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Read Ebook: The binding of the Nile and the new Soudan by Peel Sidney Cornwallis

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Far back in the world's history a fracture of the earth's crust took place in the region which is now Egypt, and the sea filled the valley as far as a point not much north of Assouan. Into this fiord ran several rivers from the high ground east and west, bearing down with them heaps of detritus, and forming small deltas like the plain of Kom-Ombos. On the sea-bottom were laid down deposits of sand and gravel, and then the land began to rise. Meantime the volcanic movements of East Central Africa had shaped the country into its present configuration, and the rivers which drained from the great lakes and swamps of the south, and those which flowed down from the high plateau on the east, combining their waters somewhere about Khartoum, pushed their marvellous course northwards, and began the creation of the fertile soil of Egypt. From this time onwards the climatic conditions must have continued very much what they are to-day. Changes, of course, there have been in the level of the land; but the sea-valley had become a river-valley, and year by year the annual flood increased the cultivable soil, and refreshed it with moisture, just as it would be doing to-day if left untrammelled by the devices of man.

Late in the history of the river-valley, but very early in the history of humanity, this favoured strip of country became the home of men, who doubtless cast their seed upon the slime left by the retreating waters, and reaped their crops long before the dawn of history. It is remarkable and characteristic of the conditions of the country that tradition ascribes to the earliest King of Egypt, Menes, the first King of the First Dynasty, the first attempts to regulate the flow of the river--in other words, the first scheme of irrigation proper.

If it were possible to divert the river from its course, and effectually to bar its way before it reached the boundaries of Egypt, what an appalling catastrophe would follow--no mere disaster, but absolute annihilation! On the coast lands of the Mediterranean a sparse population might still eke out a miserable existence by storing the scanty rainfall, but nowhere else. The very oases of the desert would be dried up, and in a short time the shifting sands of the Sahara would have overlaid the deposits in the river-valley, and buried out of sight even the ruins of the past. The waters of the Nile are, and ever have been, the sole giver of all life in Egypt.

Whoever finds himself in Cairo should lose no time in taking his stand upon the bridge, and in reflecting upon the history of the water that goes sliding and eddying beneath him, on the way to perform its last duties among the cotton-fields of the delta. Some of it has been travelling for three months from its sources beyond the Victoria Nyanza, itself over 1,100 metres above sea-level. From the Victoria Nyanza it has passed down the Somerset Nile into the Albert Nyanza, thence a five days' journey to Lado, past Duffile and the Fola Rapids. From Lado to Bor the fall is still rapid, but henceforward as far as Khartoum, some 1,000 miles, the stream is on a very feeble slope. Between Bor and the junction of the Ghazal River on the left bank is the region of the sudd, floating masses of compressed vegetation, which, if neglected entirely, block the course of the river. Here, too, are the wide and desolate marshes, inhabited by myriads of mosquitoes and that strange, melancholy bird, the whale-headed stork .

The Ghazal River contributes very little to the flow of the Nile, owing to wide lagoons through which it passes, and which cause great evaporation. The river then passes sharply to the right, and sixty miles further on is joined by the Sobat from the eastern hills, which in flood brings down a volume equal to that of the Nile, but during summer contributes little or nothing. From the white sediment brought down by the Sobat the White Nile derives its name and colour. Hence it flows in a wide bed, a mile across on the average, 540 miles to its junction with the Blue Nile at Khartoum. Khartoum is still 1,800 miles from the sea, and 390 metres above it. Two hundred miles north of Khartoum, near to Berber, the Atbara River flows in, and hence the Nile pursues its solitary way through the desert until, after a circuitous bend round Dongola, it bursts through the rocky defiles of Nubia, and emerges at Assouan into Egypt proper. Of the distance between Khartoum and Assouan about 350 miles consist of so-called cataracts, during which the total drop is 200 metres; about 750 miles are ordinary channel, with a total drop of nearly 100 metres.

Of all the affluents of the Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara have been of infinitely the greatest importance to Egypt in the past. Not only do their waters contribute the largest proportion of the annual flood, but also down them comes the rich volcanic detritus swept from the Abyssinian hills by the heavy summer rains, which composes the red-brown silt so dear to the Egyptian cultivator. To understand the system of irrigation in Egypt it is necessary to have a clear view of the amount of water derived from the different sources at different times of the year.

The great lakes and swamps of Uganda, acting as reservoirs, prevent any great differences in the discharge of water above Lado. At that place the low Nile discharge is about 500 cubic metres per second; but, in spite of the Ghazal River and the Sobat, so great is the loss by diffusion in the marshes and by direct evaporation, that at Khartoum the discharge is no more than 300 cubic metres per second. At this time the Blue Nile is giving no more than 160 cubic metres per second at Khartoum, and the Atbara is not running at all. The loss between Khartoum and Assouan is about 50 cubic metres, and consequently the amount of water passing Assouan in May in an ordinary year is 410 cubic metres per second. This is the summer supply of Egypt.

Meantime heavy rains have been falling about Lado and on the Sobat. Towards April 15 the river begins to rise, the effect of which is felt at Khartoum about May 20, and at Assouan about June 10. A most curious phenomenon accompanies this preliminary increase--the appearance of the 'green' water. It used to be thought that this 'green' water proceeded from the sudd region. During the previous months the swamps in that country have been lying isolated and stagnant under the burning tropical sun; their waters have become polluted with decaying vegetable matter. When once more the rising river overtops its banks, this foetid water was supposed to be swept out into the stream, and finally make its appearance in Egypt. But a closer examination of the facts, which has only been possible since the Soudan was re-opened, has caused this view to be abandoned.

The 'green water' is caused by the presence of an innumerable number of microscopic algae, which give it a very offensive taste and smell. So far as can be ascertained, their origin is in the tributaries of the Sobat above Nasser. The rains in April carry them out into the White Nile, and thence they pass down to Nubia and Egypt. Under a hot sun and in clear water they increase with amazing rapidity, and sometimes they form a column 250 to 500 miles long. These weeds go on growing, drying, and decaying, until the arrival of the turbid flood-water, which at once puts an end to the whole process, as they cannot survive except in clear water.

Meanwhile great things have been happening on the Blue Nile and the Atbara. About July 5 the Blue Nile begins to rise, and the flood comes down with considerable rapidity till it reaches its maximum of 5,500 cubic metres per second on August 25. The famous 'red' water reaches Assouan on July 15, and is seen ten days later at Cairo. The flood on the Atbara would begin at nearly the same time as on the Blue Nile, but for the fact that it spends a month in saturating its own dry bed and the adjoining country. Once it begins, however, about July 5, it comes very rapidly, and about August 20 reaches its maximum, which is usually some 3,400 cubic metres per second, but occasionally amounts to as much as 4,900.

Curiously enough, the preceding year offered a startling contrast. It was the lowest Nile on record. The maximum was reached on August 20, and was some 3,500 cubic metres below the average, and in the following May the discharge at Assouan fell to 230 cubic metres per second, as against the average 410.

In other countries the year is divided into seasons, reckoned according to the position of the sun and the temperature, or according to the rainfall. In Egypt the state of the all-important river is the principal factor in determining the seasons. These are, first, the months of the inundation, or Nili, August to November; second, the winter, or Shitwi, December to March; and, third, the summer, or Sefi, April to July, when the river is at its lowest. Nowhere else do the actual seasons correspond with the nominal in a manner so regular and unfailing. But, of course, within these limits there is a great variation in the amounts of both the maximum and the minimum of the volume of the Nile, and the dates at which they occur from year to year. During the twenty-six years 1873-1898 the maximum flood at Assouan varied from the exceptional height of 9?15 metres above zero on the gauge to the equally exceptional 6?40 metres. And the dates on which these maxima were attained varied from October 1 in the first case to August 20 in the other. The dates on which the volume of water passing through reached its minimum varied from May 8 to June 24; while the worst lowest on record was ?71 metre below zero, and the best was 1?88 metres above it.

These figures are the result of the free and unimpeded flow of the Nile. To us, with our wider field of observation, with our knowledge of the sources of the Nile, and preciser information as to the conditions prevailing in those distant countries, the behaviour of the river seems, after all, but the resultant of many natural causes, and capable of prediction, and even regulation. But to those who, living in a country where rain was practically unknown, knew nothing of the tropical lakes or the rain-shrouded hills of Abyssinia, and who merely saw the great river issuing from the burning deserts of the south in flood at the very time when other rivers were parched and dried, how marvellous it must have seemed, and how inexplicable must have appeared those occasional variations, threatening destruction, on the one hand by excessive inundation, and on the other by famine and drought! Few floods in the history of Egypt can have been higher than that of 1878, and few lower than that of 1877, when 1,000,000 acres were left without water. But several great famines have been recorded in the past. Perhaps the worst of these began in A.D. 1064. A succession of low Niles took place, lasting for seven years, like the seven lean kine of Pharaoh's dream. Terrible results followed. Even human flesh was eaten, and the Caliph's family had to flee to Syria. Similar disasters occurred in A.D. 1199.

Such extraordinary catastrophes are rare, but their possibility is always present to the minds of those responsible for the government and welfare of Egypt. We shall see what steps have been taken to guard against them, and first we shall examine the different systems of irrigation which have prevailed, and the nature of the services which the water, whose variations we have described, is made to perform before it finally reaches the sea.


There are two kinds of irrigation in Egypt--basin and perennial irrigation. Basin irrigation is the ancient and historical method of the country. Tradition ascribes its invention to the first King of Egypt, and it is obviously designed to take full advantage of the annual flood. Practically the same as it was 7,000 years ago, it may be seen in Upper Egypt to-day.

The cultivable land from Assouan to the Delta is, with the exception of the Fayoum, that altogether remarkable province, a narrow strip of country, varying in breadth from a few miles to nothing at all, sometimes on both sides of the river, sometimes only on one. Being of deltaic formation, the land is highest near the river, and slopes away towards the desert. As the river flows from south to north, there is, of course, also a general slope of the country in the same direction. Earthen dykes are run at right angles to the river as far as the desert, a dyke parallel to the river and close to its bank connects them, and so a basin is formed, enclosed on the fourth side by the desert. Thus the land is arranged in a series of terraces. Usually these basins are arranged in a series, one basin draining into its neighbour, the last of the series discharging back again into the Nile. Sometimes a second dyke, parallel to the river, divides the lower land near the desert from the higher; sometimes the arrangement is still further complicated by other dykes, making enclosures within the area of the original basin.

The object of the basins is to regulate the supply of the flood-water. Each series of basins has special feeder canals to lead into them. These are shallow, and have their bed about halfway between the high and low level of the Nile. They are therefore dry in the winter and summer, and only run during the flood. The heads of these canals, where they take off from the Nile, remain closed by dams or by masonry regulators till the silt-bearing flood is coming down in sufficient strength. Then about August 10 or 12 the canals are opened and the basins filled. The lowest basins in each series are filled first, then the next lowest, and so on. In a low flood, as in 1877, there is not enough muddy water to go round, and the upper basins get no water at all; such lands are called 'sharaki,' and are exempt from taxation. For forty days the flood-water stands on the land, thoroughly soaking it and washing it, and at the same time depositing its fertilizing silt. At the end of that time, through the escape at the lower end of the series, the water is discharged back again into the Nile. But if the flood is a very high one or very slow in abating, the date at which the water can be discharged and the basins dried has to be postponed. Fortunately, this seldom happens; but when it does it has a doubly bad effect. The oversoaking is said to engender worms, and also the ripening of the crops is postponed to an unfavourable season of the year.

As for the high lands lying immediately between the river and the basin dyke, only eight or nine times in a century does the Nile rise high enough to flood them. They are called 'berms,' and are ingeniously irrigated by means of special high-level canals, which, starting from a point above the head of the basin system, or perhaps leading down from an upper system, pass by means of a siphon under the feeder canal. The berms are, of course, also irrigated by lifting water directly from the Nile itself.

There are forty-five systems of basins in Upper Egypt, most of which, and those the largest, are on the left bank. Some of the feeder canals are insignificant, and feed only two or three basins. Others, like the Sohagia Canal, south of Assiout, feed an extensive system, and are real rivers when full. The basins themselves are 5,000 to 15,000 acres in extent, and it can easily be understood that when they are taking in they have an enormous effect in diminishing the pressure of the flood, and, on the other hand, their discharge lengthens it out in the lower reaches of the river, when the level has already fallen very much at Assouan. While the basins are filling in August and September, they absorb about 2,000 cubic metres per second. Besides this, a considerable amount is employed in filling the channel of the Nile itself and its branches. Evaporation, absorption, and direct irrigation, also play their part, and the result is that the discharge of the Nile at Cairo is some 2,500 cubic metres less than it is at Assouan. But during October and November the basins are discharging. The southernmost ones are empty by October 15, those in the neighbourhood of Cairo not till about November 30, or even later. The consequence is that the Nile at Cairo in October is discharging 900 cubic metres per second more than at Assouan, and in November 500 more.

In November, therefore, the visitor to Cairo can still get some idea of what Upper Egypt is like in flood-time. From desert to desert it stretches, one vast lake, divided by a network of dykes, and studded here and there with villages raised on artificial mounds, which year by year rise higher on their own ruins. A greater flood than usual makes terrible havoc in these villages; for the rising water soon crumbles their mud walls, and the whole collapses like a pack of cards. Every mortal thing is living on the dykes, which play the part of roads; only the water-fowl, emerging in thousands from their secluded marshes, spread themselves in security over the wide waters, and here and there an isolated villager may be seen in an ancient palm-wood tub, paddling and baling by turns. The dykes run on the same lines as they have run for centuries, and on them the traveller, on his way to visit the Pyramids of Gizeh or the Tombs of the Kings at Sakkarah, the burial-ground of ancient Memphis, may watch the whole life of Egypt pass and repass in long procession, set as in a frieze. Work in the fields, of course, is at a standstill, but the villages are humming with preparation for the sowing, and alive with flocks of goats and sheep, camels, buffaloes, and asses; even the rats have been forced to the same refuge, and may be seen popping in and out among the roots of the palm-trees. Where one basin drains into another the fisherman spreads his net, and reaps a rich harvest in the rush of the current. At intervals are stationed pickets of grave watchers, squatting patiently alongside large bundles of millet or maize stalks. This is all that remains of the corv?e service, and gladly is it borne.

For every villager is interested in the preservation of the dykes, and apart from ordinary accidents this great lake, owing to the swift changes of temperature in the neighbouring desert, is liable to violent storms, which drive great waves against the crumbling dykes, and would soon break them if left alone. The millet stalks are put down to break the force of the waves. Each village omdeh, or headman, is responsible for these arrangements, and he, too, may be met upon the dykes, a picturesque figure in flowing black and white, mounted on an ambling Arab pony, going round to see that all his sentinels are on duty. How near the past is brought, when you enter the tombs and find painted on the walls, or figured out in stone, the same people engaged in the same pursuits, as though Egypt had not been since then for thousands of centuries coveted and seized in turn by so many invading nations! The cultivator of the soil, moulded by the unchanging and imperious demands of the great river, to which he owes his whole subsistence, has retained the customs, and even the features, of those remote forerunners, who are his ancestors in everything, except, perhaps, by descent of blood.

Under the Pharaohs and under the Romans the whole of Lower as well as Upper Egypt was under basin irrigation, and the whole country was cultivated. In those days Egypt was the granary of the Mediterranean, and at the time of the Arab conquest, A.D. 700, her population was estimated to number 12,000,000. Under Arab rule began that period of deterioration which lasted for 1,100 years, and which, had the system of irrigation been less natural to the physical conditions of the country and less simple, would have resulted in an absolute abandonment of cultivation, and reduced Egypt to the state in which Mesopotamia, once the garden of the world, finds itself to-day. Even as it was, by A.D. 1800 the population was brought down to about 2,000,000, and all the northernmost and greater half of the Delta had become a neglected and uncultivated swamp. War, famine, and pestilence, in turn, had played their part; but the fundamental cause of all was the misgovernment, which had neglected the irrigation. For in basin irrigation, as, indeed, with all irrigation, two things are of the utmost importance: the first, to get the water on to the land; and the second, to drain it off again. Salt is the great enemy to be fought. Not only do the Nile waters contain a large quantity of salts, in solution, but the strata underlying the alluvial deposits, being of marine origin, are also rich in salts. If the water is allowed to stand on the land, evaporation takes place, until nothing but a salt efflorescence is left. While if the land be so water-logged that the level at which water can be obtained by digging is brought near to the surface, the water containing salts from below is drawn upwards by means of capillary attraction, and once more evaporation takes place, leaving the salts in the soil. It is clear that as the natural level of the land approaches sea-level it becomes more and more troublesome to provide proper means of carrying off the water. Accordingly, the northernmost parts of the Delta were the first to suffer, and gradually the line of cultivation receded.

Nor was this all. No one looking at a map of the Delta can fail to have been struck by that extraordinary feature of the northern coast-line, the great lakes. At the present time there are in the Delta about 3,430,000 acres of land cultivated or under reclamation, and another 500,000 acres of waste land. North of these lie 1,180,000 acres, either permanently covered by the lakes or else flooded by them from September to December. Between the lakes and the sea is a belt of sand-dunes or sandy plains, pierced occasionally by openings. The sand-dunes are constantly being augmented by the prevailing north-west winds. These lakes or lagoons are for the most part extremely salt, and are distributed as follows, beginning from the west: Lake Mareotis, 70,000 acres; Edku, 60,000 acres; Borillos, 180,000 acres, and as much more during flood and early winter; and Lake Menzalah on the east, largest of all, 490,000 acres, and flooding 200,000 acres more at the same time of year. All these waste lands, now known as the Berea, were cultivated in Roman times, some being occupied by vineyards, others by wheat, and it would seem that the lakes were kept from extending landwards by dykes. But when the land was allowed to go out of cultivation no one had any interest in looking after the regulation of the lakes. First, the passage through the sand-dunes became silted up, because, as the basins decreased in number, less water was drained from them into the lakes at the time of the inundation. Then, after the closing of the openings, the water gradually rose, breached the neglected dykes, and completed the ruin of the land. Once the openings in the dunes are closed, the lake has to rise to a considerable height before it can force its way through again, owing to the continuous action of the sand driven by the wind. In this way it came to pass that neither of the lakes had more than one opening into the sea, and consequently, rising in flood-time above sea-level, invaded the lands to the south.

Another cause may have possibly contributed to the same effect--namely, a sinking of the coast lands. Nowhere is this a more probable explanation of the facts than in the neighbourhood of Lake Manzalah. Before the Arab conquest much of what is now a shallow lake was famous for its gardens, palm-groves, vineyards, and wheat-fields; besides its agricultural villages, it contained towns famous for their cloth and cutlery manufactures, like Tunah, Damirah, Dabik, and, above all, Tinnis. But at the time of the conquest these towns were already islands in the lake, a position which enabled them to be the last stronghold of Coptic resistance to the Moslems.

Whatever the cause or the combination of causes--and the history of these tracts remains very obscure--the results were the retreat southwards of the cultivated area, with the consequence that, after over 1,000 years of Mohammedan rule, Egypt found herself in the weakened and impoverished condition already described; saved only from annihilation by the system of basin irrigation, of which the traditions survived, though in a diminished area, stubbornly preserved from age to age by her industrious and conservative peasantry.


It was the Viceroy Mehemet Ali who revolutionized the methods of Egyptian agriculture, and introduced what is known as perennial irrigation--that is to say, irrigation all the year round, as opposed to irrigation during the flood only. In all the annals of the East there are few more striking figures and few histories more exciting than that of the Albanian tobacco-seller, who, rising high in the favour of Sultan Mahmoud, was sent to Egypt as Viceroy in 1810. Adopting a method well known in Cairo, and well calculated to secure the respect, and even the affection, of Orientals, he consolidated his power by the treacherous murder of the Mamelukes, and thoroughly organized the military resources of his province. Summoned to the aid of the Sultan, his armies bloodily stamped out the successful rising of the Greeks in the Peloponnese, and left to himself he would have settled the question of Greek independence once for all. But his summary proposal to transport the whole Christian population, and repeople the Morea with Mohammedan plantations, provoked the intervention of the Powers, and at Navarino he suffered the complete loss of his fleet. Undismayed, he conceived the idea of making himself master of the Turkish Empire. His armies overran Syria, and easily overcoming the Turkish opposition, he threatened Constantinople itself. Once more, if left to himself, he would have succeeded in his object, but once more the slow processes of European diplomacy at last resulted in action. British guns gave the death-blow to his hopes at Acre, and Turkey was saved from her ambitious vassal, though Egypt remained a practically independent State, and her sovereignty became the hereditary appanage of the house of Mehemet.

In the region of domestic policy this strange combination of barbarism and genius proved that he retained the commercial instincts of the tobacco-seller as well as the far-reaching ideas and the drastic methods of the despot. He perceived the advantages which would accrue from the cultivation of cotton and the sugar-cane, hitherto unknown in Egypt. These crops are impossible under a system of basin irrigation; for though they require to be watered all through the summer, they would be ruined by complete inundation, and the shallow flood canals are well above the summer level of the river. But difficulties were nothing to Mehemet Ali. The corv?e was called out, and the unfortunate fellaheen were set to work to dig new canals and reconstruct the existing water-ways in the Delta, so as to render them capable of conveying water during the period of low Nile. At the same time the dykes along the banks of the Nile and the canals were very much strengthened, so as to keep out the flood; the old basin dykes were obliterated, and arrangements made for irrigating the land from the new canals.

Of course, perennial irrigation in itself had always existed in Egypt. It would have been indeed strange if the principle applied by anybody who daily waters a window-box had not occurred to the Egyptians. The Nile berms were often enclosed to protect them from inundation, and watered directly from the river all the year round, while within the basins themselves considerable tracts were irrigated from wells. But never before had special canals been provided by Government for perennial irrigation. The advantages of perennial irrigation are that crops like cotton and sugar can be grown, which would otherwise be impossible, and that two, or even three crops, can be produced in a year, instead of only one. The land is therefore increased in value, but, on the other hand, there are serious objections. First of all, the land is deprived of the full benefit derived from the annual renewal of the soil by the silt deposit. Agriculture becomes a much more intricate and difficult process; the exhausted soil has to be constantly refreshed and stimulated by dressings and manures. The basin irrigator makes less profits, but he has less risk and less anxiety; he can only ride a donkey, while the perennial irrigator can ride a horse. But behind the horseman sits black Care. A low summer supply means to him the waste of many weeks' labour and much expenditure in preparing and sowing his fields; the basin irrigator does nothing till the flood is over, and should the inundation not cover a part of his land, it merely means that that part lies fallow for another year, and suffers no deterioration. A breach in the dykes during the flood is inconvenient to the one, no doubt, but fatal to the other, for it means the ruin of his growing cotton or sugar. And under perennial irrigation it is much more likely to occur, for the basins act as a safety-valve in the inundation, and, while they lengthen out the period of the flood in Lower Egypt, enormously decrease its volume at any given time; but when the same lands are receiving only an occasional watering, the volume that rushes to the sea is by so much the greater, and the pressure on the dykes is heavily increased.

If Mehemet Ali had been content to preserve the old basin dykes, the vivifying effects of the flood-water might have been occasionally applied, and some of these dangers averted. But, as we have seen, everything had to give way to the immediate cultivation of cotton, and the dykes were levelled. Nor was this the only error committed. The new canals were faulty in slope and alignment. Too often their subsidiaries were constructed merely with the object of carrying water to the lands of powerful and favoured individuals, without regard to the general interest. It was found in consequence that an enormous silting up of the canals took place every year. But the Viceroy, with all the forced labour of Egypt at his free disposal, took little heed of this, and vast numbers of men were dragged from their homes every year to redig the canals. Even so it was impossible for the task to be completed before the next flood came round. The lower reaches of the canals remained choked with mud and weeds, and, worst of all, proper drainage was neglected.

When Napoleon was in Egypt in 1798, his master mind, accustomed to go to the root of many matters in spite of all the alarms and distractions of war, perceived how much might be done by a regulation of the water at the point of the Delta. His idea was to close each branch of the river alternately during the flood, and so double its effect. Mehemet Ali proposed to apply the same principle to low-water, and began to close the head of the Rosetta or left-hand branch of the Nile with an enormous stone dam, so as to divert the whole supply into the Damietta branch. Linant Pasha, then chief of the French engineers, who had been brought over to advise upon the new works, persuaded him to abandon this design, and proposed instead to build a barrage upon each branch, constructing them in the dry, and then diverting the Nile into its new course by means of earthen dams. The Viceroy approved, and at once proposed, with characteristic energy, to dismantle the Pyramids and make use of their material, just as Sultan Hasan had once stripped the marble casing from the Great Pyramid to construct his famous mosque. Fortunately, the prosaic question of transport arrested this design, and new limestone quarries were opened near Cairo instead. But although workshops were built, material collected, and foundations dug, Mehemet seems to have lost all interest in the work, and in 1835 he abandoned it altogether, and for seven years nothing more was heard of it.

Two things appear to have operated in his mind. It seemed simpler to keep on digging out the main canals by the help of the corv?e, and cheaper, too, because nothing was wanted but the unpaid labour, though it was false economy. And, secondly, his ill-regulated but far-reaching imagination was already busy upon a new idea, nothing less than the construction of a great reservoir, which should store up the surplus water of the winter and let it out again in the summer, thereby, as he supposed, rendering unnecessary the construction of any minor work like a barrage.

Surely there can be no more curious instance of the irony of fate than the history of these two great ideas--the Barrage and the Reservoir. Both in turn have been carried into successful execution by engineers and statesmen belonging to the very nation which shattered the ambitions of their first authors. Against the crumbling walls of Acre, held so stoutly for weeks by the English sea-captain, when even the notion of a day's defence seemed a madness, Napoleon's dreams of Eastern empire dashed themselves vainly to pieces. Forty years later the same walls could not withstand for half a day the guns of their former defenders, and Mehemet Ali in turn saw his own imperial dreams finally dissolve. Mehemet neglected the Barrage, because he thought the Reservoir would make it unnecessary; and yet in the end it was only the successful working of the Barrage which gave new life to the project of the Reservoir, and made its completion an absolute necessity.

It is difficult to conceive anything more humiliating and exasperating than the position of the French engineers who acted as advisers to the Egyptian Government. Time has vindicated their reputation, and proved the excellence of their designs and the soundness of their work; but in their own day they had to suffer disappointment, and even disgrace, and to bear the brunt of failure, due not to themselves, but to the conditions under which they lived. With no authority to enforce the execution of their plans, hampered at every turn, sometimes by the incompetence, and always by the unwillingness, of the Arab engineers through whom they had to work, supported only occasionally by the uncertain breeze of viceregal caprice, they struggled bravely on, and deserve the greatest credit for what they did manage to accomplish. In 1853 Abbas Pasha, the then Viceroy, dismissed Mougel from his service, to mark his displeasure at the slowness of the building, and appointed a new man. Little was gained by the change. The Barrages were nominally finished in 1863, and an attempt was made to close the gates on the Rosetta branch. But a settlement took place, and they had to be immediately reopened. Not till 1872 was the Barrage really used, and then only partially on the Rosetta branch, and not at all on the Damietta. Still, whereas before 1872 only 250,000 acres of summer crops had been matured in the Delta, and that at the cost of enormous labour in clearing the canals, afterwards the total was 600,000 acres, and the cost of maintenance was very much less. The ordinary summer supply available for the Delta canals was increased from 64 cubic metres per second to 150.

This success brought home to the mind of the then reigning Khedive, Ismail, the advantages of perennial irrigation and the cultivation of cotton, and he determined to extend the system to Upper Egypt and the Fayoum, where he possessed huge estates, amassed by fair means and foul through the agency of the notorious Mufettish, Said. Accordingly, in 1873 the great Ibrahimiyah Canal was dug. Starting from near Assiout, it runs for 268 kilometres nearly parallel to the Nile on its left bank, and supplies perennial irrigation to 252,000 acres in the provinces of Assiout, Minia, and Beni-Su?f. It also carries flood-water to a series of basins lying to the west of it, nearer the desert. Before 1873 the Bahr Yusuf, which feeds the Fayoum, took its water direct from the Nile, but its head was now transferred to the left bank of the Ibrahimiyah Canal at D?rut, and 327,000 acres in the Fayoum came nominally under perennial irrigation.

It would perhaps have been more reasonable to perfect the irrigation system of Lower Egypt, and to complete the Barrages entirely, before embarking on new projects in Upper Egypt. But the temptation to improve his own lands by simply calling out the corv?e to dig canals was too strong for Ismail; and, indeed, he was not the man to devote himself to the carrying out of old projects to the exclusion of new ones. In him the vigorous and practical originality of his grandfather Mehemet appeared in the form of a fantastic imagination running riot in all directions, unrestrained by the prosaic considerations of time and means. Yet with able Ministers he might have been one of the greatest of rulers. In spite of all the degradation which his reckless extravagance brought on Egypt, the country owes him something; for there was generally something great in his ideas, and time is carrying many of them into effect. It is impossible not to feel some admiration for the man who, when asked what gauge the Soudan railway should be, replied, 'Make it the same as that of the railways in South Africa. It will save trouble in the end.'


It has already been explained that on the Nile berms or high banks, which are covered by the flood only once in six or seven years, on islands in the river, and on selected tracts within the basins in the neighbourhood of wells, it has been the immemorial custom to lift water on to the fields. Everywhere the two primitive instruments of ancient Egypt are in common use to-day--the shadoof and the sakieh. The shadoof is a long pole balanced on a support. From one end of it is suspended a bucket, and from the other a heavy counterpoise, equal in weight to the bucket when full of water. The bucket is made of various materials, very often leather, though the ordinary kerosene-oil tin of commerce is making its presence felt here as elsewhere. The shadoof is worked by hand. The bucket is pulled down into the water, then lifted up by the help of the counterpoise, and its contents are tipped over into the channel leading to the cultivated land, where the water is steered by means of miniature canals and dams into the required direction. I suppose there could not be a simpler form of unskilled labour than working the shadoof. Whenever I think of the fellah of Upper Egypt, I think of the shadoof. Up and down, creak and splash, hour after hour, day after day, he goes on lifting and tilting, with an amazing and monotonous regularity. Nothing disturbs him--not even a steamer grounded on a sand-bank twenty yards in front of him. As he stands, naked except for a loin-cloth of blue cotton, with his absolutely dull, impassive features, his magnificent chest and arms but weak legs, you cannot help wondering which came first, the shadoof or the shadoof-man, so perfectly are they adapted to each other. Two piastres are the humble guerdon of the long day's labour. You can calculate upon the fellah as you could on a machine. But, in spite of it all, deep down in his soul lies the sentiment which redeems him and distinguishes him from a mere machine--his absorbing love for the soil. Take him away, set him to other tasks--to serve, for instance, in the army--he will perform his duties with the same unfaltering regularity and docility; but all the time he is thinking in his heart of the black soil and the water of Egypt. In Omdurman I asked a more than usually intelligent Egyptian soldier, who had been told off to perform some small services for me, 'Do you like being in the army?' Without hesitation came the answer, 'No.' 'What do you want to do?' 'I wish to be at home,' he said, 'and cultivate the ground.'

With a single shadoof water can be lifted 2 1/2 metres; but when the bank is high a second or third tier of shadoofs is employed, and in some places as many as five shadoofs may be seen lifting the water from one level to another, till it reaches the fields. One man working twelve hours a day can lift enough water to irrigate an acre of cotton or corn in ten days.

The sakieh, or Persian water-wheel, consists of a vertical wheel with a string of buckets attached to it, which, as the wheel turns round, are let down into the water, come up full, and discharge their contents into a channel as they come to the top. The wheel is turned by means of spokes, which catch in a horizontal wheel worked by oxen, buffaloes, or some other beast of burden. If the lift is high, the string of buckets may be very long; but if the wheel itself dips into the water, there may be no string at all, and it is then called a taboot. The buckets are often earthenware pitchers, and the wheels themselves are generally of the rudest construction, and made of palm wood; but new and improved iron water-wheels are coming into use. Still, whether of iron or of wood, they all seem to make the same peculiar sing-song whine. There is no sound more characteristic of Egypt. It has a peculiar penetration. Night and day it continues. I believe Egyptian music is founded upon it. The fellaheen say the cattle will not work unless they hear it. Certainly when one stops, the other stops also.

In the Fayoum, where, owing to the difference in the levels, the canals have often a very high velocity, there are very ingenious water-wheels or turbines, which play the part of sakiehs, but are turned by the force of the current; the water thus lifts itself continuously.

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