"The higher Nilus swells
The more it promises: as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain
And shortly comes to harvest."
L ET it be told once again—the story of how this great river, sometimes so shallow and sluggish that a child might safely walk across, becomes a mighty rushing sea pouring itself into the ocean, with a force that no man can stem.
The source of the Nile was as great a mystery to the men of old as was the reason of its yearly flood. So, as they could not find out where this great river rose, they said it must rise in Paradise, that it must flow through burning regions, pass through a sea, and finally make its way through Egypt.
The annual flood they explained to themselves by saying that it was caused by Isis, the Egyptian goddess, mourning for her brother Osiris. Every year, toward the middle of June, she let fall a tear for the great Nile-god, and at once the river swelled and descended upon earth. This quaint old story has lasted down through all the ages, and to this very day the people in Egypt say that a drop from heaven falls during the night of the 18th of June and brings about the rise of the Nile. That night is known as the "night of the drop."
During the months of April, May, and June the river Nile falls and falls. The fields on either side are parched and dry; the air is full of dust. The trees are leafless, the plains are cracked; man and beast alike languish. And all day long the fiery sun, undimmed by the lightest cloud, marches on its pitiless way through a sky of the deepest blue. As the season advances, anxiety becomes intense.
"Will the river rise well this year?" ask the bronze-faced men one of another. "Is it not late already?"
A year of plenty or a year of famine used to hang on this mysterious rise. At last, the day dawns when news comes flashing along the river-banks: "The Nile is rising a little, away up near its source." Slowly—very slowly at first, and then with ever-increasing speed—the water creeps up its banks. Gradually the current quickens and the water becomes a deepened colour. It has now become a rushing mighty stream against which no man could swim, as it swirls and roars along to the sea.
And yet not a drop of rain has fallen, no cloud has crossed the sky, no storm has broken over the land. It is to tropical rains some two thousand miles away that this tumult of waters is due. By September the country is a huge lake, the whole land is a land of rivers, as it once was a land of dust. Men's spirits rise with the rising waters, the animals rejoice in this first necessity of life, brown-skinned men and boys plunge with delight into the life-giving stream. All are happy and content. For it will be a year of plenty for Egypt.
As September wears on, the river begins to fall. Its work is done. Before long it is flowing between its banks as usual, winding through the long hot land to the Great Sea—the "Very Green," as the men of Egypt called it.
We know a great deal about the sources of the Nile now, though it was many centuries before the discoveries were made. At Khartum—known to history for Gordon's famous defence and death—the great river divides into two branches, one called the Blue Nile, the other known as the White Nile.
It was in 1770 that a Scotch explorer named James Bruce reached the source-lakes of the Blue Nile, high up on the plains which crowned the mountains of Abyssinia. He told such wonderful stories on his return home of all he had seen and heard that people did not believe him. But now we know all he said was perfectly true. It was not till 1858 that two Englishmen discovered the source of the White Nile in Lake Victoria.
But it happened years ago that the tropical rains sometimes failed; the rise of the Nile was very poor, the dry earth remained parched and cracked, and famine was the result. So it was a very important matter to the old kings of Egypt whether the Nile rose well or not.