Ancient Egypt was one of the longest-lasting civilizations in human history. Much of this stability was due to the influence of the Nile River, which acted as a reliable irrigation system for crops every year. It provided an efficient means of transportation, and was also important in the religious symbolism. This made the Nile influential in Egyptian society, and thus in its art -- so important that attempts to match its color led to the development of the first artificial pigment.
The Nile and the Afterlife
The Nile was central in Ancient Egyptian life and religion. Ancient Egyptians believed the afterlife to be in a place called "Two Fields," which had its own heavenly Nile. They believed the god Ra would transport souls of the worthy down the earthly Nile and into the heavenly Nile to reach the afterlife. This led the Nile to become a frequent fixture in art about the afterlife, or depicting the death of an individual.
Symbolism Using Boats
The Nile ran the length of ancient Egypt, making boats on the Nile the primary means of transportation and commerce at the time. This made boats a powerful theme in Egyptian art. Because this status made navigators important, nobles were often depicted as standing next to navigators to indicate their status. This ultimately crossed into symbolic depictions, in which a person holding a steering oar or rudder meant the individual being painted was influential and trustworthy.
The ancient world had only a limited number of colors available for art, those found occurring in natural sources of pigments. With the Nile central to Egyptian life, the color of the Nile was considered a holy color. The hair of deities and Pharaohs was often colored blue to symbolize their connection to the holy river, but ancient Egyptians had no access to a natural source of blue. They developed the first artificial pigment in recorded history specifically to match this color.
Depiction of Dieties
The Nile provided irrigation in a desert country, and game and fish in wetlands surrounding the river proper. These animals became part of Egyptian artistic representation of the gods. Thoth, the god of knowledge, was represented as the Ibis bird. Fertility goddess Tawarett was a hippopotamus, and Ammut -- who prounounced judgment on the dead -- was a crocodile. These are all animals of the Nile.
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