Cesare Brandi says “Egypt is not a country, it’s a river”.1 And the river is a road, which like a great motorway connects different geographic points. Thus its waters are not a separator but a means of exchange and communication.
There are several ways of travelling in Egypt: one can find sanctuary in the “ancient” Egypt constructed from the images and romanticised stories of western documentaries, filling the darkest passages of history and transfiguring them into what we would like them to have been. An abstract country, a seductive, idealised icon for consumption, reaching its commercial culmination with the Cruise on the Nile. A rite celebrated by European writers over and over again, originating from the fascination with Egyptian civilisation shown by Napoleonic France. Since then artists, poets, intellectuals and archaeologists have embarked on this journey, an itinerary already covered in the mind, landscapes recognised, from things read and already described.
Nevertheless, borrowing from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about another river, “watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma”.2 An enigma because ancient Egypt, despite being a long way from us time-wise, seems extremely close to our aesthetic sensibility. Like in a complex trick with mirrors, what we in the West call “modernity” is in part the result of the re-elaboration, in many cases unconscious, of this extraordinary reservoir of visions and contents, called the Orient.
The gradual rediscovery and assimilation of Eastern lands, from Maghreb to Persia, is a process that had already begun back in the 16th century. Pope Sixtus V for example had a fascination for Egyptian obelisks, and these became centre points for Rome’s new urban layout. But it was Napoleon’s military campaign that marked the watershed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries luxury cruises organised by British travel agent Thomas Cook became a must for the European bourgeoisie. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile,3 set in the 1930s, is an emblematic literary case. Anyone can arrive in Egypt with his own certainties: images, invented stories on the pyramids, temples and the Nile. It is possible to take refuge in the protected enclosures of the archaeological sites and ignore the life that comes near and assaults us, like the teeming mass of insistent sellers — “flies” as Agatha Christie called them —, the expanse of brick and concrete buildings, minarets lit up in neon, dilapidated houses.
Still today on the banks of the river a rural community exists, almost forgotten by time. Paradoxically it is this poverty of means that offers an essential, enchanted and even pre-modern landscape. Reality shatters the certainties acquired from books read before the journey. The River becomes a metaphor for the time that passes, for everyone and for history. Daily life continues to deposit its sediments onto the banks of the river, dirtying palaces and temples, denying the certainty of a perpetual memory.