The Concept of Duality: The Nile and Ancient Egypt

Without the Nile, the mystical, phenomenal civilisation of ancient Egypt would never have existed. In the midst of deserts, treacherous mountains and other geographical obstacles, the Nile River became the life source of the ancient Egyptians. It was the determining factor of their livelihood, culture, identity, economy and a broad expanse of their religious ideologies. Additionally, it shaped their view of themselves and the world, how the universe and the gods worked as a system, and ultimately the concept that all things were in an established order of duality. The duality of order and chaos, the living and the dead and the wet and the dry all are defined by the Nile and its annual floods.

The Nile is a crucial factor in forming the duality of the land of ancient Egypt, separating it into two areas; kemet (the Black Land) and deshret (the Red Land). Due to the flooding of the Nile, the lands closest to the riverside are annually converted into alluvial silt by its waters, and surface levels can rise up to seven or eight meters[1]. This alluvial silt is the main feature of ancient Egyptian agriculture and is the most important factor in their survival, providing nutrients and nourishment to the soil so crops can grow. The term kemet, or the Black land, is a reference to the nomes all residing around the Nile, the fertile lands on which farmers can harvest the food of the whole nation.[2] It is only in these areas that the alluvial silt can settle, and thus, the people who came to call themselves the ancient Egyptians huddled close to the Nile and formed their nomes through the stretch of its banks.[3] Beyond these however, where the silt cannot reach, is the deadly desert. Known as deshret or the Red Land, the deserts to Egypt’s West supports close to no life, and deemed uninhabitable by humans. Were it not for the Nile, all of ancient Egypt would be desert. This contrast between fertile and infertile land is well represented in ancient Egyptian culture, with grave goods such as black-topped red clay pots, from as early as the Naqada and Badarian periods (Predynastic).[4] These, made from Nile alluvial silt, were purposely blackened near the mouth as a symbol of the fertile soil or silt caused by Nile with the red body resembling the dry, infertile soil of the desert. Though not perceived by the ancient Egyptians as a form of art, these coloured clay pots are an artistic representation of their knowledge of the Nile and its dualistic effect on their land, imbued into their practical equipment. The ancient Egyptians knew the Nile was vital to their lives, thus leading to great expectations from their king, whom they believed was their bridge to the gods, and was responsible in appeasing them to ensure a successful inundation every year and consequently, a harvest. This duality was of such importance, that when the annual floods were missed, too low or too high, resulting in either famine, insufficient nourishment for the harvest or destroyed crops and damaged infrastructure, the ancient Egyptians’ lost their stability and held the king at fault.

The livelihood of ancient Egypt depended on the Nile’s dual effect on the region, in particular the availability and mining of soft and hard building materials. Limestone was a great commodity, easily minable from the limestone cliffs that were in close proximity to the Nile.[5] Due to its ideal location, not only did the Nile manage to bring sustenance to the ancient Egyptians, since the nomes developed near the river, but it also positioned them closely to the limestone cliffs. Limestone, a hard, heavy building material, became instrumental in building the famous pyramids of Giza. Besides the pyramids, limestone was also utilized by the ancient Egyptians to construct monuments and statues, a crucial point which allowed many of them to survive until modernity. Additionally, the tough, outer casing stones of the pyramids were made of granite, which was also graciously provided by the Nile. During floods, boats that transported granite from granite quarries in Tura (20km away) could easily flow closely to the construction sites.[6] For many ancient Egyptians, the access to stone the Nile provided was instrumental to their religious ideology. Stone proved to be stronger than clay and mudbrick, lasting hundreds and thousands of years, and to the Egyptians represented forever- eternity. By being able to construct their religious infrastructures in stone, especially the tombs of their pharaohs, it was a reassurance that they would last through the ages. Although materials such as limestone and granite were heavy and difficult to craft, they persisted and allotted plenty of man hours and effort to building with them, with one of their longest projects being the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which took approximately twenty or so years to finish.[7] As lengthy as these projects may have been, the Nile also ensured that there was time for the ancient Egyptians to construct them. During the annual floods, farmers and other workers assigned to the crops are finished with their duties for the season, and alternatively is commissioned by the king to embark on monumental work. On the other hand, there were also building projects that were not as monumental and yet were a basic necessity to the ancient Egyptians; their houses. In contrast, the Nile not only supplied hard construction materials, but also softer ones. The alluvial silt caused by the annual flooding had more than one purpose- though it did nourish the crops it could also be turned into mudbricks, which were then used as the basic building component for their homes. Though mudbricks have a short life span and not as hardy as stone, they were lighter, easier to fashion and thus building basic Egyptian homes took much lesser time.

The banks of the Nile also serve not only a physical, economical purpose but an idealistic, religious one; it influenced the development of funerary practices, beliefs and principles. The landscape and surrounding environmental protection the Nile retains determines the ancient Egyptians’ concept of the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living. The west, which harbours the Western Desert, dry, hot and desolate, a place that is then viewed by them as the Land of The Dead. Also known as the kingdom of the dead, the Western Desert’s inability to cultivate life and growth had impelled the ancient Egyptians to bring death to death, thus it is where they buried their deceased. Besides the actual burial, the funerary practices accompanying can also be related to the Western Desert, as well as the general direction of the west. Tracing back to Predynastic burials, it is believed that the ancient Egyptians discovered the use of the desert’s natural natron in drying and preserving bodies. This eventually led to the embalming stage of covering a dead body with natron manually in the process of mummification. After embalming, funeral processions included rituals involving cattle dragging away the mummified body on a sledge in a Westward direction and into its tomb.[8] When buried, many dead bodies, from as early as Predynastic times, are situated to face the West, and this motif can be observed at a variety of burials, from the elite to the working classes. Even the pharaohs and kings had their tombs built in the Western Desert, the famous pyramids and the Valley of kings, and all are situated on the Western bank of the Nile or alternatively, the Red Land. As it is the Land of The Dead to the ancient Egyptians, the Western Desert was also thought to be a place of ghosts and spirits of the dead, and was generally avoided by the population[9]. On the contrary, duality is established with the Eastern bank of the Nile to be the Land of the Living. Numerous nomes were built along the Eastern banks. As a result of the Black Land, or kemet, the East of Egypt where the annual floods occurred and prospered, became associated with the living and nourishment, since they were habitable by people and suitable for cities. With that divide, the ancient Egyptians had a clear notion of where they should live, and where the dead would rest. Ideologically, the land was of two even portions, one set for the living and another set for the deceased, and this order was bilaterally determined to them by the gods, but naturally determined by the Nile and its geography.

Furthermore, the Nile’s influence in ancient Egyptian religion extends not only to mortuary processes, but also the ideology and worship of its gods as well. Though on a physical plane existed the dry deshret in the West and the fertile kemet in the East, on a religious, cultural plane dwelled Set and Osiris- the ancient Egyptian gods that were the embodiment of the two lands and its characteristics. The duplicity of the Red and Black Land is mirrored by these two opposing gods culturally; thus there are two versions of the same concept of duality. Osiris can be labelled as the patron of kemet, the god of fertility, growth, resurrection and the judge of the dead. His dark skin, illustrated in a myriad of hues such as green, brown, black and rarely blue, are a reflection of the alluvial silt of the Nile, the trigger for agricultural growth in Egypt during ancient times. As he is believed to be the perpetrator of the Nile floods and nourished vegetation, the Egyptians held Osiris in high regard, for his powers were the key to the staples of their livelihood; food and materials. Osiris was one of the main providers of life, and therefore an agent of order, while on the contrary, his brother Set is the agent of chaos, death and disorder.[10] Accordingly, the Red Land is designated to be Set’s territory and realm, a lifeless and bare place. The lord of the deserts, Set is correlated to chaos for a number of reasons, of which one is his usurpation of Osiris, whom he had murdered and scattered his body parts, though eventually this wrongdoing was avenged by Horus. Order and chaos, in other words maat and isfet– were two elements that were the pharaoh’s duty to balance in order to have a harmonious reign. He was tasked with pleasing Hapi, Osiris and other related deities to ensure the regular flooding of the Nile and keep death, disorder and foreign entities to the West and away from the living peoples of Egypt[11]. Other ancient Egyptians gods can also be connected to the duality of the Nile, including Hapi, the god of the Nile and the annual floods- also known as the ‘father of the gods’[12]. For each part of ancient Egypt, Upper and Lower, Hapi had an assigned identity to each domain, each with different symbolism and even different wives. Within Lower Egypt, he is usually depicted with papyrus plants, and his wife is the cobra Buto, while in Upper Egypt he is represented with lotus plants, and alternatively, his wife is Nekhebet the vulture.

The duality of the Nile is vital to not only their religion, but also the ancient Egyptians’ formation of their identity- it shaped their view of their nation and those who did not belong to it. The landscape of the Nile provided Egypt natural borders, such as the cataracts of the river in several areas, and the mountains that were at the edge of the desert. These generally protected them from foreign attacks, especially the desert. The only habitable areas of Egypt was the narrow strip along the banks that the floods could reach, and thus all the ancient Egyptians settled there comfortably, and eventually united as a nation. As anything beyond was unoccupiable, the Egyptians viewed their land as the ideal land, and their people, ‘the people’ or remetj, the chosen ones of the gods[13]. Those did not belong to the ideal land, were not the ideal, and such an association led the ancient Egyptians to equate the foreign and unfamiliar as chaotic and basically evil. From this the ancient Egyptians developed a negative view of those that did not live in Egypt and generally outsiders. The connection the Egyptians had with their land was so strong that they defended bravely when invaders came, but when it came to attacking others, they did so merely to steal from foreign kingdoms, then only to return to their homeland again, refusing to expand their borders significantly. When citizens of Egypt were exiled and disowned from being one of ‘the people’, they were banished to the desert and farther away. As such, Osiris of the black land is identified with the fertile, the living and order while Set of the red land with the barren, the foreign and disorder.

To the ancient Egyptians, indeed Egypt itself was the gift of the Nile, since the river was the backbone of their cilvilisation and the key to their survival. Geographically, the duality of the Nile provided the ancient Egyptians a place to live, grow food, materials for their belongings and buildings and at the same time somewhere to rest their dead, forsake outsiders, and best of all natural protection from them. This duality also gave birth to the central theme in ancient Egyptian religion and ideology, it instilled in them the concept of order and chaos, to be able to correlate all that contributed to life, peace and truth to a god, and death, havoc and deception to another to believe in and to worship, creating a set of Egyptian values that encouraged truth, justice, the maintenance of order and balance.


Baines, J., and J. Malek. 2000. Cultural atlas of Ancient Egypt. Rev. ed. New York: Checkmark Books

Budge, E.A.W. 1910. The Nile : notes for travellers in Egypt and in the Egyptian Sudan. London: T. Cook & Son

Chadwick, R. 2005. First Civilisations: Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Antony Rowe

Fonte, G.C.A. 2011, December. “Energy Management Reduces Great Pyramid Build Effort by More Than 98%” Journal of Construction Engineering & Management. Jan 2013, Vol. 139. Issue 2, 249-251

Grandet, P. 2002. “The State and Administration.” In The Pharaohs, edited by C. Ziegler, 115-127. London: Thames & Hudson

Morkot, R. G. 2005.The Egyptians: an introduction. New York: Routledge

Robins, G. 1997. ‘Understanding Ancient Egyptian Art’, in The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: Harvard University Press

Shaw, I. 2000. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tyldesley, J. 2003. Pyramids. Great Britain: Penguin Global

Wilkinson, R.H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson

Wilkinson, T. 2007. The Egyptian World. New York: Routledge

Wodzinska, A. 2009. A Manual of Egyptian Pottery. Vol.1. New Hampshire: Ancient Egypt Research Associates

[1] Budge 1910, 49

[2] Baines and Maleck 2000, 14.

[3] Shaw 2000, 52

[4] Wodzinska 2009, 131

[5] Robins 1997, 24

[6] Chadwick 2005, 153

[7] Fonte 2011

[8] Shaw 2000, 52

[9] Tyldesley 2003, 8

[10] Wilkinson 2007, 341

[11] Grandet 2002, 122

[12] Wilkinson 2003, 106

[13] Morkot 2005, 15

-The Musing Mestiza, 1st Year

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