Egypt: The Fundamentals of the Pyramides

Egypt: The Fundementals of the Pyramides

The fundamental motive of the pyramid is the funeral mound. A small upheaval above the natural level of the ground results of itself from the earth displaced by the bulk of the buried body. Our present practice of interment clearly illustrates this. Increased dimensions elevate the mound to an independent monument.

Many nations, some of a high degree of civilization, have contented themselves with such imposing hills of earth over the grave,–tumuli, which, from the manner of their construction, assumed a conical form. Others placed the mound upon a low cylinder, thus better marking its distinction from accidental natural elevations.

The Egyptians and the Mesopotamians rejected the cone entirely, and formed, with plane surfaces upon a square plan, the highly mon- umental pyramid. Peculiar to the former people are the inclined sides which give to the pyramid its absolute geometrical form, as opposed to the terraced structures of Chaldaea.

The sand of the desert ebbed and flowed fifty centuries ago as constantly as in our time, when the sphinx, after being uncovered to its base, has been quickly hidden again to the neck. Rulers, unwilling that their gigantic tombs should be thus submerged, were obliged to secure to them great height, with inclined and unbroken sides, upon which the sand could not lodge.

Egypt: The Isna-Nag Hammadi Section

Egypt: The Isna-Nag Hammadi Section

Near Isna, 35 miles north of Idfu, a distinct geological and physiographical change in the channel of the Nile and its valley and flood plain occurs. There the Nubian sandstones give place to limestone formations. The valley loses its trench-like charactes completely, broadening out to a plain with an average width of somewhat more than 12 miles.

White, calcareous cliffs of the limestone plateau hem in this part of the valley. Through it the river winds in meanders several miles in length. At Isna is the first of the barrages, built across the Nile below the Aswan Dam, by which the level of the river is held high enough during its low-water season to maintain a steady flow into the canals that take off above them.

The great eastward-bulging Qena Bend occupies about three-fourths of this section of the valley. The distance by river between Isna and Nag’ Hammadi is 110 miles (177 km.), as compared with the straight-line distance of 55 miles (88 km.). Here the greater part of the valley is dominated by Cretaceous limestone formations, with rather soft constituents of chalk and shales, which farther north are buried beneath the hard Eocene limestone. The brown marl into which the shale disintegrates is used locally for fertilizer. Mud islands begin to appear in this section of the river and are a common feature of its channel all the rest of the way downstream.

Between Isna and Luxor, which stands a few miles downstream from the south end of the Qena Bend, is the most conspicuous contrast between the east and west borders of the valley. There the eastside plateau rises with steep escarpments close to the river. Its 2037-foot (621-meter) Gebel el Shaghab, a ridge of Cretaceous beds capped with Eocene limestone, is the highest mountain along the whole length of the valley in Egypt. The bulk of the agricultural land is, consequently, on the west side of the river, and between it and the escarpment of the limestone plateau of the Western Desert is a gravelly plain, more than 10 miles wide, dotted with low hills of shales.

The youthful Nile cut its Qena Bend around a southwest-northeast trending anticline (outlying from the limestone plateau of the Western Desert) known as the Theban anticline, from the ancient capital of the Pharaohs whose site is now partly occupied by the town of Luxor. But it was the Wadi Qena that turned the course of the Nile west and southwest from the northeast apex of the Bend. This wadi, largest of the trunk wadis of the Eastern Desert, was discharging heavily during the rainy period of the Pliocene and early Pleistocene, when this section of the Nile valley was being cut.

Its discharge and the delta it was building at its mouth served to deflect the Nile from what might otherwise have been a northerly course from this point on. From Luxor downstream the layout of the valley is the reverse of that of the Isna-Luxor section. Here it is the escarpment of the westside plateau and the range, 400 to 500 feet high, formed by the Theban anticline, that rise close to the river. The eastside plateau correspondingly retreats, leaving between it and the river a rather open country broken by low, isolated hills where the Cretaceous chalks and shales have been exposed.

From about 2150 B.C., when the first Pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty chose Thebes as his seat, until it was sacked by the Assyrians in 663 B.C., the Qena Bend was the spiritual heart of Egypt, and except for brief periods its administrative center. But even before the Pharaohs made Thebes their capital and began to build in and around it their temples and tombs, there were prosperous centers of trade and handicrafts where the present towns of Qena, Qift, and Qus now stand.

The Qena Bend is the nearest approach of the Nile valley to the Red Sea. From it the Wadi Qena and another great trunk wadi, the Hammamat, provided caravan routes by which the Pharaohs transshipped to the Nile valley the treasure brought to their Red Sea ports from the Persian Gulf and the east African “Land of Punt.” Quseir and Safaga, on the sites of two of these ports, are today connected with Qena by a road passable for motor vehicles, although it is now little used.

The Qena Bend region has some of the richest agricultural land of the whole Nile valley and is densely populated. Qena and Luxor are its principal urban centers. Qena, capital of the province of the same name, at the mouth of the Wadi Qena, is well known throughout Egypt for its “Qena pottery,” made from the exceedingly fine clay deposited toward the center of a gulf of the Mediterranean that flooded the lower reaches of the Wadi Qena in Pliocene times. Pottery making and sugar milling are the principal industries of Luxor, but it is best known for the Theban antiquities in and around it.

Nile: The Valley between Aswan and Isna

Nile: The Valley between Aswan and Isna

From Aswan to the sea the gradient of the Nile averages only 1:13, 000 (1 meter to 13 kilometers), as compared to 1:11, 000 in the narrow Nubian valley. A short distance downstream from Aswan the crystalline rocks that border the valley and outcrop in the river in northern Nubia disappear again beneath the Nubian sandstone.

The sandstone here also includes soft beds of clay, and the bordering plateau scarps recede, leaving space for the formation of alluvial beds which gradually develop northward into a continuous flood plain. The first alluvial plain of any considerable size is that of Kom Ombo, on the east bank about 25 miles north of Aswan. There, two trunk wadis, Kharit and Sha’it, debouch from the east and the valley widens eastward to a maximum of 10 miles, with the river flowing along its western edge. On the black fertile soil are the sugar cane plantations.

The sandstone ridge of Gebel Silsila, a strong fault scarp across the north edge of Kom Ombo, accounts for the existence of free plain. During the forming of the Nile valley this rock barrier held back the water discharged by the Kharit and Sha’it wadis from the Red Sea Mountains and later by the Nile itself from its upper sources. The main drainage of the basin then was through a broad channel east of Gebel Silsila.

This channel was eventually choked with alluvial debris and is now an abandoned valley through which the railroad has been routed. The present channel of the Nile cuts through a five-mile stretch of gorges at the west end of Gebel Silsila. This is an almost barren section of the valley; only in narrow fringes of green toward the west-bank town of Idfu, 65 miles (104 km.) north of Aswan, does the flood plain begin again.

The location of Idfu is of special interest because at this point the flood plain of the Nile begins to widen. From here on, the arable, irrigated land extends continuously all the way to the delta, bordering the river on both sides, but generally much wider on the west side than on the east. Since ancient times important caravan tracks have connected both the Eastern and Western deserts with the valley at Idfu.

The Nile Valley Egypt

The Nile Valley Egypt

For most of its 750-mile length from the Egypt-Sudan boundary to the head of the delta, about 10 miles north of Cairo, the shining snake of the half-mile wide Nile coils itself back and forth in a valley ten to twenty times its own breadth, though as wide as fourteen miles in some spots and as narrow as two hundred yards south of Aswan.

The river tends to hug the eastern edge of the valley floor, but it loops and meanders back and forth and narrow bands of cultivation are almost continuous on both aides. The level-floored groove of the Nile is enclosed by scarps rising as much as 1500 feet above the river, higher toward the Sudan, lower towards. Cairo; eastward and westward from the valley stretch great uninhabited plateaus.

To an airborne traveler, no contrast could be more vivid than that between the lifeless deserts and the green and fertile ribbon they enclose; “nowhere in the world is the contrast between the desert and the sown more dramatic, or the transition from solitary waste to teeming valley so sharp.” Within the valley every available square inch is irrigated and cultivated; the villages and other habitations (mostly fashioned of grey Nile mud) huddle along the useless desert fringe or perch on bits of high ground afforded by the natural levees beside the river.

Along the shore and in the villages stand useful date and doumpalms and a few isolated eucalyptus, sycamores, flamboyants, whispering tamarisks, acacias, broad-spreading mulberries, and a wide variety of fruit trees, which give color to the landscape and a modicum of protection from the rays of the sun, bearing down through a cloudless sky. The river itself is alive with traffic of every variety: small sailboats ferrying people from shore to shore or from village to village, larger craft and tugs and barges moving slowly upstream (with the wind) or floating their cargoes down to Cairo.

Physiographically the valley is divided into five sections, each characterized by certain distinctive features with respect to its borders, its width, and the nature and extent of its flood plain. From south to north these are: the Nubian valley south of Aswan, the Aswan-Isna section, the Isna-Nag’ Hammadi section, the Nile ravine between Nag’ Hammadi and Asyut, and the Asyut-Cairo section.

Egypt, Eastern Desert, Western Desert, Sinai Nile Valley

Egypt, Eastern Desert, Western Desert, Sinai Nile Valley

Four major physiographic divisions are recognized in Egypt – the Eastern Desert, the Western Desert, Sinai, and the Nile Valley and Delta. In human terms, these reduce to two: the deserts (including Sinai) are large and empty; the Nile lands are small and crowded. The Valley and the Delta together comprise only three per cent of the total land area of Egypt, but within their 12, 355 square miles (32, 000 sq. km.) – about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined – live about 95 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people.

None of these broad divisions are completely uniform or homogeneous; each contains subregions with differing geological histories, climates, soils, land use patterns, or other cultural features. For example, the Red Sea mountains must be sharply distinguished from the rest of the Eastern Desert; Sinai’s southern mountains, central plateau, and Mediterranean coastal plain are all different from each other and from the Suez Canal Zone along the western border of Sinai.

Most significant are the differences between the Nile Valley and the Delta. Notwithstanding their common dependence on the river and their generally similar crop patterns and methods of cultivation, these two regions have unlike physiographies, irrigation and drainage problems, and culture histories.