The Nile River
About the Nile River
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The Nile River is the longest river in the world. So it follows that it would be long on enchantment, mystery and antiquity's most intriguing relics. The lifeline of Egyptian civilization, the Nile basin is a cultivated oasis of green vegetation in a country which would otherwise be entirely desert. Measuring more than 4,100 miles—roughly the distance between Orlando and Juneau—the Nile has plenty of time to sail past rainforests, mountains, savannas, swamps, deserts and more than 5,000 years of history. Ancient temples, pyramids and other archaeological treasures stand in mesmerizing contrast to the Nile's bustling cities, colorful bazaars and lively hospitality.
- Countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Source: The confluence of the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara Rivers near Khartoum, Sudan
- Mouth: The Mediterranean Sea
- Length: 4,132 miles
Watch & Learn About the Nile River
The Nile is the combination of three long rivers in central Africa: the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Atbara. The White Nile, which begins at Lake Victoria in Uganda, supplies about 28 percent of the Nile's waters in Egypt. The Blue Nile, which originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, provides an average of 58 percent of the river's water. The much shorter Atbara River, which also originates in Ethiopia, joins the main Nile just north of Khartoum, Sudan, and provides about 14 percent of the Nile's Egyptian flow.
The Nile enters Egypt near Wadi Halfa, a Sudanese town that was completely rebuilt on high ground when the original city was submerged by the creation of the High Dam in Aswan. As a result of the dam's construction, the Nile begins its flow into Egypt as Lake Nasser. After it snakes through the narrow gorges, reservoirs, and dams near Aswan, the Nile's fertile floodplain widens and thrives. At Qina, 1,000-foot limestone cliffs force the Nile to change course to the southwest before turning northwest once again. From here, the elevation slowly diminishes and the valley again expands to include an agricultural plain beyond which lies the interminable Sahara.
At Cairo, the Nile spreads out to form a fertile, fan-shaped delta about 155 miles wide where it meets the sea. The lush Nile Delta extends over approximately 8,500 square miles—roughly the size of Massachusetts.
The Nile has been the cradle of Egyptian civilizations since the Stone Age. The thin, cultivated swath of the Nile valley is what most of today's population and yesterday's antiquities call home. Since the creation of the Sahara desert at the end of the most recent ice age more than 5,000 years ago, the Nile has been Egypt's sole source of water, agriculture, commerce and power. Perhaps this is why the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that "Egypt was the gift of the Nile."
Over the course of time, as the Nile would flood, silt deposits made the surrounding land extremely fertile. Ancient Egyptians were able to cultivate wheat and other crops in an otherwise hostile agricultural environment. The Nile's water also attracted game such as water buffalo, elephants, antelopes and gazelles. But more than a vital source of sustenance, the Nile was also a critical transportation and trade route. In fact, trade was what secured Egypt's diplomatic relationship with other countries and contributed to its economic stability.
The Nile was an important part of the ancient Egyptian spiritual life. The deity Hapy was the god of the annual floods, and both he and the pharaoh were thought to control the ebb and flow of the mighty river. Ancient Egyptian hunters prayed to god and goddess images of the animals they sought to ensure their safety and the success of the hunt.
Crucial to Egyptian life, the Nile was considered to be the pathway from life to death and the afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and growth, and the west was considered the place of death. The god Ra, the Sun, underwent birth, death, and resurrection each day as he crossed the sky. That is why all tombs are located west of the Nile, because the Egyptians believed that in order to enter the afterlife, they must be buried on the side that symbolized death.
The Nile was, and still is, used to transport goods and people along its lengthy path. Winter winds in this area blow up river, so ships could travel up river effortlessly by using a sail, and down river using the flow of the river. While most Egyptians still live in the Nile valley, the construction of the Aswan High Dam (completed in 1970) ended the summer floods and their renewal of the fertile soil.
As the Nile enters Egypt, Aswan is your first stop. Here, feats of ancient architecture are juxtaposed with modern marvels of engineering like the High Dam and the Old Dam. The Old Dam was completed near the turn of the century, but it remains to this day the world's widest dam. The idyllic island of Agilika, located on the waters between the two dams, boasts the incredible Temple of Isis, transplanted from the submerged island of Philae.
Back on shore, the ancient Granite Quaries feature a giant unfinished stone obelisk. As you cross the Nile in Aswan, a visit to Elephantine Island includes a discovery of the famed "nilometer," an ancient flood gauge used to warn cities downstream of impending high water. Enjoy Kitchener Island's lush Botanical Gardens before continuing on to the left bank and the splendid Aga Khan Mausoleum.
Sailing north on the mighty Nile, the glimmering town of Kom Ombo beckons. Haggle for bargains in the local market before ascending to the bluff-top temple dedicated to the crocodile and falcon gods.
Built in the time of Cleopatra around 2,000 years ago, the Temple of Horus is the pristinely-preserved pride of the city of Edfu. With its sheer vertical façade, elaborate hieroglyphics and stunning black stone statues, the temple is quintessential Egypt.
Follow the Nile River to Luxor and Karnak, the grandest cities of ancient Egypt, with a combined population of more than a million. To walk among the pillars of the colossal Temple of Amon Ra and along the Avenue of the Sphinxes is an experience to treasure for a lifetime.
Nearby, the Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens on the west bank of the Nile, is the glorious final resting place for generations of pharaohs and royalty. Sixty-two royal tombs have been uncovered so far including the amazingly well-preserved visage of King Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922. Nearby, visit the monumental rock temple of Deir El-Bahri and the truly colossal Colossi of Memnon, 60-foot tall pharaohs who stand guard over the valley.
Heading north toward the lush Nile Delta, Cairo is the bustling capital of Egypt and Africa's largest metropolis. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets," it's filled with Islamic architecture and steeped in history. The Egyptian Museum is filled with the artifacts and treasures of more than 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization. Stroll the narrow walkways of Old Cairo surrounded by stone-clad buildings. The 12th-century Citadel, the Alabaster Mosque, and the labyrinthine bazaar are highlights here.
Nearby, Giza beckons with the iconic Sphinx, and the Great Pyramids, the oldest (and most intact) of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Travel on to Sakkara, with its extraordinary "Stairway to the Sky," the oldest of all pyramids. The archaeological playground of Memphis is next, boasting an immaculate 40-foot statue of Ramses II and the Alabaster Sphinx.
>In the fertile Nile Delta, the seaside resort town of Alexandria is a delightful ending to any Nile exploration. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., this Mediterranean port city soon became one of the major centers of commerce and science of the Hellenistic world.
Although the draw to the Nile is obvious for those drawn to history and archaeology, you don't have to be Indiana Jones to enjoy a life-changing journey along the world's longest river. Hieroglyphic-covered temples and mysteriously built pyramids will enthrall and amaze travelers of all ages and interests. Nature- and water-lovers will enjoy soaking in the beauty of the Nile's soothing flow, exploring vibrant botanical islands, and watching as the sun rises and sets over the Sahara.
Did You Know?
- South African national Hendri Coetzee became the first to navigate the Nile's entire length in 2004. National Geographic released a feature film about the four-and-a-half-month expedition in late 2005 entitled "The Longest River."
- The Ishango bone, possibly the earliest known indication of the ancient Egyptian's use of multiplication, was discovered along the headwaters of the Nile and has been carbon-dated to 20,000 B.C.
- Although presently forbidden, climbing to the top of the Great Pyramid was allowed in Mark Twain's time. He ascended, or rather, was carried to the summit by well-tipped locals in the middle of the nineteenth century and lived to write about it later.
- Despite covering only about 5.5 percent of the total area of Egypt, the Nile Valley and Nile Delta are the most important regions, being the country's only cultivable regions and supporting about 99 percent of the population.
- The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.
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