Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1703/Caprices of the Nile

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From Chambers' Journal.


The Nile, as is well known, annually overflows its banks, and deluges a considerable part of Lower Egypt, such overflowings giving periodical fertility to the soil. These floodings, however, are by no means uniform in character. Sometimes the floodings are large, sometimes disappointingly small. Nor do they always take place at the same period in the year. Occasionally they are late and tardy in their rising and falling. When the river rises well, it is called "a good Nile;" when insufficient in volume, it is called "a bad Nile;" just as we speak of a good and a bad season.

These caprices in the rise of the Nile have appeared to be so mysterious that certain astronomers are inclined to trace some connection between them and the absence or return of solar spots. But on this theory there are differences of opinion. While one astronomer thinks that spots in the sun lead to a heavy rainfall, others just think the reverse. Obviously, the sun-spot theory is somewhat visionary. The rise of the Nile depends on meteorological conditions near the sources of the river in central Africa, of which we possess but imperfect-information. A correspondent of the Times (October 31), who, writing from Alexandria, gives a variety of curious particulars regarding the Nile, comes to the conclusion that the solar-spot theory is untenable. He says, that "so far as can be seen in Egypt, there does not appear to be any periodicity of high Niles agreeing absolutely with the acknowledged periodicity of sun-spots, and the cause or causes of maximum rainfalls must be sought for nearer home."

A bad Nile followed by the heat and desiccation of an early summer, such as occurred in 1869, is productive of that terrible result, a want of fresh water, either for domestic purposes, or for the lower animals. But that is not all. In consequence of the dryness of the ground in the region adjoining Alexandria, the salt water "of the sea percolates inland and gives a saline quality to the Nile and waterworks for a distance of seven miles. The writer whom we have quoted, speaking of the drought of 1869, says: "At Rosetta the water was unfit for man or beast, the cattle died from it, and vegetation languished; people gave famine prices for a goat's skin of muddy stinking water from such ditches in the country as the sun had not evaporated. There were just the elements for a plague or epidemic. At every low-Nile period, the fresh water in Alexandria is bad, more or less; it was so this year; but after a very low Nile it is very bad, and may be the cause of an epidemic some day."

The Romans, by means of gigantic tanks, of which remains are visible near Alexandria, did much to assuage the evil effects of a low Nile; but in the present day, though Egypt is in various ways advancing in a knowledge of the useful arts, we cannot expect to see anything like a revival of the energy demonstrated in the occupancy by the Romans. The miserably backward condition in almost every country that had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Turks evokes the most painful emotions. The ingenious writer just referred to sees no prospect of the waters of the Nile being conserved by the present rulers of the country. "Had such a river," he says, "and such a delta existed in any state of western Europe or America, the thing would have been done long ago, if not by the State, by private enterprise. Look at Holland. Look at Lincolnshire, where, by private enterprise, seven hundren and fifty thousand acres of salt marsh and swamps and fens, under exactly the same conditions as those marshes of the delta of Egypt (save wanting the rich Nile-mud to hasten and increase the value of the returns), have been reclaimed, and where an estate which sold for seven thou-and pounds before the reclamation works were commenced, sold for fifty-seven thousand pounds after they were completed, and the value of everything was increased by a hundred per cent. The problem of the reclamation of the marshes of the delta of Egypt is precisely identical, so far as the means of doing it are concerned, to that of the English fens; the only diffeence, in fact, being that in Lincolnshire the object is to keep out the tides when they are up, and open the sluices when they are down, in order to let out any rain-water in case of heavy rains when there is too much of it; here you want a bank and sluices to keep out a sea which has scarcely any tides at all, and the sluices to let out into the sea the Nile-water after it has deposited all its mud into the marsh. To reclaim Lake Mareotis by a sea-bank and sluices about half the size of those used in Lincolnshire, and a small canal to let in the muddy Nile-water, or clean out and extend the present ones, and reclaim its two hundred thousand acres, is a very small and simple matter. The harbor-works at Alexandria will soon be finished, and the plant and staff would be at liberty for the sea-bank and sluices — a rare opportunity of doing it cheaply. With the experience of what has been done in the Lincolnshire fens, and canals in India paying 39.7 per cent, 36.6, and 22.72 per cent, of revenue on capital, no one need hesitate to discuss a thing promising such safe results."