Quite a strange destiny, that of Rosetta/Rachid, the small city in the Nile Delta, surrounded by water and sand and washed by the sea. It does indeed provide a good lesson in geographical determinism and evolution of a city in a dialectic and interactive relationship with its physical environment (the Nile Delta).
The Nile and its whims, the sea and its moods, the sand and its movements have shaped the area of Rachid to their liking and imposed their will several times in the course of history. And men too have imposed their will.
A product of the alluviums from the Nile accumulated over thousands of years which provide the precious silt for agriculture, ever since remote antiquity, the region around Rachid was renowned for its rich and varied agricultural production, especially rice which was exported by sea, and also wheat, barley, sugarcane, black grapes, oranges and dates…
Open to the Mediterranean and its shores populated by civilized nations, supported by its agricultural hinterland and communicating with far-off places in Egypt by means of the Nile, Rachid seems to fulfil all the conditions for becoming a rich and prosperous city and playing a leading role in Egypt and in the Mediterranean. It had to make the best out of exceptionally favourable circumstances.
Factors which contributed to its prosperity
First it benefited from the decline of its neighbouring great elder sister-city to the west of the Delta, Alexandria. Alexandria’s port and the Canopec, the branch of the Nile which served it, had already become almost impracticable in the VIth century because of centuries of neglect. Alexandria could thus no longer fulfil the role it had always played, that of an intermediary between the continent and the sea, Egypt and the peoples around the Mediterranean. The need became ever greater to replace it with another town in the region which had more or less the same geographical advantages.
And as fate would have it, “Rakhit”, the small neighbouring city, took over. The “Rakhit” of the Coptic papyrus, ancient “Bolbotine” of remote Pharaonic times, was only a small insignificant town when its elder sister-city was basking in its glory. It was not until the middle of the IXth century, -when the Abbasid caliph decided to fortify the Egyptian littoral against Byzantine incursions and Mohamed Ibn Toulon, governing Egypt on behalf of the sovereign of Baghdad, ordered a new town with a port to be built in 870 on the Delta- that it started to gain in importance and to play an increasingly predominant role.
It took however, seven centuries for this role to be mastered completely and, with the arrival of the Ottomans in Egypt in 1517, to start an unprecedented growth which lasted for no less than three centuries (from the XVIth to the XIXth century) and which culminated with the XVIIIth century.
Thanks to a recent and well documented study published in 1999 (Rachid, birth, prosperity and decline, Edit. Dar al-Afaq al arabiya), it was possible, century by century, to follow the town’s urban development during its golden age and its accompanying intense architectural activity.
The town from the XVIth to the XIXth century
Evolution of the town: some informationTown suface area:- XVIIth century: 23 ha (22% compared with the XVIth century)- XVIIIth century: 35 ha (45% compared with the XVIIth century)- XIXth century, middle of XXth century: 48 ha (36%)In the last 150 years, however, there was a clear slowing down of 214% compared with the previous century.Number of streets:XVIth century: 37 streetsXVIIth century: 68 streetsXVIIIth century: 95 streetsXIXth-XXth century: 91 streetsThis evolution was accompanied by more inhabitants, more public equipment, more dwellings, more trade and crafts and ever more diversified souks.This expansion took place at the expense of the lands bordering this branch of the Nile and sometimes at the expense of agricultural lands around the town.
In the XVIIIth century the town had reached the height of its growth and prosperity. There were new territorial conquests, a denser population, better and more urban equipment (oukalas, fondouks, factories, workshops, souks, public water fountains, reservoirs) especially bigger, more elegant and better decorated houses and mosques and more mausoleums which were constantly embellished and enlarged.
This prosperity was followed by a very obvious crisis at the departure of the French Expedition (1798-1801) and particularly from the middle of the XIXth century. The names of great families, for example, who inhabited the city in the XVIIIth century and provided the city with its influence, prestige and dynamism, had almost disappeared from the archive documents in the XIXth century. These same archives also reveal the negligence of civil public and even religious buildings, and even private ones (oukalas, fondouks) and of course the dwelling houses too.
Factors which contributed to its decline
When the “stone ports” started replacing the old “clay ports” on the watercourses, according to a contemporary geographer, Rachid lost its role as the main intermediary in Egyptian inland traffic, with the Mediterranean and with the Empire. This decline followed the works carried out by the great reformer Mohamed Ali Pacha in Alexandria and which resulted in the digging of the Muhammadiya canal in 1819 and the dredging of the port.
Under the reign of Said Pacha, in 1859, the Suez Canal was dug and with it the new port of Port Said was developed on the eastern part of the Delta.
The two ports, Alexandria to the west and Port Said to the east, became formidable rivals against which the town could offer no resistance especially as apart from these external factors, there were other unfavourable internal factors concerning Rachid’s geographical setting which was greatly changing, such as the almost total obstruction of the branch of the Nile (Rachid), silting up of the port and invasion of the dunes around the town. The great Aswan dam was built in the middle of the XXth century and aggravated the situation even more. The alluviums were no longer carried along, and the Nile started absorbing the sediments accumulated for thousands of years in the estuary thus seriously threatening the area and the sea whose level continued to rise from one year to the next, started eating away at the littoral along the whole side of the Delta.
Structures to be protected
What is there left today to bear witness to the town’s golden age two centuries ago when there were 35.000 inhabitants according to the information given by the scientific mission which accompanied the French Expedition in 1798 and where the gardens and orchards still retained all their charm? Some town quarters with narrow streets intersecting at right angles, the last vestiges of urbanism typical of the XVIth-XVIIth centuries, lined with two- or three-storeyed houses, with mosques, hammams, oukalas… then the remains of a citadel built by Qaïtbey in 1479 where the famous Rosetta stone was found which bears an inscription in three languages, thanks to which Champollion was able to pierce the mystery of the hieroglyphs. Then there is the ancient port or what is left of it.
At the beginning of the XXth century, 38 houses had been classed as historical monuments by the “Conservation Committee of Arab Monuments”. Only 22 of them have survived today. They were acquired by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and restored. Their plan was nearly always the same, a ground floor and one or two storeys. Part of the ground floor was for business and storerooms. The first floor was for men and the second for women. Some of the façades were decorated with polychrome bricks, red, black and white and are quite unique in the whole of Egypt. The first two floors, always corbelling out into the street, have splendid moucharabiehs (worked wood windows). Faïence tiles were also used, known as Zellig, as in the Maghreb countries.
The oldest and biggest mosque is that of Zaghloul, on the main axis of the old nucleus, whilst the others are scattered throughout the town quarters.