Sunday 25th January, 2009
Nasir turns the boat once more to the north as we approach the southern tip of the Island of Elephantine, in ancient times the seat of government of Abu, the fortified town that controlled the vital strategic border with Nubia to the south. The historical importance of the site is reflected by a series of pharaonic cartouches (names of kings) carved deep into the gigantic granite boulders that form the south-east corner of the fortress.
A little further past a surviving stretch of the Roman walled town Nasir points to a curious riverside structure and offers to put me ashore. Earlier, he had told me how since the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s the level of the Nile can be seasonally adjusted according to agricultural needs, particularly those of the northern delta region. Before the construction of the dam the river was subject to an annual inundation. This construction is one of two surviving “Nilometers” which since ancient times allowed officials to calculate the level of this annual flood, that mighty force of nature on which Egyptian civilization had been built (it brought with it rich sediments that renewed the fertility of the land) and which the modern dam had been designed to control. The importance of the structure meant that it has been well maintained for centuries and in the course of its ninety steps you can read measurement marks made in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Arabic numerals, the most recent of which were added in 1870.
Back on the boat, the sun is now casting the surviving arches of the temple of Aswan’s guardian god Khnum into striking silhouette, and the hazy view upstream towards Nubia is deeply dreamlike. Nasir was going to drop me off at the east bank here but when I tell him my intention is to go to Nubian House to watch the sunset he offers to row me there, another few hundred metres upstream. On the way we pass a large isolated granite rock that emerges from the water like an ancient black sphinx, in stark contrast to the surrounding golden sands.
As we reach the riverbank below Nubian House Nasir finds a place between the moored houseboats to let me ashore. By now I have decided to give him the full 70 Egyptian pounds that he had initially asked for, in no doubt that he has earned it. As well as all the hard work, and the wonderful introduction to the charms of the Nile at Aswan at close quarters, he had been excellent company. We part warmly, exchanging contact details, both of us I am sure with a feeling that we would meet again one day, if not in Aswan then somewhere, sometime. Halfway up the dusty slope to the restaurant I turn back and give a last wave as his little boat disappears behind the other side of the island, back to his family home.
I had come to Nubian House as the guidebook had promised that its terraces high above the Nile’s rocky first cataract were the best place to watch the sunset against the backdrop of the western desert. As I approach, a group of children are singing to the tune of “Aye Aye Ippy” and not for the first time on my travels in Egypt I am reminded of a scene in Amelia Edwards’ A Thousand Miles up the Nile and of how little the tourist experience has fundamentally changed. The restaurant is decorated in traditional, colourful, Nubian fashion and the waiters are all wearing equally colourful uniforms. I ask the Maitre D if I can have a table but he tells me dinner will not be served till after sunset. Till then, however, an all-in tea is available for ten Egyptian pounds (just over one English pound) accompanied by cake and small lumpy doughnuts. (It turns out to be delicious and I take advantage of the copious refills of the cake plate to fill-up for the journey back to Luxor).
The restaurant is almost full with a vast tour group of middle-aged Germans but as it happens the one remaining seat in the corner of the upper terrace has the best view in the house. As the big red sun descends towards the horizon great V-formations of birds start flying past at eye-level, prompting much enthusiastic German speech and the clicking of camera shutters. Just as I find myself wishing for a little more quiet a call goes out from the tourist group leader and they all rise and return to their coaches as one. Within no more than a minute the silence I craved is with me. There are times when there is much to be said for German efficiency.
When the sun has gone down it starts to get colder quickly so I get up to make my way back to town, still with a couple of hours to spare before my 8pm train. Taking my cue from the GPS I set out along a dusty track past some newly-built houses lit by that eerie diffused light that I noticed on my first ever night on the rural west bank at Luxor. Apart from an occasional taxi there is no-one around so when a noisy pack of dogs appears in the gathering gloom I take the precaution of arming myself with a big stick. Soon I am over the crest of a hill and relieved to see a smartly-dressed family emerging from a restaurant, and at the bottom of the hill I meet the road that joins the riverside corniche. On the way I pass the modern Coptic cathedral outside which happy, smiling Christians are milling around in their ‘Sunday best’. It is interesting to see how brashly-confident Upper Egyptian Christianity appears to be, all lit up in advertising-neon. There is nothing hidden, or apologetic, about it.
Right at the bottom of the hill, and forming the southern end of the corniche, I come to the Ferial Gardens, created in celebration of the birth of Princess Ferial (1938-2009), first-born child of Egypt’s penultimate king, Farouk. Befitting the romance of the twilight of a line of kings this is an enchanted little spot and in the fading light courting couples find meaning outside the confines of their daytime lives. I take a seat by the big rocks overlooking the islands and in this magical setting, start to take in the wonderful experiences of my first visit to the old frontier town of southern Egypt. I feel I could sit here forever; below, in the gathering darkness the occasional motorboat passes by, otherwise, the only other things I am aware of are the water of the great river itself and the lights of Elephantine just opposite. What extraordinary human activity this place has seen over many thousands of years. But what peace I find here now.