Nubian shores: bordering Egypt and Sudan

Guy Marks goes on a journey of discovery as he attempts to find out more about Nubia - a very closed country

6 mins

Wood clicked on wood as old men played backgammon at the tables in a shabby cafe. Men in flowing galabiyyas sat outside, drinking thick black coffee and sucking at their shishas. The sweet-smelling smoke from the honey-soaked tobacco bubbled gently through brass pipes, through water-filled glass bowls and snaking yards of tubing to emerge from flared nostrils and moustached mouths.

Incense smouldered over the stalls of fresh dates to keep the flies away, and I could smell fresh leather from the shops selling hand-made bags. There were hot horses pulling carriages and dutiful donkeys laden to breaking point. Occasional wafts from a broken sewer mingled in the heat from somewhere beyond the spice and perfume stands. The air in Sharia-el-Souk was thick.

“Come into my shop. It is not like any other shop in Egypt. These are all Nubian things.” I heeded the man’s beckoning.

There were old copper and brass water jugs and coffee pots hanging on the walls. Camel-bone mascara pots for keeping kohl were crammed alongside oil lamps and dice shakers and all manner of clutter. A mass of coloured basketware hung from the roof as did swords and knives from Beja warriors of the Sudan.

“Very good price. You know how much? This is a very fine piece. Where are you from?”

“England” I got a word in.

“Oh England, yes, you are very welcome. England. Welcome to Aswan.” He added as an afterthought.

“Thank you.”

“England ’ay, have a shoofty. Lovely dovely, lovely jovely! Is that your wife? You are a very lucky man; how many camels for your wife?”

“This is all from the Sudan isn’t it?”

I asked the babbling vendor.

“Ah yes. Sudan, Nubia, it is all the same; the Nubians and the Sudanese are the same people.” He assured me.

But they are not.

Nubia was all but lost and the Nubians became a displaced people back in the sixties when the Aswan High Dam was built. The creation of Lake Nasser, which is the largest reservoir in the world, resulted in the submerging of nearly all of the Nubians’ homelands, and the resettlement of most of its 800,000 people. The extent of this submersion becomes clear if you fly to the temples of Abu Simbel, 240km south of the Aswan Dam. It is one of the most stunning ancient Egyptian temples, not just because of its wonderful vast statues of Ramses II but because it had to be moved. As one of the most significant monuments in Nubia, UNESCO saved it from a watery grave. With international support the temple was physically cut into blocks, moved to higher ground and re-assembled to exacting standards on a replicated man-made cliff.

Its new home is in the middle of nowhere, deep in the desert close to the Sudanese border; a border, incidentally, that is currently closed. It is closed to Egyptians, to Sudanese and to tourists. Officially, no one can get through – and yet the camel trains still pass this way unhindered. They walk for two or three months through this unforgiving landscape, oblivious to the heat and to international boundaries. In caravans a hundred strong, the herders bring their camels from the breeding grounds in Sudan to the camel market at Darow, just north of Aswan. As Egypt’s largest livestock market it is quite a sight.

There are Nubians in the Sudan just as there are Nubians in Egypt, but the Nubians and the Sudanese can hardly be called one and the same people. Today, many Nubians in Aswan are involved with the tourist industry, sailing feluccas and running Nubian restaurants. Feluccas are elegant, graceful, peaceful wooden sailing boats that characterise the romance of the Nile. As we glided over the waters around the islands and rocks of the first cataract, our Nubian friends Aladin and Mustafa told of the fate of their people.

Under threat

One of the last strongholds of the Nubians are the islands around the first cataract, but even these lands are now under threat. The main island is Elephantine which has a Nubian village with a population of about 2,200. At the south end of the island there are ruins of an ancient Egyptian town and the centre of the island is dominated by the massive Oberoi Hotel. The north end had always been undeveloped and provided a useful shoreline for felucca moorings. But everything is expanding. The village is growing and engulfing the beach and the north end is sadly being built on. A massive new hotel is under construction. It was planned to be eleven stories high which would block the view from Aswan of the desert sands and the Tombs of the Nobles. Thankfully, president Mubarak stopped the project midway, but it will still be four stories and still deprives the Nubians access to this land.

Similarly, the beautiful Bunati Island has been lost to Nubian agriculture in favour of a monstrous Isis Island Hotel. Despite these apparent injustices the Nubians are anything but bitter. Life on the feluccas seems good and a certain pride and inbuilt honesty has stood them in good stead.

On the west bank of the Nile, behind Elephantine Island, Mustafa moored the boat. I climbed into the saddle of a reluctant camel who groaned and gurgled with indignation at her task. She lurched forwards and strode out across the desert. We climbed away from the river, soft sand slipping under foot. At the top of the hill stood the ruins of St Simeon’s Monastery.

An old man sat half-asleep in the doorway. “Go in – he is a very good guide, he will show you round and tell you anything you want to know,” urged the camel herder, who had walked with me from the river. I didn’t have the exact change for my entrance ticket and this provoked a similar grunt of indignation from the old man to the one I had received from the camel.

He did not show me around, but that was no great disappointment. The fortressed walls and broken mud-brick rooms needed little explanation. The monastery had its heydays in the seventh and tenth centuries but had finally been destroyed by Salah al-Din towards the end of the twelfth century. Today its fabric has been largely reclaimed by the desert, but its commanding view from the head of a valley down to the Nile was breathtaking.

A labyrinthe of a village

Back at the felucca, Aladin and Mustafa invited us to their village on Elephantine. It was a maze of narrow streets that wound between ochre coloured buildings and opened onto kitchen gardens. Date palms and mango trees shaded sleepy flop-eared Nubian goats. In a courtyard, Aladin’s wife, Sunya, baked fresh bread in a brick oven. There were chickens squawking as their feathers were clipped, and hutches full of rabbits and pigeons. Over tea and fresh bread we heard how the traditional ways of life are maintained. Couples are still betrothed at birth into marriages that are arranged by their families. Brides decorate themselves with henna and everyone brings gifts of pairs of pigeons to the wedding. “Dates and pigeons, dates and pigeons, that’s all they eat for days!” laughed Aladin.

No dates and pigeons for me that evening, but tea and cakes on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel. This magnificent hotel is steeped in such tradition that it has become one of the sights to see in Aswan and has a well-deserved reputation. Its Victorian features combine with palatial Arabic architecture and a touch of imperialism. It has revelled in the prestige of such famous patrons as Egyptian royalty, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie and Howard Carter. None have left their mark on this particular part of Egypt more than the Aga Khan III. As the sun goes down over the Nile, the cataract, the desert and Elephantine Island, the last thing to lose the evening light is the Aga Khan’s mausoleum.

He had visited the hotel for his honeymoon in 1937. He fell in love with the place, which is not a difficult thing to do, and wintered there regularly to treat his rheumatism by bathing in the hot sands. After his death in 1957, the mausoleum was built to house his remains. The sun setting on this particular view of the Nile is a perfect place to say goodbye to Egypt, a perfect place to sup away the day. I have to agree with the Khan; eternity here would be a privilege.

When to go: Hot and dry. Decdmber, January, February are the coolest months. In the south temperatures can be over 50°C at midday from May onwards. Night temperatures can drop to 8°C. Mediterranean coast cooler – highs 31°C. Most pleasant time to visit the country is in winter.

Dress code:
Brief revealing clothes will attract unwanted attention and may cause offence especially outside main tourist areas.

Safety and security: There have been problems in Egypt since about 1992. A group of Islamic fundamentalists have waged a campaign of terrorism in the country. Some of their actions have been aimed directly at foreign tourists, although most have been against government security forces. The most affected area is largely in the Nile valley between El Minya in the north and Qena in the south. Local security advice should be sought if you intend to visit these areas.

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