The Nile: The Life-Story of a River

Emil Ludwig*


Dade Desta: A well written story is almost as rare as a well-read one. This article is one such! It is extracted from DER NIL: LEBENSLAUF EINES STORMES, a book written in German back in 1935. The eloquent writer, Emil Ludwig, romantically personifies this Nile as if it were exactly the story of a great man. Of course, it is not just about the river, but also about the people of Abbay, its flora and fauna, and more.

Emil Ludwig (born Emil Cohn) studied law but chose writing as a career. Also as a journalist, he interviewed prominent world personalities including Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin. Born in Poland, he, he moved to Switzerland and later to the United States. During the 1920s, he achieved international fame for his popular biographies which combined historical fact and fiction with psychological analysis.

The Nile: The Life-Story of a River

Emil Ludwig*

The winds began it. If it were not for the monsoons, blowing at their appointed time from their appointed quarter, where would the rains come from? But the rain is the real mother of the Blue Nile; the mountains are its father. In the love-struggle of the elements, the bodily clash of the volcanoes and clouds, the miracle of the second Nile (The Great Abbay) is born. If Abyssinia bore no alps, if these alps were not volcanoes, if the winds did not break against them, to send the rain streaming from the sky, there would be no stream on earth to “hurry snake-wise to the plain,” carrying with it the metallic detritus from the mountains to fertilize the desert a thousand miles away.

For that is how the debris of the virgin rock became silt, and the silt became the oasis. Volcanoes and clouds, rains and winds, have created Egypt out of a howling wilderness, far away in space and time, as here the elements have renewed their work for ages year by year at the same season before the eyes of men, this even ebb and flow gave birth to the first knowledge of month and moon, to the first questionings of sun and planets, to the first social order and the first law. Just as the farmer in other lands looks out for the rain, the eyes of this desert people scanned the distance, even as they do today, for the watery messenger riding in the bed of their one river, without whom they must perish.

The winds began it. Yet where do the winds come from? Even they, like the great men, first bear fruit under opposition. In their war-time, when they jostle, and must yield to other winds, they bring the rain. As long as the wintry north wind blows, the north-east monsoon brings the rain from Asia over the Red Sea, and reaches the Abyssinian highlands nearly dry. But when, in Spring, the south west-wind sets out from the South Atlantic, in its flight over Africa it adds to the sea moisture all the damp exhalations of the equatorial jungles, travels heavy-laden over the hot Sudan, till it suddenly dashes against the towering alps, and after a flight of thousands of miles, discharges the vapor of sea and lands on their precipitous walls. Therefore, as the Abyssinian farmer says, the rain comes when the wind blows from the desert, the Nile engineers say so too, for their calculations on the distant delta are based on these winds.

Thus African winds create the African river where it is to become fruitful, yielding only in autumn to their hostile brothers, the dry north winds sent over by India. And the winds and the mountains affect each other, the height and the abruptness of the Alps lengthen the rainy season, but the winds themselves have helped to mould their fantastic forms. And as here the rain determines the seasons, it turns them round: on the high plateau of the midlands, six to ten thousand feet up, it creates a dry winter which is never cold because the sun’s rays, on the 12th degree, slant relatively little, but it cools down the heat of summer. Thus temperatures are even, and their greatest yearly range is 13 degrees.

But this rain, whose effects the Egyptian fellah enjoys every October, and the Abyssinian peasant rather earlier, visits the Abyssinian farmer in terrible guise: thunderstorms, heavier and more frequent than anywhere else on earth, cloud-bursts and hail, appearing and disappearing suddenly, like everything else in this strange land, destroys men, cattle and huts. The number of thunderstorms has been reckoned at four hundred a year; hundreds are killed by lightening every summer, and not long ago the Emperor ordered services of intercession to be held because so many men had been struck down byit.

Though the rain arrives punctually, setting in, after a gentle beginning, with full force in the middle of June, as we know from Egyptian records which noted the beginning of the flood thousands of years ago, yet it varies greatly in strength and quantity. The mountains, the male element of this union, stand firm, and have probably not changed for the last few million years, but the sea, with its womanly passions, perhaps the jungle too, with its secrets, these two most unexplored regions of the earth, load the wind with a quantity of moisture so variable that it cannot be calculated. So many peoples and generations of Egypt have studied this vital question through and through, and yet the height of the flood resulting from the rain has never once been successfully forecast for the following year. In close succession – in 1904 and 1908 – one flood was twice as high as the other.

In its homeland, the rising Nile does not come in the guise of a liberator, as it does in Egypt, but appears like an angry god. Where it rises, in the region of Lake Tana, there rise with it two great tributaries, many small ones, and the Tekezze-Atbara, which flows northward alone. All these river beds run more or less dry in winter: the tributaries generally silt up, the Atbara always. Thus the peoples of these lands have had to turn nomad, spending the nine months’ dry season where vestiges of water lie in the river beds, where men and the beasts can find just enough to eat. The little, low-banked rivers which have inundated the country are often bordered with woodlands; the big ones, the Blue Nile and the Atbara, whose high banks generally prevent floods properly speaking, are separated from the plain and even from the desert by a narrow strip. Even along the driest brook, the acacia and even the palm grow, and the subterranean waters which so often in Africa proceed from the rivers nourish many springs.

With their camels and goats, with all they possess by way of women and children, these Arab nomads choose their camping place in the dry, deep beds of these rivers, especially on the lower reaches where there is after all, more food to be found than in the desert whence they come. There they knock from the palm its dense clusters of fruit with hard kernels which can be ground into a resinous powder and cooked with mil as a cake; with poles they can shake the seed-pods of the acacia, which yield a vestige of oil for the cattle, which the camel must be content with the dry thorns. Here they can repair their tents of leaves, and the palms supply them with mats and ropes. But the life-giving element is water, which lies here in pools.

In the pools, the crocodiles have forgotten the defection of their element; they half hibernate. A thousand doves and desert grouse drink at the pools where the crocodile sleeps, and even the gazelle, God’s fleetest creatures, come punctually an hour before sunrise and after sunset to these most meager of all drinking places which the Nile has left behind.

Now danger haunts the springs, for not only men and cattle, but the beasts of prey too are attracted by them, and the Arab leads his cattle away from the water before dark, to leave the way open for the lions and leopards. The only stupid creatures are the baboons, who ought to be the wisest: the remains of durra-beer are left out for them, so that at times they have literally got drunk on it, and in that befuddled state have succumbed to craft. They are not half-men for nothing.

Suddenly, though the sky is clear blue, there is a rumble of distant thunder. All the thousands of men and women encamped in the river bed rush out, carrying their tents and their household goods with them, to take flight. A confused clamor arises – “El Bahir! The river!” Although these nomads reckon time by the moon and the stars, with their inertia, with the fatalism of the sons of the desert, they are always taken by surprise when the river dashes down from the highlands in the middle of June. In a few minutes, the rumble has swelled to a roar: that is the sign, dreaded and longed for. While, a thousand miles downstream in Egypt, hourly telegrams warn the engineer how far the river has travelled, how high it is, and how muddy, there is not even a camel-rider to tell the people who live in its bed what will happen the next minute. The thunder is the only harbinger.

El Bahir! A moving wall, the river approaches, fifteen hundred feet wide, pouring downward in brown waves, full of trees, bamboo, and mud, and so it hurries past.

And suddenly, as it came, the river awakens life on the banks. Already the rain is on its heels, and together they call forth buds, from the buds leaves, the buds overnight, and the leaves immediately afterwards – they seem to unfold before one’s very eyes. In the raging power of its youth, the Nile creates a green paradise where everything seemed to be thirsting to death. A few days, and round the pools where all the birds crowded for a drop of water to wet their throats, wild geese whir and mate 4 and build. All the wild animals refresh themselves wade and drink, and even the crocodile is joyfully startled, and thinks the drought was but a dream.

Even up in the highlands, thousands leave their homes and take refuge in the higher mountains, as men did in the Flood. All traffic is at a standstill in the rainy months, for nobody can cross the raging rivers, and even the poorest peasant going to the next village takes a kind of cape of papyrus with him to cower under when a fresh deluge overtakes him. The horses, who cannot cross the streaming valleys, stand unharnessed in the huts with the people, who pass the rainy months dully, perhaps sociably, but not impatiently. They all know it will not last long.

Only the nomads cannot linger where the gifts of God have enriched them. When the savanna greens, it at once becomes a swamp, a cloud of insects rises, the herds are in danger; even the most constant companion of man, the camel, flounders if its driver doesn’t wait until the morning sun has dried off the surface a little. Men and beasts hurry to higher levels; the Nile creates wanderers. In three months, the greater part of the whole rainfall for the year has come down, and with it the flood. But in September, when the waters to abate, and men and beasts come wandering down again, the fat times begins. The whole earth is covered with rustling green, and the corn, which was planted in the soft muddy soil with a stick, ripens in a few weeks.

Permanent inundations such as those higher up on the White Nile are impossible on the steep slopes of the Blue Nile valley. For the rain has cut deep gullies in the volcanic rock, and in these narrow canyons river rapids and torrents have formed which all hurry westwards to the Nile. Thus the whole of the inner highlands looks rugged. Lower down, where the widened river enters the sandstone, it has eaten it down and reached the virgin rock. Here, where it has cut a deep, perpendicular bed for itself, and above, where it washes over volcanic strata, at all points it picks up minerals, which, in its rushing fall, it mixes with soil. This the silt is formed, a loose, unbound mass of feldspar, mica and hornblende crystals, of chalky and ferruginous minerals, never two years the same, different on the Blue Nile and the Atbara, while its variations indicate differing sediments and the varying power of the river.

Man, too, has influenced this elemental down pouring. In prehistoric times, when the land was covered with forests, less water and less silt must have come down from the mountains, and the Blue Nile cannot have flowed into the White Nile at a time when a Mediterranean gulf is said to have lain where the Egyptian desert now lies. Man certainly began very early to fire the plain, and with it the forest, in order to produce fresh food for his cattle, and by deforesting the land, just as he does today, in the steep highlands, he opened to the rain and hence to the rivers a free passage to the plain. In their turn, they washed the soil down with them, and now black masses of rock tower into the air, from which wind and water loosen millions of particles to enrich the yearly silt.

Thus Abyssinia, the roof of East Africa, which lies so high that land up to 6000 feet is counted as lowland, by a unique combination of circumstances became the fountainhead of a life-giving element which has in its turn created a land without its like. Hephaestus is the father, for no country on earth has so many extinct volcanoes, and as these memorials of primeval time rise in ever new, 5 fantastic forms, as ash-cones and lava-streams, hot springs and sulfur vapors, bear witness even today to the convulsions of the earth, this land will yield for millions of years to come the primeval substance which, carried away and deposited by the river, is transformed into new land.

Thus the winds, the rain, and the mountains of the Abyssinia created, through their messenger, the Nile, that wonderful oasis in Egypt far away to the north.

LIKE its graver brother, the Blue Nile rises in a lake, but here there can be no doubt that the river first makes a brief passage through the lake, like a prelude to its song. In the high mountains lies the source of the ‘’Mother of the Abbai,” that is, of the Blue Nile.

This mountainous country, lying 65 miles south of Lake Tana, on the eleventh parallel, gives birth to the river in the Gish valley at an altitude of almost 9,000 feet, which is higher than the sources of most European rivers. A sparse forest of cedar and juniper, of fig and euphorbia, is here interrupted by basalt rocks only half covered by the red soil. The high tree-heath does not bear fruit here, as it does on the equator, but it blossoms copiously, and beside it the white and pink balsam stretches out the purple patches of the acanthus lend color to the grey-green of the mountain forest.

With the light the voices of the birds lend it life. When the goat-sucker has rent the night with its strange, hollow cry, the deep tuba tonesof the helmet-bird begin before sunrise, the flute-bird tries its oboe, the little starlings strike up, whistling an accompaniment to the morning song of the swallows, with the regular crotchets of the crickets fiddling the beat. But soon, these tender sounds are drowned by the tussle of tropical screeching set up by the guinea-fowl and parrots.

In the middle of moor, at the top of a steep slope, a palisade of bamboo has been planted round a hole rather more than a yard square. A moderately deep spring of a very clear, very cold water, welling up quietly, flowing off without bubbles into a small runnel and then disappearing in an easterly direction behind the mountain forest, is the source of the Blue Nile, and only its volcanic origin can explain its extraordinary situation. Small and cramped, still and clear, compared with the heady, roaring fall in which the other Nile is born, it shows how little the first moments of a living being can foreshadow its later life. A great and grave character soon issued from the youthful turbulence of that other source, while from this still retreat an adventurer arises whose deeds amaze the world.

Yet the Blue Nile, with its first sound and step, reveals itself as the future eccentric. While the White Nile had to flow a thousand miles before it could be acclaimed as a wonder of the world, the Blue Nile, like the Prophet, is venerated even in its cradle. Here, too, the star appeared to a king in the distant east and prophesied to him that, far away in the mountains, a mighty creature had come to birth who should bear power and light over the desert even to the sea-coast. Christians and heathens pray at this source. The thatched hut with its surrounding gallery which stands by this and two other, smaller “Nile sources” is the Abyssinian Sate Church, and the bearded, ignorant man in front of it is its priest.

But the heathens who live almost untouched beside the Christians in these mountains take their shoes from their feet when they approach the rivulet. It flows through long stretches of little known country, unwatched by present or past. The rain, which first makes the river important in the eyes of the men, renders exploration difficult, just as, in the life of a prophet, the first years of withdrawal, a momentous epoch, are hidden from research.

Volcanic rocks in horizontal strata, bearing in parts traces of recent activity, and covered with vegetation, form a mountain landscape through which many small tributaries hurry to swell the stormy stream, till, having reached a width of about sixty yards, it settles into a flat alluvial plain. Then a great lake opens before it, it has reached the south-west shore of Lake Tana, to leave it again almost immediately.

This grey-green, heart shaped lake, which the Nile quits like a great artery at its lowest point, lying at the same height of 6000 feet as the lakes of the Engadine, is flanked at a few points only by mountains of medium height: in general, the shores are flat, with palms and acacias, and poor thatched huts, the biggest of which, under the junipers, generally belongs to the “Ras,” or prince, or is used as a church.

Today the lake is about as big as Lake Albert: once it was perhaps half as big as again, but the rain made it shrink: decomposed lava, carried down for ages by its feeders, silted up the shores with mud, and thus hemmed in the lake. The lava and basalt on the shore, which show its volcanic origin, yield the first mud which the Nile takes up and carries away. Thirst rivers and brooks discharging into the lake are all smaller than the Abbai, and as this is the only outlet, Lake Tana must count as an important source of the Nile, and as such is more important to the Nile engineers than the Little Abbai, without whose inflow the lake would not lose much water: hence this lake may be called the source from a geographical rather than a hydrographical standpoint.

The crocodile has not reached the lake, but when the natives sail on its waters in boats of papyrus and reeds, they are exposed to danger from the hippopotamus which inhabits it. The thrilling hunt for this animal is so profitable that each man scratches his tribal sign on his harpoon: whoever strikes the animal first gets it, even though its body reappears above water only much later and far away. Thus Caledonian boar was hunted by the Homeric heroes, and a tribal sign such as this on Lake Tana would soon have settled the epic struggle over Atalanta.

When the Abbai has flowed through the lake, visible and unmingled, for eight miles to the south – a stretch about as short as the course of the White Nile through Lake Albert – at the peninsula of Georgia there lies a wide, deep bay: here the Blue Nile begins its real course. In the fields the coffee with its red berries still grows half wild, for Abyssinia is its home, and from here it migrated to Arabia. Red pepper grows near it; on long reaches the papyrus persists even through the dry season; and masses of yellow starred flowers cover the slopes, a kind of prickly burr, whose black, barbed seed settles not only into the clothes, but into the skin, driving the traveler to despair. On the rocky islands fringing the shores oyster-beds and crabs are found, and egrets and wild doves nest there; the water is still, white and clear. It whirls out of the lake, falling only slightly at first, a hundred yards wide.

The course of the Blue Nile, which now really begins, shows how the river, like man, must, in spite of inconceivable deviations, yet travel its appointed road, and how it overcomes or circumvents every obstacle, so that it may irresistibly approach its appointed end in space and time. However clear the physical maps may look, indicating every hill as the cause of a bend, how is it possible to mistake the mysterious power which guides one river towards another though all hardships, through falls and deserts, though contradictions and ceaseless aberrations? If the whole course of a man’s fate could, like that of a river, be contemplated from an airplane or on a map, its laws would stand clear before our eyes, and nothing would reveal the predestination governing the whole as clearly as the apparent fortuitousness of the detail. Only the man incapable of faith transfers his rationalistic skepticism to nature.

When its sets out, the Great Abbai seems to depart completely from the north-south course of the Little Abbai; to find its way north-west, it flows south-east, for the very range which gave it birth blocks its way to the goal. As beautiful in form as it is significant in symbolic strength, it streams round the Gojjam Mountains, doubling its way to the White Nile, to which it was much nearer at its source. But when it enters the prairies of the Sudan, it is powerfully influenced, over a great distance, by the laws governing the stronger; here where no mountains stand on the way, it takes not the shortest cut, the same north-westerly direction as that followed by the young White Nile and all its eastern tributaries.

From its first movement on leaving Lake Tana, the Blue Nile reveals the genius within it – a rashness which is yet fruitful. While it tears a huge gorge for itself though the rock, while it whirls down headlong so rapidly that in fifty miles it falls 4200 feet, yet from its earliest youth it brings with it the silt, the element of its later life work, vital and unproductive from the beginning.

Where water and rock meet at the first cataract, the rocks are bare before the rains season; later, when the flood has rolled away, and the river has sunk, they are covered with a flowery growth like sea-weed, with scaly stems springing from roots or air-roots, and bearing a pink and green blossom which slowly withers from its base until the rain, the next year, again washes down the rocks. On these rocky walls, the fish lie in such heaps that they can be caught with the hands, for, below, bigger ones lie in wait for them, especially if they have injured themselves against the rocks.

In the midst of wilderness, close below the outflow, an old stone bridge with many arches spans the river, lending it the romantic air of a copper engraving and speaking of ancient European civilizations, which are elsewhere alien to both the Niles. This evidence of the civilization certainly makes but a brief appearance, and only when the river, having passed through the utter wilderness of its middle course, has neared its end through the plain, is it crossed by another bridge, which is of a very modern and very fatal kind. This first, basalt bridge, which the Portuguese built slanting over the river in the sixteenth century, takes it through its middle arch, then the river quickly widens. Immediately afterwards, thirty miles from Lake Tana, the rocks narrow and force the Blue Nile, here  in its very childhood, like the White Nile in the far south, to pass through the adventure of a great waterfall: this, too, is the only one inits life. The natives call this fall TisEsat, that is “Roaring Fire,” just as the Victoria Falls in Rhodesia are called “the Smoke That Sounds.” The narrows in which the vortex breaks is below simply look like a deep hole, and it is inconceivable that the huge volume of water from lake and rain can push its way though. Down there, they say, a man in a battle dared the leap over the chasm, killed his enemy on the farther side, and then achieved the still more difficult return leap.

Now the Nile is imprisoned in a canyon which, sliced into the basalt, encircles the heart of the great mountains: for 500 miles, it is inaccessible, as the ravine sometimes drops to a depth of 50000 feet. Now it is alone, men flee not only the gorge, but the heights, for a dense pall of fumes and suffocating smoke constantly rises from the expanse of burning grass, and in it lurks fever for them and their cattle. In the mountains, ten or twelve thousand feet up, it is easier to live and breathe, and even the few explorers who have ventured below lost most of their natives by fever, were able to pay only brief visits to the bottom of the gorge, and have had to be content to represent long reaches of the river by dotted lines on their maps.

The only happy creatures on the southern Blue Nile are the animals. Here, where there are no harpoons nor spears nor bullets to startle the hippopotami and crocodiles down in their gorge, and the lions and leopards above on the banks, paradise has been preserved for them. Here all the wild animals live fearless, in heaps, pell-mell, more unmolested by man than in any other parts of Africa. In delicious ignorance of the thermometer, which all the year round, even at night never falls below 100o , the wild animals live in brooding heat, and rich in the inexhaustible quantities of animal and vegetable food which the jungle lavishes on them.

Here at 10oN. Lat, winding about from east to west, in accessible, so to speak, in its gorge, the Nile lives through the only long stretch of its course on which no face bends over it, no oar strikes its waters, no net catches its fish, no men bath in it.

For a hundred rivers and brooks water the animals on the higher levels before they, in turn, plunge into deep chasms to reach the Nile below. In this ravaged land, where the mule can go no further, and the explorer has to climb 4000 feet down and up again to study the lower course of a brook, the Nile is often invisible from above, seems to be lost in its ravines and flow underground, but when it reappears, in spite of all its tributaries, it has not widened even in the rainy season. Evaporation, rapids, gravel – all take away the water brought by the rather insignificant tributaries.

What increases is the silt, for as most of the tributaries flow from the heart of the mountains which it encircles, the countless mineral particles flowing into it darken its color, which was quite clear when it left Lake Tana. “Bahr-el-Azrak,” as the Arabs call it, means not only a blue, but a dark, or even black river. At low water, in the dry season, when it carries only a percent of solids, it often looks clear, and owing to the cloudless sky, blue, dark, and billions of white ants, washed down with the water, swell the mud: some English scientists recently have even put forward the astonishing theory that it is the termites which throw up the fresh earth, and are swept away with it, and so become the true fathers of the Nile silt.

Up in the highlands, where men live, all the mineral deposits from the volcanoes are overgrown with a profusion of tropical vegetation. “The most beautiful country I ever saw,” said Blundell, one of the few white men who were ever there, for here in the south of Abyssinia the land does not dry up so horribly even in the dry season as it does in the north, where in February it is impossible to understand how anybody could have placed the Garden of Eden in so repellent a region. Here, to the north of Abbai, the rain awakens a forest of magic color.

The forest is shot with red and gold. From the immense baobab, which sometimes reaches a girth of sixty feet, from the huge euphorbias, hang the purple tufts of the loranthus; the dense hapericum bushes rustle in a sea of yellow blossom; beds of pale-blue clematis hang from the tamarisks; cascades of royal-blue salvias, festoons of wild vine, cover and sometimes kill what lives beneath them; for miles on end the gardenia shines through the green; the opalescent blooms of the protea cover forests of unknown extent; and the tree veronica forms tunnels so rich in flower that a caravan “could be buried in them.”

High up in their mountain retreats, the natives can cultivate maize and wheat without difficulty: the earth and the rain do the work for them; they are less successful with the cotton, and even the coffee runs wild, as the vine once did in this region. With a plough such as Adam may have made after the expulsion, they turn up the soil anyhow, like the wild boars.

This, the Nile, the greatest single stream on earth, is yet by no means the most abundant, a fact which determines its whole life and that of its basin. It flows through the desert; for half of its course it receives neither tributaries nor rain, yet it does not dry up; indeed close to its end, it creates the most fertile of all lands. In its youth it dissipates its finest powers, it arrives at its mouth with might. Though it flows along almost one-tenth of the earth’s circumference, it maintains the simplest form of all rivers; save for a single loop when it comes out the womb of Lake Tana, its course is entirely south-to-north; and over the length of almost 4000 miles, its maximum eastwesterly deviations fall within 250 miles, so that, at the end, its mouth lies almost on the same degree longitude as its source. Out of the confused simplicity of the wilderness, the Nile streams into the complicated clarity of modern civilizations, sees the great plan of its tamers jeopardized, and, in the end, wearied of men’s lust for gold, sinks into the sea, to be renewed in eternal resurrection.

Dade Desta
Dade is North Star Tribune's News and Current Affairs Chief. Dade has extensive press, broadcast and online media expertise that spans across several institutions and spheres including running the highly regarded policy journal ‘Discourse’. Dade is a well known prolific writer and a cultural and social commentator in Tigrgina, Amarigna and English. He has extensive experience as reporter and news analyst with VOA, and much more with Ethiopian Broadcast. He also trains young and upcoming journalists and media professionals.


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