The River Nile has been the key influence on life in Egypt since the beginning of civilization. This vast supply of sweet water permitted the creation of a society which produced the many wonders of ancient Egypt. Today, no less than in the past, modern Egypt depends on the river to support its huge population. The Nile is Egypt's lifeblood.

The Sahara began to desiccate some 10,000 years ago and divided the Caucasoid populations of North Africa from the Negroid populations of West and Equatorial Africa. The original agricultural mode of production that had been the basis of settlement there was gradually replaced by nomadic pastoralism which, by around 4000 BC, had become the preserve of two groups, the Libyan-Berbers in the east part and the ancestors of the modern Touareg in the west. North African populations, all classified as part of the Hamito-Semitic group which stretched east into Arabia, soon became sub-divided into the Berbers in the west, the Egyptians in the east and the Nilo-Saharians and Kushites to the south, in what today is Sudan.

The key to the development of a complex civilization lay in the water and soils of the Nile Valley. By 3000 BC, the Nile was supporting a dense sedentary agricultural society which produced a surplus and increasingly allowed socio-economic specialization. This evolved into a system of absolute divine monarchy when the original two kingdoms were amalgamated by the victory of King Menes of Upper Egypt who then became the first pharaoh. Pharaonic Egypt was limited by an inadequate resource base, being especially deficient in timber. Although it was forced to trade, particularly with the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), it never became a major seafaring nation. Equally, the growing desertification of Libya meant that its influence never extended west. Instead, the Egyptian Empire sought control up the Nile Valley, towards Kush (or Nubia) which it conquered as far south as the Fourth Cataract (between Khartoum and Wadi Halfa in Sudan) by 1500 BC. It also expanded east into the Levant, until it was restrained by the expanding civilizations of the Fertile Crescent (the arc of territory lying between the rain-fed east Mediterranean coastlands/Syria/Mesopotamia) after 2300 BC.

By 1000 BC, Pharaonic Egypt was being pressured from all sides. The Hyksos (the shepherd kings of Egypt - 2000-1700 BC - who migrated to Egypt from Asia) threatened the Delta from the Mediterranean, whilst the Lebu from Libya began to settle there too. They eventually created the 21st (Sheshonnaq) dynasty of the New Kingdom in 912 BC which, for a short time, extended its power east as far as Jerusalem. In the 7th century BC, however, Egypt was conquered by its Kushitic imitators to the south in the Nubian Kingdom under King Piankhy who founded the 25th Pharaonic Dynasty.

The Nubians were expelled some years later by the Assyrians, but their conquest marked the end of the greatness of Pharaonic Egypt. Thereafter, Egypt was to be a dependency of more powerful states in the Middle East or the Mediterranean. The rulers of Nubian Kush in their turn, having been expelled from Egypt, looked south from their new capital at Meroe - to which they had moved as a result of the subsequent Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 BC and later Persian attempts to conquer Kush. Kush became, instead, the vehicle of transmission of iron-working technology and of Egyptian concepts of divine political organization southwards as well.

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