In which Herodotus has a serious axe to grind regarding Egyptian geography

Egypt is long but narrow, with mountains on the east side and mountainous desert on the west.  It would take a long time to walk across.  Herodotus goes into detail but it’s neither geographically accurate nor dramatically important. He’s just blue-skying, but he figures probably basically all of Egypt is river deposit.  Once upon a time the whole country was a big bay between those two mountain ranges, probably, like the Red Sea.

For serious he goes on about geography for pages.  I’m going to skip it, because we’ve got an awful lot of ground to cover.  Frankincense, for example.  Did you know that Frankincense comes from Ethiopia?  Well, now you do.

Anyway, after he lays that science on us, it’s back to the rambling about geography for Herodotus.  He realizes his assertions about all of Egypt being river deposit sounds crazy, but he’s got a whole list of arguments lined up in support of the theory.

Argument one: the Red Sea exists.  It’s a real place!  There’s a big long narrow ocean which cuts into Africa.  You can’t deny that!  Deny that the Red Sea exists and it’s you who sounds like a crackpot, not Herodotus.  If the Red Sea exists, who’s to say there didn’t used to be another Red Sea, also long and also narrow, connected to the Mediterranean Sea instead of the Indian Ocean, into which the Nile emptied?  And who’s to say it didn’t gradually get filled in and that’s what we call Egypt?

Argument two: the fossil record.  If you go into the Egyptian uplands, well away from the sea, you can find fossil imprints of seashells and fish all over the place!  How would they have gotten there, if they weren’t deposited sometime in the distant past when the whole of the region was underwater?  Riddle me that, Batman!

Argument three: Herodotus talked to some Egyptian priests about this and they totally agreed with him.  Nuff said!  Who can you trust about what topic, if you can’t trust an Egyptian priest about the geologic history of Egypt?

Argument four: it just makes sense if you think about it.  C’mon.  Be fair.  It’s a plausible theory.  It’s not crazy.  Herodotus is not a crackpot!  Get off his back already!

Argument five, which by the way is four more than Herodotus should really have to make: he’s checked the records (which is to say, he’s talked to priests) and has this to report.  Eight hundred and mumblety years before Herodotus wrote these words down, during the reign of Moiris, King of Egypt, the Nile flooded its banks and irrigated the surrounding farmland whenever it rose eight cubits above its lowest level.  But nowadays it has to get fifteen, sixteen cubits high before it floods!  Sediment has raised the level of the surrounding plain, because that’s how river deposits work, right?  Eventually the level of sedimentary deposit will get so high that the Nile won’t flood the farmland at all.  No more irrigation!

Then everyone will starve, which will be pretty bad, but at least Herodotus will be long dead by then.  Climate change isn’t his problem.


Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 2 — No Comments

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