Ancient Trade Routes
Superficially, Ancient Egypt seems isolated and distinct from the rest of the world, isolated by the deserts that hem in the narrow valley of the Nile. Yet the Egyptians were in constant contact with other countries.
The needs of a civilized society, such as the Ancient Egyptians, are not fully satisfied with the produce of its homeland. Thus, trade routes were developed to faraway places. The Nile was navigable throughout the length of Egypt. The Red Sea gave access to Africa and the Far East. The Mediterranean Sea gave them access to countries in Europe and, dare we say, even to northern Europe and the Americas. Travel in ancient days was much more extensive and common than is generally imagined.
In Africa, caravans of merchants guarded by soldiers introduced Egyptian products and techniques to distant traders. They carried these goods and innovations westward along the savannah, toward Lake Chad and further westward, southward to the highlands of Ethiopia and Equatorial Africa.
The trade routes of this region are the oldest in Africa. Many of them were already in existence at the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and some can be traced back to the third millennium BCE.
Egypt was connected with the lands to the south by three main routes:
The Forty Days’ Road links Asyut in the Nile Valley to El Fasher in the Dar-Fur Province of Sudan, a journey of 1,082 miles (1,721 km). It was the shortest and safest distance to travel into western Africa. The route was strung along several green and lush oases such as El Kharga. Dozens of towns, forts, and way stations spread over the depression floor.
From El Fasher, another route led west through Dar-Fur, toward Lake Chad, ending in the area of Kano (northern Nigeria), at the upper reaches of the Niger River Basin.
Sunt (Elephantine) Road
It began at Sunt (Aswan), and went to El Fasher in Dar-Fur, by way of the oases of Selima and Bir Natrum. Sunt (Elephantine) Road also branched off to Semna West, where the caravans and expeditions transferred to ships in order to continue the journey to beyond the trading post established at Kerma, above the Third Cataract. In the same way, protective escorts and merchandise bound for Egypt from the south disembarked at Semna, where the fortress of Semna South was built (during the Middle Kingdom) to protect the travelers.
During the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), this highway was in continuous use all the way throughout the Roman Era, as many inscriptions on the Rock of Offerings at Sunt(Elephantine) testify.
Nile Valley to The Red Sea
There were also several trade routes to the Red Sea from the Nile Valley, which allowed trade with Asian countries. Some of these ports along the Red Sea were: Suakin, Massawa, and Zeila.
Other routes led south from the Nile Valley towns of Asyut, Qus, Sunt (Aswan), and Dongola, via the oases of Kharga, Dakhla, and Dunqul, to Kufra, Dar-Fur (western Sudan), and Kordofan.
Another route led from the western oases of Egypt to Bilma and Gao, but this seems to have fallen out of use by the 10th century.
In Sudan, the main transversal route, running from east to west, started from Suakin, to Sennar or Qerri, and continued across Kordofan to Darfur and on to the countries in West and Central Africa.
The whole African continent was known to the people of Egypt, as confirmed by Herodotus, who reported that Necho, King of Egypt, c. 600 BCE, sent an Egyptian ship with Phoenician sailors to circumnavigate Africa, and that they returned safely and reported of their endeavor.
Items of Trade with Interior Africa
The cast of the scene from the temple of Ramesses II at Beit el-Wali in Kush, shows clearly what the Egyptians were accustomed to importing from interior Africa. They brought leopards, leopard-skins, giraffe-tails, giraffes, monkeys, cattle, antelopes, gazelles, lions, ebony, ivory, ostrich-feathers and eggs, fans, bows, and shields made of fine hides.
The other African products that Egypt bought included: wood, gum, incense, carnelian (a stone prized both as jewelry and for arrowheads), haematite (red ochre), amazon stone, perfumes, oils, selected cattle, and dogs.
How deep and far inside Africa did they travel? Many of the names of places, in the Ancient Egyptian records, are not recognizable, but the time it took to travel, along with the list of exports, indicate regions at least as far as the Niger River and the Ethiopian highlands. Prince Herkhuf, one of the greatest of the caravan masters, spent 7-8 months on each of his three recorded trade missions, during the reign of King Merenra (2255-2246 BCE).
Moustafa Gadalla 2003
The civilization of Ancient Egypt was one of the earliest in world history. It is usually held to have come to fruition in around 3000 BC, when the lower Nile Valley became unified under a single ruler. By this date the only other people in the world to have a a literate, urban civilization were the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia.
As well as being one of the earliest, the Ancient Egyptians had one of the longest lasting civilizations in world history. The great days of Ancient Egypt fell between c. 3000 BC and c. 1000 BC, but the civilization remained very much a going concern for centuries after this. Egypt was a leading Middle Eastern power again between 612 and 525 BC, and the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great felt the need to have himself crowned as pharaoh in 332 BC. His general, Ptolemy, on becoming independent ruler of the country in 305 BC, was also crowned pharaoh, and his line lasted down to the famous queen, Cleopatra, who died in 31 BC. Some may regard the civilization of Egypt under the Ptolemies as being more Greek than Egyptian, but the older civilization was still vital enough for the kings to feel the need present themselves in the traditional style of the pharaohs. After that, the Nile Valley became a province of the Roman empire, and was ruled from outside its borders for nearly a thousand years, during which time its culture had changed out of all recognition.
This period of history, between the civilization's beginnings in c. 3000 BC to its conquest by the Romans in 31 BC, was almost a thousand years longer than the period between 31 BC and the present day.
Ancient Egyptian civilization’s long lifespan throughout history was typified by three distinct stable periods - the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom - separated by Intermediate Periods when the country was weak, divided and invaded.
Egypt is situated in the Nile Valley, in the north east of Africa. Its origins lay in several chiefdoms in Upper Egypt, at Abydos and Hierakonpolis, who then spread northwards towards Memphis and the Mediterranean. By 3000 BC, the unified kingdom of Egypt occupied the entire Nile Valley north of a series of rapids called the 1st Cataract (the other cataracts lay in a chain stretching south along the River Nile into present-day Sudan). At its greates extent, in c. 1500 BC, Ancient Egypt occupied the land in all directions from the Syrian coast in the north, to the Red Sea on the east, down along the Nile Valley past Nubia in the south, and spreading west inland into the Lybian Desert.
The life of Ancient Egypt centered around the Nile and the fertile land along its banks. The farmers in the long, narrow Nile Valley developed irrigation methods to control the flow of the river to a predictable stream through its rainy and dry seasons. The valley was fertile and rich, creating vast surpluses of crops that made possible incredible building projects such as the Pyramids and the temples of Luxor. The surpluses were also used to fund a refined lifestyle for the elite; to develop overseas trade and diplomacy; and to pay for wars of conquest.
The achievements of the civilization involved innovations in writing - hieroglyphics - and administration; in quarrying and surveying, maths and architecture; irrigation and agricultural production methods; as well as some of the earliest ships.
Much of the art which has come down to us is funery art - art designed for the tomb. The Ancient Egyptians believed that life could continue as normal in the afterlife, and so the dead were accompanied in their graves by everyday and luxury goods – including art objects - to help them enjoy their new life.
Ancient Egyptian art emphasised a rigid style which changed remarkably little over the millennia. This did not mean that Egyptian art was unchanging – but change took place within fairly narrow bounds. Ironically, in the declining centuries of Ancient Egyptian civilization, its art became more conservative and rigid, harking back to the glorious days of old.
The iconic Egyptian two-dimensional style is found in tombs, temples and statues. Egyptian statues were carved from stone and rock, or wood as a cheap alternative, with paint obtained from mineral ores quarried from surrounding areas. The wall paintings in tombs often depict lively scenes of everyday life, bringing this ancient civilization vividly to life.
The Ancient Egyptians built some of the most-awe inspiring structures the world has ever seen, such as the Pyramids of Giza. The construction of pyramids was in fact restricted to the earlier days of Egyptian civilization. Later monumental architecture can be seen most clearly in the temples and giant statues of the Valley of the Kings and Abu Simbel.
The average Egyptian lived in a simple mud, wood or brick abode, with the elite having elaborate palaces, rich in art.
The Ancient Egyptians developed high levels of mathematics to enable them to build their pyramids and temples with remarkably simple tools. There mathematics seems to have been of a more practical nature than that of the Mesopotamians, and therefore seems to have influenced later civilizations less; however, this practical mathematics must have been of a very high order indeed.
Ancient Egyptian funerary practices, which involved embalming the dead, did not lead to detailed knowledge of human anatomy. Nevertheless, Egyptian medicine acquired an excellent reputation in the Ancient World. Ancient Egyptian doctors could stitch up wounds, repair broken bones and amputate infected limbs. Cuts were bandaged by raw meat, linen, and sawbs soaked with honey. Opium was also used as a painkiller. Onions and garlic were used as health foods in the diet.
Close proximity to the Nile meant that water-borne diseases, such as malaria, were rife. Other common ailments included physical stresses caused from a life of labour. Life expectancy was between 30 (women) and 35 (men), however about one third of infants never reached adulthood.
The long river along which Ancient Egyptian civilization was built was an ideal environment for the development of boat technology. As early as 3000 BC an Egyptian ship of 75ft in length had been built. Planks of wood were originally held together by straps with reeds or grass pushed in to seal the gaps. Soon tree nails were used to hold planks together, with pitch and caulking to close the seams; and mortise and tenon joints had also been developed. However, despite having the ships on which to sail, they were not renowned as great sailors and did not engage in shipping across the Mediterranean or Red Seas.
The Ancient Egyptian civilization produced the first government to rule an entire nation. The Sumerians, who were the only other people to have a literate and urban civilization by 3000 BC, lived in small city-states numbering no more than a few thousand people. The unified kingdom of Egypt, on the other hand, covered an entire country thousands of square miles in size and with millions of inhabitants.
The Pharaoh was the ruler of Ancient Egypt, both politically and religiously. The Pharaoh held the title 'Lord of the Two Lands', meaning that he ruled all of Upper and Lower Egypt; and 'High Priest of Every Temple', meaning that he represented the honour of the gods on all the Earth. In Egyptian eyes, the pharaoh was a god himself, who stood between heaven and earth. His personal welfare and the welfare of the entire people were bound tightly together.
Pharaoh was in charge of the army, and would go to war when his lands were threatened - requesting valuable gifts from the conquered people if victory was obtained.
To help the pharaoh in governing the land, an elaborate organization of officials, scribes and overseers – the world’s first civil service – developed, bringing the reach of government down to the lowliest villager. Egypt was divided into nomes, which were administrative regions (up to 42 of them), each governed by a nomarch. Pharaoh himself was surrounded in his palace by high officials, ministers and courtiers. For much of Egypt’s history the pharaoh was served by a powerful chief minister called a Vizier. He represented the pharaoh in the administration of the land, treasury and legal system. Temples were used as places of worship and also as granaries and treasuries where grain and goods were stored.
Economy and Society
As with all pre-industrial civilizations, Ancient Egypt’s economy was based on agriculture. The great majority of the people were peasant farmers. Because of the fertile nature of the Nile Valley, they were able to produce the large surplus which sustained the refined lifestyle of the pharaoh and his court, his officials, the priests and all the other members of the elite. Peasants also provided the mass labour which built the pyramids and temples along the Nile Valley.
Trade inside Egypt would have been greatly stimulated by the presence of the River Nile, and by the fact that no part of the country lay more than a few miles from this great waterway. Numerous towns dotted the river bank, centres of local administration, and of local markets. Egypt has often been regarded as a civilization without cities. This is not true. Unlike the Sumerians, Egyptian cities were not independent states; however, there were numerous urban settlements in the Nile Valley, and Memphis was one of the largest cities in the world, if not at times, the largest.
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