Egypt is (and was) one of the most arid areas in the world. The River Nile in Egypt received 90% of its water during a 100-day flood period every year, as noted by Herodotus in The Histories, [2, 92], where he states:
. . . the water begins to rise at the summer solstice, continues to do so for a hundred days, and then falls again at the end of that period, so that it remains low throughout the winter until the summer solstice comes round again in the following year.
The floodwaters of the Nile come as a result of the rainy season in Ethiopia, which erodes the silt of the Ethiopian highlands and carries it towards Egypt along the Blue Nile and other tributaries. No appreciable amount of water comes to Egypt via the White Nile, which starts from Central Africa.
The Ancient Egyptians managed their limited water resources efficiently, and became the best dry-weather agrarians in the world. Ancient Egypt was renowned worldwide for its dry-weather irrigation and farming techniques. Diodorus spoke of the efficient Egyptian farming system:
. . .being from their infancy brought up to agricultural pursuits, they far excelled the husband-men of other countries, and had become acquainted with the capabilities of the land, the mode of irrigation, the exact season for sowing and reaping, as well as all the most useful secrets connected with the harvest, which they had derived from their ancestors, and had improved by their own experience.
Several entities were formed along the Nile Valley to manage the gushing floodwaters by observing, recording, and regulating the water flow to the whole Nile Valley. As a consequence, a highly organized communal irrigation system was developed and used since time immemorial.
The limited available water resources in Ancient Egypt were managed most efficiently by utilizing organized methods of water conservation and diversion. According to Strabo, the Egyptian communal irrigation system was so admirably managed:
. . .that art contrived sometimes to supply what nature denied, and, by means of canals and embankments, there was little difference in the quantity of land irrigated, whether the flood was deficient or abundant.
The Ancient Egyptians made precise observations of the increase of the Nile elevation during the inundation season. Nilometers, devices used for measuring the gradual rise and fall of the Nile, were constructed in various parts of Egypt, and water surface fluctuations were recorded and reported. The elevations at the Nilometers throughout Egypt were all tied to a single common datum. Regulation of the flow amounts and duration was controlled by knowledgeable officials who used sluice gate(s) to control the flow of water to a determined height and duration. Diodorus, in I, [19. 5-6], affirms:
. . .at flood-time it might not form stagnant pools over the land to its detriment, but that the flood-water might be let upon the countryside, in a gentle flow as it might be needed, through gates which they [Egyptians] had built.
The water of the inundation was managed differently in various districts. This depended on many factors, such as the relative heights/elevations of the adjoining lands, what crops they happened to be cultivating at the time, etc.
The Ancient Egyptians understood the different types of soil and provided a variety of agricultural products. They even took advantage of the edge of the desert, where the soils are a mixture of clay and sand, for growing vines and some other plants which are suited to these soils.
Besides the mixture of nitrous earth that was nourished with silt from Ethiopian hills, the Egyptians made use of additional soil nourishment, such as natural fertilizers (manure from different animals and birds), for different purposes. In addition, the Ancient Egyptians also used “chemical” fertilizers, which were spread over the surfaces. These were used for certain crops; particularly those grown late in the year.
Not only did the Ancient Egyptians provide water to the lowlands, but they were able to irrigate the lands that were too far from the river to be directly flooded by it. To reach all the way to the sands of the desert, they utilized a system of canals and water-elevating devices. Water was elevated to higher canals in Ancient Egypt by using:
1. The shadoof—the common mode of raising water from the Nile or feeding channels for a small quantity of water. It consists basically of a pole and a bucket.
2. The foot machine (pump) mentioned by Philo, which is echoed in Deuteronomy [xi. 40],
Egypt where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot as a garden of herbs.
3. The hydraulic screw. Egyptian water pumps were famed worldwide, and were used in the mining activities in Iberia, as per the following testimony of Strabo, Geography, [3.2.9]:
So Poseidonius implies that the energy and industry of the Turdetanian [southern Spain] miners is similar, since they cut their shafts aslant and deep, and, as regards the streams that meet them in the shafts, oftentimes draw them off with the Egyptian screw.
The “Egyptian screw” was designed and manufactured on the same principle as our modern-day pumps, which consist of a spiral tube coiled around a shaft, or a large screw in a cylinder, revolved by hand or mechanical means. The hand-driven type is commonly known in Egypt now, as the tanbour.
4. The waterwheel, with its scoops for taking up water from the rivers and feeding it into irrigation canals. They are efficient in providing water to higher levels and therefore can be found in places like the Fayoum Oasis, south of Cairo.
The Ancient Egyptian waterworks and land reclamation projects were huge even by our present-day standards of projects that use heavy equipment. Here are a few examples:
1. A major waterway diversion project was carried out over 4,000 years ago. The project began at present day Asyut, where a large quantity of the Nile waters used to go to the region of present-day Fayoum, located about 65 mi. [100 km] southwest of Cairo. The Fayoum Oasis lies below sea level, and contains Lake Qarun. The lake was originally used as a catchment basin for the Nile overflow, and once filled the entire region. This water carried with it, and deposited, the fertile Nile silt on the bottom of the lake-bed. This ancient major project caused the diversion of millions of gallons of water that was wasted at the deserts around the Fayoum region. The flow of water into the lake was reduced. As a result, about 80% of the original lake area was reclaimed and the rich soil was cultivated. A series of waterwheels were used to raise water to the banks along this branch of the Nile. Additionally, more water was available along the Nile Valley north of Asyut, increasing arable lands.
2. There is archaeological evidence of major public projects in (modern-day) Semna during the time of King Senwasret III [1878–1844 BCE]. The area of Semna above the Third Cataract was fertile and supported a large population. During the Middle Kingdom, an artificial dam blocked the channel. A portion of this dam is still visible, to this date, at Semna East. The dam construction raised the level of the Nile for hundreds of miles to the south, enabling trading expeditions to navigate far into the interior of Africa. There are about 25 inscriptions on the rocks below the channel fortresses of Semna East and Semna West. They represent Nile flood levels recorded during the Middle Kingdom, and all of them show a level about 25 ft. [8 m] higher than the maximum water levels of today.
[An excerpt from Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed , 2nd edition by Moustafa Gadalla]
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