Lesson 8: Climates of Africa - Egyptian Civilization and Nile

Dynastic Egypt

This table shows a comparison of the historical periods in Ancient Egypt as well as the amount of rainfall that fell at that time. Obviously these are averages and over-simplifications, but we do have the data to support them as you will see below.

Dates (BC) Stage of Civilization Dynasties Climate/Rainfall
3100-2950 Late Predynastic Period desiccation (end of Wet Phase)
2950-2575 Early Dynastic Period 1st-3rd desiccation (end of Wet Phase)
2575-2150 Old Kingdom 4th-8th excellent
2125-1975 1st Intermediate Period 9th-11th very bad
1975-1640 Middle Kingdom 11th-14th excellent
1630-1520 2nd Intermediate Period 15th-17th probably bad (Hyksos period)
1539-1075 New Kingdom 18th-20th mixed
1075-715 3rd Intermediate Period 21st-25th very bad

Chart: Names and dates for Dynastic Egypt. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/timeline.shtml

Predynastic Period through the Old Kingdom (3100-2150 BC)

This period encompasses the early settlement of the Nile Valley through the 8th Dynasty. Although it was the end of the Holocene Wet Phase, and it seemed to the Egyptians that things were getting drier and drier, we would view the flood levels as very high. Dynasty I floods averaged roughly 200 BCM (recall that the highest value recorded between 1913 and 1968 was 111 BCM). During Dynasty II, floods averaged ~80 BCM, like most of 20th century. During Dynasties III-V the flood was higher and averaged roughly 130 BCM. It was during the early Dynastic period that pyramid-building began, and the first capital city was established in Memphis. The Old Kingdom was when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. Remember that it takes a lot of food to build pyramids and other works of art. The Egyptians had slaves, to be sure, but these slaves were not spending their time hunting for food, preparing food or even cultivating food. They were fed by the state in return for their labor. Thus we can conclude that the Nile flood levels were ample to supply this large artisan labor force at a time when agriculture itself was rather rudimentary.

First Intermediate Period (2125-1975 BC)

At the end of Dynasty V the rains fell to the present-day level; this change marks the beginning of the Modern Dry Phase. Remember that we are talking about the rains in Ethiopia as well as in the nascent Sahara, not in the delta region of Egypt itself. Imagine how frightening it would have been for the Egyptians to see changes in the level of the Nile, with no indication of the reasons for the change. There were fluctuations in the Nile floods, but never a return to the earlier sustained wet regime. Animals and waves of nomads were driven out of the desert as rains failed in those areas, and they settled in the Nile Valley. Many of the people became mercenaries with the army. Remember also that the Pharaoh embodied the Nile, so it was always his or her fault when things went badly.

The first period of extremely low Nile occurred ~2200 BC, at the end of Dynasty VI when Egypt's stable society fell into total anarchy as the central authority was weakened. The written records report incidents of famine, including references to cannibalism. Texts of this period also mention sand storms and sand accumulations, which likely refer to the initiation of major dune fields that began to encroach upon agricultural land. The most expressive writing is known as the Famine Stela, written by Ptolemy but based on earlier works: "All Upper Egypt is dying of hunger... everyone ate his children one after the other... they have begun to eat people here... The river of Egypt is dry and men cross the water on foot... The place of water has become a riverbank."

The Middle Kingdom (1975-1640 BC)

The Middle Kingdom was a period of prosperity and strong central rule, facilitated by good Nile floods. Flood levels were normal and good, and even 90 years of unusually high floods were not particularly destructive. Along the cataract region, high flood levels were 8-11 meters higher than today, with flood volumes at least double modern values. Probably these floods reflect large rain over the Ethiopian highlands, such as was the case in 1988, when the region from Khartoum north to the Atbara was wet. During this time Egypt was very stable politically, and the smaller cities of Memphis and Thebes were reunited by Mentuhotep. Egypt extended its southern borders to control Nubia under Senwosret I and III. Art and literature flourished, again indicating the abundance of food essential to support non-farming activities.

During the Middle Kingdom the water wheel (saquia) was invented, and received government support. Irrigation was sponsored by the state in order to avoid the famines of the past. The initial irrigation scheme added 27,000 acres into cultivation in the Fayyum as Middle Kingdom leaders wanted to guard against the famines of the Intermediate Period by increasing food production and storage.

Second Intermediate (or Hyksos) Period (1630-1520 BC)

There are few records from the end of the Middle Kingdom through the 20th Dynasty. At the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period there were 200 years of decline, poverty and political chaos, capped by a major invasion by the Hyksos to occupy Memphis. Remember that we saw earlier some art work from this time: the Second Intermediate Period corresponds to the Horse Period in art terms-the introduction of the horse (primarily for warfare) from Crete, as the Crete soldiers allied with the Libyans against the Egyptians. There is one written record of famine in 1740 BC, and it is believed to correspond to the Biblical story of Joseph's coming to Egypt (as described in Genesis), where he interprets Pharaoh's dream (see sidebar) and saves the nation of Egypt from devastating famine. After this Biblical reference there were some excellent flood years (1700-1635 BC), followed by several hundred years of "normal" floods.

The New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC)

In general, Nile flood levels were good during the new Kingdom dynasties. During this period the Egyptian empire spanned much of the Near East as well as south to Nubia, and the elaborate tombs in the Valley of Kings were constructed. Some of the famous rulers of this time include the strong female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and the Buy King Tutankhamun. It was during this time that King Akhenaten tried to introduce a monotheistic religion devoted to the Sun God, but his detractors had him killed and polytheism remained. The final ruler of this period, Ramesses II, governed a united Egypt for 67 years.

Third Intermediate Period (1075-715 BC): At the end of the reign of Ramesses II the Nile began a ~225 year low period, and agriculture was abandoned in Nubia. During this time the empire deteriorated, there were at least 2 civil wars and lawlessness, rioting and looting were abundant. Eventually Egypt was taken over by the Libyans in the 8th century BC.

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Following the known Dynastic history we lose the comprehensive written record, presumably because times-by which we mean the Nile floods-were bad and Egypt was not autonomous but was ruled by several conquering powers in succession (including the Greeks and Romans as we discussed earlier when talking about the quest to understand the flooding of the Nile).

We return to a remarkably complete written record of the Nile flood following the introduction of Islam to the region by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed. In early Islamic civilizations of the Nile Delta, the flood stage of the Nile was marked extremely accurately, because taxes were assessed on the basis of the year's agricultural crop, and productivity depended on the amount of water available for irrigation.