The Nile – Its Fertile Past and Its Imperiled Future
History means looking back. But man must also learn from it or his tenuous grasp on the Earth risks a bleak future – a future that may become dire history only all too soon. This rings especially true when it comes to our planet’s precious water resources.
One of the most ancient as well as revered rivers is the Nile; specifically the Blue Nile tumbling from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands, and the White Nile born out of Lake Victoria in Central Africa.
Map of the Nile (Courtesy author)
The Life-Giving Waters
Joined at Khartoum in the Sudan, those waters have flowed unimpeded on their four-thousand mile journey toward the Mediterranean Sea for millennia, carving out a wondrous fertile valley amidst an inhospitable desert. The Ancient Egyptians worshipped the life-giving Hapi, their predynastic name for the Nile. For them, bestowing this sacred name to the great river meant as yet another personification of their water and fertility god.
Hapi, shown as an iconographic pair of genii symbolically tying together upper and lower Egypt. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
When the river ran low, they invented the shaduf, a contraption that would ladle water from the river onto a network of dug canals. Later on, this was replaced by the sakieh, the water wheel, often turned by oxen, donkeys, and later on even camels. Because of the river, life along the Nile was prosperous.
Tomb painting depicting a gardener using a shaduf. Tomb of the Royal Sculptor Ipuy, Deir el-Medina. Dynasty 19, reign of Rameses II, 1279-1213 BCE (Cairo Museum).
Man and shadoof/shaduf, Kom Ombo, Egypt. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
During the time when the black silt from the inundations covered and nourished their fallow fields, the fellahin was conscripted to serve his king, often in the quarries that supplied basalt and sandstone for the building of temples and statues, or to mine gold for trade and embellishments. One notable goldmine was deep in the dry washes of the Wadi Hammamat, running from the Nile toward the Red Sea. Surely, those who toiled in the unbearable heat dreamed of returning to the river soon.
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While life along the Nile thrived and was pleasant most of the time, its increasing population also had to endure inundations that rose far above the nilometers. Those were structures housing simple devices submerged into the waters, dating to Pharaonic times. Especially along the southern shores, they told the Ancient Egyptians what they could joyfully expect, or the destruction they may have to fear downstream.
Measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo. Nilometers measured how high or low the flood would be. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Quickly, the priesthood attached their own brand of mysticism to these predictions without knowing what really caused their river to rise and fall in the first place—the monsoon rains unleashed in the Ethiopian Highlands. By diverting culverts from the riverbank to cisterns located inside their temples to which only the priests and rulers had access, the powerful priesthood added yet another means of control over the general populace. (Surely, any ruler would be wise to keep on the good side of them.)
The Lost Labyrinth of Egypt
Already in ancient times, the Egyptians manipulated their river into canals not just for irrigation. They diverted it to run close to their new Northern capital Ineb-hedj, today’s Memphis, and Hawara where it fed into Lake Moeris, and then running down to Alexandria. There is evidence it also branched into a vast underground palace called The Lost Labyrinth of Egypt , a mysterious place, its existence still not fully acknowledged by the Egyptian government.
Large barges and small boats with their unique lateen sails plowed the river, driven by wind and current, or straining against them by intrepid oarsmen.
Nile River from a boat between Luxor and Aswan. ( CC BY 1.0 )
Model of a River Boat. ( Public Domain )
They could plow the river unimpeded until they were stopped by the six Cataracts between today’s Aswan and Khartoum. Now, a much more imposing bulwark impedes the traveler: The Aswan High Dam.
Damming the Nile River
Aswan High Dam, 1983. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The dam was lauded for having an enormously beneficial impact on Egypt’s economy. Apart from forcibly having displaced a whole population of Eastern Sudan and submerging archaeological sites (luckily, with Abu Simbel having been moved to higher ground), the huge reservoir experiences an enormous loss from evaporation. Other problems are the accumulation of silt behind the dam. This rich sediment being swept down by the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian Highlands is deposited behind the dam, increasingly lowering the water storage capacity of Lake Nasser. The loss of this nutrient-rich loam downstream forces farmers to rely on chemicals to fertilize their fields to keep crop yields high. Any runoff from that naturally returns to a river which is becoming increasingly toxic.
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In recent years, the construction of a new monster dam by Ethiopia, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, will further impact the water supply to Egypt and the Sudan, at least while its reservoir is being filled; something that is said will take five years.
Former President Morsi was so concerned he threatened to blow it up during construction. President al-Sisi is attempting to ratify a long-standing water distribution agreement from colonial times (greatly favoring Egypt as the main beneficiary of the Nile).
How this will play out is history in the making. One can only wonder if the old Egyptian legends of a fertile Black Land will die along with this great river until only the Red Land will remain, forever wind-swept by the fierce khamsin, the devil wind of the Nile.
Inge H. Borg is author of the novel KHAMSIN, The Devil Wind of The Nile.
Top Image: Artist’s depiction of an Ancient Egyptian girl kneeling by the Nile River. (Ann Wuyts/ CC BY 2.0 )
By Inge H. Borg