Who were the Egyptians?
This article is intended to set the scene, introducing ancient Egypt and its people. So who were the ancient Egyptians? One way to approach this question is to view the ancient Egyptians as a product of the unique land that they inhabited, to which they were inextricably linked.
The River Nile
Today, Egypt is viewed as a modern state with politically-defined borders enclosing an area of c. 390,000 square miles. However, the reality of where people live is quite different. The majority of Egypt is desert, and so largely uninhabitable. People today live mainly where the ancient Egyptians used to live; areas which can be irrigated by Egypt’s main source of water: the river Nile. It is for this reason that Greek historian, Herodotus, referred to Egypt as “the gift of the Nile”.
The River Nile is the world’s longest river. It is actually the product of two tributaries: the Blue Nile (with its source at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands) and the White Nile (fed by a number of sources in southern Sudan and central Africa).
The Nile meanders through Egypt as a single stream from Aswan in the south to Cairo in the north. In contrast, the Nile breaks into streams when it reaches Cairo, providing a wider, flatter area of land in a roughly triangular shape, known as the Delta. There are two main branches: the Rosetta to the west and the Damietta to the east.
The Delta region is known as ‘Lower Egypt’ and the Nile Valley is known as ‘Upper Egypt’. These terms are derived from the flow of the Nile, from south to north.
In ancient Egypt, the Nile Valley and Delta benefitted from the annual inundation. Heavy annual rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands caused the Blue Nile to swell, and the Egyptian Nile to flood. This annual inundation was at the heart of the agricultural system: the waters would irrigate the fields and deposit nutrient-rich soil. The Egyptian calendar was configured around the annual inundation, and comprised three seasons, each of four 30-day months: Inundation (referring to the arriving of the flood waters), Growing (referring to the receding of the waters, and the sowing of the seed), Harvest (referring to harvesting of the crops).
The inundation no longer occurs due to the Aswan Dam system which regulates the flow of water.
As for the geographical surrounding of Egypt, to the west is the Sahara desert, to the north is the Mediterranean Sea, to the east is the Eastern desert and Red Sea, and to the south the Nile acts as a transport highway into the Sudan and central Africa, but at Egypt’s southern end this highway is interrupted by the first in a set of six cataracts: natural rock outcrops that render the Nile impassable at those points.
All of these natural features offered a degree of unique protection and resource to Egypt, and the people viewed themselves as the centre of a world created by the gods, with a king ruling by divine appointment, and with foreign countries at their disposal.
Ancient Egyptians were very proud of their culture, but they are not to be seen as racist. In reality, Egypt itself must have been a fairly multicultural place, which brings us on to the identity of the Ancient Egyptians themselves. It is clear from stereotyped depictions of non-Egyptians from ancient Egypt that the Egyptians regarded themselves as a distinct population. There have been many attempts to identify the ancient Egyptian race, but this contentious question is best addressed by C. Loring Brace:
‘The “race” concept did not exist in Egypt, and it is not mentioned in Herodotus, the Bible, or any other writings of classical antiquity. Because it has neither biological nor social justification, we should strive to see to it that it is eliminated from both public and private usage. Its absence will be missed by no one, and we shall all be better off without it. R.I.P.’ (C. Loring Brace, David, P. Tracer, Lucia Allen Yaroch, John Robb, Kari Brandt and A. Russell Nelson (1996). ‘Clines and Clusters versus ‘Race’: A Test in Ancient Egypt and a Case of a Death on the Nile,’ in Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (eds), Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press): 162.
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