Monday, November 24, 2008


While everyone does the regular tourist circuit, Cairo has a number of other places of varying vintage and interest, that you just need to have the time, and, of course the inclination to go see.

One such place, that had been on my agenda for over a year, is the Nilometer on Roda Island, but somehow everytime I planned to go there, something came up, and, I could not. However, a friend was equally keen to see the place, so we finally did manage to make the trip, and, at least for me, it was worth the trip, notwithstanding my vertigo!

Deciding to go see it was the easy part, finding it was another story all together! Its amazing how these things are overlooked not only by tourists but also locals. Finally, it was a hotel concierge who came to our rescue, and, after a broken car mirror, a visibly upset driver, and, terrific traffic, we made it to the Nilometer. Nestled between the Nile and a lot of greenery, it is rather easy to miss it. And while you are searching for it, might make sense to ask for Mikyas al-Nil - might make it easier to find it!

I guess the importance of Nilometer in earlier Egyptian life cannot be underestimated. The rulers and their officials derived their power from the Nilometer? Strange? Not really, when you consider that the levels of the water as measured in the Nilometer, helped the officials predict the level of inundation, which indicated the extent of deposits of fertile black soil which was so crucial to cultivation. More importantly, this determined the level of taxes to be paid to the ruler, hence playing an important political and administrative role.

Though you would have thought that the years of experience would have taught the peasants to read the signs when the Nile was flooding, much better than the officials reading it off a Nilometer, but there is a premium to being royalty and having access to years of acumulated data which probably made the prediction a little more accurate, and, made it sound a lot more hi-fi (much like management speak vis-a-vis common sense, lol!)

From the outside, the conical dome is very modern and you need to hunt out the caretakers to open the doors and allow you to go in. We found a very helpful one, who could not speak a word of anything other than Arabic, but nevertheless, very sweetly proceeded to explain things to us (God bless CSA and my driver for my Arabic lessons!).
The Nilometer was built on the oredrs of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861) under the direction of Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Hasib at the end of his reign in 861.The Nilometer, as it stands today, is almost as it was originally except for the wooden painted dome roof which was a later addition as part of a restoration project.

The roof, I understand, was destroyed in a bombing by the French during their occupation of Egypt (wonder why the Egyptians are still so fascinated with the French? French language, French au pairs, french food?) after which a new dome was built in the same style as it is today. This however, was not destined to last too long either, and, was destroyed by a factory explosion, and, then restored as close to the original as possible, based on an 18th century painting by the Danish traveler, Fredrik Ludvig Norden as a reference. It is indeed beautiful (see photo below)!

The Nilometer consists of a well which houses an octagonal marble column which is graded and divided into 19 cubits. From what I understood with my limited knowledge of Arabic, water upto the 16th mark meant an ideal flood, anything below 16 meant famine and drought, and anything above 19 meant tragedy! I also read somewhere that prior to the expected flood, this column would be anointed with saffron and musk in order to help induce a good water level!

This well, that houses the marble column, continues deep into the ground, beyond the surface level of the Nile. This well was connected to the Nile through tunnels, which are sealed now (see tunnel doors below).

The walls of the well are inscribed with Kufic Qur'anic inscriptions referring to water, prosperity and vegetation.

The Nilometer was also importat as a trigger for Fath al-Khalij or the festival of the Opening of the Canal. The Khalij Canal originated opposite Roda Island and would be opened when the Nilometer reached the 16 mark. At this level, the water filled up the canal and provided irrigation for the farmers.
From what I have read, during the celebrations, decorated boats would crowd the river. Those who witnessed it referred to it as Cairo's most spectacular festival. Of course the celebrations were not guaranteed. If the water levels remained below 16, then far from celebrating, the locals would be fasting and praying to the rain gods!

The first time I went, my vertigo got the better of me, and, I did not manage to go down the well. The absence of any railings/ support makes it worse!
The next time round, I gritted my teeth and went down, couldn't let a fear get the better of me! And believe me, the view, as you look up from the ground, with the light streaming through the dome, is really worth the trek down!

How to get there: Nilometer is located inside the gardened compound of Cairo's Al Manasterly Palace. The entrance fees is LE15 er head.

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