The exact etymology of the name of the great river of Egypt derived from the Greek neilos is uncertain. The Egyptian name yoteru (later Coptic eiōr) is probably the basis of Hebrew yĕʾōr. The Nile, the longest river in the world (6540 km [4062] mi), rises in a number of lakes in Central Africa and is joined by a tributary, the Blue Nile, near the city of Khartoum in the Sudan. The facts of its source were unknown to the Egyptians, who imagined that this was at Aswan, where the turbulent waters of the First Cataract were thought to well up from an underground cavern to flow north into Egypt and south into Nubia.

The Nile maintained the vegetation both in the extensive marshes in the north and on the agricultural lands bordering on its banks. From early times, a system of irrigation canals led from the main stream to assist cultivation. In mid July each year the Nile began to rise, overflowing its banks and thus providing natural irrigation. This annual phenomenon, the inundation, also brought with it silt, a natural fertilizer composed of vegetable matter and red mud, largely carried down by the Blue Nile from Ethiopia. The rise of the waters and the deposit of silt accounted for the rich crops of Egypt. The actual height of the rise was important, for too small a rise was disastrous for the farmers (see Isa. 19.5–8), whereas too great a rise would lead to a breakdown of the irrigation system, the breaching of dikes, and the destruction of settlements. The levels of the inundation were carefully recorded by a series of Nilometers positioned along the course of the river. Identified with the inundation was the god Hapi, represented as a pot‐bellied hybrid with pendulous breasts and colored green and blue like the flood waters and regarded as the guarantor of all life in Egypt.

In the Delta, the extensive marshes provided a natural habitat for numerous wild birds of all kinds, hunted both for food and for sport. It was in the marshes that the papyrus plant flourished, offering the essential material from which the Egyptians were able to manufacture a satisfactory and durable writing surface. A royal monopoly at one time, the product of the papyrus was exported throughout the ancient world until it was replaced in the ninth century CE by paper (a word that, while denoting a different substance, is derived from “papyrus”; see Books and Bookmaking).

Beyond maintaining ample moisture for successful crops in a land that, apart from the Delta, rarely experiences rain in any great measure, the Nile provided the main highway for travel and transport. Without the Nile it would have been impossible to convey the enormous quantity and weight of stone needed for the construction of the temples and the pyramids. Boats of all descriptions plied on the Nile: warships, cargo vessels, and seagoing ships capable of transporting cedar from Lebanon and copper from Cyprus. In addition, numerous small craft traveled the Nile, some to perform the business of ferries, for there were no bridges across the river, and others (scarcely more than bundles of papyrus plants tied together) to carry fishermen on their tasks. The normally prevailing north wind assisted the passage of sail‐fitted boats upstream, while the flow of the river eased the labors of those paddling their crafts downstream.

Roads were unknown in ancient Egypt. There were, however, numerous pathways, mainly along the sides of the irrigation canals, suitable for passage by pedestrians and donkeys, the universal beasts of burden. Wheeled vehicles were almost unknown. Though the horse had been introduced during the period of the Hyksos, it was used only to draw the light war chariot. The camel arrived in the Nile valley only during the time of the Ptolemies. Hence the paramount importance of the Nile for communication and transport.

See Plagues of Egypt


J. Martin Plumley