The coming of Ramadan holds a special significance for Egypt’s dwindling Nubian population, whose ancestral homeland lies in the southern area between the High Dam and its 19th-century predecessor, the smaller Aswan Low Dam.
The fasting month of Ramadan, in local language called Mesay, was certainly not a month that Ancient Nubians celebrated, as their culture predates the holy month by almost a couple of millennia.
While most Nubians in the area were relocated to make room for the construction of the High Dam in the 1950s under the rule of Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a few remained in a cluster of three island villages located on the banks of the Nile.
One such village is called Tinqar (or Tingar as it is called by the locals), the largest of the three islands, which are locally called the “imprisoned villages” due to their position between the High Dam to the North and the Low Dam to the south.
The other two settlements are Heissa and West Suhail.
These villages represent some of the few places on Earth where Nubians can connect with their long and complex heritage, which began in Upper Egypt around 2500 BCE.
To passers-by in the Nile, the villages are truly a sight to behold, their brightly painted houses rising with the hills they’re built on. However, once visitors set foot on the Nubian soil, they become aware that there is a long and complex history evident in the age-worn state of the local structures, visible beneath their new coat of paint.
Ancient tastes and sights
Nubians today have managed to blend their Islamic faith with their ancient traditions resulting in a number of unique rituals and dishes.
On a warm spring afternoon this Ramadan, local chef Mohamed Abdullah, better known by his nickname Hamadi Shakand, sat against one of these village walls waiting for sundown to bring the maghrib prayer and with it iftar, the breaking of the daytime Ramadan fast.
"The village's young people continue to preserve our ancient traditions each Ramadan," said Hamadi Shakandi, a chef from Tingar to The National. "They start reading a chapter of the Quran each day before the asr prayer, then they head to the Nile where they help prepare food for iftar."
The second half of Ramadan holds a special significance for Egypt's dwindling Nubian communities, which have made a tradition out of breaking their daytime fast with group iftars attended by every one of their members.
Each year, the locals take turns hosting a banquet for everyone in
the village, which can go on well into the night as dozens break their fast in unison.
The locals take turns paying for the group meals so the cost is evenly divided amongst them and their doors are always open for neighbours and strangers alike. “One day it’s on me, and the next, it’s on my friend,” Mr Shakand said.
"We, together with our close neighbors, gather in front of
one of our houses once a week to have iftar – so that we can feel the
atmosphere of Ramadan and maintain our habits," said Heissa native Ahmed Markeb, 50, to The National.
After they feast on local delicacies like Jakud, fattah and kabid bread, and drink abreeg, the signature juice of the villages, the locals spend hours chatting with their friends, neighbours and acquaintances about the goings-on in their village.
From preparing the food and drink, to serving it and setting up the sitting area, it seems that everything that happens in these three villages is a group activity.
The women are in charge of preparing the food, which consists of a number of dishes that are not found elsewhere in Egypt.
"The most famous Nubian dishes we have are molokheya with sanasel, and okra," explains Umm Muhammad, a local of Heissa. "There is also something called fattah, which is like sanasel, but we knead it on the spot and make it. But with sanasel, we knead it, and let it ferment for a while, approximately 3 or 4 hours."
A drink called abreeg is more ubiquitous than any other among Egypt's Nubian communities.
Made up of water filtered through kneaded dough mixed with various kinds of fruit juices such as lemon or hibiscus - another traditional Ramadan drink - no iftar table is complete without it.
"Abreeg is the preferred drink of all Nubians," Tinqar local Nasser Anwari explained. "It has been around since the days of our forefathers and it is the most famous of all our
During Spring, Nubia witnesses a marked rise in temperature that can make fasting more arduous, with many locals feeling the usual pangs of thirst more than they do during the cooler times of the year.
One dish that has been said to stem thirst is the kabid bread, a local staple eaten for sohour, to help fasters get through the long daytime hours without food or drink.
There are two variations of kabid bread, one made with yeast and typically eaten with milk and honey. The one without yeast is consumed with dried mallow or okra.
Jakud is another local dish eaten during Ramadan. It is special because the simplicity of its ingredients allows each household to put its own spin on it.
In its most authentic form, jakud is made from spinach, coriander and dill cooked with chicken or beef stock and seasoned with garlic. Yet many locals have experimented with the dish. One popular variation includes adding eggs, tomatoes and peppers and baking it.
This year, the pandemic has made Ramadan unrecognisably
lonely for Egypt's Nubians, who have been forced to do away with their group meal traditions and settle for smaller iftars, with just a few of their immediate neighbours to keep them company.
"With corona and the precautionary measures, we were deprived this year of our collective iftars," laments Nubian native Sheikh Muhammad Abdel Aziz, former deputy minister of awqaf, or religious endowments.
Most Nubians left the area in the 20th century during two mass migrations, forming a diaspora that currently resides all over the world. Few remain in their ancestral villages.
As the world around them continues to change at a rapid pace, the Nubians who decided to remain in these villages and not seek more modern lifestyles hold on to their traditions that dictate a strong sense of community that pervades the local atmosphere.