abstract: Aswan is a rare place. It’s a living community amidst the ruins of old settlements. It was a strategic gatekeeper at ancient Egypt’s southern frontier. Yet it absorbed the very people it aimed to keep out. The Nubians of the south are now almost indistinguishable from the Egyptians. They were the early Christian converts in this corner of the world who were later integrated by intermarriage with the Egyptian converts to Islam. In this largely Sunni city, the legacy of the Shiite Ismaili rule still competes with those of the Romans and Greeks. All of these relics are ingénues compared with what is left of the Pharaonic age. In the ruins of Abu one finds the magic of this place. Like most things in Egypt, it is the Nile. It was here that people looked for answer to the question that mattered to them above all: how bountiful would the River be in the year ahead? The Nilometer measured that. The divinity that the inhabitants prayed to was the God of Inundation. The past has largely stayed in Aswan, yet it has changed. I looked at the present face of Aswan in its streets, bazaars, institutions, and schools, all the while comparing notes with my predecessor of a thousand year ago, Nasir Khusraw, who recorded his observations in his celebrated Book of Travels.[photo essay]
In the year 1050, Nasir Khusraw was in Qus, near present day Luxor, planning to go to Aswan, as we did now. In what became the best travel book (Safarnameh) of the age, he wrote of the two alternative roads for the trip: one on land across a desert which had no water and the other on a “sea of water.” Nasir (from Marv in Central Asia) chose the second. Most tourists today do the same: they cruise down the Nile. We decided on the alternative. Instead of riding the camel as Nasir would have had to do, however, we went by train.
The porter who carried our luggage in the train station was not afraid of live lines in the tracks which he crossed with abandon; we used the overpass to go to the appropriate platform. There we sat on wooden benches waiting for our train. It did not arrive at the anticipated time. We were given no information about the reason and the expected length of the delay. In search of an explanation I began a conversation with local fellow passengers. Within an hour we were into rumors. In the next forty five minutes fantastic stories filled the vacuum left by the absence of facts. Then our train arrived, just as inexplicably; it effectively stopped the maturing of the budding conspiracy theories being bandied about.
In the space between the train’s cars which we boarded a man sat next to the luggage stowed away on two shelves. We added our luggage ourselves, but this did not stop the man from asking for an unearned tip. The cars were non-smoking, air conditioned, and had comfortable chairs. I had a view window. We went through dry but irrigated fields fed from water canals running parallel to the tracks. The Nile was not far but it was often not visible. The fields were sometimes fenced in front with short mud and straw walls. The hot sun burned through the haze. Palm trees appeared occasionally, pregnant with ripe dates. Soon on our side to the west irrigation stopped in most places. Hilly, baked, light brown desert occupied the space. This was the Great Sand Dune Sea, matched on the east of the Nile by the Eastern Desert. The bounty of the Nile did not extend far. The train plodded quietly as though it was a modern equivalent of the camel.
“We reached a town called Aswan,” as Nasir had written. “The country of Nubia is four leagues away,” he wrote, and Aswan was “greatly fortified” and “always had a defending garrison” so that “if someone from Nubia had bad intentions, he could not succeed.” Indeed, at the time Aswan marked the border between Islamic Egypt and the Nubian kingdom of Makuria in the south. The people of Makuria were black and Christians, as Nasir noted. They were converted by missionaries sent in the sixth century by the Byzantine Empire.
In Aswan, as Nasir had also noted, “facing the city, in the middle of the Nile, there is an island, like a garden, and in it are date trees, olive trees, and other trees and much farming.” I could see that island, called Elephantine, from the Aswan train station. That is where I stayed that night.
Next day at 5:40 in the morning, I sat at the edge of the huge pool of my modern hotel that seemed to cascade into the Nile at the other end. The sky was dark blue, the color that also hued the water. I was accompanied by a small animal kingdom. Three black birds hovered overhead. A smaller bird swooped down to the bank of the pool. Five persistent flies on my body were faster than my attempt at swatting. A cat appeared, soon joined by two more. Presently, they lost interest in me and went hunting for mice in the patch of garden on the corner of the pool which was adorned by hibiscus flowers. Beyond, little faux “oriental” domes of the adobe color villas of the hotel were half-replicated by the converse hollow of the satellite dishes on the roof. I was waiting for the earth’s orbiting to take it below the sun. At 5:50 the sun began to appear. It was partially blocked by a billboard foisted high in Aswan on the east bank of the Nile. As the earth and the billboard moved lower and northward, the sun’s full force blinded me. It was at first red, then it turned molting white. It was big, foreboding, commanding. The hills behind me came alive. The water’s blue turned lighter. The temperature in Aswan that October day in 2010 reached 110 degrees.
The ferry over the Nile took me back to Aswan. A man who said he “knew” me because he worked in the restaurant of my hotel insisted on being my guide. When I resisted this offer of unwanted help so often dealt the tourists in Egypt, he protested a distinction, “I am not Egyptian, I am Nubian”. We were on Sharia as-Souq (Market Street). The Souq (market) was the institution that gave Aswan (from old Egyptian swenet meaning trade) its name. This was where ancient Egyptians and Nubians came to trade. As Nasir recorded, the Egyptian merchants brought “beads, combs, and corals,” and took Nubian “slaves”. In the Souq, Nasir also saw “wheat and millet” from Nubia which, he noted, were “both black”.
Today a shopkeeper in the Souk called out to me: “You look Egyptian. I have the right scalp hat for you.” The Aswan Souq that I saw was mostly one long and narrow alley. Its roof consisted of a series of retractable pieces of cloth that served as a protection against the sun. They appeared decorative as banners, but the main colors here were supplied by the merchandise. I counted 18 different colors in exotic spices displayed in one typical store. They had inspired the colorful baskets, a signature Nubian handicraft, hung for sale at several other shops.
The Souq, however, is not a museum store; it is where the people of Aswan shop for everyday needs. I examined three kinds of saffron being offered –Egyptian, Nubian, and Iranian. A salesman in another store showed me what he called the “Nubia tea,” the dried hibiscus flowers, used to make an all Egyptian favorite drink, karkadai. He also had lemon grass. Produce and fruit were sold in several stores. In season were tomatoes, green peppers, string beans, squash, potatoes, bananas, and pomegranate. A baker proudly showed his pita bread, his whole face and garment covered with the white flour used. The butcher had no problem attracting customers. Men in full length Egyptian robes, galabiyyas, and women with head-dresses lined up to buy meat. The shoe store had sandals in multiple colors to sell. Arabic music blared from a small canteen that sold sodas. It co-exited with a mosque that faced it directly on the other side of the alley.
Another mosque served the faithful just outside the Souk. Its signs showed separate prayer rooms for men and women. Here, out on the street, the local Kentucky Chicken franchise offered delivery on motorcycles. Coca cola provided the awning for a convenient store run by a pretty woman, whose last customer was an equally handsome guard. A few steps further, a store boasted the name of its “interior decorator”. Not far away was the big Coptic church in Aswan. The Copts were also conspicuously visible and active where Western tourists stayed. My big hotel and its upscale stores were run by them.
The Muslims have ruled in Aswan now for several centuries, and the early relics of their presence were in the Ismaili Cemetery here. Some tombs go back even to the 9th century Tulunid dynasty which preceded the Ismaili Fatimids. Aswan was an important center of the Ismailis whose reign continued in the person of a local amir (Kanz al-Dawla) for sometime even after they lost power in Cairo. The vast Cemetery is mentioned in the guidebooks as a major tourist attraction in Aswan. On the day I visited, it had no other visitors. The mausoleums over the tombs were distinct in architecture with their domes built on a square shaped structure. They were in various states of disrepair. The shrine of Zainab here did not fare much better, although it is named for the daughter of the Shiite first Imam, a most venerated woman who the Ismailis deem to have been the first to issue summons to the Shiite community (da’wah) upon the martyrdom of her brother Hussein in Karbala.
The contemporary head of the worldwide Ismaili community, however, maintains a park across the Nile where his predecessor and grandfather Aga Khan III, and his wife, Begum are buried. The Aga Khans, who received this title of “commander” (of militia) from the Shah of Persia in the 19th century have been the recognized leaders of the Ismaili community at least since 1817, when the first Aga Khan from Mahalaat, Iran, asserted his claim to be the 46th Imam of the Ismaili community in the world.
The Ismaili community in Iran was formed by Hassan-e Sabbah, known to the world for training a group of assassins for his political goals. He had come with his army from Egypt to northern Iran around the year 1090, after his faction lost out in the internal struggle between the Fatimid princes in Egypt. Like Zainab, and Nasir Khusraw, Hassan-e Sabbah was an Ismaili da’i, committed to spreading the gospel of Ismaili religion.
In that retrospect, the Aga Khans “return” to Egypt after nearly nine centuries in diaspora was not unusual. Spending most of that period in Iran, Aga Khan I and his close associates moved to British controlled India when the British government showered him with rewards, including a pension, for using his cavalry to help Britain in the Afghan War of 1841 and 1842, and the conquest of Sindh in 1843-44. His grandson and eventual successor, Aga Khan was knighted by the British. Among his great friends was another British favorite, King Farouk of Egypt. It was during Farouk’s rule that Aga Khan III established a residence in Aswan, as he found the post-partition India after independence less hospitable. “He loved Aswan because he found its hot climate to be good for his medical problems,” my tour guide said. Aswan became his favorite wintering place. The family built a white villa in the garden on the western shore of the Nile from Aswan. After Aga Khan died in 1957, his wife continued to allow people to visit the garden until she died in 2000.
The concierge at the hotel discouraged me from trying to visit their Mausoleum. “It is closed,” she said, “only Ismailis with special permit could visit it.” Mr. Saleh, however, said he could arrange a visit. “No problem,” he said, he “had been a guide here for many years.” At the appointed time, however, he came sad with the news that we could not visit the Mausoleum. He said “I don’t know, but Aga Khan is a Baha’i or Indian and it is only for them.” When I explained that the Ismailis were a Shiite group, many of whom had lived in India, he was further confused. He thought I had come for pilgrimage to the site. He did not know why the Mausoleum was closed. He asked the captain of the felucca that was now taking us on a Nile cruise and reported that “Egyptians went to the Mausoleum for picnicking in its gardens, and as is their custom they played music and danced there. Karim Aga Khan, the current leader of the community ordered the Mausoleum closed because he considered such conduct as being a disrespectful use of the place.”
Mr. Saleh was a teacher I had met at a high school in Aswan which we visited in connection with a cooperative project involving an American city. We were received at the entrance and led thorough a courtyard to the office of the school’s “Director of Administration,” at the other end. Mr. Hussein, the Director was carefully frugal with the few English phrases he was certain he could use without mistake. For help, he brought in his favorite English teacher, Mr. Mohamed. As Mohamed began to give an introduction about the school, Mr. Hussein interrupted him, barking “what about Chemistry,” wanting Mr. Mohamed to describe the school’s chemistry program. No sooner had Mr. Mohamed responded to this command than Mr. Hussein barked again, “what about drama?” It was at this point that Mr. Saleh came in and interrupted Mohamed’s speech and derailed Hussein’s choreography.
Saleh went right through the length of the room and took a seat next to the leader of our visiting group and began an animated conversation with her. He was loud and clearly much more comfortable in speaking English than his colleagues. He cut quite a figure with his untied tie crossed over his chest. The hapless Mohamed fell silent. The meeting collapsed into bilateral chatter. The school Director looked helpless in restoring the semblance of order. He concluded that he had no choice but to say “let’s go and visit the classrooms.”
We went through the halls of the school’s three-story building. The walls were covered with sayings, mostly in Arabic and many from the Qur’an, extolling the virtues of learning. One framed script also featured an ominous looking raised sword at the bottom. Another showed various versions of Islamic scripts, penning Mohamed, the name of the Prophet. They included sols, naskh, kufi, farsi, but not the tughra script. I asked Mr. Hussein for an explanation. He had none as he had not known what tughra was: the script used by the Ottoman Turks who ruled Egypt until as late as the 19th century.
We visited an English literature class, a Chemistry class, and a Math class, for the second and third year high school students. The class size was about thirty. Students wore uniform. The boys had white shirt and pants. They took the rows to the left of the blackboard. The girls sat in the rows to the right. They wore shapeless grey pants and tops that covered all their bodies, and white head-scarves that covered their hair and fell on their shoulders. I noticed two who were not wearing head-scarves. “They are Christians,” the teacher explained, but added “some Muslims also don’t wear head-scarves.”
The students did not all belong to the respective classes where they were assembled for us. When one was introduced to us as having been to the U.S. for some time and I asked him how his experience of going to school in the US compared with here, he began his answer by “I actually am not in this Math class.” He was one of the “exchange students,” who had spent a year in the U.S. He said: “In the States you could take elective classes; here you mostly have to take the courses required. It is much harder here. But even in journalism class I took in the States, I learned a lot.” A teacher said: “we have had exchange students from the U.S., as well as Malaysia, Italy, etc.”
In the English literature class a Sonnet by Shakespeare was written in chalk on the blackboard. The teacher was a wiry woman with a head-scarf and glasses. She walked swiftly back and forth in the aisles shouting questions at students in accented English, smiling. “Who was William Shakespeare?” A girl raised her hand. The teacher quickly recognized her by pointing to her. “He was a writer,” the student said. The teacher praised her but pursued her for more. The student added: “He was the greatest writer of England.” The teacher corrected her “not just England, but the whole world,” and moved on both with her walking and questions. “What did he write?” She now recognized an eager boy with his hand up. “Plays,” he said. “Good,” the teacher said, “can you tell me the name of one?” The boy said “Hamlet”. The teacher was ecstatic. “Now who knows what a Sonnet is?” A girl volunteered. Helped by the teacher, she gave a definition, including the number of verses in a Sonnet: “fourteen”. Mr. Saleh who was with us could not contain himself any longer. He started reading the lines on the blackboard, slowly but with the tone of one who had done this particular drill many times. Mr. Saleh explained to me that he had been teaching English for twenty years. “I have problems with the Director because I tell him that I know much more than he does.”
I asked the students who their favorite English writer was. Two answered. One said “William Shakespeare.” The teacher was pleased. Another said “Charles Dickens.” The teacher said “yes”. I asked the student why. She said “because he wrote with emotions.” Someone in our group asked if the students knew any American writer. Students and their teachers knew Hemingway. I asked if they had read Mark Twain. Students and teachers looked puzzled at the unfamiliar name. I explained that Mark Twain was one famous American writer I knew who actually wrote about his trip to Egypt. They had not heard of him.
In the chemistry class, a ragged table of elements hung next to the blackboard. Someone asked if any student could give the chemical formula for salt. A student raised his hand: “NaCl” I asked about the formula for water since we were by the Nile. There was a grunt from nearly everyone: so simple. “H2O,” someone said. “OK, who won the Noble prize in chemistry this year?” The reaction was just the opposite. The silence was finally broken by a girl standing outside the classroom: “Two Japanese and an American.” Someone now asked if the students knew what they wanted to be “when they grew up.” A shy girl said “a Doctor.” The teacher explained: “Her father is a Doctor.” Another student also said she wanted to be a Doctor. When asked why, there was a momentary pause. Mr. Saleh rubbed his fingers, indicating money. But the student said “because I want to help the people.”
The students had small notebooks with long-hand writings on the desk in front of them. The highest technology in evidence was that table of elements. I asked if they used computers in their studies. A teacher replied to me that there were computers in the school. They showed me a room across the hall. “That is the lab,” they said. It was dark and from the outside it looked like an old fashioned chemistry lab. At lunch I sat next to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Education’s office in Aswan. Education is the charge of the central government. He had just been appointed to the position and said that he had big plans to improve education in Aswan. He talked about the Intel project for using computers in teaching, launched in Cairo some six years ago. Hopefully, it would reach Aswan soon.
The Deputy Director’s wife was not coming from Cairo to Aswan for another two weeks. In the meantime he was usually “eating at home, cheese and some ready to eat food from outside.” The next evening I met him at a dinner the Governor of Aswan gave for our group. In the lobby of a venerable hotel, the Governor greeted us with a warm handshake. In his fifties, he was handsome with a winning smile. Once he exhausted his limited English, he relied on the head Director of Aswan’s Nubian Museum to offer more pleasantries and to understand ours. The Director sat next to the Governor at the dining table. The officials from other departments of the Aswan Governorate flanked them in strict protocol. The man from Education did not rank high; he was at one end of the table.
Our group was seated across the table from them. At the appropriate time we presented the Governor with the gift we had brought for him. He thanked us, and then with a signal to his group, the Governor got up and led a march of his whole party to our side. They bore gifts for each one of us. The almost military demeanor was a reminder of the Governor’s background in the army. He had risen to the rank of a general. This was not the only instance I saw in Egypt of how its military used its alumni in a tentacle of political influence.
The Director of the Nubian Museum invited us to visit the Museum. He assigned his deputy to show us the collection. The failure of the projector frustrated his efforts at a more elaborate video exposition in the auditorium. Adjacent to the Fatimid Cemetery, the Museum is in a modern building inspired by traditional Nubian structures. In 2001 it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established to honor concepts that responded to the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies. It is in fact a place to showcase the history, culture, and art of the Nubians much of which was lost when Egypt built the High Dam on the Nile that flooded their land in the 1960s. Most of the artifacts saved from the flood through a UNESCO rescue program are now in the Nubian Museum. On the two occasions I visited, however, its vast halls were almost without any other visitors. Tourists prefer, instead, to go far to see the Nubian temples, especially Abu Simbel, transplanted to locations near their original sites which are now under water.
Exhibits in the Museum provide sketches of life in Nubia from 4500 B.C. to the present. A chart on the wall close to the entrance shows the fluctuating fortune of Nubian rulers throughout history. Various pharaohs were Nubian in origin. The pharaohs of the XII Dynasty who ruled from 1991 BC to 1786 BC originated from the Aswan region. The Nubian Khushite King Piye took control of Egypt in 750 BC and established the XXV Dynasty. These “Black Pharaohs” ruled for the next 75 years. A case in the museum exhibited a replica of wooden black Nubian soldiers in military formation found in a tomb in Asyut, Egypt. As the sign said the Nubian soldiers fought “side by side” Egyptian soldiers. The dominant influence of Egypt in the Lower Namibia, as the Aswan region is called, had caused the Nubian elite to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs of Egypt, venerating its gods, and wearing its clothes. This was illustrated in the bust of “King Taharka” the most important of the Black Pharaohs in the museum. As the sign under it said, it showed “him idealized to conform to the Egyptian canons. ” Our guide pointed out his broken nose and said “his rivals did this defacing to prevent his return from the dead, as the ancient Egyptian beliefs held.”
Down the hall was another example of Egyptian beliefs adopted by the Nubians. In a glass case, as the sign said, was a “statuette of the goddess (of motherhood) Isis suckling the young god Horus (her son).” This “symbolizes the idea of motherhood in Ancient Egypt.” “Later,” the sign continued, “the Coptic artist used this notion to represent the Virgin Mary suckling the child Jesus.”
Another bust of a man spoke of the durability of customs and protocol. It showed the man’s left hand placed across the chest. He was the “warden” of a palace in ancient Egypt nearly 3,800 years ago. That gesture was “a mark of politeness and respect,” the sign under the bust said. “This is still the mark of respect in Egypt,” our guide said.
The Museum’s exhibits of the more recent history of Nubia were several dioramas dominated by a replica of the Saqia. This was the local word for the “Persian Wheel, the ox-driven system of lifting water from open wells, which I had seen as far east as India. A sign next to it explained its significance for the survival of the arid Lower Nubia during the “Hellenistic times.” “The impact of the introduction of the saqiya (Saqia) on Lower Nubia settlement was very great, allowing the cultivation of large areas of land.... the population and wealth of Lower Nubia increased dramatically while those of the southern provinces declined.”
The Museum’s dioramas also included a model of a Nubian house, and a scene of mannequin Nubian men and women in traditional clothes, with the men playing local musical instruments. Outside the Museum I could see Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile where there were two living Nubian villages with live people. I went there.
The villages are called Siou and Koti. I entered by walking into a colorfully painted Nubian house on the edge of the Nile. A pleasant man greeted me and said this house had been in his family for seventy five years. “Its name, Baaba Dool, means grandfather.” After the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the house had to be modified “because of the change in the water level,” he said. There were souvenirs for sale here, bread baskets, fans, and containers, “all locally made by my family from date palm and straw.” He invited me to go to the roof terrace for a view. He pointed out another house across the little square that also belonged to “the family.” In between the two houses, there was a place for “the sheep.”
It was past 10 in the morning. A rooster crowed. I started to walk through the narrow alleys of the village. A large woman in bright red dress said “Hi.” A man was pushing a barrel of hay. I asked “for what?’ He put his hand to ears and said “baa!” Three Women were washing clothes outside a house. One stretched her palm to me and asked for “baksheesh”. I went inside a small grocery store which had coca cola but no bottle of water. On the television screen, a man was reciting verses from the Qur’an. The owner of a “cafeteria” invited me in to buy a meal. At the entrance to another shop, a man called Ahmad Saber had his name, both in Arabic and Hieroglyphic, framed in a cartouche, the way the pharaohs did to protect their names. I visited a house which had turned its upper terrace into a small museum of local flora and fauna called Animalia. From there the garden below looked lush green.
Down in the alley, a group of women were sitting on the steps of a house, chopping greens in preparation for the family lunch. The sight of a tourist aroused a now familiar reaction. It was not just that they asked me for baksheesh, one woman even prodded her four year old son to extend his hand out to ask for his share. Around the next bend I saw the result of such training: a boy not older than three was flying solo. He was all by himself asking response to his silently stretched arm aimed at me. Presently, however, the sight of a goat grazing in the pile of garbage in the alley distracted him. Forgetting me he ran happily after the goat.
Ruins of Abu
Long before these Nubian villages there existed on the Elephantine Island a settlement called Abu. Indeed, it gave its name, meaning both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian, to the Island. The Egyptians built a fortress here around 3000 B.C., and later it also played a significant role in the ivory trade with Africa. It remained a trading center throughout the Pharaonic period. Furthermore, it was the cult center of Khnum, the God of Inundation and later worshiped as the creator of mankind, as well as his wife Satet, the guardian of the southern frontier, and their daughter Anket. Their worship did not stop until the 4th century when the occupying Roman Empire established Christianity as the official religion.
I continued my walk from the Nubian village to the ruins which told that history. European teams still excavating here have turned the site into an outdoor museum. There were, however, few helpful signs. I only had a custodian who spoke no English to help guide me by gestures. His best was to impersonate Ramesses II, as he sat on the column bases remaining from a restoration of the Khnum Temple undertaken by that XIX Dynasty Pharaoh. He put his feet where there were marks depicting big feet on a stone base with Ramesses’s cartouche written on it. We saw reliefs depicting the ram-headed Khnum himself. What remained of the Temple of Goddess Satet was more impressive. Columns with torus (convex) molding held up the heavy roof. There were hieroglyphic writings on them. This was a temple rebuilt by Hatshepsut, the Egyptian female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. On this day a group of western women all in simple bright red garb were here, some sitting on the ground. They were silent and respectful as worshipers are. One seemed to be praying. My custodian guide motioned that I should be quite but he could not explain who those people were.
In the midst of the Ruins of Abu there is the Aswan Museum. Its old wing recalls the times of British dominance in Egypt, as it was the residence of Sir William Willcocks, the architect of the old Aswan “Low” Dam of 1902. The collection here is an incoherent mix of dusty looking artifacts, quaintly marked in brief hand-written signs. The Museum’s modern wing, added in 1998, is a bright space where the discoveries of the Swiss and German archeologists are on display with full explanatory signs in computer fonts. Of special interest to me was a 3rd century BC “verdict of a judicial collegium” on papyrus in “hieratic,” a cursive form of writing developed from the hieroglyphic script. The area still under excavation just outside the Aswan Museum is revealing layers added to the ruins of the old Abu settlement by a succession of future occupiers, especially the Romans and the Greeks.
On the edge of this area, at the bank of the Nile was the most strategic of the sites. Here were several Nilometers made to measure the level of the Nile. The oldest dated from the XXVI Dynasty (685-525 BC), the last native Egyptian rulers of the land before foreign occupiers -- Persians, Greeks, and Romans-- arrived. I walked down the Nilometer’s stone stairs to a small basin which collected the water of the Nile. The maximum level of the water reached here was crucial. It was an indication of the probability of a bountiful harvest. If the Nilometer recorded a high level of water at this frontier of the Nile in Egypt, the pharaohs could demand higher taxes from their subjects.
The Romans built a new Nilometer of their own only a few steps away. This served the same purpose for centuries to come. Nasir Khusraw who visited it a thousand years before I did left us the following report.
“Around (late June) the water of the Nile rises to twenty arsh (about 18 inches) above its level in winter as it gradually increases day by day. In Egypt they have built measuring tools and markers, and there is a functionary with a thousand dinar salary to record that increase. From the day that the water starts to increase, he would send heralds to the town to announce that today, God, the exalted and glory be to Him, increased the Nile so much. Every day they would say how many asba (fingers) it increased. When it reaches one gaz (about 18 inches) they give good tidings and rejoice until 18 arsh (a total of 27 feet) is reached. That 27 feet is the agreed goal. That is to say when it is less than that they call it deficiency and feel sorrow and disappointment and beseech God and give to charities. When it exceeds that level they rejoice and celebrate. Until it reaches 27 feet, the Sultan’s taxes would not be levied on his subjects.” [photo essay]
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