let the water flow


Egypt lies along the Nile River, and from ancient times, the challenge of getting the water from the Nile to the farming land has been ever-present. Now with electricity, generators and pumps, the whole speed, sound and manner of moving water has changed. But if you look very hard, you can find the slow, steady, methodical and even mesmerizing manner of moving water….


This flooding was a blessing but also a challenge! Ancient life was based on the rhythms of the annual flooding: it was predictable and timely. It is said that June 17th was the night of the drop of the “Celestial Tear”, which dropped from the heavens and started the annual floods. Usually these floods reached Southern Egyptian borders in July, reached Aswan in mid-August, lasting 4 – 6 weeks. The receding of the waters was during October/November. The Nilometer (a vertical column, like an ancient water-ruler) was used to predict and measure the extent of the flooding, and taxes on agriculture were set by the predicted harvests based on the amount of water.

The challenge was how to expand the cultivation area by moving water from the Nile during the dry summer. The Egyptians invented and used many simple machines to aid agriculture.


I think almost all of us studied the “Ancient Egyptians” in our school years, drawing pyramids, making copies of the mummies and painstakingly re-creating an obelisk. But for me, the thing that kept me amazed was the “shaduf”: the irrigation tool of old. It is basically a bucket and lever lifting machine. There is an upright frame, a long tapering pole, a bucket/basket/skin bag on one end, and a counterweight on the other. With an almost effortless pull by the operator, the pole can be swung and lifted, scooping and carrying water from the pond/river to an irrigation tunnel, which leads the water to the fields. It is said that a shaduf could transport up to 2 500 litres a day.


This was normally a wheel with buckets or clay pots along the circumference. Buckets were emptied into a trough/aqueduct. It was operated by the flow of the river, and was the first non-human operated lifting device. The current of the stream turns the wheel, and lowers the pots into the stream and fills them up. As the wheel continues to turn, the pots are upturned and emptied into the canals or fields. The cycle then continues…

In the area called The Fayoum, (100kms outside Cairo) there are about 200 such waterwheels. Hamza El Din, a singer, composed a song on the “Oud” called “Water wheel”, telling of the memories and soothing sounds created by the wheels he remembered as a child.


The Persian water wheel: this was oxen-powered and had pots on a rope with 2 pulleys. This kind of water wheel was usually used to raise water out of a well, usually with a child or 2 guiding and encouraging the animals to keep walking.


This was apparently designed by the legendary Greek Scholar, Archimedes, on a visit to Egypt. Its purpose was to transfer water from a low-lying body of water to irrigation ditches higher up. It consisted of a helix spiral inside a cylinder, that is open at both ends. The lower end was placed in water, at a slant. It was then manually operated, by turning the handle. As the helix was rotated, water would slide upwards, caught in the spirals, until pouring out at the top of the tube.


All over the Delta region you can hear the throbbing sound of pumps, and daily watch thousands of litres of water being transferred to fields further away from the canals or the rivers. Some of the ancient examples can be found in some museums and hotels….but if you wander into some distant villages you might still see examples from old, and be amazed at their simplicity yet effectiveness.

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