Geography of Ancient Egypt - the Nile River

Greek historian Herodotus said that ancient Egypt was “an acquired country, the gift of the river.” The river he wrote of was the Nile.

The Nile has its origins as the Blue and White Niles in Ethiopia and Rwanda. The two rivers combine near the modern city of Khartoum, Sudan. Each year, the Nile, swollen from rains in equatorial Africa, carries life sustaining black soil that is then deposited along the banks of the river downstream. The Nile and the black soil are what made the civilization of the ancient Egyptians possible.

The Nile generally flows from south to north. Students are sometimes confused by this, as if it’s against the laws of nature. It’s not. The Nile follows the laws of gravity from the highlands down to the river’s mouth at the Mediterranean Sea. Students are also often confused by the term “Upper Egypt” for the southern two thirds and “Lower Egypt” for the Nile Delta region. I remind them that "north" does not always mean "up" and the direction of the flow of a river is downstream, hence the term “Lower Egypt.”

Starting at the delta and going south, Herodotus described the geography of ancient Egypt in great detail. He wrote that the delta, the land was flat and covered with swamps. Going upstream, he said that Egypt narrowed up to the banks of the river with hills and deserts on either side. The banks, Herodotus wrote, were covered with soil, “black and crumbly, as being alluvial and formed of the deposits brought down by the river from Ethiopia.”

When I think of Egypt, I usually think of the shape of the modern country on a political map. It looks a bit like Minnesota to me. But J.E. Manchip White compared the form of the Nile to the lotus flower that grew along its banks. In essence, the lotus flower was ancient Egypt, and it grew out of the desert almost as if by magic. It’s no wonder the ancient Egyptians were so loyal to their gods and goddesses. As Herodotus wrote—and I’m paraphrasing liberally here—if the Nile goes away, so goes Egypt.

Resources and References:

Egypt from Space - NASA

Writings of Herodotus Online

Manchip White, J.E. Ancient Egypt: Its culture and history.