Journal: Wednesday 13 December 1995
My sixth day began with another of those clear mornings when the air is very fresh, even though there had apparently been no rain for several years and all the trees and flowering plants along the Corniche were shrouded in a thick mantle of dust. A large felucca had been hired to take us sailing across to the West Bank, where the desert hills crowd down to the river’s edge. The traditional felucca is a broad-beamed wooden sailing boat with a low draught, enabling it’s heavy rudder to navigate the most shallow of the river’s channels. Its tall stately lateen-rigged sail reaches high into the sky to catch the prevailing wind blowing from the north as the boat makes use of the Nile’s natural current that flows from the south. The boats were traditionally employed as working craft, ferrying people, animals, building materials and food up and down the Nile, but now they are used more often to carry tourists. Aswan is a felucca paradise – the river is wide with a fast current, a good wind and the scenery is very picturesque, but its many boulders and narrow channels between the islands can make it difficult to navigate. Our Captain was obviously an expert. He took delight in trying to scare us by rushing into the wind and tilting the sail so that it almost touched the water. Then we were gliding silently past the West Bank tombs of the nobles, their causeways reaching down towards the river, as we watched a string of tourists riding up a narrow sandy path on camels. Perched high above the tomb entrances is Qubbet el-Hawa, The Dome of the Winds, the tomb of a Muslim sheikh who forever looks down over the ancient necropolis.
Eventually we landed on the West Bank below the Mausoleum of the Agha Khan. Aswan was the favourite winter retreat of the Agha Khan Mohammed Shah, spiritual leader of the Ismailian Muslims. When he died in 1957 he was buried in a pink granite and sandstone tomb modelled on a Cairo Mosque, on the hillside opposite Elephantine Island. Inside the mausoleum the imam’s sarcophagus of white marble is inscribed with Qur’anic texts, incredibly beautiful is in its serene simplicity. Every day a fresh red rose is placed in the tomb. The views over Aswan and the islands from outside the mausoleum were spectacular. During our journey back to the East Bank we were entertained by the crew of the felucca. An enormous dark-skinned Nubian man named Mohammed skilfully played a big tambourine-like drum and before long we were all in party mood, singing and clapping to the well-known song ‘Oh aleyla’.