Throughout much of Egypt, especially the greater-Cario area, the Nile’s luster and magnificence of times past have long since been eroded away by urbanization, population increase, pollution, lack on environmental protection regulations, to name a few. What remains is a pretty dirty body of water. However, the further one travels from the urban sprawl of Cairo, the more aesthetically pleasing the river becomes. Based on my travels throughout Egypt I think that the epitome of the Nile is in and around Aswan, a southern city located about 200 miles from the Sudanese border with a population of approximately 1.8 million, most of which is settled outside of the “city”.
I have lived in Egypt for 9 months over the course of 2 trips but I was yet to visit what Lonely Planet has dubbed, “the gateway to Africa”, until last week when my roommate and I hoped aboard an overnight train headed its way. Thirteen hours later, after surviving extreme usage of the air-conditioning (I mean we’ve got the technology, better use it) and some intense, unending fluorescent lighting, as well as witnessing one argument that nearly came to blows and took five Egyptian men to defuse, we stepped out into the warm Aswany air.
As we began our day by wandering around the Corniche (the road that runs along the Nile) we quickly saw how Aswan was being affected by Egypt’s decline in tourism. Aswan is normally a sure stop from any tourist group making the rounds of Egypt but with a majority of travel agencies canceling their Egyptian tours due to instability, it has become a relative ghost town for foreigners. Felucca boat (the sailboats in the pictures above) captains, who normally found patrons with ease, now are all fighting among themselves for what little of their clientele remains. This means hassling, hassling, and some more hassling. The felucca captains were scattered along the Corniche in 10-15 yard intervals, all ready to give the same spiel as the last guy. Here is how a typical hassling situation unfolds…
Capt: Hello. Like to ride felucca? Good price. Very good price.
Me: No thank you.
Capt: Oh you speak Arabic (still speaking English)? Where are you from (as he is now walking with us).
Capt: I love America.
Me: Me too.
Capt: Come ride felucca. Good price.
Me: No thanks.
Capt: Maybe later?
Me: Maybe later.
Capt: Ok good. I wait here for you.
You are then passed on like a baton in a relay race to the next captain trying to hock his services.
We did this routine several times as we found a place for lunch. While at lunch our waitress set us up with the house felucca captain to take us out for an hour long sail. As we finalized the transaction one the captains who had hassled us up on the street stormed into the Nile-side restaurant yelling and screaming at us for choosing someone else. “You promised! You promised!” he yelled. We calmly replied that we had not to which he replied, “We hate Americans. No one wants to you here. Leave.” He was just being a bit of a sore loser as he ran into us the next day, didn’t recognize us, found out we were American, and exclaimed, “I love Americans.”
Later that day, as we were buying black market beer from a convenience store, we witnessed an unusual scene, although it seemed strangely normal to me after living in the Middle East for quite some time now. A man on a bicycle and a hagga, or completer of the pilgrimage, or haj, to Mecca (it is polite to assume that an elderly person has completed this sacred journey), both became embroiled in a rock-chucking war. They took turns throwing not-so-small stones at each other in a civilized method of conflict resolution. Seeing an old, veil-wearing woman get tagged by a rock, then proceed to return fire is weird, disturbing, and comical all at the same time. As I watched the events unfold I said to the store clerk “ghreeb, sah?” meaning “weird, right?” He responded with “la, da ‘aadi”, or “no, this is normal”.
Fritz and I spent the next few days exploring the archipelago scattered throughout Aswan’s section of the Nile. There is Elephantine Island, which is allegedly named for the its rocks that resemble elephants (a resemblance we never quite saw), and home to an excavation site of a Pharonic temple, a Nubian village of about 5,000 people (Nubians are an ethnic group indigenous to Southern Egypt and the Sudan), and a branch of the Swiss-owned hotel chain, Movenpick. We also visited Kitchner’s Island where the hadiqat an-nabatat, or botanical garden, is located.
One day we set sail from the east to the west bank of the Nile so we could visit a pair of Pharonic tombs dug into the limestone on the bank’s face and St. Simeon, a monastery dating back to the 7th century AD. When we stepped foot on the West bank we did some negotiating with a guy, who was noticeably stoned, to take us from the tombs on the edge of the bank across a stretch of desert to St. Simeon.
After exploring the wonderfully preserved tombs of two members of the ancient Egyptian royalty we both shared camel and slowly made our way to the monastery. The camel was definitely pissed that it had to carry two adult males but he finally got us there. All of Aswan’s attractions are government run and close at 4PM during the winter. Naturally we got to St. Simeon at approximately 3:57 so it appeared that we had wasted our time and money trekking out into the desert. “DO NO FEAR!” exclaimed our super high guide as he led us to a low point in the wall that had a mound of rubble serving as a ladder. We hooked the guide up with some baksheesh, or tips, and climbed over the wall. It was nice to have the place to ourselves, as well as free admittance. Illegally entering a 7th century structure always adds a bit of excitement to one’s day.
Despite the incessant hassling, I had a wonderful trip in Aswan. The best part about Aswan is not the sights but just being in Aswan, enjoying its clean air and Nubian culture. Nubian culture is very welcoming and friendly, the likes of which I would compare to visiting the South in the US from a northern urban setting. Aswanis even speak Arabic with a bit of a drawl.
+++We of course visited the infamous Abu Simbel but I am going to write about that in a separate blog entry later this week.+++