Quest for the Lord of the Nile, Part IV

02/07/2011 09:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is the fourth installment in the Quest for the Lord of the Nile series. Read Part III here.


The god Sobek, Kom Ombo Temple. Photo by Laura Hubber

Refreshed I chuff upriver to the greatest temple to Sobek ever built. Six hundred miles south of Alexandria the Ptolemaic ruin of Kom Ombo stands on a bend of the river, looking almost painterly upon approach, like the watercolors of 19th century Nile explorations. While now a jut of mainland, the site was once an island for much of the year with the Nile's high water. Because it could be defended, it was also a main trading center for gold, spices even elephants from Nubia in the south to the ports of the Mediterranean to the north. But while Egyptians here had protection from human invaders, their boats were often seized by crocodiles, and so they built a temple to Sobek in hopes he might look kindly upon their passages. In one surviving text, a man instructs his son to study so as to avoid menial jobs such as the washerman who "launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile" or the fisherman "who is at his work in a river infested with crocodiles."

In a small shrine within the temple mummified crocodiles from a nearby sacred animal cemetery are on display, their great scutes and withered limbs the color of antique wood. A hundred years ago a workman excavating tombs flung aside a mummified crocodile and it burst open. Papyrus papers with fragments of lost works from Sophocles, Homer and Euripides spilled from the belly of the beast.

Now the cruise ships debouche tourists, thousands upon thousands who hungrily snap images of Sobek with their digital cameras and cell phones as they are processed in crocodile files through the sandstone arches, some not knowing where they are. I overhear one tourist ask a local guide, "Is this the Parthenon?" Wandering about myself I feel as though I've returned to an old play but am no longer playing the same part, recast now as the audience. Sobek seemed almost a sacred secret to me over two decades he is an amusement park ride in a culture of massclusivity.

From Kom Ombo I unravel the Nile once more, sailing south the wind at my back, companioned by time and the river flowing. I purl past blistering cliffs and folding pages of orange sand, past feluccas puffing by islands, up a river that dreams along like a giant sleeping. The parted water rejoins unchanged at my stern's trailing edge, but the still shore whispers of a wilder time....once these banks were crawling with crocodiles.

I arrive at last at the First Cataract, the site of the two Aswan Dams. The second, the 364-foot tall High Dam, was completed in 1970. Without the Nile the desert would swallow Egypt like a pill. But the dams have tamed the desert. The crocodile was for millennia the most formidable creature in Egypt. But the dams have conquered the beast.

The Nile backs up for almost 300 miles now in one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, some 162 billion cubic yards of water in storage. The rising lake drowned towns and temples, buried significant archeological sites, and dislocated some 90,000 Nubians, one of the largest human rights abuses in the history of dam building.

The still water behind the dam has become a brew-pot for schistosomiasis, a deadly disease transmitted by infected snails. The mineral-rich silt deposits from the yearly floods, which made the Nile floodplain fertile, are now held behind the dam, and the downstream water is becoming increasingly saline. Where there were once 24 kinds of fish only 12 remain. The mongoose and otter have gone the way of the crocodile. Fishing throughout the whole of the Mediterranean has declined without the nutrients that used to flow freely into the delta.

Then there are the global repercussions. There is an accelerating erosion of coastlines (due to lack of sand, once delivered by the Nile) all along the eastern Mediterranean. And the whole of Mediterranean Sea has seen an increase in salinity, with altered current quality traced hundreds of miles into the Atlantic. Some scientists predict the dam's effect on this outflow may contribute to the next ice age, a cog in an engine chugging towards global weather change.

I cross the engineering feat of the High Dam, commemorated by a jagged concrete lotus poking harsh petals to the sky, proclaiming friendship to the Soviet builders of the dam. The zenith of that god, the Communist one, has also passed.

Security here is extreme, as the dam is perhaps the most prominent terrorist target in Africa, yet after much negotiation, and some baksheesh, I am able to make it the shores of Lake Nasser behind the dam where I meet a group of fishermen. They have fished these waters all their lives, as did their fathers and their fathers' fathers. I ask about crocodiles in the lake, and they say they are indeed coming back, and in such numbers and size they are more than a nuisance. They find no spiritual utility, no sentiment or fancy with the crocodiles. Their presence makes their traditional fishing waters a stew of anxiety. A colleague was pulled into the water during the last Ramadan and chomped to death. One fisherman shows me his hand which is missing a thumb, torn off from a crocodile snagged in his night net. Though it illegal they sometimes kill the larger crocodiles, and smaller ones they sell to Nubians as tourist attractions. I ask them about tourism as an alternative to their own livelihoods and they just give me a blank stare. Remote from the temples of preservation they can't imagine doing anything than what they do and what their families have always done.

That night I head to the pulsing potamic souq, more unruly and wanton than the counterpart in Cairo, where the shopkeepers hustle visitors like dice, shaking and prodding until the right answer rolls. Through a foyer done in Egyptian porphyry there is a shop called Che Guevara, kept by a smartly-dressed young Nubian named Moustafa Abd El Kader. He waves me in and attempts to vend cobra, cheetah and crocodile goods: belts, handbags, wallets, even the recombinant art form of a dagger with a baby crocodile claw handle. Flush with unearned familiarity he describes the quality, and puts a flame to a belt to prove it not plastic. He lets me fondle a purse, sturdy and sensual, and volunteers that he personally hunts for the goods in his shop, and offers he could broker a live crocodile by tomorrow.

I ask him about ecotourism as a substitute to killing the crocs, and he dismisses the concept with a wave. He holds up a belt and says there is just too much money in the crocodile trade, and business is booming...tourism will never compete.

Read Part V here.