Like a fine needle pushing through a rough canvas, the river pulls a thin rich thread of green across the harsh cloth of the Nubian and Libyan deserts, binding together and sustaining the lives of some 38 million people.
The fabled Nile: it flows with majestic variety through nine countries, through mountain gorges, jungles, lakes, game parks, swamps, deserts, fertile farmland and thriving cities, almost 4,200 miles northward to its delta outlets on the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, for fully three quarters of its course, the mighty river flows through just two countries, the Republic of Sudan and the United Arab Republic (Egypt).
The Nile has two major branches, their histories and romance masterfully described in Alan Moorehead's companion volumes, The White Nile and The Blue Nile. The White Nile, longer of the two, tumbles down out of the central African highlands from great natural storage reservoirs or nyanzas—the lakes, Victoria, Albert and Edward—and, as the Albert Nile, enters the plains and marshes of southern Sudan near the town of Juba.
The river there is called Bahr al-Jabal by the Arabs, River of the Mountain, after its source. From Juba to Khartoum it is navigable by paddle-wheeled steamers, though for the first part of the trip—through a great bog called the Sudd—just barely.
The Nile is joined by several minor tributaries in the vicinity of Malakal, yet by the time it has wormed its way through nearly 400 miles of narrow shifting channels in this almost hopelessly clogged swamp it carries only 14 per cent of the water which eventually reaches Egypt. Still, this is the branch which provides the basic flow of the Lower Nile and prevents it from drying up between the annual floods.
As the swamp ends, the land along the banks becomes drier, savanna and cattle herding country, a first hint of the vast deserts waiting further downstream. At the same time the racial mix of the inhabitants begins to change; the Nilotic and Negroid faces of the Christian or pagan inhabitants of the southern Nile blend with the Nubian and Semitic faces of the predominantly Muslim, Arab north. And now this branch of the Nile takes its familiar name, the White (al-Bahr al-Abyad), and flows faster again, north to Khartoum.
Having already traveled about 2,300 miles, 1,300 within Sudan alone, the White Nile is joined at Khartoum by the second major branch of the river, al-Bahr al-Azraq. Though a latecomer, the Blue Nile nevertheless provides as much as 58 per cent of the water reaching Egypt during the entire year, mostly, however, during the few months following the summer monsoons in the Ethiopian highlands.
Khartoum, a cosmopolitan capital, counts Greek, Lebanese and Armenian merchants and professional men among its residents. Opposite Khartoum lies more traditional Omdurman, which, with about 170,000 residents, is the second largest city on the entire river. Behind Khartoum to the south is the Gazira, an elongated triangle of rich cotton fields flanked by the two Niles which together irrigate almost two million acres. There, during harvest time, one sees the faces of migrant pickers from further south, Eastern Hamitic peoples from the Red Sea coast, or West Africans working their way towards Mecca on a holy pilgrimage.
The "white" and "blue" branches—the names are, in fact, almost meaningless—merge somewhat reluctantly. The silt-laden waters from Ethiopia keep their identity for many miles on the east side of the common channel. Still, from Khartoum there is only one Nile, and it is swelled by only one major tributary in its nearly 1,900-mile journey to the sea. The tributary is the Atbara, also fed by the Ethiopian rains, but little more than a series of stagnant puddles most of the year. In late summer, almost overnight, it roars down its rocky bed in floods 1,000 feet wide and pours out the final 28 per cent of the water reaching the Delta. The Blue Nile and the Atbara between them thus provide, in what could only seem the gift of bounteous gods to the ancient Egyptians—86 per cent of the Nile's yearly flow, all in a brief life-giving flood of water and fertile silt just when it is needed most, at the end of the desiccating desert summer.
Generations of school children have been mystified by the fact that the Upper Nile lies below (or south of) the Lower Nile on the maps in their geography books. And they are also confused because the cataracts are numbered from one to six beginning with Aswan in the north and moving south in the order that they were encountered by early travelers, rather than—as one would expect -from the junction in Khartoum moving north with the current as the river drops a total of 950 feet through Nubia on its journey to Egypt.
Because of the falls, of course, most of this section is not navigable, though there is steamship service from the area of Wadi Haifa on the Sudanese-Egyptian frontier the rest of the way to the Mediterranean coast. Today Wadi Haifa's former docks are submerged by the waters of mammoth 310-mile-long Lake Nasser—as are, indeed, the entire original town, numbers of Nubian villages, the Second Cataract, and the original cliff-face site of the twin temples at Abu Simbel.
The Aswan High Dam (the most colossal of some 20 completed or projected Nile dams which will some day control the entire nine-country, one-million-square-mile drainage basin) will provide water to irrigate about two million acres of barren lands never before farmed and at the same time—by making the water available throughout the year instead of only during floods—enable farmers to grow two or even three crops in the year-round sun on much of the previously cultivated land.
From Aswan the Nile flows on between high cliffs through its fertile valley, rarely more than 12 miles wide, sometimes a mere few hundred yards. One writer has called the Nile Valley in Egypt "... a fragile green stem supporting its blossom, the Delta." The Faiyum, a fertile depression west of the river, is a bud, and along the river, like drops of dew clinging to the stem, are precious jewels of antiquity—Thebes, Tell al-'Amarna, Memphis, Gizeh.
The Delta begins near Cairo, the largest city on the Nile and in all Africa, and spreads like a fan 100 miles to the sea and 180 miles wide along the coast (Alexandria, with 1½ million people, is in the Delta but not on the Nile). In sophisticated Cairo, where concrete skyscrapers have not yet succeeded in blocking the timeless shapes of the pyramids from the southwestern horizon, live 3 million people, descendants of the men who built these pyramids, their servants, their conquerors, and waves of invading peoples and ideas from three continents, waves almost as numerous as the floods of the Nile. North of the city the fellahin of the Delta grow market vegetables, dates, rice, wheat and more cotton, all irrigated by the blessed river. The Nile splits into two main channels, the Rosetta and Domietta, then countless smaller man-made channels. In the end, the world's longest river nearly loses itself in a patchwork quilt of gardens and salt marshes fringing the sea.
In this valley, in this delta, on less than 3 per cent of Egypt's land, live 95 per cent of her people. As in Sudan, the needle of the Nile pulls the tenuous thread that sews their garments of green, and all around lies only the desert, dressed in sackcloth.
Tor Eigeland was born in Norway, studied in Canada and Mexico and has traveled around the world on photographic assignments for such magazines as Time, National Geographic, and Fortune.