egyptThere is a tendency when traveling on the Nile to become directionally challenged (at least for me), and boggled by dates that run backwards. It feels strange to North Americans to travel up the mighty river to the south and down again to the north (it has to do with the current). And further, one wants to assume that the most ancient sites in Egypt are furthest up the river and that the progression of Civilization* moves from the interior toward the Mediterranean. Sensible as all this may sound, the reverse is true. The Nile runs from deep in the interior northward to the sea, and the oldest of the dynasties were closer to the Delta.

Mountains of the Moon (1990)

This is the saga of the original Richard Burton (1821-90) and John Speke in their search for the source of the Nile.  Based on the novel, Burton and Speke, and on journals kept by the two lead characters, this is a man’s movie in every sense.  The two adventurers meet in East Africa in 1854, strike up a friendship, and set off into the interior in quest of the source of the Nile among other things.  Native legend calls this mysterious place the “Mountains of the Moon.”  Their camp is raided by hostile tribesmen, and both men are gruesomely injured.  They return to England but cannot shake off the idea that finding the source is “the last great prize.”  The august Royal Geographical Society is involved in support of such expeditions and debates on their merits. Dr. Livingston is already in Africa. Cinemania describes Speke more than once as a dilettante, and also as a repressed homosexual.  There are undercurrents of homosexual tension throughout the book.  These are Victorian times and all erotic currents are submerged.  The movie itself, however, has few inhibitions. Burton meets a fascinating woman with a hooked nose (Fiona Shaw) and they form a passionate love.  Speke seems not the marrying kind.

The two friends are funded for a second and more concentrated search.  The film does not say much about their route, which begins at Zanzibar on the eastern coast and moves northwest toward Lake Victoria.  Their first discovery is Lake Tanganyika, but they cannot verify it as the source and have to keep looking.  On several occasions they have brief contact with the African slave trade, and at one point encounter a slave caravan.  They are captured by a tribe with a fairly complex culture and are subjected to many indignities in the court of the elegant king.  Speke is allowed to go off and continue the search, and he finds a lake that he is sure must be the source of the Nile.  It will be later identified as Lake Victoria.

They return to London separately and Speke arrives first.  A male confidant puts it in Speke’s mind that Burton has used him badly, so Speke betrays his friend and claims the discovery for himself.  Burton returns to his beautiful lover and marries her, but the betrayal has taken the wind from his sails.  Speke discovers that he has been given bad information on Burton and commits suicide.  It happens during the preliminaries for a debate arranged by the Royal Geographical Society between the two adversaries.  Burton and his wife set off for South America to start a new life.  A legend says that twelve years later Lake Victoria was verified as the source of the Nile. More recent research has demonstrated that Speke was wrong and Burton was right. This movie has much to teach about colonial attitudes toward Africa in the 19th century.

Here the source of the Nile is identified as Lake Victoria, south of Sudan. It seemed true at the time, but today its more complicated. Later explorations have revealed that the true source of the Nile is at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. See Mystery of the Nile below.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Based on the Agatha Christie novel, this is a murder mystery on a boat. Viewers get a tour of the Nile in Upper Egypt starting at Luxor, once the ancient city of Thebes. Thebes was founded in the Middle Kingdom when the capital was shifted south, up the river from Memphis near today’s Cairo. There is not much news from this time otherwise. All of the Egyptian dramas mentioned above, with their attendant movies, took place in the New Kingdom, which drew to a close in circa 1100 BCE. The history of Egypt from then until the 20th century has been pretty much a catalog of foreign dominations. You would not know it from the trailer, but there are scenes of the spectacular ruins to be seen in this movie.

Mystery of the Nile  (2005)

This large screen documentary about a river rafting adventure from Lake Tana in Ethiopia to Alexandria on the Mediterranean, makes for a first-class travelog.  It is a never-before-accomplished journey of some 3000 miles. Parts of it can be seen on YouTube and it is available on Netflix. It skims over Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Egyptian history in a way that makes it hard to digest, but it is the course of the river that is important.

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