The Source of the Nile?

Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika - Scott #47 (1935)
Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika – Scott #47 (1935)

On November 14, 1770, James Bruce is supposed to have discovered what he believed to be the source of the Nile (النيل‎) — a major north-flowing river in northeastern Africa commonly regarded as the longest river in the world, though some sources cite the Amazon River as the longest. The Nile, which is 4,258 miles (6,853 km) long, is an “international” river as its drainage basin covers eleven countries, namely, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan and Egypt. In particular, the Nile is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan.

The river Nile has two major tributaries, the White Nile and Blue Nile. The White Nile is considered to be the headwaters and primary stream of the Nile itself. The Blue Nile, however, is the source of most of the water and silt. The White Nile is longer and rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, with the most distant source still undetermined but located in either Rwanda or Burundi. It flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and flows into Sudan from the southeast. The two rivers meet just north of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The northern section of the river flows north almost entirely through the Sudanese desert to Egypt, then ends in a large delta and flows into the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian civilization and Sudanese kingdoms have depended on the river since ancient times. Most of the population and cities of Egypt lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan, and nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along riverbanks.

In the ancient Egyptian language, the Nile is called Ḥ’pī or Iteru (Hapy), meaning “river”. In Coptic, the word ⲫⲓⲁⲣⲱ, pronounced piaro (Sahidic) or phiaro (Bohairic), means “the river” ), and comes from the same ancient name. In Egyptian Arabic, the Nile is called en-Nīl while in Standard Arabic it is called an-Nīl. The river is also called in Coptic: ⲫⲓⲁⲣⲱ, P(h)iaro; in Ancient Egyptian: Ḥ’pī and Jtrw; and in Biblical Hebrew: הַיְאוֹר‬, Ha-Ye’or or הַשִׁיחוֹר‬, Ha-Shiḥor.

Map of the Nile River

The English name Nile and the Arabic names en-Nîl and an-Nîl both derive from the Latin Nilus and the Ancient Greek Νεῖλος. Beyond that, however, the etymology is disputed. Hesiod at his Theogony refers that Nilus (Νεῖλος) was one of the Potamoi (river gods), son of Oceanus and Tethys.[11] Another derivation of Nile might be related to the term Nil (Sanskrit: नील, translit. nila; Egyptian Arabic: نيلة‎), which refers to Indigofera tinctoria, one of the original sources of indigo dye; or Nymphaea caerulea, known as “The Sacred Blue Lily of the Nile”, which was found scattered over Tutankhamen’s corpse when it was located in 1922.

Another possible etymology derives it from a Semitic Nahal, meaning “river”. The standard English names “White Nile” and “Blue Nile”, to refer to the river’s source, derive from Arabic names formerly applied only to the Sudanese stretches which meet at Khartoum.

The Nile has been the lifeline of civilization in Egypt since the Stone Age, with most of the population and all of the cities of Egypt resting along those parts of the Nile valley lying north of Aswan. However, the Nile used to run much more westerly through what is now Wadi Hamim and Wadi al Maqar in Libya and flow into the Gulf of Sidra. As sea level rose at the end of the most recent ice age, the stream which is now the northern Nile pirated the ancestral Nile near Asyut, this change in climate also led to the creation of the current Sahara desert, around 3400 BC.[

The present Nile is at least the fifth river that has flowed north from the Ethiopian Highlands. Satellite imagery was used to identify dry watercourses in the desert to the west of the Nile. An Eonile canyon, now filled by surface drift, represents an ancestral Nile called the Eonile that flowed during the later Miocene (23–5.3 million years before present). The Eonile transported clastic sediments to the Mediterranean; several natural gas fields have been discovered within these sediments.

During the late-Miocene Messinian salinity crisis, when the Mediterranean Sea was a closed basin and evaporated to the point of being empty or nearly so, the Nile cut its course down to the new base level until it was several hundred metres below world ocean level at Aswan and 7,900 feet (2,400 m) below Cairo. This created a very long and deep canyon which was filled with sediment when the Mediterranean was recreated. At some point the sediments raised the riverbed sufficiently for the river to overflow westward into a depression to create Lake Moeris.

Lake Tanganyika drained northwards into the Nile until the Virunga Volcanoes blocked its course in Rwanda. The Nile was much longer at that time, with its furthest headwaters in northern Zambia.

The source of the Nile from an underwater spring at the neck of Lake Victoria, Jinja. Photo taken on December 13, 2014.

Owing to their failure to penetrate the sudd wetlands of South Sudan, the upper reaches of the Nile remained largely unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Various expeditions failed to determine the river’s source. Agatharcides records that in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a military expedition had penetrated far enough along the course of the Blue Nile to determine that the summer floods were caused by heavy seasonal rainstorms in the Ethiopian Highlands, but no European of antiquity is known to have reached Lake Tana. The Tabula Rogeriana depicted the source as three lakes in 1154.

Europeans began to learn about the origins of the Nile in the 15th and 16th centuries, when travelers to Ethiopia visited Lake Tana and the source of the Blue Nile in the mountains south of the lake. Although James Bruce claimed to be the first European to have visited the headwaters, modern writers give the credit to the Jesuit Pedro Páez. Páez’s account of the source of the Nile is a long and vivid account of Ethiopia. It was published in full only in the early 20th century, although it was featured in works of Páez’s contemporaries, including Baltazar Téllez, Athanasius Kircher and by Johann Michael Vansleb.

Europeans had been resident in Ethiopia since the late 15th century, and one of them may have visited the headwaters even earlier without leaving a written trace. The Portuguese João Bermudes published the first description of the Tis Issat Falls in his 1565 memoirs, compared them to the Nile Falls alluded to in Cicero’s De Republica. Jerónimo Lobo describes the source of the Blue Nile, visiting shortly after Pedro Páez. Telles also used his account.

Dhows on the Nile.

The White Nile was even less understood. The ancients mistakenly believed that the Niger River represented the upper reaches of the White Nile. For example, Pliny the Elder wrote that the Nile had its origins “in a mountain of lower Mauretania”, flowed above ground for “many days” distance, then went underground, reappeared as a large lake in the territories of the Masaesyli, then sank again below the desert to flow underground “for a distance of 20 days’ journey till it reaches the nearest Ethiopians.” A merchant named Diogenes reported that the Nile’s water attracted game such as buffalo.

Lake Victoria was first sighted by Europeans in 1858 when the British explorer John Hanning Speke reached its southern shore while traveling with Richard Francis Burton to explore central Africa and locate the great lakes. Believing he had found the source of the Nile on seeing this “vast expanse of open water” for the first time, Speke named the lake after the then Queen of the United Kingdom. Burton, recovering from illness and resting further south on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, was outraged that Speke claimed to have proved his discovery to be the true source of the Nile when Burton regarded this as still unsettled. A very public quarrel ensued, which sparked a great deal of intense debate within the scientific community and interest by other explorers keen to either confirm or refute Speke’s discovery. British explorer and missionary David Livingstone pushed too far west and entered the Congo River system instead. It was ultimately Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley who confirmed Speke’s discovery, circumnavigating Lake Victoria and reporting the great outflow at Ripon Falls on the Lake’s northern shore.

European involvement in Egypt goes back to the time of Napoleon. Laird Shipyard of Liverpool sent an iron steamer to the Nile in the 1830s. With the completion of the Suez Canal and the British takeover of Egypt in the 1870s, more British river steamers followed.

Luxor (Egypt): view on the West Bank of the Nile. Photo taken on January 29, 2011.

The Nile is the area’s natural navigation channel, giving access to Khartoum and Sudan by steamer. The Siege of Khartoum was broken with purpose-built sternwheelers shipped from England and steamed up the river to retake the city. After this came regular steam navigation of the river. With British Forces in Egypt in the First World War and the inter-war years, river steamers provided both security and sightseeing to the Pyramids and Thebes. Steam navigation remained integral to the two countries as late as 1962. Sudan steamer traffic was a lifeline as few railways or roads were built in that country. Most paddle steamers have been retired to shorefront service, but modern diesel tourist boats remain on the river.

With a total length of 4,258 miles (6,853 km) between the region of Lake Victoria and the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile is the longest river on the African continent. The drainage basin of the Nile covers 1,256,591 square miles (3,254,555 km²), about 10% of the area of Africa. The Nile basin is complex, and because of this, the discharge at any given point along the mainstem depends on many factors including weather, diversions, evaporation and evapotranspiration, and groundwater flow.

Above Khartoum, the Nile is also known as the White Nile, a term also used in a limited sense to describe the section between Lake No and Khartoum. At Khartoum the river is joined by the Blue Nile. The White Nile starts in equatorial East Africa, and the Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia. Both branches are on the western flanks of the East African Rift.

Henry Morton Stanley in 1872. Stanley circumnavigated Lake Victoria and confirmed Speke’s observations in 1875.

The source of the Nile is sometimes considered to be Lake Victoria, but the lake has feeder rivers of considerable size. The Kagera River, which flows into Lake Victoria near the Tanzanian town of Bukoba, is the longest feeder, although sources do not agree on which is the longest tributary of the Kagera and hence the most distant source of the Nile itself.[18] It is either the Ruvyironza, which emerges in Bururi Province, Burundi,[19] or the Nyabarongo, which flows from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda.[20] The two feeder rivers meet near Rusumo Falls on the Rwanda-Tanzania border. In 2010, an exploration party[21] went to a place described as the source of the Rukarara tributary,[22] and by hacking a path up steep jungle-choked mountain slopes in the Nyungwe forest found (in the dry season) an appreciable incoming surface flow for many miles upstream, and found a new source, giving the Nile a length of 4,100 miles (6,758 km).

Gish Abay is reportedly the place where the “holy water” of the first drops of the Blue Nile develop.

The Nile leaves Lake Nyanza (Victoria) at Ripon Falls near Jinja, Uganda, as the Victoria Nile. It flows north for some 81 miles (130 km), to Lake Kyoga. The last part of the approximately 120 miles (200 km) river section starts from the western shores of the lake and flows at first to the west until just south of Masindi Port, where the river turns north, then makes a great half circle to the east and north until Karuma Falls. For the remaining part it flows merely westerly through the Murchison Falls until it reaches the very northern shores of Lake Albert where it forms a significant river delta. The lake itself is on the border of DR Congo, but the Nile is not a border river at this point. After leaving Lake Albert, the river continues north through Uganda and is known as the Albert Nile.

Ethiopia and the Source of the Nile, map by James Bruce (1790)

The Nile river flows into South Sudan just south of Nimule, where it is known as the Bahr al Jabal (“Mountain River”). Just south of the town it has the confluence with the Achwa River. The Bahr al Ghazal, itself 445 miles (716 km) long, joins the Bahr al Jabal at a small lagoon called Lake No, after which the Nile becomes known as the Bahr al Abyad, or the White Nile, from the whitish clay suspended in its waters. When the Nile floods it leaves a rich silty deposit which fertilizes the soil. The Nile no longer floods in Egypt since the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970. An anabranch river, the Bahr el Zeraf, flows out of the Nile’s Bahr al Jabal section and rejoins the White Nile.

The flow rate of the Bahr al Jabal at Mongalla, South Sudan is almost constant throughout the year and averages 37,000 cu ft/s (1,048 m³/s). After Mongalla, the Bahr Al Jabal enters the enormous swamps of the Sudd region of South Sudan. More than half of the Nile’s water is lost in this swamp to evaporation and transpiration. The average flow rate of the White Nile at the tails of the swamps is about 18,000 cu ft/s (510 m³/s). From here it soon meets with the Sobat River at Malakal. On an annual basis, the White Nile upstream of Malakal contributes about fifteen percent of the total outflow of the Nile.

The Nile flows through Cairo, here contrasting ancient customs of daily life with the modern city of today.
The Nile flows through Cairo, here contrasting ancient customs of daily life with the modern city of today.

The average flow of the White Nile at Lake Kawaki Malakal, just below the Sobat River, is 32,600 cu ft/s (924 m³/s); the peak flow is approximately 43,000 cu ft/s) (1,218 m³/s) in October and minimum flow is about 21,500 cu ft/s (609 m³/s) in April. This fluctuation is due to the substantial variation in the flow of the Sobat, which has a minimum flow of about 3,500 (99 m³/s) in March and a peak flow of over 24,000 cu ft/s (680 m³/s) in October. During the dry season (January to June) the White Nile contributes between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total discharge from the Nile.

Below the Aswan High Dam, at the northern limit of Lake Nasser, the Nile resumes its historic course.

North of Cairo, the Nile splits into two branches (or distributaries) that feed the Mediterranean: the Rosetta Branch to the west and the Damietta to the east, forming the Nile Delta.

The Nile has long been used to transport goods along its length. Winter winds blow south, up river, so ships could sail up river, and down river using the flow of the river. While most Egyptians still live in the Nile valley, the 1970 completion of the Aswan High Dam ended the summer floods and their renewal of the fertile soil, fundamentally changing farming practices. The Nile supports much of the population living along its banks, enabling Egyptians to live in otherwise inhospitable regions of the Sahara. The rivers’s flow is disturbed at several points by the Cataracts of the Nile, which are sections of faster-flowing water with many small islands, shallow water, and rocks, which form an obstacle to navigation by boats. The Sudd wetlands in Sudan also forms a formidable navigation obstacle and impede water flow, to the extent that Sudan had once attempted to canalize (the Jonglei Canal) to bypass the swamps.

A map of the Nile c. 1911, a time when its entire primary course ran through British occupations, condominiums, colonies, and protectorates.

Nile cities include Khartoum, Aswan, Luxor (Thebes), and the Giza – Cairo conurbation. The first cataract, the closest to the mouth of the river, is at Aswan, north of the Aswan Dam. This part of the river is a regular tourist route, with cruise ships and traditional wooden sailing boats known as feluccas. Many cruise ships ply the route between Luxor and Aswan, stopping at Edfu and Kom Ombo along the way. Security concerns have limited cruising on the northernmost portion for many years.

A computer simulation study to plan the economic development of the Nile was directed by H. A. W. Morrice and W. N. Allan, for the Ministry of Hydro-power of the Republic of the Sudan, during 1955–1957. Morrice was their Hydrological Adviser, and Allan his predecessor. M.P. Barnett directed the software development and computer operations. The calculations were enabled by accurate monthly inflow data collected for 50 years. The underlying principle was the use of over-year storage, to conserve water from rainy years for use in dry years. Irrigation, navigation and other needs were considered. Each computer run postulated a set of reservoirs and operating equations for the release of water as a function of the month and the levels upstream. The behavior that would have resulted given the inflow data was modeled. Over 600 models were run. Recommendations were made to the Sudanese authorities. The calculations were run on an IBM 650 computer. Simulation studies to design water resources are discussed further in the article on hydrology transport models, that have been used since the 1980s to analyze water quality.

Despite the development of many reservoirs, drought during the 1980s led to widespread starvation in Ethiopia and Sudan, but Egypt was nourished by water impounded in Lake Nasser. Drought has proven to be a major cause of fatality in the Nile river basin. According to a report by the Strategic Foresight Group around 170 million people have been affected by droughts in the last century with half a million lives lost. From the 70 incidents of drought which took place between 1900 and 2012, 55 incidents took place in Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.

In 1951, the American John Goddard together with two French explorers became the first to successfully navigate the entire Nile river from its source in Burundi at the potential headsprings of the Kagera River in Burundi to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea, a journey of approximately 6800 kilometers. Their 9-month journey is described in the book Kayaks down the Nile.

Scott #47 was released by Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika on May 1, 1935, part of a set of 14 pictorial stamps (Scott 346-59). The 5-cent green and black recess-printed stamp, perforated 14, depicts dhows on Lake Victoria. Despite having a large number of stamps from various African entities, I don’t seem to have a single one portraying the Nile itself.

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