Introduction to The Delta
The fan-shaped Delta region of Egypt covers the area from Cairo to the Mediterranean – the River Nile splits into two branches at Qanater and then flows to the coastal cities of Rashid (Rosetta) and Damietta. The whole of the Delta is farmland, irrigated by a web of tributaries and canals and is said to be one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. In pharaonic times there were five tributaries of the Nile, but by the time of the Islamic invasion three of them (the Canopus, Sebennytus and Pelusium branches) had become dry. The coastal area extends roughly between Alexandria to the west and Port Said at the head of the Suez Canal to the east.
The city of Qanater, about 16km north of Cairo, is famed for its barrages built in the nineteenth century, which divide and control the waterways of the Nile Delta by a series of locks and canals producing the fertile region we see today. The most important coastal city, and that most often visited by tourists, is Alexandria, to the west of the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. Being easily accessible by road or rail from Cairo the city’s beaches are a vacation haven for Egyptians during the hot summer months.
Ancient records tell of many important cities and ports which flourished in the region during Egypt’s long history, though there are few monuments remaining to tell its story. In Upper Egypt’s dry climate the monuments are for the most part well-preserved, but the moist climate and high water table of the Delta which has made it into the most cultivated land in Egypt has had the effect of causing many of the ancient structures to vanish under the plough. Large monuments were quarried over and over for their rich commodity of stone and mudbrick buildings have long vanished in the Delta’s damp climate. In the past few decades, however, the Delta region has become a focus for archaeological work. Sites which were previously thought to be of little interest are beginning to produce rich finds and monuments thought to be long vanished are now being discovered beneath the surface with the aid of the latest technological methods.
During the Second Intermediate Period the foreign Hyksos rulers brought the Delta to prominence by establishing their capital at Avaris in the north-east Delta. These people, who were originally Asiatic immigrants from Canaan, gradually became more and more powerful until they dominated Lower Egypt around the seventeenth century BC, ruling through vassal overlords. They controlled many of the trade routes by land and sea from their strategically positioned city in the north and went on to form an alliance with the powerful kings of Kush (Nubia) until the whole of Egypt fell under their rule. For over a century the Hyksos ruled by means of superior military technology, possibly including the introduction of the ‘composite bow’ and the horse and chariot – previously unknown in Egypt. The Hyksos were eventually expelled by the Theban King Kamose at the end of the Second Intermediate Period, an event which was to lead to the golden age of Dynasty XVIII and a whole new era in Egyptian history.
For many centuries the Hyksos capital of Avaris was a lost city and its ancient walls have only been discovered over the past two decades by an Austrian Expedition led by Professor Manfred Bietak, near the modern village of Tell el-Daba. Other important Delta towns have also been re-excavated more thoroughly in recent years with the aid of modern technology. To the north-east of Tell el-Daba, beyond the town of Qantir, is the site of Per-Rameses (Piramesse). This was the Delta estate of Rameses II and capital of the region during Dynasty XIX and early Dynasty XX, after which it was abandoned, leaving little in situ at the site today. Further to the north-east, near the village of San el-Hagar is the ancient site of Tanis, famous for the rich burials of Third Intermediate Period kings, the capital of the 24th nome and once one of the Delta’s greatest cities.
Near the town of Zagazig in the eastern Delta is the site of Bubastis, the mound of Tell Basta which was home to the cat-goddess Bastet and capital of the 18th Egyptian nome. Its great temple, which today is no more than a pile of rubble, dates back to the Old Kingdom and was added to by many pharaohs up to the Third Intermediate Period. There is also a cat cemetery at Bubastis where many statuettes of bronze cats were found in underground galleries.
Many sites in the central Delta may be reached from Zagazig (el-Zaqaziq), or from Tanta, which is the largest of the Delta cities. Extensive remains of a Ptolemaic temple of Isis at can be seen at Behbeit el-Hagar, near the town of Mansura. Mansura itself played an important part in the early Islamic history of Egypt at the time of the Crusades during the thirteenth century. Not far from here, though difficult to find, is the village of Tell el-Rub’a, site of ancient Mendes where remains of a Dynasty XXVI temple enclosure are still intact. On the road back to Cairo from Zagazig or Tanta is the town of Benha, and to the north-east of here is the ancient mound of Tell Atrib (Athribis), where some of the streets and temple ruins can be seen. To the north-east of Tanta is the village of Samannud and the remains of ancient Sebennytus, while to the north-west, near the village of Sa el-Hagar is ancient Sais, but there are few remains at these sites.
The main road from Cairo to Alexandria travels through the cultivated area of the western Delta in which the Greek town of Naucaratis lay. Greek settlers used this town as a trading post and centre of commerce during the seventh century BC, though there is little to see today. Travelling north-west towards Alexandria we come to the town of Damanhur, to the east of which was the ancient site of Buto at Tell el-Fara’in. Dedicated to the cult of the cobra-goddess Wadjet, this important site consisted of three mounds of towns and temples, occupied from Predynastic to Roman times.
There is also a desert road to Alexandria which leads from the Giza Pyramids road, turning off just before the Mena House Hotel. This is a slightly longer route to the coast, but visitors may wish to see the Wadi Natrun, with its Coptic monasteries set in what was once a cultivated oasis. Four of the monasteries which may be visited are at Deir el-Amba Bishoi, Deir es-Suriani, Deir Abu Makar (St Makarios) and Deir el-Baramus. Natron, the natural salt used in the mummification process, came from this valley in ancient times.
The city and port of Alexandria was founded on the site of an Egyptian fort, Rhakotis, in 331 BC by Alexander, who turned it into a vital part of the Hellenistic world. It subsequently became one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire, famous for being the home of Cleopatra VII and a great city of culture and learning. By the fourth century AD, Alexandria was a centre of Christianity, later conquered by the Muslims and went into a decline with the establishment of a new capital in Cairo. Today, most of its ancient structures have been lost in the harbour or lie beneath the modern city buildings, although a great deal of excavation has taken place over recent decades, both in the city and the underwater area of the harbour. It’s long history of foreign conquest and its location on the Mediterranean coast has given the city a cosmopolitan flavour, still more European than Egyptian.
The Delta Region has always been somewhat isolated from the rest of Egypt and the Nile Valley. The village people are different – dressed in brightly coloured clothing and wide-brimmed conical hats they have rarely been influenced by foreign visitors. Until recent years travel was restricted and difficult, but the roads are now all open.
How to get there
Alexandria is easy to reach by rail, coach, taxi or private car, either by the desert road or the main road through the cultivated area. Other sites may be a little more difficult and the present security situation requires that a police escort may be necessary on many of the roads. It is probably a good idea to check with a travel agent or knowledgeable guide before setting out, as some of the remote sites may not be open to visitors.