Want to get a feel for how big the Nile really is? Try to outfly & outsail it.
Let’s say you’re on our Egypt & The Holy Land in 2023, and you have a window seat with your flight into Cairo. You won’t be able to miss the Nile delta, that colossal fan-shaped swathe of green land spilling north into the Mediterranean and stretching 240 kilometres between Alexandria and Port Said.
It’s an incredible sight, and a precious one - it’s where Egyptian agriculture flourishes, and it’s arguably why there’s even an established country here at all. Without the intense farming that the annual floods provided (now tamed by the Aswan Dam far to the south), it’s hard to see how this landscape could support 40 million people (half Egypt’s population) and feed nearby Cairo as well.
Now, look closer. As the plane moves, you may see a flash of light down there, as the sun reflects off a waterway, of which there are many. Away from the coast to the south, as the greenery narrows and gives way to a dusty yellow, the waterways thread together into a single line of blue.
Your plane lands - and exciting, ever-changing Cairo occupies your thoughts for a while.
Then it’s time to head south, and onto another plane you go, this time heading down the country to Luxor - and the Nile follows you all the way, across 650 kilometres of desert.
An hour’s flight and you land, to board the MS Sunray for your luxurious cruise from Luxor to Aswan - and the Nile’s just as wide and strong (albeit in an unhurried kind of way).
200 kilometres later, your Nile journey ends - and the river keeps going towards the horizon.
Let’s zoom out. Say you took a journey down the entire length of the Nile, starting at the Mediterranean shoreline, and you moved southwards at exactly the same speed that the Nile drifts northwards, somewhere between 4 and 7 miles an hour. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on you sail - until you cross the Egyptian border and enter Sudan, which turns to South Sudan, then Uganda…
Nearly three months will have passed at this point.
If you’re an ancient explorer, you’ve never seen anything like it (and maybe you’d be considering giving up on this increasingly crazy journey). You’ve now travelled further than the equivalent of the entire width of Europe, from the western edge of Britain to the eastern rim of Ukraine - and still this river keeps flowing. Does it cross the world, or even circle it? Does the Nile ever truly end?
Good question. Geographers have been arguing about that one for centuries. The main tributary, known as the White Nile, was believed to originate at Lake Victoria, sprawling over the border between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Then people started looking at the rivers that fed this lake - and they came from neighbouring Burundi and Rwanda. The more you look, the further the Nile seems to stretch.
Generally speaking, the official length of the Nile is determined to be somewhere around 6,600 kilometres - over three-quarters of the entire length of Africa, and almost a thousand kilometres further than a flight from Toronto to London. This is a river on a scale that’s difficult to fathom.
(It’s a little hilarious, too, that the Nile is so often described as merely “that river in Egypt”.)
These days it’s hard to remember the importance of rivers in ancient times, and how staggeringly vital this one was to civilization in Northeast Africa.
Rivers were highways, allowing easy transportation of heavy goods at a time when machinery didn’t exist (including, famously, the stone blocks of the pyramids, each weighing around 2.5 tons).
Rivers are also a speedy way to get around, with all sorts of strategic and military implications behind that.
And of course, rivers are food - but in this regard, the Nile was more important than most.
The Ancient Egyptian God of the Nile was Hapi - and he was in charge of flooding. If you kept on Hapi’s good side, the banks of the river flooded in just the right amount to spill over and turn dry silt (which originated mainly in Ethiopia, via the river’s other main tributary) into a thick, fertile mud that was perfect for growing crops.
With almost no rainfall across the entire country, Egyptian agriculture was utterly dependent on irrigation, and the floods were the primary source. Too much water, and crops would wash away, along with riverside homes and other property. Too little water, and they’d fail to grow - and the people would starve.
It’s not hard to see how religion became a deeply practical and frequently urgent concern for Ancient Egyptians.
The floods were so important that the Egyptian calendar was built around the cycle of rising and falling waters.
The first season, Akhet, was the time of (hopefully) gently rising waters between June and September. Peret (October to February) was for planting and growing - and Shemu, from February until May, was a time for low-water harvesting and celebration during good years - and, presumably, a lot of worrying during harder times.
This went on for thousands of years, until 1970, when the mighty Aswan Dam was built.
Not only did this meet the electrical needs of the country, it also smoothed out the extremes of flooding that could make life in Egypt so precarious. With a dependable water supply, long-term agricultural projects had a much higher chance of survival - and inland Egypt could prosper.
That’s the importance of that thread of blue far under the wings or your plane, and the waterway drifting along in a relaxed manner under the hull of your ship.
It’s not just the world’s longest river (narrowly pipping the Amazon to the post), but it’s also one of Africa’s most important natural resources, bringing life to the most inhospitable places, and allowing human ingenuity to take root and spread...
Praise be to the Nile. May its waters flow forever.