The Nile Delta starts just downriver from Cairo, at the point where the River Nile splits into two main distributaries (the Damietta and the Rosetta). On its journey to the Mediterranean Sea, it brings water to a vast area of arable land that has been farmed for at least 5,000 years. In fact, the fertile land of the Delta was the source of the agricultural wealth upon which the Ancient Egyptians built their civilization. Later, it earned the country its reputation as the bread basket of the Roman Empire. Despite its history, most of the Delta’s ancient sites have been destroyed by the flooding that occurred every year until the completion of the Aswan Dam.
Today more than half of Egypt's population lives in the Nile Delta. Its lush farmland is intersected by peaceful waterways that provide a respite from the desert landscapes of the south; while its busy towns give an insight into modern Egyptian life. If you have been to tourist hotspots like Luxor and Abu Simbel before or simply like the idea of stepping off the beaten track, consider venturing north into the Nile Delta instead. Current travel advisories from the US and UK governments consider the region safe for tourists.
The ancient port city of Alexandria marks the western boundary of the Nile Delta and is the second largest settlement in Egypt. It was founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great and served as the capital of Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for nearly 1,000 years. In that time, it became known as a center for Hellenistic art and learning and was home to landmarks like the Great Library and the Pharos Lighthouse. The latter was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These buildings and many others were lost to invading hordes, natural disasters or rising sea levels, but modern Alexandria retains its reputation for creativity and is a fascinating destination for history buffs.
The first port of call should be the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the architecturally spectacular reinvention of the city’s original library. Shaped like a tilted sun disc, it houses a vast library and reading room in addition to several museums and a planetarium. Most notable are the Manuscript Museum with its collection of ancient scrolls; and the Antiquities Museum, home to Graeco-Roman artifacts salvaged from parts of the ancient city that are now underwater. Other Alexandria highlights include the waterfront promenade, known as the Corniche; the National Museum and the ancient ruins of the Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar.
At the eastern edge of the Nile Delta lies Port Said, a relatively modern city established in 1859 during the construction of the Suez Canal. Port Said marks the northern entry into the world-famous waterway, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and therefore has enormous commercial and political importance. Walk along the city’s waterfront boardwalk to admire its crumbling 19th-century architecture and to marvel at the sight of titanic supertankers on their way from Europe to Africa and Asia. Free ferries run from Port Said to its sister city, Port Fuad, located on the opposite side of the canal.
Crossing the canal means traversing the border between Africa and Asia, and Port Said is one of only two metropolitan areas in the world (the other being Istanbul) where it’s possible to do so. To discover the canal’s historical importance, pay a visit to Port Said Military Museum. Exhibits shed light on the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in a failed attempt to remove the Egyptian president and regain Western control of the canal. You can also learn about later conflicts between Egypt and Israel. Contemporary art fans should also make a stop at the worthwhile Al-Nasr Museum of Modern Art.
An hour’s drive northeast of Alexandria takes you to the port city of Rosetta. Also known as Rashid, this picturesque settlement is located on the banks of the Rosetta distributary of the River Nile, not far from where it flows into the Mediterranean. It was founded in the 9th century, and grew in importance after the decline of Alexandria following the 16th-century Ottoman invasion. Similarly, when Alexandria’s fortunes later improved, Rosetta’s star began to fade again. It is most famous for the Rosetta Stone, an engraved stele discovered here by French soldiers in 1799. The stone bears a decree translated into Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek.
By using the Ancient Greek as a key, linguists were able to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time. The Rosetta Stone was removed by the English and is now the most visited object in London’s British Museum. Despite the absence of its most famous product, Rosetta remains a beautiful place to visit. It is known for its tranquil atmosphere, verdant date palm plantations and magnificent Ottoman architecture. This includes 22 monumental residences with elaborate red-and-white brickwork and finely carved wooden screens and balconies. One of these houses the meticulously restored Rashid Museum.
Although the Nile Delta is not known for its ancient ruins, there are worthy sites here for those that know where to look. Of them all, the settlement known by the Ancient Greeks as Tanis is the largest and most impressive. It was built on the banks of a historic distributary of the River Nile using materials looted from the one-time royal capital of Pi-Ramesses. Tanis itself served as the capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties during the Third Intermediate Period (which began in 1069 BC) and remained populated until Roman times when the port of Tanis silted up and became unusable. The abandoned city was excavated by French archaeologists in the 19th century.
Today the site is a jumbled collection of columns, blocks, statues and obelisks, many of them inscribed with elaborate hieroglyphs that give us an invaluable insight into their original purpose. We know, for example, that the city had three temples dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu - the same triad of deities worshipped at ancient Thebes. Tanis is often associated with the Biblical story of the discovery of baby Moses, which is thought to have taken place here. Indiana Jones fans will recognize its name from the Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which it was the fictitious resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Delta’s other notable ancient site is Bubastis, located on the outskirts of the modern city of Zagazig. Its name means “House of Bastet” and it was a center of worship for Bastet, the feline goddess of Ancient Egypt. In its heyday, Bubastis was the capital of the 18th nome, or division, of Lower Egypt but probably dates back much earlier. It was a royal residence during the 22nd and 23rd dynasties, starting in 943 BC, and only waned in power after conquering Persians dismantled its walls in the 6th century BC.
Inevitably, the city was one of the country’s largest depositories for mummified cats and the red granite Temple of Bastet drew more than 700,000 pilgrims for the goddess’s annual festival. Greek historian Herodotus labeled the festival as one of the grandest in all of Egypt. There is very little left of Bubastis’ one-time grandeur. Instead, the temple has been reduced to a pile of rubble and the remains of the palace and cemetery are equally diminished. However, stelae and statuary from the site have been collected into a fascinating sculpture garden that is best explored on a guided tour.
To experience the excitement of a modern religious festival, plan a visit to Tanta in late October. The Delta’s largest city (and the fifth largest in Egypt) grew to prominence during the 19th century thanks to its lucrative cotton-ginning industry and its location on one of the country’s most important railways. The late October festival, or moulid, celebrates the life of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ahmad al-Badawi, who came to Tanta to found the popular Sufi order known as Badawiyya. He is buried beneath the city’s Ahmad al-Badawi Mosque. The festival coincides with the end of the cotton harvest and lasts eight days, during which approximately three million people come from across the Arab world to chant, perform rituals and feast on the sugar-coated nuts for which Tanta is famous.
Lake Burullus is a fresh-to-brackish coastal lagoon on the Delta’s northern shore. It is separated from the sea by a dune-covered sandbar and is the second largest natural lake in Egypt. As a protected area, it requires a permit to visit and is relatively difficult to get to - and yet, for nature lovers (and especially birders) it should not be missed. Its shallow, nutrient-rich waters and surrounding marshes provide an ideal habitat for an incredible array of resident and migratory birdlife. It’s a key wintering site for migrant species like the Eurasian wigeon and the ferruginous duck; and an important breeding site for coveted birds including the little bittern and the western swamphen. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of one of Africa’s lesser-known felines, the jungle cat.