Egypt – Climate

THE acknowledged value of Egypt as a health-resort suggests some notice of its climatic peculiarities, which, although less markedly, have still in common with many other features of the country undergone some sensible changes within recent years.

Subject to considerable local qualifications, the climate of Egypt may be generally described as hot and dry. The description applies least perfectly to the lower Delta, the situation of which, along the sea, greatly tempers the elsewhere general heat, and at the same time gives to its atmosphere a degree of moisture which is unknown in the Middle and Upper provinces. Thus in Alexandria,; where “there is an abundant rainfall between October and February, the thermometer seldom ranges above the aver-age of Southern Europe, and even in the dog-days keeps fairly down to ” temperate.” In Cairo and throughout Middle Egypt, the rain diminishes to slight showers on eight or ten days a year, and the mean temperature of the twelvemonth is nearly 3° higher than along the coast ; while in Upper Egypt rain is an almost unknown phenomenon, and the heat, which during the summer months is intense, never cools below a point that excludes winter from the list of Egyptian seasons altogether. In Alexandria, and more rarely in Cairo, European residents some-times light a fire during December and January ; but in neither city is there, in our Western sense, properly any winter at all. Spring, summer, and autumn are, in fact, the only seasons known to the whole land of Egypt.

The first of these begins in February, when the fruit-trees blossom and the atmosphere gradually acquires a delightful warmth. It is, however, during this otherwise charming season that occurs the hot khamsin * wind whose distinctive effects have gained for it a bad renown among atmospheric phenomena. This wind, or rather series of winds, which the Arabs also call simoom, blows intermittently from the end of March till the middle or third week of May. It comes from the far south, or more exactly SSE., and after traversing the burning sands of Africa at a time when the sun’s rags fall almost perpendicularly, it reaches Egypt laden with all the noxious vapours of the desert. On its approach, the sky, normally so blue and cloudless, becomes black and heavy, the sun darkens into a dim violet-coloured disc, and what is at first but a light warm breeze rapidly increases into a blast hot and dry as from an oven, which shrivels up every green thing, warps and cracks wood, renders breathing difficult, and is generally hurtful to both vegetable and animal life. Happily this pernicious sirocco lasts only from twenty-four to forty-eight hours at a time, during which all outdoor work is suspended and the inhabitants confine themselves to their houses, and vainly endeavour to shut out the fine unpalpable duet that fills the air, and, according to the Arab saying, is so penetrating that it will enter even an egg through the pores of its shell. These are the winds which in the unsheltered desert have so often proved fatal to whole caravans, and more than once to entire armies. They are not however peculiar to Egypt, but blowing from different points occur also in other parts of Africa, in the Syrian desert, the Arabian peninsula, Babylonia, Persia, and southern India. It is at the auto time remarkable that this southerly breeze, so perniciously hot in spring, is during the winter months the sharpest and coldest that blows—the reason being that in December and January the solar rays fall more obliquely on the desert, and the wave of air which then descends on Egypt is chilled by its passage over the snowy highlands of Abyssinia.

Hardly has tho last hot breath of the khamsin swept away northwards towards Constantinople—which it reaches tempered by the Mediterranean, but still most unhealthily warm—than the Egyptian spring at once ripens into summer. In Upper Egypt the heat then be-comes trying even to the natives, and almost unbearable by Europeans. lady Duff Gordan, however, testifies that even as far south as Thebes, by taking proper precautions and excluding light and air during the hot-test hours of the day, as is the universal rule in all tropical latitudes, she suffered no inconvenience from the heat. At Cairo, the mean summer temperature is about 92° Fahr., but it sometimes, though rarely, ranges ten and even twelve degrees higher. But this latter extremity of heat seldom experienced except in the more confined districts of the Said, which suffer also from the absence of the heavy dews that nocturnally irrigate the parched surface of the Delta and Middle Egypt. The northerly summer breezes waft in the evaporations of the Mediterranean, and these, suspended in the atmosphere during the day, are deposited at night in an abundant dew that moistens and cools the air, and in the morning again evaporates in light flaky clouds.

The summer may be said to last till the last week of September, when even in the Upper Valley the heat ceases to be inconvenient, and the long genial autumn, which extends throughout our European winter, begins. For the first five or six weeks of it, light easterly winds prevail, which render the continuing warmth damp and muggy, and make this the most unhealthy period of the Egyptian year. But thence on till February the climate is everywhere delightfully mild, and in Upper Egypt balmy beyond anything known elsewhere in northern latitudes. In the Delta, as has been mentioned, it rains frequently and heavily during these months, but the mean general temperature of the season is only 12° or 15° below our English summer heat, and the air is every-where dry and invigorating except in immediate proximity to the sea. It might have been expected that the great number of trees planted by Mehemet All, and the constantly extending area of the canals, would have largely increased the rainfall inland, but a comparison of the meteorological observations taken during the French Expedition with those more recently made shows that there has been no sensible augmentation. Thus, between 1798 and 1800 inclusive, the number of days on which rain fell averaged fifteen ; while between 1835 and 1839 the average was twelve, during which time the actual fall was reduced from 0.69 inches in 1835, and 0.38 inches is 1836, to 0.60 inches, 0.44 inches, and 0.12 inches in 1839. In 1871 the number of rainy days in Cairo was nine, during which it actually rained only 9 hours 8 minutes. At Alexandria the mean for the three years 1847-8-9 was 7.50 in. against 8.92 in. for 1867, 13.18 in. for 1868, 6.22 in. for 1869; 2.86 in. for 1870, 6.61 for 1871, and 11.14 in. for 1872. In the Isthmus of Suez, however, the climate has been sensibly modified by the opening of the Canal and the extension of cultivation along it, the summer being now cooler and the winter warmer than even ten years ago. This improvement in the temperature of the Isthmus is attributed to the infiltration of water into the less elevated parts of the desert, but it is also no doubt largely owing to the vegetation which has sprung up along the banks of the Canal, and over the broad belt of reclaimed land which is now irrigated by the fresh-water canal.

While these figures may be taken to represent the aver-age daily heat throughout Middle Egypt—itself nearly a mean of the whole country—the night temperature is from 8° to 12° lower, the fall rapidly following sunset and continuing till sunrise. Hygrometrically, the four months of December, January, February, and March, over which Nile tours generally extend, compare with our English summer months of June, July, and August as about 56 to 81; and, generally, the humidity of the atmosphere varies with the winds, being greatest when the wind is N. to NE., less when it is NW. to E., and least of all when S. to SW. It need hardly be said that frost and snow are almost unknown. Hailstorms, descending from the Syrian hills and sweeping across Palestine, sometimes reach the Egyptian frontier, and Consul Stanley reports having seen thin ice on the pools near Suez, but these are rare incidents which happen only once or twice in a century.

Like nearly all physical phenomena in Egypt, the course of the wind, so variable in our climate, is there almost strictly periodical. In point both of force and duration, the northerly breezes predominate, blowing nearly nine months out of the twelve.* They continue with little intermission from May till September, when about the autumnal equinox they veer round to the east, where they remain for nearly six weeks with only slight deviations. The current then sets north-east, with occasional’ changes to north-west, followed at intervals during December and January by light southerly gales which, as has been said, are the coldest of the year. Thence on to the spring equinox, the eastern current once more prevails, till, as regularly as the rise and fall of the Nile, the baleful khamsin again blows from the south.

A comparison of the Egyptian death-rate with those of the chief European States affords a ready test of the significance of these climatic phenomena. The latest official returns report an average annual rate of 2.64 per cent. for the whole country, against 2.57 for England, 2.80 for France, 3.96 for Prussia, 3.34 for Belgium, and 4.08 for Spain. Cairo, however, with a population of 349,883, shows the high rate of 4.66 per cent., and Alexandria, with 212,034, a rate of 4.09, being a difference in favour of the whole country of 2.02 against Cairo, and 1.45 against Alexandria. This heavy adverse balance against the capital may, at first sight, seem strange, in view of the admitted healthiness of its climate, and the immense recent improvement in its sanitary condition. But it is quite sufficiently accounted for by the proportion of deaths occurring among natives who, for religious or other motives, flock from all parts of the country to Cairo to die, and by the deaths of resident Nubians and Soudanis, amongst whom the comparative cold of Middle Egypt develops pulmonary disease during the winter months. The exceptional moisture of Alexandria and its still very defective drainage equally explains the fatal excess of that city’s death returns over the mean rate of the whole country. But Egypt, as a whole, compares favourably with all the -States above mentioned, except Great Britain, and as the sanitary science of the country is as yet in its infancy, the climate may claim the chief credit of the fact.

Hence both the ancient and modern celebrity of the Nile Valley as a favourite health resort. Decaying Thebes became fashionable in this way nearly two thousand years ago, when Celsus sent his rich Roman patients to recruit, in its balmy and yet bracing air, the energies shattered by Augustan luxury and dissipation ; and mod-em medical opinion has wholly endorsed the estimate of the Nile climate then formed by the author of the lie Medicinâ. Of the mass of lay testimony supplied by books of travel, one quotation from a recent scholarly and suggestive work will suffice :—” I unhesitatingly assert,” says the Rev. A. C. Smith, summing up the result of his personal experience during a four months’ tour in Upper Egypt and Nubia, “that the dry warmth, the lightness of air, the total absence of fog or damp, and the magnificence of the weather, far exceeded my most sanguine expectations. We arrived in Egypt early in December ; we left it at the beginning of April, and during the whole of that long period we never saw a drop of rain, or felt any moisture in the atmosphere ; we scarcely ever saw a cloud, but the brightest of skies, the most brilliant of suns, the balmiest of nights, attended us throughout. I do not mean to imply that it never rains in Upper Egypt, though Herodotus says almost as much, and proves the general rule by a single exception, which he calls a strange prodigy, when in the reign of Psammenitus, a few small drops of rain fell at Egyptian Thebes, ` a thing which had never happened be-fore, and had never happened again to his time, as the Thebans themselves. testify. But this is evidently a mistake, as the inhabitants of modern days acknowledge, and as the watercourses in the neighbouring hills prove, and the gutters or gurgoyles in some of the temple roofs clearly intimate ; although a shower of rain is by no means a frequent occurrence, and, as I have said, we experienced nothing of the kind during our whole tour. Then in Upper Egypt and Nubia we felt such heat as to many may seem insupportable, and it is to some per-sons distasteful, but to me was most delightful, even though I took active exercise on shore with my gun in the hottest part of every day. . . . To myself individually the climate of Egypt has been under Providence of the greatest value ; indeed, of such advantage has it proved, that I am reaping the benefit of it now, and so thoroughly set up was I by that winter’s roasting that I have been able to remain in England since during the winter months as I had not previously done for years ; and I feel bound to record that blessing, as an inducement to others to make trial of the same remedy, which has operated so beneficially for me.”

English and Continental medical specialists bear abundant similar testimony. Reporting the result of a personal investigation made in 1860, Dr. Dalrymple says of the climate above Cairo :

” Day succeeds day in a nearly constant round of bright cheering sun, soft breezes, and blue skies ; the heat rarely (though some-times at noonday) too great to be quite comfortable ; the early mornings just cool enough to make the use of a shawl or overcoat wise for those who are not in active exercise…. The day passes in quiet enjoyment in the serenest atmosphere; health is drunk in as you glide along, evening comes on rapidly, and again the shawl or overcoat becomes an absolute necessity, not because of absolute cold, but on account of the relative reduction of temperature that then takes place. . . . Here the same conditions may be reckoned year after year. There may be winters in which the cold or heat will be more or less, but the anxious hope of the invalid is never frustrated. The atmospheric phenomena are very constant, and in Egypt you hear little or nothing of that extenuation cf the climate which in Italy, Spain, or the South of France so often meets the remonstrant disappointed health-seeker, ‘ Oh 1 such a season as this was never known.’ . . . . The notes taken by me show that the favourable climate of the Said is continued, and in some respect improved, in Nubia. The air is much dryer even than in Upper Egypt, and the rapidity with which the reservoir of the wet bulb thermometer exhausted was very remarkable. It is more bracing from its closer contiguity to the desert, and there is far less dew at night. . . . It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more invigorating and life-giving than the air of the desert; there is a dryness and elasticity about it like nothing else ; and the sense of renovation when breathing it round the Mokattem hills [near Cairo], or further on in the actual wilderness, is to the languid invalid like a new lease of life.”

A relatively still better authority, Dr. Patterson—for several years in the Egyptian medical service, and now surgeon-superintendent of the British Seamen’s Hospital, Constantinople—writes seven years later:

” Extending over so many degrees of latitude, and possessing varied physical peculiarities, Egypt necessarily presents many grades of climate. All observation, however, proves that the whole of Middle and Upper Egypt has only one uniform characteristic, viz., great dryness and purity of atmosphere, and almost total freedom from rain. The seasonal changes are performed with such remarkable regularity, that, year after year, the same conditions of climate may be safely calculated upon. Rain is set-tom seen above Cairo, and even there is rare. The invalid has not there to consider how many fine days he may be able to enjoy, as, from the paroxysmal character of the deviations from the general conditions above described, and from their being little frequent, they are not, in a practical sense, to be noted. The freedom from an excess of humidity is a grand feature of the Nile climate, except at the time the river recedes ; and, doubtless, to this its health invigorating properties are chiefly due. This dryness renders it very easily acted on by the sun’s rays, the application and withdrawal of which produce the very marked differences of temperature so characteristic of the various periods of the day. During the hottest period of summer the morning air is deliciously cool, the same varying range of temperature existing. Thus it is not uncommon during the summer months to have a difference of 20° Fah., more between morning and midday, and 8° higher still between ten and three o’clock p.m.—the hottest period of the day. The changes produced at night by the rapid radiation of the heat from the earth’s surface, under a cloudless sky, are well marked in Egypt. The mean yearly temperature of Cairo is generally stated at 73° Fah. My own observations indicate about 2° lower. The thermometer in Cairo seldom falls lower than 40° Fah., but it is often lower on the Nile. January is the coldest month of the year, or, perhaps what is more correct, the latter half of December and the first half of January, as toward the latter half of January there is a gentle and steady increase of the thermometer during the warmer parts of the day. The average of the month of April approaches nearest to the mean temperature of the year. The humidity is, of course, regulated by the rise and fall of the Nile ; and thus explains the discrepancies of authors—some stating November, others December, to be the most humid month. It is at the time of inundation, and when the receding Nile leaves large tracts of country uncovered, heat fogs are common ; the mornings then are harsh and cold, and the evening damps prevail to a considerable degree. This condition is also observed in the desert, in the neighbourhood of the cultivated lands, but not to such an extent as near the river. The sun, even there, at about ten o’clock a.m., acquires sufficient power to disperse the fog, and then follows the beautiful serene day so much enjoyed by the invalid. The summer heats are greatly tempered by the pleasant northerly breezes, the Etesian winds, which range from N. to NE. These winds blow with great regularity after the period of the khamsin, or hot winds, till November. . . . It is many years since a well-marked khamsin wind has passed over Egypt, and old residents agree in saying that it is much less frequent than formerly, and certainly much less severe. . . . After the period of the khamsin there is a gradual increase of the ordinary temperature, till the thermometer reaches its average summer height of 95° Fah., with a considerable variation at night and morning. This heat, as already observed, is greatly tempered by the northerly winds, which bring, in the latter part of the season, light and refreshing dews from the Mediterranean. The atmosphere is, how-ever, very dry until about the end of November, when the damps from the lands uncovered by the receding Nile begin to appear. Cairo and its neighbourhood has then a temperature about 70°, and the morning and night variations are not so great, being regulated by the humidity. A register kept on the Nile during a trip to Thebes in November, gives the average daily temperature of the observations, taken at the hottest periods of the day, as high as 78° Fah., while in Cairo a similar series shows 3° higher. Such is the general condition of the climate of Middle and Upper Egypt for the greater portion of the year. . The climate of Alexandria demands a brief consideration. Surrounded by water, it differs in every respect from the other parts of Egypt already de-scribed. From November to March, the rain falls in torrents for several days at a time. Many fine days, however, intervene. The mean temperature of the year is below that of Cairo and the Nile, and is much less variable. The moisture also of its atmosphere is vastly greater. Alexandria formerly possessed a great reputation for salubrity, and was much recommended by the ancient physicians for diseases of the chest. It is probable that the ancient city was not exposed to such deleterious influences as at the present day, and that its climate was modified by a different condition of cultivation and drainage, as it by no means corresponds to its ancient reputation in this respect. Many cases of chest diseases certainly derive benefit from its climate, but they are of a special character. The general character of the climate of Alexandria may be described as being harsher than that of other parts of Egypt, and as unfitted for debilitated constitutions coming from Europe. Invalids returning from the Nile may, however, enjoy with great advantage a few weeks’ stay at Alexandria, i. e., from about the beginning of April to late in May. The temperature is not then high, nor the humidity excessive. The days are bright and sunny, and the variations of the thermometer not great. The other parts of the Delta correspond in their meteorological phenomena to Alexandria, the temperature being a degree or two higher.”

A yet later observer, Dr. Dunbar Walker, writing in 1873, bears similar but still more emphatic testimony :

“I have (he says) after visiting most of Europe, parts of Asia and Africa, come to the conclusion, with many others, that Egypt holds out the greatest advantages. Nice has got its advocates ; Mentone is considered by others to be unrivalled in producing a salutary effect on phthisical and other patients. San Remo has been upheld, and seems to be drawing away numbers from her sister towns in the Riviera. Other authorities point to Italy as possessing a climate unequalled by any other part of the world. Spain has been shown, especially the southern coast, to outstrip other winter sanitaria. Sicily, Algiers, Malta, and Tangiers have all their advocates, but weighing all things, Egypt has advantages that far outshine any other winter resort, and will give results never afforded by any other place frequented by invalids, nay, even by any other spot on the habitable globe during the winter months. If Egypt is selected, I can say, that to sufferers from phthisis no climate offers so many attractions as those experienced in Cairo. That the disease is not met with in the town cannot be recorded, but that it is comparatively rare amongst native Cairenes can be asserted. Those amongst whom it is found are generally natives of Nubia or the interior of Africa, whose susceptibility to contract the disease is considerable from the reduced temperature from what they have been accustomed to, and the position they hold as slaves. . . . As regards the advantages and drawbacks of a Nile trip for the invalid, we notice, with reference to the increase of temperature, that in the portion of the Nile between Cairo and Sioût, the mean is 2° higher than in Cairo. On the river still higher up, from Sioût to Assouan, it rises another degree, and in Nubia still another degree, so that at the Second Cataract we have a mean of 4° higher than in the Delta [Middle Egypt ?]. The air is dryer, purer, and more bracing the farther we proceed up the river, and it has been considered that if there is any air or climate in the world that offers advantages for the cure and non-development of phthisis, Nubia possesses it.”

These three writers concur in recommending the cll. mate of Egypt as of the highest remedial, value, not only in all varieties of pulmonary disease, but also in rheumatic, renal, and brain disorders, and their opinion is strongly supported by Dr. Prince Zagiel, an eminent Russian physician, in his monograph Du Climat de l’ Egypte, as also by Dr. Pruner, in his Topographie .Médicale du Caire, and by other Continental specialists.

On the other hand, if the Egyptian climate is thus powerfully preventive and curative of many of our most serious European maladies, Clot Bey enumerates no inconsiderable list of endemic disorders from which our colder latitudes are mostly or wholly free. Amongst these, plague formerly enjoyed the bad pre-eminence; but of this terrible scourge, which used to break out demically at nearly regular intervals of six, eight, or ten years, there has happily been no visitation for more than fifty years—partly, perhaps, because of the stricter quarantine enforced against Barbary and the Hedjaz, where it is also endemic, and in both of which it has appeared more than once during that period. From the Pharaohs to the Viceroys, however, the plague has been one of the strictly native maladies of Egypt ; its inducing cause and its treatment have alike baffled medical skill, and. it may be doubted if mere hygienic reforms will ever permanently eradicate it. Of the commonly prevalent disorders, ophthalmia is the most general and constant, with the result that the population of Egypt offers probably a larger proportion of wholly or half blind than that of any other country in the world. The great strength of the solar rays during the summer months—when the disease is worse—the clouds of fine dust brought down by the hot winds, and the neglect of cleanliness have all been variously assigned as the cause of this distemper ; but the first two at least of these surmises are negatived by the facts that in Upper Egypt and Nubia, where the heat is much greater, the affection is very rare ; and that in the desert where the khamsin dust equally abounds, it is altogether unknown. Fortunately, this native scourge seldom attacks Europeans, and when it does a few applications of sulphate of zinc will suffice to check and cure it. The vegetable diet of the fellaheen renders dysentery—following diarrhoea—another common, and at certain seasons destructive malady, but from this again ordinary dietetic care effectually preserves foreigners. Several varieties of skin disease, including leprosy—which appears, however, to be dying out in Egypt, though still very prevalent in its worst type in Crete—are also common amongst the natives ; but these, too, rarely or never affect Europeans, and need not be feared by either foreign residents or tourists. The great extension of hospital accommodation in Cairo and Alexandria within recent years has sensibly mitigated the effect of these endemic disorders, and as the sanitary administration further improves, a corresponding reduction of the national death-rate may be reasonably expected. Even as it is, Egypt, we have seen, compares favourably with the healthiest countries of Europe, and as a resort for foreign invalids offers climatic attractions which a consensus of medical opinion declares to be unique.