Africa’s longest river The River Nile, stretching across half of Africa, flows northwards from the tropical mountains and forests of the Equator to the temperate Mediterranean Sea.
It is the Africa’s longest river, reaching 4150 miles from the lakes that feed it and the streams that feed those lakes. Of Egypt, the land with which it is most closely associated and which the Nile makes fruitful for the last thousand miles of its course, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it is an acquired country, ‘the gift of the river’.
So it is; but the river itself is, in a sense, the gift of man. ‘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.
It is a supreme gift, not only of the equatorial rains, but of man with his inherent adaptability, industry, inventiveness, courage, curiosity and sense of adventure.During the millennium preceding the dynastic history of Egypt, which began around 3200 BC, the ending of the Ice Age gradually dried up the grasslands which bordered the Nile, transforming the pastures of herdsmen and hunters into waterless desert.
Yet the river itself remained, sprawling through this desert, overflowing its banks into jungle swamps and waterlogged marshes where hippopotamuses and crocodiles flourished and vegetation ran rife and unproductive.
A new challenge thus confronted the inhabitants of the valley and its neighboring lands.
Some evaded the challenge, taking the line of least resistance. Their progeny survive among the Nilotic tribesmen of the Southern Sudan, primitive men still living in a natural environment.
Here, in a tropical region perennially watered by rain, is a wilderness of swamps known as the Sudd, in which the river loses half its waters. Traversing a labyrinth of streams, inlets and lakes, its main channels have no fixed banks, but pass between floating masses of vegetable matter-‘floes’ of matted papyrus and reeds, forever shifting this way and that to block the river’s course.
Below the First Cataract near Aswan, where Egypt properly begins, it is different. Here other tribesmen made a more positive response to the challenge. They faced up to the change in their climate by changing their whole way of living. Stirring themselves to action, they drained the swamps and the marshes, canalized the river between dikes and diverted some of its flow into ditches and basins with low mud walls. Thus they reclaimed soil on which they grew their food instead of gathering it.
Unlike their less spirited neighbors, they imposed themselves on their environment and thereby transformed Egypt into a cultivated land rich in cereals, vegetables, fodder, oil crops and, in later times, sugar cane and cotton. Their descendants are the industrious fellaheen, toiling in their millions throughout the lower Nile valley today.
The ancient Egyptians knew no other world but their long river valley, a secure ‘oasis’ walled in between the broad desert wastes which only occasional raiding Bedouin tribes would venture to cross. The world beyond it meant little to them, and the source of the Nile was unknown to them beyond the fact that it was located in an unfamiliar ‘Land of Ghosts and Spirits’ somewhere to the south.
At first the river was believed to gush forth from the underworld through a mythical cavern above the First Cataract. But early in the 3rd millennium a military expedition into Nubia, beyond the First Cataract, showed that the river rose in remoter African lands hundreds of miles to the south.
It was not until the 19th century that the source of the Nile was finally discovered. The Blue Nile pours out of Lake Tana, in the Ethiopian highlands, and passes over a series of cataracts and rapids to join the main stream of the river, the White Nile, at Khartoum. From here these waters run distinct for a while, side by side in the same bed, more grey and green than white and blue; they finally merge and, fed by only one more stream, the Atbara, flow unbroken for 1600 miles to the Mediterranean.
British administration led to the co-ordinated construction of dams and barrages throughout the length of the Nile, from the great lakes to points close to the river’s two mouths at Rosetta and Damietta. This control of the waters was designed to replace the old system of basin irrigation by one of perennial irrigation.
The conversion was accomplished in an area that covered five-sixths of the cultivated land of Egypt, permitting the growth of two or more crops each year instead of one, as before, and facilitating the production of cotton, which needs water at a season when the river is naturally low. The old Aswan Dam-completed by the British in 1902 and heightened twice since then -conserves water in the flood season and releases it as the flow abates, thus affording an even supply. Thanks to this, the lower Nile valley is today onr of the most intensively cultivated agricultural area in the world.
Thus if Egypt is still, as in the days of Herodotus, essentially an acquired country, ‘the gift of the river’, it is a country more than ever acquired by man, through his progressive subjugation of its waters. The Nile valley is in truth a gift to civilization by the people of Egypt themselves.