The Nile River



In 2020, the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam began operating on a section of the Nile river in Ethiopia. When the reservoir is filled (likely around 2027), the dam will power the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. Egypt has opposed the dam, fearing that it could cut off or reduce water to their country. Join Active Minds as we explore this great river, following its winding path through history as well as its modern role in the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Nile is the longest river in the world, measuring over 4100 miles and flowing through 11 countries.  Geographically, the Nile is interesting in that it flows from south to north and has two points of origin, Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, and Lake Victoria in Uganda, the source of the White Nile.  In addition, the Nile is fed by the Atbara River a seasonal river that proceeds from Ethiopia and Eritrea to join the Nile about 200 miles downstream from Khartoum.
  • Historically, the Nile is one of the most important rivers in the world as it nurtured the development of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. The river was an important physical, spiritual, economic and political presence in the Ancient Egyptian culture (and later inspired the Ancient Greeks and Romans).  Additionally, the Nile occupies an important part of the Abrahamic religious traditions.
  • As much as the Nile River has shaped human civilization and man s progress, mankind, as it progressed, has also, in turn, significantly shaped the River.
  • Finding the source of the Nile River was a primary goal of European exploration of Africa in the 19th century.  In that competitive era of European exploration, global colonization and empire-building, many European adventurers attempted to locate (and control) the source of the Nile.  Among the best remembered, are such British adventurers and explorers as Richard Burton, John Speke, and David Livingstone.  Their exploration and mapping of the Nile set the stage for British control of the Nile River system.
  • More recently, the Aswan High Dam, completed by Egypt in 1970 with Soviet support, captured the Nile in the world s largest reservoir and artificial lake—Lake Nasser.  Although the dam provides a reliable source of water and hydroelectric power to the nation of Egypt, it also prevents the river s rich sediments from reaching the Delta, causing soil salination.  Also, with the exception of the Abu Simbel temples, many ancient monuments and countless unexcavated treasures of antiquity were lost in the construction of the dam.
  • Managing the Nile River s resources wisely is important for the survival of the 300 million of people who depend on its water.   Conflict has mounted regarding the colonial-era river treaties that have given Egypt and Sudan power over the flow of the Nile.  Most of the countries in the Nile Basin are developing water projects, but it is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that most threatens Egypt’s water.  In addition, climate change is a significant risk to those who rely on the Nile.

Exploration Questions

  • How has the Nile River shaped the history of Egypt? Influenced world history?
  • What are the current issues impacting the Nile River Basin?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think we continue to be fascinated with the Ancient Egyptians?
  • Have you ever been to Egypt or seen the Nile in the other countries it flows through? What made the Nile different from other great rivers you’ve seen or read about?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013. 656 pages. Traces the history of Pharaonic Egypt.
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  • Jeal, Tim. Explorers of the Nile: the Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. Yale University Press, 2012. 510 pages. Tells the stories of the English explorers of the 19th century who were obsessed with Africa and finding the source of the White Nile.
    Click here to order