Wadis of Egypt

Wadis of Egypt

The Nile is the only permanent river in Egypt, though the country has several significant wadis (valleys). Some dry tributaries or wadis intercept the Nile as it transverses the Eastern Desert. These wadis drain their water to the Red Sea coast. However, wadis of the Nile valley include the Wadi Abbad, Shait, and El-Kharit. In addition, the wadis of Sinai are Wadi Mukattab and the Wadi Feiran. The Nile has no seasonal tributaries during its course in Egypt. In the Delta region, the Nile splits into branches and secondary channels.


A wadi is an Arabic term used in North Africa and Arabia to describe a watercourse with a dry bed except when it rains and often forms an oasis. The watercourse could be a channel, a stream, a valley, or just a course followed by water during periods of rainfall.

Seasonality of the Wadis of Egypt

Wadis are usually on the deserts’ gently sloping and almost flat parts. They begin in the distal portions of fans and extend inland to the Sabkhas or playas. Simultaneously, they go along the basin axes of a fan terminus. There are no permanent channels due to a lack of continuous water flow. Because of water deficiency and abundance of sediments, wadis tend to show a braided-stream pattern. The wadis have intermittent or ephemeral water surfaces. In the deserts, sudden and infrequent heavy rainfalls usually result in flash floods. This water percolates deep into the stream bed, resulting in energy loss and massive depositions. The sudden loss of flow velocity and seepage of the rainwater into the porous sediment further leads to the watercourse drying up fast. If the rains are continuous, the channels will flow towards the Red Sea until the rain stops. The water courses dry up during the dry season, and only the oasis remains.

Economic Significance

Wadis and their Oases provide habitats to human beings and animal populations. Settlements emerge around a wadi that has an oasis. As people settled, agriculture started. For example, the Wadi of Feiran attracts thousands of visitors due to the big harvests of dates that grow along its course. Other plants cultivated include wheat, barley, vines, and palms. The Wadis also form essential trade and transportation routes for the Egyptians. Caravans and nomadic people follow Wadis during their migration so that they can replenish water and food supplies once they reach a wadi oasis.

Ecological Significance

Wadis of Egypt form a unique and distinctive environment system characterised by natural attractions’ diversity, variety, and richness. The wadis have some of the best wetlands, oasis harbour mammals, birds, and amphibians.

Cultural Significance

The Wadis of Egypt have a very rich cultural significance to the Egyptians. For example, the Wadi Feiran forms a necessary cultural background for the Israelites’ movement from Egypt to their promised land. The Valley of Inscriptions has writing styles from an ancient culture of people that existed 2-3 centuries BC. The inscriptions usually tell of the history of civilisation and humanity.

Wadis in Egypt

Wadi Feiran

The Wadi Feiran, also called the Wadi Paran in the Sinai Peninsula, runs for 81miles. It empties into the Gulf of Suez in the Red Sea some 18 miles southeast of Abu Rodeis. The Oasis of Wadi Feiran, also called the Pearl of Sinai, is the largest in Sinai. The Wadi oasis extends for four kilometres, with palm trees and vines. Corn, barley, wheat, tamarind, and tobacco grow, but dates are the main harvest. The Wadi is the biblical Rephidim through which the Israelites followed when leaving Egypt. The battle of Amalek was fought here as well.

Wadi Mukattab

Also called the Valley of Inscription, Wadi Mukattab in the Sinai Peninsula is located on the main road between Wadi Maghera and Wadi Feiran. There are carvings in the steep rocky walls surrounding the Wadi. Some writings date back to the Nabataea in the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD. Some different writings are the vertical signs denoting single unique sounds derived from Semitic and Egyptian scripts.

Wadi Maghera

Another wadi in the Sinai Peninsula, Wadi Maghera, is an old turquoise mining area in the Pharaoh Regime. It also has ancient inscriptions on its rocky slopes. Some of the earliest quotes inscribed on the valley are those left by the miners of copper in the Sinai about the expansion of copper and turquoise mines which dates back to more than two millenniums BC.

Wadi Allaqi

Wadi Qena, together with Wadi Allaqi, are intimately connected to the history of the Nile. Before the consolidation of the Nile configuration, as we see it now, flowing from Sudan into Egypt, several rivers were flowing from the Red Sea mountains, from east to west, following the upheaval of the Red Sea coast and the formation of the Great Rift Valley. This uplift, associated with northerly trending fissures and fractures, realigned the drainage, such as the Qena River flowing from north to south in what is now Wadi Qena. This Wadi became a watershed for rivers flowing from north to south. Wadi Allaqi was another large river that flowed south-westward, draining the southern Red Sea mountains and those in north-eastern Sudan. These two large rivers fed southwest Egypt’s recently discovered “radar-imaged” rivers. Though these “radar imaged” rivers are old features – predating Man – the discovery of an Acheulian hand axe on the bank of one of these streams suggests that these rivers were active during Acheulian times. After the Mediterranean Plioceoccurredetreat from the Gulf occupying most of the present-day Nile Valley, rejuvenation of old rivers flowing east-west and north-south took place. Only during the Middle Pleistocene did the trapped Ethiopian and equatorial African waters breach cataracts in northern Sudan, capturing many side rivers as they poured through Egypt to become the real Nile. It took Man several hundred thousand years to migrate from the relatively safe desert wadis on both sides of the Nile to its banks. These migrations were associated with drastic climatic changes from tropical savanna to dry arid conditions. Modern desertification started approximately 7800 years ago (Issawy 2002). Site # 2: Wadi Gemal Wadi Gemal is a fascinating unpolluted site on the Red Sea coast, south of Mersa Alam. Besides the magnificent scenery of palm groves on the sea shore, there are beautiful coral reefs, mangroves, and different animals and plants. The rocks exposed between the high mountain of the Pre-Cambrian basement complex in the west and the sea shore in the east range in age between Cretaceous and Quaternary. The Wadi is rich in biodiversity, especially in the highest of its mountains, Gebel Hamata.

Seagrass beds are particularly important because they harbour sea cows, fish, and many marine invertebrates. The Wadi Gemal Island, situated in the proximity of the Wadi delta, is of particular international importance as it serves as a breeding haven for both breeding and migratory birds and is one of the important breeding spots for sea turtles on the Egyptian Red Sea coasts. In addition, Prehistoric, Ptolemaic and Roman vestiges abound, as well as ancient emerald quarries, not to mention the uniqueness of the indigenous people there and their exceptional local traditions and culture. Site # 3: Wadi Allaqi Wadi Allaqi the largest Wadi in the south of Egypt’s the Eastern Desert. It is an extensive drainage system, the length of the main Wadi Allaqi channel being about 250 km, 200 of which is in Egypt and approximately 50 in Sudan. Its width ranges from 2 km in some parts to 10 km in some other regions. Its catchment area extends from the coastal mountains of the Red Sea to the Wadi’s outlet into the Nile Valley in Lake Nasser. Although the region, in general, is characterised as hyper-arid, its biogeographical characteristics are varied and transitional between the tropical biota of the south (Sudano-Saharan and Ethiopian) and the temperate biota of the north (Mediterranean).

Temperatures fluctuate widely, with summer exceeding 40° C, while sub-zero temperatures have been recorded during winter. The relative humidity of the air is from zero to no more than 40%. In the central part of the Wadi across the Egyptian part of the Eastern Desert, annual precipitation rarely exceeds 5 mm annually and is highly variable across seasons. This average is fictitious because rain events occur only every 2 or 3 years, at any season and anywhere. It often comes in cloudbursts which result in torrents flowing briefly in the tributary wadis, although many years may pass without any rainfall. Because of this, the phenology of biota (periods of reproduction) does not follow the usual annual rhythm, as elsewhere in other ecosystems has a regular yearly rainfall season, but rather a pluriannual one. Fluctuating temperatures have minimal effect on plant life, as there are almost no annuals and no noticeable impact on animal life, which hides in burrows at extraordinarily high or shallow temperatures. Species resist drought for many years before being able to reproduce and renew their life cycles. Following the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s, rising lake water penetrated the downstream reach of the Wadi and inundated about its third. This action brought water deep into a formerly hyper-arid ecosystem. Fluctuations in the Lake level, from one year to another, lead to temporary exposure of up to 40 km of this inundated area, followed by subsequent inundation each year. A new transitional ecosystem (an ecotone) between arid land upstream and permanently inundated land downstream has thus been established.

Considering that natural vegetation occupies a minimal area in a relatively narrow wadi channel (mountain surfaces having no plant life), the Wadi Allaqi is, astonishingly, floristically rich, with 127 species of higher plants recorded within more than two decades of intensive research. Despite no endemic species, some plants are rare in the Egyptian flora. About 15 species of Globally Endangered or Threatened animals and birds live there, which easily cross the border between Egypt and Sudan. These include the Sand Cat (Felis margarita), the Nubian Ibex (Capra ibex Nubian), the Nile Crocodile (Crocodilus niloticus), the Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clango), and the Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo). The great value of this biodiversity is that this community (biocoenosis) is an example of extra-ordinary adaptiveness and survival, not only to drought but to uncertainty and randomness of availability of life-support resources, that life on earth has developed in such an extremely harsh environment. A successful archaeological record in the Wadi Allaqi area includes petroglyphic and other evidence of a Prehistoric occupation culturally distinct from the Nile Valley. Inscriptions of the Fifth Dynasty confirm that this region was used as a caravan route and that stone for sarcophagi was quarried here.

In the Old Kingdom, Wadi Allaqi was a place of contact between Egyptians and the tribes of the Nubian Desert, playing a vital role in the economic, social, and cultural life of this part of the desert. It is most probably here that the Ancient Egyptians domesticated the ass and the cat. As is well known, domesticating these two animals is the only case of its kind in Africa. In almost every tributary of Wadi Allaqi, there are remains of human settlements of different periods, including mining gold. One of the most important of these mines, the Umm Gerayat mine, had a continuous history which extended to the early decades of the 20th century. Wadi Gabgaba on the Sudan side is rich with remains of what seems to be an extensive Neolithic occupation: tombs, settlements, rock inscriptions, etc. The contemporary population of Wadi Allaqi and its tributaries is virtually unique in Egypt. The Ababda Arabs live nearer to the Nile Valley. At the same time, the local Bishari, or Bisharin (of Hamitic origin), are a branch of the large Beja Tribe (or cultural group) extending on the Red Sea coast as far as the Horn of Africa. They speak an ancient Hamitic language, the Bishari language. The material culture of both Ababda and Bisharin is distinct from that of the Nile Valley or other Arab Bedouin groups further north in the Eastern Desert (the Maaza in the northern Eastern Desert near Hurghada or the Hawitat in the Suez Canal area). Many of the Wadi Allaqi tribal groups, particularly in the upper reaches of the Wadi system, remain fully nomadic.

One essential aspect of Wadi Allaqi is that it has been a route for camel caravans from eastern Sudan to be sold in Egyptian markets in Cairo for centuries. These caravans, called dabouka, have from 1000 to 1500 camels each, and scores of them traverse the desert each year; hundreds of camels die on the way from thirst and exhaustion, and these become food for the Egyptian vultures, Neophron, perching on Acacia trees waiting for their luck. Ababda Arabs of the Wadi help these caravans with guidance, water, and food. In contrast, household movements tend to be more localised in the Lake Nasser vicinity, or the lower Wadi reaches.