After our cruise we stopped in Aswan. Aswan’s in an area of upper Egypt bordering Sudan, known as Nubia. We stayed in the Old Cataract Hotel, the very place where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. The hotel had a wonderful colonial feel to it and was a great base for further exploring. First we went to the old souk, which felt similarly steeped in the past. Here’s our afternoon visit.
Friday, April 8
Our taxi drops us off at Aswan’s Sharia as-Souk. It’s 2.30 and we tell the driver we’ll be back in an hour. We enter the souk through a brick archway into a throng of people. My husband goes into a nearby shop to buy some water to help combat the 38 degree heat and searing sun. I wait and look around, camera in hand.
Opposite, a shop displays dried herbs in colourful Nubian baskets. “These are lotus flowers,” says the shop owner pointing, “and these are hibiscus flowers. They’re good for your heart. Boil them in cold water and the drink will bring your blood pressure down, boil them in hot water, it will help if your blood pressure is low.” I nod. He’s a herbalist he tells me, and then shows me cinnamon bark, cumin, dried mint, cardamon pods, saffron, okra. I’m fascinated by it all.
We turn left into a narrow alley where merchandise spills out of shops onto the street, making it as colourful as it is chaotic. I spot rabbits in a cage. I bend down to take a photo but the woman seated on the ground beside them says, “Baksheesh, baksheesh,” so I quickly lower my camera and move on. There are pigeons for sale about three steps further on and I line up my camera again. This time no one asks for money or takes any notice of me. It’s a much more comfortable feeling.
A man calls us over into his shop, but today we are less interested in buying than looking. “Where are you from?” he asks. “You guess,” I say. He goes through the usual gamut of European countries before running out of steam when he gets to Australia. Close but not close enough. “We’re from New Zealand,” I say. “Ah,” he says smiling broadly as if a light has just turned on. “Kiwi,” he says and then, “Kiora,” flashing us a huge grin revealing just one lone tooth in his upper gum. We all laugh and carry on.
We pass a papyrus shop, a butcher and stalls loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables. I stop beside another herbalist selling a slightly different array of merchandise. He points out dried tamarind and then I ask about some rather fragile looking round objects. They make me think of ostrich eggs, but he says that boiling them and then applying the poultice to sore joints cures arthritis. It’s called Hanzal he says, and both the flower and fruit are poisonous. We remember seeing the same plant growing on the banks of the Nile a few days ago, and our guide telling us that animals knew instinctively not to eat it.
As we continue walking I suggest to my husband that we play a game. “Let’s see who can be the first to spot another tourist.” He nods and we scan the crowd before crossing the road to the other side of the souk. It’s more open here with more shops selling tourist tack. “I don't know what you want, but I have it all,” one man shouts. And another, “Come into my shop. Everything here is almost free.” We laugh together. I see a bread shop, the brightly coloured icing running in the sun. Women rifle through a huge pile of fabric by the side of the road, and a little further on a group of men enjoy a late afternoon sheesha session. Boldly coloured traditional Nubian hats make an attractive display and everywhere we look, something or someone catches our attention.
We look at our watches and suddenly see that it’s almost two hours. As we drive back to our hotel we remember the game we were playing and realize that we saw no other tourists. Like so much of our visit here, it was just us.