The Nubian Response to Tourism

Nubian Museum
Nubian Museum

The Nubians are an ancient African people whose forbears have been living in the Nile Valley for thousands of years.  Nubian culture in this area has been dated to the Late Palaeolithic (ca. 25,000 B.C.), and the history of Nubia includes the kingdoms of Kush (Kerma, Napata, and Meroe), as well as the Kushite pharaohs who founded Egypt’s 25th Dynasty.  In ancient times, the Nubian homeland extended from the First Cataract of the Nile, just south of the town of Aswan (in modern Egypt) to the Sixth Cataract, just north of Khartoum (in modern Sudan).  The modern Nubian homeland reached, until recently, from the First to the Fourth Cataracts. Although Nubians live in both Egypt and Sudan, my research in cultural anthropology was done among the Egyptian Nubians, and so this blog concentrates upon their culture.

I want to begin with a discussion of the manner in which the Nubians who live in West Aswan have dealt with tourism for the past fifty or so years. In a future blog, I hope to talk about the changes that had been occurring right before the “Arab Spring” and the revolution in Egypt.

In Egypt the Nubians lived, until the mid-1960s, between Aswan and the Second Cataract. In 1964, the Aswan High Dam was built, creating Lake Nasser and flooding out most of the Egyptian Nubian homeland.  The Egyptian government  relocated approximately  50,000 villagers to an area further north as a result. Not all of the Nubians were resettled, however; there are several villages around Aswan which were in no danger of inundation, and so were not evacuated.  I have been conducting field research in one such village, West Aswan, since 1981, returning periodically to chronicle changes that have taken place through the years. In this blog, I would like to talk about the effects of tourism on the lives of the people there, and the ways in which the villagers have responded to it.

The town of Aswan is situated on the Nile River, approximately 900 kilometers south of Cairo. The village of West Aswan lies directly across the river, on the west bank. The people of West Aswan have been welcoming tourists to their village for several decades. Tourists came to Aswan by airplane, train, tour bus, cruise ship, and hired car to see the pharaonic tombs, Abu Simbel, Philae, the High Dam, the Nubian Museum, and the Nubian villages.

Throughout the year, but most heavily in the winter and spring, groups of tourists were brought to West Aswan by felucca boatmen, in order to see the village, the houses, and the people.  The leader of such groups always spoke  first to the man who owned the boat, or his representative, who then told the boatman to which village and to which house to take the tourists.  The owner of the boat generally sent the groups to the houses of his relatives, usually his sisters, who had agreed in advance to receive them. The women who lived there served the tour groups tea with mint. These women also took them on tours of their large and spacious homes, sold them bags and caps which they had crocheted especially for the tourist trade, and hoped to receive tips from the tourists.  They also received a percentage of the fee that the group had paid for the tour.

Nubian women have traditionally (stemming perhaps from pre-Islamic times) had the right to earn extra money. In the past, they raised sheep and goats to sell, which helped support them when their husbands were away from home as migrant workers, but which they continued to do even when their husbands were living at home. Even today in the Aswan marketplace, Nubian women sit in a section reserved for them, where they sell eggs and fowl.  The money that a woman makes is regarded as hers, to do with as she chooses, but it should never exceed what her husband makes as head of the family. A Nubian woman usually uses her money to buy schoolbooks or clothing for her children, but she may also invest in some gold jewelry or in enlarging the house her family is living in. A major investment of time and capital, this is customarily a right and duty of the married women. Women supervise the addition of rooms and floors to their husband’s house, and although the majority of the money comes from his paychecks, she takes credit for it.  Five, ten, or even twelve rooms might be added to family domiciles over a ten-to-fifteen year period.

This was the traditional way of life in the Nubian village when I was first there in 1981, before political changes occurred in that area of the world. In future blogs, I will discuss how political changes impacted the Nubian response to tourism.

Nubians and their Response to Tourism: A guest blog by Anne M. Jennings


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