In Edwin Abbott's story Flatland, he describes an imaginary two-dimensional world in which the inhabitants can only perceive each other as points and lines on a horizontal plane, either growing or dwindling depending on their shape and motion. It’s a strange tale, but in creating Egypt God did Abbott one better, for in Egypt only one dimension truly matters, and it runs the length of the Nile: up river and down.
The Egypt we see on the map – the irregular rectangle with the Sinai hanging off one corner, like a stumpy tail – is a fraud, existing only in some colonial boundary commission’s imagination. The real Egypt is shaped like a sinuous snake, with its fangs clamped firmly into the bottom of the Mediterranean. (Indeed, one of the ancient symbols for upper Egypt, above the delta, was the cobra.)
To the west, a string of oases – the snake’s ba, or soul shadow -- follow the parallel line of another ancient valley, which once marked the river’s course to the sea. Beyond that, only sand and wind and the faint sound of scorpions, scuttling across the dunes.
Egypt, in other words, is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt – a 500-mile miracle that exists only because the highland forests of central Africa happen to drain north, through the Sahara, instead of west, into the Congo basin, or east, into the Indian Ocean. It’s hard to imagine a country more completely defined by an accidental quirk of geography – or, as the high priests at Karnak probably would have argued, that represents such a unique gift from the Gods.
There is, in short, no place like it on earth.
Take a break from the day, get a tall glass of something cold to drink, and settle in for the next installment of Billmon's Excellent Adventure.