Traveling to Egypt: More of Aswan – Day 5 (2021-01-25)

This morning I awoke before Mike and took a sunrise walk around Elephantine Island spending most of my time on the South end visiting the Elephantine Island Roman ruins. It seems like much of it is in the process of getting rebuilt/restored so it was unclear to me what was original and what wasn’t. I did learn a new word that would work well when playing Balderdash: “Nileometer.”

Last night we decided not to drive 3 hours one way to visit Abu Simbel – a relatively newish Roman temple that was also relocated from elsewhere. Instead, following breakfast, we took a boat to the West side of the Nile to see the Aswan Tombs of the Nobles. We hiked up and explored the tombs quickly (adequately avoiding a guard who wanted to show us the blocked-off areas we were not interested in the hopes of securing “baksheesh”). Next, we headed to the summit overlooking the Nile, the highest point in Aswan. A short while later, we were greeted by a camel driver whose services we declined at the bottom of the hill. He had ridden his horse up with three children trailing behind with… camels. From his perspective we had already negotiated the price, all he needed from us was to climb onto the camels. Fortunately, we were planning to take camels from here to visit the Monastery of St. Simeon so, climb on we did. The camel driver gave instructions and then left us with the youth. We proceeded on camel generally with the youth leading but occasionally leaving us to our own devices. Going down steep inclines is surprisingly unstable at first. Once we reached the flatter portions of the desert, the children ran along, occasionally hitting the camels with a cane to encourage them to canter. While camel riding was fun, I was mindful of the seemingly colonial/master type activity with the camel hand walking on foot pulling or caning the camels so the white guys could have some entertainment. Yuck!! I was glad when we reached the monastery and could pay the baksheesh and dismiss our transportation.

The monastery was basically deserted of tourists save a single Egyptian couple who entered behind us. This means that we got to explore the entire area almost entirely on our own. During adventurous moments, we could have done some parkour down some of the walls. Fortunately, no such moment occurred for either of us.

Since we had told the camel drivers that we only wanted to go one way, we were now left to find our own way. The goal was the Nubian Village about 4 km up the Nile. However, in navigating towards it we were diverted to protect “archeological digs” (I suspect this was a ruse) and then a 6 ft high Mosque wall that traversed all the way down to the Nile edge. Hmmm… Upon reaching the water there was a kind Felucca owner excited to have caught unsuspecting tourists in his trap with no way out except his Felucca services. That is, unless, his prey had expected the possibility of getting trapped on the Nile bank and had come prepared to swim across the Nile, which, as it so happens, we had – perhaps even hoped for. So, with much gesticulating and broken English warnings about the ridiculousness of our quest, we proceeded to rearrange and secure our pockets and wade in. The Nile water was cool but comfortable and in about 30 minutes we had completed our traverse. While not quite across the Nile entirely – since our destination was Elephantine Island – it wouldn’t have been much more than an additional 200 yards to do the full traverse, we will paraphrase it as swimming across the Nile. (For those of you wondering about the danger of getting attacked by the Nile Crocodile, I was informed during my research prior, that the crocodiles were only on the other side of the dam, so even though we were only a few miles away from the said dam, crocodiles were no of concern here – so that is good.) By the way, since we are on the Southside of Egypt at this point, with far less civilization upriver than when in Cairo, the river was seemingly quite clean. …regardless, it was certainly refreshing after our camel ride and hike through the desert.

Upon making it back to our guest house, our hosts were curious about why we hadn’t called. Upon revealing our methods, we were informed that what we did is just not done, well, at least not in the winter, it’s too cold we were told.

In the afternoon, we went by boat with our host’s son upriver to the Nubian village (the same village we had attempted earlier in the day by foot). Once there, we had to walk through a gauntlet of vendors to a coffee shop where we ordered the bright red hibiscus tea and sat on the rooftop terrace, and discussed politics, Egypt, the Arab Spring, Iran, Iraq, etc. The conversation was interesting, and I came away having filled several blank spots in my Middle East understanding (there are of course untold more). This included (and forgive me for my ignorance in some of these areas):

• The difference between Shia and Sunni Islam at their core is that they each believe the supreme caliph role to be two different men. (For Christians, this would be like disputing whether Paul or Jesus were the Messiah.)

• Learning that at the root of the conflict with Iran and Iraq is the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam in the Middle East

• Listening to our host as he outlined marrying an American tourist who is now living in Seattle out of fear of COVID while he chooses Aswan because he wants to support his mom and because of the lifestyle here. (Marriage is hard enough, I was so curious to hear his wife’s perspective.)

• Discussing the view that Egypt is now a police state and not a democracy.

• Hearing a little more about the conflict in Sudan (again rooted in Shia/Sunni disagreements).

• Amazed that the Shia group Hezbollah and the Sunni group Hamas are allies – an amazing partnership given the intense conflict in other parts of the Middle East.

Alas, the time came to wrap it up so we paid and wandered back to our boat. By the way, the restaurant had gone to the other side of the Aswan Low Dam and caught baby crocodiles which they were then keeping as pets for the crazy tourists to enjoy. The biggest one had recently passed away and was now mounted on the wall as we walked in.

Once back at our guesthouse we again enjoyed a fantastic meal before crashing for the night.

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