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

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.

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