A Long and Beyond the Nile
A Long and Beyond the Nile
If, as Herodotus stated, Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then it is a gift delivered largely by donkeys. Donkeys appear in the archaeological record of Egypt earlier than anywhere else. For over 6,000 years they have sustained some of the densest human populations on the planet, as well as supporting the development of one of the world’s first civilizations. Along the river, they have moved people, carried goods to market, threshed grain, and ploughed fields. They have been essential for extracting valuable metals and precious stones from the surrounding deserts and crucial for connecting Egypt with its neighbours. This chapter looks at all these themes. Additionally, it explores the symbolic significance that donkeys acquired in Egyptian thought, before considering their spread beyond the Nile into other parts of Africa. Faunal remains identified as donkey, rather than wild ass, are known from several sites of the Predynastic period that preceded Egypt’s development as a single state by about 3100 BC. During this period Egyptian society changed from being a series of small agricultural villages to a situation in which some of those settlements expanded into early towns, some of them seats of evermore competitive chieftains, others centres of craft production that were becoming heavily engaged in long-distance trade. This last point holds particularly true for several sites close to modern Cairo. It is from some of these, as we have seen, that the earliest donkey remains have been recovered: at El Omari c.4600–4400 BC and Maadi c.4000–3500 BC. A little later, one of the many carved slate ceremonial palettes produced during the later fourth millennium BC, the so- called Libyan (or Cities) Palette, shows a line of tame-looking donkeys between a row of cattle above and one of sheep below: though pictured with the dark shoulder stripe characteristic of wild asses, and without harness or loads, their context and demeanour suggest that they are domesticated. The kings of Egypt’s First and Second Dynasties (c.3085–2686 BC) reinforced their status by building monumental tomb complexes at Abydos in Upper Egypt and Saqqara outside Memphis, their new administrative and ceremonial centre just south of the apex of the Nile Delta.
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