Culture, Mediterranean lifestyle, Travel


The Nile in Northeastern Africa, with a length of 6,650 km (4,130 miles) is considered the longest river in the world, although it shares this title with the Amazon in South America. The ancient Egyptians named the river Ar or Aur, which means “black”, in reference to the dark color it takes on when it overflows. The name by which it is known today is derived from the Greek Neilos (Latin: Nilus). 

The Nile rises in the mountains of East Africa, crosses the Sahara and flows through many diverse countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, the Republic of Sudan and Egypt on its long winding journey. Its waters transform what was originally a barren North African desert land into a 1,000 km long thriving oasis of color and life before finally flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. Without it, ancient Egypt would probably not have been able to achieve its cultural significance, after all, the country draws 99% of its water requirements from the river. About 90 percent of the population living on its shores is supplied with water and fertile mud, which, thanks to sophisticated irrigation systems, provides an important basis for controlled agricultural cultivation. People don’t just live by the Nile, they live with the Nile. 


Strictly speaking, the Nile consists of two tributaries, the longer White Nile and the water-rich Blue Nile. The White Nile has its source in the mountains of Burundi on the slopes of the approximately 2,700 meter high mountain Luvironza. It flows through Lake Victoria before heading north towards the Sahara. The Blue Nile rises in northwestern Ethiopia. It flows through Lake Tana and forms the 50 m high Tisissat waterfalls, the second highest waterfalls in Africa. In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, both finally flow together and lead their way further through extensive desert landscapes with the Libyan desert to the west and the Arabian to the east. About 25 kilometers north of Cairo, Africa’s mightiest river fans out into the Nile Delta. Many side arms branching off from its two main arms, which form the approximately 24,000 square kilometer delta before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Delta area is considered to be the most fertile along the entire bank of the river. The vast region is reminiscent of an isosceles triangle, similar to the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, delta (Δ) from which its name is derived. Unique aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are home to thousands of plants and animal species, such as the hippopotamus, the Nile crocodile, the Nile monitor, snakes and otters with an impressive rich world of birds, amphibians and fish.


Due to the extremes in climate around 7,000 years ago, large areas in Africa dried up and people had to settle on the banks of the river and in the delta area.

Without the Nile flood, which depends on the intensity of the precipitation falling in the headwaters, life in northern Sudan and Egypt would hardly survive and is only made possible by the monsoon in the 4,000 m high Ethiopian highlands between May and August. When there is heavy rainfall, the mountains are washed away and mineral-rich silt mixes with the water and is carried downstream. 

With this enriched water, which acts as a natural fertilizer, the fields and surrounds of the entire delta are transformed into a fertile farmland on which crops, fruit and vegetables are planted, this also makes livestock farming possible. 

Even in ancient times, the Egyptians divided their calendar into three seasons based on the Nile-Cycle. The months of inundation, sowing and harvest. The first was called Achet and was the time of the flood. It lasted from mid-June to Mid-September. Peret, the second was the time of sowing, which lasted until Mid-March. The last was harvest time, when the water level was at its lowest. It was called Schemu, the time of “heat”.

The water level has always determined people’s rhythm of life. At the same time, their existence also depended directly on it. In some years, it was so low that insufficient yields could be generated, resulting in famine. In other times, where the Nile carried so much water, dikes, canals and entire towns were destroyed. 

Irrigation was controlled by dams and canal systems, allowing fields that were not directly on the shore or were on different slopes to draw vital water supplies for cultivation. Simple technical devices such as the “Archimedean screw”, a simple water screw, were also used in the fields for distribution. 

The prerequisite for this was to monitor the water level precisely and regularly. For this purpose, so-called nilometers were built on various sections of the river. These measuring stations were special wells that were connected to the river by a shaft and several canals. Water level rising indicated the expected overall water levels. This gave enough time to prepare and evacuate the livestock from the flood plains. But it was also important for the tax system, because taxes were based on what the peasants and artisans produced. The higher the river level, the more cultivation and thus more taxes that had to be paid.


Until the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the farmers had to follow the rhythm of its floods. The population began to increase rapidly and more was needed. From the 19th century, dams began to be built so that the land could be irrigated all year round for sowing and harvesting twice yearly. In 1902, a small dam was built near Aswan, after a smaller dam had been built north of Cairo in 1861. Many more followed, however, expectations grew over time and soon there were bigger plans in place for the water of the Nile to be dammed and stored in the event of dry years. The old Aswan Dam was rebuilt and completed in 1971. The “Sadd-al-Ali”, as it is called, was the world’s largest dam and was named after the then head of state Gamal Abdel Nasser, which is why today it is also called Lake Nasser.

Lake Nasser, now the second largest artificial lake in the world, has a potential maximum area of ​​5,250 km², it floods more than 550 km (about 340 miles) of the course of the Nile. The lake served its purpose, not only storing a lot of water, but also generating a lot of electricity. It can achieve two harvests a year, a winter and a summer harvest, sometimes even a third is possible. Grains, vegetables, citrus fruits, almonds, figs and cotton are the main crops grown. A few years later, the initial euphoria led to the realization that this project was not mature enough to handle the huge amounts of water. Problems became visible that will have a negative impact on people and nature in the long term. The people living in this area had to leave their villages and lands and resettle because of flooding. 

The dam prevents the fertile Nile mud from being deposited any further on the banks, as it remains in the lake and is no longer used as fertilizer on the fields. As a result, the farmers have to use a lot of expensive artificial fertilizers, which has an enormous impact on the environment and the quality of the Nile water. The river today is heavily polluted, as unfiltered sewage and agricultural runoff is often discharged, thus greatly increasing the incidence of ‘bilharzia’, a bladder and bowel disease.

Many cultural monuments sank under the waters. The famous temple of Abu Simbel would be under water today had it not been for monies raised world wide so that the mighty sculptures could be dismantled and rebuilt on higher ground. 

The Mediterranean eats about 200 m into the Nile delta every year because not enough water is coming downstream. Due to the disturbed ecological balance, many fish species have died out, which in turn has led to the unemployment of many fishermen. Opponents of the dam agree that in the long run it would be better to remove the dam wall and gain 5,000 km2 of new cultivated land on the fertile soil.

The full article was first published in the Issue 20.

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