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Chapter X 


A description of the Nile.

The Nile, which the natives call Abavi, that is, the Father of Waters, rises first in Sacala, a province of the kingdom of Goiama, which is one of the most fruitful and agreeable of all the Abyssinian dominions. This province is inhabited by a nation of the Agaus, who call, but only call, themselves Christians, for by daily intermarriages they have allied themselves to the Pagan Agaus, and adopted all their customs and ceremonies. These two nations are very numerous, fierce, and unconquerable, inhabiting a country full of mountains, which are covered with woods, and hollowed by nature into vast caverns, many of which are capable of containing several numerous families, and hundreds of cows. To these recesses the Agaus betake themselves when they are driven out of the plain, where it is almost impossible to find them, and certain ruin to pursue them. This people increases extremely, every man being allowed so many wives as he hath hundreds of cows, and it is seldom that the hundreds are required to be complete.

In the eastern part of this kingdom, on the declivity of a mountain, whose descent is so easy that it seems a beautiful plain, is that source of the Nile which has been sought after at so much expense of labour, and about which such variety of conjectures hath been formed without success. This spring, or rather these two springs, are two holes, each about two feet diameter, a stone's cast distant from each other; the one is but about five feet and a half in depth--at least we could not get our plummet farther, perhaps because it was stopped by roots, for the whole place is full of trees; of the other, which is somewhat less, with a line of ten feet we could find no bottom, and were assured by the inhabitants that none ever had been found. It is believed here that these springs are the vents of a great subterraneous lake, and they have this circumstance to favour their opinion, that the ground is always moist and so soft that the water boils up under foot as one walks upon it. This is more visible after rains, for then the ground yields and sinks so much, that I believe it is chiefly supported by the roots of trees that are interwoven one with another; such is the ground round about these fountains. At a little distance to the south is a village named Guix, through which the way lies to the top of the mountain, from whence the traveller discovers a vast extent of land, which appears like a deep valley, though the mountain rises so imperceptibly that those who go up or down it are scarce sensible of any declivity.

On the top of this mountain is a little hill which the idolatrous Agaus have in great veneration; their priest calls them together at this place once a year, and having sacrificed a cow, throws the head into one of the springs of the Nile; after which ceremony, every one sacrifices a cow or more, according to their different degrees of wealth or devotion. The bones of these cows have already formed two mountains of considerable height, which afford a sufficient proof that these nations have always paid their adorations to this famous river. They eat these sacrifices with great devotion, as flesh consecrated to their deity. Then the priest anoints himself with the grease and tallow of the cows, and sits down on a heap of straw, on the top and in the middle of a pile which is prepared; they set fire to it, and the whole heap is consumed without any injury to the priest, who while the fire continues harangues the standers by, and confirms them in their present ignorance and superstition. When the pile is burnt, and the discourse at an end, every one makes a large present to the priest, which is the grand design of this religious mockery.

To return to the course of the Nile: its waters, after the first rise, run to the eastward for about a musket-shot, then turning to the north, continue hidden in the grass and weeds for about a quarter of a league, and discover themselves for the first time among some rocks--a sight not to be enjoyed without some pleasure by those who have read the fabulous accounts of this stream delivered by the ancients, and the vain conjectures and reasonings which have been formed upon its original, the nature of its water, its cataracts, and its inundations, all which we are now entirely acquainted with and eye-witnesses of.

Many interpreters of the Holy Scriptures pretend that Gihon, mentioned in Genesis, is no other than the Nile, which encompasseth all Aethiopia; but as the Gihon had its source from the terrestrial paradise, and we know that the Nile rises in the country of the Agaus, it will be found, I believe, no small difficulty to conceive how the same river could arise from two sources so distant from each other, or how a river from so low a source should spring up and appear in a place perhaps the highest in the world: for if we consider that Arabia and Palestine are in their situation almost level with Egypt; that Egypt is as low, if compared with the kingdom of Dambia, as the deepest valley in regard of the highest mountain; that the province of Sacala is yet more elevated than Dambia; that the waters of the Nile must either pass under the Red Sea, or take a great compass about, we shall find it hard to conceive such an attractive power in the earth as may be able to make the waters rise through the obstruction of so much sand from places so low to the most lofty region of Aethiopia.

But leaving these difficulties, let us go on to describe the course of the Nile. It rolls away from its source with so inconsiderable a current, that it appears unlikely to escape being dried up by the hot season, but soon receiving an increase from the Gemma, the Keltu, the Bransu, and other less rivers, it is of such a breadth in the plain of Boad, which is not above three days' journey from its source, that a ball shot from a musket will scarce fly from one bank to the other. Here it begins to run northwards, deflecting, however, a little towards the east, for the space of nine or ten leagues, and then enters the so much talked of Lake of Dambia, called by the natives Bahar Sena, the Resemblance of the Sea, or Bahar Dambia, the Sea of Dambia. It crosses this lake only at one end with so violent a rapidity, that the waters of the Nile may be distinguished through all the passage, which is six leagues. Here begins the greatness of the Nile. Fifteen miles farther, in the land of Alata, it rushes precipitately from the top of a high rock, and forms one of the most beautiful water-falls in the world: I passed under it without being wet; and resting myself there, for the sake of the coolness, was charmed with a thousand delightful rainbows, which the sunbeams painted on the water in all their shining and lively colours. The fall of this mighty stream from so great a height makes a noise that may be heard to a considerable distance; but I could not observe that the neighbouring inhabitants were at all deaf. I conversed with several, and was as easily heard by them as I heard them. The mist that rises from this fall of water may be seen much farther than the noise can be heard. After this cataract the Nile again collects its scattered stream among the rocks, which seem to be disjoined in this place only to afford it a passage. They are so near each other that, in my time, a bridge of beams, on which the whole Imperial army passed, was laid over them. Sultan Segued hath since built here a bridge of one arch in the same place, for which purpose he procured masons from India. This bridge, which is the first the Abyssins have seen on the Nile, very much facilitates a communication between the provinces, and encourages commerce among the inhabitants of his empire.

Here the river alters its course, and passes through many various kingdoms; on the east it leaves Begmeder, or the Land of Sheep, so called from great numbers that are bred there, beg, in that language, signifying sheep, and meder, a country. It then waters the kingdoms of Amhara, Olaca, Choaa, and Damot, which lie on the left side, and the kingdom of Goiama, which it bounds on the right, forming by its windings a kind of peninsula. Then entering Bezamo, a province of the kingdom of Damot, and Gamarchausa, part of Goiama, it returns within a short day's journey of its spring; though to pursue it through all its mazes, and accompany it round the kingdom of Goiama, is a journey of twenty-nine days. So far, and a few days' journey farther, this river confines itself to Abyssinia, and then passes into the bordering countries of Fazulo and Ombarca.

These vast regions we have little knowledge of: they are inhabited by nations entirely different from the Abyssins; their hair is like that of the other blacks, short and curled. In the year 1615, Rassela Christos, lieutenant-general to Sultan Segued, entered those kingdoms with his army in a hostile manner; but being able to get no intelligence of the condition of the people, and astonished at their unbounded extent, he returned, without daring to attempt anything.

As the empire of the Abyssins terminates at these deserts, and as I have followed the course of the Nile no farther, I here leave it to range over barbarous kingdoms, and convey wealth and plenty into Egypt, which owes to the annual inundations of this river its envied fertility. I know not anything of the rest of its passage, but that it receives great increases from many other rivers; that it has several cataracts like the first already described, and that few fish are to be found in it, which scarcity, doubtless, is to be attributed to the river-horses and crocodiles, which destroy the weaker inhabitants of these waters, and something may be allowed to the cataracts, it being difficult for fish to fall so far without being killed.

Although some who have travelled in Asia and Africa have given the world their descriptions of crocodiles and hippopotamus, or river- horse, yet as the Nile has at least as great numbers of each as any river in the world, I cannot but think my account of it would be imperfect without some particular mention of these animals.

The crocodile is very ugly, having no proportion between his length and thickness; he hath short feet, a wide mouth, with two rows of sharp teeth, standing wide from each other, a brown skin so fortified with scales, even to his nose, that a musket-ball cannot penetrate it. His sight is extremely quick, and at a great distance. In the water he is daring and fierce, and will seize on any that are so unfortunate as to be found by him bathing, who, if they escape with life, are almost sure to leave some limb in his mouth. Neither I, nor any with whom I have conversed about the crocodile, have ever seen him weep, and therefore I take the liberty of ranking all that hath been told us of his tears amongst the fables which are only proper to amuse children.

The hippopotamus, or river-horse, grazes upon the land and browses on the shrubs, yet is no less dangerous than the crocodile. He is the size of an ox, of a brown colour without any hair, his tail is short, his neck long, and his head of an enormous bigness; his eyes are small, his mouth wide, with teeth half a foot long; he hath two tusks like those of a wild boar, but larger; his legs are short, and his feet part into four toes. It is easy to observe from this description that he hath no resemblance of a horse, and indeed nothing could give occasion to the name but some likeness in his ears, and his neighing and snorting like a horse when he is provoked or raises his head out of water. His hide is so hard that a musket fired close to him can only make a slight impression, and the best tempered lances pushed forcibly against him are either blunted or shivered, unless the assailant has the skill to make his thrust at certain parts which are more tender. There is great danger in meeting him, and the best way is, upon such an accident, to step aside and let him pass by. The flesh of this animal doth not differ from that of a cow, except that it is blacker and harder to digest.

The ignorance which we have hitherto been in of the original of the Nile hath given many authors an opportunity of presenting us very gravely with their various systems and conjectures about the nature of its waters, and the reason of its overflows.

It is easy to observe how many empty hypotheses and idle reasonings the phenomena of this river have put mankind to the expense of. Yet there are people so bigoted to antiquity, as not to pay any regard to the relation of travellers who have been upon the spot, and by the evidence of their eyes can confute all that the ancients have written. It was difficult, it was even impossible, to arrive at the source of the Nile by tracing its channel from the mouth; and all who ever attempted it, having been stopped by the cataracts, and imagining none that followed them could pass farther, have taken the liberty of entertaining us with their own fictions.

It is to be remembered likewise that neither the Greeks nor Romans, from whom we have received all our information, ever carried their arms into this part of the world, or ever heard of multitudes of nations that dwell upon the banks of this vast river; that the countries where the Nile rises, and those through which it runs, have no inhabitants but what are savage and uncivilised; that before they could arrive at its head, they must surmount the insuperable obstacles of impassable forests, inaccessible cliffs, and deserts crowded with beasts of prey, fierce by nature, and raging for want of sustenance. Yet if they who endeavoured with so much ardour to discover the spring of this river had landed at Mazna on the coast of the Red Sea, and marched a little more to the south than the south-west, they might perhaps have gratified their curiosity at less expense, and in about twenty days might have enjoyed the desired sight of the sources of the Nile.

But this discovery was reserved for the invincible bravery of our noble countrymen, who, not discouraged by the dangers of a navigation in seas never explored before, have subdued kingdoms and empires where the Greek and Roman greatness, where the names of Caesar and Alexander, were never heard of; who have demolished the airy fabrics of renowned hypotheses, and detected those fables which the ancients rather chose to invent of the sources of the Nile than to confess their ignorance. I cannot help suspending my narration to reflect a little on the ridiculous speculations of those swelling philosophers, whose arrogance would prescribe laws to nature, and subject those astonishing effects, which we behold daily, to their idle reasonings and chimerical rules. Presumptuous imagination! that has given being to such numbers of books, and patrons to so many various opinions about the overflows of the Nile. Some of these theorists have been pleased to declare it as their favourite notion that this inundation is caused by high winds which stop the current, and so force the water to rise above its banks, and spread over all Egypt. Others pretend a subterraneous communication between the ocean and the Nile, and that the sea being violently agitated swells the river. Many have imagined themselves blessed with the discovery when they have told us that this mighty flood proceeds from the melting of snow on the mountains of Aethiopia, without reflecting that this opinion is contrary to the received notion of all the ancients, who believed that the heat was so excessive between the tropics that no inhabitant could live there. So much snow and so great heat are never met with in the same region; and indeed I never saw snow in Abyssinia, except on Mount Semen in the kingdom of Tigre, very remote from the Nile, and on Namera, which is indeed not far distant, but where there never falls snow sufficient to wet the foot of the mountain when it is melted.

To the immense labours and fatigues of the Portuguese mankind is indebted for the knowledge of the real cause of these inundations so great and so regular. Their observations inform us that Abyssinia, where the Nile rises and waters vast tracts of land, is full of mountains, and in its natural situation much higher than Egypt; that all the winter, from June to September, no day is without rain; that the Nile receives in its course all the rivers, brooks, and torrents which fall from those mountains; these necessarily swell it above the banks, and fill the plains of Egypt with the inundation. This comes regularly about the month of July, or three weeks after the beginning of a rainy season in Aethiopia. The different degrees of this flood are such certain indications of the fruitfulness or sterility of the ensuing year, that it is publicly proclaimed in Cairo how much the water hath gained each night. This is all I have to inform the reader of concerning the Nile, which the Egyptians adored as the deity, in whose choice it was to bless them with abundance, or deprive them of the necessaries of life.

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