or Tʒ-mḥw (“the land of the papyrus plant,” “the northern land”), comprised essentially the Nile Delta. It constituted half of the cultural and political duality that formed the totality of ancient Egypt. According to the dualism that permeated ancient Egyptian thought, the Egyptian state was a unity composed of two separate but equal and balanced opposites: Upper Egypt— the narrow, geologically defined Nile Valley; and Lower Egypt—the flat, broad Nile Delta, whose fan shape reminded Herodotus of the Greek letter delta (Δ). According to the mythic paradigms of divine kingship and political unity accepted in ancient Egypt, these two archetypal geopolitical divisions were unified into a single entity through the person and office of the pharaoh: under the sovereignty of the king as ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt, “The Two Lands” became one. Official tradition held that Lower and Upper Egypt were united by Menes, a semilegendary figure revered as the first king of unified Egypt. This same Menes is also credited with founding Egypt's first capital, Memphis, at the juncture of Lower and Upper Egypt.

Lower Egypt's tutelary deity was Wadjet, the cobra goddess, one of the Two Ladies protecting the pharaoh. Wadjet's cult was associated with the site of Buto, present-day Tell el-Fara'in, which is identified with “Pe and Dep,” the semimythical Predynastic twin capitals of Lower Egypt and the location of Lower Egypt's traditional shrine (an archetypal, pavilion-type shrine, known as the pr-nw or pr-nsr and shaped like a box with a domed roof with high posts on either side). The “souls of Pe” were mythical falcon-headed figures connected with Buto. The heraldic plant of Lower Egypt was the papyrus, and the Red Crown, or dšrt, symbolized Lower Egypt as a political entity. Iconographically, all these symbols could represent Lower Egypt.

Like Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt had its own system of nomes or provinces by Old Kingdom times. The first Lower Egyptian nome was located around Memphis, also the nome capital, and it occupied a transitional zone between the Delta and the Nile Valley. Both the number and boundaries of Lower Egyptian nomes were more fluid than those of Upper Egypt, and not until Greco-Roman times was the definitive number of twenty Lower Egyptian nomes established. Political, communication, and transport lines in Lower Egypt followed Delta watercourses, which shifted, sometimes significantly, over time. Movement north and south was comparatively easy; east to west was problematic. Sites in Lower Egypt were positioned along watercourses, often creating a dynamic and symbiotic interplay between site formation and channel development. This active shifting of watercourses and settlements has contributed to the development of Lower Egypt's complex and inadequately understood settlement pattern.

Physical Development and Characteristics.

Recent research, including radiocarbon-dated material from deep estuarine cores and borings, places the origin of the present Delta at about 6500–5500 BCE, in an era of decelerated sea-level rise. The data show an abrupt transition at that time throughout the Delta from sand-dominant to mud-rich deposits. The transition reflects a major depositional change that transformed the region from a partially vegetated sandy plain to a rich, silt-covered floodplain. The slower rate of sea-level rise, combined with regional fluctuations in Holocene climate and associated flood levels, resulted in growing accumulations of Nile silt and the creation of a broadening, seasonally flooded, fertile alluvial plain in the Delta. Sea-level rise reduced the river-course gradient, leading to the formation of a system of meandering Nile distributaries and increased overbank silt deposition. Over the past approximately eight thousand years, evolution of the Delta plain has continued, resulting in average silt depositions now measuring 10–15 meters (32–50 feet), with local thicknesses (below Lake Manzalah) up to 50 meters (162 feet). The rate of sedimentation varied over time, with accumulation increasing during times of rising sea levels or lower river discharge, and decreasing during times of sea retreat or higher river discharge. Today the Delta comprises some 22,000 square kilometers (14,500 square miles) of fertile floodplain, twice that of Upper Egypt, with a Mediterranean coastline some 225 kilometers (140 miles) long. Its radius from coast to apex area at Cairo is approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles); elevation decreases from 18 meters (55 feet) above sea level at Cairo to 1 meter (3.2 feet) or less along the coast. Butzer (1974) estimated Delta territory in antiquity at about 17,000 square kilometers (10,540 square miles), accounting for 58 percent of ancient Egyptian territory. The current Nile apex, where the river splits into two modern branches, lies about 25 kilometers (16 miles) northwest of Cairo and 38 kilometers (24 miles) north of Memphis. Tousson (1925) placed the ancient apex farther south at Boulaq; Butzer (1974) put it some 60 kilometers (38 miles) upstream of Memphis.

The ancient Delta constituted a distinctive ecozone with highly individual geomorphic and biotic attributes. Its natural flood regime differed from that of the Nile Valley, as floodwaters spread over multiple distributaries with resulting lower flood crests and correspondingly lower natural levees. Large portions of the Delta were inundated and uninhabitable for several months each year. Many basins tended to form seasonal or perennial swamps and remained marshy long after floodwaters drained off; papyrus swamps developed where permanent fresh waters remained. Scattered Pleistocene sand mounds, known as “geziras” or “turtlebacks,” and sand flats representing stabilized ancient dune fields formed topographic highs above most flood levels. These provided favored sites for ancient settlement. To the north, the Delta grew increasingly marshy before merging with coastal lagoons, wetlands, salt flats, lakes, and sand dunes. Brackish lagoons evolved into lakes when cut off from the sea by silt and sand bars that were formed by the eastward longshore sea currents. Coastal lagoons generally never extended south of the modern 2-meter (6.5-foot) contour line. The northern reaches of the Delta seem to have been settled only marginally, at best, for most of antiquity, and major Delta harbors apparently lay mostly inland along main Nile channels rather than on the coast.

Natural Delta development and environment changed in response to the interplay of Nile branches, eustatic sea level, and coastal processes. The southeastern Mediterranean, including the Delta shoreline, was characterized by a very low tidal range, north to northwest offshore winds active during much of the year, and a large-scale counter-clockwise circulation pattern that drove water masses eastward. With time, active coastal processes interacted with Nile sediment discharged at the coast, to produce the arcuate coastline shape, with its coastal barriers and dune fields. Wetlands of marsh and shallow lagoons then formed landward of the sand barriers and dune fields. Northern Delta cores suggest that these wetlands shifted continuously; according to Said (1993), Lake Manzaleh probably originated during the seventh century CE.

The Delta lies in a highly arid region subject to unpredictable annual fluctuations in Nile flow. Egypt's dynastic era began after its climate had become hyperarid and stream discharge was significantly reduced; aridification reached its present level by about 4500 years before present. Water management was a basic and constant challenge for even the earliest settlers. Development and modification of the natural Delta flood regime continued and increased throughout historical times, along with agricultural intensification, land reclamation, and a growing population. All peaked in Ptolemaic times. Intensive development required technological advances in irrigation and drainage and was possibly hindered by endemic diseases, such as malaria.

For much of the Holocene, a number of diverging Nile channels, whose location, size, and existence varied over time, have crossed the Delta. As many as seven principal and five secondary Nile mouths are attested in variously dated texts and maps, located between the Pelusiac branch on the east and the Canopic on the west. Deep coring suggests that western and central Nile Delta distributaries dominated during late prehistoric times, building out subdeltas beyond the modern coastline. The eastern branches were unimportant initially, carrying little sediment, and the northeastern coastal zone filled in only during or after the New Kingdom when the shoreline pushed out 30–40 kilometers. Butzer (1974) proposed three initial major Nile branches, debouching at approximately the classic Rosetta, Sebennytic, and Damietta mouths. Bietak (1975) reconstructed five major branches during the Ramessid period: “the western river” (Canopic), “the water of Ptah” (Bolbitine/Rosetta), “the large river” (Sebennytic), “the water of Amon” (Phtametic/Bucolic/Damietta), and “the water of Pre” (Pelusiac?). The ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentioned five principal branches: the Canopic, Sebennytic, Mendesian, Saitic (Tanitic), and Pelusiac. Strabo and his contemporaries in antiquity enumerated seven: the Canopic, Bolbitine (Rosetta), Sebennytic, Phtametic (Damietta), Mendesian, Tanitic, and Pelusiac. Today, only two principal Nile channels, the Damietta and Rosetta, remain active. According to Said (1993), the Pelusiac branch began silting up during a period of low Niles in the second millennium BCE, when it became separated from the sea by a series of accretional coastal sand ridges. The Canopic branch silted up as a result of the reexcavation of the Bolbitine (Rosetta) branch about 300 BCE. The other Nile branches disappeared during the eleventh, thirteenth, and seventeenth centuries CE, during times of exceptionally low Nile discharge.

Lower Egypt in Egyptological Research.

Until recently, Lower Egypt was underinvestigated and largely ignored by traditional Egyptological scholarship. Only within the last two to three decades have our knowledge and understanding of the Delta advanced significantly, partly from renewed interest in the region, partly due to the adoption of a broader, more contextual view of Egyptian archaeology, and partly because of the development and application of more sophisticated analytical techniques and technologies.

Following an initial flurry of archaeological investigation approximately a hundred years ago, largely driven by biblical concerns, the study of Lower Egypt became a research backwater as a bias developed in Egyptology toward Nile valley material. Borghouts commented as recently as 1986 that: “In many respects our idea of the history of Egypt is…the history of the region starting with Heliopolis and stretching further south deep into the Sudan. Our view of the history of the Delta is indeed meagre when compared to that.”

Two main factors account for the marginalization of Delta research. First, geological and geomorphological studies of the area were limited in number and scope until recently. The physical development and characteristics of the Delta were consequently misunderstood and misinterpreted for many years. Earlier scholars assumed that Lower Egypt remained an uninhabitable, inhospitable swamp until relatively late in Egyptian history. They also believed that archaeological remains were deeply buried by centuries of flood deposits. Such preconceptions and misconceptions were reinforced by an object-oriented view of Egyptian culture and archaeology, which focused on cemeteries, temples, and the recovery of museum-quality objects, inscriptions, and monumental architecture—material present primarily in Upper Egypt. By comparison, the alluvial Delta, with its lack of natural resources, predominantly urban remains of decayed mud bricks, and complicated stratigraphic sequences was of little interest.

Recent research and fieldwork has begun to rectify the situation, although Delta history and archaeology remain poorly understood in general. While much cultural material lies deeply buried, often far below today's high water table, even this may be recovered through use of appropriate techniques, such as pumping, coring, and remote sensing. Other finds are easily accessible and surface surveys have produced significant results. A survey by van den Brink (1993) in the eastern Delta recorded ninety-two sites in two seasons and documented a shift to a more clustered, possibly more hierarchically structured Old Kingdom settlement pattern from an earlier linear, egalitarian pattern.

Many sites are known almost solely through texts, and Delta archaeology in general is complex and problematic. Careful research programs correlating textual and archaeological data wherever possible are required for interpretation, since earlier cultural levels are often underrepresented archaeologically, and stone structures and statues erected at one location often served as quarries for others. Our information on the Delta remains enormously fragmentary and our knowledge of its occupational character, patterns, intensity, and development is limited. A large proportion of Delta sites have been destroyed or severely damaged since 1800, limiting opportunities to gather further data. Egypt's burgeoning population and its industrial and agricultural development pressures threaten remaining Lower Egyptian sites. Despite best efforts and intentions, few will likely survive much longer. It is imperative that additional research and preservation take place as soon as possible.

History and Settlement.

Lower Egypt was influenced, to varying degrees at different times, by its geographical position: north was the Mediterranean Sea with its maritime routes; east was the Sinai Peninsula and Syria-Palestine; west was the Libyan frontier. Although the coast was generally inhospitable, the Delta became increasingly receptive to Mediterranean influences, and internal Delta harbors became important for foreign ventures, especially during and after the New Kingdom. Protection of the permeable and vulnerable eastern and western borders was a constant concern. Substantial contacts with Canaan are attested as early as Predynastic and Early Dynastic times; during the Second Intermediate Period, Canaanite Hyksos ruled Egypt from their eastern Delta kingdom. Old Kingdom assaults by Libyan peoples from the Western Desert are recorded, apparently resulting from deteriorating desert ecological conditions. By Ramessid times, Libyans attempted to settle in the Delta, and Ramesses II built a series of forts to guard the western border. In the Third Intermediate Period, dynasties of Libyan origin ruled Egypt. Traditionally, and especially in times of weak central government, the Delta was both refuge and magnet for populations to its east and west, and migrant Libyans and Near Easterners settled permanently or briefly.

In antiquity, Lower Egypt was especially famed for its wine, cattle, and marsh hunting grounds teeming with fish and wild birds. When fully developed, the Delta was a lush land of agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, and stock raising. Cattle herding was economically important from earliest through Roman times; a quarter of Lower Egyptian nome symbols included cattle.

Important Lower Egyptian centers such as Buto and Maadi existed already in the Predynastic period. Earlier scholars believed in the literal reality of Egypt's symbolic geography and reconstructed a prehistoric northern kingdom; recent research, however, has invalidated this hypothesis. Increasing numbers of established towns and cult centers are known to have existed in Early Dynastic times, and archaeological data from the eastern Delta suggest locally dense settlement patterns. Nome capitals, known from Old Kingdom times, served as religious centers and seats of provincial bureaucracy and political power. Some, such as Bubastis and Mendes, remained stable for millennia; others shifted location or came into being as the sociopolitical and economic structure of the Delta changed with fluctuating political fortunes, shifting population patterns, and moving water channels. Occasionally remnants of ancient centers lie within modern cities, proof of remarkable occupational continuity and importance. Old Kingdom records attest numerous estates and royal land grants in the Delta, some linked to the founding of new villages, suggesting that territory was freely available. By the New Kingdom, especially in Ramessid times, Lower Egypt increasingly dominated Egyptian political and economic life, partly due to its proximity to the Mediterranean world. In the first millennium BCE, the Delta became the economic heartland of the politically splintered country. Rival families from different Delta cities competed for power, and small city-based principalities throughout the Delta began a period of growth and prosperity that continued into the early centuries CE. Population increased substantially during Ptolemaic times, especially in the Alexandria-Naukratis sector. Various Nile channels were maintained by excavation, and intensified irrigation and wetland-drainage projects substantially modified the Delta surface. Delta land was still available for new colonists.

The Memphite area was always one of the most populous and renowned of Egypt. Memphis was the royal residence and capital of Egypt during Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom times and continued to be a major administrative center throughout Egyptian history. Many later kings maintained palaces there, and Memphite temples were among the most important in Egypt. Its harbor and workshops played major roles in foreign trade. Only Thebes compared to Memphis in political, economic, and religious importance. Although the city remains largely unknown, buried beneath modern fields and villages, the magnificent Memphite cemeteries extend more than 30 kilometers (19 miles) along the desert's edge, hinting at both city size and shifting urban foci through time. Just northeast of Memphis was Letopolis (Ausim), capital of the second Lower Egyptian nome. Ancient Heliopolis (Tell Hisn), center of the influential sun cult and capital of the thirteenth Lower Egyptian nome, lay northwest of modern Heliopolis.

Major settlements west of the Rosetta Nile branch included the important Predynastic site of Merimda Beni-Salama; Terenuthis (Kom Abu Billu), controlling approaches to the Wadi Natrun; and Imu (Kom el-Hisn), capital of the third Lower Egyptian nome, at least from New Kingdom times. In the twenty-sixth dynasty, Naukratis was founded as a Greek trading post; Amasis granted the city a monopoly over Greek trade with Egypt. Also Greek was Alexandria, founded in 332 BCE by Alexander the Great. Never a true Egyptian city, Alexandria served as chief city and seaport of the Hellenistic world. On the mouth of the Canopic Nile branch was Canopus (Aboukir), one of the few sites located on the Mediterranean coast.

The area east of the former Tanitic Nile arm encompasses some of the best known and most completely explored territory to date. Major ancient settlements included Bubastis (Tell Basta), founded by at least Old Kingdom times, capital of the eighteenth Lower Egyptian nome during the Late period, seat of the twenty-second Daphnae (Tell Defenneh) dynasty, and cult city sacred to the cat goddess Bastet. Northeast was a substantial urban sector, densely populated from at least Middle Kingdom times, incorporating the Hyksos capital of Avaris (Tell ed-Dabʾa) and the great Delta residency of the Ramessid kings, Piramesse (Qantir). Farther north lay Tanis (San el-Hagar), residence and burial place of the kings of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties, and Late period capital of the nineteenth Lower Egyptian nome; Imet (Tell Nabasha/Farʾun/Bedawi), nome capital of a district divided during the New Kingdom; and a series of late Predynastic-Early Dynastic sites, including Minshat Abu Omar. Other significant settlements in the northeastern Delta included Leontopolis (Tell el-Yahudiyya), Per-Sopdu (Saft el-Hinna), Tell Retabah, and Pithom (Tell el-Maskhuta) in the Wadi Tumilat, Tell Hebwa, Tell el-Herr, and, on the former Pelusiac branch and Mediterranean shore, Pelusium (Tell Farama).

In the northwest-central portion of the Delta was Sais (Sa el-Hagar), the residence city of the twenty-sixth dynasty and the ancient cult center of Neith, ideologically important Buto, occupied from Predynastic times, and Xois (Sakha), the poorly known capital of the sixth Lower Egyptian nome and putative seat of the fourteenth dynasty. Farther south and east are Athribis (Tell Atrib), capital of the tenth Lower Egyptian nome; Leontopolis (Tell el-Muqdam), capital of the eleventh Lower Egyptian nome during the Ptolemaic period; and Diospolis (Belamun), capital of the seventeenth Lower Egyptian nome. To the north lay Sebennytos (Samannud), capital of the twelfth Lower Egyptian nome and seat of the thirtieth dynasty; Iseum (Behbeit el-Hagar), site of a major Isis temple; Hermopolis Parva (el-Baqliya), capital of the fifteenth Lower Egyptian nome; Mendes (Tell el-Rubʾa), capital of the sixteenth Lower Egyptian nome and the possible seat of the twenty-ninth dynasty, and its twin city Thmuis (Tell el-Timai), which rose to prominence in Greco-Roman times at the expense of Mendes.

[See also articles on various Lower Egyptian sites.]


  • Aufrere, S., and J.-Cl. Golvin. L'Égypte Restituée, Tome 3: Sites, Temples et Pyramides de Moyenne et Basse Égypte. Paris, 1997. Useful archaeological overview summarizing our knowledge of different sites by region.
  • Baines, I., and J. Málek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York, 1984. Invaluable summary of a variety of information, including regional and site synopses.
  • Bietak, M. Tell ed-Dabʿa II. Vienna, 1975. A masterful historical geographical study of the eastern Delta, from an archaeological perspective, that includes reconstructions of former Nile channels based on modern contour maps.
  • Borghouts, J. F. “Surveying the Delta: Some Retrospects and Prospects.” In The Archaeology of the Nile Delta: Problems and Priorities, edited by E. C. M. Van den Brink, pp. 3–8. Amsterdam, 1988.
  • Butzer, K. “Delta.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 1043–1052. Wiesbaden, 1974. Concise, detailed summary of physical development and characteristics of the Delta, incorporating selected cultural and economic data.
  • James, T. G. H. Ancient Egypt: The Land and Its Legacy. Austin, 1990. A general overview of various geographical regions of ancient Egypt, reviewing major sites and excavations, and including a chapter on the Delta.
  • Said, R. The River Nile: Geology, Hydrology and Utilization. New York, 1993. A major synthesis dealing with the origin, evolution, and hydrology of the Nile River, including sections on the Delta.
  • Sestini, G. “Nile Delta: A Review of Depositional Environments and Geological History.” In Deltas: Sites and Traps for Fossil Fuels, edited by M. K. G. Whateley and K. T. Pickering. Boston, 1989. Reviews geological history and summarizes modern environments and processes, as well as subsurface stratigraphy and structure.
  • Stanley, D. J., and A. G. Warne. “Sea Level and Initiation of Predynastic Culture in the Nile Delta.” Nature 363 (1993), 435–438. Correlates recent research into development of modern Nile Delta and the first Predynastic settlements in the region.
  • Stanley, D. J., and A. G. Warne. “Nile Delta in its Destruction Phase.” Journal of Coastal Research 14 (1998), 794–825. Comprehensive review of geomorphology, hydrology, and development of the Nile Delta from geologic to modern times.
  • Tousson, O. Mémoire sur l'Histoire du Nil. Cairo, 1925. Extensive work dealing with numerous aspects of the Nile River, especially important for Arabic sources.
  • Van den Brink, E. C. M., ed. The Archaeology of the Nile Delta: Problems and Priorities. Amsterdam, 1988. Important collection of articles dealing with the archaeology of the Nile Delta, comprising the proceedings of a seminar held in Cairo in 1986.
  • Van den Brink, E. C. M., ed. The Nile Delta in Transition: 4th.-3rd. Millennium B.C. Tel Aviv, 1992. Invaluable collection of articles dealing with the archaeology and geology of the Nile Delta in the fourth to third millennia BCE, comprising the proceedings of a seminar on the topic held in Cairo in 1990.
  • Van den Brink, E. C. M. “Settlement Patterns in the Northeastern Nile Delta during the Fourth-Second Millennia B.C.” In Environmental Change and Human Culture in the Nile basin and Northern Africa until the Second Millennium B.C., edited by Krzyzaniak, M. Kobusiewicz, and J. Alexander. Poznan, 1993. Presents results of an archaeological and palaeogeographical survey of 90 square kilometers in Sharqiya governorate in the northeastern Delta, concentrating on the late Predynastic—Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom finds.
  • Wilson, J. A. “Buto and Hierakonpolis in the Geography of Egypt,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955), 209–236. Interesting study and comparison of modern provinces and ancient Egyptian nomes in the Nile Valley and Delta.

Carol A. Redmount