Visit to typical upper Egypt village

One of the excursions that Trafalgar offered was to visit what they called a traditional village in upper Egypt. The village is part of greater Luxor. From the tour bus, we walked along dusty unpaved streets, past dogs stretched out asleep in the street, and past buildings in all states of repair and construction.

We turned down a side street, between farm fields, to a wooden gate.

We stepped into a covered outdoor space. Concrete benches covered with rugs ringed the large space.

Our tour guide introduced our host as a former Trafalgar employee, but also a successful lawyer, and husband to a British woman. He opens his ancestral house in the little village once a week for tour visitors from Trafalgar and from a couple related companies. He was a tall imposing man. He wore the local traditional galabeya, a sleeved heat-to-toe loose garment. He was gracious, articulate and welcoming.

He explained that the inhabitants of this village are mostly his extended family. Income in the village is shared by all, to contribute to weddings, funerals, and village infrastructure. 

Almost all the residential buildings in the village include raw concrete columns with exposed rebar at the top levels. Our host said that this unfinished construction anticipates the next marriage. At the time of the marriage, if there’s collectively enough money, they – the family, the village – can add an apartment for the newly married couple. Traditionally, the eldest son marries before his next youngest brother, who in turn marries before the next brother, and so on. It’s the same sequence for the daughters. 

Our host invited us to sit around the edges of the covered patio. He offered us all pieces of today’s bread, which was fragrant and moist; and a glass of very hot unsweetened mint tea. He explained how the women baked the traditional bread in the clay oven in a corner of the patio. 

He introduced us to his half Egyptian half British son, about 19, who was handsome, gracious, and spoke nice British English. Our host said that his son was studying cybersecurity though a British online program. 

After the bread and tea, our host invited us to walk through the house. The walls, floors and ceilings were rough and dusty. Simple beds lined the walls. A young niece – apparently one of many – sat on one of the beds, watching us all calmly, replying to each hello with modest interest. Behind these rooms, we glimpsed a basic kitchen with gas-stove flames. Chickens scurried around behind the house. We peered at everything, felling a little awkward traipsing through someone’s house. We also couldn’t quite match this simple low-tech house with what we’d learned about our prosperous lawyer host, his wife who preferred a modern life, and his son who studies cybersecurity online. 

Working camels of the neighborhood

Later, when we were having lunch on the cruise boat, seated at one of the big round tables that we shared with our fellow tour travelers, we started talking about our experience.  We mentioned that we thought our host and his family must live in a more modern house somewhere else; that this house was the grandfather’s house, and reflected how things used to be. One of our fellow diners is woman who has lived in LA for a long time, but who had immigrated from El Salvador. And another woman had immigrated to the US from the Philippins. Both of these women pointed out that, in their former countries and elsewhere, their experience was that people do indeed live in such simple poor places. They seemed a bit offended that in this case we speculated that this house tour was contrived, even if based on an older reality. We felt chastened, having been insensitive to the reality of many people around the world. 

In the end, we just don’t know what we experienced. Indeed many people live here in Egypt and elsewhere in precarious situations. But there are also many people who, while “poor” by US and European standards, live lives with clean homes, internet and media access, access to public utilities. 

This village tour seemed to be a mixture of authenticity and show. 

Visit to a Nubian village

While in Aswan, in far south Egypt, we had the opportunity to visit what was billed as a Nubian village. After our visit to a “typical upper-Egyptian village” a few days before, we were hesitant to experience another awkward house tour. However, this was likely the only time in our lives that we’d have this opportunity. 

First, a bit about Nubia: The region south of the modern High Dam of Aswan is called Nubia by the Egyptians. The residents themselves call the region Kush. Today, the Nubian region extends across southern Egypt and through much of Sudan. “Nubian” means land of gold. The ancient Egyptian pharaohs gave Nubia this name since Nubia was their source for gold. In the 13th century BCE, Pharaoh Ramses II married a Nubian woman, Nefertari. She was reportedly the love of his life. But his first motivation to marry her was to gain access to Nubian gold and to assure that Nubian warriors would fight for Egypt. Nubian and Egyptian history and cultures have always been interwoven. 

The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s flooded a vast amount of Nubian land. The result is today’s Lake Nasser. Lake Nasser is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Its surface area is more than 5,200 km2 or 2,000 sq mi (which is larger than the area of Delaware).

According to our guide, during the construction of the High Dam, the Egyptian government relocated the soon-to-be displaced Nubians to newly constructed villages with fresh infrastructure, jobs in Aswan, and access to education. The older Nubians were not at all happy. Along with losing their ancestral land and way of life, they lost access to the graves of their ancestors. The young generations, however, soon saw these new villages as their home. 

Today, out of 105 million Egyptians, 400,000 are Nubian. Our guide asserted that because Nubians, whose skin tends to be darker than that of the Egyptians, have for thousands of years been culturally Egyptian, there is no discrimination between Nubians and Egyptians.

The Nubian language is different from standard Arabic and the distinct Egyptian dialect. Nubians start teaching their young children Nubian first before going to school where Arabic is the language of teaching. 

Our host for this visit was Mohamed Arabi. He presents himself as the Bird Man of Aswan because of his knowledge of the flora and fauna of this part of the Nile near Aswan. On our boat ride to the village, among some small islands in the river, he pointed out many of the water birds and riverside plants.

As he told it, he realized decades ago that some of the displaced Nubians needed a village home that connected them with their traditions. He started the construction of a few houses along the river. As the years went on, he and his partners continued to add to the settlement. Today, we find a full-fledged village. While the initial objective was to provide supportive housing, today the village shows visitors like us an aspect of Egyptian / Nubian culture.

He proudly showed us what he called a typical extended family house. The amount of colorful decoration as well as the tidiness of this house contrasted a lot with the other Egyptian house we had visited. Our host told us that rain is extremely rare here, perhaps falling once every 4-5 years. Mid-summer temperatures reach over 50 degrees C or 122 degrees F. Because of these harsh conditions, Nubian houses are composed of tall domed chambers. This form lets the hot air rise, which keeps the air moving.

While rain is very rare, Saharan sandstorms are not. Especially during the period from March to May, storms can blow through and dump one to two feet of sand on everything. Imagine having to dig out two feet of sand a few times a year.

The layout of the house we visited included large shaded communal spaces, encircled by bedrooms and other private rooms.

If you live here and you’re the last one to go to bed, you have a specific responsibility. You must sweep all the sand in the shared spaces smooth. Then, in the morning, the first folks up can check for scorpion or snake tracks. You then can ferret out the intruders and get rid of them. Sleep tight!

A few more images:

A demonstration of the local henna tattoos
While Nile crocodiles haven’t lived in the lower Nile since the 1950s, that doesn’t stopped some people from bringing a few in for show.
Some hookahs
Always some space for commerce
Local spices and grains along the stair

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