Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo

By Paula Sanders | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Urban River

THE HIGHWAYMAN OF EGYPT:
AGRICULTURE AND IRRIGATION

" Egypt is the gift of the river," said Herodotus. Medieval Egyptians also knew this to be true. The narrow strip that supplied Egypt with food could be cultivated only because of the annual flooding of the Nile. It is no exaggeration to say that everything depended on the inundation: food, prices, the economy and, therefore, the kingdom in general. The absolute dependence of the country on the Nile was expressed not only in administrative structure, but also in the long history of Nile cults. 1 But the Nile was not an unequivocal blessing, and the river could be impetuous: too little water and there was famine, too much and there was mass destruction. It is easy to understand, then, why al-Qāḍῑ al-Fāḍil, writing of the Nile in the twelfth century, said, "It is the only [real] highwayman in Egypt, both desired and dreaded." 2

Reports of a low Nile, or failure to increase, often inspired panic in the population. At the beginning of the increase (ziyāda), ancient custom had been for the guardian of the Nilometer (qayyās) to announce daily the level of the Nile. The practice was abolished by al-Mu'izz, however, and the historian al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/ 1442) thought it one of the most sensible policies enacted:

In that month [i.e., Shawwāl 362/ 973] al-Mu'izz prohibited proclaiming the increase of the Nile [ziyādat al-nīl] or writing about it to anyone other than himself or Jawhar. He permitted this proclamation only when the Nile had reached its plenitude, that is, when it reached 16 cubits and the canal was cut. Note well the utility of this policy: if, at a given moment, the Nile stops rising or rises [too] little, the people worry and tell themselves there will be a lack of water. They then hoard grain, refusing to sell in anticipation of rising prices. Those who have money make [a great] effort to store cereal, whether anticipating high prices, or for storing provisions for their family. This

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Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo *
  • Contents *
  • Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Short Titles *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Ceremonial Idiom 13
  • Chapter 3 - The Ritual City 39
  • Chapter 4 - Politics, Power, and Administration: the New Year's Ceremony 83
  • Chapter 5 - The Urban River 99
  • Chapter 6 - Ceremonial as Polemic 121
  • Chapter 7 - Epilogue 135
  • Notes *
  • Selected Bibliography *
  • Index *
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