Ancient Egypt’s political unification benefited from a coalescence of preconditions including the development of agriculture, the use of boats for river travel, and the forging of a common identity among separate settlements through collaboration in state-organized endeavors. Supporting all these activities, the Nile River stands out. Its geographic situation, moreover, helped insulate Egypt from foreign invaders, conducing to relatively light defense burdens and centuries of peace –blessings never enjoyed by the ancient riparian communities of Mesopotamia.
Thousands of years before the first pharaoh, humans along the Nile River began supplementing their diet, which had consisted only of what could be gathered, hunted or caught, by planting and harvesting grains. Flooding annually and depositing vast quantities of silt, the river yielded an abundance of fresh water and soil excellent for farming. Throughout ancient times the Nile continued to support the most arable land in the Mediterranean world, encouraging agriculture and enabling Egypt’s farmers to generate the wealth on which a unified state depended.
As long ago as the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., people living along the Nile were building boats capable of transporting material goods. Skilled shipwrights using copper tools cut planks and beams from the trees that grew in the soft silts of the lower Nile. The large wooden barques they built, with their crews and cabins traveling up and downstream, must have suggested how separate riverside settlements might be joined together by an overarching political authority, observes archaeologist John Romer. Additionally, when such an authority emerged, about 3000 B.C., commerce along the river augmented the wealth political unification required.
In supervising the construction of the pyramids, the Egyptian state of the third millennium B.C. brought its inhabitants together as teammates, laborers and royal subjects, fostering a shared Egyptian identity that transcended potentially conflicting local loyalties and ties of kinship. Once more, the Nile played a conspicuous role, serving as a vital artery by which building materials flowed from stone quarries to construction sites. Covering a distance of more than 350 miles, red granite for the pharaoh Menkaura’s pyramid was transported by barge to Giza all the way from the first cataract region, notes Toby Wilkinson in his book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.
To the west of the Nile lay the Sahara Desert, a vast expanse hard for an army to cross, while to the east, lay the arid highlands that divide the Nile valley from the Red Sea. Such topographic features discouraged invasion except through narrow passages at the north and south ends of the valley, according to military historian John Keegan in his book “A History of Warfare.” By contrast, Mesopotamia’s chief rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, enjoyed no such protection. Consequently, invasions from abroad, as well as conflicts among the riverside settlements themselves, rendered political unification in Mesopotamia more challenging than in Egypt where, with comparative ease, the pharaohs could secure their kingdom.
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