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Polish archaeologists in Egypt looking for ancient evidence relating to the importance and role played by Egyptian deserts in early Egyptian civilization.       Source: E. Kuciewicz / Science in Poland

How Deserts Played A Key Role in the Building of Egypt

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Egyptian deserts surrounded the ancient civilization of Egypt, and for many they were feared as places of danger and chaos. However, the Egyptians were also very dependent upon these desert regions and they played a crucial role in their civilization. In the simplest sense, Egyptian deserts provided Egypt with important economic resources and materials. 

Today, Egypt is mainly made up of deserts that surround the green and lush Nile Valley and its vibrant, bustling cities. To the west of the Nile Valley is the inhospitable Libyan desert and to the east the Arabian and Sinai deserts. In ancient Egypt these deserts were foreign, alien places. Yet studies by researchers have shown that the ancient Egyptians had a long and complex history with these barren regions and that they play a key role in the development of their culture and society.

A rock carving found in the Egyptian deserts by Polish researchers. (P. Polkowski / Science in Poland)

A rock carving found in the Egyptian deserts by Polish researchers. (P. Polkowski / Science in Poland )

Egyptian Deserts and The Development of Pharaonic Egypt

Research has shown that in the distant past, roughly 8,000 years ago, Egyptian deserts were in fact savannah habitats teaming with wildlife. Ancient rock art found in the area reveals that the Egyptian deserts were once green and full of life. Many settlements, which are now uninhabitable, have been found in what is now the Libyan Desert. Some 6000 years ago, climate change transformed the lush grasslands into increasingly arid wastelands. This led to the migration of people into the lush, water-rich Nile Valley , a key event in the rise of ancient Egypt.

For “civilized” Egyptians the deserts were considered to be dangerous places associated with raiders, storms, and other threats. These were all personified in the god Set, the deity that ruled over deserts.

Yet the Egyptians were also familiar with the deserts. “Egyptians from the Nile Valley ventured into both deserts more than 5,000 years ago, before the establishment of the Egyptian state,” Dr. Paweł Polkowski from the Poznań Archaeological Museum told Science in Poland .

Egyptian Deserts Were Rich In Minerals And Oases

Egypt’s sandy wastelands were key resource areas for ambitious pharaohs. In the Old Kingdom period the Egyptians conquered the fertile oases of the Western Desert because they were rich agricultural areas and also full of useful mineral resources. Science in Poland reports that “Over time, this region became a source of rare minerals.” Libyan desert glass and copper were amongst the most prized materials.

Egyptian deserts are a study in contrasts ranging from the green life of oases to the dry, inhospitable rocky cliffs. (P. Polkowski / Science in Poland)

Egyptian deserts are a study in contrasts ranging from the green life of oases to the dry, inhospitable rocky cliffs. (P. Polkowski / Science in Poland )

Copper was vital for the Egyptians and allowed them to become great builders. Polkowski told Science in Poland that “Copper used to manufacture tools necessary to process stone blocks for the construction of temples and pyramids was obtained from the Sinai Peninsula.” Because of copper the Egyptians were able to complete construction projects such as the pyramids at Giza and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Egyptian Architecture And Art Both Depended on Deserts

Deserts also provided “dyes for decorating tombs” reports Science in Poland . The magnificent tombs of the ancient pharaohs, including Tutankhamun’s, would not have been as spectacular without the resources found in the deserts that surrounded the Nile Valley. Without the important resources obtained from its deserts “the image of this civilization could be completely different from the one we know” reports Science in Poland .

There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians often launched desert expeditions. They used large numbers of donkeys on these expeditions that were highly organized and there were even stopping stations built by the state, to support these resource finding missions. Dr. Polkowski stated in Science in Poland that “even today, moving around these areas by car is quite a challenge.”

Carvings and Inscriptions Found All Over Egypt’s Deserts

All kinds of evidence from Egyptian expeditions can be found in the deserts and oases surrounding the Nile Valley. There are many inscriptions and carvings that have been found in the most unexpected places. Near the Dakhla oasis, for example, there are inscriptions probably made by members of a caravan, who had been sent to the area by Khufu, one of the greatest pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. Science in Poland reports that the Dakhla expedition was undertaken “to obtain the raw material known as 'mephat'.” Researchers believe mephat was iron oxide , which was prized for the production of dyes used to decorate tombs.

Carvings of the desert god Set have also been found in Egypt’s deserts. “Such images were created by people before embarking on a journey through the desert” said Polkowski according to Archaeology News Network . The carvings were made to obtain the protection of Set from attacks and sandstorms. An image of a pharaoh has also been uncovered in the desert which may have marked a place for official transactions, or as propaganda to show the local people the power of their distant ruler.

Insights into Ancient Egypt From Major Desert Trade Routes

Egyptian deserts were also important because of the trade routes that crisscrossed them, especially from Nubia and its abundant gold and ivory resources.  These trade routes were crucial for the growth and development of ancient Egyptian civilization. Moreover, “In pharaonic and later times, political prisoners and criminals were also sent to oases” Polkowski stated in Science in Poland .

Various archaeological research studies have concluded that Egyptian deserts played a key role in the history and development of the pharaonic state. The evidence presented in these studies have changed our understanding of the relationship between the desert and the people of ancient Egypt. Further research into the role of Egyptian deserts is important to fully understand life in pharaonic Egypt.

Top image: Polish archaeologists in Egypt looking for ancient evidence relating to the importance and role played by Egyptian deserts in early Egyptian civilization.       Source: E. Kuciewicz / Science in Poland

By Ed Whelan

Comments

Hi Ed,

I was wondering how is Set depicted in Egypt? I finally saw the picture of the Egyptian deity Khnum but I'm not certain on how Set looked. Thank you for sharing this article, Goodbye for now.

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