The first thing to alert me that we were docking in Aswan was a very pungent, rather unpleasant smell, like sulphur. I never found out what that was. When I pulled back the drapes of my cabin window I saw a very clean, attractively decorated pier, and more, I saw slightly to the right, a tall building. I had not seen any tall buildings since arriving in Luxor, only hotels were taller than the general run, but no really tall buildings. They tend to spread on the ground not shoot up. Maybe this means that real estate is not exorbitantly priced here.
Our itinerary for that day was to visit the Aswan dam, the High dam, Philae island and temple, and Hatshepsut’s unfinished Obelisk.
My first impression of Aswan as a larger city than any to which we have been over the past three days, was confirmed on the ride to the dams. The streets are wider, well paved, the buildings are higher and the city is more sprawling. We took what appeared like a highway to the dam, and here too the natural beauty of my beloved Egypt was everywhere apparent. The bright sun brought out the colors of flowers, shimmered on the blue water of the Nile and gave a spark to everything it touched.
The Aswan dam was built by the British in 1902, but was deemed too small by Nasser who built the High dam in 1970. The lake behind that dam would have covered a large number of ancient temples, but this was not going to stop progress. So all these temples that were going to be submerged under this lake were dismantled and rebuilt outside the borders of this man-made lake. This was a gargantuan project undertaken by UNICEF to save some very important aspects of one of the richest and most ancient civilizations on earth. The exhausting work of dismantling, then transporting and then putting together again such temples must have been fascinating, and a nightmare of logistics.
The Nasser Lake that was generated by the building of the High Dam covers five hundred thousand square kilometers, three thousand five hundred of which are in Egypt and one thousand five hundred in the Sudan. It is a huge lake where fish have reached enormous sizes, but unfortunately no follow up industries were generated to take advantage of such a resource. It also has its share of crocodiles, as they can no longer swim freely up the Nile.
The original name of the city was Swan, which in ancient Egyptian meant the market. It was the market place for ivory traders in the old days, but after the Arab invasion of Egypt, the “a” was added to the name so it became Aswan.
Our second stop that day was to the island of Philae and the temple of Isis. To get there we went to the pier where many boats were docked and took the one whose turn it was to ferry tourists across to the island. A medium sized motor boat with an awning it was steady and comfortable. The ride there was glorious, the scenery captivating, what with the blue waters of the Nile, the dark brown boulders making up some small islands, and the lush greenery in contrast, it was a beauty overload. Once we approached Philae, the sight of the temple across the water was breathtaking.
This temple was one of those dismantled and moved a short distance to the closest spot to its original site, but out of harm’s way from the overflow of Lake Nasser. We could even see the original site. This temple was built for the Goddess Isis, and of course, the love-hate famous triangle of Isis-Osiris-Set was everywhere. But this being the temple of Isis, the Goddess of love, music and poetry, the very layout and buildings had a strangely different harmony and lyricism to them. Not only was the natural beauty of the location a contributing factor, but the very layout of the different buildings made this a little treasure indeed.
This temple was not taken as a refuge by Christians, but was actually converted into a church where mass was held. Crosses were carved into the standing columns, and an alter was set up in the sanctuary. It is interesting to see the merging of religions in this instance. Interestingly enough one of the crosses is carved into a column right next to the ancient Key of Life, which is a cross with a rounded head. This, as well as the story of creation according to ancient Egyptian lore generated an interesting discussion among our group, but also, unfortunately revealed some rather inflexibility and illogical bigotry in some whose belief is strong but somewhat blind.
When we finished with the island tour, we took the boat back and ran the gauntlet of the shopkeepers hawking their wares all the way to the coach, and even following us up into the coach. We finally extricated ourselves and were on our way to our final stop which was Hatshepsut’s unfinished Obelisk.
Once there we were ushered into a small theatre, thankfully air conditioned, as we were starting to wilt under the brutal sun, and shown a documentary about Egypt’s obelisks. Ironically it was a National Geographic documentary, narrated by our own Omar Sharif. I heard maybe two minutes of it then dozed off, I was really drained by the heat despite all the water I had drunk throughout. I woke up with the final credits on the screen then we were ushered out to go look at this unfinished obelisk.
I don’t know if it was because we were in a cooly air conditioned room, or because it was nearly noon, but the heat hit us with scorching brutality. There was not a shade in sight and the way up to see the unfinished obelisk in this harsh quarry was very long and steep. We must have walked up the equivalent of six or seven floors, in the sun, at noon, in Aswan. If this was a marathon designed to bring on a heart attack or death by dehydration, it could not have been designed any better. By the time we reached the top point where we could look at a huge slab of rock that was cracked in the middle, I personally was not feeling very charitable towards the world at large. Still, I dutifully took the obligatory picture, but the descent was vicious. I was nearly on my knees when I crawled into some shade at a makeshift cafe and gasped for some cold water. For a finale of our trip, this wasn’t exactly the taste I would have liked to have been left with. We were finally told that we could go back to the coach and we did. I was not the only one, but when we reached the boat, most of us dived into our showers and stood there under the cold spray trying to bring our poor, abused bodies back to normal temperature.
Although we were supposed to go for a Sound and Light show on Philae island, after that brutal last leg I opted for a quiet evening on board a cool boat that actually offered very cold beer. To me that was heaven.
My reward was a glorious sunset yet again, a fantastic dinner, a delicious long, cold glass of beer, and fairly early to bed. A great ending to a rather exhausting, very stimulating and informative four days.
Not only were the sightseeing tours a pleasure, but the company of my group and the writing course were a stimulating mental challenge. My comfort zone was no longer an issue, I did not even think about it. I think I have finally reached that final stage of total freedom from the constriction of that zone, and am now in the process of exploring all the exciting possibilities available. Truly now, the world is my oyster.