Lake Mariut (Mariout, Maryut, Mareotis), a Landlocked Sea South of Alexandria

Lake Mariut (Mareotis), a Landlocked Sea
South of Alexandria

by Jimmy Dunn

An early map, published in 1882 clearly showing Lake Mariut

An early map, published in 1882 clearly showing Lake Mariut

Traditional classical tours of Egypt rarely move north of Cairo, though there is a trend now of more visits to Alexandria because of recent discoveries off the coast and the New Library of Alexandria, which also houses a new national museum. Still, there are relatively few antiquity sites in Alexandria, and elsewhere in the Delta, many of the ruins, though important to Egyptology, are rather unspectacular and uninteresting to most tourists compared to areas in and around Cairo and to the south.

Fishermen on the shore at Lake Mariut

Nevertheless, there are some interesting archaeological and natural sites near Alexandria, and perhaps one of the most interesting is Lake Mariut, where a number of ancient towns, largely unexcavated, dot the shore.

Lake Mariut (Mariout, Maryut, Mareotis) is just south of, and actually forms the southern border of Alexandria. Along the shore are reed-beds where fishermen, as in ancient times, move about in flat-bottomed boats propelled by long poles. As in the Nile Valley, where much farming continues to be carried on in much the same way as in ancient times, here, fisherman also carry on mostly following in their ancestor's footsteps. Heliodorus, a third century novelists speaks of life on the lake in his Story of Theagenes and Charikleia:

"...the vast quantity of reeds growing in the march protects [the inhabitants] instead of a palisade. By cutting devious and intricately winding paths through the reeds, they have constructed passages that are easy enough for themselves, as they know the way through, but quite impossible for anyone else.

Within the reeds which appear to rest on the reeds, and Heliodorus goes on to explain that:

"This is the home of the entire bandit community of Egypt, some of them building huts on what little land there is above water, others living on boats that serve them as both transport and dwelling. On these boats the women folk work at their weaving; on these boats their children are born. Any child born there is fed at first on its mother's milk, later on fish from the lake dried in the sun. If they see a child trying to crawl, they tie a cord to its ankles just long enough to allow it to reach the edge of the boat or the door of the hut. A strange way to keep children in hand, to tie them by the feet!"

A small fishing boat on Lake Mariut

Actually, it is not unusual even today to find Egyptians living on small boats in this river oriented culture. Even in Cairo, small open boats dot the shore here and there and are clearly the primary residence of their owners.

A series of basins with a pink tinge lie to the west of the marshes. This natural coloration comes from salt pans, but one also passes through areas where the water is clear and here and there, fish farms exist with water piped in from the Mediterranean. Soon, however, the urban areas play out and the shores become wilder, where the lake continues for about fifty kilometers (30 miles). This area is mostly uninhabited by human; its residents being migratory birds, mostly from Turkey, and small animals such as foxes that inhabit the nearby desert. It was not always this way.

During the Graeco-Roman period, Lake Mariut saw much more activity. It stretched for almost 100 kilometers from east to west and was a hub for travelers and traders. Canals made it possible for travelers to reach the Nile from the lake, and they also connected it to the canal of Alexandria and to the sea.

At that time, docks, quays and warehouses doted the northern shores of the lake around Alexandria, and Strabo tells us that the harbor on the lake was more important than Alexandria's maritime harbor:

"The advantages of the city's site are various; for first, the place is washed by two seas, on the north by the Egyptian Sea (the Mediterranean) as it is called, and on the south by Lake Mareia, also called Mareotis. This is filled by many canals from the Nile both from above and on the sides, and through these canals the imports are much larger than those from the sea, so that the harbor on the lake was in fact richer than that on the sea."

During antiquity, the lake was therefore fed by the Nile through the canals, but since then the water level has continuously declined, leaving the eastern part of the lake dried up, which is now cultivated land. Here, in 1801, the English made a dyke separating the lake from Lake Edku on its east with the intention of bogging down the French troops under General Menou. In the process, they submerged some twenty villages. Nowadays, the lake is about a meter (3 feet) lower than in the Graeco-Roman period, attested by the ancient harbors that now are left somewhat high and dry.

The largest Kiln known from the Greek world, located on the shores of Lake Mariut

Around the lake there are at least thirty ancient ruins that are largely unexcavated. On the surface, most of the most obvious sites are the rubbish dumps of workshops that made wine amphorae. The discovery of these workshops was a surprise to archaeologists, because originally it was thought that Egypt's clay was not suitable for this type of vessel. Obviously, they were mistaken. We find some dumps that stand 10 meters high by 30 meters long (33 x 100 feet).

We have also found the remains of many wasters and kilns, including one of the largest kilns known from antiquity, measuring some 12 meters (39 feet) across. In this single kiln, several hundred amphorae could be fired at once, giving one an idea of what the annual production of such shops might have been. Production of these vessels began during the Ptolemaic period, and the industry apparently continued for nearly a thousand years.

However, the production of wine amphorae were obviously a by product of wine production. Strabo praised the grapes grown around the lake, saying that "the vintages in this region are so good that the Mareotic wine is racked off with a view to ageing it". It was aged for several years just like the best Greek vintages. Other Alexandrians such as Bishop Clement and Athenaeus also praised the wine, as did non-Egyptians such as Horace, Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Catullus. Hence, the wine made around the lake was already being exported as far as Rome at the end of the first century BC. Export of the wine is also attested by a shipwreck discovered in the Golfe de Fos near Marseilles, where dozens of amphorae like those from the rubbish heaps of the lakeside were found.

One of many wine-presses found on the south bank of Lake Mariut

The wine production is also attested by archaeological ruins. Several wine presses have been unearthed, all designed in a similar manner. They have an area for treading the grapes from which the liquid, called "must", flows directly into a deep vat through an opening in the form of a lions head made of limestone or marble. The Graeco-Roman Museum has a collection of these that doubtless came from wine-presses that once dotted the countryside near Alexandria. The vats that held the must were unusually large in the Greek world, capable of holding usually between 70 and 176 cubic feet of the liquid. These are the largest fermentation vats so far found in the Greek world. Near where the grapes were trodden were often smaller presses, showing that care was taken that none of the harvest was wasted, in spite of the huge quantities of grapes being processed.

The must was kept in the vat for several days, where it fermented. Then, it was poured directly into the amphorae. A small hole was drilled in the neck of the amphora to allow gases to escape, so that the wine would not ferment twice.

Villas belonging to the wine growers have also been discovered in various places. Some date to the Imperial period and are impressive in size and luxuriousness. They are equipped with private baths and their walls are faced with slabs of imported marble, so their owners must have been very prosperous.It has also been reported that in ancient times, there were eight islands in the lake also built up with grand villas, though these may have served more as retreats for wealthy Alexandrians.

One of four long quays of the harbor at Philoxenite on Lake Mariut

This all paints a very different picture of the lake that we know today. During ancient times, the region around the lake must have been covered in vineyards and populated with the large number of people needed to tend them. The land was sectioned off between large wine-growing properties, and the wine production was concentrated near the shores of the lake, where the amphorae filled with wine were loaded on to boats and shipped to destinations both inside and outside of Egypt.

However, in addition to the wine estates, there were obviously some small towns that also functioned about the lake. Some of these remain mostly or entirely unexcavated, though there are clearly some impressive ruins. Taposiris and Plinthine are located on the north of the lake, while Philoxenite is on the southern shore. Each of these is interesting in its own way and have fairly extensive ruins.

In part, Lake Mariut's demise as an important navigational route, and Alexandria's bleak years during the middle ages is one and the same story. During the twelfth century, the Canopic mouth of the Nile silted up, blocking the flow of fresh water into the lake, making it unnavigable. As a consequence, Alexandria was cut off from the entire river system of Egypt and was unable to trade as easily as before, and this resulted in the cities decline for many years to come.






Reference Number

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Free Press, The

ISBN 0-7432-0569-3

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Empereur, Jean-Yves


British Museum Press

ISBN 0-7141-1921-0

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None Stated

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4