As his new television series ‘Sacred Rivers’ begins, Simon Reeve reveals the spiritual side of the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze
Outside a small hillside shrine at Gish Abay in the lush highlands of Ethiopia a large crowd had gathered under the sweltering midday sun. They were waiting patiently by a shack with a tin roof for Orthodox priests to bless them with water from an unimpressive little stream. But as it dribbles through a grassy meadow and tumbles down a rocky hill, hundreds of other trickles and torrents join it, and the stream is transformed into the mighty Nile.
I was visiting Gish Abay, revered by millions as the source of the world’s longest river, while filming Sacred Rivers, a new TV series for which I travelled the length of the Nile, the Yangtze and the Ganges.
The three journeys were rollicking adventures and an opportunity to explore remote and magnificent areas of the world, while having my brain fed with stories about the cultures, religions and countries that have emerged along some of our greatest rivers. They were also eye-opening experiences and often extremely moving.
Hundreds of pilgrims had travelled from across Ethiopia to the source of the Nile, either to give thanks for the holy waters, or to seek good fortune or healing for a depressing list of ailments. There was both wailing and joy. One young woman told me, with the certainty of the pious, that her kidney infection had just been cured by contact with the water.
The shrine at the source is underwhelming, but the veneration of the water made absolute sense to me. The Nile is life-giving. In the arid regions of north-eastern Africa, human existence would be virtually impossible without it. The same is true of the Ganges and Yangtze. Rivers have helped to shape the development of human civilisation. What could be more normal than to thank and praise God or the gods for the magical, mysterious gift of a river that has nurtured and sustained vast numbers of humans for aeons of time?
The Nile: The life-giving force at the heart of Africa
Two great tributaries form the world’s longest river: the White Nile running north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, which begins in Ethiopia, where I began my journey from source to sea.
Think of the Nile and you invariably think of Egypt, pharaohs and pyramids. But it’s actually Ethiopia that provides almost 90 per cent of the total flow of the Nile.
With a BBC team I followed the Blue Nile from Gish Abay to the far north-west of Ethiopia, and the vast waters of beautiful Lake Tana, an inland sea covering more than 1,000 square miles, also considered by some to be the source of the Blue Nile.
Fishermen on the lake still use boats made from papyrus, which grows all the way along the river Nile and played a major role in all of the civilisations that grew up on its banks. A local boatbuilder called Girma let me paddle around in one of his new creations, and although papyrus boats are as stable as a bowl of jelly, to my amazement I managed to avoid a watery dip.
Across the lake I stopped at the 700-year-old monastery of Ura Kidane Mehret, one of dozens in the area. Inside, vivid wall paintings tell the story of Ethiopia’s spectacular religious heritage. According to legend a Lake Tana monastery was also the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Many Ethiopians believe it’s still in the country.
Heading north into Sudan, I saw the meeting point of the two Niles, the extraordinary spectacle of Khartoum’s ”whirling dervishes’’, and took a long drive into the desert to a region once home to the ancient Nile civilisation now known as Nubia.
Nubia developed along the river 5,000 years ago, and stretched from northern Sudan into southern Egypt. It is still little-known, but there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, and at Nuri there is a royal cemetery containing pyramids for 20 kings and 54 queens of the Nubian kingdom known as Kush.
Climbing the ruined side of the pyramid belonging to Taharqa, the greatest of all Kushite pharaohs – who ruled not only Sudan but the whole of Egypt as well – was a breathtaking experience.
Standing on top of Jebel Barkal, a lone 90m-high outcrop once considered the holiest site in Nubia partly because of its proximity to the Nile, I could see clearly why so many people worship our sacred rivers. Around me there was desert. Beyond the river, there was desert. But along the riverbanks, there was life.
Religions often developed out of a desire to explain and understand the forces of nature and creation. At Nuri there could not have been a clearer representation of the powerful gift of a river.
Dam Rising in Ethiopia Stirs Hope and Tension
There is a remote stretch of land in Ethiopia’s forested northwest where the dust never settles. All week, day and night, thousands of workers pulverize rocks and lay concrete along a major tributary of the Nile River. It is the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the continent’s biggest hydropower plant and one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever in Africa.
Ethiopia is a poor country, often known best for its past famines, but officials say the dam will be paid for without foreign assistance — a point of national pride. Computer-generated images of the finished structure are framed in government offices, splashed across city billboards and broadcast in repeated specials on the state-owned television channel.
“We lean on the generousness of the rest of the world,” said Zadig Abrha, deputy director of the dam’s public mobilization office. “So there is a conviction on the part of the public to change this, to regain our lost greatness, to divorce ourselves from the status quo of poverty. And the first thing that we need to do is make use of our natural resources, like water.”
Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has poured its resources into a slew of megaprojects in recent years, including dams, factories, roads and railways across the country.