The Gift of the Nile
Cinderella was the name of the small, gray-and-white dappled horse that Muhammad Ali assured me had safely negotiated the chaotic traffic of Aswan for six years. I had only a little over an hour to visit the colorful bazaar about a mile away along the Nile river, and I could not make the journey on foot. The ornate carriages intrigued me, and when Ali said the fare would be only 10 Egyptian pounds (about $1.50), I couldn’t resist.
With equal anticipation and trepidation, I climbed into the backseat and off we went at a brisk trot. As cars whizzed by on both sides and we wove through busy intersections, it seemed as if no one had the right-of-way except the largest vehicle. Ali again assured me that the traffic did not bother Cinderella because she wore blinders. The fact that the horse couldn’t see did absolutely nothing to reassure me. By the time, we reached the bazaar, I had just about decided to walk back, but my persistent driver refused to take my money as he dropped me at “his cousin’s shop” and assured me that he would be there to return me to the boat. I tried to stuff the money into his hand, but somehow, with his few words of English, he prevailed, and after a frantic half-hour of shopping, I was back in his carriage. I emphatically assured him that I did not want to visit the museum or the temple or any other far-away destination. I quickly paid him as he deposited me, safe and sound, in front of the Nile Crocodile, the cruise ship that was to be my home for the next two days. I felt I’d had a genuine adventure and I had the photos to prove it.
Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt. Barren deserts occupy more than 96 percent of the country’s total area. The fertile Nile delta, or “ black land,” as the ancient Egyptians called it, encompasses only four percent of Egypt’s territory but supports 99 percent of its population. Although Egyptians originally believed the Nile’s source was at Aswan, where water gushed from subterranean caverns, we now know that the life-providing waters begin deep in the highlands of East Africa. Before the first dam was built at Aswan, three seasons existed: planting, growing and harvest. In May, the land around the placid Nile was cracked and dry. In the span of a few days, floods would rage over the land, inundating Aswan and then Cairo.
As destructive as the floods could be, the people prayed diligently for high waters to deposit rich soil and water for their crops. Each year, the floods were measured by the Nile-o-meter, and as the waters rose, so did the taxes. The building of the Aswan High Dam, the second largest in the world, was completed in 1971 with the help of the Russians. The dam provides not only flood control, but also electricity. By eliminating periods of drought and claiming additional land from the desert, Egypt is now able to feed its population with food produced within its borders. The dam is heavily guarded; most cameras are prohibited and access is restricted. This modern miracle of technology presents one problem. Should the dam be destroyed or burst, 92 percent of the population of Egypt could be wiped out almost immediately. The guidebook says to allow one hour to view this mammoth wall of concrete that tamed the mighty Nile. I found ten minutes to be more than enough.
Dark-skinned Nubians inhabit the land south of Aswan. Fiercely tribal, they once occupied most of the land now submerged beneath Lake Nasser. Those driven from their lands were forced to take jobs in the cities. Many of them own shops in the bazaars, drive taxis, sail feluccas or work as domestics. They refuse to inter-marry with the Egyptians and speak among themselves only in the Nubian language, which has never been written. What’s more, they do not consider themselves Egyptians. They are Nubians.
Cairo manages to remain vibrant despite the multitude of problems confronting a city of 17 million inhabitants, most of whom live in substandard conditions. The wars along the Suez Canal drove nearly one million refugees to the capital. Alleyways, rooftops and even the famous “cities of the dead,” with their spacious tombs and mausoleums, have become home to the homeless.
Old Cairo still has the feel of a small village. People take time to help strangers, and they seem sincere when they smile at tourists and say, "marhaba." Welcome to our city. The government is constantly building low-cost housing in the surrounding countryside, but the continuing influx of new arrivals does little to change the status quo.
Modern Cairo has much to offer tourists. A must-see is the Antiquities Museum, which contains the only pharaonic antiquities in the city. It is best to visit this museum at the beginning of your visit, because it will help you understand much of what you will see later as you travel through Luxor, Aswan and points south. It is possible to visit the lovely Coptic Hanging Church, the Eliahu synagogue, and a number of mosques all in the same day. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali (Alabaster Mosque) and the Mosque of Aqsunqur (Blue Mosque) are the two best known. A second day in Cairo can be spent touring the vast citadel and the winding, tourist-packed Khan al-Khalili bazaar.
But the Pyramids of Giza are the attractions that draw tourists. I first saw the Great Pyramid of Cheops and its two massive neighbors, Chephren and Mycerinus, at a nighttime laser-and-light show. The softly segueing lights, the ghostly voices and the starlit night combined with the sounds of the call to prayers from the nearby city were mesmerizing. The following morning we returned to Giza and spent several hours roaming the area of the pyramids and the Great Sphinx that guards them. The Sphinx was created with the body of a lion and the head of King Chephren. Besides the three major structures, there are nine smaller pyramids built for the pharaohs’ queens, wives and sisters. If you tire of walking in the hot sand, you can always choose to continue your tour aboard one of the many camels for hire in the area. The Great Pyramids are by no means the only pyramids in Egypt. There are at least 97 more along the west banks of the Nile. Many are from an earlier dynasty, including the famous Step Pyramids at Sakkara. The ancient Egyptians built their small, unpretentious earthly palaces on the eastern banks of the Nile, where the sun rises, and their massive tombs or pyramids on the western banks, where the setting sun represented death and afterlife. Egypt is a treasure- trove for history buffs, but the sheer numbers of remaining ancient physical structures are sure to delight the eye of the most casual tourist.
I learned two things that surprised me. The Great Pyramids are not in some remote location in the middle of the desert. They are a short 30-minute ride from the heart of Cairo. Slaves did not build the pyramids because they were considered unworthy of such an honor. There was no shortage of volunteers willing to sacrifice their earthly existence for a chance to participate in an undertaking that would assure them of the eternal afterlife usually reserved for nobility. The ancient Egyptians believed that life on earth was short and of little value. They did not build palaces; they built tombs. The afterlife, or eternal life, was all that was important. Only those of noble birth were assured an afterlife. Commoners could aspire to immortality only by helping create something of lasting value while they were alive. The result was numerous elaborate, mammoth structures created by lives dedicated to pleasing the prevailing gods and reigning pharaohs.
The city of Luxor sprawls along the east bank of the Nile, in Upper Egypt, on the site of the former Egyptian capital of Thebes. The remarkably preserved twin temples of Luxor and Karnak distinguish the city. Luxor is hot, especially in the summer. Many of the monuments are not open during the middle of the day. Luxor Temple, which opens only at night, is subtly lit with hidden torches and on moonlit evenings is sure to conjure up ghosts of the ancient pharaohs. The Temple of Karnak, which is actually a combination of ten individual temples, features a sacred lake within the confines of the temple grounds. It is a massive structure with very well preserved columns and statues. Throughout Egypt, you will notice that many of the otherwise undamaged statues have had their faces destroyed. Over the years, dynasties changed and new rulers and religions emerged. The conquerors sought to destroy the old culture by erasing the faces of the prevailing gods to show that they were no longer dominant and could protect neither themselves nor their followers.
No visit to Egypt is complete without a cruise along the Nile. There are actually two ways to accomplish this mission. Numerous small sailboats called feluccas will accommodate passengers who wish to “rough it” by sleeping on deck under the stars, dining picnic-style on the beaches, swimming and generally soaking up the sun and history as they drift down the aquatic highway. Another, upscale method, which I chose, is to board one of the many small cruise ships that travel between Aswan and Cairo. This touch of luxury, including a swimming pool, allows for complete relaxation, including air-conditioned cabins. The two days I spent aboard the Nile Crocodile included shore expeditions to several temples and burial areas. The rest of the time was spent in deckchairs, watching the slow progression of green fields, sand-colored villages and curious children calling out greetings from shore. It was sometimes difficult to believe that we were not still in some ancient civilization as we watched small donkeys pull carts, women carry loads of grass on their heads and fields being tended by workers with hand tools. Few cars, tractors or trucks could be seen. Living along the Nile requires patience and a strong back.
I spent ten days in Egypt. It was not nearly enough. Most notably, I missed the fabled city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean Sea. I also wish I would have visited Dahab, on the Red Sea, in the Sinai area between Africa and Asia. I am told that the diving, snorkeling and swimming are outstanding. I would like to see the sunrise from the top of Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Like the pharaohs, I may need many lifetimes to see all the wonders of the world.
If You Go: On the Go Tours, an English company located in London, can be reached at 020-7371-1113 or e-mail email@example.com. The company offers a variety of Egyptian tours ranging from 6 to 13 days. Tours can be taken separately or combined. The four-star Mercure Hotel in Luxor is located in the City Center, between the Luxor Temple and Karnac Temple and overlooks the Nile. The address is 10 Maabad Luxor St. Luxor, Egypt.
on 3 September 2006.
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