Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period

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Geographical setting, natural features and resources of New Kingdom Egypt and its neighbours

1.1 Geographical Setting, Natural Resources of New Kingdom Egypt and its Neighbours

The Nile River

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The Nile, referred to by the ancient Egyptians as simply Iteru or The River transformed an almost waterless waste of desert into one of the most fer­tile areas on earth.

The Nile's source is in tropical Africa. The White Nile begins in Lake Victoria in east Africa, while the Blue Nile starts in Lake Tana in the snow‑covered Ethiopian mountains. Further downstream the Blue Nile is joined by the Atbara River. At the present‑day city of Khartoum, in Sudan, these two large river systems merge to form the Nile.
Until the construction of the Aswan Dam this century, the Nile cut its way for over 1300 kilometres through the deserts of Nubia. Its flow was inter­rupted six times by rocky cataracts (rapids) before it entered Egypt.

The traditional southern boundary of ancient Egypt was just south of Aswan at the First Cataract. Massive boulders and outcrops of pink and black granite formed a series of rapids extending over six kilometres.

An island known as Abu or Elephant Land (later called Elephantine Island) commanded this frontier area where the river plunged and swirled over the huge granite obstructions. Classical writers reported that during flood time the roaring of the waters was so great as to cause deafness.

For the next 800 kilometres the river wound its way northwards through a narrow valley hemmed in first by sandstone and then limestone cliffs. In places the fertile strip of land bordering the Nile was so narrow that the desert hills almost rose up out of the river. At other places the muddy river flats extended many kilometres on either side of the Nile.

Further north, a branch of the Nile flowed westward into a depression metres below sea level. This depression caught the surplus floodwaters and acted as a reservoir when the water level of the Nile was low. The land which was periodically reclaimed from this huge lake was fertile and rich in wildlife. Today it is referred to as the Faiyum.

Just north of the ancient capital of Memphis (near modern Cairo), the river divided into a number of large branches (seven reported by Herodotus) and many smaller ones as it slowly wound its way to the Mediterranean Sea. Silt was deposited in a large triangular or fan‑shaped formation which the Greeks called the delta because of its resemblance to the shape of the fourth letter of their alphabet.

It has been observed that the valley, Faiyum and delta areas looked and still look like the long stem, bud and flower of the lotus that played an impor­tant part in Egyptian symbolism for 3000 years. According to that symbol­ism it was the opening lotus flower from which the sun god was born.

The annual inundation or flood of the Nile

Every year at the same time the Nile flooded. This annual flood, referred to as the inundation, was without doubt the most important event in the lives of the Egyptian people. It sustained life along the valley.

During June, the Nile began to rise and green water (containing vegetable matter) appeared everywhere along the valley between Aswan and Memphis. The waters continued to rise and by August they were a dark, muddy colour (because of the eroded material they contained). The flood­ waters reached their peak during September and after several weeks the level began to drop. By May of the following year, the river level was at its lowest.

The timing of the flood and the height of the waters were critical for the inhabitants of the valley. Ancient records indicate that when the river rose to seven and a half metres at Elephantine Island there was enough water to supply the needs of the country. A flood level over eight metres was dangerously high while a height of six metres was perilously low.

What caused this annual inundation?

During late spring and early summer (in the northern hemisphere), the normal equatorial rains of central Africa were supplemented by water from the melting snows and the summer monsoons in the mountains of Ethiopia. As the water poured down the valleys of the Ethiopian high­lands, it eroded the adjacent land. The free stone dust was carried along by the Blue Nile and Atbara River and eventually deposited as a dark, rich silt over the valley flats of Egypt when the river broke its banks.

Accumulations of this alluvium or alluvial soil (silt carried and deposited by rivers and streams) made the Nile Valley into one of the most fertile areas on earth.

As Herodotus remarked, 'Egypt is the gift of the river'.

The Black Land

The land known as Egypt in antiquity was called the Black Land or Kemet because of the fertile black silt or mud which the Nile, in flood, deposit­ed over the valley every year.

The Black Land comprised:
  • the long, narrow river valley enclosed by desert cliffs (Upper Egypt)
  • the huge, lush, fan‑shaped lowland area known as the delta (Lower Egypt).

The Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt

Upper Egypt or Shemau

Upper Egypt extended from the First Cataract to just north of the ancient capital of Memphis, a distance of approximately 800 kilometres. It com­prised a long, narrow trough, between three and eighteen kilometres wide, cut into the desert cliffs. It was somewhat isolated from outside con­tact by the forbidding deserts on either side. It was a five‑ to eight‑day journey from the Nile across the eastern desert to the Red Sea.

The amount of land available for growing food was limited and it was a constant battle for the inhabitants to keep the desert sands from covering their valuable farmland. These farmers depended totally on the yearly flood for their survival.

The excessively dry heat of Upper Egypt was occasionally tempered by the cooling effects of the north wind, and the perpetual sunshine pro­duced a brilliant light.

Lower Egypt or To‑mehu

Lower Egypt was a broad triangular or fan‑shaped area of land with its apex just north of Memphis and its base extending along the Mediterranean coastline. It covered an area twice the size of the valley and was more naturally fertile than Upper Egypt. its marshes were thick with papyrus and other reeds and teemed with bird and animal life. The desert was further away from the settlements of Lower Egypt and the climate was milder and moister than Upper Egypt.

Because of its Mediterranean coastline Lower Egypt had closer contact with other cultures although it was more vulnerable to infiltration and invasion.

The Two Lands differed in more than just physical features. The people spoke different dialects and some would have probably felt like foreign­ers in the other's land. Also, each land had its own distinguishing emblems and protective deities:

  • Upper Egypt ‑ the sedge (a type of reed) and the vulture goddess, Nekhbet
  • Lower Egypt ‑ the bee and the cobra goddess, Wadjet (Edjo).

Before these Two Lands were united into one kingdom (c. 3100 BC), each one had its own ruler who wore a distinctive crown ‑ the tall conical White Crown of Upper Egypt and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.

The Red Land

In contrast to the fertile Black Land of the valley and delta, the deserts were referred to as the Red Land or Deshret because of their dominant colour.

The desert plateaux and cliffs bordering the valley, where the Egyptians buried their dead, built some of their temples and hunted wild animals, were the only parts of the desert regarded as part of Egypt proper.

The Egyptians referred to the entire desert area west of the Nile as Libya. It was a desolate region of rocks and sand dunes broken only by a line of oases. This desert held little interest for the Egyptians although the oases provided trade links with the more remote areas. During later periods of Egyptian history the oases were used as places of political banishment. This inhospitable desert isolated Egypt from the west, except for the narrow coastal strip approaching the delta.

To the east of the Nile Valley, high forbidding desert mountains stretched away to the Red Sea. There were several routes through the mountains, which followed dry river beds called wadis.

This desert was exploited extensively by the Egyptians for its minerals as well as for its abundant supply of building and semi‑precious stones. To the north, a route led from the delta area to the Sinai Peninsula where the Egyptians mined copper and turquoise.

The land south of the First Cataract was referred to as Nubia, parts of which were incorporated into Egypt at various times. Lower Nubia, the area between the First and Second Cataract, seems to have been regard­ed almost as Egyptian by right. Not only was Nubia exceptionally rich in gold but it was the main route through which passed the more exotic products of tropical Africa, so prized by the Egyptians.

The effect of the physical environment on Egyptian lifestyle and beliefs

The ancient Egyptians developed a distinctive lifestyle and belief system because:
  • they lived in a long, narrow valley and marshy delta enclosed by barren, inhospitable deserts
  • they were totally dependent on the life‑giving waters of the Nile
  • they enjoyed a climate where the sun shone constantly and where there was virtually no rain.


Almost all activities in Egypt, from the more mundane tasks of the farmer to the coronation of the king, were determined by the Nile and its annual flood.

The yearly calendar

There were three seasons in the yearly calendar.
  1. Akhet
  2. Perit
  3. Shemu

Akhet was the season of the flood which began sometime in July. The first day of the inundation, when the life‑giving waters began to rise, was one of only two days when a king could hold his coronation.

At this time most of the large‑scale building activities were carried out since the extensive floodwaters allowed barges, transporting the massive blocks of stone, to get closer to the building sites. While their land was under water, farmers were often conscripted to work in gangs on the con­struction of temples and other major works. Normally they had little to do at this time except hand feed their animals and repair equipment.

Perit, which began in November was called the Season of Coming Forth. It was the time of sowing the seeds. The first day of this season was the only other time that the king could be officially crowned. On the first five days of Perit the kings also held their important 30‑year jubilee or Sed (also called Heb‑sed) festival. Since the purpose of this festival was to reju­venate the king's powers it was natural that it should be celebrated when the land had been rejuvenated by the silt‑carrying floodwaters.

This was the period of most intensive activity along the Nile. Farmers raced against time to conserve the floodwaters by repairing dykes and cleaning out ditches and canals; to spread the rich silt; to plough the fields and sow the seed before the land began to dry out too much.

Shemuwas the season of harvest and began sometime in early March. A celebration held at the beginning of the harvest season, the Festival of Min, god of fertility, was possibly the highlight of the year for the Egyptian peasant farmer.

It was a hectic time of the year. Farmers harvested, threshed, winnowed, stored and transported the grain and flax while scribes recorded the harvest, carried out the census, assessed and collected the taxes.


All Egyptians, from the lowliest peasant farm­ers to the highest officials, depended on the Nile for their survival. For this reason it was necessary to have a central authority to control water supplies. Due to the great length of the Nile valley, a huge bureaucracy of government officials, skilled in calculation, measurement and writing was needed:

  • to make predictions about the timing and nature of the flood
  • to plan irrigation works
  • to organise local community effort to get the land back in order after the flood
  • to re‑survey the land and mark out farm boundaries which had disappeared under the floodwaters.

A normal flood could be easily controlled. However, sometimes emergencies occurred. A flood level about 1.5 metres lower than normal at Elephantine Island meant food shortages and a series of low‑level floods could cause a life‑threatening famine. However, a water level 30 to 60 centimetres higher than normal was destructive, causing serious damage to houses, dykes and canals. Such emergency situations could only be handled by a large‑scale com­munity effort.

Local nobles, responsible to the central government, conscripted, organ­ised and supervised large work gangs to build and maintain irrigation schemes. This unpaid work was onerous but necessary.

Land was valued and taxes, in the form of produce, were assessed by government officials on the basis of the height of the flood. For example, some land always received the benefit of the flood and so had the poten­tial for a good harvest. On the other hand, some parcels of land were covered with water some years and not others. Plots further away from the river very rarely received the life‑giving floodwater and silt.

Nilometers were built along the Nile to measure the maximum, minimum and average flow of the flood. Usually these were built in the form of a staircase leading from the river. As the floodwaters rose up through the staircase, the amount of water was determined by grooves cut in the walls. The Greek geographer, Strabo, reported:

There are marks which measure the height of the water for irrigation. They are used by the farmers to measure the flow of the water, by the bureaucrats (officials) to establish the amount of taxes. In fact the higher the water the higher the taxes.

Communication and transportation

The river was the chief highway of the ancient Egyptians. It linked and united the scattered villages and towns along its 900 kilometre length from the delta to the First Cataract. The inhospitable desert on both sides of the river made travel overland difficult and the Egyptians did not have wheeled vehicles or horses until approximately 1600 BC.

Travel up and down the river was made easier by the prevailing wind and the Nile current. Since the prevailing wind blew from north to south, boats travelling south or upstream (towards the source) could use their sails. The river current ran from south to north so boats heading north or down­ stream (towards the mouth) were helped by the current. The Egyptian hieroglyph for travelling south or going upstream was a boat with a sail while the hieroglyph for travelling north or going downstream was a boat with oars.

The number of boats, either depicted in tomb paintings or as models among the funerary goods in tombs, indicate the importance of this form of travel to the ancient Egyptians.

Building, crafts and decorative arts

The rich alluvial soil and the swamps and marshes of the Black Land provided building materials for domestic architecture, resources for many Egyptian crafts and decorative themes for Egyptian art. The barren expanses of desert which comprised the Red Land provided the Egyptians with many of the resources for their sacred buildings and for funerary and temple equipment. Nile mud was used for brick making. Sun‑dried mud-brick was the basic material for all domestic buildings, including the palaces of the kings. It was the ideal building material in a land which was virtually rainless. The mud was always at hand, the bricks were quick to make and repairs to buildings could be carried out easily. Unfortunately very few of these buildings have survived.

Limestone and sandstone from the desert cliffs bordering the Nile were the chief building materials used in temples and tombs. The limestone quarry at Tura across the river from Giza, was the source of the finest lime­stone blocks used as casing stones for the pyramids. The harder pink and black granite from Aswan was used for gateways, columns, obelisks and as the facing stones in the burial chambers of kings. Granite was also used for the sarcophagi (huge stone outer coffins) of royalty.

The papyrus reed which grew profusely along the marshy banks of the river and in the swamps of the delta provided the raw materials for many items used in everyday life.

Every part of the papyrus plant was used by the Egyptians. From it they made flat‑bottomed fishing and fowling skiffs, sandals, ropes, baskets, mats and a fine white paper also called papyrus. This valuable product was used by priests, officials and wealthy people only.

The deserts were exploited for a variety of building and semi‑precious stones and valuable metals such as gold and copper. Fine statues were sculpted from basalt and reddish quartzite, beautiful translucent jars and vessels were crafted from alabaster, funerary items and jewellery were made from gold and semi‑precious stones like turquoise, and tools were manufactured from copper.

Many of the motifs used in decorating private and public buildings were taken from the river landscape. Sculpted friezes and painted scenes on the walls and floors of royal palaces and the houses of wealthy officials depicted darting birds, fish, ducks and flowering reeds. The papyrus plant and the blue and white lotus flowers were common motifs used by crafts­men and architects. The halls of the great temples featured massed columns, designed to look like reeds, lotus flowers and buds, and palms. These halls were meant to create an impression of the lush vegetation of the primeval marshes.