Egypt's Golden Empire
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River Nile

Egypt's dominance of the ancient world was a result of more than just determination and brute force. Ancient Egypt was blessed with an abundance of natural resources - not least the river Nile.

The Nile provided vast amounts of fertile land and was a major route for communications and travel - it was the freeway of ancient Egypt. Boats moved cattle, grain and soldiers across the Kingdom and the Nile linked Egypt's provincial centers to its capital, Thebes. This enabled Egypt to function as an integrated kingdom, rather than a collection of independent provinces.

The golden touch

Egypt also had many other natural resources that helped it achieve new levels of wealth and sophistication. The most important of these was gold. Egypt's gold turned it into a superpower, respected and courted by friends and enemies alike. Gold-bearing rocks were crushed and the fragments carried to the river by donkeys, where they would be washed and the precious nuggets extracted.

Salt of the earth

The desert regions also gave Egypt a rich supply of salts, particularly natron, brine and soda. These were used in medicine, to preserve and flavor food and to tan animal hide.

Natron was used to make ceramics and glass, and to solder precious metals together: it was even used as a mouthwash. Mixed with salt, it was used to preserve fish, meat and to mummify dead bodies; mixed with oil, it became an early form of soap.

Rock solid

The deserts around Egypt also provided building materials for temples, palaces and tombs. Sandstone and limestone were quarried and shaped without any machinery or cutting tools. Instead, wedges were pushed into channels cut into blocks of rock to split stones away from the rest of the rock.

Getting the most from your vegetables

Flax, a winter vegetable, was also essential. Flax had two main uses: oil and fiber. The flax stems were combed to remove the bolls, which contained linseed oil. The remaining fibers were spun to make linen threads, which could then be woven into clothing, sheets and blankets.

Out of the woods

One natural resource Egypt lacked was good quality timber. Although palm trees were used in construction, other native trees, such as sycamore, acacia and tamarisk, were usually too knotty and brittle to be used in construction or for top quality decorations. Instead, these trees were used for firewood and charcoal. They were also turned into furniture and coffins for ordinary Egyptians. Someone with enough money could improve their coffin's appearance by covering it with ivory, ebony and other expensive woods. Any other woods were easily imported from abroad, usually from the Lebanon.

Reed all about it

Egyptians had a winning way with reeds, which grew in huge numbers beside the Nile. Reeds were the material with a million uses: they were turned into mats, baskets and sandals, while the mud they grew in was used as clay for pottery and bricks.

They also had a massive supply of papyrus, a plant that grew in marshes and swamps near the Nile. Papyrus was used to make paper. The stalks were sliced into strips: these were then laid over each other and beaten to make a sheet.

Because it could quickly be written on with pen and ink, and easily rolled up and carried, papyrus soon became indispensable. Bureaucrats could now ensure that a famine could be averted and its soldiers properly supplied. Lessons could be learned and knowledge could be stored, bringing Egypt to new levels of efficiency. While its power was based primarily on gold, it was papyrus that gave Egypt its sophistication.

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Egypt's Golden Empire