Everything Travelers Need to Know about the Nile in Egypt

The Nile is everything in Egypt. It’s the longest river in the world. It’s one of the only rivers that flows south to north. It’s the main water source. It’s the reason farms can thrive and people can live all along the length of the country. It was the primary means of travel in ancient Egypt (and not-so-ancient Egypt). It’s also the whole reason Egyptians were able to transport such heavy materials for their many temples, tombs, and monuments. 

As a traveler, the more I learned about the Nile, the more intrigued I became. So, I decided to dedicate a whole blog post just to this all-important river. If you’re planning a trip to Egypt, you’ll understand the country more, and sound smarter when you talk about it, if you know a thing or two about the Nile.

Upper and Lower Egypt are Based on the River, Not Map Orientation

It’s less common, but several rivers in the world flow from south to north, including the Nile. This is important to understand when talking about Egypt, or listening to your guide talking about Egypt! Upper Egypt is in the south (Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel), or “up river.” Lower Egypt is in the north (Cairo, Alexandria), or “down river.” That seems incongruous, but it all depends on the direction of the river, and it made perfect sense to the ancient Egyptians!

Cairo is in the north, which is in lower Egypt!
Be in the know: Why Egypt Elite is the Best Tour Company in Egypt

There is a Nile Museum in Aswan

This small museum in Aswan is actually quite interesting! It’s a little bit geared toward kids, with a colorful map of the Nile through all its countries and models of many Nile animals. The museum also explains both the old Aswan Dam as well as the newer High Dam. Most interesting to me, however, was the aquarium upstairs, which is home to some of the Nile’s aquatic wildlife. Would you believe the Nile has carnivorous turtles? It’s true!

Meat-eating Nile Turtle. No joke.
Keep reading: The Ultimate List of Books to Read Before You Visit Egypt

Nile Crocodiles are Largest in the World

Thankfully for all the people, the crocodiles are now located only south of the Aswan High Dam. They lived all up and down the Nile in ancient times until the dams were built, and the can grow up to 15 feet long! If you happen to be visiting Kom Ombo, either by road or via the Nile on a cruise, you can explore the Crocodile Museum, home to several mummified, ancient crocs!

Another fun fact about Nile crocodiles? They used to predict the height of the floods each year. They would lay their eggs above the soon-to-be high water mark, and that is how the ancient Egyptians knew two things: How high the floods would be, and how much they would have to pay in taxes!

Want to see mummified crocs? Put Kom Ombo and the Temple of Sobek on your itinerary!
Essential info: 7 Reasons Why All Travelers Need to Visit Egypt

There Were Once Hippos Here

Speaking of dangerous Nile animals, the greater danger was actually the hippopotami who also used to populate the Nile. Over time, they were all killed off, however. The ancient Egyptians used to have a festival that included killing hippos in large numbers. Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Victory once a year, which commemorated Horus’s victory over his Uncle Set, who killed Horus’s father.

Hippos symbolized Set, and the King symbolized Horus. Part of the celebration involved killing hippos in the Nile with a harpoon. This is shown in the hieroglyphics at the Temple of Edfu, where the Festival of Victory took place.

Horus is standing on top of a hippo, defeating it.
Keep reading: The Best Things You’ll See and Do on Your Nile Cruise

Nubians are Excellent Sailors

The southernmost region of Egypt and northern Sudan were once collectively called Nubia (and also the Land of Kush in the Bible), and people from this region are still called Nubians. And Nubians are known for being excellent Nile sailors. They learn sailing from an early age, and they can always tell where the Nile is shallow or deep, meaning that they are excellent navigators! 

If you take a felucca boat sail in Aswan, your captain will likely be a Nubian sailor!
Read next: The Best Things to Do in Aswan

You Can’t Cruise the Entire Length of Egypt on the Nile Anymore

This used to be a possibility, but no more! Regular cruises no longer sail between Cairo and Luxor, but you can definitely sail between Luxor and Aswan. This is the most popular route, with cruises lasting three, four, or seven days. Cruises leave Aswan on Friday and stop in Luxor on Monday. The same ships cruise from Luxor on Monday and return to Aswan on Friday.

An adventurous, cruise-loving few can also sail from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back. This cruise is less popular, but available to those who want to see a few more sites and prefer not to drive or fly to Abu Simbel.

You can cruise to Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser if you have the time!
The best of the best: What It’s Like Sailing in a Traditional Dahabiya on the Nile

You Can Eat the Fish

Having grown up in the land-locked area of the American South, I’m totally down with eating river fish. Having lived in D.C. and near the Potomac for the last 15 years, I also know there are some rivers where you do not want to eat the fish! Honestly, I was a little surprised to find Nile fish on some menus in Upper Egypt. And then I got my mind blown in a huge way when I found out the Nile has catfish! I learn something new every time I travel!

Nile fish in butter sauce? Sign me up! I believe this was Nile Perch fish.
But also, look at that catfish face, y’all.
Keep eating: The Foods You Must Try in Egypt

Water Clearest In and Around Aswan

Aswan is home to two dams, which give it the clearest Nile water in Egypt. I was shocked at how clear and beautiful it is, especially through the town of Aswan. It’s the best place to take a felucca ride because it’s so clear and beautiful there. If you’re taking a cruise, you will definitely either start or end in Aswan, so you’ll get to see it up-close and personal for yourself!

Would you believe this view is in Egypt?
Get this view: What It’s Like Staying at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel

The Nile Runs Through 11 Countries

The Nile is the longest river in the world (even longer than the Amazon!), and while most people think of Egypt when we think of the Nile, it actually runs through 11 countries:

  1. Burundi
  2. Democratic Republic of Congo
  3. Egypt
  4. Eritrea
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Kenya
  7. Rwanda
  8. Sudan
  9. South Sudan
  10. Tanzania
  11. Uganda
More here: Why Egypt is Safe to Visit (yes, even for a woman!)

75% comes from Ethiopian lake, the Blue Nile

This one surprised me, because I think I remember learning that the source of the Nile is Lake Victoria in Uganda. But in fact, there are two sources of the Nile. Lake Victoria in Tanzania is the source of the White Nile. However, 75% of the water that flows through the Nile in Egypt comes from the Blue Nile. Its source is actually in a much smaller lake called Lake Tana in Ethiopia!

If you’re intrigued, take a look at this interesting and well-written book by Candice Millard:

Way more here: What to Know Before You Visit Egypt

You Won’t Get Seasick on a Nile Cruise

Nile cruises can be done in a felucca, on a huge cruise ship, or on a traditional dahabiya. Whichever experience you choose, you won’t need to worry about getting seasick. The Nile is very calm between Aswan and Luxor, as well as on Lake Nasser, which are the two places where Nile cruises can go. On the dahabiya, we hardly felt any rocking at all, only the occasional wake from a larger cruise ship passing by.

Definitely happy to wake up to this view every day.
Also helpful: How NOT to Get Sick in Egypt

Want more? Check out everything you need on my dedicated Egypt Page!

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