River Nile – Source of Life

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Snaking for thousands of miles across equatorial swamps, scrubland and parched desert terrain, the long ribbon of fertility that is the Nile gave birth to one of the world’s great civilisations and still sustains its descendants. For more than 60 centuries the River Nile has brought the gift of life to a country dominated by barren desert. A symbol of rebirth and eternal existence to the ancient Egyptians, the river continues to grip the imagination of every new generation that explores the wonders that line its banks. Although the ancient Egyptians regarded the Nile as exclusively theirs, they were not the only people whose lives it touched, for this great ribbon of water flows over the immense distance of 4160 miles (6690km) from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea.

{This is a Series of Excerpts from the book Strange Worlds Amazing Places: A Tour of Earths Marvels and Mysteries, Get it Here}

The Nile has several sources. The farthest headstream is the Kagera River which rises in Burundi and flows into Lake Victoria. The Nile proper rises here, near to Jinja, Uganda, then enters Lake Kyoga, from where it continues on as the Victoria Nile through swampy vegetation before descending over the Kabalega (Murchison) Falls. It the briefly enters the tip of Lake Albert (which is fed by the Semliki River from Lake Edward), and flows on as the Albert Nile to Nimule. There, the river enters the Sudan and eventually crosses the Sudd – a vast and all but impenetrable floating mass of papyrus stems, aquatic grasses and water hyacinth some 200 miles (320km) wide and 250 miles (400km) long. At Khartoum, the swift-flowing Blue Nile sweeps in from its source in Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, ts grey-blue waters mingling visibly with the paler waters of the White Nile.

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Ancient River Nile Map

Some 200 miles (320km) farther north in the Sudan, the Atbara River, which also rises in Ethiopia, joins the flow. Now the Nile of legend, draining almost one-tenth of the African continent, starts on it course to Egypt and the sea first traversing the Cataracts, an infamous series of rapids. These are so dangerous that from here to Lake Nasser – formed by the building of the Aswan High Dam – navigation is impossible. But once the river reaches Egypt, it becomes an unparalleled source of sustenance and means of transport for those who live on its banks.

Feluccas at Philae, near Aswan, move upriver powered by graceful triangular sails; they return north with the current. These shallow skimming vessels travel as easily across the flooded fields as on the river itself. In the first century AD the Roman statesman Seneca wrote, “When the Nile overflows…. There is no communication across the face of the earth except by boat, and the less land is visible, the greater joy is felt by the people.”

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Feluccas on River Nile

In ancient Egypt, the floodwaters of the Nile drowned the land with predictable regularity in late summer and early autumn, leaving in their wake alluvial soil so fertile that agriculture flourished, creating great prosperity. The ancient Egyptians were possibly the first people to irrigate their land systematically. They threw up earthen banks along the floodplain, dividing it into a series of basins that would hold water for several weeks. Once the river receded, the water in the basins was allowed to drain away gradually, leaving behind the rich black silt in which crops were grown.

Today the waters of the Nile are controlled by a series of dams and irrigation systems, notably the Aswan High Dam, which measures almost 2½ miles (4km) from bank to bank across the top and is 3215ft (980m) thick at the base and 360ft (110m) high. Irrigation is now possible all year round, but without the great annual flooding much of the fertile silt that once enriched the Nile valley now collects at the bottom of Lake Nasser.

The shaduf, introduced as a means of irrigation during the new Kingdom (1567-1085 BC), is still in use. The device consists of a bucket on a long pole which is dipped into the water, then raised by a counterweight on the other end of the pole.

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Shaduf is Still Used by the Farmers

Within the network of religious observances and rituals that underpinned everyday life in ancient Egypt, the Nile became associated with a number of gods, but the river’s own special deity was Hapi, Great Lord of Provisions and Lord of Fishes. Guarded by serpents, Hapi sat in a cavern below the mountains of Aswan and, from a bottomless jar, poured out the yearly floodwaters. Annual sacrifices were made to ensure that Hapi tilted the jar at the correct angle: a little too far could bring a deluge upon the land; not far enough, an drought and famine would result. A statue of Hapi which stands in the Vatican Museum at Rome shows him with his 16 children, each child measuring one cubit. The statue symbolizes the ancient belief that if the annual floodwaters failed to reach the children’s combined height of 16 cubits (about 25ft (7.5m) the harvest would fail and famine would ensue.

The vital annual cycle of planning and harvesting was mirrored in the legend of the life, death and rebirth of the god Osiris. He ruled Egypt, so the tale goes, until he was murdered by his evil brother Set, who cut up his body and distributed the pieces around the country. Isis, wife of Osiris, tracked down the pieces, reassembled them and revived her husband. After a son was born to them, Osiris left the earth to reign as king of the underworld.

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God Osiris

In this symbolic tale, Osiris represented the Nile and Isis the earth – their union was the productive mating of soil and water. Set embodied the hot desert wind that consumed the waters of the river, which dried up when Osiris was killed; and when Isis found Osiris’s body and brought him back to life, the river began to flood. As Osiris fertilized Isis, bringing forth new life and hope, so the river overflowed its banks to fertilise the fields.

The great prosperity created by the Nile enabled the Egyptians to build magnificent temples and memorials on its banks in honour of gods and kings. Rameses II, the great warrior pharaoh who ruled for 66 years in the 13th century BC and may have been the pharaoh in the biblical story of Exodus, was responsible for building almost half of the surviving temples. Many of these celebrate the recapture of Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites, but perhaps his most outstanding architectural achievements are the temples hewn from the rock at Abu Simbel.

Rameses also left his mark downstream, constructing an amazing array of monuments surrounding the ancient capital of Thebes including Karnak, one of the world’s most awe-inspiring temples. Dedicated to the ram-headed Amun, god of Thebes, the ruins are scattered over 5 acres (2ha) of land and include the remains of sphinx-ined avenues, huge gateways, shrines, temples and a sacred lake. Close to Karnak is Luxor, also dedicated to Amun; and across the Nile from Luxor lies the fabled Valley of Kings, where many of the monarchs of the 18th dynasty (1570-1342 BC) were laid to rest. The most famous of Egypt’s monuments, the great pyramids at Giza, stand near Cairo, close to the Nile delta.

The green and fertile land of the Nile delta, which over the centuries has sustained and supported Egyptian agriculture, and thus its civilisation, is gradually disappearing: it is sinking by up to 1/5 inch (5mm) per year. Subsidence is an age-old problem, but the fertility of the delta remained undisturbed for some 7500 years because any soil that was carried away by changes in the sea level and erosion of the coastline by waves and currents was replaced by rich sediment carried down by the regular flooding of the Nile.

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Aswan High Dam

The completion of the gigantic Aswan High Dam in 1971 has made matters worse. Stretching across the Nile 600 miles (950km) south of Cairo, the dam was built to control the flow of the river and to provide electricity and further irrigation, but it is now harming the region. It was built to serve and indirectly threatening the lives and livelihoods of the one million people who occupy the most severely affected area. Enormous quantities of water are lost by evaporation from its 300 mile (480km) long reservoir. Lake Nasser and the land below the dam is starved of fresh sediment, which remains trapped in the lake, so more fertilisers must be used to produce crops. And, because the river carries less silt t is cutting a deeper channel, so irrigation systems are becoming less efficient.

Along the riverbank, farming, fishing and other daily activities reassert the ancient rhythm of existence, in places this seems scarcely to have changed since the time of the pharaohs. Bound by a cycle of fertility and famine, life and death, the Nile and Egypt continue to sustain one another and to fascinate the world with their intertwined histories.

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