Aswan, Egypt

Where the Nile Welcomes the Black Africa

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Elder passes by a closed communications and electronic services bank on Elephantine Island.
a strange expedition
Caravan of foreign visitors on camels and guides advances into the desert.
head load
Nubian resident balances a container in one of the many colorful alleys of Elephantine Island.
Divine Keychain
Abdul Kareem, Nubian guardian of the temple of Ramses II.
1200km upstream of its delta, the Nile is no longer navigable. The last of the great Egyptian cities marks the fusion between Arab and Nubian territory. Since its origins in Lake Victoria, the river has given life to countless African peoples with dark complexions.

We arrived informed that Aswan was one of the sunniest, driest and hottest cities in the world.

The new day proved it.

Soon, we would be toasted by a scorching sun and well over 40 degrees.

We had awakened to the fabulous sight of a multicolored houses and gaudy as if stranded in the middle of the river.

The picturesque view revealed itself to us over the dawn and took hold for a long time.

When it came time to decide where we wanted to turn first in greater Aswan, Elephantine Island – the former military and religious headquarters of the mighty kingdom of Abu – of which it was a part, proved to be a priority.

We climbed the ship's gangway ladder, took a few dozen steps, and then descended another one that led to a small covered jetty.

From there, ferries departed, crossing one of the two arms of the Nile, both created by the destiny we desired, a few dozen meters away.

Located just north of the first of the Nile Falls – there are several in this stretch – Elephantine Island was home to the oldest settlement in Aswan.

Multicolored houses of small traditional villages on Elephantine Island, Siou and Koti.

It was known as Abu, a term that meant both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian and which, like the present one, reflected the importance the island then had in the ivory trade.

Around 3000 BC, it received a fortress that marked the last southern border of the Egyptian peoples and housed the armies that faced the feared enemy of the south, Nubia.

Three thousand years ago, the inhabitants of Abu worshiped dozens of assorted deities, many of them borrowed from neighbors to the north.

Times are different. Several centuries after the Mohammedan sandstorm that swept across North Africa, most of the people of Aswan also became Islamized and dressed and behaved accordingly.

Resident carries a gas canister. A donkey carries them both.

Also during the crossing, one of several male passengers with long beards and an austere face told me: “you are in an area just for women.

You have to change places.” I followed the rule, kept them company and, everything led to believe, in the name of Islam, I was forced to leave Sara alone in the moments of navigation that remained.

Once landed on the island, we soon realized that we were the only outsiders to wander around with cameras hanging around our necks and that the residents of both Siou and Koti – as the villages were called – fled or protected themselves from them.

Nubian resident passes through a soil semi-watered by washed clothes, in Elephantine.

We let ourselves get lost in the alleys and alleys without any fear. Wherever we were on the long island, we had only to travel less than a quarter of a mile to the west or east and we would return to the shores.

In the far south, further away, we would find the ancient ruins of Abu, a temple complex erected in honor of the ram-head god Khnum, creator of humanity and the flood. Other heads occupied different places.

Nile crocodile skulls grace the entrance to a craft store on Elephantine Island.

In the heyday of that civilization, the two concepts went hand in hand as only the steep rise of the Nile waters made life viable.

Frequent sacrifices were carried out in order to condition the timing and volume of the floods.

But only the several millimeters installed on Elephantine Island gave a reliable indication of the levels of the Nile, the abundance of crops and the royal taxes associated with them.

Multicolored houses of small traditional villages on Elephantine Island, Siou and Koti.

Instead of the old temple city of Abu, the one that the imposition of Christianity for the integration of this area into the Roman Empire took away its meaning in the century. IV AD, Siou and Koti were very much alive.

In its narrow arteries, women talked, took care of the children.

And they hid their faces or ranted – usually in a motherly and affectionate way, in the good Nubian fashion – every time we dared to point a camera in their direction.

Elderly resident of Elephantine Island protects herself from the photographic interest of foreign visitors.

We found them almost always sitting on cement or adobe benches, providential street furniture attached to the base of their colored houses that provided them with long moments of socializing outdoors.

Meanwhile, the men took care of maintenance tasks or the family's pets.

Two young women converse in the late afternoon, against one of Elephant Island's many colorful facades.

We arrived mid-morning. The sun heats Aswan. From the city, we had only explored that small rustic stronghold. But, there was more, much more.

Apart from being sunny, hot and dry, Aswan was the last of the great Egyptian cities.

It had a population of 1.4 million that continued to grow, largely due to its status as an administrative capital, a regional bureaucratic and university center.

At the height of summer, Aswan allowed himself to be numbed by the panting heat. But during peak season, when all Nile cruises seemed to dump passengers at their docks, the city became almost as frenetic as the famous Luxor.

It won't be new.

The ancient documents identifying it as Swenet (an old Egyptian word for trade) narrated it as the last Egyptian frontier, the military garrison prepared for military clashes against Nubia but also as a thriving market town at the crossroads of various caravan routes.

These days, the local souq is, by the way, one of the largest and most exotic outside Cairo.

In ancient times, Aswan was still home to numerous quarries that provided the raw material for the pyramids, temples, colossal statues and millenary obelisks that visitors to Egypt continue to enjoy in Cairo, Alexandria and Nile above or below.

The Ancient Egyptians guided their life priority according to the flow of the Nile waters. Thus, Swenet was considered the city that opened the kingdom.

Fallucas furrow the deep waters of the Nile River which, soon, upstream, will no longer be navigable.

Just like today, shortly after the First Cataract, navigation was possible to the Mediterranean Delta.

Upstream, apart from the funneling of the river and countless other geological obstacles, at the end of the XNUMXth century, pressured by the uncontrolled growth of the Egyptian population, the British settlers endowed the Nile with what, to date, became the largest dam in the world .

Later, a second dam would be opened six kilometers above, the Barragem Alta.

Currently, the oldest is only a tourist attraction.

Were it not for the long (1960-1980) Nubian Rescue Campaign of UNESCO and other institutions, and Nubian's sublime millenary heritage such as the Temple of Isis (on the island of Philae) and the temple of Abu Simbel would have been destroyed forever by the artificial ascent from the waters of the Nile and Lake Nasser.

Guardians of the temple of Ramses II converse at the base of one of the monument's huge statues.

In the case of Abu Simbel, for four years, a multidisciplinary and international team had to divide it into 2000 blocks weighing between 10 and 40 tons.

He rebuilt it inside a mountain 210 meters from the water and 65 meters higher.

"Wake up friends, don't be mummies!" the guide Edid shouts at us, wanting to make sure his group is all on foot. It's three in the morning. We wake up with the ill disposition of a deceived pharaoh.

Only gradually, with the warmth of the packed breakfast, we were able to depart from the cruise anchored in Aswan to the last of the archaeological complexes.

The village of Abu Simbel was located almost 300 km to the south and a mere 40 km from the border with Sudan, therefore, in territory that the Egyptian authorities considered problematic. For this reason, we join a caravan of jeeps that travels the route at high speed.

We are the first to arrive. And to be detected by the colossal sentinels who guard the south from the great temple that Ramses II dedicated to himself and to the gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah.

The four colossal statues of Pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

We challenged them, on our own, for almost twenty minutes. Until the rest of the caravan brings the crowd and it's time to anticipate the return to Aswan.

That afternoon, the wind blows over the desert earlier than usual and the fellucas soon invaded the Nile with their shark fin-shaped sails well stretched, probing for passengers.

We admired the enchanting view of the high eastern bank of the Nile and conjectured that one of those fellucas could lead us to an even better view of Aswan.

Open tourist boat travels along one of the arms of the Nile River along the Elephantine Island that divides it.

We crossed once more to Elephantine. It was on a makeshift dock on the other side of the island that we inaugurated this quest.

The polyglot Nubian Mustafa appears to us in a gray jillaba, more than smiling, obviously in good spirits: "Shall we sail then?" start by asking us, in English, just to make conversation.

the you

We had only set sail half a minute ago when he confesses to us his relief in a dramatized but comical way: “you saved me for good! They know that my wife always has to eat meat. If I don't take it to you, bite my arms!"

The conversation remains more fun than formative. However, we arrived on the sandy west bank of the Nile, from where a huge group of outsiders had just left on camels for the desert.

We, keep the plane of supreme sight. We point to the heights of the tomb of Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam, founder and first president of the Muslim League, protector of Muslim rights in India.

From there, with the sun almost setting, we admired the flow of the forked Nile and, again, the smooth navigation of the fellucas, then, the dense and green palm grove and, behind, the shapeless and desert-colored houses of Aswan.

A felluca navigates the Nile with the houses of Aswan beyond the eastern bank.

From a distance, we also distinguish the old Old Cataract Hotel, which promotes itself with the historical fact that Agatha Christie wrote part of her famous novel “Death on the Nile” there and that would be used as one of the scenarios of the film adaptation with Peter Ustinov and Mia Farrow.

In the film, Simon Doyle murders his wife and wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway with the complicity of his mistress Jacqueline.

Everything happens on board the cruise SS Karnak in a troubled navigation along the “blood of Egypt” which, taking into account the sequence of stopovers, would prove completely impossible in the true scenario.

The Nile we admired, this one, couldn't be more real.

Falluca on the Nile River off Aswan and Elephantine.

it came from the depths of the lake victoria and from Africa.

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