After riding the camel across the Egyptian desert in Giza (for all of thirty minutes), it was time to grapple a crocodile in Aswan. Our mode of transport to this southern most point in the Nile delta was by overnight train. Reminiscent of childhood travels in India, this twelve-hour journey was in a compact sleeper coupe. Sadly, there was no dining-car to accidentally bump into a certain Cary Grant (a la North by Northwest) who would later seek refuge in the close confines of this particular cross-country train. We sped through the night across sugarcane fields dotted with date palms. The Nile is a perennial river and the area around it is rich and fertile, but the stations along the way are empty and there is a general air of not much economic activity. No tea-sellers or station-masters – just a few mopeds and motor-bikes carrying vegetables and agricultural produce to the market.
Aswan’s claim to fame is of course the massive dam built by President Nasser in the Sixties – the inspiration for Bhakra-Nangal in India. The dam itself (in the blazing heat) was a little bit of a disappointment – there isn’t any gushing water to be amazed by and the security guards talk to you with a rifle aimed at your face. The monument close by to Egypt’s friendship with Russia is a modern day architectural achievement.
Elephantine Island is one of many small pieces of land given to the Nubians for them to re-establish their lives after having been displaced by the building of the Aswan Dam. The Nubians are the indigenous people of Egypt with distinctly darker skin when compared to the Arab Egyptians. They have softer features and to my eyes they could have been South Indians. The Pharaoh Rameses the Second married his great love, the Nubian Princess, Nefertary, but also made sure the Nubians knew that he was not only their King but also the son of God on earth, when he built the temple at Abu Simbel – more from there later. Noba land (of the Nubians) was rich in gold and would’ve been a plentiful resource for Pharonic temples and tombs.
Our tour (with G-adventures) however, had built in visits to see the Nubian way of life and we took the ferry to cross over to an impoverished village with mud huts and flat thatched roofs. It never rains here. We were visiting Amada at his home and went to his roof-top where he breeds a few crocodiles in a steel box covered by a loose grill. They were five years old, but only about three feet in length. They’d wrapped one’s mouth in cloth bands and offered it to us to hold. Its webbed feet were beautiful and they are tiny versions of an ancient species – older than perhaps the Pharaohs of Egypt. We later heard that the crocodiles are not only sacred symbols in the Nubian culture, but are bred for the male penis in particular, which is cut, dried and powdered and mixed in with other spices to be swallowed as an aphrodisiac. Even though present day Nubians have converted to Islam, they have their own language (just spoken, no known script) and follow old traditions to this day. Their wedding ceremonies go on for three days and they are different to the mainstream Egyptian life. The bamboo floor mats and the general design of the small two-storeyed houses – this could’ve been any village in Tamil Nadu.
We got back on the boat for a long trip down the Nile where we saw from outside, the Hotel Cataract (where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile) where afternoon tea costs 120 USD per head and also the villa where the earlier Aga Khan came for his winter vacation and his tomb next to it. It remains empty, but his followers can apply to the present Aga Khan to ask to use it!
Our dinner was with another Nubian family in the village of Garb Sohail. On reaching the shore, we were picked up in a topless truck and taken to their home. The Nubians use spices more than the Egyptians – we smelt cumin and coriander on arrival. The fare was simple, but tasty – especially the sweetest guavas for dessert and the small bananas that we don’t get anymore. We left feeling that this was some sort of a reservation for the Nubians – where they were allowed their way of life if they kept to themselves. My imagination was racing with thoughts of the Nubians sailing to Kerala to buy spices and some remaining there – they recognised us as Indians instantly and were especially warm in greeting us.
The next day, we rose early to join the convoy at 5 a.m. to head to the Sahara to see the relocated temple of Abu Simbel. A three-hour bus journey with tight security – we had police escort all the way, as we were driving close to the Sudanese border. This incredible temple with four effigies of Rameses the Second carved out of the mountain was rescued in time, to remove it from the path of the dam’s excess flow – the gigantic Lake Nasser. All its many huge granite block parts were carefully dismantled and rearranged a few metres away from where it used to be in 1963. It took a hundred years to build the temple and a mere four to take it apart and put it together again. However, the original monument was designed in such a way that the statue of Rameses in the shrine would receive the rays of the sun on his face directly on two days in the year. One was October 21st, his birthday and the other February 21st, the day he became King. Despite all the efforts of 20th century archaeologists and architects, the design is just a little faulty and the sun shines a day late on both those occasions.
We had koshari for lunch in Aswan town where the waiter (Nubian) said, “You’re Indian, you’ll want yogurt with your food.” Koshari is a big bowl of a chaat or salad – a dry dish of vermicelli, green lentils, some chick peas and fried onions on top and served with a side bowl of smooth onion-tomato gravy flavoured with smoky paprika. It is a little too filling and good to have tried once. Our last night at Aswan was a stroll through the busy market where we bought three varieties of dried dates, dried mint and hibiscus (for tea). Hibiscus is a favourite herbal drink here. The Nubian jewellery shop owner told us, “You’re Indian, same skin as Nubians.” I wasn’t sure if this instant recognition was anything to do with any historical connection or just a more obvious fact – Bollywood. In Istanbul, it was Raj Kapoor who still lives on, in Morocco it was all about Shahrukh Khan, but here, in Egypt, it is the one and only Amitabh Bacchan wherever we went.
Our dinner was Egyptian pizza or fetir – a pie made out of layers of filo pastry, cheese and vegetables. We needed to head back to the hotel and get ready for our leisurely trip on a felucca up the Nile towards Luxor the next day.