A River of Life
One of the most fascinating places on the planet is the Nile River basin in Egypt. The Nile flows thousands of miles up the continent of Africa, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. As the river descends from the mountains of Ethiopia, it brings much-needed water into the desert plateaus of Egypt. Without the Nile River, Egypt would be more like the moon! The Nile River brings life to this arid, rocky region. It has helped nourish many civilizations throughout the past 5,000 years.
Farms are not something you think of in a desert climate. But the Nile River allows farms to flourish at the edges of the Sahara Desert. If you were walking east in the Sahara Desert, the oasis of the river might seem like a mirage. The Nile creates a narrow river valley through the desert before widening north of Cairo into the Nile Delta. The delta is the heart of farming in Egypt, and farming is the heart of civilization.
You may not think of farming as vitally important to the development of human culture and civilization, but it is! Before agriculture, people moved in groups of hunters and gatherers. Domesticating crops allowed people to form permanent settlements. In Egypt, people grew surplus, or extra, food. This surplus of food allowed the population to grow larger. With a stable food source in place, people were able to diversify their roles in society. When not all members of the society needed to focus on finding the next meal, people were able to develop governments, art, and philosophy. This is what allowed them to more fully develop their culture.
Just as people today are affected by different seasons, the civilizations of the Nile basin were affected by seasonal changes. The rise and fall of the Nile established the three agricultural seasons for ancient farmers in Egypt. The seasons were called Akhet (in the fall), Peret (in winter), and Shemu (in summer). During Akhet, river levels increased with water from monsoons and snowmelt. The banks and delta were flooded. When the water receded, a thick layer of nutrient-rich silt was left behind. This made the area prime for farming. Peret began when the river receded, and the black soil was ready for planting.
Egyptians developed light plows to turn the loose soil. These plows weighed much less than heavy European plows, which often had to move large rocks embedded in the soil. The last season, Shemu, was when the river was at its lowest, and all of Egypt harvested the food for the coming year. Egyptians raised crops such as corn, wheat, rice, and flax.
The river usually followed the same seasonal pattern. If it varied one year, all of Egypt was affected. Egyptian farmers worked for their food, and a bad harvest meant hungry times. The soil remained fertile due to the annual flooding, which renewed the nutrients in the soil. It may seem strange that the farmers prayed for the river to overflow and their farms to flood, but remember that Egypt has a dry climate. Very little rain falls on the deserts for most of the year. As well as bringing nutrients to the soil, the Nile River is the main source of irrigation for farms.
In ancient times farmers dug canals from the river to their fields to help irrigate their crops. Farmers had to water their fields daily to make sure their crops survived the hot, dry conditions. Farmers developed a tool called a shaduf to help bring water up from the river. A shaduf is a weighted pole balanced on a plank. It has a rope and bucket on one end. A farmer would drop the bucket into the water, and the weight on the other end would help bring a full bucket up. This lessened the physical work the farmer had to do. Using the shaduf was much easier than hauling the heavy buckets up from the river by hand. The shaduf could even be swung around and dumped into a smaller irrigation canal that went directly into the farmer’s field.
Tools like the shaduf allowed farmers to grow a surplus of food. This surplus was then used as currency in trade markets. Farmers could trade their crops for tools, clothes, or other items. Without the reliable waters of the Nile, agriculture would not have been possible. Without agriculture, ancient Egyptian civilization would not have flourished.
History shows that the Nile was not always reliable! Periods of low water levels during the regular flood seasons brought times of famine, or extreme food shortages. This repeated regularly for thousands of years. This cycle of famine in Egypt only ended when the second Aswan Dam was constructed in the 1960s. Today, people can control the river, and Egyptians are no longer dependent on the seasonal flood cycle. The fact that there is any agriculture in Egypt is still astonishing, given the harsh climate of the region. Without the influence of the Nile River, ancient Egypt civilization would have developed much differently.
Question (8 points)
The Nile was very important to life in ancient Egypt. How might the Egyptian civilization been different had it not been located next to the Nile River? Use specific details from the reading passage in your answer.