Ancient Nile Civilization and Herodotus

by James A. Jones, Ph.D.
West Chester University Department of History
Copyright 1999, All Rights Reserved

Words: Herodotus, Cyrene

Maps: "Egypt, Kush & Meroe 1500BC-350AD" (Shillington, p41) and "Africa according to Ptolemy" (Shillington, p65).

The Greeks did not conquer territory in Africa, but they founded colonies along its coast as part of the expansion of their overseas trading networks. They left behind several important sources, including the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is a mariner's handbook of the Red Sea coast that lists port cities, markets, and trade goods.

The Greek writer Herodotus is the most extensive early source on Africa. He was born around 480BC, and about 440BC, began to try and learn all he could about the Persian invasions of the eastern Mediterranean in 490 and 480BC. His research took him all over the place, and his stories, which survived to modern times, include a good deal of information about Egypt and the region to the west.

Later on during his conquest of the Greek and Persian world (which began in 339BC), Alexander of Macedonia conquered Egypt as well. Upon his death, Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, and remained under his descendants until the Roman conquest in 31BC.

The Greek writer Herodotus was best early source on Africa. Little is known about his life. Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrun) on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, around 480BC, at a time when Halicarnassus was under the rule of a Persian Satrap, a woman named Artemisia.

Herodotus's travels began early since they were complete by the time he was forty years old. Although the extent of his travels is subject to dispute, he definitely went to Babylon, Upper Egypt , Thrace, parts of Scythia (southern Russia) as far as the Crimea, Cyrene on the north African coast, most of the Greek mainland, all of the countries of Asia minor, southern Italy, the important Aegean islands including (probably) Crete. [Selincourt, World, 30.]

Herodotus' method included neither written documents or nor primary oral sources. He spoke no foreign languages and had to rely on interpreters for much of his information. Herodotus appears to have been a good eyewitness, although much of what he said has yet to be proven. His repetition of what others told him was less trustworthy, and he is no good with numbers. [Selincourt, World, 37-38.]

The animal life of Egypt included crocodiles, hippopotamus. Cattle could not be slaughtered, but had to be ritually buried. (Perhaps because there was too little land to graze cattle, so all cattle had to work.) Cats were saved from fires and embalmed when they died. Dogs, field mice, hawks, ... Herodotus also mentions flying snakes.

The southern border of Persian Egypt was at Tachompso, an island south of Elephantine (Aswan, which Herodotus visited). Boats were hauled upstream beyond Elephantine by rope through the rapids, so there must have been trade to Kush. Herodotus called the Kushites "Ethiopians" and refered to their capital city of Meroe. [Herodotus, Histories, 139-140.]

According to Herodotus, the Nile Delta was connected to a sea-trading system that reached as far as Gibraltar. Nile river navigation was very sophisticated, using a combination of wind, current, animal traction and drag anchors to control wooden boats in both directions.

Most cities were in the Nile Delta area (Canopus, Anthylla, Archandropolis), but he also mentioned Memphis (Cairo), Thebes and Elephantine (Aswan) in the Upper Nile Valley. Herodotus reported that there were a total of 20,000 inhabited towns in Egypt. [Herodotus, Histories, 199.]

In Egyptian society, women went to market as traders; but men were weavers, priests. Herodotus thought this was evidence that Egyptian culture was "backwards" compared to that of Greece and other lands. [Herodotus, Histories, 145.] There were seven social classes: priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, tradesmen, interpreters, and pilots. [Herodotus, Histories, 195.] The warrior class was privileged with land grants.

Herodotus was aware of Egyptian antiguity and learning. He specifically mentioned geometry and land measurement, solar calendar, 12-part year, and mummification.

There was still evidence (skulls) of the Persian conquest about 75 years later (525-450), when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Herodotus provided such detail on the people of Africa that it is clear Egyptians of 450BC had extensive contact and knowledge of Africa as far as the western coast . According to Herodotus, the population contained two indigenous races (Libyans and Ethiopians) and two immigrant races (Greeks and Phoenicians). Herodotus described the following indigenous tribes of the Libyan coast west of Egypt, in this order from east to west: [Herodotus, Histories, 328-332.]

Herodotus provided a description of the African interior "in the land of wild beasts," north of the belt of sand that runs from the Nile to Gibraltar. Each group lived around one of a string of salt hills with freshwater springs spaced ten days' journey apart. Here is a list from east to west:

Herodotus reported other characteristics of eastern Libya: The desert exported both white and purple salt . The Libyan coast was occupied by nomadic pastoralists who lived on meat and milk, and whose people were healthiest in the world.

Herodotus also reported on the land west of the river Triton (probably the Chott el Jered/Chott el Fedjaj, which empties into the Mediterranean near Gabes, Tunisia). People lived from sedentary agriculture , although Herodotus considered the soil to be generally poorer than in Europe or Asia. The Maxyes live in forests inhabited by exotic creatures, the Zaueces used women to drive war chariots and the Gyzantes bring up gold from the bottom of a local lake. There were more mountains and vegetation than eastern Libya. Herodotus also described the system of silent barter for gold .

Were Egyptians Africans? Herodotus believed that the Colchians (southern Black Sea area) were introduced to Asia by Egyptian expansion as far as Thrace and Scythia because "they have black skins and curly hair (not that that amounts to much, as other nations have the same)." [Herodotus, Histories, 167.] They also practised circumcision, unlike Mediterranean peoples of the time.

How much did Egyptians know about Africa?: The Assyrian King Necos (609-594BC) sent out an expedition from the Persian Gulf that circumnavigated Africa in three years, returning to Egypt through the Straits of Gibraltar. Herodotus did not believe it because the Phoenician navigators reported that as they traveled west below southern Africa, they saw the noon sun on their right side. (JJ: This is in fact true, because the southern tip of Africa is in the southern hemisphere. Note also that Herodotus is accurate when he described King Necos' canal.) [Selincourt, World, 226-227; Herodotus, Histories, 283-284. Note that Herodotus also says the Carthaginians circumnavigated Africa.]