Egyptian Irrigation Technology Through the Ages

By Joannah Otis, for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 7th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses irrigation techniques used along the Nile River. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

For millennia, the Nile River has been vital to the livelihoods and lives of the Egyptian people. From agriculture and livestock to drinking and cleaning, Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all of its freshwater needs.1 Given the importance of this river, it has been necessary for the people living on its banks to understand and control its power. This necessity has manifested in the development and construction of technology designed to maximize agricultural outputs, both in present day Egypt and in Ancient Egypt.

800px-LevelBasinFloodIrrigationModern Basin Irrigation
Attribution: Jeff Vanuga

Beginning in 3000 BCE, irrigation systems became commonplace along the Nile River.Large, flat-bottomed basins and a series of canals were built to irrigate fields. Water was allowed to flow through the manmade ditches by way of simple gates. During the flooding season, water was directed onto the fields so the rich silt carried by the river’s flow could be adequately deposited. Flood water generally laid on the fields for forty to sixty days until is was drained off and sent on its way towards the Mediterranean.3 The earliest depiction of basin irrigation, and therefore the earliest evidence of it, dates from 3,100 BCE in a stone relief that shows one of the final predynastic kings digging a ditch in a grid network with a hoe. Today, one can still see canals snaking along the flanks of the Nile as farmers continue to utilize ancient irrigation techniques.4

Kairo_Nilometer_BW_1Cairo Nilometer
Attribution: Berthold Werner

In an attempt to regulate water distribution and calculate crop taxes, the Ancient Egyptians developed a structure known as the nilometer to measure flood waters. This stone well accessed via limestone steps was engraved with marks that officials used to determine taxation. Two of the best preserved nilometers are located in Cairo and on Elephantine Island at Aswan, although about two dozen have been found in total. The Cairo nilometer is composed of a large pit extending below the Nile’s water level with three tunnels connecting it to the river. Forty-five steps lead down to the well to allow for easy reading, which was determined by marks on a marble octagonal column with a corinthian capital in the center of the structure. Water levels were consistently recorded at this nilometer between 622 CE and 1845 CE.5 The Elephantine Island nilometer was also actively used to record water levels and was likely part of a temple complex dedicated to Hapi, the God of Nile flooding.6 Today, water distribution is regulated by the Aswan High Dam, which was officially opened in 1971.7

Elephantine Island Nilometer
Attribution: Olaf Tausch

The Nile River has been the lifeline of Egypt for thousands of years. In spite of modern technology and irrigation developments, it continues to have a life of its own. Just as the Ancient Egyptians worshipped its powers, so should we respect its ecosystems and natural tendencies because the success of the Nile River Basin is contingent on the health of the mighty Nile River.


1 Holmes, Martha; Maxwell, Gavin; Scoones, Tim. Nile. BBC Books. 2004.
“Nile River.” The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Ronald Wallenfels and Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000, pp. 137-138. World History in Context.
“Ancient Irrigation.” University of California Davis. 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
4 Postel, Sandra. “Egypt’s Nile Valley Basin Irrigation.” 1999. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
5 “The Nilometer in Cairo.” Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
6 Miller, Mark. “Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt.” 20 May 2016. Web. Accessed 16 October 2017.
7 Caputo, Robert. “Journey up the Nile.” National Geographic. p 582. May 1985.