17 December 2004

The Nile Valley

After the day-trips to the desert - to view rock art from pre-historic times to Pharaonic, Roman and Greek inscriptions - in our first week's stay in the Eastern Desert (or rather in the dive resorts of the Red Sea) we crossed back to the Nile.

After 5 hours of driving as part of the military convoy from the Red Sea through the Eastern Desert towards Luxor we suddenly arrived in the Nile valley. It really was a shock, coming out of the arid, grey-brown wasteland of the Eastern mountains and, like a line drawn with a ruler, the edge of a field. After that every piece of land was used, either as a field, road, irrigation canal or building plot. No waste. The felaheen, subsistence farmers, work the land in small strips of cabbage, banana, papyrus and tomatoes, gourds, oranges and alfalfa. They keep cows, donkeys, geese and dogs, all straggly looking and filthy.


Farmstead near Luxor

The lush green is incredibly restful after the sharp grit of the desert, bleached ocres and dust. That one river (and it's canals) can nourish all this land which would turn into utter barrenness without water, is incredible. From a viewpoint above the river near Luxor we could see how narrow this strip of arable land rally is in the Nile valley. How does this very peculiar geography influence an inhabitant's thinking and outlook on life? The same way that America's endless spaces have made them believe that resources are equally endless, the way that Britain's island empire has created this particular inward/outward metropolitan culture. what does it mean to live in a country that is basically a big desert (the Sahara sands reach all the way over here) bisected by a river?


Western Desert Dunes

After a night's stay in Luxor we took off again, this time towards the Sudanese border, into the Western Desert, to visit an ancient stone circle. The fertile farmland disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared the day before, cut off by lack of irrigation. The desert doesn't so much encroach on the fertile areas as there is a very clear and sharp edge one side of which is an almost unnaturally bright green, fluorescent in its vitality, and on the other side there is nothing but endless plains of grey gravel bordered by sharp and unforgiving mountains. Donkey carts, mangy dogs, tethered cows and crazily waving children all disappear from the wayside, no more palm trees shading mud brick houses, no more papyrus tied into bunches ready for harvest, no strips of subsistence field in patterns of brown and green.

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