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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.
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.
The coastal town of ROSETTA (Rashid in Arabic) has waxed and waned in counterpoint to the fortunes of Alexandria, 65km away. When Alex was moribund, Rosetta burgeoned as a port, entering its heyday after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the sixteenth century, only to decline after Alexandria’s revival. It is best known abroad for the Rosetta Stone, discovered here by French soldiers in 1799. Their archeological booty was surrendered to the British in 1801, which is how it wound up in London’s British Museum (from where the Egyptian authorities are campaigning to have it repatriated), but it was a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the hieroglyphs by comparing them with the Greek text, and thus unlocked the secret of the Ancient Egyptian tongue.
Today, Rosetta’s main point of interest is its distinctive Delta-style mansions, which date from the Ottoman period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and many of which have been or are being restored. Hallmarks include pointed brickwork, usually emphasized by white or red paint, along with inset beams and carved lintels, and a profusion of mashrabiya-work. Some also incorporate ancient columns. Our map shows the locations of the most interesting houses, not all of which are described individually in the text, but which make a good basis for exploring the town.
Around mid-November, the chain of festivals that started in Tanta the previous month should reach Rosetta. Don’t despair if you come a few weeks earlier, since similar moulids occur at Fuwa, Mahmudiya and Dasuq, further inland. Salted fish (fisikh) and hummus are the traditional snacks at these events.
The places of interest start opposite the service taxi station, on Sharia Azouz Sama, home to some fine Delta-style houses, all dating from the eighteenth century. Kohiya House stands next to the fine Al-Araby Mosque. Two doors further on stand the trio of Ramadan House, Maharem House and Al-Gamal House, with Abouhoum House just across the street.
Sharia Azouz Sama continues down to the Corniche, which runs along the river. One block north of Azouz Sama, shortly before you reach the Corniche, you’ll find the Damaksi Mosque, built in 1714, a curious mosque, located one storey above street level. Next to it is Al-Baqrawali House, a Delta-style mansion built in 1808.
Further examples of Rosetta’s Delta-style architecture lie on, or just off, Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, which runs north (parallel to the river), one block east of Al-Gamal House. Heading north along it from Azouz Sama, you pass Thabet House, one of the oldest of the Delta-style houses, built in 1709. On Haret al-Haj Youssef (the next left heading north from Thabet House), Al-Manadili House is now sadly derelict, its upper storeys having collapsed relatively recently, but its portico survives, supported by two ancient columns that are evidently of pharaonic or Greco-Roman origin.
Two blocks north, back on Sharia Sheikh Qanadili, the street opens out into a square. On its south side is Al-Amasyali House (daily 9am–4pm; £E16), whose upstairs reception room is ennobled by a superb wooden ceiling and mother-of-pearl-inlaid mashrabiyas. The house is open to the public, as is the Abu Shahim Mill next door (same hours; included in Al-Amasyali ticket), with its huge wooden grinders and delicately pointed keyhole arches. The mill was built around 1808 for the Turkish Agha, Ali al-Topgi, who bequeathed them both to his servant Al-Amasyali.
In a busy market street, a couple of blocks east and one block north of Abu Shahim Mill, the 1722 Ali al-Mahaldi Mosque is held up by an amazing miscellany of pilfered columns, some Greco-Roman, others looking suspiciously like the columns used to hold up the pulpits of Coptic churches. The mosque is under restoration and currently closed to the public, although if the door is open you can see the columns from outside.
On Midan al-Hurriya, the town’s main square, the eighteenth-century Kili House contains the small Rashid Museum. Exhibits include some old swords, guns and documents, but the main attraction is the restored upstairs rooms, giving a feeling of what the house must have been like in its heyday. Also included in the ticket is the pleasant garden opposite, decorated with a few unlabelled cannons and columns.
A couple of hundred metres south of Sharia Azouz Sama, three blocks off the Corniche, is the nineteenth-century Hammam Azouz, a fine example of a traditional bathhouse with a lovingly restored interior decorated with marble floors and fountains. It’s not in use today, however, and was closed at the time of writing, but has been open to the public in the past: ask for latest information at Abu Shahim Mill.
One block south and one block west of Hamman Azouz, the 1545 Zaghloul Mosque (Gama’a Zaghloul) is Rosetta’s oldest and largest mosque, bigger than Al-Azhar in Cairo – although it’s currently under restoration and closed to the public. The mosque’s roof is covered with over fifty domes, and as in other local mosques, the three hundred columns holding it up are a motley miscellany, taken from older buildings of assorted historical periods. In 1807, the minaret gave out the rallying cry for the townspeople to (successfully) fight off an invading British force hoping to occupy the town against Napoleon.
Built in 1479 to guard the mouth of the Nile and protect Egypt’s spice trade against predatory maritime powers, Fort Qaitbey (Borg Qaitbey in Arabic) was reinforced in 1799 by Napoleon’s troops. It was during these reinforcements that a sharp-eyed French officer by the name of Pierre-Francois Bouchard noticed the Rosetta Stone, which must have been among masonry recycled for the fort’s construction.
The fort was originally modelled on Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria, but was built in honey-coloured local stone. The brickwork is Napoleonic rather than Mamluke, and the fort itself isn’t tremendously exciting in itself, but it’s a pleasant few hours’ excursion, and you can climb the ramparts to enjoy the view downriver towards the sea (the coast having shifted a few kilometres since the fort was built), and upstream, past the brick factories which occupy the river bank between here and Rosetta.
For an alternative river trip (or a long walk up the Corniche), head for the tranquil, eighteenth-century Mosque of Abu Mandur, 3km south of Rosetta, which contains the tomb of a local saint and is thought to stand on the site of Bolbitine, an ancient Egyptian port which fell into disuse after the construction of Alexandria. You can hire a boat to reach the mosque along the Corniche (for example, at the dock 200m south of El Nile Hotel; expect to pay £E50–70 for the round trip).
Though the restored mansions look great from the outside, most are not currently open to the public. To find out what’s open, go to Al-Amasyali House, where they’ll sell you a ticket for that house and the neighbouring Abu Shahim Mill. In the past, the same ticket also covered entry to the Hammam Azouz bathhouse and one other mansion, but none of those were open at the time of writing. Alternatively, caretakers at certain restored mansions may allow you in to have a look.
According to the Bible (Genesis 47:27), the ancient Israelites lived in a land called Goshen and (Exodus 1:11) toiled as slaves there, building “treasure cities” called Pithom and Raamses, before Moses led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Victorian archeologists strove to uncover these biblical locations, some shrewdly plugging the biblical connection to raise money for digs. Pithom may have been Tell al-Maskhuta, an enormous kom off the road between Zagazig and Ismailiya, while Raamses has usually been identified as Pi-Ramses, the royal city of the XIX Dynasty pharaoh Ramses II – which is why his successor, Merneptah, regularly gets fingered as the pharaoh of the Exodus.
In the 1930s, French archeologist Pierre Montet discovered the kom at Tanis and suggested that this was Pi-Ramses, but work by Austrian archeologist Manfred Bietak in the 1960s showed that in fact Pi-Ramses centred on the modern-day village of Qantir, and extended to the nearby site of Avaris.
Avaris had previously been the capital of the Hyksos (XV Dynasty), whose name derives from hekau-khasut (“princes of foreign lands”). The Hyksos rulers had Semitic names, but in 1991, Minoan-style frescoes were unearthed at a Hyksos-era palace on the western edge of the site, evincing strong links with the Minoan civilization of Crete, though most still believe that the Hyksos originated in Palestine or Syria. Avaris existed long before the Hyksos invasion, however, and before finding the frescoes, Bietak’s team excavated what had been a hilly residential quarter, uncovering grave goods which suggested that the bulk of the population originated from Palestine and Syria. This lay above a stratum of evidence for an older, more sophisticated community of non-Egyptians, where 65 percent of the burials were of children below the age of two. David Rohl argues that this represents the Israelites during their sojourn in Egypt and the culling of their male newborn by the “pharaoh who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and that the Exodus occurred during the XIII Dynasty rather than the New Kingdom, as biblical scholars believe.
The main archeological site at Avaris is Tell al-Daba, 7km north of Faqus, but it is not open to tourists, though there are plans afoot for an archeological museum near the site. For information on Tell al-Daba, see w egyptsites.wordpress.com/category/delta; the official website of the Austrian excavation team at w auaris.at includes a map of the area
The Delta’s largest archeological site is a huge kom near the village of San al-Hagar, 167km northeast of Zagazig and best known by its Greek name, TANIS, though it was called Zoan in the Bible (Numbers 13:22; Isaiah 19:11 and 13, and 30:4; Ezekiel 30:14), and known to the Ancient Egyptians as Djanet. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is here that Indiana Jones uncovers the Ark of the Covenant.
The site looks as if the huge Ramessid Temple of Amun was shattered by a giant’s hammer, scattering chunks of masonry and fragments of statues everywhere. The ruins aren’t all that impressive in themselves and few tourists come here, so you’ll have the site pretty much to yourself.
A bustling industrial city (Egypt’s fifth-largest), TANTA marks the end of the cotton harvest in October with Egypt’s largest festival, the Moulid of Saiyid Ahmed al-Bedawi, when its population jumps from 430,000 to nearly three million as visitors pour in from the Delta villages, other parts of Egypt and the Arab world. The moulid honours the founder of one of Egypt’s largest Sufi brotherhoods. Born in Fez in Morocco in 1199, Saiyid Ahmed al-Bedawi was sent to Tanta in 1234 by the Iraqi Rifaiyah order, and later established his own tariqa (brotherhood), the Ahmediya. Streets and squares fill with tents and stalls for the moulid, thousands camp out amidst heaps of blankets and cooking pots among the music and chanting, vendors and devotees, Sufi zikrs, even a circus with tigers and a levitation act. Events focus on the triple-domed, Ottoman-style mosque (some 300m northeast of the railway station) wherein Bedawi and a lesser sheikh, Abd al-Al, are buried. The climax to the eight-day festival occurs on a Friday, when the Ahmediya – whose banners and turbans are red – parade with drums behind their mounted sheikh. If you attend the moulid, it is best to leave your valuables somewhere safe: pickpocketing is rife and people quite often suffer injuries from crushing or fist-fights in the dense crowds.
Tanta is known for its roasted chickpeas (hummus in Arabic, though it does not necessarily mean that they are mashed with garlic and tahini). They can be bought at any of the multitude of sweet shops surrounding the mosque.
Nothing but a few pits and blocks of masonry remains of the once great city of SAΪS, beside the Rosetta branch of the Nile on the northern edge of the modern village of Sa al-Hagar, just west of the Tanta–Dasuq road, Founded at the dawn of Egyptian history, it was always associated with the goddess of war and hunting, Neith, identified by the Greeks with their goddess Athena. The city became Egypt’s capital during the Saϊte Period, under the XXVI dynasty (664–525 BC). For more information about the site, go to w egyptsites.wordpress.com/category/delta and click on “Sa el-Hagar (Sais)”.
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.
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.