The 15th August marks the beginning of a two week holiday in Egypt: wafaa al-Nil or, ‘the flooding of the Nile’. Throughout the centuries, this has been an occasion of the utmost importance for those who live along the banks of the river. Without the annual floods, civilisation could not have flourished in the desert as it has. Far more than just hydrating the land around it, the river bursts its banks each year, to carry minerals and salts from East Africa over the flood plains of the Sahara.
Over millennia, this event has transformed what should otherwise be arid desert into rich and fertile land, upon which Egyptian civilisations have blossomed. Since the construction of the Aswan dam in the 1960s, the Nile has ceased to flood Lower Egypt, and, thanks to modern irrigation techniques, Egyptian farmers are no longer dependent on the annual floods. However, we should still take the opportunity this August to reflect on the importance of the Nile, and how this incredible river has brought life to desert for thousands of years.
The Ancient River Dwellers
In the 5th century BC, Herodotus described Egypt as ‘the gift of the Nile’. His words are used to describe a country which could not exist without the life of the river. This was a fact the Ancient Egyptians understood all too well. Whilst other societies measured their months by the sun or the moon, the Egyptians looked to the river. The Ancient Egyptian calendar was made up of 12 months, divided into three seasons. The seasons reflected the state of the river, and how the farmers should act: Akhet (Inundation), Peret (Growth), Shemu (Harvest). Akhet was the month where the river burst its banks, a season where farmers were forced to look for other work as their farms lay under water. During Peret, farmers planted and tended their crops, and the following season, Shemu, they would harvest.
Unsurprisingly, for something which held so much importance for life in Egypt, ideas surrounding the river and the floods were steeped in mythology. One of the stories involving the river is the murder of the Ancient Egyptian God, Osiris. It was said that he was betrayed by his envious brother, Set. After tricking Osiris to lie in a sarcophagus, Set slammed the lid shut and threw Osiris in the river, but not before cutting off his genitals and feeding them to a crocodile. Since then, both the river and the crocodile were symbols of fertility to the Ancient Egyptians.The Nile floods were represented by their own god: Hapi. Hapi’s titles included ‘Lord of the Fishes and Birds of the Marshes’, and ‘Lord of the River Bringing Vegetation’. He is depicted with large breasts and a potbelly, to represent the fertility and affluence that the floods bring.
So much did the floods dictate the wealth of Egypt’s crops that the Pharaohs taxed the farmers according to how high the floods were that year. To measure the river, they came up with the idea of a ‘Nilometer’. This was usually a flight of steps leading into the river, against which the water level could be measured.
Cairo on the River
A key factor which led to Cairo’s founders choosing the spot where it was built, was the proximity of the river. The first major settlement, Fustat, was built on the banks of the river and quickly became a thriving port, only briefly over-taken by the medieval port of Bulaq. The new Islamic rulers of Egypt even built a new Nilometer in Cairo, on the island of Rawdah. It remained in use up until the 20th century, and is still in remarkable condition today. The importance of the Nile as a trading artery, source of water, fish and nutrients remained. But as the fortifications of Cairo were built up, the river also played a role in defending the city. Cairo became walled on three sides, the fourth side being protected by the river. In the nineteenth century when Napoleon invaded Alexandria, it was reckoned he would use the river to transport his army to Cairo. The city’s defenders commissioned a giant chain to be laid across the river, blocking the path for any large ships.
Where does it come from?
The source of the Nile became an obsession of European explorers in the twentieth century. Unusually for a river of its size – and the Nile is by most accounts the longest in the world – the river flows north. It was understood by the Ancient Egyptians that the heavy rains in Ethiopia caused the torrential river, but it was not until the early modern period that Europeans would travel south far enough to learn anymore. The Nile is fed by two large rivers: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile begins with Lake Tana in Ethiopia, whilst the White Nile, the longer of the two, is often considered to begin at Lake Victoria in Uganda. However, this lake has large tributaries itself, the largest of which is the Kagera River, which flows through Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, before getting to Uganda.
The Nile Today
Today the Nile is as much a part of Egyptian life as ever. The annual floods no longer occur, but the river carries more vessels than ever before. Fishermen work the river in huge numbers. Whole families fish together, on the boats which they live on. Some have never slept a night on the shore. It’s a hard life, and as the numbers of fishermen on the river increase, it is getting harder. Many fishermen can now be seen working nights, piloting the many ‘partyboats’ which line the banks of Downtown Cairo. While for those who work its waters life can be tough, the river still continues to provide for the people of Egypt: the gift of the Nile.
Edmund Bower is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of the Maadi Messenger. He can be found at www.edmundsbower.wordpress.com and tweets @edmund_bower
Photos © Amanda Wentzel and Kelley Smith
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