Final swing through Egypt
Tuesday | May 13, 2008
Laura Tanna, Contributor
Ramses II Temple at Abu Simbel.
Remember Death On the Nile, one of Agatha Christie's most famous novels made into a film filled with celebrities? Much of that novel was written while Agatha Christie stayed in the Old Cataract Hotel on the Nile in Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city.
Built in 1899, the hotel has hosted everyone from Winston Churchill to King Farouk to the late Aga Khan III who honeymooned there. Though having few followers in Egypt, this leader of the Shia Imami Ismailis loved Aswan so much, he chose to be buried in a domed Fatimid-style mausoleum on the arid hillside across from my place, room 245, in the original building.
The domed tomb against an azure sky, sand dunes dusted black, ruins of a fourth-century BC Temple of Khnum across the Nile on which white sails of feluccas pass the orange bougainvillaea of the garden below - this view alone is worth staying here. Add colourful Nubian houses beside the ruins, a donkey braying in the distance as a silent felucca floats past flying a Jamaican flag, what more could you ask for on an Egyptian morning?
Largest artificial lake
Our last day with our guide, we drive to Aswan Dam, built by the British between 1898 and 1902, and then to the High Dam, built between 1960 and 1971 with the assistance of the Soviet Union, commemorated by a lotus-shaped tower. The High Dam created not only the world's largest artificial lake at the time, Lake Nasser, but necessitated the flooding and removal of some 800,000 Nubians, many of whom settled in Aswan.
We take a motorboat to the Temple of Philae, partially submerged by the dam until with the assistance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), from 1972-1980, the temple was cut into 41,000 pieces, each numbered, and reassembled on nearby Angilika Island. Temples cannot be sited randomly. Rather, it depends on how they face the sun and the god's relevance to the local area. Here, we find a Temple of Isis from which she could watch over a nearby mythical burial site of her husband Osiris, judge of the dead. The dedication involved in saving and rebuilding this beautiful temple is remarkable, but not nearly as mind-boggling as the work that went into saving the two temples at Abu Simbel.
Ramses II, warrior king of 13th-century-BC Egypt, had a 108-foot-high façade carved out of a cliff, four huge statues of himself seated on his throne, each wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, with captives beneath. This stunning sight, intended to warn and frighten off invaders from the south, remained covered by sand until rediscovered in 1813. Too precious to be lost at the bottom of Lake Nasser, UNESCO led the world's nations in working together to cut the statues from the cliff and move them to higher ground nearby.
Today, visitors either spend a weeklong cruise on Lake Nasser to reach them, some 40 miles from the Sudanese border, or a lengthy bus ride or one flies from Aswan to this otherwise barren outpost. The smaller Temple of Hathor, wife of the god Horus, Ramses II built to honour his wife Nefertari. Wall carvings inside Ramses' temple clearly depict him defeating the Hittites or Syrians in the Battle of Qadesh 1275 BC. The trip, a morning flight to Abu Simbel and back to Aswan, to gaze on the power of empires past is something one should experience once in a lifetime.
I treasure the memory of the afternoon before, when our group of six, with guide, relaxed sailing on the Nile, feluccas criss-crossing without collision under the skilful control of their captains to reach Kitchener's Island, where a botanical garden provides local youth, girls in slacks and bright headscarves, young men in groups, a place to walk and enjoy the gardens and café. Named for the British general who led the Egyptian army in successful campaigns in Sudan, when granted the island, he created this garden, now a public park.
Back in our felucca, we sail only partially around the boulders of Elephantine Island, once a major trading post for ivory, before becoming becalmed in the middle of the river, giving us a perfect view of the Old Cataract Hotel in all its terracotta glory, and that of a mosque beside. We're finally towed back to shore, where we celebrate that night in the Moorish splendour of 1902, the restaurant so named for the year the first Aswan Dam opened amid huge fanfare. How lucky we are to have spent these two nights at the Old Cataract Hotel as it closes in April 2008 for two years of renovation. One only hopes Sofitel will preserve its old world charm.
Right up the street is the superb Nubian Museum, which won the Aga Khan Foundation award for architecture in 1977. I strongly urge all visitors to Aswan to include the Nubian Museum in their itinerary as the museum's exhibits are extremely well created, demonstrating the history of the area from Aswan south to Khartoum. This area includes a trade route between Egypt and tropical Africa for such items as ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers and eggs, leopard skins and, of course, GOLD.
The word Nubia is believed to be derived from the ancient Egyptian word nbu, meaning gold, because this is the area of rich gold mines. When the Egyptian rulers of the New Kingdom 1070-1550 BC could no longer control their empire, including Nubia to Khartoum, it took the so-called Black Pharaohs of this area, also called Kush, to bring their armies right up to the Delta area of Egypt in the north, uniting the northern and southern kingdoms once again under the 25th dynasty of Pharaohs from 780 BC until the Assyrians conquered Egypt in 671 BC. Archaeologists from the former Czechoslovak Institute of Egyptology greatly aided Egypt in Nubian excavations.
Another fascinating building directly across from the Old Cataract Hotel is the Coptic Cathedral of Aswan. Greek and Roman conquests led up to the birth of Christ and the word Copt comes from the Greek word aigyptos, referring to Egyptians. Only after the Islamic Arab conquest in the seventh century AD did Copt mean Christian to differentiate from Moslem. Remember, Egypt has been invaded by 27 different peoples but was the country which gave refuge to the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they fled King Herod's persecution.
St Mark, the founder of the Coptic Church, was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD. Today, there are 10 million members of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Middle East. We were welcomed into the Aswan Cathedral with its beautifully painted murals and after a single family completed their worship, celebrating with ululations, they offered us chocolates as we all left the sanctuary.
Truly, Egyptians are among the friendliest people in the world. Everywhere, everyone greeted us warmly and wished us well.
Aswan and Abu Simbel
Where to go & who to ask
View from the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. - Photos by Laura Tanna