In the posting about Joe's visit, I mentioned that we visited the Nileometer and would post the accompanying article later. Here's later:
Have you been plagued by that age-old question: Just how did they used to measure the annual flood of the Nile? Are you kept awake by the infinite possibilities? Do you find yourself wandering aimlessly, drawn to an answer that remains just out of reach?
Well plague-be-gone! Hop in a taxi, or drive if you’re extra-adventurous, and ask to go to the Nileometer on Roda Island. Or even better, ask to go to the “miqyas al-Nil,” on Roda Island, which is next to the Umm Kulthum Museum and both are on the grounds of the Palace of Hasan Pasha al-Munastirli. With those landmarks, he should be able to ask enough people to find it eventually (our cabbie did).
This is not an all-day outing for which you need to plan weeks in advance. If you just want to check out the Nileometer, and leave the palace grounds and Umm Kulthum Museum for another time, the time it takes to get there will most likely be longer than the time actually spent there. But it’s worth it. And be sure to let the ticket-taker know that you’re there to see the Nileometer, so the man with the key to unlock the door (and all the secrets) will accompany you.
It is said that the Nileometer on Roda is the oldest monument in Cairo that still bears its original form. There is evidence that a nileometer existed on this location dating back to Pharaonic times, however, the current structure dates from 861 A.D. Still impressive.
This structure has undergone a few restorations, first by Ibn Tulun in 873 and again in 1092 by the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir. The wooden conical roof was replaced in the early 1800s by what is seen today and it is believed that this Nileometer was in use for over 1,100 years, up until the last flood in 1970, following the construction of the Aswan Dam.
The exterior shape is reminiscent of a little cottage on the banks of the Nile, however the small interior is cool stone, lit by a ring of windows around the roof, the interior of which is painted in lush golds and greens and spans a stone-lined pit. As you look at the pit, from above, below or somewhere in the middle, you can see that the basic idea is relatively straightforward. The pit is rectangular and wider at the top, and circular and narrower at the bottom. A stone staircase lines the pit walls, there are four inset arches, three eastward-facing tunnels at varying heights that, prior to 1970, allowed the Nile waters in, and a center stone column topped by a wooden beam. The stone column is marked off in cubits (approximately half a meter) and measures a depth of just over nine meters. Your guide will inevitably offer you the chance to clamber down the steps to see what it feels like to be standing below the Nile. The steps are wide but the lack of a handrail can be a bit vertigo-inducing, so tread carefully.
The use of the Nileometer to predict water levels for the coming harvest was vital to Egyptians throughout the centuries. Measurements were taken during the annual August/September floods. If the waters reached the 16th mark, a good harvest year was predicted. If they reached the 19th mark, a devastating flood would follow, and if they failed to reach the 16th mark, famine and drought were expected. Pharaonic records indicate that one in five floods caused either severe droughts or flooding. Annual festivals were celebrated throughout Egypt following a flood mark of 16 or higher. Anything less than 16, however, and the celebrations were canceled and replaced with prayer and fasting.
Cairo’s Nileometer is a little-known gem that most tourists don’t bother with. But on a beautiful day, it’s a great stop for a bit of history, some engineering ingenuity, and a little stair-climbing fun. Be sure to enjoy the view of the Nile from this southern-most point on Roda as well, and as always, don’t forget to tip your guide.