Nile River

The Nile River

     The Nile River is one of the most famous rivers in the world. It runs for approximately 6,695 km (4,180 miles) beginning at the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most important rivers in the world, as well, and has been Eygptian’s main source of water for thousands of years.

     The Nile has two major tributaries*, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile rises from Lake Victoria then flows north-west towards Uganda and onward to Lake Albert. It then goes farther north to Nimule where it enters Sudan. The White Nile proceeds onto the plains of Sudd and passes Lake No before joining the Blue Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. In total, the White Nile is approximately 3700 km long (2300 miles).

This shows how useful the Nile River was during Ancient Egyptian Times.

     The Blue Nile is slightly different than the White Nile. It originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The Blue Nile then flows directly to the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan along the way being fed by the sacred spring Gish Abbai. The distance from Lake Tana to where the two Niles’ meet is somewhere between 1460 km and 1600 km (907 miles and 1000 miles). The uncertainty of the length of the river is due to the fact that the Blue Nile flows virtually through gorges dug into the Ethiopian highlands to a depth of some 1500 m (4950 ft) – comparable to the depth of the Grand Canyon.

                                             The Blue Nile Falls fed by Lake Tana near the city of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia forms the upstream of the Blue Nile. It is also known as Tis Issat Falls after the name of the nearby village.

The Blue Niles Falls, fed by Lake Tana near the city of Bahir Dan, Ethiopia, forms the upstream of the Blue Nile. It is also knows as Tis Issat Falls after the name of a nearby village.

     Both Niles’ were vital to the survival of those living in Ancient Egypt. The Nile would water their crops, serve as drinking water, serve as a bathing and washing area and could also be used to assist with the survival needs of their animals. Though both Niles’ were useful, the Blue Nile was slightly more useful than the White. Even though the Blue Nile is shorter than the White, 56% of water that reaches Egypt originates from the Blue Nile. Also, the Blue Nile irrigated and still irrigates the Gezira Plain, which is known for its high quality cotton.


      For as long as there were nomadic peoples roaming the lands surrounding Egypt, the Nile continued to attract them in times of hardship. Many never left its banks again and were absorbed into the general population. But once these neighbouring peoples had settled down, they rarely abandoned their landed properties despite frequent occurrences of drought; and the influx of civilian populations greatly decreased. 

     The catchment area of the Nile is huge, more than 3 million square kilometres with a mean annual rainfall of about 600 mm. During the summer, large monsoons would take place at the mouth of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. This area of land in Africa has two rainy seasons, one in spring and one in fall. A number of huge lakes serve as resovoirs, evening out of the flow of the White Nile.

     However, the Egyptians did not know any of this. To them the reasons for the flooding and of the origins of the Nile remained “mysterious”, but they were aware of their dependence to the river. They deified it as Hapi** giving him the form of a well-nourished bearded blue man with pendulous breasts.

     When the Nile failed to rise or when it rose too much, it caused hardship even in the most prosperous periods. Here is a timeline of how the Nile affected the civilizations in Ancient Egyptian times:

  • 10000 BCE: 500 years of excessive flooding caused the abandonment of early attempts at agriculture and a return to a nomadic existence of fishing, hunting and gathering until the end of the 6th millennium.

  • 3000-2800: The decline in the flooding of about 1 to 1.5m, ca. 30% of the flow, was followed by widespread unrest and the depopulation of Nubia.
  • 2250-1950: Low inundations, causing the drying out of Lake Moeris, signalled the end of the Old Kingdom.
  • 1840-1770: High inundations weakened the central power of the Middle Kingdom dynasties, which was exploited by the Hyksos to take over large parts of Egypt.
  • 1170-1100: Low inundations accompanied the decline of the New Kingdom

     Given the importance of the Nile flooding and its regularity, its no wonder the Egyptians began measuring the rise probably even before historic times in order to predict the harvest. At first these records were little more than marks on the river bank, but later marked stairs, pillars or wells were built and records of the measurements were kept. The most important nilometer lay on the island of Elephantine, others were built at different times at Philae, Edfu, Khenu, Memphis, Heliopolis, Buto and other places.

     The Palermo Stone, carved towards the end of the 5th dynasty, lists the kings and the most outstanding events of their reigns such as posessions, festivals and wars, and included records of the level of the Nile. The highest surviving recorded height was 8 cubits 3 fingers (4 and 1/4 meters), the lowest 1 cubit (1/2 a meter) and the average being about 4 cubits (2 meters).

     When one compares the data, one often assumes that the units, and the way of measuring stayed the same for centuries, an assumption not necessarily correct. Acording to Herodotus a rise of 8 cubits (4 meters) covered the whole of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom while from the Late Period while on a rise of 16 cubits (8 meters) was measured during the height inundation.


*tributaries – stream feeding body of water: a stream, river, or glacier that joins a larger stream, river or glacier or even lake.

**Hapi – Hapi was the God of the Nile, fertility and of the North and South during Ancient Egptian times.

Written by…Bhavan Panghali 


1 Comment

  1. Bhavan Panghali =) said,

    February 28, 2007 at 7:50 pm


    it was quite depressing… :”(

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