Day 3: The Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam & Philae temple

In the morning we checked out of our hotel and took the feluka to shore.

We met the guide who would be leading us for the next 3 days, Ismail, and headed to the Unfinished Obelisk.

This is an ancient granite quarry in Aswan where complete obelisks were cut out of solid stone.  The ancient Egyptians believed that obelisks were a connection between heaven and earth and therefore they should be one solid stone. First, the stonemasons would hammer slots into the bedrock.  Then, they would jam pieces of cedar wood in the spaces and soak the wood with water.  The wood would expand and drive a crack into the stone, much like the way potholes occur in cold, wet climates.

In the quarry there is an unfinished obelisk that cracked halfway down and was abandoned.  Had it been finished, it would have been the largest ancient obelisk in the world, one third larger than any other ancient Egyptian obelisk.  Three sides of the obelisk are cut out of the rock, but the bottom is still attached to the bedrock.  You can still see the chisel marks and ochre of the ancient craftsmen even 3000-plus years on.

Next we drove to the Aswan High Dam.  There are actually two dams in Aswan, the High Dam and one built in 1898 by the British. When the first dam was almost breached by floods, it was clear that something higher and stronger would be required.  The Soviet government gave Nasser a massive loan to get the project done.  Some 35,000 people worked over ten years to complete the project.  It was finished in 1970 and was intended to control the Nile and produce hydroelectric power. It produces about ten percent of Egypt’s entire electricity production. 

But the Nile is not to be underestimated.  It starts in Lake Victoria and goes through ten different African countries: Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt.  It is officially the second longest river in the world as of last year when a new source of the Amazon was discovered in the Andes.  After the High Dam was built, the stretch of river south of it became one long lake, Lake Nasser, which flooded Nubia, an area close to the Sudanese border with its own culture distinct from Egypt.  Vast numbers of Nubians had to be resettled and a few historical monuments, like the temples at Abu Simbel, were relocated, but many of the ancient Nubian ancient temples were lost.


One of those relocated temples, Philae, is on an island in Lake Nasser. It is dedicated to Isis, the mother goddess of Egypt. It is also the Island of Fecundity, dedicated to fertility and midwifery. Many of the hieroglyphics tell the story of Isis, Osiris and Horus.  Isis was married to Osiris, god of the afterlife.  Osiris was murdered by Set, the god of darkness and chaos, and cut into 14 pieces.  Isis gathered the pieces, crying so many tears along the way that she produced a mighty river– the Nile.  Philae is therefore also a temple oflamentation, the only place where “wailing windows” were part of the design, allowing ritualistic crying and mourning to take place.

The temple was converted into a church in the 6th century and there is evidence of clever repurposing of ancient symbols.  Of course, you have your Coptic crosses and graffiti, but in some places, the faces of gods and goddesses are chipped away, leaving only the sun-disk (repurposed as a halo) and the ancient symbol of life, the ankh (repurposed as a crucifix). We arrived at Philae at sunset, making the yellow stone glow gold.  The temple was peaceful and alive with a spiritual energy I couldn’t quite name.

Finally, we checked in to our new home on the Nile, a river cruise boat, and began our trip to Luxor.


1 Comment

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One response to “Day 3: The Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam & Philae temple

  1. Pingback: Day 5: Hatshepsut’s Temple | The Cultural Sponge

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