Probably no other river in the world has received as much veneration as the Nile. The Greek traveler and “granddaddy of journalism” Herodotus declared that Egypt was the “gift of the Nile.” He himself traveled along the river all the way to the island of Elephantine. Join us as we follow in Herodotus’ footsteps 2,500 years later

The Mirage 1 of the South Sinai Nile Cruises company sluggishly steams up the Nile. The ship is a floating hotel, complete with a ballroom, a gym, and a jeweler. Up on the sundeck, only a handful of Canadian tourists loll about on deckchairs and watch the palm-lined banks of the legendary river pass by. They sip coke or whisky on the rocks that is served by uniformed waiters. Now and then, the bikini-clad tourists jump into the swimming pool to cool off from the hot temperatures, which can quickly rise to over 45 degrees Celsius at this time of year.

The luxury cruise ship is a self-contained world of its own. The children on the banks of the river sometimes get a glimpse of the foreigners in their swimwear, laugh and wave to the tourists before disappearing into their mud huts. As was the case thousands of years ago, these huts are made from the silt of the mighty stream. Civilization began here with the building of houses made of mud bricks.

The deadly expanse of the desert begins just behind the houses, the palms, and the lush green meadows that line the banks of the river. The scenery lets one sense what may have moved the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih to write that the Nile winds its way through the country like the sacred snake of ancient Egyptian deities. Salih’s florid prose has the Nile’s chest swelling with wrath, while the flat, thirst-slaked land extends as far as the eye can see. Salih writes that the calm and moist soil harbors a mystery and that the earth is like a hot-blooded woman who longs for her spouse. There would be no life here without the Nile.

“Lord of fish, that makes the waterfowl to go upstream”


The poet Khety is credited with praising the Nile as the basis of all life 4,000 years ago.

5,000 kilometers to Egypt

Egypt has been tormented by Islamic terrorism in recent years. However, the Canadian tourists on board the ship seem unconcerned. They are looking forward to seeing Abu Simbel and its huge statues of Ramses II. The complex is located in the far south of the country, only 36 kilometers from the Sudanese border. Like gigantic sentinels, the statues guard the border between Egypt and “Black Africa.” They stand at the beginning of a unique civilization, which arose here more than 4,000 years ago—a civilization that would have been unthinkable without the great river flowing from the interior of Africa.

The Nile has already traveled more than 5,000 kilometers by the time it reaches the “Land of the Pharaohs.” The source of the White Nile, the Ruvironza, arises in the mountains of Burundi in the heart of Africa. The Ruvironza flows into the Kagera, which eventually discharges its waters into Lake Victoria. The White Nile begins its trek north near Jinja in Uganda. It flows through part of the Congo at Lake Albert before proceeding through South Sudan and Sudan until merging with the Blue Nile next to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The Blue Nile has its origins in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, from where it makes its way to Sudan. Although the Blue Nile is only about 1,500 kilometers long in total, the vast amounts of water that make the desert bloom in Egypt largely come from the rain that falls in the Ethiopian highlands.

The Romans searched for the source of the Nile in vain

“Praise to you, O Nile, that issues from the earth, and comes to nourish Egypt,” says a 4,000-year-old hymn that is attributed to Khety. “Lord of fish, that makes the waterfowl to go upstream ... that makes barley and creates beans. Flow, O Nile! We sacrifice to you. Come to Egypt! Come, Hidden One! Who nourishes man and animals with his fruits of the field.”

In his book about the race to find the sources of the Nile, the Swiss author Georg Brunold wrote that Alexander the Great is said to have asked Ammon, Egypt’s highest god, about the sources of the Nile. Caesar supposedly expressed his readiness to give up his warring ways in exchange for the secrets of the Nile if they could be wrested from the river. The Nile outwitted even gods and demigods, causing Dionysus and Hercules to wander through the Egyptian hinterland in vain.

As a result, caput Nili quaerere (“searching for the sources of the Nile”) became a metaphor for insoluble problems even back in ancient Rome. For centuries, the divine river kept its secrets. Great explorers such as Stanley and Livingstone, Bruce and Burton—all failed to solve this mystery. Instead, the eager young British officer John Hanning Speke eventually found out that the Nile arose in Lake Victoria near Jinja.

The river was finally brought to heel by the Egyptian officer and then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although his plan to create a pan-Arabic state that would extend from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf failed miserably, he managed to tame the Nile by building the Aswan High Dam. Construction began in 1960. Many Nubian villages and temples disappeared beneath the floods, and 100,000 people had to be relocated. The Soviets were greatly involved in the building of the 3,800-meter-long dam, which is 111 meters high and causes the waters of the Nile to back up into a 500-kilometer-long lake that stretches deep into Sudan.

International dam disputes

Was Nasser’s taming of the mighty river so that it would only flow like a sluggish canal tantamount to sacrilege? Perhaps an expression of megalomania? Not at all, says the noted hydrologist Mohamed Nasr Eldin Allam from Cairo University. He claims that Nasser’s achievement was a blessing for the country. “In the past, agriculture suffered when no water came. In such crises, the people practically ate each other up. They were unable to plant or harvest anything and searched desperately for groundwater. That changed completely after the building of the Aswan Dam. It’s true that the Nile suddenly became like a canal, but we can now regulate the water level. We have a controlled river and are no longer completely dependent on the rainfall in Ethiopia.”

Eldin Allam has an office in the center of Cairo. In addition to teaching at the university, he works as a consultant and delivers expert opinions. He knows very well how important the river’s water is for Egypt and he looks with concern at Ethiopia, which has been feverishly building the Grand Renaissance Dam since 2011. This megaproject will rival the Aswan Dam in scope.

Once the dam is completed, which is expected to occur in the near future, it will consist of a 145-meter high and 1,800-meter-long roller-compacted concrete wall that cost around $5 billion to build. Allam is convinced that the dam poses a threat to Egypt. What’s more, he thinks it’s unnecessary, because “Ethiopia has heavy rainfall along the Nile basin, ranging from 900 millimeters per year to over 2,200 millimeters per year in some areas. Egypt, by contrast, only gets 20 millimeters. That’s practically nothing, we are veritably drying out.” Allam also points out that “the water from the Blue Nile, which would otherwise flow through Sudan and then through Egypt, would have to be diverted for more than one and a half years for the reservoir to fill up.”

In 2013 the Egyptian government threatened to take military action if Ethiopia refused to give up its dam project. For now, however, the governments in Cairo and Addis Ababa have come to an agreement in cooperation with the administration in Khartoum. Previously, the government in Cairo always invoked treaties that guaranteed Egypt and Sudan 87 percent of the water of the Nile. These treaties were signed in 1929 and 1959 and enable Cairo to veto the building of new dams. However, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seems to have given in. In fact, the electricity produced by the new dam might even benefit Egypt.

But this doesn’t really reassure Mohamed Nasr Eldin Allam. “The dam in Ethiopia will control the water, and control over the water means power,” he says. No other river in the world has demonstrated this fact as clearly as the Nile, which enabled mankind to create its first civilization. However, if the river should fail, it would also mean the end of all life.

Thilo Thielke

worked as an Africa correspondent for Der Spiegel for many years. He spent most of his time near the sources of the Nile, around Lake Victoria. He has now fulfilled his dream of following the course of the Egyptian Nile for three weeks, from Abu Simbel to the delta