The celebrated river of Egypt. It takes this name only after the junction of the two great streams of which it is composed, namely, the Bahr el Abiad, or White River, which rises in the mountains of the Moon, in the interior of Africa, and runs northeast till it is joined by the other branch, the Bahr el Azrek, or Blue river, which rises in Abyssinia, and after a large circuit to the southeast and southwest, in which it passes through the lake of Dembea, flows northwards to join the White river. This Abyssinian branch has in modern times been regarded as the real Nile, although the White River is much the largest and longest, and was in ancient times considered as the true Nile. The junction takes place about latitude sixteen degrees north. From this point the Nile flows always in a northerly direction, with the exception of one large bend to the west. About thirteen hundred miles form the sea it receives its last branch, the Tacazze, a large stream from Abyssinia, and having passed through Nubia, it enters Egypt at the cataracts near Syene, or Essuan, which are formed by a chain of rocks stretching east and west. There are here three falls; after which the river pursues its course in still and silent majesty through the whole length of the land of Egypt. Its average breadth is about seven hundred yards. In Lower Egypt it divides into several branches and forms the celebrated Delta; for which see under EGYPT. See also a view of the river in AMMON, or NoAmmon, or No.
As rain very seldom falls, even in winter, in Southern Egypt, and usually only slight and infrequent showers in Lower Egypt, the whole physical and political existence of Egypt may be said to depend on the Nile; since without this river, and even without its regular annual inundation’s, the whole land would be but a desert. These inundation’s, so mysterious in the view of ancient ignorance and superstition, are caused by the regular periodical rains in the countries farther south, around the sources of the Nile, in March and later. The river begins to rise in Egypt about the middle of June, and continues to increase through the month of July. In August it overflows its banks, and reaches its highest point early in September; and the country is then mostly covered with its waters, Amos 8:8 9:5 Nahum 3:8. In the beginning of October, the inundation still continues; and it is only towards the end of this month that the stream returns within its banks. From the middle of August till towards the end of October, the whole land of Egypt resembles a great lake or sea, in which the towns and cities appear as islands.
The cause of the fertility which the Nile imparts lies not only in its thus watering the land, but also in the thick slimy mud which its waters bring down along with them and deposit on the soil of Egypt. It is like a coat of rich manure; and the seed being immediately sown upon it, without digging or ploughing, springs up rapidly, grows with luxuriance, and ripens into abundance. See EGYPT.
It must not, however, be supposed that the Nile spreads itself over every spot of land, and waters it sufficiently without artificial aid. Niebuhr justly remarks, "Some descriptions of Egypt would lead us to think that the Nile, when it swells, lays the whole province under water. The lands immediately adjoining to the banks of the river are indeed laid under water, but the natural inequality of the ground hinders it from overflowing the interior country. A great part of the lands would therefore remain barren, were not canals and reservoirs formed to receive water from the river, when at its greatest height, which is thus conveyed everywhere through the fields, and reserved for watering them when occasion requires." In order to raise the water to grounds, which lie higher, machines have been used in Egypt from times immemorial. These are chiefly wheels to which buckets are attached. One kind is turned by oxen; another smaller kind, by men seated, and pushing the lower spokes from them with their feet, while they pulled the upper spokes towards them with their hands, Deuteronomy 11:10.
As the inundations of the Nile are of so much importance to the whole land, structures have been erected on which the beginning and progress of its rise might be observed. These are called Nilometers; that is, "Nile measures." At present there is one, one thousand years old and half in ruins, on the little island opposite Cairo; it is under the care of the government, and according to it the beginning and subsequent progress of the rise of the Nile were carefully observed and proclaimed by authority. If the inundation reached the height of twenty-two Paris feet, a rich harvest was expected; because then all the fields had received the requisite irrigation. If it fell short of this height and in proportion as it thus fell short, the land was threatened with want and famine of which many horrible examples occur in Egyptian history. Should the rise of the water exceed twenty-eight Paris feet, a famine was in like manner feared. The annual rise of the river also varies exceedingly in different parts of its course, being twenty feet greater where the river is narrow than in Lower Egypt. The channel is thought to be gradually filling up; and many of the ancient outlets at the Delta are dry in summer and almost obliterated. The drying up of the waters of Egypt would involve its destruction as a habitable land to the destruction as a habitable land to the same extent; and this fact is recognized in the prophetic denunciations of this remarkable country, Isaiah 11:15 19:1-10 Ezekiel 29:10 30:12.
The water of the Nile, although during a great part of the year turbid, from the effects of the rains above, yet furnishes, when purified by settling, the softest and sweetest water for drinking. Its excellence is acknowledged by all travelers. The Egyptians are full of its praises, and even worshipped the river as a god.
The Hebrews sometimes gave both to the Euphrates and the Nile the name of "sea," Isaiah 19:5 Nahum 3:8. In this they are borne out by Arabic writers, and also by the common people of Egypt, who to this day commonly speak of the Nile as "the sea." It is also still celebrated for its fish. Compare Numbers 11:5 Isaiah 19:8. In its waters are likewise found the crocodile or leviathan, and the hippopotamus or behemoth. See EGYPT, and SIHOR.
These dictionary topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859. Public Domain, copy freely.
Rand, W. W. "Entry for 'NILE'". "American Tract Society Bible Dictionary".