July 27, 2006

A JOURNEY TO EGYPT: Part Three - The Mighty Abu Simbel

During my time in Cairo, I stayed at the excellent Windsor Hotel. It is a hotel of charm and atmosphere, as it was originally built for the king of Egypt as a bathhouse and a harem for his many wives. Later, when the British colonised Egypt, it became the British Officers' Club. The hotel seems like it has been trapped in a bygone era, with its antique elevator, old-fashioned dial telephones and wonderfully ambient bar.

After checking out of the Windsor, I started my journey south to Upper Egypt, as the Egyptians have always called it. I arranged passage on a sleeper train, which was extremely clean, modern and comfortable. I shared my cabin with an interesting Norwegian gentleman, who shared many tales about his experiments with a vast array of hallucinogenic plants and substances.

Throughout the night I travelled south, waking up at six o'clock to find that the train was still accompanied by the mighty Nile River, and the desert that surrounds it forever in the distance. After another couple of hours, I arrived in Aswan.

I had feared that there would be the usual hassles with touts and taxi drivers, all plying their own tours and hotels. However, to my surprise, the taxi driver I selected from the vast number at the station took me directly to the Hotel Hathor, which I considered perhaps the best choice in the budget section of my guidebook. After settling into my rather humble room, I spent the rest of the day enjoying tranquil Aswan, which has turned out to be another one of those world refuges where one can escape from the hurly-burly of life.

In the evening, I sat alone in a restaurant that floats upon the Nile. As the twilight turned to night, a slight crescent moon slowly sank behind the shadow of the desert hills, and the stars punctured through the dark fabric sky. Accompanying this exotic scene were the chirpings of insects and the croaks of frogs; sounds that the pharaohs of ancient times would have heard.

Having finished my excellent meal, which was mushroom soup, Aswan fish cooked in a lemon sauce and served with rice, as well as the obligatory bottles of beer, I headed back to my hotel, in preparation for my trip to the legendary Abu Simbel. I was surprised to find the streets of Aswan bustling with people partying and strolling the Nile promenade. It occurred to me that the torturous heat of the daytime keeps people in, and that perhaps the people of Aswan are nocturnal creatures who thrive best under the cooler air of the night.

Amazingly, I was out of bed at three o'clock in the morning, ready for the three hour journey to the Sudanese border and Abu Simbel. A group of Koreans and a few Europeans also joined me in the very cramped minibus. I found myself drowsing off and awakening to the sound of my own horrendous snoring, which embarrassed me and no doubt disturbed the others!

I knew that we had arrived at Abu Simbel, because the large man-made mountain that houses the temple jutted out on the shores of the Aswan reservoir. The ancient site was moved from its original location in the 1970s, because of massive flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan dam. Many ancient sites were sacrificed in the process of constructing this tamer of water, but luckily some thought wisely to protect what is one of the great marvels of the ancient world.

Following a path round the fake mountain, two large heads appeared over a ridge. As I moved further round, a staggering sight of three colossal statues of Ramses II were revealed. A fourth statue sits worn down by the anguish of time. Yet, its destroyed features accompany the others as a reminder of the passing of time, like the scars accumulated by a warrior who has seen his fair share of conflict.

Jostling coach loads of tourists quickly followed me, and it was difficult to find a photographic composition that had not been taken by everyone else, like so many sites in Egypt.

The interior of the temple was far larger and grander than I had expected. I had thought that it was just a narrow passageway that led to an inner sanctum. In fact, the temple within is vast, with lots of antechambers. Every wall and column was marked with beautiful, deep hieroglyphics and images displaying Ramses' greatest battles, as well as scenes of the ancient pharaoh giving offerings to the various gods and goddesses.

I was interested to see how frequently blue lilies were offered. Blue lilies, which are now extremely rare today, were an important plant for creating a stimulant elixir that was popular among the ancient Egyptians.

Some of the images were particularly violent, with Ramses holding the heads of defeated enemy soldiers. In every image, the pharaoh looked proud, dominant and heroic. I was particularly impressed by a striking image of him standing in a chariot with a fierce, noble poise. And to think, that my own eyes had stared upon this man's mummified remains in the Egyptian Museum.

Nearby Ramses' temple is a smaller one dedicated to his main wife, Queen Nefertari. It is less grand, and is also a showpiece for Ramses' ego, and features many scenes of the queen with the gods.

On our arduous return to Aswan, our driver was not a particularly pleasant man, who spent the entire time racing against other tour buses and driving like a crazy man. I pointed out with a clear use of the "F" word that he was behaving stupidly. He grunted and slowed down. If you ever come to Aswan, make sure that you do not reserve a daytrip with small-scale cowboys, as I did. It may cost a few dollars more, but book at the Thomas Cook office in town, so that you can have a comfortable bus, and a driver who does not aspire to be Michael Schumacher!

In the early afternoon, I took a boat to the small island of Agilkia, where stands the grand Temple of Philae, which was also moved from its original location. I did not know what to expect, but suddenly as we approached the island a beautiful, majestic collection of buildings manifested. The temple was dedicated to the worship of the goddess, Isis, who became a popular deity even during the time of the later Romans. The temple was built around 690 BC, and remained a site of worship until 550 AD.

Strolling around the large courtyards and columned corridors, it is impossible to not feel deep admiration for the ancient Egyptians. Their culture was as rich and as complex as any today, full of struggles and pleasures, as well as battles of ideology.

Part 4 Coming Soon

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Travel Guide - Travellerspoint