The miracle of the Nile: How nature's bounty turned Egypt's rulers into living gods

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Legend has it that in about 3150BCE a king called Menes united the lands of Upper and Lower Egypt. It was he who began the 3,000-year-long reign of the pharaohs, during which time the Egyptian way of life changed remarkably little. The ruler's governors imposed taxes on the people – in the form of food, not money. The idea was that if the weather turned bad or the river floods were weaker than expected, there would still be plenty of food kept in a central store to support the needy population. It wasn't hard for a population to worship their ruler as if he were a god when it was he who provided their only insurance in the event of a run of poor harvests.

Pharaoh had to have somewhere to store all this food, hence the need for some of his taxes to be paid in the form of manual labour to build huge granaries and storehouses. The Nile's floods meant that the farmland all round the river was underwater for at least three months a year – usually from late June until the end of September. During these months hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers could sail downstream, construct for their Pharaoh some of the most magnificent buildings ever made by humankind and then head home on the favourable winds.

All this helped make Pharaoh – in the popular mind – a living god on earth. It therefore followed that everything possible should be done to make sure that when their god departed this world, his soul should pass as effortlessly as possible into the next life. Here, Pharaoh could continue to protect the people from other gods and ill fates such as war, drought, famine and disease.

Awesome tombs were constructed for the pharaohs, their families and friends, initially in the form of pyramids, the largest of which were just south of modern-day Cairo, at a place called Giza. More than a hundred pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom, but only three massive structures survive to this day – the largest being the one built by the Pharaoh Khufu. This pyramid took 23 years to build and used the labour of more than 100,000 slaves and farmers. Originally, this wonder of the ancient world was cased in brilliant white limestone and topped off with a gold cap. The purpose of this massive monument was to provide an everlasting structure in which to store Pharaoh's body so he could use it again in the next life.

Dead bodies were preserved using a process of mummification, learned over many generations, which typically took as long as 70 days to complete. All the body organs were cut out and placed in a series of canisters called canopic jars, including the brain, which was pulled out of the head through the nose using a special instrument with a hook on the end. The heart was the only organ left in the body so it could be weighed in the next life by the gods to help judge if the person had lived a virtuous life on Earth.

The body was dried out with salty crystals and then stuffed, covered with oils and ointments and finally wrapped in bandages. The completed mummy was packed inside a coffin which, in the case of a pharaoh, was placed at the heart of the pyramid in the king's burial chamber. Surrounding the body was everything that the dead pharaoh could possibly need in the afterlife: food, drink, pets (mummified, of course), games, toys, crowns, tableware, daggers, spears, clothes, books, pictures and magic spells.

The tombs of important people contained teams of servants called shabti. These were dolls, sometimes carved out of wood, sometimes of semi-precious stone. Their purpose was to come to the assistance of the dead soul whenever he or she needed help.

Many of the ancient Egyptians' most sacred beliefs were encoded in The Book of the Dead, a collection of magic spells and stories, often illustrated with scenes from this world and the afterlife, that were written by the living for the benefit of the dead. Verses from the book were placed on scrolls inside tombs to help the souls of the dead pass through the dangers of the underworld and into an afterlife of bliss.

By the time of the New Kingdom (starting in about 1550BCE), the capital of Egypt had been moved further upstream from Memphis to Thebes. Here the ancient art of mummification continued, but with one important difference. Now the pharaohs, along with their families and friends, buried their tombs in secret locations underground. This was to protect against looters, who had taken advantage of the occasional moments in Egyptian history when central power broke down, such as when invaders called the Hyksos came on their chariots from the north and overran the lower part of the country between about 1674BCE and 1548BCE.

Hundreds of secret tombs have been discovered in the valleys of the Kings, Queens and Nobles, near Thebes. Even though they were buried underground, many have been looted in the intervening years. But, remarkably, some have survived almost completely intact. Massive temples, built by the rich to glorify the gods, still stand to this day, such as the one at Karnak.

One of the most remarkable of all was discovered in 1922, when Howard Carter, a British archaeologist who had been searching the valleys for more than 15 years, stumbled across some steps leading into an unknown tomb.

What he discovered was the burial chamber of a little-known pharaoh called Tutankhamun who died when he was only about 19. For a long time it was thought he had been murdered, because his mummy shows a mysterious bump on the back of his head. But it is now thought that the young ruler died from gangrene after breaking his leg, probably while out hunting.

The discovery of the tomb of this boy-king has transformed our understanding of Egyptian civilisation. A huge hoard of treasure was packed inside the chamber; the most famous object of all was found bound into the head of the boy-king's mummified body: his funereal mask, made out of solid gold.

Ancient Egypt was so well endowed with natural resources and barriers of protection that it had little need to develop military technology in the same way as other nearby civilisations. Why bother protecting yourself when nature has so kindly managed your defences in the form of a surrounding desert and marshes? Why bother going on the attack when staying put along the banks of the Nile provided more than enough natural resources?

In the end, this lack of preparation contributed to Egypt's downfall. After 3,000 years of almost uninterrupted dynastic rule a wave of invasions swept over the Empire, starting with the Assyrians in 671BCE then the Persians in 525BCE, followed by the Greeks in 332BCE and the Romans in 30BCE (see Part 8). By this time ancient Egypt as a separate, distinct civilisation had reached its final dead end.