15-17 Oct 2015. Looking over the heads of the two men crouching in the stern of the boat I can see she is fully submersed in the roiling waters, and in trouble. The felucca is racing upstream under a strong wind, but the current is so powerful that the moment she had hit the water it had engulfed her, and the rope, which our guide had insisted upon, is pulled taut. The rope, attaching her wrist to the boat is her lifeline, but it is not enough. She has no control and the relentless current of the river is pulling her under. The rope is part of what saves her life. The other part is that two of the strongest guys in our group are able to lean over and grab an arm each. They try to haul her up, but she’s too heavy. They hold on for a few interminable seconds as she flails around in the water. Then relief comes. She’s able to find a foothold on the side of the boat and with that extra leverage the guys are able to haul her in. Phew. She coughs and splutters for a few minutes and then, despite that she nearly drowned, despite the rope burns on her wrist, a huge smile lights up her face. She did it! She swam in the Nile! No matter that she’s a little out of shape. No matter that she’s in her seventies. It had been a lifelong dream to swim in the Nile and she did it! What a woman. Brave, foolhardy, determined, and perhaps a little crazy, I think it is an experience she will never forget. I probably won’t forget it either.
Feluccas are the graceful wooden sailboats that have sailed the Nile since the days of the pharaohs. For thousands of years they were the primary means of transportation on the river. Few these days are completely wooden, but they are still propelled by their distinctive triangular lateen sail made from cotton or other natural fibres. Winds blow upstream during the day allowing travel in that direction. The strong current of the river takes them back downstream.
I first heard of travelling the Nile in a felucca sometime in my twenties. In those days I thought of living on one for a couple of weeks, but I never managed to make the dream a reality. Finally here I am. It is for two hours rather than two weeks, but I am content. I am am sailing into the sunset on a felucca on the Nile and I feel as if I’ve come home. It is the realization of a dream nearly forty years old, and I dissolve with quiet joy into the serene reality.
There is an easy graceful four-part dance that happens between the captain, the boat, the wind, and the water: a transcendent intermingling as if all four are one body. The captain so fully reads and understands the water and the wind that he can manoeuver his craft with the same elegant refinement as a bird in flight.
The singing boys on the other hand have a far more prosaic way of travelling, though they too know the river well. Very well. We see them first in the distance: two lads somehow paddling upstream on an old surfboard. Without paddles. The best I can discern is that they have a small piece of wood, and their bare hands. And the strength of youth.
They pull up to the side of our boat and cling on.
And then they start singing. For several minutes, with great enthusiasm, they serenade us with old familiar western songs: Yankee Doodle Dandy, Row Row Row Your Boat, and others that we are all familiar with.
The smiles, the hilarity, the joy, the sheer brazen confidence of them! We are captivated. This simple kind openhearted human connection charms us all. Then they ask for money. Which we gladly give them. How could we not? Their ingenuity alone merited it.
We are sailing to the legendary Old Cataract Hotel. The Old Cataract, built in 1899 during the British colonial era, is a luxury resort hotel on the banks of the Nile at the south end of Aswan. It is a world unto itself.
Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Princess Diana, Tsar Nicholas II, and Queen Noor have all stayed at the Old Cataract. Agatha Christie also stayed there, and she used it as the setting for parts of her novel Death on the Nile. It was also the setting for the 1978 film of the same name. We sail there for sunset, and drinks on the terrace.
Traditionally the Nile was thought to be the longest river in the world though scientists now debate whether the Nile or the Amazon wins the prize. Either way, the Nile flows north from somewhere in the highlands of Burundi or Rwanda in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa for a mind-boggling 6,853 kilometres (4,258 miles) to the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile is almost twice as long as the United States is wide. It flows through eleven countries and is the principal water source for Egypt and Sudan.
Most of Egypt’s cities are in the Nile Valley, and nearly all the historical landmarks of antiquity are found along the banks of the river. The Greek historian Herodotus declared that “Egypt was the gift of the Nile” and indeed nothing that we know Egypt to be, both now and back into the distant past, would have arisen without this boundless source of water. The land was fertile because the river overflowed its banks annually and deposited silt. This allowed the cultivation of crops from ancient times. Probably the first people to develop agriculture and use the plow were living on the banks of the Nile. Through trading food surpluses Egypt knew economic stability and became a great power. To the Egyptians of antiquity the river was sacred. They believed that it came from the stars.
Until 1970 the Nile flooded every year. Some years the flooding was so high it would wipe out the crops. Other years the water would be so low that it would result in famine. The Aswan High Dam was built to control the flooding, but it is a double-edged sword. The dam means that the summer floods no longer annually deposit rich fertile silt on the banks, which has led to dramatic changes in farming practices, including the overuse of chemical fertilizers. Rice, wheat and maize are major crops. Cotton has traditionally been important. Other important crops are oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, and sugar cane. All of it is possible because of the river. Without it there would be no farming. The river cuts like a dream through the hot harsh desert.
The Nile has been used as a means of transportation since antiquity. Today it is busy with motorized barges transporting goods, large modern cruise ships, feluccas, local public ferries,
the occasional kayak,
and hundreds of motorized tour boats.
We twice ride in one of these boats, and are on the river a third time for the felucca cruise. We see houses rising up the bank from the water,
a grey heron,
captains relaxing while waiting for customers,
and while guiding our boat up-river,
What is it about water? We search for it in space as an indication of life on other planets, for we know both scientifically and intuitively that there is no life without it. We fight for ownership of it. We fight to live near it: any home with a water view is automatically worth more than one without. We know right to the liquid-cell core of our beings that the water that flows within us is that same water that flows in the brook, the river, the lake, the sea. This liquid luminance runs so strong in our collective psyche that the simple view of it is enough to calm the most beleaguered soul. Water reminds us that we are liquid, and that we can flow, that when we are calm we are brilliantly reflective, and that we will always, eventually, find our own level.
We go to the Nubian Museum in Aswan. Nubia is that vast area of land surrounding the Nile from Aswan in the north to Khartoum, about 1400 kilometres (870 miles) to the south in Sudan. It is harsh desert country with little rainfall and without the soft riverbanks further north that allowed the development of agriculture. Nubians are believed to have been the first human race on Earth and the ancient Egyptians adopted many of their customs and traditions. The ancient Greeks referred to them as Ethiopians. In antiquity Nubia was largely dominated by Egypt, but when Egypt couldn’t maintain power in Nubia due to its own internal troubles various Nubian cultures flourished. To the ancient Mediterranean world Nubia was a mysterious and exotic land from which came great wealth: gold, ebony, ivory, incense, and exotic animals. It was a major trade route from sub-Saharan Africa north to the rest of the world. Egypt conquered Nubian territory, and Nubia in turn conquered Egypt. Known as the “Black Pharaohs,” Nubian kings ruled Egypt from roughly 760 BCE to 660 BCE. Over time the Nubian culture was assimilated into the Egyptian.
Today the inhabitants of southern Egypt and Sudan still refer to themselves as Nubian, and still speak the Nubian language as well as Arabic.
The museum building is based on Nubian architecture. As well as 5000 artifacts, there are many fine dioramas of ancient Nubia that bring to life the culture of these people of the desert.
In the terraced garden, complete with boulders and a tiered watercourse evoking the ancient landscape of Nubia we meet the serene gardener.
Later we are taken by boat to a Nubian village upriver from Aswan. We walk in the dusk over a rough dirt track past half finished brick buildings. We come to the top of a small hill just before sunset and look out over the village on a backwater of the river.
We are taken inside a brick house similar to the others we’ve seen and up the stairs onto the roof. Rugs and cushions are spread out on the concrete floor. We are served one of the most delicious dinners we had in Egypt though I hardly remember what it was – bread and rice and tomato salad, and casseroles that were among the best I’ve ever eaten.
Deeply satisfied, quiet, and tired, in the silken darkness we drift back down the Nile to our cruise boat berthed at the dock in Aswan.
Next post: The crown jewel of the UNESCO World Heritage “Nubian Monuments” site: the Abu Simbel Temples. And a brief lesson in how to make paper from papyrus.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.