-Taken from the National
-Upper Egypt - May 2010
-Original photography by Jason Larkin
If you slip out of Cairo to the south, past the banks of Maadi tower blocks sweating dust in the evening haze and under the choking, snarling traffic of the Salah Salem interchange, the dual carriageways will eventually thin out, the cars begin to melt away and finally – smog-streaked and exhausted – you’ll reach Helwan. Built on a giant mound that kept it safe from the Nile’s annual floods, the town sits opposite the ruins of Memphis; by the 19th century, like the ancient capital that once cast its reflection out across the river, Helwan’s beautiful sulphurous springs were showering the town with opulence and exclusivity, a tranquil respite for the well-heeled from the pulsing bedlam of Cairo 25 kilometres away. Gazing gently over the start of the old agricultural road, which threads its way down the Nile’s banks for another 1,000km into Africa, Helwan – at least on paper – seems like the perfect place from which to launch a lazy self-drive adventure down the length of Egypt. The only hitch is that the air is laden with cement dust, the streets are roaring with the din of grinding steel works, and inhospitable policemen keep swarming over the car every time we stop to spread out the map. Let the relaxation commence.
The Nile, reckoned by most to be the longest waterway in the world, has been no stranger to traveller cynicism in the hundreds of thousands of years it has been flowing north from Rwanda’s far-flung Nyungwe rainforest, out into the mouth of the Mediterranean. The river’s contradictions have always enraged as much as enchanted. The 10th century Baghdad-born adventurer Ebn Haukal grumbled over its elusive source, while in 1737 Frederick Norden, a Danish captain sent by his king to investigate Egypt, observed that it was hard to appreciate the glories of the Nile whilst being constantly harassed by boatmen – a sentiment no doubt shared today by those trying to follow in Norden’s footsteps. By the time the industrial revolution began to cast a black pallor over the Nile’s blue water, Pierre Loti – the late 19th-century French naval officer and novelist – could muster nothing but scorn for the modern river bank, bordered as it was by factories and shrouded in soot.
“Today the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the old Nile – wakened to enslave it,” he thundered in his book The Downfall of the Nile, published a century ago. “They have disfigured its valley ... silenced its cataracts, captured its precious water by dams ... Soon there will scarcely be a river more dishonoured than this, by iron chimneys and thick, black smoke.”
With such appalling write-ups by its reviewers, it’s little surprise that 21st-century tourists usually elect to skip the dubious pleasures of the Nile Valley altogether, apart from some selective felucca dabbling in Cairo and Luxor. The vast majority of foreign holidaymakers who want to take in those two great cities opt to scale the bulk of Upper Egypt by plane, soaring down the spine of the country from one tourist metropolis to the other in 45 air-conditioned minutes of packaged comfort. And it’s not just pretentious literary carping that keeps them off the ground; throughout the early and mid 1990s, the Nile-side towns and villages south of Cairo formed the breeding ground of the country’s deadly Islamic insurgency which killed more than a thousand – including tourists – and left in its wake a crippling web of police checkpoints, convoys and security restrictions across the region. Add to that the unenviable reputation of Egypt’s creaking road network, with its randomly scattered gaping potholes, high-speed lorries, crop-carrying donkey carts and legions of drivers for whom headlights are viewed as an unnecessary waste of energy – even in the dark – and you can see why Cairo’s car rental outlets are not exactly heaving with tourists eager to self-drive down south.
Which is a shame, because it’s here on the banks of the Nile Valley – where life hums within a narrow band of lush greenery on either side of the river before petering out starkly into barren desert – that Egypt showcases both the full breadth of its distant past and the ongoing struggles to shape its future. Granted, there are low points – the manufacturing smokestack of modern Helwan (mutated from its spa origins during the Nasser era) being one of them. But there are also sprinkled gems, and unlike in Cairo, where the blinding energy of the city can leave the subtler nooks and crannies bleached out to the passing eye, or in Luxor, where the touts and hawkers smother everything of interest in a blanket of plastic trinkets, Egypt’s Nile Valley serves up a manageable space and pace for tourists to navigate the country’s perdurable relationship with the river.
It was in Fant, after night had fallen and the road was thick with shadows, that we noticed the neon-decked minarets hanging ethereally in the sky. With their bases shrouded in riverbank foliage, they took on the appearance of soaring daggers suspended in mid-air, a fitting conclusion to a day dominated by symbols of higher power on the highway. Alongside its Muslim majority population, Egypt boasts a 12-million-strong community of Coptic Christians and large numbers have found their home along the Nile; drive south by the river and you’ll see the crosses of churches and monasteries embedded deep within a long conveyor belt of roadside mosques, stretching from tiny stone outposts to towering Disneyfied bubble-domes.
Relations between Copts and Muslims in the Nile Valley have often come under strain; sectarian clashes over land use have dominated local headlines in recent years and our route down to Luxor would eventually take us through Naga Hammadi, the scene earlier this year of a drive-by shooting which killed six Christians (and a Muslim security guard) as they left a Midnight Mass on Coptic Christmas Eve. But such tensions feel relatively isolated in villages like Gebel el-Teir (Bird Mountain), perched dramatically 130m high on a cliff-top just north of El Minya, a key provincial capital.
An old hitch-hiking sheikh whom we’d gathered on the way up filled us in on the history behind the name. Legend has it that on the annual feast day of the village monastery – Deir el-Adhra (Monastery of the Virgin), built on the site of a 4th-century cave chapel – all of Egypt’s birds would come to rest at Gebel el-Teir for a few days, just as the Holy Family are believed to have done on their epic journey through Egypt. Inside the monastery on the day we visited were men with microphones crouched between great stone pillars flooded with natural light; outside, the whole curve of the valley seemed to sweep out before us, carpet parcels of alfalfa unfurling either side of the glittering river, speckled with palm trees, softly-chugging water pumps, and in one corner a blindingly white limestone quarry ascending in powdered ridges from the ground.
The reverie was interrupted by the sudden appearance at our side of Bishoul, an 11-year-old who had proudly given the church service and his attendant family the slip, and was now eyeing us with affable curiosity while sucking on a lollipop. “Everyone else is fasting,” he confided guiltily, jerking his thumb at the congregation inside. “Do you want me to give you a tour?” Within seconds we were plunging down tiny back alleys and hidden stairwells with Bishoul’s unceasing commentary piercing the muggy afternoon air. “If you like this stuff,” he ventured authoritatively, “you should really check out the Red and White Monasteries in Sohag. Now they’re really cool.”
It was a wrench to leave El Minya, “the Bride of Upper Egypt”, where our beds were in cabins on a 19th-century Nile-moored Mississippi steamer, dinner took the form of sumptuous meat grills at the incomparable restaurant Bondoka (notable also for its Quranic-verse-playing lifts), and the gardened Corniche became transformed each evening into a makeshift playground for partying children and courting couples, a slow-burn urban utopia sewing together antiquated colonial charm and new-build gaudy kitsch. But the Red and White Monasteries sounded intriguing and the route south offered something else as well: an unrivalled window on to the art inspired by the valley, spanning the best part of 4,000 years.
First up lay the sprawling necropolis of Beni Hasan, tombs from the 11th and 12th Pharaonic dynasties paint-clad in weird and wonderful depictions of hunting, acrobatics, sex and politics, all designed to protect the mummified occupants (most of whom were local governors, known as nomarchs) for their passage to the world of the dead.
Today, sleepy moustachioed guards carry on that tradition, keeping most of the vaults firmly locked until some baksheesh is produced and the keys are found. Some have been preserved perfectly with sensitive lighting and carefully controlled air conditioning, while others lie forgotten under a mountain of dust, the exquisitely drawn birds of prey on the wall scratched over with the carved graffiti of many generations of explorers – from the Romans to the French – who have passed this way before. Haunting as they are, the tombs at Beni Hasan failed to move us as much as the nearby modern cemetery at el-Matahira el-Sharqiya, a vast mud-brick resting ground of the deceased from where we watched the sun set over the Nile to the west, with unruffled felucca sails floating serenely through the graves.
It’s the kind of scene that has long inspired Hasan el-Sharq (Hasan of the East), the son of a local butcher who launched a dizzying career out of producing “spontaneous art” inspired by the day-to-day rhythm of the valley around him. Hasan, now in his early 60s, started out using colours gleaned from the spice collection of the village herbalist, smearing them on trees, stones and wrapping paper from his father’s meat deliveries; when we met him in his studio he had the toothy grin and electrified hair of a mad scientist, and quickly set about showing off his many paintings. His subjects ranged from Klimt-esque kneeling couples to morbid figurines peeking out from gravestones and mischievous chess pieces duelling on grotesque boards. “I’m drawn to storytelling,” he told me as we walked over to the new museum el-Sharq is building in his native village of Zawyet Sultan. “I take inspiration from folk epics like that of Abu Zayd el-Halili or the 1001 Arabian Nights, but also of the stories told by the environment around me here. I’ve never had any academic training in the fine arts.”
The elegant yet often cartoonish nature of el-Sharq’s work served as a good introduction to some of the art on display down in the Deir el-Abyad (White Monastery) and Deir el-Ahmar (Red Monastery) when we finally reached them the following day. Built around 400AD to trumpet the victory of Christianity over Egypt’s pagan gods and lying 12km north of the decidedly 20th-century city of Sohag, some portions of the monasteries are now being restored by Egypt’s Supreme Antiquities Council and the removal of centuries of grime has revealed a series of startlingly intricate Coptic frescoes depicting human faces, peacocks and gazelles. The White Monastery featured labyrinthine corridors and Pharaonic columns; the most interesting thing about its Red counterpart was its gangster-like monk, clad in a black gallabiya with a matching bandana on his head, with a woman on each side and a bandage on one hand. Leaning nonchalantly against the souvenir kiosk outside the chapel, he looked every inch the extra from a 1970s mobster flick. “No photos,” he warned quietly before waving us out.
Past Sohag, the sky grew thicker and darker with the heat and dust of an approaching sandstorm. By the time we reached Qena, the last major town en route to Luxor, visibility out of our mud-splattered windscreen had virtually disappeared and the rolling acres of sugar cane that radiated out around us begun to feel faintly apocalyptic, like the final frontier of the Wild West. It was market day and out in the fields clumps of men were hacking down and loading up the cane, armed with tools that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the arms of Beni Hasan’s Pharaonic nomarchs: medieval scythes, palm-twine ropes, and rickety old single-track railway carriages, hauled along by branded camels. As we wended our way towards the town sandwiched between the market delivery trucks, small armies of children descended from the Nile-side alleyways to try and steal a piece of cane for themselves, dodging the furious whips and shouts of the farmers as they did so.
The implements used for farming today may not appear to have changed much over the past few millennia, but the relationship those wielding them have with the Nile Valley land certainly has. Serenaded by palm-leaf avenues and soothed by gurgling freshets, it’s easy for anybody making this extraordinary drive down from Cairo to miss the extent to which the future of these pastures is contested.
“There has been a historical link between the people of Upper Egypt and the land of the Nile Valley, a link which is now being severed,” explained Dr Boutros, a physician who abandoned practice in Cairo to move down to the poverty-stricken villages of Luxor’s West Bank and offer his services there. We were speaking on the final night, at the end of a journey that had taken 10 days to complete, in a car that clocked up more than 1,000km and four flat tyres. “The amount of land stays the same but population is on the rise, mechanisation is increasing, and more and more rural families are forced to diversify.”
Egypt’s unpopular central government in Cairo is stoking the fire further by launching a full-frontal assault on Nasser-era land reforms, including, in some places, sending in state security forces to help seize agrarian land from small farmers and place it back in the hands of long-deposed land barons – a recipe that Professor Ray Bush, an expert on Middle Eastern agriculture at the University of Leeds, says is a “guarantee of continued communal struggles”.
The spidery rebars that poke out of half-finished redbrick buildings all along the Nile’s banks hint at the demographic crisis engulfing Egypt, a country where 95 per cent of the population live within 20km of the river. With the population set to double to 160 million by 2050, the government is now being forced to seek out new urban centres away from the Nile Valley, out in corners of the desert that were hitherto thought uninhabitable. What effect that monumental change will have on the future of the valley itself remains to be seen. In the meantime, its lush olive groves and broken tombs, not to mention the felucca captains and self-made artists, all offer a unique insight into the multiple realities of ancient and modern Egypt. It’s not always a comfortable ride, but it certainly beats reading an inflight magazine on a 45-minute plane flight.