Parallel — Unparalleled. Travelling on the Nile.

6 August, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have a companion to an exhibition at Villa Schildt in Ekenäs, Finland ( ).

Häggman, Sofia. 2012. Travellers on the Nile. Exhibition 15.6-9.9.2012. Ekenäs. Villa Schildt. A pdf-file of the book can be found and downloaded at the above address or at: the file utstallning_2012_resenarer_pa_nilen.pdf6.28 MB

Travelling up the Nile is a certain kind of journey. Irrespective of our doing it in the mid 19th century, the mid 20th or in the beginning of the 21th, if we chose to stop for a day in Qulusna or spend an evening in mujaheddin, Assiut, looking around, drinking tea and making friends is what we do; as well as listening to good stories about the Roman (and Early Byzantine says the guest) antiquities that will come out of a decent cellar project in that part of town.

But when we pass by a village in Manfalut, a landing place by the Nile that has been there for quite a while, the water front is concrete and pre-Aswan High Dam, the houses mostly old and the satellite dishes modern.

Since the days of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th century, things have been constantly changing in the Nile Valley as they often changed in earlier days too. Yet there is something more than these insights, stopping by drinking tea and making friends that travellers share.

To begin with there is the going up and going down again. Even if we travel by car, rather than by boat, the stops we make going up are new to us as every kilometre is, but going down we detour familiar check points passing through well-known lands, villages and towns. This is not really true, but true enough to make us feel that going up we add the Nile to our personal journey of civilization and going down we travel through our own experience adding a little something here and there.

Before the dams, not least the Aswan High Dam, going up was sailing against currents and fighting the cataracts, impossible some parts of the year, while going down was effortless floating enjoying a victory approaching the beginning as an end in itself – at least in principle – some parts of the year. As Sofia Häggman (SH) points out it is sometimes a bit disappointing when everything comes to en end in Fum al Khalig or a Yacht Club (as well as an AVIS office) in Cairo.

If you are an Egyptian, the Nile is a spine and travelling up and down something one has to do to keep the country going. But to outsiders coming from the North it has often be impossible to understand that Egyptians can be so forgetful of the mind-broadening way of coming to terms with oneself that is travelling on the Nile.


If up-and-down comes first, one might suppose that Pharaonic antiquities, uniting western travellers, comes next. But that is not true. As it happens, one of the great advantages with the old Nile Hilton was its roof-top terrace where the good-humoured Nubian waiters (emblematic of The Nubian) would chat with the late afternoon visitor, when on a less exhaust-smoggy late afternoon the pyramids were visible in a crack in the skyline, and the bar provided a reason not to go there — having already seen them.

What comes second is the fact that travellers are definite about the monuments before they start.

The two travellers that SH writes about turn out to be model Nile travellers. The first, Georg August Wallin (1), in the 1840s, belonged to the minority who went to modern Muhammad Ali Egypt, totally uninterested in Pharaohs, mummies, temples or hieroglyphs. He was there because he could melt in and learn Arabic well enough later on to go to Mecca and pass for a native speaker and a muslim – as indeed he did. The second, Göran Schildt came sailing from Beirut in the beginning of the 1950s specifically to look for Ancient Egypt. Incidently, both Wallin and Schildt had Greece as a backdrop to Egypt – Schildt to find the Egyptian influence on the all-important Greece and individuality – Wallin to have a superior antiquity to hold on to when being not-impressed. Wallin went up the Nile more or less by chance, Schildt on purpose.

Wallin’s nameless dahabiya and Schildt’s motor sailboat Daphne

The sailing united them and it probably convinced Wallin that the trip was a good or at least tolerable idea. From two different attitudes to a changing Egypt they went up to see what would happened in a small adventure intending to come down again with an overview of things. Supported by adventure, therefore, they travelled not least for the benefit of themselves hoping to prove themselves right. And they both wrote about their experience – Wallin for family and eventually newspapers, Schildt planned a book. Wallin was in the company of a painter and Schildt and his wife took pictures.

As SH points out, the Nile, the Egyptians, and their monuments changed both of them. Wallin saw a link between the peasants, the fellahin, of his day and age and the Egyptians behind the ancient monuments. His was a view that disappeared with Orientalism and Schildt, because of Oriantalism and thus not surprisingly, started out being uninterested in moderns Egypt – as it were he preferred to visit the Egyptian Museum rather than accepting an invitation to meet with Gamal Abdel Nasser. But the Nile changed him too when his curiosity made him seen the people, the fellahin, and understand their life – the contrast between the canals and green fields of the Nile Valley, dug and cultivated for thousands of years, and the standing monuments of civilisation – modern, historic or ancient.

Still today, speeding on the tarmac, small green and fertile fields worked by hand and water lifted into canals by donkeys are profitable. As always, the Nile valley is an enormous palimpsest on which the fellahin work to match themselves and the water of the Nile. As soon as it stopped raining in the Nile Valley, sometime in the 6th millennium BCE when water became manageable because it became dependent on a predictable year cycle in Central East Africa, the first canals were dug, fields drained and watered. Promptly, the fellahin began to develop, adjust and enhance their agriculture supplying the surplus that pays for the rest. The third element of the travel, the fellahin changes us.


Successfully travelling on or along the Nile come about for three reasons:

(1) We travel up the Nile as an adventure of our own. We don’t need to explore anything original or new, just something we didn’t know.

It suffice to see the living saint cult in Upper Egypt (buy a book at Gaddis in Luxor to learn more if we wish (2)) and visit graves and shrines on our way back, now that we know what they are.

Brighter hieroglyphs

It suffice to see the bright colours of the nowadays rarely visited graves on the shores of Lake Nasser and have a look at the fading colours in the Valley of the Kings on our way back, now that we can imaging what they looked like.

(2) If we are lucky we travel with a definite foreign idea about Egypt or the Nile Valley. One of the best, i.e. most popular and prejudiced views, is the opinion that there is no connection between pharaonic and modern Egyptians. This prejudice is the best because it is most likely to change.

(3) As it happens, we change our mind by means of talking to the fellahin and to people in the small towns.

And back in Cairo debriefing ourselves sitting in a garden on Zamalek for a couple of days, we are sadly ready once again to become satisfied, but changed Europeans — staying if we could going home as we must.

(1) If Swedish is an option you may read more about his time in Egypt in Sofia Häggman’s book Alldeles hemlikt. Helsingfors. Atlantis. 2011.

(2) If you must know in advance, you can buy Nicholas Hopkins and Saad Reem (eds). Upper Egypt – identity and change. American University in Cairo Press. Cairo 2004.


One Response to “Parallel — Unparalleled. Travelling on the Nile.”

  1. This specific post Parallel – Unparalleled.
    Travelling on the Nile. On the Reading Rest, features genuinely good advice and I learned exactly what I was searching for.
    Many Thanks.

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