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Volume 38, Number 6November/December 1987

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The Nature of the Nile

Written and photographed by Torben B. Larsen

The Nile, as it flows gently through Egypt, may justly be considered the greatest river in the world. No river is longer than its nearly 6,700 kilometers (4,200 miles), though some carry a larger volume of water. But the real greatness of the Nile is not in its vital statistics, but in the way it has shaped and fashioned Egypt, one of the cradles of civilization, and a prominent country today. The Nile's valley and its delta constitute less than five percent of the area of Egypt, but here lives 95 percent of the population, more than 35 million people. Though it is a predominantly agricultural area, the population density of the Nile Valley is comparable with that of Greater London.

Without the Nile there would have been no Egypt. In turn, however, Egypt has shaped, fashioned and modified the Nile to a degree almost unparalleled elsewhere. So close a symbiosis between a great river and a great people, stretching back more than 5,000 years in time, is unique.

Let us try to visualize the Nile as it was before human beings wrought major changes. Every June the river began to rise as water from the summer rains in the East African and Ethiopian mountains gushed into its upper reaches, bringing with it rich surface soil washed down from the tropics. By September the banks of the Nile were breached and the river overflowed the surrounding lowlands for weeks or months, then fell again. The inundated areas were a tangle of largely tropical plants: date palms, dum palms, sycamore figs, and various species of acacia, supplemented, immediately after the flood, by a ground flora of annual flowering plants and grassy pastures. Since the Nile shifted its course from time to time in the narrow valley, there would also have been isolated lakes with papyrus and reeds, later to become the favored hunting grounds of the pharaonic nobility.

Overall, however, the flood plain would not have been a very rich habitat in numbers of species. Only drought-resistant trees would be able to survive, since the inundation occurred only once a year and the plants would need to survive nine months without surface water. Nonetheless, the habitat supported much of the wildlife now associated with the East African plains: Gazelles were plentiful, including the oryx; monkeys roamed the tree tops; troops of baboons quarreled on the ground. Lions and leopards found good hunting, watched over by herds of elephant. In the Nile itself the hippopotamus was plentiful. All these animals have now disappeared, but we know they were common during pharaonic times. The camel was not. There are no records of camels in Egypt till about 2,000 years ago, and it is still obscure where they came from - probably Arabia.

Beyond the annually flooded areas, then as now, lay the desert, with hardly a.transition between the two.

South of what is now Cairo the landscapes changed as the Nile delta began: essentially one big permanent marsh. One of the dominant plants was papyrus, a species of supreme importance in ancient Egypt, from whose name the word for paper stems in most of the world's major languages. It is astounding to see it now extinct in Egypt, except for a relict population in Wadi Natroun.

The swamps of the delta must have been among the world's largest wintering grounds for migratory waterfowl, and numerous depictions from pharaonic times of hunting scenes with vast bags of birds support this view. Geese were especially popular; they were captured in nets and artificially fattened for the tables of the rich. Many a European duck, though, would instead have fallen prey to the crocodiles that found the delta's conditions ideal. It would not have been a very diverse habitat, but rather a specialized swamp environment.

There would have been another difference noticeable to the discerning observer in those days. As one moved north from Aswan toward the delta, the vegetation gradually changed from a tropical African pattern toward one with a more Mediterranean flavor. At the mouth of the river, on the shores of the Mediterranean, there would have been hardly any true tropical plants. The change from south to north was subtle, whereas the contrast between the northern swamps and the flood plain along the river's length was more obvious to the casual observer, but the subtle botanical changes can still be identified by botanists today.

Human beings came to Egypt at least 250,000 years ago, at a time when the climate was much less severe and when what is now desert was savanna, where bands of hunter-gatherers could roam long distances. Then, some 25,000 years ago, the climate deteriorated sharply. Rainfall decreased and the desert took on its present form. Both humans and animals were forced to retreat to the Nile valley and to the few remaining oases, that of Fayyoum being the most important. At this stage, however, humans still lived in balance with nature: Their numbers were limited by the availability of prey and wild plants. They did not have the technology to over-exploit or alter the environment, and their small nomadic bands did not lend themselves to the centralized social and political control that would have made over-exploitation possible.

Then came the agricultural revolution, the knowledge and technology that made it possible to grow crops. The change from being hunter-gatherers to becoming settled farmers was almost certainly gradual, but it was a change of the very first importance for humankind. The entire nature of society changed, leading eventually to the centralized nation-state of the pharaohs and, indeed, to modern Egypt.

The change worked along the following lines. As agricultural skills improved, population density increased, gradually demanding further improvements in these very skills. Specialization entered the picture; the professions were born. It was cheaper and easier to pay the potter with your agricultural surplus than to make your own pots. Hiring of labor became a practice. Laws became necessary; writing became necessary; organized systems of defense became necessary. Systems of formal education grew up to organize and transmit to each new generation the increasing load of cultural "baggage." The change took place independently in a number of regions of the world, but in Egypt specifically, one factor almost certainly speeded up the process and made Egypt the first of the major nations that still exists today. That factor was the Nile itself.

It would not have taken the newly settled farmers long to discover the principles of irrigation: The natural inundations, allowing one crop a year, taught them the basics. But irrigation projects are complex, demanding the cooperation of many people, demanding investments of time and labor in the hope of future gain for all. Political power in early Egypt must have been largely based on irrigation and the taxation attendant on it, gradually developing into the complex, stratified society of the Old Kingdom (about 2686-2160BC). In the words of Adolf Erman, whose 1894 book Life in Ancient Egypt is still the best of its kind,

The making of canals, dikes and sluices taxed the ingenuity of the nation, and acgustomed the people to systematic work. As this system could only be carried out by large bodies of men, it was impossible that the old inhabitants of the Nile Valley should consist of free peasants... The hard logic of facts teaches us that an autocratic government is always necessary in order to control and regulate irrigation. In fact, the earliest knowledge we have of conditions of life in Egypt shows us a strict administration of political and agrarian relations; a state in which the individual was of little account.

So, some 5,000 years ago, the first steps were taken in a process that was to transform the Nile and its surroundings. The annual flooding was, if not controlled, at least harnessed to maximum benefit, distributing the fertile silt over the whole irrigated area. Irrigation became possible during the period when the Nile was low - though in years when the rains failed and the flood did not appear there was much suffering and want. Canals were built to take water to the Fayyoum Oasis. The dividing line between desert and irrigated land became razor-sharp. The natural forests along the banks of the river were cut, and with them began the extinction of fauna and flora that has been in progress ever since. As far back as 4,500 years ago we hear complaints that acacia wood for boat-building had to be brought in from deepest Nubia, on the present Sudanese-Egyptian border. Wood was also brought from Lebanon by Phoenician traders, who found the profits so good that the famous Lebanese cedar forests were devastated.

Drainage works also began in the delta, but progress here was slower, and the final transformation of the delta had to await modern times. Herodotus dismissed the entire delta as unimportant swamps -even as imaginary - though today the delta is the agricultural backbone of Egypt.

By the time of the New Kingdom (1567-1085BC), another trend began with the importation of exotic crops and trees. That trend has continued until today one could believe that the only natural plant left is the date palm: The bulk of Egypt's agricultural lands are now planted to crops that did not exist there at the time of the Old Kingdom.

Despite the irrigation systems, Egypt was still highly dependent upon the annual flooding - too little water and the main crop might be partly lost; too much and time was lost while the flooding subsided and irrigation systems deteriorated. The importance of the flood is emphasized by the many "Nilometers" dotted along the river that measured the flood's height; they were often an adjunct to the ancient temples. There was even a deity for the Nile in flood, with the pleasing name of Hapy, and in the secular sphere, the flood level in any given year was used to determine tax rates.

The thought of damming the Nile and regulating its flow must have entered the thoughts of ambitious ancient architects, but even for the people who built the pyramids it was too daunting a task. It was to be nearly 4,000 years before Muhammad Ali, in 1833, commissioned an attempt to control the flow through the delta to assist in drainage and in irrigation. In that year the French architect Moghul Bey made a brave - and unsuccessful - attempt to dam the main Damietta and Rosetta branches of the lower Nile.

Success had to await that special breed of Victorian engineer who bestrode the borderline between arrogance and mere supreme confidence. After completing extensive irrigation schemes in northern India, Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff took on the challenge of the Nile. In 1889 he completed the Damietta dam - 521 meters across (1,693 feet) - and in 1891 the Rosetta dam, which measured 438 meters (1,425 feet). The results were practically instantaneous: Drainage and irrigation in the delta permitted a phenomenal increase in agricultural production. In a final superb gesture, Sir Colin sought out the disgraced and impecunious Moghul Bey and secured for him a state pension for life, arguing that his basic idea had been correct. The two dams remain masterpieces of Victorian engineering and today constitute Cairo's favorite picnic spots.

Almost at the same time a dam was built at Aswan which opened in 1902 and was later expanded and heightened. This did much to regulate the seasonal flow of water in the Nile, though it did not totally eliminate the flooding. That millennial phenomenon was now becoming wasteful, since irrigation and the use of chemical fertilizers had made the river's deposit of rich silt largely redundant.

In 1952 President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the construction of the Aswan High Dam: It was opened in 1971. The Nile is now under full control, large new areas have been irrigated; crop production is up, and the High Dam will probably prove an economic success in the long term. There have been negative side effects too: less productive Mediterranean fisheries, increased salinity of fresh-water lakes, a greater need for fertilizer, and improved conditions for the breeding of the snail that carries bilharzia - but it should not be beyond the capacity of Egyptian scientists to overcome these problems (See Aramco World, January-February 1981).

Above the High Dam, Lake Nasser now stretches 500 kilometers (310 miles) south into the Sudan; though it is one of the largest features that human activity has left on the surface of the planet, and though it provides Egypt with large reserves of water, the long-lasting drought to the south is threatening the dam's ability to ensure that year-round irrigation is possible even when the rains of eastern Africa fail.

Even so, the Nile provides Egypt with its agricultural base - and more. Very early on, the Egyptians took to water as a form of transport, and in pharaonic times the river was the main communications lifeline for the largely linear empire. The giant blocks of limestone used for the pyramids were transported by river from their quarries on the eastern bank. Huge blocks of beautiful granite from the quarries of Aswan were freighted down the river, first to the capital, Thebes (today's Luxor), and later as far north as the delta. Even today, barges ferry heavy goods up and down the river through an intricate series of locks, and "water buses" are by far the most comfortable and uncrowded means of transport in Cairo. The floating luxury hotels on the Nile are leaders in Egypt's earnings from the current tourist boom.

Since time immemorial, too, the silt deposited by the Nile has been used for making bricks; they are still made today in much the same manner. The river also functions as the waste-disposal system of the country; with increasing industrialization and the rapid growth of population, pollution may become a serious problem, as industrial and human wastes overwhelm the Nile's cathartic capacity - though it has far to go before it reaches the state of pollution which afflicts the Rhine and other large European rivers.

Finally, the recreational role of the Nile must not be overlooked. The kings and nobles of ancient Egypt hunted on its banks, and splendid picnics were held on specially designed boats. And so it is today. On every public holiday crowds of people flock to picnic on the Nile banks and to sail on hired feluccas. The Nile provides a breathing space in a crowded land, not least for Egypt's urban population.

It is clear that 5,000 years of human intervention have changed the nature of the Nile. It is perhaps an appropriate indicator of the change that four of the deities of ancient Egypt had the attributes of animals that have now entirely vanished from the country: the lion, the baboon, the crocodile and the sacred ibis. Frescoes and reliefs in numerous temples and tombs - especially hunting scenes - show many animals and birds easily identified as species that have now vanished in the wild. And some of the extinctions are quite recent. The lion probably vanished from Egypt some 1,500 years ago, but the last hippopotami were shot as late as 1815, one in the delta and one at Aswan.

Indeed, the nature of the Nile has not just changed, it has been totally transformed. As long ago as 1880 Klunzinger could say,

In this country, wherever a spot exists where wild plants could grow, the farmer comes, sows his seeds and weeds out the wild flowers. The plowed and the fallow land, the banks and hedges, the river and the beds of the irrigation canals alone remain. Here a certain number of [wild] plants are found, but they are isolated, and never cover a plot of land.

Today, thanks to irrigation and fertilizer, fallow land hardly exists anymore, the canals are choked with water hyacinth, an introduced plant from South America, and on closer inspection, many of the "wild" plants turn out to be weeds accidentally introduced with crops that came from all corners of the globe. In fact, when surveying the farmlands of the Nile and its delta, it is striking how few of the cultivated plants are original inhabitants of Egypt: Corn comes from Mexico, citrus from China, alfalfa from America, and bananas from Bali. In many areas only the dominant date palm has spanned the whole 5,000 years of human intervention.

The Nile's flora and fauna today are largely selected and managed by human beings, more so than in any other area of similar size. More than 90 percent of what scientists call total floral biomass consists of crops and trees that have been deliberately planted. The remaining 10 percent comprises organisms that have learned to live with humans, quite often as pests on crops, as scavengers or as parasites. More than half the biomass consists of organisms that are not native to Egypt, including the bulk of the ornamental trees, and most of these non-natives would not survive without the tender and loving care bestowed on the tiniest scrap of irrigated land by the Egyptian fellaheen. Differences in vegetation patterns between north and south have largely disappeared under cultivation, and it is not possible to estimate, even region by region, the extent to which the native creatures have been eradicated. Certainly the lion and the hippopotamus are only the most dramatic extinctions, and the process is still continuing. Virtually no vestiges of the Nile Valley's original ecosystems can be found today, though individual component species still occur.

No one likes extinctions and the loss of biological diversity. It has to be said, though, that few of the organisms now lost were unique to Egypt: The loss of irreplaceable species has not been great, as it has, for example, in the tropical rainforests of the earth. And in fact, Egypt's special circumstances probably made this development inevitable right from the day when the first farmers started to scoop up water for artificial irrigation. On that day the total population of Egypt was certainly less than one million, probably much less. Around the turn of the century, when the Aswan and delta dams were built, the population was less than 10 million. There are, today, some 40 million Egyptians. For better or worse, population growth has been one of the strongest forces for ecological change.

Population growth has not changed one thing, however. Every Egyptian is as dependent as ever on the Nile: for water, for rood, for transportation, for waste disposal or for recreation. The nature of the Nile may have changed, but the nature of its services to the human inhabitants of Egypt has not. In the words of an ancient saying, Egypt is still" the gift of the Nile."

Torbeu B. Larsen, a Danish economist who wrote his Ph.D thesis on Arabian butterflies, recently, spent six weeks in Egypt researching a book on Egyptian ones.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the November/December 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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