Egypt's White and Blue Nile

“Lightmaker who comes from the dark
Fattener of herds
Might that fashions all
None can live without him
People are clothed with the flax of his fields
Thou makest all the land to drink unceasingly, as thou descendest on thy way from the heavens.”
Ancient Egyptian Hymn to the Nile Flood

Giza It was the Nile river which enabled the ancient Egyptian civilization to become what it was – one of the greatest of ancient civilizations. The river would flood once a year, bringing fertile soil, life giving resources to the desert. The Egyptians revered the Nile, and even had a celestial counterpart for it in the night sky – the Milky Way.

Nile from STS-101 The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing 6695km (4184 miles). There are two main rivers which flow from the south into what is referred to as the Nile Proper, the Blue Nile, and the White Nile. The White Nile is the longer of the tributaries, but the Blue Nile is the main source of water and fertile soil. A third river, the Atbara, flows into the Nile just north of Khartoum in the Sudan but it contributes less than one percent to total water flow.

The White Nile is so named because of the light coloured clay sediment suspended in the water giving the river a light gray colour.

The White Nile contributes about sixteen percent of the total water flow in the Nile. This doesn't sound like much, however the White Nile as a more steady flow of water which keeps the Nile proper from running dry in April and May, supplying about eighty percent of the Nile's water during these months.

The origins of the White Nile are in deep central Africa, as far south as southern Rwanda. The river flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and into Southern Sudan.

These falls at Lake Tana, Ethiopia are the source of the Blue Nile.
Falls near Lake Tana
The Blue Nile flows about 1,400 km (850 miles) to Khartoum from Lake Tana 1,800 meters above sea level in the Ethiopian Mountains. Lake Tana floods every summer from June to September, feeding the Blue Nile. This flood is extremely important because it is only during this time that erosion and transportation of the fertile silt occurs. This fertile soil is what gave life to the Nile Valley.

The Blue Nile (left), White Nile (right), merge near Khartoum, Sudan.
Blue Nile and White Nile Merge
The White and Blue Nile Rivers merge near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, becoming the Nile proper which itself flows in two distinct parts. An 1336 km (830 mile) long stretch of the Nile flows through the desert allowing irrigation and agriculture in these areas. Along this stretch, the river passes through a series of cataracts causing the gentile river to change to violent rapids making some areas unnavigable. The rocks are composed of hard igneous rock forming a natural boundary between what was known as Upper and Lower Nubia.

Nile Delta The second part is from Lake Nasser, the world's second largest man-made lake. Lake Nasser is where the Nile's waters are held back by the Aswan High Dam constructed in 1970: at which time the Nile's annual floods which had occurred for thousands of years, ceased.

Nile River delta photographed by STS-106
Nile River delta photographed by STS-106
The Nile continues northward from the dam for about 805 km (500 miles) to Cairo and on northward to form the Nile Delta composed of silt fifty to seventy-five feet deep from the Ethiopian plateau. The Nile mud is perhaps the most fertile soil on the planet. It is composed of about 0.1 percent Nitrogen, 0.2 percent phosphorus anhydrides and 0.6 percent potassium.

image iss002.egypt.nile.delta003.JPG caption - The Delta spans some 22015 sq. km (8,500 sq. miles) and is fringed in its coastal regions by lagoons, wetlands, lakes and sand dunes.

The Delta spans some 22015 sq. km (8,500 sq. miles) and is fringed in its coastal regions by lagoons, wetlands, lakes and sand dunes.
Nile Delta
Throughout the delta there are high points of mounds of clay and silt rising high enough to escape flooding. Egyptologists have found evidence of very early settlements in these areas. Interestingly, there is an ancient Egyptian creation myth of the world having begun on a mound of earth which emerged from the waters.

The annual flooding of the Nile had taken place for thousands of years. Waters of the Blue Nile would begin to rise when the heavy rainfall season began in Ethiopia. The floodwaters would reach the Sudan by May.

In July, the floods reach the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The Nile's water continues to increase. By August, averages are over twenty feet at Khartoum. The Nile peaks about mid September.

Wadis surround the northern part of Lake Nasser
Wadis surround the northern part of Lake Nasser
Lake Nasser was created with the construction of the Aswan Dam from spillover. This increases especially during flood times because then, the Blue Nile hold the White Nile back.

Toshka Lakes
Toshka Lakes
The Nile's levels rose throughout the 1990's causing additional spilling over of water eastward into the Sahara Desert and by 1998 had formed the Toshka Lakes.

The ancient Egyptians called the Nile “Aur” or “Kem” which meant black, after the fertile black soil brought to them by the river and it was around the Nile that their lives focused. Even the ancient Egyptian calendar was based on the Nile, composed of twelve months of thirty days each. Their year was divided into three seasons, each based on cycles of the river.

The first season was Akhet, the “inundation.” This was when the layers of fertile soil were deposited along the flood plain. Akhet was followed by Peret, the “growing season.” The third season was Shemu, the “drought” or “harvest season.”

Stability of the Egyptian civilization was predominantly due to the Nile. In addition to the fertile soils, the Nile was a source of transportation, allowing intense trading with other countries, providing Egypt with economic stability.

The god Hapi The Nile even played a major role in the spiritual lives of the Egyptians. The god Hapi personified the Nile River, his name meaning “Running One.”. Hapi was the son of Horus, and though male, was often pictured as having full breasts and large belly, symbolizing the fertility of the Nile. Statues and carvings of Hapi often showed him pouring water from a vessel, or carrying offerings of food.

In the Middle Kingdom, during the Ramesside period, a hymn, praising Hapi was written: "Hail to you Hapi, Sprung from earth, Come to nourish Egypt…Food provider, bounty maker, Who creates all that is good!…Conqueror of the Two Lands, He fills the stores, Makes bulge the barns, Gives bounty to the poor."

Hapi and the Pharaoh (who represented the gods here on Earth) were though to control the flooding of the Nile. In return for the life giving water and soil, peasants would grow crops and send a portion of the harvest to the Pharaoh in thanks for his generosity.

Wadis surround the northern part of Lake Nasser
Valley of the Kings
The Nile River was also believed to be the causeway to the afterlife. East was a place of beginnings, birth and growth while the west was considered the place of death. This was symbolized as the god Ra, representing the Sun, who would undergo birth (rising), and death (setting) as he crossed the sky. Each morning he would be resurrected again to rise in the east. The belief of west representing death is why all Egyptian tombs were located on the west side of the Nile in order to enter the afterlife.

The Nile from STS-104 Throughout its long history, the Nile River gave life and prosperity to the Nile Valley. It literally controlled the growth of civilization. Now, man has taken control of the river itself with the Aswan Dam. There are no more floods in the Nile Valley but the legacy of this event is evident in the many archaeological sites still standing in Egypt, built so long ago that even the stars in the skies have changed.