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The Nilometer -- still an ingenious innovation.

Summary: The Ancient Egyptian civilisation depended vastly on the River Nile and its annual flooding. The river's water level and speed predictability, together with the fertile soil that evolved over centuries made it possible for the Egyptians to build a civilisation based on vast agricultural potentials.

By Salwa SamirReading many stories about the flooding, its effect on life and people in Egypt, inspired me to visit the centuries-old instrument used to measure the Nile's flood levels. After arriving at the site and descending ten stone steps, the guide opened a wooden gate that leads to the Nile Water Gauge, known as Meqiyas an-Nile.

The device, also interchangeably called the Nilometer, was used for measuring the level of the River Nile waters during its flood period.

Located at the southern tip of Roda Island, one of the two main Nile islands in Cairo, the Nilometer stands as a unique historical site and one of the oldest structures often overlooked by visitors. It dates back to AD 861 and was built during in the reign of Abbasside Caliph al-Mutawakkil. There is another gauge in Aswan.

These gauges were originally introduced in Pharaonic times and continued to be used over the centuries. In the 20th century, the Nile's annual flooding began to witness gradual level reductions before it ceased to exist as a regular phenomenon when the Aswan Dam was constructed in the 1960s.

After passing through the wooden gate, you can see a big well that extends below the Nile's water level. This pit is connected to the river by three tunnels (the topmost is the biggest, the middle one is smaller and the third one is the smallest). Since the Nilometer is no longer usable, these tunnels are now permanently blocked. Leading down to the bottom of the well are 45 steps, each of which is 24cm high.

A graduated column made of granite can be seen at the centre of the well, and is divided into 19 cubits (a cubit equals 56cm). When measuring the water level, the gauge was also used to regulate water distribution during the summer months. An ideal flood filled the gauge to the 16-cubit mark; less could mean drought and more would signal potentially catastrophic floods.

The column was destroyed during the French Expedition between 1798 and 1801, but was later reconstructed. People could descend a staircase to the very bottom to read the markings on the central column.

The floor and walls at the bottom are made of stone. Qu'ranic inscriptions in Kufi calligraphy adorn the walls. Kufic is the oldest Arabic calligraphic style and is based on a modified form of the even older Nabataean script. Its name is derived from the city of Kufa in Iraq, although it had been known in Mesopotamia at least 100 years before Kufa was founded.

The gauge's most magnificent feature is the overall construction. When you stand next to the well, just look up and you will admire the wonderful Ottoman architecture (which emerged in Bursa and Edirne, Turkey, in the 14th and 15th centuries). The dome is conical like the tip of a pencil and is decorated in gold, red, blue and green. There is also a Rococo and Baroque influence - popular styles in Europe at the time.

The Nilometer is accessible through the Manesterly Palace on Roda Island. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm except on holidays. Tickets are available at the Manesterly Palace entrance.

Copyright Eltahir House 2012

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Date:Nov 20, 2012
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