January 6. 3 pm. Aswan.
I’m sitting on the east bank of the river Nile, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. In a few moments we’ll be heading to the train station and onward to Luxor, but for now I’m reflecting on two days spent in Upper Egypt (which is actually the southernmost part, because the Nile flows from south to north).
Anyway. After a surprisingly pleasant 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, we arrived in Aswan yesterday at 10 am. Instantly it had a different “feel” than Cairo did. Cairo, for the most part, felt like a crowded and more hectic version of a large European city.
When we got off the train in Aswan, on the other hand, we were definitely in Africa. The streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and donkey-drawn carts. Although temperatures were warmer, the locals were more conservatively dressed, especially the women. Most people had much darker skin, too, evidence of their ancient Nubian background (which they are indeed very proud of).
We meet our driver and head to our hotel, situated a few miles out of downtown on a hilltop overlooking the Nile. For the moment, we appear to be the hotel’s only guests. Since our tour doesn’t start until later in the afternoon, we enjoy a leisurely lunch on the empty but beautiful pool deck.
There’s no menu, but the cook, Gaman, proudly assures us he can cook any Nubian dish we like. Since we know nothing about Nubian food, we ask him to surprise us. He soon returns – wearing a jacket and tie this time – with enough food to feed the Egyptian army.
Gaman presents us with bread, rice, salad, carrot-lentil soup, a whole grilled chicken, pickled vegetables, and our first taste of molokhyna, a local green sauce made from spinach, okra, and mild spices. The food was delicious, his service exceptional, and the whole thing was a little surreal, considering there was not another soul in sight.
With overstuffed bellies (we barely made a dent in all the food he provided – I do hope the staff finished it!), we headed outside to meet our guide and another young couple from Brazil. We transfer to a minivan and are joined by a couple from Philadelphia (the first Americans we’ve met on the trip) and the six of us set off for the famed Temple of Philae.
This temple is noteworthy for a few reasons.
First, it was built around 280BC by Ptolemy II, son of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander the Great’s Generals who ruled the divided Greek empire after his death). It was built on an island using features of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architecture. And for hundreds of years after Christianity spread through Egypt, it was used as a Coptic church.
But what really makes this temple interesting? The entire thing was deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt on a different island during the 1960s.
Why? Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam during that decade. The dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. This enormous reservoir required many things to be relocated, including hundreds of Nubian villages, the temples at Abu Simbel (more on those later) and also the beautiful Philae Temple.
You’d never know it wasn’t in its original location, because it was perfectly reconstructed. It’s a unique blend of architectural styles, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic crosses, Greek and Coptic writing, and a spectacular setting.
To reach it, you pass through a small Nubian market and board a local ferry boat. The boat ride alone is a treat; the temple itself is the icing on the cake!
After returning to the mainland, we made a quick stop at the top of Aswan High Dam, where we learned more about its construction and impressive size. The dam is over half a mile wide at its base and has a volume greater than SEVENTEEN Great Pyramids of Giza!
Interestingly, the dam also created a protected habitat for Nile crocodiles in the reservoir behind it. There are no wild crocs anywhere in Egypt beyond the dam, from Aswan all the way to Cairo and the Mediterranean.
Thanks to lingering jetlag and our very early start the next day, we crashed around 7 pm. Received a wake-up call bright and early (dark and early, actually) at 3:30 the next morning so we could prepare for our tour of Abu Simbel.
For this tour, we joined about 20 other travelers on a full-sized bus. Thank goodness, because the journey south to Abu Simbel (near the border of Sudan) takes over three hours each way. We snagged a few more hours of sleep before the bus rattled to a stop on the side of the highway so we could enjoy the sunrise over the Sahara.
After driving past sand, sand, and more sand, we arrived at the waterfront temples of Abu Simbel. These majestic structures sit on the shores of Lake Nasser, the same artificial lake created by the Aswan High Dam. We were over a hundred and fifty miles south of Aswan at this point, but we’d barely covered a fraction of the lake’s shoreline!
Like Philae, these iconic temples were also relocated from the original place. Otherwise, our guide explained, they’d be located about 200 feet underwater. They were carved during the reign of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari, in the 13th century BCE.
Our visit was memorable but short, as we had to be back to Aswan to catch our afternoon train. Four hours later we were back in Aswan, where we now sit enjoying a final view of the Upper Nile.
And now…off to Luxor!