Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A forecast of Egyptian civilisation

Mai Samih listens to the story of civilisation in Egypt from a geological perspective

Farafra Oasis

Rocks and earth layers have as much to say as a drawing on a temple about the past, maybe even more. Head of the Department of Geology and professor of Geo-Archaeology at the Faculty of Science at Cairo University Mohamed Abdel-Rahman Hemdan said as much at a seminar at Beit Al-Sinary in Cairo in March when he claimed that “the past is the key to the present.”

“We geologists study the present to understand what happened in the past. However, that past is also the key to the present because archeologists have learned much about how the climate in particular has changed over time. This is a new trend we are now trying to work with,” he said.

The climate is the weather over the long term, Hemdan said, commenting that time-scales of 100 to a million years are not uncommon in geology. Cold weather in the north could affect the surface of the oceans and the winds in another part of the planet that carry rain.

“Rain for us in Egypt originates from two sources, the Atlantic monsoon from the west and the Indian monsoon from the east. These unite into one front named the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which causes rain. If this is directed northwards, it leads to rain, as happened some 11,000 to 8,000 years Before the Present (BP). If it goes southwards, a state of drought occurs. This could be good news for those who fear global warming, as when the sea level rises our desert will become green because there will be more rain,” he said.

Some 150,000 years BP the sea level was low, and the weather in Ethiopia was not as wet as it is today, so it did not feed a lot of water into the Nile. The River Nile looked like a small channel at the time, and the water level in the Mediterranean was 120 metres lower than it is today.

“Approximately 25,000 to 11,000 years BP there was a dry era called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and Egypt went through a drought. In cool weather, the sea level decreases. The Nile flood level was low, and because of the low sea level the Delta had more branches that started to multiply and deepen. These left what are sometimes called ‘turtle backs’ behind them, sediments of soil that people would settle on to be higher than the water level during floods,” Hemdan said.  

This period was followed by wet conditions. “From 11,000 to 8,000 years BP, the Nile flood was very high, and the desert also saw a lot of rain, meaning that scientists called it the ‘Green Sahara’ era,” he said, adding that human beings were free to live more widely as a result.  

From 10,000 to 8,000 years BP, the land was once again very wet, and the River Nile would increase one cm every year. There was a lot of rain in Ethiopia, and the water in the Nile turned the flood plains into swamps. The river did not deposit much sediment, and it would flood the valley all year round, Hemdan added.


Lahun Dam

“Some 2,000 years BP is a very important era for the whole planet as it was an ice age that lasted for about 1,000 to 1,500 years, also affecting Egypt,” he said, adding that the Nile at that time consisted of two channels, the main one and one that resembled the Bahr Al- Lebeni and Giza channels that can still be seen today. “We discovered this through satellite images. The first was a short, thin channel near the desert during the Pre-Dynastic Period, and the second one was a large one in the current Nile channel,” he said.

Hemdan said that 6,800 years BP saw the beginnings of domestication in Egypt, when the population lived on high areas like Fayoum and today’s Helwan and Maadi. “At that time, people started to come to the Nile Valley in small numbers. Communication started, and at the time when the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt took place the flood level of the Nile was low. However, it was high during the time the Giza Pyramids were built,” Hemdan added, saying that the ancient Egyptians themselves have been shown to have come from the Western Desert.

There was a great drought some 5,200 years BP in the region, and at the beginning of the Old Kingdom rain decreased in Ethiopia. The Nile changed into a river with meanders as a result, and it started to flood on a seasonal basis, encouraging the human population to live nearer to it. Then the River started to make larger deposits of silt, forming high lands that the flood could not cover. So people settled there and built roads and other elements of infrastructure.

This marked the real beginning of the ancient Egyptian civilisation at a time when the environment and climate were just right for it, Hemdan said.



ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE: The later period was a period of disaster, and the ancient Egyptian civilisation deteriorated, as did others at the same time, Hemdan said.

“The Nile flood plain became a desert, and the Western Desert sands covered the area,” he said. Some human remains have been found from this period without a clear cause of death, so the cause is believed to have been hunger. The presence of minerals like nickel, titanium and aluminum from Ethiopia or the White Nile in rocks from the period is also an indicator of the quantity of water that existed at the time, Hemdan said.  

This situation changed during the Middle Kingdom, as the Nile flood was high, as is apparent in places like Gabal Selsela. The flood covered a huge area of land, and the flood plain became wider, even forming lakes near Memphis. After this, the Nile level was low, and the Middle Kingdom itself deteriorated. After the Late Period, these problems continued, with the result that the flood plain shrank, he added.

Hemdan has shown that trade existed between Fayoum and Farafra at the time. “In a place called Obayed in the Farafra Oasis the landscape is composed of low ground surrounded by mountains. Whenever it rained, water would gather in the mountains and form lakes. At that time, there was a kind of paradise-like atmosphere in the area, as people lacked for nothing. They could hunt, and there was plenty of water. At 75,000 years BP man could not live on the high land as the rain was hard, so he preferred to live on the low land and move about more freely.”

“Later, at 52,000 years BP, man lived on high land like plateaus. The importance of these is that there was communication between the different low lands in Egypt such as Farafra and Fayoum. This is proven by remains discovered in Farafra that were originally made in Fayoum,” Hemdan said, adding that his team had conducted geochemical studies of these remains and proved they came from Fayoum.

“We know that people in Farafra went to Fayoum and came back after learning how to make vehicle axles and other items. What is certain is that there was some sort of communication between the two places,” Hemdan added, saying that stone implements indicating communication had also been found in the Bahareya Oasis and Minya.


Djara Cave

People would move in and out of the oases. During the Middle Holocene Age, rain started to decrease, so people started to live near each other and near water. This is what formed some of the first societies in Egypt. “We have discovered the remains of a village in the Dakhla Oasis composed of four clusters of huts. The weather in that era was colder than the current weather, and there was plenty of water near these huts. We found two of them that were distinct from the others, having double walls. Their entrances were pointing south to avoid the cold wind. We also found traces of fire, such as wood and ashes, and the remains of a corridor structure without a roof facing south-east which could be related to religion,” Hemdan said.

Drawings on the walls like lions, a sign of strength, and ostriches, giraffes and some types of goats and sheep, had also been found, he said.

About 5,000 years BP there was a period of drought in Egypt, but water still existed in the form of underground springs. “We found a spring in Farafra that was used relatively recently, perhaps 3,500 to 4,000 years old. When the land was dry, most people left the area, while some stayed behind and depended on ground water. Some gradually left for the east. We know this because places we have discovered near the Nile Valley are more recent, like the Djara Caves, for example.”

During the Old Kingdom, Fayoum boasted a huge freshwater lake 12,000 square km wide. Water that came from the Nile deposited silt, forming a delta in Lower Egypt, and this has helped geologists discover the history of floods in the Nile Valley as the silt stayed in situ and nothing was washed away.

“During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the water levels in Fayoum were high. However, during the Intermediate Period, the water level started to decrease and the lake dried up. We found the remains of minute creatures that only live in salty water there, which means that the water was no longer fresh. Later, many lakes dried up, including those further south in Africa.

“The rulers of the time attempted to save Egypt by making administrative reforms, decreasing risks like building pyramids with smaller mud bricks, and making major projects like dams to save water. They built the dam near Hawara in Bahr Youssef, for example. This work continued throughout the New Kingdom, and there are dams east of Fayoum and north of Hawara to prove it,” Hemdan concluded.

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