The Nile Delta

Location: 31°N 31°E

Our aim in this short study is to put some order into the various ancient branches and outlets of the Nile … An almost impossible task as archaeology can help finding the location of ancient water courses and even dating them, but it will usually not provide their names (with the notorious exception of ‘Darius’ canal’, also called ‘Necho’s canal’).
But let’s try by starting with the pre-dynastic Nile Delta.

The Nile Delta, from 4500 BC to 2000 AD (based on Butzer, 1976, with coastlines from Stanley, 1998).

As shown in the figure above, the Nile flowed straight to the north from Memphis towards modern Baltim, via ancient Athribis, Bousiris and Sebennytos. The bell-shaped coastline shows the effect of massive sedimentation around this main outlet of the “Great River” Nile. Sediment was moved eastward along the coastline due to action of dominant waves from NW. When this central Nile branch lost power, the Damietta branch took over and sediment accumulated in the eastern part of the Delta. In addition, two lateral branches existed already at an early time: the Pelusiac branch to the east, and the Canopic branch (also called Herakleotic branch) to the west.

This description is very close to Herodotus’ one.

Nile Delta acc. to Herodotus (History, book 2, chap. 17), ca. 450 BC
(source: Loeb Classical Library, 1920, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Herodotus/2A*.html )

Now as far as the city Kerkasoros [north of Memphis] the Nile flows in one channel, but after that it parts into three. One of these, which is called the Pelusian mouth, flows eastwards; the second flows westwards, and is called the Canopic mouth. But the direct channel of the Nile, when the river in its downward course reaches the sharp point of the Delta [i.e., the top of the triangle, near Memphis], flows thereafter clean through the middle of the Delta into the sea; in this is seen the greatest and most famous part of its waters, and it is called the Sebennytic mouth. There are also two channels which separate themselves from the Sebennytic and so flow into the sea, by name the Saïtic and the Mendesian. The Bolbitic and Bucolic mouths are not natural but dug channels.

From Herodotus, we understand that at least four other branches exist in addition to the three main branches, leading to a total of seven branches.

A similar picture is provided by Strabo, about four centuries later, where seven outlets are still mentioned, but it is noteworthy that he mentions three main branches (Pelusiac, Pathmitic and Canopic-Herakleotic), with other outlets in-between.

Nile Delta acc. to Strabo (Geography, book 17, chap. 1), ca. 25 BC
(source: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/17A1*.html )

[4] The Nile flows from the Aethiopian boundaries towards the north in a straight line to the district called “Delta,” and then, being “split at the head,” as Plato says, the Nile makes this place as it were the top of a triangle, the sides of the triangle being formed by the streams that split in either direction and extend to the sea – the one on the right to the sea at Pelusium and the other on the left to the sea at Canopus and the neighbouring Herakleium, as it is called, – and the base by the coast-line between Pelusium and the Herakleium. […] Now these are two mouths of the Nile, of which one is called Pelusiac and the other Canopic or Herakleotic; but between these there are five other outlets, those at least that are worth mentioning, and several that are smaller; for, beginning with the first parts of the Delta, many branches of the river have been split off throughout the whole island and have formed many streams and islands, so that the whole Delta has become navigable. […]
[18] After Canopus, one comes to the Herakleium, which contains a temple of Heracles; and then to the Canopic mouth and the beginning of the Delta. […] After the Canopic mouth one comes to the Bolbitic mouth, and then to the Sebennytic, and to the Pathmitic, which is third in size as compared with the first two which form the boundaries of the Delta [the Canopic and Pelusiac branches]; for not far from the vertex of the Delta, the Pathmitic splits, sending a branch into the interior of the Delta. Lying close to the Pathmitic mouth is the Mendesian; and then one comes to the Tanitic, and, last of all, to the Pelusiac. There are also others in among these, pseudo-mouths as it were, which are rather insignificant. Their mouths indeed afford entrance to boats, but are adapted, not to large boats, but to tenders only, because the mouths are shallow and marshy. It is chiefly, however, the Canopic mouth that they used as an emporium, since the harbours at Alexandria were kept closed, as I have said before. After the Bolbitic mouth one comes to a low and sandy promontory which projects rather far into the sea; it is called Agnu-Ceras. And then to the Watch-tower of Perseus and the Wall of the Milesians; for in the time of Psammitichus (who lived in the time of Cyaxares the Mede) the Milesians, with thirty ships, put in at the Bolbitic mouth, and then, disembarking, fortified with a wall the above-mentioned settlement; but in time they sailed up into the Saïtic nome, defeated the city Inaros [unlocated] in a naval fight, and founded Naucratis, not far above Schedia. After the Wall of the Milesians, as one proceeds towards the Sebennytic mouth, one comes to two lakes, one of which, Boutic, has its name from the city Bouto, and also to the Sebennytic city, and to Saïs, the metropolis of the lower country.

Ptolemy[1] adds a distinction between “outlets” (or mouths) and “branches”.

Nile Delta acc. to Ptolemy (Geography, book 4, chap. 5), ca. 150 AD
(source: Brady Kiesling, https://topostext.org/work/209 )

[4.5.10] The seven mouths of the Nile:
the Herakleotic or Canopic mouth: 60°50′ , 31°05′
the Bolbitic mouth: 61°15′ , 31°05′
the Sebennytic mouth: 61°30′ , 31°05′
the Pineptimi pseudo-mouth: 61°45′ , 31°05′
the Diolkos pseudo-mouth: 62°10′ , 31°10′
the Pathmitic mouth: 62°30′ , 31°10′
the Mendesios mouth: 62°45′ , 31°10′
the Tanitic mouth: 63°00′ , 31°15′
the Pelusiac mouth: 63°15′ , 31°10′

[4.5.39] The so-called Great Delta begins where the Agathodaimon branches off from the Great river and flows through the Herakleotic mouth [and ends] into the so-called Boubastic, which flows out through the Pelusiac mouth. The position of the fork of the Delta is 62°00′ , 30°00′ [Memphis-Babylon is located by Ptolemy at 62°15’ , 30°00’]

[4.5.40] The so-called Little Delta is where the Boubastic river splits into the Bousiritic river, which flows out through the Pathmitic mouth, position of which [fork] is 62°40′ , 30°20′ [north of Bousiris which is located by Ptolemy at 62°30’ , 30°15’, probably at Sebennytos located at 62°20′ , 30°20′].

[4.5.41] One might even mention a third delta somehow between the two aforementioned, where the Boubastic forks into the one that flows through Athribis city and the Pineptimi mouth. This is at 62°15′ , 30°05′ [a few km north of Memphis-Babylon which is located by Ptolemy at 62°15’ , 30°00’].

[4.5.42] At the Great Delta two rivers branch off toward the north from the river Agathodaimon; the first is called the Thermouthiac or Phermouthiac river, which flows out through the Sebennytic mouth; its fork is at 61°30′ , 30°15′ [south of Nikiou which is located by Ptolemy at 61°30’ , 30°20’].

[4.5.43] Second is the so-called Taly river, which flows through the Bolbitic mouth; the branching of the Taly river is at 61°00′ , 30°50′ [Hermopolis Mikra is located by Ptolemy at 61°00’ , 30°50’].

[4.5.44] The Boutic river which runs along at a nearly equal distance from the seacoast joins the Thermouthiac, the Athribitic, the Bousiritic and the Boubastic, from which others springing from adjacent marshes and lakes flow into the sea through the remaining mouths, some of which are connected, as we have said, with the Great river.

The main features of Ptolemy’s description are a) a list of coordinates of 7 river outlets and 2 pseudo-outlets (chap. 4.5.10), b) a list of river names with coordinates of 4 forks (embranchments, confluents) (chap. 4.5.39 to 43) and c) a stream flowing in an east-west direction (chap. 4.5.44). In addition, Ptolemy provides a description of the nomes and major cities of Delta in his chapters 4.5.46 to 4.5.54.

In order to locate the 4 forks mentioned by Ptolemy, we added the names of the nearest ancient cities according to Ptolemy’s own coordinate system in brackets ([city]).

These texts are referring directly to rivers and outlets, but other texts also refer indirectly to them (Redon, 2018).

River outlets

We know that Ptolemy was somewhat mistaken on his longitudes (see http://www.ancientportsantiques.com/ancientmaps/#2 ) but the distances between two places may give a valuable indication. Furthermore, we know that one minute of longitude (1’ = 1/60 degree) near Alexandria is ca. 1570 m.
Ptolemy’s longitudes of the Canopic and Pelusiac mouths are respectively 60°50′ and 63°15′, that is an east-west distance of 2°25’, or 145’, or 228 km. If we place the Canopic mouth at Izbat as Sittin (31.28°N, 30.15°E), just east of the recently discovered ancient city of Thonis-Herakleion (https://www.franckgoddio.org ) and measure an east-west distance of 228 km, we end up within a few kilometres of the ruins of Pelusion. This confirms that the scale of Ptolemy’s east-west distances is quite correct in the Nile Delta and that we may try to locate other river outlets with his longitudes.

River forks

Although the above shows quite a good accuracy for east-west positioning of river outlets, we shall avoid further use of Ptolemy’s coordinates as we know that each time this was attempted in the past, it ended up in a very distorted picture because of the many approximations (and possible errors) in his data (Litinas, 2015). We shall rather use his coordinates to locate ancient cities, the locations of which are known in the modern WGS 84 coordinate-system (EES Delta Survey, 2016).

River branches

Quite clearly, the names of the river branches are related to the cities they were leading to. At this stage, we may try to put some order into the available data by listing branches and outlets from west to east:

Name of river branchFork location (confluence)Name of river outletPtolemy’s distance east of Canopic mouthName/location of modern outletAncient authors
Agathodaimon, Herakleotic branchMemphis- BabylonCanopic mouth, Herakleotic mouth0 kmIzbat as SittinHt St Pt
Taly Potamos,Hermopolis MikraBolbitic branch  Pt
Bolbitic branchSouth of Cabasa?Bolbitic mouth39 kmRosetta is at only 27 kmSt
Thermouthiac, Phermouthiac branch,South of NikiouBoutic mouth
(Sebennytic mouth: Pt)
63 kmBouto is at 56 kmHt St Pt
Great River Athribitic branch, Sebennytic branchMemphis- KerkasorosSebennytic mouth
(Pineptimi pseudo-mouth: Pt)
86 kmBaltim is at 89 kmHt St Pt
Boutic branchSebennytos?Thermouthiac branch  Pt
Saïtic branchNatho?Thermouthiac branch?  Ht
Perhaps an ancient track of the Bousiritic branch?Sebennytos?Diolkos pseudo-mouth126 kmGamasa is at 133 kmPt
Bousiritic branch,
Bucolic branch?
Sebennytos, near BousirisPathmitic mouth157 kmDamietta is at 157 kmPt
Mendesian branch?Mendesian mouth181 kmBirket el-Amriti? At 181 kmHt Pt
Tanitic branch?Tanitic mouth204 kmPort Saïd is at 205 kmPt
Boubastis branchMemphis- KerkasorosSebennytic branch at Sebennytos  Pt
Pelusiac branchNear BoubastisPelusiac mouth228 kmPelusionHt St Pt
Ancient authors: Ht: Herodotus, Pt: Ptolemy, St: Strabo

Both Herodotus and Ptolemy mention the Canopic and the Pelusiac outlets. The Herakleotic branch leads from Memphis to Naucratis, to Hermopolis Mikra and to the Herakleotic (Canopic) mouth. The track of the Pelusiac branch is less certain, especially near the Pelusiac mouth, and it must be remembered that the pre-dynastic coastline was far inland in this area, probably on a line from Herakleopolis Mikra to Panephysis (Bietak, 1975, 2011; Chartier Raymond, 1992; Stanley, 1998).

Herodotus adds that the Sebennytic outlet, yielding the largest stream of the “Great River”, flows straight north of Memphis to Athribis, Natho, Bousiris and Sebennytos. The outlet must be near Paralios (modern Baltim) as this area shows the largest accretion pushing the coastline to the north (Stanley, 1998). Herodotus’ Sebennytic outlet must therefore be the same as Ptolemy’s Pineptimi “pseudo-outlet”. This peculiar way of calling this outlet a pseudo-outlet might be due to the fact that this outlet was already clogged in his time. This makes sense from a hydraulic point of view, as the Sebennytic branch was getting just too long and was thus hampered by a large hydraulic resistance which would favour other branches like the Mendesian and the Tanitic branches which were the shortest way to the sea at that time. Massive sedimentation of the eastern side of the Delta would occur as from that time (Stanley, 1998). In a similar way, the Diolkos pseudo-outlet is possibly an ancient sedimented outlet that was used as a slipway for ships in Ptolemy’s time.

In the western Delta area, Ptolemy mentions the Taly Potamos flowing to the Bolbitic outlet (probably via the Bolbitic branch) after splitting off from the Herakleotic branch near Hermopolis Mikra. However, he does not mention the Saïtic branch and we do not know where was its outlet. After splitting off from the Herakleotic branch south of Nikiou, the Thermouthiac branch flows to Strabo’s Boutic outlet, near Bouto (Wilson, 2012) which is called “Sebennytic mouth” by Ptolemy.

Herodotus’ Saïtic branch is not mentioned by Ptolemy, but from Herodotus’ description, we might conjecture that this branch might be a link between the central Great River (Sebennytic branch) and the western branch (Thermouthiac branch) flowing to the west from Natho to Saïs via Tawa. Similarly, Herodotus’ Mendesian branch would flow to the east via Mendes. The Tanitic branch is not mentioned by any of the three ancient authors, but may be supposed to flow to Tanis from Boubastis or from Avaris.

Let’s now consider the Boubastic branch which probably causes most of the confusion in the overall Delta picture. This branch is mentioned both in the south (with the Pelusiac outlet) and in the north with the Bousiritic branch flowing to the Pathmitic outlet. This branch must thus flow from Memphis to Boubastis first, where the Pelusiac branch splits off, and then head for Bousiris, where the Bousiritic branch splits away towards the Pathmitic outlet. The Boubastic branch is supposed to end up into the Sebennytic branch at Natho (Redon, 2018).

The last flow mentioned by Ptolemy is the Boutic branch between the Thermouthiac, Athribitic, Bousiritic and Boubastic branches. A closer look at the map will show that this branch needs to flow between Bouto (on the Thermouthiac branch) and Sebennytos located at the junction of the Athribitic and Bousiritic branches, and connected with the Boubastis branch further south. It would pass at Xoïs. This branch would thus be much shorter than shown by other authors (Talbert’s Barrington Atlas, 2000; Schiestl, 2021).

Special attention should be devoted to Necho’s Nile to Red Sea canal (Nekou Diorux). Several places are explicitly mentioned as harbours on the Pithom stela (Arsinoe, Per Atum, Pithom?), and by Agatharchides (Arsinoe), Diodorus (Arsinoe), Strabo (Arsinoe, Cleopatris), Pliny (Daneon Portus) and Lucian of Samosata (Clysma).
As a possible lead, we might consider that when Darius had the canal (re)dug (ca. 500 BC), he placed his four commemorative tri-lingual stelae at places where many people would see them, e.g., at ports on the Nile to Red Sea canal. The first stela was near Tell el-Maskhuta (ancient Pithom) which is the closest to the Pelusiac branch of the Nile Delta (at ca. 50 km). The 2nd stela was located at Serapieion, Serapeum, about 10 km south of Ismailia. The 3rd stela was at the promontory called Mahattat al Kibrit, Kabret, located between the Small and the Large Bitter lakes, near Chalouf, Shaluf. The 4th stela was at Koubri, 6 Km north of Suez (Aubert, 2004).
Clysma (Suez) must have been the only true sea-port at the northern end of the Red Sea since archaic times. Cargo was most probably transhipped there from/on large sea-going ships to/from smaller vessels sailing on the Nile to Red Sea canal, even if Strabo notes that the canal could be used by large ships. The location of the eastern end of this canal was depending on its sedimentation and on the Nile water level. It could therefore be at Pithom in Necho’s days, at Clysma in Darius’ days and back at Pithom in Ptolemy II’s days.
Concluding, it might perhaps be suggested here that Cleopatris, Clysma and medieval Ovila are all at Suez, but that Arsinoe is at the promontory called Mahattat al Kibrit because Ptolemy mentions Arsinoe at 20’ of latitude (37 km) due north of Clysma. Serapieion, Serapeum, might be another, not yet found, port on the canal, possibly Pliny’s Daneon Portus, at ca. 80 km of the Pelusiac branch. Further upstream, Tell el-Maskhuta is ancient Pithom, at ca. 50 km of the Pelusiac branch.

As most Nile branches have been moving around due to natural meandering, it makes little sense to look for a single fixed track for each of them. The Nile branches mentioned in this study are shown on the map hereafter where they have been placed on the present streams when possible. However, some tracks are completely unknown to archaeology and are therefore pictured by straight lines.

Hypothetical ancient Nile Delta with river outlets and river branches.

Concluding this short study, it may be said that all river branches, forks and outlets mentioned by Herodotus, Strabo and Ptolemy have been satisfactorily positioned on the map without much need for changing coordinates, names, or accepting errors by the ancient authors. In addition, Ptolemy’s beautiful scheme with three imbricated deltas is validated.

Three imbricated deltas of the Nile Delta.

It must be realised that this short study aims at providing an overall view of the Delta river branches and outlets. However, many uncertainties remain as to the exact tracks of the individual Nile branches.


[1] We use this name for the famous geographer, Claudius Ptolemaeus. The Egyptian dynasty of the Ptolemies is not meant here.


List of modern coordinates

Ancient nameModern nameLatitude (°N)Longitude (°E)
AthribisTell el-Atrib30.4706031.18800
BoubastisTell Basta30.5725031.51200
BousirisAbusir30.9063031.24100
BoutoTell Fara’un31.1955630.74222
CanopusAbu Qir31.3225030.05830
Herakleopolis MikraTell Belim30.9788032.17200
Hermopolis MikraDamanhur31.0216030.42080
Memphis-BabylonCairo, Hanging Church30.0051031.23010
Memphis-KerkasorosCairo, Rod El Farag30.0860031.22900
MendesTell el-Ruba30.9580031.51650
NikiouZawiyet Razin, Kom Manous30.4100030.84800
Panephysisel-Manzala31.1500031.93330
PelusionTell el-Farama31.0377032.54960
SaïsSa el-Hagar30.9650030.76850
SebennytosSamanud30.9582031.24490
TanisTell San el-Hagar30.9749031.87714
TawaTantah30.7839030.99910
Thonis-HerakleionAbuqir bay31.2816030.11980
XoïsSakha, Djeqapir31.0895030.95090

References

AUBERT, J., 2004, “Aux origines du canal de Suez ? le canal du Nil à la mer Rouge revisité”, in “Espaces intégrés et ressources naturelles dans le monde romain”, (p 219-252).

BALL, J., 1942, “Egypt in the Classical Geographers, Survey of Egypt”, Government Press, Cairo, (185 p).

BIETAK, M., 1975, “Tell el-Dab’a II. Der Fundort im Rahmen einer archäologisch-geographischen Untersuchung über das ägyptische Ostdelta”, Untersuchungen der Zweigstelle Kairo des Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes I, Vienna, (236 p).

BIETAK, M., 2011, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris”, in “Culture Contacts and the Making of Cultures”, Unit of Culture Research, Tel Aviv University, (p 19-66).

BUTZER, K., 1976, “Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (134 p).

CHARTIER RAYMOND, M., 1993, “Reconnaissance archéologique à la pointe orientale du Delta, Campagne 1992”, CRIPEL 15, 1993, (p. 45-71).

EGYPT EXPLORATION SOCIETY, 2016, “EES Delta Survey – A resource for the archaeology of the Nile Delta”, https://www.ees.ac.uk/ , table with over 700 sites available at http://ancientportsantiques.com/wp-content/uploads/Documents/PLACES/Egypt-Libya/NileDelta/NileDeltaSites.xlsx .

LITINAS, N., 2015, “The Nile and its Deltas in Achilles Tatius”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 195 (2015), (p 44-57), https://www.jstor.org/stable/43909894 .

REDON, B., 2018, “Les circulations transversales dans le Delta égyptien: entre adaptation au paysage et nécessités pratiques”, in “Landscape Archaeology, Egypt and the Mediterranean World”, IFAO Bibliothèque d’étude 169, (25 p).

SCHIESTL, R., 2021, “A new look at the Butic Canal, Egypt”, E&G Quaternary Science Journal, 70, (p 29-38).

TALBERT, R., 2000, “Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World”, Princeton University Press, (102 maps).

STANLEY, D., et al., 1998, “Nile Delta in its Destruction Phase”, Journal of Coastal Reasearch, 14/3, (p 794-825, fig. 8D), https://www.jstor.org/stable/4298835 .

WILSON, P., 2012, “Water, Water Everywhere: Riverine, Lagoonal and Marine Influences in Northern Egypt”, Durham University, (48 p).