Urbanism To Wadi Garawi dam (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)


The process of urban development in Egypt is not well understood. Many ancient urban sites are buried under modern towns and villages, and thus cannot be excavated. Frequently settlements were occupied from late prehistoric to Roman times, forming large mounds which cannot be completely excavated. Riverine settlements have probably been destroyed by lateral shifts in the channels of the Nile. In rural areas, development is systematically destroying archaeological sites to expand villages and arable land. Thus, any attempt to outline the development of urbanism in ancient Egypt must be regarded as largely hypothetical.

The landscape and culture history of Egypt greatly affected this process. The lower Nile Valley is a complex habitat with different ecosystems and resources, distributed along an east-west axis on both sides of the river. These include the river, riverine marshes, alluvial plains and the savanna of the low desert. Since Predynastic times this landscape probably generated a division of the population of the Valley into a sequence of territorial units aligned north-south and connected to each other by the river. These units exploited resources along an east-west transect, and formed distinct polities. Such divisions may be detected in the regularly spaced clusters of Predynastic (Nagada culture) sites in Upper Egypt. The distinctive hierarchy of settlements within each territorial unit set the stage for the later emergence of towns, and in Dynastic times these units survived as an administrative division of the country into "nomes."

The pharaonic state arose with the progressive incorporation of small-scale polities into a large territorial state with highly centralized control. In this process a hierarchy of settlements developed with a capital (such as Memphis), and large towns and small towns which served as administrative and commercial centers of the nomes and villages. Some settlements developed into towns because of their location as nodes in the regional trade network, and a number of cult centers became towns. Sometimes towns were deliberately planned and constructed for a specific function, such as royal residences, nome centers and the fortresses in Nubia. The history of ancient Egypt is marked by periods with a strong centralized government (Old, Middle and New Kingdoms), when planned towns were founded, and decentralized periods (First, Second and Third Intermediate Periods), when many (unplanned) towns and settlements were fortified for protection.

Ancient Egyptian towns were found in three different topographical locations: on the relics of Nile sediments which form a natural mound (gezira) above the floodplain (especially in the Delta); on high levees along the river; and along the desert edge, such as the pyramid towns.

The development of urbanism in Egypt surely began in Predynastic times. Archaeological evidence from Upper Egypt suggests the following sequence of development:

1 Small egalitarian communities were scattered along the Valley in the late fifth millennium BC. They occupied temporary camps at the margins of the floodplain, on levees and in the low desert (Badarian culture/period).

2 Centers for specialized production (pottery and craft goods) involved in an increasing regional trade network appeared in the early fourth millennium BC. Incipient social differentiation can probably be inferred from the burials. These settlements were located along the edge of the floodplain and on levees (Nagada I phase).

3 Hierarchical society involved in long-distance trade arose by the mid-fourth millennium BC. Villages were located at the edge of the floodplain, and probably on high ground in the floodplain and next to the river. Specialized centers with manufacturing activities increased in number. At least one town which arose at this time was at Hierakonpolis. Another possible town was located near Nagada (Flinders Petrie’s "South Town") (Nagada II phase).

4 Complex society, probably small-scale early states, emerged at the end of the fourth millennium BC. These polities were centered at Hierakonpolis, Nagada and Abydos, which developed as administrative and cult centers.

Archaeological evidence dating to the fifth-fourth millennia BC from the Delta and Lower Egypt is scarce. A large settlement arose in the Delta at Merimde Beni-salame. Towns were probably located at Tell el-Fara’in in the Delta and Ma’adi, near Cairo. They occupied strategic nodes in the trade network between Palestine and the Nile Valley.

New towns were probably built after the rise of the large territorial state in Egypt, in the early third millennium BC (Early Dynastic period). Evidence for this, however, is still scarce. At Hierakonpolis and Abydos there were walled towns not exceeding 10ha in area. Dense urban communities on the scale of the huge city-states which had developed in southern Mesopotamia by this time, however, were unknown in Egypt.

An urban society was definitely established by the mid-third millennium BC (Old Kingdom), as a consequence of the sophisticated administrative system. Walled towns were internally divided with areas for a temple, administrative building(s), houses and craft production. Remains of such a town have been excavated at Elephantine. Temporary towns were also built near the pyramid construction sites to house officials, supervisors, craftsmen and workmen (and their families). The royal palace was probably located near these temporary towns. The textual evidence, however, suggests that in the Old Kingdom the Egyptians distinguished only two main types of settlements, indicated by the hieroglyphic signs *"”and niwt. The *",fsign depicts a rectangular structure, which designates the centers of royal administration. The niwt sign, a circle with lines (streets?) crossing through it, indicates any other type of settlement, from a small rural village to a proper town.

In the early second millennium BC (Middle Kingdom) the settlement pattern was dominated by major towns which functioned to exploit the nome resources, as suggested by textual evidence for a highly organized state bureaucracy. Yet there is very little archaeological evidence for such towns, except at the pyramid town at Lahun, which might suggest an increasing size of towns at this time.

A mature urban society appeared by the mid-second millennium BC (New Kingdom). Textual evidence suggests that three main types of settlements were distinguished then: "city" (niwt), "town" (dmi) and "village" ). Capitals were built at different locations (Thebes, Memphis, Tell el-Amarna and Tell ed-Dab’a/Pi-Ramesses), and were the most impressive cities in the country. Excavations at Tell el-Amarna have revealed the city’s sprawling complex plan, with a central area where the (ceremonial) palace of the king, administrative buildings and large temples were located, with suburbs to the north and south.

Wadi Abu Had/Wadi Dib

Wadi Abu Had and Wadi Dib are located in the Eastern Desert approximately 70km north of Hurghada and 25km west of Gebel Zeit where the Gulf of Suez joins the Red Sea. Archaeological sites are located in a part of the two wadis, in an area 30x20km (27°36′-27°50′ N, 33°08′-33°23′ E). To the east, the area is bordered by a granite and dolerite mountain range reaching 448m above sea level. The plain of Wadi Abu Had is 25km wide and is bisected longitudinally by a limestone range, Gebel Safr Abu Had. The western edge of the plain is delineated by the andesite mountains of Gebel Ladid el-Gidan, with peaks reaching 1,131m above sea level.

The Wadi Abu Had plain forms a natural crossroad in the desert with the lateral-running Wadi Dib in the north. This in turn links with the longitudinal Wadi Usum, which provides access to copper and gold mines at Gebel Darah West, el-Urf and Mongul, about 50km to the north. In the south, Wadi Abu Had merges with the Wadi Mellaha where, 50km beyond, the Roman quarries of Mons Porphyrites are located. Both Wadis Abu Had and Dib join the great Wadi Qena, leading to the Nile Valley to the west, and in the east emerge onto the coastal plain opposite Zeit Bay, a potential harbor. The two wadis form secondary routes in the middle Eastern Desert.

The present archaeological investigations are the first to be done in this area. John Gardner Wilkinson passed through Wadis Abu Had and Dib in 1823, but never recorded any detailed information. Only geological work has been done in the Wadi Abu Had area. Among the earliest investigations were those by Schweinfurth in the nineteenth century and Barron and Hume in the early twentieth century. The most recent investigations have been conducted by Egyptian geological surveys.

Wadi Abu Had/Wadi Dib is a transit area with both semi-nomadic and sedentary settlements. Evidence for human presence is derived from installations, lithics, potsherds and other artifacts, from both prehistoric and historical periods. These include the Lower, Middle and Late Paleolithic, Neolithic, Predynastic, Early Dynastic and late Roman periods.

Survey work began in 1992 and was conducted in part of the eastern and western plains of Wadi Abu Had and around Gebel Safr Abu Had. During this time a major Paleolithic flint quarry with associated artifacts was located. Other flint-working sites and stray finds were noted near the foothills of Gebel Safr Abu Had. The survey continued in Wadi Abu Had in 1993 with the discovery of an Early Dynastic site, WAH 29, a small late Roman installation and more flint-working sites. In the same year the survey moved into Wadi Dib where two Predynastic camp sites, several small late Roman installations and flint-working sites were located. In 1994 the work concentrated in Wadi Abu Had with the initial excavation of WAH 29 and the detailed analysis of the Paleolithic quarry at Gebel Safr Abu Had and its environs. Excavation of WAH 29 continued in 1995, and a survey concentrated within a 5km2 area in the western plain of the wadi located a series of prehistoric sites. At present, dating of the sites is based on artifact typologies, and radiocarbon dates are in the process of being organized. Work is expected to continue within the concession in future field seasons.

Main sites

The main sources for flint are found in nodules stratified in seams in Gebel Safr Abu Had. This type of flint predominates, although the tabular variety is also present. The main quarry is 0.5km long, and about thirteen sites were located on the limestone ridges. These show evidence of the in situ extraction and working of weathered flint nodules to produce (lamellar) flake blanks from which stone tools were made. In the quarry itself, within a square of 5x5m, an average of 400 examples lie on the surface, excluding the number in the subsurface. In general, the artifacts of this region range from late Middle Paleolithic to Late Paleolithic and are found in the context of ephemeral hunting camps and flint-processing camps.

The site of an ancient lake, which is demonstrated by land forms and tufa deposits (a calcareous, siliceous rock deposit of lakes, springs and ground water), lies in the western plain and in the region of Gebel Safr Abu Had. The presence of raw materials for stone tools and standing water holes suggests a relationship between the lake and quarry—and the reason so many sites are located in such a small area. Twenty-seven new localities were located within a 5km2 area in the western plain of Abu Had, and provide evidence of prehistoric use. These range from hunting camps to more intensely occupied living sites. The first group is largely exemplified by flint-knapping scatters across different tracts of the landscape, from a raw material source to a probable water source. The second group, the "living sites," take the form of oval and sub-oval clusters of stone, mostly of fine-grained igneous rocks which show a marked desert varnish, in small mounds up to 40cm high and 4m in diameter. These stone clusters are usually in groups of three or four.

Possible chronological comparisons of technology, typology and location indicate a strong Middle and Late Paleolithic presence in the area. The stone clusters are more characteristic of living sites of a highly organized, possibly early Neolithic hunter-gatherer population.

The site of WAH 29 is situated in a depression within one of the terraces in the eastern branch of Wadi Abu Had. It covers an area of circa 18.6m north-south, and 12.5m east- west. Within the site are the remains of a building, spatially defined by a series of curvilinear enclosure walls, which is cellular in plan. It consists of a forecourt, outer enclosure, inner enclosure and possibly three annexes. The walls are substantially constructed with stones from three to five courses high and two wide. Stones of different sizes, from cobbles to boulders, were sunk in a matrix of carbonated sand and small basalt chips, which act as a mortar. Numerous boulders were selected with flat surfaces, as a facing for the interior of the enclosure walls. Materials used include dolerite/basalt, sandstone, limestone, tufa, conglomerate, andesite, granite, flint, quartz and hematite. Doorways are usually marked by two opposing monoliths, a threshold stone, remains of possible limestone lintels and sandstone bricks, circa 35x15x 10cm. The walls of one enclosure were made entirely of sandstone, much of it brick-shaped. A centrally placed posthole is located in most enclosures thus excavated—three of which still retain fragments of timber. A series of poles were probably lashed to the central post to support a cover of cloth, skin or reeds.

The site appears to have served as a processing center for three different raw materials: malachite, clear quartz and amethystine quartz. Deposits of ash, some carbonated and up to 12cm in depth, appeared in various areas of the excavated enclosures. These hearths were used mainly for stone processing. Malachite was extracted by fracturing the rock with heat and then breaking it into smaller fragments with stone tools, which exposed the thin veins of green stone. The malachite is powdery rather than solid. If solid pieces were present, they were probably transported elsewhere. Only small fragments of solid pieces appeared sporadically. The same method was applied to the amethystine quartz, which usually fractured into microliths. The clear quartz, however, was knapped in the same way as flint. To date, 110 stone tools have been recovered from the site. These include sandstone abraders (the most frequent tool), hammerstones of coarse-grained igneous rock, grinders, anvils, flint tools and one pick. Among this assemblage is a porphyritic, disk-shaped macehead in the first stages of production.

The site has yielded pottery which can be divided into four main types:

1 jars of marl fabrics;

2 polished bowls in fabrics of alluvial silts, and alluvial silts and marls;

3 vessels for food preparation in fabrics which appear to be unique to the area;

4 small jars and bottles in fabrics of alluvial silts and marls.

The most numerous vessel type is a variety of necked jars with folded-over rims and mouth diameters of 8-13cm. Some have globular bodies, while others are slimmer in shape with a higher shoulder tapering to a small rounded or flattened base. The majority of urns were turned on a slow wheel and applied separately to hand-built bodies. Bodies were trimmed vertically with a sharp tool, as typical of Early Dynastic pottery. Red washes on the exterior are frequent: some have a degenerate design characteristic of the end of the Predynastic period. Almost all jars are of marl or a marl/silt mixture, which came from various places in the Nile Valley, and served as transport vessels. Some of the pots have potmarks.

Among the assemblage is a unique pottery type in a fabric composed of a friable, light brown, non-Nilotic silt tempered with various quantities of crushed white quartz and/or grit (possibly water-worn pieces of shell). This pottery type may represent a local industry. Other potential locally made wares are composed of silt with basalt tempering, dung, and dung and sand tempering. This pottery is quite unlike other wares recovered to date from settlements and cemeteries in the Nile Valley and Delta. On the basis of the material recovered so far, WAH 29 can be dated to the end of the Predynastic period (Nagada IIIc2) and early 1st Dynasty, from the reigns of Narmer to Djet.

The excavated evidence suggests that WAH 29 functioned as a permanent processing center for malachite, clear quartz and amethystine quartz in a remote part of the Eastern Desert. These stones may have been traded between the Nile Valley, and possibly Sinai and southwest Asia, using Wadi Abu Had as a route.

Along the main wadi track about 1km west of WAH 29, a small late Roman installation (WAH 30) was located. The complex includes two oval enclosures, two hearths and a silt-filled accumulation well. Amphora sherds were scattered near it, and a rim of African Red Slip Ware was also found there. The assemblage dates to the late fourth century AD.

The survey in Wadi Dib located two Predynastic camping sites. One is situated on a terrace near Wadi Usum (WUS 1). Surface finds include granite grinders, an anvil, a flint hammerstone similar to those at el-Badari in Middle Egypt and a shell (tridacna sp). Such shells were used mainly for making bracelets, a practice known from the Predynastic period. Other surface finds, probably intrusive to the site, are sherds from an Antioch-type amphora of the fourth century AD. The second site (WD 5) is within the mountain range on a terrace. Traces of hut circles and surface finds of weathered flint artifacts, including an ax typical of the Predynastic Nagada culture, were found at this site.

Finds dating to the Roman period in Wadi Dib include small cairns (road markers, WD 6) situated on hilltops overlooking the plain, a collapsed lookout structure (skopeloi, WD 7) and a series of five dry stone huts (GSD 2) situated on escarpments farther west. These may be laurae, small huts used by hermits living in the desert in early Christian times. Structures like these are situated in Wadi Umm Diqal near Mons Claudianus.

The numerous deposits of tufa together with the accumulation wells point to the fact that humans could adapt to a changing climate within this part of the Eastern Desert. The wetter conditions which prevailed during the Mousterian Pluvial, circa 50,000-30,000 BP (years before present), and the Neolithic Sub-pluvial, circa 9,000-5,000 BP, provided longterm supplies of water in some parts of the desert. The time range suspected for the archaeological remains and the relative density of remains point to long-term adaptations to local conditions, as well as successful adjustments by various hunting, gathering and herding peoples.

The project has opened a new area for prehistoric and historical research in the middle Eastern Desert, which was previously unknown and thought to be devoid of human activity.

Wadi Garawi dam

The ancient Sadd el-Kafara dam is situated in the Wadi Garawi (29°46′ N, 31°19′ E), one of the numerous wadis in the desert east of the Nile Valley, some 30km south of Cairo and 11km southeast of Helwan. The dam was originally 113m long and 14m high, but now there are only the remains of construction on both sides of the wadi. The northern wall extends about 24m into the wadi, and the southern one is about 27m long. Between the two preserved walls is a breach, circa 50-60m wide, which has been formed by the numerous floods of the past 4,500 years.

In cross-section, the Sadd el-Kafara dam consists of three construction elements, 98.0m total in width, which differ in composition and function:

1 a central core of rubble, gravel and weathered material;

2 two sections of rock fill on either side (upstream and downstream) of the core;

3 layers of ashlars placed in steps on the slopes of the rock fill.

The central, impervious core of the dam is essentially calcareous silty sand and gravel. As this core material was mostly brought from the wadi terraces, it can be assumed that the filling progressed from the terrace edges toward the middle of the wadi.

On both the upstream and downstream sides, the core is faced by sections of rock fill which support and protect it. The core and rock fill were placed directly on the stripped bottom and cleared slopes of the wadi. The fill consists of rocks, usually 30cm thick, but these also range in thickness (10-60cm). The color and the mineralogical composition of these rocks show that they were quarried from the wadi banks in the vicinity of the dam. The quarried fill material was thrown down haphazardly and the cavities between these rocks were not filled with gravel or debris.

The outside facing of the rock fill is without doubt one of the most remarkable construction features of the Sadd el-Kafara dam. On the upstream side, parts of the facing are still well preserved. On the downstream side, isolated stone blocks indicate that facing corresponding to that on the upstream side was planned and at least partially constructed.

On the upstream side of the southern wall, only thirteen courses of stone near the crest are still partially preserved. The facing of the upstream side of the northern wall is much better preserved, with thirty-one courses still in place. The ashlars are of slightly differing sizes (30x45x80cm, on average), and were quarried from the wadi slopes directly upstream and downstream from the dam. The coarsely hewn blocks are placed flat, forming terraced steps 30cm in height. While the downstream face has a slope of 30°, the northern remains of the dam on the upstream side clearly show different slope angles: 43-45° in the lower section and 35° in the middle section. The shallow slope of the upper steps, circa 25°, was probably not intentional and may be the result of much erosion.

There are no traces of operational devices, such as outlets or a spillway. If they existed at all, which is doubtful, they would have been placed in the destroyed center portion of the dam. In any case, it appears that a spillway was not required. A rough calculation shows that, in the case of overtopping, the discharge critical for the stability of the stepped downstream facing is of the order of 120-140m3/s, which corresponds to an upstream water level of 126m. Under these conditions, more than 200m3/s would bypass the dam by flowing over the wadi terraces. The completed dam would have had a safe "spillway capacity" of more than 300m3/s and might therefore have withstood all floods that could reasonably be expected.

Considering the construction methods and technology available, and taking into account the volume of fill that had to be transported from the wadi terrace to the dam core, and the amount of rock fill to be transported from the wadi edges to the supporting structure, the construction can be estimated to have taken 10-12 years.

Assessments of the dam’s stability by modern methods lead to the conclusion that the design was basically correct, though very conservative. This probably indicates that no experience with structures of this kind was available when it was built (Old Kingdom).

The total volume of the reservoir when fully impounded to an elevation of 125m is circa 620,000m3. Below an elevation of 123.5m, about 465,000m3 can be stored. Basically, a large-scale reservoir was needed either to fulfill a heavy demand, such as for irrigation and/or drinking water, or to protect a large area from excessive flooding. It is unlikely, however, that the Sadd el-Kafara dam was built to supply drinking water or water for irrigation. The dam is too distant from the alabaster quarries situated upstream to have supplied the labor force with drinking water, and vast stretches of fertile arable land with an abundant supply of water were available in the nearby Nile Valley.

Due to the geographical and geological conditions prevailing in the catchment area of the Sadd el-Kafara dam, sudden and heavy rainfalls lead to flash floods with disastrous effects in narrow valleys like the Wadi Garawi. Inhabitants in the region have reported the recent occurrence of floods several meters high which have destroyed villages and claimed lives. It can therefore be assumed that the Sadd el-Kafara dam was built to protect the lower Wadi Garawi from floods (and possibly to safeguard buildings situated around the Ain Fisha spring), and to protect the stretch of the Nile Valley at the mouth of the wadi where settlements were probably located.

Since the rediscovery of the Sadd el-Kafara by Georg Schweinfurth in 1885, there has been no doubt that the dam is a very old structure. Analyses of pottery and radiocarbon dates obtained from samples of charcoal and textiles found in the remains of buildings northwest of the dam (probably a workers’ camp during the construction of the dam) indicate that the dam was constructed in the early Old Kingdom, circa 2,700-2,600 BC.

This dating makes the Sadd el-Kafara dam one of the oldest in the world, and certainly the world’s oldest large-scale dam.

Investigations demonstrate, however, that the dam was never completed. There is evidence that the upstream rock fill was almost (or fully) completed, but a gap still remained in the middle section of the downstream rock fill, and perhaps also in the core, when the structure was destroyed by a flood overtopping the upstream rock fill. The dam collapsed, which must have resulted in a catastrophic flood in the lower wadi. The impression left by the disaster, which was not caused by faulty design but by a natural phenomenon that could not have been foreseen, must have been so terrible that the damaged structure was abandoned.

Remains of the Sadd el-Kafara dam in the Wadi Garawi in 1982

Figure 127 Remains of the Sadd el-Kafara dam in the Wadi Garawi in 1982

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