Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
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NileAl-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (#318)

'Egypt is synonymous with the Nile'

Dr Yunan Labib RizkSince time immemorial, the Nile has been synonymous with life to all Egyptians living in its valley. No wonder that the Nile is a source of deep concern to Egyptians at all times. This instalment of the Diwan series, coming on the eve of the third millennium, delves into the history and the geography of the Nile and reviews some etymological theories about the origin of its name. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk peruses articles published by Al-Ahram on the subject decades ago

Al-Qanater Al-Khairiya, in Cairo, was designed by Ali Pasha Mubarak(left), the minister of water resources under Khedive Ismail

The Nile has long been a source of inspiration for Egyptian poets and songwriters. However, from the first stirrings of civilisation on its banks until the present day the sources of the eternal river would frequently stir anxieties over the fate of the peoples dependent upon its waters. Although such apprehensions would remain latent for extended periods as calm prevailed in the lands south of Egypt, certain crises would occasionally cause them to surge to the fore. On 25 February 1922 Al-Ahram intimated that such crisis had surfaced when it wrote, "The independence of Egypt without the Sudan is worthless. Indeed, it is a mirage that brings no succour to the parched. Egypt is synonymous with the Nile, for without possession of the Nile from source to mouth, Egypt will have lost control over the very font of its existence."

This truth has shown itself starkly on many occasions in modern times, each occasion giving rise to major developments in contemporary Egyptian history. Many people disagree on some of the reasons behind Mohamed Ali's dispatch of his famous expedition to the south in 1820. But all agree on one reason. They disagreed over reports about Mohamed Ali's desire to recruit "blacks" for the modern army he was mobilising at the time. The reports had it that the plan failed but the expedition continued. They also disagreed over reports that Mohamed Ali was after gold in Sudan's Fazughli mountains. The rumours proved false, but the Egyptian soldiers pushed onwards. Yet a third conjecture held that Mohamed Ali dispatched his forces in pursuit of the remnants of the Mamelukes who had fled to the south following the Egyptian Pasha's famous massacre of those recalcitrant feudal lords in the Cairo citadel. That task was accomplished, yet the armies did not turn homewards. It is well-known that Mohamed Ali was in the process of building Egypt's modern industrial infrastructure, part of which entailed the construction of an enormous irrigation network. No one disputes the contention that if Mohamed Ali was to ensure the fruits of the prodigious outlays of funds and manpower invested into this project he would have to secure control over the source of the water that would feed it. It was this consideration above all that drove the Mohamed Ali's expedition into Sudan further and further southwards.

The question of the source of the Nile loomed into focus in the international arena in 1898 with almost explosive consequences between two of the great powers of the era: France and Britain. Since the latter's occupation of Egypt in 1882, the French had failed in all their efforts to dislodge the British from their strongholds along the Nile. In 1898, the French decided they would try another approach. In an attempt to exert pressure on the British from the south, they dispatched a military force from their colonies in equatorial Africa to secure Fashuda located on the upper reaches of the Nile. The French venture was a prime cause behind the British decision to mount "the expedition to reconquer Sudan" 13 years after they had compelled the Egyptians to evacuate Sudan, a manoeuvre behind which control of the Nile figured prominently.

If the two great colonial powers forestalled fears of a military engagement between them in Fashuda, the event did not succeed in laying to rest Egyptian qualms over their river. Quite to the contrary, once the Mahdist forces in Sudan were defeated and the Anglo-Egyptian condominium establishing the dual administration of Sudan was established in 1899, the French relinquished their claims in that area. Then, to the Egyptians' consternation, the British hammered into place a series of understandings over the security of the Nile with other colonial powers, reaching an agreement to this effect with Italy in 1901, with Ethiopia the following year, with Leopold II, master of the Congo, in 1906, with the British protectorate authorities in Uganda in 1914 and, finally, with French Equatorial Africa in 1919.

Following the 1919 revolution, the Egyptians entered into negotiations with the British over independence. In both the Saad Zaghlul-Milner and Adli Yakan-Curzon talks, the Egyptian claim to the Sudan was one of the sticking points. The breakdown of these negotiations along with the British occupation authorities' second exile of Saad Zaghlul precipitated the collapse of the Yakan government and widespread demonstrations. In order to break the deadlock in Egypt, the British unilaterally recognised Egyptian independence. In the Declaration of 28 February 1922 the Sudan was one of the four "matters" that were "absolutely reserved to the discretion" of the British government.

As if this was not bad enough, an Italian newspaper announced that Rome intended to extend its influence into the Ethiopian hinterland of Eritrea and that it had rights to the sources of the Nile around Lake Tana. As Al-Ahram explained to its readers, "This 3,000-square-kilometre lake located near the border of Ethiopia with Sudan is where the waters of the Ethiopian mountain tributaries collect before they flow on into the Nile."

In a letter to Al-Ahram an Egyptian irrigation engineer sought to dispel Egyptian anxieties over the Italian designs. The Italian and Ethiopian governments would not be able to reach an agreement over the Atbara branch of the Nile, he wrote, because the Ethiopian government was bound by a treaty with Britain not to enter into an agreement over the river with any other power. He added, "In light of the sharp downward slope of the river it would require a major engineering project in order to effectively tap these waters for irrigation, which is also forbidden by the aforementioned treaty." The writer went so far as to reassure Egyptians that sources of the Nile from the African Great Lakes were secure. The inhabitants of that region were not in a position to avail themselves of the waters of the Nile coming from Victoria, he contended, "because the heavy rainfall beginning in April prevents summer cultivation."

But Egyptian anxieties were not completely dispelled. Al-Ahram wrote on 25 February 1922, "It is reported that there are plans to put some 17 million hectares of land under cultivation in Sudan. Were such an enormous land area to be developed, it would consume all the water generated by the flooding of the Nile before it makes its way to Egypt. Yet, the Nile and the Nile flood in particular have been the property of Egypt for 9,000 years and until the present day."

Given the heightened concern for the Nile at the time, it is not surprising that Al-Ahram should present to its readers a series of articles about the history of the Nile. The first to raise the subject was Ahmed Zaki Pasha, dubbed the Sheikh of Arabism, who wrote regularly for Al-Ahram until his death in 1934. Under the headline "What the Arabs knew about the sources of the Nile," he quoted the Arab geographer Ibn Fadlallah Al-Emari who wrote:

"Ten rivers emanate from the Gabal Al-Qamar, each five forming a separate lake. From the eastern lake emanates another river that curves eastward along the Qaquli range, feeding the cities there, before it descends to the Indian Ocean. From the two aforementioned lakes six rivers emerge, three from each lake, and all six converge to create another lake complex."

Right column: In 1820, Mohamed Ali Pasha (top) dispatched an expedition to the south. It is generally accepted that he wanted to secure control of the Nile's source, located near the border of Ethiopia with Sudan (second down). A life-giving force within Egypt, the Nile has been the site of large public works projects, such as that in Esna barrages (third down). View of the Nile in Cairo with hotel in background (bottom). Left column: The power of the Nile is harnessed at Aswan between the resevoir (top) and the Aswan High Dam (second down). Bottom left: Qasr Al-Nil Bridge at the beginning of the century

As though to suggest that since the Copts were the descendants of the original Egyptians, they should be better acquainted with the subject. Tawfiq Iskaros, a Copt, wrote an article entitled "What the Copts knew about the sources of the Nile." Iskaros cited the historian Al-Masoudi, who wrote that Ibn Tulun, who was appointed governor of Egypt in 868, learned of an aged Copt from Upper Egypt who was said to be 130 years old. As the old man was reputed to have "journeyed to numerous lands and realms" and to be "highly knowledgeable about their cities and about Egypt and its blessed Nile," Ibn Tulun ordered him brought in. "When the man was brought to the court, the signs of his decrepitude were obvious, but he still had a clear mind, was fully cognizant of what was said to him and thoroughly lucid in his responses."

After Ibn Tulun inquired into the secret behind the old man's longevity, he went on to ask about the sources of the Nile. The aged Copt responded, "The source of the Nile is a vast lake which is located at that geographical point where night and day are always of equal duration." Iskaros takes the opportunity to observe that while European explorers boast of having discovered the source of the Nile in the 18th century, "in fact that learned Copt had preceded them by more than a thousand years." He continues, "This learned Copt from Upper Egypt, whose name remains unrecorded in history, journeyed into the depth of Sudan and beyond, until he reached the equator where he was able to discover the sources of the Nile." That source cited by the Copt was what was later named Lake Albert Nianza, "discovered" in 1840.

Not content with the story from Al-Masoudi, Iskaros goes on to cite other Arab historical sources to confirm the knowledge the Copts possessed about the Nile. According to these sources, the level of the Nile floods had been desperately low during the final years of the reign of Al-Khalifa Al-Zahir, who died in 1036. Upon assuming power, his son, Al-Mustansir Billah, summoned the Coptic Patriarch and dispatched him with a royal gift to the ruler of Ethiopia who received him with great ceremony and asked for the reason of his visit. The pope informed his host of the grievous plight that had befallen Egypt and its people due to the poor flooding of the Nile and said that he had come to the Egyptian ruler in order to seek his counsel over a way to prevent further calamity in his country. The ruler ordered a breach to be opened in one of the upper reaches of the Nile in the land of the Ethiopians. This was done, causing water to burst forth, raising the level of the Nile in the course of a single night by three cubits. The level of the Nile continued to rise thereafter, irrigating the land and allowing the crops to flourish."

While not necessarily begrudging Iskaros' attempts to attribute to the Copts prior knowledge of the sources of the Nile, Ahmed Zaki did take exception to his methodology. In his rebuttal, he wrote that Iskaros found nothing to support his contention "apart from Al-Masoudi's account of Ibn Tulun's acquaintance with an elderly Copt, an account that he quoted to the letter without contributing anything new. We would have wished that the writer had devoted a measure of research and inquiry into the identity and activities of that Coptic elder, information which may be available in the records and manuscripts of the archives of the Coptic patriarchate or in one of the monasteries in Upper Egypt. Had he engaged in such an effort, we would have applauded him and commended him for a deed well done."

Isakaros' response to Zaki appeared under the headline, "On the discovery of the sources of the Nile." Zaki's pride in the glory of the Arabs is most praiseworthy, he wrote. "However, who said that the existence of an Egyptian who knew certain facts about the sources of the Nile, the wellspring of his country's life and agricultural wealth, would detract from our debt of gratitude to the Arabs or could vie with the Arabs in the field of scientific expertise?" Iskaros goes on to ask, "What harm could there be in accepting the logical assumption that some Egyptians preaching among the Ethiopians sought out the sources of the Nile in the course of their missionary work throughout the length and breadth of that country?"

Evidently, Al-Ahram's editorialship felt that the debate over the sources of the Nile had turned into a sectarian squabble, for they decided to give the subject a rest for several weeks. Fortunately, another reader, Yusef Niazi, came forth to put the discussion back on track. On the front page of its 18 July 1922 edition, Al-Ahram featured Niazi's article entitled "The discoveries of the ancient Egyptians from their explorations of the depths of Africa and the sources of the Nile." The importance of this article lay in the fact that it treated a subject over which there was considerable consensus by virtue of the wealth of documented information and, simultaneously, in the fact that it is the subject of great academic interest to the readers for whom the Pharaonic era had kindled a keen desire to quench their thirst for knowledge in this area, a thirst fed by the many archaeological findings that had come to light.

The first name of import in Niazi's article is "Harkhouf the Egyptian", the father of Egyptian explorers. Not only did Harkhouf journey beyond the Nile's second cataract, but he also travelled deep into the Libyan desert, marking "the first explorations westward, an accomplishment for which he won unprecedented fame."

Niazi relates that the ancient Egyptian explorer lived at the time of the sixth dynasty, a dating made possible by the archaeologists' deciphering of the engravings in his tomb. According to these inscriptions, Harkhouf made his way to the land of Amos, located between the first and second cataracts to the southwest of the Elephantine Island, and from there proceeded to the land of Armiritit, located further south."

Niazi goes on to explain that 19th century historians had thought that the ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile began in the vicinity of Aswan. However, 20th century archaeological discoveries along with the improved ability to decipher hieroglyphs enabled Egyptologists to overturn the theory of their predecessors and create a fuller picture of the ancient Egyptian knowledge of the Upper Nile. Niazi wrote that according to the recent archaeological evidence, "the ancient Egyptians had reached lake 'Nu', which was located at what today forms the juncture of Bahr Al-Jabal (the White Nile) and Bahr Al-Arab. In ancient times, this plain was submerged beneath the waters coming from the Sobat, the White Nile and Bahr Al-Ghazal, and so vast was the lake that ancient mariners imagined that it was connected to the Indian Ocean. They also claimed that the Nile sprang from the mountains that were visible in the distance beyond the southern shore of the lake. It was those rainy reaches that would bring forth the divine Nile flood on its allotted day."

While Niazi's article did not inspire other ventures contributing to Al-Ahram readers' knowledge about the ancient Egyptian explorations of the sources of the Nile, it did generate interest in another direction --the origin of the name of the river. Anton Zakari, an employee in the Egyptian museum, initiated a discussion on what the ancient Egyptians used to call the Nile. Zakari contended that Egyptians believed in the existence of two Niles: the Upper Nile which they called "Hab Rasit and which extended from Aswan to the Delta, and the Lower Nile, which they called "Hab Muhit" that extended from the Delta to the Mediterranean. This latter "they portrayed as a robust, broad-shouldered, heavy-chested youth, clad in a garb imprinted with the fruits of the Nile," while the former "they portrayed as a man clad in the garment of the Nile representing the lands of Upper Egypt, the colour of which was red."

According to Zakari, the ancient Egyptians only reached a consensus on the name of their river when it was elevated to divine status, at which point they called it "the god Habi." As for the name "the Nile," its origins were unknown, but Zakari postulated that it may have come from the Greeks, who in turn took the name from other peoples who interacted with the ancient Egyptians, such as the Phoenicians, Libyans and Hittites. He went on to offer several etymological conjectures. It is possible, he wrote, that the Nile was derived from the Arabic word nawal meaning 'bounty' since the Nile was considered a bounty from heaven. According to one philosopher, however, the river was named after the Egyptian king, "Nilus", while the Roman historian Pline conjectured that, since the river emanated from an inland sea called "Nilos", the river took on the name of its point of origin. Zakari opines that the river was most likely derived from the Greek "nilos", "which in turn was derived from a Demotic root meaning 'rivers'."

The "Sheikh of Arabism", Ahmed Zaki, could not resist contributing to the etymological discussion. In response to Zakari's article, he praised the latter's scholastic approach but was surprised not to find any reference to the name "Sihur". Zaki said he had recently read a novel --"The Love of Prince Ramses" by the British author Anton Armstrong --in which he found "Sihur" used on at least seven occasions to refer to the Nile. "This leads us to suspect that the author was entirely certain that the ancient Egyptians used to call the Nile by that name, for it is well-known that European novelists do not weave their stories out of fancy."

Zakari hastily responded to Zaki's criticism. He admitted that the name in Armstrong's novel did, in fact, exist, although its correct spelling was "Shihur". He went on to explain that "Shihur" was derived from two syllables: "shi" meaning lake and "hur" meaning adored. Originally, he said, the ancient Egyptians applied this name only to a small portion of the Nile located in the Delta, "but then they generalised its usage to refer to the entire river."

Another contributor to the discussion was Ahmed Bali, identified as "Secretary of the Hieroglyphics Department in the Saidiyya Secondary School in Giza," a fact which indicates that such was the importance accorded to Egyptology that it was introduced at the secondary school level of the national curriculum. In a brief letter to the newspaper, Bali ventured that the reason the Nile was given so many names over history was because it was the source of life for the Egyptian people. As a result, "the names multiplied over the ages, every successive name effacing its antecedent."

But, the final word would be left to Ahmed Kamal Pasha, celebrated as "the father of Egyptian archaeologists." Under the headline, "On the Names of the Nile," he wrote that no archaeologist had verified the name of the Nile through study. Rather, "they found the name in Arabic and Greek, conjectured that it was taken from the ancient Phoenician or Assyrian and left it at that." However, he had conducted some personal investigations into the matter and come across an ancient Egyptian word used to signify the Nile. This word was "Ninu". He then cited numerous examples of words in which the 'n' shifted to an 'l' when adopted into Arabic, to support his contention that the shifting of the second 'n' to 'l' in "Ninu" created "Nilu". At the same time, he refuted the contention of some scholars that "Nile" was derived from the Arabic "Al-Yem" (the sea). He also wrote that in all the Egyptian texts he had seen he had never seen the word "shihur" used to refer to the river. While Ahmed Kamal Pasha effectively put an end to the discussion on the origin of the name of the Nile, this would do little to alleviate Egyptians' anxieties over their only source of water, which by whatever name, spelled life or death for the people in its valley.


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