Herodotus on Egyptian Geography

The following excerpts on the geography of Ancient Egypt are from book two of "The History", by Herodotus. They are based on his observations while visiting Egypt from his homeland in Greece. The numbers at the beginning of paragraphs indicate the chapter of the book from which the quote was taken.

5. For any one who sees Egypt, without having heard a word about it before, must perceive, if he has only common powers of observation, that the Egypt to which the Greeks go in their ships is an acquired country, the gift of the Nile. [This term, "gift of the Nile", has long been considered a poignant observation that sums up the fact that without the water from the river, used for irrigation, and the annual flooding which brought renewed soil to the farmland, that Egypt as a great civilization would not have been possible.] The same is true of the land above the lake, to the distance of three days' voyage, concerning which the Egyptians say nothing, but which is exactly the same kind of country.

7. From the coast inland as far as Heliopolis the breadth of Egypt is considerable, the country is flat, without springs, and full of swamps. [Here Herodotus refers to Lower Egypt, which is the delta region where the river spills out onto an alluvial plain.]

8. As one proceeds beyond Heliopolis up the country, Egypt becomes narrow, the Arabian range of hills, which has a direction from north to south, shutting it in upon the one side, and the Libyan range upon the other. The former ridge runs on without a break, and stretches away to the sea called the Erythraean [The Red Sea]; it contains the quarries whence the stone was cut for the pyramids of Memphis: and this is the point where it ceases its first direction, and bends away in the manner above indicated. [This is Upper Egypt.]

14. At present, it must be confessed, they obtain the fruits of the field with less trouble than any other people in the world, the rest of the Egyptians included, since they have no need to break up the ground with the plough, nor to use the hoe, nor to do any of the work which the rest of mankind find necessary if they are to get a crop; but the husbandman waits till the river has of its own accord spread itself over the fields and withdrawn again to its bed, and then sows his plot of ground. [By this it can be seen what a great advantage the river proved to be.]

19. I was particularly anxious to learn from them why the Nile, at the commencement of the summer solstice, begins to rise, and continues to increase for a hundred days - and why, as soon as that number is past, it forthwith retires and contracts its stream, continuing low during the whole of the winter until the summer solstice comes round again. [This is a very good question, and Herodotus attempts to approach it logically. He dismisses any notion that it might be a work of the gods.] On none of these points could I obtain any explanation from the inhabitants, though I made every inquiry, wishing to know what was commonly reported - they could neither tell me what special virtue the Nile has which makes it so opposite in its nature to all other streams, nor why, unlike every other river, it gives forth no breezes from its surface. [This illustrates how difficult and dangerous travel was at the time.] 22. The explanation, which is very much more plausible than any others, is positively the furthest from the truth; for there is really nothing in what it says, any more than in other theories. It is, that the inundation of the Nile is caused by the melting of snows. Now, as the Nile flows out of Libya, through Ethiopia, into Egypt, how is it possible that it can be formed of melted snow, running, as it does, from the hottest regions of the world into cooler countries? [Interestingly enough, the snows are part of the explanation. At the time, it was not well understood that it was hottest at the equator and that going farther south, the weather would moderate and then become cool. The rest of the explanation is heavy seasonal rains.]

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Interesting Fact:

Egypt has remained dependent on the Nile as an agricultural resource since its beginnings. The river contains an unusual assortment of creatures which includes the crocodile.


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