Aswan is the deep south of Egypt, the border of Ancient Egypt, some 250km from Sudan. It is a sleepy town which very much depends on the resources coming in from the dam and from tourism. The Nile cruisers start or finish their trip here, and tourists swarm into town and around the sights during the day and retire to the cruisers to have dinner and lunch. I share sunset over the Nile with three busloads of German tourists. The English tourists complain about the cost of overpriced McVitie’s biscuits at the cafe. Many Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Indian tourists, for these are the nouveaux riches, as well as the traditional Americans and Europeans, who started coming to Egypt when Thomas Cook started offering trips to Egypt in 1880. But it’s not a good tourist season. The credit crunch and global recession have taken their toll. The fighting in Gaza has put others off. It is supposed to be the high season, but my hotel is half-empty.
In Elephantine, ancient Egyptian Abu, so-called as it was an entrepot for ivory, a 2km long island in the middle of the Nile, I make my way through the Movenpick Hotel grounds, then come to the Nubian village. Houses are painted in orange, green, blue geometrical patterns. Some are mud brick houses, but the newer ones are concrete. I walk between the mud brick walls which separate the two villages on the island, Siou and Koti, for there are no roads on Elephantine. Children play on their bike, women are washing rice and gossiping. All are in black, veiled but none have burkhas. African faces, but many have intermarried with Arabs. They are Islamic and all just speak Arabic. Formerly a separate kingdom, Nubia became a protectorate of Ancient Egypt and followed Egypt into Christianity from the first to sixth centuries CE and then into Islam as Egypt was conquered by Muslim invaders in the following centuries.
Nowhere do I hear the Nubian music I’ve heard about. A community centre I pass is supported by Germany, which also carries out archeological work on the island. I reach the Aswan Museum, passing lush fields of brilliant green alfalfa. The land irrigated by the Nile is the most fertile on Earth.
I visit the Aswan High Dam, built between 196o and 1971, with Soviet aid, which contains 17 times the amount of material used in the Great Pyramid of Cheops and created the huge Lake Nasser. Cultivated land increased 3o%, power supply doubled, and the unpredictable floods of the Nile have been regulated to produce three harvests every year. But it has also stopped the flow of silt which gave the Nile Valley its enormous fertility and has resulted in the greater use of fertilisers.
It replaced the earlier dam of 1902 built by Sir Williaam Willcocks, whose house is now a museum on Elephantine and the entrance to the complex of Khnum, the God of Inundation, in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, for it was here at Abu on the Upper Nile that the Ancient Egyptians would have their first idea of how high the annual floods would be. A Nilometer, a huge well, measured this. When the flood was high, there would be greater flooding, bigger harvests, and higher taxes.
I’m slowly getting to know the Ancient Egyptian gods. The Temple of Philae was removed from an island which was flooded by the New Aswan Dam and reassembled on an island nearer the town. The famous temple is dedicated to Isis, the Goddess of Magic and protector of her brother-husband, Osiris, God of Regeneration, and their son, Horus, the falcon god. The Sanctuary to Isis lasted right until Christianity had taken over throughout Egypt in the 6th century CE.
Fewer tourists, so more hassle for those that do come. Not just in the shops, bazaar, taxis, and with camel and caleche drivers, but also the at the Cybercafe you have to haggle. “Pay as much as you want”. “No, ten pound an hour”. I get the price down to five. Small boys hassle the German tourists for pens. “Feluca, feluca, one hour cheap, see sunset on the Nile. “No hassle in my shops”, says the owner of the scarf stall as he tries to lure me in. Signs even read “Hassle 10% extra”.
I get a rowing boat from Elephantine to the west bank of the Nile to visit the ruins of the 7th century St. Simeon’s Monastery, formerly named after the 4th century local saint, Anba Hadra, who renounced the world on his wedding day. It was from this monastery that the Nubians were converted to Christianity until it was destroyed by Saladin in 1173.
On the west bank of the Nile we are already in the desert, and the camel drivers are awaiting me. In Egypt the desert is always near. The city ends and the desert begins. Visitors to the Great Pyramid of Giza are surprised that it is in the suburbs of Cairo. Turn your camera the wrong way and your background is the suburbs of Cairo and not Lawrence of Arabia.
From where I was staying in Maadi, in the southern suburbs of Cairo, I could walk to the Wadi Degla Preservation area, a couple of kilometres away, and then I would be in the silent desert, following the path of the wadi, the river course that flows for no more than a few weeks every year. The landscape is almost bare of vegetation, but not quite, for a few areas retain some moisture from the last rains, maybe several months ago, and some bracken, a single bare tree, and a few delicate desert flowers manage to grow. Then up on the escarpment overlooking the wadi I look through the haze and pollution to the vast high-rise estates of Cairo.