1.6: Nile River Valley
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Student Learning Objectives
At the end of this section, students will be able to
- Identify the major causes and describe the major effects of the following events from 8000 BCE to 500 BCE: the development of agriculture and the development of the river valley civilizations.
- Summarize the impact of the development of farming (Neolithic Revolution) on the creation of river valley civilizations.
- Identify the characteristics of a civilization.
- Explain how major river valley civilizations influenced the development of the classical civilizations.
- Analyze the influence of human and physical geographic factors on major events in world history, including the development of river valley civilizations, trade in the Indian Ocean, and the opening of the Panama and Suez canals.
Hieroglyphics, pyramids, mummies, the Sphinx of Giza, King Tut, and Cleopatra. The sands of the Nile River Valley hold many clues about one of the most mysterious, progressive, and artistic ancient civilizations. A great deal of evidence survives about how the ancient Egyptians lived, but questions remain. Even the wise sphinx would have trouble answering some of them. How were the pyramids built? Who came up with the idea for mummies and why? What was a typical day like for a pharaoh?
In the Nile
The Nile Valley was the seat of an ancient Egyptian civilization that spanned over 4,000 years.
In 3,000 B.C.E., Egypt looked similar geographically to the way it looks today. The country was mostly covered by desert. But along the Nile River was a fertile swath that proved — and still proves — a life source for many Egyptians.
The Nile is the longest river in the world; it flows northward for nearly 4,200 miles. In ancient times, crops could be grown only along a narrow, 12-mile stretch of land that borders the river. Early Egyptians grew crops such as wheat and cotton. Despite the lack of many natural resources, such as forests or an abundance of arable land, a great society emerged.
Craftsmen, Tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky
Egyptians artisans smelted copper and gold for artistic, architectural, and even military purposes.
Earlier in history, Neolithic (late Stone Age) people thrived in the Nile Valley. The remains that have been uncovered date back to about 6,000 B.C.E. But it wasn't until 3,800 B.C.E. that the valley's inhabitants began to form a cohesive civilization.
The road to civilization required more organization and increased efficiency. Farmers began producing surplus crops that allowed others to pursue other trades, such as mercantilism or skilled craftwork.
Egyptian artisans created copper tools such as chisels and needles — all new inventions — which allowed them to fabricate ornamental jewelry. Artisans also discovered how to make bronze by mixing copper and tin, which marked the beginning of the Bronze Age.
Evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians invented the potter's wheel. This tool made it easier to create pots and jars for storage, cooking, religious needs, and decoration.
Pharaohs and the Legacy of Ancient Egypt
The pharaohs who ruled Egypt for about 3,000 years were by and large capable administrators, strong military leaders, sophisticated traders, and overseers of great building projects.
A Brief Timeline of Ancient Egypt
Foundation to Demise
Ancient Egypt's great civilization spanned thousands of years, from c. 3000 BCE until the annexation by Rome in 30 BCE.
|6000||First inhabitants settle along the Nile Delta.|
|2900||King Menes unites Upper and Lower Egypt.|
|2772||365-day calendar is invented.|
|2750||The Old Kingdom is established with its capital in Memphis.|
|2560||King Khufu (Cheops) builds the Great Pyramids of Giza.|
|2181||Instability and corruption weaken the empire.|
|2050||The Middle Kingdom is established and the capital moves to Thebes.|
|1750||The Hyksos, a group of Semitic-Asiatics, invade and rule Egypt.|
|1550||The Hyksos are expelled and the New Kingdom established.|
|1500||Queen Hatshepsut expands the empire south (Nubia) and east (Palestine).|
|1380||Amenhotep IV ("Akhenaton") supports worship of only one god, the sun-disk god Aton.|
|1336||Tutankhamun ("King Tut") revives polytheism and returns to the capital to Thebes.|
|1290||Ramses II ("The Great") begins a 67-year reign and completes Temple of Luxor.|
|1283||Egyptians and Hittites sign the first recorded peace treaty.|
|712||Egypt is invaded from the south by the Nubian Empire, which starts an "Ethiopian Dynasty."|
|670||Assyrians conquer Egypt.|
|525||The Persian Empire conquers Egypt.|
|343||Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian-born pharaoh, dies.|
|332||Alexander the Great of Macedonia invades Egypt.|
|331||The city of Alexandria is established and the Macedonian general Ptolemy begins new dynasty.|
|51||The Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII rules Egypt, assisted by Julius Caesar.|
|30||Cleopatra commits suicide, and Egypt is annexed by the Roman Empire.|
Writing also set the Egyptians apart from some of their neighbors. Egyptians used hieroglyphics or pictures to represent words or sounds. This early form of writing was discovered by the Western world after Napoleon's army invaded Egypt in 1798. The Rosetta Stone, a black tablet containing inscriptions, was deciphered and became crucial in unlocking the mystery of hieroglyphics and understanding Egyptian history.
Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for several thousand years. Many of its discoveries and practices have survived an even greater test of time.
In fact, one of the ancient Egyptians' inventions, the calendar, has helped define time itself.
Life Along the Nile
None of the achievements of the remarkable ancient Egyptian civilization would have been possible without the Nile River. There is always a connection between landscape and how a people develop. It does not take the wisdom of a sphinx to understand why.
Archaeologists and historians don't know exactly how Egyptian civilization evolved. It is believed that humans started living along the Nile's banks starting around 6,000 BCE. For the earliest inhabitants of the Nile Valley, food was not easy to find. There were no McTut's selling burgers, and, though there were a lot of crocodiles, those critters were pretty hard to catch.
Food for Thought
Over time, however, despite being in the midst of a desert, people discovered that the Nile River provided many sources of food. Along the river were fruit trees, and fish swam in the Nile in great numbers.
The Nile — the longest river in the world at 4,187 miles — defines Egypt's landscape and culture. A common Egyptian blessing is "May you always drink from the Nile."
Perhaps most importantly, they discovered that, at the same time each year, the Nile flooded for about six months. As the river receded, it deposited a rich, brown layer of silt that was suitable for growing wheat, barley, and even cotton. Farmers learned to dig short canals leading to fields near the Nile, thus providing fresh water for year-round irrigation. Planting immediately after a flood yielded harvests before the next year's flood.
In order to know when to plant, the Egyptians needed to track days. They developed a calendar based on the flooding of the Nile that proved remarkably accurate. It contained a year of 365 days divided into 12 months of 30 days each. The five extra days fell at the end of the year.
Here's a problem that the sphinx might have trouble answering: How did the ancient Egyptians make their calendars? What material did they use? Remember, there was no paper. Need a clue? Take a dip in the Nile.
Large reeds called papyrus grew wild along the Nile. The Egyptians developed a process that turned these reeds into flattened material that could be written on (also called papyrus). In fact, the English word "paper" has its root in the ancient Greek word "papyrus." Among the first things written on papyrus were calendars that tracked time.
Papyrus had many other uses. Boats were constructed by binding the reeds together in bundles. Baskets, mats, rope, and sandals were also fashioned from this multipurpose material.
Sand, Land, and Civilization
The Sahara, the world's largest desert, encroaches on the western shore of the Nile River. Other deserts lie to the Nile's east. Egypt's location within the world's driest region helped protect it from invaders throughout the centuries.
Even today, the world around the Nile is quite barren. Outside of the narrow swath of greenery next to the river, there is sand as far as the eye can see. To the Nile's west exists the giant Sahara Desert, the largest desert in the world.
From north to south, the Sahara is between 800 and 1,200 miles wide; it stretches over 3,000 miles from east to west. The total area of the Sahara is more than 3,500,000 square miles. It's the world's biggest sandbox.
And, as if there weren't enough sand in the Sahara, east of the Nile are other deserts.
Although sand had limited uses, these deserts presented one tremendous strategic advantage: few invaders could ever cross the sands to attack Egypt — the deserts proved too great a natural barrier.
After learning to take advantage of the Nile's floods — and not having to fear foreign attacks — the Egyptians concentrated on improving farming techniques. As the years passed, Egyptians discovered that wheat could be baked into bread, that barley could be turned into soup (or even beer), and that cotton could be spun into clothing.
With many of life's necessities provided, the Egyptians started thinking about other things, such as art, government, religion, and philosophy — some of the basics needed to create a civilization. Eventually, pyramids, mummies, Cleopatra, and the Sphinx of Giza became touchstones of this flourishing culture.
Egyptian Social Structure
Egyptian society was structured like a pyramid. At the top were the gods, such as Ra, Osiris, and Isis. Egyptians believed that the gods controlled the universe. Therefore, it was important to keep them happy. They could make the Nile overflow, cause famine, or even bring death.
In Egyptian times, people of higher status would sometimes be drawn or sculpted larger than those of lower status.
The Egyptians also elevated some human beings to gods. Their leaders, called pharaohs, were believed to be gods in human form. They had absolute power over their subjects. After pharaohs died, huge stone pyramids were built as their tombs. Pharaohs were buried in chambers within the pyramids.
A typical depiction of a pharaoh. After Djoser of the Third Dynasty, pharaohs were usually depicted wearing the nemes headdress, a false beard, and an ornate kilt.
Because the people of Egypt believed that their pharaohs were gods, they entrusted their rulers with many responsibilities. Protection was at the top of the list. The pharaoh directed the army in case of a foreign threat or an internal conflict. All laws were enacted at the discretion of the pharaoh. Each farmer paid taxes in the form of grain, which were stored in the pharaoh's warehouses. This grain was used to feed the people in the event of a famine.
The Chain of Command
Ancient Egyptian royalty, nobility, and clergy enjoyed lives of wealth and comfort while farmers and slaves struggled to subsist.
No single person could manage all these duties without assistance. The pharaoh appointed a chief minister called a vizier as a supervisor. The vizier ensured that taxes were collected.
Working with the vizier were scribes who kept government records. These high-level employees had mastered a rare skill in ancient Egypt — they could read and write.
Right below the pharaoh in status were powerful nobles and priests. Only nobles could hold government posts; in these positions, they profited from tributes paid to the pharaoh. Priests were responsible for pleasing the gods.
Nobles enjoyed great status and also grew wealthy from donations to the gods. All Egyptians — from pharaohs to farmers — gave gifts to the gods.
Soldiers fought in wars or quelled domestic uprisings. During long periods of peace, soldiers also supervised the peasants, farmers, and slaves who were involved in building such structures as pyramids and palaces.
Skilled workers such as physicians and craftspersons made up the middle class. Craftspersons made and sold jewelry, pottery, papyrus products, tools, and other useful things.
Naturally, people needed to buy goods from artisans and traders. These were the merchants and storekeepers who sold these goods to the public.
The Bottom of the Heap
At the bottom of the social structure were slaves and farmers. Slavery became the fate of those captured as prisoners of war. In addition to being forced to work on building projects, slaves toiled at the discretion of the pharaoh or nobles.
Farmers tended the fields, raised animals, kept canals and reservoirs in good order, worked in the stone quarries, and built the royal monuments. Farmers paid taxes that could be as much as 60 percent of their yearly harvest — that's a lot of hay!
Social mobility was not impossible. A small number of peasants and farmers moved up the economic ladder. Families saved money to send their sons to village schools to learn trades. These schools were run by priests or by artisans. Boys who learned to read and write could become scribes, then go on to gain employment in the government. It was possible for a boy born on a farm to work his way up into the higher ranks of the government. Bureaucracy proved lucrative.
What's a dynasty?
It's a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a number of years. The New York Yankees baseball team of the 1920s is considered a dynasty because they went to the World Series almost every year and had great leaders, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Ancient Egypt also had dynasties. They were families who often ruled for a considerable number of years and did impressive things — such as building pyramids — during their rule.
The history of ancient Egypt is divided into three main periods: the Old Kingdom (about 2,700 - 2,200 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (2,050 - 1,800 BCE), and the New Kingdom (about 1,550 - 1,100 BCE). The New Kingdom was followed by a period called the Late New Kingdom, which lasted to about 343 B.C.E. Intermediate kingdoms — those without strong ruling families — filled the gaps of time in between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms.
During these periods, power passed from one dynasty to another. A dynasty ruled until it was overthrown or there were no heirs left to rule. Each kingdom ended in turmoil either after a period of infighting or after being invaded.
There were more than 30 dynasties in Egyptian history. Dynasties helped keep Egypt united, which was no easy task. Leaders faced periods of chaos, ambitious rivals, and also foreigners whom wanted to conquer the region.
The Earliest Dynasty
Beginning in about 4,000 BCE, all Egyptian society existed in two kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Around 3,100 BCE, Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, started the long string of dynasties by conquering Lower Egypt. He unified the regions and built his capital city at Memphis, near the border of these two kingdoms. Because Memphis was located on an island in the Nile, it was easy to defend.
So began the first dynasty, an age appropriately called the Early Dynastic Period. Little is known of the pharaohs (rulers) of the early dynasties. The Egyptian word "pharaoh" literally means "great house."
Pharaohs were more than just rulers. They were considered gods and were believed to possess the secrets of heaven and earth. Pharaohs led the government and the army and wielded unlimited power.
The step pyramid of Netjerikhet in Saqqara believed to have been the first pyramid constructed in Egypt, was completed in the 27th century BCE during the Third Dynasty. Pyramid building progressed through the dynasties, culminating in the Pyramids of Giza.
Pyramids of Giza
The Old Kingdom
About 300 years after Menes united Egypt, its rulers formed a central government in which they held supreme power. This was the beginning of the Old Kingdom. (Kings tend to rule from a central place, which is why the early dynastic period is not considered a kingdom.)
During the Old Kingdom, pyramid building flourished. Cheops had the six-million-ton Great Pyramid of Giza constructed as his tomb. Under Chephren, a Fourth Dynasty ruler, the Great Sphinx was built.
The end of the Old Kingdom was marked by civil wars between pharaohs and nobles.
The Middle Kingdom
Montuhotep II (2,007 - 1,956 BCE), an Eleventh dynasty pharaoh, was the last ruler of the Old Kingdom and the first ruler of the Middle Kingdom. He and his successors restored political order.
The Middle Kingdom is remembered as a time of flourishing arts, particularly in jewelry making. Egypt became a great trading power during this period and continued massive construction projects. Eventually, the long reign of prosperity gave way to old problems: crop failures, economic woes, dynastic power struggles, and foreign invaders.
Amenemhet III (1817 - 1772 BCE), of the Twelfth Dynasty, was responsible for the construction of two great projects. He completed the building of the giant waterwheels of the Faiyum region that diverted the floodwaters of the Nile. Amenemhet also constructed the Pyramid of Hawara, which became known as the Labyrinth. It contained about 3,000 rooms.
Trouble struck when a group of foreigners, the Hyksos, a Semitic-Asiatic group, invaded the Nile Delta region. These advanced warriors used new tools for war: bronze weapons and horse-drawn chariots. They defeated the Egyptians, who fought on foot with copper-and-stone weapons.
The New Kingdom
Early pharaohs of the New Kingdom evicted the Hyksos. The New Kingdom is remembered as a time of renaissance in artistic creation, but also as the end of dynastic rule. This period was also marred by corrupt priests and tomb-robbing by government officials.
A famed pharaoh of the new period was Amenhotep IV, who triggered a religious revolution. Before Amenhotep's rule, Egypt was a polytheistic society that believed in many gods, the most important named Amon. But, Amenhotep believed only in Aton, the sun god. Belief in only one god (monotheism) was a radical notion. To show his devotion to Aton, the pharaoh changed his name to Akenhaton ("he who is loyal to Aton"). Akenhaton moved his capital from Thebes, where Amon was worshipped, to Tell el Amarna.
Naturally, the priests who represented the other gods did not like this change one bit. Many Egyptians also did not like the pharaoh discrediting their gods. After the death of Akenhaton, the powerful priests forced the new capital to be moved back to Thebes .
The pharaoh who moved the capital back to Thebes was a boy-king. He ruled for nine years, attempted to pacify the priests, and was responsible for some modest building projects. He began his reign at the age of 10 but died of a head injury at 19.
But, his name is famous: Tutankhamun, or more familiarly, King Tut. Tut is remembered mostly because of his beautiful tomb — one of the very few that was not pillaged by grave robbers.
Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, was another important ruler during this period. He reigned for 67 years and died in about 1,213 BCE at age 96. His nearly 200 wives and concubines bore 96 sons and 60 daughters. Not only did Ramesses build a great family, he also built two temples at Abu Simbel, a covered hall of giant pillars at Karnak, additions at the Luxor Temple, and the Ramesseum, a compound consisting of two temples and a palace.
After Ramses' rule, Egypt fell into steady decline. Today, his 3,000-year-old mummy lies in a display case on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt's capital.
Over the course of the next nine centuries, the Nubians, the Assyrians, and the Persians bounded into Egypt and ravaged the area. When Pharaoh Nectanebo II retreated to Memphis to avoid death at the hands of oncoming Persian invaders in 343 BCE, he became the last Egyptian-born pharaoh, ending over 2,500 years of Egyptian self-rule.
For centuries, they were the tallest structures on the planet. The Pyramids of Giza, built over 4,000 years ago, still stand atop an otherwise flat, sandy landscape
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids still baffle 21st-century humans. How could a civilization that lacked bulldozers, forklifts, and trucks build such massive structures? Why would anyone have spent the time and energy to attempt such a task? What treasures were placed inside these monuments?
Only a powerful pharaoh could marshal the necessary human resources to build giant pyramids. During the flood seasons, farmers became builders. Huge stone blocks averaging over two tons in weight were mined in quarries and transported to the pyramid site.
Egyptologists theorize that the workers used either rollers or slippery clay to drag the blocks from the quarries to their eventual placement on the pyramid. Construction of the larger pyramids took decades.
Pyramids were built for religious purposes. The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to believe in an afterlife. They believed that a second self called the ka lived within every human being. When the physical body expired, the ka enjoyed eternal life. Those fortunate enough to pass the test of Osiris wanted to be comfortable in their lives beyond earth. The Great Pyramids were simply grand tombs of powerful pharaohs.
Three pyramids were built at Giza, and many smaller pyramids were constructed around the Nile Valley. The tallest of the Great Pyramids reaches nearly 500 feet into the sky and spans an area greater than 13 acres. The Great Sphinx was sculpted nearby to stand watch over the pyramids. It stands 65 feet tall and consists of a human head atop the body of a lion.
Many believe that the Sphinx was a portrait of King Chefren (Khafret), who was placed in the middle Pyramid. The lion symbolized immortality.
You Take It with You
Egyptians who ranked high in status often wanted to take their most prized possessions with them in death, so the ka could enjoy them in its next life. Gold, silver, and bronze artifacts were loaded into the interiors of the great tombs. Fine linens and artwork adorned the secret chambers.
In the early days, dead nobles were often interned with their living slaves and animals. Because this practice eventually proved too costly, artists instead depicted scenes of human activity on the inside walls. Some pyramids were even equipped with a rest room for the pharaoh.
Inside pyramids, passageways lead to a main burial chamber. Designs varied for each pyramid
Great precautions were taken to protect the tombs from looters. Egyptians believed that a defiler of a pharaoh's resting place would be cursed for eternity. The entrance to the inner chambers was carefully hidden. The pharaoh's mummy was placed in a huge coffin called a sarcophagus, which was made of the hardest known stone blocks. But despite such warnings and precautions, tombs were raided over the years by grave robbers.
The pyramids, however, have stood the test of time. Although their outer limestone layers have long since been stripped or passed into dust, the pyramids still stand. About 80 dot the horizons of modern Egypt. They remain as time capsules cast forward by a once-great civilization.
- Conduct a SPICES analysis of ancient Egypt. Complete a SPICES chart and identify at least one characteristic for each category in the SPICES acronym.
Discussion and Study Questions
- What were the major accomplishments of early River Valley Civilizations?
- How does religion contribute to the development of government and writing?
- What types of government were common in River Valley Civilizations?
- What are the characteristics of a civilization?
- How do civilizations develop from a village to a city/civilization?
- How did the roles of women and families changes as civilization rose?
- How did geographic factors affect the location of early River Valley Civilizations?
- How did humans manipulate their environment to build civilization?
Quizlet Flashcard Vocabulary for Nile River Valley Civilization
- An ancient Egyptian writing system in which pictures were used to represent ideas and sounds
- Nile River
- A major north-flowing river in northeastern Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It was critical to the development of Egyptian civilization.
- Kings of ancient Egypt, considered to be gods as well as a political and military leaders
- Large, triangular stoned tombs built by the Egyptians intended for the burial of their pharaohs
- Empires by PBS, Episode on Egypt's Golden Empire
|Credit: Edward Stanford Ltd.
Source: Library of Congress
|Credit: Norman de Garis Davies
Source: Wikimedia Commons
|Credit: Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: CC BY-NC 3.0
|Credit: B. Simpson, Cairocamels
Source: Wikimedia Commons
|Credit: Photographed by the British Museum; original artist unknown
|Credit: Jeff Dahl
License: CC BY-SA
|Credit: Ricardo Liberato
Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: CC BY-SA
|Credit: Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.
Source: Wikimedia Commons