What is a Dahabiya?
When it comes to River Nile cruises, most people know about the large cruise boats and feluccas, some people know about yachts, but few people know anything about dahabiyas, which take their name from the Arabic word for gold: dahab (the earliest form of this boat was golden coloured). This is rather ironic as the dahabiya was the mode of transport, on the Nile, long before the modern day diesels, or the steamers made famous by Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile”.
The dahabiya is a (usually) two-masted sailing boat that relies on wind power: it has no engines except for a generator that makes electricity. This gives it something that is in very short supply nowadays: silence! Sailing on a dahabiya allows the sound of the river splashing against the boat on of the only sounds you will hear, along with the singing of the birds (and the diesels in the distance). You can relax and imagine yourself as one of the aristocrats or elite travellers during the days of the monarchy, or even a member of the monarchy, as this is how they used to negotiate the river. Elegance and style, that is what they were built for; four to ten cabins, fully equipped bathrooms, elaborate furnishings, and servants to do everything. Nowadays it is very similar, though more modern and with the necessities of today, with electricity, Wi-Fi, showers, etc.
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. This also allows for experiences like dinner in front of the “Speos of Horemheb”: an illuminated meal that you will never forget, and all thanks to the dahabiya’s shallower draft and smaller passenger capacity.
The other huge advantage with being able to snuggle up to these smaller islands is that the River Nile now becomes your swimming pool. You can dive and swim to your heart’s content, or sit back and watch the frolicking of others from the sands of the island.
During its journey the dahabiya will stop to collect supplies of food, either from riverside markets, or directly from local farmers and gardeners: everything is fresh and cooked as required. Frozen food? Forget it! Throughout the day mineral water and tea are available, as well as cups of strong Turkish coffee, karkade (hibiscus), or fresh fruit juice. You can even savour some local beer and wine.
Imagine being lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the waves, only interrupted by the call of a bird. This is night time on a dahabiya! Serene nights; peaceful days; silent sailing; total relaxation; and all available today, as it was almost 100 years ago.
Although we use the spelling “dahabiya”, it can also be spelled as: dahabeeya, zahabiya, dahabeyya, dahabiah, dahabiyah, dhahabiyya, dahabiyeh, dahabieh, dahabeah, and dahabeya.