Ibn Abd as-Salam al-Manufi

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[pp. 758-771]


(d. 1525 A.D.)

Shihāb ad-dīn Aḥmad b. Muḥ.b. 'Abd as-Salām al-Manūfī. A learned Cairo Shaykh wrote 1525 A.D. about the Nile (and other rivers) by comparing the literary sources with the oral accounts of many travellers.

Al-fīd al-madīd fī akhbār an-Nīl as-sa’īd

Ed.: (partly) with French transl.: M. L'Abbé Bargès, Les Sources du Nil, Journ. Asiatique, 1837, I, pp. 97 - 164, from: Marseille, MS. n. 1639 (partly, i.e. relevant passages on Nubia); Mus'ad, Al-Maktaba, pp. 392 - 407, from Cairo, Dar al-Kutub, MS 429 (History).

T.: Mus'ad A: 0

[On the Source of the Nile]

Chapter One: The Nile Sources and their Home Land.

The Length and Width of the Nile.

The historians who have dealt with the country in which the Nile rises and its course down to the mouth, have put forth various opinions. The majority of them, according to al-Ḥāfiz b. Kathīr in his "at-Ta’rīkh al- Kabīr", said: "The Nile takes its origin from Jibāl al-Qumr[1] as they spell it - or Jibāl al-Qamar (the mountains of the Moon), - as others prefer to spell - thus connecting its name with the Planets. This jabal lies in the western part of the Earth, beyond the equinoxial line, on the southern side. They say that in those mountains, which are of a reddish colour, there are springs, the waters of which rush down through ten different [p. 759] streams (masīlāt), each stream separate from the other; five streams end into a lake (buhayra) and the other five into another. From these two lakes six rivers (anhār) part and gather again into one lake. From this lake only one river flows, the Nile. The Nile traverses the country (bilād) of the Sūdān and of the Ḥabasha, then the Nūba, whose greatest town is Dunqula, then Aswān, after which it enters Egypt, and there it discharges the excess of the rains of those countries and part of their silt. Egypt, in fact, is in great need of both, because its rainfall is not sufficient for the local agriculture. The soil of Egypt essentially consists of sand from which no crop can grow, unless the Nile comes with its floods (ziyādāt) and its mud (ṭīn), which enriches the soil, and thus enables the population to grow the vegetables they need. Egypt, more rightfully than any other country, can apply to itself the words of God: "Lo! We have driven water to a barren land so that they may grow vegetables for their food and to feed their animals. But they have not paid attention to this". (Koran, 32:27).[2]

... Ibn al-Qayyīm [al-Jawziyya?] said in his "Kitāb al Hudā": "The Nile is one of the rivers of Paradise (al-janna). It rises in a land behind Jabal al-Qamar - in the remotest part of al-Ḥabasha - from rains which collect there into streams and join one another. God Almighty drives it into barren lands where no vegetation could grow if the Nile would not water them. But, thanks to the Nile, vegetables can be grown there and they provide food for men and animals. As the land to which God led the Nile is black, hard slime, normal rains would not be sufficient to water it adequately and it will produce [p. 760] no vegetation; if the rains are excessive, they will damage the homes and harm the inhabitants; thus no life would be possible in that territory. Therefore, God causes the rains to fall abundantly in countries far away, and led the rain water to those barren lands through this great river and made the flood season to water them adequately. Once the land is watered and flooded, God makes the river shrink and decrease in order to ensure the welfare [of the inhabitants] by the cultivation of crops".[3]

... One of those who said that the Nile rises from Jibāl al-Qamar is Sirāj al-Kindī, in a statement he quoted from Ibn 'Imād, which we have already reported. On the authority of the aforementioned author (ṣāḥib al-asl = Ibn Kathīr), it seems that the majority of historians accept that statement.

More than one historian - according to Ibn as-Sakrawān — said that the opinions about the origin of the Nile differ considerably. Some place its headquarters among the snow of Jibāl al-Qamar, which is a mountain impossible to climb; then [they say] its stream sinks into the Green Sea (al-baḥr al-akhḍar) by the power of God, passing by the mines of gold, hyacinth, emerald and pearl, until it reaches the Lake of the Zanj. The writer who put forth this opinion adds: "Were this not true - i.e. that the Nile makes its way through the saltish water of the sea and mixes with it - its water would be undrinkable because of its excessive sweetness".

... The same author said: "The Nile river sinks under the salt sea, without mixing its waters: it flows on the bottom of the sea unmixed, like oil which does not [p. 761] mix with water". He also added: "For this reason those who voyage on the seas, notice the [different colour of the] Nile waters and drink from them; this phenomenon, however, is noticed only in certain well-known places". Here ends the quotation of that writer.

Ibn Ṭūlūn sent for an old, learned man among the Copts - reportedly 130 years old - and asked him many questions concerning Egypt. For example he asked him: "Where does the Nile begin?" The old Copt answered: "It rises from a lake whose length and width no one can check; the lake, however, lies across the line where the duration of day and night is equal throughout the year."

Our author gave only a summary of the talk [between Ibn Ṭūlūn and the Copt], drawing from Shihāb b. 'Imād, who quoted the whole talk from al-Mas'ūdī's account: "About the year 260 H [= 873 A.D.], Aḥmad Ibn Ṭūlūn was told that in Upper Egypt there lived a 130-year old man, a Copt, famous for his knowledge and very competent on any question concerning Egypt, its land and river, the soldiers (ajnād) in charge of the tribute in Egypt and the king's own fisc soldiers. This man had travelled extensively and had seen many kingdoms and different nations of Whites and Blacks; he was well versed in astronomy. Ahmad Ibn Ṭūlūn sent for him and asked him all kinds of questions, for days and nights, listening to his answers and talks. One of the questions he put to him was about the length of [the land of] the Aḥābish along the Nile, and their kingdoms. The old Copt answered: "I have met sixty kings ruling as many kingdoms; each one was at war with his neighbour. Their country is hot and dry." - "And where are the headwaters of the Nile?" He answered: — "In a lake, etc.", as mentioned above by our writer.

Here is what Abu Muhammad 'Abdalla b. Aḥmad b. Sulaym al-Aswānī wrote about the Nile in his "Kitāb Akhbār an-[p. 762]-nūba": "As far as I could see for myself concerning the branches and divisions of the Nile watercourse, they are seven rivers which come from the country of 'Alwa and join together into one river in the country of Muqurra. There [in Muqurra] the Nile forms a great bend before reaching the capital, then it divides into two rivers, which are the rivers of Dunqula, the eastern branch distant from the western one about forty farsakhs; then they merge again into one and the river bed becomes so narrow that its width does not exceed fifty cubits. Then, in another place, it passes through the cataracts (janādil), where the water flows through two or three outlets. The fortress (qal’a) of Asfūn marks the first of the three cataracts, which is the most difficult of the three, as a mountain protrudes into the Nile from east to west and forces the water into three passages and sometimes only two, during the dry season. The roar it causes is tremendous, but the view of the water rushing from the mountain is wonderful. South of this point, the Nile bed is full of rocks for a three days' distance to a village called Bastū, which is the last village of al-Marīs and marks the beginning of the country of Muqurra."

As for the other tributaries of the Nile, and their headwaters, I have insistently enquired from many natives, but none of my informers had personally seen the sources of those rivers. One of my informers who seemed to know more than the others said: "The Nile extends [upstream] into a wasteland (kharāb): during the flood season, however, these rivers carry scraps of boats, planks and the like, which proves that beyond the wasteland there are other inhabited countries."

Al-Wāṭwāṭ wrote in his book: "Manābi’ al-fikr": "The length of the Nile is over 3,000 farsakhs [= 15,000 km]." [p. 763] Others say: "It flows four months’ through the wasteland (kharāb), two months' in the country of the sūdān and one month's in the country of Islam." This statement agrees with the estimate made by Ibn Zūlāq in his "History": also other writers agree with Ibn Qanbal's statement.

The author of "Durar at-Tījān" ("The Pearls of the Crowns") says that the distance between the country of origin of the Nile and the place where it ends, is 42° degrees and 2/3 of a degree - each degree being the equivalent of 60 miles - which makes altogether 8624 and 2/3 miles. Taking into account the windings of the river eastwards and westwards, the total length of the Nile becomes more than that figure.

The author of "Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fī'khtirāq al-aflāk" [= Idrīsī] said that the distance between the two extremes of the Nile is, according to what is clearly stated in some books, 5,630 miles.

The author of "Khizānat at-Ta'rīkh" said that its length is 4,570 miles, and its width in the countries of the Ḥabasha and the Nūba is three miles and not less, while its width in Egypt is only 1/3 of a mile and no other river can be compared to it. In Ibn Zūlāq's "History" we read: "No river in the world is larger than the Nile which flows for one month across the territories of Islam, one month in the countries of the Nūba and four months in the wasteland where no human settlement is found until its sources on the Jibāl al-Qamar, beyond the equator."

I have mentioned what the original author has quoted from Ibn Zūlāq. Ibn Qanbal claimed that all writers agree with him and his statement, as reported by Ibn 'Imād above reads: "All men of science agree that there is no river in the world longer than the Nile, which flows within the land of Islam for a month", etc..., as [p. p. 764] quoted above. Then he added: "No river in the world, except the Nile, has two mouths, one in the Mediterranean and the other in the Sea of the Sīn."[4]

Abū Muḥammad 'Abdalla b. Aḥmad al-Aswānī, in a passage of his "Akhbār an-nūba" - where he gives the meaning of the town of "Baqūn" as being "The Wonderful", so called on account of the beauty of the district - says: "Nowhere along the Nile have I seen a stretch, where the river is wider than in this place. I estimated its width from east to west as equalling 5 days' journey. The river bed is broken by islands; the watercourse splits into many streams rushing between the islets. All the country around is a flat lowland with beautiful villages and cultivations". All the foregoing is a quotation from al-Aswānī.

Now, in order to reconcile Aswānī's statement and the previous quotations [from other writers] and the statement contained in "Khizānat at-Ta'rīkh", [one ought to say that] the Nile varies in width from place to place also inside the Nūba country. For, in some places, it is three miles or more - as stated by the author of "Khizānat at-Ta'rīkh", and in other places, five days' journey, - as stated by al-Aswānī. This explanation, being based on observation, seems to be the correct one, and is far more acceptable.[5]

Shaykh 'Imād ad-dīn b. Kathīr, in his "At-ta'rīkh al-kabīr" said: "Some writers locate the source of the Nile in a highland, where the explorers met a great monster [p. 765] and beautiful girls and other similar strange things, and claim that all those who climbed up to that place became dumb for good. All these tales are only superstitions fables told by historians and delirious talks of liars."

The late al-Ḥāfiz b. Kathīr quotes, for instance, the following story which he likely took from Ibn Zūlāq's "Ta'rīkh": Some caliphs[6] of Egypt, - he said – ordered some natives to go on an expedition upstream the Nile [to its sources]; they arrived at a high mountain from the top of which the water rushed down with great roar, so great that no one could hear [the voice of] his companion standing nearby. Then, one of the party decided to climb to the top and see the headwaters and the environs; no sooner had he reached the top than he began dancing, clapping hands and laughing. Then he went roaming on the mountain slopes never to return. His companions never knew what befell him. Whereupon, another climbed up to see and did the same. A third companion climbed but instructed the others to fasten a rope round his waist. Once I shall reach the place where the other two arrived - he said - pull me down lest I do what they did and lose my way back. They followed his instructions. When he reached the top of the mountain, he behaved like the others; then his companions pulled him back, but - it is said - he had become dumb and could not utter a single word. He died soon afterwards. The expedition returned without obtaining any result other than that." This is the story Ibn ‘Imād told quoting Ibn Zūlāq. You may judge for yourself about this story!

[p. 766] Abū Muḥammad 'Abdalla b. Aḥmad al-Aswānī, in his "Kitāb Akhbār an-nūba" says: In this part of Nubia, that is in 'Alwa, the Nile branches off into seven rivers. One comes from the east and has turbid water, and in summer it dries up completely and the natives camp on its bed. But, when the season of the Nile flood approaches - which happens when the sun enters the sign of the Ram - water rises from the bed, the pools which are found here and there on the bottom expand; then the rains begin pouring and the streams flow all over the country; that is the season when the Nile floods. It is said that this river rises from a large source in the mountains.

Al-Aswānī goes on saying: "All people admit that the Nile flood is caused by the rains in conjunction with another material element (mādda) which rises spontaneously." Al-Aswānī added: "The evidence for it is that the river is completely dry and people settle on its bed, but at the time of the increase water bubbles up from the bed."

I [al-Manūfī] say that Abū Muḥammad al-Aswānī's claim about the unanimous consent of the scientists [on this point] is refuted by what we have mentioned above in the second and the fifth chapters (qawl). I cannot understand how he can speak of "unanimous consent" on a subject on which the disagreement of the scientists is absolutely evident. God alone knows. Al-Aswānī said: - One of the wonders [of the Nile] is that its increase occurs at the same time in all its tributaries all over the regions and countries [it flows through]: viz. in Egypt (Miṣr) and Upper Egypt (Ṣa'īd), in the regions beyond such as Aswān, Nubia. ‘Alwa and further on. The highest increase of the Nile can be noticed[7] from the [p. 767] feast of the Cross (ʿīd as-salīb) [= 14 September] to the 17th day of Thoth (30 September), then it decreases everywhere at the same time. God alone knows the cause. All that I could ascertain about the increase is that it may be noticed in Aswān, for example, and not yet at Qos, where it will be noticed shortly later.

The watering of the fields [in Egypt] is in proportion to the rains. They [the Egyptians] know that if the rains [in those distant countries] are abundant and the torrents reach the river, they may expect a year of plenty; if, on the contrary, the rainfall there is poor, they understand that it will be a year of drought. This is stated also by ash-Shihāb b. 'Imād in that part of his book which we have already quoted. He said: - "I was told by some who lived in al-Ḥabasha that during the season of the increase of the Nile, clouds and rains never cease in that country, day and night, and in some years the rain is abundant and in other years it is scarce. They [the Egyptians], therefore, connect the abundance or the scarcity of the Nile increase in Egypt with this phenomenon."

Chapter Six: The White and the Green Niles

Writing about the White [Nile], Abū Muḥammad 'Abdalla b. Aḥmad al-Aswānī, said in his "Kitāb Akhbār an-nūba": "It is a river which comes from the west; its colour is remarkably white, like milk." I have questioned people, such as the Maghāriba, who have knowledge of the countries of the sūdān, and asked them about the Nile in their countries and about its colour. They said: - It comes down from sandy mountains, forms large pools in the countries of the sūdān, then it flows [to some place], nobody knows where, and its colour is not white. Therefore, either it acquires this colour from the ground through which it flows, or from some tributary which joins it.

[p. 768] The Green Nile [= Blue Nile] comes from the east, precisely from the direction of the "qibla". Its colour is deep green, but too transparent that one can see the fish on its bed. Its taste is different from that of the [White] Nile, and he who drinks from it, becomes thirsty very soon. During the flood season it carries logs of teak (sāj), redwood (baqma), odoriferous wood (? qifār) and a kind of wood which smells like the olibanum (lubān). It is said that sometimes it carries the frankincense wood (bakhūr). I have seen strange carvings on some planks (siqālāt) of teak (sāj) carried by the flood waters. These two rivers viz. the White and the Green, flow into one near the town of the Regent (mutamallik) of 'Alwa, each [river] keeping its own colour for one day's distance, after which they mix. Someone who took water from the White river and poured it into the Green river told me that the White Nile water kept its milky colour for one hour before mixing.

Between these two rivers there is an island, the end of which - as well as of the two rivers - nobody has ever seen. I was told that some kings (mutamallikī) of 'Alwa spent years travelling to discover the end of this island, never reaching it: so, nobody discovered its end, because the peoples who dwell on this island live in constant fear of one another.

This Green Nile is not to be confused with the Green Sea (al-baḥr al-akhḍar) for the Green Sea is part of the salt sea, as already stated by as-Sakrawān [?] in Chapter One.

[p. 769] A Conclusion

The statement of al-Jāḥiz, who said that the length of the Nile in the country of the sūdān equals a seven years' journey, after which it enters Egypt - is clear. But it is contradicted by the statement quoted above in Chapter One, i.e., the passage taken from "Manābi’al-fikr" and by another passage from Ibn Zūlāq's "History" and also by the statement of Abū Qanbal's [sic!] which sums up the statements of the historians and says that the course of the Nile in the country of the Nūba equals two months'. Think whatever you like! God alone knows.

Al-Jāḥiz said in his "Kitāb al-Amṣār": "The Nūba, that is, the Marīs who border on the land of Islam, share a frontier with Egypt since the earliest times. This frontier is marked by two rocks which protrude from a mountain [range] and stand like two columns in the middle of the river. At this point the country of the Nūba begins. Between this point and Aswān there are five miles". He also said in his "Kitāb Tafāḍul al-buldān": Between Aswān and Dunqula, the capital of the Nūba, there are forty days along the Nile; between Aswān and (? Adkā), five days, and from Aswan to Fusṭāṭ fifteen days. Behind the country of 'Alwa there is a large nation (umma) of Sūdān called Bakna, whose people go naked like the Zanj: in their country gold pokes out from the ground. In their country the Nile branches off into two rivers, one white and the other green: one of them is the Nile of Egypt; the other flows eastwards, crosses the sea and flows to the country of the Hind and thence towards the country of the Sind, where it splits into two rivers. We have already dealt with these two rivers in Part One, Chapter Six.

[p. 770] Abū Muḥammad 'Abdalla al-Aswānī, in a passage from his "Kitāb Akhbār an-nūba" - where he gives the meaning of the word "baqūn" as being "marvel" on account of the beauty of that district - says: I have never seen along the Nile a district wider than this, as I assessed its width from east to west as being a five days' journey. The Nile bed is full of islands; the water rushes in narrow streams between the islands, in a low flat land where beautiful villages, fields, pigeon towers, cattle and sheep (an'ām) can be seen everywhere. Most of the fish supplies to the capital come from this district. I saw the natives crossing many of these canals by swimming. Their king, when going on a promenade, comes preferably to this district. I accompanied him one day on a promenade here; we passed under shadowing trees, the branches of which joined the branches of other trees across the narrow canals.

In their country there are large trees. The king of 'Alwa told me that he measured the circumference of one of the trees in his kingdom and found that thirty persons were necessary to encircle it. They cut their branches and they carve the inside of the trunk transforming it into a water reservoir (ṣahrīj), because their land is sandy; rain water flows on the surface and it is difficult to dig wells. In the country of 'Alwa there is a river, a Nile tributary, in the bed of which a kind of fish without scales is found as deep in the mud as the stature of a person or more: It is of a kind different from the Nile fish and can weigh as much as a kid. He [al-Aswānī] also said: - One of the marvels of that kingdom is that in the great island between the two rivers, there is a nation called al-Karsā, whose land is very large and cultivated, watered by the Nile and rainfall. When the season for sowing comes, each one of them goes out with whatever seed he has; he marks the [p. 771] four corners of the piece of land which he intends to sow and begins tracing the borders, then he lays the seed [heaped] in the middle and nearby places a container with a little local beer (mizr), then he retires. The next morning he finds that the fields he marked have been all sown and the mizr has been consumed. Likewise, at harvest time, he reaps only a little of the harvest and lays it in a place chosen for this purpose; he leaves there also a little mizr, then he retires. The next morning he will find that the whole harvest has been reaped. The same happens whenever he wants to thrash or to winnow the seed.

I was told that if anyone goes to clear the woods from his field, and, by oversight uproots a stalk [of grain], the next morning he will find all the stalks uprooted. The district where such things happen is a very large country, the distance of a two months' journey in length and width; and it is planted all at the same time.

The natives and the king of 'Alwa go with their boats to that region to take their grain supplies. Sometimes a war may break out between them.

The above story is true because it is well known among all the people of Nubia and 'Alwa, as well as among the Moslem traders who travel over there; and they have never doubted it. Were it not so well known and so widespread, I would not have indulged in telling such a shameful lie. The natives believe that some genii (al-jān) carry out the work for them; some even claim that they can see the genii and have the power of subjecting them to their service and to work such wonders for them. (Mus’ad, pp. 392 - 407).

  1. “al-Qumr” is the name of a people.
  2. There follows a description of the Nile Delta in Egypt.
  3. More quotations from Qudāma, Idrīsī etc. follow; they have been reported under each author.
  4. It was a current opinion among Middle Ages Arab geographers that a branch of the Nile, parting from the “Nile of Egypt” turned eastward and ended in the Indian Ocean, near Mogadishu (“Nīl Maqdashū”).
  5. The legends about the ancient Pharaohs al-walīd and Rayyun quoted by al-Manūfī, may be found under Maqrīzī [q.v.].
  6. The original (al-Maktaba, p. 401) has “ḥulafā’”, which is obviously a misprint for “khulafā’”.
  7. In Egypt.