Egypt and the Nile 4 – Control of the Nile

Egypt has always been at the mercy of the Nile. If the headwaters to the south in Ethiopia and East Africa experience drought than the floods which irrigate and replenish the soils fail and famine was the result. Since dynastic times temples along the river had gauges called Nilometers that allowed the priests to accurately gauge the height of the river and estimate the magnitude of the annual flooding. Word of the Nile’s height at the southern edges of the kingdom at Aswan could be quickly carried down river to Thebes and Memphis to inform Pharaoh. The Priests, and Pharaoh as the embodiment of the gods, were responsible for invoking divine intervention to stave off droughts. The god representing flood and fertility was called Hapi and offerings were made to curry his favor.  However, the Egyptian pantheon also had a god of drought and desert – Seth – the slayer of Osiris and a far more powerful figure in Egyptian religion.

Scorpion Mace (Photo courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The Egyptian response to water resource challenges were not always passive. Evidence exists for canal building including the Scorpion Mace from the very dawn of the Protodynastic period which shows a ruler carving a canal. In more recent times flood barrages were built across channels of the Nile in the Delta to control water height there. Some incorporating castellated architecture of the British period. However, the most colossal of all the works along the Nile is the High Dam at Aswan. Completed with Soviet support in 1970 the High Dam stretches over 3 km across the Nile and holds the waters of Lake Nasser which extend south for 550 km to the Egyptian-Sudan border region. Aside from generating energy, the High Dam allows the storage of water from periods of high flow for release during dry times. The High Dam not only regulates the flow of the Nile, it is a form of insurance against the vagaries of climate and drought.

However, the benefits of the High Dam are not without costs. The creation of Lake Nasser inundated many Nubian villages along the former course of the Nile. The Nubians are an African rather than Semitic people and developed a vibrant and powerful civilization during the dynastic period that incorporated many elements of Egyptian architecture and religion. During the period of 745 to 650 BC the powerful Nubian Civilization, called Kush by the ancient Egyptians, expanded its reach to the very Delta of the Nile. During this, the 25th Dynasty, Nubian kings became the Pharaohs of Upper and Lower Egypt. During the 1960’s tens of thousands of Nubians were displaced by Lake Nasser. They have resettled along the Nile from Aswan to Luxor and beyond. Some follow traditional farming as can be seen in villages near Aswan while many of these kind and hospitable people have become workers in the tourist industry – particularly between Aswan and Luxor where  hundreds of tourist boats of various sorts cruise the Nile taking visitors to the temples along the river.

Filming in a Nubian village.

The lack of flooding also impacts agriculture. Energy must be expended to drawn water from the river as it no longer floods freely, typically using gasoline and diesel pumps, to irrigate the fields. The soil-nourishing silts of the river floods have also declined.

Aswan High dam and the Nile below.

Egypt and the Nile – 3 Life of the Common Person Then and Now

Unas Pyramid, causeway and funeral temple ruins, Saqqara
Unas pyramid, causeway and funeral temple ruins, Saqqara

Egypt is one of the great early civilizations of the world. Owing to its arid climate and the use of stone to build its  massive burial pyramids, monumental statues, obelisks and temples it is also the best preserved of the early bronze age cultures in terms of its remaining buildings. At the time of Christ and the start of the Roman Empire some of these edifices were already 2000 years old and served as tourist attractions for the classical world.

Temple at Karnak
Temple at Karnak

Although we know much of Egyptian funeral, religious and monumental structures, little remains of the ancient cities and villages where people actually lived. Take for example the great city of Memphis south of Cairo.  A complex of Old Kingdom pyramids and funeral temples lies today on the dry desert ridge just above the former site of Memphis. Almost nothing remains of the urban center itself. The reasons for the loss of the mundane urban and village structures lies partly in the use of adobe brick, the flooding and shifting of the Nile and the habit of cities to build new structures on the rubble of older ones – often using the old stone for new structures. The life of the common person disappears with time.

TombPaintingSaqOccasionally we can catch glimpses of the ancient commoner’s Egypt through archaeology. Tomb paintings from Saqqara south of Cairo show day-to-day life in the Old Kingdom – some 4000 years ago. Men work in the field and at other tasks, women carry produce on their heads, scribes record transactions. Hundreds of figures provide a snapshot into the ancient past and lives of the common person
In the western desert the remains of an ancient alabaster mine contains piles of broken pottery and stone tools – while rough stone outlines show the former location of closely spaced tiny structures that workers probably lived in while mining in the hot inhospitable locations. A far cry from the temples and luxurious boats of the Pharaoh plying the Nile to the east.
However, one does not have to travel to the remote desert to find vestiges of an ancient Egyptian existence You can still see sun-baked adobe blocks used in building small homes and other farm buildings along the Nile, the Nile Delta and Fayum. Life in rural Egypt today is in some ways a curious mixture of the modern and ancient. Cell phones mix with waterbuffalo, people carry produce on their heads down shady farm lanes while a short distance away modern cruise ships transport tourists up and down the Nile. Honey is gathered on Delta farms from adobe bee hives and then poured on flatbread that has been hand-shaped and then cooked in gas grills. Although Egypt is rapidly urbanizing a large part of the population still works the land. However, despite the almost unbelievable fertility of these bottom lands, not enough is produced to fully support Egypt’s growing numbers.
Egyptian farm life
Egyptian farm life

Egypt and the Nile 2 – Climate Change and Early Agriculture in Egypt

Early Morning Fayum Oasis
Early Morning Fayum Oasis

Surprisingly, agriculture came late to Egypt compared to Syria and Iraq which lay to the east. By 10,600 to 10,000 years ago (8600 to 8000 BC) agriculture had taken firm root in ancient Mesopotamia and adjacent regions in Near and Middle East. According to archaeologists from UCLA and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands agriculture did not arrive in Egypt until about 7200 years ago (5200 BC).

Neolithic grain grinding basin west of Fayum.
Neolithic grain grinding basin west of Fayum.

The evidence for the earliest agriculture in Egypt comes from just west of Fayum Oasis. This massive agricultural region south of Cairo remains an important source of food for modern Egypt. On in the desert sands just west of current cultivated areas Dr. Willeke Wendrich from UCLA (a Co-leader of the project) and her colleagues have found evidence of grain cultivation and processing and domesticated animal use by Neolithic peoples. Today the stone implements and pottery of these peoples, their refuse piles of shell or bone and other traces are found on the surface and just under the sands of the desert.


Why did agriculture came so late to Egypt? What caused people to transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture?  Why are these early traces of agriculture found out in the desert west of Fayum, where massive irrigation would be required to grow crops today? Archaeologists continue to search for definitive answers to these questions, but some insights are available. Perhaps early agriculture was also practiced in the Nile Valley and Delta, but the flooding of the Nile and shifts in river channels may have erased most traces.  The answer to how Neolithic people were able to practice agriculture west of Fayum, in what is arid desert today, lies just beloEgypt42008 106w the surface of the sand. In many areas one can find geologic deposits of lake sediment and marsh sediments that show us a much moister environment existed in the past. Indeed, at about 11,000 years ago this area of Egypt and the Sahara desert in general was much moister than today. Over time the climate became more arid, the wetlands and savanna vegetation disappeared, the sands became dry and mobile and the modern Sahara developed. The remains of the Neolithic agriculturalists and the lake and wetland deposits date back to this moister time. The ancient farmers lived along the lake shores and near wetlands and used those resources. Then natural climate change and increasing drought became too much and the people were forced to leave as the wetlands disappeared and the sands advanced.

Neolithic agriculturalists worked stone and flakes in desert west of Fayum
Neolithic agriculturalists worked stone and flakes in desert west of Fayum

Egypt and the Nile – Then and Now Part 1

The country of Egypt is known throughout the world for its incredible history, richness of ancient monuments and stunning archaeological finds. It is also home to about 82 million people. One third of the active labor force remains employed in agriculture. Main crops today include grains, cotton, sugar cane and various fruits.

Modern Cario and the Nile River

However, it would be a disservice to think of Egypt in strictly historical or rural terms. It is the home of rapidly growing urban areas. The city of Cairo has a population of over 8 million people and the greater Cairo metropolis expands both up and down the lower Nile and outwards into the eastern and western deserts. Indeed the great pyramids at Giza are now surrounded by suburban neighborhoods of Cairo. The city of Cairo, with its sometimes overwhelmed infrastructure, environmental problems including significant air pollution and its deep divisions between rich and poor, is also one of the most exciting and cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East and the World at large.

Egypt, Nile Delta, Nile River, Fayum Oasis and Lake Nassar from Terra/MODIS satellite 2000-08-10 (NASA)
Egypt, Nile Delta, Nile River, Fayum Oasis and Lake Nasser from Terra/MODIS satellite 2000-08-10 (NASA)

Given its large population and the importance of its agriculture sector for employment, it is odd to think that most areas of Egypt received an average rainfall of a few mm’s per-year. Aside from some notable oases, Egypt largely depends upon one source for its water – the Nile. A satellite image of Egypt shows the situation well, a thin, thin green band of agriculture and human settlement along the Nile River terminating in its expansive delta. This thread of green is surrounded by almost completely vegetation-free desert. The boundary between the desert and the moist lowlands along the Nile are often as sharp on the ground as they appear in the satellite image on the right. One can have one foot in a green and almost impossibly fertile field and the other in sterile sands that stretch out to the horizon.

Since before the times of the pharaohs most agriculture in Egypt has depended upon the annual cycle of flooding of the Nile. In fact the ancient Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons rather than four – Ahket – flooding in June through September, Peret – crop planting and growth in October through February and Shemu – harvest time in March through May. Not only did the flooding bring water to the valley and delta, but the sediment of the river fertilized the land each year, allowing abundant and predictable harvests from rich and well watered soils. Since ancient times also, the river provided a geographic demarcation of the country. The Delta region has long been known as Lower Egypt and the region along the Nile above the Delta is Upper Egypt. Pharaohs were the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt and are often depicted with the double crown of the two Egypts or with the symbols of Lower Egypt (the cobra, papyrus or the bee for example) and Upper Egypt (the vulture, lotus or the sedge plant for example). The Nile defines Egypt.

A double image of Ramses II (19th Dynasty - ruled 1279-1212 BC) holding the knotted lotus and pypyrus symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt
A double image of Ramses II (19th Dynasty - ruled 1279-1212 BC) holding the knotted lotus and papyrus symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt

Beyond Chaco Canyon

The build-up of Chaco Canyon extended over many centuries and seemed to reach a peak around 1000 years ago. Then, decline set in and by AD 1300 the great pueblos and the entire canyon itself was abandoned by its creators and inhabitants. Much speculation has been made on the causes of the Chaco abandonment. Factors that have been mentioned include drought and famine, disease due to malnutrition, warfare and cannibalism, environmental degradation that caused the loss of trees, soils and the downcutting of steams, and societal inbalances created by a stratified society of haves and have nots. It is known that the time of Chaco’s decline and abandonment coincided with a period of natural global warming and enhanced aridity in the Southwest. Not only might it have been generally drier, but seasonal patterns of precipitation may have changed and droughts become more prolonged. Given that the Chacoans had weathered earlier droughts, and developed the Chaco phenomenon in a generally arid environment it seems likely that the aridity of the 12th through 13th centuries may have simply been an added pressure that pushed a society already facing strains over the edge.

Evidence suggests that the Chacoans and other ancestral Pueblo peoples moved across the landscape of the Southwest to find sustainable areas of occupation. Some Chacoans went south and there is evidence that some went northward. The great cliff palaces of Mesa Verde, Colorado show ties to Chacoan influences. The great stone pueblo at Aztec, New Mexico may have served as a regional center of sorts. However, the northern areas of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico had their own climate induced problems coupled with evidence for very high human population densities and associated demands for resources. After the 14th century the climate began to cool and may have made corn farming uncertain in the northern areas and higher mesas. Some evidence exists of violence and warfare. Perhaps the cliff palaces at Mesa Verde served a defensive role. Like Chaco, the ancient Puebloans eventually abandoned the northern areas too.

Cliff Dwelling, Mesa Verde, Colorado
Cliff Dwelling, Mesa Verde, Colorado

However, it is wrong to stop our account of the Pueblo peoples with the abandonment of places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and consider them lost peoples. When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest and occupied it during the 16th and 17th centuries they found a vibrant pueblo culture with large settlements of farmers along rivers such as the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado. The Rio Grande tribes, the Hopi and the Zuni farming peoples all can lay claim to long history in the Southwest and the great pueblos and settlements of the past. By the time the Spanish arrived these peoples had found a sustainable means to occupy and harvest the lands. Was the abandonment of places like Chaco and Mesa Verde indications of some sort of failure or better viewed as a choice towards sustainability that has allowed these remarkable people and their cultures to persist to the present day?

Who Were the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of the Southwest

'Aztec' Pueblo Ruins, northern New Mexico
Pueblo Ruins, Aztec, New Mexico

When Europeans first began to explore the American Southwest they found both native North American agricultural people and hunters and gathers. However, they also encountered in various desolate or uninhabited portions of the region the huge ruins of stone and adobe structures. Many such ruins contain round ceremonial chambers called kivas. In some cases the ruins seemed to dwarf the physical size of the existing agricultural pueblos. Fanciful explanations were constructed around these grand ruins. No one less the eminent geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt subscribed to the belief that the ancient pueblo ruins of the southwestern US were the works of the Aztecs themselves. In his 1810 map of New Spain von Humboldt ascribed pueblo ruins in modern day New Mexico to the Aztecs whom he thought had migrated south to the Valley of Mexico from an ancestral homeland in the Southwest. Another set of ruins located between modern Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona was called Montezuma’s Castle by American settlers in the 1860’s under the belief that the last Aztec emperor had been there.

The most impressive collection of such ruins exists in the Chaco Canyon region of New Mexico. One stone structure there is called today Pueblo Bonito and covers about 3 acres of land, rises several stories high and may have had 800 rooms. It dwarfed the American apartment buildings of the mid-19th century. Not only did Chaco Canyon have a number of huge pueblos, but there is evidence of many other smaller structures, rock staircases, irrigation works and even long, straight roadways. Yet, during the 17th through 19th century Spanish period and during the first survey of the ruins in 1849 by a US Army expedition the canyon was abandoned.

Today the builders of these ancient pueblo ruins are typically referred to as the Anasazi – which itself is a Navajo word meaning ‘old enemy’. We know that the builders were not the Atztecs, but more likely the ancestors of the modern Pueblo indians of the Southwest. We also know that many of the abandoned sites were occupied over 1000 years ago and then deserted around AD 1200. We know who these ancient farmers and builders were in general – why though did they desert such impressive settlements? In the Fall of 2008 I visited a number of these sites as part of my Guggenheim research.

Pueblo Bonito Ruins, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (with author setting up to film)
Pueblo Bonito Ruins, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (with author setting up to film)

The Fremont Indians – Prehistoric Retreat of Agriculture in the American West

Scattered among the canyons, mesas and lake shorelines of northern Utah and adjacent areas of Colorado, Nevada and southern Idaho can be found evidence of an ancient agricultural people who inhabited and farmed the region for centuries before the arrival of Europeans – and then mysteriously disappeared. These native farmers, who raised crops such as corn (maize), squash and beans are referred to as the Fremont People by archaeologists. Exactly who they were and which native North American linguistic group they belonged to remains a mystery. They certainly did not refer to themselves as Fremonts – this name comes from the Fremont River region of Utah and is a modern designation applied to these lost people.

Fremont watch tower ruins at Nine Mile Canyon, Utah
Fremont watch tower ruins at Nine Mile Canyon, Utah

From roughly AD 700 to AD 1300 the Fremont held sway over a large portion of the intermountain west. To their south were the Anasazi farmers of the Southwest. Elsewhere around the Fremont lived a number of different hunting and gathering cultures. Evidence of their presence can be seen in the ruins of stone and adobe villages and towers with broken pottery and stone artifacts. In many areas, careful searching of high cliff faces and ledges reveals hidden storage cysts or granaries. Who were these caches of food so carefully being hidden from?

Between AD 1200 and AD 1500 the Fremont disappeared, their villages and fields fell into ruin and no other agriculturists tilled the fields of northern Utah until the arrival of Europeans. When the Spanish led Dominguez-Escalante Expedition crossed northern Utah in 1776 they reported the following from near present-day Roosevelt

We continued upstream along the latter and after going west one league we saw the ruins near it of a very ancient pueblo where there were fragments of stones for grinding maize, of jars and of pots of clay. The pueblos shape was circular as indicated by the ruins now almost completely in mounds.

Despite these ruins there was no evidence for current agriculture to be found by the Spanish for hundreds upon hundreds of miles of the region.

So, what happened to the Fremont and why did agriculture retreat southward from the interior of western North America during the late prehistoric period. This remains an enduring mystery. It is difficult to invoke land mis-management as all evidence suggests the Fremont had a relatively light imprint on the environment. Nor were the Fremont rigid in their life ways and strictly dependent upon one crop. The evidence is that they switched to hunting and gathering easily and supplemented crops with things like pinyon pine nuts. One interesting fact is that the period of AD 1100 to 1300 was a time of natural global warming and there seems to have been enhanced aridity and more prolonged droughts in southwestern North America. Perhaps prehistoric climate change produced a tipping point at which environmental pressures and societal pressures combined to cause the frontier of agriculture to retreat and remain absent for hundreds of years until the arrival of a new group of farmers – European immigrants.

As a last thought – driving in search of Fremont sites one sees many abandoned farmsteads and ranches in the hard country of eastern Utah and western Colorado. In some ways, just as remarkable as their disappearance is the fact that using only stone tools and ancient styles of farming the Fremont were able to persist so long in many of their now remote and forgotten sites.

Abandoned homestead in northeastern Colorado
Abandoned homestead in northeastern Colorado

Utah and the Headwaters of the Colorado River System

In the summer of 2008 I traveled to my research field area in Utah. For the past four years my students and I have been conducting research in the vicinity of the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah. It is one of the most beautiful regions of the United States and has some of the friendliest people one could hope to meet. These include many dedicated members of the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management with whom we have had a chance to work. Our work in this spectacular region is aimed at understanding long-term patterns of climate variability and drought. The answers to these questions have importance within Utah and far beyond its borders.

Water resources are a central issue in the State of Utah. Irrigation waters are essential for agriculture and the growing population of the Provo-Salt Lake City-Ogden corridor or other areas like the burgeoning St. George area in the far south of Utah. These regions experienced population growth rates of 2 to 3% in 2007. Utah also is an important player in extra-regional water issues. The state, along with Wyoming and Colorado, sits at the very headwaters of the Colorado River system. The Green River is a main tributary of the Colorado, while Flaming Gorge reservoir in the north and Lake Powell in the south are critical storage facilities for Colorado River waters. The Colorado River is essential to water resource needs in Utah, but is also critical to other basin states extending to California and finally to northern Mexico. The melt-water from the snows of the Uintas sustains the brilliant alpine wildflowers, but is also an important component of the Colorado River flow.

Since the beginning of this century the headwaters regions of the Colorado River have experienced a number of years of sequential drought. This September most of the basins in eastern Utah are in states of Drought Stage I and II according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. As in much of southwestern North America, Utah has been grappling with a new century typified by water resource issues. How long might dry conditions persist on a year-to-year basis in Utah and adjacent portions of the Colorado headwaters? A difficult, but important question.

The Temple at Ain Dara – Collapse, Recovery and Innovation

One of the most beautiful places in all northern Syria is the Afrin River Valley with its green and well watered farmland, pastures and orchards. When descending into the Afrin Valley from the high barren mountains to the south it is easy to imagine this as the model for biblical Eden. Situated high on an isolated tell in the valley is the Neo-Hittite temple at Ain Dara. The excavated temple is constructed of dark rock deeply worked with ceremonial carvings and provides commanding views of the fertile plains around it. It is easy to see its role as the center of spiritual activities for the local population 3000 years ago when it was in use – perhaps to worship the goddess Ishtar.

The Neo-Hittite Temple at Ain Dara and the Afin Valley.
The Neo-Hittite Temple at Ain Dara and the Afrin Valley.

Aside from its quiet contemplative beauty as an ancient place of worship, the temple at Ain Dara represents something else. It and the Neo-Hittite culture that is symbolizes come from a time of recovery and innovation following widespread societal collapse.

During the 12th century BC the western Middle East, from Egypt to the Levant and the Hittite Empire of northern Syria and Anatolia was wracked by violence and societal breakdown. One widely reported cause of this dissolution of the old empires, cities and socio-economic structures was the warlike activities of a mysterious ‘Sea People’. Cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics record their attacks, and the fear and menace felt by the Middle Eastern civilizations. There followed a Dark Age for which written accounts are sparse and from which some cities never recovered.

The temple at Ain Dara represents the work of one of groups who survived and arose again from the Dark Ages of the 12th century BC – the so called Neo-Hittites. They maintained some of the traditions and ways of the older Hittite Empire, but in much smaller city states. However, the collapse and recovery of the 12th century Dark Ages may be more than a story of survival. It may have prompted one of the most important technological innovations of all time. Prior to the 12th century collapse the dominant metal for tools and weapons was bronze – made from a mixture of copper and tin. Hence the term Bronze Age for the period between approximately 3300 and 1100 BC in the Middle East. These metals typically do not occur together in the region and the manufacture of bronze required organized trade networks. These networks were widely disrupted during the 12th century. It has been suggested that due to the scarcity of the ingredients required to make bronze people turned to a more abundant metal and refined its processing to produce an even superior material for tools and weapons – iron. Thus, it seems that from the disorder and collapse of the Bronze Age arose not only a recovery, but innovation and the birth of the Iron Age.

When the System Fails – The Dead Cities of Syria

Scattered on the barren limestone uplands of northwestern Syria between Aleppo and Hama lies a startling collection of hundreds of abandoned Roman and Byzantine farms, monestaries and towns.  These are now known as the Dead Cities. They are surrounded by a starkly bare and rocky landscape that extends over many thousands of hectares.

Romano-Byzantine Dead City at Serjilla
Romano-Byzantine Dead City at Serjilla

During the Byzantine period these were thriving communities and present much evidence that they were supported by olive and wine cultivation and export to the rest of the empire. Some of the villas display huge stone tubs and conduits for grape crushing and transference of the resulting juice. The grapes and olives were grown on carefully maintained terraced plots surrounding the settlements. In the period of the 7th century AD Persian invasions followed by Arab invasions disrupted the Byzantine settlements and their trade linkages to the rest of the empire. The Dead Cities then began their decline as the citizens died-out or left for other regions. With the loss of careful cultivation and care for the terraced fields the Mediterranean climate with its arid summer and hard winter rains caused the fragile topsoil to be eroded from the hilly fields. The resulting barren and desertified landscape restricted further agricultural use and the de-populated nature of the region led to the preservation of the Dead Cities to the present day.

The ruins of the Dead Cities provide a clear and compelling symbol of how the combination of conflict, the break-down of commerce and communication, and the environmental challenges of land management in the world’s arid regions can produce agricultural and societal collapse on a stunning scale. Lets hope this view of the past is not also a window into the  future.