Egypt has been both a land and an idea. As a modern nation-state, Egypt has clear and well-defined borders; this is a feature of modern states, the strict definition of borders as a means of delineating their domain of sovereignty and authority over political, civic, and economic matters. Although borders were recognized in antiquity, their definition was not as clear as that of modern nation-states. Egypt became a nation after its unification, about 3000 BCE. It was not a nation unified either by its people or by territory; different groups had inhabited the same territory historically. It was also not a nation because its people were homogeneous (a “race” in the biological sense), or claiming descent from a common ancestor. The Egyptians exhibit a variety of physical types, having assimilated peoples from Nubia, Libya, and the Levant. Egypt became a nation by virtue of their union under the sovereignty of a single monarch; this pharaoh not only unified disparate ethnic groups but also provided the ideological basis for the territorial integration of the Nile Valley lands from Elephantine, an island in the Nile River, in the South to the marshlands of the Delta in the North.

From the inception of the first dynasty, the Egyptians viewed their country as consisting of two parts, Lower Egypt (the North) and Upper Egypt (the South), perhaps in part because these regions represented two distinct cultural areas in mid-Predynastic times (c.3600 BCE) but also because the Egyptian cognitive reality favored complementary dualities. Lower Egypt included the lower reaches of the Nile—the Delta region with its frontier towns and agricultural villages—and a zone immediately south of the Delta's apex, at times extending into what is sometimes called Middle Egypt (which could include the zone north of the Faiyum Depression entrance or even as far south as Asyut). The Delta was generally perceived as two halves, perhaps because of the duality principle or because the eastern region was characterized by cultural traits that differentiated it from the western. The area between the two main branches of the Nile was at times distinguished as a “Central Island.”

On a national level, Egypt consisted of the “Two Lands,” so the king's crown was, therefore, the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The Two Lands were associated with deities—Nekhbet in Upper Egypt, a vulture goddess from Nekhen (Elkab, opposite the Predynastic site at Hierakonpolis) and Wadjet in the northwestern part of the Delta, the uraeus serpent of Buto (Tell el-Fara'in). The king was also identified with the god Horus, represented by a falcon and primarily associated with Hierakonpolis (Elkom el-Ahmar) in Upper Egypt, as well as later, with Behdet (Tell el-Balamoun) in the marshlands of the northeastern Delta. Lower Egypt was identified by the green papyrus plant, whereas Upper Egypt was represented by a sedge. In addition, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt was worn by Neith, a goddess of Sais (Sa el-Hagar), in the northwestern-Delta vicinity of Buto. The earliest representation of Nekhbet is on a stone vase from the second dynasty that carried the name of King Khasekhemwy (c.2700 BCE). In Predynastic times, Hierakonpolis, Sais, and Buto were cult centers and prominent towns. A unified Egypt thus extended in royal cosmography from the political domain of Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) in the South to that of Sais and Buto in the northwestern Delta. Lower Egypt was also symbolized by the bee (bit), which was associated with Neith of Sais. The king's titulary “He of the Sedge and the Bee” (nsw-bit) was bound with the name of the Red Crown as bit. The cosmogonic ideology of kingship also included the god Atum, Lord of Heliopolis (Eg., iwnw; the biblical site of On) in the eastern Delta, as well as the sun god Re from the same locality. During the Middle Kingdom, some pharaohs incorporated Amun in their names, and his cult was celebrated in many sanctuaries in Thebes. Regarded as the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon, Amun was depicted anthropomorphically as a pharaoh seated on a throne with two plumes surmounting his crown.

The king of Egypt was the “Lord of the Two Lands.” He was also regarded as the “Lord of the Black-land” (kmt), which referred to the fertile land of the Nile Valley, the Delta, and the adjacent deserts. If the floodplain of the valley and the Delta provided the farming land and pasture that supported the majority of Egypt's population, the deserts—to the east of the Nile (the Eastern Desert) and to the west (the Western Desert, including the Sahara), as well as the Sinai to the northeast and the Nubian desert to the southeast—were rich in rock and mineral resources. In addition to stones for building and for other industries, the Sinai, the Eastern Desert, and the Nubian desert proved key sources of gold and copper, minerals of special significance within the religious ideology of Egyptian kingship. The boundaries of Egypt, therefore, were never restricted to the narrow strip of the Nile Valley but were extended to the surrounding deserts, as far as possible, and even to the Red Sea. In reality, the borders varied according to the ability of Egyptian kings to defend or control useful outlying territories from neighboring powers; such powers belonged to nomadic tribes and tribal chiefdoms, as well as to mighty empires.

In one of his titles, the king claimed to be the “Sovereign of the Nine Bows” (originally they were seven in the Pyramid Texts), a confederation of lands and peoples under his authority. In addition to Upper and Lower Egypt—the core domain of the king—the lands included the Iuntiu of Ta-sety, south of Aswan (or Nubia, a word probably derived from the Old Egyptian for “gold” [nbw]); the Land of Shat farther to the south; the people of Ta-shu (the “empty quarter”) and the Tjehenu in the area west of the Delta; and the Tjemehu, the oasis dwellers of the Western Desert. The Mediterranean settlers included in the list were referred to as Hau-nebu, which may mean the Greeks. In the fifth dynasty temple of Sahure, the gods were shown leading bound conquered peoples to the king. The Egyptians also spoke of Keftiu, a term identified with the Canaanite island of Kaptara, or Crete. The Egyptians recognized the “East” or the “Northern Lands” (the Near East) as Setjet.

Regardless of the varying size of the peripheral territory, the Nile Valley and the Delta formed the core of the Egyptian state, the area of the greatest demographic, economic, and social interactions. Regardless of a certain degree of geographically and socially induced clusters and gradational differences, the Two Lands had been the crucible of Egyptian nationhood. Its people were, however, in Predynastic times a mix of breeding populations that included inhabitants of the Valley and the Delta, newcomers from the adjacent deserts, and settlers from the Nubia lands. In dynastic times, peoples from the Mediterranean lands and as far as the Maghreb (North Africa) Mauritania, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Caucauses, the Anatolian Plateau, and the Balkan Peninsula were assimilated. Throughout pharaonic times, there were additions to Egypt's population, as a result of trade, immigration, and warfare (settlers, captives, invaders). Depending on the source of the newcomers, as well as the differences generated by geographic and social distances, regional differences prevailed in both dialects and appearances. Dialectal differences still exist in the Arabic spoken in Upper Egypt, as distinct from the Delta. Qena and Aswan were long regarded as an exile area to inhabitants of Cairo and the Delta (Ar., Wagh Bahari). The inhabitants of southern Egypt (Ar., Wagh Gibli) distinguish themselves as Sa'iyda (the Arabic singular is Sa'idi) from the Baharawiya (the Arabic singular is Bahrawi) of northern Egypt.) Upper Egypt is also subdivided into an inner part (Ar., Sa'id Gwanni), south of Qena, and an outer part (Ar., Sa'id Barani), farther to the north. The Nubians (Ar., Al-Nubiyeen, Nubi is the singular) are regarded as a distinct group. During the New Kingdom, in the reign of Sety I, in contra-distinction with the Egyptians, the Nubians were joined with other ethnic groups such as the “Asiatics” (Near Easterners) and the “Libyans” (North Africans). Iconography reveals not only perceptions of differences in anatomic features but also differences in attire and body treatment. The Egyptians, as did many other groups, called themselves “the people” (rmṯ).

The land of Egypt was not primarily a tract of land, but within the conceptions of Egyptian kingship, a sacred territory in which order and stability prevailed. The king was responsible for maintaining that order. In the process he had both to defend Egypt against invaders and to maintain internal cohesion and stability. Divine kingship in Egypt, in addition, was intertwined with an ideology that included mortuary cults, requiring mineral resources from outside Egypt; the pharaohs were thus compelled to maintain the production and flow of incense, gold, copper, and copper minerals, as well as other temple and mortuary materials. From earliest dynastic times, therefore, Egypt came into contact, and sometimes conflict, with the peoples of the adjacent regions.

Geomorphic Divisions.

The fertile floodplain of the Nile Valley and the Delta made the economics of ancient Egypt possible. Physiographically, the Nile flows in a canyon that had split that eastern rim of the Great Sahara of North Africa into an Eastern Desert, dominated by a range of hills and elevated plateaus, and a Western Desert of plateaus, depressions, sand sheets, and hospitable oases. The Sinai, to the northeast of the Delta, is separated from the northern part of the Eastern Desert by the Gulf of Suez.

The Nile Valley constitutes the northernmost alluvial floodplain of the Nile River. Originating in Ethiopia and eastern equatorial Africa, to the north of the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, the river runs with no significant contributions from its local surroundings. Cascading over a series of cataracts, it reaches the northernmost, the First Cataract, just to the south of Aswan. The construction of Egypt's new Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and 1970s has created a huge lake, which covers some 6,000 square kilometers. The Nile flows northward toward the Mediterranean, following the gradient of the land for some 1,200 kilometers (725 miles), with an average width of 0.75 kilometer (0.5 mile). The floodplain is about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide, on average, and covers approximately 10,000 square kilometers. A branch of the Nile used to flow along the course of the canal known today as Bahr Yusef; with an inlet near Dairut, the branch flowed northward, paralleling the main channel, then into the Faiyum Depression, forming a great lake. The lake has long since dried up, and only a relatively small part of the depression is occupied by a brackish lake, the Birket Qarun, of 200 square kilometers. The Nile tends to run through the eastern part of the north–south valley, except near Qena where the channel makes a great bend bounded by impressive limestone cliffs. South of Isna, the surrounding plateau is sandstone. Granitic islands, the oldest rock in the Nile Valley, dot the course of the river near Aswan.

Nile delta.

Today, the Nile bifurcates into two branches some 20 kilometers (13 miles) north of Cairo, marking the apex of a Delta that covers a total area of approximately 22,000 square kilometers. In classical antiquity, the Delta was documented with seven branches: the Pelusiac, the Tanitic, the Mendesian, the Phanitic, the Sebennytic, the Bolbitic, and the Canopic. The Pelusiac branch extended in a northeastern direction to the northwestern corner of the Sinai Peninsula. Yet another branch, which flowed in prehistoric times, is today's Wadi Tumeilat which traverses the desert east of the Delta to the depressions north of Suez; the Suez desert contains low sand terraces of old Nile sediments and even older geologic formations. Relics of old Nile deposits called sand islands dot the central and eastern part of the Delta. West of the Delta, the Wadi el-Natrun—a series of small depressions in a desert plain of old Nile and even older fluviomarine deposits—is fed by seepage from the Nile's floodwaters. The northern rim of the Delta has a series of lakes and the lagoons and marshy wetlands that meet the Mediterranean Sea.

The area west of the Delta consists of an immense limestone plateau—the Diffa of the Marmarica Plateau—overlooking the Mediterranean. The plateau is marked by the Qattara Depression, an area of approximately 20,000 square kilometers; its lowest point is 135 meters (400 feet) below sea level. Several oases occupy depressions south of Qattara, including the oases of Siwa, Bahrein, el-Arag, Sitra, and Numeisa. North of Qattara, the plateau slopes gently to the sea and forms a low-relief plain of wadi, coastal, and lagoonal deposits. The coast is marked by several inlets and spits; west of Alexandria, for example, the Al-Aʿrab Gulf is a prominent bay. South of the coast, several high ridges run parallel to it, creating a demarcated, coastal desert zone.

Western Desert.

Most of the desert west of the Nile (the Western Desert, also known as the Libyan Desert, the Eastern Sahara, and the Egyptian Sahara) consists of a vast limestone plateau of 200 to 300 meters (600 to 925 feet) in elevation above sea level. The plateau, consisting of a stony surface, is covered in places—especially along its western margin—by extensive sand sheets. It is traversed by sand dunes and is broken by a number of depressions, which are marked by a series of pediments and escarpments having relics of endoreic (internal) drainage. The depressions support a series of oases—from north to south, the Baharia, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga oases.

South of the limestone plateau, marked by a prominent escarpment, is Sin el-Kidab, to the southwest of Aswan. Two small oases, Kurkur and Dungul, are nested in the southernmost edge of the plateau. The desert south and southwest of Sin el-Kidab consists of a sandy plain with relict sandstone hills and dispersed outcrops of basement granites, diorites and gneiss. It is traversed by the Araba'in desert track, which runs from Al-Fashir and El-Ubayyad in Sudan to Asyut. The area is covered by deflated residual desert gravel, sand sheets, and dune formations. In several places within the desert depressions there are remnants of Holocene (10,000 years ago to the present) sediments, ephemeral lakes, and playas. Topographic lows in the Arba'in desert contain playas that have yielded important terminal Paleolithic and Neolithic remains, as at Nabta and Bir Kisseiba. The most spectacular feature of the southwestern area of the Eastern Sahara is the mountain massif of Gebel Uweinat, with an elevation of 1,900 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level, and the Gilf el-Kebir, a plateau that rises from 600 to 1,000 meters (1,800 to 3,000 feet).


Geography. Engraving (c.1890) of Asyut during the Nile inundation.

Eastern Desert.

Between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea, the Eastern Desert is marked by prominent mountains from latitude 28°30′N to Sudan. That mountain range, of igneous and metamorphic basement rocks, rich in mineral resources, is crossed by wadis. In the northern part of the desert, Wadi Qena separates the coastal hills from the extensive Ma'aza limestone plateau. Mount Elba is in the Halaib-Shalatin southern area and the Gebel Shayeb is in the central range. To the south of Qena, sand-stone replaces limestone as the predominant sedimentary cover. Broad valleys and wadis connect the Nile Valley with the Red Sea Coast, as, for example, the Wadi Hamammat. Other Wadis served, during Africa's rainy Pleistocene periods (the pluvials) as tributaries to the Nile: the Wadi Shait, Wadi Kharit, and Wadi Alaqi.

Sinai desert.

Continuous with Southwestern Asia, the Sinai fronts the Mediterranean in the north and has mountains in the south, with Mount Katherina at 2,641 meters (8,452 feet). The mountainous core of igneous and metamorphic rock, exposed in the south, is mantled in the north by the limestone beds of the Tih Plateau. To the east, the Tih escarpment overlooks Wadi Arabah. The landscape in northern Sinai is characterized by hills and depressions; these are covered by sand dunes to the south of the Mediterranean. The Wadi Al-Arish, in northern Sinai, is a broad valley with a large catchment area.

Borders and Administrative Districts.

The Nile Valley south of the Delta to Aswan was the heartland of Egypt. The First Cataract, south of Aswan, marked the general southern boundary. It was later extended to the south to include parts of Nubia (now in Sudan), but it also was shifted northward at times. During the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians established forts at the First Cataract to control that border. West of the Nile, the oases formed a favorable location for Egyptian settlements that extended along the line of what is now called the “New Valley” (from Kharga to Siwa). Along the Mediterranean coast, a series of forts were established during the New Kingdom, by Ramesses II, as far west as Zawyet Ummel-Rakham; the inhabitants of that region were called “Libyans.”

Egypt was divided into administrative units, each a sepat (spʒt; “nome” in Greek). The sign for sepat was a piece of land divided by canals. The nomes were clearly demarcated by the fifth dynasty, as indicated by a list of Upper Egyptian nomes in the Kiosk of Senowsret I at Karnak. The number and boundaries of the nomes varied in time, but the variations were not dramatically significant. Under the Old Kingdom, the total number of nomes was thirty-eight or thirty-nine. In the Late period, the nomes numbered forty-two, including twenty-two in Upper Egypt and twenty in the Delta, as indicated by lists in the temple of Edfu and at Dendera. (The judges of the dead numbered forty-two and were sacred.) Each nome was depicted by an ensign, associated with a deity, and had a capital city.

See also NILE; and articles on specific geographical divisions.


  • Baines, J., and J. Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1984.
  • Butzer, Karl W. Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt, A Study in Cultural Ecology. Chicago, 1976. Includes an informative description of the hydrography and geomorphology of the Nile floodplain.
  • Kees, Herman. Ancient Egypt, A Cultural Topography. Chicago, 1961. A classic description of the Egyptian landscape from historical and cultural perspctives.
  • Silverman, D. P., ed. Ancient Egypt. London, 1997. Includes chapters on the cultural geography of Egypt, with a section on the cosmic geography of the Egyptian landscape.
  • Trigger, B. G., B. J. Kemp, D. O'Connor, and A. B. Lloyd. Ancient Egypt, A Social History. Cambridge, 1983. Essential for a full understanding of the changing dynamics of Egyptian borders and the human impact on the Egyptian landscape.

Fekri Hassan