A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Tears of Isis: Wafa' al-Nil

The flood nearly to the Pyramids, 1927
Tomorrow, August 15, is the traditional date Egyptians mark an ancient celebration known as Wafa' al-Nil, "the fullness of the Nile," referring to the Nile Food, even though the Nile has not flooded since the Aswan High Dam was built.  (Another name was Jabr al-Nil, "the strength of the Nile."It is one of two celebrations, with Sham al-Nassim in the spring, that arguably date from Pharaonic times. I have posted on this before, and since my vacation is beginning, this post is mostly a rerun, an amalgam of earlier posts going back to 2009. From previous years:

Last spring I did a post on the Egyptian holiday known as Sham al-Nassim, noting that it was one of only two Egyptian holidays still celebrated that (arguably at least) are survivals from Pharaonic times, and which are celebrated with equal enthusiasm by Muslims and Copts (other than purely secular days like National Day).

Now we're at the other one. August 15 traditionally represents the beginning of the celebration (which lasts for two weeks) of Wafa' al-Nil. Wafa' al-Nil literally means something like "Fullness of the Nile" and refers to the Nile flood. (In earlier times the feast was celebrated whenever the Nile reached a certain height.)

Every summer, since the beginnings of human civilization (and long before), the Nile flooded. Until 1964,when the floodgates of the Aswan High Dam were closed. If you follow the above link on Sham al-Nassim you'll find a comment by my former boss, former MEI VP Ambassador David Mack about his posting in Egypt in 1964-65, when he saw the last Nile flood. I came to Egypt the first time in 1972 — antiquity for many of my readers, no doubt, but after the end of the cycle that created Egyptian civilization. The old-timer expats recounted many tales of flooded basements to us young whippersnappers who'd never see the Nile in flood. (The High Dam was not fully complete until 1970, but the floods stopped after the floodgates were closed in 1964, and the reservoir began to fill.)

Herodotus said that Egypt was the gift of the river, and the Egyptian dating system was based on the heliacal rising of Sirius because Sirius rose with the sun as the Nile began to rise, and thus had a profound symbolism for Egypt. (Some say we still call August the "dog days" because of the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star, in August.)

The annual rise and fall of the Nile — a mystery to the ancient Egyptians, who had little rainfall and knew nothing of the rains of Equatorial Africa, though by Ptolemy the geographer's time there was a vague tradition of the "Mountains of the Moon," an early echo of the Ruwenzori, or perhaps the Ethiopian highlands — was the lifeblood of Egypt. The silt deposited when the river rose irrigated and fertilized the arable lands of the Delta. The rhythm of the Nile flood was the heartbeat of Egyptian history. The Pyramids were built at floodtime: farmers were unemployed because their farms were inundated, and the broader Nile allowed stones from Muqattam to the east to be carried by boat to Giza in the west. (The usual word for river in Arabic is Nahr, with one exception: historically the Nile has been classically referred to as Bahr al-Nil, the "Sea of the Nile." In flood, with much of the arable land under water, it must have seemed more like a sea than a river.)

Anyone who has seen the Nile valley from the air knows how dramatically the desert is delineated from the sown: where the water goes, there is richness; where it does not, there is arid barrenness. And the flood deposited the silts that made Egypt the granary of the Roman Empire.

The Nile flood until 1964 was the pulse of Egypt, and the pulse of Egypt was the pulse of the ancient world. While I'm not an adherent to Karl Wittfogel's "hydraulic" interpretation of the ancient world, there is truth in the power that the flood gave to a unified monarchy and a common religion: someone had to be in charge of making sure the river flooded. The traditional beginnings of Egyptian history are the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolized in Egyptian art by the lotus (Upper Egypt) and the papyrus (Lower Egypt): both plants intimately associated with the Nile.

The Egyptian God of the Nile, Hapi, was closely linked to the flood. (So perhaps I should wish you a Hapi Wafa' al-Nil. Sorry.) And, of course, there was the mythological explanation of the flood as the river rising from the tears Isis shed for her brother/husband Osiris. And the resurrection of Osiris is itself a symbol of the renewal of life through the flooding of the river.

The flood and its relationship to political power is a common theme. One of the many great Mamluk historical compendia on Egypt, Ibn Taghri Birdi's Nujum al-Zahira fi Tarikh Misr wa'l-Qahira, is a year-by-year chronology of Egypt from the Muslim conquest to his own day, and for every single year, he gives the height of the Nile flood.

Two of the great historical artifacts of Egypt are the Nilometer at Roda Island at Cairo, and another Nilometer at Elephantine Island in Aswan. The Nilometers are just what they sound like: they measured the rise of the Nile each year. One of the great historical compendia of the early 20th century is the multi-volume work by Amin Sami called Taqwim al-Nil, a book theoretically on the measurement of the Nile (the meaning of its title) which gives the level of the Nile flood for each year and describes the river and its dams, barrages and other controls in detail, but also links them to the annalistic history of Egypt's rulers. It recognizes the genuine links between political power and the Nile.

The feast of Wafa' al-Nil has all sorts of pre-Islamic and pre-Christian artifacts related to it. The Copts call it the "Finger of the Martyr" (isba‘ al-shahid) because they once tossed a saint's relic into the Nile each year to assure the flood would occur, to placate the river gods, though as good Christians they would not have put it that way. Some legends say virgins were drowned in the Nile at flood time in ancient Egypt, and Egyptians have continued to drop small paper dolls, called brides of the Nile, into the river at the feast. (Islamists do not approve of this pagan survival of course, and the practice is said to be in decline since the end of the flood.)

For an account of the festival in the early 19th century, there is the classic work by Edward William Lane, in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, and through the generosity of Google Books you can read it online; with the Wafa' al-Nil account beginning on page 496 of the Everyman Edition at the link.

The rhythm of the flood created Egypt; the richness of the river's silt sustained its civilization. There is much fertility symbolism involved with Wafa' al-Nil, of course; the River God Hapi is depicted a male God with female breasts, and the Isis-Osiris-Horus trinity is intimately linked to the river. While Sham al-Nassim is at least arguably a survival of an Ancient Egyptian religious ceremony, there is no question about Wafa' al-Nil.

From the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under either King Scorpion or Menes (Mina) in about 3000 BC until 1964 AD, Wafa' al-Nil was not just an annual excuse for a holiday. It was the country's lifeblood. For the past 45 years, it is merely a symbolic remembrance of an annual event that will not return until, in some hopefully far distant future, the High Dam fails. But Egyptians still celebrate., though the Nile no longer floods.

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