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Pliny the Elder: The geography of Egypt
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Pliny the Elder: The geography of Egypt

Chapter 6 Libya Mareotis

The region that follows is called Libya Mareotis, and borders upon Egypt. It is held by the Marmaridae, the Adyrmachidae, and, after them, the Mareotoe. The distance from Catabathmos to Paraetonium is eighty-six miles. In this district is Apis, a place rendered famous by the religious belief of Egypt. From this town Paraetonium is distant sixty-two miles, and from thence to Alexandria the distance is 200 miles, the breadth of the district being 169. Eratosthenes says that it is 525 miles by land from Cyrene to Alexandria; while Agrippa gives the length of the whole of Africa from the Atlantic Sea, and including Lower Egypt, as 3040 miles. Polybius and Eratosthenes, who are generally considered as remarkable for their extreme correctness, state the length to be, from the ocean to Great Carthage 1100 miles, and from Carthage to Canopus, the nearest mouth of the Nile, 1628 miles; while Isidorus speaks of the distance from Tingi to Canopus as being 3599 miles. Artemidorus makes this last distance forty miles less than Isidorus.


-Apis: Some doubt that Pliny's and Herodorus' Apis are the same town: For those of the city of Marea and of Apis, dwelling in the parts of Egypt which border on Libya, being of opinion themselves that they were Libyans and not Egyptians
Herodotus Euterpe, Chapter 18
The eastern Delta had been settled by Libyans during the early part of the first millennium BCE.
-Polybius: Greek historian living in the 2nd century BCE.
-Eratosthenes: 3rd century BCE mathematician and geographer
-ocean: The Atlantic
-Great Carthage: The Punic centre in North Africa (Tunisia)
-Tingi: Tangiers
-Artemidorus: Geographer from Ephesus, lived around 100 BCE.

Chapter 9 Egypt and Thebais

Joining on to Africa is Asia, the extent of which, according to Timosthenes, from the Canopic mouth of the Nile to the mouth of the Euxine, is 2639 miles. From the mouth of the Euxine to that of Lake Maeotis is, according to Eratosthenes, 1545 miles. The whole distance to the Tanais, including Egypt, is, according to Artemidorus and Isidorus, 6375 miles. The seas of Egypt, which are several in number, have received their names from those who dwell upon their shores, for which reason they will be mentioned together.
Egypt is the country which lies next to Africa; in the interior it runs in a southerly direction, as far as the territory of the Aethiopians, who lie extended at the back of it. The river Nile, dividing itself, forms on the right and left the boundary of its lower part, which it embraces on every side. By the Canopic mouth of that river it is separated from Africa, and by the Pelusiac from Asia, there being a distance between the two of 170 miles. For this reason it is that some persons have reckoned Egypt among the islands, the Nile so dividing itself as to give a triangular form to the land which it encloses: from which circumstance also many persons have named Egypt the Delta, after that of the Greek letter so called. The distance from the spot where the channel of the river first divides into branches, to the Canopic mouth, is 146 miles, and to the Pelusiac, 166.


-Euxine: The Black Sea
-Tanais: The river Don, defined as the frontier between Europe and Asia.
-Africa: The north African regions west of Egypt
-Egypt: Here identified with the Nile Delta
-Nomes: cf. Nomes, cities and sites
-Delta: The Greek letter delta, D, had the form of a triangle, roughly the shape of the Nile delta.
-first divides into branches: A few kilometres below Memphis
The upper part of Egypt, which borders on Aethiopia, is known as Thebais. This district is divided into prefectures of towns, which are generally designated as "Nomes." These are Ombites, Apollopolites, Hermonthites, Thinites, Phaturites, Coptites, Tentyrites, Diopolites, Antaeopolites, Aphroditopolites, and Lycopolites. The district which lies in the vicinity of Pelusium contains the following Nomes, Pharbaethites, Bubastites, Sethroites, and Tanites. The remaining Nomes are those called the Arabian; the Hammonian, which lies on the road to the oracle of Jupiter Hammon; and those known by the names of Oxyrynchites, Leontopolites, Athribites, Cynopolites, Hermopolites, Xoites, Mendesim, Sebennytes, Cabasites, Latopolites, Heliopolites, Prosopites, Panopolites, Busirites, Onuphites, Saïtes, Ptenethu, Phthemphu, Naucratites, Metelites, Gynaecopolites, Menelaites,--all in the region of Alexandria, besides Mareotis in Libya. -This district: Upper Egypt
-Nomes: Greek nomos from nemein, to divide.
-in the vicinity of Pelusium: i.e. the eastern Delta
-oracle of Jupiter: Hammon, i.e. Amen. One of the most famous oracles of the Roman world, its seat was in the Siwa oasis in the western desert {1]. This oracle, which was in the desert, in the midst of the burning sands of Africa, declared to Alexander that Jupiter was his father. After several questions, having asked if the death of his father was suddenly revenged, the oracle answered, that the death of Philip was revenged, but that the father of Alexander was immortal.

An Oxonian: Thaumaturgia, 1835
-in the region of Alexandria: in the western Delta
Heracleopolites is a Nome on an island of the Nile, fifty miles in length, upon which there is a city, called the 'City of Hercules.' There are two places called Arsinoites: these and Memphites extend to the apex of the Delta; adjoining to which, on the side of Africa, are the two Nomes of Oasites. Some writers vary in some of these names and substitute for them other Nomes, such as Heroöpolites and Crocodilopolites. Between Arsinoïtes and Memphites, a lake, 250 miles, or, according to what Mucianus says, 450 miles in circumference and fifty paces deep, has been formed by artificial means: after the king by whose orders it was made, it is called by the name of Moeris. The distance from thence to Memphis is nearly sixty-two miles, a place which was formerly the citadel of the kings of Egypt; from thence to the oracle of Hammon it is twelve days' journey. Memphis is fifteen miles from the spot where the river Nile divides into the different channels which we have mentioned as forming the Delta. -formed by artificial means: The Faiyum is a natural depression.
-Moeris: see Herodotus on Moeris

Chapter 10 The River Nile

The sources of the Nile are unascertained, and, travelling as it does for an immense distance through deserts and burning sands, it is only known to us by common report, having neither experienced the vicissitudes of warfare, nor been visited by those arms which have so effectually explored all other regions. It rises, so far indeed as King Juba was enabled to ascertain, in a mountain of Lower Mauritania, not far from the ocean; immediately after which it forms a lake of standing water, which bears the name of Nilides. In this lake are found the several kinds of fish known by the names of alabeta, coracinus, and silurus; a crocodile also was brought thence as a proof that this really is the Nile, and was consecrated by Juba himself in the temple of Isis at Caesarea, where it may be seen at the present day.
In addition to these facts, it has been observed that the waters of the Nile rise in the same proportion in which the snows and rains of Mauritania increase. Pouring forth from this lake, the river disdains to flow through arid and sandy deserts, and for a distance of several days' journey conceals itself; after which it bursts forth at another lake of greater magnitude in the country of the Massaesyli, a people of Mauritania Caesariensis, and thence casts a glance around, as it were, upon the communities of men in its vicinity, giving proofs of its identity in the same peculiarities of the animals which it produces. It then buries itself once again in the sands of the desert, and remains concealed for a distance of twenty days' journey, till it has reached the confines of Aethiopia. Here, when it has once more become sensible of the presence of man, it again emerges, at the same source, in all probability, to which writers have given the name of Niger, or Black. After this, forming the boundary-line between Africa and Aethiopia, its banks, though not immediately peopled by man, are the resort of numbers of wild beasts and animals of various kinds. Giving birth in its course to dense forests of trees, it travels through the middle of Aethiopia, under the name of Astapus, a word which signifies, in the language of the nations who dwell in those regions, "water issuing from the shades below."
Proceeding onwards, it divides innumerable islands in its course, and some of them of such vast magnitude, that although its tide runs with the greatest rapidity, it is not less than five days in passing them. When making the circuit of Meroe", the most famous of these islands, the left branch of the river is called Astobores, or, in other words, "an arm of the water that issues from the shades," while the right arm has the name of Astosapes, which adds to its original signification the meaning of "side." It does not obtain the name of "Nile" until its waters have again met and are united in a single stream; and even then, for some miles both above and below the point of confluence, it has the name of Siris. Homer has given to the whole of this river the name of Aegyptus, while other writers again have called it Triton. Every now and then its course is interrupted by islands which intervene, and which only serve as so many incentives to add to the impetuosity of its torrent; and though at last it is hemmed in by mountains on either side, in no part is the tide more rapid and precipitate. Its waters then hastening onwards, it is borne along to the spot in the country of the Aethiopians which is known by the name of "Catadupi;" where, at the last Cataract, the complaint is, not that it flows, but that it rushes, with an immense noise between the rocks that lie in its way: after which it becomes more smooth, the violence of its waters is broken and subdued, and, wearied out as it were by the length of the distance it has travelled, it discharges itself, though by many mouths, into the Egyptian sea. During certain days of the year, however, the volume of its waters is greatly increased, and as it traverses the whole of Egypt, it inundates the earth, and, by so doing, greatly promotes its fertility. -Meroe: Capital of Kush
-Catadupi: The cataracts, of which there are six.
-many mouths: in ancient times about seven majot ones.
-promotes its fertility: apart from moisture the inundation leaves behind a thin layer of nutrient rich silt.
There have been various reasons suggested for this increase of the river. Of these, however, the most probable are, either that its waters are driven back by the Etesian winds, which are blowing at this season of the year from an opposite direction, and that the sea which lies beyond is driven into the mouths of the river; or else that its waters are swollen by the summer rains of Aethiopia, which fall from the clouds conveyed thither by the Etesian winds from other parts of the earth. Timaeus the mathematician has alleged a reason of an occult nature: he says that the source of the river is known by the name of Phiala, and that the stream buries itself in channels underground, where it sends forth vapours generated by the heat among the steaming rocks amid which it conceals itself; but that, during the days of the inundation, in consequence of the sun approaching nearer to the earth, the waters are drawn forth by the influence of his heat, and on being thus exposed to the air, overflow; after which, in order that it may not be utterly dried up, the stream hides itself once more. He says that this takes place at the rising of the Dog-Star, when the sun enters the sign of Leo, and stands in a vertical position over the source of the river, at which time at that spot there is no shadow thrown. Most authors, however, are of opinion, on the contrary, that the river flows in greater volume when the sun takes his departure for the north, which he does when he enters the signs of Cancer and Leo, because its waters then are not dried up to so great an extent; while on the other hand, when he returns towards the south pole and re-enters Capricorn, its waters are absorbed by the heat, and consequently flow in less abundance. If there is any one inclined to be of opinion, with Timaeus, that the waters of the river may be drawn out of the earth by the heat, it will be as well for him to bear in mind the fact, that the absence of shadow is a phaenomenon which lasts continuously in these regions. -Etesian winds: winds blowing steadily for forty days in the same direction at the beginning of the inundation season.
-from other parts of the earth: actually monsoonsfrom the Indian Ocean.
-occult nature: Educated Romans and Greeks were generally dismissive of such ideas.
-rising of the Dog-Star: The heliacal rising of Sirius coincides with the rising Nile.
The Nile begins to increase at the next new moon after the summer solstice, and rises slowly and gradually as the sun passes through the sign of Cancer; it is at its greatest height while the sun is passing through Leo, and it falls as slowly and gradually as it arose while he is passing through the sign of Virgo. It has totally subsided between its banks, as we learn from Herodotus, on the hundredth day, when the sun has entered Libra. While it is rising it has been pronounced criminal for kings or prefects even to sail upon its waters. -summer solstice: about 21st June.
The measure of its increase is ascertained by means of wells. Its most desirable height is sixteen cubits; if the waters do not attain that height, the overflow is not universal; but if they exceed that measure, by their slowness in receding they tend to retard the process of cultivation. In the latter case the time for sowing is lost, in consequence of the moisture of the soil; in the former, the ground is so parched that the seed-time comes to no purpose. The country has reason to make careful note of either extreme. When the water rises to only twelve cubits, it experiences the horrors of famine; when it attains thirteen, hunger is still the result; a rise of fourteen cubits is productive of gladness; a rise of fifteen sets all anxieties at rest; while an increase of sixteen is productive of unbounded transports of joy. The greatest increase known, up to the present time, is that of eighteen cubits, which took place in the time of the Emperor Claudius; the smallest rise was that of five, in the year of the battle of Pharsalia, the river by this prodigy testifying its horror, as it were, at the murder of Pompeius Magnus. When the waters have reached their greatest height, the people open the embankments and admit them to the lands. As each district is left by the waters, the business of sowing commences. This is the only river in existence that emits no vapours. -wells: Nilometers, there were a number of them along the river.
-sixteen cubits: about 8 metres. The royal cubit was about 52 cm.
-Pharsalia: Pharsalus, town in Thessalia near which Caesar defeated Pompey in 48 BCE.
The Nile first enters the Egyptian territory at Syene, on the frontiers of Aethiopia; that is the name of a peninsula a mile in circumference, upon which Castra is situate, on the side of Arabia. Opposite to it are the four islands of Philae, at a distance of 600 miles from the place where the Nile divides into two channels; at which spot, as we have already stated, the Delta, as it is called, begins. This, at least, is the distance, according to Artemidorus, who also informs us that there were in it 250 towns; Juba says, however, that the distance between these places is 400 miles. Aristocreon says that the distance from Elephantis to the sea is 750 miles; Elephantis being an inhabited island four miles below the last Cataract, sixteen beyond Syene, 585 from Alexandria, and the extreme limit of the navigation of Egypt. To such an extent as this have the above-named authors been mistaken! This island is the place of rendezvous for the vessels of the Aethiopians: they are made to fold up, and the people carry them on their shoulders whenever they come to the Cataracts.
-Syene: Assuan, just below the first cataract.
-Elephantis: Elephantine
-people carry them on their shoulders: Not very successful attempts were made to improve navigation. Under Thutmose III a shipping canal was cut through the first cataract.

Chapter 11 The Cities of Egypt

Egypt, besides its boast of extreme antiquity, asserts that it contained, in the reign of King Amasis, 20,000 inhabited cities: in our day they are still very numerous, though no longer of any particular note. Still however we find the following ones mentioned as of great renown--the city of Apollo; next, that of Leucothea; then Great Diospolis, otherwise Thebes, known to fame for its hundred gates; Coptos, which from its proximity to the Nile, forms its nearest emporium for the merchandise of India and Arabia; then the town of Venus, and then another town of Jupiter. After this comes Tentyris, below which is Abydus, the royal abode of Memnon, and famous for a temple of Osiris, which is situate in Libya, at a distance from the river of seven miles and a half. Next to it comes Ptolemais, then Panopolis, and then another town of Venus, and, on the Libyan side, Lycon, where the mountains form the boundary of the province of Thebais. On passing these, we come to the towns of Mercury, Alabastron, the town of Dogs, and that of Hercules already mentioned. We next come to Arsinoë, and Memphis, which has been previously mentioned; between which last and the Nome of Arsinoïtes, upon the Libyan side, are the towers known as the Pyramids, the Labyrinth on Lake Moeris, in the construction of which no wood was employed, and the town of Crialon. Besides these, there is one place in the interior, on the confines of Arabia, of great celebrity, the City of the Sun.


-Amasis Ahmose II (569-526 BCE)
-city of Apollo: Edfu
-for the merchandise of India and Arabia: Unloaded at Quoseir the goods were transported overland through wadi Hammamat.
-town of Venus: Aphroditopolis, a number of cities were known by this name, such as the Middle Kingdom capital of Itjtawi; but Pliny seems to refer here to a town further south.
-Tentyris: Modern Denderah
-Panopolis: modern Akhmim
-another town of Venus: modern Tachta
-Lycon: Assyut
-Mercury: Hermopolis
-town of Dogs: Cynopolis
-Hercules: Henen-nesut
-City of the Sun: Heliopolis
With the greatest justice, however, we may lavish our praises upon Alexandria, built by Alexander the Great on the shores of the Egyptian Sea, upon the soil of Africa, at twelve miles' distance from the Canopic Mouth and near Lake Mareotis; the spot having previously borne the name of Rhacotes. The plan of this city was designed by the architect Dinochares, who is memorable for the genius which he displayed in many ways. Building the city upon a wide space of ground fifteen miles in circumference, he formed it in the circular shape of a Macedonian chlamys, uneven at the edge, giving it an angular projection on the right and left; while at the same time he devoted one-fifth part of the site to the royal palace.
Lake Mareotis, which lies on the south side of the city, is connected by a canal which joins it to the Canopic mouth, and serves for the purposes of communication with the interior. It has also a great number of islands, and is thirty miles across, and 150 in circumference, according to Claudius Caesar. Other writers say that it is forty schoeni in length, making the schoenum to be thirty stadia; hence, according to them, it is 150 miles in length and the same in breadth.
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, Pharbaethos, Leontopolis, Athribis, the town of Isis, Busiris, Cynopolis, Aphrodites, Sais, and Naucratis, from which last some writers call that the Naucratitic Mouth, which is by others called the Heracleotic, and mention it instead of the Canopic Mouth, which is the next to it.
-stadium: 185 metres.
-Canopic Mouth ....: from west to east.

Pliny the Elder. The Natural History., Book V, chapters 6, 9ff
(John Bostock, H.T. Riley, London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.)


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