian histories predictably rather gloss over this near disaster.

The Great Hafir at Musawwarat es Sufra
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For water management they used hafirs or depressions, used as cisterns to collect rain water. These were used for drinking water and not for irrigation.

For irrigation they initially used a shaduf a container on the end of a long ‘rope’ swung into the water then raised and rotated to a higher level. This was labour-intensive though of course slave labour was plentiful.

Series of shadufs

Later they learned of the saquia water-wheel approach from Asia and created their own cattle-driven approach for a more organised irrigation process.

Cattle-driven saquia water wheel

Dates were grown along the Nile and Upper Nubia in the sixth century CE. These were used for producing date wines, but the main crop was sorghum, a grass variety with stalks of high sugar content, today mostly used for cattle fodder. Wheat and barley, lentils and peas were added later. Cotton crops were developed in the region too and cloths made from this were discovered in tombs. Funereal evidence also indicates they were cheese makers. They were not regular builders of dams, but one has been discovered at Shaq el Ahmar that had been used as a water storage device.

© Bob Denton, 2016
Advance to Kor and Pulvar rivers   –  Back to The Indus Valley
Back to Unpublished writing