The Nile River

The Nile River: What You Need to Know About the Backbone of Egypt

The Nile River is not just a natural watercourse, it is the backbone of Egypt both geographically and culturally. It has been the mythical place that inspired the ancient religion and serves as a source of life and wealth for the inhabitants of this country due to its agricultural possibilities.

Today, the Nile River is also a major tourist attraction with organized cruises along its course, particularly in Upper Egypt. Our agency offers traditional vessels and motorboats for these cruises. Given its importance to the life, culture, and economy of the country, we dedicate this page to provide you with all the interesting facts and peculiarities of this magnificent river.

Table of contents

Main Facts About the Nile River

Before exploring the importance of the Nile River for Egypt, let’s take a quick look at its main facts:

  • Total length: 6,853 km, making it the second-longest river in the world, after the Amazon River in South America.
  • Place of origin: Kagera River (Burundi and Rwanda), the main tributary of Lake Victoria, where the Nile River is traditionally considered to have its source at an altitude of around 2,700 meters above sea level.
  • Mouth: Mediterranean Sea
  • Countries it flows through: 10 countries, including Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt.
  • Average discharge: 2,830 m3/s
  • Divisions (from source to mouth):
  • Sources of the Nile: including various sources of the Nile River in its first few hundred kilometers. The Kagera River itself has its source in the Nyabarongo and Ruvubu rivers in Rwanda and Burundi, respectively, and other streams join it. As a result, this first section is quite branched until it reaches Lake Victoria.
  • White Nile: a combination of river courses and tributaries north of Lake Victoria, with a length of about 3,150 km.
  • Blue Nile: another essential branch from which the Nile River is fed, originating from Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s Ethiopian Highlands, with a length of about 1,600 km.
  • Middle Nile: the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet in Khartoum (Sudan), from where they continue for about 1,800 km as a single course called the Middle Nile. It flows through desert terrain and a succession of six cataracts. Between the first and second cataracts, it crosses the border between Sudan and Egypt. As soon as it enters Egyptian territory, the Nile River is dammed in the current Lake Nasser.
  • Lower Nile: This last section flows entirely within Egyptian territory, from Aswan (after the first cataract and Lake Nasser) to the Mediterranean Sea.
History of the Nile River

The Nile River in Egypt

Although only its final part runs through Egypt, the Nile River is a significant presence in the country, covering over 1,500 km in a south-north direction. This stretch can be further divided into two distinct regions:

  • Upper Egypt: This region encompasses the stretch of the Nile from Lake Nasser (from the border with Sudan to Aswan) to Cairo. It is also known as the Nile Valley and is characterized by a fertile plain that extends for about 20 km on either side of the river. Beyond this plain lie the Western (or Libyan) Desert and the Arabian Desert, creating a landscape of extreme aridity, except for a few scattered oases.
  • Lower Egypt: This region refers to the Nile Delta, which extends from Cairo to the Mediterranean Sea. The delta is a singular and vast estuary that forms an inverted delta (Δ) for the ancient Greeks. This shape is due to the fact that the Nile River once had seven branches, although it currently only has two: the Rosetta and Damieta branches. The distance between one and the other mouth is about 160 km, and the distance between the easternmost city (Port Said) and the westernmost (Alexandria) is about 240 km. The delta is the most fertile land in the country and is home to approximately 40% of Egypt’s population.

The Floods of the Nile River: The Key to Everything

The mere presence of the Nile River was not what made the emergence and development of Ancient Egypt possible, one of the most advanced civilizations of its time. What truly made their economy and way of life sustainable were the floods of the river. This was a natural phenomenon that occurred annually and involved the water level of the Nile rising and flooding the banks on either side of the river.

The reason for these floods of the Nile River must be sought thousands of kilometers to the south, in the upper reaches of this great river. Specifically, in the Blue Nile, one of the two branches that feed its flow from the Middle Nile onwards. The Ethiopian Highlands, where this branch originates, experiences an intense wet season between May and August, when heavy monsoon rains are unleashed. This, combined with the flood of the Sobat River in the White Nile, causes a significant increase in flow that gradually moves north, surpassing the six cataracts and reaching Egypt from June-July onwards.

Therefore, the annual cycle of the Nile River was, according to its rhythm of floods:

  • July-November: Flood season
  • November-March: Water withdrawal season, known as emergence (of the lands) or germination
  • March-July: Harvest season

The Nile River’s annual flood cycle was not always consistent, as there could be climatic variations that affected the monsoon rains in the Ethiopian Highlands, ultimately disrupting the Egyptian agricultural system. Excessive flooding or insufficient flooding could be the result of these variations. Additionally, the extent and timing of floods varied depending on the geographic location. To predict the annual flood levels, constructions such as the Nilometer were built and are now visitable in Cairo. There are noticeable differences between the flood levels in Aswan, which marks the end of the Middle Nile and southern Egypt, and Cairo, which is the most advanced location before the formation of the Delta. The following are the usual estimates:

  • Aswan: the water level increased from June and reached its maximum at the end of October, with a flood of almost 14 meters.
  • Cairo: the increase in water level was noticeable a week later than in Aswan, and the maximum flood reached approximately 7.5 meters.

The Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser

In the mid-twentieth century, the Nile River floods ceased to occur due to the construction of the large Aswan Dam during the tenure of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The dam was built to control the river’s flow as it enters the country further south of Aswan, giving rise to Lake Nasser, which extends for approximately 550 km and has a variable width that reaches up to 35 km.

This mega-project had a significant impact on the natural environment, economy, society, and culture. The Nubian community located in southern Egypt was displaced due to the flooding of their villages. 

Stone by stone, temples and monuments of Ancient Egypt located in the area were dismantled and moved to higher elevations to prevent their ruin. Abu Simbel is the most famous of all, but there were others as well. This task required international assistance, and as a sign of gratitude, the Egyptian government gave temples to the main collaborators. Spain was one of them, receiving as a gift the Temple of Debod, now in a park in Madrid.

Currently, the course of the Nile River is constant and not subject to significant seasonal variations since the Aswan Dam regulates it. This control of the river flow also allows boat transportation between the cities of Aswan and Wadi Halfa on Lake Nasser. Above all, it allows for tourist cruises throughout Upper Egypt, which our agency organizes to measure.

Nile River in religion

The Religious Significance of the Nile River

The Nile River was not only crucial for the Ancient Egyptians’ economy and way of life but also had a deep religious significance. The annual flooding of the Nile River was a natural phenomenon that lacked a scientific explanation, leading the Ancient Egyptians to turn to religion to understand it.

Egyptian mythology provided several explanations for the floods, with Hapi and Isis being the most prominent gods associated with it. Hapi was believed to live in a cave near the Nile River falls and emerged every year to cause the flooding of the waters. On the other hand, the tears of Isis for her husband and brother Osiris’ death triggered the flood. This divine flood was considered sacred and celebrated with a religious festival that lasted for several weeks.

Apart from the myth and festival, the Nile’s annual flooding influenced the Egyptians’ worldview and their explanation of the universe’s origin (cosmogonies). According to different theories (Heliopolis, Hermopolis, and Memphis), the origin of everything was in the primordial waters from which the creator gods emerged. The Nile River’s withdrawal, which led to the emergence or germination of the rest of the elements, may have inspired this belief.

Economic Importance of the Nile River

The Nile River has been and continues to be a significant economic driver in Egypt, with much of the country’s economic activity centered around it. During Ancient Egypt, the Nile’s floods were a fascinating natural phenomenon that spurred ingenuity and engineering, driving the development of irrigation and canalization systems to take advantage of the water flow and silt transport that contributed to soil fertility.

El Fayum provides an excellent example of this, as irrigation projects were implemented as early as the Middle Kingdom. This importance continued throughout the ages, even after the Muslim conquest, as demonstrated by the successive irrigation improvement projects, in which the Arabs excelled. One notable example is Saladino, who renewed the Joseph Canal or Bahr Yussef in El Fayum in the 12th century.

Despite the mastery of irrigation techniques, the Nile River’s variations could still cause periods of poor harvests, famine, and social instability, as seen during the time of the Fatimid caliph Al-Mustansir in the mid-11th century, exacerbated by military conflicts with Turks and Berbers.

Although industrial advances emerged in the 19th century, diversifying the Egyptian economy and improving irrigation techniques, the Nile River still plays a significant role in the country’s economy. The majority of the Egyptian population lives on the banks or in the delta of the Nile, and crops grown along its banks still represent over 10% of the country’s GDP.

Furthermore, the Nile is a significant economic driver for tourism, as it is one of the major attractions for visitors to the country. Cruising on the Nile River allows tourists to witness its natural beauty and explore its historical and artistic treasures, all while enjoying the comfort of boats sailing on its waters. On this page, you can learn more about the unforgettable cruise experiences we offer, whether on traditional boats or motor ships.

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