River of the Gods Book Summary - River of the Gods Book explained in key points
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River of the Gods summary

Candice Millard

Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile

4.2 (28 ratings)
19 mins

Brief summary

'River of the Gods' by Candice Millard is a gripping account of the Ganges River in India, diving into its historical, cultural and religious significance to the country.

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    River of the Gods
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    A Story Rooted in Colonialism

    It’s 1801, and the Egyptian city of Alexandria is a smoldering ruin. 

    We’re in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Hoping to deprive Britain of its land route to India, Napoleon invaded Egypt. Yet the French dictator didn’t just brought soldiers: he brought scientists. Fascinated with the country’s ancient history, legions of French scholars studied, measured, excavated – and stole.

    The biggest problem facing the first Egyptologists is the cryptic markings on the grand monuments and tombs. What do they mean? Cracking the code of the hieroglyphs promises to unlock the mystery of an ancient civilization.

    But as French fortunes in Egypt begin to wane, they withdraw. And in the rubble of Alexandria, the British have found the Rosetta Stone, excavated by French soldiers two years previously.

    With the same passage of text written in three different scripts – one of which scholars know – the Rosetta Stone has finally unlocked the puzzle of hieroglyphs. It’s taken back to Britain in triumph and a frenzied wave of interest in ancient Egypt grips Europe.

    But although its script has been deciphered, a bewildering array of mysteries remains. And no question is more captivating than the source of the River Nile. The longest river in the world, the bedrock on which an old and grand civilization was built, the Nile and its origins have confounded Europeans for centuries. 

    Hearsay and failure abound. Ancient writers like Herodotus had speculated wildly about its source, while a Greek trader had claimed it originated in two giant lakes fed by snow from what he called the Mountains of the Moon. Two Roman emperors had sent out failed expeditions to find it. In fact, when faced with futility, ancient Romans were likely to cry out that it’d be “easier to find the source of the Nile!”

    It’s an age of exploration and colonialism for the Europeans. They believe the whole world is their playground. And discovering the source of the Nile is the biggest geographical question of the age. They already know that the Nile has two main branches, the White and the Blue, and by 1770 Scotsman James Bruce has even reached the source of the shorter Blue Nile.

    But the White Nile’s source has remained a mystery. It isn’t as simple as sailing a boat upstream. Aside from the tangled web of tributaries, there’s the Sudd: a gigantic and congested swamp which is essentially unnavigable.

    Nearly 30 years later, when the Royal Geographical Society is founded in London in 1830 it soon realizes someone will have to trek overland from the shores of East Africa.

    This will barely make the odyssey easier. Facing any hopeful explorer will be hundreds of miles of harsh and unforgiving territory, uncharted by Europeans, along with the specters of deadly animals, debilitating disease, and potentially hostile communities. They’ll need to be skilled in all manner of scientific observation, from cartography to botany and ethnology. They’ll need to know a multitude of East African languages and cultural customs to boot.

    The Royal Geographical Society needs an exceptional person, and they find one in Richard Burton.

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    What is River of the Gods about?

    River of the Gods (2022) follows two audacious individuals as they search for the source of the world’s longest river. At the time, this was a question of mythical proportions, and one which would consume and break the men sent to answer it.

    Who should read River of the Gods?

    • History buffs
    • Travel lovers
    • Anyone who grew up with navigation apps on their smartphone

    About the Author

    Candice Millard is an American writer and journalist. Her work has featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, National Geographic, and Time.

    Aside from River of the Gods, Millard has written three other books: The River of Doubt, Destiny of the Republic, and Hero of the Empire.

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