Modern eras have brought lots of different needs and technologies, and both become one when we think about harnessing nature. The Aswan dam is one of such examples. There are actually two of them. The Old Aswan Dam was built in the wake of the 20th century (1899 – 1902), and the newer, Aswan High Dam was completed in 1970, creating Lake Nasser. The rationale was securing fresh water for Egypt and stopping the dependence on the Nile floodings; however there have been associated problems – not only environmental such as the habitat of the Nile crocodile and the loss of fertility in the delta; thousands of people were displaced from the to-be-flooded area, and houses and whole villages were swallowed by water. A lot of these villages had their own cultural heritage, which was to disappear forever. Thus started Unesco’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia between 1960 and 1980. This effort relocated as many as 24 monuments (one of them, the Temple of Debod, ended up in Madrid, Spain) to safer grounds. The temples of Abu Simbel are probably the star of the rescue efforts.
The Abu Simbel [أبو سمبل] Complex is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae. It comprises two buildings – the Great Temple of Ramesses II and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. Both of them were carved out and into a sandstone cliff on the West Bank of the Nile during the reign of Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great (14th-13th Century BCE, Nineteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom), considered one of the most powerful Pharaohs in the New Kingdom, who reigned for many years. It was lost to time, and only rediscovered in 1813 and excavated in 1817. The Complex was relocated to higher ground between 1964 and 1968 to prevent its sinking in Lake Nasser. In order to do so, the mountain and the temples were cut into huge blocks and built 65 m higher and 200 m back from the river. The relocation managed to keep the relative position to the sun, but shifted it by one day – the temple was designed so the first ray of sun hit Ramesses’ face in the sanctuary on the 21st of October and February, and now that happens on the 22nd.
At some point one has to wonder what was more impressive – building the complex, or relocating it so you can’t really tell. The mountain itself is hollow in order to reduce the stress on the temple after the move, but wow. Just, wow.
As far as I understand, buses are not supposed to stay longer than a couple of hours in the complex. Our disembark time was 2:30, and even if I went to bed ridiculously early, I did not get much sleep because my cabin was above the motorboat rotors, and my cabin vibrated like hell. Before we left, we had a choice of coffee or tea, and we were given a “picnic” consisting on some sweet bread with… buffet leftovers, a piece of fruit and a small juice – that was traded often.
The trip each way was 3.5 hours, so we wanted more than the 30 minutes the tour guide wanted to give us, and we were there between 6:30 (though we did not enter the site until a bit later) and 9:00. Fine, I own up – I was late coming back and only made it to the bus at 9:08. The tour guide was so not amused by that.
Arriving at the Abu Simbel site, you approach from behind the mountain, and as you surround it, you’re greeted by Lake Nasser [بحيرة ناصر], the reservoir created by the dam. The sun was climbing up slowly when we arrived, still with sunrise colour.
You keep turning and you are greeted by the four colossi that flank the entrance to the Great Temple of Ramesses II. The colossi represent deified Ramesses II, to whom the temple was dedicated along the gods Amun, Ra (in his Ra-Horakhty advocation) and Ptah (creator of the world and patron of craftsmen). The inside features a hypostyle hall with columns carved in the shape of Ramesses colossi, a colonnade hall and the inner sanctuary, where the venerated gods were revered.
To the right stands the Temple of Hathor and Nefertari. Here, Queen Nefertari is represented as big as Ramesses and shown with the horns of the goddess Hathor, both signs of her importance (consorts were usually represented knee-high of their kings). The inner area has a hall with rectangular columns carved and painted, and the sanctuary features Hathor as a cow emerging from the mountain rock.
Despite really, really not wanting to leave, I made my way back and ran into two other people from the group. We had to leave through the tourist bazaar and were just slightly late. On the way back, slightly more awake than when we had left, we did not get to see any mirages, but we crossed the old Aswan Low Dam [خزان أسوان]. We had a view of the power plant on one side, and on the other side the First Cataract of the Nile, a series of rapids that have been slowed down by the building of the dam. In ancient times, it was believed that the Nile sprouted here and flowed both north and south. The main part of the cataract is now under the dam, and the remaining rapids have been turned into a nature reserve. There are Ancient Egypt remains and engravings in some ruins on the islands.
We were back on board the motorboat at 12:35 for lunch, and met again around 16:15 for a felucca sail on the Nile [نهر النيل] around the Aswan [أسوان] area. Before leaving, I decided to exchange 20 € into Egyptian pounds in order to have some change for the couple of meals we had outside, just in case I needed pounds to buy drinks. For convenience I chose the reception of the motorboat. They short-changed me, twice. First, they used a 23 EGP / 1 € exchange rate, while the official rate is 25 EGP / 1 €. Then, the guy at reception calculated 460 EGP and gave me 450, smirking “I owe you 10 pounds.” Stay tuned for the conclusion of the story.
The felucca sailing had been rescheduled from the following day so it could be tied to the trip through the Nature reserve and the Nubian village (and possibly to accomodate the charter flight times). A felucca [فلوكة ] is a traditional sailing boat, usually with one sail. Feluccas are still used for transportation through and across the Nile, and from ours, we caught some interesting views.
We got to see the Tombs of the Nobles | Qubbet el-Hawa [قبة الهوا] (Dome of the Wind), which I wish we could have visited. The tombs date back from the Old and Middle Kingdom with dignitaries and governors from the Fourth Dynasty to the Roman period buried here. The site is still being excavated, and also part of the Unesco World Heritage Site Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, even if it is neither Nubian nor between them.
We also sailed by the Mausoleum of Aga Khan [قبر اغاخان] and the family house beneath it. Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, was a religious leader among the Nizari Isma’ilism, a branch of Islam, and he was buried in Aswan after his death in 1957.
Apparently I missed some dancing as I was taking pictures of the site. Then, the people from the felucca sold us some trinkets, and finally we transferred to a different kind of engine boat, from where we sailed off towards Salouga and Ghazal Nature Reserve [محمية سالوجا وغزال الطبيعية] (the rapids formed by the First Cataract), around Seheyl Island [جزيرة سهيل], and a great sand dune. The Aswan area is famous among birdwatchers for its diversity. We got to see some glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), little egrets (Egretta garzetta), reed cormorant (Microcarbo africanus), maybe an osprey or two (Pandion haliaetus), some corvids and stilts… Up the dune we made port at, we also caught sight of a couple of Egyptian beetles (Scarabaeus sacer).
The Nubian village, Gharb Seheyl [غرب سهيل], which is little more than a big bazaar. We were invited to the house of a man who claimed to have been a dancer for the Spanish Teatro Real. We hung out there for an hour or so, and eventually were let off to walk around the village, a succession of shops selling the same trinkets as everywhere else, plus women trying to sell “Nubian dolls”. The house we were at kept live Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus), and at a lot of places we saw some mounted ones, I guess for tourist’s entertainment, but that did not feel quite right.
After sunset, we sailed off back to the motorboat, without stopping anywhere, even if the whole city was lit. The boats were also shiny with neons and bright colours.
At the motorboat, we just had dinner and I went to bed early to catch some sleep. When I arrived at the cabin, I discovered that the staff had taken one of my beds away. I guess they got tired of making both of them as I used both bed covers? I was amused, just like I had been by all the figures they made out of towels (I got swans, a crocodile, and a monkey) though I wish the cleaning had been a bit more… thorough.