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

Exploring Nilometers in Egypt

A Nilometer (Nile-o-meter) is a structure in Egypt for measuring how high the annual flood of the river Nile rises each year. Before the 20th century, each year the Nile River would flood in the spring, spreading silt across the land it covered.  This inundation brought life to the region, because the silt it deposited enhanced the fertility of the soil.

The government used the Nilometer readings to determine the taxes for that year.  If the flood level was measured as low, then taxes that year would be low, due to reduced rich silt deposits and possible drought. If the flood level was medium, taxes that year would be high, because medium was the ideal level. If flood level was high, there would be no taxes because the flood was destructive and people needed to recover.

In my travels to Egypt, I’ve seen 3 different Nilometers.  There are others that I have not (yet) had the opportunity to see, but perhaps I’ll get to see them on a future trip! I’ve seen reports that as of today there are fewer than 24 known Nilometers which have been found by archaeologists.

Cairo

The Nilometer in Cairo is on Rhoda Island, a short walk from the Oum Kalthoum Museum. If you visit Cairo, it’s worth a trip to the island to visit both.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This Nilometer is one of the oldest structures in Egypt built after the Arab conquest. The original building at this site was erected in 751 CE, though archaeologists believe there was probably an older Nilometer at this site in Pharaonic times.   This initial structure was destroyed by a heavy flood in 861 CE, so the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil commissioned the current building to replace it.

Although the subterranean portion of the ancient building still stands, its dome was destroyed in 1825 by a nearby explosion.  A restoration was created, using a painting by Fredrik Ludvig Nordenas to provide guidance on what the original looked like.

This is the interior of the dome of the Nilometer in Cairo on Rhoda Island, next to the Oum Kalthoum museum. This section was destroyed in 1825 and reconstructed.  Photo was taken from surface level looking up into the cupola on February 9, 2017.

The instrument for measuring the water’s height is an octagonal column divided into cubits located in the middle of the square stone-lined shaft. This photo shows the central shaft, as you look down from the street-level entrance:

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Today, the tunnels leading from the Nilometer to the Nile are blocked off, and therefore water no longer comes in.

It is possible to descend a flight of stairs into the shaft. There are no handrails along the stairs, so it requires an adventurous spirit to do it! The interior is beautiful.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Kom Ombo

This Nilometer is located at the temple in Kom Ombo, Egypt, a town that lies between Luxor and Aswan. This is one of the temples that Nile cruises stop at, and it’s a very interesting one to tour because it’s dedicated to TWO gods, Horus the Elder and Sobek.

The Nilometer at Kom Ombo is a deep, cylindrical opening into the ground. At ground level, it doesn’t look like much, just a small circular wall.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

It has a tunnel at the bottom that reaches outside the temple walls to allow the flood water to come in.

PHoto copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

Aswan

I have seen this Nilometer near Aswan from a boat on the river, as we floated past Elephantine Island where it resides. I haven’t yet set foot on the island to see its entrance from above. Archaeologists believe it is the oldest Nilometer in Egypt.

For most of ancient Egyptian history, Elephantine Island was the southern border of the Pharaonic kingdom. For that reason, the flood waters would reach this Nilometer first, before flowing downstream to the rest of the kingdom. It provided early insight into what growing conditions the country as a whole could expect.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jewel. All rights reserved.

This Nilometer at Elephantine Island was mentioned in the novel River God, by Wilbur Smith.

Ones I Haven’t Seen

Someday, I hope to see other Nilometers in Egypt. There’s one in the Nile delta at the ancient city Thmuis, which is near the modern city of El Mansoura. Archaeologists estimate it was build in the 3rd century BCE. I learned about this one from a National Geographic article about it.

The beautiful temple of Isis that resided on Philae Island had two Nilometers.  However, in the 1960’s, because of Aswan Dam constructions, about 1/3 of the temple’s buildings became flooded year round. The Philae temple was dismantled and moved to Agilkia Island as part of the UNESCO effort to save temples threatened by the completion of the Aswan High Dam. I don’t know yet whether Philae’s surface-level Nilometer structures were moved and reconstructed when the temple was moved. I have toured Philae about 5 times on my various trips to Egypt, and the guides didn’t point out any Nilometer remnants.  Even if they did, it would be only surface level, without the deep hole down into the ground.  I’ll ask about it the next time I go.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank Wael Mohamed Ali for assisting me with my questions about the Nilometers in the Aswan area.  I’ve appreciated Wael’s services on some of my visits to Upper Egypt as a tour guide and a translator.  He’s very knowledgeable, and a pleasure to do business with!