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The geography of Egypt through the eyes of Herodotus
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The geography of Egypt

through the eyes of Herodotus

    There were land routes to Egypt, but they were difficult and dangerous leading through desert regions under the control of nomadic tribes. A seasoned traveller chose to reach Egypt by sea. And this was exactly what Herodotus was: the tourist par excellence. And like any tourist he kept his eyes open for the unusual and his writings reflect this attitude. In Egypt practically everything was strange and marvellous. He may be forgiven for being taken in at times by tall stories or for misunderstanding what he was told.

The Nile had seven major arms in those days, the three principal ones being the Water of Pre (Pelusiac branch), the Water of Ptah (Sebennytic branch), and the Water of Amen (Canopic branch). Their exact courses are unknown, but the major cities grew alongside these waterways. Naukratis, built and inhabited by Ionians and reached through the westernmost, the Canobic mouth, was one of the main gateways for trade and travellers.
    If Herodotus took the shortest route to Heliopolis, he must have sailed up the Pelusiac mouth.
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. This then so far shows that there is a silting forward of the land.
Delta     He was aware of the fact that river deltas came into being through the accumulation of silt. Without having any real data apart from the approximate geographical dimensions of the delta he reckoned that it had taken the Nile tens of thousands of years to form its delta, a formidable span of time to the ancients.
Then secondly, as to Egypt itself, the extent of it along the sea is sixty schoinoi, according to our definition of Egypt as extending from the Gulf of Plinthine to the Serbonian lake, along which stretches Mount Casion; from this lake then the sixty schoinoi are reckoned ... Each schoine, which is an Egyptian measure, is equal to sixty stadia [1]. So there would be an extent of three thousand six hundred stadia for the coast-land of Egypt.
Histories 2,6
    His estimates of the extent of the Egyptian territory on the other hand were too high: the coastline is not 670 km (3600 stadia) long but just about 300 km [2]. He mentions Plinthine which lay near the later Alexandria on the western border of Egypt with Libya. The Serbonian lake and the surrounding marshes with their quicksand formed a natural defense on the eastern frontier. (A century after Herodotus, a Persian army was said to have disappeared there.)

From thence and as far as Heliopolis inland Egypt is broad, and the land is all flat and without springs of water and formed of mud: and the road as one goes inland from the sea to Heliopolis is about the same in length as that which leads from the altar of the twelve gods at Athens to Pisa and the temple of Olympian Zeus.
Histories 2,7
    The depth of the delta through which he travelled (presumably by boat) he estimated to be 280 km (1500 stadia), while the real distance from coast to Heliopolis is about half that. On the other hand the distance between Athens and Pisa he gave is very precise. It is unclear whether he quoted his own reckonings or somebody else's.
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.
On this side then the mountain ends 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 towards the East are said to produce frankincense. Such then is the nature of this mountain-range.
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. So then, I say, from Heliopolis the land has no longer a great extent so 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, but where it is narrowest it did not seem to me to exceed two hundred furlongs from the Arabian mountains to those which are called the Libyan. After this again Egypt is broad.
Histories 2,8
khufu's pyramid     To Herodotus Egypt was the land inhabited by Egyptians and not some mapped territory extending into uninhabited areas as we are likely to see it. From Heliopolis on the Nile flows between mountain ranges and the habitable region is quite narrow, about 37 km (200 stadia) at its narrowest. Egypt (i.e. the Nile valley) is hemmed in by Libya (the sandy Libyan desert) on the west and Arabia (the rocky Arabian desert) on the east.
The east to west width of the Arabian mountain range is about 100 km, 2 months travel time for crossing them seems to be excessive.
Frankincense was grown at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. This region, together with Somalia is often considered to have been the land of Punt.

Silsileh quarries     The mountain ranges along the lower reaches of the Nile are limestone which was extensively quarried in the north for the construction of the Gizeh pyramids. Fifty kilometres north of Aswan sandstone was extracted at Gebel Silsileh. At Aswan itself granite was not as easily eroded as the surrounding sandstone and a cataract formed, an obstacle to shipping and a natural southern border for the country.
    From the Mediterranean to Thebes Herodotus reckoned the distance to be 1100 km (6120 stadia). It took him nine days to sail the 81 schoinoi from Heliopolis to Thebes. Another 320 km (1800 stadia) separate Thebes from Elephantine. These distances are quite close to reality.

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, very long and narrow, as I am about to tell. With respect to the length of the voyage along it, one who set 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 breadth, 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.
Histories 2,11
    The length of the Red Sea (Erythraian Sea) including the Gulf of Suez is about 2200 km, its width about 160 km in the very north and up to about 300 km further south. An Athenian trireme has reportedly crossed a distance of 350 km in one day, an amazing 14 km per hour. The speed of a merchant ship sailing before the wind was about 10 km per hour. No ship could have crossed the Red Sea at its widest in half a day. He may have mistaken the Gulf of Suez for the Red Sea.
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 out into the sea further than the adjoining land, and that shells are found upon the mountains of it, and an efflorescence of salt forms upon the surface, 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 is the 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 it has soil which is black and easily breaks up, seeing that it is in 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.
Histories 2,12
    Herodotus erred less when observing geological facts than when speculating about geological history.
  • The Delta juts out and is an accretion of silt carried by the Nile
  • The earth is very dark (whence the name Kemet, the black one, the Egyptians gave their own country)
  • Salt efflorescence on the monuments corroded their foundations and caused their collapse
  • Sea shells are indeed frequently found in the sedimentary rock near the lower reaches of the Nile
  • The Libyan mountain range is covered to quite some extent with sand, carried by the wind from the Sahara desert
    For historical information Herodotus had to rely on the priests, the people who knew how to read Egyptian in all its forms and often had access to ancient writings. On the whole, the priests' knowledge was not very reliable and did not gain by Herodotus' recounting.
The priests also gave me a strong proof concerning this land as follows, namely that in the reign of king Moiris, whenever the river reached a height of at least eight cubits it watered Egypt below Memphis; and not yet nine hundred years had gone by 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.
I think too that those Egyptians who dwell below the lake of Moiris and especially in that region which is called the Delta, if that land continues to grow in height according to this proportion and to increase similarly in extent, will suffer for all remaining time, from the Nile not overflowing their land, that same thing which they themselves said that the Hellenes would at some time suffer: for hearing that the whole land of the Hellenes has rain and is not watered by rivers as theirs is, they said that the Hellenes would at some time be disappointed of a great hope and would suffer the ills of famine. This saying means that if the god shall not send them rain, but shall allow drought to prevail for a long time, the Hellenes will be destroyed by hunger; for they have in fact no other supply of water to save them except from Zeus alone. This has been rightly said by the Egyptians with reference to the Hellenes: but now let me tell how matters are with the Egyptians themselves in their turn.
Histories 2,13
Nile     The Egyptians had a number of Nilometers, one of them at Memphis, another at Elephantine, where they measured and recorded the height of the river. A good flooding of the Nile was essential to Egyptian well-being. A rise of less than six metres (12 cubits) might cause dearth and hardship, 8 metres (16 cubits) or a couple of metres more predicted a plentiful harvest. Excessive flooding could be as bad as an inadequate one, destroying banks and housing.
    The rise of the countryside by 4 metres over only 900 years looks like an exaggeration. A slow flowing river like the Nile deposits a great deal of silt in its river bed which thus rises together with its surroundings.
    Rain in Egypt was rare, sometimes a few times a year, at others a number of seasons might pass without any substantial rainfall. Under such circumstances soil dries out and becomes practically impervious to water, which runs off in flash floods. [3]
    Herodotus is most reliable when recounting his own observations. Regarding historical facts he depended entirely on the knowledge of others: If Moeris was Amenemhet III (1841-1796 BCE) as many assume nowadays, the time span since his death would have been about 1400 years.
If, in accordance with what I before said, their land below Memphis (for this is that which is increasing) shall continue to increase in height according to the same proportion as in the past time, 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 fields 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.
Histories 2,14
    The Egyptian peasant's life may have been easier than a Greek's, but of course he did use a plough occasionally, he had to hoe his vegetable plot and in many places he had to raise water with buckets or a shadoof. But the Egyptians had the resources to invest more in public works than any other ancient society based on the labour of relatively free citizens.


[1] One stadium measured about 185 metres. A schoine was therefore, according to Herodotus, c. 11 km. The length of the schoine according to Strabo varied from 30 to 120 stadia.
[2] Here Herodotus is either inconsistent or wrong. He may have translated somebody else's measurements using sixty stadia per shoine instead of thirty. The distances further on were based on his own estimates and are more exact.
[3] There are descriptions of heavy rainfall, both official and private. Ahmose I erected the Tempest Stela at Thebes describing his relief work in Upper Egypt following exceptionally violent storms. Some centuries later a mourning husband wrote to his dead wife Akhtai:
...Woe, Akhtai did not endure, woe! /// the sky was windy and a flood of water descended from it /// one was burdened with heavy burdens and there were no carrying poles to carry them and no place to put (them) down....
Letter to Akhtai, Thebes, 21st dynasty
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe nach dem Neuen Reich => Briefe an Tote => oLouvre 698: Brief an den Sarg der toten Ichtai, I. Hafemann, ed.

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