The Nile, a symbol of rebirth and eternal life to the ancient Egyptians, has for untold centuries been the lifeblood of their country. The river and its banks appear from the air to be one long green ribbon of fertility snaking through the arid desert. This ribbon is Egypt: the Nile’s bounty created it, and made possible the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations.
From its most remote headstream, the Nile is, at 4,160 miles, the longest river in the world. Its twin sources lie deep in Africa. The White Nile rises from the headwaters of Lake Victoria, and flows north to Khartoum in Sudan, where it merges with the shorter but more powerful Blue Nile. Where the waters meet, it is possible to see the junction between the bluish waters of the Blue Nile and the clear, pale green of the White.
From Khartoum the river flows north to Cairo, where it divides into two main channels, one of which empties itself into the Mediterranean Sea at Damietta, about 40 miles from Port Said; the other proceeds to Rashid (formerly Rosetta). It was here, in 1799, that the famous Rosetta stone was found which helped in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyph. Between these two arms stretches the Nile Delta, 14,500 square miles of farmland created by rich alluvial deposits.
The “gift of the Nile”
To the Egyptians, the Nile was, and still is, the hub of their lives. It made the crops grow, it provided fish and the valuable papyrus- reed, and could be used as a river highway. The people’s reverence for the river can be heard in The Hymn to Nile, which was probably composed during the time of the Middle Kingdom (c.2050—1750 B.C.): “Hail 0 Nile, who issues forth from the earth, who comes to give life to the people of Egypt.” The Greek historian Herodotus neatly summed up the relationship between country and river: “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”
Ancient Egypt was originally called by its inhabitants Kemet, meaning black”, because of the contrast between the dark alluvial fields created by the silt of the floods and the tawny desert that stretched beyond as far as the eye could see. The Egyptians also seem to have thought of all rivers in terms of the Nile. For example, an inscription on a royal stele of the late sixteenth century B.C. describes the Euphrates, the great Mesopotamian river that flows from north to south, as: “that reversed water that goes downstream in going upstream”. In other words, any river that flowed in the opposite direction to the Nile was going the wrong way.
The most vital characteristic of the Nile for Egypt’s inhabitants, from remote prehistory up to 1971, was its annual inundation. This gift of the river came about from African rains and the thawing of snow on the Ethiopian highlands which brought tremendous torrents of water north into Egypt: the river drowned the adjacent fields and left them, as the waters drained away, coated with rich and fertile topsoil. It was this fertility that nourished the ancient Egyptian civilization.
The Roman writer Seneca described how welcome the flooded river was to the Egyptian people: “It is a most beautiful sight when the Nile overflows onto the fields. The plains vanish, the valleys are hidden. Only the towns stick out like islands. The sole means of communicating is by boat; and the more the land is submerged, the greater the people’s joy.”
In the days of the pharaohs, the Nile supported the lives of millions of people in its passage through the country. There were, of course, bad years, when the inundations failed, as they did during the Seven Lean Years, which traditionally occurred in the reign of Djoser, a king of the Third Dynasty ( twenty-eighth century B.C.).
But mostly the river provided its dependants with a good life least for the upper classes, judging by the verses written to celebrate the new capital of the pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty in the northeast Delta, the Biblical Rameses: “The Residence is pleasant in life; its field is full of everything good; it is (full) of supplies and food every day, its ponds with fish, and its lakes with birds. Its meadows are verdant with grass; its banks bear dates. . . . Its granaries are (so) full of barley and emmer (that) they come near to the sky. Onion and leeks are for food, and lettuce of the garden, pomegranates, apples, and olives, figs of the orchard, sweet wine of Ka-of-Egypt, surpassing honey (Translation by John A. Wilson.)
Ka-of-Egypt, a well known vineyard of the Delta, and the abundance of vegetables and fruit alluded to here would not have existed but for the Nile.
Agriculture in the region has progressed since that time: seed is no longer trampled into the ground by rams, or, as Herodotus observed in the fifth century B.C., by pigs. Some of the old implements are still in daily use, for example the shaduf, introduced in the New Kingdom (c.1567—1085 B.C.). This simple mechanism enabled a bucket to be dipped into the water and then raised by means of a counterweight. In the years following its invention it significantly increased the amount of land under cultivation, and it is still used by Egyptians today.
But the most dramatic change in recent years has come as a result of the Aswan High Dam, constructed in 1971, and the consequent creation of Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world. All-year-round irrigation is now possible; however, the great annual inundation is no more, the flow of the river has been dramatically reduced, and the silt, which down the centuries has served Egypt so well, is held back.
In some places the desert is regaining ground: where groves of date palms once cast a cool shade, now only a few parched fronds wave from the top of the encroaching dunes, and green fields are being devoured by the blowing sand.
The gods of life
Everyday life in ancient Egypt was under pinned by a network of religious observances and rituals. The river was associated with a number of gods, its own particular deity being Hapi, Great Lord of Provisions, Lord of Fishes. In popular belief, Hapi was responsible for the floods, supplying the waters of inundation from his bottomless jar as he sat in a cavern below the mountains of Aswan, guarded by serpents. Sacrifices were made yearly at Gebel Silsila to ensure that he tilted his jar at the proper angle: a little too far could mean a deluge, while not far enough would bring drought and famine upon the land.
A statue of Hapi, now in the Vatican Museum in Rome, shows him with 16 children, each 1 cubit tall. This symbolizes the fact that, if the annual flood failed to reach 16 cubits (about 25 feet), then the land would not flourish and the people would go hungry.
Hapi embodies the Nile, but the river was also bound up with the life and death of Osiris the god of the Underworld. Symbolically, the story of Osiris mirrors that of the great river. While King of Egypt he was murdered by his evil brother Set, and the pieces of his body scattered throughout the land. His queen, Isis, after a painstaking search, collected the dismembered limbs and revived him. After his resurrection, a son was born to them—namely Horus, the next King of Egypt and later also a god. Osiris then descended to rule the Underworld.
The life and death of Osiris symbolize the Nile’s annual death and rebirth. The evil Set is the hot desert wind that consumes the waters. Osiris is dead when the river is dry, and his body is found by Isis on the day of its annual flood. As Osiris fertilizes Isis, bring ing forth new life and hope, so the river overflows its banks to fertilize the fields. Osiris is the Nile, Isis the earth: the marriage of the two is the perennially productive union of water and soil.
Memorials of the past
The prosperity created by the Nile enabled the Egyptians to raise magnificent monuments along its course—temples and memorials to the ancient gods and kings. Inevitably, the demands of modern progress have conflicted with the need to preserve the past. These two considerations were spectacularly reconciled with the building of the Aswan Dam, when the temples of Abu Simbel were saved from the rising waters. The two temples, sculpted from a mountainside on the Nile’s west bank, were, in an astonishing feat of engineering completed in 1966, moved bodily 210 feet above their original site.
The temples’ builder was Rameses II, the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty. During his long reign (1290—1224 B.c.) he created nearly half of Egypt’s surviving temples, many of them erected to celebrate his deeds in winning back and protecting Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites.
Rameses also left his mark downstream from Abu Simbel, where a staggering array of monuments surrounds the ancient capital of Thebes. For here is Karnak, one of the most awe-inspiring temples on earth. The forest of pillars in its hypostyle hall, towering high overhead and crowding together at their huge bases, seems meant for the passage of great non-corporeal beings.
The huge complex is dedicated to the ram-headed Amun, god of Thebes, later merged with the sun-god Re, to become Amun-Re and, at Thebes’ height, the king of gods. The ruins cover five acres, crowded with the remains of sphinx-lined avenues, huge gateways, shrines and temples, and a sacred lake. Next to Thebes is Luxor, also dedicated to Amun; and across the Nile from Luxor lies the Valley of the Kings, where most of the monarchs of the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1570— 1342 B.c.) were laid to rest.
The most famous of Egypt’s monuments are found to the north, almost at the opening of the Delta, where rise the colossal shapes of the great pyramids of Giza, last survivors of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Along the banks of the Nile, everyday human activities reassert the ancient rhythm of existence. In places this seems scarcely to have changed since Victorian travellers came here to paint the river in all its aspects, and it may not be so very different from the days of the pharaohs.