The Nile River and Nile Delta in Egypt

Nile Funerary River Boat from about 2000 B.C. from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Nile Funerary River Boat from about 2000 B.C. from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Although a funerary copy, it shows the practices of the day, here, the look of a Nile Riverboat and its rowers. &copy N.S. Gill

Flowing for 5584 km (3470 miles), the Nile is the longest river in the world. Its delta empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The beginning of the Nile River is south of the delta, which makes people from the Northern Hemisphere think it flows in the wrong direction.

Lake Victoria, Egypt's largest lake and the second largest freshwater body in the world, feeds the Nile. Lake Victoria is located in Tanzania and Uganda, and a small part of Kenya.

From Lake Victoria going north, this longer segment of the Nile, From Malakâl to Khartoum is sometimes called the White Nile, as distinguished from the Blue Nile, which feeds into the river at Khartoum, from a southeasterly Ethiopian source at Lake Tana.

Early people required reliable or predictable water supplies for agricultural and then commercial settlements to develop.

In ancient Egypt, the flooding of the Nile was predictable enough for the Egyptians to plan their yearly crops around it. It flooded annually sometime from June to September, as a result of monsoons in Ethiopia. The famine resulted when there was inadequate or surplus flooding. The ancient Egyptians learned partial control of the flood waters of the Nile by means of irrigation. They also wrote hymns to Hapy, the Nile flood god.

In addition to being a source of water for their crops, the Nile River was a source of fish and a major artery linking parts of Egypt as well as linking Egypt to its neighbors.

From one ancient period to the next, the course of the Nile and the amount of silt deposited varied. This process continues.

References include:

  • "The Dynamics of a Riverine Civilization: A Geoarchaeological Perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt"
    Fekri A. Hassan;
    World Archaeology Vol. 29, No. 1, Riverine Archaeology (Jun. 1997), pp. 51-74
  • A Companion to Ancient Egypt, by Alan B. Lloyd; Wiley-Blackwell.

Examples: From Herodotus II:

"[F]or it was evident to me that the space between the aforesaid mountain-ranges, which lie above the city of Memphis, once was a gulf of the sea,... if it be permitted to compare small things with great; and small these are in comparison, for of the rivers which heaped up the soil in those regions none is worthy to be compared in volume with a single one of the mouths of the Nile, which has five mouths."


"If then the stream of the Nile should turn aside into this Arabian gulf, what would hinder that gulf from being filled up with silt as the river continued to flow, at all events within a period of twenty thousand years?"


"If then we judge aright of these matters, the opinion of the Ionians about Egypt is not sound: but if the judgment of the Ionians is right, I declare that neither the Hellenes nor the Ionians themselves know how to reckon since they say that the whole earth is made up of three divisions, Europe, Asia, and Libya: for they ought to count in addition to these the Delta of Egypt, since it belongs neither to Asia nor to Libya; for at least it cannot be the river Nile by this reckoning which divides Asia from Libya,[24] but the Nile is cleft at the point of this Delta so as to flow round it, and the result is that this land would come between Asia and Libya."

From Lucan's Pharsalia:

"Egypt on the west Girt by the trackless Syrtes forces back By sevenfold stream the ocean; rich in glebe And gold and merchandise; and proud of Nile Asks for no rain from heaven."

In the classical period, there were three dominant channels in the Nile delta, Pre, Ptah and Amun, according to Tour Egypt.

Homer knew the Nile as Egypt's river; Hesiod knew it as Neilos, according to "Nile" Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford University Press, 2007.