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Source of the Nile

The Nile … the longest river in the world…the source of life for many civilizations throughout the ages. Yet for centuries the Nile’s source remained unknown. Hundreds of explorers died seeking to find its source. Today we might ask, “How hard can it be…why not just go up the river?” Yet this quest became legend. The source of the Blue Nile, in Lake Tana, Ethiopia, was not found until 1770 by James Bruce, and the source of the Nile was not found until 1861 at Lake Victoria in Uganda. Lake Victoria itself has tributaries from Western Kenya, Northern Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda, such as the Kagera.

The Legend

From the days of ancient Egypt the Nile has played a large part in mythology and legend. One reason was the Blue Nile created a narrow strip of fertile land and every year its flooding was necessary for the survival of the Egyptian people. At various points approximately 1 to 4 million people lived upon its banks. Because of the oasis it provided in the desert, many gods and goddesses were based of off creatures that lived on the Nile. It was also the chief Egyptian trading route. Great superstition surrounded the Nile, this mysterious giver of life. In “A Hymn to the Nile,” written in about 2100 BCE, an ancient author wrote,

Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt! Mysterious is thy issuing forth from the darkness, on this day whereon it is celebrated! Watering the orchards created by Re, to cause all the cattle to live, you give the earth to drink, inexhaustible one! Path that descends from the sky, loving the bread of Seb and the first-fruits of Nepera, You cause the workshops of Ptah to prosper!

The hymn continues, praising and worshipping the Nile, and the power it holds. The final words of reverence towards the mysterious Nile are:

O inundation of the Nile, offerings are made unto you, men are immolated to you, great festivals are instituted for you. Birds are sacrificed to you, gazelles are taken for you in the mountain, pure flames are prepared for you. Sacrifice is metle to every god as it is made to the Nile. The Nile has made its retreats in Southern Egypt, its name is not known beyond the Tuau. The god manifests not his forms, He baffles all conception.

One line of the hymn is, “None knows the place where He dwells, none discovers his retreat by the power of a written spell.” The Nile was like a god to the Egyptians, and its origins were mysterious, unknown, and thought to be better left unknown in fear of upsetting it.

Throughout the ages many failed to find its source, and the seemingly hopeless quest created more legend and history around the source of the Nile. Educated people and renowned writers such as Jonathan Swift in “A Tritical Essay” referenced lost, impossible causes to being, “as hidden as the source of the Nile.” Like the riddle of the sphinx, it was often thought the answer to the puzzle was nonexistent.

The Discovery

Even the actual discovery of the Nile is surrounded by mystery and suspicion. John Hanning Speke, an officer in the British Indian Army, made three explorations in Africa. In 1856, he accompanied Richard Francis Burton to find the source of the Nile. They discovered the Lake Tanganyika, and were about to go on to investigate another lake when Burton fell sick. Speke continued on alone, and discovered Lake Victoria. Speke then returned to England with the news of his discovery in the Spring of 1859. Burton, who was still recovering from his sickness, did not return to England until later. Burton became angry at Speke. He still believed that the source of the Nile was Lake Tanganyika, was jealous of Speke's fame, and upset that Speke had been chosen to head another expedition, with the Captain James Augustus Grant, to verify that the true source was Lake Victoria.

In 1860, with the assistance of Grant and Samuel Baker, Lake Victoria was verified to be the source of the Nile. The Ripon Falls were also discovered. In his fascinating "Journal of the Discovery of the Nile," among 18 chapters in which Speke spends pages on ordeals such as chasing a mule and conversations with the Queen in Uganda, Speke describes the Nile and later Lake Victoria,

"Here at last I stood on the brink of the Nile; most beautiful was the scene, nothing could surpass it! It was the very perfection of the kind of effect aimed at in a highly kept park; with a magnificent stream from 600 to 700 yards wide, dotted with islets and rocks, the former occupied by fishermen's huts, the latter by sterns and crocodiles basking in the sun..."

Speke returned again to England in 1863. Because Burton and others refused to believe that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, a debate was scheduled for September 16, 1864, so Speke and Burton could solve their disagreement. But, as fate would have it, Speke died mysteriously the day before from a hunting accident. Burton claimed it was suicide, but until today no one really knows. Speke had written, "That lake is the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief." And even though we have found the source of the Nile, the mystery of the "holy" Nile lives on.


For the complete "A Hymn to the Nile" see www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/hymn-nile.html
For an online version of Speke's "Journal of the Discovery of the Nile" see http://www.capitalnet.com/~jcbyers/Speke/nile-intro.htm

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