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Ancient Egypt: The Nile River

Resources for the Ancient Egypt unit.

Source: Jeremy Bezanger (2021)

The Nile River was one of the most important aspects of life in Ancient Egypt, crucial to the development of human settlement in Egypt, and essential for agriculture, trade and power in Ancient Egypt. Even today, 95 percent of Egyptians live within a few kilometres of the Nile. Canals bring water from the Nile to irrigate farms and support cities. The Nile supports agriculture and fishing. The Nile also has served as an important transportation route for thousands of years. Click through the links below to find out more about this important river and the role it played in Ancient Egypt.

Relief fragment showing fishing scene

Fishing in the Nile river was a scene commonly depicted in ancient Egyptian tombs. In this relief, from the tomb of an Old Kingdom official, several men are shown pulling in a large fishing net that is mainly still in the water. The net itself is depicted below and features several trapezoidal floaters that kept the top close to the water’s surface. Caught in the net are many different types of fish. They are depicted in such detail that their species can be determined—see for example the so-called elephant-nose fish with their typical elongated and rounded snouts (at the bottom right and the fifth fish from the left).

White cross-lined ware beaker with Nile River scene

This beaker depicts some of the wildlife of the Nile including crocodiles and hippos.

Deceased censing and libating to the deified Mentuhotep and Ahmose-Nefertari, with the Hathor cow emerging from the mountain; Tomb of Ameneminet

Between 1907 and 1938, under the leadership of British Egyptologist Norman de Garis Davies, the Graphic Section of the Museum’s Egyptian Expedition undertook a documentation project with the goal of recording ancient monuments as accurately as possible.

This facsimile copies a small scene painted in the northwest corner of the tomb chapel of Ameneminet (Theban tomb no. 277). Located in the Qurnet Murai necropolis, this small rock-cut tomb was made for a priest serving in the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III, probably during the course of Dynasty 20.

Ameneminet is depicted on the left, pouring a libation and censing in front of King Mentuhotep II and Queen Ahmose-Nefertari. Beyond, in the Theban mountain, is the cow goddess Hathor. Mentuhotep II and Ahmose-Nefertari are shown posthumously, not as living beings but as images, as suggested by the rectangular pedestal beneath Mentuhotep II’s feet and Ahmose-Nefertari’s dark complexion. Ahmose-Nefertari’s posthumous representations often show her with black skin. In ancient Egypt the color black evoked rebirth and regeneration, in connection with the fertile black soil brought by the Nile inundation. The dark complexion refers to the deified status Ahmose-Nefertari acquired after her death. As the wife of King Ahmose, founder of a new dynasty (Dynasty 18), and mother of Amenhotep I, she may have been seen as the matriarch of the entire dynastic line and in some ways she embodied the idea of regeneration.

This scene is set in the well-defined locality of Western Thebes. This setting is evoked by the presence of King Nebhepetre-Mentuhotep II, who descended from a family of Theban rulers and built his tomb and mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri; Ahmose-Nefertari, who, with her son Amenhotep I, became the patron deity of the artistic community of Deir el-Medina; the cow goddess Hathor, who was worshipped in the Theban area as early as Dynasty 12; and the Theban mountain that was part of the mountain range preceding the desert plateaus on the west bank of the Nile river.

Boat sculpture

This small funerary boat (a popular and frequent inclusion in tomb goods) was presumably used as a means to assist the spirits of the departed in entering the afterlife. This object dates back to the Middle Kingdom and is an example of the role that water and the Nile River played in Ancient Egyptian culture.

Photo of Nile river boat engraving

Digital photograph (colour); view of engraved rock art showing figure of pecked, infilled Nile river boat with 10 oars and ostrich-like figure with extra protuberance at neck above, upright and facing left. El-Kanais, Egypt.


Egyptian terracotta medallion bearing relief bust of Serapis. A circular plaque, dished in the front, with a draped bust of Sarapis, with the normal raised left and lowered right shoulders, supported by a ball, perhaps the globe of the world; he wears a modius decorated with a floral pattern, probably an olive branch. The plaque is edged with a single moulding and has two holes for suspension. The back is plain and has a lesser curve than the front. Pressed into a one-piece mould. Red-brown Nile silt with abundant gold mica, organic vesicles and white inclusions, coated back and front with an orange slip. This medallion shows how the Nile played a role in the creation of goods in Ancient Egypt.

Hymn to the Nile papyrus

Hymn to the Nile flood is a literary composition in Middle Egyptian, of uncertain date, popular during the New Kingdom. Numerous surviving copies have been identified as written in the New Kingdom , likely as a classical text taught in scribal schools of the time.

After reading, we realize just how much influence religion had on the Egyptians, and how much the Nile influenced their religion. Herodotus wrote: “The Egyptians live in a peculiar climate, on the banks of a river which is unlike every other river, and they have adopted customs and manners different in nearly every respect from those of other men.”[ Manchip White, 1970]. He also wrote to call Egypt itself the “Gift of the Nile,”[Maxwell, 2006 / TESSA, 2008] providing, years later, a remarkably accurate summary of the early Egyptian Civilization.

To the people of Egypt, both ancient and modern, the Nile River encompassed the idea of life itself. For thousands of years, the River has made life possible for people and animals. It has shaped the culture, religion and arts that we are still searching to understand today.

Even the ancient Egyptian calendar (consisting of twelve months each of 30 days) was divided into three seasons and based upon the cycles of the Nile. The three seasons were: akhet, Inundation, peret, the growing season, and shemu, the drought or harvest season.

From the earliest recorded history, the Nile River yearly flooded the surrounding valley region. The fertility of land in the Nile valley, and therefore its suitability for agriculture, depended upon regular flooding without which, there would have been insufficient water to sustain crops. The ancient Egyptians also recognized that if the water rose too high, villages would be destroyed; and conversely if the water remained too low, the land would turn to dust and bring famine. Temple records of the time indicate that, one flood in five was either too low or too high. The Nile was critical in the formation of the Egyptian way of life.

The Egyptian people understood little of the physical sciences and as such natural events were often seen as miracles to them. This limited understanding caused them to seek supernatural explanations for the natural events that were vital to their survival. Among those was the Nile and its cycle of flooding.

In an attempt to understand the Nile, and to assure that it would continue to meet the agricultural needs, the Egyptians considered it as a form of god or at least as a servant of a god. Early Egyptians gave the Nile human characteristics such as the desire to accept offerings, the “establisher of justice” the ability to conqueror, and to “give” to the people.

Although considered a God, there are no surviving temples dedicated to the Nile flood, though there might have been at one time. It is clear however that the Nile flood was the central event of the agricultural year, a time during which silt was deposited over the fields, flooded during inundation, throughout the Nile River valley. Additionally it can be found that other written sources make reference to festivals, during which great quantities of produce were offered to the Nile flood. Speculation could suggest that, such a festival could have included occasions for the singing of this hymn. However, none of the surviving copies, according to researchers, includes directions or dates to indicate public recitation. Furthermore the extract points more towards a literary appreciation of reading than recital of the composition.

The attraction of the river was evident. Unlike the other forces of nature such as, the sun, the moon, the relationship with the Nile was close and personal. Its origin and behavior still remained a mystery, but without it, life in Egypt would not be possible. Through trade contact with Mesopotamia it is possible that the Egyptian people knew of the frequently destructive flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and of the hardship that this brings the people. It is not surprising to learn then, that ancient Egyptians looked upon their river with reverence and awe given its comparative behavior.

Travelling Boat being Rowed

This boat is being rowed in a northerly direction, downstream, against the prevailing north wind. Its mast and spars rest in the forklike support beam, ready to be rigged for the return journey. The sail lies folded on the deck. A small cabin, positioned amidships, leaves room for eighteen rowers; speed clearly is important on this journey. Seated on a stool in the prow, Meketre holds a closed lotus flower to his nose. Before him stands a man (possibly the boat captain), with arms crossed reverentially over his chest. Inside the cabin, a servant guards Meketre's trunk. Is the Chief Steward on an inspection tour for the pharaoh, and does the trunk contain the accounts? Even if this represents a real-life event, the model still refers to the afterlife because the lotus flower, which opens every morning when the sun comes up, is a symbol of rebirth.