Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River

Joyce Tyldesley rates a compelling take on thousands of years of life on the banks of the world’s longest river

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Reviewed by: Joyce Tyldesley
Author: Robert Twigger
Publisher: Orion
Price (RRP): £25

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For more than 3,000 years, the Egyptians believed that life had started when a fertile mound rose from the waters of chaos. This seemed entirely reasonable to a people whose survival depended on ‘The River’. The River was constant and, although prone to a few quirks, reliable. Bisecting the land, it supplied water, food, pottery, mud-bricks, sanitation, papyrus and an efficient transport system. Every summer it burst its banks and covered the low-lying fields with water made red by sediment. It turned towns and villages into small islands linked by raised paths, while desert cemeteries remained dry and secure. By late October, The River had retreated, allowing the sodden fields, now covered in a fertile mud, to emerge and be made ready for sowing. In late spring there would be a generous crop. Then, as the solar god Re steered his day- boat across the watery sky, the land baked beneath him and the people waited anxiously for The River to rise again.

A land without a river was quite simply unthinkable: even the dead expected to live beside an afterlife river that mirrored the earthly Nile. Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 457 BC, summed it up neatly: Egypt is the gift of the Nile.

And not just Egypt. Herodotus did not pass beyond Egypt’s southern border to experience the equally ancient but relatively ill-recorded Nubian civilisation. He suspected, but could not prove, that the source of the life-giving Nile lay far to the south. Others agreed and longed to know more, but it was not until relatively recently – after a series of intrepid expeditions, academic disagreement and a dramatic suicide – that this was confirmed. We now know that the Nile is a vast river flowing through a quarter of Africa, fed by smaller streams and other rivers including the Blue Nile that flows from Lake Tana in Ethiopia (according to Herodotus, the home of the Fountain of Eternal Youth) and the White Nile that flows from Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

Twigger – an engaging author whose CV includes training in martial arts with the Tokyo riot police and an attempt to capture a nine-metre-long python – provides us with a leisurely, readable collection of stories that introduce us to a wide cast of authors and explorers, fierce baboons and murderous crocodiles. The stories focus on the Egyptian Nile, but regularly meander away from it: a consideration of death on the Nile seems to lead quite naturally, for example, to a consideration of Agatha Christie’s fleeced underwear and monogrammed handkerchiefs. As always when an author sets out to cover vast swathes of history and geography, some of the ‘facts’ are open to question: did Cleopatra actually sail up the Nile with Caesar before going on to have an affair with Herod? Can we really detail Moses’s life in Egypt? But these are minor quibbles.

Twigger ends with a warning. While Egypt convulses with revolution, which has had a drastic effect on Nile Valley tourism, the Nile itself is threatened by a giant dam project. If things go badly, if the river dwindles, it may be that “as always, the stories will be what remain”.

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Joyce Tyldesley is an archaeologist and senior lecturer in the faculty of life sciences at the University of Manchester