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Charm of the Nile

When former US Ambassador Richard B. Parker was stationed in Cairo before the 1967 War, the sailing aficionado fell in love with the Nile. He had his own sailboat here and spent hours photographing and learning about the many different types of boats that shared the river with him — sailboats no longer in use today. Egypt Today brings you Parker’s unpublished 1970 essay, originally titled “Nile Sailing Vessels,” and his vintage photographs, which capture an era when feluccas were the workhorses of the Nile.
Written and photographed by Richard B. Parker

Richard B. Parker served at the US Embassy in Cairo from 1965 to the June 1967 Six-Day War. After leaving Cairo, the Middle East expert returned to Washington and for the next three years was in charge of Egyptian affairs at the State Department. The ambassador passed away in 2011; his essay, penned June 2, 1970, and photographs from his time in Egypt are published here with the gracious permission of the Parker family.

Sailboats have been a characteristic feature of life on the Nile since the dawn of history. They appear in the earliest dynastic tomb paintings, and elaborate models were buried with the dead to carry the soul on its journey with the sun. Boats were important not only for religious purposes, but also for the transport of foodstuffs and building materials throughout the length of the valley. Indeed, the spread of and maintenance of Egyptian civilization from the Mediterranean to beyond the first cataract at Aswan depended upon, among other things, the fact that the wind is from the north almost 90 percent of the time, thus permitting boats to sail upstream against the current without difficulty. This holds as true today as it did 5,000 years ago, and a sailboat can still make better speed going upstream (and running before the wind) than coming downstream (and tacking).
The boats of the tomb paintings were rectangular sailed and frequently used multiple oars as well as sails — prototypes of Greek and Roman galleys. At some point in or before the Middle Ages, the lateen sail was introduced and it is the standard sail of the Nile region today. This little note is devoted to the lateen-rigged boats which are in common use today and which are called loosely by the foreign “feluccas.” They are still found in great numbers and are the principal carriers of certain heavy cargoes, such as limestone, watermelons, Nile silt and the pottery jars of Upper Egypt. The beauty of their sails is a constantly changing source of pleasure to the watcher from the shore or from the water. As the Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, so the felucca is the charm of the Nile.
The word felucca came into English from Italian, but its origin is the Arabic word for ship — fulk, as in fulk nuh, for Noah’s Ark, in the Quran. The root f-l-k has to do with being round, and perhaps came to be applied to boats either because of the shape of the hull or the bellying shape of the sail.

Italian merchants in the Levant brought the word into Italian as felucca, and it has come back into Arabic as falukah, a term which is properly applied only to the small, lateen-rigged ferries and to the pleasure boats which ply about between the bridges in central Cairo and the pleasure gardens at the first barrage north of Cairo. The term is thus one of those imprecise generics, like dhow, which are widely used by foreigners and the uninitiated but which are not of much use in describing the various types of boats in question. We therefore drop the term here and go on to a more precise description.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of working sailboats on the Nile today — those made of steel and those made of wood. The steel boat, which is cheaper to build, is gradually replacing the wooden one. But the latter is still popular and still being built all along the river. Boats are also classified according to size, hull shape and rigging, and there is a fairly precise nomenclature for the various types, except that any steel boat of whatever size is called a sandal. Variations in hull shapes of steel boats are slight in any event.

82492257-SLD-001-0051The variety is in the wooden boat. The smallest wooden boat is the qarib or skiff. Usually about ten feet tong, it is used primarily for net fishing. The after third of the qarib is planked over, and the hull is so designed that the fisherman can stand on this working platform and cast or pull in his net without upsetting the boat. It appears to be remarkably stable. Although the motor power is usually a pair of oars, for longer trips a very rudimentary sail is used. The sail is often irregular in shape, but roughly rectangular. It is lashed to a horizontal boom, which is tied to a short mast, and the two bottom corners are made fast with any available line. The skiff then proceeds through the water at an amazing clip.

Next in size comes the felucca, which can still be called felucca even if it is 25 to 30 feet long, providing it is used for passengers and not freight. The felucca is single-masted. In smaller versions, such as the ferryboats, there are two basic riggings: one in which the mast is set about one-fourth of the hull length back from the bow and is vertical, and one in which the mast is set just forward of amidships and is inclined perceptibly forward. This gives a much more rakish cast to the boat.

The hull shapes of feluccas are of two basic types—those in which the bow is almost flat, in what appears to be the traditional shape and those in which it is a more conventional (to our eyes) knife-edged.

The larger wooden boat, which is 10 to 15 meters in length and used for freight, is called the markib. This is the generic term for all boats — from pleasure craft to ocean liners. But in the vicinity of Cairo it is applied particularly to the wooden, freight-carrying sailboat, to distinguish it from the sandal.

A markib being built on Gezerat Al Dahab in the late 1960s.

A markib being built on Gezerat Al Dahab in the late 1960s.

A wooden markib being built in Cairo is pictured on the right. The hull shown is some 15 meters long and the boat is designed to carry 90 tons of cargo. The ribs are of sunt or acacia, while the planking is of kafur (camphor) or eucalyptus. Building such a boat, all by hand labor, takes about five months. The hull has to be scraped, caulked and painted every six years.

Caulking is done with cotton soaked in oil. Cost of the completed hull, in 1957, was estimated at LE 1,500, or roughly $3,500. The sails would cost another LE 500, or $1,150. The mast on a boat of this size is about 16 meters, and the length of the boom, which carries the sail, is some 35 meters.

Sandals are 15 meters in size, and they can carry up to 90 tons. These particular boats were employed at the time in carrying sand and gravel from Khatatba to Benha, Cairo and other urban centers

82492257-SLD-001-0016The pictures on this page is of the boatyard on Gazirat ad-Dahab, or Golden Island, just south of Old Cairo. They were taken in December 1966. The yard is run by a man named Fathi, from Estabil Antar (Antar’s Stable), the village opposite the island on the mainland. He had been apprenticed to a boat builder as a boy and had been working in a boatyard for 27 years. He had no plans, and did all his calculations of curves and placements by eye. He made only sandals, i.e., only steel boats. The longest of them was 23 meters by seven and three-quarter meters, and the shortest was 10 meters by four and three-quarter meters.

The large sandal carries about 150 tons. A completed hull costs from LE 300 to LE 600, depending on size. This is less than a third of the cost of a comparable wooden hull. Sails and masts for a sandal cost only LE 200, according to Fathi, and I am unable to explain the discrepancy in prices as compared with those for a markib’s sails. Perhaps the builder of the markib thought I was in the market.

Fathi said a sandal would last for 20 years and had to be painted every two or three. He made about three of them a year.

Rashidis are wooden boats known for their double-ended shape. They are very fast, and are the prettiest boats on the river, but they do not carry as much as a markib of comparable length. Their name comes from their provenance, which is Rashid or Rosetta. The rashidi is distinguished from the almost identical dumyati (from Damietta) by the fact that the rashidi sail has a lower boom or gaff, in addition to the main boom or spar, whereas the dumyati does not. The explanation given is that the dumyati is used on Lake Manzaleh, where squalls are frequent, and that the steersman can let go of the sheet in a sudden wind and the sail will flap harmlessly rather than swinging a lethal boom about.

Finally, there is the qayasa, a large, two-masted sandal or markib from Upper Egypt. The etymology of qayasa escapes me at the moment. These boats are rare on the lower Nile.

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