"What matters more than my being buried / in the land where I was born?"- The Tale of Sinuhe


a) "Excuse me, Yasser?" I ask the gentleman clothed in white robes talking on his mobile phone.

"Errr... yes, Yasser," he says as he glances towards me. I can't quite place it but he doesn't seem to look exactly like the Yasser I'd met yesterday afternoon at this part of Aswan's corniche, with whom I had negotiated a good price to take me to Sehel Island on a felucca. He finally finishes his phone conversation and turns to me square on: "Yes?"

"Erm, we met yesterday evening? You're taking me to Sehel Island this morning."

He considers me for a moment: "Yes, yes, of course, Sehel Island!" It's definitely not the same guy; his nose is too big, eyebrows too thick, skin too dark, and the price is 50% more. But the other Yasser isn't here and I don't have time to waste so I grudgingly accept. "Wait here, the man who will take you will be here soon," he says as he starts dialing his phone while ambling away.

I'm left on the corniche next to a couple of KFC delivery mopeds, the sun just beginning to warm itself and the shadows melting to uncover the swirling Nile's waters below, the green trees of Elephantine Island only a few hundred yards away, and the sandy desert on the far bank. After 15 minutes or so a man walks over to me: "Sehel Island?"

There's no one else here except me so I nod and stretch out my hand, "Daniel."

He grins as he shakes it: "Yasser," and we climb down to the landing place below and into the felucca, a small wooden boat with a lateen sail.

This third Yasser is a man about 40 years old with a shaven head and angular jawline, wearing a dark blue sweater and black slacks as if he had just left the office for a cup of coffee. I sit on the edge of the felucca while he expertly pulls, twists, and guides the ropes and draws the tiny felucca away from the docked sailboats and massive cruise liners and out into the Nile. The sail is set and Yasser sits opposite me as we sail south under the steady northerly wind. It is still early morning, the town isn't yet awake and most of the boats are still tied up to the shore.
b) We sail on through Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, once known as its first city as it was the farthest upstream. It is so far south that it lies close to the tropic line, and using this observation Eratosthenes measured the Earth's circumference in the 3rd century BC to within 2%. To the north the Nile was navigable all the way to the Delta, but beyond Aswan to the south was the First Cataract: a series of rapids un-navigable by boats, as well as the Nubians, the desert, and mystery.

We sailed quietly past the docked cruise liners, tied up for the low season. Elephantine Island drifted by our right hand side, its name given by the large square-shaped and half-submerged black granite rocks that look like bathing elephants, and the fact that it used to host a bustling ivory trade. Behind it is Kitchener Island, awarded to that British general for his Sudanese campaign during colonial times, today a tropical botanical garden.

After a few minutes another colonial landmark drifted past, this time on the left bank, the sumptuous, aristocratic Old Cataract Hotel, built by the guide Thomas Cook for his clients and visited by guests such as Baroness Thatcher, Agatha Christie, Tsar Nicholas II, Churchill, and King Farouk. Its dark red facade and palm trees on an outcrop overlooking the Nile and the southern end of Elephantine Island, where an ancient stone Nilometer was still measuring the height of the waters after all these years.

The northerly wind had been steadily driving us south against the current all this time. Elephantine Island was behind us now, and its temples to the god Khnum, guardian of the Nile, replaced by reeds and waterbirds and sandy granite rocks. Yasser has been quiet most of the time, working the tiller unconsciously while staring into the swirling waters. He looks up and points to a house on top of cliff: "House of a famous Egyptian pop star," he says, and falls back into his reverie.

c) It is very peaceful this, sailing up the Nile. The gentle sounds of the fluttering sail, waters sloshing and slapping against the hull, the rustling reeds. On the eastern bank stand tall granite boulders, source of so much of Ancient Egypt's building material, while on the far, western bank are the sandy dunes of the Western Desert.

On top of one of the dunes, drifting by slowly in the distance rests the Mausoleum of the Third Aga Khan, a sandy coloured domed building. The Aga Khan: philanthropist, President of the League of Nations, and Imam of the Ismaili Shias, suffered from rheumatism later in life and spent his winters in Aswan. At his request, he was buried here, and after death his wife placed a fresh red rose on his tomb every day.

Beyond the Mausoleum to the north and out of sight to us is the Monastery of St. Simeon, with origins from the time the Roman legion stationed in this area received a bishop from Alexandria, and which was destroyed by the troops of Saladin. Further to the north are the Tombs of the Nobles, where noblemen from Old Kingdom to Roman times were buried, and whose walls are depicted with scenes from life's journey.

We were alone on the Nile, not another boat in sight and the only sign of life from the calls of the birds and the breeze dancing among the reeds. Yasser was opening up a bit more. He tells me about his two kids and about sailing to Edfu in the old days as a felucca guide: "Many of the guides married the tourists, one even went to Australia!" He smiles as his eyes reach into the past. "We sailed and camped all the way down to Edfu with the tourists, chatted around the campfire at night, wonderful days!"

d) Yasser is Nubian, and Nubian villages used to dot the river banks from Aswan all the way south into Sudan, but were lost after the building of the Aswan High Dam. Built in the 1960s by President Nasser with funding from the USSR, it flooded much of lower Nubia, and over 100,000 people and dozens of villages were relocated to the north of Aswan. Just the day before I was in the Nubian Museum in Aswan where there were some black and white photos of villages that were flooded by the dam. An old man was taking photos of the photos and he looked at me and pointed to a photo: "That used to be my village!"

Not only Nubian villages but dozens of ancient archaeological sites were buried under Lake Nasser. Two were saved though: the Temple of Isis at Philae, where Isis was supposed to have discovered the heart of her murdered husband Osiris and had him buried, had now been relocated to Biggeh Island after Philae was flooded. And the massive Temple of Ramessess, built to intimidate raiders from the south and rediscovered in the 19th century by Burckhardt amongst the shifting sands, was relocated to Abu Simbel.

The sun was halfway up the sky, and we were both lost in peace. Sandy colours and whispering reeds floated past us as I tried to imagine the lost world beneath Lake Nasser, locked in time. How eerie it must be, all those empty villages and ancient temples and buildings of Kush and dynastic Upper Egypt, preserved now forever by the Nile. Yasser was also staring vacantly, so to break the silence I asked him: "Yasser, can you tell me a story?"

He only half-looked at me as he smiled: "Sure. In the war with Israel in the seventies, the Egyptian army used Nubian radio operators, because the Israelis could understand Arabic but not our language. They could never penetrate our communications." He paused as if to say something, and then half turned away, with hand on the tiller and the boat's timbers creaking softly around us.
e) Finally we reach our destination: Sehel Island, the last island before the First Cataract and from where I was hoping to glimpse those famous rapids. We pulled along shore and Yasser says: "10 minutes," and off I go towards the southern end, past a few gentlemen sitting under the shade of a tree and some brightly painted Nubian houses. I reach the guardhouse and the guardsman with the inevitable exchange of baksheesh and scramble up the rocks towards the top of the hill.

Below lay the First Cataract, the legendary source of the Nile. It was a mere trickle, and I could hardly trace the waters amid the shrubs and bare rocks which used to be covered in torrents of foam before the building of the dams. It was a major impediment to travel, and for the Ancient Egyptians marked the boundary into Kush and the unknown. Travelers of old had erected a marker behind me on the hill, praying for safe travel.

Further south was the Old Dam, the Temple of Isis, and the High Dam. Beyond the High Dam was Lake Nasser, called by modern Nubians the "Nubian Sea." Still further on the Nile winds south passing through five more cataracts and making a giant S-bend in the Nubian Desert. At Khartoum it splits into the Blue and the White Nile, one arm flowing from the Ethiopian mountains and the other originating from somewhere in Central Africa. The waters flow, past the desert sands, the buried Nubian villages and temples, past the rustling reeds and tumbled rocks of the cataracts, past the ruins and mausoleums and markers and granite.

It was time to leave and I scrambled back towards the waiting felucca. Yasser cast off for our return to Aswan, only now the wind was against us and Yasser had to tack back and forth continuously, struggling against the fresh breeze. Although the Nile current was flowing relentlessly from the ancient life-giving source towards modern Aswan, the wind was unceasingly trying to drive us back south.