In the thousands of years after the end of the last Ice Age, North Africa had a much wetter climate than it does today. It was a well-watered grassland, supporting a varied wildlife. Hunter-gatherers roamed the region, exploiting the flora and fauna to be found there.
Over time the climate of North Africa began to get dryer. Over thousands of years the wet grasslands gave way to the Sahara Desert that we know today – a vast, dry waste, hostile to human societies of any kind. However, through the region which we now call Egypt, flowed the river Nile.
Near the Nile, life could survive. In fact, it could thrive. By around 5000 BCE the Nile Valley was a swampland of reed beds, pools, and plenty of wildlife, all watered by the great river rolling by.
The drying of the surrounding terrain was pushing more and more people onto the narrow strip of land along the river banks. Archaeological evidence suggests a big expansion of population in the Nile Valley from around this time; and crucially, they had adopted farming. This had spread down from the Middle East, and was the only way that the growing number of people could live on such a limited area of land. They were already cultivating barley and emmer, which would be the staple crops of ancient Egypt, along with beans, peas and host of other plants.
Despite the plentiful water, the geography of the Nile Valley offered major challenges to these early farmers. The Nile floods each year. This allowed plant life to thrive – for a time. If the water is allowed to flow on to the sea, the water levels drop, leaving the land to the mercy of the searing sun. Crops shrivel and die.
To feed the growing population, therefore, the flood waters of the Nile had to be channelled into pools and tanks, where they could be stored. As the waters receded, enough could then be available to keep the crops growing throughout the growing season. Bountiful harvests would have allowed a growing population to be fed.
Nile Valley – Flooding of the Nile
Image by James Webster
To construct and maintain the dykes, dams, ponds, irrigation canals and drainage ditches needed to hold the flood water back, and then guide it along chosen paths to where it was needed, required a huge amount of labour. It also called for many communities to work together in a coordinated effort, on a (for that time) huge scale and over a wide area. This in turn required what we today would call “management”. In those days, it would be seen as the sacred authority of powerful leaders.
Taming the flood waters of the Nile conferred another great benefit on the land. Its waters brought a rich load of mud from the lands further south, through which the long river flowed. During the annual flood, much of this was deposited as a wonderfully fertile soil on the valley floor. This allowed a very dense population to grow.
By around 3500 BCE, the effort of irrigating and farming the land, carried out over generations upon generations, had reshaped the social and physical geography of the Nile Valley. The river was now flanked by numerous farming villages, surrounded by a dense network of irrigated fields. These villages were ruled by to powerful chiefdoms, each covering a section of the long Nile valley. Within these chiefdoms, a social elite had emerged, apparent to modern archaeologists in the refined grave goods recovered from the period. These were royal officials, serving sacred rulers, set in authority over the rest of the population to ensure that the work was carried out properly, and that the flood waters of the Nile were shared out fairly. Large, well-planned towns with fortified walls and brick-built buildings had also appeared. These developments represent a fundamental upgrading of material culture in the country.
In the course of their work, these officials were developing a range of capabilities which would later allow the civilization of ancient Egypt to flourish. These included organizing and controlling large numbers of people; deploying advanced techniques in construction, engineering and mathematics; and, possibly even by this early date, an early form of writing.
Within these chiefdoms, then, the characteristic features of Ancient Egypt, one of the great civilizations of world history, were beginning to take shape.
Continue: Part 2: Ancient Egypt 3500 BCE – 2500 BCE looks at the rise of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and the building of the Great Pyramids.
History Atlas: Maps of Ancient Egypt
Overview: Ancient Egypt
Overview of Ancient Egypt,
Location of Ancient Egypt,
Ancient Egyptian Art,
Ancient Egyptian Architecture,
Ancient Egyptian Technology,
Ancient Egyptian Governance,
Ancient Egyptian Economy and Society,
Ancient Egypt in World History
The History of Ancient Egypt
Part 4 – Ancient Egyptian History 1500 BCE- 1000 BCE: A Strong Monarchy, An Imperial Power, International Trade and Diplomacy, Egyptian Imperialism, Religious Upheavals, The Hittite Challenge, New Threats, Impotence Abroad c.1153-1069 BCE, Weakness at Home