Articles in this series:
Series: Egypt and the Nile
The Portuguese, Ludolf, and Le Grand: The Nile Myth is Shattered
The arrival in Ethiopia of the Portuguese diplomatic mission, in 1520, and the publication, in 1540, of Alvares’s report on it, represented an important development. It vastly expanded European knowledge of the country, and led to its steady demystification. European interest in the diversion of the Nile accordingly began to wane. Speculation tended thereafter to focus more on Ethiopia’s military might, which Alvarez had witnessed, than on the country’s reputed control over the river.
European belief in Ethiopia’s supposed ability to divert the river nevertheless died slowly. It was voiced by two notable early seventeenth century travellers to the East. William Lithgow, a Scotsman, claimed, in 1616, that the Turkish sultan paid the ruler of Ethiopia an annual tax of 50,000 gold coins, “lest he impede and withdraw the course of Nylus, and so bring Aegypt to desolation”. A decade or so later, a Spaniard, Antonio of Castelon, likewise reiterated that the Ethiopian ruler had control over the Nile, for which reason his subjects were exempt from taxation in Turkish territory.
The Jesuit “Discovery” of the Source of the Nile
The coming to Ethiopia of the Jesuits, and their “discovery” of the source of the Nile, in April 1618, was of major importance. It removed much of the mystery still surrounding both the Nile, and the land in which it flowed. This made the difficulty of diverting the river increasingly apparent. The new, post-medieval, view was stated succinctly by a leading Jesuit writer, Baltazar Tellez. He declared, emphatically, that the Nile, with its immense mass of water, could not be re-directed over the vast area suggested, particularly as it was the site of steep and rugged mountains.
Later in the century, the German scholar Ludolf was greatly intrigued with the question “whether it be in the power of the Abyssine Kings to divert the Course of the Nile, that it should not overflow Egypt?”. He discussed the matter with his Ethiopian friend and informant, Abba Gorgoreyos. Asked if he knew the story of Patriarch Michael of Alexandria reportedly dispatched to Ethiopia over half a millennium earlier, Gorgoreyos replied in the negative. He stated, however, that he had “heard from persons of great Credit” that “not far from the Cataracts of the Nile, all the Land toward the East” was “level”; and that, but for a single mountain, the river would “rather flow that way, than into Egypt”.
Gorgoreyos believed that if this mountain were “digg’ed through, a thing to be done with pains and difficulty”, the river’s course might be “turn’d and carry’d into the Red-Sea”. This, he thought, was “well known” to both the Turks and the Portuguese, and that it was for that reason that the Ethiopian Emperors had obtained “advantageous Conditions from the Saracens”. Gorgoreyos added that it was said that an
Ethiopian emperor had once had “an intention” to divert the Nile, “and had commanded his Subjects to undertake the Work”, but had been “prevail’d upon to desist at the entreaty of the Egyptian Christians”.
Despite his admiration for Gorgoreyos, Ludolf accepted the latter’s views on the Nile only reservedly. Doubtless influenced by the Jesuits, he doubted the country’s ability to divert the river. He admitted that the question had “much perplex’d him”, but was inclined to believe that the task of raising “a Mole or Dam of Stones” required “so much toyl and labour” that it was in “no way” agreeable to “the nature of the Abessins”. He felt moreover that it was “unlikely that so vast a River, so long accustom’d to a declining and headlong Course”, could be diverted. He argued that, if the Ethiopian monarch really controlled the Nile, he would “have had all Egypt at his Devotion”, for the Turks would “deny him nothing” Moreover, if the project had been practicable, he wondered why the Jesuits had not persuaded the Ethiopians to make use of “that Power which Nature had put into their hands”, and why they had not used “Threats rather than Intreaties and Bribes” to obtain the facilities they enjoyed at the Red Sea ports by the favor of their Turkish governor.
“Near the Cataracts”
Despite these reservations, the German scholar felt that the Nile diversion might be possible, not from the Ethiopian heartland, which lay “many Leagues distant from the Sea”, but rather, as Gorgoreyos had suggested, from territory “near the Cataracts”, i.e. towards Sudan. Such action, he declared, was, however, no longer politically possible. The Ethiopian monarch no longer ruled the areas whence the river could be re-directed. Ludolf therefore concluded that what might have been done in the past was no longer possible. It was not that “the nature of the place” obstructed the river’s diversion but that the Emperor lacked “the Power” to carry it out, or had “no inclination” to do so. Were it not for that, Ludolf could not think it either “absurd” or “improbable” that the Ethiopian rivers might be conveyed through the sandy lowlands to the north, and thus produce a “vast diminution of the Egyptian Stream”. To do so, it would, however, be necessary to employ “skilful Artists”, to survey the area, and establish the places “most proper to carry off the Water”.
Ludolf was the last serious student of Ethiopia, prior to the modern era, to take the Nile diversion seriously.
The Abbe Joachim Le Grand
By the early eighteenth century the idea that the Ethiopians could divert the Nile was largely rejected in Europe. This is apparent in the writings of the French cleric Abbe Joachim Le Grand. Writing in 1726, he declared that Abyssinia was “most full of mountains”, some so high that the Alps were “mere hills in comparison”, while the Nile lay over a hundred leagues from the Red Sea. After reviewing all available historical data, he declared: “We do not pretend that a canal cannot be dug from the Nile to the Red-Sea, but the Abyssinians cannot do it”.
Emperor Takla Haymanot, and James BruceBelief in the possibility of diverting the Nile nevertheless lingered on in Ethiopia. Early in the eighteenth century Emperor Takla Haymanot (1706-1708), infuriated that a French ambassador, Lenoir du Roule, and Murad, an Armenian trader, had been detained by the Muslim rulers of Sennar, wrote a strong protest to the Pasha of Cairo. In it he declared that the detention violated “the law of nations”, and continued:
“We could very soon repay you in kind if we were inclined to revenge the insult you have offered to the man Murad on our part; the Nile would be sufficient to punish you, since God hath put in our power his foundation, his outlet, and his increase, and that we can dispose of the same to do you harm”.
The Egyptian pasha was probably not impressed, for the belief that the Ethiopians could divert the Nile had by then evaporated. Bruce was emphatic about this. Writing a little over half a century later, he declares that “no sensible man in Abyssinia” believed that the diversion of the Nile was possible, “and few that it had ever been attempted” Such was the traveller’s final judgement, and that of his generation.
The medieval belief that the rulers of Ethiopia could divert the waters of the Nile, and thereby ruin Egypt, exercised a major, and long enduring, influence over Ethiopians, Egyptians, and Europeans, for half a millennium. Threats were made, fears expressed, prayers uttered, hopes voiced, and travellers’ tales published. The myth that the Nile had, or could, be re-directed by the misnamed-named Prester John, became a feature of Ethio-Egyptian statecraft, a question of direct relevance to the Coptic Church, an item on the agenda of Christian European diplomacy, and even, far away, a subject of Italian creative literature.
There is, however, little evidence that the Ethiopians ever made plans for the diversion of the Nile, let alone that they executed them. Variations in the annual flow of water reaching Egypt were the result of erratic rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands rather than of action on part of their rulers. One may even doubt whether changing the course of the Nile, however much desired, or feared, ever lay within the technological possibilities of the time.