INTERVIEW: Stories of the Nile

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 8 Sep 2020

Author Nezar AlSayyad talks about the forthcoming Arabic translation of his book on the two-million-year history of the Nile in an interview with Dina Ezzat

By Nezar AlSayyad

“There is a famous saying that every Egyptian knows — Egypt is the gift of the Nile. However, the point of my book is that it goes both ways because I want to argue that the Nile is also the gift of Egypt,” says Nezar AlSayyad, author of The Nile: Urban Histories on the Banks of a River, which will be published in Arabic soon.

“It was the culture of the ancient Egyptians that made the Nile the way it is and that led to the incredible association between the Nile and Egypt even though more than 80 per cent of the Nile is not in Egypt.”

An architect, city planner, urban historian, and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, AlSayyad is the author of several volumes examining aspects of the country’s urban history. He spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly during a recent visit to Cairo when he met with his Egyptian publishers Al-Shorouk in anticipation of the upcoming publication of his book in Arabic.

In the book, AlSayyad adds that “the Nile has many gifts beyond Egypt. Perhaps one of its greatest gifts is the urban life that has sprung up along it and its tributaries, from its sources in Burundi, Rwanda, and Ethiopia all the way to the harsh deserts of Sudan and Egypt.”

In his preface to the book, originally published by Edinburgh University Press in the UK in 2019, AlSayyad wrote that “this book is not really about the Nile as a water body, nor is it about the environmental history of the Nile. It is instead a series of vignettes that attempt to narrate the urban life that has sprung up along the Nile’s banks over five millennia. The book attempts to tell the urban histories of the river, treating the Nile, its tributaries, and lakes as actors on the stage of the Nile Basin.

“Rather than viewing historic events as unrelated occurrences, the book will present them as interconnected elements linked and influenced by the river, which has in turn been transformed by them.” Speaking to the Weekly, AlSayyad added that what Egyptian and other Arabic-speaking audiences would get their hands on when they read the book was a compilation of the “histories of the Nile”.

“There is simply no single history for the long journey of the River Nile that has been there for two million years and has been an inhabited river for 8,000 years,” he said.

As he writes in the book, “this river, which may be considered the longest in the world (if one includes all of its tributaries), travels through a host of different countries, and its journey through Egypt occupies less than one-fifth of its total course. Today, 11 countries are at least partly included in the Nile Basin, starting with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Sudan in Central Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Eritrea in East Africa, and finally Sudan and Egypt to the north.

 “Because of the diversity of lands in its basin, the Nile passes through very different climatic zones and natural areas, allowing it to support many types or species of plant life, birds, fish, animals, and peoples.

“There are actually three geographical areas from which the Nile springs. First are the highlands of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, where are located the Mountains of the Moon, or the Ruwenzori, and the Kikizi range. A second important region is the Lake Plateau, a large catchment area containing Lake Edward, Lake Albert, Lake Victoria, and Lake Kyoga, which ultimately feeds many tributaries, including Bahr Al-Jabal, Bahr Al-Arab, Bahr Al-Ghazal, and Bahr Al-Zaraf, which converge to produce the White Nile. Third are the mountains of Ethiopia, which produce many rivers and streams that flow into Lake Tana and give us the Blue Nile.”


AlSayyad’s book is based in part on an eight-month research trip through the cities on the banks of the Nile. Every one of the multiple histories it offers is a close encounter with a particular historical period as projected through one location and one individual.

For example, in Burundi, hundreds of miles from the country’s largest city Bujumbura in a remote location in the hills of Mount Kikizi in the Lake Plateau region, AlSayyad starts his chapter “Finding the Source of the Nile: Centuries of Discovery” by examining a small pyramid. Four metres in height, the four-sided structure bears a copper plaque that reads in Latin caput Nili or the “source of the Nile”.

“Throughout recorded history, the Nile has witnessed the rise and fall of many great cities. Geographically, going from south to north, the Nile has sustained cities like Kampala in Uganda, Juba in South Sudan, Gondar and Bahr Dar in Ethiopia, Khartoum, Omdurman, Meroe and Napata in Sudan; and Aswan, Thebes (now Luxor), Akhetaten (now Amarna), Fayoum, Memphis, Al-Qahira (now Cairo), Avaris, Mansoura, Damietta, Rosetta, and Alexandria, all in Egypt,” he writes.

As such, the book is also a cultural and historical guide for all those interested in the Nile Valley. “In a sense, the book is the story of the cities created, nourished, and destroyed under the auspices of the Nile,” AlSayyad explained.


RESEARCH: Through research that started in August 2014 and took him to many hard-to-reach places, AlSayyad saw the diverse flow of the river and the forms of life on its banks.

He came to see for himself that there was no single culture or population that lived along the banks of the Nile on its long journey through East Africa. “I became more and more convinced that the cultures of the peoples of the Nile are extremely diverse, as diverse as the river’s histories in fact,” he said.

One thing he noted was that more often than not these peoples chose to build their cities near but not next to the Nile in order to avoid the destruction that sometimes came with the floods when the waters rose. He was speaking just days before Khartoum, one of the cities his book examines, suffered the devastating consequences of a flood higher than anything recorded since the early 20th century.

Egypt’s very close association with the Nile features prominently in the book. “The Nile has been celebrated by its surrounding inhabitants since the time of the ancient Egyptians, a tradition that continues today. And contemporary Egyptians celebrate many occasions related to the Nile, some of which may have started as the religious practices of one group or another but evolved over time into general cultural practices or national festivals. One major celebration in Egypt related to the Nile used to be Wafaa Al-Nil, meaning ‘Gratitude to the Nile.’ It occurred every summer in August, around the time the annual flood reached its peak,” he writes.

According to AlSayyad, because Egypt now controls the flow of the Nile through the Aswan High Dam, this celebration has now ceased, as Egyptians, now feeling secure from floods and with a reliable source of water, have started to take the Nile for granted.

He adds that “Hapi, the ancient Egyptian god of the Nile, was represented as a strong-bodied man with a prominent chest and a huge belly, symbolising fertility. Because the level of the Nile fluctuated and the floods were not always guaranteed, Hapi was considered a temperamental deity, and a myth later emerged that Hapi was not satisfied, and that Egyptians should present him with sacrificial gifts.

“In particular, the legend mentioned that Egyptians should sacrifice a living bride to the Nile once a year. There is absolutely no evidence that the ancient Egyptians ever made such offerings of living persons. Although the practice continued in Egypt all the way through the Middle Ages, the sacrificial bride was typically replaced by a wooden life-size doll.

 “Throughout history, the Nile has defined the shape and content of Egyptian culture, and the remains of great cities in the Nile Valley and Delta illuminate the primacy of the river in the life of the ancient Egyptians.”

AlSayyad notes that “for specific purposes, some of these settlements were built away from the Nile, for example, to accommodate the craftsmen and labourers who built Egypt’s temples, tombs, and pyramids.” But, he said, “all the other ancient cities, towns, and villages were located close to the river’s banks. For these settlements, the Nile offered plentiful water, fertile silt for agriculture, and a connection to each other and the outside world.”

“Beyond serving as an artery of trade and communication, the river also provided a stage for ritual and ceremonial activities. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the Nile as a life-giving river.

The River Nile in Upper Egypt

 “With cities, towns, and villages alike situated on the Nile’s narrow flood plain, the river provided plentiful points for shipping and trading. Ancient Egyptian settlements thus did not need to be concentrated, but were relatively dispersed, giving ancient Egypt the unique identity of a state defined by scattered settlements of various sizes.”

NILE CITIES: In chapter three of his book entitled “The Nile of Lower Egypt: Memphis, the First Capital City”, AlSayyad looks at some of the cities that have been built along the Nile in Egypt.

 “Although most cities along the Nile were constructed on terraces, for some reason Memphis was built on the valley floor, a decision which ultimately led to its impermanence compared with other Egyptian monuments. It is known it was built initially as a fortress in an area where the Nile was diverted, creating an arc-like form to its east. And under the Sixth Dynasty it became the formal capital of Egypt. It was probably also then that it was given the name Mennefer, meaning ‘lasting and beautiful’ in ancient Egyptian,” he writes.

In chapter four on the “Thebes of the Pharaohs: The Nile of Upper Egypt”, AlSayyad notes that unlike Memphis, located away from the Nile to avoid its floodwater, the settlement at Thebes bordered directly on the river.

This helped make the Theban region an ideal site for a religious centre. “The Nile Valley here is surrounded by mountains which create a bounded plane. In physical terms, the river running through may be seen as dividing Thebes into an east and a west bank. But, spiritually, it may alternately be seen as a path, not an edge, connecting the two worlds of Thebes: the living and the dead, the profane and the sacred, the present and the past, and, even today, the modern and the eternal,” he writes.

Heavy floods in Khartoum this month

He also reveals that the route of the river has changed repeatedly over the years. “What we see today is not what used to be there over a million years ago, and it is not necessarily what is going to be there in a few thousand or few hundred years,” he says.

The exact route of the Nile through the ages is poorly known, “which is why many Egyptologists plot its present-day course differently than on maps of archaeological times,” AlSayyad writes. “This changing course may have led to misinterpretations of ancient monuments and settlements bordering the river,” he adds.

To serve the reader better, AlSayyad’s book comes with maps that depict the movement of the route of the Nile throughout its history. “I had to have the maps in colour, even in the Arabic edition where all the other pictures will be in black and white to make the price of the book as low as possible,” he commented. It was very important to capture the changes that have occurred in the route of the Nile, given their major impact on the northeast region of Africa, he said.

In addition to the histories of the cities on the banks of the River Nile and the history of the river in the east and northeast of Africa, the book helps readers understand all sorts of things related to the Nile.

A 2020 image of GERD

Where does the Nile start? Where did it use to end? What routes has it taken and how many branches has it had? What is the difference between the banks of the Nile in Ethiopia and in Egypt? What is the rationale behind choosing Blue and White to name the two branches of the Nile that start in Ethiopia and in Congo and Burundi to meet south of Khartoum as the Blue and White Nile? Why do some of the Nile Basin countries have bridges when others don’t, for example.

“We are so proud of the Nile, but I don’t think we know it well enough. We love it, but we also need to know it,” AlSayyad said. “For example, I don’t think that many Egyptians today know that until the 1950s the colour of the Nile in Egypt used to be green and that the kind of greyish colour that we see today only came about after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s,” he added.

 “We need to know the Nile, and we also need to think about how we can better use its water and how we can better protect its quality.”

AlSayyad’s book does not approach the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that is being built on the Nile in Ethiopia despite the fact that the research for the book started when the three countries along the Blue Nile were looking for an agreement on how to help Ethiopia construct its dam to generate electricity without causing harm to downstream countries like Sudan and Egypt.

But a better understanding of the Nile would help its people across its journey to come up with answers to the big questions, he said. These would include questions such as those that hang over the GERD, the Jonglei Canal project in South Sudan, and others, he added.

The dispute over the GERD

Gonernment sources in Cairo this week said that there might be a delay in the next round of negotiations on a comprehensive and conclusive agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

“We were considering the possible dates and thinking that there might be a meeting late next week or the week after that. But now there is a question mark hanging over this because of the current situation of the flooding in Sudan,” a government source said.

Late last month, the legal and technical delegations of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia ended yet another round of the talks that were initiated in June under the auspices of South Africa, the current chair of the African Union (AU), without even coming close to reaching even a basic agreement on the GERD.

According to informed Egyptian and Sudanese sources, the chances for a deal on the Dam in the coming weeks seem unlikely. The most controversial issue, according to sources in Cairo and Khartoum, is not only about the GERD itself, but also about quotas of Nile water, especially from the Blue Nile on which the GERD is being constructed.

According to the Egyptian sources, Egypt is not at all opposed to the right of Ethiopia to benefit from the Nile’s water. “We accepted the GERD as a hydrological project that Ethiopia said was designed to generate electricity, but a few years down the road it turned out that this was not only the plan. Instead, Ethiopia wants to contest Egypt’s water rights to the Nile,” the Egyptian source said.

Throughout five years of talks that started in 2015 upon the signing of the Declaration of Principles for the GERD in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Egypt has aimed to defend its legal and just right to 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water a year, not only on the basis of legal agreements but also on the fact that the UN acknowledges that Egypt is water-poor.

For its part, Ethiopia has declined this legal right and instead has dubbed it “colonial”.

In an attempt to overcome such hurdles, Sudan proposed to both countries that they put aside the debate on water rights and focus instead on the filling and operation of the GERD. However, according to Egyptian sources, throughout the negotiations on the GERD Ethiopia has nevertheless been effectively challenging Egypt’s water rights.

“This is what it boils down to when we are discussing the filling and operation of the GERD during drought and non-drought years: we want to make sure that what we receive annually from the Blue Nile does not go below 40 billion cubic metres of water, while Ethiopia has been talking about reducing this to 30 to 32 billion cubic meters a year,” the source said.

“If Ethiopia was just thinking of the GERD as a project to generate electricity, then it would not be thinking of cutting close to half of our annual share of Nile water. But is seems increasingly likely that what Ethiopia has in mind goes way beyond the generation of electricity,” he added.

Other Egyptian sources have suggested that what Ethiopia has in mind is to turn the reservoir of the GERD into a “water bank” for its own use. They add that while Ethiopia may not be planning to deny Egypt its annual share of water from the Nile, it may want Egypt to pay in return for its full share.

This, the same sources say, goes back to the debates of 2009 and 2010 when several of the Nile Basin countries were discussing a possible agreement that would have cut not just Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water, but Sudan’s share as well. The discussion on this started before the splitting of Sudan into two countries in 2011.

Last week, Ethiopia was again telling its international interlocutors that what the Nile Basin countries, both on the Blue and the White Niles, need now is a new agreement on shares of Nile water.

Egypt has always opposed the confusion of the issues. It has, however, agreed to a US proposal to work for now on an agreement for the filling and operation of the GERD and to discuss “future development issues” in a later agreement.

However, official Egyptian sources say that even in the filling and operation agreement on the GERD there must be a reference to a future agreement on the use of Nile water. Ethiopia is as opposed to this as it is to finding an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.

There are also concerns raised by Sudan on the ecological impacts of the GERD and its impact on Sudanese dams.

With South Africa’s presidency of the AU set to expire in February, the next few months will be vital. If an agreement is not reached by the beginning of next year, then it will be time for a new round of talks, perhaps under the auspices of a new facilitator.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has said that it will go ahead with the next filling of the GERD as it did with the last, with or without an agreement.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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