email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThreatened Treasures of the Nile
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To appreciate the impact of the High Dam, one must become acquainted with the Nile Valley's geography, history, and way of life. A good introduction, I found, is a boat ride south of Aswân, upriver in Nubia. The Nile burrows through sandstone; barriers of hard, crystalline rock create dangerous rapids.

A handful of these sills of granite and diorite are counted by geographers as cataracts of the Nile. Many more go unnamed and unnumbered, and the Second Cataract is merely a prelude to a 100-mile-long valley full of rocks, the unique Batn el Hagar, or "Belly of Stones"—a chaos of hundreds of shinyblack little islands.

Nubia Fights Encroaching Sands

This is Nubia—a boundaryless area stretching from the Nile's First Cataract, in the United Arab Republic, to midway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts, in the Republic of the Sudan; it is Nubia because the people speak Nubian.

In much of Nubia the Nile is squeezed: From the east by mountains, which the Eastern and Nubian Deserts push to the very edge of the river; from the other side by the sands of the Libyan Desert. But fertile land is not entirely lacking. Fields and palm groves form narrow strips of green, irrigated by well-sweeps and by creaking water wheels. And yet man's toil has earned him no dominion over this land. The desert reclaims it at will.

Since my first trip several years ago, I have returned frequently—alone, or with my wife Isabel. Sometimes I take passage on the express steamer or the mail boat that ply between the First and Second Cataract. Or I charter the dilapidated river boat Hurriya.

In winter, after the inundation, the storage lake of the old dam is full and Nubia is lined with half-drowned palms, mimosas, and tamarisks. The Nile flows sluggishly and becomes so broad that not even the braying of a Nubian donkey carries from shore to shore.

In summer the reservoir is emptied. The river, so laden with sediment that its color reminds me of melted chocolate, recedes to its bed. In some places, newly exposed reefs and sandbanks stop traffic altogether. But now more than seasonal changes are in prospect. The water impounded by the old Aswân Dam rises to 396 feet above sea level; it forms a narrow lake stretching more than 200 miles to the south, all the way to the Egyptian-Sudanese border. Within the next decade or so, as the reservoir of the High Dam fills (maximum height—nearly 600 feet above sea level), the lake will widen and creep southward until it has swallowed the Second Cataract, and finally the whole belly of stones.

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