The Advanced Nilometer

8 Oct

It was in the reign of the Pharaoh Sobekhotep that measurement of the annual inundation of the Nile became a matter of argument and strife.

Manu, chief administrator and vizier of the ruler, was the one who brought the priest who was a junior water technician to the palace in Thebes for a conference on problems in flooding prediction.

A towering figure of unusual height and slimness, Wati had dedicated all his thought and energy to devising improvement in the traditional methods used in monitoring and predicting seasonal changes in the level of the Nile.

He spoke with clarity and candor at his first meeting with the fat, roly-poly vizier in the latter’s palace quarters in Thebes.

“I believe that there can be a superior system of measuring changes in the flow of the Nile. For ages till now, we have depended upon poles or columns with markers of distance on them. Mistakes are possible and have at times occurred because of sliding or faltering monitoring instruments in use. These can age and become distorting factors. We all know how importance accuracy is for the efficient functioning of our agricultural prosperity. Any error can turn out damaging and costly.

For a considerable time, I have been working on plans for a more effective measurement of Nile flooding. I have built small-scale models of various possible methods of predicting the future movement of the water. We all know that the beloved Nile is apt to overflow its banks and cover the adjacent plain areas in the period from July to November. The river only recedes in September or October. In one year out of five, there is either severe overflowing or else draught, with a shortage of sufficient water for the fields planted with crops. The good years deposit a rich alluvial deposit of dark silt that aids future harvests. I ask myself whether there is anything as important as having accurate information about the changing flow of the Nile.”

Vizier Manu smiled pleasantly. “And the rate at which we can set taxes depends upon what predictions can be made about water and growing conditions. The Pharaoh’s entire structure of law and army depends upon knowledge of what direction the water level will take. The Nile determines whether the kingdom and its ruler prosper or suffer loss.”

“A better, more exact and dependable way of monitoring water flow is a possibility,” asserted Wati with confidence. “My concept is that of a spiraling series of steps built into a deep cistern, a well that sits beside the Nile and is sensitive to its rising and falling levels. This structure will provide a reliable, quick report of variations in how the Nile floods itself.”

Manu scratched the folds of his jaw. “I need time to think about your plan, and I will have to discuss it with our beloved Pharaoh as well. But I will have an answer to give you sometime within the next month, Wati.”

The latter made a solemn bow and departed in silence.

Day after day, the technical engineer waited with rising impatience. At last, he received an invitation by courier to appear at the Theban palace to confer once again with the royal vizier.

Manu’s dark eyes beamed with a happy expression. Wati could tell at once that the fat little official had good news to tell him.

“Our Pharaoh has decided to construct a new Nilometer according to what you proposed to me. It will be situated across the river from here, at the entrance to the Karnak temple complex, before the Great Avenue of the Sohinxes. Since all Nilometers are under the direction of priests of a particular temple, this one shall be built as an extension of the Temple of Amon-Re, the supreme god who looks after and protects all of the Kingdom of Egypt.

“You are to go at once to that temple and co-ordinate the construction of the new well with the High Priest. His name is Odji and he will in future days be in charge of the operation and reading of the new Nilometer.”

An elated Wati soon left the palace as if in a delightful dream.

Odji, a thickset giant in priestly robe of bright yellow, spoke to the builder in an authoritative, deep voice.

“It is important that this Nilometer of yours have legible markings to indicate the water’s depth with no ambiguity involved,” he told Wati in his temple chamber. “I myself intend to make periodic readings to determine what can be expected from the sacred river. There is no need to emphasis that the tax proceeds going to the Pharaoh’s treasury as well as the income that sustains our temple through rents on our farm lands depend upon the predictions issued by the guardians of the Nilometer that is in operation. We have to have an effective operation of the whole enterprise.

“Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

Wati looked away for a moment. What is the High Priest implying? he asked himself with sudden alarm.

“I realize that the well-being of all our people and the successful operation of our royal army depend upon how well the priestly managers of the meters along the Nile foresee crises of over-flooding or drought. My aim will be to make the new facility the most accurate gauge and predictor anywhere in Egypt.
That is what has motivated me in the years I have devoted to my project.”

Odji gave a feline smile. “I plan to take a hand in supervising the details of construction. That will be my way of furthering its progress and success.”

Excavation of earth for the great cistern began. The work went on for days, then weeks, according to the specifications set by the planner and engineer, Wati. The man he hired to be his foreman and direct subordinate was a builder from the northern delta named Akhom. This muscular, athletic young man had worked under Wati before on hydraulic projects and had his total trust.

Akhom descended down the spiral stairway to the bottom level and inaugurated the laying of the pieces of clay brick for the wall of the well. Then, skilled craftsmen started to put together layer after layer of the deep cistern.

From time to time, the Head Priest would appear to make a visual inspection and speak with Wati.

“I am worried about the angle at which the Nilometer ascends upward to the level of the upper ground,” said Odji one day when the brick-layers were about half-way up to the surface beside the Temple of Amon-Re. “We must have no distortion resulting from inexact lines of construction. The bricks must be joined together in perfect horizontal rows, or else the will be erroneous reading of future flooding of the Nile. That would have disastrous results for the Pharaoh and all of us who depend upon knowing in time the changes in the level of river flow.”

“The workers are performing excellently,” declared Wati with strength in his voice. “My foreman over them is Akhom, a person with construction experience. I believe that he will give us the best metering system ever built anywhere.”

The High Priest merely grunted and walked away toward the adjacent temple.

Countless stars began to appear in the twilight sky as the builders left the site of the cylindrical well and its spiral stairs. The last person to climb up and depart happened to be Akhom, the project foreman.

As he walked toward the temporary tents where the workers slept, a voice addressed him out of the darkening desert shadows.

“Akhom, halt for a few moments. I have something important I want to tell you.”

The startled supervisor halted in his tracks and looked around. A giant figure in a priestly robe moved toward him through the thickening dusk. It soon grew evident that the shape was that of High Priest Odji.

Why was such a powerful official approaching him under such circumstances? wondered the baffled foreman. The cleric began to speak in a whisper.

“It is important that I talk with you in secret, Akhom. There are certain requirements about the construction of the Nilometer that need to be changed completely. You are the one who needs to know what they are. These necessary alterations in the building plan are to be the responsibility of you alone. No one else is to be given details of the changes. That is most important.

“Can you keep your mouth shut about the orders that I issue to you in the following moments of the night?”

What could Akhom say under the circumstances? “Yes,” he muttered in confusion and desperation.

The High Priest of Amon-Re proceeded to give precise, detailed instructions that altered the original plan of the water engineer, Wati.

Complying with the commands of Odji given in such a strange, secretive manner, Akhom started to suffer an increasing burden upon his inner conscience.

Am I a traitor and a coward who is betraying a man for whom I have worked on many construction jobs over the years? the foreman asked himself over and over.

It was over a week after his encounter at dusk with Odji that Akhom sought out the engineer outside the cylinder site in order to make a confession to him.

“How many years, on how many projects, have I worked for you my dear comrade?” began the foreman, surprising Wati with his first words.

“That is hard to say, my friend, but there have been many constructions in many different places in the Kingdom of Egypt. You and I have always treated each other as brothers, I have no doubt about that.”

Akhom looked down at the brown sand. “I have to tell you what has happened to me. The High Priest called Odji has come to me and given me secret orders that modify the original plans for the new Nilometer. This has to do with a major alteration of the size of the bricks being molded at our kilns for use in the cylinder tower. They are now significantly shorter in their height, making it necessary to use more layers of bricks in the final pattern of the well.

“The High Priest did not explain to me the reason for this change in the plan, but I think that I can figure it out for myself. This alteration has to do with the way the Nilometer will in the future measure flooding of the river. With more layers of brick, there will be an exaggeration of the extent of the volume of water coming from the south.

“The point at which a Disaster Flood will be announced is being moved to a lower amount of water because of the shortened height of the higher bricks in the cistern. Water abundance can therefore be announced earlier than with older Nilometers built in the past and simpler in their construction.”

The foreman pause for several moments, then went on.

“I suspect that the High Priest intends to bring about early announcements of flooding emergencies and the high rate of taxation involved in such conditions. These altered disaster points in our new Nilometer threaten to increase the emergency burdens on all of Egyptian agriculture through performing what is clearly a fraud in water measurement.

“I do not believe that I exaggerate the criminal intentions of this nefarious High Priest. His goal is to manipulate the announcement of flood emergencies and make unjustified predictions of water damage for profit. That is how I understand the changes that man has commanded to be made.”

Wati appeared shaken by what had been revealed to him.

“I must think out the way to handle this unforeseen situation,” he said in a lowered voice. “You and I have to be careful in the days ahead, my friend.”

Wati had a sleepless night, but by morning he had decided to confront the High Priest directly on this matter of exploiting the Nilometer for selfish purposes.

He found Odji in his personal chamber with the temple, going through account records of some sort. The High Priest looked at him in surprise.

“It is good to see you this morning, Wati. What is it that brings you here so early in the day?”

The water engineer, standing beside the priest seated at his writing desk, got immediately down to business.

“It has fallen to my attention that you are interfering in a major manner with the original plans for the Nilometer well. Why have you commanded that the shape of the bricks to be used be altered? I can only make unflattering guesses as to why you desire the height of new bricks be shortened. Additional layers of them will now be necessary, and the points at which alarms will be sent through our kingdom will be much different.

“I ask myself what can be your motive for making these drastic changes? You did not think it necessary to inform me or ask my opinion on such an important matter. But I fear that the results of your meddling will not be good.”

The two men stared at each other with growing anger and scorn.

“I need not justify the improvement that I made in your plan,” said the priest with the full power of his voice and lungs. “All of Egypt shall soon see and acknowledge the wisdom of what I have caused to be done.

“The well will be much stronger because of what I ordered. Its wall shall now function better as a monitoring instrument of river flooding. What I did was in the interest of the Pharaoh and the prosperity of his entire realm.”

Having no further argument to make, Wati turned about abruptly and hurried out of the chamber of Odji, then left the Temple of Amon-Re.

What am I going to do now? he asked himself.

Duty to the Pharaoh and his rule of Egypt decided the action taken by Wati.

That same afternoon he took a boat over the Nile to the eastern portion of Thebes and asked to see the Vizier at the royal palace.

With internal difficulty, the engineer described the radical change made in his plan for the Nilometer. He told Manu the threats made against him should he report what he knew to anyone.

The Vizier looked deeply into the eyes of Wati. “You swear that what you are telling me is the truth?”

“Yes, I swear,” vowed the water engineer.

Odji rose from where he sat behind a table. “The Pharaoh must know of what is going on. He will not allow such criminal interference by even the High Priest of Amon-Re. Odji will pay for what appears to be traitorous behavior on his part. I will ask that you be granted absolute, exclusive authority over the Nilometer and how it is constructed.”

“Thank you, sir,” said the grateful Wati.

He left the royal palace that day with a firm feeling that justice would be done and that the Nilometer would be rebuilt the way that he intended that it be.


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