In his engaging new book, “The Nile,” Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson explores the importance of that river to the myriad civilizations that have lived and died on its banks. As “the green thread that runs all the way from the dawn of history to modern times,” the Nile is a life-giving force surrounded by inhospitable desert. Before it was harnessed by dams, beginning at the end of the 19th century, the river’s annual inundations could bring both bountiful harvests and devastating famines. It is no wonder that the Nile has inspired a variety of religious practices meant to appease mercurial deities, who had the power to control everything from flooding to crocodile attacks.
Ancient Egypt is a subject that tends to capture our imaginations from early childhood, but, as the author reminds us, the river has witnessed other epochs. One of the charms of this book is that the narrative moves comfortably among different time periods. “Travelling no faster than the current itself,” Wilkinson writes, “you can witness every era of Egypt’s long history — pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, colonial and contemporary — unfold before your eyes like the petals of a water lily.” While the historical focus is broad, this approach works nicely, with the author smoothly guiding us on our Nile journey as he tells stories from the past.
The trip begins with Aswan, where ancient Egyptians believed the Nile originated and “where its annual floodwaters first made their presence noisily felt as they rushed between the boulders and granite outcrops of the First Cataract.” Wilkinson takes us through rural and desolate stretches of the country, past towns, tombs and crumbling ruins, finally ending up in the teeming metropolis of Cairo, where construction threatens to leave the famous Giza pyramids “marooned, a small island of antiquity in a sea of indiscriminate, uncontrolled, substandard development.”
Wilkinson frequently takes a critical tone when describing the ravages of modernization. The Aswan High Dam, constructed in the 1960s during the Nasser era, limited the yearly flooding and improved agriculture, contributing to greater wealth for Egypt. But among its unwelcome effects, the dam led to depleted soil fertility, an altered climate and damage to many ancient monuments. Other threats to Egypt’s patrimony, which is mostly located close to the river, have included plunder and improper excavation techniques for its treasures. Robberies date back as far as the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 B.C.), when poorly paid tomb workers began looting the tombs to supplement their incomes. The pilfering of antiquities could be a state-sponsored project as well, with rulers filling their coffers with the treasures of the past or using ancient construction materials for new building projects. Wilkinson writes of renowned Egyptologists who lovingly and painstakingly uncovered Egypt’s ancient history, but there were also those whose unorthodox methods did serious damage to the antiquities. One such amateur archaeologist was the Englishman Richard Vyse (1784-1853), who drilled into the Sphinx in search of hidden passages and conducted “ ‘excavations’ by dynamite” into the pyramids at Giza.
Well-chosen vignettes illustrate the river’s human dimensions, as well as the often bizarre effects it has had on outsiders in the distant and recent past. Among the more eccentric outsiders were the Roman emperor Hadrian and a British woman named Umm Sety. In 130 A.D., after Hadrian’s young companion Antinous drowned under mysterious circumstances at the annual Festival of the Nile, Hadrian built an entire city in his honor. In constructing Antinoopolis, Hadrian also created a cult that “deified Antinous. In death, the boy . . . was explicitly merged with Osiris and worshipped as a god of resurrection.” Similarly intriguing is the story of Sety (1904-1981), born Dorothy Eady, who lived for many years in a modest hut next to the temple of Seti I, who reigned from 1290-1279 B.C. and whom she believed to be her lover in a previous life.
Throughout the book, Wilkinson describes evocative scenes of village life along the Nile’s more rural reaches. Walking through the modern village of Gebelein is “like stepping back in time,” he writes, with “ragged barefoot children” playing “in the dusty streets, which they share with chickens and stray dogs” and the adults who are “shy but curious, cheerful despite their poverty.” There is little depth concerning contemporary life, however, and aside from one moving section about the persecution of Copts, we hear little of the struggles faced by the Nile’s current inhabitants. Yet if the history Wilkinson presents is any indication, the cycle continues: The wealthy continue construction projects to guarantee their immortality, at the expense of the vast majority of the country’s impoverished population. The wealth of the Nile, it seems, has never been spread democratically.
The book skirts recent events, briefly mentioning the political upheaval of 2011 and its aftermath, although the prevailing state of the Egyptian Museum is indicative of the country’s uncertain future. Amid minimal security and empty display cases, looted during the revolution, “sunlight streams down on to fragile, 2,500-year-old wooden objects, stored in ninety-year-old glass cases with no temperature or humidity controls.” Our journey down the Nile ends on this pessimistic note, but with one certainty: that the river will remain, long after the passing of this most recent strife, continuing “to witness many more momentous events that will reverberate throughout the Nile Valley, the Middle East and the wider world.”
A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present
By Toby Wilkinson
Knopf. 292 pp. $27.95