Advances in Historical Studies
2013. Vol.2, No.3, 150-155
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Hydrological Science and Its Connection to Religion in Ancient
Egypt under the Pharaohs
Jonas Eliasson1,2
1University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland
2Kyoto University (visi t ing), Kyoto, Japan
Received August 8th, 20 13; revised Septem ber 8th, 2013; accepted Septem ber 15th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Jonas Eliasson. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The history of water management in the Fertile Crescent is closely related to the religion. This is most
clear in ancient Egypt in pharaonic time. The class of priests serving under the pharaoh had also many
other administrative duties, they had good skill in science, collected hydrological and astronomical data
and used it to levy taxes and predict the floods that irrigated the arable land. The special hydrological
features of the river Nile make it rather predictable in behavior compared to other major rivers of the re-
gion. In this social position the priests had great influence and could use it to stop the pharaoh Ikhnaton in
his attempt to establish a monotheistic religion by ousting Amon-Ra and replacing him with Aton. Social
life was very colorful at pharaohs’ court and the various arts and festivals flourished. The most remark-
able of these was the Opet festival where pharaoh himself was the leading figure together with the statues
of the gods. The festival was to last 10 days and during that time the river Nile was to change color from
grayish to reddish and thereby mark the beginning of the life-giving flood and bear witness to the good
relations between the king and the divine powers. This kind of event, an annual prayer by the king to the
gods for good harvest was well known in many societies, but it shows the remarkable skills of the Amon-
Ra priest that they were ready to predict the onset of the Nile flood within ten days and get away with it.
Keywords: Egypt; Religion; Hydrology; Pharaoh; River Nile
When discussing religion in the ancient world, it is necessary
to realize that religion, administration and technology could be
integrated into a single unit. This article attempts to show how
the various natural forces and related technologies were in an-
cient times believed of divine origin. It is important in this re-
spect, to consider that the attitude of ancient peoples, such as
Egyptians to divinity, were significantly different from modern
perspectives and are often misunderstood by scholars (Hor-
nung, 1982; Hornung, 1999). Egyptian religion was close to
shamanism (Morenz, 1992); as the images of the gods from this
period show and taboos were common (Assman, 1992). Natural
phenomena were controlled by different deities and survival
depended on the Nile floods that occurred around the same time
every year, irrigated the land and made it fertile as long as the
soil remained moist (White, 2003).
During the flood periods nomadic tribes with their herds mi-
grated into Egypt (White, 2003). Such nomads may still be seen
on the move south of Sudan in the vast Sudd swamps that the
Nile floods once a year and so the land is covered with vegeta-
tion. Thus has the Nile valley been, and here (Biswas, 1970),
the human race learned the art of increasing harvest by plowing
away the natural vegetation, plant grain, harvest it and live off
agriculture. Later they learned also to build irrigation systems
and keep flood water for later use (Biswas, 1970; Werner,
1983); but now the Aswan dam has taken over this role. The
water management led to the agricultural revolution and it pro-
vides the basis for the magnificent civilization of ancient Egypt.
Science flourished, the main branch being astronomy and cal-
endar computation, which was theological in character (Mc-
Clellan & Dorn 1983). Connections between astronomy, calen-
dar calculus and religion were actually very common until the
present day.
Several hazards were threatening the Egyptian nation, enemy
invasions; too small floods that led to drought, too big floods
on the other hand could be disastrous for people and livestock
alike. When everything was well, the population increased to
numbers that the arable land could not sustain with famine as
the result. Such events were God’s punishment, and the only
possible remedy was to have a warrior king who could commu-
nicate with god and persuade him to protect the nation. From
the perspective of the ancient Egyptians the king Pharaoh was
needed to ensure fertility, Nile and all life in t he country through
his capability to communicate directly with god (Shaw, 2000).
Under the pharaoh was the nobility, such as various officers,
priest s, generals, co nstructors and r egional comma nders (Brugsc h-
Bey, 1996). The purpose of this article is to show how the ad-
ministration, technology and religion are interwoven in the
realm of ancient Egypt; these were all branches on the same
trunk, the survival of the nation by the grace of the gods.
Scholars of Egyptology are largely interested in Egyptian an-
tiquities and their relationship to the ancient kingdom of the
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 151
Pharaohs. In this article archeology and specific dating are
avoided, but when they are mentioned they follow the http:// originally developed in 1994 by the Ministry of
Tourism of Egypt, under the direction of Mamdouh al-Beltagi.
There are also considerable contributions to Egyptology mate-
rial on the internet and elsewhere that originates from Zahi
Hawass, an Egyptologist, and former Minister of State for An-
tiquities Affairs in Egypt. Interested readers ca n fin d a dditi ona l
information on the: Tour Egypt:
Correct dating is difficult in Egyptology, experts agree upon
when Alexander the Great was pharaoh, then upon when the
Assyrians sacked Thebes a bout 300 y ears before, but the re st is a
little shaky. Manetho’s (Manetho’s List, 2012): original list of
Egyptian kings and dynasties was never completel y accepted and
revisions are still being made. As an example (Brugsch-Bey,
1996), means Ikhnaton ascended to the throne 1473 BC but this
has now been revised to 1352 BC. Furthermore there is (New-
grosh, Roh l, & van der Veen , 1993), that in the Journal of Ancie nt
Chronology Forum publish theories that there is communication
between the first king of Israel, Saul and Ramses II and possibly
Ikhnaton in the Am arna letters, described b y (Moran, 1992).
Agriculture Creates Superpowers
During the first millennia in written history, the northern
hemisphere was sparsely populated with nomadic peoples but
the populations increased rapidly when their herds grew
(Cunliffe, 1997). They migrated from the steppes to the South.
Here, conditions for raising livestock were worse, but agricul-
tural conditions better. In the agricultural revolution large so-
cieties and culture are created in the floodplains of the large
valleys (Brugsch-Bey, 1996; Hurst, 1951), starting around 5000
BC. These were farming communities; the best known sites are
along the Indus in India, Yellow River in China, Euphrates and
Tigris in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt. All these rivers,
flood, irrigate the land and provide opportunities for farming
even though rainfall is in very short supply in the farmland
The art of taming the rivers and cultivating the otherwise arid
land turned many an ancient nomadic tripe into a superpower.
The largest and most influential area was the Fertile Crescent.
Apart from the technical and organizational skills that brought
us the wonderful pyramids (Hawass & Lehner, 1997), the
Egyptians rose to incredible heights in hydraulic engineering
(Kaplan, 2004). The priests operated water level stations, the
Nilometers, and built irrigation works (Biswas, 1970), which
lead to that the clergy became a very important part of the ad-
ministration. Divine origin of nature manifested itself in the
Pharaonic figure and the River Nile, which brings the water,
food and fertility to the nation.
The best conditions for agriculture in the Fertile Crescent
were the floodplain around the Nile in Egypt and the floodplain
between Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia. All fields are
very dry and hot, but the rivers flooded once a year. You can
make irrigation, sometimes with little effort, and keep adequate
flood water in the irrigation systems after the flood to get one
harvest. In this way, the land yields far more food than by cattle
herding only. When things are going well the population grows
rapidly and powerful kingdoms emerge. Pharaoh’s grain stock
is growing, pyramids, roads, new dams, canals and locks are
built. The best example is the Bahr Yussef canal built around
4300 years ago. It diverts water from the Nile floods into the
Fayum (Al Fayyum) oasis near Cairo, doubling the farmland in
the oasis and serving as irrigation reservoir.
But floods are not just a blessing. Too large floods damage
irrigation works and drown people and livestock. The ancient
legend of Noah preserves the story of the flood risk that con-
stantly threatened the civilizations in the Fertile Crescent. The
legend is preserved in the Gilgamesh epic from Mesopotamia
(Heidel, 1946). It tells the tale of Utnapishtim; he alone sur-
vives the great flood. Devastating floods can occur in Mesopo-
tamia if extreme floods hit the big rivers Euphrates and Tigris
at the same time. Then the whole valley is flooded, including
Ur, the capital of Sumer and the city of Abraham (Werner,
1983). The largest of these floods has left thick sediments of
clay in the entire Mesopotamian valley with the exception of
the highest hills (Werner, 1983).
When the rain fails the floods can also be too small for the
water level to lift itself above the river channel banks and irri-
gate the land, the canyon in the wall holding the entrance to the
Luxor temple (Luxor Temple, 2012) symbolizes this. Then the
crop fails with famine as the result, the cause may be many
things. Local climatic variations can be everything from unusu-
ally small precipitation, to extreme events e.g. global temporary
climate change due to volcanic eruption in Iceland (Oman,
Robock, Stenchikov, & Thordarson, 2006). Apart from the dis-
asters coming from the Nile, wars were common; the lower part
of Egypt was harassed by constant invasions of the peoples to
the north, the Egyptians called them Hyksos. They ruled for
some time from their capital city Avaris.
The Rise of Hydrologic Technology and Water
Considerable documentation exists about water management
in the Fertile Crescent. It shows a high level of technical and
managerial skills. In the city of Mari in Mesopotamia libraries
of clay tablets were found that show a map of the fields and
irrigation ditches that provide water to them (Biswas, 1970). A
similar map of the irrigation systems along the Yellow River in
China exist (Biswas, 1970). It took about 500 years to complete
the Chinese system, but according to legends it is the work of
Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty who reigned 206 BC-9
AD. Then are the famous qanat systems in Persia Iran, they are
complex system of tunnels that are dug into the mountains to
collect groundwater (Biswas, 1970). Such systems could be
diverted into cities without any flood risk, for example to the
famous Paradiso gardens in ancient Persia. Today the Taj Ma-
hal Palace in India is the best known place with this type of
garden archite cture.
But the art of water management rose to its highest levels in
ancient Egypt. The largest part of it is desert; the country is
almost just a green belt around the river Nile. Living conditions
are much better than in Mesopotamia, the floods more regular
and droughts not so common. The river flows from south to
north, the wind blowing from north to south and it almost never
rains. The Nile is navigable up to the first cataract at Aswan
and ancient Egypt is from here to the sea. South of Egypt was
Nubia, where the Egyptian army frequently battled and took
slaves. Originally there were two Egyptian states, but they are
united in times of the old kingdom (Dunn, 2012).
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Basic Hydrology of the River Nile and the Use of
Hydrologic Data in Administration
The White Nile, flows from the Lake Victoria. This is the
largest lake in the world with enormous storage effect so in its
beginning the White Nile flows very evenly throughout the year.
At Khartoum in Sudan the Blue Nile River, which comes from
Lake Tana in Ethiopia joins the White Nile. The Blue Nile is a
very small river, except in the monsoon rain season in May and
June. Then it rains very heavily on the mountains in Ethiopia
and the water flows then from all sides into the Lake Tana, so
the Lake Tana River crashes with enormous power down the
Nile Waterfalls and further along its channel down to Khartoum.
The power of the Blue Nile is so great that it stems the White
Nile seriously and helps to fill up the Sudd swamps. But four
rapids between Khartoum and Aswan slow the flood down, it
takes a few weeks for it to fill the river channel, so the flood did
not come to Egypt until July, but then usually lasted for two
months. Blue Nile has a reddish color but the White Nile gray-
ish, so the color change of the Nile marks the beginning of the
flood. This color change was duly noted in the capital Thebes
now Luxor, directly opposite the famous royal graves in the
Valley of the Kings.
A part of the flood water was stored up inside the irrigation
system. The moist soil was plowed as soon as possible and the
irrigation system used for the plants and in March the crops
were harvested. The land was mostly owned by nobles and
priests, which in turn paid taxes to the king. There was consid-
erable persistence in the floods, “good floods” and “bad floods”
respectively, had a tendency to group, like in the biblical legend
of the seven fat and seven lean years Genesis 41: 17 - 36. To-
day persistence and autocorrelation of the floods of the Nile are
known from the hydrology research on the two thousand years’
time series for the water levels of the Nile gathered by the
priests (Biswas, 1970; Hurst, 1951).
There were the priests in the temple Karnack and other tem-
ples along the river banks who operated the water level meas-
urements of the Nile. They built water level gauges, called
Nilometers (Biswas, 1970). These were deep wells of piled
stones with a high column in the center of the well with a scale
on it where the water level could be read and recorded. This
measurement method is still in used Figure 1.
With the results of the water level recordings and experience
over the years it was relatively easy for priests to calculate the
harvest and those accounts were used in levying taxes. This is
the only known example of priests playing the role of the inter-
nal revenue department using water levels as their evidence.
But the priests of ancient Egypt had many official functions so
this has been as natural a role for them as doing service in the
temple. Their role as priests was to serve the gods inside the
Holy of Holiest in the temple, e.g. bring them food once a day.
But temple service was only 3 - 4 months a year for the av-
erage priest in other times of the year, he was in administration,
e.g. the tax collector who visited the farmers with a record of
what each had to pay and charged them accordingly. If they did
not pay, there was a police force to take care of that matter
(Protecting Civilians, 2012).
The Divine Power and the Royal Power
In ancient Egypt, spiritual and secular authority is one and
the same. All natural phenomenon’s, the water, the land and the
animals were of divine origin and man was too. Top rank was
Figure 1.
the king, the Pharaoh, he descended from the gods but he him-
self was not a god, even though some past kings did make it to
the divine ranks. The most famous of these is Osiris (Morenz,
1992) and his son Horus, whose symbol is the falcon, most
sacred of all birds. Egyptian gods were numerous but only 115
are known (Hornung 1982). Many animals like hawks, lions,
cats and crocodiles (Dunn 2012) were worshipped. There were
gods and goddesses, each could be portrayed with a single icon
in the hieroglyphic texts. Sometimes a god appears with the
head of an animal, especially the male gods. This animal wor-
ship was more practiced in the Fertile Crescent than in the
Mediterranean religious systems of the Greeks and the Romans.
This suggests that the Egyptian religious system was originally
worship of deities in the nature and spirits like in Shamanism,
but this does not have to be more than partially correct.
Deities could merge together and change roles, e.g. the sun
god Ra sometimes merged with Horus and became Horus-Ra
with a human body and a falcon head crowned with a sun-disc.
Ra also merged with Amon to become Amon-Ra, who was a
god with a ram head and a sun-disc while Amon himself had a
human head.
In Manetho’s list (Manetho’s List, 2012): are 30 Dynasties of
Egyptian pharaohs. The rank of the gods varied through the
times and there is a possibility that when one king dethroned
another and replaced that dynasty with his own, similar revolu-
tions followed in the realm of the gods. As an example, during
the eighteenth dynasty 1539-1295 BC Amon-Ra was the su-
preme god and his power great, but not in the times before and
The ancient Egyptians had a great respect for the afterlife and
great preparation was needed so the soul of the deceased would
receive worthy reception in the realm of the dead. For example,
the rite that took place when the heart of the dead were weighed
and evaluated before it was accepted. A famous picture from
the Book of Dead (Book of Dead, 2013) shows th is in Figure 2.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 153
Figure 2.
The heart of a scribe being weighed against the f e a t h e r of Maat from Book of the D e a d.
Anubis comes with the deceased by his hand to the ceremony.
This is no coincidence, Anubis was the god of mummification,
and his role was to assist the deceased on his journey that was
both complex and dangerous. Toth with Ibis head comes with
the heart of the deceased and a feather from the hair dress of
Maat, the goddess of truth, on a tray. Anubis places the heart
and the feather on either side of a scale. But the monsters
Ammi, representative of the underworld, watches closely, he
gets the soul if the heart does not meet the test. If all goes well
Horus son of Osiris, former pharaoh and now god, takes the
deceased by the hand and follows him into the Holy of Holies
where his father and Isis, his mother, wait. Next to Isis waits
Maat, presumably to get her feather back.
The Mystery of Ikhnaton
Deities could move up and down the ranks with the help of
the king, though it probably has happened more frequently, that
the Pharaoh came to power with assistance from the gods. A
good example of the former is when Amenhotep IV dethroned
Amon-Ra, replaced him with the sun-disc god Aton and took
the name Ikhnaton for himself. For this he was nicknamed the
heretic king, (Brugsch-Bey, 1996). What is striking here is that
the new faith was monotheism, the people was to worship only
the god Aton, who had a low rank before Ikhnaton’s time.
Researchers do not totally agree how Amenhotep IV got this
strange idea. According to the Bible, the Hebrew descendants
of Joseph and his brothers, which according to biblical legends
came to Egypt in the times of the 15 dynasty or about 1650 BC,
(Manetho’s List, 2012), lived in the country in Ikhnaton’s time.
Some believe that Joseph was at the court of Ikhnaton’s father,
even his viceroy (Minister) see Genesis 41: 37 - 41. This has
created wild speculations about that Ikhnaton was in his mono-
theisms under religious influence from the Hebrews. But many
modern scholars believe now that the Old Testament’s legend
of the Hebrews in Egypt is a myth although this is not explicitly
stated (Bimson, 1988). The legend may be true never the less.
In Egypt, the Hebrews would have been counted in all writing
as Hyksos anyway.
Others still take a more practical approach in the Ikhnaton
mystery. The Amon priests were very powerful, owned about
1/3 of the land and did not always do pharaohs’ bidding. It may
be suggested that the king was simply trying a kind of Cultural
Revolution to keep them down in the same way as Mao re-
volted against his regional commanders in our times. This
Ikhnaton did by building in a short time a totally new capital,
Akhenaten, which he filled with wonderful works of art in a
totally new style. But his administration was not as successful.
After his reign 1353-1336 BC (Hornung, 1999); the economy
was in total ruin (Akhenaten, 2012). This is understandable as
the former administrators, the Amon priests, were totally op-
posed to Ikhnaton and had every possibility to work against
him. Furthermore, a bad infectious disease harassed the country
in his time.
Speculations about that Ikhnaton’s and Moses’ gods were
one and the same are very interesting but hardly realistic,
(Bimson, 1988). A closer study of these deities shows them
very different. That Aton was the lawmaker and supreme judge
like Jahve was out of the question, supreme judge was pharaoh.
That Jahve should allow brother and sister to wed, as was the
custom of Egyptian royalty, no way. Many other arguments can
be made.
Arts and Culture at the Court
Further research may uncover new evidence, but until then
there is the Egyptian art and craftsmanship to admire, it rose to
incredible heights in technology and design under Ikhnaton’s
rule so all the world is in great depth to this heretic king. There
are also speculations that Ikhnaton’s art was influenced by the
Hebrews. But Ikhnaton’s chief art designer and architect were
named Bek and there is no evidence that he was not Egyptian.
Among the works created in his time is the fabulous statue of
Nefertiti, an exquisite work of art, both in form and classical
beauty. The death mask of Tutankhamen (ca. 1333-1322 BC) is
also a wonder, it was found in his tomb, along with a number of
other artworks. He was probably Ikhnaton’s son and in his 10
year’s reign as King, began the conversion to the old faith. So
the new religion was short-lived and the Amon-Ra priests re-
gained all the former powers that Ikhnaton took from them,
which is a remarkable testimony to their cunning.
The Opet Festival
The Egyptian gentry loved to pass the time in hunting and
parties, just like nobility of all times. But everybody had to
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
stick to his place. The common farmers spent their life more or
less in serfdom and we know little of their lives (Hawass, 1997).
But the graves of the nobility are full of paintings with stories
of how pharaoh was hunting lions while lesser noblemen were
hunting pigs or fishing. On these pictures the rank of persons
can be judged, the higher the rank, the bigger is the person’s
body in the picture.
But sometimes the crowd was allowed to participate in the
celebrations, especially when they were designed to show the
good relations of the administrators, king and priests, to the
gods who ruled over the welfare of the people. The best exam-
ple is the annual Opet festival held on the Nile. It was very
popular during the eighteenth dynasty, so popular was that it
could lead to hostilities if it was cancelled (Kruchten, 1991).
The purpose of the festival was a meeting between God and
pharaoh, to ensure a good flood, the necessary condition for a
good harvest. The king should, in other words ensure fertility of
the earth by communicating with the gods, a well-known theme
in ancient societies, and more may be remaining of this custom
than what is commonly accepted. Statues of Amon-Ra were
ferried on the Nile from Thebes to the landing site in front of
the big temple Karnack (Leprohon, 1999), and carried from
there in a great parade by a road lined with statues into the tem-
ple. Detailed description of this parade and associated festivi-
ties does not exist, and it may also have changed over the hun-
dreds of years the Opet was held. But there were, however,
fixed points. Sailing on the Nile with the statues of the gods
was one of them.
Another fixed point was the parade into the temple and the
mysteri ous service in the temple. The service was a most secret
event, a meeting between the king and god. We can let Figure 3
represent what happened, even though the picture is from an-
other occasion. There is a man between two gods. His head
dress, particularly the Cobra snake figure on the forehead, tells
us this is pharaoh himself. On either side of him are Horus and
Anubis, guardians of the king and helpers in life and death.
They are waiting for the boat at the top right of the image. A
closer examination shows that there is Amon-Ra coming, with
its ram head symbolizing Amon and crowned with a sun-disc
symbolizing Ra. The figu re does not leave us in doubt t hat Phar-
aoh is a bit nervous, much is at stake that the meeting goes well.
Here we have a ceremony where the king asks the gods to
bring the nation her necessities by virtue of their power over the
elements (Morenz, 1992). Similar ceremonies were in other
communities, the best known the ceremony in the temple of
heaven in Beijing where the Emperor prayed for good harvests.
Figure 3.
Pharaoh in the center fl anked by Horus left and Anubis right.
We must admire the Amon priests for daring such an act.
Besides computational skills and fairly detailed calendar, which
they certainly had (Kline, 1972; Morenz, 1992); they had to
have a comprehensive knowledge of the behavior of the Nile
flood to be able to predict it within 10 days. To this day, such a
prediction is still a problem. This festival is perhaps the best
example of how religion, government and technical skills were
interwoven in this greatest culture of the world during its time.
Today, the same nation is living in Egypt and then. But the
floods of the Nile now stop at the Aswan dam and the Nile
crocodile downstream of it is dead. He was one of the main
animal gods of ancient Egypt, with him went the last living
icon of the old time. But the legacy of Egyptian religion and
technical skills still survives to this day, the world is in debt to
ancient Egypt, it will never be paid in full (Hornung, 1982).
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