May 5, 2012

The Nilometer, c. 1000

The Nilometer, c. 1000
al-Muqaddasi

Nilometer
The Nilometer: a pond in the middle of which is a tall column whereon are the marks in cubits and fingers; in charge of itvis a superintendent, and around it are doors that fit together tightly. A report is presented to the Ruler every day of the amount the water has risen, whereupon the herald proclaims, “God hath augmented today the blessed Nile by so much; its increase last year on this day was so much; and may God bring it to completeness!” The rise is not proclaimed until after it has reached twelve cubits, it is announced to the Ruler only, for at twelve cubits the water does not extend to the cultivated villages of the countryside. However, when the height of the water reaches fourteen cubits, the lower portion of the region is watered; but if it reaches sixteen cubits, there is a general rejoicing, for there will be a good year. When the water has gone down, the people begin ploughing and sowing.

Celebration, 1826
John Came
The 16th August was the day fixed on for the celebrated cutting of the bank of the Nile; a time of great rejoicing with the Egyptians, the inundation being now at its height.

It is the custom for a vast number of people of different nations to assemble and pass the night at the appointed spot. We resolved to go and mingle among them, not doubting that something highly interesting would occur. We arrived at the place about eight at night, it being a few miles distant from the city: there was a firing of canon, illuminations in their way and exhibitions of fireworks. The shores of the Nile for a long way down from Boulac were covered with groups of people, some seated beneath the large spreading sycamores, smoking; others gathered around parties of Arabs, who were dancing with infinite gaiety and pleasure, and uttering loud exclamations of joy, affording an amusing contrast to the passionless demeanour and tranquil features of their Muslim rulers. . . .

Perpetually moving over this scene which (both shores and river, and groups of palms), was illumined by the most brilliant moonlight, were seen Albanian soldiers in their national costume, Nubians from the burning clime of farther Egypt, Mamelukes, Arabs and Turks. At a number of small sheds, each of which had its light or small fire, you might have meat, fish etc ready dressed. . . . The other side of the beautiful river which shone like glass in the splendid light, still presented a gay appearance; lights moving to and fro amid the trees, boats pushing off with newcomers, and sounds of gaiety, with the firing of musquetry being still heard.

At last day broke, and soon after the report of the cannon announced that the event so ardently wished for was at hand. We proceeded to the spot, around which immense crowds were rapidly gathering. The high and shelving banks of the canal to which the Nile was to be admitted, were crowded with spectators. We obtained an excellent situation for observing the ceremony, by fortunately meeting with Osmin, a Scottish renegade, but a highly respectable man, and the confidential servant of Mr. Salt.

The Kiaya Bey, the chief man of the Pasha, soon arrived with his guards, and took his seat on the summit of the opposite bank. A number of Arabs now began to dig down the dyke which confined the Nile, the bosom of which was covered with a number of pleasure boats, full of people, waiting to sail down the canal into the city. Already the mound was only partly demolished, when the increasing dampness and shaking of the earth induced the workmen to leave off. Several Arabs then plunged into the stream, and, exerting all their strength to push down the remaining part, some openings were soon made, and the river broke through with irresistible violence. For some time it was like the rushing of a cataract.

According to custom, the Kiaya Bey distributed a good sum of money, throwing it into the bed of the canal below, where a great many men and boys scrambled for it. Several of them had a sort of net, fastened on the top of a pole, to catch the money as it fell. It was an amusing scene, as the water gathered fast round them, to see them struggling and groping amidst the waves for the coin; but the violence of the torrent soon bore them away; and there were some who had lingered to the last, and now sought to save themselves by swimming, still buffeting the waves, and grasping at the money showered down, and diving after it as it disappeared. Unfortunately this sport every year costs a few lives, and one young man was drowned this morning.

The different vessels, long ere the fall had subsided, rushed into the canal and entered the city, their decks crowded with all ranks, uttering loud exclamations of joy. The overflowing of the Nile is the richest blessing of Heaven to Egypt: as it finds its way gradually into the various parts of the city and neighbourhood, the inhabitants crowd to drink of, and wash in it, and rejoice in its progress.

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