The Nile: Downriver through Egypt's Past and Present by Toby Wilkinson


It is the longest river in the world -- stretching 6,650 kilometers through the continent of Africa -- and without it, one of the world's greatest civilizations would never have existed. As Toby Wilkinson writes in his new book, "Egypt is the Nile, the Nile Egypt."

                Wilkinson, an Egyptologist from Cambridge University, has produced a fluidly written book that blends contemporary description with digestible doses of history and anecdote from the time of the Pharaohs to the present day. The book is made timely by a reference to recent events: the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and the election and subsequent removal of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, described as Egypt's first democratically elected leader in 5,000 years. Though Egypt has "a past longer than most countries," writes Wilkinson, "its future has never looked less certain." As ever, the Nile "will be a vital reassurance."

                The Nile has certainly been nurturing Egyptians since the beginning of time, and attracting innumerable non-Egyptians, too. Though the river covers less than one-twentieth of the country's surface area, it sustains more than 96 percent of the population. Once Egypt becomes a fashionable travel destination in the 19th century, adventurous Europeans  -- including Florence Nightingale  -- make the trip downriver on dual-masted house-boats known as dahabiya, which are charming, if occasionally vermin-infested. The river is thought to have such miraculous powers that credulous Europeans hoping for twins or sextuplets pay dearly for a jar of its water.

               Wilkinson describes, in one amusing episode, how France persuades the Viceroy of Egypt to part with one of the majestic obelisks from the Temple of Luxor. The story of the obelisk's journey to its present home -- the Place de la Concorde in Paris --  would make a book in itself. A special ship is built to accommodate the 250-ton obelisk, and it sets sail from the French port of Toulon. At Luxor, it takes a month to lower the obelisk to the ground, and another three to load it onto the ship. Even after sailing into Paris in December 1833, the needle-shaped monument has to wait three years before it is hoisted before a crowd of 200,000.

                Wilkinson, whose book is divided according to the various stops on the Nile, saves the capital for last. He reminds readers that Cairo is the largest city in Africa, in the Middle East, and in the Arab world, and that its population of 17 million matches that of many countries. After an overview of Cairo's past, Wilkinson offers a brief history of Tahrir Square -- focal point of the Arab Spring: It was established in the 1850s as the site of a royal palace, was renamed 'Liberation Square' a century later, and, as the location of the hated Interior Ministry, became the "cradle of a revolution that has ushered in a chaotic present and an uncertain future." Thankfully, a few steps away, writes Wilkinson, is "the eternal friend upon which every generation of Egyptians can depend, the Nile."