Every Nubian Home Has a Crocodile…

In my travels to Egypt, I’ve come to know Nubian people in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel.  Although they are certainly Egyptians (and identify as such), they are a distinct ethnic group, different from the Bedouins, Amazigh, and other ethnic groups that together create the rich cultural heritage that makes up modern Egypt.

I’ve heard a Nubian acquaintance named Karim say several times, “Every Nubian home has a crocodile.”  What he means by this is that it is traditional for Nubians to display preserved (dried) crocodiles both inside and outside of their homes.

Why Nubians Display Mummufied Crocodiles

I asked my Nubian friend Gamal Latif, the artist who painted the image at the top of this blog post, about this custom.  His house in Luxor, Egypt doesn’t display a crocodile. He said he used to have one that his family obtained in 1933, but over the years it fell apart. He said that although he could probably purchase one, the point is to catch the crocodile yourself as a sign of your courage and strength.

According to Gamal, there are several reasons for the Nubian practice of crocodile hunting, mummification, and suspension above the door. It is thought to protect the home from the evil eye (envy), and it provides evidence of the strength and courage of the owner of the house.  Also, there’s a belief it will frighten away crocodiles from approaching the house.

In Nubia, crocodiles are not the only animals displayed on houses. Ravens are killed and suspended on the roof of the house to scare other crows and ravens away.  Ravens can harm small chickens, chicken eggs, and pigeons, which is why people don’t want them near their homes.  Nubians also kill scorpions and hung them on the wall, also as a way to deter scorpions from coming near their homes.

On the Outside of Houses

Tourists can visit the Nubian community named Gharb Soheil, which is across the Nile River from Aswan, Egypt. There are two ways to approach it, either by bus or by a boat.  If approaching via bus, it’s likely you’ll see a building with the words “Crocodile House” painted on the outside, and a preserved crocodile mounted on the exterior wall above one of the doors (on the left of this photo).

Crocodile House
This house in the Nubian community of Gharb Soheil features the words “Crocodile House” on its exterior, and a preserved crocodile mounted above the door on the left. Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

This isn’t the only building I’ve seen with a crocodile mounted in front of an entrance.  Here’s another I saw as we drove past:

Crocodile Mounted Above a Door
This home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan, Egypt) displays a preserved crocodile outdoors, above the door. Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

On the Inside

It is also common to find crocodiles mounted on the walls indoors, such as this Nubian home.

Crocodiles Displayed on a Wall of a Nubian Home
This home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan, Egypt) displays preserved crocodiles on the walls indoors. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Below is another view of a Nubian home with a crocodile over a door:

Crocodile on an Indoor Wall
This home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan, Egypt) displays a preserved crocodile above a door indoors. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

One of the Nubian homes I have visited at Gharb Soheil also displays three crocodile skulls outdoors in the yard. Can you find them all?

Crocodile Skulls
This home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan, Egypt) displays the skulls of crocodiles outdoors in its yard. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Living Crocodiles

There are a number of Nubian homes in Gharb Soheil who make part of their income by allowing tour groups to visit and look around.  They will often spend some time talking about Nubian culture, and answering questions.  Some of these keep live crocodiles on hand in a terrarium to show the tourists:

Crocodile in a Terrarium
This home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan, Egypt) has a terrarium with live crocodiles. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Once a crocodile outgrows the terrarium, the family takes it back to the Nile to release it into the wild.  They need to take it to the south side of the Aswan Dam, because it’s illegal to release crocodiles into the northern part.

One time I asked Karim to tell me how they go about transporting a full-grown crocodile and releasing it without getting attacked in the process.  He told me they wrap a scarf around its jaws, to hold them shut, and they wrap a second scarf to secure the tail next to the body.  (An adult crocodile’s powerful tail can easily sweep a person off his feet.)  Next, several of them lift the crocodile into the back of a truck, and drive it to the shore of the Nile. Upon arrival, they remove the crocodile from the truck. Then comes the delicate process of removing the scarves.  He said typically the crocodiles don’t stay around to attack.  They’re happy to head straight for the water and swim away.

The Nubian homes who feature these tours generally acquire their crocodiles by collecting crocodile eggs.  They hatch the eggs, then raise the baby crocodiles to adulthood.  It is possible for tourists to pose for photos with the babies, as I am doing here.  I have noticed that the Nubians handle the baby crocodiles carefully, to avoid harming them.

Here I am, holding a baby crocodile at a Nubian home in Gharb Soheil (a Nubian community across the river from Aswan). Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Other Places Crocodiles Turn Up

Sometimes you’ll encounter preserved crocodiles in other interesting places.  For example, Karim displays this crocodile head on his boat. It has a plastic fish in its mouth:

Crocodile Head on Boat
A preserved crocodile head appears on a Nile ferry boat operated by a Nubian named Captain Karim. Photo copyright 2015 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Crocodiles Elsewhere

Although the strongest crocodile influence I’ve seen in Egypt has been among the Nubian people, ancient Egyptians have honored crocodiles for thousands of years, going back to the Old Kingdom. Here are some crocodiles I have seen outside of a Nubian context.

Temple of Kom Ombo

The ancient Egyptian god Sobek was often depicted in Egyptian art as either a crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile. The oldest mentions of him appear in the Pyramid Texts of Saqqara, from 4,000 years ago.

Sobek
The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt features many images of the crocodile-headed god Sobek. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

This pillar resides in the temple at the town of Kom Ombo, Egypt.   The temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt is unique because it honors two different gods – Sobek (with a crocodile head) and Horus the Elder (with a falcon head).

Kom Ombo was built during the period of the Greek Pharaohs, from 180 BCE to 47 BCE.  It includes a fabulous on-site Crocodile Museum featuring crocodile mummies. Unfortunately, the Crocodile Museum does not allow visitors to take photos.

Agricultural Museum in Cairo

In 2016, I visited the Agricultural Museum in Cairo and saw these preserved crocodiles on display as one of the exhibits.  This museum began a renovation project in 2017, so at this point I don’t know whether it will still feature this exhibit when it reopens.

Photo copyright 2016 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Other Posts Mentioning Aswan on this Site

Other Posts Related to Nubian Culture at This Blog

On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt

One thing I always try to make time for when I visit Egypt is a boat ride on the Nile at Aswan.  Many Nile cruise itineraries either begin or end at Aswan, so I’d recommend arriving either a day early or staying a day late to allow time for this opportunity to enjoy a scenic, peaceful, beautiful experience.

My favorite boat captain for purposes of enjoying the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

My favorite boat captain to use for cruising the Nile River at Aswan is Captain Karim.  He expertly guides the boat along the Nile, offering close-up views to the many sights along the way, and he speaks enough English to answer questions. If you ask, he’ll play a radio station with Nubian music.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are many scenic views along the Nile River, and this is exactly why I have done this many times.  After spending time in the urban, high-energy environment of Cairo, I look forward to coming closer to nature when I get to Aswan.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

There are two different types of boating experiences you can use to experience the Nile scenery at Aswan.  One is a ferry boat, which is what I was riding at the time I took these photos.  The ferry has an engine which is silent enough that it doesn’t detract from the peaceful beauty of the ride.  The other is a felucca, which is an Egyptian style of sailboat.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Sometimes young boys on a small raft will paddle out to meet your boat.  These young buskers sing to you, hoping you will tip them for the entertainment they provide.

I personally enjoy the boys, so when I see them approach, I’m inclined to give them an Egyptian five-pound note.  I used to give them just one pound, but Egypt’s economy has experienced significant inflation since 2011’s revolution, so I tip in higher amounts now than I did in 2010.  You may be wondering what songs they use to serenade you.  The ones I’ve heard the most are “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Frère Jacques”.

Sometimes young boys will paddle out to the boats on the Nile and sing to the passengers, in hopes of receiving tips. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

One of the landmarks you’ll see on the western bank of the Nile River at Aswan is the steep hill containing Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles.  High on the top of that hill is a structure known as Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind, which marks the tomb of a long-ago Islamic sheikh named Aly Abu el-Hawa.  I have also heard people refer to this structure as the watchtower because of the expansive view it offers of the Nile valley. The entire mountain is also sometimes referred to as Qubbet al-Hawa, encompassing the Pharaonic tombs in addition to el-Hawa’s tomb.

I have personally never climbed this mountain to explore its sights.  There is no road that a taxi or tour bus could use to take you there.  The only way to approach it is from docking the boat on the bank of the Nile River at the bottom of the hill.   From there, you can either ride a camel up the hill, or you can hike up.  If you want to use a camel, it’s best to prearrange for that, because there often are not any camels waiting at the bottom.

Aswan Valley of the Nobles and Qubbet el Hawa
High on a hillside above the Nile River near Aswan lies Qubbet el-Hawa, the Dome of the Wind. On the hillside below it lies Aswan’s Valley of the Nobles. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Another hillside on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan features the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III,  Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, the 48th Imam of Nizari Ismailis.  He was born in the city of Karachi, which lies in modern-day Pakistan, and he assumed his title of Aga Khan at age eight, after his father died. His tomb was built in the style of the historic Fatimid tombs that can be seen in Cairo today.

Although the Aga Khan was from Pakistan, Egypt held a special place in his heart because it was there that he met his French wife, Yvette Blanche Labrousse. She took on the name Begum Oum Habiba after they were married.  Below the Mausoleum, behind the trees in this photo, is the villa where the Aga Khan and his family spent their time when they came to Egypt for visits.

Locals report that after he died, the Aga Khan’s fourth and final wife used to visit his tomb in the Mausoleum every day and lay a red rose on his grave. When she died in 2000, she was laid to rest next to him.

The Mausoleum of Aga Khan III looks down at the Nile River at Aswan. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

On another hillside, a historic monastery looks down on the Nile.  This monastery, which dates back to the 7th century, was originally dedicated to a local saint named Anba Hedra who renounced the world on his wedding day. It has also been known as Deir Anba Sim’an. In the 10th century, it was dedicated to Saint Simeon.  In the past, it housed about 300 monks. The troops of Salah ed-Din (Saladin) partially destroyed this facility in 1173.

There are no roads for vehicles leading to this monastery.  If you want to visit it, you’ll need to ride a boat across the Nile. Once across, you can either walk up the hill yourself or hire a camel to carry you. If you plan to use a camel, I’d recommend prearranging it.  This area does not always have camels sitting around waiting for something to do.

The Monastery of St. Simeon sits on a hillside above the Nile River at Aswan, Egypt. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Before the Aswan High Dam was built, the west bank of the Nile River at Aswan was mostly uninhabited because of the annual inundation by the river.  As a result of the dam being built, the inundations ended, while south of the dam Lake Nasser arose, flooding the homeland where thousands of Nubian people had lived since ancient times.  Reports vary on how many Nubian people were displaced by the rising lake, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 100,000.  With the inundations ending north of the dam, some of the Nubian people whose ancestral homes now lie under the waters of Lake Nasser have started to develop a community on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan.

A village named Gharb Sahel has arisen, with homes, hotels, shops, and more.  The Nubians who live there have preserved their traditional architectural style, which is highly effective at encouraging ventilation and insulating against the heat.

It is possible to book a tour of one of the Nubian homes in the village.  There are several who are willing to show visitors their architecture and talk about their lifestyles.

The village of Gharb Sahel on the West Bank of the Nile River at Aswan serves as an excellent example of Nubian architecture. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

I have found these tours of Nubian homes to be a highlight of my time in Aswan because of the opportunity to learn more about the culture.  The photo below shows the ornaments that dangle from the ceiling and the table with items for sale.  The cool cat modeling the sunglasses is the ferry boat captain who transported us there, Captain Karim.

Captain Karim poses with my sunglasses. Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.

A boat ride on the Nile at Aswan offers beautiful scenery such as this. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

El Nabatat Island, also known as Kitchener’s Island, is a popular tourist destination because it hosts the Aswan Botanical Garden. Today, the island is owned by the Egyptian government and is used as a botanical research station.  It is possible to arrange a boat ride to the island and walk through the garden.  I have not personally done this, but it’s on my wish list for a future trip to Egypt.

The Aswan Botanical Garden on El Nabatat Island (also known as Kitchener Island) near Aswan, Egypt is popular with tourists. Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Elephantine Island’s history dates back to Pharaonic times, when it was the southern outpost of Upper Egypt, on the border of Kush (Nubia).  The book River God by Wilbur Smith sets some of its action on this island.  One of the items on my wish list for a future visit to Aswan is to visit what’s left of this archaeology site today.   A boat can take you close to its Nilometer for a closeup view, as shown in my photo below.  See my article about Nilometers for more information about this and others.

Today, a hideous, soulless Movenpick Hotel crouches on Elephantine Island, a blight on the scenic landscape of the Nile.  I hate the sight of this eyesore so much that I’m not including a photo in this blog post.

Elephantine Island in the Nile River near Aswan, Egypt is home to a Nilometer which can be seen when riding past in a ferry boat or felucca (sailboat). Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

In ancient times, Aswan’s population included a large number of ethnic Nubians, and still does today.  With the Kush empire (also Nubians) immediately to the south, it was important to the Egyptian Pharaohs who were based in Luxor to ensure that Aswan was governed by someone who was capable of maintaining the respect and loyalty of the Nubian locals.  For that reason, many of the governors in Aswan over the centuries were ethnic Nubian.  Queen Nefertari, who was honored by the temple at Abu Simbel and the spectacular tomb in Valley of the Queens at Luxor was a Nubian princess whose father governed Aswan.

Because of Aswan’s position on the southern border of Egypt’s Pharaonic empire, some boulders along the river feature cartouches that declare Egypt’s claim on this location, as shown in the photo below.

These boulders along the Nile River near Aswan were carved with cartouches during ancient times to mark the southern end of the territory claimed by the Egyptian Pharoah.  Photo copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

A popular Egyptian pop singer and actor named Mohamed Mounir has built a mansion on the banks of the Nile near Aswan, and it is possible to see it from a ferry boat or felucca.  The mansion is the domed building in the foreground of the photo below.  Many of Mounir’s fans refer to him as “The King”.

In Aswan, the home of Mohamed Mounir perches above the Nile River. Copyright 2019 by Jewel, all rights reserved.

Closing Thoughts

When we travel, it can be very tempting to cram our schedules full of every imaginable activity, every day.  This can lead to burnout by the end of a vacation.  I find that the ferry ride on the Nile helps me replenish my energy.  It allows me to spend time in nature, on the river, and it allows me to forget for a while about the frantic schedule that tours often provide.  There’s something fulfilling about being out on the water, simply enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Other Blog Posts About Aswan, Egypt

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these others posts I’ve made about Aswan, Egypt:

    1. Honoring Motherhood in Ancient Egypt’s Temples and Tombs. This one includes Philae as one of the temples it talks about.
    2. Aswan, Egypt: The Mystery of the Ostrich Egg.  An interesting item displayed in the Nubian Museum at Aswan.
    3. What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm in Egypt.  Includes a photo of a sandstorm I experienced in Aswan.
    4. Exploring Nilometers in Egypt.  Includes the one on Elephantine Island, which I included a photo of above.
    5. Fellaha: The Peasant Woman in Egyptian Art. Includes a statue of a fellaha at the Basma Hotel in Aswan.