Posts Tagged ‘nile river basin’

The Forgotten Forests of Egypt

January 16, 2018

By Joannah Otis for NWNL

This is the sixth of our blog series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blogs on the Nile in Ancient Egypt, this essay addresses the importance of trees and indigenous flora to Ancient Egyptians. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

2nd blog 2Willow Tree

Trees played a symbolic role in early Egyptian life as they were associated with both Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, god of the afterlife. Sycamore trees were thought to stand at the gates of heaven while the persea tree was considered a sacred plant. According to ancient myths, the willow tree protected Osiris’s body after he was killed by his brother Set. These trees and others served as physical manifestations of the gods that Egyptians worshipped. Their importance speaks to the dependence this civilization had on the indigenous flora of the Nile River Basin.1

Historic records indicate that Ancient Egypt developed a forest management system in the 11th century CE, but later tree harvesting eliminated much of these forests. This, along with the gradual transition to a dryer climate in Egypt, spelled the demise of the sacred persea tree.2  Sometimes referred to as the ished tree, it was first grown and worshipped in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom, but later spread its roots in Memphis and Edfu. It is a small evergreen tree with yellow fruit that grew throughout Upper Egypt. Egyptians held that the tree was protected by Ra in the form of a cat and closely associated it with the rising run.3 The persea was believed to hold the divine plan within its fruit, which would give eternal life and knowledge of destiny to those who ate it. To the Egyptians, the tree’s trunk represented the world pillar around which the heavens revolved. It was also considered a symbol of resurrection and many used its branches in funerary bouquets. The persea tree no longer grows in Africa, likely because the climate is dryer today than it was in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.4

EGDP007693Persea fruit pendant from Upper Egypt c. 1390-1353 BCE

 

The willow tree has grown in Egypt since prehistoric times and is usually found in wet environments or near water. Today, its timber is used for carving small items, but centuries ago, its branches were strung together to form garlands for the gods. Willow leaf garlands in the shape of crowns have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Tutankhamen, to align them with Osiris.5 After being murdered by his brother Set, Osiris’s body was placed into a coffin and thrown into the Nile River. Around this coffin, a willow tree sprang up to protect the godly body. Towns with groves of willow trees were believed to house one of the dismembered parts of Osiris and thus became sacred spaces.6

Although of lesser importance, the sycamore tree was also considered a sacred plant. It was generally thought of in relation to the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis who were sometimes depicted reaching out from the tree to offer provisions to the deceased. As a result, sycamores were often planted near graves or used to make coffins so the dead could return to the mother tree goddess.7 Other significant trees include the Tamarisk, which was sacred to Wepwawet, and the Acacia tree, which was associated with Horus.8 Each of these trees contribute to the great biodiversity of the Nile River Basin and served religious purposes for the Ancient Egyptian people.

2nd blog 3Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE

Sources

1 “Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” LandOfPyramids.org. 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
6Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
7Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
8“Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Nile River Flora

January 10, 2018

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 5th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the history and uses of the most prevalent types of flora growing in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

The Nile River is home to thousands of species of flora, many of which were vital to the livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians. Aside from growing crops for consumption, Egyptians have long grown plants like cotton, papyrus, and flax for commercial purposes. The diversity and extent of plant life in Egypt is a tribute to the Nile River’s incredible life-giving capacity.

Egyptian cotton is perhaps the most well-known plant product to emerge from the African continent, although the modern variety was not cultivated in Egypt until 1821 when ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha discovered that his country’s climate was perfect for growing cotton. It should be noted, however, that the native variety (G. herbaceum) was first cultivated by Pliny in first century CE Nubia. By 1869, cotton production had expanded significantly to meet the demands of European textile factors in the wake of the American Civil War. Both the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 benefitted the cotton trade. While the canal made trade easier and more accessible, the dam protected the cotton from flooding and allowed for the expansion of its cultivation by providing regular irrigation. Today, Egypt remains a significant exporter of cotton to countries all over the world.1

800px-Cotton_field_kv17Cotton Field
Attribution: Kimberly Vardeman

In Ancient Egypt, the linen made from flax was a universal fabric that every citizen wore regardless of class. Linen is still grown in Egypt, although it is no longer the sole clothing material worn. Considered to be a symbol of purity and divine light, linen was a sacred cloth used to mummify the dead. It was also used to make sails and as a form of payment. The earliest example of Egyptian linen dates from 4500 BCE. Towards the end of the Egyptian civilization, the government established linen production centers staffed by slave laborers. Since everyone wore linen, class was differentiated by the fineness of the weave and the number of layers worn; the more important the person, the finer the weave and the more layers they wore. Flax was not only a source of wealth, but also a signifier of it.2

Although papyrus no longer populates the banks of Egypt’s Nile River due to human overexploitation, it was once a plentiful crop that served several purposes for the Ancient Egyptians. Papyrus thrives in shallow fresh water or water-saturated areas, so the Nile Delta marshes and low-lying areas of the Nile Valley were home to dense thickets of the plant. It was harvested to make skiffs used for hunting, pilgrimages, local transport, and funerals as well as to make writing surfaces. This early form of paper was created under heavy pressure from layers of pith found inside the stalk. Fortunately, Egypt’s dry climate has preserved many early papyrus documents, which indicate that the surface was used for letters, legal texts, religious narratives, illustrations, contracts, and administrative documents. The earliest of these dates from c. 2500 BCE and was discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a Red Sea port. A blank roll of papyrus dating from c. 2900 BCE was also found in the tomb of a high official named Hemaka. These preserved papyri are significant because the surface was often erased and reused several times.3 The cultivation and use of papyrus for writing material ceased in the 9th century CE when paper from other plant fibers became more popular.4

799px-Cyperus_papyrus_(Kafue_River)Papyrus thicket
Attribution: Hans Hillewaert

Papyrus also played a significant role in the Ancient Egyptian religion as the marshes where it grew were considered fertile areas containing the seeds of creation. According to Egyptian myth, the goddess Isis hid her son in the papyrus thickets of Lower Egypt after her brother Seth murdered her husband Osiris. This infant, Horus, was raised amongst the papyrus by the goddess Hathor who was depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus thickets and was worshipped in the Shaking of the Papyrus ritual. Wadjet, the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, was similarly shown carrying a scepter made of papyrus. The ceilings of temples and tombs were often supported by columns whose capitals resembled the tops of papyrus plants. To the Ancient Egyptians, papyrus thickets were symbolic of chaos surrounding and threatening their world as the tickets often hid dangerous creatures such as hippos and crocodiles. Nonetheless, papyrus played an indispensable role in early Egypt.5

Papyrus marsh c. 1427-1400 Upper Egypt

Aside from flax, cotton, and papyrus, Ancient Egyptians grew numerous other crops. These included barley, fava beans, lentils, lettuce, peas, onions, cucumbers, melons, radishes, emmer, wheat, barley, wheat, leeks, grapes, chickpeas, dill, and sesame. Present-day Egyptians continue to harvest these crops with the exception of emmer, which was not grown after the Roman Period, and barley, which also declined after the Roman Period as a result of the popularity of wine over beer. The wide variety of flora found in Egypt speaks to the lushness of the Nile River Basin.6

07.230.34Inlay depicting a bunch of grapes c. 1479-1458 BCE Egypt

Sources:

1 “History of Egyptian Cotton.” Cotton Egypt Association. Web.
2 “Flax in Ancient Egypt” North Dakota State University. 2007. Web
3 Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web
4 “Egyptian Papyrus.” Egyptain-papyrus.co.uk. Web
5Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
6“Agriculture and horticulture in acient Egypt.” Reshafim.org. 2000. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

 

Hippos, Crocodiles and Snakes – Oh My!

December 12, 2017

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life 

This is the fourth in our blog series on The Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the significance of the most prevalent species of fauna living along the Nile River Basin in Ancient Egypt. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

Animals played a significant role in Ancient Egyptian life as pets, hunting partners and religious embodiments of various gods. Wildlife in the Lower Nile River Basin served as physical manifestations of deities, allowing early Egyptians to foster a closer connection to their gods.1 Their importance is evident from the hundreds of animal mummies found in tombs of the pharaohs and officials.  Hippos and crocodiles, due to their size and potential for harm to boats and laborers on the Nile River banks, were worshipped in the hopes that they would not bother humans.

william Hippopotamus (“William”), ca. 1961-1878 B.C.

 

Ancient Egyptians attempted to placate hippos by giving offerings to the goddess Taurent, depicted as a pregnant hippo since she was believed to be the goddess of fertility.2 The most famous Egyptian hippopotamus today is found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and nicknamed “William.”  Residing in the museum since 1917, William has become an endearing mascot of the institution. He was molded in faience, a ceramic material of ground quartz, during the Middle Kingdom circa 1961-1878 BCE in Middle Egypt. His blue-glazed body is decorated with river plants indigenous to Egypt.  

Since hippos were thought to reside in the waterways along the journey to the afterlife, they were considered as an animal to be respected both in life and in death. This is evidenced by William’s three broken legs, which were purposely maimed to prevent him from harming the deceased.3 

As well as wild animals, domesticated animals, such as sheep, cattle, horses, cats and dogs doubled as objects of religious worship. Sheep were employed to trample newly-sown seed into flooded plots of land, in addition to providing their owners with wool, skins, meat and milk. Thus rams, associated with Amun the god of Thebes and Khnum the creator god, were interpreted as signs of fertility.  Cattle were similarly prized and imported as war spoils. Horses, introduced to Egypt around 1500 BCE, became symbols of wealth and prestige due to their rarity before breeding programs developed. Chariots pulled by a pair of horses were used for ceremonies, hunting, and battle.4

ramRam amulet c. 664-630 BCE

Cats became perhaps the most popular pets and sacrificial objects for the Ancient Egyptians after their domestication between 4000 and 3500 BCE. They were closely associated with the fertility and child-rearing goddess Bastet. Many families would sacrifice female cats in the hopes of becoming pregnant. It is believed that some temples kept cats on their premises strictly for the purpose of providing worshippers with an easy offering.  As well, cats were kept as pets to prevent mice, snakes and rats from ruining precious Nile River crops and food sources.4 Similarly, dogs were kept as pets, for hunting and for guard duty.5

cat amuletCat figurine, ca. 1981–1802 B.C.

Less friendly felines and other ferocious wildlife on the floodplains were given reverence for their ability to cause harm.  Offerings were made and prayers were uttered in the hopes that dangerous wild animals would not cause trouble for their human neighbors sharing the same riverbanks. Cheetahs, as well as other large cats such as lions, were hunted for their prized furs, but also captured and kept as house pets. Such highly-regarded animals were aligned with the pharaoh, who was described as fearless and brave as a lion. Nile River crocodiles were given a divine status and associated with the god Sobek so as to give them an incentive to avoid humans. Given that these crocodiles could grow up to six meters long, it was important for the Egyptian people to feel that they had some sort of defense against them.

crocodileCrocodile Statue, Late 1st century B.C. – early 1st century A.D.

Snakes also were cause for caution as the poisonous Egyptian cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra had fatal venom. These snakes became protectors of the pharaoh and were often depicted poised on his brow.7 Although some animals were worshipped because they were feared, others were simply associated with important matters of life like fertility or bravery. All of these creatures, however, were vital to the religious livelihoods of the Ancient Egyptians, as well as to the Nile River Basin’s ecosystem.

Sources

1Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
2Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
3“Hippopotamus (‘William’).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
4Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
5Douglas, Ollie. “Animals and Belief.” Pitt Rivers Museum. Web.
6Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.
7Partridge, Robert. “Sacred Animals of Ancient Egypt.” BBC. 17 February 2011. Web.

All photos used based on Public Domain, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

%d bloggers like this: