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Extremities of the Earth: The Longest River (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, we discussed the Amazon River in South America as a contender for the title of the longest river on Earth. While arguments have been made by some cartographers that the Amazon should be given this distinction, it is traditionally held by most that the longest river in the world is the Nile River in northeast Africa!

As the primary source of water, the Nile played an especially important role in the formation of Egyptian society, providing fertile land in an otherwise inhospitable desert on which to live and grow crops. The source of this great river was speculated upon by generations of geographers but was unknown for centuries. Even without knowing where it began or the exact course, the vast network of the river was included on many maps of antiquity such as in Ptolemy’s cartographic treatise, Geography, written in about 150 A.D. In his atlas, Ptolemy labels the source of the river as “the mountains of the moon,” an unidentified region somewhere in the interior of the continent. While there are no known existing copies of Ptolemy’s original Geography, it was translated into Latin by Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus Angelus in the 15th century, and widely copied and distributed throughout the Western world, a detail of which can be seen below.

Cosmographia, Ptolemy. Lienhart Holle, 16 July 1482. Rare Book Division, Library of Congress.

Cosmographia, Ptolemy. Translated by Jacopo d’Angelo; edited by Nicolaus Germanus, 16 July 1482. Rare Book Division, Library of Congress.

Capt. Speke and Capt. Grant. Engraving by G.E. Perine, 1863. Prints & Photographs Div., Library of Congress.

Capt. Speke and Capt. Grant. Engraving by G.E. Perine, 1863. Prints & Photographs Div., Library of Congress.

South of Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, one river becomes two: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. In the 16th century, European explorers began to learn more about the great waterway when the source of the Blue Nile was discovered to be Lake Tana in the Ethiopian mountains. However, the source of the White Nile remained a mystery for several hundred more years. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the furthest source of the Nile River was discovered.

In 1856, two British explorers, Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, set off to find the source of the Nile River. In what was an extremely strenuous two-year journey, the men made it to Lake Tanganyika, the world’s largest longest freshwater lake, and southwest of the Nile River. By this point, both explorers were very ill and did not have adequate time to explore this lake. On the return journey, having heard of another lake to the northeast, Speke left Burton and with two African guides, Sidi Mubarak Bombay and Mabruki, became the first European to see and map what he named Lake Victoria. Upon his return to England, Speke announced that the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria, had been discovered without waiting for Burton, who had been held up, to return to the country. This sparked a feud between the two men that would continue until Speke’s death in 1864. The red line in the map below, made by the Royal Geographers Society in 1860, shows the route taken by both men while the blue line indicates where Speke explored on his own.

Map of the Route in Eastern Africa by Captns R.F. Burton and J.H. Speke. Map by A.G. Findlay of Royal Geographical Society, 1859. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Map of the Route in Eastern Africa by Captns R.F. Burton and J.H. Speke. Map by A.G. Findlay of Royal Geographical Society, 1859. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Speke was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to make another trip to validate his earlier findings. In 1862, along with James Augustus Grant, Speke once again stood on the shores of Lake Victoria. On this trip, he followed the river back up to Khartoum, where he then sent a famous telegram back to England declaring, “The Nile is settled,” though Burton continued to discredit Speke’s account, insisting that the source of the Nile was Lake Tanganyika. In 1874, Henry Stanley conducted an expedition that circumnavigated both lakes and confirmed that Speke was correct and the Nile River ran from Lake Victoria. The beautiful French map seen below was made in 1864, shortly after the return of Speke and Grant and according to the authors, was made with information “compiled from the official documents” of the expedition.

Nouvelle carte generale de l'Egypte...Erhard, 1864. G8301 .S12 1864 .E7, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Nouvelle carte generale de l’Egypte…Map by Erhard, 1864. G8301 .S12 1864 .E7, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Though the explorers of the 19th century considered Lake Victoria the source of the Nile, today the headwaters of the Kagera River are considered the the most distant point, as the Kagera is the longest feeder river running into the lake. Measuring the exact length of a river is difficult and it has not been established which is the longest tributary of the Kagera, making the most distant point of the Nile, either in Burundi or Rwanda, still undetermined. Flowing south to north for at least 4,258 miles (6,853 km), the Nile River runs through 11 different countries on its way to the Mediterranean Sea: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan and Egypt.

Die Nil-Lander. Carl Flemmings, 1903. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Die Nil-Lander. Map by Carl Flemmings, 1903. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In viewing the map above, made in 1902, the extent of the river is clearly evident as it winds it way through the desert landscape of the region. Regardless of which river is actually longer, the Amazon or the Nile, both rivers are impressive in not only size, but also in the way they have shaped the cultures and civilizations that live within its course.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read all posts from the Extremities of the Earth series here!

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