Journal: Sunday 10 January 1995
By lunchtime we were back on our cruise boat and once more sailing on the Nile. The mid-day sun was hot even in December and all colour was drained from the landscape that flowed by in a white dazzling glare. This is the time when Egyptians and sensible tourists have an afternoon siesta. Not I! To waste a minute of this precious time seemed like sacrilege. As I sat on deck watching the river a few huge ponderous barges steamed by, clouds of black smoke curling from their funnels, their hulls low in the water, weighed down by anything from clay pots to bags of fertilizer. One or two grand and gaily decorated cruise boats hooted a greeting as they passed on their way down river towards Luxor, while smaller boats with sagging sails drifted up and down near the shore aimlessly searching for a breeze in the balmy afternoon. Now and then a village appeared around a bend in the river, often little more than a tight cluster of haphazard dwellings and a taller minaret. Between the villages palm trees lined the shore protecting narrow strips of sugar cane or plantations of bananas from cool winter winds and shading them from the more deadly heat of a fierce summer sun. Ancient sludge-green fields were irrigated by narrow drainage channels filled with water lifted by a shaduf, a wooden contraption used since earliest times to draw water from the Nile. More often now there are diesel pumps, chug-chugging away with a regular beat but never disturbing the tranquillity of our journey. The Egyptian peasant or felah traditionally owns small parcels of land which may be planted with crops such as wheat, rice, potatoes or cotton, all of which need varying quantities of water. Each strip of land is enclosed by small earth barriers which help to control the flow of water. In the old days before the Nile was dammed at Aswan, the river overflowed in an annual inundation. When the waters receded handfuls of seeds were broadcast onto the fertile mud to be trodden in by animals. The New Dam has improved the farmers’ task and irrigation is now possible throughout the year, enabling several different plantings in a season, but in the modern industrialised Egypt, this method of farming requires the increasing use of chemicals to improve yields impoverished since the loss of the natural alluvial clay. The Nile has always been the life-blood of Egypt. Its waters provide food in the form of crops and fish, and clothing from cotton; its mud is used for making bricks for houses and its long length and swift current provides a means of transport to the people living along its banks. On either side of the river, in the distance, the irregular line of encroaching hills is an ever-present reminder that cultivated land in Egypt is precious and that the desert is never far away.
I sat on deck all afternoon in a lazy dream, listening to the lapping of water beneath the boat and watching water birds dipping and diving in the reedy banks. The deepening colour of a sky now delicately tinged with reds and purples and beginning to blend with the shadowy reeds at the river’s edge told me it was late afternoon and I looked ahead to where the river was sweeping majestically around a bend into another slice of history. We were arriving at Kom Ombo!