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The Delta of the Nile: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future

posted on: Jul 10, 2020

The Nile Delta, courtesy of Wikipedia

By: Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer

In the northeast corner of Egypt is the Delta of the Nile, marking the end of the longest river in the world. Emptying into the Mediterranean, the river drops silt onto the banks of the delta, enriching the soil. The delta comes in at 310 miles wide and 500 miles long; 45-50% of Egypt’s population lives in the Delta alone. The term “delta” comes from the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet (Δ) identified as such by the Greek historian Herodotus during his journey to Egypt in the 5th century BCE. As shown by the myriad of archaeological dig sites and ancient Greek structures, the Delta was appreciated by more than those who lived in it. The following article will discuss the ancient and modern uses of the delta, noting the importance of agriculture and transportation as well as the region’s future.

The Nile Delta in Ancient Egypt

The delta and its fertile banks supported a plethora of crops important to Ancient Egyptians: beans, wheat, flax, cotton, and papyrus. The latter was used to make rope, boxes, and cloth, among other items. Most importantly, however, was the ability to make paper out of papyrus. Egypt’s Mediterranean neighbors used the plant as well, as the paper produced was the main method for writing (aside from the clay tablets used by the Romans).

The Delta of the Nile: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future
Papyrus along the Nile, courtesy of Abagond

In order to reach a larger scope of farmland, Egyptians created irrigation streams that branched out from the delta. This supported Egypt’s large population and allowed for continuous growth in the region, leading to the creation of cities. Flooding annually, the patterns of influx were the basis of the Egyptian calendars; flooding occurred from June to September during normal years from the monsoons in Ethiopia. Along with booming agriculture comes trade, and the Nile and its delta made for a perfect mode of transportation. The river connects all parts of Egypt, and furthermore Egypt to its neighbors. Hubs such as the port city of Alexandria, on the west verge of the Delta, allowed for the Mediterranean trade of both product and knowledge. For these reasons, Egypt became the “world’s first recognizable nation-state by 3150 BCE.”

The Delta of the Nile: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future
Water Jousting, courtesy of Penn State University

The Delta and its river were used for more than business. Egyptians would use the water to bathe, drink, and recreationally swim. Additionally, men would joust in canoes, two to a vessel. One was the rower and one was the fighter, the former controlling the boat’s orientation while the latter tried to knock the competitor out of the boat. Similar to modern day, boats were also used for racing.

The Delta in Modern Egypt

Even now, the delta is one of the most important natural facets of Egypt. Irrigation remains pivotal to farming and water access in large cities, and the river allows for water-based transportation in order to avoid crowded streets. Despite its historical and modern importance, the Delta is slowly deteriorating because of human intervention.

The Delta of the Nile: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future
The Aswan Dam, courtesy of NASA

The biggest source of deterioration is the Aswan High Dam, which is currently the largest dam in the world. While the silt that once fertilized the delta used to flow north with the river, the dam has now blocked its path. The lack of this fertilization has led the delta to shrink due to erosion, especially along the Mediterranean Sea. Floods that once characterized the region have also stopped due to the dam, leading to water pollution that used to be cleared by yearly flushing. According to science writer Kevin Lee, “Scientists have suggested that higher sea levels and extreme weather could impact the Nile’s delta negatively as global temperatures climb.” These higher sea levels could lead the delta to be completely submerged in the future.

This is detrimental for several reasons, one of which is that a majority of habitable land in Egypt is in the delta. In the case that the delta is submerged, half of the country will need to relocate to barely inhabitable lands, leading to a national crisis of internal displacement. In addition to the loss of homelands, the deterioration of the Nile and its delta could lead to a considerable amount of animal extinction. The hippopotamus, once heavily associated with the Nile, went extinct over the last 200 years due to environmental changes and poaching. In fact, Egypt once contained 36 other large mammal species; now, only 8 exist.

The Delta of the Nile: Past, Present, and Uncertain Future
Egyptian Painted Hippo, courtesy of the MET

Egyptians, both in antiquity and now, have said: “Should a visitor once look upon the beauty of the Nile, the return of that visitor to Egypt is assured.” However, if the threat of climate change, pollution, and man-made structures cause total deterioration of the Nile Delta, there will be no assurance of a safe future for Egypt.




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The Nile Delta is one of the world’s most fascinating environmental facets. Allowing for bustling civilization, the delta has been utilized by Ancient Egyptians and modern Egyptians alike. However, as Arab America contributing writer Emily Tain explains, this area once plush with life might have a flooded future in store.