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. One of these days, I need to ask why this tradition exists.
On the Outside
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).
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:
On the Inside
It is also common to find crocodiles mounted on the walls indoors, such as this Nubian home.
Below is another view of a Nubian home with a crocodile over a door:
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?
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:
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.
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:
About the Photo at the Top of this Page
The photo at the top of this page shows the ancient Egyptian god Sobek, who was often depicted in Egyptian art as either a crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile.
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.
Other Posts Mentioning Aswan on this Site
On the Nile Near Aswan, Egypt A photographic tour of the sights that you’re likely to see if you take a ferry or felucca boat for a ride on the Nile at Aswan.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After visiting Gharb Sahel, the return trip on the boat offers additional scenic views along the Nile.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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:
I’ve been to Egypt 13 times since my first visit in 1999, and often when I tell people I’m planning another trip, they’re astonished! Many of my friends and family are mystified by this. They ask me, somewhat disbelieving, “Why???? Haven’t you seen it all already?”
The short answer is, “I love Egypt!”
The longer answer is that Egypt offers much more to appreciate than pyramids. I do find ancient civilizations fascinating, and I always enjoy returning to my favorite Pharaonic temples, tombs, and monuments. But, that’s just the beginning of what I love about Egypt.
Many spectacular historic buildings remain as testimonial of bygone times. I continue to discover beautiful architectural jewels, including mosques, houses, wikalas, cisterns, and more. This photo shows the interior of a historic Ottoman home known as Bayt Suhaymi, which was built in 1648:
I also enjoy the modern-day vibrant neighborhoods of traditional cultures, such as beautifully decorated Nubian houses. The photo below shows an interior room of a Nubian house in Gharb Saheil, a neighborhood of Aswan.
Incredible History AFTER the Era of the Pharoahs
Egypt has long been an important centerpiece of Islamic culture, and actually remains so today. From 1174 to 1517, the Fatimid Caliphate was centered in Egypt. The al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded in 970, and remains an important center of scholarship in the Koran.
In addition, Egypt was a prominent stop for trade caravans. During the time of the Crusades, Saladin built a landmark called The Citadel to protect Cairo from the Crusaders if they should ever make it all the way to Egypt. (They didn’t.)
This photo shows the minarets of the Mosque of al-Muayyad rising above Bab Zuwayla, which is a gate to the city of Cairo dating back to the 11th century.
Cairo is rich in museums that celebrate its history, such as the Citadel, the Islamic Art Museum, and the Oum Kalthoum museum. In Aswan, the Nubian Museum pays tribute to the ancient, vibrant culture of the Nubian people that coexisted with the Pharaohs.
Everywhere I turn in Egypt, I find signs of bygone times. I learn so much about history by simply learning the stories behind the places I visit.
Egypt has served as a crossroads for many ethnic groups throughout history, including the people of ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Bedouins, the Nubians, the Amazigh of the Western Desert, and more. Each of these cultures enjoys its own distinct traditions of music, dance, textiles, and other expressive arts. I take great pleasure in attending traditional cultural shows at El Dammah Theater, the Mazaher Ensemble at Makan Theater, and the tannoura show at Wikala el-Ghouri.
Often, I’m introduced to cultural experiences that are new to me. For example, in 2016, which was my 11th visit to Egypt, I saw a Nubian music concert at the El Dammah theater featuring an instrument known as a rango. In 2018, I saw a concert of Port Said music and dance for the first time. It was also my first time of sitting at a Sufi tent in Luxor listening to the music of a zikr and watching the participants.
The photo below shows a Saidi ensemble performing at El Dammah Theater in Cairo. The musician on the left is playing a mizmar, which is a reed instrument that resembles an oboe. The one on the right is playing an arghool, which is a type of flute.
In addition, Egypt has long been a center for performing arts: music, theater, dance, and cinema. It’s still possible to visit remnants of the entertainment district of the early 20th century, including Emad el-Din Street and Azbakeya Garden. Some of these historic night spots are still open today, such as the Shahrzade next to Alfi Bek restaurant. Historically, Egypt attracted aspiring performers from throughout the Arabic-speaking world who sought fame and fortune.
Today’s vibrant night life in Cairo features some of the top performers in the Arabic-speaking world. I always enjoy going out to enjoy music and dance shows. Even though I have seen some of them before, Egypt’s top performing artists are so inspiring that I enjoy seeing them over and over. This photo from 2017 shows Dina, Egypt’s top belly dancer:
No, I Haven’t Seen it All!
There are many parts of Egypt I have never seen, which I hope to visit someday. My wish list includes the Siwa Oasis, the Fayoum Oasis, the Red Sea area, the town of Mersa Matrouh on the Mediterranean coast, the Amarna archaeological site at Minya, the Suez Canal, and the Hathor Temple at Dendera.
In addition, even when I visit sites I’ve seen before, I often notice things I didn’t previously notice. For example, on my 8th visit to the Edfu Temple I noticed something I’d never seen there before: an image of a liturgical dancer holding his arms in the goofy bent-wrist-and-elbows pose that everybody thinks is representative of ancient Egyptian dance. I’d been looking for evidence that such a dance posture actually existed in ancient Egypt for many years, but somehow never spotted it until my 2017 visit!
Most importantly of all, I have come to feel a deep affection for the Egyptian people. I have come to appreciate their warmth, kindness, and hospitality. Most of all, the Egyptian people are the reason I keep going back.
Related Blog Posts
These links lead to blog posts about some of my experiences mentioned in the above narrative:
Today’s archaeology profession estimates the Pyramids of Giza to be about 4,600 years old. However, because the pyramids are made of stone, traditional dating methods using carbon-14 can’t be used to estimate their age. There really aren’t any good ways to determine when stone structures were built by examining the structures themselves – it is necessary to rely on organic material such as human remains found inside or near the structures.
In the case of the three major Giza pyramids, bodies were not found inside, and therefore the carbon-14 dating has relied on artifacts found on the surrounding plateau, such as remains of bread in a fire pit. It’s a reasonable methodology, but it relies on the assumption that the pyramids were built at the same time as the village that surrounded them. However, what if the three large pyramids were built before the village? What if the village was built on top of something older which hasn’t been excavated yet?
What if the Pyramids of Giza are Older Than Believed?
However, perhaps a clue lies elsewhere to the age of the pyramids?
An ostrich egg was found in a tomb near Aswan that shows 3 triangular structures side by side. According to carbon dating methods, the human remains found in that same tomb were 7,000 years old. Therefore it is reasonable to think objects found in that tomb, including the egg, were equally old. Could the triangles etched on that presumably 7,000-year-old egg represent the pyramids of Giza? Some people think so, while others are skeptics. Alongside the triangles, there’s a marking that some people think could represent the Nile river and the Fayoum Oasis. But again, others are skeptics.
I haven’t seen any debate questioning that the egg itself is 7,000 years old. That seems to be accepted. The debate I’ve seen centers around what the drawing represents. Ie, does it represent the Giza pyramids, Nile River, and Fayoum Oasis as the theorists claim? Or does it represent something else?
The photo at the top of this page shows the view of the egg that I photographed when I visited the Nubian Museum in 2018. It sits inside a glass case with a wall behind it, so there’s a limit to what angle can be photographed. In 2019, I noticed that the museum had changed the angle of the egg that was visible to me, so I took another photo showing a clearer view of the three triangles:
The Meroitic Pyramids Theory and Why It Doesn’t Fit
Some skeptics have suggested that the 3 triangles might represent the Nubian pyramids of Sudan in the Meroitic kingdom of Kush. However, the Sudanese pyramids marked tombs, and were built much more recently (4,600 years ago) than the tomb the ostrich egg was found in (7,000 years ago).
The Nubian pyramids are also much farther south than where the egg was found, in what (during ancient times) would have been a different kingdom from the one governing the Aswan area where the egg was found.
Seeing the Egg for Yourself
Today, the ostrich egg resides in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt. I had the pleasure of seeing it firsthand myself on May 6, 2018 while I was in Aswan. It’s fascinating to look at this 7,000-year-old object and try to come up with alternate theories for what the image is showing. So far, I keep coming back to the conclusion that maybe it does prove that the Pyramids of Giza are older than what mainstream archaeologists currently believe.
I look forward to seeing how future discoveries enhance our insight into the past.
In 2016, I went with a group to El Dammah theater in Cairo to see a show featuring top Egyptian-Sudanese musicians playing Nubian music.
About El Dammah
El Dammah is a small black box theater with about 100 seats that features musicians playing authentic traditional music. The organization that operates it is El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music.
El Dammah presents a show every Thursday night. There are several different musical acts that it rotates through the lineup. So far in my trips to Egypt, I have seen 3 different bands there. One of them was Rango.
El Dammah is located at 30 A El Belaasa St, Abdeen, in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The phone number is +20 115 099 5354, and email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The photo at the top of this post shows Hassan Bergamon playing a musical instrument called a rango, which resembles a xylophone. The small version that was played in this show could be called a kamba. It’s a very traditional instrument from the southern part of Sudan. It nearly died out in the 1970’s, but the art has been kept alive. According to our contact at El Dammah, today there are only 7-8 people left in Africa who still know how to play one.
This photo shows up closeup view of the rango:
The musicians also played additional traditional instruments from Egypt and the Sudan. Below, one of the men is holding a rattle in each hand, which is known as the shukh-shaykh.
Below, we can see Hassan Bergamon playing another instrument, the simsimiyya. It is a type of lyre, which resembles a larger, similar instrument known as the tamboura.
The angle of the photo above makes it difficult to see what a simsimiyya looks like. The photo below provides a clearer view. In it, a member of the El Dammah staff holds up two examples of a simsimiyya.
The drummers served a vital role in the show. They were excellent, and worked very well together with the others as an ensemble. It was truly a memorable performance.
The show opened with a performance of songs while everyone listened, then the musicians started recruiting audience members to get up and dance with them. By the end, the event felt more like a party than it did a music performance, but that was part of what made it such an entertaining evening. The quality of the music was definitely world class!
I’m already looking forward to my next visit to El Dammah, to enjoy whatever music they offer the next time I’m in Cairo!
About My Egypt Travels
For several of my trips to Egypt, I have traveled with Sahra Kent, through her Journey Through Egypt program. El Dammah Theater is one of the places I have discovered through traveling with her. I highly recommend the Journey Through Egypt program to anyone who is interested in a cultural perspective of Egypt.