Egyptian Culture and Trade
When Egyptians first settled along the Nile, the resources of the river supplied them with what they needed to survive. Grain grew quickly in the healthy soil of the Nile, so the people had plenty to eat. The Egyptians used mud and stones found along the river to make sturdy homes and monuments. Clothing, paper, and lamp oil were all locally produced from plants and animals.
Of course, ancient Egyptians soon desired things that could not be produced locally. Can you guess from the map what the main route of trade from Egypt was? If you guessed the Nile River, you are correct. The Nile River is the longest river in the world. It has the unusual quality of flowing northward into the Mediterranean Sea. Access to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea opened Egypt to foreign cultures and influences. Large boats made of wood navigated up the Nile and sailed throughout the region. These boats returned with items that the Egyptians desired.
As Egyptian civilization developed, the need grew for better wood. The soft soil along the Nile is very fertile but does not support the type of tall, strong tree that the ancient Egyptians desired. The Egyptians found timber in the ancient city of Byblos in the area that is now Lebanon. Once the Egyptians started importing lumber, they were able to build more. They had bigger boats, better furniture, and even chariots. The Egyptians also used wood for fuel, so they could create hot fires for pottery.
Ancient Egypt sat at an important crossroads of trading routes. Foreign cultures in Africa, Europe, and Asia produced a variety of goods that were exchanged along these passages. Although the Egyptians could not always control trade, they certainly tried. To gain access to new resources, Egypt conquered territories, formed alliances, and improved land and sea routes.
Egyptian civilization first developed along the Nile Delta near the Mediterranean Sea. When the Egyptians explored south along the Nile, they found the riches of Nubia. This land had other natural resources, such as gold mines and cattle. After the Egyptians conquered Nubia, they expanded trade to other parts of Africa.
Trade affected Egyptians in a variety of ways, largely depending on social class. Throughout early history, most Egyptians were self-sufficient farmers. The lower classes had few material goods. The middle classes mostly used items that were made locally. Only a very small, wealthy group had access to luxury goods acquired from afar. These were items such as ivory, timber, and precious stones. Many items were preserved over time in the tombs of the wealthiest Egyptians. We can study these items to better understand what ancient Egyptians valued.
Archaeologists have found objects made from lapis lazuli in some of the oldest Egyptian tombs, dating back to 5000 BCE. This precious blue stone was used mainly to make jewelry and came from Afghanistan, more than 2,000 miles away! These beautiful artifacts are evidence of Egypt’s early trading culture. Egypt had many resources, but they desired more. In the same way that your shoes might be made from materials created from far away, the Egyptians desired items that could not be produced within their borders.
The Egyptians eventually took control of the Sinai Desert, the land between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. There they found copper and gems. Craftsmen turned these materials into fine objects such as ornaments and jewels. Most classes of Egyptians wore jewelry, but wealthy Egyptians enjoyed decorating themselves with the fine metals and gems. They also used these luxury items for the afterlife, dressing the deceased in fine jewelry to protect them from evil spirits.
Trade was conducted by land as well as by river. Many important overland trade routes crossed the region. Donkeys loaded with African luxury goods traveled these trade routes. One route crossed Arabia to reach Yemen, a source of the luxury spices myrrh and frankincense. Both of these items came from the sap of trees not found in Egypt. The Egyptians used them for health purposes and in burials.
Other imported items from land routes included incense, panther skins, ivory, and live animals. Giraffes and baboons were also traded; they were used both for entertainment and religious purposes.
During this period, the Old Kingdom (approximately 2575–2130 BCE), Egypt was a powerful force, not only in terms of trade. It was during this period that the pyramids of Giza were constructed. These large pyramids were created by either enslaved or free Egyptian laborers. Historians are still not sure of their origin, but their purpose is clear. They were built as tombs for pharaohs and queens. The limestone for these great pyramids traveled by boat along the Nile River.
The Egyptians during this time were not only importing items but were exporting items as well. Can you guess what they would have exported to other places?
As mentioned earlier, grain grew very well in the Egyptian soil. Early trading did not involve coins but materials. The Egyptians did very well trading grain for other items. The papyrus plant that is useful for making paper also grew abundantly along the Nile. The Egyptians found many other cultures willing to trade goods for this material.
When you consider how long ago the ancient Egyptians lived, it is fascinating to think about their relationship to other cultures. Just as we may have oranges shipped from Florida, wealthy Egyptians awaited the arrival of goods from far away. Their culture became dependent on these goods. Over time the Egyptians required these goods for use in everything from religious ceremonies to entertainment.
Question (8 points)
Ancient Egypt’s location played a role in its development. How did geography influence trade in ancient Egypt? Use specific examples from the reading passage in your answer.