Henna is the natural dye derived from the leaves of the Lawsonia inermis shrub, grown in southern Egypt and Nubia for millennia – traces of it have even been found on the nails of mummified pharaohs.
Like their ancestors, Nubian women use henna powder for their hair and also to decorate hands and feet prior to getting married. The intricate red-brown designs adorn the skin for a fortnight or so before fading away.
Women visitors will be offered henna ‘tattoos’ on their hands (or feet or stomachs, from LE50 per tattoo) at some of the Nubian villages on Elephantine Island, on the west bank of Aswan or in the souq. It looks great and you get to spend time with Nubian women. Always check who will apply the tattoos; this is women’s work, but would-be Lotharios see this as a great opportunity to get close to a bit of foreign flesh.
Foreigners tend to prefer black to the traditional red henna tattoos, but beware: this is in fact natural henna darkened with the very toxic hair dye PPD, which is banned in Europe. Avoid black henna completely, and visit www.hennapage.com to see the damage the dye can cause, from a light allergic reaction to chemical burns and sometimes even death.
Lascaux on the Nile
Canadian archaeologists working in the 1960s in the area of Qurta, some 15km north of Kom Ombo, discovered what they thought to be extremely old petroglyphs. Paleolithic, they thought. Ridiculous, said the experts. The matter was dropped, the site forgotten. But the images were rediscovered in 2005 by a team of archaeologists led by Dr Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels (Belgium). This time the archaeologists discovered other petroglyphs that were partly covered by sediment and other deposits. These were recently dated in Belgium to the Pleistocene period of rock art, making them at least 15,000 years old, and therefore both chronologically and stylistically from the same period as the images in Lascaux, France.
The images are carved into the side of huge Nubian sandstone rocks. Most of these fine carvings are of wild horned cows in different positions, although there are also gazelles, birds, hippos and fish in a naturalistic style, and a few stylised human figures with pronounced buttocks but no other particular features. These discoveries do not just represent some of the largest and finest examples of rock art ever found in Egypt. They also pose a challenging question. How can there be such similarities between images found in Egypt and France? Was there some sort of cultural exchange between the people of Lascaux and Qurta?
Work is continuing at Qurta and no doubt more discoveries will be found. Dr Huyge believes the Qurta art is part of an evolution and that even older work will be found. The guarded site is not currently open to the public.