Bordered by the Red Sea and Israel to the east, Sudan to the south, Libya to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the north, modern Egypt is a 386,650 square miles in area, or roughly the twice the size of California. Only 2.6 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this land is located in the Nile Delta and along the Nile Valley. There are no forests in Egypt. There are some barren mountains in the southern Sinai and running parallel to the Red Sea. Egypt’s deserts have little or no vegetation and are very hot.

Modern Egypt is roughly square in shape, measuring 640 miles (1040 kilometers) from north to south, and 600 miles (980 kilometers) from east to west in the north and 760 miles (1240 kilometers) from east to west in the south. Upper Egypt refers to southern Egypt, specifically to the Nile Valley south of Cairo. Lower Egypt refers to northern Egypt, usually the Nile Delta, north of Cairo. The regions are so named because Upper Egypt is along the upriver section of the Nile and Lower Egypt is located on the down river section of the Nile.

The Nile Valley is 930 miles (1510 kilometers) long and varies in width from two to 10 miles (three to 16 kilometers). Stretching the length of Egypt from north to south and occupying a depression around the Nile River, it occupies 3 percent of Egypt's land but is home to 96 percent of its people. The majority of Egyptians live around the Nile. For them the desert is almost as alien an environment as snow-capped mountains.

The fertile Nile Delta, between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the world's most intensely cultivated piece of land. It covers 6,000 square miles (15,500 square kilometers) and is about a 100 miles (160 kilometers) in length from north to south and 150 miles (240 kilometers) wide at its widest point.

To the west of the Nile is the Western Desert. Covering 68 percent of Egypt, it is mostly a flat, sand- and gravel-covered, barren wasteland that rarely exceeds 600 feet (200 meters) above sea level. It extends from the Nile Valley to Libya and from the Mediterranean Sea to Sudan. Most of its people live in and around five major oases. To the east of Nile is the Eastern Desert, which is made up large of a plateau extending from the Nile to the Red Sea, with some hills and a ridge of mountains on the Red Sea side. Most of the people in this region live along the Red Sea.

The Sinai peninsula is a triangular piece of land between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba (branches of the Red Sea) and the Mediterranean and Israel. Egypt's highest peak, 8,668-foot-high (2643 meter-high) Mount Catherine, is located on the Sinai. Nearby is 7,497-foot-high (2285 meter-high) Mt. Sinai.

Modern Egypt has about 1,800 miles (2930 kilometers) of coastline: 600 miles (980 kilometers) along the Mediterranean Sea and 1,200 miles (1950 kilometers) along the Red Sea. The Suez Canal is located to the west of the Sinai. It connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Suez (the Red Sea).

The Nile

The Nile in modern Egypt extends for 600 miles between Aswan in southern Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. South of Aswan, breaking up the river and extending south Sudan, is 300-mile-long Lake Nasser, a reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam. The Nile is made up of the Blue Nile (originating in Ethiopia) and the White Nile (originating in Burundi in Central Africa) which combine to form the Nile in the Sudan. North of Cairo is the Nile Delta. Here the Nile splits several tributaries, the largest ones being the Rosseta

The Nile River is the longest river in the world as every school child knows. Extending for 4,145 miles from its source in the central African to the Mediterranean Sea, its drainage area encompasses nearly a tenth of Africa and covers an estimated 1,293,000 square miles in nine countries. According to the Guinness Book of Records, if the Pará estuary is counted, the Amazon is 4,195 miles long, which make it longer mile Nile River, which lost a few miles after the construction the Aswan Dam. The flow of the Amazon is 60 times greater than the flow of the Nile.

The Nile begins in places with abundant rain but passes through areas that are dry and barren. In these places the Nile is like a long oasis bringing water, food, and life to places that otherwise would have none of these things. An ancient Egyptian hymn goes: “Hail to you, O Nile, rushing from the earth and giving life to Egypt.”

Sailors say the traffic on the Nile can be almost as bad as traffic on the streets of Cairo. On the Nile delta most boats move only at night because the drawbridges are only open after dark. One journalist wrote, "When a bridge finally opened, the effect was of dynamite on a log jam, but with a difference: As the span lifted, everything rushed through---to meet headlong with a jam coming the other way. In the blackness of the river the result was bedlam.♬

Nile Flooding

The water in the Nile is generally very shallow but goes through periods of flooding caused mostly by heavy rains in Africa, particularly in the Ethiopian highlands. First the White Nile floods, then the Blue Nile and its tributaries. The flood waters reach Egypt in late spring and rise through the summer until they reach their peak in September or October and then decline until November.


The water level of Nile fluctuates as much as 10 feet a year. Water levels are at their lowest around July when seasonal rains are late in Africa. Describing the flood season Herodotus wrote: “Only the towns remain above water, looking rather like the islands of the Aegean.” The Nile floods used to deposit as much as 20 million tons of silt on fields along the river every year. As the floods recede the water drains through the soil, leaching out the salts and carrying them off to the sea.

The Nile loses up to 95 percent of it water (compared to 1 percent of the Rhone), most of it for agriculture. The area around the Upper Nile receives only three to five millimeters of rain a year. In ancient times there was a system of dykes that diverted water into basins. When the river flooded water filled the basins. When the water left fertile silt was left behind. To get water to agriculture land a number of pumping stations have been built along the Nile.

Nile River and History

The present Nile is only about 30,000 years old. It was preceded by at least four other versions of the river that were nourished when the Sahara was not a desert. In 1958, scientists using radioisotopes tracked a crypto-river flowing under the Nile with an annual flow of 20 trillion cubic feet---six times greater than the Nile itself.

The ancient Egyptians regulated their lives according to flooding cycles of the Nile. They relied on the flooding to fertilize their farms but also suffered when high water carried away their homes and property. The ancient Egyptians believed the Nile was sacred, partly because they had no idea how the river's life-giving floodwaters could mysteriously appear every year out of a barren desert. They didn't know where the river started, and they assumed the water had to be a gift from the gods.

According to Egyptian mythology, the Nile divided the world in two, while the Nile itself was compared to a lotus: with the Nile as the flower, the oasis of Al-Faiyum as the bud; and the Nile Valley as the stem. The Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as the "the gift of the Nile."

Lower Egypt

Millennia of floods, droughts and silt deposits have shifted the Nile eastward. Memphis, the seat of the pharaohs, literally, grew in the direction of the Nile as it moved. In the 2nd century the Greek geographer Ptolemy suggested that Nile originated in the mythical Mountain of the Moon in Africa, but no one got close to the real source until the end of the 19th century when British explorer John Speke suggested than it started in Lake Victoria. Later expeditions showed he was close---the actual source is a stream in Burundi that empties into the Kagera River, which, after 250 miles, flows into Lake Victoria.

The construction of the Aswan Dam dramatically altered the character of the Nile in Egypt. Lake Nasser, which was produced by the dam. submerged the second cataract and turned the southern section of the river in Egypt into a 300-mile long reservoir. The dam brought an end to the annual floods but it has also robbed the land of the fertile silt deposited on the farm land each year by the floods.

Nile Route

The Nile in central Nubia (Sudan)
Rains that fall in nine modern nations---Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Burundi and Rwanda, more than 10 percent of Africa--- drain into the Nile. About 85 percent of headwater are in Ethiopia.

The Nile is made up of three major tributaries---the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara. The source of the White Nile a spring in Burundi that feeds the Kagara River in Rwanda, which in turn flows into Lake Victoria. The source of the Blue Nile is near Lake Tana, Ethiopia. The Atbara River contributes one-fifth of the Nile---s volume during floods. The last major tributary of the Nile, it originates in the highlands of northwestern Ethiopia, flows through Sudan and joins the Nile 200 miles upstream from Khartoum.

The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana, a large Rift Valley lake in central Ethiopia surrounded by Coptic monasteries. After tumbling over Blue Nile Falls, the river winds through a steep gorge in the Central Ethiopian Plateau that is a mile deep. The source of floodwaters in Egypt are the annual rains that fall on Ethiopia and empty into the Blue Nile and Atbara, Much of the fertile silt in the Nile is top soil that washes down from the Ethiopian highlands.

White Nile

The White Nile is the longest of the three Nile tributaries. It winds through Uganda and descends 1,700 feet between Lake Victoria and Lake Albert on the Zaire border. Along the way the White Nile flows though Muchinson Falls, where the river narrows from a width of a half a mile to a few hundred meters and then shots through 20-foot-channel like a foaming white "hydraulic explosion." The Albert Nile, which originates in the Ruwenzori mountains, flows into Lake Albert.

In the Bahr el Jebel region of the Sudan the river spreads out in vast unnavigable swamp filled with papyrus reeds and elephants grass. One British explorer called it a “horrible region of everlasting swamp.” The water moves so slowly in this 500 mile long region that half the river evaporates into the sky or seeps into the soil. The 225-mile Jonglei Canal was designed to reduce water loss from the evaporation and bring water to 400,000 acres of land. Construction was halted due to the civil war in the Sudan.

Nile After Khartoum

Nile in southern Egypt
At Khartoum the roughly 2200 mile-long White Nile joins the 850-mile-long Blue Nile to form the Nile proper. The Nile is an important transportation route in Sudan. Waters from the Nile in this barren region are harnessed for irrigation.

North of Khartoum the Nile flows in a broad S-shaped pattern for 1,200 miles through the desert, where it is interrupted briefly by six cataracts (areas of rapids and granite outcroppings). Numbered in ascending order from north to south, the cataracts make the river unnavigable between Lake Nasser in southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan.

Between the First Cataract, not far from Aswan, and Cairo the river is navigable but often times the river is so shallow that the only boats that can negotiate it are flat-bottomed fellucas. North of Cairo the river separates into scores of channels in the approximately 100-mile-wide Nile Delta.

The desert provided a natural barrier against invaders.

Oases provided dates, olives and wine.

Nile Valley

The Nile Valley is a flat flood plain that follows the Nile over the length of Egypt from north to south. Described as a 600-mile-long oasis, it is 930 miles (if Lake Nasser is included) and averages two miles in width. It makes up only 3 percent of Egypt’s land but is home to 96 percent of Egypt’s population. In many places it is flanked by escarpments and cliffs. Many temples and tombs have been placed on top of these. The majority of Egyptians live around the Nile. For them the desert is almost as alien an environment as snow-capped mountains.

In Egypt the Nile flows through land that receives almost no rain. The river provides water for crops such as cotton, sugar, rice and is the life force for millions of people. When viewed from an airplane the Nile valley looks like a green ribbon surrounded by endless deserts. In some places the cultivated area is limited by escarpments. In other places where the land is flat and no escarpments are present irrigation has extended agricultural land outward from the river for miles.

Many of the people who live around the river live in villages that have been unchanged by the centuries. The residents dress in robes and turbans as their ancestors have centuries and till the soil and irrigate their crops using traditional methods.

Nile Delta

The Nile Delta is a flat expanse of extremely fertile land covered with green fields and laced with canals. Covering about 6,000 square miles, it has such a perfect triangular shape that the ancient Greeks coined the world "delta" to describe it because they were reminded of a Greek letter by the same name. The ancient Egyptians also had a major presence here. Some scholars believed that Menes I conquered Lower Egypt and unified Egypt to get his hands on the Delta. Jews believe that the delta was Goshen, the "house of bondage" where the Israelites labored for the pharaoh before they were led to the promised land by Moses.

The Nile Delta is about a 100 miles in length from north to south and 150 miles wide at its widest point. North of Cairo the Nile splits into several tributaries, the largest ones being the Rosseta and Damietta branches, which empty into the Mediterranean Sea near ports with the same names.

In many ways life on delta today has changed remarkably little since Biblical times. Most peasants still use cattle plows instead of tractors to cultivate their land. Water wheels and Archimedes screws are used instead of pumps to lift water from the Nile. However, more and more, traditional saqia irrigation wheels are being replaced by diesel pumps.

The Nile Delta is one of the world's most intensely cultivated piece of land. Almost every inch of the region cultivated. The land is divided into fields and canal chocked with hyciths and papyrus. There are cotton fields, rice paddies, wheat fields, grape arbors, and fields with leafy vegetables, beets, melons, broad beans, potatoes, and squashes. Of Egypt's 7.5 million acres of arable land, 6 million acres is in the Nile Delta.

Over a million people now live in the Nile Delta area, along with thousands of water buffalo, donkeys and thousands of migratory birds (up until 1980, 25 percent of all the wetlands in the Mediterranean was in the Nile Delta). The Egyptians that live in the delta area are known for their industriousness. [Source: Peter Theroux, National Geographic, January 1997]

Near Zagazig are the runs of Bubastis, one of the oldest ancient cities in Egypt and the center of an ancient cat cult. Some 40 miles northeast of Zagazig near the village of San el Hagar are the ruins of Tanis, where statues of pharaohs were stored and many scholars believe the Hebrews were enslaved. Rashid (40 miles east of Alexandria) is where the Rosetta St was found by Napoleon;s soldiers in 1799. It is located where the western Rosetta branch of the Nile empties into the Mediterranean.

Weather in Egypt

The weather in Egypt is generally warm in the winter, very hot in the summer and dry most of the year, with the exception of a rainy period in the winter that occurs mostly in the northern part of the country. In the desert there are great extremes of hot and cold on a daily basis. Daytime and nighttime temperature differences of 80̊F (45̊C) have been recorded. The Tropic of Cancer roughly divides Egypt into north and south.

Precipitation is generally scarce in most of the Egypt and, if it occurs, tends to fall between November and March, with January and February generally being the rainiest months. Moisture is generally carried in by winds from the Mediterranean Sea. Very little rain comes in from the Red Sea. Egypt’s mountains are situated in places where they don’t cause much of rain making effect. As a result the rainfall amounts are considerably lower than in parts of Israel, Lebanon and Iran.


Cairo and the Mediterranean region are considerably cooler and wetter than the rest of the country. The climate in these places is influenced more by the Mediterranean Sea than by the Sahara. Alexandria and Cairo can be quite cool in the winter when temperatures may drop into the 40s F (single digits C) at night.

Winter in Egypt is warm in most of the country, with high temperatures in the 70s F (20s C), and cool in the mountains and north, where the temperatures may fall below freezing at night. The tops of the highest mountains sometimes receive snow. Spring and autumn are warm in the north and hot in the south.

Summer in Egypt is very hot throughout the country. There is generally no rain. In most of Egypt the highs are in the 90s and 100s F (upper 30s and 40s C). The deserts are extremely hot. Temperatures often rises above 100̊F (38̊C) or even 120̊F (50̊C) during the afternoon and then sometimes drop into the 40s F (single digits C) at night. The Red Sea area, the Mediterranean area and Cairo are very humid. June, July and August are the hottest months.

In the deserts and south of the Tropic of Cancer the high temperatures are: in the 80s F (upper 20s C) during January and February; and in the 90s (30s C) in March, April, October and November. It is extremely hot from May to September, when is not unusual for the temperature to hit 125̊F (50̊C). At this time of the year, if the high temperature only reaches 110̊F (45̊ C) locals often comment that a cold front must coming through.

The air in the desert is generally dry and the humidity is low. Many places go years without seeing any rain, and when it does rain it comes in a deluge. The temperatures in the desert can also drop quite low at night. In the northern desert they can drop below freezing as late as April. This is because all that heat that arrives during the day escapes into the atmosphere at night because they are no clouds to hold it in.

In the hottest deserts, the winter temperatures can rise to the 90s F (30s C) in the day and drop to the 30s F (single digits C) at night. There are occasional downpours. In the summer it is so hot that shoes fall apart because the glue melts and thermometers do not have a high enough measurement to record the high temperatures. In addition, the air is so dry that pages fall out of books because the bindings fail. At night the temperature drops only to 95̊F (35̊C).

20120215-Sahara rive SafsafOasis SAR.jpg
ancient rivers under the Sahara at Safsa Oasis

Rain and Wind in Egypt

The prevailing winds generally blows from north to south, with rainfall amounts generally decreasing as one moves southward. Northern Egypt receives the same amount of rain as southern Italy. Alexandria get about 75 inches (190 centimeters) of rain a year. Cairo gets about 15 inches (40centimeters). The barren deserts in the south, east and west get between nothing and 5 inches (13 centimeters). The Red Sea area receives little rain but can oppressively humid and hot. In the desert regions rainfall can vary greatly from month to month and year to year. Egypt doesn’t suffer as much as other places during droughts because it water comes from the Nile and oases.

Egypt can get very windy and experience nasty sandstorms. The Khamsin is a hot, dusty, wind that blows up from the south during the summer. Sometimes beginning as early as April, it lasts for two or three days and is strong enough to kick up huge clouds of dust and sand and damage vegetation. Some people regard the wind as a "witch" that brings evil and causes people to do awful things, including commit suicide. Khasmin is the Arabic word for "fifty." It describes the number of days the wind strike the cities of North Africa.

The Etesian is an eastern Mediterranean summer wind that blows from the north towards the Sahara and from the Near East highlands towards the sea. It is also called a Meltemi . The hamoob is a dark gloomy wind associated with the Nile. Sometimes sandstorms suddenly whip up, particular in the khamsin season, shutting down flights, reducing visibility to near zero and sometimes killing people. These are often accompanied by thunderstorms or sinoons (hot sand-laden storms).

Weather in Ancient Egypt

There was a severe 200-year drought in North and East Africa around 2200 B.C. Hieroglyphics record that the annual Nile flood failed for 50 about years and many people died of famine. The disaster may have produced the collapse of the Old Kingdom and caused the period of chaos that followed.

The power of the Pharaohs was based in part on their ability to predict the annual flooding of the Nile.

20120215-Sahara rive SafsafOasis_SAR_comparison.jpg
ancient rivers under the Sahara at Safsa Oasis

Green Sahara

During the last 300,000 years there have been major periods of alternating wet and dry climates in the Sahara which in many cases were linked to the Ice Age eras when huge glaciers covered much of Europe and North America. Wet periods in the Sahara often occurred when the ice ages were waning. The last major rainy period in the Sahara lasted from about 12,000, when the last Ice Age began to wan in Europe, to 7,000 years ago. Temperatures and rainfall peaked around 9,000 years ago during the so-called Holocene Optimum.

Scientists believed the ice ages and the climate changes in the Sahara were produced by events triggered by changes in the Earth's orbits and rotations based on the fact the timing of the climate changes have correlated with the changes in the Earth’s tilt and rotation. Sometimes when the Earth approached close to the sun or the tilt of the Earth exposed the Northern Hemisphere to more sunlight the African monsoon shifted northward or the Mediterranean winds to shift south.

20120215-geese tomb_of_Itet_-_geese.jpg
As the Ice Age in Europe ended more water evaporated from the Atlantic filling clouds and and more moisture was brought to North Africa as monsoon winds from Africa shifted north and Mediterranean westerly winds south because of the cooler temperatures in Europe. This caused the rains that nourished western Africa and the Mediterranean region to move into the Sahara in North Africa.

During wet periods in the Sahara oak and cedar trees grew in the highlands and the Sahara itself was a savannah grassland with acacia trees and hackberry trees and shallow lakes and braided rivers. Rock and cave paintings from that time depict abundant wildlife---including elephants and giraffes that lived in the savannahs and hippopotami and crocodiles that lived in the rivers and lakes--- and people, who hunted with bows and arrows, herded animals, collected wild grains and fished.

Remnants from the wet periods discovered by scientists include ostrich egg shells, high water marks around lakes that are presently dried up, swamp sediments, pollen from trees and grass and bones of elephants, giraffes, hippopotami, lions, fish, rhinoceros, frogs and crocodiles. Prehistoric inhabitants of Egypt may have raised ostriches. Large numbers of ostrich egg shells have been at excavations at a 9,000-year-old site at Farafra Oasis.

Sahara Becomes a Desert

20120215-grasshopper des_Horemhab_002.jpg
Beginning around 7,000 years the Sahara began changing from a savannah to a desert. The climates changes in the Sahara occurred in two episodes---the first 6,700 to 5,500 years ago and the second 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. These changed are may have occurred when the African monsoons and Mediterranean winds returned to their normal locations.

As the Sahara region dried out grasslands and lakes disappeared. Desiccation occurred relatively quickly, over a few hundred years. Desertification processes were accelerated as vegetation, which helped generate rain, was lost, causing even less rain, and the soil lost its ability to hold moisture when it did rain. Light-colored land without plants reflects rather than absorbs sunlight, producing less warm, moist cloud-forming updrafts, causing even less rain. When it did rain the water washed away or evaporated quickly. The result: desert.

By 2000 B.C. the Sahara was as dry as it is now. The last lake dried up around 1000 B.C. The people that lived in the region were forced to leave and migrate south to find food and water. Some scientist believe some of these people settled on the Nile and became the ancient Egyptians.

Some scientists are currently studying whether global warming could cause the Sahara to bloom again. The current thinking seems to be that yes this is possible but greenhouse gas levels have to increase to a much higher rate than they are at today.

Disasters in Ancient Egypt

According to scholar Karl Butzer, during floods there was "famine, poverty, mass burials, rotting corpses, suicide, cannibalism, anarchy, mass dislocations, civil war, mass plundering, roving bands of marauders, looting of cemeteries.”

The floods were unpredictable. One that were too high destroyed crops and flooded settlements. Ones that were too low resulted in famine. The Egyptian described disasters as chaos.

The were reports of cannibalism in ancient China, India and Egypt associated with exotic dishes enjoyed by the aristocracy and people surviving during famines.

Environment in Ancient Egypt

The presence of charcoal at sites in Giza is viewed as evidence that trees once grew around there.

Animals in Ancient Egypt

20120215-tarde if giraffe.jpg
trading a giraffe
In Pharonic times, the Nile was home to hippos and crocodiles. Hippos were considered pests because they ruined crops. Many of the animals that we associate with the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania and Kenya like antelopes, hyenas, lions, cheetahs and jackals were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia 4000 years ago. Until maybe a hundred years ago leopards, cheetahs, oyrx aardwolves, striped hyenas and caracals could be found in the mountains and deserts.

Many animals were associated with religion and magic and divinity. Ibises, jackals, lions and many other animals were associated with specific gods and were worshipped as divinities. Hippos were warriors against Seth, the god of evil. Hedgehogs possessed magical powers in the grave. The ancient Egyptians used to wear hedgehog amulets to ward off snakebites. Hedgehogs have a resistance but are not immune to snake venom.

The aggressive and dog-faced hamadryas baboon was considered sacred. No longer found in Egypt, it was mummified and portrayed in images in temples and monoliths. Sacred ones were kept at temples and enshrined in death at catacombs, where priest prayed and made offerings to them.

Snakes were widely worshiped and associated with the Nile River and fertility. Cobras were symbols of divine rule and were prominently featured on the head dresses of the Pharaohs.

The Egyptians revered crocodiles. Their river god Sobek is modeled after one. Entire crocodiles families were mummified and placed in sacred tombs with gold bracelets placed on their ankles. A Greek historian visiting an Egyptian Crocodileopolis saw priests feed them honey wine and cakes.

Wild Animals as Pets and Livestock in Ancient Egypt

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gazelle mummy
The Egyptian may have succeeded in domesticating cranes, ibex, gazelles, oryx and baboons. Bas reliefs show men trying to tame hyenas by tying them up and force feeding them meat.

The Egyptians were fond of cheetahs and kept herds of gazelles and antelopes. Oryxes and other kinds of antelope were kept as household pets. Even though the Egyptians may have tamed elephants there is no evidence they were domesticated like elephants in ancient Carthage.

Elephants in elaborate tombs were found in cemetery in Hierakonpolis, dated to 3500 B.C. One of the elephants was ten to eleven years old. That is the age when young males are expelled from the herd. Modern animals trainers say elephants at that age are young and inexperienced and can be captured and trained.

Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies

20120215-Gazell des_Horemhab_004.jpg
pet gazelle
The Egyptians not only mummified their rulers, they also made mummies of baboons, ibises, cats, dogs, rabbits, Nile perch, bulls, vultures, elephants, donkeys, lizards, shrews, scarab beetles, horses, gazelles, crocodiles, snakes, catfish, ducks and falcons. They were often elaborately wrapped in bandages printed with magical spells and carefully painted. John Taylor of the British Museum told AP, "The Egyptians mummified almost everything that moved, as they were considered representative of gods and goddesses."

The animal mummies were usually carefully wrapped and placed in a coffin or jar. Sometimes the animal mummies were placed in small limestone coffins. Some coffins were topped by golden shrews. Shrews were symbols of the sun’s renewal. They were sometimes given as offerings. Research has show that the animals were often prepared and embalmed with the same care as humans.

Millions of mummified animals have been found. It was long thought that animals were simply wrapped in coarse linen rags and immersed in preservative. Research by Richard Evershed, an expert on archaeological chemistry at the University of Bristol, found the same materials---including fine linen, beeswax, cedar resins, bitumen and pistacia---used in human mummies were also used in mummies of cats, ibises and hawks dated to between 9th and 4th centuries B.C.

Today animal mummies are among the most popular exhibits in the treasure-filled Egyptian Museum. A.R. Williams wrote in National Geographic, “Visitors of all ages, Egyptians and foreigners, press shoulder to shoulder to get a look. Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone, rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered matt of papyrus...A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliques. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate. [Source: A.R. Williams, National Geographic, November 2009]

The oldest-known animal mummies, dated to 2950 B.C., are dogs, lions and donkeys buried with kings in the 1st dynasty in their funeral complexes at Abydos, Symbols of the god Troth, ibises were mummified in greater numbers than any other animal.

Source: The Animal Mummy Project at the France Museum

See Animal Mummies

Plants in Ancient Egypt

Lotus flowers are featured in ancient Egyptian art. They are now found in the Nile Delta.

The papyrus reed is fairly uncommon now. It has been largely displaced by other kinds of grasses.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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