Journal: Saturday 20 April 2002
Our cruise ship the Commodore, was berthed on the east bank of the Nile next to a row of motor boats for hire. Today was scheduled as a free day in Aswan for us because some of the passengers had gone to Abu Simbel on a pre-dawn flight. On a previous cruise I’d been south to the Nubian temple of Rameses II and couldn’t again justify the cost of this extra trip for so little time there – merely and hour or two, though I would have loved to have gone. Over breakfast Mary and I discussed what we would like to do with our day. She wanted to go sailing in a felucca, but there was hardly any wind this bright still morning, unusual for Aswan, although it may pick up this afternoon I told her. A small group of passengers at our table were talking about going to a Nubian Village on the West Bank so Mary and I opted to join them. I suggested that we could perhaps call at the botanical gardens of Kitchener’s Island on the way as it was somewhere I had wanted to see and I went out and negotiated a motor boat with a captain called Ibrahim for the six of us.
We motored through a narrow passage, between the massive rocks of Elephantine and the Old Cataract Hotel where my son Kit had almost crashed while sailing a felucca once. Soon we were pulling in to the quay of the small oval-shaped island that was given to Lord Horatio Kitchener in the 1890s for his part in the Sudanese campaigns, while he was the Egyptian Consul. A keen gardener, Kitchener constructed a botanical garden, importing many exotic plants and trees which flourished in the mild Aswan climate. Today, the island, which is now known as Plantation Island or by its Arabic name Geziret el-Nabatat, is a paradise of shade trees and vibrant exotic plants and I hoped we would get a glimpse of some of the colourful birds that are said to inhabit the island. It was a pleasant stroll along the neat paved paths that wound through well-tended plant beds. One of our group was a keen birdwatcher and he pointed out chiffchaffs and spectacled warblers, wheatears and shrikes – most of the birds he mentioned I’d never heard of. In 1928 the island, under the Ministry of Irrigation, was turned into an experimental station for plants from equatorial regions and alongside the native trees and plants of Aswan such as the sycamore fig and the date palm, many trees were brought from abroad and cultivated for use in the timber industry. Experimental oil and fruit crops were also propagated on the island by the Ministry of Agriculture. The island is now owned by the Egyptian government and there is still a biological research station at its southern end which is not open to visitors. We walked as far as we could go, to where a little cafeteria overlooked the water, but we had no time to stay as our Captain Ibrahim waited with our boat to take us further downriver.
The village of Nag’ Seheil Gharb is as its name suggests, just to the west of Seheil Island towards the First Cataract. As Ibrahim piloted us through the river he carried on the ornithology lesson by pointing out hoopoes, night herons, a black kite, kingfishers diving for fish and the inevitable white egrets. On this part of the river a huge volume of water bubbles boils and churns over rocks that have been carved over time into wonderful shapes, towards the once-treacherous cataracts at the old dam. We were met on the bank by a hoard of children who grabbed at our hands and our clothes and dragged us up the steep dunes towards the village. They all had something to sell of course and most were toting large baskets of wooden dolls and camels they had made, Nubian crochet hats, bright cotton scarves and even tiny mummified crocodiles. In the village itself narrow alleyways with a scattering of goats wound between beautifully decorated houses, dazzling white or multi-coloured in the morning sun. I was surprised at how clean it all looked. Doorways and windows were framed by typical Nubian painting – geometric patterns and colourful shapes that added glamour to the tiny houses. A self-appointed guide soon attached himself to us and after we all declined a camel ride, he insisted we went for a drink in a ‘typical Nubian house’ – obviously one kept for the purpose of visiting tourists. What did we have to lose (except money) and most of us were curious to see inside one of the pretty houses. The house he took us to was quite large with a sandy courtyard lined with stone mastaba benches covered in colourful striped woven rugs. Someone went off to make our tea and while we waited several of us got into the spirit of the visit by agreeing to (rather reluctantly on my part) have henna tattoos. We were assured that they were not permanent, lasting only a week or two and they were very well done. Mine was an intertwining of flowers and vines on my ankle and looked quite attractive, but was something I would never dream of having at home. All of this took rather a long time, but as we went back out into the street the little crowd of children were still waiting patiently with their baskets of goodies and a few of our party gave in and bought some of the toys. The mummified baby crocodiles had no takers!
We were back on the Commodore for in time for lunch, the journey home being much quicker as we were motoring with the current rather than against it, around the more direct western side of Elephantine Island. Mary still wanted her felucca trip, so before going back on board we arranged a sailing boat to Elephantine for the afternoon, which satisfied both of us. I had never had time to get to the island before, so the combination of a restful afternoon sail along with a quick tour of the monuments was perfect.
The early afternoon sun was scorching on Elephantine. A guide showed us around the monument area, which included the largest surviving structure, the Temple of the ram-headed creator-god Khnum, at the southern end of the island, which dates from New Kingdom to Roman times. A granite gateway built by Alexander is the only large structure of the temple remaining intact and the jumbles mass of ruins behind it are difficult to identify due to ongoing excavation. At the front of the temple, which is oriented east to west, a restored pavement surrounds fragmentary remains of columns built by Rameses II. This leads down to a Roman quay that overlooks the river. Further north, behind the museum building there is the site of a small restored Temple of the goddess Satis, the consort of Khnum, built in the time of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III. The reconstruction here by the German Archaeological Institute has been sensitively done, with the few remaining reliefs supplemented by drawings and I thought the delicate colourful paintings in this temple were beautiful. The temple was built over Middle Kingdom remains beneath different floor levels as well as a Dynasty VI temple. The latest structure to emerge from the excavations at the Satis Temple is an Early Dynastic shrine which we saw in a crypt-like area below the reconstructed temple. It was a little flooded by water and very dark, but it intrigued me as this must be one of the earliest remaining shrines in Egypt. Probably one of the most popular structures on the island, just in front of the museum, is the nilometer. This was one of the earliest known nilometers and was used by the ancient Egyptians to measure the height of the Nile floods in order to forecast the level of inundation and so gauge taxes for the coming harvest. Ninety steps lead steeply down to the river from the entrance. When we had finished the tour our guide invited us to join him in a glass of tea under the shade of a trellis, which we gratefully accepted on this hot day. Finally we visited the museum, a rather dark and dingy set of rooms that I thought could do with a good clean, but there were some very nice objects there. Eventually we were back on the felucca, sailing on the river and trying to catch a glimpse of the many boulder inscriptions naming the kings and governors who have been associated with Elephantine, once the Egyptian frontier to Nubia.
During our return journey our ebony-skinned captain chatted with us about Aswan being Nubian, not Egyptian and it certainly feels that way. There is an easy-going atmosphere to the place that is apparent in the gentle breeze, the light-hearted way these people treat tourists and the ever-present reggae music that was softly playing from a cassette deck on the boat. Back on the Commodore once more, we had a couple of hours before dinner so Mary and I decided to take a caleche to the suq, now that the day was cooling down. After dinner, our Nubian day was continued with great local music and dancing (by members of the crew) and entertainment by a ‘witchdoctor’.