The Nile

Measuring some 4,160 miles (6,695 km) long, the Nile River is by all
accounts the world’s longest river; to many, it is also the world’s
most beckoning. The river begins as a tiny trickle deep in the heart of Africa,
in a cluster of snow-covered peaks near the equator that are so high
and austere they are called the Mountains of the Moon.
As it flows downhill from its majestic beginnings in Burundi, the Nile
broadens, becoming faster and more powerful. But the river cannot sustain
its high speed and undergoes dramatic changes as it moves northward.
Entering Sudan, where the topography suddenly flattens, the Nile
slows drastically. Crossing into Egypt, the current once again accelerates,
hurtling through rocky rapids. And then the river does something most
remarkable—it passes through 750 miles (1,207 km) of extreme desert,
where it receives no rain and no water from any tributary. Although its
flow changes seasonally, it never dries up. In winter, the Nile is a modest
river; in summer, torrents of water surge through its channels. Wending
its way to the sea, the waterway even shifts direction, heading due south
for several hundred miles in Egypt, for example, before once again resuming
its northerly passage.
By the time the Nile reaches its destination in northeast Africa, its
channel has widened considerably. Here the river spans almost five miles
(8 km) in width, though it is still many times narrower than its rival
rivers, including the Amazon and the Mississippi. All told, the Nile basin
covers an area of about 1.1 million square miles (2.9 million km²).
Though its waters flow through nine African nations, including Sudan,
the continent’s largest, 84 percent of its water comes from one country:
From its mythic origins in the Mountains of the Moon to its exit in
the Mediterranean, the Nile has always been a uniquely beautiful river,
as seen in the color insert on page C-1 (top). Much of the land through
which it passes is pristine wilderness: mountainous ridges, impassable waterfalls,
jungles teeming with orchids and monkeys, and swamps rife with
hippopotamuses and crocodiles. Date palms line its shores. Some even
say that sunsets on the Nile are the most magnificent in the world, their
beauty reflecting both the lack of humidity and the dust arising from fine
sediments deposited along the river’s shores.
But the Nile is undoubtedly best known for its role in human history.
It was along its shores some 3,000 years ago that Egypt’s cradle of
civilization was born. It was here that the great pyramids of Egypt were
built under the watchful eye of ruling pharaohs. It was here amid water
reeds that the baby Moses was stowed in his basket. And it was within
sight of its banks that Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Antony
and Cleopatra came to power. That these ancient civilizations not only
persisted but also thrived for thousands of years speaks to the life-giving
power of the Nile. Bringing water—one of life’s essential ingredients—to
desert lands made human settlement possible. No wonder Egypt is often
referred to as the “gift of the Nile.” No other river so profoundly spells
life or death for those in its environs. No other river so totally dictates a
nation’s economic and cultural variety or even its very existence. Without
the Nile, Egypt would be nothing more than uninhabitable desert.
Unlike the Amazon River, with its endless branches and tributaries,
the Nile river system is relatively simple. It has two main branches, the
White Nile and the Blue Nile, which come together in the city of Khartoum
in Sudan. Thereafter, the river is simply called the Nile.
White Nile: From the Mountains of the
Moon to the Sea
At 2,285 miles (3,677 km), the White Nile (some call it the true Nile)
is more than twice as long as the 1,080-mile (1,738-km) Blue Nile. Although
its exact source is difficult to pinpoint, hydrologists generally
agree that the White Nile begins inconspicuously as melting snow and
springwater in the highlands of Rwanda and Burundi, not far from the
equator. From there, the water flows down into central Africa’s Great
Rift Valley, where it finds its way into one of three lakes: Lake Victoria,
Lake Edward, or Lake Albert.
Lake Victoria, which sits at the intersection of Uganda, Tanzania, and
Kenya, is the largest—and best known—of the three. With a shoreline of
some 2,100 miles (3,380 km), it is the second-widest freshwater body in
the world. Lake Edward and Lake Albert are both smaller than Victoria,
The Nile G 11
and they sit to the northwest, where they form a border between Uganda
and the Congo.
The White Nile emerges as a recognizable river just north of Lake Albert.
There water flowing from Lake Victoria (a distinct waterway called
the Victoria Nile) joins the discharge from Lake Albert (sometimes called
the Albert Nile) and begins to flow toward the Mediterranean in earnest.
From here, the White Nile flows into southern Sudan, where it
abruptly transforms from a fast-flowing river into a barely moving quagmire.
The swift currents, powered by water tumbling from Burundi’s
snow-capped mountains, suddenly reach land that is almost table-top flat,
and they can no longer maintain their momentum. The river slows and
spreads, becoming more swamp than river.
Known as the Sudd, this area of Sudan is a vast expanse (about 200
miles wide by 250 miles long [322 by 402 km]) of weed-choked, almost
impenetrable marsh. This stretch is also a navigational nightmare.
To travel either upstream or downstream means hacking a navigable channel
through dense vegetation, a task generally undertaken with machetes.
Those foolish enough to try must also endure swarms of mosquitoes and
other biting flies. The British explorer Samuel Baker described the Sudd
in his 1867 book The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia as a “horrible region of
everlasting swamp.” This area remains barely passable to this day.
Moving north, the terrain gains slope, and the White Nile picks up
steam in central Sudan. With its renewed momentum, the river once again
has the power to carve a distinct channel for itself. From here to Khartoum,
it continues with impressive deliberation. Now navigable, the river
serves as a critical north-south transportation route along this stretch. In
Khartoum, the White Nile joins its sister branch, the Blue Nile.