On Assignment

Along the Blue Nile
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By Virginia MorellPhotographs by Nevada Wier

This legendary river inspires both reverence and fear among Ethiopians who live along its banks.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Some sounds wake you in an instant; you know even before you’re fully awake that something is wrong. First, in some foggy part of my mind I heard the donkeys stampeding past my tent. Had a hyena attacked them? I sat up, then heard the sound of men running. They were shouting. There was the flash and loud crack of a Kalashnikov being fired. One shot. Then another, and a third. I dropped to the floor of my tent, my heart leaping, while two more shots echoed in the night.

Were we under attack by the shifta? More shouts, but the gunfire stopped, and we called out questions from our tents. Was everyone all right? What, in God’s name, had happened?

Only a donkey thief, Zelalem explained. He’d got away, but without his prize.

In the morning the people in the nearby village complained that our men had not shot the thief. “He’s surely not a man from here,” they swore. “We have no thieves among us.” “More likely,” said another man, with a blue turban and a pirate’s copper ring glinting in his ear, “it was a spirit. A devil from the Gihon that took the form of a thief. That’s why you couldn’t shoot him.”

The Gihon—yet another name for the Blue Nile and one with strong biblical connotations. To the people in these villages set smack along the rim of the gorge, the Nile was one of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden at the beginning of the world. It was the river in Genesis that “compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia,” and in its waters lived a king also named Gihon.

“Some nights Gihon comes to the surface with his lights,” explained a woman with a white shawl pulled over her finely plaited hair. “If he sees you, he may attack you, so you must look away.” There were small devils in the water’s depths too, shape-shifters, she said, like our donkey thief.

Author Virginia Morell talks about adventures along the river and reads excerpts from her journal.

On TV—Assignment: Blue
Nile Airs December 17

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Experts may disagree on who first discovered coffee and its stimulating effects, but one popular legend cites an African goatherd named Kaldi. Noticing a change in his flock’s behavior after they chewed coffee cherries, the fruit that contains coffee beans, Kaldi tried the deep crimson fruit for himself and enjoyed the effect. A monk who happened upon Kaldi while in this invigorated state tried the cherries, liked them, and planted the beans at his monastery near Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. According to legend, his fellow monks began enjoying the drink and used it to stay alert during their lengthy nighttime prayers.

Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s River of Magic and Mystery
Find out more about Virginia Morrell’s book, Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s River of Magic and Mystery, on which this National Geographic magazine article was based.

Embassy of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country rich in history, tradition, and natural beauty. Learn about its blend of Middle Eastern and African culture, its dramatic landscapes, and more.

Destination Ethiopia
Find out everything you need to know about traveling in Ethiopia at this website. It’s packed with information on popular attractions, special events, and costs of touring this East African country.

Nevada Wier’s Homepage
Explore the award-winning photographer’s own website as she introduces the viewer to an intimate look behind the lens.


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