Looking For Prehistoric Rock Art On The Nile
Given we had a felucca for three nights and — well, I could have sworn four days, but them’s the breaks, mustn’t grumble and the crew were perfect gentlemen, which is primarily why I paid what my son describes as derp price for our boat — I thought I’d engage in a little travel planning.
As an old-fashioned user of guide books, as opposed to, say, TripAdvisor, I was pleased to see that, somewhere along this particular stretch of the Nile, was Egypt’s answer to Lascaux.
Now, I’d been sulking a bit at some (not all) of the best-preserved temples. You see, many of Egypt’s more famous temples are Ptolemaic or virtually Roman era so at a mere two and a bit thousand years they are, in my mind, NOT OLD ENOUGH FOR EGYPT!
But Egypt’s answer to Lascaux? That’s OLD.
It was shut when the guide book was written. But perhaps it’s open now? Or, at least, given the revolution and everything, open at a manageable bribe?
Now, there are a lot of very, very old paintings in the Eastern Desert — by which I mean older than Ancient Egyptian culture, which is more than five millennia old — but April is a bad month for sandstorms and we have, both of us, had it up to here with sandstorms.
All in all, Lascaux on the Nile, or as close as we could get to it, sounded like A GOOD THING TO DO with a boat of one’s own.
So I turn to Google. A few variations on “prehistoric rock paintings on the Nile” pulls up this admirable work of scholarship, published by the British Museum.
EXCELLENT! I think, skimming it.
Loads of graffiti from thousands of centuries. Also some prehistoric rock art.
And place names, including El Hôsh and Wadi Shatt al Rigal.
“Right,” I say, purposefully, to Ashraf, our felucca captain. “We would like to see the paintings at El Hôsh and Wadi Shatt al Rigal. They’re 6 kilo north of Gebel Silsila, 30 kilo south of Edfu, on the West Bank.”
“Not hieroglyphs!” I add, helpfully. “Definitely not hieroglyphs! Very, very old paintings from before the pharaohs.”
“I don’t know it,” he says, clearly beginning to wonder what he has got himself into.
“Never mind!” I say, brightly. “We can ask people on the way.”
By which I mean, as my Arabic still consists largely of sentences beginning “No thank you. I don’t want…” with the odd pleading “Where?”, some transport words, a lot of food and drink words, some numbers, no fewer than five different ways of saying “Yes!” and about one-fifth of a declension, “YOU can ask people on the way!”
I pull up the Google Satellite Map in the article. Neither of us understands it.
We start our quest for rock paintings in the rather charming little town of Daraw, down the road from somewhere called El Hôsh.
This has, we are told by a selection of tuk-tuk drivers, shopkeepers and some passing cameleers, no rock paintings of any kind.
“You need to drive, 5 kilo,” says Ashraf. “It’s 5 kilo back from the bank.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” I say. “Let’s keep asking around.”
“You know,” Z says, sweatily — it’s well over 40°C (probably pushing 110°F) and he’s keeping his legs covered — “You DO realise we are never going to find these things? And I don’t know what your problem is with Ptolemaic temples and pylons anyway. I like them.”
“They’re fascistic!” I say. “They look like something Mussolini would have built. Or Albert Speer. And I am beginning to get smiting fatigue.”
No one at the crocodile temple of Kom Ombo seems to know much about prehistoric rock art, at least, none of the ones who speak English, and our chaps are back on the boat.
But at the quarries of Gebel Silsila, we strike paydirt, perhaps helped by the fact that when the chap selling tickets has no change I allow him to keep it, and that with a guide tourist ratio of 5:2, we accept a guide.
“He knows about the paintings!” says Ashraf, who is a nice chap and a bright guy, and, further, actively interested in finding new stops for his felucca.
The guy unleashes a flood of rapid Arabic, in which I catch Wadi Shatt Al-Rigal, El Hôsh, “no tickets!” and “tip!”, plus a third place name, and the phrase “no tickets!” “shut!”
“He says that there are three places,” says Ashraf, as I marvel at having caught the gist of Arabic that is not actively being taught to me or spoken at cretin speed. “Wadi Shatt Al-Rigal and El Hôsh are closed, but if you give the man some money you can have a look. Qurta is…”
Our friend explains some more to me in Arabic, including a particularly effective mime of a permit and a lot of “no, no, no”s.
“Qurta is really closed,” says Ashraf. “He can’t let you in. You need a permit…”
“From the Department of Antiquities?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “And you need a car.”
“OK!” I say, darting a triumphant look in my son’s direction. “That’s fine! Let’s go to El Hôsh and Wadi Shatt Al Rigal! Don’t worry about Qurta. He knows where they are?”
“Yes,” says Ashraf. “We have directions.”
Prehistoric rock art, here we come! think I, as we sail off, and an unsightly shouting rises from the river bank.
“Oh god, Mum,” says Z. “I think the guides are squabbling over your five Egyptian pounds.”
Sometimes in Egypt I think of Africa. At other times I think of the Arab world.
And as the volume rises and the hand gestures flow, and our felucca gets under sail, I am reminded that it is also utterly, utterly Mediterranean.
Seriously. Egyptians make Italians look like Swedes.
We tack achingly slowly along what looks like a bank, with donkeys, scarecrows, tomato plants and gardens behind the reeds.
“El Hôsh is there,” says Omar, Ashraf’s cousin who’s doing the cooking and helping out with the sailing.
“Why can’t we stop?!” I say, panicking. “I really, really want to go to El Hôsh.”
“Because that’s an island,” Omar says. “We need to find our way through. We don’t know this place.”
We run aground close to what looks like a channel and turns out to be merely an indent in this long, thin island. Ashraf gets into the water and pushes us off with a note of strained forebearance.
Another island appears ahead of us, this one home to a decent-sized Nubian village, and we tack to the left then sail up against the current, stopping to ask directions from fishermen and farmers.
And, all of a sudden, we are there! Wherever, exactly there is.
And — infuriatingly! — a tug boat is also there, bringing a group back to their dahabbiya.
They seem at least as surprised to see us, in our little boat, as we are to see them in their tug, with their dahabbiya moored, sails furled, on the island, whose name I would transcribe, probably wrongly, as Bisau.
In fact, I would quite confidently say that both they and we firmly believed we would be the only foreigners in this particular village.
Ashraf asks directions from their guide.
“Up there!” he says, mooring the boat, and pointing at a path through the gardens. “And this is Wadi Shatt Al Rigal, not El Hôsh.”
It is a phenomenon I have observed in Egypt that on the rare occasions one could actually do with a guide, a taxi, a horse and carriage or a helpful local prepared to point one the right way, there is absolutely no one around.
Wadi Shatt Al Rigal is no exception to this rule.
We follow the path through pleasingly deserted gardens, complete with butterflies, up to the road that, rather unromantically, runs parallel to our route.
The region, I notice dourly, is not short on wadis, the dried up river valleys where most rock art is found. I can see three, all of them extending deep into the desert.
“Right!” I say, confidently. “Let’s go that way.”
We walk along the road. The sun beats down. It is noon, about 45°C (or 110°F) and both of us are dressed decently for Egypt.
“There are a lot of rocks here,” Z says, as I scramble up sand that burns enough to hurt when it comes in contact with my feet. “Do you even know what rock art looks like?”
“No,” I say. “But they found it. So we will too! Do you reckon it’s that wadi?”
“You can’t climb up every single wadi on this road looking for rock art,” he says. “That would be ridiculous.”
“LOOK!” I say. “That rock’s got a number on it! So has the one next to it! It’s right by the road. Numbers 59 and 60.”
And, lo and behold, there it is! Bona fide rock art!
“Oh wow!” says Z, genuinely impressed as he inspects it. “It’s a magical hunt! And they’re either hunting giraffes or diplodocuses.”
“That must,” I say, authoritatively, “Be really, really old.”
“Well, yeah,” he says. “They haven’t had giraffes round here for thousands and thousands of years.”
We stand there, stoked, discussing it for a while.
Rock number 60, disappointingly, has a boat, a simple version of the classic Pharaonic barque which sat, housing the statues of the gods, on an altar in the sanctuary of their temples.
“Maybe they had boats like that then too?” says Z. “It can’t be classical Egyptian because they didn’t carve on unfaced rock.”
“Mmm…” I say. “Let’s see if we can find some more!”
“Well,” says Z, using some of the skills he learned in the Sinai desert. “Their footprints are going that way. Let’s follow their trail.”
We scramble up the burning sand and rock, hissing a bit when it falls on our feet.
“They went that way!” I say.
“No,” says Z. “Those are donkey tracks, not shoe marks. And they’re really old. They went THAT way.”
We random around the rocks for a bit, grabbing a superb Nile view, but nary a sign of rocks numbers 1 through 58.
“Did you notice that the road seems to have been resurfaced?” I ask, recalling skimming the phrase “threatened by construction projects”.
“Oh god,” Z says. “They haven’t built a road through it, have they?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve built a road USING it,” I say.
“OK,” he says. “It’s really hot. Let’s go back to the boat.”
By the time we have found someone to ask directions from we have overshot El Hôsh by a couple of kilometres, meaning that we will need to sail back with the wind but against the current, and Ashraf is getting grumpy.
“We’re never going to be in Edfu in the morning,” he says. “It could take me two days, three days, a week to sail back if the wind is bad.”
“The wind’s been blowing upriver the whole time we’ve been sailing,” I say, bracingly.
“It can change!” he says. “Any time, it can change. If there is no wind it will take a week. A week! And this is not my boat! We will spend all our money just on cigarettes!”
“OK,” I say, not wanting to get into a futile debate about quite how many Cleopatra cigarettes they’d have to smoke to spend what I have paid them. “We didn’t start until 9.30am this morning, although we’d agreed 6 to give us time. Let’s start at 6am the next day…”
“You want to go to El Hôsh?”
“Yes,” I say, firmly. “I STILL want to go to El Hôsh.”
As we turn to head back against the current, the wind dies completely for an impressive fifteen minutes, during which we sit in silence, drifting in the wrong direction, as Ashraf gives me the death stare.
Mercifully, the wind picks up, and we arrive in the mud and reeds with impressive speed.
“Up there!” says Ashraf, pointing at a path through palms and gardens, and he and Omar settle down for a joint and a nap.
“Mum,” says Z. “It is REALLY hot now. I don’t want to do this.”
“Come on!” I say. “It’s prehistoric rock art! It will be excellent!”
We emerge onto the road, which features three stone buildings with half-destroyed palm rooves, their doors flapping in the wind, and a little hut.
“LOOK!” I say. “That must be it! There.”
“That,” my son says, witheringly. “Is clearly somebody’s house.”
“No it isn’t!” I say. “Let’s have a look inside.”
Inside, there are palm branches, a lot of camel and donkey dung, some sand and the remains of paint on the rock. “Look!” I say. “Painting!”
“That’s not prehistoric, Mum,” says Z. “That’s someone’s house. And they painted that rock because it was their back wall.”
“Mm,” I say. “You’re probably right.”
“Oh my god,” I say, looking at the village. “This is like something out of 28 Days Later.”
It is deserted, although two Nubian water jars complete with tin mugs, cooling in the shade, indicate that there is life here. The houses are rubble-built, grey, decrepit, desperately poor and apparently empty.
We walk up the hill, the sun beating down, and a microbus passes, adding yet more dust to our collection.
I had been operating on the assumption that where there are sites of even the vaguest interest, there is usually someone nearby who knows where they are — not to mention a man actively expecting a bribe or a child willing to escort one there for pocket money.
Hell, in Morotai, Indonesia, there are plenty of people desperate to guide you to a locally celebrated site known as MacArthur’s shower, where the great general once had a bath. Or something.
“What you think?” asked the man from the tourist office.
“Mm,” I said, staring at the scummy concrete pool. “It might be more impressive if the ladies weren’t doing their washing in it.”
Anywise, it is only at this point that I realise I do not possess an Arabic dictionary. And, further, that I need one.
I see a child, sitting in the shade. “Hello!” I say, in abysmal Arabic. “Here El Hosh? I want…”
My guidebook does not contain the word for ‘painting’. So I mime large brushstrokes, as Z begins to cringe.
“Look!” he says. “One, the boy is only five. Two, he clearly has no idea what you’re on about. Please stop this. You’re embarrassing me.”
We walk a bit further through this wasteland, where I flag down a chap on a motorbike.
I repeat the same rigmarole. Yes, this is El Hôsh. No, he has no f*cking clue what I am on about, either.
“OK,” I say. “Ashraf’s in a strop. Let’s head back to the boat unless we see anyone else.”
A skinny, Nubian-looking kid in shorts and a T-shirt emerges from the palms carrying a bundle that’s half-laundry, half-foliage, but clearly very heavy.
“This El Hosh?” I ask. “I want…” and I begin my rubbish mime.
He points! Up the hill! He knows where the things are!
“MUM!” says Z. “He clearly has no idea what you want. He’s just pointing randomly because he thinks you’re crazy and wants you to stop.”
I walk, Z trailing me like a small, dusty thundercloud, up the hill to where there’s a collection of houses that seem in slightly better repair.
Also a lot of rocks. A LOT of rocks.
I turn around. “FINALLY!” says Z. “We’re going back to the boat.”
And then the boy starts to beckon. “YES!” I say. “He’s going to guide us.”
He walks fast, this kid, even with his burden, the pace of an early-20s German hiker with stuff to prove. I am struggling to keep up. Z is way behind.
“You know what?” yells Z, who is by now beetroot. “You know what? I have F*CKING had ENOUGH of this. I am going back to the F*CKING boat.”
“Oh no you don’t,” I yell, maternally.
I am torn between a sense that he probably shouldn’t be swearing and an understanding that actually most people would be at this point. “Oh NO you bloody don’t! YOU.ARE.COMING.WITH.ME.”
He heads off to the boat.
Oh, s*d it, I think. He can stay on the boat. I’ll go off with the kid.
Watching the kid’s long, lean limbs pounding ahead of me, I am sweating like a pig and beginning to pant.
I am, further, aware that there are going to be at least two, if not three, very cross males waiting for me at the boat.
“How far?” I say, in rubbish Arabic. “Kilo? Half kilo? How many kilo?”
“Half kilo,” he says. “There! Cafe!”
It is, indeed, a cafe. His dad’s cafe.
And, amazingly, his dad speaks English. Good English.
“Would you like some tea?” he asks.
“Umm,” I say. “I’m looking for the old paintings at El Hôsh.”
“Ah! This is not El Hôsh. This is,” I will not even attempt to transcribe the Arabic name, but it begins with a G, has another G in it, and sounds like somewhere in Mordor. “El Hôsh is that way. Ten minutes. But what’s the hurry, why not have a tea?”
A voice far in the distance. “MUM!”
I turn. Z is redder and crosser than I have seen him since he had one of this three tantrums when he was 18 months old, and labouring up the hill. His trousers are covered in dust and plant life and his face looks like it might actually melt.
“Oh my god,” I say. “I’m so sorry. I thought you’d gone back to the boat.”
“No,” he says. “Because when you YELL AT ME, IN THAT VOICE, I always end up doing what you say. HOWEVER STUPID IT IS!”
“Oh god,” I say. “I’m really sorry. I had no idea you were there.”
“Well, HE did,” said Z. “And, oh look, he hasn’t taken us to the rock paintings, has he? He’s taken us to his father’s sodding cafe! What a surprise!”
“No, no,” I say. “His dad speaks English.”
“AND I had THORNS in my shoes,” says Z. “I’ve walked all this way at Nubian speed with THORNS in my shoes.”
“Would you like a drink?” asks the kid’s dad.
“Do you know where the paintings are?” I ask.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I never heard of any paintings here.”
“Were there archaeologists?” I say. “People digging and looking at rocks?”
“No,” he says.
I catch Z’s eye. “Alright,” I say. “Let’s have a drink here and then go back to the boat. I promise.”
Surreally, we are three minutes from our boat when a man appears on a donkey. “Donkey!” he says. “Donkey! Donkey! Donkey!”
“No thank you,” I say, in rubbish Arabic, “We do not want a donkey. I do not want a donkey. A boy does not want a donkey.”
Which leads me to believe that if I had, in fact, headed up the road to El Hôsh, and settled down and drunk gallons of sweet tea, a man would have appeared as a guide, and, in fact, we could have hired a donkey.
Gentle reader, I can draw several conclusions from this.
Firstly, an archaeology Google coupled with one’s own transport is, potentially, an excellent way to find interesting things in Egypt and elsewhere.
Secondly, this needs to be a thorough archaeology Google, one that brings up site maps, detailed locations and indications of exactly what you are looking for: this is a good place to start for Egypt’s 15,000 year old rock art.
Thirdly, the transport should probably be a car or 4WD, not a felucca.
Fourthly, one needs to speak functional Arabic, have a lot of time to spare, and not be towing a small boy or a sulky felucca captain.
Our giraffes? Google archaeology tells me that they are pre-Egyptian. But only by a thousand years or so, and there are hundreds of similar sites across Egypt.