Ancient structure that measured the Nile for tax purposes uncovered in Egypt
While the Nile River receded from the area long ago, workers in the ancient town of Thmuis, Egypt, digging the foundation of a water pumping station recently found a nilometer—a device that measured the river’s flood level and helped calculate taxes in ancient times.
Archaeologists who excavated the nilometer believe it was situated in a temple complex. They said the people of the time likely considered the river a god called Hapi, according to an article on the find in National Geographic.
Fragment of a temple relief with Nile god Hapi. The inscription on the fieze reads "all luck, all life" which is what was hoped for; Medinet (Egypt); 746-655 BC (public domain)
Only about two dozen nilometers have ever been found. This one is in the ruins of Thmuis, an ancient Egyptian city in the Delta area. The Egyptian and American archaeologists who found it think the structure was built during the 3 rd century BC and that it was then in use for about 1,000 years. It calculated the level of the Nile during annual flooding.
The nilometer is a well that consists of a set of steps going down into the earth. It was constructed of large limestone blocks and was about 2.4 meters (8 feet) in diameter. Either the river reached to where the nilometer was, or it measured the water table as a proxy, National Geographic says.
The optimum height of the water during flooding was about 7 cubits, or 3.04 meters (about 10 feet).
The nilometer calculated the level of the Nile during annual flooding (public domain)
“During the time of the pharaohs, the nilometer was used to compute the levy of taxes, and this was also likely the case during the Hellenistic period,” Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, told National Geographic. “If the water level indicated there would be a strong harvest, taxes would be higher.”
The Nile River’s fluctuations changed dramatically with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970. Before that, in September and October, the river’s waters laid down fertile silt, in which were grown the crops that fed the nation, including barley and wheat.
A view of Aswan High Dam (Frostie 2006 / Flickr)
However, says National Geographic, the flood volume varies widely from year to year. In years of low flooding, an inadequate area of cropland was flooded with silt, which could result in famine. But if the waters rose too high, houses and other structures built on the flood plain were washed away and crops were ruined. In the time of the pharaohs, modern researchers have estimated that the flooding was either excessive or inadequate about every five years.
Many years ago, there were at least seven Nile branches. Today there are three. As channels shifted or dried, humans relocated their settlements.
Archaeological work in the area over the years has shown that the ancient city of Mendes was in decline in the 4 th century BC. Thmuis, just several hundred meters (yards) to the south, was built after the Nile’s course changed, says National Geographic. Thmuis translates as “new land” in Egyptian. The nilometer confirms to experts that the old channel of the Nile was then along Thmuis’ western edge.
Archaeologists believe the nilometer may have been part of a temple complex on the banks of the Nile, which has since changed course. Credit: Jay Silverstein, Tell Timai Project
Thmuis is still inhabited, but the river has changed course again, and now it is a small, dry village. Nearby, on the banks of the Nile, is the city of El Mansoura, the largest in the region.
Resahfim.org, in an article on ancient Egypt’s economy, says the country was heavily taxed and some even claim the government collapsed under the weight of heavy taxation of the people.
“But,” says the site, “with a few minor interruptions, its society existed peacefully and basically unchanged for more than two millennia. Even in its days of decadence Herodotus thought it provided better living conditions–if health is anything to go by–than most others he had seen,
... they think that all the diseases which exist are produced in men by the food on which they live: for the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthy of all men next after the Libyans.
“one of the other causes being the climate.”
The grain collected as taxes could be stored for years when the harvest was bad and used to feed the people. The state did not just receive grain as taxes, but also labor.
Top image: Stone steps uncovered at the ancient port city of Thmuis are part of a nilometer, a structure used in antiquity to monitor the level of the Nile River. Credit: Greg Bondar, Tell Timai Project.
By Mark Miller