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The Nile Valley

Read how the river Nile provided fresh water for Ancient Egypt and the jewellery & cosmetics which were produced in the deserts surrounding it.

The river

The river Nile is the life of Egypt providing fresh water for a rainless land. Until this century it followed an annual cycle of three seasons:- the August to November flood which left a coating of fresh mud over the fields; the December to March sowing season for the staple crops of barley, emmer wheat and flax for linen and the dry harvest season from April to July.

The river also acted as an uninterrupted routeway between the granite rocks at Aswan and the Mediterranean Sea 700 miles to the north. Cart and wheel were not useful within the narrow confines of the Nile Valley. Boats provided the easiest means of transport. A round trip from the north to the south of the country took two to three weeks. Horses were introduced from Asia during the New Kingdom period, c.1550 BC, as luxury animals to draw the chariots of the kings and nobles but they never replaced cattle and donkeys as beasts of burden.

The desert

The Sahara set the limits of settled life in Egypt. With few large oases, the desert supported life only on a small scale. In Upper Egypt, many cemeteries and a few town sites lie on desert ground beside the fields of the Valley. The dry conditions have preserved the burials goods and the discarded possessions of everyday life which would have perished in damper soil.

After unification the fine pottery of the Badarian period was replaced by coarser wares while craftsmen quickly achieved mastery in stone and metal working. The Egyptians benefited from an abundance of natural resources such as hard and soft stones and a variety of minerals. Copper was the most commonly used metal until the New Kingdom, c.1550 BC. when tin bronze became more available.

Jewellery & cosmetics

The eastern deserts supplied gold and a colourful range of semi-precious stones. Silver, imported from the area of modern Greece and Turkey and lapis lazuli from central Asia, were used to produce jewellery which was worn by both men and women. The materials used and the styles changed over time with major innovations occuring in the New Kingdom, c.1550-1069 BC. Semi-precious stones were imitated in coloured faience and glass paste. Egyptian faience is an artificial composition of quartz sand, copper or bronze filings and an alkali.

Natural materials were also used to adorn the body in the form of cosmetics and oils. The principal cosmetics, used by both sexes, were eyeliner and scented oils. Green copper ores were originally favoured for eye paint but during the Old Kingdom, c.2686-2125 BC, they were generally replaced by the black lead ore, galena. Oils were obtained from local trees such as the moringa, while sweet-smelling resins were imported from Asia. Cosmetic containers are frequently found in burials marking their importance in this life and the next.

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