Visit to a Nubian Village in Egypt
by Humera Ahmed
Almost all tourist visiting Egypt are mesmerized by the grandeur of its ancient monuments. So was I, when I visited Egypt some weeks ago. The awesome complex of pyramids and the gigantic Sphinx at Giza with an unforgettable light and sound show, the massive statues in the rock-cut temples of Abu Simbal at Aswan and the exquisite hieroglyphs and paintings in the temples and tombs in the Valley of Kings at Luxor are so astounding that one overlooks some fascinating aspects of Egypt – the Coptic areas of Cairo and the Nubian villages near Aswan.
I became aware of the Nubian people when we made our way to the jetty to take a boat ride to the temple of Isis which was earlier on the island of Philae now submerged by the Aswan High Dam and relocated on a nearby island of Ajilkia in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam. The place was abuzz with dark-complexioned, curly-haired men and women selling handicrafts, carvings and masks which were distinctively African. I thought they were Sudanese migrants but was told that they were Nubians of Egypt.
Then I learnt about Nubia, the ancient region in Northeastern Africa which extends from the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt to the shores of the Red Sea and southwards towards Khartoum in Sudan and westwards towards Libya. The word Nubia, I was told comes from Nub or gold as the area was rich in it and other metals as well as minerals.
The Nubian civilization goes back to prehistoric times and Nubia was a thriving trading centre. Ancient Nubians had a unique civilisation and language. They ruled Egypt from the 7th to the 3rd Century BC and were known as the 25th dynasty of the Black Pharaohs. During this period they built many pyramids, smaller in size than those at Giza which are located in the northern part of Sudan. But before this period, between 1970 and 1520 BC the Pharaohs of Egypt had conquered Nubia and the Nubians were influenced by Egyptian culture and religion. They later converted to Christianity which they followed till the 15th century when during the Turkish rule they became Muslims. But their religious practice is influenced by local folklore.
In modern times the successive building of dams on the Nile in Aswan displaced lacs of Nubians from their homeland and adversely impacted their way of life. Many Nubians relocated to different cities in Egypt and learnt Arabic and took to new professions. Among the prominent Nubians was the assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Portraying the life and culture of Nubians are writers such as Idris Ali, the musician, Mohammed Mounir and singer Ali Hasan Kuben.
I was curious to learn more of the Nubians. Hence when I learnt that there was a village where the Nubian way of life was being preserved, I decided to visit it. And at about 4 pm, we, that is four other fellow travellers went with our guide to the Village of Gharb Sohail which was a boat ride of 3km on the west bank of the Nile, from where our cruise ship had berthed in Aswan.
Since we were the only passengers on the boat, we felt exclusive and lounged around, watching the idyllic countryside on the banks of the river. We passed houses with domes and were told these were typical Nubian houses and the domes kept the heat out. A kilometre or so into our journey, we sighted on a hill a magnificent building with a splendid dome and were told that it was the tomb of Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Muhammad who died in 1957.
Soon the village came in sight - bright and colourful, houses with domes, walls painted in vibrant blue and curly-headed, dark, chubby-faced children running around. Our itinerary included a visit to one such house where we were to have tea. But before that, we made our way to the village market and were charmed by the colour and variety of the handicrafts, sculptures, carvings, African masks, Nubian musical instrument and textiles in fantastic prints and vibrant colours. There were carpets, bedcovers, table covers, scarves, kaftans etc at affordable rates. I bought two stoles of soft Egyptian cotton and a few fridge magnets depicting Tutankhamen, Nefertiti and scenes from the Pharaoh tombs. Some of the shop owners demonstrated the performing quality of their musical instruments and the little market reverberated with their sounds.
After watching the sunset, we went to a Nubian house which had an ornate door and a painting on the frontage of a crocodile and a tortoise. The crocodile played an important role in Egyptian mythology as well as in local folklore. The temple of Kom Ombo in Aswan is a unique temple comprising two temples, one dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god and the other to Horus the falcon-headed god. The Egyptians feared crocodiles; they, therefore, built a temple to placate Sobek. Even dead crocodiles were revered and their body’s mummified. Many such mummies are on display in the temple. Further, there was a general belief that the crocodile’s testicles had aphrodisiac powers and virility could be acquired by their consumption.
The house was very spacious with a huge hall which functioned as a living room; it was flanked by smaller rooms to accommodate the married sons of the family. The Nubians still live in the joint family system. The Nubians, we were told never married their daughters outside the extended family or the clan but the men did marry outside. Our guide informed that there is at least one African in an Egyptian family which probably explained the curly or fuzzy hair of many Egyptian men.
The walls were painted in blue and displayed scenes of the journey to Mecca, the Kaaba, Mount Arafat and other holy sites indicating that the family had been on Hajj or the Pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the centre of the house was a tank in which a baby crocodile was kept to show visitors; not to be eaten for attaining virility.
After having the refreshing mint tea we decided to leave as the sky outside was darkening. Visitors from Aswan were arriving in boats to spend the evening merrymaking. The place had a carnival atmosphere with bright coloured lights and music filled the streets as our boat left the bank.
I wished we could have spent more time with these interesting people. ***