Herodotus – The River Nile

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Boat on Nile in ancient Egypt

Herodotus - the River Nile

Dedicated to Sasha
Written and read by Bertie
Nile illustration by Bertie
Map of ancient Egypt by Adobe

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Hello this is Bertie, and I’m here with some history from the Ancient World inspired by the Greek historian, Herodotus.

But first I have a quick message. We will be spinning off my Herodotus series into a separate podcast, called naturally Herodotus, so if you want to catch future editions of Herodotus please subscribe to Herodotus in iTunes, Stitcher Google Play or your favorite podcast app.

Previously I’ve been telling you about the incredible empire built by the ancient Persians. When their great leader, Cyrus, died 530 years before the birth of Christ, his son Cambyses took over all the lands that he had amassed, including much of what we now call the Middle East. Young Cambyses set his sights on conquering one of the oldest, richest, and most mysterious kingdoms of the world - Egypt.

Map of Ancient Egypt

Herodotus visited Egypt, when it was ruled by the Persians, and in the second book of his histories, he describes what he found there.

He famously called Egypt “the gift of the Nile” which is why, in this episode, I’m going to be focusing on the river Nile.

As you may know, the Nile is the longest river in Africa, and indeed the longest river in the world. It is over 4000 miles in length.

People have been wondering since ancient Egyptian times where Africa’s greatest river begins. In fact there are two Niles, the White Nile, and the Blue Nile, which join at Khartoum in Sudan and become one great river which flows on to Egypt and the Mediterrainian sea.

But where is the source of the Nile?

A learned Egyptian, The Scribe of the Sacred Treasury of Athena, otherwise known as Egyptian goddess Neith, told Herodotus this following theory about the source of the Nile. There was a border town in the south of ancient Egypt called The Elephant, or Elephantine. It was an island in the river Nile shaped like an elephant’s tusk and is now part of the Egyptian city of Aswan. The rapids were very fierce around the island, and it was impossible to travel by boat along this part of the river.

The local god was Khnum, whose head was the shape of a ram, which is a male sheep, and who supposedly watched over the source of the Nile. He was often shown holding a jar from which flowed a stream of water.

According to the learned scribe, the waters of the Nile flowed up from a bottomless pit hidden below the swirling whirlpools at Elephantine.

The Egyptian king Psammetichos allegedly proved that the pit went down forever. He ordered his servants to make a long, long rope, and to lower it down into the pit. They could find no bottom to it.

The Scribe told Herodotus that half the water from the pit flowed over Egypt and to the north, and the other half to the South and Ethiopia. This was of course absurd, the Nile only flows in one direction - from South to North, but it is true that Elephantine was the place where the Nile entered Egypt.

Herodotus has another story that suggested that the Nile flowed from Ethiopia. He recorded that an army of Egyptian soldiers deserted their commanders and marched to Ethiopia. There they helped the King of the Ethiopians defeat some of his own soldiers, who were rebelling against him. As a reward, the King allowed the Egyptians to settle around a lake that is the source of the Nile. Herodotus says it took four months to travel along the Nile, from Egypt, by water and land, to this place. And it is actually true that the source of the Blue Nile starts in Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

But the ancient Egyptians did not know that the longer prong of the river, the White Nile, starts even further south, with a big source rising in Lake Victoria in Uganda, and smaller streams flowing in from Rwanda and Burundi. As late as Victorian times, English explorers like Burton, Speak and Livingstone tramped their way through the deep forests of east and central Africa in a race to discover the true source of the Nile.

Although the start of the Nile was very mysterious to the Egyptians, they of course knew all about how it flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. A large part of ancient Egypt was in the Delta region of the Nile. This is where the river looks a little like the flat palm of your hand, with fingers pointing out into the sea. In between the water channels, the land was very fertile and was one of the best places on earth for growing crops.

By the way, the American city of Memphis, Tennessee on the banks of River Mississippi, is named after the ancient Egyptian capital - Memphis on the River Nile. Both cities are at the head of the fertile Delta regions of great rivers, so the name-sharing between an American city, and an ancient Egyptian one, is no coincidence.

For most of history, the Nile has flooded its banks in Egypt between the months of June and September. The annual flooding only stopped when President Nassar of Egypt built the giant concrete Aswan dam in the 1960s - not far from ancient Elephantine.

The annual flooding of the Nile watered all the lands on either side and made it very easy to grow crops. Herodotus says that unlike almost anywhere else in the world, the Egyptians had no need to break up the frields with ploughs. All they had to do was wait until the Nile had finished flooding, and then scatter seed on the ground. Afterwards they would let pigs loose to trample the seed into the earth.

Naturally Herodotus wondered why the Nile flooded. He considered various theories put forward by fellow Greeks who wanted to gain a reputation for being clever. According to one theory, which he thought was idiotic, every summer, when the snows melt in the mountains of Ethiopia, water flows into the Nile and travels down to the sea through Egypt. Herodotus could not believe that there could be snow in a place as hot as Africa, even though this is what actually happens and is the correct answer to the question, why the Nile flooded. The idea he favoured was more fanciful. He believed that in winter, the blustery north wind blew the sun through the sky to Egypt. When it was there, it sucked up the waters that flooded over the Egyptian fields. That’s why the waters of the Nile were low in winter. He’s clearly describing how water evaporates in the sun.

But in summer, so he said, the sun returned to its normal position in the sky, and the Nile filled up again with water and overflowed its banks. By the way, just in case anyone is wondering, it’s definitely not true that the sun is blown across the sky by the wind. Herodotus got that wrong, but it is interesting to see how he thought over various theories.

Even today, about 95% of Egypt's population live within twelve miles of the river. Were it not for the river and the rich black earth which it swept up, the amazing civilization of ancient Egypt would have never existed. And so Herodotus was right to say that Egypt is the gift of the River Nile.

And I’m going to drop in a personal note here. My 8 year old son, Sasha, is fascinated by the source of the Nile. His absolute favourite TV programme EVER is the Top Gear Africa Special in which the car maniacs Clarkson, Hammond and May, go searching through Uganda and Rwanda for the source of the Nile - he must have watched it a thousand times.
His other great interest is cars - in fact his first word was “car”. And his favourite song, by the way, is Africa by Toto.

And so that is why I am going to dedicate this episode of Herodotus to my son, Sasha, who has a long standing had a great interest in the River Nile.

And if you would like to hear future episodes of Herodotus you can of course find them on Storynory.com. But if you're the sort of up-to-date kind of person who catches podcasts through an app you better look for Herodotus in iTunes or Stitcher or Google Podcasts or wherever you catch your podcasts. I currently use the Podbean app and we do actually have a dedicated Storynory app - I will post them there too.

Thank you very much for listening, and I hope to catch you elsewhere. From me Bertie, at Storynory.com, for now, Goodbye.