Rowing on the Nile: a haven for Cairenes in the post-lockdown era

A pastime that dates back 3,400 years, rowing on the Nile acquires new meaning during Covid-19 pandemic

Nile Rowing: A Favorite Post-Lockdown Escape for Cairo’s Residents

Nile Rowing: A Favorite Post-Lockdown Escape for Cairo’s Residents
Powered by automated translation

While many Cairenes take the Nile for granted amid the daily grind of one of the busiest cities in the Middle East, the storied river is a vital lifeline for some Egyptians who have grown tired of the capital's infamously bad traffic, densely populated neighbourhoods and detachment from nature.

Dawn can be a magical time in Cairo, especially if you are fortunate enough to be looking at the Nile's banks at the time. Few know this as well as Cairo's rowers, for whom the river is a second home, one they visit routinely as an escape from the noise pollution normally emanating from either side of the river.

In the early hours of the morning, little can be seen or heard on the Nile but the enchanting rhythm of oars in the water. And as most of Cairo's residents sleep, a lucky few get to experience a side of the city seldom seen, a softer side.

This picture taken on January 3, 2021 shows a Nile view of the Old Cataract Hotel overlooking the river in Egypt's southern city of Aswan, some 920 kilometres south of the capital, where British crime fiction writer Dame Agatha Christie is believed to have stayed while writing her 1937 novel "Death on the Nile". Over a century since it first cruised the glittering waters of the Nile, the steam ship "Sudan" draws tourists following the trail of legendary crime novelist Agatha Christie, whom it was inspired to pen one of her most famous whodunnits in 1937, "Death on the Nile". / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
A Nile view of the Old Cataract Hotel overlooking the river in Egypt's southern city of Aswan, some 920 kilometres south of the capital. AFP. 

"Rowing taught me lessons that people read about in books, but I learnt them first hand," professional Egyptian rower and triathlete Asmaa El Zohairy tells The National.

Ms El Zohairy, who won first place at the National Rowing Championship in 2016, owns and operates her own rowing academy, called ScullnBlades.

She says that she came to the sport late, having picked it up as a hobby when she was 26. She was told by many that she would not succeed because people do not make it in the world of athletics unless they start young.

She was happy to prove everyone wrong with her meteoric rise as one of Egypt's most proficient rowers.

Egyptians' fascination with the sport of rowing goes back more than 3,400 years to about 1430 BCE – the earliest recorded evidence of rowing as a leisure sport in Ancient Egypt. That interest today shows no signs of diminishing.

Cairo is an imposing mass of concrete buildings. With so much going on around them, Cairenes often forget about the Nile, its significance, beauty and accessibility.

“Rowing allows you to connect with nature. Cairo and nature are at odds with each other. Here, everyone’s always late, or in a hurry, or out of time. So [rowing is] getting a moment to slow down and do something for yourself to help you calm down and get your thoughts in order.

"Having a chance like that is something beautiful,” says Ms El Zohairy, 32.

Egypt endured a four-month lockdown starting in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown closed most public spaces and all sporting venues, rowing clubs included.

Ms El Zohairy said that in July 2020, when the lockdown was finally lifted and people were allowed to return to public spaces, there was an overwhelming demand for spots in her rowing classes.

“After the lockdown, many people were really enthusiastic to get out and do new things. We were delighted to find that so many people wanted to try out rowing for the first time,” Ms El Zohairy says.

“Newcomers who came once would keep coming back. I think it’s because it gives them a chance to be on the Nile, with the added benefit of exercise,” she says.

“That’s the thing they appreciate most about rowing, I think, being on the Nile.”