One of Egypt’s most defining features is the Nile River. With a history dating back as far as history goes, there’s as much mystery surrounding the river itself as there is about the pyramids themselves. The Nile is the longest river in the world, winding its way through East Africa for 4,258 miles.

Flowing through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi, the River Nile forms where the White Nile, which rises at Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, which begins at Lake Tana, in Ethiopia, meet in Sudan. It’s the only river in the world that flows directly northward.

Food and Water

Flooding along the Nile ca. 1880

Because the Nile was the only source of water, food, and transportation, the vast majority of Ancient Egyptians lived in close proximity to the Nile and used spears and nets to catch the river’s abundant fish and the birds that flew close to its surface.

Although much of their food came directly from the river, it played a far more important role of providing extremely fertile soil for growing crops. Rainfall in Egypt is virtually non-existent, and each year when the Nile flooded from melting snows far upriver and summer storms in the Ethiopian ranges, it brought with it thick layers of fertile black soil. This soil made it possible to cultivate crops in the desert where no other sources of water were available. The most important crops for Ancient Egyptians were wheat, flax, and papyrus.

Built for Building

Dhow crossing the Nile near Aswan in Upper Egypt

The Nile also provided Egyptians with a majority of their building materials. Riverbank mud was used to make sun-dried bricks for building their homes and other buildings. Limestone and sandstone were quarried from the hills beside the Nile.

As most of the major cities of ancient Egypt were built along the Nile, it also served as the main transportation link between them.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the flooding of the Nile was produced by the tears of the goddess Isis, as she wept for her dead husband Osiris. Osiris was known as the god of the Nile. As with most of ancient Egypt, there is still much to discover about the history of the Nile River. It’s one of nature’s most intriguing bodies of water.