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NILUS ( Νεῖλος), the river Nile in Egypt. Of all the more important rivers of the globe known to the Greek and Roman writers, the Nile was that which from the remotest periods arrested their live-liest curiosity and attention. It ranked with them as next in magnitude to the Ganges and the Indus, and as surpassing the Danube in the length of its course and the volume of its waters. (Strab. xv. p.702.) Its physical phenomena and the peculiar civilisation of the races inhabiting its banks attracted alike the historian, the mathematician, the satirist, and the romance-writer: Herodotus and Diodorus, Eratosthenes and Strabo, Lucian and Heliodorus, expatiate on its marvels; and as Aegypt was the resort of the scientific men of Greece in general, the Nile was more accurately surveyed and described than any other river of the earth.

The word Nilus, if it were not indigenous, was of Semitic origin, and probably transmitted to the Greeks by the Phoenicians. Its epithets in various languages--e. g. the Hebrew Sihhor (Isaiah, 23.3; Jerem. 2.18), the Aegyptian Chemi, and the Greek μέλας (Servius, ad Virgil. Georg. 4.291)--point to the same peculiarity of its waters, the hue imparted by their dark slime. The Hebrews entitled the Nile Nahal-Misraim, or river of Aegypt; but the natives called it simply p-iero (whence probably the Nubian kier) or the river (i. e. of rivers). Lydus (de Mensibus, 100.8) says that it was some-times termed Ilas or dark; and Pliny (5.9. s. 9; comp. Dionys. Perieg. 5.213) observes, somewhat vaguely, that in Aethiopia the river was called Siris, and did not acquire the appellation of Nilus before it reached Syene. With few exceptions, however, the Greeks recognised the name of Nilus as far south as Meroe; and above that mesopotamian region they merely doubted to which of its tributaries they should assign the principal name. Homer, indeed (Od. 3.300, 4.477, &c.), calls the river Aegyptus, from the appellation of the land which it intersects. But Hesiod (Hes. Th. 338) and Hecataeus (Fragm. 279--280), and succeeding poets and historians uniformly designate the river of Aegypt as the Nile.

It is unnecessary to dwell on a theory at one time received, but generally discredited by the ablest of the ancient geographers--that the Nile rose in Lower Mauretania, not far from the Western Ocean (Juba, ap. Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 10; D. C. 75.13; Solin. 100.35); that it flowed in an easterly direction; was engulphed by the sands of the Sāhăra; re-appeared as the Nigir; again sunk in the earth, and came to light once more near the Great Lake of Debâya as the proper Nile.

Historically, the Nile derives its principal importance from the civilisation, to which it contributed so materially, of the races inhabiting its shores, from the S. of Meroe northwards to the Mediterranean. But for geographical purposes it is necessary to examine its course, in the first instance, through less known regions, and to ascertain, if possible, which of its feeders above Meroe was regarded by the ancients as the true Nile. The course of the stream may be divided into three heads:--(1) the river S. of Meroe; (2) between Meroe and Syene; and (3) between Syene, or Philae, and the Mediter-ranean.

(1.) The Nile above Meroe.--The ancients briefly described the Nile as springing from marshes (Nili Paludes) at the foot of the Mountains of the Moon. But as all the rivers which flow northward from the Abyssinian highlands rise from lagoons, and generally expand themselves into broad marshes, this description is too vague. Neither is it clear whether they regarded the White River, or the Blue, or the Astaboras (Tacazzé), as the channel of the true Nile. The names of rivers are often given capriciously: it by no means follows that they are imposed upon the principal arm or tributary; and hence we can assign neither to the Astapus nor to the White River, usually considered as the main stream, the distinction of being absolutely the “true Nile.”

The Nile, as Strabo sagaciously remarks (xi. p. 493), was well known because it was the channel of active commerce; and his observation, if applied to its southern portions, may lead us to the channel which was really regarded as the principal river even in remotest ages. The stream most frequented and accessible to navigation, and whose banks were the most thickly peopled, was doubtless the one which earliest attracted attention, and this we believe to have been the Astapus (Bahr-el-Azrek, or Blue River).

As the sources both of the Blue River and of the Bahr-el-Abiad or the White River are uncertain, it will be proper to examine these streams above their point of junction near the modern military station at Khartûm, lat. 15° 37′ N., long. 33° E. The Astaboras (Tacazzé) may for the present be dismissed, both as an inferior tributary, and as below the meeting of the two main streams.

The White River, which has been often designated as “the true Nile,” has at no period been either a road for traffic nor favourable to the settlement of man on its banks. It is rather an immense lagoon than a river, is often from 5 to 7 miles in breadth, and its sides are in general so low as to be covered at times with alluvial deposit to a distance of from 2 to. 3 miles beyond the stream. On its shores there is neither any town, nor any tradition of there having ever been one; nor indeed, for many leagues up the stream, do there occur any spots suited either to the habitation of men, to pasture, or to tillage. On the contrary, it is represented by travellers much in the same terms in which Seneca (Natur. Quaest. 6.8) speaks of the Nili Paludes, as seen by Nero's surveyors. The latter are described by the Roman philosopher as “immensas paludes, quarum exitus nec incolae noverant, nec sperare quisquam potest, ita implicitae aquis herbae sunt,” &c.: the former by recent explorers as “an interminable sea of grass,” “a fetid stagnant marsh,” &c. As the White River indeed approaches the higher table-land of the S., its banks become less depressed, and are inhabited ; but the weedy lagoons extend nearly 100 miles SW. of Khartûm.

But if we trace upwards the channel of the Blue River, a totally different spectacle presents itself. [p. 2.431]The river nearly resembles in its natural features and the cultivation of its banks the acknowledged Nile below the junction lower down. The current is swift and regular: the banks are firm and well defined: populous villages stand in the midst of clumps of date-trees or fields of millet (dhourra), and both the land and the water attest the activity of human enterprise.

A difference corresponding to these features is observable also in the respective currents of these rivers. The White River moves sluggishly along, without rapids or cataracts: the Blue River runs strongly at all seasons, and after the periodical rains with the force and speed of a torrent. The diversity is seen also on the arrival of their waters at the point of junction. Although the White River is fed by early rains near the equator, its floods ordinarily reach Khartúm three weeks later than those of the Blue River. And at their place of meeting the superior strength of the latter is apparent. For while the stronger flood discharges itself through a broad channel, free from bars and shoals, the White River is contracted at its mouth, and the more rapid current of its rival has thrown up a line of sand across its influx. Actual measurement, too, has proved the breadth of the Blue River at the point of junction to be 768 yards, while that of the White is only 483, and the body of water poured down by the former is double of that discharged by the latter. From all these circumstances it is probable that to the Bahr-el-Azrek rather than to the Bahr-el-Abiad belongs the name of the “true Nile;” and this supposition accords with an ancient tradition among the people of Sennaar who hold the Blue River in peculiar veneration as the “Father of the Waters that run into the Great Sea.”

The knowledge possessed by the ancients of the upper portions and tributaries of the Nile was not altogether in a direct proportion to the date of their intercourse with those regions. Indeed, the earlier track of commerce was more favourable to acquaintance with the interior than were its later channels. The overland route declined after the Ptolemies transferred the trade from the rivers and the roads across the desert to Axume, Adulis, Berenice, and the ports of the Red Sea. Eratosthenes and other geographers, who wrote while Aethiopia still flourished, had thus better means of information than their successors in Roman times, Strabo, Ptolemy, &c. Diodorus (1.30), for example, says that a voyage up the Nile to Meroe was a costly and hazardous under-taking; and Nero's explorers (Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 10; Senec. N. Q. 6.8) seem to have found in that once populous and fertile kingdom only solitude and decay. At the close of the third century A.D. the Romans abandoned every station on the Nile above Philae, as not worth the cost and care of defence,--a proof that the river-traffic, beyond Aegypt, must have dwindled away. As the trade with Arabia and Taprobane (Ceylon) by sea developed itself, that with Libya would become of less importance; and in proportion as the Red Sea was better known, the branches and sources of the Nile were obscured.

(2.) The Nile below the point of junction.--The two streams flow in a common bed for several miles N. of Khartûm, without, however, blending their waters. The Bahr-Abiad retains its white soapy hue, both in the dry season and during the inundations, while the Bahr-Azrek is distinguished by its dark colour. For 12 or 15 miles below the point of junction the Nile traverses a narrow and gloomy defile, until it emerges among the immense plains of herbage in the mesopotamian district of Meroe. Beyond Meroe, already described [MEROE], the Nile receives its last considerable affluent, the Astaboras or Tacazzé; the only other accessions to its stream in its course northward being the torrents or wadys that, in the rainy season, descend from the Arabian hills. From the N. of Meroe to Syene, a distance of about 700 miles, the river enters upon the region of Cataracts, concerning which the ancients invented or credited so many marvels. (Cic. Somn. Scip. (in Rep.) 5; Senec. N. Q. 4.2.)

These rapids are seven in number, and are simply dams or weirs of granite or porphyry rising through the sandstone, and, being little affected by the attrition of the water, resist its action, divide its stream, and render its fall per mile double of the average fall below Philae. So far, however, from the river descending lofty precipices with a deafening noise, even the steepest of the rapids may be shot, though not without some danger, at high water; and at the great Cataract the entire descent in a space of 5 miles is only 80 feet. [PHILAE] Increased by the stream of the Astaboras, the Nile, from lat. 17° 45′ N., flows in a northerly direction for 120 miles, through the land of the Berbers. Then comes its great SW. elbow or bend, commencing at the rocky island of Mogreb (lat. 19° N.), and continuing nearly to the most northern point of Meroe. During this lateral deflection the Nile is bounded W. by the desert of Bahiouda, the region of the ancient Nubae, and E. by the Arabian Desert, inhabited, or rather traversed, by the nomade Blemmyes and Megabari. [MACROBII] Throughout this portion of its course the navigation of the river is greatly impeded by rapids, so that the caravans leave its banks, and regain them by a road crossing the eastern desert at Derr or Syene, between the first and second Cataracts. No monuments connect this region with either Meroe or Aegypt. It must always, indeed, have been thinly peopled, since the only cultivable soil consists of strips or patches of land extending about 2 miles at furthest beyond either bank of the Nile.

While skirting or intersecting the kingdom of Meroe, the river flowed by city and necropolis, which, according to some writers, imparted their forms and civilisation to Aegypt, according to others derived both art and polity from it. The desert of Bahiouda severs the chain of monuments, which, however, is resumed below the fourth Cataract at Nouri, Gebel-el-Birkel, and Merawe. (Lat. 20° N.) Of thirty-five pyramids at Nouri, on the left bank of the river, about half are in good preservation; but the purpose which they served is uncertain, since no ruins of any cities point to them as a necropolis, and they are without sculptures or hieroglyphics. On the western side of Gebel-el-Birkel, about 8 miles lower down, and on the right bank, are found not only pyramids, but also the remains of several temples and the vestiges of a city, probably Napata, the capital of Candace, the Aethiopian queen. [NAPATA] (Cailliaud, l'Isle de Meroe, vol. iii. p. 197; Hoskins, Travels, p. 136--141.) About the 18th degree of N. latitude the Nile resumes its northerly direction, which it observes generally until it approaches the second Cataract. In resuming its direct course to N., it enters the kingdom of Dongola, and most; of the features which marked its channel through the [p. 2.432]desert now disappear. The rocky banks sink down; the inundation fertilises the borders to a considerable distance ; and for patches of arable soil fine pastures abound, whence both Arabia and Aegypt imported a breed of excellent horses. (Russegger, Karte von Nubien.) But after quitting Napata (?) no remains of antiquity are found before we arrive at the Gagaudes Insula of Pliny (6.29. s. 35), lat. 19°35′, the modern Argo, a little above the third Cataract. The quarries of this island, which is about 12 miles in length, and causes a considerable eddy in the river, were worked both by Aethiopians and Aegyptians. A little to N. of this island, and below the third Cataract, the Nile makes a considerable bend to the E., passing on its right bank the ruins of Seghi, or Seschè. On its left bank are found the remains of the temple of Soleb, equally remarkable for the beauty of its architecture, and for its picturesque site upon the verge of the rich land, “the river's gift,” and an illimitable plain of sand stretching to the horizon. (Cailliaud, l'Isle de Meroe, vol. i. p. 375; Hoskins, Travels, p. 245.) The Nile is once again divided by an island called Sais, and a little lower down is contracted by a wall of granite on either side, so that it is hardly a stone's-throw across. At this point, and for a space of several miles, navigation is practicable only at the season of the highest floods.

Below Sais are found the ruins of the small temple of Amara, and at Semneh those of two temples which, from their opposite eminences on the right and left banks of the river, probably served as fortresses also at this narrow pass of the Nile. That a city of great strength once existed here is the more probable, because at or near Semneh was the frontier between Aethiopia and Aegypt. We have now arrived at the termination of the porphyry and granite rocks: henceforward, from about lat. 21° N., the river-banks are composed of sandstone, and acquire a less rugged aspect. The next remarkable feature is the Cataract of Wadi-Halfa, the Great Cataract of the ancient geographers. (Strab. xvii. p.786.)

In remote ante-historic periods a bar of primitive rock, piercing the sandstone, probably spanned the Nile at this point (lat. 22° N.) from shore to shore. But the original barrier has been broken by some natural agency, and a series of islands now divides the stream which rushes and chafes between them. It is indeed less a single fall or shoot of water than a succession of rapids, and may be ascended, as Belzoni did, during the inundation. (Travels in Nubia, p. 85.) The roar of the waters may be heard at the distance of half a league, and the depth of the fall is greater than that of the first Cataract at Syene. On the left bank of the river a city once stood in the immediate neighbourhood of the rapids ; and three temples, exhibiting on their walls the names of Sesortasen, Thothmes III., and Amenophis II., have been partially surveyed here. Indeed, with the second Cataract, we may be said to enter the propylaea of Aegypt itself. For thenceforward to Syene--a distance of 220 miles--either bank of the Nile presents a succession of temples, either excavated in the sandstone or separate structures, of various eras and styles of architecture. Of these the most remarkable and the most thoroughly explored is that of Aboosimbel or Ipsambul, the ancient Ibsciah, on the left bank, and two days' journey below the Cataract. This temple was first cleared of the incumbent sand by Belzoni (Researches, vol. i. p. 316), and afterwards more completely explored, and identified with the reign of Rameses III., by Champollion and Rosellini. Primis (Ibrim) is one day's journey down the stream; and below it the sandstone hills compress the river for about 2 miles within a mural escarpment, so that the current seems to force itself rather than to flow through this barrier.

(3.) The Nile below Syene.--At Syene (As. sonan), 24° 5′ 23″ N. lat., the Nile enters Aegypt Proper; and from this point, with occasional curvatures to the E. or NW., preserves generally a due northerly direction as far as its bifurcation at the apex of the Delta. Its bed presents but a slight declivity, the fall being only from 500 to 600 feet from Syene to the Mediterranean. The width of the valley, however, through which it flows varies considerably, and the geological character of its banks undergoes several changes. At a short distance below Syene begins a range of sandstone rocks, which pass into limestone below Latopolis, lat. 25° 30′ N.; and this formation continues without any resumption of the sandstone, until both the Libyan and the Arabian hills diverge finally at Cercasorum. The river thus flows beneath the principal quarries out of which the great structures of the Nile valley were built, and was the high-road by which the blocks were conveyed to Thebes and Apollinopolis, to Sais and Bubastis, to the Great Labyrinth in the Arsinoite nome, to the Pyramids and Memphis, and, finally, to the Greek and Roman architects of Alexandreia and Antinoopolis. Again, from Syene to Latopolis, the shores of the river are sterile and dreary, since the inundation is checked by the rock-walls E. and W. of the stream. But at Apollinopolis Magna, lat. 25°, and at Latopolis, 25° 30′, the rocks leave a broader verge for the fertilising deposit, and the Nile flows through richly cultivated tracts. At Thebes, for the first time, the banks expand into a broad plain, which is again closed in at the N. end by the hills at Gourmah. Here the river is divided by small islands, and is a mile and a quarter in breadth. It has hitherto followed a northerly direction ; but at Coptos, where a road connected the stream with the ports of the Red Sea [BERENICE], it bends to the NW., and follows this inclination for some distance. At Panopolis, however, it resumes its general N. bearing, and retains it to the fork of the Delta.

Near Diospolis Parva (How), on the left bank, and opposite Chenoboscium, on the right, begins the canal, or, perhaps, an ancient branch of the Nile, called the Canal of Joseph (Bahr-Jusuf). This lateral stream flows in a direction nearly parallel to the main one, through the Arsinoite nome (El-Fyoum). From this point the Nile itself presents no remarkable feature until it reaches Speos-Artemidos, or the grottos of Benihassan, where the eastern hills, approaching close to the river, limit its inundation, and consequently also the cultivable land. In lat. 29° N. the Libyan hills, for a space, recede, and curving at first NW., but soon resuming a SE. direction, embrace the Arsinoite nome. Lastly, a little below Memphis, and after passing the hills of Gebel-el-Mokattam, both the eastern and western chains of rocks finally diverge, and the river expands upon the great alluvial plain of the Delta.

At Cercasorum, where the bifurcation of the river begins, or, perhaps, at a remoter period, still nearer Memphis, the Nile probably met the Mediterranean, or at least an estuary, which its annual deposits of [p. 2.433]slime have, in the course of ages, converted into Lower Aegypt. In all historical periods, however, the river has discharged itself into the sea by two main arms, forming the sides of an isosceles triangle, the boundaries of the Delta proper, and by a number of branches, some of which ran down to the sea, while others discharged their waters into the principal arms of the main stream. The Delta is, indeed, a net-work of rivers, primary and secondary; and is further intersected by numerous canals. The primary channels were usually accounted by the ancients seven in number (Hdt. 2.17; Scylax, p. 43; Strab. xvii. p.801, seq.; Diod. 1.33; Ptol. 4.5.10; Plin. Nat. 5.10. s. 11; Mela, 1.9.9; Ammianus, 22.15, 16; Wilkinson, M. & C., Mod. Egypt and Thebes, $c.), and may be taken in the order following. They are denominated from some principal city seated on their banks, and are enumerated from E. to W.


Beginning from the E.. was the Pelusian arm (τὸ Ρελουσιακὸν στόμα, Strab. xvii. p.801; Ostium Pelusiacum, Plin. Nat. 5.9. s. 9). This has now become dry; and even when Strabo wrote a little before the first century A. D., Pelusium, which stood on its banks, and from which it derived its name, was nearly 2 1/2 miles from the sea (xvii. p. 806). The remains of the city are now more than four times that distance. Upon the banks of the Pelusian arm stood, on the eastern side, and near the apex of the Delta, Heliopolis, the On of Scripture; and 20 miles lower down, Bubastus (Tel Basta).


The Tanitic arm (τὸ Τανιτικὸν στόμα, or τὸ Σαιτικὸν, Hdt. 2.17; comp. Strab. xvii. p.802; Mela, 1.9.9, Catapystum). The present canal of Moueys probably coincides nearly with the Tanitic branch; which, however, together with the Ostium Bucolicum, has been absorbed in the lower portion of its course by the lake Menzaleh. It derived its name from Tanis, the Zoan of Scripture, the modern San, in lat. 31°, one of the oldest cities of the Delta.


The Mendesian arm (τὸ Μενδήσιον στόμα, Strab., &c.) was a channel running from the Sebennytic Nile-arm. It is now lost in the lake Menzaleh.


The Phatnitic or Pathmetic arm (τὸ Φατνιτικ̀ον στόμα, Strab.; Φαττικὸν, Diod. 1.33; Ραθμητικὸν, Ptol. 4.5. §§ 10, 40; Pathmeticum, Mela, 1.9.9.) This was the Βουκολικὸν στόμα of Herodotus (2.17); but it seems doubtful whether it were an original channel, and not rather a canal. It corresponds with the lower portion of the present Damietta branch of the Nile.


The Sebennytic arm (τὸ Σεβεννυτικὸν στόυα) derived its name from the city of Sebennytus, the present Semenhoud. As far as this city the Damietta branch represents the ancient Sebennytic; but northward of this point, lat. 31°, the earlier channel is lost in the marshes or sands, which separate the present Delta from the Mediterranean; and its mouth, which was nearly due N. of Memphis, is now covered by the lake of Bourlos. The Sebennytic arm, continuing in the direction of the Nile before its division, i. e. running nearly in a straight course from N., has some claims to be regarded not so much as one of the diverging branches as the main stream itself. This channel, together with the most easterly, the Pelusian, and the most westerly, the Canopic, were the three main arms of the Nile, and carried down to the sea by far the greater volumes of water.


The Bolbitic or Bolbitine arm (τὸ Βολβιτικὸν στόμα, Strab. xvii. p.803; Scyl. p. 43; or Βολβιτιτὸν, Hdt. 2.17; Diod. 1.33; Βολβιτιτὸν, Ptol. 4.5. §§ 10, 43; Bolbiticum, Mela, 1.9.9; Amm. Marc. 22.15), was, like the Phatnitic, originally an artificial canal, and seems in the time of Herodotus to have been a branch connecting the Sebennytic with the Canopic channels (2.17), having, however, an outlet of its own, probably as a backwater during the inundation, to the Mediterranean. The Bolbitic arm is now represented by so much of the Rosetta branch of the Nile as runs between the sea and the ancient course of the Ostium Canopicum.


The Canopic arm (τὸ Κανωβικὸν στόμα, Strab. l. c.; comp. Aristot. Meteorol. 1.14; Ostium Canopicum, Mela, 1.9.9; Plin. Nat. 5.10. s. 11) was also termed the Naucratic arm of the Nile, Ostium Naucraticum (Plin. l.c.), from the city of Naucratis, which was seated on its left bank. This was the most westerly, and one of the three great branches of the Nile (see Pelusian, Sebennytic). In the first portion of its descent from the point of the Delta the Canopic arm skirted the Libyan desert. At the city of Terenuthis (Teranieh), a road, about 38 miles in length, through the calcareous ridge of hills, connected it with the Natron Lakes. On its right bank, below this point, stood the ancient city of Sais, and a few miles lower down, Naucratis. From its vicinity, at first, to this city, the Canton of Aegypt, and afterwards, by means of the canal which connected it with the lake Mareotis on the one hand, and Alexandreia on the other, the Canopic branch retained its importance; and its embankments were the care of the government of Aegypt long after its rival branches, the Sebennytic and Pelusian, were deserted or had been suffered to flow uselessly into the marshes. It is now represented in the upper portion of its channel by the Rosetta branch of the Nile. But they diverge from each other at lat. 31°, where the elder arm turned off to the W., and discharged itself into the Mediterranean near the present bay and foreland of Aboukir. Its mouth is now covered by a shallow lagoon, intersected by strips of sand and alluvial deposit, called the lake of Madieh. The Canopic arm of the Nile, although not actually the western boundary of Aegypt, was, at least, in the Pharaonic era, the limit of its commerce on the NW. base of the Delta, since beyond it, until the building of Alexandreia, there was no town of any importance.

The canals which were derived from the Nile for the convenience of local intercourse and irrigation, were very numerous; and the prosperity of Aegypt, especially on the Arabian side of the river, depended in great measure upon their being kept in good repair, and conveying to the arid waste a sufficient supply of water. Hence the condition of the canals was almost synonymous with the good or bad administration of Aegypt; and we find that among the first cares of Augustus, after adding this kingdom to his provinces, in B.C. 24, was to repair and rehabilitate the canals, which had fallen into decay under the misrule of the later Ptolemies. (Suet. Aug. 18; Dion. 51.68; Aurel. Vict. Epit. 1.5.) For national commerce, however, there were only two of these artificial channels upon a large scale between Syene and the sea. (1.) The canal called, in different ages, the river of Ptolemy (Ρτολεμαῖος ποραμός, Diod. 1.33; Plin. Nat. 5.29. s. 23), and the river of Trajan (Τραϊανὸς ποραμός, Ptol. 4.5.54). This had been commenced by Pharaoh Necho II. (B.C. 480), was [p. 2.434]continued by Dareius Hystaspis (B.C. 520--527), but nly completed by Ptolemy Philadelphus (B.C. 274). It began in the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, a little above the city of Bubastus (Tel-Basta), and passing by the city of Thoum or Patumus, was carried by the Persians as far as the Bitter Lakes, NE. of the Delta. Here, however, it was suspended by the troubles of both Aegypt and Persia, under the successors of Dareius, and was, in a great measure, choked up with sand. (Hdt. 2.158.) At length Philadelphus, after cleansing and repairing the channel, carried it onward to Arsinoe, at the head of the Sinus Heroopolites. (Plin. Nat. 6.29. s. 33.) The Ptolemaic canal, however, suffered the fate of its predecessor, and even before the reign of Cleopatra had become useless for navigation. The connection by water between Arsinoe and the Nile was renewed by Trajan, A.D. 106; but his engineers altered the direction of the cutting. They brought the stream from a higher part of the river, in order that the current might run into, instead of from, the Red Sea, and that the intervening sandy tracts might be irrigated by fresh instead of partially salt water. The canal of Trajan accordingly began at Babylon, on the eastern bank of the Nile, opposite Memphis, and, passing by Heliopolis, Scenae Veteranorum, Heroopolis, and Serapion, entered the Red Sea about 20 miles S. of Arsinoe, at a town called Klysmon, from the locks in its neighbourhood. The work of Trajan was either more carefully preserved than that of the Macedonian and Persian kings of Aegypt had been, or, if like them, it fell into decay, it was repaired and reopened by the Mahommedan conquerors of the country. For, seven centuries after Trajan's decease, we read of Christian pilgrims sailing along his canal on their route from England to Palestine. (Dicueil, de Mensur. Orbis, vi. ed Letronne.)

(2.) The Canopic canal ( Κανωβικὴ διώρυξ, Strab. xvii. p.800; Steph. B. sub voce connected the city of Canopus with Alexandreia and the lake Mareotis. Its banks were covered with the country houses and gardens of the wealthy Alexandrians, and formed a kind of water-suburb to both the Aegyptian and Macedonian cities. [CANOPUS.]

Physical Character of the Nile.

The civilisation of all countries is directly influenced by their rivers, and in none more so than in Aegypt, which has been truly called the gift of the Nile. (Hdt. 2.5; Strab. xi. p.493.) To its stream the land owed not only its peculiar cultivation, but its existence also. Without it the Libyan waste would have extended to the shores of the Red Sea. The limestone which lies under the soil of Aegypt, the sands which bound it to E. and W., were rendered by the deposits of the river fit for the habitation of man. The Delta, indeed, was absolutely created by the Nile. Its periodical floods at first narrowed a bay of the Mediterranean into an estuary, and next filled up the estuary with a plain of teeming alluvial soil. The religion, and many of the peculiar institutions of Aegypt, are derived from its river; and its physical characteristics have, in all ages, attracted the attention of historians and geographers.

Its characteristics may be considered under the heads of (1) its deposits ; (2) the quality of its waters; and (3) its periodical inundations.

(1.) Its deposits.--Borings made in the Delta to the depth of 45 feet, have shown that the soil consists of vegetable matter and an earthy deposit, such as the Nile now brings down. The ingredients of this deposit are clay, lime, and siliceous sand; but their proportion is affected by the soil over which the river flows. Calcareous and argillaceous matter abound in the neighbourhood of Cairo and the Delta; silex preponderates in the granitic and sandstone districts of Upper Aegypt. The amount of this deposit corresponds generally to the slope of the banks and the distance from the river. In Lower Nubia and Upper Aegypt alluvial cliffs are formed to the height of 40 feet; in Middle Aegypt they sink to 30; at the point of the Delta to about eighteen. The earthy matter is deposited in a convex form; the larger quantity lying close to the stream, the smaller at the verge of the inundation. As a consequence of this fall from the banks towards the desert, the limit to which the inundation reaches is slowly ex-extending itself; but as the Nile raises its own bed as well as its banks,their relative proportion is preserved. The deposit of the Nile is found to consist of (1) clay, constituting 48 in 100 parts; (2) carbon, 9 parts; (3) carbonate of lime 18 parts, and 4 parts of carbonate of magnesia, besides portions of silicia and oxide of iron. These form a compost so rich, that the land on which they are perennially deposited requires no other manure, and produces without further renovation successive harvests of corn. (Ath. 2.41, 42; Plin. Nat. 18.19. s. 21.)

(2.) The quality of its waters.--The water itself is not less important to Aegypt than the ingredients which it precipitates or holds in solution. Except some short streams in the Arabian hills, torrents at one season and dry at another, the Nile is the only river in Aegypt. Natural springs do not exist in the upper country; and the wells of the Delta afford only a turbid and brackish fluid. The river is accordingly the single resource of the inhabitants; and the frequent ablutions enjoined by their religion rendered a copious supply of water more than ordinarily important to them. Between its highest and lowest periods, the water of the Nile is clear. When lowest, it is feculent (Ath. 2.42); and at the beginning of the inundation is covered with a greenish vegetable matter, that is said to cause eruptive disease. But even when most turbid, it is not unwholesome, and is always capable of filtration. The water in its medium state was pure and delicious to the taste. The Persian kings, after the conquest of Aegypt, imported it for their own drinking to Susa and Ecbatana (Ath. 2.54, 67); and the emperor Pescennius Niger replied to his soldiers' demand for wine, “Have you not the water of the Nile.” (Spartian. ap. August. Hist. Script. Pescenn. Niger. 100.7.) These changes in the hue and quality of the water were ascribed to the overflowing of the Nubian lakes, or to the passage of the stream over various strata. But until the channels of the White and Blue Rivers have been explored to their sources, we must be content to remain ignorant of the real causes of these phenomena.

(3.) Its periodical inundations.--The causes of the inundation early attracted the curiosity of ancient observers ; and various theories were devised to account for them. It was believed to arise from the melting of the snow on the Abyssinian mountains (Schol. in Apoll. Rhod. 4.269; Eurip. Helen. init.) ; and Herodotus rejects this supposition, because, as he conceived, although erroneously, that snow was unknown in Aethiopia (2.22). It was ascribed to the Etesian winds, which, blowing from the N. in summer, force back the waters [p. 2.435]from the mouth of the river upon the plain of the Delta. (Diod. 1.38-40.) This, however, though partially true, will not account for the inundation of Upper Aegypt, or for the periodical rising of the rivers N. of Aethiopia. It was attributed to the connection of the Nile with the great Southern Ocean, whose waters, from long exposure to the sun, were deprived, it was thought, of their saline ingredients in their course through the Nile-valley. (Diod. 1.40.) By Ephorus (ed. Marx, p. 23) it was derived from exudation through the sands; while Herodotus suggested that the vertical position of the sun in winter reduced the waters of Southern Libya to the lowest ebb. But this hypothesis kept out of sight their overflow in summer. Agatharchides of Cnidus, who wrote in the second century B.C., was the first to divine the true cause of the inundation. The rains which fall in May upon Aethiopia occasion the rise of the rivers that flow northward from it. As the sun in his progress from the equator to the tropic of Cancer becomes successively vertical over points N. of the equator, the air is heated and rarified, and the cold currents set in from the Mediterranean to restore the equilibrium. They pass over the heated plains of Aegypt; but as soon as they reach the lofty mountains of Abyssinia, they descend in torrents of rain. Sheets of water fall impetuously from their northern slope upon the grand tableau, from the grand tableau upon the plains which contain the sources of the White and Blue Rivers, and through their channels and confluents pass into the Nile. In the last days of June, or at the beginning of July, the rise is visible in Aegypt: about the middle of August the dykes are cut, and the flood drawn off E. and W. by innumerable canals ; and between the 20th and 30th of September the maximum height is attained. For a fortnight the flood remains stationary: about the 10th of November, it has perceptibly diminished, and continues to decrease slowly until it attains its minimum; at this time its depth at Cairo is not more than 6 feet, and in the Delta its waters are nearly stagnant. In the time of Herodotus (2.13) the height of a good Nile was 15 or 16 cubits; and around the statue of the Nile, which Vespasian brought from Aegypt and set up in the Temple of Peace, were grouped sixteen diminutive figures emblematic of these measures. (Plin. Nat. 36.9. s. 14.) The rise of the Nile was carefully noted on the Nilometers at Primis (Ibrim), Elephantine, and Memphis; and the progress or decline of the inundation was reported by letters to different parts of Aegypt, in order that the farmers might calculate on the time when sowing might commence. A flood of the height of 30 feet is ruinous,--undermining houses, sweeping away cattle, and destroying the produce of the fields. The land, also, is rendered too spongy for the ensuing seed-time; the labours of tillage are delayed; and epidemic diseases arise from the lingering and stagnant waters. On the other hand, if the waters do not rise 24 feet, the harvest is scanty; and if they are below 18, terrible famines are the consequence, such as that of which Diodorus speaks (1.84), and which are not unknown in more recent times (Volney, Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, vol. i. ch. 11; Abdallatiph's Hist. of Egypt, p. 197, White's edit.), during which the starving population have been driven to feed on human flesh.

Upper and Middle Egypt during the inundation present the appearance of a vast inland lake, bounded by mountains. But the usual means of intercourse are not interrupted, since the immediate banks of the river are seldom under water, which is discharged through the frequent apertures of the dykes, at first upon the verge of the desert, and afterwards upon the land nearer the flood. The Delta, however, being devoid of hills,is, during an extraordinary rise, laid entirely under water, and the only means of communication between the towns and villages are boats and rafts. Herodotus (2.97) compares the appearance of Lower Aegypt at this season to the Aegean sea, studded by the Sporades and Cyclades.

As the direct highway between the Mediterranean and Meroe, the Nile, in all periods, at least during the prosperous ages of Aegypt, presented a busy and animated spectacle. The Aegyptians, who shunned the sea as the element of the destroying Typhon, regarded their river with affection and reverence, as the gift and emblem of the creating and preserving Osiris. Its broad and capacious bosom was in all seasons of the year studded with river-craft, from the raft of reeds to the stately Baris or Nile barges. Up the Nile to the markets of Diospolis passed the grain and fruits of the Delta; and down the stream came the quarried limestone of the Thebaid to the quays of Sais and Canopus. No bridge spanned the river during its course of 1500 miles; and the ferrying over from bank to bank was an incessant cause of life and movement. The fishers and fowlers of the Nile diversified the scene. Respecting the qualities of the fish there is considerable discrepancy among ancient writers--some describing it as coarse or insipid, others as highly nutritive and delicate in its flavour. (Athen. 7.312.) Fifty-two species of fish are said to be found in the Nile. (Russegger, Reisen, vol. i. p. 300.) Of these the genus Silurus was the most abundant. Fish diet is well suited to the languid appetites of a hot climate; and the Israelites, when wandering in the desert, regretted the fish as well as the vegetables of Aegypt. (Numbers, 11.5.) They were caught in greatest abundance in the pools and lakes during the season of inundation. In the marshy districts of the Delta, where grain, owing to the spongy and bibulous character of the soil, could not be raised, the inhabitants lived principally upon fish dried in the sun; and, in later times' at least, they were salted, and exported in great quantities to the markets of Greece and Syria. The modes of catching them are represented in the paintings, and were the line, the net, and the prong. (See Abdallatiph, ap. Rosellini, M. C. vol. i. p. 230.) The great extent of marsh land in Aegypt, and the long continuance of the inundation, caused it beyond all other countries to abound in water-fowl. The fowlers are represented in the paintings as spreading nets, or as rowing in their boats among the aquatic plants, in which the birds nestled, and knocking them down with sticks. The use of decoy-birds was not unknown; and smoked or salted wild-fowl were an article of export. The edible water-fowl are mostly of the goose and duck anas) tribe; the quail also is mentioned by Herodotus (2.77) as among the species that were dried in the sun and slightly salted for home consumption and export.

The Fauna of the Nile were the hippopotamus and the crocodile, with many lesser species of the saurian genus. In the more remote ages both were found through the whole course of the river (Diod. 1.35), although at present the hippopotamus rarely descends below the second Cataract, or the crocodile below 27° N. lat. The chase of the [p. 2.436]hippopotamus is represented on the monuments of the Thebaid, but not on those of Middle or Lower Aegypt. The crocodile was caught with a hook baited with the chine of a pig (Hdt. 2.68), or with nets. (Diod. 1.35.) It was an object of worship in some nomes [ARSINOE; OMBOS], of abhorrence in others. [TENTYRA]

The boats of the Nile, as represented on the monuments, exhibit a great variety of size and form. There was the canoe, made of a single trunk; the shallop of papyrus, rendered water-tight by bitumen; and there were even vessels constructed of light earthenware. (Juven. Sat. 15.129.) The most usual species of craft, however, is a boat whose bow and stern are high out of the water, square rigged, with sails either of canvass or papyrus, a single mast that could be lowered in high winds, and a shallow keel, in order to allow of easy extrication of the vessel should it run aground. But the most striking and capacious boat employed on the Nile was the large Baris, used for the transportation of goods. (Hdt. 2.96.) It was built of the hard wood of the Sont (Acanthe); the sails were made of papyrus, and the seams caulked with an oakum composed from the fibres of that plant. These barges were propelled by as many as forty rowers ranged on the same level, and their tonnage amounted to three, four, and even five hundred tons. These Baris were towed up the stream, if the wind were not strong enough to impel them against it, or floated down it, with combined action of sail and oars, and steered by one or more large paddles at the stern. Parties of pleasure, visits of ceremony, and marriage processions, alike added to the floating population of the river; but perhaps the most impressive spectacles which it presented were the pomp and circumstance of funerals. On the tombs of Speos Artemidos (Benihassan) is depictured the barge of Amenemhe conveying the females of his house. It has an awning like a gondola, and is one of the half-decked boats (σκάφαι θαλαμηγοί) of which Strabo speaks (xvii. p. 800). In such a vessel Caesar intended, but for the indignant murmurs of his legions, to have ascended the Nile with Cleopatra from Alexandreia to the first Cataract. (Sueton. Jul. 58.) The tomb of Rameses IV. at Thebes exhibits a royal barge. The hall, the cabin (θάλαμος), the rudder, and the masts are painted of a gold colour; the sails are diapered and fringed with various brilliant hues; the phoenix and the vulture are embroidered upon them. The eye of Osiris is painted on the rudder, and its handles represent the royal emblems--the uraeus and the pschent, or head of a divinity. The splendour of the Baris on the monuments recalls that of the vessel which carried Cleopatra up the Cydnus to meet M. Antonius at Tarsus. (Plut. Ant. 100.26.) It was a favourite amusement of the Aegyptians, in later times especially, to row rapidly in boats, and hurl and thrust at one another as they passed blunt javelins or jerids. Such a scene is represented on the tomb of Imai at Gizeh, one of the oldest monuments of Aegypt. They delighted also in sailing up and down the river-arms and lakes of the Delta, and feasting under the shadow of the tall reeds, and Aegyptian bean, which there attains a height of many feet. (Strab. xvii. p.823, and generally Rosellini, Monumenti Civili.

The Nile was also frequently the stage on which the great religious festivals or panegyries were celebrated. On such solemnities the population of entire nomes poured themselves forth. On the day of the feast of Artemis at Bubastis, the inhabitants of the Delta thronged the canals and main streams, while thousands descended from the middle country and the Thebaid to be present at the ceremonies. The decks of the Baris were crowded with devotees of either sex, and the loud music of the pipe and cymbal was accompanied by songs and hymns, and clapping of hands. As they neared any town the passengers ran the barges along shore and recruited their numbers with fresh votaries. As many as 700,000 persons, exclusive of children, were sometimes assembled at Bubastis, or at the equally popular festival of Isis at Busiris. Numerous sacrifices were offered in the temples of the goddesses, and, whether in libations or in revelry, more wine was consumed on these occasions than in all the rest of the year. (Comp. Hdt. 2.61, 62, with Clemens Alexand. Cohort. vol. i. p. 17.)

That the Nile should have been an object of worship with the Aegyptians, and that its image and phenomena should have entered deeply into their whole religious system, was unavoidable. As regarded its external aspect, it flowed between sand and rock, the sole giver and sustainer of life in that valley of death: it was, both in its increment and its decrease, in its course through vast solitudes, and thronged populations alternately, the most suggestive and expressive of emblems for a religion which represented in such marked contrast, the realms of creation and destruction, of Osiris and Typhon. The Nile--as Oceanus, or the watery element--was a member of the first Ogdoad of the Aegyptian theology (Diod. 1.6-26), the opponent of Phtah, the elemental fire, and the companion of the earth (Demeter), the air (Neith), Zeus or Amûn, the quickening spirit, Osiris and Isis, the Sun and Moon. It was thus one of the primitive essences, higher than any member of the second Ogdoad, or the visible objects of adoration. (Heliod. Aethiop. 9.9; Schol. in Pind. Pyth. 4.99.) It had its own hieratic emblem on the monuments, sometimes as the ocean embracing the earth, sometimes, as in the temple of Osiris at Philae, as the assistant of Phtah in the creation of Osiris. The wild crocodile was an emblem of Typhon (Plutarch, Is. et Osir. p. 371); but the tamed crocodile was the symbol of the gently swelling, beneficent Nile. (Euseb. Praep. Evangel. 3.11.) Osiris is sometimes, but incorrectly, said (Tibull. Eleg. 1.7, 27) to be the Nile itself (Plut. Is. et Osir. c. 33): there is no doubt, however, that it was personified and received divine honours. A festival called Niloa was celebrated at the time of the first rise of the waters, i. e. about the summer solstice, at which the priests were accustomed to drop pieces of coin, and the Roman prefect of the Thebaid golden ornaments, into the river near Philae (Senec. Nat. Quaest. 4.2, 7); indeed there must have been a priesthood specially dedicated to the great river, since, according to Herodotus (2.101), none but a priest of the Nile could bury the corpse of a person drowned in its waters. Temples were rarely appropriated to the Nile alone; yet Hecataeus (ap. Steph. s. v. Νεῖλος) speaks of one, in the town of Neilus, which stood in the Heracleopolite nome, near the entrance of the Fyoum. In the quarries at Silsilis several stelae are inscribed with acts of adoration to the river, who is joined with Phre and Phtah. Its symbol in hieroglyphics is read Moou, and the last in the group of the characters composing it, is a symbol of water. According [p. 2.437]to Lucian, indeed (Jupiter Tragaed. § 42), the Aegyptians sacrificed to the element of water, not locally, but universally. Pictorially, the Nile was represented under a round and plump figure, of a blue colour, and sometimes with female breasts, indicative of its productive and nutritive powers. On the base of the throne of Amenophis-Memnon, at Thebes, two figures represent the Nile, similar in all other respects, except that one is crowned with lotus to denote the upper courses of the river, the other with papyrus to designate the lower. [See AEGYPTUS p. 37.] (Rosellini, Mon. del. Cult.; Kenrick's Ancient Aegypt, vol. i. pp. 349--463.) [W.B.D]

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  • Cross-references from this page (36):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.13
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.158
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.77
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.96
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.101
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.17
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.5
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.61
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.62
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.68
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.97
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 338
    • Homer, Odyssey, 3.300
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.477
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 18
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 36.9
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.10
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 18.19
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.29
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.9
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.29
    • Cicero, De Republica, 6.19
    • Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum, 22.15
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 2.42
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.26
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.30
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.33
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.35
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.38
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.40
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.6
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.5
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 2.41
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 2.54
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 2.67
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 7
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