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Sudan: Sai Island

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Sai Island | Sudan | Africa

[Visited: March 2014]

We had planned to find transportation south and catch a ferry across the Nile to visit Sai Island, but learnt that the ferries were not running. Instead, we rent a boat for the day. After our morning visit to Amara, we now drive upstream towards the south. It is a pleasant drive, the sun is not too strong, and there is plenty to see on the way. The water level of the Nile is low, and people have made terrassed fields on its river banks on which they grow vegetables. It is clear to see how the desert is approaching the Nile from the west; at several points, we see sand dunes looming over a thin line of trees. When we reach Sai Island, we buy tickets right where two ferry boats are docked on shore; it is clear they are out of service. We drive a little further south, the boat guy ties the boat, and we walk to the ruins of the Ottoman fort, which has been built on top of the much older ruins of an Egyptian settlement.

Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): The biggest ruins on Sai Island are of this Ottoman fort on the east side

Our guide and the boat guy disappear, and we have the place to ourselves. We wander around, discover old chunks of elaborately worked stone in which we find hieroglyphs, depictions of Egyptian gods, kings and queens. Walking in and around the ruins is a special experience: the ground is littered with thousands of shards of vases and pottery - here, you can walk on history. We walk towards a circular tower that has caught our attention before, it lies in the middle of a cemetery where, apart from the bits of ancient handicraft, we find bones and parts of skulls. After visiting the ruins of the fort and the refreshing tea made on firewood, it is time to go back. We convince the guide to also make a brief stop at the remains of a church; we get off at where the two ferries are docked, and walk inland for a couple of minutes. There is a lonely sign in the middle of nowhere, from a Norwegian-Greek organization that is apparently taking care of the ancient site. There is not much left of what once was a medieval church; the clearest remains are four columns, four which are standing, supporting nothing but air, and one of which seems to be in a very slow process of falling.

Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Queen carved out of sandstone on an obelisk on Sai Island

We head back to the boat, our guide is now carrying a big bunch of leaves on his head, and we ride back on the choppy waves of the Nile. Even though we are going downstream, we now have a headwind and progress is slow. Suddenly, the driver claims he spotted a crocodile, but when we reverse, it turns out to be a friendly, more than a metre long, lizard basking in the sun on the banks of the Nile. We take our pictures, but instead of continuing on our way to Abri, the driver now steers the boat directly to the riverbank. To our surprise, he jumps out, and tries to hit the animal with a metal rod. He then just catches the lizard, hauls it inside, and just when I think he wants to show the beast to us, he tries to kill it by swinging its head against the metal hull of our small boat. We look on in horror, and when the animal is sufficiently groggy, he is put inside the boat. The boat guy gives it a few hits on the head with a metal pin, after which we continue our way to Abri in silence. Even though the animal does not move anymore, I don't believe it is really dead. Upon our questions, our guide claims that the animal will make for a good lunch, and then can be used to make shoes out of the leather. When we are back in Abri and the animal is hauled out of the boat, it tries to escape, but it is sufficiently weakened, and the boat guy now holds its head to the ground, and hits it with a blunt stone, until finally, the poor thing is finished. The owner of the guesthouse has a curious idea to hang the carcass right above the entrance to his traditional Nubian guesthouse, and I have the honour to hand it to him. Blood drips from its beak; going in and out of the gate gives us the shivers. After all, the animal is neither lunch nor shoes, but just a piece of decoration. When we come back from Soleb the next day, the owner climbs the roof and, without saying another word about it, takes the lizard and swings it among the plastic trash on the banks of the same river Nile where he was innocently enjoying the afternoon sun the day before.

Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Cemetery and tumuli near the Ottoman fort on Sai Island
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Ruins of the Ottoman fort, with Jebel Abri and the River Nile in the distance
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): View of the inside of the Ottoman fort
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): These four columns once supported a medieval church on Sai Island
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Ruins on the banks of the river Nile on Sai Island
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Broken obelisk with decorations lying on the ground of the Ottoman fort
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): View from a distance of the Ottoman fort
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Hieroglyphs on an obelisk lying on the ground of the Ottoman fort
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Hieroglyphs of the Egyptian era lying on the ground of the Ottoman fort
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): The Ottoman fort on Sai Island
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): The Ottoman fort was built on top of an ancient Egyptian town 3000 years later
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Detailed view of the decorations on the capital of one of the columns of the old church
Picture of Sai Island (Sudan): Some of the thousands of remains of pottery lying on the ground of Sai Island

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