The lake's progress
In ancient times Lake Mareotis was a pleasure resort and watering spot surrounded by market gardens. Jenny Jobbins considers the fertile past of an area that is now desert
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Western Alexandria was once heavily populated in the Greek and Roman eras. Leucaspis, a residential seaport, is among the few surviving remains. Note Lake Mareotis in the background
When the Greek colonisers and Roman cohorts -- and, later, the Persians and Arabs -- marched to and from Cyrenaica along Egypt's northern coast they all had one aim in mind -- to hold and control North Africa.
The road they followed was inland from today's coastal road -- this was not built until World War II. The older road has left an echo in the route of the modern railway line, which links the towns that thrived along the way. Many of these towns have roots embedded deeply in the past.
Hundreds of years ago the landscape of the north Egyptian coast was very different from the barren desert of today. The region was correspondingly fairly well populated. Neolithic flints have been found dating from 9000 to 6000 BC, and first- and 10th-dynasty records tell us that the surrounding grasslands supported vast herds of cattle.
The immense Lake Mareotis (Maryut) stretched for some days' journey east to west, its waters fed by the most westerly branch of the Nile. The Ancient Egyptians called the lands and the people west of the fertile Nile valley and Lake Mareotis the Tehenu (Land of the Olive), while the eastern part of the lake was in the Kingdom of the Harpoon. The latter was noted for possessing a Mediterranean sea port, probably at Maks.
The two kingdoms were subjugated in about 3400 BC when Menes unified Egypt, but while the Kingdom of the Harpoon was assimilated into the new empire, Tehenu's ties were weaker. From the first dynasty onwards there are records of "Libyan" invasions into unified Egypt, both military and economic, which posed a constant threat to peace and stability. For a time Ramses II subdued the area, but incursions resumed after his death and by the 22nd dynasty peaceful, or economic, Libyan infiltration had reached a point where Libyans were dominant in the region.
In the seventh century BC Greek migrants appeared in Libya, and in 637 BC they founded the town of Cyrene. The Libyans, alarmed at this clear and audacious colonisation, appealed for help to the Pharaoh Apries, but the Greeks defeated an Egyptian expedition sent against them. Greek traders soon began to enter Egypt, threatening the "Libyan" supremacy of the region. The Greeks founded their first colony in Egypt at Naukratis, which stood in the Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile. Naukratis soon became the most important commercial town in the Delta, and traces remain of temples and a seventh-century BC scarab factory, as well as pottery.
The nome (province) of Mareotis, like the rest of Lower Egypt, continued to prosper. In 525 BC King Cambyses of Persia defeated Pharaoh Psammetichus III at Pelusium, the ancient port on the north Sinai coast, and thus founded the 27th Dynasty. Mareotis became a petty kingdom, with the Canopic Nile as its eastern boundary and its western edge roughly where Al-Alamein stands now. The capital was Marea, or Mareotis, but it later moved to Taposiris Magna (Abu Sir).
West of Mareotis was the nome of Libya, with its capital at Paraetonium (Marsa Matrouh). Still further west were the important towns of Marmarika and Cyrene, capital of Cyrenaica. Today it seems hard to believe that there were once 48 towns around Lake Mareotis and strung along the north coast between Canopus and the frontier of Cyrenaica.
An attempt to oust the Persians from Egypt was launched from Marea in 455 BC by the nationalist hero Inaros. Aided by Greeks, he mounted a force against Artaxerxes I and marched south to besiege Memphis. The uprising ended in failure and Inaros was put to death.
From this point Mareotis seems to have entered a political decline, which clearly affected its prosperity. By the end of the fourth century BC the Greeks settling into the new city of Alexandria considered it a region full of wild herdsmen. But the Ptolemaic regime would change all that. From the nearby metropolis came a demand for fresh produce and new farms and villages appeared; the cultivation of vines, olives, and market garden produce reached its height. With the annexation of the rival province of Cyrenaica by the Ptolemies in 321 BC came an age of peace and prosperity for Mareotis.
There was now a well-cultivated spit of land stretching for 60 kilometres from the Moon Gate of Alexandria to the western end of Lake Mareotis. It was highly populated, and was renowned for the excellence of its wine, which Virgil described as pressed from grapes that were "uniformly white". South of the lake were several towns, including Marea, and behind them stretched uplands cultivated with grain, olives, fruit, and vines. There were oil presses and breweries, papyrus beds, and an abundance of fish in the sea and the lake. Quarrying and glass blowing, which had developed in Egypt sometime in the Late Dynastic period, were established industries.
When Strabo came to Alexandria towards the end of the first century BC he recounted that the citizens of the coastal Egyptian capital spent holidays on the lake in houseboats, while boating parties called at inns on the islands and around the banks. Rich Greeks settled in villas on the lakeshore, and sailed across the lake from Alexandria's Portus Mareotis to Marea and Taposiris Magna. The comfortable ferry across the lake was probably the preferred route from east to west as well as north to south, and numerous jetties that can still be traced in the mud show that much traffic plied to and forth.
During the Christian period of Roman rule churches and monasteries were founded and flourished. The most important was at Abu Mina (St Menas) where a large town grew up around the basilica of the saint, a Roman officer who was martyred in 309 -- just three years before the Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity.
St Menas is still a popular patron in Egypt, but he was once so famous that the church built over his grave was one of the most significant places of global Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. The cult was founded on the cures brought about by drinking the holy water from a well, which brought pilgrims flocking to the site. Towards the end of the fourth century a cathedral was built, and a town grew up around it to minister to pilgrims with the provision of hotels, bathhouses, and shops. To prove they had been there, pilgrims took home a small clay flagon of water from the holy well, and these little souvenirs, stamped with an image of St Menas beside two kneeling camels, have been found across the Old World.
Not only did it cater to foreign pilgrims, but the monastery, like similar institutions the world over, provided a range of social services to local people. The monks dispensed spiritual guidance for the devout and the perplexed, food for the needy, herbal and folk remedies for the sick and employment for servants and guards.
The glorious days the Greeks and Romans bestowed on the north coast lasted for almost 1,000 years. But eventually climatic and political changes compounded to bring about the gradual decline of Mareotis. As the power of the Roman Empire in North Africa dwindled, there was a breakdown in the executive and legal systems; infrastructure was not maintained and bandits overran the provinces. The Canopic branch was neglected and silted up, and fresh water ceased to flow into the lake. Meanwhile the coastal fringe began to sink, and a series of earthquakes hit the region. As the lake dried into a salty, marshy swamp the surrounding hills were bared when the thinly rooted vegetation was washed away by rains.
In 619 the Persian army of Chosroe II swept along the coast, causing devastating farms and villages as they went. Twenty years later came the Arabs, who filled in the Roman wells (placed at two-day intervals) to thwart a relief force in case any was sent from Byzantium. The Romans surrendered North Africa with hardly a struggle: the sickly Emperor Heraclius was engaged in fighting off the Persians and had insufficient resources to come to the aid of the rest of his empire.
The Arab conquerors founded a new capital at Fustat on the outskirts of modern Cairo, and severely neglected Alexandria and its regions. Bedouin tribesmen settled and mixed with Libyans and Berbers, and the farmers whose produce had filled the Greek and Roman tables moved to nearby towns. The remaining wells were neglected and villages deserted. There was no law and order. The town of Abu Mina was destroyed in the eighth or ninth century, although the basilica was left standing among the ruins and Al-Bakr, an Arab traveller who visited the site in 1086, saw lamps burning there night and day and a statue of St Menas over a great marble tomb with his feet resting on two kneeling camels. By the end of the 10th century the district of Mareotis west of Taposiris and Abu Mina was abandoned.
By the second century AD the town of Marea had been reduced to only a village, but as such it survived at least until 1400 when the Arab chronicler Maqrizi visited it. Maqrizi reported that it was a market garden supplying Alexandria, from where it was administered. Marea was abandoned soon after the Turks occupied Egypt in 1517. By that time the lake was a swamp, and by the 18th century it was dry. Yet a vestige of grassland must have remained, for in 1852 an official reported that 2,000 female camels belonging to the viceroy were stationed to graze at Maryut to supply milk for the Arab foals at his stud farm. To this day, Bedouin who have settled in scattered homes throughout the area known as Bahig graze camels, sheep and goats.
From the Middle Ages on Mareotis may have been out of mind, but it was not out of sight. On the approach to the village of Abu Sir -- ancient Taposiris Magna -- a ruined tower guards the skyline. It stands on a limestone ridge on the left- hand side of the road, and until recently was thought to have been a lighthouse. It's now believed it was a tomb that the owner modelled as a miniature replica of the Pharaohs and which, visible as it was out to sea, may have served the dual purpose of a beacon. This and the nearby remains of the Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Osiris, whose stone walls loom so incongruously on the modern roadside, are almost all that remain of a once-important town probably inhabited from the pre-dynastic period.
The first storey of the tower is square, the second octagonal, and the third cylindrical: its base is partly buried and its top has fallen, but on the whole it is remarkably well preserved, and in its contours, if in our mind's eye we magnify them 10 times, we can see how the legendary lighthouse of Alexandria would have appeared. The door is above ground and can only be reached by ladder, just as Ibn Battuta described the entrance to the Pharaohs.
This monument was referred to as Burg Al-Arab (the Arabs' Tower) and it was after this that the citadel of Burg Al-Arab (built nearby in the first half of the 19th century as an administration centre for the Bedouin) was named. In the 15th century there was a fanciful legend that the beautiful Blanchefleur was locked up here, an offering to the sultan of Egypt, and that her lover Floris mounted to her room in a basket of roses.
The tower featured in the General Eaton's famous march on Tripoli in 1805, in what was the first foreign intervention by land in American military history. William Eaton, formerly the American consul in Tunis, wanted to end piracy of American ships off the Libyan coast of the Mediterranean. At the "Arab's tower", on the very day that Thomas Jefferson took his oath as president of the United States and swore to support American allies, Eaton signed a treaty with Hamid Karamanli that would install the latter as pasha of Tripoli in place of his brother Youssef. In return for American aid Hamid pledged to end the piracy. Eaton gathered five or six American marines, about 40 Greek mercenaries, and 400 Bedouin volunteers and marched across the desert to Derna, a gruelling event during which he narrowly escaped death at the hands of his mutinous crew. Backed by three American warships he captured Derna and was poised to attack Tripoli, but was thwarted by the American consul-general at Algiers, who negotiated a peace with Youssef. Both Eaton and Hamid retired to the United States on pensions.
In the necropolis around the tower are tombs that show signs of providing shelter to shepherds. As one approaches the temple, which can also be reached by an easy climb further along the road, the ground becomes more and more littered with pottery shards. Since pots formerly took the place of tin cans, cardboard boxes, glass bottles, and plastic and paper bags, it is hardly surprising to see so many shards, although quite impossible to date them; but they are more pleasant to encounter than the modern trash that threatens to form a top stratum.
Below the necropolis are the remains of baths built by the emperor Justinian, and lower down, on what would have been the eastern shore of Lake Mareotis, are traces of quays, jetties and a bridge.
There are vestiges of a Christian church within the 90-metre-square walls of the temple. The whole structure continued to be of service when need arose. At one time it was a quarantine station for caravans, and E M Forster says it was used as a fortress by the Arabs and that, in his day, a coastguard station was installed there. Nowadays the only sign of life is in the nearby village.
The limestone ridge on the southern side of the road has been levelled over the past decade to provide building materials. Formerly, too, the sea was hidden from view by a ridge of limestone crags and sand dunes, sometimes so white they were blinding. But whenever a holiday village was built along the coast, the ridge was cut away. Between the dunes and the road is the sandy bed of what was once a lagoon, which still leaks pools of salt and sustains the occasional halophytic shrub. In years of heavy rainfall water percolates back into the lagoon, and more than one construction has found itself sitting in a pool of stagnant salt water.
While few ancient cities in the region have yielded ruins as spectacular as those of Taposiris Magna at the western end of the lake bed, 45kms away at Marina Village a Polish mission is excavating the extensive town of Leucaspis, which lay in almost idyllic surroundings on the shore of a blue lagoon. Much of the rest of the coast remains to be excavated.
Today much of the lake area near Alexandria has been rehabilitated, and the lakebed has been flooded south of the city. Irrigation projects are producing increased acreage of fruit orchards, while light industries established near the new satellite towns are attracting city immigrants. But on its western reaches, where boats ferried holiday-makers beating tambourines and singing girls with garlands in their hair, there is only a dry, flat plain. Those shores where vineyards and orchards flourished are parched desert. The wind that once filled the sails of pleasure boats still blows, but instead of the sound of music it carries only sand.