Review of Cooper, The Medieval Nile

The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord 26:1 (January 2016): 80-82 (

John P. Cooper. The Medieval Nile: Route, Navigation, and Landscape in Islamic Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press,, 2014. 432 pp., illustrations, maps, tables, graphs, notes, index. US $75.00, hardback; ISBN 978-9- 77416-6143.

The opening of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 had a profound impact on the people and economy of Egypt, but its effect on our understanding of Egyptian history has been equally dramatic. Virtually every student learns that the Nile Valley drew its fertility and prosperity from the annual inundation, which spread water and alluvium along the floodplain and into the delta. The dam was intended to prevent widespread flooding, provide a store of water against years of drought, and improve navigation. One result is that the river today displays “little of its radical seasonal variability,” and we have little sense of just how tricky travel was on the Nile for the preceding five thousand years.

Mining rich veins of data from historical and geographical texts, most written between the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and the start of the Mamluk sultanate in the thirteenth, as well as from archaeological field work and remote sensing, John Cooper sets out to overturn the orientalist trope that Egypt was a “gift of the Nile” to a quiescent people. As he persuasively demonstrates, it was “not a gift—for which, implicitly, no exertion or payment is required, but rather an ongoing dialectic between Egypt’s human inhabitants and the landscape in which they found themselves.” That Egypt could thrive as a unified state, much less as a clearinghouse between the trading realms of the Mediterranean and greater Indian Ocean, was due to monumental efforts by people of all strata of society from ruler to deckhand.

Cooper approaches his study from three perspectives. His geography of the Nile focuses on the delta’s myriad waterways, especially the canals that joined Alexandria to the river’s natural distributaries, and the river’s Rosetta and Damietta branches. He proceeds to a detailed discussion of the navigational challenges posed by the extremes of Low Nile and High Nile—a difference of about 6.5 meters as measured on the Nilometer on the island of Roda at Cairo—as well as the winds and currents on the river, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea, and the strategies sailors used to overcome them. He concludes with an engaging analysis of how these geographic and meteorological features of the Nile combined with political considerations to affect the rise and fall of various ports—principally Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Tinnis, and al-Farama in the delta, and al-Qulzum (Suez), ’Aydhab and Quseir on the Red Sea, as well as Fustat/Cairo on the Nile itself.

In the medieval period, the flood made itself known in Egypt in the second half of June, reached its peak in September or late August, and ebbed almost as quickly as it had risen. According to a table published in the Description de l’Égypt of 1809, and which corresponds well with information gleaned from medieval writings, 200-ton vessels with a draft of 2.3–2.5 meters (7.0–7.7 feet) could operate on the Upper Nile only five months a year. The largest vessels in the delta, about 60 tons, drew only 1.5 meters but had a sailing season of seven months. The only vessels that could sail year round drew less than 0.5 meter (1.5 feet). Many seasonal canals were unnavigable fromJanuary to September.

In season, a northbound passage from Aswan to Cairo took about a month and a southbound one three weeks. Passages between Cairo and the delta ports took three to five days, and it was about five days to al-Qulzum on the Canal of the Commander of the Faithful for the century it was open (643/644–754/755 CE). Even at high water with a favorable current there were many dangers, especially on the Upper Nile. Sudden squalls might capsize one’s vessel, shifting shoals could surprise even experienced sailors, and calms or adverse winds forced crews to row, punt, or tow their vessels.

These conditions posed problems enough for Egypt’s domestic traffic, but the situation vis à vis foreign trade was further complicated by the fact that the overlap between the Mediterranean and Nile sailing seasons was less than four months, the optimum period for arriving and departing from delta ports falling between mid-August and late September. Trade via the Red Sea ports followed yet another pattern: southbound ships departed between April and early August, while northbound ships arrived between April and June, though sometimes as late as September. These schedules depended on whether one was sailing only within the Red Sea, chiefly to Jeddah with grain or pilgrims bound for Mecca, or venturing into the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean to catch a monsoon wind for East Africa, the Persian Gulf, or India.

Cooper does a masterful job of detailing the Nile’s network through the delta, drawing especially on the topological writings of Ibn Hawqal (977 CE) and al-Idrisi (1154), whose place names he has aligned against modern toponyms to trace the medieval courses of the Rosetta and Damietta branches and their distributary streams. He has transferred this information to a series of coloured schematic plans reminiscent of urban subway maps, as well as to eight black and white maps showing the main waterways of the Nile delta at various stages from the eve of the Islamic conquest in 641–643 to around 1450.

While the mouths of both the Rosetta and Damietta had to be defended against attack, particularly during the Crusades, the approaches were extremely treacherous and neither of their eponymous ports was commercially important at first. Most traffic bound for the western delta sailed to Alexandria, although it was connected to the Nile waterways only by canals, some of which went via Rosetta. The mouth of the Damietta branch was equally hazardous, and the main eastern delta ports were al-Farama and later Tinnis, an island in a lagoon (Lake Tinnis) between Damietta and al-Farama with access to the Mediterranean via a narrow channel. Although the Nile flooded the lagoon to such an extent that its inhabitants drew their drinking water directly from it for half the year, the lack of opposing currents made this cut less dangerous. Even after Salah al-Din ordered the port abandoned in favour of Damietta for strategic reasons in the twelfth century, most goods arrived or left Damietta via this channel.

Al-Farama had lost the river trade as the Pelusiac branch of the Nile silted up in the ninth century, but it remained important in international trade thanks to its overland connection to al-Qulzum and the Red Sea. This lasted until the coming of Fatimid rule, when al-Qulzum was dropped in favor of ’Aydhab, which lay at the southern limit of Egyptian control and a three-week caravan journey from either Aswan or, from the late eleventh century, Qus. As Cooper shows, notwithstanding the well-known difficulties of navigation on the Red Sea, environmental and navigational constraints played a relatively unimportant role in determining which Red Sea port was in use. In the end, the navigational pros and cons of sailing the length of the Red Sea and using the canal or caravan route between al-Qulzum and Fustat/Cairo cancelled out those of sailing to ’Aydhab or Quseir and taking a caravan and the Nile. The latter ports were not exposed to Muslim or Christian enemies in the Levant, and there were fiscal benefits to channeling all foreign trade through Cairo.

Many of the sources Cooper uses contain only spotty accounts of the places they name. Indeed, mathematical geographers such as al-Khawarizmi (†850) who followed the Ptolemaic model merely identify locations in terms of a vague latitude and longitude system. One of the delights of Cooper’s work is the enticing details he teases from the work of historians, geographers, pilgrims, Geniza merchants, and others to give us vivid depictions of these ports, their trades and manufactures, the size of their population (that of Tinnis numbered in the tens of thousands), and the arrangement of their harbours. He regrets that papyrus collections have not yet been fully examined for the evidence they might have of Nile navigation, but that gives us something to look forward to. In the meantime, no student of Egyptian history can ignore The Medieval Nile, which also provides a model that no river historian can fail to consider for inspiration.