Did a Dried-Up Branch of the Nile Help the Egyptians Build the Pyramids?

Researchers say 31 of the monuments were constructed on the banks of the ancient waterway

lead researcher
Eman Ghoneim and her team studied the remains of an ancient branch of the Nile near the pyramids of Giza. Eman Ghoneim / University of North Carolina Wilmington

Today’s travelers to Egypt will find the ancient pyramids surrounded by barren, inhospitable desert landscapes. But perhaps this wasn’t always the case: New research suggests that a branch of the Nile River may have once flowed alongside 31 of the monuments.

This dried-up branch, which the researchers have named Ahramat (the Arabic word for
“pyramids”) was about 40 miles long, according to a study published this month in the journal Communications Earth and Environment. Its winding path’s proximity to the pyramids suggests it acted as a highway for the transport of building materials beginning some 4,700 years ago.

“Many of us who are interested in ancient Egypt are aware that the Egyptians must have used a waterway to build their enormous monuments, like the pyramids and valley temples, but nobody was certain of the location, the shape, the size or proximity” to the site of the pyramids, says lead author Eman Ghoneim, a geomorphologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, in a statement. “Our research offers the first map of one of the main ancient branches of the Nile at such a large scale and links it with the largest pyramid fields of Egypt.”

A map showing the long-lost Ahramat branch of the Nile River in Egypt Eman Ghoneim et al / Communications Earth and Environment

Ahramat ran “at the foothills of the Western Desert Plateau, where the majority of the pyramids lie,” referring to fields of monuments stretching from Giza to Lisht, per the researchers. They used radar satellite imagery, geophysical surveys and soil samples to confirm the branch’s location.

“Even though many efforts to reconstruct the early Nile waterways have been conducted, they have largely been confined to soil sample collections from small sites, which has led to the mapping of only fragmented sections of the ancient Nile channel systems,” Ghoneim tells CNN’s Katie Hunt.

As the researchers write, the Nile River played a pivotal role in ancient Egyptian civilization’s growth and expansion. It served as a “lifeline in a largely arid landscape,” providing sustenance and allowing for easy transportation of goods and building materials. “For this reason,” they add, “most of the key cities and monuments were in close proximity to the banks of the Nile and its peripheral branches.”

The researchers extracted 82-foot cores of sediment from where the branch once flowed. Eman Ghoneim / University of North Carolina Wilmington

Ghoneim, who is from Egypt, had long wondered why the pyramids were built so far from the Nile, according to CNN. After finding evidence of an unmarked riverbank in some radar satellite data of the region, she set out to investigate.

The team found that in its day, Ahramat was about a third of a mile wide and at least 82 feet deep. What happened to it? As Ghoneim tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus, “There is no exact date on when the branch come[s] to an end.”

While the researchers aren’t sure why the branch dried up, they think a build-up of windblown sand dislodged by a drought some 4,200 years ago might have contributed, per the statement. Now, the footprint of Ahramat is buried beneath farmland and desert sand.

Nick Marriner, a geographer at the French National Center for Scientific Research who wasn’t involved in the study, tells CNN that the Nile has changed significantly over time. Its phases help explain important shifts in ancient Egyptian history.

“The study completes an important part of the past landscape puzzle,” he says. “By putting together these pieces, we can gain a clearer picture of what the Nile floodplain looked like at the time of the pyramid builders and how the ancient Egyptians harnessed their environments to transport building materials for their monumental construction endeavors.”

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