Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – Egypt – The River Nile

Little wonder that to the ancient Egyptians the river Nile was a mystery they regarded with a feeling of reverence, believing that a god dwelt within its waters. For many hundred miles from the mouth no tributary breaks its winding outline. Onward it flows through rainless regions, beneath an almost tropical sun, spreading abroad the fertile bounty which for untold centuries made Egypt the granary of the world. Tens of thousands of people still dwell upon its productive banks, drawing daily from its fountain of waters for purposes of irrigation and domestic consumption. Seemingly the river grows wider and deeper as it makes its way toward the Mediterranean, although it actually loses one third of its volume. Every year, beginning in June, it slowly fills its bed between the steep alluvial banks, and then as deliberately spreads its turbid waters over the rich soil to the desert’s edge. Having deposited its freight of vitalized earth, its mission accomplished, it gradually recedes and, reaching its winding bed, again sinks many feet below the level surface of the land.

The annual overflow of the Nile no longer turns its valley into a great lake, as it must have done in earlier times, for, through engineering skill, man now controls to a certain extent the waters of the river. By means of canals these waters are conducted to supply somewhat remote districts during the dry season.

The productive soil left by the retreating Nile requires but the merest scratching of its yielding surface by the primitive plow to be made ready for the seed. Owing, however, to the absence of rain, the crops must be watered continually by artificial means ; therefore, throughout the long days, hundreds of native workmen draw water from the river and raise it to the little canals which, like the lines of a checkerboard, divide the arable land.

The water is lifted from the river by means of a shadoof. This rude apparatus consists of a long pole, like a well sweep, with a bucket at one end and a ball of dried mud as a weight at the other. When the river is low, a man stationed at the water’s edge fills the bucket, raises it with his shadoof, and pours the water into a hole in the embankment above him. Other men above, each with a shadoof, successively dip and lift the water upward until the top of the embankment is reached. By a network of little canals the water is conducted over a tract of cultivated soil.

Week after week this operation is repeated, furnishing employment to many men, who receive from ten to fifteen cents per day for their labor.

The life along the river is unique and interesting. Flat-bottomed boats, freighted with merchandise brought by camels across the desert to Assuan, float down the river, their sails, like the wings of gigantic birds, sharply outlined against the clear sky. Here and there along the banks may be seen women filling their water jars.

No day in the Egyptian country closes without a glorious sunset. The great ball of fire drops into the sand of the Libyan desert ; the river becomes a field of magnificent color ; palm groves are silhouetted against the sky; strange outlines are seen here and there ; the women go to the river to fill their water jars ; weird forms hurry to and fro ; then suddenly the wonderful afterglow streams up from the western horizon. The heavens become a play of color. It ii like a glorious transformation from the realities of life into the ideal surroundings of another world, beautiful beyond description. Then the color fades away; darkness comes rapidly; it is night, and all is quiet upon the dark shores of the river Nile.