Egypt and the Nile – Then and Now Part 1

The country of Egypt is known throughout the world for its incredible history, richness of ancient monuments and stunning archaeological finds. It is also home to about 82 million people. One third of the active labor force remains employed in agriculture. Main crops today include grains, cotton, sugar cane and various fruits.

Modern Cario and the Nile River

However, it would be a disservice to think of Egypt in strictly historical or rural terms. It is the home of rapidly growing urban areas. The city of Cairo has a population of over 8 million people and the greater Cairo metropolis expands both up and down the lower Nile and outwards into the eastern and western deserts. Indeed the great pyramids at Giza are now surrounded by suburban neighborhoods of Cairo. The city of Cairo, with its sometimes overwhelmed infrastructure, environmental problems including significant air pollution and its deep divisions between rich and poor, is also one of the most exciting and cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East and the World at large.

Egypt, Nile Delta, Nile River, Fayum Oasis and Lake Nassar from Terra/MODIS satellite 2000-08-10 (NASA)
Egypt, Nile Delta, Nile River, Fayum Oasis and Lake Nasser from Terra/MODIS satellite 2000-08-10 (NASA)

Given its large population and the importance of its agriculture sector for employment, it is odd to think that most areas of Egypt received an average rainfall of a few mm’s per-year. Aside from some notable oases, Egypt largely depends upon one source for its water – the Nile. A satellite image of Egypt shows the situation well, a thin, thin green band of agriculture and human settlement along the Nile River terminating in its expansive delta. This thread of green is surrounded by almost completely vegetation-free desert. The boundary between the desert and the moist lowlands along the Nile are often as sharp on the ground as they appear in the satellite image on the right. One can have one foot in a green and almost impossibly fertile field and the other in sterile sands that stretch out to the horizon.

Since before the times of the pharaohs most agriculture in Egypt has depended upon the annual cycle of flooding of the Nile. In fact the ancient Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons rather than four – Ahket – flooding in June through September, Peret – crop planting and growth in October through February and Shemu – harvest time in March through May. Not only did the flooding bring water to the valley and delta, but the sediment of the river fertilized the land each year, allowing abundant and predictable harvests from rich and well watered soils. Since ancient times also, the river provided a geographic demarcation of the country. The Delta region has long been known as Lower Egypt and the region along the Nile above the Delta is Upper Egypt. Pharaohs were the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt and are often depicted with the double crown of the two Egypts or with the symbols of Lower Egypt (the cobra, papyrus or the bee for example) and Upper Egypt (the vulture, lotus or the sedge plant for example). The Nile defines Egypt.

A double image of Ramses II (19th Dynasty - ruled 1279-1212 BC) holding the knotted lotus and pypyrus symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt
A double image of Ramses II (19th Dynasty - ruled 1279-1212 BC) holding the knotted lotus and papyrus symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt

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