On the Nile

The world’s first civilization continues to be an entrepreneurial gold mine.

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


This fall I had the privilege of spending three weeks in Egypt. The Egyptians established the world’s first great civilization more than 5,000 years ago — and where would civilization be without entrepreneurs?

Starting a civilization is a pretty great entrepreneurial achievement in itself, and the early pharaohs established one that ultimately lasted almost 3,500 years. The first pharaoh, Narmer, united the kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt in approximately 3100 A.D. — think of it as the ancient equivalent of a major corporate merger.

While the fertile banks of the Nile provided the cradle from which Egyptian civilization was nourished, not everything the people needed could be found or grown within this narrow strip of land. As such, trade was vital, and early pharaohs used trade both as a way to obtain needed goods and to keep the country unified. While the Egyptians did not invent tariffs, they did invent a system of taxes, which enabled the pharaohs to employ a workforce, fund public works projects, and create incredible wealth for themselves and the elite.

The more civilization changes, the more it stays the same ….

The invention of hieroglyphics was another key to power and wealth in ancient Egypt. First appearing around 2800 B.C., these symbols were used to glorify the pharaohs and record their exploits, both real and imagined. However, they also had the very functional purpose of recording harvests, business transactions, inventories and taxes paid. While painting these elaborate symbols on papyri — or worse yet, carving them into tablets — was time consuming, it probably was not too much worse than dealing with a balky computer.

Back to taxes: another great invention of an undetermined pharaoh was what archeologists actually call a “Nilometer.” These were deep holes carved into the bedrock close to the Nile in various places, then connected to the river itself. At the peak of the annual Nile flood, the river level was measured. This projected the quality of the harvest that year, and taxes were set accordingly. Lower water levels meant lower taxes. Rumors suggest that a few Nilometers were sabotaged with channels to drain off some of the water, evidence of the first tax cheaters in history.

The first pyramid was commissioned by the Pharaoh Djoser around 2670 B.C. No, they were not built by aliens; plenty of records exist that detail the process. Ancient Egypt was largely a nation of farmers, but during the Nile flood period, the fields were under water and could not be worked. So, the idle farmers became construction workers during this time, providing the tens of thousands of laborers needed to build the pyramids.

On the other hand, having seen some of the monumental temples that were relocated to preserve them from the inundation caused by the Aswan dam, I think they may very well have been moved by aliens.

That brings us into present times. The dam is an environmental and archeological disaster, but it provided the government with a reliable source of energy and contained the annual flooding. President Nasser very skillfully played the U.S. and the USSR against each other and got the latter to pay for most of the construction — a great way to access venture capital.

With a burgeoning population and paucity of jobs, many modern Egyptians are vendor-level entrepreneurs, and they can be a trifle persistent. However, a very endearing Egyptian trait is a constant sense of humor; for example, in the 108-degree heat of Aswan, one shopkeeper attempted to lure me into his store with a friendly “welcome to Alaska.”

Situated at the crossroads of Africa and the Arab world, modern Egypt has its share of challenges. But I left feeling confident that the same entrepreneurial spirit that enabled them to create the world’s first great civilization will somehow help them solve the problems of today as well.