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A Journey Downriver Through Egypt's Past and Present

Written by Toby WilkinsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Toby Wilkinson


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: June 10, 2014
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35156-0
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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The Nile, like all of Egypt, is both timeless and ever-changing. In these pages, renowned Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson takes us on a journey downriver that is both history and travelogue. We begin at the First Nile Cataract, close to the modern city of Aswan. From there, Wilkinson guides us through the illustrious nation birthed by this great river.
        We see Thebes, with its Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and Luxor Temple. We visit the fertile Fayum, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and finally, the pulsing city of Cairo, where the Arab Spring erupted on the bridges over the water. Along the way, Wilkinson introduces us to the gods, pharaohs, and emperors who joined their fate to the Nile and gained immortality; and to the adventurers, archaeologists, and historians who have all fallen under its spell. Peerlessly erudite, vividly told, The Nile brings the course of this enduring river into stunning view.



The Nile

Egypt’s Eternal River

Egypt is the Nile . . . The Nile has created its limits and gifted it with opulence.

—samuel cox

Egypt covers an area of over 380,000 square miles. Ninety-five per cent of it is barren desert. The climate across most of the country is extremely dry, and nowhere receives sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt. The narrow strip of green—the floodplain of the Nile—that runs through Egypt from south to north constitutes less than one-twentieth of the country by area, yet supports more than 96 per cent of its population. As the Roman geographer Strabo put it, “Egypt consists of only the river-land”; and that sentiment remains as true today as it was two thousand years ago.

We now know that the Egyptian Nile is born of the confluence of two great rivers, the Blue Nile which rises in the highlands of Ethiopia, and the White Nile which is fed by Lake Victoria. Just downstream of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, they join to form a single mighty watercourse, a river that runs northwards for a thousand miles until it reaches the sea. In the southern half of its course, barriers of hard, igneous rock intrude across the Nile Valley at various points. Each barrier causes the river to divide into narrow streams and rivulets as it surges around the natural obstacles in its path. These are the Cataracts of the Nile, conventionally numbered from north to south (even though the river flows from south to north). They are not the massive waterfalls found on other African or American rivers, but regions of rocks and rapids no less hazardous to shipping.

Only when the Nile has broken through the last such barrier—the granite outcrops of the First Cataract at Aswan—can it continue its journey, uninterrupted, to the Mediterranean. Flowing gently between cliffs of sandstone, its floodplain is at its narrowest, the strip of green on either bank no more than a few feet wide in places. Beyond the towering quarries of Gebel el-Silsila, the sandstone gives way to limestone, creating a softer landscape of age-eroded bluffs, and a broader valley. North of Luxor, the Nile swings sharply to the east in a great bend that brings it closer to the Red Sea than at any other point in its course. But it soon returns to its northwards flow, its floodplain broadening out still further in the remote backwaters of Middle Egypt. Some 625 miles from the First Cataract, the power of the Nile begins to abate and it divides into smaller channels as it makes its increasingly sluggish way to the sea, its alluvial plain fanning out to produce the Delta. (The ancient Egyptians conceptualised their land as a papyrus plant, the narrow valley forming the stalk and the broad delta the flower-head.) Finally, the river meets the sea in a series of brackish coastal lagoons before disgorging its last remaining sediment into the Mediterranean—the sea known to the ancient Egyptians as “the great green.”

By way of counterpoint to this south–north direction of flow, there is the east–west dynamic of the Valley. Over the aeons, the river has shifted within its floodplain, creating and destroying alluvial land as it goes. The meandering of the river’s channel means that the broader expanse of fertile alluvium is sometimes to be found on the east bank, sometimes on the west. At some points in its course, the river runs close up against the western escarpment, with barely a strip of green between; at other places, it is the eastern cliffs that approach the river’s edge, while the western hills are hazy in the distance beyond the fields. It is this east–west rhythm of the river as much as its south–north flow that has determined the human geography of the Nile Valley. Between the First Cataract and the Delta, the major settlements alternate between the east and west banks, depending on the local topography: Aswan on the east, Edfu and Esna on the west; Luxor, Qift and Qena on the east; Abydos, Asyut and the towns of Middle Egypt on the west; and, finally, Cairo back on the east bank.

As well as the alluvial land that makes agriculture and human settlement possible, the Nile has also created some of the most striking and memorable scenery anywhere in the world. The landscape, with its patterns of blue, green and yellow-brown, has remained largely unchanged since the days of the pharaohs and imparts a timelessness to the Valley that somehow manages to blur the intrusions of modern life. While the Nile’s green thread is most strikingly apparent from the air, the scenery along its banks is best appreciated from the water itself,

the level bank shelving down steeply to the river; the strip of cultivated soil, green with maize or tawny with dura; the frequent mud-village and palm-grove; the deserted sugar factory with its ungainly chimney and shattered windows; the water-wheel slowly revolving with its necklace of pots; the shadûf worked by two brown athletes; the file of laden camels; the desert, all sand-hills and sand-plains, with its background of mountains; the long reach, and the gleaming sail ahead.

Indeed, “the traveller on the Nile really sees the whole land of Egypt . . .  through which the Nile has been scooping its way for uncounted cycles . . .”

The Egyptians have always been acutely aware of their unique environment; its harmonies and contrasts have shaped their society and world view. The sharp divide between the green strip of floodplain and the yellow-brown desert on either side only emphasises the precariousness of existence and the delicate balance between feast and famine, life and death. In such a world, Egyptians of all periods have revered their river and the life it makes possible.

Since the dawn of time, Egyptians have speculated about the cre­­ation of the world; they have invented various stories, but the most powerful of the ancient myths tells how a small island emerged from the waters of chaos, like a sandbank from the Nile, bringing the possibility of life to the world. Christian and Muslim theologians came up with different accounts, but the importance of the Nile remained strong. Writing around ad 1000, the Arab scholar al-Muqaddasi praised Egypt with the following words: “God has mentioned this region repeatedly in the Qur’an, and has shown its pre-eminence to mankind. It is one of the two wings of the world . . . its river the most splendid of rivers.”

Belief in the Nile’s creative power has continued down to modern times. After Europeans discovered the Nile, they attributed to it quasi-magical properties. Nile water was believed to encourage the birth of twins, or even sextuplets, and was exported in sealed jars for purchase by wealthy—and gullible—clients. Even as great a polymath and scholar as Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered hieroglyphics, took Nile water as a curative. In 1825, an Irish doctor named Dr. Richard Madden opined, “In its wholesome properties, I believe the water of the Nile exceeds that of any other river in the world . . . by its gentle action as an aperient, it benefits health”—even though his close examination of the said water under a microscope had revealed it to be “alive with animal-culae” (parasites, algae and bacteria).

While the Nile’s water has always been more likely to kill than cure, it does, however, have miraculous properties, properties upon which Egyptian civilisation itself was built. Until 1964 and the completion of the High Dam at Aswan, the river’s unique gift was made manifest in its peculiar annual regime. Each summer, the rains falling over the Ethiopian highlands surged downhill, swelling the Blue Nile and causing it to breach its banks in a great inundation. In Egypt, the flood first became apparent in mid-July at the First Cataract—as much by the noise of the crashing torrent as by the increased volume of water. Over the course of just a few days, the flow at the Cataract rose fifteen-fold; as the flood spread northwards, the entire floodplain was inundated to a depth of six feet, with only dikes and the towns and villages on higher ground remaining dry above an inland sea.

If too great, such an inundation could prove devastating—it was common practice for watchmen to be stationed along dikes at regular intervals at the start of the flood season, to monitor the rising water level and build emergency defences if the flood threatened to overwhelm settlements. But, in a good year, the flood brought twin blessings: water to the fields (even those some distance from the river) and a fresh deposit of fertile silt, carried downstream from the Horn of Africa. An average inundation carried 110 tons of sediment into Egypt, replenishing the soil and renewing its fertility on an annual basis. As Strabo noted, “The water stays more than forty days in summer and then goes down gradually just as it rose; and in sixty days the plain is completely bared and begins to dry out.” The after-effects of the flood—the magical combination of water and nutrients, under the warmth of the Egyptian sun—gave the Nile Valley an agricultural productivity that was the envy of other lands. (The introduction of perennial irrigation in the early twentieth century raised the number of crops that could be grown each year from one to three, increasing yields and profits still further. Another result, with unforeseen consequences in the long term, was a rapid rise in Egypt’s population.) It was thanks to the annual inundation that Egypt was able not only to feed itself but to develop a sophisticated civilisation.

The flood was so vital a phenomenon that the ancient Egyptians set their calendar by it, the first day of the first month of the inundation season marking the start of the new year. The flood was worshipped as the corpulent fertility god Hapy, bringer of abundance, and hymns were composed to him. Classical authors likewise rhapsodised on the Nile flood, and the magnificent Palestrina mosaic was created to celebrate the river’s bounty. The Arab poet Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi praised the after-effects of the inundation, which meant that “all the earth is cultivable.”

The only problem with the Nile’s annual miracle was its variability. The Roman historian Pliny explained that

An average rise is one of sixteen cubits [twenty-seven feet]. A smaller volume of water does not irrigate all localities, and a larger one by retiring too slowly retards agriculture . . . in a rise of twelve cubits [Egypt] senses famine, and even at one of thirteen it begins to feel hungry, but fourteen cubits brings cheerfulness, fifteen complete confidence and sixteen delight.

A flood measuring six feet below normal at Aswan could reduce agricultural yields by three-quarters, bringing famine. By contrast, a flood six feet above normal would breach dikes, overwhelm settlements, destroy granaries, encourage plagues of insects and delay sowing, causing the ripening crops to wither under the hot summer sun. (The year 1818 witnessed just such a flood; whole villages were washed away, several hundred people were drowned, and “Every available boat was engaged in carrying precious grain to higher ground.”) Thus, as well as bringing life and prosperity to Egypt, the Nile’s waters also determined the country’s fate—year after year. This explains the Egyptian preoccupation with measuring the height of the annual inundation, by means of Nilometers built at key locations in the Valley—notably the island of Elephantine at the foot of the First Cataract and the island of Roda on the outskirts of Cairo. The annual measurements of the inundation were pored over by priests and bureaucrats alike, for they gave an unerringly accurate prediction of the following year’s harvest. It is telling that Egypt’s earliest historical records—a set of annals, carved on a slab of basalt, noting the main events of each year of each reign starting at the beginning of the First Dynasty—give pride of place to the height of the annual Nile flood, measured in cubits, palms and fingers. For every man, woman and child in Egypt, not just the country but their very lives were the gift of the river.
Toby Wilkinson|Author Q&A

About Toby Wilkinson

Toby Wilkinson - The Nile

Photo © Vincent Liang

Toby Wilkinson earned a degree in Egyptology from the University of Cambridge, and is the recipient of several prestigious awards given in his field. He has published nine books, and received the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for his previous book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. He has appeared on radio and television as an expert on ancient Egyptian civilization and is a member of the international editorial board of the Journal of Egyptian History. Since 2003, he has been a Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge. He lives in Suffolk, England.


Author Q&A

A conversation with Toby Wilkinson

author of THE NILE: A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present

Q: You have written extensively about Egypt. What inspired you to devote your latest book to the Nile specifically?

A: The idea for the book originated during a trip down the Nile in September 2010. It was a ferociously hot day (113 degrees in the shade) and I was sitting under an awning on the top deck of a dahabiya, moored on the west bank of the Nile opposite the city of Aswan. As the afternoon wore on and the shadows began to lengthen, boys from the local village came down to play at the water’s edge, accompanied by their donkeys and a young camel, and surrounded by buffalo and wading birds. It was a scene unchanged for thousands of years. Yet, just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the Nile, the picture could not have been more different: the urban sprawl and traffic congestion, the overpopulation and incessant din of 21st century Egypt. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern, separated yet unified by the River Nile, was striking – and at the same time, I realised, quintessentially Egyptian. It was a theme I decided merited further exploration, as a way of understanding Egypt and her people.

Q: How did you go about your research? What did you discover that most surprised you?

A: The book draws upon numerous study visits I have made to Egypt over the past 27 years, and in particular two trips down the Nile in 2010 and 2012, either side of the Arab Spring. To supplement these first-hand experiences, I conducted extensive historical research in the Cambridge University Library.

My most surprising discovery was the extraordinary story of Lucie Duff Gordon, the upper class Englishwoman who, in the middle of the 19th century, lived for several years in a flimsy hut on the roof of Luxor Temple. Her commitment to the welfare of ordinary Egyptians in the face of oppression by their rulers remains a powerful example today.

Q: What are the most important sights to see when traveling along the Nile? What are the gems which are often overlooked?
A: No trip down the Nile would be complete without visits to the major sights (and sites) of ancient Thebes—the area of modern Luxor. The temples of Luxor and Karnak, and the tombs and temples on the opposite bank of the Nile, are masterworks of ancient art and architecture. Also not to be missed are the great, late temples in the southern Nile Valley: Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae.
Alongside these famous sights, less-visited gems include the temple of Seti I at Abydos, with its beautiful painted decoration, still in pristine condition after 3000 years; the strange and remote temple of Hathor at Dendera, source of the famous zodiac ceiling; the pharaonic sandstone quarries at Gebel el-Silsila, with the masons’ chisel-marks still as fresh as the day they were made; and the rock-cut tombs of regional governors at Beni Hasan with their spectacular views over the Nile below.

Q: How did the annual flood shape everyday life in Egypt, as well as widely held religious beliefs?
A: Until the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the annual Nile flood brought water and fertility to the fields of Egypt, creating the country’s legendary prosperity and enabling the development of a sophisticated civilisation. But the flood was capricious: if too low or too high, it could result in famine instead of feast. This precariousness of existence, and the contrast between the verdant Nile Valley and the barren desert either side, shaped the Egyptians’ world view. They came to see the universe as an unending struggle between opposing forces of order and chaos—to be held in balance by a powerful ruler. To a large extent, this fundamental belief remains strong in Egypt to this day.

Q: How was “controlling” the Nile linked to prosperity and survival for ancient Egyptians?
A: In ancient times, the Nile burst its banks each year, flooding the fields for several weeks. This was a mixed blessing: a ‘good’ inundation brought water to the crops and renewed fertility to the soil, turning Egypt into a picture of abundance; but a ‘bad’ inundation, either too low or too high, led to crop failure and disaster. The balance between feast and famine was a delicate one, and the Egyptians knew that their fate depended upon their ability to harness the life-giving power of the Nile.

Q: The first Aswan Dam, completed in 1902, “marked Egypt’s emergence into the modern world.” How was it formative in terms of international relations and exports? How did it begin to slowly kill Egypt?
A: The first Aswan Dam greatly enhanced Egypt’s agricultural productivity. Perennial irrigation enabled two or three crops to be raised each year and transformed Egypt into one of the world’s greatest cotton producers. It also marked the beginning of a period of intense European involvement in Egypt’s internal affairs which ultimately led to the Suez Crisis of 1956. The first Aswan Dam led inexorably to the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the effects of which have been much more mixed: increasing salinity of the soil, greater reliance on chemical fertilisers, and the continued scourge of bilharzia (a parasitic disease, also known as schistosomiasis) among rural populations.

Q: On April 15, 1831, the “Luxor” set sail from Toulon, bound for the Nile. What happened next, and what were the political and architectural outcomes of this voyage?
A: The “Luxor” transported one of the obelisks from Luxor Temple to Paris, to beautify and glorify the French capital. On its public unveiling, the obelisk drew huge crowds and it remains to this day one of the landmarks of Paris, standing majestically at the centre of the Place de la Concorde. The episode cemented the potent political symbolism of ancient Egyptian architecture in Western culture (compare the obelisk shape of the Washington Monument); and it forever robbed Luxor Temple of its symmetry—today just one obelisk stands before the entrance.

During the nineteenth century, two more Ancient Egyptian obelisks were re-erected in London and New York City (“Cleopatra’s Needle” in Central Park).

Q: How did David Roberts and Lady Duff Gordon they shape the worldwide perception of Egypt?

A: David Roberts was a noted 19th-century Scottish watercolorist. His evocative paintings of the Nile Valley and its ancient monuments won immediate public acclaim and launched Egypt as a tourist destination.
Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, was a remarkable 19th-century society hostess. Seeking respite from tuberculosis, she travelled to Egypt and lived  there for the next seven years, much of it in a hovel on the roof of Luxor Temple. Her letters documented an Egypt just emerging into the modern world, and laid bare the sufferings of its people.

Q: You write that no one did more to put western Thebes on the map than Englishman Howard Carter. Even though he discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamen, he “was shunned by the Egyptological establishment.” Why was this?
A: Howard Carter was notoriously irascible and prone to hot-tempered outbursts. Although he was a brilliant archaeologist, his manner did not endear him to colleagues. In any academic discipline, there are professional jealousies and rivalries; Carter’s headline-grabbing success, together with his character, led to his being shunned by fellow Egyptologists.

Q: You write of the distinctive areas and cultures which have formed around the Nile. Is there a region which you believe is largely still unexplored?
A: Egyptian Nubia (the Nile Valley between the First and Second Nile Cataracts) is now submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser, so its secrets will remain forever hidden. The pre-Classical archaeology of coastal Libya is still largely unknown. And there is much more to learn about the Western Desert, which despite being inhospitable today has been explored and exploited by the Egyptians from prehistoric times.

Q: In the postscript, you write, “the country is more divided than at any time in its recent history. Its immediate future looks bleak, its ultimate destiny deeply uncertain.” How does your book help us to understand current events in Egypt?

A: As the world’s first nation-state, Egypt has a recorded history longer than any other nation on earth. Its present is shaped by its collective memory, as well as by the physical landscape of the Nile Valley. Only by understanding Egypt’s turbulent and colourful past can we appreciate the many undercurrents of today’s complex political situation – the strong bond between the army and the people, the inherent mistrust of foreign powers, the desire for stability even at the expense of democracy. And only by appreciating the central role of the Nile in shaping the Egyptians’ world-view can we understand how they think today and face the future.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: An anthology of ancient Egyptian writings, newly translated to bring them alive to modern readers. My aim is to showcase the extraordinary literary accomplishments of a civilisation best known for its art and architecture.

Erica Hinsley / ehinsley@randomhouse.com / 212-572-2018




“Engaging. . . . Evocative. . . . The narrative moves comfortably among different time periods . . . smoothly guiding us on our Nile journey.” —The Washington Post

“Fascinating. . . . Compelling. . . . The Nile emerges as potent as ever, the sole bringer of life to Egypt.” —The Guardian (London)

“First-rate. . . . The Nile and the history it has engendered still manage to stir something in all of us.” —The Daily Beast
“Impressive. . . . Hugely entertaining. . . . Wilkinson’s book is bound to reawaken the joys of armchair traveling.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Tell[s] the entire layered story of Egyptian civilization. Wilkinson deftly mingles ancient lore from the Pharaonic past with tales of 19th-century tomb robbers and contemporary clashes between the competing imperatives to develop and preserve sites along the riverbanks.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Masterful. . . .  Thoroughly enjoyable and gloriously catholic.” —The Times (London)

“Dexterously done and rich in detail. . . .  This is infectious stuff that should surely inspire its readers to a fresh bout of Egyptian adventures.” —The Telegraph (London)

“In this felucca voyage of the Nile, you see all of its history and you are constantly reminded that Egypt is also a living nation of today. . . . [Wilkinson] has done for popularizing this land what Michio Kaku and DeGrasse Tyson have done for astronomy and physics.” —The New York Journal of Books

“[A] gently meandering tour of the Nile River in the company of a deeply knowledgeable guide. . . . To understand the cataclysmic changes gripping Egypt at the moment, eminent British Egyptologist Wilkinson urges a return to the heart of the country, the Nile, the source of the country’s economy, spiritual beliefs and political structure.” —Kirkus Reviews

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