The Dictatorship of the Nile

A Brief History of Egypt, Part 1 – Free version

Why is Egypt the way it is?

Why did it go to war with Israel four times and then make a long-lasting peace, suffering ostracism from other Arab countries?
What’s the role of the Nile? Of the Suez Canal?
Why did the Arab Spring succeed there but failed in so many other countries?
Why did the Muslim Brotherhood reach the government?
Why did the military depose them? Why are they ruling the country now? 

The root of all the events is a set of facts that are the same as they were 5000 years ago, when Egypt was born.

Let’s look into them. Can you recognize Egypt?

You can’t tell Egypt’s borders at all. But if there’s one thing that stands out, it’s that yellow flower, the line that culminates in a triangle: the Nile.

These lights tell you something flabbergasting about Egypt: 99% of its 105 million citizens live on the delta or the banks of the Nile1. The width of those banks ranges from 500m to 20km (0.3 to 12 miles). 

The Nile’s banks, with the delta in the north and the Suez canal in the north-east, represent a total surface of 35,000 km², or about 3% of the 1 million km² of the country. 99% of the population in 3% of the land!

Egypt is just the Nile and desert. Thousands and thousands of kilometers of just desert.

The craziest part is not the fact that it’s all desert. That’s to be expected given the climate.

And as we’ve seen in the past, the reason why the climate is this way is because of the latitude: we’re in the Horse Latitudes here, and the wind comes down from the atmosphere quite dry, creating deserts across the globe.

The crazy part is that one river is able to even make it through all that desert. Here are all the major rivers in the world:

Only one crosses the entire Sahara (and only one follows a North-South axis, crossing so many climates).

If you were to place a capital in such a country, where would you put it?

Cairo is at the connection between the Nile proper and its delta, which allows it to control both and serve as an exchange platform for both. All the main Egyptian capitals over the millennia were here2.

This is the point at which the Nile becomes a delta, flooding the triangle to its north with water and fertile silt. Alexandria3, Egypt’s main port since Alexander the Great founded the city in the 3rd century BC, is at its western edge. Since then, its importance has been replaced by Port Said, at its eastern edge, which doubles as the exit of the Suez Canal.

The Delta of the Nile from above the Mediterranean. You can still see the main distributaries, the Rosetta to the west (here the right) and the Damietta to the east. You can see the Suez Canal to the left (east), and the area between the Delta and the Canal not as lush or settled.

How did this geography impact Egypt’s history?

The Nile Fertile

The Nile gets its water and silt from thousands of kilometers away and from nearly a dozen countries. There, in tropical Africa, summer monsoons brought an annual flood downstream4, which inundated the banks, leaving them humid and with fertile soils. 

With so much water and silt across so many kilometers, the banks of the Nile have been one of the most fertile areas in the world for several millennia. Wherever there’s fertility, there’s food, and population follows. It’s no coincidence that the word fertility refers to both land and people.

The delta, unfortunately, is not navigable. Since water spreads across it, carrying its fertile silt, it’s too shallow and full of sand to allow for any reliable shipping.

The Nile is only navigable south of Cairo. Unfortunately, in history, few ships navigated it anyways: given its geography, Egypt has always had very few trees. Few trees, little wood5, few ships, little navigation, little trade6. Transport was more common by foot and with donkeys on the banks of the Nile.

As we’ve seen in the past, highly fertile lands with little trade mean very populated but poor areas. It’s the same in India and China: they grew all this food but couldn’t transport it anywhere7, so it had to be consumed locally, feeding a huge local population that couldn’t specialize and get wealthy by exchanging their production with other civilizations.

Pharaonic Works

But when your entire existence depends on a flooding river, you want to control it. So the population that lived in Egypt had to undertake massive public works. For example, over 4,000 years ago, around 2300 BC, some pharaohs ordered the digging of a canal between the Nile and a natural lake close by to control the flooding of the Nile, regulate the water level of the Nile during dry seasons, and serve the surrounding area with irrigation.

Since antiquity, Egyptians have built infrastructure for the Nile: dams, reservoirs, irrigation systems, canals, roads… 

These public works improved the lives of everybody, but to build them, Egyptians needed to coordinate a lot of people: workers to dig, food and water for them, recording the promise of a repayment, carrying the materials from far away… The only way to achieve this level of coordination at that scale was with a strong government.

Summarizing, you had: 

  • A single strip of inhabited land.

  • Which is extremely fertile, so it has lots of people.

  • But the delta and the upper river are not navigable, and there are no ships because there’s no wood anyway, so there’s very little water trade. No trade means poverty.

  • At the same time, the country is surrounded by desert to the east, west, and south, and by seas to the north and east, so trade with foreign powers was hard. Further poverty.

  • That entire system was dependent on a river that flooded every year, so you needed to coordinate big public works to tame it.

  • And you also need expensive infrastructure, since you not only had to carry things by road across very long stretches, but you also had two banks to build infrastructure for.

  • So you need a strong centralized government for all these public works.

Lots of poor people and a strong centralized government are two key ingredients for an authoritarian regime. The third one is no alternative its people could escape to.

The Pharaonic Dictatorship of the Nile

A Prison of Sand and Water

The physical barriers surrounding Egypt meant no trade… but also no escape. With desert or sea everywhere and no ships, if you want to escape, how are you supposed to do that? You’re stuck. 

Put yourself in the shoes of a farmer in ancient Egypt. They have their farm on the banks of the Nile, which floods once a year. They depend on the government to have access to irrigation infrastructure. And they have no alternative but to farm that land. The rest of the land is taken. They can’t easily travel anywhere except by foot. If they wanted to escape, they would need to walk for hundreds of miles through the desert in any direction, or follow the Nile south to an unknown, dangerous land. Or they could risk it by going to the delta first, and from there through the Sinai desert. That’s if they knew any geography at all. Most of the time, the only thing they knew was the eternal Nile and the god-like power of pharaohs since the dawn of time.

As Moses’ story illustrates, escaping Egypt was figuratively and literally an event of biblical proportions. It is not a coincidence that foreigners called Egypt “The Dual Fortress”.

Lots of people, imprisoned, with a very strong, centralized government… Egypt’s geography begets tyranny. 

Millennia of Tyranny

This is a brief timeline of Egypt’s history:

What are the big periods and their main patterns?

Between 5000 BC and 3000 BC, agriculture started appearing on the Nile. Villages became towns, which became cities and kingdoms. First, they were small, local kingdoms, but as the entire valley developed, they started warring, coalescing into ever bigger and bigger kingdoms, until eventually the last two remaining kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt, united around 3100 BC. To give you a sense of timelines, by that time the first Greek city hadn’t even been founded yet.

Once united, given the massive power centralized by pharaohs and the isolation of the country, what was there for pharaohs to fight for? They didn’t have external foes to fight or compete against. The only possible competition was with time, with pharaohs before or after them.

That’s why the Great Pyramids at Giza were built around 2500 BC. With hundreds of thousands of subjugated subjects, what else are you going to do?

This lasted for thousands of years. There were 30 dynasties of pharaohs, and over 170 individual ones. To give you a sense, we are closer to the time of Cleopatra than Cleopatra was to the construction of the pyramids at Giza. 

The Era of Invasions

Everything comes to an end. Over time, as other empires and kingdoms became stronger and stronger, they started interacting with Egypt.

Despite its natural isolation, there are three ways in which Egypt can interact with other countries: through the south of the Nile, the north-east connection to the Levant, and the Mediterranean Sea. 

This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. If we understand this, we can understand Egypt today.

The West: Nothing

Not a single power ever successfully invaded Egypt from the West. Even the Nazis tried and failed. There is really nothing but desert for thousands of kms.

One way to illustrate it is with populations: Egypt has 105M people to Libya’s 7M! Despite Libya’s surface area being 80% bigger. 6% of the population for 180% the size. No danger from there.

The South: Nubia, now Sudan

Have you noticed how the lights in Egypt stop abruptly in the south?

That is the Aswan dam.

Why is the Aswan dam the end of the night lights of Egypt? Because it doubles as the southern border of Egypt with Sudan8. Not only that. It also doubles as the historic boundary of Egypt.

Doesn’t that sound weird? How is the same place a recent dam, the limit of a population that’s been around for millennia, and the millennia-old border of a country? 

Because of cataracts.

The Nile flows slowly but only downstream of the 1st cataract, which was where the Aswan dam is today. Upstream of that, there were six cataracts.

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The cataracts are areas with rapid flows, rocks, and sand banks that make navigation impossible.

Because the Nile was much calmer downstream, its banks were wider, and it was navigable, it quickly became a political unit. 

It was much harder to communicate with the areas south of the 1st cataract, so they followed a different history.

Like Egypt, the Nubian area of the Nile started off forming proto-kingdoms. But Egypt, being more fertile and navigable, was faster to develop. It was already unified while Nubia was still a trail of chiefdoms. Over the centuries, these chiefdoms also coalesced into kingdoms. But because of the nature of the Nile, they were always going to be poorer and weaker: narrow banks and no navigability through cataracts meant that there would always be fewer people and they would be poorer and more divided.

The first kingdom to emerge was called Kerma, between the 1st and 4th cataracts. That one was invaded by the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. 

A few centuries later, the Kush kingdom took advantage of instability in Egypt, invaded it, and the Kush kings became Pharaohs for some time.

This was the only time in 5000 years of history that it happened. Normally, the lands to the south of Egypt are safe to Egypt because they’re poorer and have fewer people, because the land is as desertic as it is in Egypt, but the Nile is less fertile and navigable than in Egypt, and other powers are farther away, so there’s less food, less trade, fewer people, and much less wealth. Even if Nubia—now Sudan—could build up wealth and people, they would still have to travel down a Nile they can’t navigate, or walk for thousands of kilometers through desert. Not an option.

The North-East: the Levant

The east of Egypt, along the Red Sea, is just as dead as the desert in the west. It has the additional barrier of the Red Sea, with a rocky coast and treacherous waters. Barely anybody lives there.

But the northern pass with Asia is a different story. Egypt is just ~200 km away from the levant (125 miles). It’s all desert in between, and even to this day roads are not ideal, so it was hard to cross thousands of years ago through this desert that is only 120 km wide at its choke point (75 miles).

But as powers grew stronger, distances shrunk, and they started interacting with Egypt.

The first ones were the closest ones, those living in the Levant. People from there (“Hyksos”) ruled part of Egypt during the 2nd Intermediate Period, around 1500 BC. In the following New Kingdom Era, Egyptians in turn invaded and occupied both Nubia and the Levant. It was Ancient Egypt’s biggest empire. 

It would only get back to this size once, 2500 years later, with the Mamluks.

Every time a new area of the Middle East developed into a thriving civilization, their rulers eventually descended to the Levant, and then Egypt. That’s how Egypt was conquered in turns by the Persians (Achaemenids), the Greeks (Alexander the Great), the Arabs, and the Ottomans. 

As a result, Egypt will always be wary of the powers in the Levant and beyond.

But there’s another area that exposes Egypt even more: the Mediterranean sea.

The North: Wide Open to the Mediterranean Sea

The Delta of the Nile concentrates about 40% of the country’s population and 50% of its agricultural production. Yet, as we discussed before, it’s not navigable. And without many trees, Egypt couldn’t build a strong navy—and definitely not a seafaring one.

The Macedonian Greeks conquered Egypt from the Levant. As a seafaring culture, they immediately built Alexandria on the shores, which immediately became the most important port in the country. 

After Alexander the Great died, his general Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt, akin to a Pharaoh. He and his descendants ruled for a few centuries (“Ptolemaic Egypt”). But the navy they built was always going to be puny9

For thousands of years, pirates attacked the coast. But they were a mere nuisance. Egypt was not going to succumb to them: it was going to succumb to the first true naval power that attacked.

That turned out to be the Romans, who invaded and conquered Egypt without too much difficulty in 30 BC. This is the famous time of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, beaten by Augustus’s Roman fleet. At that moment, Egypt became a vassal of Rome, and it would not become independent again for over a thousand years.

Whoever the local seafaring superpower was had a strong hand to play to control Egypt. After the Romans came the Byzantines. Later, it was the Ottoman empire, followed by the British.

Egypt only became fully independent in 1953, nearly 2000 years after Romans conquered it in 30 BC—if you exclude the Mamluk interlude.

Why Is Egypt the Way It Is Today?

The same worries that pharaohs had 4000 years ago still worry the leaders of today’s Egypt. But now that we know what we know about Egypt, we can start explaining its current situation—which is full of apparent inconsistencies.

Why did Egypt enter into three wars with Israel, only to make a lasting peace treaty a few years later against the will of all its Arab neighbors?
Why did Egypt become an ally of the USSR, only to ditch it soon after for the US?
Why did the Tahrir Revolution succeed in Egypt, where the power of the military and the secret services is so strong?
Why did the Muslim Brotherhood succeed to take power before it failed?
Why is the president who it is today?
Why, after millennia, does Egypt think its main threat now comes from the south?

The reasons are the same as those that drove the pharaohs 5000 years ago. The premium version of this article explains them. Subscribe to read it now.

1

Or between the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal, which technically was outside the Delta historically

2

I’m talking about when Upper and Lower Egypt were united.

3

Originally, the Nile formed two main distributaries, Rosetta in the west and Damietta in the east, with smaller distributaries in the middle. Rosetta is where the Rosetta stone was found by French scientists who went with Napoleon when he invaded Egypt. The stone was created during the Greek period, called the “Ptolemaic” period, between the conquest of Alexander the Great and that of the Roman Empire. During those 300 years or so, the power was Greek, but society was still Egyptian, so they needed translations between Ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the everyday script, demotic. This is why the Rosetta stone had the same decree in these 3 languages, and why it was found in Rosetta, which is the distributary that arrived to Alexandria, historically the main Egyptian port, founded by the Greek.

4

Not anymore with all the dams there are on the river. We’ll talk much more about that.

5

The little wood they had was mostly cedar from the Levant—today Israel and Lebanon.

6

When I say little trade, I mean in relative terms. There was very little trade compared to what other equivalent civilizations could do. Assyrians, Chinese, Greek, Romans, Phoenicians… All had substantially more trade than Egypt. Egyptians did trade, however. Cedar with the Levant, as mentioned before, slaves and cattle from Libya, stone, bricks, and minerals from the Sinai peninsula; gold, ivory, spices, and animals from Nubia; gold, resins, ebony, and ivory from Punt...

7

It was too expensive. Even at the time of the Romans, transporting wheat 100kms cost 13% of the value of the wheat itself.

8

In fact, the border with Sudan is a bit south of the Aswan Dam. It cuts through the artificial lake formed by the dam, called the Lake Nasser. Interestingly, when they designed the Aswan dam, they made sure most of the water of the Nasser lake would be within Egyptian borders, so Egypt wouldn’t have to depend on Sudan for its water.

9

In the Battle of Actium, which determined the fate of Egypt under the Romans, Cleopatra had 60 ships, to Rome’s 840. Except the forces were pretty even because it was the definitive battle of a civil war.