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Franz L Kessler

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Aspects of Daily Life in 500 BC Egypt as Portrayed by Herodotus
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Geography, Agriculture and Climate of 500 BC Egypt as Recorded by Herodotus
by Franz L Kessler   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, June 26, 2008
Posted: Friday, June 20, 2008

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This article provides a summary of Herodotus’ geo-scientific observations, when visiting Egypt at ca. 460 BC. Herodotus is considered by many to be the first historian. Born in Halicarnassus around 490 BC, he visited Egypt during the Persian occupation (27th Dynasty), a time of relative cultural decline.

The second volume of his "Histories" describes Egypt’s geography and people and recounts a few semi-mythical stories about some pharaohs. His book also contains a wealth of geographical, geological, climatological and anthropological observations, but these are often hidden in the text, or interwoven with religious standpoints, cultural comparisons and various speculations. This article attempts to put these observations, once cleansed from speculative elements, in a geographical and logical order. By doing so, I tried to preserve sequences of sentences as much as possible. Herodotus' application of scientific logic is truely remarkable, and indicates to which point geo-scientific thougt and methodology were developed in Classic Hellas, followed by the Roman Empire, before disappearing for almost 1200 years during the dark ages.

It is important, however, to remember that Herodotus was not trying to write history in the modern manner. He was simply describing what he saw and heard, and does not claim to have all the answers, this being precisely what makes the book so interesting today.

Egypt, during Herodotus’ visit, was already a fairly dry country- though he mentions a very rainy or even aquatic past, and indirectly points at the possibility of dry spells and crop failure. But at occasions, the entire land became flooded, and resembled a big lake. He also describes the hot desert winds, and the effect of salt precipitation causing damage to the Pyramids.






Geography, Agriculture and Climate of 500 BC Egypt as Recorded by Herodotus, the Ancient World’s Famous Travel-Writer


An Account of Egypt

                                Based on Macauleys’ classic translation




Egyptian measurements of time and space


“ Egyptians were the first of all men on earth to find out the course of the year, having divided the seasons into twelve parts to make up the whole; and they said they found out from the stars: and they reckon to this extent more wisely than the Hellenes, as it seems to me, in as much as the Hellenes throw in an intercalated month every other year, to make the seasons right, whereas the Egyptians, reckoning the twelve months at thirty days each, bring in also every year five days beyond number, and thus the circle of their season is completed and comes round to the same point whence it set out. They say moreover that the Egyptians were the first who brought into use appellations for the twelve gods (1) and the Hellenes took up the use from them; and that they were the first who assigned altars and images and temples to the gods, and who engraved figures on stones.”


“ For those who of men who are poor in land have their country measured in fathoms (2), those who are less rich by furlongs, those who have much land by parasangs, and those who have land in great abundance by schoines: now the parasang is equal to thirty furlongs, and each schoine , which is an Egyptian measure, is equal to 60 furlongs.”


The Nile


“The Egyptians are in agreement with their climate, which is unlike any other, and with the river, which shows a nature different from all other rivers.”


“As regards the nature of the river, neither from the priests nor yet from any other man was I able to obtain any knowledge: and I was desirous especially to learn from them about these matters, namely, why the Nile comes down increasing in volume from the summer solstice onwards for a hundred days, and then, when it has reached the number of these days, turns and goes back, failing in its stream, so that through the whole winter season it continues to be low, and until the summer solstice returns. Of none of these things was I able to receive any account from the Egyptians, when I inquired of them what power the Nile has whereby it is of a nature opposite to that of all other rivers. And I made inquiry, desiring to know both this which I say and also why, unlike all other rivers, it does not give rise to any breezes blowing from it.”


“The Nile however, alone of all rivers, not having rain and being drawn by the Sun, naturally flows during this time of winter in much less than its proper volume, that is, much less than in summer; for then it is drawn equally with all the other waters, but in winter it bears the burden alone.”


“They said also that the first man who became king of Egypt was Min ; and that in this time all Egypt except the district of Thebes was a swamp (3), and none of the regions were then above water which now lie below the lake of Moiris (4), to which lake it is a voyage of seven days up the river from the sea.”


“When the Nile begins to swell, the hollow places of the land and the depressions by the side of the river first begin to fill, as the water soaks through from the river, and so soon as they become full of water, at once they are all filled with little fishes; and whence these are in all likelihood produced, I think that I perceive. In the preceding year, when the Nile goes down, the fish first lay eggs in the mud and then retire with the last of the retreating waters; and when the time comes round again, and the water once more comes over the land, from these eggs forthwith are produced the fishes of which I speak.”


“The Nile from the cataract onwards flow as to the sea cutting Egypt through its midst; and as far as the city of Kerkasoros the Nile flows in one single stream, but from this city onwards it is parted into three ways (5); and one, which is called the Pelusian mouth, turns towards the East; the second of the ways goes towards the West, and this is called the Canobic mouth; but that one of the ways which is straight runs thus, -- when the river in its course downwards comes to the point of the Delta, then it cuts the Delta through the midst and so issues out to the sea. In this we have a portion of the water of the river which is not the smallest nor the least famous, and it is called the Sebennytic mouth.”


“There are also two other mouths which part off from the Sebennytic and go to the sea, and these are called , one the Saitic, the other the Mendesian mouth. The Bolbitinitic, and bucolic mouths, on the other hand, are not natural but made by digging.”


  “Of the crocodile the nature is as follows:—during the four most wintry months this creature eats nothing: she has four feet and is an animal belonging to the land and the water both; for she produces and hatches eggs on the land, and the most part of the day she remains upon dry land, but the whole of the night in the river, for the water in truth is warmer than the unclouded open air and the dew. Of all the mortal creatures of which we have knowledge this grows to the greatest bulk from the smallest beginning; for the eggs which she produces are not much larger than those of geese and the newly-hatched young one is in proportion to the egg, but as he grows he becomes as much as seventeen cubits long and sometimes yet larger.”


“He has eyes like those of a pig and teeth large and tusky, in proportion to the size of his body; but unlike all other beasts he grows no tongue, neither does he move his lower jaw, but brings the upper jaw towards the lower, being in this too unlike all other beasts. He has moreover strong claws and a scaly hide upon his back which cannot be pierced; and he is blind in the water, but in the air he is of a very keen sight. Since he has his living in the water he keeps his mouth all full within of leeches; and whereas all other birds and beasts fly from him, the trochilus is a creature which is at peace with him, seeing that from her he receives benefit; for the crocodile having come out of the water to the land and then having opened his mouth (this he is wont to do generally towards the West Wind), the trochilus upon that enters into his mouth and swallows down the leeches, and he being benefited is pleased and does no harm to the trochilus.”


“When the Nile comes over the land, the cities alone are seen rising above the water, resembling more nearly than anything else the islands in the Ægean Sea; for the rest of Egypt becomes a sea and the cities alone rise above water. Accordingly, whenever this happens, they pass by water not now by the channels of the river but over the midst of the plain: for example, as one sails up from Naucratis to Memphis the passage is then close by the pyramids, whereas the usual passage is not the same even here, but goes by the point of the Delta and the city of Kercasoros; while if you sail over the plain to Naucratis from the sea and from Canobos, you will go by Anthylla and the city called after Archander.”


“When the river has become full and the plains have been flooded, there grow in the water great numbers of lilies, which the Egyptians call lotos; these they cut with a sickle and dry in the sun, and then they pound that which grows in the middle of the lotos and which is like the head of a poppy, and they make of it loaves baked with fire. The root also of this lotos is edible and has a rather sweet taste: it is round in shape and about the size of an apple. There are other lilies too, in flower resembling roses, which also grow in the river, and from them the fruit is produced in a separate vessel springing from the root by the side of the plant itself, and very nearly resembles a wasp’s comb: in this there grow edible seeds in great numbers of the size of an olive-stone, and they are eaten either fresh or dried. Besides this they pull up from the fens the papyrus which grows every year, and the upper parts of it they cut off and turn to other uses, but that which is left below for about a cubit in length they eat or sell: and those who desire to have the papyrus at its very best bake it in an oven heated red-hot, and then eat it. Some too of these people live on fish alone, which they dry in the sun after having caught them and taken out the entrails, and then when they are dry, they use them for food     


Fish which swim in shoals are not much produced in the rivers, but are bred in the lakes, and they do as follows:—When there comes upon them the desire to breed, they swim out in shoals towards the sea; and the males lead the way shedding forth their milt as they go, while the females, coming after and swallowing it up, from it become impregnated: and when they have become full of young in the sea they swim up back again, each shoal to its own haunts. The same however no longer lead the way as before, but the lead comes now to the females, and they leading the way in shoals do just as the males did, that is to say they shed forth their eggs by a few grains at a time, and the males coming after swallow them up. Now these grains are fish, and from the grains which survive and are not swallowed, the fish grow which afterwards are bred up. Now those of the fish which are caught as they swim out towards the sea are found to be rubbed on the left side of the head, but those which are caught as they swim up again are rubbed on the right side. This happens to them because as they swim down to the sea they keep close to the land on the left side of the river, and again as they swim up they keep to the same side, approaching and touching the bank as much as they can, for fear doubtless of straying from their course by reason of the stream. When the Nile begins to swell, the hollow places of the land and the depressions by the side of the river first begin to fill, as the water soaks through from the river, and so soon as they become full of water, at once they are all filled with little fishes; and whence these are in all likelihood produced, I think that I perceive. In the preceding year, when the Nile goes down, the fish first lay eggs in the mud and then retire with the last of the retreating waters; and when the time comes round again, and the water once more comes over the land, from these eggs forthwith are produced the fishes of which I speak.


Thus it is as regards the fish. And for anointing those of the Egyptians who dwell in the fens use oil from the castor-berry, which oil the Egyptians call kiki, and thus they do:—they sow along the banks of the rivers and pools these plants, which in a wild form grow of themselves in the land of the Hellenes; these are sown in Egypt and produce berries in great quantity but of an evil smell; and when they have gathered these, some cut them up and press the oil from them, others again roast them first and then boil them down and collect that which runs away from them. The oil is fat and not less suitable for burning than olive-oil, but it gives forth a disagreeable smell. Against the gnats, which are very abundant, they have contrived as follows:—those who dwell above the fenland are helped by the towers, to which they ascend when they go to rest; for the gnats by reason of the winds are not able to fly up high: but those who dwell in the fen-land have contrived another way instead of the towers, and this it is:—every man of them has got a casting net, with which by day he catches fish, but in the night he uses it for this purpose, that is to say he puts the casting-net round about the bed in which he sleeps, and then creeps in under it and goes to sleep: and the gnats, if he sleeps rolled up in a garment or a linen sheet, bite through these, but through the net they do not even attempt to bite.”




An upriver journey


“From Heliopolis (6) to Thebes is a voyage upriver of nine days and 4860 furlongs or eighty-one schoines… and again the distance from Thebes to the city of Elephantine is about 1800 furlongs.”


“From no other person was I able to learn anything about this matter (comment: the sources of the Nile); but for the rest I learnt so much as here follows by the most diligent inquiry; for I went myself as an eye-witness as far as the city of Elephantine and from that point onwards I gathered knowledge by report. From the city of Elephantine as one goes up the river there is country which slopes steeply; so that here one must attach ropes to the vessel on both sides, as one fastens an ox, and so make one’s way onward; and if the rope break, the vessel is gone at once, carried away by the violence of the stream. Through this country it is a voyage of about four days in length, and in this part the Nile is winding like the river Maiander, and the distance amounts to twelve schoines, which one must traverse in this manner. Then you will come to a level plain, in which the Nile flows round an island named Tachompso. (Now in the regions above Elephantine there dwell Ethiopians at once succeeding, who also occupy half of the island, and Egyptians the other half.)”


“Adjoining this island there is a great lake, round which dwell Ethiopian nomad tribes; and when you have sailed through this you will come to the stream of the Nile again, which flows into this lake. After this you will disembark and make a journey by land of forty days; for in the Nile sharp rocks stand forth out of the water, and there are many reefs, by which it is not possible for a vessel to pass. Then after having passed through this country in the forty days which I have said, you will embark again in another vessel and sail for twelve days; and after this you will come to a great city called Meroe.”


 “The Nile then, besides that part of its course which is in Egypt, is known as far as a four months’ journey by river and land: for that is the number of months which are found by reckoning to be spent in going from Elephantine to these “Deserters”: and the river runs from the West and the setting of the sun. But what comes after that point no one can clearly say; for this land is desert by reason of the burning heat.”







The Nile Delta


“ At least I have the understanding that the Egypt to which the Hellenes come in ships is a land which has been won by the Egyptians as an addition, and that is a gift of the river. First, when you are still approaching it in a ship and are distant a day’s run from the land, if you let down a sounding line you will bring up mud and you will find yourself in eleven fathoms (2). This then so far shows that there is a silting forward of the land.”


“From the coast-land of Egypt, and as far as Heliopolis (6) inland Egypt is broad, and the land is all flat and without springs of water and formed of mud.”


“ For it was evident to me that the space between the aforesaid mountain-ranges, which lie above the city of Memphis, once was a gulf of the sea, like the regions about Ilionand Teuthania and Ephesos and the plain of the Maiander, if it is permitted to compare small things with great; and small these are in comparison, for of the rivers which heaped up the soil in those regions none is worthy to be compared in volume with a single one of the mouths of the Nile, which has five mouth.”


“The priests also gave me strong proof concerning this land as follows, namely that in the reign of king Moiris (4), whenever the river reached a height of at least eight cubits ( = feet, comm. editor) it watered Egypt below Memphis; and not yet nine hundred years had gone since the death of Moiris, when I heard these things from the priests: now however, unless the river rises to sixteen cubits, or fifteen at the least, it does not go over the land (7 ).”


“If, in accordance with what I before said, their land below Memphis (for this is which is increasing) shall continue to increase in height according to the same proportion as in the past time ( 8), assuredly those Egyptians who dwell here will suffer famine, if their land shall not have rain nor the river be able to go over their fields. It is certain however that now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labour than any other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they have no labour in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in hoeing nor in any other of those labours which other men have about a crop; but when the river has come up of itself and watered their field and after watering has left them again, then each man sows his own field and turns into it swine, and when he has trodden the seed into the ground by means of the swine, after that he waits for the harvest, and when he has threshed the corn by means of the swine, then he gathers it in.”

“As we have seen, their delta at any rate is alluvial, and has (so to speak) lately, as the Egyptians themselves say and as my opinion is.”

“And that their land advanced forward, many of them were left in their first abodes and many came down gradually to the lower parts.”

The Red Sea, and  towards the opening of the Indian Ocean

“Now there is in the land of Arabia, not far from Egypt, a gulf of the sea running in from that which is called the Erythraian Sea (9), very narrow as I am about to tell. With respect to the length of the voyage along it, one who sets out from the innermost point to sail out through it into the open sea, would spend forty days upon the voyage, using oars; and with respect to breath, where the gulf is broadest it is half a day’s sail across: and there is in it an ebb and flow of tide every day. Just such another gulf I suppose Egypt was, and that the one ran towards Ethiopia from the northern Sea, and the other, the Arabian (10), of which I am about to speak, tended from the south towards Syria, the gulfs boring in so as almost to meet at their extreme points, and passing by one another with but a small space left between.”


“If then the stream of the Nile should turn aside into this Arabian Gulf (10), what would hinder that gulf from being filled up with silt as the river continued to flow, at all events within a period of twenty thousand years? Indeed for my part I am of the opinion that it would be filled up even within ten thousand years. How, then, in all the time that has elapsed before I came into being should not a gulf be filled up even of much greater size than this by a river so great and so active? As regards Egypt then, I both believe those who say that things are so, and for myself also I am strongly of opinion that they are so; because I have observed that Egypt runs into the sea further than the adjoining land, and that shells are found upon the mountain of it.”


“On this side then the Mountain then the mountains where I have said, and then takes a turn back. And where it is widest, as I was informed, it is a journey of two months across from east to West; and the borders of it which turn toward the East are said to produce frankincense (11).”


The Libian and Arabian Deserts


“And on the side of Egypt towards Libya another range extends, rocky and enveloped in sand: in this are the Pyramids, and it runs in the same direction as those parts of the Arabian mountains which go towards the midday.”


“ An efflorescence of salt forms upon the surface of the mountain surface (12) , so that even the Pyramids are being eaten away by it, and moreover that of all the mountains of Egypt, the range which lies above Memphis only one which has sand: besides which I notice that Egypt resembles neither the land of Arabia, which borders upon it, nor Libya, nor yet Syria (for they are Syrians who dwell in the parts of Arabia lying along the sea), but that Egypt has soil which is black and easily breaks up, seeing that it is truth mud and silt brought down from Ethiopia by the river: but the soil of Libya, we know, is reddish in colour and rather sandy, while that of Arabia and Syria is somewhat clayey and rocky.”


“But in the upper parts, which lie above the seacoast and above those people whose land comes down to the sea, Libya is full of wild beasts; and in the parts above the land of wild beasts it is full of sand, terribly waterless and utterly desert. These young men then (said they), being sent out by their companions well furnished with supplies of water and provisions, went first through the inhabited country, and after they had passed through this they came to the country of wild beasts, and after this they passed through the desert, making their journey towards the West Wind; and having passed through a great tract of sand in many days, they saw at last trees growing in a level place; and having come up to them, they were beginning to pluck the fruit which was upon the trees.”




Up-river Egypt


From Heliopolis however, as you go up, Egypt is narrow; for on the one side a mountain-range belonging to Arabia stretches along by the side of it, going in a direction from the North towards the Midday and the South Wind, tending upwards without a break to that which is called the Erythraian Sea, in which range are the stone-quarries which were used in cutting stone for the pyramids at Memphis.”


“So then, I say, from Heliopolis the land has no longer a great extent as far as it belongs to Egypt, and for about four days’ sail up the river Egypt properly so called is narrow: and the space between the mountain-ranges which have been mentioned is plain land. After this again Egypt is broad.”


“Egypt, though it borders upon Libya, does not very much abound in wild animals, but such as they have are one and all accounted by them sacred, some of them living with men and others not.”




(1) This remark sheds some light onto the origin of western astrology, the twelve signs and the twelve houses.


(2) A mainly maritime measure, ca. 2 m


(3) Recent palaeo- climatologic research seems to point toward a gradual drying of the North-African deserts, following the end of the last glacial period. As the climate became drier, men left the dry lands and migrated to the Nile valley that to their luck became habitable at the same time.


(4) Pharao Amenemhat III


(5) Possibly this may be the oldest depiction of what is called a “crawfoot delta” in modern sedimentology.


(6) Heliopolis is today a suburb of sprawling Cairo.


(7) This point may refer to a high sedimentation rate – so much land is deposited that it prevents flooding as reported from the very ancient times.


(8) Herodotus makes an interesting point here. On one hand he realizes that the land is brought by the river, hence levee deposits, but he also notes incision of the river into his bed, such lowering the water table and endangering agriculture.


(9) Stands for the Red Sea; the name is also related to contemporaneous Eritrea.

(10) The Arabian Gulf as mentioned here is a branch of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Accaba.


(11) This clearly refers to the Yeminite and Muskat coastal region.

(12) Herodotus’ observation here is particularly noteworthy- he realized that evaporates deposited from ion-rich pore waters can damage buildings, in particular when crystallizing below ornamental cover plates.

© 2008 by Franz L Kessler




The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
An Account of Egypt: Being the Second Book of His Histories Called Euterpe
Paras. 1–19




Web Site: ancient egypt online

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