Upwards Down the Nile

The Nile flows northward and so when you travel down the Nile, you are in fact going North. This is why the south of Egypt is called “Upper Egypt,” and is one of the ways that you have to turn yourself around when travelling through the country.

Aswan. Photo by author.

There is certain gravity to sailing along the Nile. When I stepped onto the little sailboat, or “felucca,” in Aswan, I was beginning a journey similar to one taken by such weighty figures as Herodotus, Caesar, Churchill and Twain. When Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale both made the trip, though not together, in November 1849, it proved a turning point in their destinies: the Nile inspired and transformed them, the disappointed writer and conflicted nurse, into the people they were poised to become. Together their experiences along the Nile produced detailed letters, copious notes and, a few years later, Madame Bovary.

My own note taking had so far centered on criticisms of my travel companions.

I was in Egypt on a three-week trip sponsored by an adventure tour company. I reacted to the news that I had been selected for the all-expenses-paid trip first with delight then with trepidation that this was with a tour group. See, I had never willingly been part of a tour group in my life before (mandatory childhood vacations don’t count). Being fiercely independent and slightly anti-social, I had always elected to travel alone: from my first solo trip to Japan at 19, to crossing South America in my twenties and Eastern Europe at 30.  The few times I tagged along with other travelers, whether also solo or in groups, it had often ended awkwardly – like the time when I was so tired of my Laos travel buddy that I quietly left our shared bungalow in Vang Vieng and headed back across the border to Thailand.

This section of the Egyptian trip was described in the itinerary as “extremely relaxing.” After two weeks of a relentless grind of tour buses, desert convoys, pre-dawn wake-up calls, merciless touts and street harassers, I felt that I deserved some extreme relaxation; but I worried about the confinement and forced intimacy necessitated by the felucca.

Our felucca at rest on the Nile.

Our living area was essentially a large mattress where we all slept toe-to-toe in sleeping bags and under a protective layer of bug spray. With nowhere to go, time was marked only by meals: the eating and preparation of. We would barely be finished hunching over our breakfast bowls when the cook, a Nubian calling himself “King of the Nile,” would begin lazily chopping up vegetables in preparation for lunch.

On the first afternoon, within hours of setting sail, a familiar noise started up: the ringing drone of street harassment, except this time it was coming from the riverbank. I looked up from my book and felt at once annoyed and impressed at the young men’s capacity for sexual harassment even at the distance of a river’s width. A boy who couldn’t have been more than 10, yet apparently already fluent in the language of harassment, accompanied them. Our felucca bobbed painstakingly slowly along. Our tour guide, Ahmed, who kept talking about “group dynamics,” tried to distract us with a game of cards. I pulled the sleeping sheet over my head but the noise was replaced by the nasally sound of the Australian woman’s voice. She talked incessantly and in generalisations about the many countries she had visited, and summed each one up with a simple and shallow line: Kenya is like this; India is like that. Scribbling down my irritations were all I could do to keep them from showing.

By the next morning our group dynamics looked set to coming crashing down like a house of cards. The older Englishman was the first to get up; he had been woken at dawn by the call to prayer and had spent the last few hours getting worked up about religious doctrine. Ahmed made the reasonable argument that he might have expected this in a Muslim country, so he moved on to complaining about the design and efficiency of our boat.

“There’s not even anywhere to stand up and walk around,” he began. “If it were up to me, I’d take out this part, make this part lower and use that part as a baggage storage area. That way we’d have more room.”

He also had concerns about not making it to Edfu on schedule.

“It’s going to be like this all day.” He tutted, looking out at the river.  “Just tacking into the wind”.

He had a point, the spot where we set sail yesterday afternoon was still in sight, but it sounded like a small child’s nagging, “are we there yet?” In truth there is no “there,” on a felucca, the journey is the destination.

Despite the availability of more modern, efficient alternatives, the felucca remains the primary means of transportation along the Nile. Mostly, however, they are used to ferry tourists on trips that range from a few hours to a few days. Our felucca sail was ostensibly a means of getting from Aswan to Edfu, but the journey, rather than the temple town of Edfu, was really supposed to be the destination.

By the afternoon our guide had started disappearing into the boat’s one tiny cabin and pulling a curtain across the entryway. His patience had been commendable for almost our entire trip. Only once did he slip: a couple of days earlier when, after we had been sitting at a police checkpoint for close to an hour, he chastised us for complaining. “You should have expected this,” he said, voice cracking with what I imagined to be disappointment that he really had to go through this with yet another group of tourists. “Being in Egypt at a time like this, you should have expected these things.”

On the third afternoon I saw my chance: a visit to Kom Ombo Temple. Ahmed recited the required historical details then slinked off to the side for a cigarette and phone call, leaving us to wander freely around the area. The temple was deserted thanks to an ongoing political uncertainty and threat of unrest that had resulted in a tourism industry that was functioning, at best, at fifty percent of the norm. We had the place to ourselves.

I made my way to the back of the complex, out of sight of the rest of the group, and began to walk. I walked and walked, smiling as the muscles in my legs began to loosen and the knot in my back untangle. Finally, I could relax.

I felt the light weight on my shoulders first, a scarf thrust onto me and pulled around my neck. The man holding the scarf was trying to sell it to me apparently through strangulation. He kept talking and pulling one end of the scarf as I tried to pull the other in the opposite direction. He was apparantley trying to sell me the scarf through strangulation but, rather than wearing the usual tout’s grin, he looked angry. I had learned the requisite Arabic phrases for deterring touts, harassers and general annoyances but when my throat, now free of the scarf’s grip, produced words they were incomprehensible even to myself.

For the first time on the trip I wished for the presence of someone else. At that point that I heard a noise from behind, it was the Australian girl yelling at the tout. In my confusion and didn’t catch what she said or did, but within seconds the man had gone. I was left feeling gratitude and a sting of shame.

From the point when I learned to appreciate my travel companions, I started to think about them less. My notebook from the last day on the felucca journey onwards is filled with details, thoughts, sketches: Egypt. As it should have been from the beginning.

Kom Ombo Temple

(Note: My trip to Egypt was sponsored by a partnership between Adventure Center and MatadorU.)

The temple at Kom Ombo is unusual in that it has a double dedication — to both Haroeris and Sobek. Our visit was also unusual in that we had the whole place to ourselves. The temple lies along the Nile, 50 km north of Aswan, and is an obvious stop on the cruise ship route. Looking around at the vacant temple, our guide told us that there are usually at least five ships moored; when we arrived there were none and it wasn’t until later on that just one, almost empty, joined us.

The temple dates from the Ptolemaic dynasty and construction was begun by Ptolemy VI Philometor. The right side is dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek, who is identified with the sun as Sobek-Re, here, and the left side to Haroeris, a form of Horus, the falcon-headed god. The temple has twin entrances and sanctuaries, and stands at a bend in the river where crocodiles used to bask, hence the dedication to the crocodile god by ancient Egyptians who believed that by honouring the beasts they would be safe from attacks.

Most of the forecourt has been washed away, there is no roof and some reliefs were defaced by the Copts who used the temple as a sanctuary. Many of the reliefs and very well-preserved and I would love to explain in detail the meaning of each. However, by this point in my trip I was neglecting my note-taking duties and as a result have a bunch of photographs of detailed reliefs but am not confident I know exactly what they all mean. There is a lesson to be learned here, and that lesson is: record everything your tour guide says because you will never remember it all.

Some scraps of colour remain on the forecourt pillars. Photo by author.
I think that this is Sekhmet giving the pharoah the key of life. Photo by author.
Vultures against a blue background that represents the sky. Photo by author.
I think...this depicts a list of festivals and deities? Photo by author.
Egyptian woman on a birthing stool. Egyptian reliefs show women giving birth seated on a special chair or "stool" which may have had a hole or cut-out in the seat through which the baby was delivered. Photo by author.
Photo by author.
I framed this badly, but it shows an offering of medical equipment to Imhotep. Photo by author.
Sobek, the crocodile god. Photo by author.