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Journey down a valley

The Nile has charmed explorers over centuries and lures them even today with its multiple realities the new-build gaudy kitsch of a modern country sewn together with the colonial charm of ancient Egypt

travel Updated: May 16, 2010 23:21 IST
Jack Shenker
Jack Shenker

If you slip out of Cairo to the south, past the banks of Maadi, tower blocks sweating dust in the evening haze, and under the choking, snarling traffic of the Salah Salem interchange, the dual-carriageways eventually thin out, the cars begin to melt away, and finally smog-streaked and exhausted you'll reach Helwan.

Built on a giant mound that kept it safe from the Nile's annual floods, the town sits opposite the ruins of Memphis; by the 19th century, like the ancient capital that once cast its reflections out across the river, Helwan's beautiful sulphurous springs were showering the town with opulence and exclusivity, a tranquil respite for the well-heeled from the pulsing bedlam of Cairo 25km away.

Gazing gently over the start of the old agricultural road, which threads its way down through the Nile's banks for another 1000 km into Africa, Helwan at least on paper seems like the perfect place from which to launch a lazy self-drive adventure down the length of Egypt.

The only hitch is that the air is laden with cement dust, the streets are roaring with the din of grinding steel works, and inhospitable policemen keep swarming over the car every time we stop to spread out the map. Let the relaxation commence. The Nile, reckoned by most to be the longest waterway in the world, has been no stranger to traveller cynicism in the hundreds of thousands of years it has been flowing north from Rwanda's far-flung Nyungwe rainforest, out into the mouth of the Mediterranean. The river's contradictions have always enraged as much as enchanted; the 10th century Baghdad-born adventurer Ebn Haukal grumbled over its elusive source, whilst in 1737 Frederick Norden, a Danish Captain sent by his king to investigate Egypt, observed that it was hard to appreciate the glories of the Nile whilst being constantly harassed by boatmen a sentiment no doubt shared today by those trying to follow in Norden's footsteps.

By the time the industrial revolution began to cast a black pallor over the Nile's blue water, Pierre Loti, the late 19th century French naval officer and novelist, could muster nothing but scorn for the modern riverbank, bordered as it was by factories and shrouded in soot. "Today the foreigners are masters here, and have wakened the old Nile wakened to enslave it," he thundered in his book The Downfall of the Nile, published a century ago. "They have disfigured its valley... silenced its cataracts, captured its precious water by dams... Soon there will scarcely be a river more dishonoured than this, by iron chimneys and thick, black smoke."

With such an appalling write-up by its reviewers, its little surprise that 21st century tourists usually elect to skip out the dubious pleasures of the Nile Valley altogether, apart from some selective felucca dabbling in Cairo and Luxor. The vast majority of foreign holiday-makers who want to take in those two great cities opt to scale the bulk of Upper Egypt by plane, soaring down the spine of Egypt from one tourist metropolis to the other in an air-conditioned forty-five minutes of packaged comfort. And it's not just pretentious carping that keeps them off the ground; throughout the early and mid-1990s the Nile-side towns and villages south of Cairo formed the breeding-ground of the country's deadly Islamic insurgency, which killed over a thousand including tourists and left in its wake, a crippling web of police checkpoints, convoys and security restrictions across the region. Add to that the unenviable reputation of Egypt's creaking road network, with its randomly-scattered gaping potholes, high-speed lorries, crop-carrying donkey carts and legions of drivers for whom headlights are viewed as an unnecessary waste of energy, even in the dark, and you can see why Cairo's car rental outlets are not exactly heaving with tourists eager to drive down south.

Which is a shame

Because it's here on the banks of the Nile Valley, where life hums within a narrow band of lush greenery on either side of the river, before petering out starkly into barren desert, that Egypt showcases both the full breadth of its distant past and the ongoing struggles to shape its future. Granted, there are low points the manufacturing smokestack of modern Helwan (mutated from its spa-origins during the Nasser era) being one of them. But there are also sprinkled gems, and unlike in Cairo, where the blinding energy of the city can leave the subtler nooks and crannies bleached out to the passing eye, or in Luxor, where the touts and hawkers smother everything of interest in a blanket of plastic trinkets, Egypt's Nile Valley serves up a manageable space and pace for tourists to navigate the country's perdurable relationship with the river.

Uneasy co-existence

It was in Fant after night had fallen and the road was thick with shadows, that we noticed the neondecked minarets hanging ethereally in the sky. With their bases shrouded in riverbank foliage, they took on the appearance of soaring daggers suspended in mid-air, a fitting conclusion to a day dominated by symbols of higher power on the highway. Alongside its Muslim majority population, Egypt boasts a 12-million strong community of Coptic Christians and large numbers have found their home along the Nile; drive south by the river and you'll see the crosses of churches and monasteries embedded deep within a long conveyor belt of roadside mosques, stretching from tiny stone outposts to towering Disneyfied bubble-domes.

Relations between Copts and Muslims in the Nile Valley have often come under strain; sectarian clashes over land use have dominated local headlines in recent years and our route down to Luxor would eventually take us through Naga Hammadi, the scene earlier this year of a drive-by shooting which killed six Christians (and a Muslim security guard) as they left a Midnight Mass on Coptic Christmas Eve. But such tensions feel relatively isolated in villages like Gebel el-Teir ('Bird Mountain'), perched dramatically 130 m high on a cliff-top just north of el-Minya, a key provincial capital. An old hitch-hiking sheikh whom we'd gathered on the way up filled us in on the history behind the name. Legend has it that on the annual feast day of the village monastery, Deir el-Adhra ('Monastery of the Virgin'), built on the site of a 4th century cave chapel, all of Egypt's birds would come to rest at Gebel el-Teir for a few days, just as the Holy Family are believed to have done on their epic journey through Egypt.

Inside the monastery on the day we visited were men with microphones crouched between great stone pillars flooded with natural light; outside the whole curve of the valley seemed to sweep out before us, carpet parcels of alfalfa unfurling either side of the glittering river, speckled with palm trees, softlychugging water pumps, and in one corner a blindingly-white limestone quarry ascending in powdered ridges from the ground.

The reverie was interrupted by the sudden appearance at our side of Bishoul, an eleven-year-old who had proudly given the church service and his attendant family the slip, and was now eyeing us with affable curiosity whilst sucking on a lollipop. "Everyone else is fasting," he confided guiltily, jerking his thumb at the congregation inside. "Do you want me to give you a tour?"

Within seconds we were plunging down tiny back alleys and hidden stairwells with Bishoul's unceasing commentary piercing the muggy afternoon air. "If you like this stuff," he said, "you should really check out the Red and White Monasteries in Sohag. Now they're really cool."

The lure of the south

It was a wrench to leave el-Minya, 'the Bride of Upper Egypt' where our beds were cabins on a 19th century Nile-moored Mississippi steamer, dinner took the form of sumptuous meat grills at the incomparable restaurant Bondoka

First Published: May 16, 2010 23:21 IST