A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wafa' al-Nil

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.

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
August 15 marks the beginning of a two-week festival in Egypt known as Wafa' al-Nil,  the "fullness of the Nile," the traditional date of the Nile flood. From the earliest times in Egyptian civilization — perhaps literally, since the Ancient Egyptian calendar was dated from the rising of Syria before the sun, used to date the flood — until 1964-65, the Nile rose every summer to flood the arable land of the Nile Valley. Completion of the High Dam at Aswan ended this most ancient and literally vital cycle. In 1964 the floodgates of the High Dam were closed, and the floods ended. (The High Dam was not finished until 1970, but the floods stopped when the reservoir began to fill.)  Having first lived in Egypt in 1972, I never saw the Nile in flood, but those just a bit older than I did.

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.

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