September 5, 2012

The World’s Longest River

At 4,130 miles, the Nile River is generally accepted as the world’s longest river, but the Amazon River gives it a run for its money. The two run neck and neck in length, and which one comes out on top depends to a certain extent on who does the measuring. Regardless, geographers tend to award the title to the Nile, which runs through 10 countries: Sudan, South Sedan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt, where it drains into the Mediterranean Sea.

Much of the dispute has to do with the source of the rivers. Until the Greeks, there wasn’t much interest in where the Nile River began. They explored the river but made it only as far as the first cataract. The Romans attempted the journey in 66 A.D. but didn’t fare much better. In 1618, Pedro Paez, a Spanish Jesuit priest traced one of the river’s tributaries, the Blue Nile, to Lake Tana. Ottoman explorers and a Turkish officer continued the exploration in the 1800s.

At the same time, European missionaries arrived. During their travels, they heard reports of lakes further inland, which spurred further exploration.  Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke followed trade routes east to Lake Tanganyika and later found Lake Victoria. They heard rumors of another large lake, and since they were unable to visit it, passed the information on to Sir Samuel White Baker, who discovered Lake Albert.

Between 1874 and 1877, British General Charles George Gordon and his officers followed the river and mapped part of it, including Lake Albert, and although this contributed substantially to determining the source of the Nile, it was far from definitive. Exploration and mapping continues even today, and it is doubtful there will ever by 100 percent consensus about where the river begins and what the exact length is.

The Amazon River’s most distance source was established in 1996 (and again in 2001 by the National Geographic Society) as glacial stream on a snowcapped mountain in the Peruvian Andes called Nevado Mismi. Scientists from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics used this as the starting point and measured it to the beginning of the tidal estuary of Canal do Sul. Then, after a sharp turn back, they followed tidal canals surrounding the isle of Marajo and included Rio Para Bay, putting the total at 4,345 miles. However, the geographic community has failed to support Brazil’s claim, and the Nile retains the title of the world’s longest river.

It’s doubtful there will ever be 100 percent consensus about where the rivers begin and what their exact lengths are, but when it comes to the Nile River, there is little dispute about the role it has played in world history and culture. The river is almost certainly the birthplace of irrigation, and it served as a lifeline for the Egyptians who built a large empire from its shores. It has also had significant cultural impact. Reference is made to it in the Bible, books, and movies.

Recent history has brought changes to the Nile, however. In 1843, work began on a series of diversion dams, also known as barrages or weirs, to help supply irrigation canals and regulate navigation. This was not fully completed until 1861. Between 1899 and 1902, a dam was constructed near Aswan that was enlarged in 1911 and again in 1934. In 1970, a second dam, the Aswan High Dam, began operating. This dam allowed for the expansion of cultivation and for generating hydroelectric power.

If you want to see the Nile River in person, you can by either land or water. Cairo is an obvious choice for land travel. Now, you can also travel the river itself. Until recently, the 465-mile stretch between Cairo and Luxor had been closed due to security concerns and unpredictable water levels. Now, you can cruise all the way from Cairo to Aswan, a 600-mile stretch. (Note: Before you go, check the State Department’s current travel warnings.)

Image Credit: Frontpage / Shutterstock

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