Aswan: Arriving by boat to a Nubian village in the middle of the Nile

Elephantine Island

Aswan, Egypt - Our boatman meets us at the dock just below the KFC on the Aswan corniche for a trip to our Airbnb on an island between the east and west banks of the Nile. Within 15 minutes, we’re transported from a busy waterfront where cruise ships are moored five deep to a rural village where the river feeds fertile farm land surrounded by desert.

This is Nubia, a region along the Nile between southern Egypt and Khartoum in Sudan, one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa. Descending from just two main families are the 2,000 residents of Elephantine Island. The only way to get here is via a two-minute ride across the river on a beat-up public ferry, or for those with luggage, by private motorboats or graceful sailboats called feluccas. 

Our hosts at the Nubian Lotus, one of about 20 guesthouses on the island, are Osama Edfawy, a Nubian who grew up here, and his wife, Marta D’Arcangelo, born in a small village in Italy. One day while Marta was working on an Islamic art history project at a local museum, she met Osama when she took a walk on the island and stopped to take his picture. They married six months after. Twelve years and two children later, they offer visitors loding in a house that took them four years to build on a hill above the banks of the Nile. Everything, from sacks of cement to wooden doors, comes in by boat, and has to be carried into the village by hand or on donkeys. 

The Nubian Lotus

Breakfast with a view

Our mornings begin with an Egyptian breakfast on our balcony or on the rooftop of their two-story home. Osama and Marta take turns making a big batch of ful - a hearty dish made with Fava beans grown on their farm - accompanied by a soft, white cheese, pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg and coffee. 

Osama and his son on the way to school

Osama walks his boys, ages 7 and 9, to the ferry each morning around 6:30 a.m. where they take the boat, then a bus on the other side to a school that specializes in teaching foreign languages. They already speak Italian at home, Arabic with their friends and are learning English, French and German. 

It’s less than a mile from one end of the island to another, so there are no road or cars. Dirt paths like this one lead to mud brick or brightly-painted stucco houses, and also to a five-star resort where we walked one afternoon for pizza and beer. . Gardens and farms are irrigated by water pumped from the Nile into canals that flow through the village, creating swaths of lush greenery surrounded by sand. 

Many people travel as far as Aswan, hoping to experience the Nubian culture before the start of a Nile cruise to Luxor. But they leave disappointed when they encounter touts in the souk or taxi and horse carriage drivers who are just as aggressive as those in Luxor. 

Selling bread in the souk

Aswan used to have a reputation of being more laid back than other parts of Egypt, or at least that’s what the guide books would have you believe, but that changed when tourism collapsed and everyone became more desperate. The exception is the island where villagers still seemed interested in striking up a conversation more out of curiosity than wanting to sell a service. 

A main reason people come to Aswan is to visit the temples of Abu Simbel, carved out of a mountainside in the 13th century BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Threatened with submersion during the creation of Lake Nasser, a massive artificial reservoir formed after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the entire complex was relocated to an artificial hill a few hundred feet higher to keep it from flooding. To get to the temples, we arranged for a driver to take us 140 miles across the desert, a three-hour trip through the middle of nowhere, except for a few mirages and the “truck stop” pictured below where our driver pulled over so we could get something to drink.

Desert truck stop

It’s faster to fly, but we had the time for the drive which came with the luxury of giving us as much time as we wanted to explore. It turned out that most of the bus tours go every early in the morning to avoid the heat, so by the time we arrived around 10 a.m., there was hardly anyone around.  It was amazing to think about how engineers dismantled the temples stone by stone, and put back all the statues back together again in the exact same way. 

Abu Simbel

Another attraction in Aswan is the Old Cataract Hotel, built in 1889 by Thomas Cook for European travelers taking Nile cruises. Agatha Christie set portions of her novel Death on the Nile here. So many people want to vist that the hotel requires non-guests to buy $15 vouchers to for food or drinks in one of the bars or restaurants. I was put off at first, then decided to look at it as the price of admission to a museum, a bargain considering we had two refreshing mocktails, bottled water and a salad on the terrace overlooking the Nile.

The Old Cataract Hotel 

Drinks on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel

That’s a wrap for Egypt. We’re glad we made the trip, not just for the amazing antiquities we saw, but for the people we met along the way.  That’s always the best part of travel.

New friends in Aswan

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