(ἡ Μοίριος λίμνη
, Hdt. 2.13
, seq.; Diod. 1.52
; Μοίριδος λίμνη
, Strab. xviii. p.810
; Ptol. 4.5
. § § 20, 36; Moeris Lacus, Mela, 1.9.5; Moeridis, Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 9
), was the most extensive and remarkable of all the Aegyptian lakes.
It formed the western boundary of the Arsinoite nome [ARSINOE
] in Middle Aegypt, and was connected with the Nile by the canal of Joseph (Bahr-Jusuf
A portion of its ancient bed is represented by the modern Birket-el-Kerûn.
Of all the remarkable objects in a land so replete with wonders, natural and artificial, as Aegypt, the lake of Moeris was the most enigmatical to the ancients. herodotus (2.149), who is followed by Pliny (5.9. s. 9
), regarded it as the work of man, and ascribes it to a [p. 2.366]
king of the same name.
This supposition is incredible, and runs counter both to local tradition and actual observation. “Nothing,” says a modern traveller (Browne, Travels in Egypt,
p. 169), “can present an appearance so unlike the works of men. On the NE. and S. is a rocky ridge, in every appearance primeval ;” and Strabo (xvii. p.112
) observes upon the marine conformation of its shores and the billowy colour and motion of its waters. So far as it has been hitherto surveyed, indeed, Moeris is known to have been inclosed by elevated lands; and, in early times, the bed of the Nile was too low to admit of its waters flowing into the basin of the lake, even if there had been a natural communication between the river and Moeris. Strabo believed it to be altogether a natural reservoir, and that the canal which connected it with the Nile was alone the work of human art. His opinion is doubtless the correct one, but admits perhaps of some modification.
The whole of the Arsinoite nome was indebted to human enterprise for much of its extent and fertility. Geologically speaking, it was, in remote periods, a vast limestone valley, the reservoir of waters descending from the encompassing hills, and probably, if connected with the Nile at all, the communication was subterraneous.
As the accumulated waters gradually subsided, the summits and sides of the higher ground were cultivated.
The richness of the soil--a deposit of clay and muriate of lime, like that of the Oases
--would induce its occupiers in every age to rescue the land from the lake, and to run darns and embankments into the water.
In the dry season, therefore, Moeris would exhibit the spectacle of a body of water intersected by peninsulas, and broken by islands, while, at the period of inundation, it would wear the aspect of a vast basin. Accordingly, the accounts of eye-witnesses, such as were Strabo and Herodotus, would vary according to the season of the year in which they inspected it. Moreover, there are grounds for supposing that ancient travellers did not always distinguish between the connecting canal, the Bahr-Jusuf,
and Moeris itself.
The canal was unquestionably constructed by man's labour, nor would it present any insuperable difficulties to a people so laborious as the Aegyptians.
There was also a further motive for redeeming the Moeriote district generally, for the lands opposite to it, on the eastern bank of the Nile, were generally barren, being either a sandy level or stone quarries, while the soil of the Arsinoite nome was singularly fertile, and suited to various crops, corn, vegetables, and fruit. If then we distinguish, as Strabo did, the canal (διώρυξ
) from the lake (λίμνη
), the ancient narratives may be easily reconciled with one another and with modern surveys. Even the words of Herodotus (ὅτι δὲ χειροποίητός ἐστι καὶ ὀρυκτή
) may apply to the canal, which was of considerable extent, beginning at Hermopolis (Ashnmuneen
), and running 4 leagues W., and then turning from N. to S. for 3 leagues more, until it reaches the lake. Modern writers frequently reproach the ancients with assigning an incredible extent to the lake; and some of them surmise that Herodotus and Strabo do not speak of the same waters.
But the moderns have mostly restricted themselves to the canal, and have either not explored Moeris itself, the NW shores of which are scarcely known, or have not made allowance for its diminution by the encroaching sands and the detritus of fallen embankments.
We infer, therefore, that the lake Moeris is a natural lake, about the size of that of Geneva, and was originally a depression of the limestone plateau, which intersects in this latitude the valley of the Nile. Even in its diminished extent it is still at least 30 miles long, and 7 broad. Its direction is from SW. to NE., with a considerable curve or elbow to the E.
The present level of its surface is nearly the same with that of the Mediterranean, with which indeed, according to a tradition mentioned by Herodotus, it was connected by a subterranean outlet into the Syrtes. If the lake, indeed, ever discharged any portion of its waters into the sea, it must have been in pre-historic times.
The waters of Moeris are impregnated with the alkaline salts of the neighbouring desert, and with the depositions--muriate of lime--of the surrounding hills.
But, although brackish, they are not so saline as to be noxious to fish or to the crocodile, which in ancient times were kept in preserves, and tamed by the priests of the Arsinoite nome. (Strab. xvii. p.112
; Aelian, Ael. NA 10.24
The fisheries of the lake, especially at the point where the sluices regulated the influx of the Bahr-Jusuf,
were very productive.
The revenue derived from them was, in the Pharaonic era, applied to the purchase of the queen's wardrobe and perfumes. Under the Persian kings they yielded, during the season of inundation, when the canal fed the lake, a talent of silver daily to the royal treasury (150l.
). During the rest of the year, when the waters ebbed towards the Nile, the rent was 30 minae, or 60l.,
In modern times the right of fishing in the Birket-el-Kerûn
has been farmed for 13 purses, or about 84l.,
yearly. (Laborde, Révue Française,
1829, p. 67.)
It is probable, indeed, that a copious infusion of Nile water is required to render that of Moeris palatable to man, or salutary for fish.
To Thoutrmosis III. the Aegyptians were probably indebted for the canal which connected the lake of Moeris with the Nile.
It may have been, in part, a natural channel, but its dykes and embankments were constructed and kept in repair by man.
There is, indeed, some difficulty respecting the influx and reflux of the water, since the level of the Bahr-Jusuf
is much higher than that of the Arsinoite nome and the lake; and Herodotus seems to say (2.149) that the waters returned by the same channel by which they entered Moeris.
As mention is made, however, of sluices at their point of junction, it is possible that a series of floodgates retained or impelled the water.
The main dyke ran between the Memphite and Arsinoite nomes.
Belzoni found remains of ancient cities on the western side of Moeris, and is disposed to place the Great Labyrinth in that quarter.
But if we may trust the accounts of the best ancient writers, it certainly was not on that side of the lake. Its shores and islands were, however, covered with buildings. Of the ruins of Arsinoe mention has been made already. But Herodotus tells an extraordinary story of pyramids seated in the lake itself (l.c.
):--“About the middle of it are two pyramids, each rising 300 feet above the water; the part that is under the water is just the same height. On the top of each is a colossus of stone seated in a chair.” This account is singular, as implying that pyramidal buildings were sometimes employed as the bases of statues.
But it is impossible to reconcile this statement with the ascertained depth of the Birket-el-Kerûn,
which on an average does [p. 2.367]
not exceed 12 feet, and even where it is deepest is only 28. We may indeed admit, that, so long as the fisheries were a royal monopoly, a larger body of water was admitted from the Nile, and the ordinary depth of the lake may thus have been greater than at present.
It is also possible that much of the surrounding country, now covered with sand, may formerly, during the inundation, have been entirely submerged, and therefore that the pyramids which Herodotus saw, the sides of which even now bear traces of submersion (Vyse, On the Pyramids,
vol. iii. p. 84), may have been the truncated pyramids of Biahmu,
now beyond the reach of the Birket-el-Kerûn,
but within the range of the ancient Moeris. Herodotus, if, as is probable, he visited the Arsinoite nome in the wet season, may have been struck with the elevation of these monuments above the lake, and exaggerated their proportions as well above as below its surface. Pococke (Travels,
vol. i. p. 65) tells us that he saw on its western extremity, “a head of land setting out into the lake, in a semicircular figure, with white cliffs and a height above,” which he thought might be the lower part of the two pyramids described by Herodotus. And Pére Lucas (Voyages en Egypte,
vol. ii. p. 48) observed an island in the middle of the lake, a good league in circumference.
He was assured by his guides that it contained the ruins of several temples and tombs, two of which were loftier and broader than the rest.
The region of Moeris awaits more accurate survey.
The best accounts of it, as examined by modern travellers, will be found in Belzoni, Travels;
vol. i. p. 329; Jomard, Descript. de l'Egypte,
vol. i. p. 79; Ritter, Erdkunde,
vol. i. p. 803.