Desert

Scrolling the news on the BBC website I noticed an article called: The week’s best reads, and thought, shit I haven’t even started it yet. So here goes..!

During one of my days in Aswan, I took a ferry to the other side of the Nile.

There I rode a camel, or to be more precise, a camel endured me sitting on its back after I had paid a lot  of money to its owner. Yes, that seems more accurate. The camel’s name was somethiing tourists might think funny, but frankly, I think you could have called him farting dust bag or whatever, because I don’t think it would have made the slightest difference. Riding a camel is mainly not falling off it when it gets up or sits down, the two most precarious moments of the whole endeavour. Other than that it seems to consist of kicking the animal in the ribs and there you go… I asked Moustapha how old it was and he told me it was 10 years. that is out of roughly 15 year, which is comparable to that of a horse. He told me how much it was worth, but I forgot. The camel brought  me to the Monastery of St. Simeon.

Monastery_small

The photo above is from the monastery of St. Simeon and I was the only visitor. In the main hall, all was silent, and I sat meditating for a while in the half dark, when a leaf fell from the ceiling. A leaf? In this desert? I got up and walked over and discovered that the leaf in fact was a small bat. It slowly crawled to a dark corner where it tried to hide for cover.

It was one of the few encounters I had with Egyptian wildlife. Other animals I had seen were during a felucca trip when I saw ibis, kingfishers and herons.

After the monastery, which was huge  but disappointing, I decided to explore the surrounding desert for a bit. In the distance I could see a nice sand dune and so I walked over and started to climb it. It was not too hot and the sand was firm and much easier to walk on than I had expected.

sand2_small

The description should read here that I was walking in the direction of Libya, broadly speaking, that touches the right tone, I feel.

On the way back to the ferry I got lost which is quite a miracle in itself given the fact that I was somewhere in between a sizable Nubian village, the remnants of huge monastery and the longest river in the world.

It was from Aswan that Burckhardt set out to Nubia in 1813.

I quote from his letters to Joseph Banks of the African Association, his employer:

After estimating the expenses which I was likely to incur in Nubia, I put eight Spanish dollars into my purse, in conformity with the principle I have constantly acted upon during my travels, namely, that the less the traveller spends while on his march, and the less money he carries with him, the less likely are his travelling projects to miscarry. After a journey of 450 miles up the Nile, from Assouan, and the same distance down again, I returned with three dollars, having spent about five dollars, including every expense, except the present to Hassan Kashef. This must not be attributed to parsimony; I mention it here as a part of my plan of travelling, and by way of advice to all travellers who visit unknown and dangerous countries in the East.

That’s what I like about Burckhardt, in a way , he was the first budget traveller, I mean, discovering Abu Simbel for 5 dollars…

Piastres

Piastres

The Spanish dollars that Burckhardt used in Nubia were the first de facto world currency. Even the American dollar was originally based on it and was indeed legal tender in the United States. Another was the Ottoman piaster and this was the currency that Burckhardt used in Egypt which was then still part of the Ottoman empire. By the early 1800’s, however, the Ottoman piaster was debased and worth much less than the Spanish dollar. Not much later it was replaced by the Egyptian pound and the piaster was given a new lease as a subdivision of  the pound being worth a 100th of it. Burckhardt was long dead by then.

By the way, the Vietnamese dong, the Cambodian riel and the Laotian kip, are all successors of the French Indochinese piaster, which was in its turn a descendant of the Spanish pieces of eight, or again, the Spanish dollar.

If the Spanish pieces of eight sounds familiar, it’s because they play a prominent role in the Pirates of the Carribean or, alternatively, Treasure Island.

From Aswan I took a night train back to Cairo and travelled onwards to Alexandria directly from there.

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