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Joseph's Canal

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The Nile river with a portion of Joseph's Canal visible, running parallel to the Nile, and extending into the Faiyum Oasis. Image from the NASA Terra Satellite MODIS.

Joseph's Canal (or Bahr Youseff) is a canal system in Egypt that parallels the Nile River and brings water to the Faiyum Oasis, south of Cairo. The modern system now supports vast farmlands and the largest oasis in Egypt with a population of 2 million people. However, the modern canal is largely a reconstruction of an ancient system that was originally built during Egypt's 12th dynasty. As the legendary name implies, the canal is believed to have been an engineering project that was under the oversight of Joseph (son of Jacob) following the infamous famine in Egypt[1]


Francis Cope Whitehouse's drawings of the Moeris Basin, Wadi Fadhi, and the Bahr Youseff. (1882) Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York.

The Ancient canal system was discovered in the late 19th century by an American engineer named Francis Cope Whitehouse who had been commissioned by the British government to develop a method of bringing water to Egypt's desert wasteland. While investigating the source-water for a small freshwater lake (Lake Qaroun), Whitehouse discovered that the lake was a legacy of a former irrigation system. Whitehouse mapped the ruins of ancient dams, ditches, and aqueducts that had once formed the basis for a vast Egyptian agronomic society.[2]

Whitehouse's investigations also uncovered the remains of aquatic life which illustrated that another lake had once existed in the vicinity. Medieval maps indeed show the existence of two lake in the El-Fayoum region, and historical references to an artificially created lake can be found in the writings of Herodotus, Pliny, Diodotus, Strabo and Mutianus.[2] Herodotus wrote: "The water of the lake does not come out of the ground, which is here extremely dry, but is introduced by a canal from the Nile."[3]

A more startling discovery was made when Whitehouse followed the traces of the canal that led to the artificial lake and discovered that the canal system also paralleled the Nile for several hundred kilometers. The Egyptians did not regard the parallel waterway as ordinary and reverently referred to it as the Bahr Youseff, which more accurately means "The Sea of Joseph." Whitehouse then presented a proposal in 1883 to the Khedivial Geographical Society in Cairo and the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, that rebuilding Joseph's massive canal system was the answer to Egypt's water needs. His recommendation was ignored until Sir Alan Gardiner restated the theory almost a century later, at which time scientists finally came to appreciate the value of the ancient system, and the entire irrigation system was reconstructed.[2]


  1. Ashton, John F., and Down, David. Unwrapping the Pharaohs: How Egyptian Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Timeline p.83, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Egypt and the Semites Part II: The Second Intermediate Period by Samuel Kurinsky
  3. Herodotus, Persian Wars, 2.149.