Rezension über:

John P. Cooper: The Medieval Nile. Route, Navigation, and Landscape in Islamic Egypt, Kairo: American University in Cairo Press 2014, XVII + 421 S., 89 illus., ISBN 978-977-416-614-3, USD 75,00
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Rezension von:
Gregory Williams
The American University in Cairo
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Stephan Conermann
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Gregory Williams: Rezension von: John P. Cooper: The Medieval Nile. Route, Navigation, and Landscape in Islamic Egypt, Kairo: American University in Cairo Press 2014, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2016], URL:

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John P. Cooper: The Medieval Nile

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John Cooper's The Medieval Nile is undoubtedly a unique and extremely important contribution to the study of both medieval Egypt and the navigational experience of that landscape (or as John Cooper puts it, riverscape). In the way that Fernand Braudel explained medieval Mediterranean history and culture by focusing on the sea itself (or through many seas) in his seminal work La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'Epoque de Philippe II, so too has Cooper succeeded in providing a great deal of insight into Egypt's medieval past by shifting the central focus away from the cities and historical events and instead towards the Nile River's various and evolving channels, canals, and associated ports.

Limiting the study to a chronological range between the 7th and 15th centuries CE, John Cooper's intention is to identify and discuss the various branches and routes of the Nile River and to then understand the experience of sailing along these routes. Finally, there is an attempt to understand, whether through navigational, geographical, environmental, socio and geo-political and economic factors how and why the Nile was used and changed in the ways that it was and did. Despite the prescribed chronological limit, John Cooper also uses a variety of sources well outside this range. Like many studies of Egypt, it is impossible to ignore the great influence of earlier ages, particularly in their interaction and experience with the River Nile, when investigating the medieval period.

The book is divided into three major themes. Part one, "Geography", serves as an introduction to the work, reviewing pre-Islamic sources on the Nile and going on to discuss in several chapters the development of the various branches of the eastern and western Nile Delta, along with the Canal of the Commander of the Faithful which connected the Nile to the Red Sea at Qulzum (Suez) and the Bahr Yusuf canal which connected the Nile Valley with the Fayoum Oasis. The discussion of these branches makes use of an impressive array of source material, including Arab geographers, chroniclers, papyrological studies, and information provided from a variety of archaeological sub-disciplines.

With the relevant landscapes identified and explained, in the second part, "Navigation", John Cooper presents a number of issues relating to the navigational experience of the river itself, including specific chapters covering the Nile flood cycle, propulsion, natural hazards, journey times between major sites, and sea connections, sometimes using later sources such as European traveler accounts where information was lacking for earlier medieval periods. Part three, "Ports and the Navigational Landscape", provides rich studies of the major port cities in the Nile Delta and along the Red Sea coast, once again using a mastery of the Arab geographers and diligently digging up information from little known archaeological excavation and survey reports.

An additional section of appendices also constitutes an important aspect of the book. Included here are diagrammed versions of historical representations of the Nile Valley or Nile Delta and reconstructions of late antique and medieval maps, along with geographically reconstructed interpretations of those maps as pertaining to discussions in the previous sections of the book. These are certainly a contribution to medieval Egyptian cartography and a helpful visual addition for the reader. But the inclusion of the images of the original maps referred to or reconstructed in the appendices, as suggested in previous reviews of this book [1], may have also provided the reader with a sense of how interpretations and understandings of the Nile river landscape developed through the medieval period in Egypt.

Nevertheless, the contribution in outlining the various Nile Delta branches, canals, port cities and their development and sometimes disappearance over time (including changing land-routes between them) accompanied by the diagrams and maps cannot be overstated. It provides a thorough retelling of Egyptian medieval history through the waterways that connected the region. Much more than a 21st century update to Omar Tousson's work on the River Nile from the 1920's, a seminal aspect of The Medieval Nile is its insistence on moving beyond some of the most enduring assumptions about the Nile itself: that the Nile provided easy and accessible transportation throughout Egypt throughout its long history.

John Cooper shows from a variety of data sources the great complexities of navigating this river, and how much skill and experience is needed to do it well. In the example of navigating the Nile in Upper Egypt between Asyut and Aswan, he clearly illustrates the ways in which seasonal winds and geography can drastically change the ease with which one could sail upstream. Alternatively, he is quick to avoid basic environmentally-determinist approaches, using the changing routes between the Nile Valley and Red Sea ports in a largely unchanging environment as evidence of the great impact of geopolitical and economic factors in determining the rise and fall of port cities and changing courses of travel across the Egyptian terrain. Given the wide variety of source material he skillfully synthesizes, John Cooper shows good reason to use more nuanced approaches in explaining the changing medieval landscape.

Perhaps most important of all is the foundation this book provides for future and more specialized studies on many of the sites and issues brought up during the course of the book. The detailed readings of medieval sources paired with a great wealth of diverse archaeological data from lesser known sites in Egypt provides an invaluable reference for forthcoming studies of medieval Egyptian culture and history. John Cooper has, in many cases, provided in a very succinct way the most up to date and complete descriptions of important but understudied sites along the Red Sea coast and throughout the Nile Delta, creating a kind of Nile-based survey of Medieval Egypt within this larger study. While I am certainly biased in this regard by my own research interests, scholarship on Medieval Egypt has sometimes suffered from an over reliance on Cairo-centered studies as well as the tendency towards isolated studies of single sites outside Cairo, despite the importance and often necessity of both. This book is unparalleled in both its breadth of coverage of what might be described as provincial Egypt and its ability to create a synthesis from different types of data in order to investigate connections between different sites and different regions within Egypt. The Medieval Nile will continue to be an essential point of reference for those interested in medieval Egypt and the larger medieval Mediterranean.


[1] Deborah Cvikel: Review of The Medieval Nile: Route, Navigation and Landscape in Islamic Egypt, John P. Cooper. The Mariner's Mirror 101, no. 4 (2015), 468-472.

Gregory Williams