Ancient Egypt: Many Rivers, One River - History Brought Alive
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Ancient Egypt: Many Rivers, One River

“Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt” (Wilkinson, Toby, 2015, p. 3). That statement would seem bold were it not absolutely true. The river, iteru in the ancient Egyptian language, has dominated and defined the East African landscape since before the arrival of the first human species, Homo erectus, in Africa more than 700,000 years ago. The Egyptian segment of the Nile River follows a roughly straight, south-to-north course from modern Aswan to Cairo and the Delta. Seen from above, the river’s course resembles the iconic papyrus reed with its slender stalk and flowering head–and, like that iconic water plant, was integral to ancient Egyptian civilization and thought. So true was this that the glyph for Egypt was simply a horizontal line (representing the flat floodplain) with three black circles beneath (signifying clumps of the black alluvial soil left behind after the annual inundation). 

The waters of the river, and particularly of the annual inundation, were the lifeblood of Egypt. According to Harvey Cox, “the annual flooding of the Nile…provided the framework by which the society was held together” (Harvey Gallagher Cox, 2013, p. 27). Yet, ironically, no Egyptian in the nation’s 3,000-year history ever knew the actual geographical source of the Nile, recognized today as the world’s longest river at 4,130 miles (Liu et al., 2009). Nor would the average Egyptian citizen have acknowledged the need to know. Instead, an all-pervasive polytheism, which ascribed divine agency to every aspect of human experience, including the life-sustaining flow of the river, framed their worldview. “Sun gods, river goddesses, and astral deities abounded. History was subsumed under cosmology, a society under nature, time under space. Both god and man were part of nature” (Harvey Gallagher Cox, 2013, p. 27).

That worldview convinced Egyptians that the river’s life-giving (or sometimes life-taking) waters flowed from an underground cavern beneath the First Cataract, adjacent to the Elephantine Island, close to Egypt’s southern border with Nubia (modern Sudan). This underground cavern was the abode of the god Hapy–not the god of the Nile itself, but the annual inundation. Though no one had ever seen Hapy, pictograms depict this deity as a big-bellied, droopy-breasted figure of nonspecific gender who wore a ceremonial beard (Wilkinson, 2003). This depiction speaks to the Egyptian belief that Hapy (like the waters of iteru itself) was the source of fertility and prosperity. Nothing is more expressive of their conviction than the following excerpt from the “Hymn to Hapy (the Nile Flood),” originally written in Middle Egyptian and believed to have been composed during the Middle Kingdom period (c. 2060-1782 BCE):

Hymn to Hapy: 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 need only consult a map to understand the reality which was literally beyond their comprehension: the one iteru, or river, of Egypt, the only Nile they knew, was the product of several major and minor tributaries which commingled far south in regions once occupied by ancient Nubia, the semi-mythical Land of Punt, and beyond the ‘end of the world’ as the Egyptian people knew it. The main branch of the Nile, called White for its heavy clay deposits, begins in a stream, the Ruvyironza, which flows out of Mount Kikizi in southern Burundi (Godfrey Mugoti, 2009) and empties into Lake Victoria. From Jinja, Lake Victoria, it flows into Lake Albert and then continues its northward journey until it joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum in Sudan–a distance of some 2,300 miles from its source. The Blue Nile, on the other hand, originates at Lake Tana in the highlands of modern-day Ethiopia and flows some 900 miles through Ethiopia and Sudan. It has historically provided at least 80 percent of the fresh water and silt in the Nile during the North African monsoon season between June and October. A third major Nile tributary, the Atbara River, called the Red Nile, starts its journey 500 miles southeast of the White Nile, in the mountains 30 miles north of Lake Tana in Ethiopia, as little more than a stream. However, like the Blue Nile to the south, it swells dramatically during the late summer rains, contributing to the surge of the annual inundation in the Nile Valley. The Yellow Nile, a former tributary that flowed from eastern Chad to its confluence at the southern point of the Great Bend of the White Nile between c. 8000 BCE and c. 1000 BCE (Keding, 2000), became extinct at roughly the same time as ancient Egyptian civilization was subsumed into the Roman Empire. 

So, there were many rivers, with many sources, each bearing her gifts–fresh, clear water, clay, black silt–in a happy marriage of currents, rushing through steep gorges and past red sandstone cliffs and, finally, 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 think the ancient Egyptians would have smiled with pleasure had they been aware that the several tributaries of the White Nile (Blue, White, Red, and Yellow, among others), seen from above, resemble the roots of their beloved and iconic papyrus plant!

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