There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, “Come and find out”.

Date: 31 May 2022

Location: Benben Hotel, Philae Island, Aswan

I am already intimated by Egypt. Like, nervous to look out the plane window intimidated. I can’t really explain it, but I’m definitely alive to it as we take the short flight from Cairo “up” to Aswan –  the country’s south, but its top. 

Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s Africa, and that the way that continent is brought to life in Western storytelling is unsettling. If, say, Asia is picked out all in bright lights and the colour red, painted as the technological metropoli of the future, then Africa is a vast desert, the colour black and the ghost of transgressions past. It is voodoo and cannibals. It’s is Stanley and Livingstone and colonialist crimes. It it’s tribal warfare and the kidnapping of little schoolgirls. It has a Heart Of Darkness. Gorillas in the mists. It is waterfalls higher and louder than you can imagine, jungles impenetrable, coastlines pristine. It is famine. It is safaris. It is a place where people disappear. It is the cradle of humanity. But of course, Africa is none of those things and all of those things. 

Admittedly, the red eye flight from London has left me weary and creaky, emotions rubbing close to the surface, as flights so often do. Perhaps I’m just being silly. 

I do, eventually, look out the window of course — once, mid-flight, to a solid white glare of cruel desert, then once as we land. This latter time is more reassuring. Aswan is all about the Nile and you feel it immediately. (As we’ll be told over and over this week and grow to actually understand, “The Nile is Egypt; Egypt is the Nile”.) Landing, the plane runs along the edge of the river banks, islands rocky, green islands dotting the expanse of blue. 

Aswan is most famous for its dam. Dams. 

There’s the old damn, the one the locals dismiss as being built by the invading British in the early 1900s. (The Egyptians, I will learn, are dismissive of every nation who has dared invade: the Greeks had no sense of aesthetics, the British lack honour, the Nubians don’t know how to make falafel.) The old dam was built to moderate the seasons of the Nile, to provide water for perennial irrigation and flood control.

Then there’s the High Dam, 7 km south, built when the old dam proved unmatched to the task of controlling the Nileks flooding. It’s a marvel of Russian engineering, the worlds largest embankment dam. It is so very huge that it created Lake Nasser, a 550km long, 180m deep artificial lake. 

Both dams have had controversial environmental impacts (including a devastating decrease in the fish population of the river itself and, because of the blockage of silt flowing up from the rest of Africa, a dip in the fertility of delta soil and even a suspected nutrient deficiency impacting anchovies all the way north in the Mediterranean) and the effect of sinking temples and momuments, engulfing them whole to be the purview only of scuba divers who are not afraid of making themselves candy for crocodiles. Two of these relics have been salvaged and we spend our first few days in Egypt admiring these rescued treasures. 

First though, we settle into Aswan. Like everything about this trip, our hotel was booked last minute. I hadn’t fully appreciated — not until I’m standing with my toes on the Nile bank, dizzy and tired from travel — that our hotel is on an island. I don’t think I knew that the Nile had islands? Thankfully, the hotel has sent over a little motorboat and, in a matter of minutes, we’re pulling into a little cove, looking up at a white palace that would look more at home on Santorini. After a sweaty slug up the hill, we check in and I can feel the exhaustion begin to seep out of our pores. The hotel is gorgeous: airy and white, with Nubian touches: brilliant blue doors decorated with brightly coloured yarn, tall slab walls, open wooden slat roofing. We take a Nubian breakfast of falafel, beans, eggs and cheese — and a deep breath. 

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