The Many Colors of the Nile River
“Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt”.
That would be a bold remark if it weren’t completely true.
Before the advent of the first human species, Homo erectus, the Nile river, also called Iteru in ancient Egyptian, has dominated and characterized the East African terrain more than 700,000 years ago.
The Egyptian section of the Nile River follows a relatively straight south-to-north path from the contemporary Aswan to Cairo and the Delta.
From above, the river’s path resembles the papyrus reed, with its thin stalk and blooming head, and like that iconic water plant, was vital to ancient Egyptian culture and civilization.
This was so accurate that Egypt’s glyph was literally a horizontal line, representing the flat floodplain, with three black circles below it, signifying clumps of the black alluvial soil left behind after the annual flooding.
Egypt’s lifeblood was the river’s waters, particularly the annual flooding.
According to Harvey Cox, “the annual flooding of the Nile…provided the framework by which the society was held together”.
Despite this, no Egyptian throughout the country’s 3,000-year history knew the real geographical source of the Nile, which is now acknowledged as the world’s longest river at 4,130 miles.
Nor would the typical Egyptian have recognized the importance of knowing.
Instead, their worldview was structured by an all-encompassing polytheism that attributed divine intervention to every element of human experience, even the life-sustaining flow of the river.
“There was plenty of sun gods, river goddesses, and astral deities. History was subsumed under cosmology, a society under nature, time under space. Both god and man were part of nature”.
That worldview compelled Egyptians that the river’s life-giving, or perhaps life-taking waters came from a subterranean cavern beneath the First Cataract, near Egypt’s southern border with Nubia, also now called Sudan.
This underground cavern was the home of the god Hapy, who was not the god of the Nile, but of the annual flooding.
Despite the fact that no one has ever seen Hapy, pictograms portray this god as a big-bellied, droopy-breasted creature of unknown gender wearing a ceremonial beard.
This conception reflects the Egyptian belief that Hapy, like the waters of Iteru, was the source of fertility and wealth.
Nothing expresses their conviction more strongly than the following excerpt from the “Hymn to Hapy,” originally written in Middle Egyptian and considered to have been written during the Middle Kingdom period, 2060-1782 BCE.
Hail flood! emerging from the earth, arriving to bring Egypt to life, hidden of form, the darkness in the day, the one whose followers sing to him, as he waters the plants, created by Ra to make every herd live, who satisfies the desert hills removed from the water, for it is his dew that descends from the sky–he, the beloved of Geb, controller of Nepri, the one who makes the crafts of Ptah verdant….
If he is greedy, the whole land suffers, great and small fall moaning. People are changed at his coming; the one who creates him is Khnum. When he rises, then the land is in joy, then every belly is glad, every jaw has held laughter, every tooth revealed.
Of course, we only need a map to realize the reality that was beyond their comprehension. The Nile, the only river they knew, is the result of several major and minor tributaries that converged far south in regions once occupied by ancient Nubia, the semi-mythical Land of Punt, and beyond the ‘end of the world’ as the Egyptians knew it.
The main branch of the Nile, known as the White because of its thick clay deposits, originates in a stream called the Ruvyironza, which starts from Mount Kikizi in southern Burundi and flows into Lake Victoria.
It runs from Jinja, Lake Victoria, to Lake Albert, and then northward till it reaches the Blue Nile at Khartoum, Sudan – a distance of approximately 2,300 miles from its source.
The Blue Nile, on the other hand, begins in Lake Tana in modern-day Ethiopia’s highlands and runs 900 miles across Ethiopia and Sudan.
Historically, it has supplied at least 80% of the Nile’s fresh water and silt during the North African monsoon season, which runs from June to October.
A third major Nile tributary, the Atbara River or often known as the Red Nile, begins its trip 500 miles southeast of the White Nile, in the highlands 30 miles north of Lake Tana as little more than a stream.
However, like the Blue Nile to the south, it rises substantially after the late summer rains, contributing to the Nile Valley’s yearly flooding.
The Yellow Nile, a former tributary of the White Nile that flowed from eastern Chad to its confluence at the southern end of the Great Bend between 8000 BCE and 1000 BCE went extinct around the same time that the ancient Egyptian civilization was absorbed by the Roman Empire.
So there were many rivers, each with its own gifts–fresh, clear water, clay, black silt, in a convergence of currents, rushing through steep gorges and past red sandstone cliffs, eventually tumbling around the crags of the First Cataract in Upper Egypt and on toward the Great Green, as Egyptians used to call the Mediterranean Sea.
I believe the ancient Egyptians would be delighted if they discovered that the Nile River’s tributaries, Blue, White, Red, and Yellow, when viewed from above, resemble the roots of their beloved and famous papyrus plant!
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