The geopolitics of water is not a 21st-century invention: the present controversy over the waters of the Nile, triggered by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), goes back to a very remote past, featuring even a prophet.

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:02:17

The Ethiopians build a barrage blocking the waters of the Nile, the Egyptians respond by setting up an army. It is not—at least we hope it is not—the script for the next African conflict, but rather the first act in an important episode in the life of Moses, as told by the Arab-Christian historian Agapius of Manbij. We are in the tenth century, at the crossroads of the Greek and Arab worlds, and the story actually dates back to almost a thousand years before: indeed, it can be found for the most part in the Jewish Antiquities of the historian Josephus Flavius (37– - 100 AD).[1]This is yet more proof that the current controversy over the Nile waters triggered by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has its roots in the distant past. And it even involves a prophet.


The triumphs of the young Moses


Agapius recounts that “in the year 28 from the birth of Moses [...] the Ethiopians declared war on the Egyptians and devastated much of their country.”[2] At the time Moses was at court, adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh and “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). The nobles, envious of Moses’ privileged position, managed to convince Pharaoh to put him at the head of an army charged with countering the Ethiopian invasion, with the hope that he would be killed in the struggle. Having gathered ten thousand Jews and ten thousand Egyptians, Moses makes his way into the Nubian desert to catch the Ethiopians unaware, as they were expecting the attack to come from the river. The region is infested with poisonous snakes, but the young commander “orders them to take an incalculable number of ibises,”[3] which he locks up in special cages and feeds only at dawn. Tormented by hunger, the ibises scream every night during the crossing, keeping the snakes away from the Egyptian camp. Thanks to this ruse, Moses manages to lay siege to the Ethiopian capital Meroe. Upon seeing the greatness of the enemy army, the daughter of the king of Ethiopia understands that the fate of the war is sealed. She furtively sends a messenger to Moses, promising to reveal a secret passage within the city walls. In return, she asks for the hand of the Jewish leader (and probably also leniency towards her people). Moses accepts the offer, triumphs, keeps his word, and returns home.


The curious legend, which also reached the medieval West,[4] originated with all likelihood from a reference contained in the Bible. In fact, the book of Numbers (Num. 12:1–15) mentions that in addition to the daughter of the priest Jethro, Moses married an Ethiopian woman, a decision of which his brother Aaron and above all his sister Mary strongly disapproved. Probably the Alexandrian Jews, on whose traditions Josephus Flavus draws, were struck by this brief mention in the Torah, which connects Moses to Ethiopia, and came up with a story in which the young prince proves himself handsome, intelligent, and valiant, but above all displays his loyalty to Egypt, as if to counterbalance—and certainly this could not displease the Jews of the Diaspora—the subsequent massacre of the Red Sea.


The dam


In passing from Josephus Flavius to the Arab-Christian historian, the story is enriched with a surprisingly relevant motif, that of the dam.[5] We find this reference in The blessed collection by al-Makīn (1206-1293), a Coptic-Arabic historian who reproduced several passages by Agapius, often preserving a better text than that of the directly transmitted tradition.


In fact, in the first version of his chronicle, at the end of Moses’ biography, al-Makīn adds an important element, which he claims to have found in Agapius.


In the twenty-eighth year since the birth of Moses, Pharaoh built the city of Pelusium on the river Nile. Soon after, the Kushites (i.e. the Ethiopians) attacked Egypt, devastated it, and blocked the water, because the flood of the Nile comes from Ethiopia. Then Pharaoh set up a great army and entrusted it to Moses, who led it to Ethiopia, as we have already mentioned. Later, after marrying the king's daughter, Moses stayed with his troops in Ethiopia until the flood of the Nile. In this way he learned of its origin and built a large dam made of stone and lime that retained the waters during the rainy season, irrigating Ethiopia and supplying it with the amount of water that it needed. Then [when the dam was filled], the water flowed down to Egypt. Moses appointed his wife's brother as king of Ethiopia and made him swear that he would never block the Nile and prevent it from flowing into Egypt. He then returned to Egypt by river.[6]


The legend thus ends with a happy political ending that seals a newfound peace between Ethiopia and Egypt. Through al-Makīn the story will also become part of the Islamic tradition, as it was copied almost word for word (but without mentioning the source) by the Damascene geographer al-‘Umarī (1300–1349) in his popular encyclopedia Masālik al-absār.[7] And again thanks to al-Makīn, the story probably reached Ethiopia itself through a translation made in the fifteenth century.


The surprising relevance of this story, which in some sense could have been written today, cannot escape notice. The geopolitics of water is not a 21st-century invention: even if Agapius or al-Makīn do not use this exact word, the concept was certainly clear to them.


A second consideration: Moses’ adventure, although it begins with a military clash, ends with an agreement that regulates the flow of the Nile. Even today, as William Davison, an expert on Ethiopia for the International Crisis Group, writes, “there is only one constructive way to proceed: continue the talks.”[8] Finally—and this is perhaps the most important lesson— this legend shows the persistence of the theme of water in the Egyptian collective imaginary from al-Makīn to Agapius, to his contemporary Eutychius Patriarch of Alexandria, who ascribes to Joseph, son of Jacob, the reclamation of the oasis of al-Fayyūm, to Josephus Flavius, Herodotus, and of course Egyptian mythology itself. A tradition that spans millennia and, what is more, an unbroken one.


The Ethiopians’ dam robbed the Pharaoh of sleep during Moses’ time. It continues to rob it from Pharaoh’s modern heir as well.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Volume 1: Books 1-3. H. St. J. Thackeray (ed.). Loeb Classical Library 242. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1930, Book 2, chapter 10.
[2] Agapius (Mahboub) de Menbij. Kitab al-‘unvan (sic.). Histoire universelle. Ḗditée et traduite en français par Alexandre Vasiliev. Première partie. Patrologia Orientalis 5 (1910), pp. 673 [117]–676 [120].
[3] This detail of the ibises proves the antiquity of the story. In Egyptian culture, in fact, the ibis was the symbol of Thot, god of scripture and the liberal arts.
[4] For more details see Marie-Laure Derat, Robin Seignobos. La femme éthiopienne de Moïse dans l’Histoire des églises et des monastères d’Égypte et l’histoire universelle d’al-Makīn. In Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet (ed.). Figures de Moïse. Approches textuelles et iconographiques. Paris: De Boccard 2015, pp.  249–278.
[5] The new element, as it often happens, is not perfectly harmonized with the rest of the story. In Agapius’ version, in fact, the Ethiopians descend the Nile on boats; on the other hand, though, it is also said that the Ethiopians had “cut off the water” from the Egyptians, preventing the Nile from flowing.
[6] Al-Makīn credits the whole piece to Agapius, but it does not appear in the printed editions of Vasiliev and Cheikho. It is therefore unpublished. The text is reported according to our critical edition of al-Makīn, in preparation.
[7] Shihāb al-Dīn Ibn Fadl Allah al-‘Umarī. Masālik al-absār fī mamālik al-amsār. Kāmil Salmān al-Jubūrī (ed.). Bayrūt: Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyya 2010, vol. 23, pp. 226–227.
[8] Quoted from Francesca Sibani, La diga che avvelena le relazioni tra Egitto ed Etiopia, «Internazionale», 21 July 2020,