Without rivers, the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia might have never existed. Learn more about the role that the Nile River played in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers played in Mesopotamia.

Why Were Rivers Important?

Imagine yourself starting an ancient civilization. Think about the most basic needs of your people: food, water, and shelter. Now think about how you can get these from different landforms. A mountain may have springs for water and caves for shelter, but may not be the best place to grow food. However, a river can provide all of these: the water part is pretty obvious, but a river can provide fish or water for crops to eat, as well as mud to make mud-brick houses. Therefore, it is little surprise that many of the great civilizations of ancient history sprang up close to rivers. Today we’re going to talk about two regions that had both rivers and great civilizations: Egypt and Mesopotamia.

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Egypt

Quite simply, Egypt would not exist without the Nile River. In fact, a Greek historian, named Herodotus, once said that ‘All of Egypt is a gift of the Nile.’ However, what can make one river so important?

Of course, there is no other river in the world quite like the Nile. For one thing, it’s the world’s longest river, stretching south for more than 4,000 miles. For another, it moves a lot of water, more than enough to meet the needs of the Egyptian people. Finally, and this is especially important, the Nile floods.

Now, when we think of a flood today, we normally think of a tragedy. However, for the Egyptians, it was a tragedy if the Nile did not flood because it was this flood that brought much of the nutrients for the crops that would feed the Egyptian people.

But it wasn’t only the flood or food that made the Nile so important to the Egyptians. For another, it was a great trade route, meaning the Egyptians could sail for hundreds of miles to sell their goods. This made Egyptian merchants very wealthy. In fact, while the merchants could not sail all the way down the Nile due to the cataracts, or rapids, that dotted the Nile once you got out of Egypt, someone could simply walk around many of these rapids on foot. This made trade of big, heavy goods difficult but meant that jewels, spices, and gold, which could be carried easily without a boat, could reach trading partners far away.

It wasn’t just trade goods being moved on the Nile, however. The Nile was especially important in Egyptian religion, as one would expect of something so important in Egyptian life. Tombs, including the gigantic pyramids, were often built on the West side of the river, as this was the side that symbolized the Egyptian afterlife, due to the setting sun.

Mesopotamia

No historian ever said that Mesopotamia was the gift of a river, but they never had to. The name Mesopotamia itself shows how important that region’s rivers were, as the name literally means ‘land between the rivers.’ Much like the Nile, the rivers of Mesopotamia flowed through the desert. However, in comparing rivers in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, there are often many differences.

The two rivers that bordered Mesopotamia, the Tigris and the Euphrates, were both very different than the Nile in Egypt. For starters, these rivers were much shorter, reaching only a thousand miles long. Additionally, while the Nile flooded regularly, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flooded in a much less predictable manner, meaning that it was a disaster when these two rivers flooded. This meant that before the rivers could be useful for the people of Mesopotamia, they first had to be tamed through the construction of dams.

The two rivers also provided easy access for transportation, although in Mesopotamia this was not always a good thing for the people. In Egypt, the Nile was used mainly for trade. However, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were easy guides through the desert to attack other cities. This meant that while Egypt was able to grow strong under one government, for much of its early history, Mesopotamia was divided into several smaller city-states, where a city often just ruled the land around it as an independent country.

Lesson Summary

We looked at the importance of rivers in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the Nile was universally regarded as a positive for the community, as it renewed the land, provided trade opportunities, and served as an important symbol of Egyptian religion. However, in Mesopotamia, while the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could be used to grow many crops after they were tamed through the use of dams, they could also be used for invasion.

Learning Outcomes

After you are done with this lesson you should be able to:

  • Recite the importance of the Nile for the Egyptian civilization
  • State the ways the Mesopotamian civilization controlled rivers
  • Compare and explain the importance of flooding for Egypt and Mesopotamia