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Sailing the River Nile

Humans have been sailing on the River Nile for as long as historical documents record: there are many ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs showing that this activity existed thousands of years ago. Obviously the vessels have improved since the days of the Pharaohs and today we have many different ways to sail the river; from feluccas to large cruise liners.

Recently the reintroduction of “dahabiyas” has been a huge innovation. These engineless boats silently sail the Nile propelled only by the wind and flow of the river (with the occasional assistance of a tug-boat should the wind subside too much). Having no engines allows dahabiyas to have a much shallower draft, giving them the capability of sailing a lot closer to the islands in the River Nile. This means that they can reach some sites that the larger, conventional, cruise boats cannot, and also allow their passengers to bathe in the river’s water.

Reintroduction? Well, yes! The history of the dahabiya goes back to the Pharaonic times: there are inscriptions of very similar boats in the tombs of ancient Egyptian Kings and Nobles. Famous Egyptian leaders, such as King Farouk and President Sadat, had their own dahabiyas and the English novelist, journalist, traveller and Egyptologist, Emilia Edwards, even had a piano installed on hers. Aristocrats loved them, especially as the journey could take up to two or three months to complete, stopping at all the sights between Cairo and Abu Simbel (no Aswan High Dam in those days), with the whole trip being one of pure decadence and style.

Sadly, the end of the monarchy also signalled the end of the dahabiya! Steam power was the rage, soon to be overtaken by gasoline and/or diesel engines. However, the dahabiya was not forgotten, and very soon, amongst all the large cruise boats sailing up and down the River Nile, the two masts of the dahabiya slowly started to re-emerge. Visitors were starting to realise that the peace and tranquillity that they sought, could be found. As well as that, the shallower draft meant that these boats could sail closer to the many islands dotted along the river, giving access to places like Gebel El Silsila; out of bounds for the heavier cruise boats.

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