“Help yourself,” runs an Egyptian proverb, “and the Nile will help you.” The Nile as we see it today is the product of peoples who have been helping themselves for the past 5000 years. Ancient Egypt couldn’t have existed without the Nile River.
The Nile River is the longest (over 4000 miles in length), one of the oldest and most famous rivers in the world today. Most people actually associate the Nile River with Egypt, but only one fifth of the actual course of the river runs through that country. The green valleys that are associated with the Nile River gave birth to one of the oldest civilizations that humanity has had the privilege to discover. It’s also associated with one of the most famous biblical stories of all time, the great exodus of the Israelite people.
One of the unique features about the Nile River is the fact that it flows north, which is opposite the direction most rivers go. This means the Nile River originates in Southern Africa and then flows towards the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that the Nile River forms from two primary rivers, called the Blue Nile and the White Nile. It is the waters of the Blue Nile which pass through Egypt and into the Mediterranean as it contributes 85% of the river’s water at that point. In total, it passes through 11 countries as it makes its way through Africa, namely, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
The Nile flooded and still floods the land in Egypt and deposits black sediment, which is why Egyptians called it “Ar” which means “black”. The river was named Nile since there is a Semitic word “Nahal” and then it was later named “Neilos” which meant River Valley. The Egyptians rightly termed it as “River of Life” since it has infused life not only in the land of Egypt but also its culture and civilization. The Egyptian Civilization grew up on the banks of Nile as the river deposits extremely fertile soil, which provided soil for the Egyptians to grow food crops, which sustained them amidst the desert. The flooding of the Nile is still celebrated as a holiday in Egypt. Another way the Nile River helped the ancient Egyptians was with trade. The Nile was the quickest and easiest way to travel from a place to another. This has been repeated time and again and Nile has time and again proved itself to be the life giving force of Egypt.
Thanks to modern technology, the annual floods from the Nile River were no longer needed for crop production. That meant the floods were doing more damage than good. Egypt decided to build the Aswan Dam to help control the annual flooding and have a source of power that could be used for the nation. It is estimated that the Aswan Dam produces 50% of Egypt’s total electrical output, which tells you how big it really is.
More than 90,000 people had to be relocated during the construction of the dam and some of them were placed as far as 45 kilometers away from their homes. That’s because the area of the lake that would form behind the dam, called Lake Nasser, would be huge during the flooding season. Now the waters of the Nile are used for drinking water and irrigation as well. An interesting note about the dam: it was designed by the British, but built by the Soviet Union.
One of the more interesting beliefs that exist about the Nile River was that it was the bridge to the afterlife. Part of this was because of the physical characteristics of the land around the river. To the east of the river was the fertile civilization that was thriving. To the west lay a vast terrain that was filled with virtually nothing. This is why the tombs of the Egyptians are actually placed on the west banks of the river. The goal was to make sure that everyone would be able to enter the afterlife at an appropriate time.
Up until the second half of the 18th century Africa remained a shadowy reality for Europeans. No one had ever managed to penetrate deep into its inaccessible forests or navigate its dangerous rivers. Efforts to explore the African continent in more comprehensive manner began in 1788 in London, England with the foundation of the African Association, a group that Queen Victoria would transform in 1859 into the Royal Geographical Society.
Many expeditions were undoubtedly driven by a desire to accumulate wealth and resources. But it cannot be denied that the achievements of these men were also inspired by a thirst for knowledge and a strong spirit of adventure. One of these heroes stands out from the rest: David Livingston, a Scottish missionary who traveled around Africa for more than thirty years, from 1841 to 1873, and who in 1855 discovered the extraordinary waterfalls he would name “Victoria” in honor of England’s ruling monarch. Malaria and dysentery wrought havoc on his expeditions, and ultimately on Livingston himself, who was forced to return to England without having navigated up the Zambezi River, the source of Victoria Falls.
On repeated trips to Africa, including an expedition for the Royal Geographical Society to find the source of the Nile, a secret Africa had always jealously guarded, Livingston wound up pushing too far west and mistook the beginning of the Congo River for the Nile. He also became sick again. From that moment forward there was no more news of the explorer. Welsh journalist Henry Morton Stanley traveled all the way to Africa to look for Livingston, ultimately finding him near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. When the two finally met, Stanley uttered the famous phrase: “Doctor Livingston, I presume?” For nearly a year the two continued to explore the region together. But when Stanley decided to return to Zanzibar, Livingston found himself unable to leave Africa, still enchanted by those rivers. He pushed further inland, deep into unexplored territories and all the way to Lake Bangweulu in Zambia, where his illness overtook him. He died there in May 1873. His remains were transferred to London and buried with full honors in Westminster Abbey.
One of the secrets that Africa managed to protect the longest was the location of the Nile’s source. Only in 1858 was it officially established that the river begins in Lake Victoria. The discovery was made by British Army officer John Hanning Speke, who during a mission sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society came across the vast Lake Nyanza, which would also be named “Victoria”, then navigated down the Nile. And so for a century and a half the mystery seemed to have been solved. Yet in March 2006, with help from the latest technology, three members of a new National Geographic Society expedition managed to identify the “true” source of the Nile in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest. If confirmed, their find will add another 60 miles to the Nile’s length.
The Nile River only competes with the Amazon River for scope and size. It’s one of the mightiest works of Mother Nature and has provided a cradle for many civilizations over the centuries. These interesting facts are just the start of what there is to learn about this great river. The Nile River has flowed into an important place in history. It’s just our job to learn about it.