On the Nile: From Besaw Island to Gebel el-Silsila

posted in: Middle East 2023 | 2

Yesterday we started the day with a visit to Besaw Island for what OAT calls “A Day in the Life.” Then we continued south to Gebel el-Silsila, the site of an ancient sandstone quarry. It was a low-key day in terms of seeing sights, and that was okay with all of us, I think. It’s so pleasant to relax on the dehabeya and watch Egypt pass us by.

Besaw Island

We landed on Besaw Island via a small motorized boat that picked us up from the Asiya. On the boat we met Sayed, who was our host for the day, his young son, and his nephew. Once we stepped off the boat and onto the island, Sayed walked us around his village, Gezeret Eishbeka.

Sayed, who is 40 years old, told us about life on Besaw. Until the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the island flooded annually. The village didn’t exist because the water would have been about two feet high. Before that, farmers came each year after the floodwaters receded, living in tents. So the entire village, and all the villages on the island, only sprang up after 1970. The floods still come, but only high enough to cover the fields along the shore, bringing nutrients that feed the soil

The long list of crops they grow, Sayed recited like someone who’s done it hundred of times. Zucchini, okra, corn, beans, I can’t begin to remember them all.

Sayed spoke no English before 2018. In that year, a friend of his who lives in Cairo and worked with OAT contacted him and asked him if he would be interested in becoming a sort of local ambassador for OAT. He has since taught himself English, watching movies and videos, and his facility with the language was impressive.

Before we got to his house, we got a demonstration of date harvesting. One man climbed a date palm, barefoot and without any support. He shook or cut the fruit off the tree, and it landed in showers on a tarp laid on the ground.

We also visited banana groves. Though the fruit wasn’t ready for harvest, Sayed told us how it is grown and ready for harvest every 30–45 days, depending on the season.

Finally we got to Sayed’s house, where we met his extended family: his wife, his two brothers and their wives, his mother, and various children. We sat and drank and talked about their lives, and then we enjoyed lunch together. 

Some photos

Here are some pictures. You can find all the photos, and some videos, here.

We stopped for a visit with Sayed’s cousin, who was baking sun bread in a traditional mud-brick oven. Everyone on the island makes sun bread, though many have more modern ovens. It’s made from only four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water, and it sits in the sun to rise before they bake it.
Bread baking
A scene from Sayed’s village. Many houses are built from adobe or mud bricks. Others from concrete.
The village mosque
Date palms ready for harvesting
Sayed’s house. He lives here with his mother and father and two brothers and all their families. Each family has their own two bedrooms and bathroom.
Sayed, with his hand on his mother’s head. His brother Mustafa is at the right. In between are Sayed’s daughter (in the black hijab) and Mustafa’s wife. Sayed’s wife didn’t make it out of the kitchen for this photo.
The entire family with our group


After we left Besaw Island, we continued up river for about an hour and stopped at Gebel el-Silsila to visit the sandstone quarry.

I was a little bit confused. You have these huge sandstone formations, and it was clear how blocks of sandstone had been cut away. You could see the chisel marks. But there were also various carvings and even shrines cut into the stone. And there was one genuine temple dedicated to Horemheb. Why did they do all this at a quarry? And there were a lot of carvings clearly unfinished? Did they quarry the stone, then draw pictures and suddenly leave?

Apparently, according to Mo, the workers at the quarry had a religious life there. It wasn’t just a nine-to-five day job.

Rosetta Stone, Part II

Back on the boat, before dinner, we watched the second part of the BBC “documentary” on the Rosetta Stone. Actually, this wasn’t about the Rosetta Stone at all. It dramatized Jean-François Champollion’s expedition to Egypt in the 1820s to try to learn more about ancient history here. I’m not sure how historically accurate any of it was. And it touched on the Catholic church’s concern that he would find evidence to contradict the historical accuracy of the Bible, but there was no follow-up on that once he found proof of civilizations going back 6,000 years. And the film vaguely suggested that he died as a result of drinking tainted water from the Nile, but in fact he died of a stroke in Paris at the age of 41.

A street in Cairo is named for Champollion. I never heard of him before watching this film, so in spite of its shortcomings, I’m glad I watched it.

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