In the previous text we learned about the climate of Egypt and the Nile River and its functions in the land. It was basically divided into two lands with very sharp contrasts between them. The two regions were basically called Upper and Lower Egypt.
Upper Egypt is symbolized by the lotus blossom and extends about six hundred miles from the first cataract at Aswan to Memphis, the ancient capital at the beginning of the delta. The valley on each side of the river has been cultivated since ancient times, and a line of towns has been strung out along the river, with the most significant being Thebes, or modern Luxor.
Lower Egypt is symbolized by the papyrus plant. It is essentially the Nile delta, which is a large triangle extending 125 miles north from Memphis to the Mediterranean Sea. The delta is about 155 miles wide at its northern extremity along the coast. This region is very flat, green, and generously watered. Modern satellite photos frequently show cotton-ball-like puffs that indicate cloud cover over the delta, while the more arid regions are clearly visible. The delta probably sustained considerable marshlands in ancient times, due to the deposits of alluvium that blocked the ancient waterways emptying into the Mediterranean.
The land of Goshen is important in connection with the Israelite sojourn. It was here that Jacob’s family settled and multiplied. Goshen was known as “the land of Rameses”. It is located in the eastern delta area of Lower Egypt. It includes the Wadi Tumilat, a fertile region connecting the Nile River to the Bitter Lakes. Because of its rainfall and easy access to irrigation form the Nile, Goshen was indeed “the best of the land” as the Bible says. It was not being occupied with people at the time, though, because while it was blessed with some of the most fertile land in Egypt, it was also the most susceptible to attack and was the first area to be captured and ransacked by invading armies from the north. Therefore, the more cautious Egyptians moved and built their major cities further inland so that they would have time to prepare for battle if any invasions happened. Yet, under the protective hand of God, Israel flourished in Goshen, and the nation grew in number and strength.
Desert claims the land to the east and west of the Nile Valley and characterizes approximately 93 percent of modern Egypt’s territory. The eastern desert is between the Nile and the Red Sea and is characterized by broken terrain and granite mountains. They parallel the Red Sea and reach elevations of 6,600 feet in the far south. The eastern desert was known for its mineral wealth in ancient times and was mined for gold and alabaster. The granite mountains can be crossed in several places, but there is not much incentive to do so, because the Red Sea’s coast is extremely barren also.
The western desert is actually an eastern extension of the vast Sahara. Its mostly flat surface is broken by rocks and dunes of drifted sand. There are oasis spread over it that are supplied by artesian wells that spring from the Nile Valley. The majority of the people that live here are Nomads.
Ancient Egypt was isolated by the surrounding deserts enough to allow its people to develop their own distinctive culture. This is evident by their writing, religion, and architecture. There was always opportunity for outside influence, though, because of all the trade that came through there.
The economy along the Nile River was primarily agricultural, and there were crops of wheat, barley, flax for linen, castor oil, sesame for oil, saffron for flavoring, lettuce, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic. The Israelites remembered some of these things during their wilderness wanderings and wished they still had them. Fish from the Nile was also very important to their diet. In the desert and marginal areas, they raised camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Horses were introduced by the Hyksos and became valuable for export. Gold and silver were mined in the mountains to the east. Sandstone and limestone, were quarried from the hills on either side of the Nile, and they provided stone for the pyramids and temples. Granite was transported from the uttermost northern town of Aswan for statues, and some of the earliest alphabetic inscriptions have been found at a copper and turquoise mining center in Sinai. These have provided a link between Egyptian hieroglyphics and modern alphabets.
The very well traveled Via Maris highway linked Egypt with trade centers in Damascus and Mesopotamia, and Egyptian ships went to Crete and Phoenicia. Traders also traveled into Africa seeking incense, myrrh, gum and ivory for the Egyptian markets. Egypt was later the chief granary for the Roman Empire, as Paul took an Alexandrian grain ship from Myra to Miletus in Acts27:6, and then from Miletus to Rome in Acts 28:11.
The Egyptians were clean-shaven in contrast to the Asians and Hebrews. They generally wore white linen skirts and leather sandals. It has been reported that beer was their favorite beverage. The pharaohs lived a life of luxury, as can be found from what was inside their tombs.
Art and literature flourished in the days of the pharaohs. Much of the preserved art of Egypt has been discovered in royal tombs, since it was believed that the artifacts left there or represented in paintings could be used by the deceased in the afterlife. Egyptian literature includes myths and legends, treaties, historical texts and records, rituals and incantations, hymns, prayers, and wisdom materials. Some of the wisdom instruction found has remarkable similarities to Proverbs.
The ancient Egyptians tended to worship local deities rather than some figure of national scope. Their gods personified the powers of nature (fertility) and the natural phenomena (the Nile). Various plants and animals were thought to be the manifestations of certain deities. Some spirits were friendly and life-giving, such as the cow, while others were menacing like the crocodile and cobra. The Apis bull of Ptah was worshiped at Memphis. Horus, the hawk and the sun god, Re (Ra) were widely worshiped as “sky gods.” Re was also depicted as hawk-headed in hieroglyphics. The sun god’s main worship center was at Heliopolis or biblical On. Osiris, the god of the netherworld and afterlife, became associated with the dead kings. The pharaoh himself was thought to represent the gods and to move freely in their world. Pharaoh’s tomb was regarded as his eternal dwelling. Belief in the afterlife was a leading feature of Egyptian religion. Since one’s body was considered the material abode for the soul, efforts were made to preserve its physical form through mummification after death.
The map below shows Upper and Lower Egypt and the main cities in them both and their relationship to the Nile. They definitely depended on it completely for their existence. It’s easy to see why Goshen would have been the most fertile of the land because of all the rivers running through it.