Africa / Egypt

Elephantine Island: Home of the Nubians

Elephantine Island: Home of the Nubians

I’m here to tell you about how I discovered Egypt’s hidden gem in a little African village in Aswan. During my one-month trip to Egypt, I visited Elephantine Island, which is home to the Nubian people. This is the latest part in the Egypt series. If you did not read the previous one, you can do that here: Uninvited guest to an African event.

First impression

Arrival at night

It was already dark when I arrived at Aswan. I had reserved an accommodation on Elephantine Island. I had done no prior research and hence had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first thing I noticed was that Aswan was really hot. I’m talking about 30 degrees at night. But since I was now accustomed to warm temperatures, it was the least of my worries. More importantly, how would I get from Aswan to the island?

Taking the train from Luxor to Aswan

I glanced at the map and discovered a port that was supposedly heading there. So I got a taxi to that harbor and inquired with the locals about getting to the other side. I was informed that a boat will arrive every half hour or so and that I should wait. Meanwhile, I received a message from the hotel owner claiming that someone would pick me up at the island’s entrance. Eventually, the ferry arrived, and I boarded for about 50 cents. I also noted that locals are exempt from paying. I met the guy who had come to pick me up and he guided me through the island’s narrow dark alleys until we arrived at the guesthouse.

Who are the Nubian people?

The next morning, I woke to a message from my host informing me that breakfast was already ready. Abdallah, the guy who picked me up the night before, had invited me to hang out near the Nile River with his friends. I went out with him, and despite some communication problems, we understood one other fairly well. He stated that the people on this island were not Arab, but of a different ethnicity known as Nubians. After doing some study, I discovered that the Nubians are an ethno-linguistic group of people that are indigenous to what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. This sparked my curiosity, and he went on to say that they eat a lot of fish on this island, and that we might have that for dinner tonight.

Sitting at the Nile River Bank

We then walked through a rather deserted portion of the island before arriving at a really green area with trees and grass. This was due to the fact that we were on a river bank and I noticed a boat in the distance. I introduced myself to the captain, who was Abdallah’s close buddy. We then sat on the grass for hours, drinking Egyptian tea and talking about life until the sun set. An unbelievably relaxing evening. We even saw some boats pass by with very happy folks on them. We later had fish for dinner, which was the icing on the cake for my first day there.

Unique experiences

Nubian coffee and sandboarding

Enjoying Nubian coffee

The captain had offered to take me on a tour of the nearby landmarks, which we did the next day. First, he brought me to an authentic coffee shop where I met some kind Nubian natives. Before beginning on my first sandboarding trip, I enjoyed their delicious coffee. I had to walk upward sand dunes while holding a board till the hill became pretty steep. After a few failed attempts, I stood on the board and slid down with views of the Nile River. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sandboarding for the first time

The spiritual side of the Nubian people

We had more plans for the day, but the day flew by and it was dark before we knew it. So we boarded the boat again the next day, this time to explore another Nubian community. We stopped on the way there at a river bank where a child was selling bracelets. I sat down next to him and we negotiated intensely for some of his goods.

Then something interesting happened: the call to prayer began. That was reasonable considering that we were in a Muslim country. But then I faced a sensation I’d never seen before. Everyone around me stood up and prayed at the same time. Everyone, including the youngster, the captain, and the others around them. Subhanallah, I then became fully aware of how these folks are linked to their deen and how this influences their way of life. I was curious as to why everyone on the island seemed so relaxed and laid back. These people truly embody the concept of tawakkul.

Jummah Prayer on the island

The colorful Nubian Villages

Following that incident, I rode my camel to the Nubian village. When we arrived in the village, I was met by friendly faces and colorful houses I had never seen before. Another distinguishing feature of the village was the presence of crocodiles. They were obviously in cages, but it was still interesting. I had been swimming in the Nile Water earlier that day, and they had assured me that there were no crocodiles in the river. So I was relieved to see them there rather than in the water. A charming Nubian merchant also taught me how to make traditional Egyptian clothes.

Unique designs in the village

Living like a local

Extending my stay

I had originally planned to just stay a few days in Aswan and then continue my journey to Cairo. But after a few days in this lovely location, I decided to extend my stay. There were no real sights or plans, but simply living there was an entirely other experience. I occasionally found myself playing football or other games with complete strangers. I recently went over the photos I shot during the second part of my time in Aswan, and there were very few in compared to the rest of my trip. This meant that I was enjoying my stay and living more simply than normal. I spent nearly two weeks on Elephantine Island learning about Nubian culture.

Destroying locals at FIFA

The boat incident

Because I was residing on Elephantine Island for the duration of my stay, I had to take the boat to and from the city on occasion. But there was one thing I didn’t realize. There were usually an equal number of men and women on these boats, and I sometimes spotted some girls giggling at me. I assumed it was because I was the only foreigner on the island and they found that humorous, but after a week on the island, I discovered the actual reason. So, as usual, I boarded the boat and noted that all the women were seated on one side of the boat, while the males were seated on the other. Guess whose side I was on the entire time :/

Joining a Nubian wedding

Even while boarding the island boat was somewhat awkward, it did have certain advantages. As a foreigner, everyone introduced themselves. The most amusing experience was when a random Nubian man invited me to his wedding. We were discussing Nubian culture, and when I inquired about marriages, it turned out that someone on the boat was getting married in a few days, and he immediately urged me to attend. Of course, I agreed, and we joked about how quickly everything developed.

Big gathering before the wedding

Well, I should clarify that the island was not particularly large and that practically everyone was invited. When I told my host that the groom had invited me, he was both surprised and amused. It turned out that his cousin was the bride. When I asked him when the wedding was, he answered it was over the next three days. The first two days were simply social gatherings with food, with the wedding taking place on the third day. I attended all three events and was met with the most welcoming individuals. The wedding itself was similar to our Turkish weddings, except for the African dances 🙂

Nubian kids enjoying the music

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