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Colin D. Reader combines his expertise as an engineering geologist with his knowledge of Egyptology to explore the effects of rock and soil on a unique ancient civilization. The result is a unique perspective born from personal experience. As a geologist, he has worked extensively in a variety of Egyptian locations, including the Nile Valley and both the Eastern and Western Deserts. He has also undertaken detailed geological mapping at the necropolis of Saqqara. In this book he employs techniques which are often used in the field of human geography, extrapolating how local geology influenced the development of pharaonic culture. His focus is the pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods, in other words around the time of the great pyramids rather than the later pharaohs who may be generally more well-known, such as Rameses II (New Kingdom) or Cleopatra (the Ptolemaic period.) Although this is essentially a geology book, it is aimed at the lay reader and, to my mind at least, the pyramids are always fascinating.
The title references the Greek historian Herodotus who described Egypt as “gift of the Nile.” Colin Reader’s premise is that this is only partially correct. The river Nile as we know it, resulted from geological processes and is only one of the happy “accidents of geology” that nurtured ancient Egyptian civilisation without which the “the story of this great civilization would have been very different.” His intention is to “weave together our current understanding of [… ] Egyptian geology and Egyptology to illustrate how the civilization of pharaonic Egypt benefitted from the landscape in which it developed.” So, yes, there is much talk about rocks and geological timelines in this book, including a general introduction to geology in chapter two. I did think I was going to have trouble with this as my interests definitely lie more with Egyptology than geology, but the style is congenial, and it was an easy read. I found those chapters informative and useful. For anyone who doesn’t feel inclined towards a technical overview, moving directly to the chapters specifically on Egyptian geology should not be a problem. Also, there are lots of pictures. This sounds glib, but who can resist photos of the desert, the pyramids and best of all – ancient rock art? Also, as it turns out, I am a sucker for a decent geological map.
Further chapters consider the river Nile and the two deserts. This is where the book really took off for me. I was familiar with the importance of the Nile, the annual flooding and fertile silt being deposited on the banks which allowed an agricultural excess to be stored, freeing up parts of the population to leave agriculture and become artisans, builders, priests, and administrators. I also knew the Nile was the main means of transport in ancient Egypt. It was interesting to discover how the Nile was formed, turning in direction from the Eonile (an earlier version of the Nile) that flowed South towards the interior of what is now Africa, into a river flowing North towards the sea which eventually became the Mediterranean. Geology made this happen – the unique mix of sandstones and limestone that could be eroded causing the river to be turned around by a spectacular waterfall over granite rock, which could not be eroded so quickly. Huge granite cliffs contain the course of the modern Nile as it runs Northwards from Aswan. In some places they are close together, in others far apart, such as the red granite cliffs seen behind the Temple of Hatshepsut. These cliffs caused the Nile to be without tributaries. The current is easily navigable, and oars can be used to increase the speed. So much so obvious. But the author goes on to explain how the North Wind also arose as result of changing geology. Navigation was therefore easy for the Egyptians. All they had to do was row with the current northwards towards the sea and let the prevailing wind blow their boats back down south.
Ancient Egyptians thought of their land as a place of two distinct environments, Kemet (the Black Land) and Deshret (the Red Land). The controlled and fertile banks of the Nile were known as Kemet – a hospitable arena for a civilization to develop. The inundation cycle (flood, growth, harvest) dominated the calendar and was “worshipped in the form of the gods Hapi and Satet”– god of the inundation and archer god of the cataracts and flooding, respectively. Excess flooding could be nearly as troublesome as drought. This prompted engineering developments in measuring and controlling techniques such as Nilometers, irrigation channels and ways to withhold or divert excess flooding with walls and cisterns. Reader also shows how the construction of a mortuary temple (in Kesmet) included a path leading to the tomb (in Deshret). The stone path was covered in mud brick, designating it part of Kemet.
The inhospitable desert land, or deshret, gives rise to different ways of living and were “regarded as a place of chaos: the realm of the dead.” There are vast areas of desert to both the east and west of the Nile Valley. Again, it was interesting to read about the geological processes that gave rise to these areas and how they had been covered by savannah at one point. These huge expanses of apparently lifeless sand and wind are interspersed by occasional areas of shelter and water called Wadis, which provided respite and allowed the desert to be crossed. Some routes are historical, evidenced by rock art and other signs of human presence. Others are still in use. It is far too obvious to say that Wadis are and have always been a lifeline in the desert. They are all different and individually complex.
The chapter on the Western Desert included a fascinating discussion of LDG (Libyan Desert Glass.) This is a green or yellowish soapy-looking “stone” found lying on the desert surface, formed either by lightning striking sand, or possibly by comet activity. This material is extraordinarily high in silica content and very rare. Colin Reader includes a photo of a jewelled pectoral recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamun. A piece of LDG has been shaped as a scarab and placed centrally in the arrangement. He suggests this is evidence that Egyptians of the Pharaonic era were able to explore the Western Desert and also evaluate the importance, or at least the rarity, of LDG.
As mentioned above, I was very taken with the images of desert cave art. This is an area which has only recently received scholarly attention. Some images illustrate what may be an early form of mysticism as figures from a top row of individuals are reflected in a lower band of images as if inverted from the waist down. However, these are not direct reflections of the top row. Colin Reader suggests this may demonstrate an interest in some sort of afterlife or spirit life. Perhaps an underworld. Elsewhere, there are images from the Cave of Swimmers showing individuals swimming as a social activity. This is an example of how the author gives a survey of what has been discovered in and around geological landscape, without labouring the point of how the environment shaped peoples’ lives. Nobody is swimming in the desert region anymore.
In other chapters, Reader is willing to speculate more openly on the geological reasons behind physical placement of various human activities. Why ritual sites were sited in certain positions. For example, the necropolis of Saqqara is on a high plateau west of the Nile. Early mastaba tombs seem to have been sited in a position which makes them clearly visible from the Nile Valley below and to the east. Later tombs, including the step pyramid of Djoser, are sited more to the west. Reader believes that for reasons as yet unknown, the builders of these tombs began to prioritise the Wadi Abusir as the primary feature of landscape. Subsequent tombs are built overlooking this Wadi and are not visible from the Nile Valley, which seems to have lost relevance. I have to say, the contribution of Wadis (dried-up river beds or lakes) to Egyptian history has been one of the most interesting discoveries for me. Here’s an example – the Valley of the Kings is in a Wadi. It is postulated that one reason why Tutankhamun’s tomb was undiscovered was due to a flash flood in ancient times that wrecked the opening to the tunnels, making it inaccessible to the usual robbers of antiquity. At some point after this, measures were taken to prevent the Valley of the Kings from flooding again.
The Eastern Desert spans the area between the Nile and the Red Sea Hills, which as the name suggests, roughly track the coast of the Red Sea. Ancient trading routes between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea have been discovered, often tracking known Wadis. Due to tectonic activity, rich metal and mineral deposits were raised to accessible depths in the Red Sea Hills, including gold and precious stones. Colin Reader suggests that the Eastern Desert was regularly crossed in ancient times, as evidenced by the trading routes, and that the many mining sites demonstrate how the presence of such deposits motivated pharaonic culture to mine and develop their remarkable skills of metalworking and jewellery in the worship of their gods and their kings.
The chapter on mining and quarrying explores a similar theme. How did the ancient Egyptians manage to cut granite obelisks and carve them with such precision? Nobody really knows. How did they quarry and move vast amounts of rock and other materials? There are theories involving fire, rounded hammer stones or using sand or quartz grit and copper drills. These may go some way to explain these conundrums, but the answers are still largely guessed at. Colin Reader is particularly impressed by the “courage” shown by ancient Egyptian quarrying and mining techniques. Naturally, construction of the pyramids is also discussed. No book about stone and Pharaonic Egypt would be compete without it.
I was more engaged by the geological content of this book than I expected to be, which says much about my lack of scientific knowledge. Approaching Egyptology from a different angle was, in the end, a delight. So much in Egyptology remains unknown. The charm of this book lies for me, in seeing a passionate engineer/geologist grapple with the subject.
by Colin D. Reader
AUC Press, 240 pages
Tamsin Hopkins is a London-based writer. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Royal Holloway, London. Her collection of short fiction 'SHORE TO SHORE, River Stories' uses the mythology of individual rivers as a linking motiv. This book was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and shortlisted for the Rubery Prize. Her poetry has appeared in The London Magazine, Mslexia, Magma, The New Statesman and a variety of anthologies. In 2020 she won the Aesthetica Prize for Poetry. Her chapbook 'Inside the Smile' is published by Cinnamon Press.