Ancient Inspirations: Reverence for Nature III: Rivers, To Dam or not to Dam?”

Reverence for nature was intrinsic to ancient Egyptian ideology and was innate to the philosophical ideal of Ma’at, the conception of cosmic harmony. Taken from the canonical Declarations of Innocence which documents various ethical ideals to both guide one’s life and measure one’s heart and actions, one line succinctly states:

“I have not damned flowing water”

At first glance this may seem to be a very simplistic statement. Yet the underlying ideal which it represents holds another example of ancient Egyptian wisdom in regards the sacred reverence given to the inherent, perennial balance of natures own patterns. The topic of the statement itself also triggers a question that is relevant to modern concerns…”To dam or not to dam?”

In Egypt the Nile flowed for millennia, providing its life-giving resources freely to all people and animals in the region.  The cyclical flooding provided a particularly rich source of nutrients to the soil, resulting in abundant crops on which life was sustained. The worldview of the ancient Egyptians was inextricably linked to the natural environment with its perpetually recurring, balanced patterns, and the Nile itself was honored as the ‘gift of Egypt’.

While modern technological developments have afforded us many options in terms of impacting our environment, the ancient Egyptians possessed vast talents in engineering and construction – leaving us the marvel of the Great Pyramid, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still standing. We are therefore not considering a culture which lacked the ability to dam water, but in accordance with natural, cosmic harmony (Ma’at) opted not to. While it is a complex subject, a few consequences and concerns on the topic of damming rivers are briefly raised below.

Although irrigating water for agricultural purposes was and is a highly useful practice, the various problems that can arise from permanently damning flowing water are extreme, and raises issues about the practice of constructing major permanent dams. For instance, after a low dam built by the British in the late 19th/early 20th century was not entirely effective, the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960’s as an attempt to control flooding, irrigation of water supply, as well as harness it as a source of hydroelectric power. In contrast to less severe, invasive ways of harmonizing with the natural, cyclical flows of the Nile, upon construction of the High Dam the topography of the area was drastically altered, creating an artificial concentration of water now called Lake Nasser, along with flooding ancient towns and artifacts along the Nile (i.e., in Egypt, Nubia).

Was this modern construction imposed by an industrial, “progressive” worldview really best for the whole? Harnessing and partially or temporarily diverting an existing flow is altogether different from blocking and controlling it via the building of enormous, permanent high dam walls. Once nature has been tampered with in such a drastic way, a domino effect results, impacting all life that depends upon it. 

In addition, by setting such precedent it subsequently also becomes difficult to justify and argue why one community, region or country should be allowed to interfere in this way with the natural environment for their own limited ends, but not others. Now, decades later the Ethiopians are underway to build their own dam to similarly control the water flow in their own region, which is located further up the river.  This too will impact the greater eco-system and other populated areas downstream which also live by the life-blood of the Nile.  Yet since Egypt built a dam influenced in accordance with modern, industrialized models why should Ethiopians now be deterred in following the same reasoning pattern, as assisted by China? Read more about this current issue in a National Geographic article here

The question of damming flowing water applies not only to one limited region, but within a global context to nature as a whole – for all eco-systems are interrelated and interdependent. As another example, river communities that depend upon fishing for both subsistence and commerce are also put at risk when damming occurs, while other wildlife and the population of salmon or other fish are also endangered by shortsighted interference with the balance of nature.  Furthermore, while some people may choose to live in societies which are utterly dependent upon modern technological development, why should these control and mandate to other communities how they should live – that is, those who subsist simply from local, sustainable natural resources? 

On the other hand it must be duly noted that the issue of damming rivers is contentious, for it is also touted as a source of ‘green’ energy, i..e, hydropower. In a time where sustainable energy alternatives are necessary to address our modern, environmental crises, damming may seem a most feasible and viable option. Even so, there is no arguing that the building of permanent dams result in dramatic consequences to the overall eco-system – including humans, animals, and plant-life, which some argue as beneficial and others as detrimental in various ways.

If we turn to nature itself for inspiration and guidance, the deliberate building of dams are indeed a natural phenomena demonstrated by beavers. Yet such structures are a seasonal occurrence, that among other things provide protection to beavers as well as easy access to food during winter, and do not permanently and artificially disrupt the flow of water all around, thereby interfering with the environment for decades upon decades. In terms of learning from observing nature itself, contemporary culture can derive much from ancient holistic wisdom about a) considering the greater whole of which we are a part and b) placing greater emphasis on harmonizing with the enduring rhythms and patterns demonstrated by the natural world. 

Limestone Fragment painted with pigment.  From Luxor, Tomb of Mentuemhet, Third Intermediate Period to Late Period,  Dynasties 25-26, ca. 690-660 BCE

Gifts of the Nile. Limestone Fragment painted with pigment. From Luxor, Tomb of Mentuemhet, Third Intermediate Period to Late Period,
Dynasties 25-26, ca. 690-660 BCE, Photo by Natalie Letcher

While contemporary culture has different solutions, adaptations or compromises than those recommended by ancient ideals, given the severe environmental crises of the modern world it behooves us to learn more about and benefit from the age-old ideology and philosophies behind such reverence for nature.

Honoring the interconnected balance of the natural world  is part and parcel of holistic thinking. It is also what modern culture is in dire need of rediscovering, cultivating and practicing with much greater fluency. Indeed, as stated in the first article on Ancient Inspirations: Reverence for Nature, the modern movement of going ‘green’ is but a necessary return to ancient whole-system aka holistic thinking.  

If you like what you’re reading, click like or comment below, check out Ancient Inspirations: Reverence for Nature II, and follow the blog if you’re so inclined.

For more inspiration on how Holism in ancient Egypt & Greece can help contribute to developing a narrative of holistic thinking today, the upcoming book will be released later this year, and the online classes will begin in January 2014.

Related articles regarding the impact of damming flowing rivers on various communities worldwide can be found by clicking the links below: (Nubia 2014) See vintage photos of Nubia before being submerged on this page.

Ethiopia seeks Egypt and Sudan support in key Dam project (

Renaissance Dam could be source of prosperity to Egypt, Nile Basin states, says Egyptian PM (

Sounds of the Nile (

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