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The Etymologies of Geyon, Abbawi and Nil: The Diverse Appellations of the Blue Nile
from Time Immemorial up to the Present
1
Yeshambel Kindie Bayu,
Abstract: The appellation Geyon was mentioned in association with an extant name of Ethiopia.
Consequently, the source area of Geyon is irrefutable. Above all, for the ancient world,
Geyon/Nile was the most attractive, the most important and hence the most written about in the
world. To the contrary, unlike Turkish rivers of Euphrates and Tigris, the two rivers of Ethiopia
that is to say Pison and Geyon, were misrepresented by later writers as both sacred and profane.
What is more, some other writers had attempted to transfer the geographical location of these
rivers to other parts of the world. This happened probably either by their ignorance or by the
ulterior motives of these writers. This article attempted to examine sources both secular and
religious exhaustively and concluded that Pison and Geyon rise in Ethiopia and the etymologies
of Geyon, Abbawi and Nil are locally derived from the classical language of Ethiopia.
Keywords: Etymologies, appellations, Geyon, Abbawi, Nil
_______________________________________
1
Teacher at Bako Agricultural Polytechnic College
1. Introduction
Geyon in general and its source in particular were the most attractive natural features that
had captured the imagination of both scholars and rulers of the ancient world. It was a stimulus
for exploration. This spectacular river is considered to be the longest river system in the world.
This is only possible when we take into account the length of the river from its remotest source
of Bahr-al-Abiad at Luvironza in Burundi to the Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, Ludwig
tells us that “On a view of the whole water-discharge, the Bahr-el-Jebel might be regarded as the
source-river of the White, the Blue Nile as that of the whole.”
1
Unfortunately, however, in
1862 Speke drastically changed the historic source of Nile in Ethiopia and as a result subsequent
1
Mary H. Lindsay(trans.), The Nile: The Life-Story of a River,(New York: The Viking Press, 1937),pp.281-282
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writers changed Kagera into White Nile and Geyon into Blue Nile. This narrative disoriented and
swayed many writers including Ethiopians.
1.1. Statement of the Problem and Objectives
There are two different issues to be addressed in this paper. For a variety of reasons,
knowingly or unknowingly, the hydrological history of Geyon was altered by fame-seeking
travellers. Up until 1862, it was an established belief that Geesh Abbay was the source of the
Nile. But, after Speke had declared Lake Nyanza the source of the Nile,
2
subsequent writers
considered Abbay as a tributary and Bahr el-Abiad as the main river. Regarding the latter, Birch
asserts that “The White Nile is now found to be, not only the main, but the only true river.”
3
Actually, the White River is a tributary because its mean annual contribution is only 14%.
Consequently, the etymological history of Nile/Geyon, was highly exposed to speculative errors.
This paper has two main objectives, general and specific. The general objective is to show that:
The etymologies of Geyon, Abbawi and Nil are derived from the Ge’ez word and signify the
flow of the river, its greatness and colour respectively.
The specific objectives include:
A) The appellation Geyon had been identified by different names at different places and
times.
B) Abbay is a corrupted form of Abbawi
C) Names such as Blue Nile and White Nile are misnomers.
Significance of the Study
This paper is very important in revealing the natural history of the two rivers of Eden. More
specifically, it provides useful information about where the three names of our great river namely
Geyon, Abbawi and Nil originally derived and when the paper gets published, it will inspire
researchers and serve as a source of information on addressing similar issues.
2. Literature Review
Nile was the centrepiece of the discourse of politicians, historians, philosophers and other
personalities of the ancient world, and even nowadays it is the topic of much research.
2
Zoe Marsh and G.W.Kingsnorth, An Introduction to the History of East Africa,(Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1970), p.55
3
George Rawlinson (trans.), A History of Ancient Egypt,(New York: The Nottingham Society, Vol. I, 1880), p.12
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Accordingly, many books, MA theses, PhD dissertations and research papers have been written
on this river. However, the works of these writers vary greatly regarding the source, length and
where the appellation Nile derived originally from. Regarding the source, some writers say that
Lake Victoria is the source of Nile. Some others assert that there are two sources, i.e. Lake
Victoria and Lake Tana. Still others claim that Luvironza is the main source of the Nile.
Concerning the etymology of the Nile, western writes suggest differently. Some tacitly assert
that the name Nile was derived from the Greek word Neilos and some others dare to say that no
one knows where the name Nile ultimately originated. These different narratives perplexed the
natural history of Geyon.
3.
Methodology
The research design of this paper is qualitative. So it employs a qualitative methodological
approach. Consequently, my focus area is gathering data at the libraries such as IES and
Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency and from internet sources. In the process of
data gathering, I used different sources written by Ethiopians and foreigners. Accordingly, I used
the Holy Bible, dictionaries written in different languages, chronicles of Ethiopian Emperors and
hagiographies of saints.
Before we go to the main topic of discussion, it is essential to say something about the two
rivers of Eden. Among four rivers, the first two namely Phison and Geyon rise from the
highlands of Ethiopia and flow towards the west. Nowadays, Phison and Geyon are known in
Ethiopia as Tekezie and Abbay, respectively. In the Ge’ez version these rivers described as
ስሙ ለአሐዱ ፈለግ ፊሶን ውዕቱ ዘየዐውድ ውስተ ኩሉ ምድረ ኤውላጦን ወህየ ኀበ ሀሎ ወርቅ ወወርቃ
ለይእቲ ምድር ሠናይ ወህየ ሀሎ ዕንቁ ዘየኀቱ ወዕንቁ ኀመልሚል ወስሙ ለካልእ ፈለግ ግዮን ውዕቱ
ዘየዐውድ ኩሎ ምድረ ኢትዮጵያ
(The name of the one is Phison: that is it which compasseth all the land of Hevilath, where gold
groweth. And the gold of that land is very good: there is found bdellium, and the onyx stone.
And the name of the second river is Gehon: the same is it that compasseth all the land of
Ethiopia (Gen. 2:11-13)).
4
4
The Holy Bible (DOUAY-RHEIMS VERSION), Translated from the Latin Vulgate Diligently compared with the
Hebrew, Greek, and other divers languages, 1609, 1582.
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Historically, the appellation Nile was associated with the Geyon of the Old Testament and
its source was at Gesh Abbay in Ethiopia. Though the name Nile was historically associated
with the Geyon of the Old Testament, John Speke blatantly transferred the appellation Nile to
Uganda. Besides, some writers denied admitting the truth about Ethiopian rivers which originate
in Eden. Regarding this, Drubbel contends that “Eden was created for Adam and Eve. It is
described as being watered by the Euphrates, the Tigris and 2 lesser known streams, the Gihon
and the Pishon, thus its location was probably in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).”
5
Regrettably, Chilton asserts that “The Flood drastically altered the geography of the world, and
two of these rivers (the Pishon and the Gihon) no longer exist.”
6
According to Chilton, Geyon
and Pison disappeared by deluge that occurred during the time of Noah. On the other hand,
Smith contemplates that the origin of Pishon and Gihon is in Armenia. He claims that:
The Hiddekel, one of its rivers, is the modern Tigris; the Euphrates is the same as the
modern Euphrates. With regard to Pishon and Gihon a great variety of opinions exist, but
the best authorities are divided between (1) Eden as in northeast Arabia at the junction of
the Euphrates and Tigris, and their separation again, making the four rivers of the different
channels of these two, or (2), and most probably, Eden as situated in Armenia, near the
origin of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and in which same region rise the Araxes (Pishon
of Genesis) and the Oxus (Gihon).
7
The assertion of Smith is far-fetched and appears a deliberate distortion. The location of Geyon
is indisputable. It is invariably associated with an extant name of Ethiopia.
Having said briefly about the location of Pishon and Geyon in Ethiopia, I will deal with the
various kinds of appellations in detail. There is no river in the world that has many names as
Abbay/Nile. River Geyon has been identified by different names at different places and times.
Even in the Old Testament, the river has different appellations. In Genesis 15:18 it is identified
as Egyptian River (ፈለገ ግብፅ) while in Genesis 41: 1 and Exodus 1:22 Nile is just identified as
merely a river. On the other hand, prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah identified Abbay as
Sihor (Isa.23:3 & Jer. 2:18). Next to the Old Testament, Homer’s poems are the oldest extant
5
Bart Drubbel(ed.), The 21
st
Century Webster’s International Encyclopedia, (Colombia: Trident Press International,
2003), p.358
6
David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion,(Tyler, Texas: Dominion Press, 1994), p. 30
7
William Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary,(Grand Rapid, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1884), p.173
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works of the ancient world. In one of his works known as Odyssey, Homer tells us about “the
waters of Aegyptus, the heaven fed river.”
8
For Homer there was no special name for Nile.
Hesiod, another Greek poet and who considered being a contemporary of Homer used the name
Neilos as a proper name for the first time in the world.
9
After him subsequent Greek writers
followed suit and from Neilos the appellation Nile is derived and in Latin it is known as Nilus.
10
In ancient Egypt, Abbay had been identified by the name Iteru, meaning the river, or
Iteruaa, the great river.
11
It was also called Aur or Iaro, meaning black.
12
Today Abbay in Egypt
and northern Sudan is known by the name Bahr al-Nil or al- Azraq.
13
With regard to various
kinds of appellations of the Nile, Diodorus reports that “The river in the earliest period bore the
name Oceané which in Greek is Oceanus; then because of this flood, they say, it was called
Aëtus, and still later it was known as Aegyptus after a former king of the land … and that which
the river now bears it received from the former king Nileus.”
14
The claim to associate the origin
of Nile with the so-called king Nileus is implausible. Firstly, in the list of Egyptian kings there is
no a king by the name Nileus. Secondly, the appellation Nile is not an Egyptian word, and hence
that name is not found in the hieroglyphics. Accordingly, the claim is criticized by Rawlison as
“The Nile was said to have received its name from king Nilus, but this is doubtless a fable.”
15
In
addition, Abbay and its tributaries were also known as Astapus, Astaboras and Astasobas.
16
In Ethiopian literature the largest Ethiopian river was known as Geyon (ግዮን), Abbawi
(አባዊ) and Nil (ኒል). Besides, in some other sources we find that the river had been identified as
River Tekezie and River of Egypt. For instance, in Tamrä Maryam (Miracle of St. Mary) it has
been stated as Bahrä Tekezi (ባህረ ተከዚ).
17
Similarly, in the book of Giyorgis Wolde-Amid,
8
A. T. Murray(trans.), Homer The Odyssey with an English Translation, in Two Volumes,(Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, & London: William Heinemann Ltd, Vol.I, 1945), p. 141
9
Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (eds.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary, (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996), p.1044
10
The New Encyclopedia Britannica,(Chicago &London: Vol. 13, 2005, fifteenth edition), p. 104
11
Stephen Quirke & Jeffrey Spencer(eds.), The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt, (London: British Museum
Press, 1992), p.12
12
The New Encyclopedia Britannica, p.104
13
Ibid.
14
C.H. Oldfather(trans.), Diodorus of Sicily with an English Translation, in Twelve Volumes,(London: William
Heinemann Ltd, Vol. I, 1946,rpt), p.61
15
George Rawlison(trans.), History of Herodotus with an English Translation, in Four Volumes,(London: John
Murray, 1862), p. 25, see the foot note
16
W. H.Jones(trans.), The Geography of Strabo with an English Translation, in Eight Volumes, (London:
Heinemann Ltd, Vol. VIII, 1967), p.5
17
Tamrä Maryam(ብቤመ-465) Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency
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97
Abbay had also been described as Mayä Tekezi (ማየ ተከዚ).
18
Referring to these sources, some
western writers comment on our use of a single name for both Abbay and Tekezie.
19
To use
Mayä Tekezi instead of Abbay is inaccurate. The word May (ማይ) and Tekezi have meanings of
water and river, respectively. Together Mayä Tekezi means water of river.
20
In the book of
Moses, Abbay merely stated as ወወረደት ወለተ ፈርዖን ትትኀፀብ በውስተ ተከዚ (And the daughter
of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river (Exo.1:22). In the Psalm of David, the
meaning of Tekezi is presented as “ዘይሬስያ ለባህር የብሰ ወበተከዚ የኀልፉ በእግር (He turned the sea
into dry land: they went through the flood on foot (Psalm 66: 6). All the above narratives signify
that the name Tekezi is not a proper name of a single river. Having surveyed its various
appellations, hereafter the etymology of Geyon, Abbawi and Nil will continue.
4. Results and Discussion
4.1. The Etymology of Geyon
In the first book of Moses, the appellation Geyon is mentioned as one of the four rivers of
Eden and its origin is associated with Ethiopia. “And the name of the second river is Gihon: the
same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia (Gen. 2:13).” Besides, in the book of kings
and chronicles, the name Gihon is mentioned in association with a certain spring in the Kidron
Valley, East Jerusalem.
21
When Sennachrib besieged Jerusalem, King Hezekiah of Israel had
ordered the people to cut a tunnel and diverted the waters of Gihon to the pool of Siloam.
22
At
first when King Hezekiah proposed to divert the stream the appellation Geyon was not
mentioned in the chronicle. The chronicler states that “he took counsel with his princes and his
mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were without the city: they did help him
(2Chronicles 32:3).” So the name Gihon might have interpolated to this stream after Hezekiah
had diverted its flow to Siloam to indicate that the stream is sacred as that of the Gihon of Eden.
18
Giyorgis Wolde-Amid (ብቤመ -331), Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency
19
O. G. S. Crawford(ed.), Ethiopian Itineraries Circa 1400-1520, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958),
p.90
20
Siegbert Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopedia Æthiopica,(Wiesbaden : Otto Harrassowitz, Vol. 3, 2007), p.1178
21
Ceil Roth & Geoffrey Wigoder (eds.), The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, (New York: Doubleday &
Company,Inc. 1970), p.755
22
Ibid.
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The name Geyon (ግዮን) is originated from the Ge’ez word, the classical language of
Ethiopia and it is derived from the verb goyä (ጎየ) meaning ‘fled’.
23
Regarding this, Leykun
states that በመሰረቱ ግዮ የሚለው ቃል ከግእዝ የተገኘና የወጣ ነው እርሱም ጎየ ሸሸ አገር ጥሎ ሄደ
እውነተኛ የተግባር ስሙ ነው
24
(Basically, Geyon is originated and derived from the Ge’ez word
goyä meaning ‘fled’ or ‘left’ the country. This is the appropriate name for its deed). In the Ge’ez
Dictionary of Kidanewold, the name Geyon is defined as
ግዮን፤መሸሸ፤መኮብለል፤መራቅ፤መሰደድ
25
(Geyon means ‘flight’, ‘disappearance’, ‘runaway’,
‘migrate’). The Ge’ez Geyon and the Hebrew Gihon (ጊሖን) have the same meaning. Both of
them indicate the flow of the river. Concerning this, Kidanewold tells us that ጊሖን ማለት ግን
ዘየሐውር በኃይል ወይርዕም ወድምፀ ማዩ ዐቢይ ወግሩም
26
(Geyon means ‘to burst forth with
reverberation and the sound of the river is great and miraculous’). As opposed to the Ge’ez
Geyon, there are attempts to associate the origin of Gihon with the word giah, meaning ‘to burst
forth’ and used to describe the vivacious flow of the river.
27
Similarly, Borgais defined Gihon as
‘bursting forth’ or ‘gushing’ so as to show the current and electromotive force of the river.
28
The Greek Geon came into existence in third century BC when Ptolemy II (284-246 BC) was
emperor. It was around 275 BC that the rendering of Geyon appears as Geon when the Hebrew
Old Testament was translated by the Septuagint into Greek at Alexandria.
29
The Greek Geon is
nearly akin to the Ge’ez Geyon than the Hebrew Gihon. On the other hand, some writers assume
that the Hebrew Gihon might have been given by Jewish mercenaries who were at Elephantine
around 650BC.
30
Actually, their assumption is wrong because the name Geyon appeared in about
1605 when the Exodus took place before the coming of the mercenaries to the area. Conversely,
to me it seems that the Hebrew Gihon is the most recent compared to Geyon and Geon. I said so
23
Yared Shiferaw, Mätsehafä Säwasew Märeho Mätsahefet (A Book of Grammar and a Guide to Books), (Bahr Dar:
St. George Printing Press, 1997 E. C.), p.284
24
Leykun Berhanu, Bähaymanot Kaba Yämisära Däba ( An Intrigue in the name of Religion), (Addis Ababa: Trade
Printing Enterprise, 2000 E. C.), p.30
25
Kidanewold Kifle, Mätsehafä Säwasew Wägs Wämäzgäbä Qalat Haddis(A Book of Grammar, Verb and
Dictionary of the New Testament), (Addis Ababa: Artistic Printing Press, 1948 E. C.), p.312
26
Ibid. pp.312-313
27
Meaning and Etymology of Gihon, in http://www.abarim.publications.com/Gihon.htm.
28
Harley Davidson Borgais, Meaning of Pison,Gihon Tigris and Euphrates, in
http://www.freeorntbe,org/freeornotbe/articles/meaning.
29
Gihon River, in http://www.bibleorigins.net/gihonrivermapwadiaqiqarabia.htm/.
30
Ibid.
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because for Jewish writers who were in the first century CE, the name Gihon was unknown. In
relation to this, Josephus states that “… Geon runs through Egypt and denotes what arises from
the East, which the Greeks call Nile.”
31
Similarly, Philo asserts that “Geon is courage
beleaguering Ethiopia, which is lowness or cowardice.”
32
Moses was born in Egypt and while he
was forty years old he migrated towards Ethiopia and stayed there for another forty years (Acts
7: 23-30). Logically speaking, therefore, if Moses was in Ethiopia for about forty years, there is
no doubt that Moses was familiar with the name Geyon. Above all, when the Exodus happened
in about 1605, the state of Israel was not yet created and neither was the language of Hebrew. In
relation to this, Bruce testifies that “it is very clear God did not invent letters, nor did Moses,
who understood both characters before the promulgation of the law upon Mount Sinai, having
learned in Egypt and during his long stay among the Cushites, and Shepherds in Arabia
Petrea.”
33
Bruce further elaborates as follows:
Though there is really little resemblance between the Ethiopic and the Hebrew letters, and
not much more between that and the Samaritan, yet I have a very great suspicion the
languages were once much nearer-akin than this disagreement of their alphabet promises,
and for this reason, that a very great number of words are found throughout the Old
Testament that have really no root, nor can be derived from any Hebrew origin, and yet all
have, in Ethiopic, a plain, clear, unequivocal origin, to and from which they can be traced
without force or difficulty.
34
Although Ethiopia is geographically east of Egypt, the ancients mistakenly asserted that
Geyon flows from south to north. Their errors reported that “The ancients tacitly assumed that
the Nile flows from S. to N. But Alexandria was at the western side of the Delta and Meroe at the
eastern side of the river.”
35
Contrary to the existing reality, some Ethiopian writers err in
asserting that Geyon rises out of Ethiopia and flows from south to the north. Regarding this,
31
Flavius Josephus, Complete Works of Josephus, in Four Volumes,(New York: Bigelow, Brown & Co.,Inc. Vol. I,
Nd), p.4
32
F. H.Colson and G. H.Whitaker(trans.), Philo in Ten Volumes and Two Supplementary Volumes with an English
Translation, (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1981,), p.143
33
James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773, in Five
Volumes, (Edinburgh &London: J. Ruthven ,for G. G. J.and J. Robinson-Paternoster-Row, Vol.I, 1790), p.421
34
Ibid. pp.423-424
35
William Deshorough Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and the Nile, Or an Inquiry into that Geographer’s Real Merits
and Speculative Errors His Knowledge of Eastern Africa and the Authenticity of the Mountain of the Moon,
(London: John W. Parker and Son Weststrand,1854), p.50
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100
Kidanewold claims that ግዮን ስመ ፈለግ ከአራቱ ዐበይት አፍላጋት ሁለተኛው ወንዝ ነጭ ዐባይ
ከአፍሪካ ደቡብ ተነስቶ ወደ ሰሜን፤ወደ ሱዳን አገር የሚፈስ
36
(Geyon, the name of a river, the
second river among the four great rivers, White Nile that rises in the south and flows to the north,
to the Sudan). Similarly, Desta tells us that አባይ(ግዮን) በደቡብ አፍሪቃ ኒያንዛ ከሚባል ሐይቅ
የሚወጣ ወንዝ፤ ከአራቱ ወንዞች ሁለተኛው፤ውሃው ነጭ የሆነ
37
(Abbay(Geyon), a river that rises in
southern part of Africa from Lake Nyanza, is the second among the four rivers and its colour is
white). The assertion of Kidanewold and Desta is very misleading. In the first place, the flow of
Geyon is from east to west. In the second place, the name Geyon refers only to today’s Abbay
and its source is at Gesh Abbay in Ethiopia.
For the ancients, it was pretty clear that Nile was another name of Geyon. Cosmas, for
example, states that “Then the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, flowing down from the
northern parts, that is from Persarmenia to the south, have far more rapid currents than our river
the Nile – that is the Geon.”
38
Cosmas adds “The Geon, again, which rises somewhere in
Ethiopia passes through the whole of Ethiopia and Egypt, and discharges its water into our Gulf
by several mouths.”
39
Likewise, early church fathers also located the Gihon of Eden in
Ethiopia.
40
In the first half of the fourteenth century, Jacob of Verona had qualified the Nile as
Gihon, one of the four rivers of Eden.
41
In his chronicler of 1352, Giovanni da Marignolli, who
was in Ethiopia as a missionary, reports the relationship between Geyon and Nile as:
Gyon is that which circlet the land of Ethiopia where are now the negroes, and which is
called the land of Prester John. It is indeed believed to be the Nile, which descends into
Egypt by a breach made in the place which is called ABASTY [Abyssinia]. The Christians
of St. Matthew the Apostle are there, and the Soldan pays them tribute on account of the
river, because they have it in their power to shut off the water, and then Egypt would
perish.
42
36
Kidanewold, p.312
37
Desta Teklewold, Addis YäAmargna Mäzgäbä Qalat ( A New Amharic Dictionary), (Addis Ababa: Artistic
Printing Press, 1962), p.75
38
J. W. McCrindle(trans.& ed.), The Christian Topography of Cosmas, An Egyptian Monk,(London: Hakluyt
Society, 1897), p.41
39
Ibid. , p.75
40
Uhlig(ed.), Encyclopedia Æthiopica, Vol. II, p.796
41
Ibid.
42
Henry Yule (trans. &ed.), Cathay and the Way Thither : Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, (New
Delhi: Munshiram Manohalal Publishers Pvt Ltd, Vol. II, 1916), p.348
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Concerning the identification that Geyon is the Nile and the vice versa, Ullendorff aptly
asserts that “there is no valid reason to doubt the essential accuracy of this identification ...
Gihon appears in parallelism to the Nile.”
43
This was true for Paez, Lobo and Bruce until Speke
unjustifiably associated the name Nile with Kagera, a river which joins Lake Nyanza. As Moses
told us Eden was the first residence of man and its location is eastward. In Genesis 2:8 it is
described as ወተከለ እግዚአብሔር ውስተ ኤድም ገነተ ቅድመ መንገለ ጽባሕ ወሤሞ ህየ ለእ
እመሕያው ዘገብረ(And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the
man whom he had formed). Considering the allusion of Moses as Eden was in Ethiopia, Milton
attests:
Nor where Abassin kings their issue guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some supposed
True Paradise under the Ethiop-Line
By Nilus’ head, enclosed with shinning rock
A whole day’s journey high, but wide remote.
44
Following Milton, Massey relates:
It is an ancient tradition that the home land of the human race was actual at the source of
the Nile. Milton alludes to and repeats it is his ‘Paradise under the Ethiop Line by Nilus’
head.’ The Rabbis likewise affirm that ‘Paradise is localized under the middle line of the
world, where the days are always equal length.’
45
From the expression of Moses and other ancient writers, it is possible to deduce that Edem,
which means beautiful in Ge’ez or Eden where Geyon rises allegorically denotes Ethiopia.
4.2. The Etymology of Abbawi
The other name of River Geyon was Abbawi. Regarding this, Tekletsadiq states that አባይ
የቀድሞው የኛ የግእዝ ጽሑፍ አባዊ አንዳንድ ጊዜም ፈለገ ግዮን ሲለው ይገኛል
46
(In former Ge’ez
43
Edward Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible,(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006,rpt), p.2
45
Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, a Work of Reclamation and Restitution in Twelve Books,
(London: T. Fisher Unwin, Adelphi Terrace, 1907), p.342
46
Tekletsadiq Makuria, YäItyopia Tarik, Nubia (Napata-Meroe), (A History of Ethiopia, Nubia(Napata-Meroe),
(Addis Ababa: Berhanena Selam Printing Press, 1965 E. C.), p.76
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102
literature, Abbay was called Abbawi and sometimes called river Geyon). The name Abbawi is
derived from the Ge’ez word Abä, meaning ‘being a father’. Abbawi is the adjective form of Ab
meaning ‘fatherly’.
47
In contrast, Belay claims that በጥንቱ አጠራር በጋፋትኛ አባ፤ አባዊ ይባል
ነበር፤አባት ማለት ነው
48
(In ancient Gafat language, Abbay was called Abba, Abbawi, which
means ‘father’). The claim of Belay is unconvincing. Abba as a name of a river is not available
in Ethiopian literature and there is no evidence as Gafat was a written language. The meaning
and geographical location of Abbawi expressed as አባይ(ኤፌሶን) አባትያ፤የወንዞች አባት፤ከአራቱ
ወንዞች አንደኛው የመጀመሪየው ወንዝ፤ ታላቅ ዠማ በግእዝ አዋልድ ፈለገ አባዊ ይባላል በዳሞት ሰከላ
ሚካኤል ከሚባል አገር ከደንገዛ ሚካኤል ተራራ ሥር ፈልቆ ጎጃምን ይከባል
49
(Abbay (Pison), fatherly,
the father of rivers, the first among the four rivers, great stream, in Ge’ez literature it was called
Abbawi. It rises in the country of Damot Sekela Michael below at Mount Dengeza Michael and
encircles Gojjam). The geographical location and meaning of Abbawi is appropriate but Desta
has a problem of distinguishing Geyon from Pison or Abbay from Tekezie. Regarding its water
volume Abbawi is the first among the four rivers but in the list of rivers of Eden, it is the second
and it is another name of Geyon, not Pison. Likewise Kidanewold asserts that Abbawi was the
name of two rivers. He contends that አባዊ ስመ ፈለግ፤ነጭ አባይና ጥቁር አባይ፤ ታላቅ ፈሳሽ ጎርፍ
ማለት ነው
50
(Abbawi, name of a river, White ‘Nile’ and ‘Blue’ Nile, big stream, flood). Words
such as ‘Tequr Abbayand ‘Nätch Abbayare loan words borrowed from the westerners.
51
The
attempt of Kidanewold to associate the name Abbawi with Nätch Abbay (Bahr al-Abyad) is
completely wrong because Abbawi was an exclusive name of Geyon or Abbay. Moreover, the
Pison of the Old Testament was associated with today’s Tekezie, not with Bahr al-Abyad.
Medieval Ethiopian scribes were well aware that Pison was another name of Tekezie. In relation
to this, the scribe of Gedle Yared states that ወእምዝ ወጽአ እምቤተ ክርሰቲያን ወሖረ እንዘ
ያስተፋንውዎ ካህናተ ደብተራ እስከ ማየ ተከዜ 1Xእም 4አፍላጋት እለ ይሰቅይ ለገነት ዘተሰምየ ኤፌሶን
47
Bairu Tafla, “The Father of Rivers: The Nile in Ethiopian Literature,” in Haggai Erlich and Israel Gershoni (eds.),
The Nile: Histories, Cultures, Myths, (Boulder & London: Renne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2002), p.168
48
Belay Makonnen, Itege Taytu Bä Däbrä Mäwi : Meten Tenatawi Tarik (Empress Taytu in Dabra Mawi : A Short
Historical Study), ( Addis Ababa: Tana Printing Press, 2003 E.C.), p.85
49
Desta, p.75
50
Kidanewold, p.185
5151
Zewdie G/Selassie (trans.), The Blue Nile and its Basins: An Issue of International Concern, (Addis Ababa:
Forum for Social Studies, 2006), p.2
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103
ወየሐውር መንገለ ምዕራብ
52
(Hereafter he came out from the church and went with priests up to
river Tekezie which is one of the four rivers that waters Eden by the name Pison and flows
towards the west). By the Greco-Roman writers Pison was also known as river of India.
Concerning this, Cosmas reports that “the Pheison is the river of India, which some call Indus or
Ganges.”
53
For the ancients the appellation India was associated either with Ethiopia in general
or north of Tekezie in particular. In line with this, Malalas states that “In India, the Axumites and
Homerites were ruled by Andas (Iadas), a Christian.”
54
In Ethiopian literature the name Abbawi first appeared as another name of River Geyon in
the Chronicle of Bäedä Maryam (1468-1478). The chronicler states that ወወሰድዎ ምድረ ጎዣም
ኩሎሙ ሸዋ ሐዳሪ ወአብጽህዎሙ እስከ አባዊ ወእም አባዊ ተቀበሎሙ ጎዣም ነጋሽ ምስለ ኩሎሙ
ብዙኀን ፄዋ ዘጎዣም ወሠርዕዎሙ ውስተ ምድረ ገምቦታ
55
(And they took to the land of Gojjam all
Shewa settler soldiers and reached at Abbawi. From Abbawi king of Gojjam received all soldiers
of Gojjam and resettled them in the place called Gämbota). Though the name Abbawi appeared
first in the chronicle of Baeda Maryam, it is uncertain by whom the name Abbawi was coined
and the time when it was adopted. By taking into account the chronicle of Baeda Maryam, Bairu
argues that the appellation Abbawi emerged in the fifteenth century.
56
On the contrary,
Tekletsadiq asserts that Geyon was called Abbawi during the reign of Dawi II (1381-1411). He
reports that ወውዕቱ ዳዊ ዘሜጦ ለፈለገ አባዊ ኢይረድ ግብጽ በምክንያት ዘሞቅሆ ንጉሠ ግብጽ
ለአባ ዮሐንስ ዘለእስክንድርያ በምክንያተ ፀባይት ወበይነዝ ፈነዎ ሎቱ ንጉሠ ግብ አምኀ ለዳዊት ንጉሥ
ግማደ መስቀሉ ለክርስቶስ
57
(At that time Dawit had diverted River Abbawi not to flow to Egypt,
because the Egyptian king imprisoned Abba Yohannes, patriarch of Alexandria. As a result of
this quarrel, the Egyptian king sent a gift to king Dawit a piece of the True Cross of
Christ).Tekletsadiq might have accessed this evidence from Ethiopian manuscripts found in
European libraries and museums but the source what I have accessed here in Ethiopia says
52
K. Conti Rossini(ed.), Acta Yared et Pantaleon ,(Louvain:Imrimerie Orientaliste L. Durbeq, 1955), p.21
53
McCrindle (trans.& ed.), The Christian Topography, p.75
54
Matthew Spinka(trans.), Chronicle of John Malalas (Books VIII-XVIII), (Chicago-Illinois: The University of
Chicago Press,1940), p.137
55
Jules Perruchon(ed.), Les Chroniques De Zar’a Ya’eqob et de Ba’eda Maryam Rois D’Ethiopie De 1434
A1478,(Paris: Emile Bouillon, Editeur, 1893), pp.158-159
56
Bairu Tafla, The Father of Rivers, p.168
57
Tekletsadiq Makuria, YäGragn Ahmad Wärära(The Invasion of Ahmad Gragn), (Addis Ababa: Berhanena Selam
Printing Press, 1965 E.C.), p.90
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Abbay and the name of the Egyptian patriarch was Michael, not Yohannes.
58
The source which I
came across might have been copied after the eighteenth century because all the chronicles,
except Iyasu II’s , from Baeda Maryam’s up to Iyoas’s (1755-1769) used the name Abbawi.
Related to this, Pankhurst states as:
Most of the manuscripts of the chronicles up to 1769, including the XIII texts of the
abbreviated chronicles such as PC, use the form Abbawi, though those of Iyasu II have
Abbay (All.PP.86, 121 text referring to the years 1738-9 and 1745-6). The Portuguese
authors use the form Abaoi (Paez) and Abauy (Al Meida), Ludolf, too gives consistently
the form Abbawi as that used by his informant Gregory. The modern form is Abbay, but the
date of the general adoption of this form is uncertain.
59
Like Ludolf, Lobo, one of the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries in Ethiopia and who
visited Gesh Abbay next to Paez, use the form Abbawi. He states that “The Nile, which the
natives call Abbawi, that is the father of rivers, rises first in Sacala, province of the kingdom of
Gojjam, which is the most fruitful and agreeable of all the Abyssinian dominions.
60
Nineteenth
century travellers such as Isenberg and Krapf also used the name Abbawi interchangeably with
‘Blue Nile' in their narrative about the river. They tell us that “the Abbawi, or Blue Nile, at the
ford of Furi is from seventy to eighty yards broad, five feet deep and the current from two to
three miles per hour.”
61
Despite the fact that Abbawi had been used as the proper name of Ethiopia’s largest river, at
least from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Bruce attempted to discredit the name
Abbawi as it did not signify anything. Bruce wrote:
Ludolf, the only one in the age he lived that had any real knowledge of either the Geez or
Amharic, was the first to perceive this: he found in neither of these languages Abbawi
58
Chronicle of Dawit II(ብቤመ-507),Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency, pp.54-55
59
Richard Pankhurst(ed.), The Historical Geography of Ethiopia: From the First Century AD to 1704, (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1989), p.144
60
Arthur Murphy(ed.), The Works of Samuel Johnson, With an Essay on His Life and Genius, (London: Alex R.
Chalmers, 1806 ), p.14
61
Isenberg and Krapf, Journals of the Rev. MESSRS, Isenberg and Krapf, Missionaries of the Church Missionary
Society, Detailing their Proceedings in the kingdom of Shoa, and Journey in other parts of Abyssinia in the Years,
1839, 1840, 1841 & 1842, (London &Edinburgh: Frank & Company Limited, 1843), p.87
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could be a nominative, and consequently could not be applied to anything; and next he as
truly found it could not be of the singular number, and if so, could not signify one river.
62
Bruce’s commentary is very misleading. The real knowledge of either the Ge’ez or Amharic in
fact is in the hands of Ethiopians. Ludolf did not cross Ethiopia’s borders and his knowledge of
Ge’ez and Amharic was totally dependent on his mentor, Gorgoryos. In the work of Ludolf,
Abbawi mentioned as it was a dialect of Amharic
63
. On the contrary, he tells us that Abbawi was
derived from the word Ab, meaning parent.
64
This indicates that Ludolf’s knowledge of Ge’ez
and Amharic was superficial because Abbawi is not an Amharic dialect and its meaning is not
‘paren’t. A parent, as we know, is to mean either ‘father’ or ‘mother’ but Abbawi in its meaning
is only connected with father. Ludolf further argues:
But this derivation neither suits with grammar, neither (d) Abbawi simply signify a parent,
neither, if you rightly consider it, is it agreeable to sense; for Nilus does not send forth from
his own bowls, but receives the tribute of all other rivers; so that he may rather said to be
their captain and prince rather than father of them.
65
Abbawi is the adjective form of Ab and there is no grammatical error. Regarding its name, it is
evident that every river has its own tributaries but the name of that particular river is identified
only by a big stream. So the name Abbawi cannot be an exception. Moreover, the name Abbawi
was given to the river on the assumption that it is the biggest compared to other rivers in the
country, not by comparing it with its tributaries.
The name Abbay appeared as a substitute of Abbawi for the first time in the chronicle of
Iyasu II (1730-1755) and mentioned only once as ሖረ እንተ ደብረ ፆት ወዐደዎ ፈለገ ዓባይ በገመድ
በር ወቦአ ጎንደር
66
(He travelled through mount Tsot and crossed River Abbay on the way called
Gämäd Bär and entered Gondar). During the reign of Iyoas (1755-1769) the name Abbawi used
instead of Abbay. The chronicler tells us that ሑሩ ዕቀቡ እምነ ፈለገ ዓባዊ እስከ ፈለገ ርብ
67
( Go
62
Bruce, Vol.III, 1972 rpt), p.655
6363
John Philips(trans),A New History of Ethiopia: Being a Full and Accurate Description of the Kingdom of
Abyssinia, Vulgarly, though Erroneously called the Empire of Prester John, (London: Sasor Publisher, 1982), p.33
64
Ibid. ,p.34
65
Ibid.
66
Ignatius Guidi (ed.), Annales Regum Iyasu II et Iyoas,(Lipsiae: Otto Harrassotwitz, 1910), p.43
67
Ibid. ,p.230
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and keep from River Abbawi to River Reb). From 1769-1840 chroniclers used the name Geyon
and Abbay interchangeably. For example, to mention some, first it says ወበጽሑ ፈለገ
ግዮን”(They arrived at River Geyon) and then , “ወበጺሖ ፈለገ ዓባይ
68
(He arrived at River
Abbay).
Based on the available sources, a hagiographer of St. Zärabruk claims that the name Abbay
came into use as a result of the miracle performed by the saint. He reports that ወአሜሃ ይቤሎ
ለረድኡ ርኢ አባ እሎንተ መጻሕፍትየ ዘተረክባ እንበለ ርጥበት ወኢሙስና ወርዕየ ውዕቱ መነኮስ ዘሩፋኤል
አንከረ ወተደመ ወአስተዐፀበ ግብረ እግዚአብሔር...ወአሜሃ ተሰምየት ዓባይ ይዕቲ ፈለግ ወበዝንቱ ስም
ትጼዋዕ እስከ ዕዜ
69
(At that time he said to his disciple, father, look at my books, I got them
dry and none of them were spoiled and then having seen this, Monk Rufael admired and was
astonished by the acts of God since then, this river called Abbay and we call it by this same
name up to now). The hagiography was written in Ge’ez and says ርኢ አባ (look Abba). So the
phrase cannot be translated into Abbay. The hagiographer seems ignorant of the name Abbawi
and that is why he asserts that the name Abbay emanated in association with the miracles of St.
Zerabruk. According to the hagiography, the miracle was performed during the reign of Iyasu I
but the name Abbay emerged in the chronicle of Iyasu II. In addition, there are no testimonies in
Ethiopian literature as Abbay was coined in connection with the miracle of St. Zerabruk.
Bruce, who visited Gesh Abbay in 1770, mentioned the name Abbay but did not say
anything about St. Zerabruk’s Church.
70
This indicates that the ark in the name of Zerabruk came
to the area after 1770. Cheesman even asserts that Zerabruk was a corrupted form of Bruce. He
contends:
It had been suggested to me this name (Zarabruk) was a corruption of the name Bruce, and
the next time I visited the locality I make enquiries. The priests said Zarabruk was a saint
but seemed to have no idea who he was. It is certain that Zaraburk was not associated with
St. Michael when Bruce was there; as he mentions St. Gish in his book.
71
68
Weld Blundell(ed.), The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia 1769-1840, (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1922), pp.8 &45
69
Diocese of Gesh Abbay, Gedle Zerabruk (Hagiography of St. Zerabruk), (Addis Ababa: Gutenberg Printing Press,
2001E.C.), p.71
70
Bruce, Vol. III, p.590
71
R. E. Cheesman, Lake Tana and the Blue Nile: An Abyssinian Quest, (London: Macmillan an Co.Limited, 1936),
p.16
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107
On the other hand, Habtemaryam asserts that Abbay was an ancient name and was coined by
Axumite soldiers. He suggests that the name Abbawi might have come into use after the invasion
of Ahmad Gragn.
72
The assertion that Abbay was coined by Axumite soldiers seems an
ethnocentric view because his claims do not have any support from historical sources.
Habtemaryam also argues that in both Ge’ez and Tigregna Abbay means great and serves for
both sexes.
73
Similarly, Getachew, by citing Tsegaye’s poem entitled ‘Abbay’, claims that Abbay
is a feminine gender. In the poem of Tsegaye, Abbay stated as አንች የምድረ ዓለም ሲሳይ፤
በረሃውን ጥለሽ ግዳይ
74
(You the nourishment of the world, captured the desert). If we spell the
name as ዐባይ in Ge’ez grammatically it is feminine, meaning ‘her greatness’. However, from
time immemorial the river among the people was known by masculine gender. In all languages
such as Ge’ez , Greek, Latin and English Geyon or Abbawi is identified as male. For instance, in
Ge’ez, ወስሙ ለካልእ ፈለግ ግዮንወስሙ signifies masculine. Homer used the masculine gender
for the river and feminine to Egypt.
75
In a hymn to the Nile, ancient Egyptians had treated the river as masculine. They tell us that
“He that waters the meadows, which Re-created, in order to keep every kid alive.”
76
In the
warning letter of king Teklehaymanot (1706-1708) Geyon’s masculinity is described as “Since
God hath put into our power his fountain, his outlet and his increase...”
77
Moreover, in the
folklore of the local community, though linguistically Abbay is feminine, the river is still known
by the people as male. The following couplets manifest this.
ዐባይ ጉደል ብለው አለኝ በታህሳስ፤(When I beg Abbay to decrease, he said to me in
December)
የማን ሆድ ይችላል እስከዚያ ድረስ(It is unbearable to me up to that time)
ዐባይ ጥቁር ነበር ከሰል የመሰለ፤(Abbay was black like charcoal)
እየቀላ ሄደ ደም እየመሰለ (Getting red like blood)
72
Habtemaryam Aseffa, YäItyopia Tarik:Teyaqewochena Baheloch (A History of Ethiopia: Questions and
Cultures), (Addis Ababa: Np. 1986), p.181
73
Ibid. , p.182
74
Tsegaye Gabre Madhin, Isat wäy Abäba(Fire or Flower), (Addis Ababa: Berhanena Selam Printing Press, 1966 E.
C.) p.154,
75
Lindsay(trans.), The Nile, p.323
7676
William J. Duiker & Jackson J. Spielvoel, World History: Volume One to 1800, (Wadsworth,USA, Np, 2004),
p.16
77
Bruce, Vol. II, p.526
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108
In Ge’ez literature, both religious and historical, the form ዐባይ already existed and serves not
only as adjective of feminine gender but also as an adjective of other great rivers. In relation to
this, the chronicle of Sarsa Dengel testifies: ነበረ ዝንቱ ንጉሥ ኀበ እሙ ዓባይ ንግሥት ሠናይተ ዝክር
ሰብለወንጌል
78
(The king was living with his mother her greatness Queen Säbläwängel, who was
known with good memorial). Similarly, in the chronicle of Iyasu I river Gibe is mentioned as
ዓደውናሃ ለዓባይ ፈለገ ጊቤ በኃይለ እግዚአብሔር
79
(With the help of God, we crossed the great
river Gibe). In the hagiography of Teklehaymanot, river Žema is described as ተንሥአ 1ዕልው
ገብር ዘስሙ መቶሎሜ ወስማ ለእሙ እስላንዳኒ ወነግሠ በፈቃዱ ላዕለ ኩሉ በሐውርተ ዳሞት ወበሐውርተ
ሸዋ እስከ ወሰነ ምሐራ ኀበ ፈለገ ዐባይ እንተ ስማ ዠማ
80
(A certain evil man by the name
Motolemi rose and whose mother’s name called Eslandani became a king by himself upon the
people of Damot and Shewa up to the border of Amhara to a great river, which is known as
Žema). In the Psalm of David, ዐባይ is used as መልአ ምድረ ዘፈጠርከ፤ዛቲ ባሕር ዓባይ ወረኀብ
(The earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea (Psalm 103/104:24-25).
If we spell our great river as አባይ (no stress) it is derived from an Amharic word አበለ
meaning a liar. In relation to this, Solomon states that አባይ ሚዛን በእግዚአብሔር ፊት አስጸያፊ
ነው፤ እውነተኛ ሚዛን ግን ደስ ያሰኘዋል (A false balance is abomination to the Lord: but a just
weight is his delight (Proverbs 11:1)). When one wants to insult a wizard, he/she says ባይ
ጠን. Abiy (ዐቢይ) is the adjective form for masculine gender. In line with this, it is stated as
follows: ውዕቱ ራስ ሚካኤል ዓቢይ ወልዑል ዘበጽሐ ልዕልናሁ እስከ ሰማይ
81
(Ras Michael is great
and his greatness reached the sky). In the chronicles of Ethiopian Emperors, such as Baeda
Maryam, Lebna Dengel, Sarsa Dengel and Susenyos, the father of rivers is spelt as አባዊ. On the
other hand, in the chronicles of Yohannes I, Iyasu I and Bakaffa the name of the river is spelt as
ዓባዊ which is grammatically incorrect. Finally, as a nominative ዓባይ appeared only once in the
chronicle of Iyasu II and the name ዓባዊ continued in the chronicle of Iyoas. All the sources that I
have consulted in this paper reveal that Abbay is a corrupted form of Abbawi.
78
K. Conti Rossini(ed.), Historia Regis Sarsa Dengel(Malak Sagad), (Lipsiae:Otto Harrassowitz, 1907) p.7
79
Ignatius Guidi(ed.), Annales Iohannis I, Iyasu I et Bakaffa, (Lipsiae:Otto Harrassowitz, 1903), p.245
80
Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Gedle Teklehaymanot,(Addis Ababa: Tensae Zegubae Printing Press, 1989) p.31
81
Blundell(ed.), The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia, p.5
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109
4.3. The Etymology of Nil
Nil was one of the ancient names of today’s Abbay. Its origin is Ge’ez, meaning blue in colour.
All the Ge’ez dictionaries define Nil as blue in colour. Similarly, in his Tigregna dictionary,
Girmatseyon tells us that Nil signifies the colour of the sky.
82
From both Tigregna and Ge’ez
sources the word Nil describes the colour of Abbay. In addition, some sources written in
Amharic use the nominative Nil to differentiate Abbay from Bahr al-Abyad or the White River.
For instance, Taye states that ነጭ ዓባይና ኒል ዓባይ በሚገናኙበት ውሃውን ወደሰሀራ ሊመልሰው
ቆፈረው
83
(At the confluence of White ‘Nile’ and Nil Abbay he (Lalibela) has dug the land to
divert the water to the Sahara). Likewise Tekle Iyasus tells us that ከገነት ይወጣል ከተባሉት
ከአራቱ አፍላጋት ግዮን የሚባለው የሚፈልቀው ከጎጃም መሬት ነው የውሃው መልክ ኒል ይመስላል
84
(From the four rivers of Eden, Geyon rises in Gojjam and its colour appears blue). Tesemma
similarly elaborates that ኒል ሰማያዊ ቀለምን መስሎ ከጎጃም ምድር መንጭቶ፤ ጎጃምን አካቦ ወርዶ
ሱዳንንም ርጦ አራት ሽህ ማይል ዐልፎ ከሜድትራንያን ባህር የሚቀላቀል፤ ኒል ዓባይ
85
(Nil, seems
blue in colour, rises and encircles Gojjam and passes through the Sudan and joins the
Mediterranean sea after four thousand miles, blue Abbay). Regarding its length, Tesemma is
inaccurate. He told us the length of Bahr al-Abyad, not Abbawi. The length of Geyon is about
3260 miles or 5,216 kilometres.
In the same manner, Abbawi was also known by the appellation Nil in Sudan. In relation to
this, Bruce states that “In the plain country between Fazuculo and Sennar, it is called Nil, which
signifies blue; and the Arabs interpret it by the word Azraque, which it keeps as far as Halafaia,
or near it where it joins the White River.”
86
Besides Nil, Azraq is also a Ge’ez word, meaning
‘blue’, colour of the sky.
87
All the aforementioned sources indicate that Nil is nominative only to
River Abbay. As opposed to this reality, Smidt argues that Nil is a loan word from Sanskrit. He
asserts:
82
Girmatseyon Mebrahtu, Lesanä Agazi (The Language of Agazi), (Asmara :Government Printing Press, 1976),
p.400
83
Taye Gebremaryam, YäItyopia Hezb Tarik(A History of Ethiopia), (Addis Ababa: Central Printing Press, 1964
E.C.), p.50
84
Girma Getahun(ed.), YäGojjam Teweled Bämulu käAbbay Eskä Abbay(A Genealogy of Gojjam from Abbay to
Abbay), (Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2003 E.C.), p.14
85
Tesemma Habtemichael, YäAmaregna Mäzegäbä Qalat(An Amharic Dictionary), (Addis Ababa: Np,2002E.C.),
p.685
86
Bruce, Vol. 3, p.656
8787
Yared, p.376
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110
The term ኒል (Nil) exists, but appears rather rarely, mostly in the context of foreign
influence (e.g. Arab. CP CeraMaria 207). It usually refers to the Nile in Egypt but
sometimes also used for the Blue Nile (e.g. BT of a204f: here the term Abbay designates
the whole Nile and contrary to the normal practice – Nil stands for the Blue Nile only). The
word is not to be confused with Amh./Tg. Nil, or Arab. Nil, ‘indigo;’ a loan word from the
Sanskrit.
88
The author knows the existence of the term Nil in Ethiopia but he did not want to
acknowledge it. Rather, he attempted to associate its origin with Sanskrit. As a matter of fact,
both in Sanskrit and the Hindu Puranas the appellation Nil was known as Nila, meaning blue.
89
Moreover, Sanskrit itself was a loan word for Indians. Concerning this, Kennedy, as cited by
Higgins, asserts that ‘An examination of the vernacular dialects of India will render it evident
that Sanscrit is a foreign language, which has been super induced on them, and not they on
Sanscrit.’
90
Higgins adds that “the ancient system of letters of India and Ethiopia may be
considered the same, notwithstanding their great distance and the intervention of so many other
nations lying between them.”
91
Similarly, Jones ascertained the relationship between Indian and
Ethiopian letters as follows:
The letters on many of those monuments appear, as I have before intimated, partly of
Indian, and partly of Abyssinian or Ethiopick, origin; and all these indubitable facts may
induce no ill-grounded opinion, that Ethiopia and Hindustan were peopled or colonized by
the same extraordinary race.
92
All the above stated sources are indicative that Sanskrit itself originated from Ethiopia, and not
the vice versa.
In other languages, Nil is spelt as Neilos, Nilus and Nile. The term Neilos was first mentioned
by Hesoid, a Greek poet. Nilus is the Latin form, while Nile is an English one. Encyclopaedia
88
Uhlig(ed.), Encyclopedia Aethiopica, Vo. III, p.1177
89
Rawlison(trans.), History of Herodotus, Vol. II, p.25
90
Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veils of Saitic Isis; or an Inquiry into the Origin of
Languages, Nations and Religions,(New York: Macy-Masius-Publishers, Vol. I, 1927), p.449
91
Ibid. ,p.457
92
William Jones, Works of Sir William Jones, in Six Volumes, (London: G.G. & J. Robinson, Pater-Noster-Row,
Vol. I, 1799), pp.30-31
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111
Britannica claims that “the name Nile is derived from the Greek Neilos.”
93
Quirke and Spencer
likewise assert that Nile is derived from the Greek Neilos, but they do not know where the
Greeks found the term Neilos.
94
Contrary to the above, Gunther argues that nobody knows where
the name Nile was originated from.
95
Still, other authors assume that the Greek Neilos might
have come from the Semitic nahal, meaning a river. Regarding the latter, Cooley dares to say
that “The name Nile was probably of Semitic origin, and learned by the Greeks from the
Phoenicians. It certainly cannot be traced to the languages of Greece or Egypt or of Ethiopia.
96
The speculation of Cooley is refutable. Nile in the Old Testament is found under the name of
Sihor, i.e. black stream.
97
In the book of Prophet Jeremiah, Nile is stated as “And now what has
thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the water of Sihor?” (Jeremiah 2:18).
In Ge’ez, Sihor is described differently as “ወይዜኒ ምንት ብኪ በፍኖተ ግብጽ ከመ ትስተይ ማየ
ሕሙገ”(And now what has thou to do in the way of Egypt, to drink the brown water). The Ge’ez
version does not use Sihor as a proper name of Nil. Rather, it is translated into its equivalent
meaning as ማየ ሕሙገwhich signifies the colour of the river during flooding. The Amharic
Bible translated in 2000 E.C. changed Sihor into Geyon. አሁንስ የግዮን ውሃ ትጠጭ ዘንድ
በግብጽ መንገድ ምን ጉዳይ አለሽ? The Amharic Bible translators knew that Sihor is another name
of Geyon but Geyon does not indicate the colour of the river. It denotes only the flow of the
Ethiopian biggest river.
Although many sources do not know certainly where the word Nile originated, all agree that
Nile signifies the colour of the water.
98
If the name Nile is related to the colour of Abbawi and its
meaning is blue, it is indisputable to assert that Nile is the misspelt of Nil. Besides, Nil for
westerners does not give sense because in both Latin and English ‘nil’ means nothing.
99
As
stated above, the word Nil describes the colour of Geyon but mistakenly western writes use Blue
‘Nile’ to differentiate Abbawi from Bahr al-Abyad or the White River. So the appellation Blue
Nile and White Nile are misnomers.
93
The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 13, 2005 15
th
edition, p.104
94
Quirke & Spencer (eds.), The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt, p.12
95
John Gunther, Inside Africa,(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955), p.223
96
Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and the Nile, p.3
97
Easton’s Bible Dictionary, in http://www.biblehistory/easton/N/ Nile
98
Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, p.498, International Standard Bible, in http://www.
Bible.history.com/isb/N/Nile.
99
Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz(eds.), Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, (New York: Chambers, 2005
rpt), p.705
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112
Today the Arabic word for the Nile is al-Nil or Bahr al-Nil, a loan word from Ge’ez Nil. The
name Nile is not an Egyptian by origin.
100
The Arabic language was introduced to Egypt
following the occupation of the country in the seventh century AD
101
and yet Arabic, the
language of Quran, was under the influence of the Ge’ez language.
102
Concerning the colour of Geyon there are misunderstandings. Many travellers who saw
Abbawi during the rainy season argue that the colour of the water does not reflect its name.
Regarding the colour of Abbawi and Bahr al-Abyad Penn explains:
As in many cases, the colours of the rivers do not accurately reflect their names, but it is
true that the White Nile with its lighter sediment load usually had a muddy, gray look.
While the Blue Nile, eroding the Ethiopian mountains carries more grit and soil has a
darker, brown-green colour that looks blue at dawn and in the evening.
103
The blueness or whiteness of a river is connected with other factors. For instance, the
adjective blue is the result of a reflection of the colour of the sky on the clear waters of Abbawi.
In relation to this, Desta reports: ፈሳሹም ሰማይ መስሎ ስለሚታይ ጥቁር ዓባይ ይሉታል:”
104
(They
call it black Abbay because the colour of the water seems to be the colour of the sky). Similarly,
Baker states that “during the dry season the water of the Blue Nile is clear, as its broad surface
reflects the colour of the blue sky, hence the appellation.”
105
The name Nil or the blueness of
Geyon or Abbawi is applicable only when the water is clear during the dry season of the year but
during the rainy season its colour is almost chocolate-brown.
5. Conclusion
There is no river in the world that has many names as Geyon. In the Old Testament alone the
river is known by different appellations. It has been identified as Gihon, Sihor, Egyptian river or
merely a river. In Ethiopian literature it has been identified as Geyon, Nil and Abbawi.
Likewise, the largest Ethiopian river had been identified by diverse appellations in different parts
100
John Bainess, Time and the River, in http://www.duskin.com/online, p.38
101
Trevor Mostyn and Albert Hourani (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.27
102
Haggai Erlich, The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt and the Nile, (Boulder &London: Lynne Rienner
Publishers, Inc. ,2002),p.53
103
James R. Penn, Rivers of the World: A Social, Geographical and Environment Source Book, (Santa Barbara,
California: ABC Clio, 2001), p.28
104
Desta, p.75
105
Samuel W. Baker, The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia and Sword Hunters of Hamarn Arabs, (London: Macmillan
and Co. , 1806), p.552
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
113
of the world. In ancient Egypt, for example, Nile had the name Iteru, meaning a river, or Iteruaa,
the great river. Nowadays in Egypt and northern Sudan it is known by the names of Bahr al-Nil
or Bahr al-Azraq.
In the final analysis, it is safe to conclude that all the three appellations found in Ethiopian
literature namely Geyon, Abbawi and Nil are etymologically derived from the classical language
of Ethiopia and describe the different features of one river. Geyon signifies the flow of the river,
Abbawi as a nominative denotes the father of rivers and Nil indicates the colour of the same
river. Thus, the appellations of Blue Nile and White Nile are misnomers. Assertions like the
name Abbay was coined by Axumite soldiers and it came into existence in association with the
miracle of St. Zerabruk are ill-grounded and ill-informed opinions. The name Abbay is a
corrupted form of Abbawi. The appellation Abbay is inaccurate by the following reasons. Firstly,
አባይ (no stress) is an Amharic word meaning a liar. As a result, it never appears in Ge’ez
sources. Secondly, ዐባይ (stressed), on the other hand, has already existed as an adjective of
other great rivers even before the appearance of the name Abbawi.
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