Aswan is a sizeable city, but there is a marked rural feel to the place. The people are friendly, the women even more colorful than in Alexandria while the men are often dressed more traditionally than in Alex, with galabias and turbans. The regional dialect is somewhat different. Our guide said that people talk, “inside their mouth,” as in a lot of the sounds are mumbled and slowed down. Where Cairene and Alexandrian Arabic takes the “J” sound (as in the French “je”) and converts it to “G” (as in “gone”) and then takes “Q” (no English equivalent, sort of a throaty K sound) and changes it to a glottal stop (the lack of sound when Americans say “kitten”—usually we don’t actually say “kiTTen” but “ki’en”), Arabic from Aswan and Upper Egypt keeps the jeem (“J”) and changes the “Q” to “G.” There are also vocabulary and articulation differences and a Nubian influence that I really don’t know enough about to explain here. Point is, I have an even harder time understanding Arabic from Aswan compared to what I hear in Alexandria.
At 10 AM we took a feluka (Nile boat) from our hotel, which is on an island in the middle of the Nile, to Aswan proper. It was quiet and beautiful, the air clear and refreshing without the noise and dust of the big city. We took a tour bus to Abu Simbel with a convoy of tourist police and other tour buses, including a big group of Chinese travelers and the Dutch ladies from our flight that morning. All totaled, the trip to the site was about three hours one-way, south near the Sudanese border, just south of the Tropic of Cancer.
Most of the drive was through barren, rocky earth, a harsher look than the images I had of “desert.” Instead of rolling dunes and richly colored sand, this stretch was golden tan with many patches of dark grey or black rock, as if there had been a sandy desert like the Sahara but the top layer had been blown away, burnt by some cosmic blowtorch, or sprinkled with pepper. Everywhere there were rocky outcroppings and jagged hills rising out of the horizon, the endless asphalt road and electric pylons the only signs of human activity for miles at a time. Hannah aptly said it looked like the moon, apart from the lack of craters.
It seems the people who might do well in a place like this have to be accustomed to it, extremely intrepid Bear Grylls wannabes, or flat-out insane—or some combination of the three.
Finally we arrived at Abu Simbel and met our guide. Before its construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s there were ancient Pharaonic temples and Nubian historic sites all over this area. The dam caused the Nile River to breach its banks and suddenly these archaeological treasures were facing a serious threat to their survival. So began the 20-year process of dismantling and replacing the most important temples in safer areas. In the case of the two biggest temples at Abu Simbel, that meant moving them up the mountain 50 meters. After that a hill was constructed behind them to recreate the look of the original location, now underwater in Lake Nasser.
The temples are gargantuan. The two biggest ones sit on a rocky ledge facing Lake Nasser. Several other temples were moved for protection from the rising waters of the Nile and sent to UNESCO-contributing countries. Funny enough, one of those restored temples is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I have visited the Temple of Dendur in the Met in New York many times since I was six years old, but I never made the connection that in going to Egypt I might one day get to visit its original site.
Entering the ticket and security gates, I saw only a massive pile of rocks and sand and Lake Nasser stretching out into the distance, but as we rounded the hill and our guide started his schpiel, the Temples of Nefertari and Ramses II took shape before us. Four 160-foot statues of seated pharaohs and gods stood facing the lake on a rocky outcropping, making up the grander of the two temples—that of Ramses II, of the 13thcentury B.C.. Outside there are the four massive seated statues of gods and Ramses II himself. On the way into the temple are portrayed the prisoners of war, identified by their facial features and chains of regional flowers as Africans (Lotus flowers) and northerners (Papyrus flowers). Inside there was a temple and several anterooms, all of them covered with hieroglyphs and pictograms of the Pharaoh’s exploits, including several battle scenes. Ramses was big on propaganda, making himself look like the great and noble battle hero. In one famous scene he is portrayed charging in a chariot and drawing his bow, but he appears with four arms: one set for his mortal self and one indicating his divine power, as the god Amun Ra. Whenever there are Egyptians shown in battle, all the chariots are righted, the arms are at the ready, and everything is orderly, while the enemies are shown jostled and falling in the face of the Egyptians. We were not allowed to take pictures inside to preserve the original pigment, so here are a few from the internet to give you an idea of what I saw.
Inside, the first feeling that came over me was absolute awe that wiped all other thoughts from my mind. After that ebbed a little I was overcome with the feeling of insignificance, as these statues have stood for millennia, bearing witness to century upon century and more visitors than I could dare imagine. All over the walls and on the statues—even across the knees of Ramses II himself—was graffiti carved into the stone. Most of the names were Italian or English: F. Laroso, RR Hall 1916, 1892 CIPRS, MURE, caulfeild 1813, many carved plain into the rock with no regard for preservation of the artifacts’ original condition, only for proof that these people came and saw and left.
It is said that Ramses had more than 30 wives, but he favored Nefertari, whom he loved so much that he granted her the honor of having her name written in its own cartouche in his temple (instead of the customary “wife” among the many others). She also exercised some political power, as she is portrayed standing by Ramses II but with a raised open palm, the sign of peace, defying her husband by telling him to stop his warring ways and have mercy on his adversaries. Ramses loved and respected Nefertari so much that she even gets her own temple next to his, which is also a temple to the cow goddess Hathor, the symbol of women and fertility. This was the next temple we visited. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Another three hours through the desert back to Aswan…