The narrow channel between Roda Island and the mainland is bridged in such a way that the island engages more with Garden City than with Old Cairo – a reversal of historic ties. As the much-rebuilt Nilometer suggests, it was the southern end of Roda that was visited by ferries en route between Memphis and Heliopolis, and Roman ships bound for Babylon-in-Egypt. However, Roda reverted to agricultural use as Cairo’s focus shifted northeastwards, and nothing remains of the Byzantine fortress that defied the Muslim invasion, nor the vast Ayyubid qasr where the Bahri Mamlukes were garrisoned. Its sights are very spread out, and you wouldn’t normally visit them together. Manial Palace, at the island’s northern end, is most conveniently reached from Garden City, while the Nilometer and Umm Kalthoum Museum at its southern end are easiest to get to from Old Cairo.
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From ancient times to the present century, Egyptian agriculture depended on the annual flooding of the Nile. Crop yields were predicted and taxes were set according to the river’s level in August, as measured by a series of Nilometers from Aswan down the valley to Roda and the Delta. Readings were sent to Egypt’s ruler and provincial governors; the basin-system of irrigation dictated that dikes must be breached at certain levels, making the Nile’s rise essential to the whole nation. A reading of 16 ells (8.6m) foretold the valley’s complete irrigation; significantly more or less meant widespread flooding or drought. Public rejoicing followed the announcement of the Wafa al-Nil (“Abundance of the Nile”), while any other verdict caused gloom and foreboding.
The Star of the East
The Star of the East
Umm Kalthoum, known as Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East), was born in a Delta village some time between 1898 and 1904, when girls’ births weren’t registered. Her father was an imam who taught her to recite the Koran (she reportedly memorized the entire book) and, when she was 12, disguised her as a boy and entered her in a performing troupe where she was later noticed by an established singer who taught her the classical repertoire. Moving to Cairo in 1923 she was taught to play the lute, and mentored in Arabic literature by the poet Ahmed Rami (who wrote 137 songs for her), but never became part of the bohemian set, proudly espousing her humble origins and conservative values. Her powerful and wide-ranging voice had an immediate emotional impact which very quickly brought her to public attention – King Farouk became a big fan, as did Nasser. Her funeral drew 2.5 million mourners, so many that their combined weight almost brought down the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. A café at 21 Sharia Orabi dedicated itself to playing her music all day long and was soon followed by imitators such as the Soma Caffe.