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.

 

Would I Go Back to Senegal?

Because of spending a month in Senegal in October 2017, I came to feel a real appreciation for the country and its people.  Once I start to feel that level of connection, I find myself wanting to go back, and I do feel that pull to return to Senegal for a visit.

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal. Photo copyright 2017 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

What would I do if I went back for a visit?  This is my wish list. I really don’t think it would be feasible to do all of these things in a single visit, but I would enjoy doing what I can!

  1. Visit the local people that I had an opportunity to get to know during my month there. Reconnect, get an update on their lives.
  2. Return to Pink Lake with a swimsuit, and go for a swim in the salt water.
  3. Return to Terrou-Bi, which was the original hotel that we stayed at for our first two weeks in Senegal, before we had to change hotels.  Go for walks at sunset along its stretch of beach.
  4. Dine at the seafront restaurants in the Almadies part of Dakar. That was something I was really fond of doing when I was there the first time!
  5. Go inside the African Renaissance Monument, and climb to the top to look out of the windows in the man’s crown.
  6. Seek out opportunities to see performances of sabar music and dance. Perhaps even take lessons in sabar dancing myself.
  7. Seek out a ndeup ceremony.
  8. Go back to Gorée Island, and this time allow a full day to explore the entire island.

Will I actually go?  It’s hard to say.  I’d like to have at least one travel companion that I can dine with, plan with, and share the experience with.  I also would need to figure out how it fits into everything else going on in my life. For now, it’s on the back burner.  But life can take interesting directions, and if the right opportunity were to present itself, I’d be happy to return.

Pink Lake in Senegal
Mauricio Andrade, one of my IBM Corporate Service colleagues from Brazil, enjoys a swim in the salty water of Senegal’s Pink Lake.

Gorée Island and the Door of No Return (Île de Gorée et la Porte Sans Retour)

Because of Dakar, Senegal’s location on the western tip of Africa as shown on the map above, it served as one of many ports along West Africa used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1536 through 1848. Just off Dakar’s coast is Gorée Island, one of the locations where captured Africans were kept before loading them onto the ships. Its name in French is Île de Gorée. Academic sources differ in their views of how prominent Dakar and Gorée Island were in the slave trade as compared to other West African locations, but most agree that some level of trafficking did occur here. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site stands to remind us of the atrocities of the African Holocaust.

Barack and Michelle Obama visited Gorée Island with their family in 2013. Nelson Mandela visited it in 1991.

Getting to Gorée Island

I went to Gorée Island on a Saturday, and found that it wasn’t a optimal day of the week to go. Many tour groups go there on the weekends, and consequently the process of touring the island and its historical sites can be a bit chaotic.  Some of my coworkers opted instead to go on a Wednesday, and they enjoyed much lower crowd levels.

A ferry boat runs several times a day to take visitors to Gorée Island. On a Saturday, it’s important to arrive at the ferry ticket counter at least 45 minutes before the ferry’s departure time, because the lines to purchase tickets are quite long. If you don’t allow enough time, the ferry might leave while you’re still standing in line waiting to buy your ticket.

Gorée Island, as Seen from the Ferry Approaching It
This is the view of Gorée Island from the ferry on the way there.

Reflecting on History

When the ferry docked, one of the first sights we came to was the Statue of Liberation.  France gave this sculpture to Senegal in 2006 as a gift to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.

Gorée Island, the Statue of Liberation
The Statue of Liberation stands on Gorée Island, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal.

The House of Slaves (La Maison des Esclaves)

The primary feature that people visit on Gorée Island is the House of Slaves.  This is a museum that memorializes the African people who were imprisoned there awaiting their passage to the West. Although the first record of slave trading at Gorée Island dates from 1536, the building that is known as the “House of Slaves” was built in 1776.  It is the last remaining such structure on the island.

Some academic sources challenge whether this building was ever actually used for the slave trade. There is also a debate over how many people were shipped out from Gorée Island as opposed to other West African ports.  I am not qualified to judge who is correct. Therefore, for purposes of this blog which is about my travels to Senegal, I will describe what the Senegalese people believe about their own history, which is that the House of Slaves was indeed one of the places used as a place to keep prisoners until they could be loaded on ships bound for the Western Hemisphere.

The building is a two-story structure. Wealthy European slave dealers lived with their families on the upper floor, while the captives lived on the ground floor in misery.

Holding Cells

According to the guides at Gorée Island, men were held in one cell, adult women in one, girls in one, and young children in a fourth.  The photo below shows the room that was used for the men. Its dimensions are approximately 8 feet (2.6 meters) long by 8 feet wide, and up to 30 men would be crammed into it at once.  The men would need to stand or crouch all the time, with not enough room to lie down or sit.  The room contains no toilet facilities, and therefore its occupants were forced to live in their own filth.

Gorée Island's House of Slaves, the Men's Room
This room in Gorée Island’s House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) was used to hold men awaiting their departure on the slave ships.

Parents were separated from their children. Adult women were held in one room, and young children in a separate cell for children.  Young girls were kept in a special room with slightly better conditions than the others.  Men would come to that room to select a girl for an evening of sexual assault.

All of the captives were kept chained and shackled, and fed once a day. The unsanitary conditions led to many problems with disease. The narrow windows allowed in very little light.

When I later read claims by some historians that enslaved people were never kept in the Maison des Esclaves awaiting passage to the West, I remembered gazing at the thick walls and narrow windows, thinking at the time how perfectly constructed they were to prevent escape.  The architecture definitely brought to mind some sort of dungeon. Historians may be correct that this site hosted less trafficking activity than others in West Africa, but I believe there was some.

Prisoners who attempted to escape or rebel were moved to the “room of the recalcitrants” as punishment. This was a small, damp, windowless room that lay beneath a stairwell. The tour guides said that few made it out alive.

Historians estimate that prisoners were typically kept at the House of Slaves about 3 months before being loaded onto ships.

The Door of No Return (La Porte Sans Retour)

Tour guides at Gorée Island state that this door led to a wooden wharf used for loading the captives onto the slave ships.

Gorée Island House of Slaves, Door of No Return

According to tour guides, as prisoners were led through this door and onto the walkway to the slave ships, they were shackled in pairs, each with a 3-pound iron ball attached to his or her leg irons.  Prisoners who tried to leap off the walkway to escape would drag along the companions that were shackled to them.

A rocky beach (shown below) lies beneath the walkway.  According to tour guides, if a prisoner managed to make it to the water, the iron ball would prevent them from swimming to freedom.  Still, guides say some people did make the attempt, often choosing suicide as being preferable to the fate that awaited on distant shores.

Gorée Island, the Rocky Beach Below the Door of No Return

Closing Thoughts

There are many additional things to visit on Île de Gorée besides its House of Slaves museum. There are small beaches, picturesque colonial buildings, restaurants, and more.  However, I did not visit any of these things.

While visiting the House of Slaves, I felt a strong sensation of oppression, of suffering.  The last time I felt something like that was when I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany.   A feeling that great evil had happened there.  I felt a very strong pull to get away, and return to the mainland. Was it lingering spiritual energy of those who suffered there in the past, or simply an overactive imagination?  I can’t say.  Whichever it was, it was strong enough to draw me to the ferry, without exploring the rest of the island.

Despite the debate by historians on this island’s history and role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I highly recommend it as a place to visit if you are visiting Senegal.  I recommend walking through the House of Slaves, looking at the holding cells with their narrow slits for windows, listening to the tour guides, and gazing out through the Door of No Return. Doing these things brings a strong awareness to the history of the African diaspora that simply reading a textbook does not. It’s a place to reflect, and to honor the memory of those who suffered.

I hope someday to return to Senegal for another visit, and if I do perhaps I’ll return to Gorée Island to see the parts I didn’t visit on this trip.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/