Aswan, Egypt Thursday, February 9, l995
We're up at 3:30 AM for our 4:30 AM departure. Well, actually we've both been up most of the night. Susan, in particular is not happy.
After lots of luggage arranging we're off to the airport and what we assume is our flight to Abu Simbel with a stop at Aswan to off-load our luggage. Actually, our friends at Egyptair decide not to continue to Abu Simbel just now. So Aswan it is, population 1 million, many of them dark complexioned, handsome Nubians (this is, after all, the part of the world once known as Nubia).
The weather is sunny and warm. Finally. We board our bus which soon deposits us on top of the Aswan High Dam for a view north up the Nile and south over Lake Nassar. It's an emmense yawn. We learn that the lake is filling up with all the silt that used to wash down the Nile and replenish the soil before the dam was built to control the river. If the problem isn't solved soon, the lake will soon be a bog.
Back on the bus we drive over the old dam and into town, passing typical Nubian sandstone homes with unique dome shapes on top. This form can also be seen in some of the local cemeteries.
Our next Aswan tourist attraction is the Unfinished Obelisk. Vendors stationed at the entrance sell spices and saffron, a local musical instrument and the usual assortment of galabias and head dresses. We stroll up a dusty path to what appears to be a quarry, A horizontal slab to our right is the 'UO'. You can't really see it unless you take the path above it. There you can see the full extent of this huge form, separated from the surrounding rock on three sides but with a very large crack in it. No one knows why it was left unfinished but that crack must have had something to do with it.
As we reboard the bus a funeral procession passes by with the corpse covered in a beautiful green cloth with gold lettering. The bus next deposits us at a landing with many launches that take tourists to see the Temple of Philae. There are more vendors here but they're not very pushy. As we head out into the Nile we see a shoreline jumbled with rounded boulders. Then up ahead we see the temple on its island. It's a thrilling sight. As we glide by the great carvings and reliefs a sharply defined in the early morning light. We land on the far side and walk up to the forecourt with its ranks of extraordinary columns topped with a variety of capitals all of natural vegetative (if there is such a word) forms. These represent life. I also notice that the transepts don't actually rest on the capitals but are one or two courses above. It's a different look but quite pleasing. Reliefs cover every surface or did once.
In front of us are two huge pylons with large reliefs that we saw from the boat. This is the entrance to the temple proper which is dedicated to the Goddess Isis. This location of the temple is not its original one. The island of Philae near the First Cataract was completely flooded (and the temple totally submerged ten months of the year) when the old dam was built. The new dam created another problem-water so low that the ebb and low of the tides would undermine the temple. So between l972 and l980 the temple was moved to Agilkia Island, its present location.
However, the real reason for building this temple here rests in a key story of the Egyptian gods. When Set, god of the Desert, cut his brother Osiris into fourteen pieces, Isis, Osiris' wife searched the world for the pieces. She found all but his you-know-what (which a fish had swallowed) and re-membered him (remember-get it). Philae was the site where she found one of his parts. The temple was erected in the 2nd Century B.C. in the time of the Greeks. We can see the wonderful carvings of Hathor (cow), wife of Horus (falcon) and daughter-in-law of Isis on the pylons . The king portrayed on the pylon is Ptolemy XII. The temple steps are guarded by two lions but the original obelisks that stood here are gone. Inside the temple itself are a sequence of spaces leading to the Holy of Holies wherein only the high priests were allowed.
Many of the scenes of life depicted in the reliefs have been defaced. There are also carvings of Coptic crosses. The early Christians lived and worshipped in the temple and systematically destroyed the images of the Egyptian gods. Nonetheless, I'm struck once again by the wonderfulness of covering every surface with images and hieroglyphics. The combination of the unique stylistic conventions of depicting figures combined with the all over coverage create a distinctive effect that I find totally thrilling.
Off to the right is an ungainly kiosk erected by Trajan. It features fourteen columns with vegetative capitals and a transom a full four courses above the capitals. The fourteen columns represent the parts of the dismembered Osiris. The structure was never finished and is an awkward piece of work in its attempt to marry Roman and Egyptian styles.
We take our leave of the Temple of Isis at Philae/Agilkia and return by boat to our bus. Susan is trying to catch some extra sleep but we're close to takeoff by the time we arrive at the airport after passing by several camouflaged bunker-like hangers for military aircraft. We grab our box lunches heavy with water bottles and board our Egyptair flight to Abu Simbel. Our row has zero leg room but we shift to other seats and off we go.
Abu Simbel exists for the Ramses Temple but that's more than reason enough. It sits overlooking Lake Nassar not far from the Sudanese border. The sky is light blue, the water dark blue, the land is light brown with touches of green vegetation. There are small to medium sized volcanic cones dotting the landscape. It's a bright, warm sunny day-in short, perfect. Even Susan has taken off a layer or two. The view across the water reminds me a bit of Lake Powell and the terrain surrounding Hoover Dam.
Beyond the entry gate and slightly above us is a trapezoidal pile of sand with a door cut into it. I wonder if this is the way to the temple. However, instead of entering we take a path around to the right. My sense of anticipation mounts as I realize that we will eventually come around to the lake side and the colossi will be revealed.
And then it happens. I am stunned. The four gigantic statues of the seated Ramses carved into the living rock. Above is a frieze of baboons, Horus as a falcon-headed man wearing the solar disk headdress occupies a middle niche above the temple entrance. Below are more statues of Horus in pure falcon form. Between Ramses' legs are his children. Between the different Ramses are statues of his wife, Nefretari, as well as one of his mother. The fascia also contains all of Ramses' names and titles. The four different figures represent Ramses as the Gods of Upper Egypt, Lower Egypt, Darkness as well as Ramses, himself, as God. The temple dates from the XIXth Dynasty, about 1300 B.C. and Mona surmises that it was built for either or both of the following reasons: 1) This was a rich area known for its gold. 2)Ramses wanted to put his mark at the location of the Second Cataract.
I walk up, I walk back, I walk to the side. I never want to stop looking at it, shifting views, renewing the exhilaration of the very first view. We head into the temple itself, past scenes of African and Asian slaves bound together at the neck on bended knees. Was there ever a bigger egomaniac that Ramses? Inside the first room are eight more Ramses figures (Ramses as Osiris). Images of vultures can be seen on the ceilings and walls. Everything here is original and the colors are still there. Ramses smiting his foe. Ramses in a chariot with a double exposure effect on his bow and arrow to show how fast he was able to shoot. Several rooms lead to the Holy of Holies which features statues of four gods. Twice each year the sun reaches all the way to the interior illuminating each god in turn except the God of Darkness. Amazing. It's also amazing that in moving the temple from down below up to its present location they managed to align it so precisely that the sun reaches the Holy of Holies just one day later than it did before.
The temple was completely buried until 1813 when a camel driver accidentally exposed the top of one of the statues. Over the next several years the sand was brushed away revealing this miraculous creation. When the Aswan dam and the rising reality of Lake Nassar threatened the temple, a cooperative international effort headed by an American engineering team moved the temple to its present site between l964-1968.
Off to the right is a smaller temple dedicated to Nefretari. Ramses hardly manages to keep his ego in check in this temple to his wife. Inside Hathor (cow ears and all) is featured on each of the interior columns. There are also wonderful pictures of Set and Horus anointing Ramses, as well as Isis and Hathor blessing Nefretari.
Out last stop is the artificial dome. We wondered what it could possibly be but we soon found out. It seems that the natural-looking trapezoidal hill and the temple carved out of the rock is all part of the ingenious engineering solution for moving the temple. A concrete reinforced dome was built on level land and the temple interiors were placed inside. The four colossi were placed in front against a concrete frame and the whole affair was then covered with rock and sand to create a natural-looking hill. Nicely done!
On the way back to the bus I talked to Alan Warner about getting a copy of his videotape. Soon we're back on our ratty Egyptair plane back to Aswan. Our bus is waiting with all our belongings. We arrive at the Aswan waterfront and the bus makes a difficult and seemingly unnecessary move to back down a curved ramp to the launch that takes us across the Nile to the Sunboat II anchored with its new sister ship, Sunboat III in front of the Isis Island Hotel. On our way across we spot the Old Cataract Hotel which was featured in the film, Death on the Nile.
We all meet in the lounge for room assignments. The cabins are small but OK. We have a picture window and a felucca sail goes by every once in a while (a closer look reveals a tourist ride). We shower and join the group for tea. Susan and I head for an upper deck with Bruce. We sit and watch the sun set over the Nile-not a scene I ever want to take for granted.
Susan and I take a walk over to the Isis Island Hotel. It's new, vast and almost totally empty-very sad. The shop owners act as if they haven't seen a live body in months. They all come out and try to drag us into their shops.
Back on the Sunboat we have drinks with the Argentines, Alan and the Pearsons. Then dinner is called. We end up sitting with the Pearsons and Alan. I'm not going to make this a food journal. Suffice it to say the food was fine, even though it wasn't Egyptian. Before turning in I ordered fifteen personalized papyrus cartouche bookmarks for the gang at BSH from the shop on board. LE 6 apiece.