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Red Nile: A Biography of the World's Greatest River.

RED NILE: A Biography of the World's Greatest River

By Robert Twigger

Phoenix, $30.00

As a boy, it was the Amazon among the world's great rivers that fascinated me the most--the idea of its vast opulent jungles, dangerous animals and the quest for its source, the adventures of the legendary Colonel Fawcett. But thanks to Twigger's extraordinary, dazzlingly detailed account of the Nile in every aspect, my loyalty is wavering. This wonderful book marvelously combines history, geography, geology, ethnography biology, water engineering and is studded with exotic facts as a crown is studded with jewels.

As is well known, the Nile bifurcates into the White Nile and the Blue Nile. Why then the Red Nile? For several reasons. Where the two Niles meet there is a reddish silt; there is the story of the Nile turning to blood in the Old Testament, explained by some as a rare algal bloom on the surface. (And yes, the Red Sea does sometimes turn red for the same reason.) But Twigger also dubs the great river the Red Nile because of its bloody history.

For instance, in 1898, 10,000 Sudanese were slaughtered by British machine fire for the loss of just 47 British lives. This incident occurred where the Blue and White Niles meet. Blood mingled with red silt? Also back in 1250, the warrior Baiburs played a prominent role in defeating Louis IX's Seventh Crusade. Twigger grimly tells us that "the Nile was red with the blood of slain Frenchmen". Then there was The Red Pharaoh (possibly Twigger's personal nomenclature), Seqenenre Tao II, the only Pharaoh to meet a bloody end. To cap it all, hippos sweat red when they're angry. It's a good idea not to piss off a hippo because they can bite a crocodile in half. Crocodiles deserve our respect because they have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom, two tons to the square inch and kill a thousand people a year. Baboons, compared to "young thugs", can tear your face off. And that's just the bigger bad guys.

On the smaller side, there's the mbwa and nimiti flies, along with malaria. Here, Twigger--in his playful fashion, segues to William Willcocks, an engineer responsible for the first dam on the Nile. The increase in silt caused by the dam meant that mosquitoes proliferated and malaria increased. Another example of how the effects of progress cannot always be anticipated. Twigger moves onto schistosomiasis and then back to Willcocks whom he pithily sums up in a four page summary--a man of unbelievable toughness and energy. This is typical of the author's holistic method--you might say his narrative meanders like the Nile; it sometimes progresses in broad sweeps then narrows to concentrate on some obscure but important figure. He ambushes (or is it floods?) the reader with unexpected biography and often arcane historic fact. This is surely a lifelike rendition of the freshness and the newness of knowledge revealed to the traveler as they explore. Though Twigger keeps his eye on the timeline, he sometimes jumps forwards or backwards just for the fun of it. This is a work of lively scholarship that has none of the dryness sometimes associated with academic writing. The narrative is weighted towards Egypt, where Twigger lived for seven years, and his view of British rule in African colonies full of heady praise.

Here are some facts of which I was ignorant: the Nile is a geologically recent river only 12,000 years old; Muhammad Ali (not the boxer but the ruler of Egypt in the early nineteenth century) wanted to level the pyramids and use the giant blocks to dam the Nile!; Henry Coetzee was the first adventurer to travel the entire length of the Nile, but killed by a crocodile when just 35. Ghanaians, on the other hand, are so at ease with crocs, they dry their clothes on their backs as they bask in the sun; Pygmies were first "discovered" by Stanley in 1887; Florence Nightingale spoke five languages, wrote a novel, was considered good looking and nearly married Richard Milnes, who later became Britain's most notorious pornographer; before the advent of firearms, elephants were sometimes killed by fifty spear-armed men who attacked the unfortunate animal from both sides.

Like many a contemporary historian, Twigger leans favourably towards accounts of outstanding women rulers who have played a part in the drama of the Nile. Cleopatra, obviously. Though famous for her beauty (though images on coins and busts suggest otherwise), she was also a poisoner, who demonstrated to Antony how eagerly she could dispose of him by offering him a secretly tainted wreath of flowers to eat. How many readers will have heard of Sittal-Mulk, "the lady of power" who had her mad brother Caliph Hakim killed, then ruled in his place? Then there was Shaljurat al-Durr, described as having "green eyes, blonde hair and skin as white as mare's milk." Though she started life as a slave (an excuse for Twigger to hold forth on the higher relative status of slaves back then), but partly through murder, became the only Sultana to rule Egypt. Let's not forget Agatha Christie, queen of crime, who took enough clothes to sink a felucca, two pencils and four watches --those of the day being vulnerable to sand erosion.

This review only scratches the surface of this widely researched book, which is never solemn, always readable and may well--with its enormous quantity of unusual fact--enable you to tackle the Listener's tough general knowledge quiz with greater adeptness. Truly, a remarkable achievement which I cannot recommend too highly.
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Author:Morrissey, Michael
Publication:Investigate HIS
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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