Red Land, Black Land

(from Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz)

Thanks to the work of Petrie and Caton Thompson and their successors, we now have a very general picture of prehistoric life in ancient Egypt. Even at this early period we must distinguish between the two major geographical subdivisions of the country — Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.

In order to comprehend this terminology, the reader must adjust to what may seem a piece of striking illogic: Upper Egypt is the valley of the Nile, from the Cairo region south, and Lower Egypt is the Delta. The illogic is only illusory; it arises from the fact that the Nile flows from south to north, and the region nearest the source is properly "upper" in relation to the mouth of the river. Since the Delta is at the top of modern maps, with the river hanging down like a tail, most people find the Upper Egypt—Lower Egypt concept hard to keep in mind. I don't blame them. It was years before I could read "Upper Egypt" without making a conscious mental effort to remember where it was. All I can do, however, is sympathize, because the names are often used by archaeologists, and there is no changing them now. To confuse the issue still more, some scholars believe that in ancient times Upper Egypt ended near Assiut, with Lower Egypt being everything north of that city.

The two regions differ from each other in many ways, the most obvious being that of physical topography. Upper Egypt is a fantastic country — five hundred miles long by perhaps five miles wide. On either side of the river is a narrow strip of fertile black soil, bounded by sand and by the steep cliffs of the desert plateau through which the river has, through immemorial ages, carved and deepened its channel. The line between living and dead land is sharply defined; one may stand today with one foot on the sand and the other on the green-growing fields. The ancient Egyptians were keenly conscious of the difference between the "black land" and the barren "red land," and these two terms occur frequently in their literature. The black land was precious and cherished. Temples, palaces, and towns were built whenever possible on the waste-land of sand, which lay between the fertile strip and the barrier of cliffs, so that not an inch of cultivable soil would be wasted. The two narrow ribbons of black land, one on either side of the river, have always supported a disproportionately large population, when one considers the actual acreage under cultivation. In ancient times this situation was possible because of the unfailing fertility of the soil, which was the result of a unique phenomenon — the annual flood, which deposited not only water but also nutrient silt upon the fields. Other rivers perform this obliging service, but never with the regularity of the Nile; so predictable was the Nile rise that the ancient Egyptians called one of their seasons "Inundation," for during those months the land was always under water, soaking up the life-giving nutrients that the river had taken up in its northward flow.

The idea of automated irrigation may sound paradisaical to a farmer, but it was not so easy as one might suppose. The height of the river varied from year to year, and a difference of inches might mean the difference between famine or prosperity. Further, the water had to be directed to the proper place during the dry months, which are very dry indeed.

When the Nile nears the Mediterranean, it breaks up into several branches whose beds form the large river Delta. In ancient times this land was swamp, thick with reed and papyrus and teeming with bird and animal life. There was no need for irrigation or inundation here; the problem was that of too much water.

There was a contrast between the Delta and the river valley in psychological, as well as physical, terms. The Delta bordered on the sea, which was the ancient highway of commerce and conquest; the valley was isolated on both sides by wild deserts and wilder people.

It would seem logical, then, that the Delta region developed earlier, and more quickly, than did the south. This doesn't seem to have been the case. However, we know more about Upper Egypt than about the Delta. Material that survived in the hot, dry air of Upper Egypt rotted away in the Delta swamps. This fact affects archaeological knowledge in two ways; not only is there less material to be found in Lower Egypt, but also less work has been done there. It is frustrating to excavate in a region where you have to work in water up to your knees, and infuriating to get only indistinguishable lumps of rotted material for your pains. It is no wonder that archaeologists prefer to breathe the salubrious desert air of the south, which has preserved even such fragile objects as textiles and painted reliefs. However, long-suffering scholars have in recent years worked extensively in the Delta, and the picture is constantly being revised.

The sea — the "Great Green," as the Egyptians called it — may be a high road for contacts between peoples, but it may also be a barrier. An island is hard to invade, and in one sense all of Egypt was an "island" society. The sea protected it on the north, and inhospitable deserts deterred invasion on both sides. Conquest from the south was hampered because of the nature of the river upstream from Egypt. From Aswan north to the Mediterranean the Nile was and is easily navigable, but south of Aswan there was a cataract region, a stretch of river filled with rocks and waterfalls, which rendered the passage of ships difficult and peril-filled. This situation has changed since the construction of the Aswan dams, but during the period that is the subject of this book there were five more cataracts south of Aswan, some even more dangerous than the first. The first cataract was, for many years, the southern boundary of ancient Egypt.

Barriers, of water or desert, can keep out other things besides invading armies — trade, and new ideas, for instance. One theory of the beginning of history in Egypt maintains that the valley was developed more quickly than the Delta. If Egyptian civilization owes something to external stimulation, the stimuli could have been transmitted via the Red Sea route and brought overland across a well-known caravan route that leads from the sea to the region around modern Luxor. So far, excavation in the area has not turned up any physical proof of such contact. Another theory holds that the predynastic cultures of Nubia were much more advanced than earlier, Eurocentric scholars believed, and that they interacted with their kin to the north. ...with much of what was Lower Nubia now buried fathoms deep under Lake Nasser, there may never be a definitive answer.

Barbara Mertz, (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 10-14.

from Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt (NY: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 10-14.


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