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Major River Systems of Mesopotamia & Egypt

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  • 0:01 Why Were Rivers Important?
  • 0:38 Egypt
  • 2:25 Mesopotamia
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

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.

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.

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