The Gift of Rivers: Geography, History, and World-Building

Sailboat on the Nile at Aswan, Egypt

Geography has had a tremendous impact on history, and there’s probably no better demonstration of that than rivers.

In my last post, I talked about the ways in which political and economic systems contribute to inequality, due to the incentives they create. Today I want to talk about another quite significant factor which has historically impacted disparities between countries and regions: the presence of rivers. The history is genuinely fascinating in its own right, but it also has tremendous ramifications for those of us who write stories set in secondary worlds.

Rivers have long provided significant advantages to cultures that have access to them. Agriculture is a case in point: it’s no accident that the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China developed on, respectively, the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow and Yangzi Rivers.

Egypt’s Nile River is one of the most iconic cases. Not only did the Nile provide the ancient Egyptians with water for their crops, during its seasonal inundations from June to October it deposited a rich layer of silt on its banks (Silverman, 2003).

The result was a phenomenally productive agricultural system on the banks of the Nile, one which made possible the entire structure of Egyptian civilization. Even better, the Nile shaped its floodplain in a way that promoted agriculture all the more: the river’s banks are slightly higher than the surrounding land. Since water always flows downhill, the floodwaters collected, and lingered, at the edges of the floodplain, meaning more land could produce more food (Wilkinson, 2010).

The grain surplus produced by the Egyptian farmers could be used to feed priests, pharaohs, royal courts, administrators, and armies, not to mention the building crews responsible for Egypt’s great architectural projects. Even by the time Narmer unified Egypt to become the first pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty, in 2950 BCE, this civilization had reached a fairly advanced state (Wilkinson, 2010). Such were the gifts of the Nile.

The Narmer Palette, ca. 2950 BCE

The other iconic case from the ancient world, of course, is Mesopotamia. Where Egypt had the Nile, the ancient civilization that began in Mesopotamia with Sumer had the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Like the Nile, these rivers provided early farmers with water and made possible an advanced civilization. Unlike the Nile, the annual flooding of the Tigris and the Euphrates was unpredictable, depending as it did on meltwater from the mountains to the north. Also unlike the Nile, the flooding of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but the former more so than the latter, was often violent and destructive (Bertman, 2003).

The seasonality of the Tigris-Euphrates flooding affected agriculture in another major way: irrigation canals. The annual flooding was mostly in April through June, too late for winter crops and too early for summer crops. As a result, irrigation canals became imperative for agricultural productivity (Nemet-Nejat, 1998).

Bronze head attributed to Sargon of Akkad, died ca. 2284 BCE

Agricultural societies were far from the only ones to derive sustenance from the ecosystems of rivers. In North America’s Pacific Northwest region, Native American hunter-gatherer societies benefited from extensive seasonal salmon runs. This riverine abundance, coupled with the also-vast abundance of marine resources and to some extent land-based resources as well, allowed the Native American groups to create a distinctive way of life known for its relative wealth (McNeese, 2002).

Rivers have also played an important historic role as conduits of trade. Here there may be no better example than Northern Europe.

Civilization spread to Europe in no small part because of Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean trade networks, setting off a chain of complex developments that resulted in the gradual expansion of civilization in Southern Europe. The highwater mark, of course, was the Roman Empire, which unified the whole of the Mediterranean and made deep inroads into Northern Europe.

Over the course of the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, however, Northern Europe would gradually come to surpass Southern Europe in wealth, and rivers were a key factor (Stratfor, 2010). As Stratfor (2010) explains, the North European Plain, a swathe of lowland which stretches from the Russian steppe to the Pyrenees, has seven major rivers — “the densest concentration of navigable waterways in the world.”

Paris, gift of the Seine

Northern Europe’s rivers, including the Loire, Seine, Rhine, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, and others, contributed to agricultural productivity and to trade. Unlike the Sahara around the Nile, though, the North European Plain is fertile, and it is also easy to traverse. The result was a recipe for wealth, trade, and the spread of technology and ideas (Stratfor, 2010).

Interestingly, most of Northern Europe’s major rivers are too far apart to encourage the kind of political unification that was so common in the history of Mesopotamia and Egypt. A partial exception is the Seine and Loire river valleys, close enough to serve as the geopolitical basis for the development of France (Stratfor, 2010).

Northern Europe’s rivers also contrast with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Where Europe’s rivers tend to have wide, level plains, many of sub-Saharan Africa’s rivers have rapids and cascades which impede navigation and trade. The reason for this is that geologically, much of sub-Saharan Africa is essentially a giant mesa, a kind of table land on which rivers tend to form cascades as they plunge toward the coast (Sowell, 2015).

Victoria Falls, Zambezi River, border of Zimbabwe and Zambia

An additional disparity is the depth of the rivers: compared with the rivers of Europe and of China, like Northern Europe a land favored with navigable rivers, Africa’s rivers tend to be relatively shallow. This is a consequence of the relative dryness of much of the continent. This imposes limits on the size of the ships that can travel them, and therefore on the amount of cargo that can be transported (Sowell, 2015).

Seasonality, too, plays a role. As Thomas Sowell (2015) explains in Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspective, the Zambezi River in southern Africa varies immensely in depth on a seasonal and geographical basis:

In some times and places the Zambezi is barely navigable by boats requiring just 3 feet of water, though at other times and places the water level is 20 feet deeper.

Similarly, the Limpopo, another southern African river, discharges 85% of its annual flow from January to March, and only about 1% for August through October (McCully, 2001).

It wouldn’t be ridiculous, then, to say that rivers have made possible the building of real-life cultural worlds. For those of us who are fantasy writers, there are obvious ramifications. For example, my own work-in-progress is set in a cultural milieu that draws very heavily from ancient Mesopotamia.

I have a great civilization centered on a major river system, with other rivers playing important roles in agriculture and trade as well. Because the central river is so large and the center of so much productivity, access to it is important for trade, a fact that has played a not-trivial role in the region’s violent history.

However, the central and lower reaches of the river have a very long history of political unification. The result is a long tradition of a broadly similar culture, and the development of a hinterland away from the frontier which has long known only peace.

Thinking in terms of how geography shapes social development can help you to better understand the world, and it can improve your world-building if you’re a writer working in a secondary world setting. Rivers are far from the only geographical factor to matter for the development of cultural worlds, but as we’ve seen today they’re very important.

References

Bertman, S. (2003). Handbook to daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCully, P. (2001). Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams. London and New York: Zed Books.

McNeese, T. (2002). Early Native American lifestyles and stories: The history of North America. Dayton, OH: Milliken Publishing Company.

Nemet-Nejat, K. (1998). Daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Silverman, D. P. (Ed.) (2003). Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sowell, T. (2015). Wealth, poverty, and politics: An international perspective. New York: Basic Books.

Stratfor. (2010, September 13). The geopolitics of France: Maintaining its influence in a changing Europe. Stratfor. Retrieved from https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/geopolitics-france-maintaining-its-influence-changing-europe

Wilkinson, T. (2010). The rise and fall of ancient Egypt. New York: Random House.

Fantasy fiction enthusiast & author, history buff, lifelong nerd.