Of Waters Red and Green : Horizons of Ancient Egypt
Ancient man conceived of his world as one that was surrounded by some conceptualisation of primordial waters, which were held in check – or, given order – by some cosmosmoulding power, thus, allowing, for a brief moment of time, in the larger scheme of things, civilisation to flourish, on land, which emerged, from the waters.
This is not so difficult to envision – water did surround civilisational space on all sides. Of course, early agricultural settlements were dependent on riverine water, were nourished by rainwater, and as they grew, sustained by water drawn from wells. And, as they began to expand and explore, they understood they were enclosed by waters of the seas.
To the Ancient Egyptians, these seas which surrounded them were all known by one all encompassing name – the Great Green. These great green waters were, in a sense, remnants of the primordial waters from which all existence had emerged. Till the beginning of seafaring as an art of civilisation, man was truly enclosed by the seas. But as he began to venture further from his homecoast, and, more importantly, returned every time he set forth, the seas became more known to him, as a people. (The return is important – linear voyages across the seas had been undertaken by prehistoric man for millennia, as evidenced by the settling of islands such as the Andamans, and even, Australia, which is a sort of Greater Andamans of humanity.)
Gradually, with sea faring, rather than remaining unknown spaces beyond the lived experiences of man, the seas became an extension of his frontiers – a space for brave adventures and explorations. And this was reflected in changes in aquanyms – the one Great Green, became the Great Green of the North, that is the Mediterranean Sea, and the Great Green Which (is) Turned Around, the Red Sea.
Why this curious name for the latter? In the aquanym, we see an understanding of the topography of the sea – except through the narrow Bab el Mandeb Straits, the Red Sea is enclosed, and Egyptian sailors did not regularly cross these straits till the age of the Ptolemies, though occasional voyages might have been undertaken before. In my view, more than the topographical connotation, this name of the Red Sea reflects the nature of human use, or adaptation, to its waters.
The Great Green of North was a realm of which the outer expanses were not known, again, till the Hellenic Age. It is possible that early voyagers who attempted to explore that further north never returned, so there was a sense of linearity, even finality, in the North, which remained an unknown frontier. (Except the more localised coast hugging voyages to the northeastern Levantine coast, especially, to Byblos, a trading hub even in the second millennium BC, with its origins, in terms of that role, dating back to the third.)
The Red Sea was different. It was known. For some coastal communities, it was as much a lived space as the riverine zone of the Nile, since the fifth millennium BC. It was a sea, from whose safe coasts one could set forth, with the safe knowledge that one would, ultimately, be turned around, to, return home.
By the mid second millennium BC, the Egyptian world horizon had expanded further still – they were now well acquainted with another ancient sea, what we know as the Persian Gulf, and they, as the Sea of Inverted Waters. (The Pharoah Thutmose I, 1525–1495 BC, had reigned over an empire which extended to the Euphrates.) The Egyptian name for the Persian Gulf is as a curious aquanym, is also curiously Egyptian, I should add. Understanding it requires us to know this of the Egyptian worldview – it was, literally, opposite to ours.
The Egyptian worldview was constructed around, in both senses, the centrality of the Nile. The curious thing to note for our purposes is, their directional compass was also ordered based on the flow of the Nile, which flows from south to north, so the south, for the Egyptians was up, and the north, down. (I learned recently this is also true, surprisingly, for some Arctic cultures.) Now, since the Euphrates flows, of course, from north to south, we understand why, for the Egyptians, the waters of the sea it flowed into were ‘inverted’.
This also throws some light on the nature of the Mediterranean for the Egyptians – it was a vast expanse not at the head, but at the edge – or beyond the ‘end’ – of their world. And as we know from tales much closer to our age, there, in the vast unknown, be monsters. And so, they were, as the latter history of Egypt records.
If toponyms are linguistic time capsulae, carrying in the depth of their meanings, histories of the wanderings and placemakings of peoples, aquanyms are, to begin with, signifiers of their sense of primordiality, or, of emergences, of mortality drawing out from and becoming distinct from the immortal realm of primordial chaos. Till both converge, to create horizonmaps of lived worlds, inhabited and understood by those who created them, mapping their imaginations onto the world.
This post was first published on https://erytheanhorizons.wordpress.com