Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Sacred Rivers With Simon Reeve

The first episode of this series was a beautiful and thought-provoking documentary about the River Nile. Starting at the source of the Blue Nile, Simon Reeve worked his way through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, exploring modern and ancient civilisations, their beliefs, religious and agricultural practices, seeing how technology is changing everything, and trying to solve the eternal battle "who owns the River Nile"?

Everyone outside of Africa tends to think it's an Egyptian river, as do the Egyptians, yet the Blue Nile's source is below a tin shed in a surprisingly lush and verdant Ethiopia, a country which contributes 80% of its water. Then the river flows on through Sudan, which houses the confluence of the Blue and White Nile (neither of which are particularly blue or white, but rather greeny brown). The confluence, near Khartoum, is described as "the longest kiss in history".

The source is sacred, and people make pilgrimages to benefit from its healing properties. But thereafter, the river has more practical uses. Egyptians have long made use of its waters to irrigate crops and provide power. But Ethiopia and Sudan have previously underused this resource, and now they want more of the action. Simon Reeve visits a vast dam-building project in Ethiopia. The Grand Renaissance dam will triple Ethiopia's electrical output, making them Africa's biggest supplier. And in Sudan, Reeve sees an irrigation project the size of 10,000 football pitches which grows alfafa to export to the Gulf. He also sees 2,500 Friesian cows kept in giant corrugated iron barns, which require cooling fans and mist sprays to reduce the ambient temperature by 20 degrees to a still whopping 30 degrees Celsius. The amount of water this requires is ridiculous. And if a thousand other farmers in Sudan decide to do the same - well, you get the picture.

These aren't the only animals he visits in strange circumstances. In a Nubian village, he sees a crocodile living in a cramped pit in a house. It was meant to be a tourist attraction, but now, thanks to political unrest in the region, the tourists are no longer coming. But the crocodile will stay trapped in its hole until it gets big enough for the family to kill it, stuff it and hang it on the wall. "It doesn't have a great future," remarks a visibly disturbed Reeve.

The Nubians have it tough. When the Egyptians wanted to dam the Nile at Aswan to create Lake Nasser in the 1960s, they not only relocated two colossal temples (Abu Simbel and Philae) by chopping them up into 40,000 pieces and then sticking them back together again - an extraordinary feat - but also forced a whole society to move. And unlike the temples, which were effectively just raised to a safe height above the water, the 100,000 Nubians had to travel miles away from the fertile shores of the river into the desert. The Nubians have a culture just as advanced and historic as the Egyptians - they worshipped the same gods, and built pyramids for their pharoahs. But in a hideous bout of racism, the Egyptians refused to believe that this black African society could be as advanced as their own.

Reeve experiences a diversity of religion along the river. He rows a papyrus raft across Lake Tana in Ethiopia to see the island monasteries. Christianity was imposed by missionaries here before the founding of the Holy Roman Empire. And Judaism was here before this. The ark of the covenant was believed to be here. Sudan marks the division between Muslim and Christian Africa, and here Simon Reeve sees an Islamic sunset ritual which he finds unexpectedly welcoming and inclusive after so many years of Sudanese news stories of civil war, human rights violations and genocide.

And then there are the Egyptian temples, carved with extraordinary images of deities and hieroglyphs thousands of years ago, while the rest of the world was seemingly in "intellectual darkness". The one at Philae is dedicated to the god of Isis. Now the fundamentalists of the misnamed modern-day Isis would tear down these idolatrous buildings. Which is partly why tourists are being scared off from visiting them. Egyptians today depend on the temples for a different reason - they need the income they generate. There is a huge security presence at the historical sites Reeve visits. He has armed bodyguards, demonstrating that the military is still very much in control, despite the recent revolution. The armed guards accompany him on his overnight train journey from Aswan to Cairo. Although he gets his own cabin and we had to make do with rickety reclining seats when we made the same journey in safer times (see below), the most annoying thing we had to contend with was a party of Australians wanting to, er, party. No one was pointing guns at us.

In Cairo, Reeve visits the original Nilometer, which was used to measure the height of the water to calculate how much farmers could be taxed for their crops. North of Cairo, the Nile splits into the tributaries of its Delta. Here the cotton we in the West like to put on our beds is grown, creating back-breaking work for the women. (Simon Reeve gives up his attempt to help them in seconds.) 2,500 litres of the Nile are required to grow enough cotton to make just one T-shirt. So what will happen to these people's livelihoods if the river waters are all used up in Ethiopia and Sudan? Who has more right to the sacred H2O? All these farmers are poor and deserving of a better life.

40% of the population of Egypt is illiterate. Whereas in the course of my privileged education, Egypt was the only word I learned to write at school that didn't contain any joined-up letters. Aged nine, my class at junior school did a project on Egypt, learning about pyramids, hieroglyphs, pharoahs and sphinxes, and I've held a fascination for the country ever since. I only got to go for real, however, about twenty-five years later. Even this trip was somewhat of an accident of fate. We were supposed to go on a belated honeymoon to Sri Lanka, but the Boxing Day tsunami happened the day before we were due to leave, so a cruise along the River Nile is where we ended up instead. Back at home, my mother was dying, and I spent most of the week with flu, coughing like a character out of Louisa May Alcott. But our first glimpse of the pyramids, shimmering on the distant horizon while we were hurtled from the airport to our hotel through Cairo's crazy traffic in the back of a black and white Yugo taxi that only had one door, was like a beacon of radiant light that offered a strange hope of survival against all the odds. The modern, choking city of Cairo has been built right up to the very edge of these ancient tetrahedra. They have stood for thousands of years, whereas the modern day high rises, seldom finished on the top storeys as a tax avoidance strategy, look like they will barely last a decade.

The age of everything ancient in Egypt is simply astonishing. It may sound incredibly naive to write this, but Simon Reeve made exactly the same comment. It's astonishing because everything is still in flawless condition, having been preserved by the desert sands for centuries. I stood inside a claustrophobic pyramid at Dahshur, where the air is stale, rank and oppressive, but it's humbling to think that that air was enclosed at least 4,000 years ago. It's astonishing too because of the technology involved in the building, and hauling of the granite stone up the River Nile from Aswan. Much of the treasure from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been looted long before they were rediscovered, but a tenacious and determined Howard Carter eventually stumbled across Tutankhamun's burial gifts, and the haul is now on display in the museum in Cairo. It is is indescribably beautiful. The museum generally looks like a fusty jumbled storeroom, but the bright gold and jewels of King Tut don't need any further artistry. Further round the museum, we came face to face with the mummified corpse of Ramses II, whose statue sat on a throne at the entrance to Abu Simbel. What the carved stonework didn't reveal was that he had ginger hair.

Our lucky tour group had an incredible guide who just knew everything there was to know about anything. He could read and translate hieroglyphs quicker than I could read a newspaper. The head of antiquities from the Boston MFA was leading a tour round Medinet Habu while we were there, and as soon as she saw our guide she raced over to him to introduce him to her group as "the greatest Egyptologist" she had ever met. So I am not kidding you. Shame I was coughing too much and too knackered from several 4am starts (these were the days long before children) to take it all in.

Cruising down the Nile was wonderful, and felt totally luxurious in comparison to the overnight train journeys to and from Cairo. Our boat was full of Italians, so pasta was continually on the menu, but as our guide book pointed out, "There are many reasons to visit Egypt. The food isn't one of them." Some people claimed they got a bit "templed out", but I loved them all, and it was fascinating to observe glimpses of traditional Egyptian life along the riverbanks as we floated past. The oxon pulling carts, the fisherman on their feluccas, the dusty stalls selling oranges and bananas, the washing of clothes, the call to prayer echoing across the Nile at sunset.

But it wasn't all easy. All first world problems, of course. There were those grotty train journeys. There was the constant pestering by people trying to sell you things. Simon Reeve can only say "As-salamu alaykum" in Arabic, but I found I needed to say "La shukran" (no thank you) a lot more than hello. "I've bought a pyramid", one of our group joked as he boarded our minibus at Giza. There were the stinking toilets, which we used to award marks out of ten. The worst were at the pyramids (negative numbers). The best were the ones at Abu Simbel (a good eight), which had plastic flowers and allowed you more than one piece of toilet paper for your baksheesh. After a dodgy buffet on our last evening in Aswan, my husband had to locate a toilet at very short notice in the Cairo Bazaar. (Coffee shop hole in the ground - a rough two.) The Egyptian pounds we were using were disintegrating and grubby, but there was no doubt the locals desperately needed us to spend them.

Pyramids looking towards downtown Cairo
Medinet Habu

Looking towards the Valley of the Kings near Luxor

View while waiting for our boat's slot to pass through the locks at Esna

Traditional fishing

Sunset at Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo temple

Nubian village, Aswan

Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel

So who out of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia has the greater right to the waters of the Nile? Simon Reeves' conclusion was that the nations involved need to be better at sharing, which just tells me that he has never tried to have that same conversation with a two year old child.

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