The Nile is the world’s longest river (6695km), originating in the highland lakes of Uganda and Ethiopia, which give rise to the White and Blue Niles. At Khartoum in Sudan these join into a single river which flows northwards via a series of cataracts (rocky obstacles and waterfalls) through the Nubian Desert, before forming Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta, through which it travels 1545km to the Mediterranean Sea. The river’s northward flow, coupled with a prevailing wind towards the south, made it a natural highway.
As the source of life, the Nile influenced much of ancient Egyptian society and mythology. Creation myths of a primal mound emerging from the waters of chaos reflect how villages huddled on mounds till the flood subsided and they could plant their crops. The need for large-scale irrigation works in the Valley and the consequent mobilization of labour consolidated local, regional and ultimately centralized authority – in effect, the state.
Both the Valley and its Delta were divided into nomes or provinces, each with a nomarch or governor, and one or more local deities. As power ebbed and flowed between regions and dynasties, certain of the deities assumed national significance and absorbed the attributes of lesser gods in a perpetual process of religious mergers and takeovers. Thus, for example, Re, the chief god of the Old Kingdom, ended up being assimilated with Amun, the prime divinity of Thebes during the New Kingdom. Yet for all its complexity, Ancient Egyptian religion was essentially practical: its pre-eminent concerns were to perpetuate the beneficent sun and river, maintain the righteous order personified by the goddess Maat, and achieve resurrection in the afterlife.
Abundant crops could normally be taken for granted, as prayers to Hapy the Nile-god were followed by a green wave of humus-rich water around June. However, if the Nile failed to rise for a succession of years there ensued the “years of the hyena when men went hungry”. Archeologists reckon that it was famine – caused by overworking of the land, as well as lack of the flood waters – that caused the collapse of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and subsequent anarchy. But each time some new dynasty arose to reunite the land and re-establish the old order. This remarkable conservatism persisted even under foreign rule: the Nubians, Persians, Ptolemies and Romans all continued building temples dedicated to the old gods, and styled themselves as pharaohs.