“Whenever you were on the Nile, whatever you saw along the banks, the ever-present ridge of the desert loomed beyond the greenery, walling the floodplain on either side, a long chain of hills both east and west, often with pale chutes of sand spilling down them, blown in from the desert beyond.” – Rosemary Mahoney Down The Nile 2007
Alas – blogging for the last couple of weeks has fallen victim to illness, poor to non-existent internet and general laziness. As I sit in a cafe in Istanbul, I’m shocked to discover that blog-wise I am all the way back in Egypt! Time to get serious! Two countries have flown by since then!
When last I wrote, we were headed far from the maddening crowds of Cairo, following the Nile south on our way to Aswan. First class overnight train travel in Egypt is actually not too bad… Providing you don’t have an upset digestive system and require the bathroom for 13 hours. When it comes to public toilets, I struggle to see how people are anatomically able to create the mess they do! I mean really!!!
But I digress. First, a geography and history lesson.
Aswan is a little under 700kms south of Cairo and is the smallest of the three major tourist towns along the Nile (Luxor and Cairo being the other two). The town marks the southern boundary of the ancient Egyptian kingdom. Being the furthest south of the three, it has a large population of Nubian people, mostly resettled from their homeland in the area flooded by Lake Nasser.
Aswan is the ancient city of Swenet, which in antiquity was the frontier town of Ancient Egypt. facing the south. Swenet is supposed to have derived its name from an Egyptian goddess with the same name. The quarries of ancient Egypt located here were celebrated for their stone, and especially for the granitic rock called Syenite. They furnished the colossal statues, obelisks and monolithal shrines that are found throughout Egypt, including the pyramids; and the traces of the quarrymen who wrought in these 3,000 years ago are still visible in the native rock.
While most tourists use Aswan as the base for seeing Abu Simbel and Felucca cruising, there are plenty of interesting sites around the town itself.
Aswan High Dam is a worthwhile place to mention, though not necessarily to visit. Even dam enthusiasts say it’s a disappointment. The building of the dam however and the subsequent creation of Lake Nasser almost resulted in the destruction of a number of Ancient Egyptian sites and relics – Abu Simbel, Philae Temple and the contents of the Nubian Museum to name a few.
Regrettably we did not visit the Nubian Museum, but reports from Lakshmi and Brian suggest it was a highlight. In the early 1960’s, when Egypt built the High Dam at Aswan, Egyptologists and archaeologists the world over heeded UNESCO’s appeal to salvage the monuments of Egyptian Nubia before the rising waters of Lake Nasser submerged them forever. More than sixty expeditions ultimately joined the Nubian Rescue Campaign, which resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, and the salvage and translocation of a number of important temples to higher ground. The total area of the complex is 50,000 square meters: 7,000 allocated for the building, and 43,000 for the grounds. The architecture of the Museum and the enclosure walls are intended to evoke traditional Nubian village architecture, as it was along the Nubian Nile before the region was flooded by Lake Nasser.
A highlight of our stay in Aswan was a visit to a Nubian village and dinner at a Nubian house. Cruising down river and across to the west bank where most of the Nubians still live (Aswan town sits on the east side), gave us a chance to view some of the other highlights.
The Old Cataract Hotel sits gracefully on the river bank. One can imagine the time when Agatha Christie sat over looking the river and writing her famous “Death on the Nile”. A combination of exorbitant room rates and declining tourism means that sadly, the old hotel remains mostly empty, keeping company with the ghosts of yesteryear.
The Aswan Botanical Gardens is on Kitchener Island. The oval-shaped island in the Nile was given to Lord Horatio Kitchener in the 1890s for his part in the Sudanese campaigns while he was the Egyptian Consul. Kitchener, who was a keen gardener turned his island home into a botanical garden, importing exotic plants and trees which flourished in the Aswan climate.
The boat ride to the village itself turned out to be an entertaining affair with the young deckhands pulling out their instruments and getting everyone up to sing and dance. We were certainly an interesting spectacle for the rest of the boats that were trying to have a quiet romantic sunset cruise on the river!
It seemed serenades were the order of the day, as young boys on wake boards started to paddle to the boat, hanging on the sides and singing to us in French!
A walk around the Nubian village was interesting. Nubians, like most other Egyptians are Muslim, and the aim of all good and able Muslims is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Those in the village who had made it, painted the story of their pilgrimage on the outside wall of their houses, something like a badge of honour.
Like kids eveywhere, the ones in this town were curious about newcomers, peeking out behind doors and mothers skirts, or alternatively showing off. Our young deckhand proceeded to proudly show us his crocodile wrestling skills with a baby he had caught upstream of the Dam.
We were dining at the house of Ahmed (Yes another one..apparently there are about 40 million of them!) who owned Nubian Family Feluccas and was the mayor of the village. Sitting around the carpet on the rooftop under the stars was a great way to enjoy dinner and watch the antics of Ahmed’s youngest son, nicknamed Cuckoo! Will’s curly hair was too much for Cuckoo and the four year old spent the night trying to pull it off!
The highlight of dinner was “Nubian KFC” – spicy crumbed chicken wings…I’m not really sure it is traditional…but it was delicious. Being Jack’s birthday, Ahmed (our Ahmed – this could get confusing) had organised a surprise birthday cake. It was special touches like this all through our trip that made it a great experience.
Then it was down to serious business. We were setting off on a felucca adventure with Nubian Family Feluccas and it was time to talk provisions, ie how much beer was everyone going to drink….do you think Ahmed may have traveled with Aussies before? Blokes, boats and beer…sounds like a day on Sydney Harbour.
But that was an adventure for later. Tomorrow was an early start. Tomorrow was Abu Simbel…