The geography of ancient Egypt was dominated, as is today, by the combination of lack of rainfall and the Nile River. The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the "gift of the Nile", since the kingdom owed its survival to the annual flooding of the Nile and the resulting depositing of fertile silt. The Nile River flows into the Mediterranean Sea, and there is a delta at the mouth.
The Nile River was the only reason that civilization arose in Egypt at all. In the fourth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus reported in his Histories that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile." He meant that Egypt received virtually no rain, and so all of its water — for drinking, washing, irrigation of crops and operation of water-wheels — came solely from this one river.
The Nile's physical/chemical properties
Since the headwaters of the Nile are deep in central east Africa (at Lake Victoria), the river flooded annually during the height of Egyptian civilization. Spring snowmelt in the Ethiopian highlands would gradually fill the river, and the Nile would gently rise. Unlike Mesopotamia, where floods were irregular, unpredictable and highly destructive, the Nile washed over its banks to flood stage on a predictable schedule, usually within two or three days of the heliacal rising of the star Sirius in late July. For a period of almost three thousand years, with relatively few interruptions, the ancient Egyptians could count on three months of high waters, from August to early November. The Inundation, as it was called, carried a rich bed of silt and alluvial soil onto the farmland of Egypt. In this way, the farmland of Egypt was annually replenished and invigorated, making Egypt the garden-land of the ancient world.
The Nile's annual Inundation thus established the pattern of Egyptian life very early. Between August and November, when the fields were flooded, the Egyptians would work on building projects for the priesthoods and Pharaoh. The pyramids at Giza and Sakkarha were built during the Inundation in all likelihood, as were the temples at Karnak and Luxor. From November to March, farmers would re-establish their fields using geometry and markers placed on high points above the flood lines, and plant their crops. March to June was the harvest season, in which grain and grape would be processed for bread, beer and wine, and Pharaoh's tax collectors would make their rounds. In early July, people collected their tools and prepared for the next flood.
So constant was this pattern that its interruption may have caused the fall of several dynasties. The most famous example of the Nile's failure to flood may have occurred during the later years of the reign of Pepi II, who reigned from the age of 6 until 96. The Nile Inundation failed to arrive on time for several of the last years of his reign, and upon his death the Egyptian bureaucracy largely collapsed in power struggles with the country's nobility and priesthood. Pepi II's death, and the resulting civil conflicts, are considered the end of the Old Kingdom period in Egyptian history.
Four divisions are useful in considering Egypt's geography. The first division is between Upper and Lower Egypt, while the second is between the Red Land (Desert) and the Black Land (Kemet). English speakers sometimes suffer confusion about the first division, because Upper Egypt is in the south, while Lower Egypt is in the north. Upper or southern Egypt, is a narrow river valley, rarely more than twelve miles wide, and more frequently only one or two miles wide. High cliffs hem it in on both sides. Lower or northern Egypt is the broad delta above modern Cairo. The land is flat and fertile, and the rich soil of the Inundation often winds up here. It was richer but softer than Upper Egypt.
The second major division, between Red and Black Lands, is a division between the black and fertile soil of the Nile Valley, and the ruddy, sandy and arid wastes of the desert. While oases existed in the western desert, the eastern desert was largely empty of habitation, except around a few mines and quarries for especially valuable stone. The ancient Egyptians were wholly conscious of how much they lived in a narrow strip of farmland surrounded by hostile wilderness to the east and west.
Egypt's southern boundary, at the southern edge of Upper Egypt, was traditionally held to be the First Cataract. This was an area of harsh rapids and waterfalls some six hundred miles due south of the main exit point of the Nile into the Mediterranean. During the Old Kingdom, this was Egypt's farthest extent. During the Middle and New Kingdom periods, however, Egyptian armies pushed further south, as far as the Sixth Cataract, in an attempt to invade and conquer Nubia and Kush, two countries that lay farther south. Kush is associated with present-day central Sudan, while some scholars place Kush in modern Ethiopia.
Relatively recent discoveries of small tombs in a pyramid style in Sudan suggest that while Egypt did not rule the lands south of the First Cataract, they did have cultural contacts in the deep south, and trade of both goods and ideas was quite common.
Upper, or southern, Egypt, extended from Memphis in the north to Abu (Elephantine) in the south. This is approximately the distance from the 30-degrees North line to the Tropic of Cancer. The western oasis of Fayum is within this district, as are the major cities of Herakelopolis, Quis, Thinis, Abydos, Dendera, Nekhen/Hierakonpolis, and Edfu.
Upper Egypt is a narrow river valley, with steep cliffs rising on either side. Numerous wadis feed into the Nile in this region, and the river itself is rarely more than a mile wide. The valley is often as narrow as six or eight miles.
Lower, or northern, Egypt is the delta. Almost three hundred miles across at the mouth of the Nile, the great fan-shaped region was the breadbasket of ancient Egypt and later of the Roman Empire. Archaeology in Lower Egypt is difficult, since the regularly shifting paths of the rivers and the annual Inundation have often swept away both artifacts and buildings.
Ancient Egyptians referred to the deserts around their country as the desert, meaning "Red Land". Hot and arid, the Red Land grew no food, and was thought to be a place of wildness and danger. In contrast, the khemet or "Black Land" was the Nile valley, where the soil was black and moist, and life was capable of not only surviving, but thriving. The Egyptian word khemet is thought to be the term from which the name Egypt springs.
The desert provided Egypt with numerous products, despite its raw and wild nature. Dry lake beds near the delta in Lower Egypt provided natron, the salt used to preserve mummified corpses. Quartzite for grinding and drilling tools, and limestone for building, came from a desert region northeast of Memphis. Copper came from mines in the Sinai Peninsula and the eastern desert. Alabaster for fine carvings came from near Cusae. Granite quarries near the Red Sea provided stone for sculpture and construction. Diorite for hammers and flint for stone knives traveled downriver from the region of the First Cataract.
Then there was gold. It was said by a Hittite ruler that there was as much gold in Egypt as there was sand. This enormous wealth, and the natural barrier of the deserts, allowed Egypt to carry out its natural role as the trade link between Africa and the Near East. Gold purchased straight timber, a necessary but locally-unavailable commodity, as well as lapis lazuli, silver, ebony, ivory and olive oil.
The 'red land' was the barren desert that protected Egypt on two sides. These deserts separated ancient Egypt from neighbouring countries and invading armies. They also provided the ancient Egyptians with a source for precious metals and semi-precious stones.
The 'black land' was the fertile land on the banks of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians used this land for growing their crops. This was the only land in ancient Egypt that could be farmed because a layer of rich, black silt was deposited there every year after the inundation of the Nile.