The Nile in Western Imagination

This project focuses on the significance of the River Nile within 'western' thought from the classical Greek period to Napoleon's Description and the advent of modernism.

mosaiicThe Nile has always exercised a close hold on the imagination of the wider world. Its annual floods fertilised one of the most fecund regions of the Mediterranean, and yet defied extensive scientific explanation. Innumerable writers attempted to explain the mysterious summer inundation of the Nile, and speculated on the source of Egypt's great river. A succession of rulers – from Alexander and Augustus to Napoleon and Victoria – saw in the search for the origins of the river a means to expand their territorial dominion into genuine terra incognita.

Simultaneously, the river was the focus of a vast body of religious activity: as a reflection of divine benevolence, as a historic memory of the creation of the world, or as an object of worship in its own right. And other individuals expressed their awe of the Nile in a variety of other media and in a welter of locations, from the mysterious Egyptian landscapes painted on the walls of Pompeii, through the long digressions on the river in the poetry of Lucan, Ariosto and Milton, to the more or less fantastic medieval mappaemundi that attempted to fill the vast gaps in the interior of Africa.

nile picThe project is primarily intended to examine how different forms of cultural production generated different images of a single geographical feature, and the extent to which these responses informed one another. For this reason, the study is not limited solely to maps and to formal geographical treatises - the bread and butter of most studies of the history of cartography.

Instead, these works will be considered in a context defined by other genres of writing, including theology, political tracts, hagiography, the Greek novels, poetry and historiography, and different forms of artistic expression including mosaics, Roman painting and public sculpture. The project as a whole is intended to create new perspectives on familiar texts and ultimately to provide a unique history of human responses to their environment.

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