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There is an old saying that da Nile isn’t just a river in Egypt. That is true. It is also a river in Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, yet it is one of the smallest major rivers in the world.
Historically, some of the world’s greatest civilizations have depended on it, and today it is still a source of conflict between countries that depend on it for water and power.
Learn more about the Nile River and how its geography has and continues to shape history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I get into anything else, I should address the issue of the length of the Nile. Many of you may have heard that the Amazon is the longest river in the world and others might have heard that the Nile is the longest river.
Measuring the length of a river is difficult because a very large river will have many tributaries which feed into the river. Which tributary you pick will determine the length of the river.
That being said, the Nile is usually considered to be the longest river with a total length of 6,693 kilometers or 4159 miles, or about 250 kilometers longer than the Amazon.
While the Nile is truly one of the world’s great rivers, it actually doesn’t transport nearly as much water as other great rivers. It is number one in length but only number 97 in terms of the average discharge of water, which is measured in cubic meters per second.
The Amazon has almost 75 times more water flowing through it as the Nile does. In fact, if you look at the list of the greatest rivers in the world by discharge, you will encounter dozens of rivers you’ve probably never heard of before you get to the Nile.
The reason why the Nile is so long yet transports comparatively so little water, and nonetheless has been the cradle of some of the world’s earliest civilizations, is what makes the story of the Nile interesting.
I’m going to go through the Nile by going upstream. Here I should note if you don’t know it already, that the Nile is one of the few rivers that flows north. So when I talk of going upstream, I’m actually going south. This is also the reason why in ancient Egypt, Upper Egypt was south of Lower Egypt.
Going upstream we start in the Nile Delta. The Nile Delta is one of the largest river deltas in the world. Going from the Mediterranean coast, it goes down to about the city Cairo which is about where you can consider the delta to begin.
The largest city is Alexandria, which I’ve talked about in other episodes, so I won’t belabor it here. The entire delta has been a rich agricultural region for thousands of years. If you look at a satellite image of Egypt, the green delta jumps out at you in contrast to the beige surrounding desert.
Historically, there were seven major river branches that formed the Delta. Today, there are only two due to silting and flood control. Much of this is due to the removal of the annual flooding of the Nile, more on that in a bit.
Today, about 40% of the population of Egypt lives in the Nile Delta.
As we go further upstream, we are hit with the feature which really makes the Nile such a weird river.
For over a thousand miles, the Nile has no tributaries. If you look at pretty much any other river in the world, you’ll see a network of smaller rivers and streams that feed into it. The Nile, from the Mediterranean Sea, all the way through Egypt, and well into Sudan, has no rivers feeding into it.
It runs right through the world’s largest desert. With no water coming in, and evaporation from the desert, it is one of the reasons why the flow of the Nile is so low. It is estimated that two billion cubic meters of water are lost to evaporation in Egypt alone each year.
Because there are no tributaries, Egypt has depended on the Nile. In ancient times, for all practical purposes, Egypt and the Nile were synonymous. Today, nothing has changed. 95% of the population in Egypt lives along the Nile River. If you want to see something interesting, look at a nighttime satellite image of Egypt. You will see the entire country is dark, except for a string of light following the river.
The wealth and power of the Ancient Egyptians came from the agricultural productivity of the Nile, and productivity came from its annual flooding.
The flooding of the Nile was so important to the Ancient Egyptians they had a god dedicated to it, and their calendar was based around it. They had three seasons which corresponded to flooding, growth, and harvest.
Nile floods would take place in the summer, often starting around the beginning of June, reaching their peak in August. The average height of a flood would be 13.7 meters in Aswan, 11.6 meters in Luxor, and 7.6 meters in Cairo. The floodplains on either side of the river would usually be about 1.5 meters below water.
The floods would deposit silt all along the banks of the Nile that was drenched in water, and it was this annual deposition of rich soil which is why Egypt was so productive and wealthy.
There could be large variations in floods. A year with a small flood could mean famine. A year with a large flood could destroy villages.
The annual flooding of the Nile is a thing of the past, however. The flooding cycle ended with the creation of the Aswan High Dam.
The Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s under the order of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It removed the annual cycle of flooding, which wasn’t as necessary with modern irrigation techniques. It also provided half of the electricity in Egypt when it first opened, although it provides a smaller percentage now just because Egypt has grown so much.
Just as an aside, if you have ever heard of the Aswan High Dam, you might have wondered if there is an Aswan Low Dam. The answer is, yes. It is located just downstream from the High Dam and construction began on it in 1899.
I will probably do a future episode dedicated to the Aswan High Dam because the story behind its construction is unique and had many implications.
I will note that all the silt which would normally have been deposited during the Nile floods has been building up behind the dam in Lake Nassar for decades now, and it is becoming a big problem.
The reason why the Aswan dams were built where they were is that it was the location of the first of the Nile cataracts.
The cataracts are regions of the river where there are shallow rapids. They aren’t wild class five rapids and they aren’t waterfalls. They did, however, provide enough of a barrier to prevent larger barges from traveling through the cataracts.
Once you get south of the Egyptian border and continue to go upstream, the Nile makes a u-turn and goes north, before making another u-turn to go south. If you look on a map, this region with the capital N-shaped is called the cataract Nile.
The cataracts were the natural barrier between Egypt and Nubia. There are six cataracts in total. They weren’t a hard barrier between Egypt and Nubia, but it was more of a speedbump in the river which made trade and conquest much more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
There was a period where the Kingdom of Kush from Nubia conquered Egypt for about 100 years, and there were periods where the Egyptians conquered the Nubians.
There was a great deal of cultural exchange between Egypt and Nubia. Nubians had pyramids, used hieroglyphics, and also worshiped some of the Egyptian gods.
Nubian civilization will also deserve its own future episode because it is too big of a subject to address here.
Further upstream we reach our first tributary, which is actually the last one to empty into the Nile, the Atbarah River, also known as the Black Nile or the Red Nile.
After that, we reach one of the most important cities on the Nile and the place where the river splits into two: Khartoum.
Khartoum, Sudan is where the Blue Nile and the White Nile merge. It is a quirk in the naming that neither river is known just as “the Nile”, which is how it would work on most rivers.
The Blue Nile heads to the southeast and the White Nile heads almost due south.
The Blue Nile goes into the Ethiopian Highlands and it is responsible for about 80% of the water that flows into the Nile.
Although the ancient Egyptians didn’t know it, it is monsoon rains that fall in Ethiopia which are responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile.
The source of the Blue Nile is considered to be Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
The Blue Nile has the largest waterfall on the Nile, Blue Nile Falls. It is 42 meters or 138 feet high.
Unquestionably, the biggest thing happening right now on the Blue Nile is the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Built very close to the border of Sudan, it began construction in 2011 and it started filling with water in 2020. When it is fully operational, sometime between 2025 and 2027, it will be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world.
It has been a politically contentious project as water rights are a major issue in the region, given how arid it is.
The White Nile, while only responsible for 20% of the Nile’s water flow, is the longer of the two tributaries.
It continues to flow south through Sudan, through the nation of South Sudan, and into Uganda.
The main source of the White Nile is considered to be Lake Victoria. However, there are other rivers that flow into Lake Victoria, so there is debate as to where the ultimate source of the Nile is. Both the Nyabarongo, River that flows from Rwanda and the Ruvyironza River which comes from Burundi can be considered ultimate sources of the Nile.
In Uganda, the Nile is usually split into the Victoria Nile, which is the stretch from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert, and the Albert Nile which goes from Lake Albert to the border of South Sudan.
The Nile has been a literal lifeline for the people and civilizations which have lived alongside it for over 5,000 years. During that time Egyptians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French, Britsh, Sudanese, and Ugandans have all relied on the Nile.
Whatever civilizations may rise and fall over the next 5,000 years, whoever they are, they will all still probably depend on the Nile River.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Rgabe3 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Interested In the Interesting
When one door closes another one opens. When the pandemic hit, I like everyone else went looking in the other door. Mine was painting. I then started looking for podcasts to listen to while I was painting. After several months I stumbled across Everything. After listening to a few episodes and I was hooked. I then went to episode 1 and listened to everyone, 564 by my count.
Tom Peters, the author of In Search of Excellence said he was no longer in search of excellence he was now interested in the interesting. So is Gary. We get to listen to an eclectic assortment of fun tales told in Gary’s folksy homespun Mark Twain approach. Moreover, you will be infected with his enthusiasm. After over 500 episodes Gary becomes like a good friend. Sometimes after hearing his introduction I’d roll my eyes and think this sounds terrible only to find it of great interest (sorry old buddy).
Moreover, you will find he rarely uses the same word over and over. So if you are looking for a new door to open I can’t recommend Gary enough but if you get hooked don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Thank you, Rgabe3! You have discovered the secret to the show. The episodes you think will be the least interesting will often be the ones that are the most interesting, just because it is something you probably don’t know anything about.
Also, you are making me consider offering a sticker or a patch or something to everyone who manages to listen to every episode.
Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.