What Direction Does the Nile River Flow?

Aerial of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, with the river Nile running in the middle. Juba downtown is upper middle close to the river, and the airport can be seen upper left. The picture is from the south to the north.
© iStock.com/Phototreat

Written by Kyle Glatz

Updated: January 31, 2023

Share on:


The Nile River is known as one of the largest rivers in the world, and it’s certainly the longest one in Africa. Looking at a map of the river, some people may believe that this river’s headwaters are in the Mediterranean Sea. However, that’s not the case because this river does not flow south. What direction does the Nile River flow? We’ll answer this question and others about the origin of this famous and significant river.

What Direction Does the Nile River Flow?

The Nile River flows through Cairo before reaching the Mediterranean Sea.


The Nile River flows north from its source. This river flows over 4,100 miles before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, the location of the Nile Delta. The Nile River has been one of the most important bodies of water in Africa for thousands of years. Its ability to support life in a somewhat inhospitable part of the world helped Ancient Egypt become a major power in the world.

In fact, a great deal of the population in Egypt and other countries is located along the Nile, in the surrounding areas, and in places where the river has been dammed.

Now that we know the Nile River flows from south to north, we can look at where the river starts and see the amazing journey this body of water takes.  

What Countries Does the Nile River Flow Through?

Lake Moeris Egypt

The Nile River is one of the most important bodies of water in Egypt, and its waters created Lake Moeris.

©Bassant Meligy/Shutterstock.com

The Nile River flows over 4,000 miles from start to finish. The water’s course is very complex, with some uncertainty about the river’s headwaters still persisting despite multiple expeditions over many years.

The river’s drainage basin is found in 11 different countries throughout the northeastern portion of Africa.

The Nile River flows through:

  1. Burundi
  2. The Democratic Republic of the Congo
  3. Egypt
  4. Ethiopia
  5. Kenya
  6. South Sudan
  7. Sudan
  8. Rwanda
  9. Tanzania
  10. Uganda
  11. Eritrea

The Nile River flows in each of these countries to some extent. Some of them are areas containing small tributaries, while others host the Nile River’s largest sources.

What Are the Nile River’s Tributaries?

Nile River

The Nile River, after its confluence in Khartoum, Sudan.


The two main tributaries of the Nile River include the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile is over 2,000 miles long, but it contributes far less water to the Nile River than the Blue Nile.

The White Nile begins at the Kagera River, a body of water that flows through parts of Burundi and Rwanda before feeding into Lake Victoria. From Lake Victoria, the river flows through Uganda and into Lake Albert before flowing north through South Sudan and Sudan. In Sudan, the White Nile meets the Blue Nile.

The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and that lake is fed by the Lesser Abay River. The river flows south from Lake Tana and then west before turning to flow northwest in Sudan. The Blue Nile can provide as much as 80% of the Nile River’s total water flow throughout the rainy season.

The White Nile and the Blue Nile reach a confluence at Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, forming the Nile River and flowing northward to the Nile Delta in the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, many smaller tributaries exist along the massive length of this river, both for the main tributaries and the Nile River.

Why Does the Nile River Flow North?

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria, a major source of the Nile, is located at a much higher elevation than Egypt.

©Stefan Haider/Shutterstock.com

The Nile River flows south to north for the same reasons that any other river flows: the northern section of the continent is lower in elevation than the southern portion. The White Nile starts around Lake Victoria, a body of water located over 3,700ft above sea level.

The origin of the Blue Nile is found in Lake Tana, an area located in a mountainous region with a surface elevation of over 5,800ft!

The river outflows near Cairo, a city only 75ft above sea level. As you can see, the massive change in elevation from south to north favors the water flowing north overall. However, if you look at a map of the tributaries and the main Nile River, it’s clear that the river turns several times as it winds around mountains.

Do Any Other Rivers Flow North?

marsh vs swamp

The Ob River also flows north until it reaches its outflow.

©Dmitriy Kandinskiy/Shutterstock.com

We’ve answered the question, what direction does the Nile River flow? It flows from south to north. Still, a misconception persists that the vast majority of rivers run from north to south. However, that is not the case with the Nile River and many others.

Although the Mississippi River in the United States runs south, other rivers in North America and around the world flow north like the Nile River, for example, the New River, the oldest river in the United States, also flows north from North Carolina, through Virginia, and into West Virginia.

Also, the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territory flows north into the Arctic Ocean. The Ob River in Russia does the same thing, too.

Many rivers in the world flow north, but not all of them do. Major rivers can be found flowing in every direction due to changes in elevation and the terrain surrounding an area.

What Rivers Are Longer than the Nile?

Amazon river

The Amazon River currently measures longer than the Nile River.


The Nile River has a long-standing “feud” with the Amazon River. Researchers have insisted at different times that the Nile River is longer than the Amazon River and vice versa. Currently, the Amazon River is believed to be longer than the Nile River, as a 2013 study placed the most distant source of the Amazon River over 4,300 miles away from its outlet.

Likewise, the Yangtze River is also in contention for one of the longest rivers in the world, but it doesn’t crack the 4,000-mile mark, according to recognized sources.

With new expeditions seeking the furthest reaches of the Nile River, the rivalry is likely to be renewed in coming years. The Nile River could start edging towards the Amazon River’s total length!

All in all, the Nile River is a very significant and large body of water. Knowing its sources and direction of flow can help dispel some myths about rivers in general and this one in particular.

Share this post on:
About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.