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Volume 36, Number 5September/October 1985

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Gateway on the Nile

Written and photographed by John Feeney

Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, must surely be one of the oldest places on the face of the earth - like Petra, almost as old as time itself. As recently as 1982, an international expedition of American, Polish and Egyptian anthropologists in the Aswan region unexpectedly came upon the skeleton of a prehistoric man thought to be about 80,000 years old - the oldest human skeleton ever found in Egypt.

As far back as man can remember, Aswan was called "Yebu" or "Elephant Land," although it is unlikely that there were any elephants wandering around near the Nile cataracts. The name, nevertheless, may not be an accident. Yebu became "es-Swenet" in later Pharaonic times, "Syene" in Greek times, then Suan and As-suan or Aswan; since both those names refer to "trade," it might be that Yebu was the place where elephant tusks were traded. Furthermore, the largest island in the Nile at Aswan is still, after thousands of years, called "Elephantine."

By the second century - Roman times - Aswan was still a far-away place. Indeed, it was considered the most remote garrison in the Roman Empire - as remote from Rome as Siberia is from Moscow - and when satiric poet Juvenal was banished for his biting attacks on the Roman Court he was sent to Aswan.

Though remote, however, Aswan was also famous - and still is. All the world today knows of the great high dam built there in 1970, and it is represented in some of the world's most prestigious cities - Rome, Paris, London and New York - by great Egyptian obelisks that were cut from Aswan's granite quarries more than 3,000 years ago.

Granite lies everywhere in Aswan; it is strewn for miles across the surrounding desert, and immense islands of it are immersed in the path of the Nile, smoothed and polished to a sheen by countless Nile floods. Indeed, the noble granite - pink, red, blue and black - has always been a source of Aswan's prosperity.

In Pharaonic times, Aswan was the granite quarry for all of Egypt - the only place in the Nile Valley where it was found. For thousands upon thousands of years, its quarries were crowded with laborers cutting the precious stone, detaching it from the rock with fire, wedges and water and, on each Nile flood, floating the stone downstream to Thebes, Abydos, Memphis and Saqqara to be erected and carved into colossal statues, sarcophagi and columns.

There was almost no limit to the size of the fragments cut and taken away - though methods differed. For man-sized blocks of stone the stonecutters bored numerous holes into the stone a few inches apart, drove wooden wedges into the hole and soaked the wedges with water until, expanding, the wedges cracked the stone along an even line. But for mammoth obelisks, and other colossal blocks, there was another way. Using simple but strong tools, the stonecutters carved deep trenches into the rock on two sides and then tunneled beneath it until the block came free on all sides.

Sometimes, of course, the stonecutters failed. On a lonely desert plateau overlooking Aswan, there still lies the half-finished form of a forgotten pharaoh, and in another old quarry lies what would have been the biggest obelisk ever cut - or even, some say, the largest piece of stone ever quarried by man: one gigantic block of granite measuring 40 meters long and four meters thick (131' x 13') and weighing well over 1,000 tons. The stonecutters had carved it out of the rock, but then had to abandon it, apparently, when they discovered an unexpected fissure.

Apart from its supplies of granite, Aswan was also famous in ancient times for its association with one of mankind's most important astronomical discoveries. During the summer solstice in 190 B.C. a man in Aswan noticed something that he realized was phenomenal: at noon the sun's rays descended perpendicularly into a water well without casting any shadow. This meant, he reasoned, that Aswan - or Syene, as it was then called - must surely be situated directly under the Tropic of Cancer, since it is only at that latitude that the sun could shine down at an angle of 90 degrees. (Though today, more than 2,000 years later, the tropic has moved farther southward, apparently because the earth has shifted slightly on its axis.) Later, when this observation reached him, the learned Athenian Eratosthenes, then working at a famous museum in Alexandria, noted that on the same day in Alexandria the sun cast a shadow of seven and a half degrees and from those two observations, calculated the circumference of the whole earth.

Aswan's main claim to fame, however, has always rested on its location at what has been considered the "gateway" through which the Nile, pouring out of the Nubian deserts, reaches the first cultivated regions of Egypt - and which, in ancient times, was also the end of the known world: the Nile cataracts.

The Nile cataracts - torrents of white water foaming over six vast outcroppings of rock emerging from the river over a stretch 965 kilometers long (600 miles) - were, in Egyptian and Roman times, an impassable barrier. Neither the pharaohs of Egypt nor the emperors of Rome could conquer them. Flanking cataracts, furthermore, were deserts called the "Land of the Ghosts," and beyond the deserts was a mysterious and dangerous region called the "Land of the Swamps." Together, these barriers defied penetration; in more than 4,000 years no one who ventured into the "Land of the Swamps" - later known as "the Sudd" - had ever returned. Consequently no one, in 4,000 years, had ever reached the source of the Nile or unraveled its central mystery: why and how the floods reached Egypt every year at almost the same hour of the same day.

Because Aswan was the gateway to - and for - the all important "waters of life," the Egyptians at a very early date began to build sanctuaries and temples to their gods at Aswan to be sure those gods continued to send the floods. One such sanctuary was on the island of Philae just above the First Cataract and was dedicated to Isis, "mother of all things," and wife of the god Osiris. Between them Isis and Osiris, represented the annual restoration of the land by the flood, and, in mythology, they represented the restoration of life: when Osiris was killed, mutilated and thrown into the Nile by a treacherous king, Isis gathered up the dismembered body and restored Osiris to life.

Over the millennia, Philae was gradually adorned with beautiful temples, chapels and courtyards, some of them dedicated to Isis, others to Horus, the sun god, to Hathor, goddess of music and joy and to the gods of the cataracts.

The Egyptians didn't leave it entirely up to the gods, however. Because their very lives depended on the floods, they began to build, in addition to temples, devices called "Nilometers." These devices, their first attempt to "manage" the flow of the Nile - and tax it - was described by Strabo in 20 B.C.:

The Nilometer is a well built of regular hewn stones on the bank of the Nile in which is recorded the rise of the stream. On the side of the well are marks measuring the heights sufficient for irrigation ... and these are published for general information. This is important to the peasants for the management of the water, the embankments, the canals, and to the officials on account of the taxes. For the higher the rise of the water, the higher are the taxes.

Today the Egyptians have far more sophisticated ways of measuring and controlling the Nile. Completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 permitted Egypt to transform the great force of the river into electric power, to irrigate other parts of Egypt than the river valley and to do so when they wished, from the great storage lake - Lake Nasser - behind the dam. But when they were planning the dam it looked for a time as if they would have to risk the final loss of the temples on Philae to do so.

Earlier efforts to control the Nile had already had a serious impact on Philae. In 1902, British engineers built the first Aswan dam, not very far from the high dam, and then raised it twice afterwards, in 1912 and 1933. As a result, Philae and its temples were almost completely submerged except during June to September when the dam gates were opened to provide irrigation during the summer. This was not a total loss since Philae, in the tradition of rebirth that is so common in Egyptian mythology, would emerge refreshed and largely intact. But now, with the high dam, it seemed that Philae was going to be submerged forever or destroyed by the immense volumes of water flowing daily between the two dams.

To Egypt the loss of Philae - "the pearl of Egypt" - seemed a too high a price to pay, so with the help of UNESCO, Egypt rescued Philae in an astonishing engineering feat; an immense coffer dam nearly one kilometer long was built right around the submerged island and the encircled water was pumped out; after that, massive blasting leveled the nearby granite island of Agilkia, and a 20th-century army of archeologists, engineers, technicians and laborers began to take the whole Philae complex apart, stone by stone. Since there were 50,000 such stones, moving to Agilkia took five years and cost $25 million. But it was worth it: just as Isis had long ago gathered together the torn parts of Osiris' body and restored him to life, so the temples of Philae were put together again on nearby Agilkia.

Climate, curiously, also contributes to Aswan's fame. Though Aswan is an inferno during the blistering summer months, in winter the dry desert air and the quiet river exude a peace rarely found anywhere else on earth. And since winter temperatures make Aswan one of the most pleasantly warm places on earth, the British, in their day, would go there from Cairo and elsewhere between October and February.

Nowadays, immense air-conditioned steamers cruise to Aswan all year round. These are descendants of early Nile boats built by thqge intrepid travel pioneers Thomas Cook and Son - who in 1874, when Asyut was still at the end of the railway line from Cairo, built a fleet of dahabiahs driven by oars and wind, for use between Asyut, Luxor and Aswan.

In those days a room at the prestigious Cataract Hotel cost no more than a dollar a day and The Grand Hotel, on the corniche, was even less. Carriages, camels, donkeys and boats were all available at fixed tariffs - and your "plates" - photographs - could be developed at Bishareen's Bazaar.

Since then costs have risen up to 50 times higher, but the tourists continue to come - hordes of them laughing and chattering as they reach the river's edge. Even the tourists, however, seem to be affected by Aswan's strange peace. They too fall strangely silent as they are borne away across the water in dozens of white-sailed feluccas towards Kitchener's botanical island of palms and flowers, upstream to "the Isle of Messages," downstream to the Tombs of the Nobles and across to the Aga Khan's mausoleum and the ruins of Saint Simeon's sixth-century desert monastry.

This peace and beauty may be judged by the fact that the late Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan, an immensely wealthy man, with the whole world available to him, always chose Aswan in which to spend his winters. For years, he stayed at what has since come to be known as "the old Cataract Hotel," and then, when King Farouk gave him land across the river from the First Cataract, he built a permanent winter home. Even during World War II, when he was marooned in neutral Switzerland, British authorities always managed to get him back to Aswan for the winter, using circuitous routes. Later, he would say that the winters spent in his beloved Aswan added 10 years to his life. He finally chose to rest there forever: like the ancient Tombs of the Nobles of Aswan, his mausoleum is built in the desert, just above his earthly home, within sight of "the blessed stream."

Those nobles, entombed on the cliff-tops high above the Nile, ruled Aswan during the Ancient and Middle Kingdoms and deliberately planned to spend eternity looking out over the scenes of their earthly labors from their "Houses of Eternity."

They could not have chosen a better site. Extremely steep ramps lead up the cliff-face, with two parallel flights of narrow steps cut out to allow mourners - and those who had to haul the heavy stone sarcophagi up there - to reach the heights above and the amazing labyrinth of underground tombs, passageways and galleries, some opening into small sunlit courtyards.

In each tomb, a single shaft of light enters through a narrow entrance, dimly illuminating triple-pillared underground halls, from which flights of steps lead down into subterranean vaults of infinite darkness. All these precisely made underground halls and the surrounding passageways are as neatly formed as the underground corridors of the Paris Metro - clearly the work of master stonecutters, long experienced at hewing granite in the local quarries.

The ceiling of one of these lofty caverns is hung with masses of screeching bats, sheltering from the sun; and scattered about the floor of another are the remains of a small wooden sailing boat, twisted and warped by centuries of warm dry air; it was placed here thousands of years ago to allow the tomb's occupant to sail forever upon a heavenly Nile as he once did upon an earthly Nile.

After sunset, an intense stillness settles over the desert and the river, and in the crystal clear air you can hear a casual laugh from across the river or the muezzins calling from their minarets on Elephantine and, joining one by one, all the minarets of Aswan. Just as suddenly they all stop and the stillness returns.

In the gathering darkness, a fleet of tall ghostly sails passes below, bringing home the last of the day's tourists, still bewitched by the river's magic as they glide in silence over the darkened water. Then, as the nightly chorus of crickets and frogs begins, and the bats silently glide out of the cliff-tombs, the glittering constellation of the Southern Cross, never visible in northern skies, slowly edges up above the southern horizon...

Below, meanwhile, the Nile flows silently and serenely in the darkness, still rich and strong, despite a journey half the length of Africa, despite immense losses from evaporation in the swamps of the Sudd, and the deserts of The Sudan - two thirds of its volume - and despite the scourings by the roaring cataracts. Here at Aswan, it seems as if the Nile is resting amid the desolation of sand and granite before going on through Egypt - leaving, perhaps, a primeval message of contentment and contemplation for the troubled hearts and minds of mankind.

John Feeney, winner of four international prizes for his films on Middle East subjects, writes frequently on Egypt for Aramco World magazine.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the September/October 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1985 images.