Saturday, August 4, 2007

Sailing Down the Nile

Since arriving in Aswan, we'd been watching the graceful feluccas, or local sailing boats, darting around the Nile. So of course, we needed to book a trip for ourselves. Finding a felucca captain is no problem; in fact, we practically have to beat them off with sticks whenever we venture outside the hotel. But one who seemed genial and easy going finally won us over, and we agreed to meet the next day for a tour and lunch.

Feluccas sailing down the Nile at sunset

One thing to know about Egypt before coming: everything is more expensive than you expect because of baksheesh, or the culture of tipping. Bathroom attendents who don't seem to do anything expect it, waiters need it because though a service charge is added onto your bill they don't actually get any of it, and anyone who provides any type of service at a tourist site wants something. So we shouldn't have been surprised as we got on the boat that the captain we met said we should give a good tip to the two guys working on the boat because we were getting such a good price (which is actually just what seems to be the going rate).

But tips and money issues aside, sailing down the Nile was quite a treat. The men unfurled the sail, and we entered the waltz that is feluccas tacking, or zigzagging, back and forth across the Nile, to visit the local sites: the Royal Temples, Kitchener's Island, Saint Simeon Coptic Monastery, and Elephantine Island. And we were sailing on the Nile! Can you complain about that?

Our felucca captain as we set sail

First stop: the Royal Tombs. We had been looking across at the man-made caves on the other side of the Nile since we arrived, and I was excited to finally see them, even if it meant trudging around the desert in the heat of mid-day. One thing youi notice right away is that it is incredibly green and lush by the banks of the Nile, but it rapidly becomes sandy and arid away from the water. We were led by a man with a set of keys to three of the 4,000 tombs that were made here. I thought the first tomb was the most impressive, with huge columns carved from the existing granite and some nice paintings in good condition at the far end of the tomb. The guide seemed most interested in trying to titillate us by pointing out where the mummy had been and showing us a mummies skull through one locked door, but I was impressed just by the engineering and artistry dedicated to these tombs.

Coming upon the Royal Tombs

Looking down into the first tomb, past the huge columns

Painted niche at the end of the tomb

We also decided to make our way, now guide-free, to the arched structure at the top of the hill. After huffing and puffing our way through the sand, rocks, pottery shards and glaring sun, we were treated to beautiful views. The downside, though, was our bottled water was now near the boiling point, and we had pretty much worn ourselves out. And that was just the first stop.

View of the Nile and Aswan from high up on the Royal Tomb site

Next Stop: Kitchener's Island. This small, green island is now a very nice botanical garden, started by the British Lord Kitchener. Our felucca dropped us off at one end, and we could walk to the other end and meet them. The grounds were beautiful, with tons of palms, flowering trees and birds. But we were in no shape to appreciate them, wanting only to get to the end so that we could buy some over-priced but cold water. As you can tell from the photo, we were perhaps a bit overheated and manic at that point.....

Slightly manic at the botanical gardens

The original plan then would have included a stop to the Coptic monastery. I had been interested in going, because we don't know that much about Coptic Christians and hadn't encountered much about them yet, but the stop would have involved a long, hot walk over the island to the ruins, and we just were too tuckered out. But we did see it from a distance.

Coptic Monastery from afar

Finally, we went to Elephantine Island. We weren't sure what to expect (our guide book mentioned something about large, elephant-like rocks), so as we got off the boat, we were greeted by Hassadah, the chief of the Nubian village on the island. For a small fee, he would show us around to the local mosque, the garden, and a house. Now, before we left on the trip I had specifically said I didn't want to go to the "Nubian Village," envisioning some re-creation of a historical village that would cost a lot of money to see. But the village was interesting. The island is small, no cars, and all people get a plot in a large community garden. There is a primary school on the island, and Hassadah is the chief because his family is the "chief" family. The downside was the trip was quickly getting more expensive than we had expected, and Tyler was getting downright ornery about parting with any more Egyptian pounds. So we quickly got back on the boat and headed back to our part of town.

Hassadah, Nubian village chief, and traditional colored Nubian buildings

Overall, it was a good trip. Four hours of sailing, some ruins, some gardens, some local culture. And that's a good thing, because tomorrow we leave for a two-day felucca trip down the Nile (going north, which feels like it should be "up," but we're going with the current) eventually seeing ruins at Ko Ombo and Edfu, and ending in Luxor, where the ancient city of Thebes was located. As someone who wanted to be an archaeologist when they were a kid, it's pretty exciting to be on the way to see famous sites like Hatshepsut's Tomb and the Temples of Karnak. I even took a number of college courses on them. Unfortunately, that was too long ago, and I know I should remember what things mean (the Ptolemies, the different Dynasties, different architectural styles), but it's exciting nonetheless.

Relaxing on the felucca. Fortunately we liked it, because that's what we'll be doing the next two days!

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