Seeing history through the mind’s eye

University of Alaska Anchorage journalism student Linda Hardyman is spending a year abroad in Egypt. Each week, the Northern Light prints her first-hand account of her experiences in the Middle East. This week Hardyman continues her adventure through Pelusium.

CARIO, Egypt—When the bus turned off the main road onto some tracks in the sand, it looked as if there was nothing ahead of us except miles of uninterrupted desert. But, as we came to the top of a hill I could see it—the ancient Roman city of Pelusium.

The city stretches out more than four miles, and only a few sections have been excavated. Bones, columns and half-buried capitals of various styles are scattered about. The ground is so littered with pottery shards it is impossible at times not to step on them. Arched, redbrick walls rose up out of the desert, while others lay buried with only their tops exposed, lending them the facade of a neatly paved sidewalk through the sand.

We walked for hours exploring the ruins, eager to see what was hidden behind the next dune. When the winds picked up, we took shelter from the whirling sand behind one of the walls and found refuge in a partially excavated building for lunch. Trying to ignore the sand in our food, we let our imaginations run while attempting to reconstruct the past.

Pelusium has hosted its share of famous visitors: Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, just to name a few. But, it was access to the Nile that made it a strategic location, and those who wanted to control the flow of goods in and out of Egypt coveted it.

At one time, two branches of the Nile flowed nearby. I sat against a wall trying to see a city full of life in my mind’s eye. I envisioned a bustling center of activity, with goods being shipped in and out, and people busy with their families and the day-to-day activities of life. Animals would have been a common sight, and the cries of children’s laughter would have echoed off the walls before getting lost in the sounds of city. Nile floods brought nourishment, creating a landscape colored with shades of green as plants swayed in the breezes that today only stir up sand. As I sat there lost in my thoughts, I didn’t realize the Nile water, at one time bringing life, is now the thing that endangers what remains of this ancient city.

Egypt has an abundance of monuments and historic relics, but the country lacks arable land. More than 95 percent of the area inside its boundaries is desert. Most of its population, nearly 70 million people, lives crowded together along the Nile.

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More than 20 years ago, the Egyptian government started several projects to bring Nile water into the desert in an attempt to increase the country’s arable land to 25 percent. At the same time, these projects created jobs and provide some relief to overcrowded cities.

One of these projects involves bringing water to the Sinai Peninsula through what is known as el-Salam, or Peace Canal, and creating more than 60,000 acres of farmland on either side of the Suez Canal. I unknowingly passed through one of these areas on the way to Pelusium, and there were acres of lush green land under cultivation as far as I could see.

In 1997, four tunnels under the Suez Canal were opened bringing water to the western side and closer to Pelusium. A series of NASA satellite images documents the dramatic transformation of desert into farmland over a 10-year period. This process has not been cheap, and it’s often criticized.

I have conflicting feelings. Ten countries share the Nile’s water, and annual water usage in the Middle East and North Africa far exceeds the area’s renewable resources. On the other hand, I am a daily witness to some the problems facing the Egyptian government. Cairo’s population is approaching 20 million. The city’s buses are so crowded people are hanging out the doors as the buses crawl through congested streets. Unemployment is high, housing opportunities are low, and more people move into the city everyday in search of better opportunities.

For NASA satellite photos of the agricultural development visit: