Explore Alexandria, the Mediterranean coast and the Delta
The Nile Delta is Egypt’s most fertile and (barring Cairo) its most heavily populated region – nearly half the people in Egypt live here, and despite the lack of ancient sites, a scoot around the Delta on service taxis and third-class trains gives a feel for today’s Egypt in a way that visits to tombs and temples do not. Although several pharaonic dynasties arose and ruled from this region – Lower Egypt – little of their capitals remain beyond mounds of debris known as tell or kom. The pharaohs themselves plundered older sites of sculptures and masonry, and with a yearly rainfall of nearly 20cm (the highest in Egypt) and an annual inundation by the Nile that coated the land in silt, mud-brick structures were soon eroded or swept away. More recently, farmers have furthered the cycle of destruction by digging the mounds for a nitrate-enriched soil called sebakh, used for fertilizer; several sites catalogued by nineteenth-century archeologists have now all but vanished. On those that remain, there’s good information at w egyptsites.wordpress.com/category/delta.
Rosetta is a charming little town, with a special architecture of its own, but the main cities of the Delta, including Mahalla, Tanta and Damietta, are of interest not so much for any sights or attractions, but because they do not have any, and thus represent a chance to see the ordinary, workaday “real” Egypt which usually escapes most tourists. The Delta also abounds in moulids (popular festivals), the largest of which draw crowds of over a million. Companies of mawladiya (moulid people) run stalls and rides, Sufi tariqas perform their zikrs, people camp outdoors, and music blares into the small hours. Smaller, rural moulids tend to be heavier on the practical devotion, with people bringing their children or livestock for blessing, or the sick to be cured.
The Delta’s other main attraction is its flat, intensely green landscape, riven by waterways where feluccas glide past mud-brick villages and wallowing buffalo. The northern lakes are a wintering ground for birdlife – in ancient times, wealthy Egyptians enjoyed going fowling in the reeds, using throwing sticks and hunting cats; their modern-day counterparts employ shotguns. The Delta is also still a habitat for wildcats and pygmy white-toothed shrews, but boars have been driven out, and the last hippopotamus was shot in 1815.
More sombrely for the ecology, the Delta is one of the world regions most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Oceanographers predict that a one-metre rise in the sea level would swamp Alexandria and submerge the Delta as far inland as Damanhur, destroying six percent of Egypt’s cultivable land and displacing 3.3 million people. The freshwater Delta lagoons, which provide much of the nation’s fish, would also be ruined. A more immediate threat is erosion by the Mediterranean. Now that the Delta is no longer renewed by silt from the Nile, its coastline is being worn away.Read More
- Rosetta (Rashid)
Damanhur and around
Damanhur and around
Most of the land between Alex and Tanta is given over to cotton, Egypt’s major cash crop, whose intensive cultivation began under Mohammed Ali. Hardly surprising, then, that local towns are heavily into textiles, particularly the Beheira governorate capital, DAMANHUR, once Tmn-Hor, the City of Horus.
Damanhur is rather drab, but blossoms during its festival, Moulid of Sheikh Abu Rish, held in late October and early November, when turbaned Sufis perform zikrs and munshids to enthusiastic crowds. This occurs a week after Dasuq’s moulid; with venues so close together, the mawladiya (moulid people) can easily move on to the next event: barbers, circumcisers and all.
Egypt’s only Jewish moulid, held over two days in January, is a very different scene. The shrine of Abu Khatzeira (“Father of the Mat”), a nineteenth-century mystic, has often been suspended in recent years; when the moulid is held, it is cordoned off by security police who rigorously exclude non-Jewish Egyptians, fearing a terrorist attack or violent anti-Israel protests. Within the cordon a few thousand visitors, mostly from Israel, bring sick relatives or bottled water to be blessed, and “bid” for the key to Abu Khatzeira’s shrine; the money raised supports its upkeep.
Tell al-Fara’in (Buto)
On the edge of marshes north of the village of Ibtu lies the large tel known as Tell al-Fara’in (“Mound of the Pharaohs”). This was the site of Buto, which is the Greek name for a dual city known to the Ancient Egyptians as Pr-Wadjet. Wadjet, the cobra-goddess of Lower Egypt, was worshipped in one half of the city, known as Dep. The other half, Pe, was dedicated to Djbut, the heron-god, later supplanted by Horus. The site has a kom at each end, with a Temple of Wadjet in the middle, but nothing of great significance to an untrained eye. For more on Tell al-Fara’in, check the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut website at w dainst.org/en/project/buto, or go to w egyptsites.wordpress.com//category/delta and click on “Tell el-Fara’in”.
- Tanta and around
The charmingly named ZAGAZIG (usually pronounced “Za’a’zi”) was founded in 1830, and is actually a grimy industrial town. Ahmed Orabi (1839–1911), leader of the 1882 revolt against British rule, was born here, and has a statue outside the station. Zagazig is the source of most of the papyruses sold in tourist shops throughout Egypt, which are manufactured in sweatshops and sold to dealers for as little as £E3–4 apiece. From a tourist’s standpoint, its attractions are the Moulid of Abu Khalil, held outside the main mosque during the month of Shawwal (currently July or Aug), and the paltry ruins of Bubastis.
Bubastis (Tel Basta)
There’s little to see of Bubastis (Bubasta in Arabic) beyond the few displayed artefacts, but archeologists have found Old and New Kingdom cemeteries and vaulted catacombs full of feline mummies, and the city was known to the Ancient Egyptians as Pr-Bastet (“House of Bastet”), after the cat-goddess daughter of the sun god Re, who was honoured with licentious festivals. Fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus said that its seven hundred thousand revellers consumed more wine than “during the whole of the rest of the year”, and described how the city lay on raised ground encircling a canal-girt temple, “the most pleasing to look at” in all of Egypt. Begun by the VI Dynasty pyramid-builders, Bubastis reached its apogee after its rulers established the XXII Dynasty in 945 BC, though the capital at this time was probably still Tanis.
- Tanis, Avaris and the “Land of Goshen”
The Moulid of St George
The Moulid of St George
The Coptic Moulid of St George (Aug 2–28), held around the Church of Mar Girgis in the village of Mit Damsis, is notable primarily for its exorcisms. Copts attribute demonic possession to improper baptism or deliberate curses, and specially trained priests bully and coax the afrit (“demon”) to leave through its victim’s fingers or toes rather than via the eyes, which is believed to cause blindness. Both Copts and Muslims attend the moulid, usually harmoniously, although in 2009 it had to close a day early due to sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim youths. The Muslims apparently objected to this Christian moulid being allowed while, using the swine flu scare of that year as a pretext, a similar Muslim event earlier in the year had been banned. The ban was, ironically, a sop to the Islamic fundamentalist lobby.
Mit Damsis village is near the Damietta branch of the Nile on the Mit Ghamr–Aga road between Zagazig and Mansoura. Because the moulid is well attended there’s a fair chance of lifts along the seven-kilometre track that turns west off the main road, 15km south of Aga. Mit Damsis rarely appears on maps; don’t confuse it with Damas, which does.