The Nile: More Than Just a River

Do you know what is the longest river in the whole world? It’s the Nile, Egypt’s most important river.

The most important characteristics of the Nile for Egypt’s people, from the prehistoric period up to today, is its annual flood. This gift of the Nile came from African rains and snow on their highlands, which brought large amounts of water into Egypt. The river drowned the fields and left it coated with fertile topsoil. This fertile soil has kept the Egyptians alive for hundreds of years.

The Roman writer Seneca described how the river was welcomed by the Egyptians: “It is a beautiful sight when the Nile overflows the fields. The plains vanish, the valleys are hidden. Only the towns stick out like islands. The sole means of community is by boat; and the more the land is submerged, the greater the people’s joy.”

In the days of the pharaoh, the Nile supported the lives of 100,000 people throughout the country. The bad years for the Egyptians happened when flood's failed during what is called the Seven Lean years, which occurred while Djoser, the king of the third dynasty, ruled the kingdom.

Life in Ancient Egypt was marked by religious rituals. The river was associated with gods, in particular Hapi, Lord of Provisions and Lord of Fishes. Egyptians believed Hapi controlled floods. He sat below the Aswan mountains, guarded by snakes, and held flood-water in his jar. Egyptians made sacrifices at Gebel Silsila near mountains to ensure he opened his jar at the right angle; if he opened his jar too large, it could mean a deluge, and if it wasn’t opened far enough it could mean a drought to the land. A statue of Hapi, in the Vatican Museum of Rome, shows him with 16 tall children. This symbolizes the fact that if the flood failed to reach all 16, cubits or 25 feet, then the land would not flourish and the people would go hungry.

The river also symbolizes the life and death of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Underworld. Osiris was killed by his evil brother Set. Osiris body was left in pieces throughout land. His wife Isis searched to find him and collected the limbs and brought him back to life. As the story goes, after Osiris’s return, his son Horus was born. The son brought new life and joy, so the fields were fertilized. He was the next King of Egypt and also a god. Osiris then agreed to rule the Underworld.

The life and death of Osiris is the Nile's death and rebirth. Set represents the hot desert wind that dries the waters. When Osiris was dead the river was dry. When his body was found by Isis, there was a flood. It is believed that Osiris is the Nile, Isis is the Earth. The marriage of the two represents the productive union of water and soil. This relationship is emblematic of the Nile's importance.

[Source: Rivers of the World]