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The Nile issues forth from Lake Victoria on the equator and flows northward nearly 2,500 miles (4,167 km.) to the Mediterranean. Of this, the northernmost 500 miles can be said to be in Egypt, from Aswan northward. The “White” Nile rises as above at the equator and has a fairly even flow northward till it is joined by the “Blue” Nile at modern Khartoum in the Sudan. This stream and the other affluents that join the Nile from the east, rise in the mountains of Ethiopia and are fed by the torrential rains of the springtime. They fluctuate greatly and provide the annual inundation that for thousands of years has flooded and fertilized lower Egypt. The ancient mythological belief was that the goddess Isis annually shed a tear into the upper Nile, thus causing the flood that is so great a blessing that Egypt has been called, from the time of Herodotus onward, “the Gift of the Nile.”

Near the end of June the water at Cairo and onward takes on a greenish tinge and an unpleasant taste because of the vast multiplication of the algae; then about the beginning of July the life-giving inundation begins so that the delta region overflows and the stream deposits the rich gift of sediment brought down from the mountains. During an average year, the vast delta seems almost like a sea with islands protruding here and there. If the inundation is unusually deep, many houses are destroyed and loss ensues, while if it is much below the average level, famine follows. A failure of this inundation for seven successive years (Gen.41.1-Gen.41.57) was used by God to work a great but peaceful revolution in Egypt in which Joseph bought up for the pharaoh practically all private property except that of the priests and brought the Israelites into Egypt for a stay of several hundred years.

In Upper Egypt the Nile flows for many miles through high walls of sand and rock, with the desert encroaching on both sides, so that only by great efforts could the people irrigate a narrow strip of land; but from a point a few miles south of Cairo, the Nile divides. The delta begins, and Lower Egypt (i.e., Northern Egypt) has long been one of the most fertile regions in the world.

From the days of Abraham, who as Abram went down into Egypt (Gen.12.10), until the infancy of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt.2.14), Egypt and the Nile were well known by Israel and exerted a strong effect on the civilization of Israel. In describing the Promised Land, Moses (Deut.11.10-Deut.11.12) emphasized its difference from Egypt “where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot” (i.e., by irrigating furrows manipulated, and then altered from time to time, by foot power); and the prosperity or poverty of Egypt at various periods was in proportion to the ingenuity and faithfulness of the people in spreading the water of the Nile on their plants. The rise and fall of the Nile is very regular, but there have been times (e.g., a.d. 1877) when an unusually feeble flood led to widespread famine and many deaths. It was, no doubt, a series of these dry years in the days of Joseph that caused the seven years of famine (Gen.41.1-Gen.41.57) and that led, under God, to the descent of Israel into Egypt.

NILE. The Nile River is one of the great rivers of the world and, in terms of length of the main stream, it is the longest of all rivers, covering some 4,160 m. from its sources in equatorial Africa to its delta on the Mediterranean Sea. Rising in a region of mountains, lakes, and seasonal rains, it traverses marshy and tropical areas and eventually threads its way through rocky desert wastes, where its waters have afforded the sole basis for the existence of living things. It is in the latter reaches that the Nile fostered in Egypt one of the oldest and most long-lived civilizations of which the Western culture is in direct line of descent.

Name. To the ancient Egyptians the Nile was Hapi, which was also the name of the rivergod. It was also simply itrw, “river,” from which the Hebrews derived the term יְאֹֽר, יְאֹ֖ור, “river,” the name for the Nile in the Heb. Bible. The ultimate origin and the meaning of the name Nile are unknown (Gr. Νει̂λος; Lat. Nilus).

Sources. Though sources may be traced farther S, it may be said that the White Nile stream begins at Lake Victoria, whose only outlet is the Victoria Nile, which exits on the NE, over Ripon Falls.

Course and tributaries. The river passes through shallow Lake Kioga, plunges down Murchison Falls, and enters Lake Albert, from which it emerges shortly as the Bahr el Jebel, “the river of the mountain.” South of Lake No are large swamps where floating masses of vegetation called sudd used to block the stream upon occasion and were the often fatal deterrent of early explorers of the river. The Bahr el Jebel is joined at Lake No by the Bahr el Ghazal, “the river of the gazelles”; after this junction the river is called the White Nile. At Khartoum the White Nile is united with the Blue Nile, which provides the greater part of the annual flow of the united river and during flood season has twice the volume of the White Nile. The Blue Nile also carried much of the alluvium responsible for the creation and renewal of the soil of ancient Egypt. A short distance N of Khartoum is the sixth cataract, the first of those natural barriers which were numbered from N to S in the order of their discovery. Below the sixth cataract are the ruins of Meroë, the capital of the Meroitic Empire, c. 300 b.c. to a.d. 350. From here to Aswan lies Nubia, where salvage archeology attracted world-wide cooperation at the time of the building of the High dam. The last tributary of the Nile, the Atbara, enters from the E; thereafter the Nile continues some 1500 m. to the Mediterranean without receiving the waters of any other stream. Between the fourth and third cataracts are the remains of Napata, the center of the so-called Ethiopian (25th) dynasty of Egypt. From the third Cataract N the Egyptians in ancient times maintained a number of fortresses and settlements. Just above Aswan is the famous Aswan Dam and a few m. to the S is the Sadd el Aali, “the High Dam.” Between Aswan and the Mediterranean the water is controlled by a series of barrages. In antiquity there were seven estuaries of the Nile in the Delta, but today there are only two, the Rosetta in the W and the Damietta in the E.

The Nile and ancient Egypt. In antiquity Hecataeus, echoed by Herodotus, declared that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. The river carved the valley and laid down the alluvium, which gave Egypt its ancient name, Kemet, “Black Land,” as contrasted with the redness of the desert. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the river for Egypt. The Nile touched nearly every facet of Egyp. life and gave to Egyp. culture many of its characteristic features. In ancient times the recognition of dependence on the river lead to the deification of the stream under the figure of the god Hapi, represented as a well-fed man with pendulous breasts, bearing offerings of the products of the river. In addition to providing many of the necessities and some of the pleasures of life, the Nile by its regular annual inundation was the basis of the practical agricultural calendar. The coincidence of the heliacal rising of the Dog Star, Sirius (Sothis), and the beginning of the inundation gave rise to the chronological unit of 1460 years, called the Sothic cycle.


H. E. Hurst and P. Phillips, The Nile Basin, 5 vols. (1931-1938); E. Ludwig, The Nile (1936); H. E. Hurst, The Nile (1952); A. Moorehead, The White Nile (1960); A. Moorehead, The Blue Nile (1962); B. Brander, The Nile (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Neilos, meaning not certainly known; perhaps refers to the color of the water, as black or blue. This name does not occur in the Hebrew of the Old Testament or in the English translation):


1. Description

2. Geological Origin

3. The Making of Egypt

4. The Inundation

5. The Infiltration


1. The Location of Temples

2. The Location of Cemeteries

3. The Damming of the Nile

4. Egyptian Famines


1. The Nile as a God

2. The Nile in the Osirian Myth

3. The Celestial Nile

A river of North Africa, the great river of Egypt. The name employed in the Old Testament to designate the Nile is in the Hebrew ye’or, Egyptian aur, earlier, atur, usually translated "river," also occasionally "canals" (Ps 78:44; Eze 29:3 ). In a general way it means all the water of Egypt. The Nile is also the principal river included in the phrase nahare kush, "rivers of Ethiopia" (Isa 18:1). Poetically the Nile is called yam, "sea" (Job 41:31; Na 3:8; probably Isa 18:2), but this is not a name of the river. shichor, not always written fully, has also been interpreted in a mistaken way of the Nile (see Shihor). Likewise nahar mitsrayim, "brook of Egypt," a border stream in no way connected with the Nile, has sometimes been mistaken for that river.

See River of Egypt.

I. The Nile in Physical Geography.

1. Description:

The Nile is formed by the junction of the White Nile and the Blue Nile in latitude 15 degree 45’ North and longitude 32 degree 45’ East. The Blue Nile rises in the highlands of Abyssinia, latitude 12 degree 30’ North, long. 35 degree East, and flows Northwest 850 miles to its junction with the White North. The White Nile, the principal branch of the North, rises in Victoria Nyanza, a great lake in Central Africa, a few miles North of the equator, long. 33 degree East (more exactly the Nile may be said to rise at the headwaters of the Ragera River, a small stream on the other side of the lake, 3 degree South of the equator), and flows North in a tortuous channel, 1,400 miles to its junction with the Blue Nile. From this junction-point the Niles flows North through Nubia and Egypt 1,900 miles and empties into the Mediterranean Sea, in latitude 32 degree North, through 2 mouths, the Rosetta, East of Alexandria, and the Damietta, West of Port Said. There were formerly 7 mouths scattered along a coast-line of 140 miles.

2. Geological Origin:

The Nile originated in the Tertiary period and has continued from that time to this, though by the subsidence of the land 220 ft. along the Mediterranean shore in the Pluvial times, the river was very much shortened. Later in the Pluvial times the land rose again and is still rising slowly.

3. The Making of Egypt:

Cultivable Egypt is altogether the product of the Nile, every particle of the soil having been brought down by the river from the heart of the continent and deposited along the banks and especially in the delta at the mouth of the river. The banks have risen higher and higher and extended farther and farther back by the deposit of the sediment, until the valley of arable land varies in width in most parts from 3 or 4 miles to 9 or 10 miles. The mouth of the river, after the last elevation of the land in Pluvial times, was at first not far from the latitude of Cairo. From this point northward the river has built up a delta of 140 miles on each side, over which it spreads itself and empties into the sea through its many mouths.

4. The Inundation:

The, watering of Egypt by the inundation from the Nile is the most striking feature of the physical character of that land, and one of the most interesting and remarkable physical phenomena in the world. The inundation is produced by the combination of an indirect and a direct cause. The indirect cause is the rain and melting snow on the equatorial mountains in Central Africa, which maintains steadily a great volume of water in the White Nile. The direct cause is torrential rains in the highlands of Abyssinia which send down the Blue Nile a sudden great increase in the volume of water. The inundation has two periods each year. The first begins about July 15 and continues until near the end of September. After a slight recession, the river again rises early in October in the great inundation. High Nile is in October, 25 to 30 ft., low Nile in June, about 12 1/2 ft. The Nilometer for recording the height of the water of inundation dates from very early times. Old Nilometers are found still in situ at Edfu and Assuan. The watering and fertilizing of the land is the immediate effect of the inundation; its ultimate result is that making of Egypt which is still in progress. The settling of the sediment from the water upon the land has raised the surface of the valley about 1 ft. in 300 to 400 years, about 9 to 10 ft. near Cairo since the beginning of the early great temples. The deposit varies greatly at other places. As the deposit of sediment has been upon the bottom of the river, as well as upon the surface of the land, though more slowly, on account of the swiftness of the current, the river also has been lifted up, and thus the inundation has extended farther and farther to the East, and the West, as the level of the valley would permit, depositing the sediment and thus making the cultivable land wider, as well as the soil deeper, year by year. At Heliopolis, a little North of Cairo, this extension to the East has been 3 to 4 miles since the building of the great temple there.

At Luxor, about 350 miles farther up the river, where the approach toward the mountains is much steeper, the extension of the good soil to the East and the West is inconsiderable.

5. The Infiltration:

The ancient Egyptians were right in calling all the waters of Egypt the Nile, for wherever water is obtained by digging it is simply the Nile percolating through the porous soil. This percolation is called the infiltration of the Nile. It always extends as far on either side of the Nile as the level of the water in the river at the time will permit. This infiltration, next to the inundation, is the most important physical phenomenon in Egypt. By means of it much of the irrigation of the land during the dry season is carried on from wells. It has had its influence also in the political and religious changes of the country (compare below).

II. The Nile in History.

1. The Location of Temples:

Some of the early temples were located near the Nile, probably because of the deification of the river. The rising of the surface of the land, and at the same time of the bed of the river, from the inundation lifted both Egypt and its great river, but left the temples down at the old level. In time the infiltration of the river from its new higher level reached farther and farther and rose to a higher level until the floor of these old temples was under water even at the time of lowest Nile, and then gods and goddesses, priests and ceremonial all were driven out. At least two of the greatest temples and most sacred places, Heliopolis and Memphis, had to be abandoned. Probably this fact had as much to do with the downfall of Egypt’s religion, as its political disasters and the actual destruction of its temples by eastern invaders. Nature’s God had driven out the gods of Nature.

2. The Location of Cemeteries:

Some prehistoric burials are found on the higher ground, as at Kefr `Amar. A thousand years of history would be quite sufficient to teach Egyptians that the Nile was still making Egypt. Thenceforth, cemeteries were located at the mountains on the eastern and the western boundaries of the valley. Here they continue to this day, for the most part still entirely above the waters of the inundation--and usually above the reach of the infiltration.

3. The Damming of the Nile:

The widening of the cultivable land by means of long canals which carried the water from far up the river to levels higher than that of the inundation, farther down the river was practiced from very early times. The substitution of dams for long canals was reserved for modern engineering skill. Three great dams have been made: the first a little Nile of Cairo, the greatest at Assuan, and the last near Asyut.

4. Egyptian Famines:

Famines in Egypt are always due to failure in the quantity of the waters of inundation. Great famines have not been frequent. The cause of the failure in the water of inundation is now believed to be not so much a lack of the water of inundation from the Blue Nile as the choking of the channel of the White Nile in the great marsh land of the Sudan by the sud, a kind of sedge, sometimes becoming such a tangled mass as to close the channel and impede the flow of the regular volume of water so that the freshet in the Blue Nile causes but little inundation at the usual time, and during the rest of the year the Nile is so low from the same cause that good irrigation by canals and wells is impossible. A channel through the sud is now kept open by the Egyptian government.

III. The Nile in Religion.

One of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon was Hapi, the Nile. In early times it divided the honors with Ra, the sun-god. No wonder it was so.

1. The Nile as a God:

If the Egyptians set out to worship Nature-gods at all, surely then the sun and the Nile first.

2. The Nile in Osirian Myth:

The origin of the Osirian myth is still much discussed. Very much evidence, perhaps conclusive evidence, can be adduced to prove that it rose originally from the Nile; that Osiris was first of all the Nile, then the water of the Nile, then the soil, the product of the waters of the Nile, and then Egypt, the Nile and all that it produced.

3. The Celestial Nile:

Egypt was the Egyptian’s little world, and Egypt was the Nile. It was thus quite natural for the Egyptians in considering the celestial world to image it in likeness of their own world with a celestial Nile flowing through it. It is so represented in the mythology, but the conception of the heavens is vague.