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The six cataracts of the Nile
Fourth Cataract
Sixth Cataract

The cataracts of the Nile are shallow stretches of the river between Aswan and Khartoum where the water's surface is broken by numerous small boulders and stones protruding from the river bed, as well as many small rocky islets. Aswan is also the marking point of Upper and Lower Egypt. In some places, these stretches are punctuated by whitewater and are perhaps well characterized as rapids, while at others the water flow is smoother, but still shallow. Counted upstream (from north to south), the First Cataract is in modern Egypt; the rest are in Sudan.

The word cataract is, literally "down-rushing", meaning "waterfall" or "floodgate". It is a Greek word that means "waterfall".....However, none of the Nile's six primary cataracts would be accurately described as waterfalls, and given the broader definition, many minor cataracts should perhaps also be included in the count. Geologists indicate that the region of the northern Sudan is tectonically active and this activity has caused the river to take on "youthful" characteristics.[1] The Nubian Swell has diverted the river's course to the west, while keeping its depth shallow and causing the formation of the cataracts. Even as the river bed is worn down by erosion, the land mass is lifted keeping parts of the river bed exposed. These distinctive features of the river between Aswan and Khartoum have led to the stretch being often referred to as the Cataract Nile, while the downstream portion is occasionally referred to as the "Egyptian" Nile.[2]

Despite these characteristics, some of the cataracts which are normally impassable by boat, become navigable during the flood season.

The six primary cataracts of the Nile are described extensively by European colonials, notably by Winston Churchill in The River War (1899), where he recounts the exploits of the British trying to return to Sudan between 1896 and 1898, after they were forced to leave in 1885.

In ancient times, Upper Egypt extended from south of the Nile Delta to the first cataract, while further upstream, the land was controlled by the ancient Kush civilization, that would later take over Egypt.


  1. ^ Thurmond, A.K., et al. (2004). The Nubian Swell, The Journal of African Earth Sciences 39 pp. 401-407. [1] (accessed 10/21/2006)
  2. ^ The geological distinction between these two portions of the river is considerable. North of Aswan, the river bed is not rocky, but is instead composed of sediment, and far from being a shallow river, it is believed that the bedrock was previously eroded to be several thousand feet deep. This created a vast canyon that is now filled by the sediment, some of which originated from the Mediterranean. For more information, see the Eonile as well as the Messinian salinity crisis.

External links

  • The Cataract Nile and the Great Bend (webpage) [2]
  • The 1905-1907 Breasted Expeditions to Egypt and the Sudan: A Photographic Study [3] (See photos listed in the index under "Nile, Third Cataract" and "Nile, Fourth Cataract")
Photo links


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