Articles in this series:
Series: Egypt and the Nile
King Lalibala and the River Nile in Early Medieval Times
Ethiopia and Egypt, linked, but also divided, by the Nile, were in contact since the dawn of history. They were mutually inter-dependent. Egypt’s prosperity depended on Nile water – and silt – from Ethiopia. This occurred, most conveniently for agriculture, in the summer. Christian Ethiopia depended on the Coptic Church of Egypt, whence the Ethiopian Abun, or Patriarch, was selected. Egypt was thus dependent on Ethiopia for its material existence; Ethiopia, on Egypt, for its spiritual.
This mutual dependency was, however, unstable. The Nile flow varied, for climatic reasons, from year to year, while the Abun’s arrival depended on the vagueries of Egyptian efficiency and good-will, which, after the Arab conquest in the early seventh century, was problematic. One other element entered the equation: Ethiopia’s supposed ability to control the Nile flow, and thereby pressurise Egypt. This assumed Ethiopian power was long a major international interest, creating pride for Ethiopians, fear for Egyptians, and hope, and wonder, for European Christendom.
Early Failures of the Ethiopian Rains
The first interruptions in Ethiopian rainfall are reported in the Masahaf Senkesar, or synaxarium. Ethiopian wickedness is supposed to have caused two droughts, when God “restrained the heavens”, so that it “could not rain”. This happened during the time of Coptic Patriarch Joseph (831-849), and again of Patriarch Gabriel (1131-1149). Whether these droughts actually occurred, and influenced the amount of water reaching Egypt, has still to be ascertained.
The Failed Nile Flood in 1089-90
The question of interruption in the Nile’s flow supposedly first come to the foreground in Egypt around 1089-90, during the reign of Fatimid sultan al-Mustansir. The subsequent Arab writer al-Makin reports that the flood failed to reach Egypt, the sultan accordingly sent Patriarch Michael of Alexandria to Ethiopia, with a request that the Ethiopians restore the steam, which they did. The Ethiopian monarch’s name is not given, but was probably a member of the Zagwe dynasty. He reputedly ordered a mound to be broken, whereupon the water in Egypt rose three cubits in one night.
This account, though written long afterwards, was accepted by the seventeenth century German scholar Hiob Ludolf. He declares that Al-Makin , a “creditable” author and secretary to the rulers of Egypt, could not possibly have “invented such an incident”, for, “had it been an untruth” he would have been “in fear of being contracted”.
Ludolf also considered the possible objection that the Nile’s failure might have happened naturally, the river being dammed up by tree trunks, mud and stones, driven by force, and heaped together by the river in the narrow passage of the water. He replied that such “remarkable” blockages “rarely or never” occurred in “large or violent Rivers”, and that “if Nature could effect so much, what might not be accomplish’d by Art?”
The above argument is not, however, fully convincing. The Nile’s failure could have occurred for natural reasons other than those Ludolf mentioned. It could have been due to drought in the highlands, as earlier reported earlier, or to vegetation growth in the Sudanese lowlands. It may also be questioned whether Ethiopian rulers then possessed the technical ability to construct a “mound” able to block the river.
James Bruce’s Story about King Lalibala, and Henry Salt’s Comment
The idea of diverting the Nile, to pressurise Egypt, is alleged to have developed two centuries later, during the reign of the Zagw Emperor Lalibala (1172-1212). This claim rests, however, on entirely uncorroborated statements by the eighteenth century Scottish “explorer” James Bruce. He asserts that Lalibala’s reign coincided with “a great persecution” in Egypt, of Christian “masons, builders and hewers of stone”. The monarch supposedly collected a “prodigious number” of them, with whom he attempted to realise one of “the favourite pretensions of the Abyssinians”, by “turning the Nile out of its course”, to stop it being “the cause of the fertility of Egypt”.
Recalling that Egypt was controlled by Muslims, enemies of Lalibala’s religion, the Scotsman remarks that “if it was in the power of man to accomplish this undertaking”, it could have fallen into “no better hands” than those whom Lalibala gave it, for they had been “driven from their native country by those Saracens who now were reaping the benefits of the river”, in place of those they had forced “to seek habitations far from the benefit and pleasure afforded by its stream”.
Wishing to “famish Egypt”, Lalibala, according to Bruce, “found, by an exact survey and calculation”, that there ran “on the summit, or highest part” of Ethiopia, “several rivers which could be intercepted by mines”. Instead of flowing northwards to the Nile, they could thus be “directed into the low country southward,” and not reach Egypt at all. Elaborating on the river’s supposed diversion, Bruce asserts that “people of the country” had informed him that the king had actually “intersect[ed] and carr[ied] into the Indian Ocean, two very large rivers”, which had “ever since flowed that way”. Lalibala, he claims, had also “carried a level” to Lake Zway, where “many rivers” emptied themselves at the beginning of the rains, and would have “effectually diverted the course of them all”.
This work was stopped, Bruce claims, by Lalibala’s death. Signs of the ruler’s activities, he asserts, could nevertheless be seen in his day. He substantiates this statement by reference to the alleged observations of a Shawan prince, Amha Iyasus, “a young man of great understanding”, with whom he had “lived several months in the most intimate of friendship”. The chief assured him that Lalibala’s earthworks were still “visible”, and were “of a kind whose use could not be mistaken”. The prince “had himself often visited them”. No such earthworks have, however, been seen by any traveller, nor is there any visible sign that any river was ever reversed to run into the sea. The diversion of even a stream from the Nile area to the Indian Ocean would in fact have been virtually impossible.
Bruce attempts elsewhere to explain why the alleged Lake Zway plan was abandoned. Contradicting his earlier statement that this was due to Lalibala’s death, he cites Amha Iyasus as offering an entirely different explanation. The chief had reportedly stated that:
“in a written account which he had seen in Shoa, it was said that this prince [i.e. Lalibala] was not interrupted by death in his undertaking, but [had been] persuaded by the monks, that if a greater quantity of water was let down into the dry kingdoms of Hadea, Mara, and Adal, increasing in population every day, and even now, almost equal in power to Abyssinia itself, these barren kingdoms would become the garden of the world; and such a number of Saracens, dislodged from Egypt by the first appearance of the Nile’s failing, would fly thither, that they would not only withdraw those countries from their obedience, but be strong enough to over-run the whole kingdom of Abyssinia”.
No Ethiopian written account, such as Amha Iyasus supposedly mentioned, has ever been reported; nor is any attempt to divert the Nile included in Lalibala’s Gadl, or Acts.
Bruce also supports his statements about Lalibala’s earthworks by reference to the early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvarez. He cites the latter as stating that the Portuguese ambassador Roderigo de Lima, who had come to Ethiopia in 1520, had seen “the remains” of the king’s “vast works”, and had “travelled in them for several days”. No mention of this is, however, given in the Portuguese narrative.
Bruce’s story is thus a much flawed story: it contradicts itself, and is almost implausible. It was, however, accepted by the early nineteenth century British traveller Henry Salt, who asserts that Lalibala was “very distinguished”, for “a successful attempt to turn the course of the Nile”. Salt thought that this was “also recorded” in “Arabian histories of Egypt”, for around 1095. Not knowing when Lalibala lived, he confused the latter’s alleged closure of the Nile with the entirely unconnected failure of the waters in Egypt two centuries earlier. Though seemingly endorsing Bruce’s claims about Lalibala, Salt also took up an almost contradictory position, for he observes that the idea of diverting the river perhaps sprang from the “ignorance of the times”. His own view was that the “only source of a river” over which Lalibala had any “command” was, “in all probability”, not the Nile at all, but its tributary, the Takazze, which began near Lasta.
We may conclude that Bruce’s uncoborrorated assertions, are unconvincing, and that Salt was correct in asserting that Lalibala had no direct control over the country through which the Nile flowed. There is in fact no evidence that the monarch ever contemplated, let alone effected, any diversion of the river.
King Na’akuto La’ab
Ethiopian tradition, though silent on Lalibala’s supposed attempt on the Nile, claims that the last of the Zagwe rulers, Na’akuto La’ab (deposed 1270), wished to deflect the Takazze. His Gadl, written many centuries later, asserts that the Egyptians refused to pay their accustomed tribute to Ethiopia, whereupon the monarch prayed that the flow of water to the Nile be stopped for three years and seven months. God reportedly listened: Egypt was struck by famine, and its population declined. The Egyptian ruler then dispatched messages to the king, promising tribute, and begging him to resume the river’s flow.
Two comments deserve to be made. Firstly, it was the Takazze, not the Nile, which was reportedly to be blocked. Secondly, there is no suggestion that the king did anything beyond prayer.