By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)
This is the 5th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the history and uses of the most prevalent types of flora growing in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]
The Nile River is home to thousands of species of flora, many of which were vital to the livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians. Aside from growing crops for consumption, Egyptians have long grown plants like cotton, papyrus, and flax for commercial purposes. The diversity and extent of plant life in Egypt is a tribute to the Nile River’s incredible life-giving capacity.
Egyptian cotton is perhaps the most well-known plant product to emerge from the African continent, although the modern variety was not cultivated in Egypt until 1821 when ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha discovered that his country’s climate was perfect for growing cotton. It should be noted, however, that the native variety (G. herbaceum) was first cultivated by Pliny in first century CE Nubia. By 1869, cotton production had expanded significantly to meet the demands of European textile factors in the wake of the American Civil War. Both the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 benefitted the cotton trade. While the canal made trade easier and more accessible, the dam protected the cotton from flooding and allowed for the expansion of its cultivation by providing regular irrigation. Today, Egypt remains a significant exporter of cotton to countries all over the world.1
Attribution: Kimberly Vardeman
In Ancient Egypt, the linen made from flax was a universal fabric that every citizen wore regardless of class. Linen is still grown in Egypt, although it is no longer the sole clothing material worn. Considered to be a symbol of purity and divine light, linen was a sacred cloth used to mummify the dead. It was also used to make sails and as a form of payment. The earliest example of Egyptian linen dates from 4500 BCE. Towards the end of the Egyptian civilization, the government established linen production centers staffed by slave laborers. Since everyone wore linen, class was differentiated by the fineness of the weave and the number of layers worn; the more important the person, the finer the weave and the more layers they wore. Flax was not only a source of wealth, but also a signifier of it.2
Although papyrus no longer populates the banks of Egypt’s Nile River due to human overexploitation, it was once a plentiful crop that served several purposes for the Ancient Egyptians. Papyrus thrives in shallow fresh water or water-saturated areas, so the Nile Delta marshes and low-lying areas of the Nile Valley were home to dense thickets of the plant. It was harvested to make skiffs used for hunting, pilgrimages, local transport, and funerals as well as to make writing surfaces. This early form of paper was created under heavy pressure from layers of pith found inside the stalk. Fortunately, Egypt’s dry climate has preserved many early papyrus documents, which indicate that the surface was used for letters, legal texts, religious narratives, illustrations, contracts, and administrative documents. The earliest of these dates from c. 2500 BCE and was discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a Red Sea port. A blank roll of papyrus dating from c. 2900 BCE was also found in the tomb of a high official named Hemaka. These preserved papyri are significant because the surface was often erased and reused several times.3 The cultivation and use of papyrus for writing material ceased in the 9th century CE when paper from other plant fibers became more popular.4
Attribution: Hans Hillewaert
Papyrus also played a significant role in the Ancient Egyptian religion as the marshes where it grew were considered fertile areas containing the seeds of creation. According to Egyptian myth, the goddess Isis hid her son in the papyrus thickets of Lower Egypt after her brother Seth murdered her husband Osiris. This infant, Horus, was raised amongst the papyrus by the goddess Hathor who was depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus thickets and was worshipped in the Shaking of the Papyrus ritual. Wadjet, the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, was similarly shown carrying a scepter made of papyrus. The ceilings of temples and tombs were often supported by columns whose capitals resembled the tops of papyrus plants. To the Ancient Egyptians, papyrus thickets were symbolic of chaos surrounding and threatening their world as the tickets often hid dangerous creatures such as hippos and crocodiles. Nonetheless, papyrus played an indispensable role in early Egypt.5
Aside from flax, cotton, and papyrus, Ancient Egyptians grew numerous other crops. These included barley, fava beans, lentils, lettuce, peas, onions, cucumbers, melons, radishes, emmer, wheat, barley, wheat, leeks, grapes, chickpeas, dill, and sesame. Present-day Egyptians continue to harvest these crops with the exception of emmer, which was not grown after the Roman Period, and barley, which also declined after the Roman Period as a result of the popularity of wine over beer. The wide variety of flora found in Egypt speaks to the lushness of the Nile River Basin.6
Inlay depicting a bunch of grapes c. 1479-1458 BCE Egypt
1 “History of Egyptian Cotton.” Cotton Egypt Association. Web.
2 “Flax in Ancient Egypt” North Dakota State University. 2007. Web
3 Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web
4 “Egyptian Papyrus.” Egyptain-papyrus.co.uk. Web
5Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
6“Agriculture and horticulture in acient Egypt.” Reshafim.org. 2000. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.