The Ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet, literally the “Black Land” (kem meant “black” in ancient Egyptian).
The modern name that we recognise is a Greek adaption of Hiku ptah. Ptah was the ancient god associated with Memphis which was the administrative centre of the old country south of Cairo. Ptah, generally represented in the guise of a man with green skin, was the creator god. He was associated with three symbols: the sceptre representing power, the ankh representing life and djed, a pillar, which stood for stability.
“Black Land” came from the colour of the rich and fertile black soil which was due to the annually occurring Nile inundation. The rich soil was replenished each year through the cycle of the two tributaries, the White and Blue Nile, converging whilst the geographical extent of the country essentially covered this fertile, cultivated area along the Nile valley.
Interestingly, each of the two Niles really are distinct colours although both are perhaps a little muddy given the amount of silt they carry. The Blue Nile follows a faster, narrower course whilst the White Nile moves in a broad lazier fashion before meeting to create a mighty river. They carry nitrates, phosphate, iron and oxidizable organic matter whilst the annual floods flushed and cleaned the water and delta of human and agricultural waste. It was, and still is, an exceptional eco system which underpinned an exceptional civilisation.
The Greek historian Herodotus noted that “any sensible person” could see that Lower Egypt was a “gift of the river” and the ancient Egyptians called the Nile “iteru”, meaning big river literally “I t r w” whilst the hieroglyph in the shape of a water ripple reads as the sound “n” and acts a plural but on its own is the preposition “towards”. There are layers of subtlety to the language..
Since the Nile had such an enormous impact on the land, understanding it was essential to a successful economy and society so much so that the very language of ancient Egypt and the roles of its gods were both intimately connected to the land – to the earth.
Today, chemistry is the scientific study of the properties and behaviour of the elements and compounds that make up our world. Yet the word “chemistry” comes from the ancient Egyptian word “khemia” meaning transmutation of earth, basically the land and earth of the ancient Egyptians.
From time immemorial, Egypt has been primarily made up of settlements which cluster along the life-giving length of the Nile. The water irrigates fields on either side up to an almost visible line and beyond that the deserts “boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Ancient Egypt called this Desheret, the “Red Land”. Again, very literally, “desher” simply meant red after the reddish colour of the desert sand.
Sailing along the Nile today, every visitor catches glimpses of monumental remains: dusty columns and partly disfigured pale stone statues surrounded by broken slabs. In my imagination I try to see the colours of the old land, the brilliantly painted temples framed by deep green vegetation and the river full of bright sails. It would have been a very far cry from the endless shades of “off “cream of the stone remains of today.
Everything about the world of the ancient Egyptians was based around the rhythms and vagaries of the natural world. Their reliance on the Nile was absolute and when the inundation failed, the effects were catastrophic. They knew and feared this and this understanding of their dependence on, and vulnerability to, the natural world seeped into every aspect of their daily lives from their language to their belief systems and social hierarchies.
Today, behind the shelter of our metropolitan lifestyles and shielded by technology, we have never been so disconnected and ignorant of the earth around us.