May 5, 2012

The Rise of the Nile: The Nilometer, 1833

The Rise of the Nile: The Nilometer, 1833
Robert Curzon

Rise of the Nile
In England everyone talks about the weather, and all conversation is opened by exclamations against the heat or the cold, the rain, or the drought; but in Egypt, during one part of the air at least, the rise of the Nile forms the general topic of conversation. Sometimes the ascent of the water is unusually rapid, and then nothing is talked of but inundations; for if the river overflows too much, whole villages are washed away; and as they are for the most part built of sunburned bricks and mud, they are completely annihilated; and when the waters subside, all the boundary marks are obliterated, the course of canals is altered, and mounds and embankments are washed away. On these occasions the smaller landholders have great difficulty in recovering their property; for few of them know how far their fields extend in one direction or the other, unless a tree, a stone, or something else remains to mark the separation of one man’s flat piece of mud from that of his neighbour. But the more frequent and the far more dreaded calamity is the deficiency of water. This was the case in 1833, and we heard nothing else talked of.

Has it risen much today?” inquires one.
“Yes, it has risen half a pic since the morning.”
“What! no more? In the name of the Prophet! what will become of the cotton?” “Yes, and the doura will be burnt up to a certainty if we do not get four pics more.”

In short, the Nile has it all its own way; everything depends on the manner in which it chooses to behave, and El Bahar (the river) is in everybody’s mouth from morning till night. Criers go about the city several times a day during the period of the rising, who proclaim the exact height to which the water has arrived, and the precise number of pics which are submerged on the Nilometer.

The Nilometer is an ancient octagon pillar of red stone in the island ofRhoda, on the sides of which graduated scales are engraved. It stands in the centre of a cistern, about twenty-five feet square, and more than that in depth. A stone staircase leads down to the bottom, and the side walls are ornamented with Cufic inscriptions beautifully cut. Of this antique column I have seen more than most people; for on 28th of August, 1833, the water was so low that there was a great apprehension of a total failure of the crops, and of the consequent famine. At the time nine feet more water was wanted to ensure an average crop; much of the Indian corn had already failed; and from the Pasha in his palace to the poorest fellah in his mud hovel, all were in consternation; for in this country, where it never rains, everything depends on irrigation the revenues of the state, the food of the country, and the life and death of the bulk of the population.

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