THE BLACK LAND
. . . And now we’re in the year 3500 BC, the very end of the Stone Age. Here are some things that haven’t been invented yet:
The world population is less than fifteen million. In our time that’s about the population of the Los Angeles area. But here in 3500 BC, that’s every single human being on earth.
The fall of Troy is more than two thousand years in the future. The Vikings are more than four thousand
years away. It goes without saying that your parents and teachers haven’t been born yet, so don’t bother doing your homework tonight.
DRY, DRY AGAIN
Let’s say that we’ve traveled in space as well as time. We’re now in Africa, in the hottest desert on earth—the Sahara.
But the Sahara wasn’t always a desert. If we traveled back in time five thousand more years, we’d find a very different Sahara.
Back then the Sahara was a grassy savannah. There was plenty of rain, thanks to monsoon winds from the Mediterranean and melting glaciers from the previous ice age.
But around 4000 BC, that all changed. The rains stopped, the grass died, lakes and rivers dried up. Once the grasses were gone, the soil blew away, leaving only baked sand underneath.
Pretty much everyone left or died.
But our story doesn’t end there, or this would be the worst time-travel trip ever!
It’s time to meet the main character in our story, the one who made Egyptian civilization happen. This character isn’t a priest or a pharaoh or one of those gods with the weird animal heads. It’s a river.
The Nile River is one of the longest rivers in the world. It runs more than half the length of Africa, from high in the mountains of Rwanda down to the Mediterranean Sea. That’s more than 4,000 miles, longer than the border between the contiguous United States and Canada.
The Nile was long believed to be the world’s longest river, but in 2001 a group of National Geographic explorers climbed an extinct volcano in the Andes mountains of South America and discovered a new source for the Amazon River. It now looks like the Amazon might be a teensy bit longer than the Nile— by a hundred miles or fewer.
During the last one hundred miles of the Nile’s journey to the sea, it spreads out into a web of smaller rivers that drain into the Mediterranean. Areas like this are often triangular in shape, like the Greek letter delta, so they’re called river deltas.
When the Sahara was nice and green, the Nile delta was a
terrible swamp that everyone stayed away from. But as the desert dried out, nomadic hunters migrated down to the river to find game. The Nile valley turned into a pretty great place to live.
Well, maybe “pretty great” is overstating things a bit. The Egyptian desert certainly has its good points and its bad points.
The sand is crawling with venomous scorpions and snakes.
Blisteringly hot winds called khamsin blow in from the south every spring, causing sandstorms.
In the fall, locusts buzz in to eat your crops-but you get only about an inch of rain every year, so you might not have crops anyway.
The river is full of deadly hippos and crocodiles.
The Nile rises twenty-three feet every summer, flooding the valley.
That’s right: Life in Egypt is so hard that an annual flood is as good as it gets!
Let me explain.
A RIVER FLOODS THROUGH IT
When the Nile flooded every June, it left behind a layer of black dirt called silt. Date palms and fig trees grew in this fertile soil. Farmers could plant wheat and barley there. The early Egyptians called their valley Kemet, meaning “the black land.” The black land was only a mile wide in some places. Everything beyond was endless sand—Deshret, “the red land.”
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
Because of the color of Kemet’s fertile soil, black was the color of good luck in Egypt. Many of the statues of gods we’ve found in Egyptian tombs are painted with black resin. The color red was the opposite: It meant trouble. On an Egyptian calendar red symbols meant something bad had happened on that day-or was about to.
These floods were the only thing that made life in ancient Egypt possible. For the Egyptians, each year had three seasons:
The Egyptians didn’t know the Nile’s rise was because of snow melting in the mountains of southern Africa. In fact, they’d never even heard of snow. They thought the floods were caused by a goddess crying.
About once every five years, the Nile didn’t deposit enough silt, and there would be a famine. Egypt’s priests were in charge of assuring a good summer flood, and they took the job seriously. They learned that the appearance of the star Sirius in the sky just before dawn meant that flood season was beginning. They also invented measuring sticks called nilometers to predict the strength of the flood.
So the flooding helped Egypt develop science.
Some years the flood would be so strong that it would wash away fields and villages. Towns had to band together to build dikes that would keep back the Nile, as well as canals to manage and share the irrigation water. So the flooding helped unite Egypt as well.
In the 1960s Egypt spent $1 billion to build the Aswan High Dam, a massive two-mile-long wall of dirt and rocks across the Nile River. The dam produces electricity and helps prevent drought. But it also means that, after thousands of years, the annual flooding of the Nile River has finally ended.
UP IS DOWN
The Nile River, like the vast Sahara desert, helped keep Egypt isolated from the rest of the Middle East. Head downstream toward the delta, and you’d reach impassable marshes.
Head upstream, and you’d hit waterfalls and rapids. As a result, throughout their history the Egyptians mostly kept to themselves. That’s one reason their culture was so amazing and unique.
But in the beginning there wasn’t one Egypt. There were two.
Does it bother you that Lower Egypt is upper and Upper Egypt is lower? If so, please turn this book upside down.
The names refer to altitude, my friends. Upper Egypt is uphill; Lower Egypt is closer to sea level. But many Egyptian mapmakers did orient their charts with south at the top of the page, the opposite of what we do today. It was just common sense in Egypt: The river flows down, so we’ll put north at the bottom of the page. In fact, when an Egyptian army invaded Syria in 1525 BC, the soldiers freaked out when they realized some rivers in other countries flowed “backward”—that is, south. For us it would be like seeing a river flow uphill.
The soldiers were also amazed in Syria to see “the Nile falling from the sky.” What were they describing?
Around 3100 BC, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were successfully united into one nation. In Egyptian legends the heroic king who did this is called Menes.
The ruler of Upper Egypt wore a white crown featuring a vulture (representing the goddess Nekhbet).
The ruler of Lower Egypt wore a red crown, which featured a cobra (representing their goddess Wadjet).
The rulers of a unified Egypt combined the two crowns into one awesome vulture-cobra supercrown—the Sekhmeti, meaning “two powerful ones.”
Menes is more of a legendary founder of Egypt than a historical one, like the way the Romans believed that their city was founded by twins named Romulus and Remus.
In reality the king who unified the two Egypts was probably a guy named Narmer, also known as “the Striking Catfish.”
After bringing the two Egypts together, Menes or Narmer (or whatever his name was) now ruled over the world’s largest unified nation. He was the most powerful man on earth.
In one legend about Menes, he was attacked one day by his own dogs while out hunting. Desperate to get away from them, he jumped onto the back of a crocodile, which carried him to safety.
In gratitude to the croc god, Menes went on to found the great city of Crocodilopolis, where you could go to worship sacred, bejeweled crocodiles.
Obviously, the best part of this story is that the ancient Egyptians had a city called Crocodilopolis, which is the coolest thing ever. It’s also fun to say. Let’s all say “Crocodilopolis” out loud a few times.
GIFTS OF THE NILE
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile,” because they owed their whole civilization to the river. In fact, “Nile” is a Greek word—the Egyptians just called the Nile Iteru, meaning “the river.” For them it was the only one in the world!
As Egypt grew into a great nation, the Nile continued to provide the inhabitants with gifts.
In a desert with hardly any trees, you can’t build things out of wood. The Egyptians solved that problem by making mud pies! They would bring big lumps of mud and clay in from the Nile wrapped in animal skins. Then they’d add straw and pebbles and pack it into wooden molds. After baking in the sun for almost a month, the mud became bricks that the Egyptians used to build everything, from the lowliest peasant’s house to some of the pharaoh’s temples.
In the shallow waters by the banks of the Nile, a tall reed called Cyperus papyrus (“puh-PIE-russ”) grows. As we’ll see later on, the Egyptians used the fibers of this plant to make a flat material they could write on. Our word “paper” comes from “papyrus.” But the plant was useful in other ways. The poor could eat its roots, or carve them into bowls. It could be burned for fuel. Its hollow stems floated on water so well that Egyptians could bundle them up and make their first boats.
In 1969 an adventurer named Thor Heyerdahl built a boat out of papyrus that he used to cross the Atlantic Ocean! He named it the Ra, after the Egyptian sun god.
For the most part, the Egyptians thought they lived in the best place in the world and were happy to stay home. But whatever they couldn’t get in Egypt, they could trade for along the Nile. From the south the kingdom of Nubia would trade them luxury goods such as elephant ivory, gold, and even giraffe tails to use as flyswatters!
Egypt’s trading ships were no tiny papyrus fishing boats—they were made of imported wood, and some were as long as 170 feet, more than twice the size of Columbus’s ships. To trade with Asia—bringing cinnamon from
India, for example, or incense from Yemen—merchants had to figure out a way to travel from the Nile to the Red Sea. So they built ships that could be taken apart, carried overland through a wadi, or dry riverbed, for 120 miles, and then rebuilt at the coast!
BECAUSE I’M HAPI
The Egyptians even worshipped the Nile River-in the form of the god Hapi. “Fattener of herds!” they would chant. “Might that fashions all! None can live without him!” Hapi was sort of an odd-looking guy. He was bright blue in color, like river water. And to show the life-giving power of the Nile, he was always drawn with women’s breasts!
The Nile had its dangers, of course.
For one thing, its path kept moving. Rivers gradually change their courses, and the bed of the Nile River moved east about two or three meters every year. Around 1050 BC, one branch of the Nile made a massive course change, leaving Pi-Rameses, the capital of Egypt, high and dry! The pharaohs built a new capital called Djanet along the new branch of the Nile and ordered the entire temple of Pi-Rameses moved, one stone at a time, to the
new site, and rebuilt. Some of the statues that had to be moved weighed more than two hundred tons.
“Djanet” is another name for Tanis—the lost Egyptian city that Indiana Jones is searching for in Raiders of the Lost Ark!
The ancient Egyptians worshipped crocodiles, but that’s mostly because they were so scared of them. And rightly so! To this day Nile crocodiles kill hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in Africa every year. Egyptian sailors had a magical trick they’d try against crocodiles. They’d point at them with their index finger and little finger.
Needless to say, Junior Geniuses, if you’re ever facing down a crocodile, I would not rely on that trick. It sounds like a good way to get two of your fingers bitten off.
Even more dangerous than the crocodile, believe it or not, is the hippopotamus. If you think hippos are just sleepy, peaceful river lumps, they’ve got you fooled. Hippos can be aggressive, they’re not afraid of people, they run faster than you can, and they like to overturn boats and chomp on people with their twenty-inch-long teeth. Twenty inches? That’s about as long as your arm!
In fact, the Egyptians said that their famous first king, Menes, ruled sixty-two years and was finally mauled to death by a hippopotamus. Wow. When you think about it, that’s a pretty action-packed way to die for a guy in his eighties.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
However, the civilization Menes founded lived on long after his death. His was just the first of many dynasties (royal families) that ruled Egypt over the next three thousand years. Three thousand years! That’s longer than Western civilization has lasted, from ancient Greece right up until today.
Let’s meet the kings and queens who ran the world for centuries.