Ancient Times in the Nile Delta
Ramses Temple and the Nile Shoreline at Abu Simbel Photographic Print
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The exhaustive archeological research that has brought to light so much of the history of ancient Egypt has been confined chiefly to the Nile valley. There the bordering limestone cliffs and the nearby supplies of granite, porphyry, and other hard rocks for ornament and sculpture provided the material for the monuments that have endured down to our own time. In the delta, on the other hand, if stone was to be used for construction it had to be brought down from the valley or from the scarcely less distant limestone cliffs west of Alexandria. Furthermore, the deep alluvium of the delta afforded no such solid foundation on which to build as did, for example, the rocky floor of the Theban area in the Qena Bend of the Nile, or the granite cliffs of Aswan, or the desert-edge site of the Great Pyramids. As a result, the few ancient stone structures that were built in the delta have been largely submerged as the rock foundation subsided under the increasing weight of alluvium.
Nevertheless, it is believed that civilization in Egypt first developed in the delta. There the Pharaohs of the First and Second Dynasties reigned in capitals at Sais and Tanis, and from there natives or invaders now and again challenged the authority of the Theban Pharaohs. Its great expanse of cultivable land, as compared with the narrow strip in the valley, made the delta both an attraction to foreign invaders and a base of resources which ambitious Egyptians could muster for the overthrow of the valley rulers. The extent of delta cultivation in Pharaonic times is not certain. The sites of ancient cities are known, however, at least within the present area generally under cultivation. Furthermore, even in the water-logged and largely abandoned land of the coastal belt, ruins of Ptolemaic and early Roman settlements and traces of canals and embankments indicate that much of the land was once under cultivation.
After the Arab conquest in the Seventh century A. D., the area of cultivated land in the delta continued to decrease, until, by the end of the eighteenth century, it covered no more than 60 per cent of the delta. The decline in production from the land still under cultivation was scarcely less serious. Although irrigation and drainage works in the delta were almost completely neglected throughout this period, the decline is to be attributed only in part to that. Most marked was the deterioration of the coastal belt and the eastern and western borders.
Subsidence of the delta foundation had finally brought a broad coastal belt close to, and in places below, sea level and so lowered the central part of the delta that Nile water could reach only the central two branches (the Rosetta and Damietta) of the seven that formerly carried its water to all parts of the delta.