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The sources of the Nile1 are unascertained, and, travelling as it does for an immense distance through deserts and burning sands, it is only known to us by common report, having neither experienced the vicissitudes of warfare, nor been visited by those arms which have so effectually explored all other regions. It rises, so far indeed as King Juba was enabled to ascertain, in a mountain2 of Lower Mauritania, not far from the ocean; immediately after which it forms a lake of standing water, which bears the name of Nilides3. In this lake are found the several kinds of fish known by the names of alabeta4, coracinus, and silurus; a crocodile also was brought thence as a proof that this really is the Nile, and was consecrated by Juba himself in the temple of Isis at Cæsarea5, where it may be seen at the present day. In addition to these facts, it has been observed that the waters of the Nile rise in the same proportion in which the snows and rains of Mauritania increase. Pouring forth from this lake, the river disdains to flow through arid and sandy deserts, and for a distance of several days' journey conceals itself; after which it bursts forth at another lake of greater magnitude in the country of the Massæsyli6, a people of Mauritania Cæsariensis, and thence casts a glance around, as it were, upon the communities of men in its vicinity, giving proofs of its identity in the same peculiarities of the animals which it produces. It then buries itself once again in the sands of the desert, and remains concealed for a distance of twenty days' journey, till it has reached the confines of Æthiopia. Here, when it has once more become sensible of the presence of man, it again emerges, at the same source, in all probability, to which writers have given the name of Niger, or Black. After this, forming the boundary-line between Africa and Æthiopia, its banks, though not immediately peopled by man, are the resort of numbers of wild beasts and animals of various kinds. Giving birth in its course to dense forests of trees, it travels through the middle of Æthiopia, under the name of Astapus, a word which signifies, in the language of the nations who dwell in those regions, "water issuing from the shades below." Proceeding onwards, it divides7 innumerable islands in its course, and some of them of such vast magnitude, that although its tide runs with the greatest rapidity, it is not less than five days in passing them. When making the circuit of Meroë, the most famous of these islands, the left branch of the river is called Astobores8, or, in other words, "an arm of the water that issues from the shades," while the right arm has the name of Astosapes9, which adds to its original signification the meaning of "side10." It does not obtain the name of "Nile" until its waters have again met and are united in a single stream; and even then, for some miles both above and below the point of confluence, it has the name of Siris. Homer has given to the whole of this river the name of Ægyptus, while other writers again have called it Triton11. Every now and then its course is interrupted by islands which intervene, and which only serve as so many incentives to add to the impetuosity of its torrent; and though at last it is hemmed in by mountains on either side, in no part is the tide more rapid and precipitate. Its waters then hastening onwards, it is borne along to the spot in the country of the Æthiopians which is known by the name of "Catadupi12;" where, at the last Cataract13, the complaint is, not that it flows, but that it rushes, with an immense noise between the rocks that lie in its way: after which it becomes more smooth, the violence of its waters is broken and subdued, and, wearied out as it were by the length of the distance it has travelled, it discharges itself, though by many mouths14, into the Egyptian sea. During certain days of the year, however, the volume of its waters is greatly increased, and as it traverses the whole of Egypt, it inundates the earth, and, by so doing, greatly promotes its fertility.

There have been various reasons suggested for this increase of the river. Of these, however, the most probable are, either that its waters are driven back by the Etesian winds15, which are blowing at this season of the year from an opposite direction, and that the sea which lies beyond is driven into the mouths of the river; or else that its waters are swollen by the summer rains of Æthiopia16, which fall from the clouds conveyed thither by the Etesian winds from other parts of the earth. Timæus the mathematician has alleged a reason of an occult nature: he says that the source of the river is known by the name of Phiala, and that the stream buries itself in channels underground, where it sends forth vapours generated by the heat among the steaming rocks amid which it conceals itself; but that, during the days of the inundation, in consequence of the sun approaching nearer to the earth, the waters are drawn forth by the influence of his heat, and on being thus exposed to the air, overflow; after which, in order that it may not be utterly dried up, the stream hides itself once more. He says that this takes place at the rising of the Dog-Star, when the sun enters the sign of Leo, and stands in a vertical position over the source of the river, at which time at that spot there is no shadow thrown. Most authors, however, are of opinion, on the contrary, that the river flows in greater volume when the sun takes his departure for the north, which he does when he enters the signs of Cancer and Leo, because its waters then are not dried up to so great an extent; while on the other hand, when he returns towards the south pole and re-enters Capricorn, its waters are absorbed by the heat, and consequently flow in less abundance. If there is any one inclined to be of opinion, with Timæus, that the waters of the river may be drawn out of the earth by the heat, it will be as well for him to bear in mind the fact, that the absence of shadow is a phænomenon which lasts continuously17 in these regions.

The Nile begins to increase at the next new moon after the summer solstice, and rises slowly and gradually as the sun passes through the sign of Cancer; it is at its greatest height while the sun is passing through Leo, and it falls as slowly and gradually as it arose while he is passing through the sign of Virgo. It has totally subsided between its banks, as we learn from Herodotus, on the hundredth day, when the sun has entered Libra. While it is rising it has been pronounced criminal for kings or prefects even to sail upon its waters. The measure of its increase is ascertained by means of wells18. Its most desirable height is sixteen cubits19; if the waters do not attain that height, the overflow is not universal; but if they exceed that measure, by their slowness in receding they tend to retard the process of cultivation. In the latter case the time for sowing is lost, in consequence of the moisture of the soil; in the former, the ground is so parched that the seed-time comes to no purpose. The country has reason to make careful note of either extreme. When the water rises to only twelve cubits, it experiences the horrors of famine; when it attains thirteen, hunger is still the result; a rise of fourteen cubits is productive of gladness; a rise of fifteen sets all anxieties at rest; while an increase of sixteen is productive of unbounded transports of joy. The greatest increase known, up to the present time, is that of eighteen cubits, which took place in the time of the Emperor Claudius; the smallest rise was that of five, in the year of the battle of Pharsalia20, the river by this prodigy testifying its horror, as it were, at the murder of Pompeius Magnus. When the waters have reached their greatest height, the people open the embankments and admit them to the lands. As each district is left by the waters, the business of sowing commences. This is the only river in existence that emits no vapours21.

The Nile first enters the Egyptian territory at Syene22, on the frontiers of Æthiopia; that is the name of a peninsula a mile in circumference, upon which Castra23 is situate, on the side of Arabia. Opposite to it are the four islands of Philæ24, at a distance of 600 miles from the place where the Nile divides into two channels; at which spot, as we have already stated, the Delta, as it is called, begins. This, at least, is the distance, according to Artemidorus, who also informs us that there were in it 250 towns; Juba says, however, that the distance between these places is 400 miles. Aristocreon says that the distance from Elephantis to the sea is 750 miles; Elephantis25 being an inhabited island four miles below the last Cataract, sixteen26 beyond Syene, 585 from Alexandria, and the extreme limit of the navigation of Egypt. To such an extent as this have the above-named authors27 been mistaken! This island is the place of rendezvous for the vessels of the Æthiopians: they are made to fold up28, and the people carry them on their shoulders whenever they come to the Cataracts.

1 And it is generally supposed that they are so up to the present day. The ethnographer Jablonski is of opinion that this river derives its name from the Coptish word tneialei "to rise at stated times." Servius, the commentator on Virgil, says that it is derived from the two Greek words νέα ἰλὺς "fresh mud," in allusion to the fresh mud or slime which it leaves after each inundation. Singularly enough, Champollion prefers this silly etymology to that suggested by Jablonski.

2 An interesting disquisition on the probable sources of the Nile, as viewed by the ancients, is to be found in the Ninth Book of Lucan's Pharsalia. The Indian word "nilas," "black," has also been suggested as its possible origin.

3 What spot is meant under this name, if indeed it is anything more than the creation of fancy, it is impossible to ascertain with any degree of precision. It is possible however that the ancients may have had some knowledge of Lake Tchad, and the Mountains of the Moon, or Djebel-Kumri, though at the same time it is more than doubtful that the Nile has its source in either of those localities, the former especially.

4 Perhaps a kind of river lamprey. As to the Coracinus, see B. ix. c. 24, 32, and B. xxxii. c. 19, 24, 34, 44, and 53; and as to the Silurus, B. ix. c. 17, 25, and B. xxxii. c. 31, 36, 40, 43, 44, &c.

5 The modern Vacur in Northern Africa.

6 A district which in reality was at least 1200 or 1500 miles distant from any part of the Nile, and probably near 3000 from its real source.

7 Spargit." It is doubtful whether this word means here "waters," or "divides." Probably however the latter is its meaning.

8 This is the third or eastern branch of the river, now known as the Tacazze. It rises in the highlands of Abyssinia, in about 11°40′ north lat. and 39°40′ east long., and joins the main stream of the Nile, formed by the union of the Abiad and the Azrek, in 17°45′ north lat. and about 34°5′ east long.; the point of junction being the apex of the island of Meroë, here mentioned by Pliny.

9 Possibly by this name he designates the Bahr-el-Abied, or White River, the main stream of the Nile, the sources of which have not been hitherto satisfactorily ascertained. The Astapus is supposed to have been really the name of the Bahr-el-Azrek, or Blue River, the third branch of the Nile, the sources of which are in the highlands of Abyssinia, in about 11°40′ north lat. and 39°40′ east long.

10 Or "side of the water that issues from the shades." As Hardouin says, this does not appear to be a very satisfactory explanation.

11 Said by Tzetzes to have been derived from the Greek τρἱτος, "the third," because it had three times changed its name: having been called, first, the Ocean; secondly, Aëtus, or the Eagle; and thirdly, Ægyptus.

12 Or the "Cataracts," for which it is the Greek name. The most northerly of these cataracts, called the First Cataract, is, and always has been, the southern boundary of Egypt. According to the most recent accounts, these Cataracts are devoid of any stupendous features, such as characterize the Falls of Niagara.

13 The one now called the First Cataract.

14 Seven mouths in ancient times, which have now dwindled down to two of any importance, the Damietta mouth on the east, and the Rosetta on the west.

15 The Etesians are periodical winds, which blow steadily from one quarter for forty days each year, during the season of the Dog-days. The opinion here stated was that promulgated by Thales the philosopher. Seneca refutes it in B. iv. c. 2. of his Quæst. Nat.

16 This was the opinion of Democritus of Abdera, and of Agatharchidas of Cnidos. It is combated by Diodorus Siculus, B. i., but it is the opinion most generally received at the present day. See the disquisition on the subject introduced in the Ninth book of Lucan's Pharsalia.

17 And that the high tide or inundation would be consequently continuous as well.

18 The principal well for this purpose was called the "Nilometer," or "Gauge for the Nile."

19 On this subject see Pliny, B. xviii. c. 47, and B. xxxvi. c. 11.

20 Seneca says that the Nile did not rise as usual in the tenth and eleventh years of the reign of Cleopatra, and that the circumstance was said to bode ruin to her and Antony.—Nat. Quæst. B. iv. c. 2.

21 He means dense clouds, productive of rain, not thin mists. See what is said of the Borysthenes by our author, B. xxxi. c. 30.

22 Syene was a city of Upper Egypt, on the eastern bank of the Nile just below the First Cataract, and was looked upon as the southern frontier city of Egypt against Æthiopia. It was an important point in the geography and astronomy of the ancients; for, lying just under the tropic of Cancer, it was chosen as the place through which they drew their chief parallel of latitude. The sun was vertical to Syene at the time of the summer solstice, and a well was shown there where the face of the sun was seen at noon at that time. Its present name is Assouan or Ossouan.

23 If this word means the "Camp," it does not appear to be known what camp is meant. Most editions have "Cerastæ," in which case it would mean that at Syene the Cerastes or horned serpent is found.

24 One of these (if indeed Philæ did consist of more than a single island, which seems doubtful) is now known as Djeziret-el-Birbe, the "Island of the Temple."

25 This island was seated just below the Lesser Cataract, opposite Syene, and near the western bank of the Nile. At this point the river becomes navigable downward to its mouths, and the traveller from Meroë or Æthiopia enters Egypt Proper. The original name of this island was "Ebo," Eb being in the language of hieroglyphics the symbol of the elephant and ivory. It was remarkable for its fertility and verdure, and the Arabs of the present day designate the island as Djesiret-el-Sag, or "the Blooming."

26 This is a mistake of Pliny's, for it was opposite to Syene. Brotier thinks that Pliny intended to write' Philæ,' but by mistake inserted Syene.

27 Artemidorus, Juba, and Aristocreon.

28 They were probably made of papyrus, or else of hides, like the British coracles.

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    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ALEXANDREIA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), APHRODITO´POLIS
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), BUSI´RIS
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ELEPHANTI´NE
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ISIDIS OPPIDUM
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), MAREO´TIS
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), MENDES
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), NAU´CRATIS
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