A Gift of Geology: Ancient Egyptian Landscapes and Monuments


Colin Reader is a geologist who has combined his professional knowledge with his passion for Egyptology to produce a fascinating geological history of the country. The title of his book derives from Herodotus’ assertion that the ancient Egyptian civilisation was ‘a gift of the river [Nile]’. Reader contends that this is only partly true. He says that it was the combination of several fortuitous geological events and processes that allowed the pharaonic civilisation to flourish.

The book is hugely ambitious in its scope, covering the two billion years that shaped the country we see today. It begins with a brief introduction to the subject of geology and then traces the peregrinations of the African continent from Antarctica to its present position, the formation of the various sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic strata that underlie the present surface, and the many changes in sea level of what is now the Mediterranean.

A chapter is devoted to the evolution of the River Nile through its different phases. During its Eonile phase, the river flowed from north to south, and cut a canyon 2,500 metres deep – much deeper than the Grand Canyon in the USA. The familiar cliffs that loom over Hatshepsut’s temple are in fact only the upper 10% or 20% of the canyon walls.

A chapter on the Eastern Desert deals with the formation of the characteristic wadis that allowed access to the mineral wealth of the Red Sea Hills, and the difficulties in obtaining drinking water experienced by those involved in the mining expeditions. The author explains the origins of the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert, where the ubiquitous presence of seashells can puzzle the modern traveller, and points out that beneath the sand lie the remains of a huge river system that once drained northwards to the sea.

Later chapters explore the interaction of the ancient population with the geological wealth of the country: mining precious minerals, quarrying stone, and stone-working techniques. A constant theme is the effect of climate change, which caused the migration of the nomadic occupants of the Western Desert to the Nile Valley, and which was probably responsible for the collapse of the Old Kingdom, when successive failures of the inundation caused widespread famine.

And the diagonal alignment of the three main Giza pyramids? This was not an attempt to mirror the position of certain stars in the night sky, but arose simply from the need to avoid the quarries from which the core stones were extracted, and which are now filled with drifted sand.

This is a book that should be on every Egyptologist’s bookshelf, as it describes what is literally the bedrock of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

A Gift of Geology: Ancient Egyptian Landscapes and Monuments
by Colin D Reader
American University in Cairo Press, 2022
ISBN 978-1-649-03218-8
Paperback £24.95