From Object to Subject

Towards a New Narrative for the Nile and Water in Ancient Egyptian Civilization


Thomas Schneider
University of British Columbia


According to an often-quoted statement of the Greek historian Herodotos (Histories, 2.5.1), Egypt is the ‚gift of the Nile’. Princeton historian Robert Tignor says about this statement in his 2010 Short History of Egypt, that it is not the least of the truisms of the Greek historian, understanding it as a reference to the abundance and fecundity of Egypt, and to the Nile as the ultimate cause for the emergence and blossom of Egypt’s civilization. Not only is this understanding a misinterpretation of Herodotos – the Greek historian makes instead a scientific statement about the fact that the Nile delta has been sedimented up by the river; this added part of the country is the river’s gift to Egypt, and not its fertility and abundance –, it is also part of an older scholarly narrative that sees the Nile as an object of human activity. A 2005 conference volume on the topic of water in ancient Egypt still focused almost exclusively on the benefits that the Egyptians drew from its water, and how they put water to a good use or related to it in literature, culture, religion and ritual. The present keynote presentation will describe a paradigm shift that – in alignment with the recent ‘river turn’ in historiography and the increased ascription of agency to rivers – sees the Nile as Egypt’s „true despot“ (to use a term coined by Joseph Manning) and the country as a social cage for its inhabitants. Recent archaeological work has shown to what extent a changing riverscape and variable Nile floods affected settlement and population patterns, agricultural productivity, the economy and the distribution of power. The Nile must also be seen as the fundamental driver of Egyptian history in its role in the spread of diseases and the level of mortality. Other water events such as torrential rains and flooding have also become obvious in their impact on Egyptian civilization, and can be ascertained by archaeological and historical studies. They all contribute to the need to replace an earlier positivist historiographical assessment of water in Egyptian civilization by a new, alternative narrative that perceives the Nile and water as the subject and agent of Egyptian society and culture.

Biographical Sketch

Thomas Schneider is Professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He studied at Zurich, Basel, and Paris, earning a Master’s degree, a doctorate, and a habilitation in Egyptology at the University of Basel. He was a Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna in 1999, and at the University of Heidelberg in 2003-4. From 2001 to 2005, he was a Junior Research Professor of the Swiss National Science Foundation at the University of Basel, and from 2005 to 2007, holder of the Chair in Egyptology at the University of Wales, Swansea. He was a visiting scholar at New York University in 2006, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012, and guest lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2016). The project director of a new interdisciplinary research cluster “Rivers in Time: Cultures, Ecosystems and Comparisons” at the University of British Columbia, he has widely published on Egyptian history and chronology, Egyptian interconnections with the Near East and the history of Egyptology in Nazi Germany. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Egyptian History as well as editor of Near Eastern Archaeology for the American Schools of Oriental Research.