Holiday Experience in a Delta

by Sumana Banerjee

A holiday in Egypt during September this year was my first experience of a delta outside of DECCMA. Like any holiday it was supposed to be a break from work but quite on the contrary, I found myself asking questions, spotting differences and similarities, and doing some online research based on our DECCMA themes. That is why I am writing about the things I learnt on a holiday on our DECCMA blog.

1 The Giza Pyramid Complex, Egypt


Significance of the pyramid shape

For most tourists Egypt is synonymous with The Great Pyramid of Giza and I was no exception. The first glimpse of the man-made marvel from the ancient world made my heart skip a beat. It was an enthralling experience to witness the 3000 year old exemplary creation of man. There are plenty of theories about the construction of pyramids and their mysteries. The one fact which will be relevant here is the shape of the pyramid which represents the physical body emerging from the earth and ascended towards the light of the sun. This shape was thus considered sacred by ancient Egyptians. The Papyrus which was first used in ancient Egypt has a cross-section resembling the triangular face of the pyramid and we were told at a Papyrus Institute that this was also very important and sacred for the ancient Egyptians.

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I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the triangular face of the pyramid, the triangular cross-section of the papyrus, and the triangular shape of a delta. I wondered if the delta being a lifeline of the region could have any role to play in influencing the triangular faces of the pyramids.

2 Cross-section of a papyrus stalk

The River Nile

The very first sight of the River Nile at Cairo brought back geography lessons and hours of meticulous map pointing learnt way back in school. I was seeing the world’s longest river and Cairo was the apex of the Nile delta. Our itinerary entailed a 3-night river cruise along the Nile and I was excited to experience it. From our river cruise, we availed an optional speedboat ride to a Nubian village (about 8kms from Aswan) and that gave us an opportunity to soak our feet in the cool waters of the Nile. Before this ride, I knew that cataracts are for aging eyes but during this speedboat ride, our guide showed us the first cataract of the Nile. Cataracts are a mass of rocky formations in the riverbed jutting well above the water. Around this cataract the otherwise calm water was breaking and speeding naturally.

3 Cataract of the River Nile


The journey from Cairo to Alexandria took us about three hours by car. I noticed a stretch where there were many Brick kilns on both sides of the road. This was similar to what we see in the Indian Bengal Delta (IBD). I am not sure if the areas under brickfields in Egypt have undergone similar land transformations like in IBD but I wondered if conversion of deltaic lands into brickfields is a globally lucrative trend.

4 Chimneys of brick-kilns along the highway between Cairo and Alexandria

Flooding of the Nile

Since time immemorial Nile floods have quenched the thirst of the adjacent flood plains and added silt which has played a major role to support the Egyptian civilization. While no flooding led to drought followed by famine, severe flooding proved hazardous. It was the moderate flooding that the Egyptians looked forward to and this was the important part of their agricultural cycle as after the inundation season they sowed the seeds. Like any natural hazard, floods back then too had an effect on the economy – nature of flooding would have an impact on the quality of the harvest which will determine the tax to be paid. These administrative decisions were taken based on the exemplary mechanisms which were in place to predict the floods and thereby the quality of the harvest.

While scientists today have the flood-prediction models, the ancient Egyptians had the Nilometer. We saw one such Nilometer at the Temple of Kom Ombo, Aswan. It looked like a well to us till we were explained the elaborate architecture it housed. Upon looking down, we saw a flight of steps going down along the interior wall of the cylindrical well (see image 6). The water in it is the water of the Nile as the well is connected to the River. Being situated within the temple complex it was accessible only by the priests and kings who were responsible for assessing the water level in the Nilometer, making predictions based on how many steps were inundated, before finally deciding the tax. Like our scientists today who use previous years’ data to fit into models, the ancient Egyptians too kept a record of the previous years’ flood level by keeping marks on the walls. Unfortunately, now these Nilometers have been rendered defunct after the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

5 Nilometer – outside view

6 Nilometer – inside view

Developmental Project, Relocation, and Resettlement

Continuing the discussion on floods, the construction of the Aswan High Dam was an effort to introduce controlled flooding alongside providing water for irrigation and generating hydroelectricity. The economic benefits of this developmental project have mainly been in agricultural and electrical production. The construction of the dam involved resettlement of about 50,000 Egyptians and relocation of ancient monuments as the reservoir, Lake Nasser, created by the dam has flooded the valley. The famous Abu Simbel temple was relocated to higher grounds and I did not understand that the temple was not built at its present place till the guide told me. Not only did I feel overawed seeing the gigantic facade of the temple, I felt awe at the acumen involved in making this relocation happen.

The relocation of the temple was a great feat achieved by archaeologists but it might have been easier than the relocation of the Nubians as the temple did not have a lifestyle and tradition entwined with its original land. Upon some research I learnt that the construction of the Aswan High Dam is not the first time that the Nubians were moving from their lands. During the construction and heightening of the Aswan Low Dam, these people moved to higher lands but after the construction of the High Dam their villages were submerged under Lake Nasser. The Egyptian government put in years of study to make this a successful planned resettlement by trying to replicate as many features of the Nubian villages and also by providing electricity, road network, and irrigational facilities.[1] However all don’t seem happy (as informed by our guide) with the resettlement as this new place hampers the traditional Nubian way of life in many ways. Some online research would also throw light on the gaps in the resettlement process. These lessons might be beneficial for other governments making efforts in planned resettlement.

7 Panoramic view of the Aswan High Dam

Migration then and now

The mystery behind the construction of pyramids still remains and there are countless theories trying to answer who constructed those and how they managed to achieve such a height of architectural precision in ancient times. One of the theories which I learnt was that the farmers from the plains came up to the Giza Plateau, when the Nile’s annual flood inundated their agricultural lands, to work as labourers in the construction of the Pyramids. Skilled architects and artists supervised these labour groups. My DECCMA-laced mind made a note of this example of seasonal migration from more than 3000 years ago which had an environmental factor (at the source) prompting it and an economic opportunity in the destination.

We got a very brief glimpse of migration today as our guide informed us that tourism being an important industry (tourism took a hit after the revolution in 2011 but is slowly picking up since 2016), people migrate to Cairo and Alexandria to work in the hotels, with tourist companies, or even as freelancing guides.

Sobek & Dakshin Rai

The Nile is famous for the Nile Crocodiles and the ancient Egyptians worshipped crocodile as god Sobek. The crocodile, although feared, was venerated and given a place in the temple of Kom Ombo, beside which there is now a Crocodile Museum showcasing the relevance of crocodiles in ancient Egypt with its large collection of mummified crocodiles. The worship was to please Sobek and pray so that he would not harm anyone. I saw this as an extension of the people of the Indian Sundarbans (West Bengal, India) worshipping the Royal Bengal Tiger in the form of Dakshin Rai (Lord of the South). Dakshin Rai is greatly feared in the delta but also worshipped along with Bon Bibi (guardian spirit of the forest) to not harm the people who venture into the forest for crab and honey collection. Separated by thousands of miles and years, the similarity in the belief of the two deltaic civilizations fascinated me.

Had DECCMA not happened to me, I would not have enjoyed my holiday the way I did – taking down notes on my phone, doing some online reading, drawing parallels across deltas, and wondering about things which would not have occurred to me otherwise. On learning about the tomb raiders I had a thought with which I shall end this post. The Great Pyramid of Giza and most of the tombs in the Valley of Kings have been wiped clean of artefacts and treasures which were believed to be there as was the ancient Egyptian custom to help the deceased continue onto the next life. I would like to believe that the tomb raiders who took these objects were in need of the money or wanted luxury and concentrated only on their immediate present which made them overlook the fact that their act was depriving hundreds of generations from witnessing a magnificent past of Egypt. Let us not be the tomb raiders for our future generations. We can do our little bits to not exploit the environment to meet our immediate needs and luxuries so that we do not deprive the future generations from witnessing a clean, healthy, and beautiful Earth.

[1] R. A. Beddis. The Aswan High Dam and the resettlement of the Nubian people. Geography 1963; 48(1): 79.

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