Who Discovered the Source of the Nile?
The source of the Nile was finally discovered in 1862 by John Hanning Speke when he reached the Ripon Falls at the northern tip of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Lake Victoria was first sighted by Europeans in 1858 when the British explorer John Hanning Speke reached its southern shore while traveling with Richard Francis Burton to explore central Africa and locate the great lakes. Believing he had found the source of the Nile on seeing this “vast expanse of open water” for the first time, Speke named the lake after the then Queen of the United Kingdom.
Burton, recovering from illness and resting further south on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, was outraged that Speke claimed to have proved his discovery to be the true source of the Nile when Burton regarded this as still unsettled. A very public quarrel ensued, which sparked a great deal of intense debate within the scientific community and interest by other explorers keen to either confirm or refute Speke’s discovery. British explorer and missionary David Livingstone pushed too far west and entered the Congo River system instead. It was ultimately Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley who confirmed Speke’s discovery, circumnavigating Lake Victoria and reporting the great outflow at Ripon Falls on the Lake’s northern shore.
European involvement in Egypt goes back to the time of Napoleon. Laird Shipyard of Liverpool sent an iron steamer to the Nile in the 1830s. With the completion of the Suez Canal and the British takeover of Egypt in the 1870s, more British river steamers followed.
Explorers had searched for the spot for centuries. As far back as the 2nd Century the Greek geographer Ptolemy learned enough from travelers’ tales to trace a map of the Nile which was later found to be fairly accurate. It was believed that the waters of the Nile came from high snow-covered mountains in central Africa called the Mountains of the Moon. Modern exploration of the upper part of the Nile began about 1837 when Mohammed Ali, the Turkish ruler of Egypt, ordered a search to be made for the river’s source. Three Turkish-led expeditions were made and two of them got to within about 400 miles of their objective. The Nile runs over 4,199 miles from its source to the Mediterranean.
The source of the Nile is sometimes considered to be Lake Victoria, but the lake has Feeder Rivers of considerable size. The Kagera River, which flows into Lake Victoria near the Tanzanian town of Bukoba, is the longest feeder, although sources do not agree on which is the longest tributary of the Kagera and hence the most distant source of the Nile itself. It is either the Ruvyironza, which emerges in Bururi Province, Burundi, or the Nyabarongo, which flows from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. The two Feeder Rivers meet near Rusumo Falls on the Rwanda-Tanzania border.
In 2010, an exploration party went to a place described as the source of the Rukarara tributary, and by hacking a path up steep jungle-choked mountain slopes in the Nyungwe forest found (in the dry season) an appreciable incoming surface flow for many kilometres upstream, and found a new source, giving the Nile a length of 6,758 km (4,199 mi). Gish Abay is reportedly the place where the “holy water” of the first drops of the Blue Nile develops.
The Nile (iteru in Ancient Egyptian) has been the lifeline of civilization in Egypt since the Stone Age, with most of the population and all of the cities of Egypt resting along those parts of the Nile valley lying north of Aswan. However, the Nile used to run much more westerly through what is now Wadi Hamim and Wadi al Maqar in Libya and flow into the Gulf of Sidra. As sea level rose at the end of the most recent ice age, the stream which is now the northern Nile pirated the ancestral Nile near Asyut, this change in climate also led to the creation of the current Sahara desert, around 3400 BC.