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The Nile River: Giving Life to the People of Egypt - 2002-10-31

For thousands of years, the Nile River has meant life itself to the people of Egypt. In ancient times, one of the world’s great civilizations was built by harnessing the power of the Nile, and Egyptian agriculture, commerce, religion and society flourished for 3,000 years. Today, the river Nile is equally important to modern Egypt.

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile," said Mohammed Abu Zied, Egypt’s minister of irrigation. "And we in Egypt depend on the Nile for at least 95 percent of our water resources. Most of the population, over 99 percent, lives very close to the river itself, where most of the agriculture land takes place.”

At the foot of the Great Pyramids, the gift of the Nile ends and the desert begins. In ancient times, farmers depended on annual floods to irrigate and fertilize their fields. Today, a vast series of pumping stations, canals, and waterways feed farmlands along the river’s 1,000-kilometer length.

“Without the Nile, all the land would die. The water from the Nile is good for the land. It is rich and fertile, better than a deep water well," said a farmer.

To understand what this river means to Egypt and its people, one must travel 800 kilometers to the south, to Aswan. If the Nile and its system of canals are the arteries of Egypt, the high dam at Aswan is Egypt’s heart, pumping a steady flow through this vast aquasystem.

When the land behind the high dam was flooded, Lake Nasser was formed. It is the largest artificial lake in the world. This is Egypt’s water security policy. Lake Nasser holds enough water to outlast ten years of drought.

Some say Aswan is where Arabia ends and Africa starts. You can see it in the darker skin tones of the Nubian people

One of the byproducts created by the high dam is an influx of crocodiles. “We have not many crocodiles before the dam was built," said Ramadan, who has been a tour guide on Lake Nasser for the past five years. "Because the river have a flood in the Sudan or anywhere. And they have a current. And the crocodile not stay in the current place. They want very quiet place.”

On a tour of the lake, Ramadan stopped to see if any local fishermen had spotted any crocodiles in the area. Nile crocodiles are some of the largest in world. They can grow to be ten meters long and eat fifty kilograms of fish in a day, which is probably why you don’t see many Nubians swimming in the lake.

After about an hour of searching the lake banks and looking in the sandy spots, we were beginning to wonder if Ramadan was telling us the truth. Maybe all this talk about crocodiles was just a story the locals cooked up for tourists.

When Lake Nasser flooded, entire Nubian villages had to be moved, an estimated 10,000 people. “My lovely village. My favorite place in Aswan.”

Farouk Abayzaied is a Nubian historian. He agreed to take us to a traditional Nubian village along the Nile.

Tourism has become big business in this village and many tourists arrive by boat on the Nile. “To paint the wall is the job of women here,” Farouk said.

When the dam was built and Nubian villages were uprooted, some residents resisted. Those who dared defy an order from then-Egyptian President Nasser were thrown in jail. Farouk’s father was among them.

His father argued that breaking the ties to the land and the river would bring on the decline of the Nubian culture. Farouk sees evidence of that in Nubian children today.

“You can’t find in this generatiion a kid or young one who speaks Nubian like the people who were in the original village or the old Nubia before we moved. Because, they read newspaper in Arabic. They study in schools in Arabic. Their friends speak Arabic, so they have to speak Arabic," he said.

After our bad luck on the lake, Farouk promised to show us some crocodiles. Crocodiles have a special meaning in Nubian society.

“You know, crocodiles, if you catch one, this means you are a hero. If you catch one and put it in your mouth, this means the owner of the house is a brave one. In the same time, this means good luck for the man,” he said.

The lore of the Nile runs deep through all segments of Egyptian society.

“Nile means welfare and good. If the level is high, this means you will get a lot of good agriculture, things to eat, things to depend on, thing to sell, like dates,” Farouk said.