Whispers in the NightT. SHER SINGH
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Deep in southern Egypt, close to the Sudanese border, sits the town of Aswan, famous for its ancient temples, Philae and Kabasha, and for its modern temple, the Aswan High Dam - until a few years ago, the largest dam in the world.
My daughter and I took advantage of the off-season and haggled our way down to something affordable at the grandest of Egypt’s hotels, the Pullman Cataract. We also managed to get a room overlooking the Nile from the hotel’s original wing, the Edwardian-Moorish structure left over from the colonial era.
The Old Cataract, as it is now known, appears in Agatha Christie’s tale and its movie version, Death on the Nile. She wrote the story, we were told, while staying at this hotel. The porter points to the room thus immortalized, as we walk by.
We were spent by the time we checked in, having explored the Daraw camel market, an hour’s drive into the Nubian countryside, earlier in the day.
We hung around the verandah, admiring the river’s changing colours in the evening sun. The bright canopies above us; the palm trees around us; the steeply descending gardens below us; the felucca boats waiting on the dock by the riverside; the purple chunks of rock that made up the island mid-river, straight across from us; and the silhouette of the mausoleum (of Aga Khan III, we discovered a few days later) sitting atop a hill on the distant desert on the far side of the Nile -- all conspired to relax us until we reluctantly retired for the night.
Something woke me up. It was still dark outside. I lay still, wondering what had pulled me out of the deep sleep, when I heard it again. It was whispering … several people talking in hushed tones. Right outside our window.
I got up. It was too dark to see anything, other than the muted white of the felucca sails bobbing far below us, on the water; and a few lamps on the distant island.
But the voices continued.
They were accompanied by a strange sound, resembling the spine-chilling grating of metal against earth. I stood there for a long time, wide-eyed with curiosity and a breeze blowing on my face through the open window.
Over breakfast in the verandah next morning, I asked our waiter about the sounds I’d heard.
Excavations on the southern tip of Elephantine Island - the one straight across from us - had disclosed, he explained, ruins going back to two millennia BC, that is, to the Ptolemaic period. A German team was supervising the diggings which took place only at night, mainly to avoid the heat of the day. The workers had been instructed to keep the noise low -- because of the hotel nearby. Hence the whispers. The water, however, carried the sound directly across to our window, making it sound as if they were right outside it.
I tried to gain access to the excavations. After all, it isn’t every day you come across archaeologists digging out an ancient Egyptian temple.
But I had no luck; there was no one around during the day. Finally, in desperation, I decided to try a different approach.
I hired a felucca -- at twice the normal rate, because its owner's mission was to take me across to the island … but at 3:00 am the next day. He thought it was a bit odd. I explained. He still thought it was a bit odd, but a few extra pounds in coins convinced him of my dedication.
My alarm woke me up. I dressed in the dark and left behind a note for my daughter, in case she was up before I returned.
I could hear the whispers and the metallic grating as I made my way down the terrace, through the gardens, to the dock and the waiting felucca.
The Nubian boatman was quiet throughout, as he rowed through the inky dark. It took only a few minutes before we were stopped by the sheer rock-face of Elaphantine Island. We looked for a friendly ledge I could latch on to, as I tried to disembark.
When I finally clambered ashore, I motioned him to wait until I returned. He stared back at me blankly. I had a split-second vision of trying to swim back to the hotel, but immediately drove the thought from my mind as I turned away and began to climb the rocks.
The ascent wasn’t difficult. There were lots of nooks and wedges. The rock-face was rough and though close to vertical, co-operated with my hiking boots. It was a moonlit night, with not a speck of cloud in sight.
I was guided by sounds coming from the top of the cliff. Though they weren’t as clear here as they were from the Old Cataract window.
I clawed to the top, and pulled myself over unceremoniously to firm, flat ground. Still on my hands and knees, I found myself peering at a dozen amazed workers -- tall, dark, handsome Nubian men --- bundled up in yards of white cotton from tip to toe, eyes glowing like diamonds. Huddled over a huge ditch, looking sinister in the glow of a series of tungsten lamps scattered around them.
I took advantage of their frozen state -- the apparition of a turbaned figure emerging from over the cliff-edge would’ve been truly stupifying, now that I think of it -- by waving my camera at them. It always works as the universal symbol of the tourist.
I mumbled a few broken words in pidgin Arabic, pointed to the Old Cataract, and somehow managed to establish my bona fides as a harmless but curious intruder.
They had a few questions of their own, before they answered mine. The archaelogists -- their bosses -- weren’t around yet; they came at 7:00 am, after a full night‘s digging had been accomplished.
“You must leave,” they implored, “before they arrive.”
I drifted around, marvelling at the artifacts lying outside the ditch in neat rows, awaiting inspection, cataloguing, and photographing by the sahibs.
I touched them, rubbing off the clay onto my fingers, musing how long it had been since human eyes had looked at them last. Perhaps 3000 years? Maybe 4000?
I sat down to rest and drink in the sight as a whole -- the workers’ emotions, their sounds, their laughter.
When I was ready to head back, they helped me over the edge, as I sought a foothold on the ledge below. And they stood over me as I made my way down to the felucca.
Amazing, but the boatman was still there with his boat, patient but still skeptical of what he had aided and abetted.
I waved a final shokran to the crowd high above, on the cliff’s edge. They waved back and yelled, “Afwan!” - You’re welcome!
Conversation about this article
1: Manjit Kaur (Maryland, U.S.A), July 12, 2012, 4:01 PM.
Marvelous story. Too short. Would like to read more details of what you found, what state were these objects, etc. Please tell us more!
2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 12, 2012, 5:09 PM.
What an adventurous thirst for travel and the wide-eyed account of wonderlands. This is grist for a book on your travelogues. Judging from your frequent forays, might I suggest the title for the boo? 'If it's Tuesday it must be Timbuktu'. Or, perhaps name it 'Modern Udasis' in the by-lanes of the world. For us brittle in the bone, we require an arm-chair trip of 'Sher and little Sherni' and stay out of harm's way.