Category Archives: Egypt
Lucia Carminati, Texas Tech UniversityFor a little over a week the world’s attention zeroed in on the Suez Canal, an artificial channel connecting the Mediterranean and the Red seas across Egyptian territory. The canal offers the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia, funnelling around 10% of global trade. And so it made the headlines when a massive container ship, “Ever Given”, became wedged diagonally across the canal, creating a huge, expensive backlog of other vessels.
I am a social and cultural historian who has studied the region and the people who live there. While the economic benefits of the canal are readily apparent, its history of technical mishaps and failed ambitions is mostly buried.
The idea for a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was a long time in the making. The ancients must have talked about it. And Napoleon Bonaparte, who invaded Egypt in 1798, dreamed about it. Eventually, it was a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, that vehemently promoted the scheme and was given permission to start working on it in 1854.
In 1858 La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez (Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal) was formed – under the auspices of the Egyptian government – with the authority to cut a canal.
Prior to the mid-19th century, the Isthmus of Suez – the 125km strip of land that lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea – was a quiet spot. It was a hard and pebbly undulating plain intersected by ranges of hills. It was traversed by nomadic Bedouins and peripherally settled by a few fishermen.
In April 1859, works under the company began cleaving the isthmus in a north-south direction. In the following decades, this desert-like region experienced a dramatic transformation as a string of construction sites popped up. People poured in, bringing with them earth-moving equipment and livestock.
Work on the canal kicked off in 1859. Components of locomotives, barges and dredgers, among other equipment, began streaming in from Europe. Most went to the northernmost canal worksite at Port Said, where they were assembled.
The excavation of the channel proceeded southwards. As the digging took strides, supplies were transported farther, using land and water, into the isthmus.
Along the new waterway, where scarcely a blade of grass was previously found, vegetation began to spring up.
From about 1861, there was also an influx of working animals including donkeys, horses and camels. The company vied tirelessly for control over settlements that cropped up and over their workers.
The company had a system of forced labour and started to conscript thousands of Egyptian workers in 1862. The workers, theoretically paid and fed by the Egyptian government, came from both the north and south of Egypt. They toiled alongside “free” workers, including Arabs and Europeans.
The forced labour of Egyptians formally ended in 1864 when a new ruler – Isma’il Pasha – took over and eliminated the practice on the Canal worksites. This act stalled the project and forced the company to introduce more machinery and lure more foreign workers through enlistment campaigns.
Canal labourers came from all over the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Some came from as far away as the British Isles. These labourers worked in the company’s payrolls, offered services to workers, and lived off expedients such as thieving, contraband and prostitution.
The cities that would outlive the comings and goings of this particularly transient population were Port Said (founded in 1859 on the northern Mediterranean shore), Ismailia (originating in a worksite in the middle of the isthmus that dated back to at least 1860), and Port Tewfiq (founded in 1867) facing the centuries-old Red Sea harbour town of Suez.
These cities still derive some of their economy from the canal. For instance, to this day, 9,000 workers toil in ship repairs and other maritime services for the seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority in Suez, Ismailia and Port Said. But today there is a lot more to the local economy than the canal.
A rocky start
During the canal’s early days, life in these cities had its challenges. This was partly because of uneven infrastructural development. For instance, homes and sewers in the “Arab” quarters of Port Said and Ismailia were vulnerable to natural calamities, more so than those in “European” areas.
The canal, as a whole, was a haphazard project right until the end. My research in scattered archives found that just 10 days before the canal’s official inauguration date – on November 16, 1869 – 14 dredgers were still operating. They were meant to prepare the passage for festive vessels to pass through the first section near Port Said. But rocks were still being found along the waterbed and explosives were placed to set them off. Strong transverse winds, curves, sands and opposing currents also raised concerns for the ships trying to make it through.
The potential for disaster continued long after the canal’s launch. Indeed, in the late 1880s, Port Said was still devoid of warehouses for oil or other inflammable materials. Merchants in oil had to leave their full crates on the eastern side of the canal, exposed to the weather and possible accidents.
What the canal brought in its wake
It had geopolitical implications beyond the movement of goods. The canal cities experienced bombing and siege when British, French and Israeli forces attacked the canal in 1956, after Gamal Abdel Nasser proclaimed its nationalisation.
The canal also precipitated seismic shifts in the composition of sea life.
The opposite streams – one from the Mediterranean and the other from the Red Sea – merged some time in 1866. This allowed for the migration of different marine species along the waterway and the movement of numerous invading species – from water molluscs to cholera bacteria. This resulted in a pattern of invasions with long-term and large-scale damage to ecosystems.
For instance, Red Sea species – including fishes, crabs and prawns – successfully made their way up north. The pearl-oyster, previously unknown in the Mediterranean, became abundant on the northern coast of Egypt and reached as far as Tunisia’s coasts.
The Suez Canal’s history has been forged over a century by multiple entities and people. Despite its huge influence on the global scene today, its past has been marked by colossal stumbling blocks and wild dreams which, since its inception, re-directed the course of its story.
The discovery of the lost city of ‘the Dazzling Aten’ will offer vital clues about domestic and urban life in Ancient Egypt
Built by Amenhotep III and then used by his grandson Tutankhamen, the ruins of the city were an accidental discovery. In September last year, Hawass and his team were searching for a mortuary temple of Tutankhamen.
Instead, hidden under the sands for almost three and a half millennia, they found the Dazzling Aten, believed to be the largest city discovered in Egypt and, importantly, dated to the height of Egyptian civilisation. So far, Hawass’ excavations have unearthed rooms filled with tools and objects of daily life such as pottery and jewellery, a large bakery, kitchens and a cemetery.
The city also includes workshops and industrial, administrative and residential areas, as well as, to date, three palaces.
Ancient Egypt has been called the “civilisation without cities”. What we know about it comes mostly from tombs and temples, whilst other great civilisations of the Bronze Age, such as Mesopotamia, are famous for their great cities.
The Dazzling Aten is extraordinary not only for its size and level of prosperity but also its excellent state of preservation, leading many to call it the “Pompeii of Ancient Egypt”.
The rule of Amenhotep III was one of the wealthiest periods in Egyptian history. This city will be of immeasurable importance to the scholarship of archaeologists and Egyptologists, who for centuries have struggled with understanding the specifics of urban, domestic life in the Pharaonic period.
Foundations of urban life
I teach a university subject on the foundations of urban life, and it always comes as a surprise to my students how little we know about urbanism in ancient Egypt.
The first great cities, and with them the first great civilisations, emerged along the fertile valleys of great rivers in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the Indus Valley (modern day India and Pakistan) and China at the beginning of the Bronze Age, at least 5,000 years ago.
Just like cities today, they provided public infrastructure and roads, and often access to sanitation, education, health care and welfare. Their residents specialised in particular professions, paid taxes and had to obey laws.
But the Nile did not support the urban lifestyle in the same way as the rivers of other great civilisations. It had a reliable flood pattern and thus the second longest river in the world could be easily tamed, allowing for simple methods of irrigation that did not require complex engineering and large groups of workers to maintain. This meant the population didn’t necessarily need to cluster in organised cities.
Excavations of Early Dynastic (c. 3150-2680 BCE) Egyptian cities such as Nagada and Hierakonpolis have provided us with a plethora of information regarding urban life in the early Bronze Age . But they are separated from the Dazzling Aten by some 1,600 years — as long as separates us from the Huns of Attila attacking ancient Rome.
One city closer in age to the Dazzling Aten we do know a little more about is the short-lived capital of Amenhotep’s III son, Akhenaten, known as the “Horizon of the Aten”, or Tell el-Amarna. Amarna was functional for only 14 years (1346-1332 BCE) before being abandoned forever. It was first described by a travelling Jesuit monk in 1714 and has been excavated on and off for the last 100 years.
Very few other Egyptian cities from the Early Dynastic Period (3150 BCE) to the Hellenistic period (following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE), have been excavated. This means that domestic urban life and urban planning have long been contentious research areas in the study of Pharaonic Egypt.
The scientific community is impatiently waiting for more information to draw comparisons between Akhenaten’s city and the newly discovered capital founded by his father.
The magnificent pharaoh
Amenhotep III, also known as Amenhotep the Magnificent, ruled between 1386 and 1349 BCE and was one of the most prosperous rulers in the Egyptian history.
During his reign as the ninth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Egypt achieved the height of its international power, climbing to an unprecedented level of economic prosperity and artistic splendour. His vision of greatness was immortalised in his great capital, which is believed to have been later used by at least Tutankhamen and Ay.
In 2008, for the first time in history, the majority of world’s inhabitants lived in the cities. Yet, with globalisation, the differences between the “liveability” of modern cities are striking.
As a society we need to understand where cities come from, how have they formed and how they shaped the development of past urban communities to learn lessons for the future. We look forward to research and findings being published from the ancient city of Amenhotep III to enlighten us about the daily lives of ancient Egyptians at their height.
Around 5,000 years ago (c. 3100 BC), what we know today as Ancient Egypt came into existence. A thousand years either side, and other such “primary states” had also arisen across the world, in Mesopotamia, North China, the Indus Valley and other locations.
But why did human social dynamics change so dramatically in such a relatively short space of time? Why did we stop living in smaller communities and come together into cities and “civilisations”?
In trying to answer this perennial question, archaeologists and anthropologists have historically studied the emergence of social stratification, notions of kingship, shifting identities, changing technologies, and much else. However, these studies – while looking in detail at these “human factors” – have arguably overlooked the changing environment within which the people were interacting, just at the crucial juncture. It is almost as if we have been so focused on the “actors” of the narrative, we have missed the “stage.”
Our research recognises this omission, and has sought to integrate the changing landscapes – the stage – into the discussion, recognising that actors’ choices may be influenced by the theatre or set.
So what did the “stage” look like for the emergence of Ancient Egypt, or indeed any of these other areas in which the first “civilisations” arose?
Perhaps surprisingly, until very recently, we really didn’t know.
To find out, you have to dig. For every metre you drill down into the silts of the Nile Delta, you delve about a thousand years into the past. If you then study the layers of sand and mud at that depth you can begin to piece together a picture of the landscapes from the past.
So, if you drill lots of boreholes all over the delta (2-10m deep), study the layers of sand and mud that come up in each one, you can then produce a whole series of maps showing how the delta as a whole looked at different times.
From various such drilling programmes we are now beginning to understand that in the Nile Delta the landscapes were changing dramatically just as the people here and upstream were beginning to reorganise their social structures. Intriguingly, very similar environmental changes were also taking place in Mesopotamia and North China (other locations where the world’s first state societies emerged).
Furthermore, these shifts in the landscape were not driven by people, but by an external factor: the slowing-down and stabilisation of post-glacial sea level rise. The “stage” of the theatre upon which the human story played out was indeed evolving by itself, with a natural, inescapable, worldwide driver as the cause.
Mud to monuments
But what were these landscape changes? And could they have nudged the “actors” one way or another? Did they contribute in any way to the emergence of Ancient Egypt?
Answering the first question is easy: the environments ultimately became less swampy. As sea-level stabilised, rivers started to behave differently. The landscapes gradually evolved from a network of small, dynamic streams criss-crossing a vast expanse of marshland into wider, more open, well-drained floodplains.
Answering the other questions – establishing if and how these changes impacted on the trajectory of human history – is much harder.
One way we can attempt this is by studying how people interacted with the environment to source their most basic of needs: food.
If you analyse the environment in this way, it (perhaps counter-intuitively) turns out the earlier, marshy environments were a great place for people to live. There were plenty of very varied food resources in these extraordinarily rich environments. Of course, you couldn’t farm much very easily, but you could happily fish, hunt, keep a few animals and move around in this veritable “Eden” and it would have provided for a large population.
But, as the environment changed – as the “stage” evolved – the Nile Delta gradually became much less rich in these wild food resources. Over a few hundred years we can calculate that the delta would have lost some 45% of its primary productivity (food potential). Each succeeding generation would have had a slightly harder job of supporting itself.
The obvious solution was to increase the takeup of farming. Farming is an extraordinarily efficient invention for maximising the amount of food you can get from a given patch of land. Making the shift would have been easy over a few generations – the inhabitants of the delta were in frequent contact with other societies that were farming wheat, barley, pigs and cattle, and they could have simply copied.
This is exactly what we see in the archaeological record. When we analyse what people were eating in this area between 4000-3000 BC it appears that in the swampy landscapes the inhabitants of the delta fished for their food. In the later landscapes they kept pigs and grew more crops. We can even calculate that this shift would have produced a food surplus.
So it does appear that the landscape changes may have facilitated the inhabitants of the delta farming more through the fourth millennium BC.
But what was special about this? Plenty of societies have taken up farming in a big way over the last ten thousand years, yet “civilisations” did not emerge everywhere.
Perhaps the answer has something to do with the vast size of the Nile Delta, coupled with what was happening upstream. The agricultural potential of the delta was at least 40% larger than the whole of the rest of Egypt (which by this time was a collection of rival “proto-kingdoms”). Any of the local upstream leaders who wanted control over their rivals would have realised that the economic key to power lay in controlling the vast output of the newly agricultural, highly fertile delta, just downstream. The delta’s economic surplus ultimately needed to be brought into the network of a new territorial “state” structure.
Once again, this is what we see in the archaeological record. In a short space of time, around 3100 BC, the delta’s surplus was brought under control of the world’s first “nation state” – perhaps even set up in part for that purpose. Early hieroglyphics from this time record transactions into and out of the state treasury, while the “capital” and royal court were set up at the obvious place – near modern-day Cairo – binding the agricultural powerhouse of the delta with the older centres of culture upstream.
So it seems that the natural landscape changes in the Nile Delta may have not only helped stimulate local take up of farming technologies, but might also have played a role in the emergence of the first “nation state”. Broadly similar parallels can be tantalisingly drawn up for Mesopotamia and North China – areas with similar geographies, landscape histories, shifts away from fishing and towards farming, and socio-cultural trends.
Whether such trends are evident in these other settings requires more detailed study. But in doing this we must remember not only to focus on the archaeological record of sites and settlements, but also to look at the changing landscapes. History is not complete without geography. There are ultimately no actors without a stage, and when the stage changes, actors may behave differently.