The Delta

Satellite view of the Nile Delta, the Faiyum, and the northern part of the Nile Valley around Memphis and Herakleopolis Magna. The darker ‘blobs’ within the Delta are major modern cities. NASA.

It is in the Nile Delta that the contrast between what we know of great ancient cities and the meagreness of the surviving remains is the most striking. Although the Delta contains some of the richest and most fertile land of ancient (and modern) Egypt, the very flatness of its green landscape gives a clue as to why its dynastic settlements have rarely survived: the vulnerability of low-lying land to the annual inundation of the Nile and the pressure on ancient sites by the demands of an increasingly large modern population mean that the ancient sites of the Nile Delta suffer the same pressures as the rest of Egypt, but to an even more significant degree. More positively, cities in the Delta are better documented by our classical sources, especially Herodotus (who claims to have visited Sais, Bubastis, Buto, Papremis and Pelusium), but this is small compensation for the severely degraded state of almost all major settlements in the Delta.

Of the dozen modern cities in Egypt that have an estimated population in excess of 300,000, the largest by far is Greater Cairo (c. 12 million) followed by Alexandria (4.25 million). Of the rest, three (Ismailiya, Port Said and Suez) have grown in association with the Suez Canal, two (Luxor and Asyut) are in Upper Egypt and one (Faiyum City) is in the Faiyum. The remaining four are in the Nile Delta – Mansura (c. 470,000), Mahalla al-Kubra (c. 450,000), Tanta (c. 430,000) and Zagazig (c. 320,000). The relative anonymity of these impressively large Delta cities even to Western visitors who claim to know Egypt well, is probably paralleled by the potential importance of little-known ancient cities in the Delta when compared with their monument-rich contemporaries in the south of Egypt.

The settlement of the Nile Delta has its own specific peculiarities that make it distinctly dissimilar from the Nile Valley. The most immediate difference is that, unlike in the Valley, the way sites relate to each other is more complex, in contrast with the largely linear distribution of sites in the Valley where they are either east or west of the river. The reason for this is that some 25–40 km (15–25 miles) north of Memphis, the Nile split into three major branches (Rosetta, Damietta and Pelusiac), which along with a fourth that came off the Rosetta branch (named Canopic) and countless subsidiary waterways, formed the Delta. Like the river all the way up the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt, the Delta branches continually gradually moved and shifted in their courses. As a result, the distribution of nome boundaries is more complex and more fluid.

The significant distance from the desert for many Delta sites has important repercussions – unlike in the Valley, the desert edge is not the most obvious and convenient choice for burials, nor a convenient source of building stone. The location of cemeteries and the extent of reuse of stone therefore differ somewhat in the Delta and the Valley. In addition, the Delta saw the intensive use of geziras (sometimes called ‘turtlebacks’) – naturally deposited sand islands found in parts of the Nile Delta – as prized locations for both cemeteries and settlement, since they often stood well above the waters of the inundation even at the height of the flood.

Nonetheless, despite the less-clear pattern of settlement in the Delta compared with the Valley, the major Nile branches dictated the key relationships between sites. The location of settlements in the Delta is closely linked to the position of the Nile branches, but the continuous movement of these branches over the millennia of major human settlement in the Delta creates a complicated picture of settlement distribution, which is difficult to unpick. The problem of a Nile that ‘wanders’ across its flood plain in the Valley (e.g. at Memphis) is much greater in the Delta where there are both multiple branches rather than a single stream, and no natural limits (apart from at its eastern and western borders) on a par with the constraining cliffs of southern Egypt.

It is clear from both ancient written accounts and modern archaeological work, which has attempted to locate ancient Nile streams through deep-core borings, that the location and even the number of Nile branches varied considerably over the period from the Predynastic to the present day. In addition, attempts to control all minor, and some major, Nile branches by turning them into canals (e.g. the ancient Pelusiac branch, which is now the el-Ibrahimiya Canal) has created a situation in which, from about AD 900 onwards, there have been only two major ‘natural’ Nile branches in the Delta: they enter the Mediterranean at the modern cities of Rashid (this is the Rosetta branch) and Dumyat (this is the Damietta).

Pliny the Elder Describes the Branches of the Nile in the Delta

There are also, in the latter part of the course of the Nile, many towns of considerable celebrity, and more especially those which have given their names to the mouths of the river – I do not mean, all the mouths, for there are no less than twelve of them, as well as four others, which the people call the False Mouths. I allude to the seven more famous ones, the Canopic Mouth, next to Alexandria, those of Bolbitine, Sebennys, Phatnis, Mendes, Tanis and, last of all, Pelusium. Besides the above there are the towns of Butos, Pharbæthos, Leontopolis, Athribis, the town of Isis, Busiris, Cynopolis, Aphrodites, Sais and Naucratis, from which last some writers call that the Naucratic Mouth, which is by others called the Heracleotic, and mention it instead of the Canopic Mouth, which is the one next to it.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.11

Cities of the Canopic Branch

The greatest city connected to the most western branch of the Nile in the Delta, the Canopic, was, of course, Alexandria. However, even before the arrival of Alexander the Great, this waterway (which split off and travelled northwest from the Rosetta branch about half way along its course) was important as a major interface between cultivation and desert, or what was Egypt and what was not, during the dynastic period and before. As with elsewhere in the Delta, many ancient settlements have disappeared or are difficult to locate beneath agricultural or urban spread, such as the modern city of Damanhur whose current name suggests its ancient equivalent (Demi-n-Hor – ‘Town of Horus’).

Kom el-Hisn

The ancient city of Imau has a sequence of occupation unequalled in the dynastic period apart from by Sais. It has been the subject of fieldwork by several explorers, including Francis Ll. Griffith between 1885 and 1887, Mustafa el-Amir, Shafik Farid and Abdel Hamada in 1943–49, Robert Wenke in 1983–89 and Christopher Kirby in the 1990s. Today the site is a low but extensive mound whose most distinctive feature is the rectangular temple enclosure. This temple, dedicated to the patron goddess of Imau, Sekhmet-Hathor, benefited from royal patronage, including a series of statues of Ramesses II and one of Amenemhat III.

Cattle in the Delta

Excavations carried out at Kom el-Hisn by Robert Wenke for the University of Washington in the 1980s produced a wealth of faunal and botanical remains in settlement levels of domestic activity that have been dated to the late Old Kingdom. Much of this evidence – the bones of fish, fowl, sheep, goats and pigs – suggests a diet whose main protein component came from a mixture of hunting and domestication.

However, one additional intriguing discovery was that of substantial amounts of cattle dung, but very few cattle bones. This has led to the suggestion that Kom el-Hisn had a specialized function in the later part of the Old Kingdom, that of producing cattle that were transported to other parts of Egypt – perhaps Memphis – for consumption.

The latter statue suggests Middle Kingdom activity at the site, which has been confirmed by the significant amounts of pottery of that date recovered by Kirby’s survey. Unusually for the Delta, Kom el-Hisn has preserved a large cemetery dating from the First Intermediate Period to the New Kingdom, including a large decorated tomb for the ‘Priest of Hathor, Overseer of Priests and Overseer of the Harim’ Khesuwer.


One of the most strikingly individual towns founded on the ancient course of the Canopic branch was Naukratis, now represented by settlement mounds that have been heavily denuded by sebbakh-diggers, around the modern villages of Kom Ge’if, el-Nibeira and el-Nikrash. The name of the site derives from the Egyptian Niwt Keredj, the ‘Town of the Carians’, which indicates its role as a town with a distinct and deliberately Greek character. The location of Naukratis made it an obvious port-town, with riverine links between Memphis and the sea, yet in reasonably close proximity to Sais (which was northeast from Naukratis on the nearby Rosetta branch). This strategic position was presumably the reason that it was chosen in the 7th century BC to be the home of a major Greek military and trading colony, as noted by Herodotus.

This plan of Naukratis, based on Petrie’s excavations at the site, shows the two aspects of the town, with the traditional Egyptian temple enclosure to the south and the settlement containing several Greek temples to the north. Steven Snape.

Naukratis was first explored between 1884 and 1903 by Flinders Petrie, followed by Ernest Gardner and then David Hogarth. From 1977 to 1983 it was the focus of the ‘Naukratis Project’ led by William Coulson and Albert Leonard. The excavations at the site have largely confirmed Naukratis’ role as an emporium that looked to the Greek world. In the northern part of the site, Petrie and his successors excavated the fragmentary remains of five Greek temples (to Apollo, Hera, Aphrodite and the Dioscuri, and the ‘Hellenion’), as well as zones for manufacturing objects including scarabs, pottery, faience and – perhaps most interestingly – iron weapons, which were unknown in the rest of Egypt at this time.

The southern part of the town was dominated by the ‘Great Temenos’, a rectangular mudbrick enclosure 260 by 226 m (853 by 741 ft) that was either built or restored by Ptolemy II. In the northern part of the Temenos was an Egyptian temple to Amun, while the southern part of the Temenos was dominated by an enormous mudbrick platform, each side 55 m (180 ft) long; the function of this platform remains a matter of controversy.

Kom Firin

The principal excavations at this important site, whose ancient name is not known, were directed by Neal Spencer for the British Museum in 2002–10. Sebbakh-digging at Kom Firin has resulted in the creation of the most distinctive feature of the site: a series of artificial ‘pedestals’, some over 10 m (33 ft) tall, especially in the southeast corner of the site. The eastern part of the current kom is the one that is easiest to understand, based on Spencer’s work. It consisted of a large (225 by 199 m, 739 by 653 ft) rectangular enclosure within which was a Ramesside temple. The massive size of the enclosure was probably deliberate, since, like Tell el-Abqa’in, Kom Firin was established as a fortress-town to defend Egypt’s western border from Libyan incursions during the late New Kingdom.

In the Late Period, the town, which had been based on the old Ramesside enclosure, seems to have been remodelled, with a new enclosure wall surrounding an area four times larger than that of the New Kingdom.

The cemetery of Kom Firin appears to have been located at the nearby site of Silvagou from the Middle Kingdom onwards, although no settlement remains as early as this have yet been found at Kom Firin itself.

The Establishment of Naukratis as an International Port

Amasis favoured the Greeks and granted them a number of privileges, of which the chief was the gift of Naukratis as a commercial headquarters for any who wished to settle in the country….

In the old days Naukratis was the only trading port in Egypt, and anyone who brought a ship into the other mouths of the Nile was bound to state on oath that he did so of necessity and then proceed to the Canopic mouth; should contrary winds prevent him from doing so, he had to carry his freight to Naukratis in barges all round the Delta, which shows the exclusive privilege the port enjoyed.

Herodotus II, 178–79

The oddly shaped mudbrick ‘pinnacles’ at Kom Firin are the result of the long-term actions of the weather and sebbakh-diggers on the enclosure wall and major buildings at the site. Steven Snape.

Tell el-Abqa’in

Tell el-Abqa’in consists of two substantial, adjacent mounds separated by a modern road, the smaller of these mounds being covered by a cemetery serving local villages. The larger mound was first examined by Georges Daressy in 1903. In 1941 it was excavated by Labib Habachi and since 1996 by Susanna Thomas for the University of Liverpool. Work carried out to date suggests that Tell el-Abqa’in was an important fortified settlement on the western fringes of the Delta. As with Kom Firin, there is no evidence to suggest that the site existed before the reign of Ramesses II, although that king is very well attested at Tell el-Abqa’in through a variety of inscribed architectural elements and, most notably, a group of at least four wells in the southeast corner of the site, within a massive mudbrick enclosure wall. The western wall of that enclosure has largely been removed by sebbakh-diggers, creating an enormous trench whose eastern face suggests a complex internal stratigraphy for the site.

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