So the most significant gift of the Nile was that it flooded the lands, up to six miles on either side, with water, vegetation, and fertile mud or "rich black silt," and it was for this reason that the land became fertile. This fertile land, coupled with the winter and spring sun, allowed various crops to grow in the area, (Shuter, page 6-7) attracting both animals and men to the area sometime around 9000 B.C. It was this land, this "Fertile Crescent," that drew humans of various families and clans together. These people grew to love and appreciate the Nile River, often referencing Egypt as "the gift of the Nile," or "the gift of the river," and the river as "The Great River."
Despite the gifts of the Nile, the Egyptians still had to worry about flooding. If the floods were too high mud-brick homes and resources needed to grow crops were washed away, and if the floods were too low not enough land was watered, and this lead to famine, that sometimes lasted for several years. (Sigerist, page 220)
After flooding wiped away crops and homes enough times, the people gathered together sometime around the early days of Egypt, and they put their minds together to learn how to better manage the waters. So even the flooding, even the destruction caused the river, ended up being "the gift of the Nile" as it forced people to work together. This was similar to what occurred for people living along the Tigris and Euphrates.
Unlike the random and violent flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates, however, the Nile flooding could be predicted. Egyptians learned to mark the edge of the Nile, and, as the years passed, they learned to regulate the days with the appearance of the stars in the sky, and learned that the floods come "with the heliacal rising of Sothis or Sirius, that is, the first day when the Star was seen rising in the East above the horizon after its conjunction with the sun," said Sigerist. They learned a year was 365 days, and later that it was 365 and a quarter days. (Sigerist, page 221) They used this knowledge to make a calender of 12 months and 30 days in a month and five extra days.
It didn't take long to learn that they occurred from mid-July to October of each year. Yet why this flooding occurred remained a mystery. There were many theories, although perhaps the most widespread, the most rational explanation, was the theory that the floods occurred due to the "tears of Isis weeping over the loss of her husband, Osiris?" said Henry Sigerist in his 1951 history of medicine. (Sigerist, page 218)
Perhaps one of the main reason why the cause of the flooding remained a mystery was because of stretches along the river that are covered by rocks, around which the water is shallow and flows rapidly. These areas were called cataracts. Egyptians learned to use the river to travel from one city to another, mainly because the water usually flowed smoothly. However, to get around the cataracts they had to remove their boats from the water and walk them around the cataracts. (Kobasa, page 7) Perhaps it was for this reason they were prevented from traveling to the source of the river to determine the cause of the flooding.
While they didn't learn the cause of flooding, they did learn that they could plant and harvest crops between the floods, and when the flooding was going on, they banded together in a dry area and they had their annual celebrations. During these celebrations they worshiped their gods, and thanked them for the crops and the Nile flooding. They also had time for leisure and for thinking. No Egyptians labored while the flooding was occurring, and perhaps this was when they put their minds together to create better methods of controlling the water. They celebrated nature, while in Mesopotamia nature was feared. (Sigerist, page 220)
The Egyptians were among the first people to recognize the importance of rest. For this reason they used certain religious days as days of rest, and they also allowed rest on the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week. These were days of rest and celebration. Most peasants also took a break in the middle of the day, where they ate and drank. These breaks were short, although it allowed time for the workers to regain some of their energy so they could continue the work of the gods (or the work of the aristocracy so they could continue to live lavish lifestyles).
After years of experience, Egyptians learned to build dykes, dams, canals, basins and sluices to control the flow of water through the land. (Sigerist, page 220) They learned better methods of planting and harvesting crops. They learned that when they did this they could make a lot of food in a small area. Due to this, there no longer was a need to be hunters and gathers. This gave people free time to think, share ideas, and discover and invent material things that made life better for everyone. It would take another six thousand years, but this would ultimately lead to better medicine.
So the ancient Egyptians put their minds together. Yes! Great things happen when human minds work together. Not only did this result in greater methods of controlling irrigation, it also resulted in a revolution of ideas, discoveries and inventions. As the Sumerians discovered methods of improving weaving and making pottery, the Egyptians invented a method of making impressive temples and pyramids for the gods and pharaohs they worshiped. These ideas were improved upon as the years passed, and were shared with other civilizations.
They learned to make homes of mud-brick, reeds and straw. And while the homes of the average citizen were made of such perishable material, material that sometimes washed completely away during the inundation, sometime around 2700 or 2600 B.C. great minds produced a material for making some of the worlds first stone pyramids, many of which still amaze people to this day, impressed upon the skyline of mighty Egypt.
Like Sumerians, Egyptians created ideas about the world around them, about what happened before birth, and after death. They created religions replete with a hierarchy of gods who were like humans, although way more powerful. The Egyptian religion was a bit more hopeful than the one created by the Sumerians, who had a gloomy view of life and death due to fear of violent and random flooding, invaders and evil spirits and demons.
Egyptians had natural borders to protect them. In the east there was the Red Sea, in the north the Mediterranean Sea. There was desert in the east and west, and the intense heat of the heavens and red sand tried to kill anyone who crossed. In the south there was rocky lands that made it difficult to cross. In the north was a coastline, that meant there were treacherous waters that had to be crossed. Invasion of Egypt was difficult, and therefore Egyptians felt well protected by the gods. They felt secure, had less to cure, and were more optimistic. (Sigerist, page 223)
Surely most people died and went to nothingness, but some people, especially people of importance, poeple from the aristocracy, had a chance to travel to the afterlife and live among the gods with riches of gold and jewels and slaves and everything that went with the good life. Even if the commoners thought they may not have an afterlife, at least they felt solace in doing their part of the labor to help their pharaoh get there
To be continued...
References: See "4000-30 B.C.: 'The Black Land' creates mighty civilization, part 4"
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