Where is the Nile and Why is it Important?

[Where is it? |How does it compare to other rivers? |What are its Branches?
|Ancient History |19th Century Exploration |Religious |Water Demands in the Middle East |Back to Home ]

Where is the Nile?

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The Nile is the great river of northeast Africa. It begins in well-watered regions near the equator and flows northward across the terrible Sahara Desert before it empties into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It is 6825 km or 4100 miles long and is the longest river on earth. Only the Amazon River of South America rivals the length ofthe Nile. Both the source of the White Nile in Equatorial Africa and its mouth on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea lie within one degree of longitude. It crosses 35 degrees of latitude, a distance comparable to the width of the continental United States, and flows across regions which differ more from each other than lands drained by any other river.

How does it compare with other rivers?

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In spite of its great length and large drainage basin (3,000,000 km2, or about 10% of Africa, and affecting 9 nations), it carriers relatively little water. Yearly flows over the past century ranged from a low of 42 km3 in the drought year of 1984 to a high of 120 km3 for 1916. This relatively low flow for such a long river is because no water is added to it north of its confluence with the Atbara River, and much is lost by evaporation. Most other great rivers join with other large streams as they approach the sea, joining their waters into an ever-swelling stream. Instead, the Nile wanders through the largest and most arid region on earth, the Sahara Desert.

What are its Branches?

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The Nile consists of two principal branches - the White Nile and the Blue Nile - which join at Khartoum to form the main Nile. The main Nile consists of the Egyptian Nile and the Cataract Nile. The White Nile, which is the longest segment, may be further subdivided into: 1) The Central Sudan region; 2) The Sudd; and 3) the Lake Plateau region.

Why is it Important?

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Some think that the Nile is the most important river in the world. It certainly touches us with its history and mystery, and its significance is not limited to the past. There is little doubt that success or failure in managing its precious waters will spell success or disaster for the peaceful development of north Africa in the 21st century. Egypt is and was the "Gift of the Nile", and its gifts of water and rich Ethiopian mud nutured a civilization that fluorished for almost 3000 years before the Roman Empire began. The Nile occupies an important part of Judeo-Christian tradition, as its banks witnessed the dramas of Joseph and Moses, and the Holy Family found refuge there from Herod. Until the Aswan High Dam was constructed, the Nile rose and flooded the Nile valley every summer, and ancient people wondered why the river would swell during the hottest and dryest time of the year. This wonder led naturally to the question about where the Nile originated.

The first question that Alexander the Great asked when he came to the temple of Jupiter Ammon in Luxor was 'What caused the Nile to rise?'. Julius Caesar said that the one thing he most wanted to know about the world was 'Where was the source of the Nile?' The mystery of the source of the Nile was not solved until 1859, and these explorations and the controversy that surrounded them captured the imagination of the Western World for much of the middle part of the last century.

Ancient History

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"Egypt is the gift of the Nile." This epigram of Hecataeus, quoted first by Herodotus and frequently since, expresses with admirable brevity and appropriateness the character of the Egyptian country. In the vast almost waterless expanse of the desert plateau which occupies the entire two branches from the extensive lake region of equatorial Africa and from the snow-clad mountains of Abyssinia, has painfully through endless ages excavated out of the sandstone and limestone a deep valley the lower end of which - the land of Egypt - it has by its regular annual deposits of alluvium transformed into one of the most fruitful lands on earth. When at length a people settled in this valley in order to pasture its herds and to cultivate the soil, the Nile by strict necessity impelled it to civilization and culture.

The abundant flow of water which rushed northward each summer after the copious rainfall at the sources of both Nile branches to inundate the land had to be systematically and regularly conducted over the fields. It was necessary to construct dams and dikes and to provide canals and sluices. Swamps had to be drained and converted into meadows. Such operations, however, could not possibly be accomplished by peasants working individually; the inhabitants of the land were obliged to organize themselves into large communities under a leader whose guiding hand assisted them to centralize their efforts in the direction of the common interest. Thus the Nile awakened a demand for an adequate law code and an ordered commonwealth. For the sake of reckoning the rise and retreat of the Nile flood and of determining the season for cultivating the fields, it was imperative to observe the change of the seasons and the courses of the stars. Whenever, as frequently occurred , an unusually high Nile inundation obliterated the boundaries between neighboring plots of land, the fields had to be remeasured and the new survey recorded in the official registry. It was the Nile again which encouraged the development of writing, of reckoning time by a systematic calendar, and the study of astronomy.

When later in the historical period colossal pyramids and mighty temples were constructed, or gigantic statues and obelisks were set up in honor of the gods and the kings, it was the Nile once more which facilitated or even made possible the transport of heavy building materials; on its broad bosom the huge granite blocks were borne northward form the southern border of Egypt all the way to Memphis or distant Tanis in the extreme northeast corner of the Delta. The great river always constituted for the country the indispensable source of life on which the weal or woe of its inhabitants was dependent. (Excerpt from When Egypt Ruled the East, Steindorff, G. and Seele, K.)

19th Century Exploration

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It is hard for us to imagine today, in this age of satellite imagery, how the question of where the Nile originated focused people's attention for thousands of years. Julius Ceasar said that if he had only one question to ask the gods, it would be where did the Nile originate. The emperor Nero sent two centurions to follow the Nile to its origin. These returned to Rome and reported that they "came close to immense swamps of which not even the local people knew the end. So tangled and thick are the plants in the waters that it is impossible to proceed either on foot or by boat." The two Romans were blocked by the Sudd in southern Sudan, perhaps the largest swamp on earth.

Finding the source of the Blue Nile was an easier task than finding that of the White Nile. Portuguese missionaries were the first europeans to visit Lake Tana, in the early 1600's, and the Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1770 followed the Abay Wenz upstream from Lake Tana to the swampy spring which may be considered to be the source of the Blue Nile.

Finding the source of the White Nile provided much of the motivation for european exploration of Africa in the 19th century. In the early 1800's explorers again tried to penetrate the Sudd but failed. In 1857 the British explorers Burton and Speke left Zanzibar on the coast of what is now Tanzania and headed inland to search for mysterious lakes in the interior of Africa. Fighting sickness all the time, Speke separated from Burton to visit a large lake reported to lie to the north. On July 30, 1858, Speke glimpsed the body of water later to be named after Victoria, the reigning queen of England. He guessed that this was the source of the White Nile and rushed back to share the good news with Burton, who argued that Speke had not seen enough of the lake to be sure. They returned to Zanzibar together, and Speke returned to England alone where he claimed to have discovered the source of the White Nile and began planning for a second expedition, this time accompanied by Grant. Speke and Grant arrived in Zanzibar in August 1860 and traveled inland. They slowly worked their way around the west side of Lake Victoria before glimpsing the Nile issuing from the north side of the lake in July, 1862. Although arguments among explorers continued for a few more years, the source of the White Nile was resolved.


The Nile plays a prominent role in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew captives made bricks with its mud and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus sought refuge on its banks. Two of of the most interesting Biblical stories about the Nile are Joseph's interpretation of Pharoah's dream and how Pharoah's daughter found the baby Moses.

Joseph and Pharaoh's Dreams

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And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, "In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile; and behold, seven cows, fat and sleek came up out of the Nile; and they grazed in the marsh grass. "And lo, seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and gaunt, such as I had never seen for ugliness in all the land of Egypt; and the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them; for they were just as ugly as before. Then I awoke.

I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin, and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed the seven good ears. Then I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me."

Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same; God has told to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. And the seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind shall be seven years of famine. It is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe." (Genesis41:15-31, New American Standard Bible)

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The Baby Moses

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, "Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive."

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him. Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the Nile, with her maidens walking alongside the Nile; and she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid, and she brought it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, "This is one of the Hebrews' children." Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?" And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go ahead." So the girl went and called the child's mother. Then Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child away and nurse him for me and I shall give you wages." So the woman took the child and nursed him. And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she named him Moses, and said, "Because I drew him out of the water." (Exodus 1:22, 2:1-10, New American Standard Bible)


Water: An Increasingly Scarce Resource in the Nile Basin

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As we move into the 21st century, attention has shifted to the question of how to best us the 80 cubic kilometers of water that the Nile annually transports from Equatorial Africa across the Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea. The answers to these questions will most affect Egypt, with its rapidly growing population of 65 million people almost totally dependent on the Nile. Population growth in Egypt is expected to outstrip the water resources of the Nile early in the 21st century. This problem will be greatly complicated by population and economic growth in the upstream nations of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.