Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Nile

The Nile was and is the lifeblood of the Egyptians. Coursing down through a desert, the waters helped the civilization to survive thousands of years. It’s the longest river in the world, over 4,000 miles, and it flows from south to north, from Uganda up to the Mediterranean Sea. Because it flows in this “upward” fashion, southern Egypt was referred to as Upper Egypt and northern Egypt was Lower Egypt. 

Seasons were scheduled around the annual flooding of the Nile. It usually flooded between June and September, and once the waters receded the farmers would plant their crops which would be ready to harvest before the next flood. The inundation wasn’t quite as easy to predict as people would have liked. Some years the Nile wouldn’t flood at all and Egyptians would go through periods of drought, during which there would be no food and it was a struggle to survive. Other years the Nile would flood too much, destroying villages as the waters just kept coming. The Egyptians planned for any event and built canals and irrigation systems. At its deepest, the Nile could be up to 35 feet deep, at its shallowest, 7 feet deep.

The river was so central to the Egyptian way of life that there were gods who helped regulate the waters. Osiris himself, after being killed by Seti, was sent to the Underworld when he was reborn and taught the people how to work with the floods. Hapi was the personification of the Nile and represented bounty and fertility. Tawaret was a protector of women and childbirth, as well as the goddess of harvests. She was represented by animals of the Nile such as the hippopotamus and the crocodile. 


The source of the Nile was believed to be in the Underworld, where Osiris hung out, and was also linked to the creator god Khnum, who built man out of clay using his pottery wheel. The river actually begins in Lake Victoria, where it begins as the White Nile, then travels north and meets up with the Blue Nile and the Arbara River. The three rivers connect in the Sudan. In Ancient Egypt, the river had more branches that gradually disappeared throughout the centuries.

Nilometers were steps leading from the river which measured the levels of the waters. The three cycles of the Nile, drought, flood, and in between, ruled the lives of the Egyptians and were as important as the rising and setting of the sun. The mounds of sand and clay in the middle of the river, especially in the Delta of Lower Egypt, could have been the foundation for the Egyptian belief that the world began with a mound of dirt rising from the waters, especially because these mounds would rise with the waters during flood season.

The Nile was thought of as a gift to the Egyptians and the waters flowed to nurture the people. Depictions of the lotus flower and papyrus represented the river and were prominent in writings, and temples were built emulating the river in the columns and the trim on the walls. Boats were also important to the people, not only as a mode of transportation, but also as a symbol of the river they depended on so much. Boat pits were even included in many tombs, allowing the deceased to travel in the waters of the afterlife.

Boat Pit
Without this life-giving river, Egypt would be nowhere near what it is today; in fact, it may not even exist. We have the Nile to thank for the well-spring of this ancient civilization and all of the historical stories that it brings forth. I would love to stand at the banks of the Nile today and just imagine everything that it’s been a part of for the past thousands of years.

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