…I sat on the deck of a cruise-boat and saw that incomparable Nile landscape with all the intrusions of adult understanding and experience. I saw how beautiful it is. Brilliantly coloured – emerald-green, ochre, feathered all over with the silver-blue of palms, splashed with the jewelled dots of figures in galabiyas of vermilion, salmon-pink, midnight-blue, eau-de-Nil.
– Penelope Lively – Going Back, 1994
It is over a month since I returned from Egypt.
Egypt and the Nile are one. Egypt may look like a large country on the map, but in reality she is shaped like a papyrus reed; a slender green stem with its roots in Africa fanning out as it reaches the Arab world of the southern Mediterranean. For five millennia Egypt has tried to halt the influence of Africa. The great statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel stare down into Nubia commanding the south to turn back. Sixty years ago a modern pharaoh, Abdel Gamel Nasser renounced all territorial claims to the Sudan and subsequently sought a brief but ill fated merger with Syria as a proud statement of Arab nationalism. The towns and cities may be undeniably Arab, but the river has an African quality to it. Africa is there in the mile after mile of banana and sugar cane plantations, the water buffalo cooling off in the river, the languid atmosphere and the Nile light.
To the Romans Egypt had a reputation for luxury, decadence, torpor; Mark Antony succumbing to the charms of Cleopatra and the once martial Greeks weakened by the twin influences of Persia and Africa. Ramses II is frequently depicted smiting his Hittite and Nubian enemies, but their influence won through until defeated by a newer Arab culture. Islam is all pervading; the calls to prayer break the Nile stillness, workers can be seen praying in the fields and in the cities the Friday noontime sermons echo out from hundreds of loud speakers. The Greeks and Romans adopted and adapted the ancient religion of Egypt, either embracing the Gods and religious practices, or recognising them as incarnations of their own deities. The Jews adopted male circumcision, the ark of the covenant, based on the ceremonial boats that transported the Egyptian gods, and the inner sanctum the holy of holies. Islam shows no trace of any Egyptian antecedents.
The marriage of two cultures is best seen in the later temples that hug the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, notably Kom Ombo and Philae, combining Egyptian pylons, with Greek colonnades. But the columns are built from an inferior material, sandstone, and so are heavier, closer together and generally more oppressive than their native Greek cousins. The decoration is larger and more primitive, friezes follow the simple flat two dimensional Egyptian pattern and there is no remaining evidence of classical Hellenistic sculpture, if it ever existed.
Along the Nile the simple farming practices have a timeless quality; fodder crops are cut by hand, small flocks of sheep and goats are shepherded along the river bank and solitary cows graze in low lying pastures. Only sugar cane and bananas are farmed on an industrial scale,although even they are harvested largely by hand. However, the loss of the annual inundation has led to a far greater reliance on agrochemicals. As they become more expensive, will this lifestyle remain economically viable for much longer?
The birdlife of the Nile is one of the great pleasures. At Kom Ombo, a lanner falcon is nesting in one of the pylons. Nothing could be more appropriate, since the temple is dedicated to Haroeris, the adult incarnation of Horus. Kestrels, merlins and kites can regularly be seen, whilst in the river are black and white tailed ducks, just like those painted on tomb walls, solitary heron, egrets and cormorants. But my two favourite birds are the industrious hoopoe, constantly foraging in the undergrowth and the pied kingfisher. Unlike his electric blue cousin, the pied variety is neither shy nor solitary. He is a noisy gregarious fellow and with his constant cry of “baksheesh, baksheesh!” a true Egyptian.