3:30 am! That’s the time we had to leave our hotel to catch our morning flight to Aswan. We got there around 9:00 am and met our new guide, Mohammed. (It seems everyone in Egypt is named Achmed, Khaled or Mohammed. 😉 ) Mohammed turned out to be an incredibly knowledgeable guide, but we were too sleepy and hot (it was 105°) to appreciate him at first.
Upon landing in Aswan, we didn’t even drop off our bags; we started touring right away. Our first stop was the famous Aswan High Dam. The dam was built to regulate the annual flooding of the Nile which is so critical to farming all throughout Egypt. The damming of the river created Lake Nasser – one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The lake is 340 miles long, and extends all the way into the Sudan.
There were a few downsides to creating Lake Nasser. First, over 17 ancient temples stood in the floodplain and needed to be painstakingly moved to higher ground. The second downside (for us) is that no Nile Crocodiles now live north of the Dam. Since that was the way our cruise was headed, it meant we wouldn’t get to see any of the huge reptiles in the wild. We did see what we thought was a jackal, but Mohammed told us they rarely come out during the day, and don’t live in the area anymore. Bummer!
After the dam we took a boat to the Temple of Isis at Philae. (There go the Greeks renaming things again. This was known to the ancient Egyptians as Pilak.) This island temple in the Nile is where all that is ancient Egypt came ramming home to us. The entrance to the inner courtyards of an Egyptian temple is through a large gate called a pylon – two large, tapered towers with a covered entrance between them. There were walls and walls and walls of hieroglyphics. It’s one thing to see them in books and movies. It’s quite another to see every wall, column and slab of rock covered with detailed carvings that tell whole stories. We learned the story of Isis and Osiris and Seth, and I learned about my new favorite goddess, Hathor.
At Philae one discovered an unfortunate, yet pervasive truth about all these Egyptian sites. Throughout history, Coptic Christians would often hide from persecution in these temples. In order to prevent a resurgence of idol worship, the Copts would chisel away the images of the kings and gods that were carved on the walls. Too bad we humans have a track record of overlooking historical significance when it gets in the way of personal religious preferences (remember the Sphinx’s nose?).
Back in Aswan, we checked out the Unfinished Obelisk. Obelisks were very popular in ancient Egypt. They look like a four-sided tower with a pyramid at the top. It’s where America got the idea for the Washington Monument. To create one, the Egyptians would carve a “lying down” obelisk out of a suitable granite deposit. They would then drill holes along the border and fill them with wood. They would soak the wood which would swell and crack the rock right out of its foundations. As this Unfinished Obelisk was being carved out, it developed a crack on its surface that rendered it useless. The ancients just abandoned it where it lay which gives us some insight today in the Obelisk creation process.
That night, we stayed on board our cruise ship, The MS Royal Lily, even though we weren’t sailing for another day. This was a welcome treat because now it meant that our meals were covered for us. Yay!
It also meant we were on board for a Nubian show. The ancient kingdom of Nubia spans the area of Southern Egypt into the Sudan. This part of Egypt is called Upper Egypt, and the North where Cairo is located is Lower Egypt. This seems a bit counter-intuitive at first until you remember that the Nile flows from South to North, descending as it flows.
The next morning was a tour to Abu Simbel. Or was it that night? It was another 3am wake-up call. Abu Simbel is a temple complex about three hours from Aswan. In order to conserve and protect it, the only way to get there is via a convoy escorted by armed police. This convoy leaves once a day from Aswan at 4:00 in the morning, and returns by noon. We were near the end of the convoy, but somehow, by the time we got there, we had left the entire convoy behind and arrived first before the crowds. Did I mention that Mohammed was awesome?
Abu Simbel is a complex of two temples both carved out of mountains way down near the Sudanese border. The first is a temple to Ramses II, and the second is to his favorite wife, Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti). Abu Simbel was one of the areas that would have been underwater after the damming of the Nile, so in 1964, UNESCO sent a team over to literally move mountains, and relocate Abu Simbel to higher ground. We watched a great documentary about it, until it inexplicably shut off in the middle, and that was the end of that. Basically, they cut the whole thing to pieces, built reinforced mountains in a safer place, reassembled the whole thing, and then touched it up so you couldn’t tell where it had been cut apart. And believe you me when I say you couldn’t tell!!
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so we did what we could from outside. The flash from thousands of tourists damages the ancient color. They once used to allow flashless photos, but so many people would use the flash anyway that they eventually outlawed photos altogether.
That gave us the afternoon to relax on our cruise ship, catch a swim, and maybe a nap. Tomorrow, we would sail!