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A cruise along River Nile resonates with ancient cultures, traditions and lifestyles

It was a boat ride like none other. As we cut through the blue-grey waters of the River Nile, the air seemed full of stories of 5,000-year-old battles, struggle-for-power and tales of passion.

We had launched off the banks of the Nile with its brilliant pink oleander flowers and exuberant shouts of local children. They chanted “Kareena Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, we like India,” accompanied by impressive Bollywood dance moves. We alternately navigated the wide expanse of the river between thick growths of bulrushes and papyrus, almost touching the boat. As we gathered speed, the small town of Aswan from were we had begun our journey receded, taking with it fleeting glimpses of ochre-coloured brick buildings, the odd car whizzing past, the horse carriage and vegetable-laden donkey carts. We saw arched doors and windows, coffee houses with Nubian art on the walls and young people holding hands. A young Arabic scholar says it was the Arabs who brought romance to Europe.

Christie countryside

As we cruised along, we saw the the dun-coloured hills of Egypt standing guard over undulating sand dunes. Huge outcroppings of black granite, created an outdoor museum of abstract sculptures. Suddenly there was a burst of green leafy trees and flowering bushes. “That is Elephantine Islands, once known for its elephants and trading in tusks. Later it became home to a botanical garden of rare plants brought here by Lord Kitchener,” informed Hassan, our guide. Then with a dramatic flourish, he pointed out to the Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie lived and wrote her famous Death on the Nile. On hearing this, a young boy in our group let out a blood curdling shriek with the promise of an English high tea for which the hotel is famous for.

Native food

The Nile was now an awesome turquoise blue streak in the sand, full of tiny sailboats with boys selling beads, garments and handicrafts, singing all the while . They threw their wares expertly into our boat. We either tossed them back or the money after some heavy bargaining. Elephant Island, we learnt, was an ornithologists’ paradise.

We sailed past Aga Khan’s tomb, Falemid, perched high in the mountains, the ornate palace of King Farouk silhouetted against the setting sun and the monastery of St Simon where the Coptic Christians lived when the Arabs first came to Egypt, then called Ekept or Kept. Our next stop was Garbh Soheil where some of the Nubians still live, much like their ancestors did. They are of African origin, and with their distinctive features represent Egypt’s oldest civilisation. Nubian Pharaohs ruled over Egypt around the 8th Century BC.

We strolled through the mud brick alleys and glimpsed houses with courtyards with rooms arranged around them, similar to our ‘angans’. The bigger village houses and buildings had small domes and ‘jaali’ work. The larger houses had walled gardens. The market was a colourful jumble of narrow lanes, selling spices, bead jewellery, handicrafts and colourful cotton garments.

Crocodiles everywhere

In the Nubian village, it’s common to sight crocodiles at homes

In the Nubian village, it’s common to sight crocodiles at homes  
| Photo Credit:
Pushpa Chari

In dim gathering spaces, groups of men sipped on ‘kahwa’ or Egyptian coffee and took turns on the‘sheesha’ or hookah, while the women bargained noisily with shopkeepers. Over the din of the market place rose the muezzin’s call for evening prayers.

We learnt that in Nubian culture the crocodile was considered special. And, they are there in almost every home. Baby crocodiles live in water-filled glass encased caskets or in deep pits filled with water. Our host had a mummified one.

We sat on the parapet sipping bright pink hibiscus tea, savouring the golden Egyptian twilight as the lights and lanterns of Garbh Soheil came on, one by one.

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