Travel to Egypt: Tanda
Tanda is a two-hour train ride upriver from Cairo to El Minya. Then you find rubber wheels and head for Mallawi. Tanda's nearby. You could make the whole trip in the same time by driving, but you probably don't want to. The highway is wide and fast, it has no lane markers, and drivers pass as they like, sure that their survival--or their death--depends on God's will.
This is the Nile at El Minya. The cliffs mark the eastern edge of the Nile Valley. Beyond: the Arabian Desert, empty all the way to the Red Sea. The river here once rose and fell with the summer flood, but its level is controlled now by releases at the High Aswan Dam and hardly changes.
Since 1952, Egypt's irrigated area has increased by about a third, to almost 8 million acres--about 1,200 square miles. The "New Lands," as they are known, flank the margins of the 5 million acres of "Old Lands," about half of which were actually reclaimed during the 19th century. Thus, the irrigated area of Egypt is about triple what it was in 1800. Then, irrigation was a matter of the summer flood, whose waters were directed into settling basins for a month of so before being passed to a lower basin. During the 19th century, the flood regime was replaced by perennial irrigation with water brought by canals. The canals were deliberately laid out slightly below ground level, which forces farmers to raise the water. It's a huge job, but it's also one that gives farmers plenty of reason not to waste water or take more than they need.
Here, near Tanda, a farmer cranks an Archimedean screw, a cylinder with a screw inside it. It's an ancient device, described by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century B.C. In those days, it was made of wood.
The cotton harvest, with date palms in the background. Picking is still done by hand, for there is no shortage of labor. Where do the youngsters go when they grow up? Some go to high school and even college, but after that the choices are poor. The government is no longer guaranteeing graduates jobs; instead, it's setting aside about a third of newly reclaimed lands for occupation by unemployed graduates, each of whom, if they are selected for the program, gets 5 acres of land free of charge. It's called the Mubarak National Program for the Graduates, but given the gap between expectations and reality, it's a recipe for social unrest.
Tanda itself is a study in monochrome: brick, mud, and fodder spread on rooftops to keep it from hungry animals.
The houses are all of brick--some baked but most sun-dried.
Despite the presence of kiln-dried bricks and even electricity, many of the construction methods are traditional.
The streets are unpaved and fly-ridden.
Motor vehicles are scarce.
Water comes from pumps, not taps.
The town is full of images easily labeled "biblical."
Every now and then, there's an extraordinary flash of color.
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