Ticia Verveer
Archaeologist, writer טיציה וארואר

Nilometers in the Land of Israel

Years of drought have lowered the surface of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), Israel’s main water source. The Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking, and the Jordan River is drying up, as the result of climate change, growing populations and the increasing use of its water for agriculture. Israeli meteorologists predicted in early December 2017 that the coming months would be drier than an average winter. The water level in the Sea of Galilee stood at 703 feet (214 meters) below sea level, several feet (about a meter) below the point at which ecologists predict damage to the ecosystem and water quality.

A new study by Colombia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory showed that droughts in Israel were even far worse than any recorded by humans. This was 120.000 years ago, and again 10,000 years ago. Due to warming-induced changes in storm patterns, the region has seen about a 10 percent decline in rainfall since 1950 CE. The growing populations of the surrounding countries are sucking out practically all the Jordan’s declining flow before it reaches the Dead Sea.

The river Jordan has always been an artery providing fresh water to sustain plant, animal and human life. Israel and Jordan are situated at a transition zone between the extreme desert areas of the Saharan type in the southern and eastern parts of the eastern Mediterranean countries and the relatively hydric Mediterranean zone in the north. The availability of water was critical for human survival in most parts of Israel and the neighboring lands. In late Roman and Byzantine Palestine, agriculture reached its peak in terms of exploitation of all arable lands. Larger areas of Judea, Samaria and Galilee were covered by terraces. The most significant plants were cereals, lentils, olives for oil, and grapes for wine.

In that period Israel yielded an astonishing wealth of magnificent mosaic floors. In Galilean Sepphoris, archaeologists unearthed a mosaic with the depiction of a nilometer in a Byzantine public structure. As the name suggests, the device originates from the area of the Nile in Egypt. The nilometer was invented for recording the annual inundations in Egypt and to control the floodwater. Since the invention of writing, the ancient Egyptians began to attempt to record observations of their world. Egyptian administrators were appointed to make accurate measures of the inundation levels. These records became vital for survival.The column nilometer type appeared during the later Imperial period, and can be depicted as an individual item or shown with human figures engraving the newly risen flood level.

Photo Ticia Verveer. Nilometer mosaic at Sepphoris. Numbers IE, IS, IZ read 15, 16, 17.
Photo Ticia Verveer. Nilotic mosaic at Sepphoris.

The so-called ‘Nile festival building’, an early fifth century CE public secular structure in Sepphoris, contains a sixth century floor mosaic depicting a Nile landscape, a celebration scene on its upper section, and a hunting scene on the lowest part. The mosaic is divided by flowing water and structures into three parts, two registers display the Nile festival celebration and the third renders hunting scenes. The upper part shows the personification of Egypt, as a naked woman leaning with her right arm on a fruit basket and holding a cornucopia in her left hand. On the left, the Nile river reclines on a hippopotamus with the water streaming from his mouth. Fishes, birds, and a crocodile are scattered around in the river water. Naked putti surround the nilometer, and one putto is marking the level of the floodwater. Also of interest is the column (middle section) surmounted by a statue, a gate flanked by two towers, and the lighthouse Pharos (with a flame) with the Greek inscription ‘Alexandria.’

Today the ‘Beth Leontis’ mosaics from Beth She ‘an, south of the Sea of Galilee, are housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The House of Leontis, a mid-fifth or early sixth century Jewish house-synagogue complex, revealed an exquisite mosaic field of three panels. The upper panel shows two scenes from the Odyssey, representing the Homeric tales of Odysseus and the sirens and Odysseus and the Scylla.

Photo Ticia Verveer. The upper section of the floor mosaic from the House of Leontis at Beth She ‘an, now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


The central panel is occupied by a Greek inscription within a circle, surrounded by birds, with a menorah.

Photo Ticia Verveer. The middle section of the floor mosaic from the House of Leontis at Beth She ‘an, now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Dedicatory inscription reads ” Be remembered for good kirios Leontis Klubas for making this mosaic with his [money] for the redemption of [his soul and the soul] of his brother Jonathan.”


The lower panel shows a Nilotic scene with the personification of the river Nile, a towered building, a Greek inscription that reads ‘Alexandria’, a nilometer, a scene of animal combat, Nilotic plants and birds, and a sailing boat with a figure and vessels.

Photo Ticia Verveer. The lower section of the floor mosaic from the House of Leontis at Beth She ‘an, now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The nilometer (upper left).

At the Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a column nilometer was found depicted on a fifth century CE floor mosaic to the right of the transept. The floor mosaic of the north and south transepts depicts scenes with Nilotic flora and fauna, a city building with a gate and towers, a tower, and a pavilion.

Photo Ticia Verveer. The mosaic floor at the Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha. The nilometer on the top right.

A considerable part of the mosaic was destroyed. The upper part of the Nilometer belongs to the original mosaic, but the lower section is reconstructed.

Photo Ticia Verveer. The nilometer from the floor mosaic at the Church of the Multiplying of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha.

The phenomenon of a nilometer depicted on a mosaic floor is not unique. Nilotic scenes are a recurrent theme on mosaic pavements, wall paintings, wall and floor mosaics, reliefs, coins and artefacts. The floor mosaic with Nilotic scenes in the Near Eastern Roman provinces date to the fifth and sixth centuries, when the genre was relatively popular, only one example dates to the fourth century (House of Dionysos at Sepphoris). The Beth She ’an and Sepphoris nilometer mosaics contain a reference for their place of origin. The nilometer stands near a depiction of a structure, with a Greek inscription that reads ‘Alexandria.’ This points to a depiction of the Alexandrian nilometer. The archaeological remains of a nilometer have been found in Alexandria, but the construction is very different from the depictions on the mosaics. Possibly Alexandria symbolized the whole of Egypt, and the nilometer symbolized prosperity, abundance, life and prosperity.

Bibliography: Zaraza Friedman ‘Nilometer’ in Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Ed. By Helaine Selin. Springer Science & Business Media, 2008. Rahel Haklili ‘Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues, and Trends.’ Brill, 2009. Joseph Patrich ‘Church, State and The Transformation of Palestine- The Byzantine Period (324-640 CE). In The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. Ed. Thomas E. Levy,1995. M.J. Versluys ‘Aegyptica Romana: Nilotic scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt’ Brill, 2002. Zeev Weiss ‘The Mosaics of the Nile festival Building at Sepphoris and the Legacy of the Antiochene Tradition.’ Brill, 2008. Zeev Weiss ‘Artistic Trends and Contact between Jews and ‘Others’ in Late Antique Sepphoris: recent research.’

About the Author
As an archaeologist, Ticia Verveer has over 20 years of excavation experience in the Middle East, the Sahel, and North Africa. She is Maternal Health Ambassador for Global Fund for Women, one of the world's leading foundations for gender equality. Ticia is a descendant of Abraham Salomon Cohen Verveer, the grandfather of Holland's most important Jewish Romantic painter, Salomon Leonardus Verveer (1813-1876).
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