Introduction to Ancient Egypt: The Nile

Just holding down an eddie like a pro here.

Just holding down an eddie like a pro here.

It's so bright and sunny outside right now, you know the snow is going to melt soon, which means canoeing season is right after that. 

Whenever I go canoeing, I imagine what it would be like to get stranded on the banks of the river and start a civilization with my canoe trip buddies.  Usually I get hung up on the fact that I don't have anything substantial to contribute to the canoeing group- I'm not a biologist or a doctor or a chef, for instance, so I've finally just resigned myself to being the leader, as that's the only thing I can do with zest without any preparation.  So last year, when I was canoeing on the Delaware River (between New Jersey and Pennsylvania), I divided my imaginary "people" into research groups- groups to gather clean drinking water and figure out how to store it, groups to build shelters, map out the area, find food and build fire, and make tools; and then later teams for mapping out weather patterns, agriculture, animal husbandry, furniture-building and architechture, and education, law, and policy.  I would definitely also make sure there was a crunchy peanut butter team because there's only so long you can go without that.

For inspiration on how to build an actual empire, we could do a lot worse than turn to Ancient Egypt.  Egypt is probably where the Enneagram concepts came from, although in a different ontological framework (Greece kind of three-dimentionalized Egyptian spirituality when they took over, which then provided the foundation for Christianity), so it's important to know about its civilization if we're going to appreciate what they contributed to our understanding of human nature. 

Although you could consider it to have existed before and after the dynastic period, if we only count from the first Pharoah to the last, Egypt's empire lasted from 3050 BC to 332 BC when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.  That's 2718 years of domination, sometimes subordination, defending its borders on four sides (including the sea), diplomacy and trade, building some of the most phenomenal buildings in the history of mankind, and inventing lots of useful things in the meantime. 

(By contrast, the United States has only been independent from Britain for 238 years, and Canada has only been around since 1867, making us only 147 years young.  And already "the demise of the West" is being predicted!  China and India are apparently supposed to take over as the world superpowers in the next 50 years, so maybe the West can learn something from the Egyptians' longevity here.)

The Nile River, stretching 6,853 km (4,258 miles) from Sudan to the Mediterranean Sea.  Image from Wikipedia. 

The Nile River, stretching 6,853 km (4,258 miles) from Sudan to the Mediterranean Sea.  Image from Wikipedia. 

First of all, let's just talk about the Nile River today because this is a hella big topic.  The Nile, the longest river in the world, provided Egypt with a wealth of resources.  With its predictable flooding and receeding every year, Egyptians were able to benefit from the rich silt deposits left behind for their crops, and thereby had a reliable way to get them watered annually.  The combination 1) predictability of the river's flooding and 2) the nutrient content of the soil was huge- Egyptians traded in the wheat, flax and papyrus they harvested next to the river in exchange for gold, incense, pottery, lumber, olive oil,  ebony, ivory, wild animals, and basically political stability, because few of their drought-prone Middle-Eastern neighbors wanted to mess with the trade partner who provided the grain.  Wikipedia says Egyptians' staples were bread and beer, which sounds a little unbalanced for such an accomplished society, but I'm sure they're saying that in the same way we say China's staple is rice. They eat a lot more than just rice.

One food they probably enjoyed quite a bit was fish, as the Nile had lots of perch, catfish and tilapia.  There were other kinds of waterfowl around the Nile like ducks and geese.

Animal husbandry had already been figured out as early as 10,200 BC in the Neolithic Period, so already the dog, sheep, pig, cow, goat, cat, chicken were domesticated, but Egypt added donkeys and geese to that list.  The donkeys tilled the soil and stomped in the seeds with their hooves.  Horses were introduced when their Caananite neighbors to the East, the Hyksos, temporarily ruled them around 1785 BC.

A papyrus plant.  Image from Wikipedia.

An exerpt from the Book of the Dead on a papyrus scroll.  From Wikipedia.

As I mentioned, papyrus reeds grew around the river, which, because the Pharoahs put such an emphasis on knolwedge and wisdom that they invented an entire class just for the accumulation, recording, and implementation of their elaborate spiritual system- scribes, religious leaders, and administrators- they devised the second-oldest writing system in history: hierogliphics (Sumeria came first in that category).  It's partly because of papyrus that we know so much about the laws, customs, and various areas of expertise like math and spirituality of Ancient Egypt.  Their accumulated wisdom was so valuable that when Greece took them over in 30 BC, Alexander the Great built a special library in Alexandria where they just had scribes full-time, rewriting the Egyptian texts on their own papyri for the Greeks to study and learn from.   The Book of the Dead, one of the Egyptians' most well-known documents, which is a series of instructions and spells to help the soul navigate the afterlife, has been found on various papyri, either in hieroglyphics or in its cursive form, hieratics. 

Finally, the last thing I'll mention that the Nile gave the Egyptians was the impetus to build ships.  As mentioned, they had to defend their northern maritime border, the shore of the Mediterranean sea from pirates and neighboring armies.  There is evidence to show that Egypt had been building ships since 3000 BC; the planks of the hulls having been woven together with straps, and the gaps in between stuffed with reeds and grass.

That's all for today.  Our examination of Egypt will resume tomorrow!