The Nile is the heart of ancient and modern Egypt, and the mere mention of the name evokes images of pyramids, great temples, fantastic tales of mummies, and wondrous treasures. But to the people of Egypt, both ancient and modern, the Nile is life itself. For thousands of years, the river has made life possible for millions of people and animals, and has shaped the culture we are only beginning to understand.
The Nile is the longest river in the world. It flows north to south for about 4,000 miles from East Africa to the Mediterranean. The ancient Egyptians called it simply Iteru, meaning, the River, and over the millennia it has changed its location and size several times. Three rivers flow into the Nile, and are considered its sources: the Blue Nile, the White Nile and the Arbara. Within the southern section between Aswan and Khartoum, the river passes through formations of hard rock, resulting in a series of rapids, or cataracts, which form a natural boundary to the south. Southern Egypt, being upstream, is called Upper Egypt, and northern Egypt, being downstream and the Delta, is called Lower Egypt. The Nile also divided Egypt into the Eastern and Western Deserts.
Today, the Nile flows through the Delta in only two main branches, the Damietta and the Rosetta, but in ancient times there were three channels, known as the water of Pre, the water of Ptah and the water of Amun. The most dominant features of the Delta are the sandy mounds of clay and silt that appear as islands rising above the water. Since these mounds do not get submerged by the inundation, they were ideal sites for Predynastic and Early Dynastic settlements, and many traces of human habitation have been found there. These mounds inspired the ancient beliefs that life began on a mound of earth that emerged from the primordial waters of Nun.
The Nile provided inspiration in all areas of life. In religion, the creator sun-god Ra was believed to be ferried across the sky daily in a boat (compare that to Greeks and Roman myths, where the non-creator sun-god rode across the sky in a chariot driven by fiery horses). The Hymns to Hapi, the deity personifying the Nile, praise his bounty and offerings, and the myths of creation portray the primordial mound rising from the floodwaters. In rituals, the Nile creatures such as the hippopotamus, whose shape took the goddess Tawaret, the crocodile, called Sobek and the frog, deities deemed powerful in the areas of childbirth and fertility, were revered. In writing, floral symbols such as the lotus and papyrus figure prominently. In architecture, the very structure of temples emulated the mounds of the Nile and its waves, from the capital columns to the trim on the walls. In travel, the models of boats date to the fifth millennium BC.
From the earliest times, the waters of the Nile, swollen by monsoon rains in Ethiopia, flooded over the surrounding valley every summer. A nilometer was used to measure the height of the Nile in ancient times, and records of the maximum water level was kept. It consisted of a series of steps against which the increasing height of the inundation, as well as the level of the river could be measured. There are nilometers surviving in the temples at Philae, Edfu, Esna, Kom Ombo, and Dendera, as well as the best-known nilometer on the island of Elephantine at Aswan.
The ancient Egyptian calendar, made up of twelve months of 30 days each, was divided into three seasons, based upon the cycles of the Nile. The three seasons were: akhet, inundation, peret, when layers of fertile soil were deposited on the flood-plain the growing season, and shemu, the drought or harvest season. Since most of the Egyptian people were farmers, when the Nile was at its highest and they could not plant, they were drafted into labor projects: building pyramids, repairing temples and working on the king's tomb.
In ancient times a river voyage from Thebes (modern Luxor) north to Memphis (near modern Cairo) lasted about two weeks. During the dry season when the water level was lower, the same trip took about two months. Today, many modern travelers to Egypt take a Nile cruise as part of their visit. And why not? To see the land as its people do, one must journey on the river. Cruising on the Nile, you pass by the ancient sites of Karnak, Luxor, Dendera with its grand temple to the goddess Hathor, Abydos and its temple built by Seti I, Esna, with its temple to the potter and creator-god Khnum, the region's ruler who had the power over the river and its riches, Edfu, with its temple to Horus, Kom Ombo, with its double temple to Sobek and Haroeris, and Aswan with its amazing modern dam.