The Nile

By Erlich, Haggai | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Nile


Erlich, Haggai, The Middle East Journal


The Nile, by Robert O. Collins. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2002. x + 233 pages. Maps. Notes to p. 244. Bibl. essay to p. 248. Index to p. 260. $39.95.

Reviewed by Haggai Erlich

Developments in the 1950s and 1960s worked to marginalize awareness of the Nile basin as a comprehensive historical arena. Nasserite Egypt departed from the territorial concept of "Unity of the Nile Valley" and turned to re-emphasizing Arab and Islamic dimensions. Ethiopia, the country that provides 85% of the river's waters, ended her old Christian dependency on Egypt, and began to play a central role in African affairs. The Aswan High Dam was erected to free Egypt of its traditional dependence on the African sources of the river, and of her self-defeating modern goal of annexing the Sudan. Developments in global academia followed the same spirit. The then rising African Studies perceived the Upper Nile countries as part of the African World, while most Egyptian scholars viewed Egypt in exclusively Middle Eastern terms. Only in the 1980s was there the beginning of a revival of the concept of all-Nile mutuality and inter-dependence. Climatic changes sent warning signs about the need to restore eye-contact. In 1988, after four years of drought in Ethiopia, Egypt faced a major catastrophe, in spite of the High Dam. With two more years of rain stoppage in the Blue Nile basin, experts predicted, the Nile between the dam and the sea would virtually dry out. Though mother nature sent temporary relief, the future of the Nile was back on the agenda.

Robert Collins is perhaps the leading figure in reviving the scholarly notion of the greater Nile as a historical framework. His latest work, The Nile, is the culmination of a lifelong academic effort and the result of some fifty years of firsthand acquaintance with the river. It is a masterpiece that reflects a multidimensional knowledge of history, literature, hydro-engineering, and geography. It is written with both passion and accuracy, a scientific love-story between a curious scholar, nature, and human diversity. Its aim is to tell the story of the Nile from nearly all perspectives, and render justice to all tributaries, riparian societies, and historical periods. In so doing, it attempts to discuss dozens of particular corners and various local cases without losing the all-Nile context and its integral development from the dawn of history to this day. Proceeding from the various African sources and flowing down to the Mediterranean, Collins manages to avoid repetition and to weave a unified story.

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