January 19-22, 2002
The title of this page has always been the source of some confusion for us. Being used to the north-south orientation of modern-day maps, it is hard for us to integrate the fact that upper Egypt is actually the southern part of the country. In a similar fashion we find it difficult to deal with rivers that run north like the Nile, rather than south like all self-respecting rivers like the Mississippi!
But be that as it may, we were delighted to have the opportunity to fill in this southern gap in our knowledge of Egypt, both ancient and modern. The overnight bus ride to Aswan that we took from Hurgadah was blessedly uneventful, but given our experiences in Hurgadah we were a little miffed at being let out of the bus in the post-dawn hours of the morning with nary a policeman in sight to note our passing.
We trundled our bags on their wheeled carts the few blocks to the Nile river and combined a half-hearted search for a hotel with an equally lethargic look at the offerings for Nile Cruises. Our LP guide told us that cheap berths were usually available but we didn't really think we would find one.
We did eventually find a hotel that was open, had a room, and was the right price/comfort ratio for us and thankfully dropped into bed to recover from our long journey. When we emerged a couple of hours later, we enquired about tours to Abu Simbel and got the good news that they were very reasonable and the bad news that a) we had to go in convoy, and b) that the convoy left at four a.m. Bad news notwithstanding, we bought two tickets for the following day to visit not only the temples of Abu Simbel, but also the Aswan High Dam and the Temple of Philae.
The Temples of Abu Simbel
Our convoy gathered in the pre-dawn darkness on the outskirts of Aswan like a caravan crossing the desert. We had no idea what the schedule entailed and so were free to just observe our surroundings and let events guide us. We were in a small van, crammed in with five or six other passengers, but many of the other vehicles were large coaches as well as private cars and taxis. After more than half an hour waiting around, some magic signal was given and the convoy moved off into the night.
The countryside we drove through was invisible to us in the darkness but when the sun did reveal it it wasn't much to write a web page about. It was flat and it was sandy. What more can one say. The drive was long, more or less three hours, time enough to get to know our fellow passengers, some of them Europeans on a men-only junket. Actually, that is the wrong expression, because having left their wives behind these four men were indulging in all of the lack of comfort that women so abhor. They were planning to take a felucca and sail down the Nile to Cairo, living without benefit of bedrooms let alone bathrooms. They would eat, live, and sleep on the deck of the boat and take care of natural functions wherever and whenever they could. In the abstract the idea appealed to Gerry, but he will never know if he would have liked it in reality.
We arrived at the Abu Simbel site at about 8 a.m. and thankfully stretched our legs and walked the couple of hundred yards up and over a small hill to catch our first sight of the giant seated statues. We always wonder if such places will feed our search for new thrills or underwhelm our jaded appetites. We were not disappointed. Such a magnificent pair of temples you could not wish to see. And if you haven't seen them yet, it is well worth the time and expense to see them. It was probably much more impressive to see these temples in their original sites on the banks of the Nile before the river level was raised by the Aswan High Dam, but we cannot really complain in that we are heartily glad that they were saved for the likes of tourists like us by being moved.
Our time, of course, was limited. And having arrived in convoy, we had to share this magnificence with all of the other tourists. But it didn't matter. We got ample time to satisfy our appetite for both the giant statues that photography has made so famous and the less well-known interior with its carvings and columns. In our ignorance we were surprised to find two major temples, the main one with the four giant statues built by Ramses II in honor of various gods of Thebes and the other for his queen Nefertari and dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The well-known seated statues are all of Ramses, not immune to self-agrandizement. Not as large as they are sometimes made to seem by photographs, they are nonetheless impressive. The Nefertari/Hathor temple, however, was our first goal as almost the entire convoy had headed straight for the Ramses temple. Inside it was dark and cool and mysterious after the harsh light of the morning sun on the desert. The condition of the paintings and carvings is surprisingly good and there is much to please even the novice Egyptologist. By the time we got to the Ramses temple, it was much less crowded and with a two-hour time limit, we had sufficient time to absorb much of what it had to offer.
Finally, however, we had to leave and make our way back to our convoy just as the second group of tourists arrived, those who had flown from Aswan. On the way back conversation was more lively as we discussed the word in German for mirage, which the climbing sun was kindly demonstrating for us. The Germans explained to us that they use the Italian expression "fata morgana" or "Morgan the Fairy", Italian for the legendary Morgan Le Fay, sorcerous sister of King Arthur.
Aswan High Dam
Our next stop was the Aswan High Dam. The term high dam is used because of course there is also a low dam, predecessor to the high dam, which we had crossed leaving Aswan that morning. The visit was somewhat of a disappointment. In spite of its name, the dam is earth-filled and not terribly high. Worse, is the fact that it is considered a terrorist target and so photographs are restricted. As a result, we stayed there only a quarter of an hour or so.
Temple of Isis at Philae
Our last stop of the day was the Temple of Philae. Another fabulous legacy of the ancient Egyptians. Located on a small island in the Nile, we had to hire small boats to take us from the bank to the temple site. It was rather a wonderful way to approach the site, as you see the temple from below and it seems that much more grandiose and awe-inspiring.
You probably need to spend a number of months in Egypt to do justice to the wealth of art and architecture that is here. Our hour at Philae was enough to soak up the atmosphere but not enough to be able to remember the myriad details of the place. We shall have to come back with an expert guide someday.
Aswan is a rather dusty, sleepy place with the great advantage of so many of Egypt's cities of being on the banks of the Nile. There are so many wonderful river views. It also boasts a very nice modern museum, that has some spectacular ancient Egyptian artifacts. We spent a fascinating afternoon there.