Herodotus called Egypt the Gift of the Nile, and still in formal Arabic the Nile is not called Nahr, like every other river, but Bahr al-Nil, the Sea of the Nile. As the picture above shows, the Nile in flood did form a sort of sea in the river valley. The Nile was the central reality of life in Egypt from the beginnings of civilization to the 1960s, the source of life and civilization. In Egyptian mythology the tears of Isis, weeping for Osiris, gave birth to the annual flood.
|The flood nearly to the Pyramids, 1927|
Muslims and Copts alike preserved folk customs derived from Ancient Egyptian propitiation of the flood: throwing small dolls called "brides of the Nile" into the rising waters, or in the case of the Coptic church, throwing a relic into the river (in a ceremony called isba‘ al-shahid, "the finger of the martyr").
Along with another ancient feast, Sham al-Nassim in the spring, Wafa' al-Nil marks a survival of the ancient rhythm of the Egyptian year into modernity. Though the Nile no longer floods, the holiday remains.