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Agriculture and Power Politics along the Nile – to the 8th Dynasty

The waters of the Nile came from annual rains in the tropics to the south of Egypt. The Nile rose in early July, and in October it receded, leaving little water and a layer of black, fertile soil – inspiring people there to call the area the Black Land.

New analysis, described by BBC News on 4 September 2013, describes groups beginning to settle along the Nile between the years 3700 and 3600 BCE.

For farming to thrive along the Nile, a system of controlling its waters was necessary. To increase their ability to plant, people trapped waters when the river rose, and they lined their water basins with clay to prevent the water from sinking into the soil so there would be water to use when the river dried again. From sometime around 3500 BCE the Egyptians began building a system of dikes and sluices, and around this time Egypt began growing food in greater abundance than elsewhere in Africa.

Satillite view of the Nile River

The Nile today, flowing
from the tropics in Uganda

Nile River and Pyramid

The Egyptians grew wheat, barley, beans, lettuce, peas, radishes, onions, olives, dates and figs, and they raised cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The construction would continue for more than a millennium so that by 2000 BCE both sides of the Nile would be a checkerboard of water basins, sluices and canals, with water being drawn from basins upstream whenever water was insufficient downstream.

As a desert, Egypt had no violent storms. Nor did the Egyptians have the problem with accumulation of salt which periodically ruined Sumerian farms. The abundance of food that they produced allowed a rise in population greater than elsewhere in Africa. Along the Nile, small villages with rectangular houses of dried mud grew into towns.

As in Sumer, enough food was produced to support a variety of occupations: traders, merchants, craftsmen, priests, scribes and soldiers. And like the people of Sumer, the Egyptians held land as personal property. Some farmers were more successful than others and grew richer. Class divisions arose, as did local governments.

Irrigation systems and grain storage had to be maintained. Property divisions had to be maintained and disputes mitigated. Large landowners formed aristocracies and allied themselves with kings, or they chose who would be king – while most people remained small farmers and were expected to give a share of their crops to their king as taxes and to give free labor for community projects.

Communities came into conflict and warred against each other. Local kings vied with each other for wider power and control. Looking back to around 3200 BCE, people along the northern 600 miles (960 kilometers) of the Nile had amalgamated into a northern and a southern kingdom. The two kingdoms remained antagonistic toward each other, and in what was most likely a series of wars across generations during the 2900s, one of the kingdoms conquered the other. The conquering king, according to legend, was Menes – the first king of all Egypt. The identity of Menes has been the subject of debate. The aforementioned BBC News article (4 September, 2013) describes archaeologists as believing that "Egypt's first king, Aha, came to power after another prominent leader, Narmer, unified the land." It describes a team of researchers at the University of Oxford as able to date the reigns of "the next seven kings and queens – Djer, Djet, Queen Merneith, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qa'a – who with Aha formed Egypt's first dynasty." The researchers date this dynasty as beginning by about 3100 BCE.

With the unification of Egypt came a new era of peace and security along the Nile. Peace was served not only by unity but also by something lacking in Mesopotamia: natural barriers against wandering peoples. There was the Mediterranean Sea in the north, vast deserts to the east and west, and a great mountain range to the south. Peace benefited Egypt's economy. Egypt's new dynasty of kings provided work for an increasing number of craftsmen. Carpentry increased, aided by the use of copper tools. Brick and stone of fine quality were drawn from nearby quarries and used in building.

Egypt's trade expanded. Tradesmen went north by sea along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, to the Mountains of Lebanon, from where they imported timber. Tradesmen traveled south along the Red Sea to the coast just east of the Ethiopian Highlands, south to the coast of eastern-most Africa, and to the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. They found ivory, rare animals, sweets and the incense that they were to burn in their temples. They traveled south along the Nile into Nubia, and there they acquired more incense and ivory, ebony, animal skins, and boomerangs. And, on at least one occasion, they found a pygmy from the Congo basin, whose appearance entertained the court of Egypt's king.

Contact with other peoples brought one of human history's most recurring developments: cultural diffusion, in other words the adoption of ideas and techniques. From Mesopotamia, the Egyptians acquired writing, the use of bronze, shipbuilding techniques and artistic motifs.

Authoritarian Rule

Egyptian kings (pharaohs in Egyptian) put members of their immediate or extended families in charge of their government's central administration. Kings functioned as makers of law, as chiefs of justice and as supreme priests. And they passed their power and property to their sons. A distance had developed between the kings and common people. Official priests prohibited common people from using rituals that were believed suitable only for the king. And commoners were not recognized as having an afterlife like the king and his associates.

From the political claim that they ruled Egypt on behalf of the gods, Egypt's kings began to claim that they had been born by the gods, that they were the son or the incarnation of the sun god Re, and that they were immaculately conceived. The kings believed that as members of the family of the gods they had to keep their bloodline untainted, and they believed that to protect the purity of their blood they should marry their sons to their daughters.

Local authorities who had been appointed by ministers at the king's court were allowed to bequeath their positions to their sons. Their descendants became hereditary nobles, and they believed that their positions were part of the god-given order. The new hereditary nobles wished to be united with Osiris after death, as was the king. And if the opportunity presented itself, some nobles ruled their domains without interference from the king.

Egypt's pyramids were political creations. They were the burial place of kings. One pyramid was the labor of as many as ten thousand workers on the scene at any one time: craftsmen, engineers and common laborers. Archaeologists examining a village of construction workers – a village of men, women and children – estimate that around 20,000 workers labored twenty years to complete one of the great pyramids. Smaller pyramids were built for the king's officials and overseers. It was politics and culture in sharp contrast to an advanced democracy in the 21st century, where a political leader might lose office or go to jail for spending government money on a project that benefited himself or his family.

The Egyptians were not far removed from the views of magic and spirits held by hunter-gatherers. A king's burial chamber was decorated with artistic depictions of his happier moments so he could cling to that which pleased him. And into the burial chamber the Egyptians put artifacts that they believed would migrate in spiritual form with the king to the underworld. Egyptians who had little fear of the gods robbed the king's tombs of its treasures, and after this was discovered the burial chambers of kings were put into great pyramids, which allowed more space to hide the king's tomb.

The ancient Egyptians believed that from the peak of the pyramid the spirit of the king would begin its climb to a unity with their sun god, Re. They believed that the king's spirit would accompany Re on his daily journey across the sky, to disappear down into the underworld and rise again the next day.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.